Saturday, March 30, 2019

Fool's Gold: EQ2

I am not a fan of April's Fools Day. Not since I was about nine years old, anyway. Game developers, however, seem to love it. Or pretend to.

Every MMORPG you can think of will be paying some kind of service, lip or fan, to the Feast of Fools this weekend. Guild Wars 2 long ago locked the date to the inexplicably popular Super Adventure Box, which returned on Thursday.

I haven't bothered with it yet. I don't hate it. I liked it well enough when it was new. Probably seen enough of it now, though. I hear there are some new races. Might try those, I guess. I do like racing.

Over in EverQuest II we have a much more appealing prospect in Bristlebane Day. There really is a "day", too. The whole festival runs for a couple of weeks but there's a bunch of stuff that only happens on the First of April, including rabbit-catching, special harvests and the Sphinx questline.

Also, and this is one I always forget, it's the one chance in the year Beastlords get to tame a were-rabbit warder. Also a were-bear but who cares? Were-rabbit, dude!

I may jump on that later. You get the whole of the two weeks for that one, fortunately. I have a highish-level Beastlord although I never really got on with the class. Too much like hard work compared to the original EverQuest version. Still, were-rabbit...

A lot less fuss and an easy run is the new quest, handed out by Zruk the troll in Enchanted Lands. All Bristlebane quests begin in Enchanted Lands, presumably because Bristlebane Fizzlethorpe, God of Mischief, is a Halfling. Identifies as a halfling, maybe I should say. God, after all. Pretty much be what he wants.

I did the new quest right before this post. It took maybe fifteen, twenty minutes, most of which was me running around not knowing what I was looking for. I thought I'd do it the proper way, without looking anything up.

I was expecting it to be quick. On a max level character with unlimited Fast Travel via All Access membership, most movement-gated questing is trivial. Add in both Tracking (which I give my Berserker by way of the extremely cheap Scrolls of Tracking that I buy from the Cash Shop) and Track Harvestables, which I have by dint of being a maxed-out crafter, and there's not much that slows me down on a scavenger hunt.

Apart from being in the wrong place, looking for the wrong thing, that is. Turns out pretty much the entire Antonican seaboard is known as the Coldwind Coast and I was on the wrong side of the map. Plus the clovers aren't shinies as I thought they would be, nor are they drops form the Bristlbane holiday harvests, Jester's Gardens.

After ten minutes looking for the things I lost patience and googled the quest. That got me nowhere. No-one's written it up yet. It must have been tested, though, and EQII testers love to chat about what they're testing and how much it's annoying them, so I went to the forums to read the feedback.

Unfortunately for me the general opinion seemed to be that the quest worked pretty much just fine from the get-go, so no-one felt the need to walk through the steps. I finally had the brilliant idea of googling the item I was looking for, the Coldwind Clover. That took me to an EQII Maps link, where the location was marked.

I opened my map in-game to orient myself and guess what? There was a big, green quest highlight picking out the area where I was supposed to be searching. Could have saved myself a lot of time there if I'd looked but I thought they'd dropped that system a couple of years back in the interests of "immersion". Not for holiday fluff quests, evidently.

Once I'd got that sorted it was barely five minutes to do the whole thing. Clovers in Antonica, Vulriches in Kylong Plains, White Heather in Butcherblock.  Back to Zruk each time for a hand in and the next stage. Without Fast Travel I guess it would take maybe half an hour.

As I've said before, that Fast Travel perk is all but worth the monthly sub on its own. Which does beg the question of why I'm spending 90% of my EQ2 playtime at the moment on Kaladim, where All Access is mandatory but Fast Travel is disabled, along with every other innovation that happened after 2005. Also, no holiday events.

That's a post for another day. Today's all about the silly. Actually, now I come to think about it...

The reward for helping Zruk is a housepet. Like I need any more of those. Y'know what? I just had an idea. I think I'll start a zoo. I'm about fed up of all the creatures lurching and hopping and flapping about the halls of my Maj'Dul mansion. I just might round them all up in some kind of wildlife sanctuary somewhere. That Baubleshire Prestige Home I bought looks a bit like a park...

While I was in Enchanted Lands I did the race a couple of times. Got a hat. Then I went to Freeport and bought the new Bristlebane crafting book. Also last year's, which I seem to have missed. And a rubber chicken.

Playing on Kaladim, and also reading Wilhelm talking about his adventures in old Norrath and Middle Earth, it's finally coming home to me how unecessary my search for a new MMORPG to indulge my passion for meaningless leveling has been. It's not new games I need, it's just more characters in the ones I'm already playing.

I think I might treat myself to some more character slots.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

It'll Be Like Before You Were Gone

On Friday, ArenaNet announced a "Welcome Back" month for Guild Wars 2. More than a month, in fact; five weeks, starting Monday March 25.

It was a very low-key announcement, nothing more than a forum post. Surprise was expressed. Shouldn't there be some kind of awareness campaign? Rubi Bayer, who appears to have drawn the short straw after Gail Gray's unceremonious dumping, clarified:

"There will be livestreams, guides, and some more surprises that I won't spoil now, but there will be a full outline and schedule on our site Monday morning. Today's post is just a heads-up on various channels to get the word out a little bit in advance, so those who are interested but don't remember their login info can work with our CS team to get that taken care of. It's so frustrating when you want to participate in something that has already started and can't remember your password, so we thought a head start for those people would be less stressful."

Does that make sense? Are people who can't remember the password for a game they no longer play likely to be on the forums in the first place? Or following Twitter or Facebook or whatever those "various channels" might be?

Maybe they sent out emails as well. I get a lot of emails from MMORPGs I haven't logged into for years, telling me about their promotions and events. Of course, since I tend to use unique adresses for registering games, adresses I never visit and don't link to my main account, I only see those offers on the very rare occasions I log back in to check something. Usually years too late.

Still, it's a well-established route for marketing departments. A back channel to the past. As Holly Windstalker Longdale openly acknowledged in that recent PC Gamer interview, for an aging MMORPG, luring former players back into the fold is a higher priority than attracting people who've never played before.

It really does make sense. After all, as a six-year old game, let alone one twice or even three times that age, you'd have to assume that just about anyone who was ever going to give you a run would have gotten around to it by now.

No need to feel blue. We're still here. Waiting.

The first few years post-launch offer a handful of well-known opportunities for new account acquisition. You can bring your game to a different platform - console conversions must be expensive to produce but they do open a door to an entirely fresh market. Less spectacular but worth a shot is a Steam launch. Steam isn't really a famous breeding ground for MMOs but it's not nothing.

If you were canny enough to start off with some kind of entry barrier, a box or digital download with an up-front fee, say, or maybe even an actual, honest-to-god subscription, always assuming that decision didn't sink your entire operation, there's a major PR opportunity available when you announce your game is going Free to Play. That's a one-time deal, though, and it can smack of desperation.

Last and very definitely not least, you can run some kind of permanent free trial, allowing the curious and uncommitted to try before they buy. That became pretty much industry standard log ago.

Whatever you do, even if you eventually try all the options, in the end you run up against the same buffer: your game is old and getting older. Potential customers have either heard of it and already rejected it or they are just now discovering it only to find out it's been running for years and everyone playing is way, way ahead.

Your elderly MMORPG already starts with the major disadvantage that, from the perspective of a new player, the graphics look sub-par. Possibly stone age. For those who can get past that, the staggering amount of legacy content, all of which comes before you even get near to the part of the game everyone else is playing, is more than enough to bring the shutters down.

Did I mention we have sitting in chairs now? Tempted?
In recent years companies have tried all kinds of bootstrapping to get new players over the hump  - super-fast leveling, instant max-level characters, flat-leveling the entire gameworld. They all come with issues of their own. You can accelerate or remove the leveling process but there's no way to instantly install all the necessary knowledge of systems and mechanics your end-game players take for granted. It's not much more fun floundering at the top than at the bottom.

That's why people who used to play but don't any more are seen as a more realistic commercial prospect. There's the currently-hot nostalgia ticket to sell them for starters. Re-working your game so it looks a lot more like the one returning players remember seems to be well worth the expense, if you get it right.

Your game probably needs to have been around for quite a while before you play that card. The current Live game needs to have diverged so far from the original conception that bitter veterans hate it and all it stands for. If you alienate them just enough you can bring them back on board as advocates when you appear to bow to their conviction that things really were better back in their day.

Rift probably failed mainly on that count. Once the new server reached the first expansion, Storm Legion, there just wasn't enough difference between Prime and Live. The game never had enough periodic content to run a true Progression server. It might have done better with a straight Classic server, maybe even one with an expiry date, which would wipe and re-start every so often, allowing transfers to Live first, of course.

Starting over clean can be a big draw. Sometimes a Fresh Start server is all that's needed to re-kindle interest. You don't even have to play the nostalgia card with a retro-revamp. A level playing field is enough. Maybe a few tweaks, perks and inducements along the way. A slight variant ruleset. Some titles. A leaderboard. The big risk there is fracking your existing playerbase into smaller shards but with luck you'll give everyone a jolt of excitement and when it all settles down you'll have a few new customers on the back of that buzz.

There's no need to worry. You won't feel silly. We all feel silly.

Brand-new servers have one immense advantage when it comes to persuading former players to return. Everyone starts in the same place. It's almost the same as a new game except for one thing: when confused and lost players plaintively ask questions in general chat, instead of crickets chirping or, worse, sarcastic trolls suggesting a swift return to WoW, they'll get help and even encouragement.

I'm seeing this every day on EverQuest II's Kaladim server. The population is a good mix of current, active players on vacation from Live, lapsed members of the flock re-discovering their religion and a sprinkling of    "I wish I''d tried this game years ago". Questions don't just get answered, they spark amiable discussions and often lead to reminiscence and general bonhomie.

It's a well-trodden path by now. Any marketing department worth its red suspenders should be able to slot in several pre-fabricated options, tested and found successful in other games. At worst it's a burst of publicity for cheap. At best it's a shot in the arm for sales and retention.

For a few MMORPGs, though, there's a roadblock standing in the way of those easy wins. Classic, Progression, New Start: all those options come with a suffix. Server. What if your game evolved to the new normal of a few years back and did away with the entire concept of separate shards?

When you threw that bathwater out the possibility of farming the nostalgia market went down the drain with it. So did any chance of starting over on a clean page. You put all your eggs in one megabasket and your chickens hatched and came home to roost.

There are things you can get on top of that you never got on top of before. This isn't one of them but trust me.
All MMORPG hobbyists know what a hurdle re-starting on a Live server presents. All the new systems you don't understand. All your old assumptions that don't follow any more. The drops and rewards that mean nothing to you. The jargon in chat you can't unpick. All that stuff in your bags and banks you don't know whether to destroy or broker or sell or salvage. The understanding that you know less than everyone around you and they probably don't care, just that you stay out of their way.

If you run a campaign to get former players to log in again but all you can offer them when they do is a world that looks familiar but feels alien, what are the chances they'll hang around long enough to acclimatize?

The good news from ANet's perspective is that GW2 hasn't really changed all that much. You can still fight centaurs and Sons of Svanir until the dolyaks come home. You can do the same events on the same maps that you did in 2012. You can join the World Boss train and knock over a giant loot pinata every fifteen minutes with thirty new best friends you'll never have to talk to.

The races haven't changed, the Personal Story is the same and if you haven't bought either of the expansions there aren't even any new classes and hardly any new maps. Other than a bunch of giant gerbils and lizards running everywhere with player characters clinging to their backs it all looks - and plays - pretty much the same.

If you like it enough to pay some money and buy the expansions or the Living Story packs, well you'll be on exactly the same terms as the rest of us were two or three or four years ago. All the maps are still active for the group stuff  when you need it, although most of it was single-player content anyway and, while Anet's claim that they have the best community in MMOs may be somewhat overblown, by and large it is pretty welcoming. If you have questions you'll get answers, provided you ask nicely.

When you get right down to it, though, nothing much has changed.

So what's the point of this five week long "Welcome Back" event? Better than not having one, I suppose. And it co-incides with the annual rerun of the ever-popular Super Adventure Box, something I'm sure is no co-incidence. There will be plenty of drop-ins for that so why not see if some of them can be persuaded to hang around?

I'd be very surprised to see this result in any significant, lasting uptick in activity, all the same. GW2 has just about the lowest barrier to re-entry of any MMORPG I've ever played. People drop in and out literally all the time. I see names every day that I haven't seen for years. My friends list flickers and sparkles like witchfire and always has.

I wonder how many how many genuine ex-GW2 players there can be, anyway? People who really did stop playing a long time ago and never came back. And of that demographic, how many ever would? It can't be that they wanted to but it was too expensive or too awkward, surely? It's free and simple and always has been. It's the Hotel California of MMOs.

If anyone did leave for good, most likely it was because they never enjoyed the game much anyway or didn't like what it turned into once the short trip to the cap was done. Has any of that changed? Not really. Endless fractals. Dead dungeons. Gutted WvW. Grind, without end, for everything, everywhere, always.

Same as it ever was.
Raiding, I guess, but if you'd left because no raids wouldn't you have come back when raids? And if you left because raids, well, we still have them. Worse luck. No, it all seems much the same to me. Except I'd take a Launch State Classic server in a heartbeat so I guess I may have been boiled in my tank.

Tomorrow we'll find out if ANet have anything more up their sleeves to entice former players to give the game another shot. There's some speculation about things like rentable gliders or mounts in Core Tyria open world to tempt returners into ponying up for the expansions but they'd still have to pay for the real thing. Maybe a sale on Heart of Thorns and Path of Fire? Or the two as a bundle?

If there's no financial or in-game incentive it's hard to see the value of a promotional push that comes down to just some streamers saying how much fun the old game can be. You probably know that if you ever played. Or you disagree, in which case I don't see much to convince you otherwise.

And even if a promotion succeeds in getting players invested it's hard to keep them feeling the love. The huge boost in numbers World vs World saw as a result of the recent, super-hyped introduction of the Warclaw mount (plus a double WvW XP week) has already dissipated, leaving nothing more behind than bad feeling and disgruntlement to show it ever happened.

Still, better to try than not try, I guess. We'll find out tomorrow if there's anything to get excited about. I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Riding For A Fall : Project: Gorgon

Over the past few years, Project: Gorgon has developed a reputation as an idiosyncratic - some might say goofy - MMORPG. It's been a slow burn this far. The passion project, led by husband and wife team Eric Heimburg and Sandra Powers, took a couple of Kickstarter practice runs before it eventually funded.

Progress to an Early Access launch on Steam took longer than expected but it looks to have been time well-spent. The game sits very comfortably indeed on a near-unanimous "Very Positive" rating. The tiny Elder Game Studios team would seem to have weathered most of the storms on the way to an eventual, successful launch.

Until today. Even by the decidedly off-the-wall standards of P:G, the decision to open a new brand new cash shop with just three offers, the cheapest of which goes for $50 and the most expensive for ten times that, seems a little... strange.

It seems stranger still when you consider that almost nothing in any of the three packages is useable - or even visble - in-game. So, what do you get for your money? I'm glad you asked!

For $50 you can buy a horse, some saddlebags and nine months VIP access. To quote the advisory notes
"Some features, including Riding, are not yet implemented at this time. Your account will receive these benefits when the features become available. In addition, your VIP membership will not start until VIP benefits are available"
It's not absolutely clear whether you get the horse right away. It is clear you can't ride it. Also, you don't get to do whatever it is that a VIP can do that the rest of us can't. Not until later. How much later is anyone's guess.

$75 gets you all that, only with VIP benefits extended to a full year, plus a second horse, the Animal Husbandry skill required skill to breed from the two of them and a pair of breeding tigers of high genetic quality because every horse ranch needs on-site access to an unlimited supply of apex predators. 

Be patient, though:
"Some features, including Riding and Animal Husbandry, are not yet implemented at this time. Your account will receive these benefits when the features become available."
So far, so amusing. Those wacky Elder Games guys, eh? Then comes the capper.

If you dig deep and come up with $500 you get all of the above, five years of VIP membership, a custom title of your choosing ("must be game appropriate"), an in-game house, a staff that "helps you command the respect of those around you" and the ability to spontaneously create special snack cakes ("20 per week"). 

The rubric this time doesn't specifically explain that player housing is yet another feature from the "not yet implemented" file but since someone was asking Reddit as recently as January if there were any plans to add it I feel fairly safe in assuming that's the case. Maybe you at least get the Staff of Leadership and the free cakes right away, although I wouldn't count on it.

If all of this sounds completely crazy, well it is, but only from the perspective of any company with a professional marketing department. Mind you, plenty of big developers with one of those have made mis-steps almost as damaging (Hi SOE/DBG, Trion, ANet, Standing Stone...).

The description of each of the Packages opens with a line that explains what Elder Games think they're up to:
"These are pre-release reward packages for early adopters and are considered a donation for the continued development of Project: Gorgon"
Ah, now we get it! It's some kind of in-house Patreon deal. Please give us some money so we can carry on developing this game and in return we'll see you right if launch day comes. When! When launch day comes!

Possibly there are people playing Project: Gorgon right now who would welcome the opportunity to donate some cash to the good cause of keeping the game they're very positive about in development, not to say online. Unfortunately, as any competent PR professional would have been able to predict, that isn't how it's going to play to the wider world. Not that the wider world is going to notice, of course.

Then again, MMORPG gamers are a strange breed. Value for money clearly isn't always at the head of any list of concerns they might have. Sometimes it seems like a concept with which they're entirely unfamiliar.

We've travelled a long way from the days of the $10 horse. For a while we were wailing about whales before we got locked onto lockboxes but now it's all aboard the nostalgia train and full steam for the past.

That's a ticket and a half, isn't it? I was thinking about it this morning, while I was on EverQuest II's latest time-limited expansion server, Kaladim, grinding my way through level 12 in Frostfang Sea at a rate of about a quarter of a level per hour.

Just what is a Progression/Time Limited Expansion/Classic server, when you think about it? For every MMORPG that's gone down that route it means a return to the paid subscription model for a supposedly Free to Play game. Players who haven't considered the Live version worth a glance for years (decades in some cases) come hurtling back, cash in hand, ready to throw money at the developers all over again, and for what?

So they can not have 90% of the game everyone else is getting for nothing, that's what. So they can literally pay a fee to be denied in-game services that were painstakingly developed over many years to add value. So they can pay the full Membership/VIP/Subscription rate and not get any of the perks that are specifically advertised to persuade people it's worth paying in the first place!

On Live, players complain bitterly when companies decide not to roll last year's expansion in free with this year's. On Prog they complain if the expansions unlock too quickly. Some of them beg to be allowed to pay a monthly fee for a server where they never get any new content at all.

In the free game, developers fall over themselves to give stuff away. There are rewards just for logging in, for hanging around for an hour, for sticking it for a week or a month. Anything to stop people wandering off in search of greener grass elsewhere.

There's bonus xp, bonus coin, bonus faction, bonus status, bonus bonuses. Sometimes you can barely see the in-game vendors to redeem your rewards for all the pop-ups offering you more.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the velvet rope, paying customers fall over themselves to congratulate each other on their superior taste and judgment as they scratch a subsistence living selling rat whiskers and rusty weapons to each other in the fantasy equivalent of taking in each other's washing. The only voices of dissent to be heard belong to those who think the scorched earth policy hasn't gone far enough. They demand what they paid for, dammit! Less!

Viewed in that context, perhaps Project: Gorgon's new Cash Shop doesn't look quite so crazy after all.

All right, yes it does.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Drives A Little Slower: EQII

Isey, from I Has PC, chose to celebrate EverQuest's twentieth anniversary with the closest thing he could find to the original experience, Project 1999. It was, as he said in the title of his post, "Slow Progress...":

"I spent three hours this morning on my 7 Enchanter at Orc hill.... By the end I had barely dinged 9 (I was only one bubble away from 8 when I started)... three hours of gameplay for a full level and a bit."

He also lost his level on a bad pull when he was Level Eight and when it was all over, all he had to look forward to was

" incredibly non efficient trip ... to High Keep (from Gfay) – my level 8 pet spell is only sold there. I can’t remember how long of trip it is but if memory serves it’s something like 4 or 5 zones plus a boat trip." 

I can't quite match that but my progress, leveling a Dirge on Kaladim, EverQuest II's new Time Limited Expansion server, has been mightily slow, too. I logged out a few minutes ago, immediately after she dinged Eleven. My /played shows I've played her for just over a dozen hours so far.

Allowing for the extremely short time it took to do ten levels of tradeskills (the crafting tutorial gives insane xp compared to anything an adventurer could hope for) that's about an hour per level. My progress wasn't anything like as smoothly distributed as that. I did four levels in a couple of hours on the first day but the next time I played it took me the best part of three hours to do a single level.

A lot of that could well be down to the way I play. For some reason I seem to be incapable, in any MMO, of sticking with the content meant for my level. Dressed in the most basic imaginable gear (actually, nothing at all in about half the slots) my Dirge has been running face-first into the brick wall of quests and mobs meant for characters three or even five levels above her.

She must have died, at a conservative estimate, thirty times at least so far. I've certainly had to do full repairs from 20% three times, plus a few more before things got that dire. It's been extremely difficult to break the bad habits of Live and I have to admit the absence of any meaningful death penalty has contributed heavily to my lackadaisical, not to say suicidal, attitude.

Despite those frequent deaths I've been having plenty of fun. Progress has been slow by modern standards but very fast in MMORPG historical terms. And therein lies the rub. It seems there's something of a battle raging on the forums between those who feel XP is about right and those who feel cheated that it isn't as slow as it was at launch, something that was (kind of) promised in the FAQ.

Will experience values be tuned for Kaladim?
Experience values will be slower, similar to how it was at original launch. Tradeskill experience will be the same.

Leaving aside the bald claim about tradeskill XP, which seems to me to be quite simply crazy wrong, this opens up a whole barrel of issues, not least what was XP like at launch? Presumably Daybreak has some numerical data to rely on but all the rest of us have are decade-and-a-half old memories. Which is enough for many people to make statements of absolute certainty about how things were and how they ought to be.

General chat this morning was ringing with reminiscences of how wonderfully, magically, immersively awful slow it all was in 2004. All those people claimed to have been there. So was I but I have no genuine certainty over how long it took me to level back then. Mostly what I remember was how attritional it felt, which is not the same thing at all as as being "slow".

In my memory, everywhere and everything required groups, not just dungeons but almost all overland content as well. I remember how excruciatingly rare it was to find spell upgrades as drops, while crafted versions were prohibitively expensive because of the appallingly badly designed tradeskill sytem (the same system a few masochists even now hold up as the paradigm of how crafting should work).

None of that difficulty - literally none of it - has been brought back for this or any other TLE server, thank heaven. I'm sure it's someone's dream - forming a full group to go grind heroic difficulty crabs on a strip of Antonican sand for hour after hour in the hope of getting a single spell book to drop, a book which, inevitably, will be usable by no-one in the group. It's not mine.

Neither, I would hazard a guess, is it commercially viable, even in today's sophisticated nostalgia market. All these things some people remember so fondly were changed because a lot more people stopped playing rather than put up with them. It's possible there could be enough potential customers who a) genuinely preferred the way EQII played in its first six months and b) still have sufficient interest in reprising that pleasure to pay a monthly subscription for the privilege, but I doubt it.

Were the genuine status quo ante ever to be recreated in all its true horror, I suspect the unfortunate experimental server in question would bleed population even faster than the original game did all those years ago. As I said, there's slow and there's awful. If there were ever to be a P2004 server for EQII, I very much doubt it would attract and sustain the kind of population P1999 enjoys. EQII at launch was no Classic EverQuest, that's for sure.

Even so, by and large, I'm in favor of slow, if "slow" means "time to enjoy the scenery". The restrictions that apply on Kaladim are having that effect on me so far. There's no Fast Travel, no Broker Anywhere, no flying mounts, no access to housing other than by going to your front door. Getting anywhere from anywhere takes time and it really does make the world feel much bigger.

I'm enjoying it now but I'm not sure how long that will,last. It's very interesting to be able to compare the situation on Kaladim with what I'm enjoying on Live at the same time. I did over twenty levels on my Shadowknight yesterday, from around Level 60 to the mid-80s. I had 100% vitality (for a while), 140% veteran bonus, 100% server bonus and 100% XP Potion, all at once. It was exhilarating and satisfying and I had a great time.

That "great time" consisted of me burning through as much content in an afternoon as took me about six months the first time round. Of course I didn't really see all that content this time, any more than you "see" Europe as you pass over it in a plane. I just saw a few selected highlights as I flew across zones and Fast Travelled from era to era, cherry-picking a few favorite quests and completing in minutes what would once have taken me hours or possibly weeks.

Even though I'm using the same launcher to get to them both, EQII on Kaladim and EQII on Live might just as well be different MMORPGs altogether. They may both nominally share the same content but that's like saying five sets of tennis and a game of fetch with your dog both use the same ball.

As the release date for WoW Classic draws ever nearer I'm increasingly curious to see how Blizzard's reluctant entry into the nostalgia market plays out. From everything I've seen so far in MMORPGs from EverQuest to Rift, one person's faithful recreation is another's slap in the face. The difference this time is that World of Warcraft is big enough for a slap you can hear around the world.

Monday, March 18, 2019

This Day's Portion : EQ2

What with all the ballyhoo over EverQuest's twentieth anniversary and the simultaneous launch of four new special ruleset servers it would be very easy to overlook the fact that EverQuest II just got a major content drop. Mischief and Mayhem, aka Game Update 109, added a new Fabled dungeon, a new Raid zone, a new Public Quest for crafters and a completely new community tradeskill system.

The Fabled dungeon this time round is Runnyeye. It's a revamped version of a revamped version. First there was Runnyeye, the open dungeon in Enchanted Lands, intended for groups in the 30s and part of the game from launch. Then, four years later, the Runnyeye goblins acted as hosts for a gathering of goblin clans from all across Norrath in Runnyeye: The Gathering, an instanced dungeon for players around level 80.

The new version, available in both Solo and Heroic (Group) flavors, requires players to be Level 110 and, since the zone-in is in Myrist, the Great Library, to own last year's Chaos Descending expansion. As is evident from Holly Longdale's recent interview with PCGamer, Daybreak are getting better and better at managing their properties in ways that monetize them effectively without infuriating their core players - the ones who actually give them money.


I ran the solo version this morning. For the most part I found it a lot easier than I was expecting. When Fabled Plane of Hate, the first level 110 Fabled Dungeon, appeared I could barely do anything there. Then came Fabled Guk, which was pretty tough at first although now I have it on farm. I was imagining another steep curve, with mobs tougher than those in Guk, but it turned out to be something of a cakewalk.

Until I ran into Chief Kanar, that is. The Chief has an extremely unsavory habit of releasing gas. Let's not enquire too closely into where he releases it from. As soon as you pull him the entire floor of the room fills with a noxious cloud that does around 20 million points a tick in poison damage. Even with close on 140 million hit points my Berserker can't take that sort of punishment.

The strat for beating him is simple: fight him above ground level. He has a throne atop a ricketty scaffold and if you jump up and attack him there the gas doesn't touch you. Not until he fears you into it, anyway.

Here's one in the eye for you, Sonny Jim!

Ah, but my Berserker has a very handy augment in one of his accessories that completely prevents all fear effects. That'll fix his wagon! Or not, as it turns out. Unfortunately, if the Chief can't fear you he just barges you off the platform by brute force. He has a huge knockback attack and I couldn't block or avoid it.

I tried five times and died on each attempt. The final two nameds won't spawn until Kanar dies so I had to quit without clearing the zone. I probably need someone to post a strat that works or else I'm going to have to die until I figure it out. Since none of the loot any of the other Nameds dropped was an upgrade I think I'll let someone else do the donkey work.

My Berserker is also a max level weaponsmith who's completed the Chaos Descending Signature Tradeskill questline so I thought I'd take a look at that instead. It starts in Cobalt Scar, which is where the permanent Public Quest will be - when you clear out the old mine that Wilhelm Nam'Terin has marked out as the place to set up his new enterprise.

Not that Wilhelm.

EQ2 Traders has a partial walkthrough. The devs kept their cards close to their chests on this one so some of the fine details are still to be revealed but there was more than enough to get me started. I talked to Wilhelm then I mapped back to my Mara storehouse to stock up on materials. And fuel. Nothing worse than getting halfway through a questline only to find yourself ten coals short of a combine.

I made the four pickaxes the quest required but I only needed two of them to tunnel through the rock and open up the hidden cavern. There I found a strange, rather cute "beast". I would have let it be since it seemed harmless enough but my instructions were to craft a net, catch it and cage it outside the entrance so that's what I did.

You can't just stick a beastie in a cage and leave it to starve, although if you happened to be "evil" like, oh, let's say an Iksar Necromancer, I'm thinking it really shouldn't be that much of a problem. Well, tough. If you want access to the new tradeskill instance (and get the creature as a very useful Tradeskill Familiar) better just suck it up, craft ten traps and set them out for kitty snacks. Faction in EQII really is completely meaningless nowadays.

The horror! The horror!

The traps have to sit for a full Norrathian day, which is forty-two Earth minutes long. I started this post while I waited. The next step, travelling to Butcherblock, Kelethin, Steamfont and Rivervale to convince some semi-reclusive crafters to up sticks and move to a god-forsaken cave in the back of beyond, also has some interesting time-gating, should you happen to fluff your lines as you try to talk them into it.

As I write this I've managed to get the Dwarven blacksmith on board - at the second attempt - and I'm waiting for the Elven seamstress to calm down so I can try again. If you annoy any of these divas too much they refuse to talk to you, which means a wait of a few minutes before you can try again.

Was it something I said?

I like these imposed delays. I'm sure plenty of people rage at the inconvenience but it makes me feel like something's actually happening beyond me clicking a few buttons. Intellectually I know it isn't but emotionally it works for me. Plus I always find it funny when one of my characters makes a prat of themselves.

There's a known bug in the questline around this point. It's scheduled to be fixed after tomorrow's weekly downtime, but thanks to a warning from Niami Denmother and an in-game message from Gninja I have already safely worked around it. In finishing the questline I opened access for all characters on my account. They can now enter the new instance and start grinding working on the hourly quests, which will incrementally lead to the acquisition of new crafting recipes for the whole server.

I was hoping for the return of Gnome Kabobs but its just a house item.

More about that when (or if) it happens.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

New Kind Of Neighborhood

When Daybreak announced that one of the tent-poles for EverQuest's 20th Anniversary celebrations would be yet another round of Timelocked/Progression servers I was underwhelmed. I understand that they're popular and they make money but I felt I'd been round that particular track a time or two too often already to get excited about doing it again.

Silly me. Since I made characters on Kaladim in EQII and Selo in EQ last night, apart from sleep and eat I've done nothing else. I'm rushing to get this post done so I can get back and play some more and since I don't have to go to work until next Saturday there's a good chance I won't be doing much besides playing EQ/EQII and writing about it for the rest of the week.

Just what is it about starting over on a new server that has this effect? Is it really that MMORPGs - both as games and as worlds - work much better when played in something approximating their original context, where leveling takes time and there are people everywhere you go?

Or is it just nostalgia? The deep thrill of cheating time. We can't grow younger but we can pretend we did.

I spent the morning on Selo, leveling my Bard in Shar Vhal, the Kerran city on the dark side of Luclin, where it's always twilight and Norrath hangs low in the sky like a threat. It was really something to begin there instead of outside the gates of Qeynos or Freeport. I haven't started in Shar Vahl for a decade or more but it all came flooding back.

It took me an hour just to finish the introductory citizenship quest. I remember doing that when Luclin was new. It took me all of a Sunday afternoon, back then. They may have reverted a lot of stuff but I'm convinced it's still easier than it was.

When I'd made enough money killing grimling skeletons in The Pit I went to buy my new songs. Then I broke for lunch. Half an hour later I took a trip forward in time - five years or five hundred, depending how you look at it - to Kaladim and EQII, where I've been dying a lot leveling my Dirge in Sunken City and The Sprawl.

I was having such a hard time I ended up buying a full set of no-stat chain armor from a vendor. I can't remember the last time I had to do that. It was awesome! And it made hardly any difference at all! I still had trouble just trying to get from one questgiver to the next without being eaten by wild dogs.

It was all a much more immersive, involving, satisfying, fun experience than I was expecting. Despite - or possibly because of  - all the being killed, getting lost and generally getting piled on, everything was comfortably exceeding expectations. And then I remembered that DBG had restored the original starting villages for this fresh start.

The villages, when they were around, were something of a mixed blessing. Original EQII began with a lengthy lead-in before you arrived at what you might call the "real game". I don't mean the end game. I mean long before that.

There was the bit on the boat at the start, then the Isle of Refuge, then you had to go to either Qeynos or Freeport and find your racial starting area, where you'd get an inn room and your class quests. I think that's how it went.

The class quests themselves went all the way to Level 20, which took me a couple of weeks first time out. Maybe longer. Most of it happened down in the sewers as I recall. You got into those by way of a drain in your village.

Well, the quests are still missing but the villages are back and so is the drain! I had no idea how much I'd missed them.

Of course, the physical locations never went away. They just got repurposed and repopulated years ago. On Live there are questlines for every race that send you to your racial village every ten levels. Most of those questlines are top notch. I've done quite a few. I probably should do the rest some day.

The problem is, when they did the revamp, Sony Online Entertainment shut off access to the zones for anyone not doing the quests. Since the quests were unique to specific races that meant most characters would never be able to go in most of the villages again and even the right races could only go in when they had the quests active.

What's more, the new storylines put all the villages into a state of conflict. And they scaled with your level, assuming you did the quests as they became available. Even if you could get in, all you'd find was a combat zone. Which was never what any of the villages were about.

And what was that? I'd actually forgotten. They were, like much of the original game, there to tell the tales of ordinary Norrathians, living ordinary lives in an extraordinary world. There were little stories everywhere, vignettes of how it might be, to live cheek by jowl with talking animals, monsters and giants.

The quests are no more but the vignettes and the characters live on. I spent the best part of an hour wandering from village to village, talking to gnomes and ogres and trolls, taking screenshots of cats and pigs and crazy people, like Spezzi the "Street Hag" (we all know what she is...) and Chef Schmenko, psychotic ratonga with a meat cleaver.

These characters may still be running their scripts over on Live, behind the closed doors of the quest instances. Good luck finding out. Here, on Kaladim, you can stroll about in peace, just like we did in the good old days, soaking in the ambience.

What's more, you can bank and shop and craft. All the vendors and utilities have been restored, including the subterranean tradeskill instances. Best of all, you can rent an inn room and settle. Forget your billett at the Jade Tiger's Den in North Freeport (although you have to take a room there too, if you want to complete the starter housing quest). Come back to the village that raised you. Buy yourself a candelabra.

As I was going round I got so excited I felt I had to tell someone. General chat seemed a bit too focused on arguments about leveling speed for the kind of gosh-wow fluffiness I had in mind so I gosh-wowed in the Test channel instead, where fluffiness is a way of life.

Someone promptly sent me a tell asking me if I wouldn't mind going round all the villages in Freeport to run a zone query to get the official map names so he could submit them to EQ2Maps. I was very happy to oblige.

He'd been asking since yesterday and found no takers and I only saw two other players in the villages as I was exploring. My excitement seems original if not unique. Maybe there will be more interest in the restoration project when it finally hits Live. TLE servers do tend to attract the more hardcore end of the playerbase.

Or maybe no-one will care. I didn't think I would. Not until I went there. Now I care enough that I'm going to make another character over in Qeynos so I can see those villages too. Well, I might. I'd have to buy yet another character slot for that. Maybe I'll wait 'til the project comes to the Skyfire server where I already have some Qeynosians.

The one thing that puzzles me is why this is all happening in EQII now, when we're supposed to be celebrating EverQuest's 20th. EQII has its own fifteenth anniversary coming in November. I just hope they've left a little in the tank for that.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Happy 20th BIrthday, EverQuest!

I was going to save this for tomorrow but since I can't log in right now I might as well do the next best thing and blog about it...

Even this morning I hadn't decided whether or not to roll a character on any of the four new Time-Locked/Progression servers Daybreak span up a couple of hours ago: two for EverQuest, two for EverQuest II. In the end, though, I couldn't resist.

I started with EQII's PvE server Kaladim. As usual, All Access Membership (or "a subscription" as we used to call it) is required to play on Progression servers. I had the sub covered there was still a problem: all my character slots were full on that account.

I've been playing EQII a lot more of late. Six of those characters are max level and the other four are too established to delete, not that I ever delete characters anyway. There is a Level 3 wizard on that account, who you'd think would be expendable, but she was a founder member of the guild we formed on Freeport the day EQII went free to play so she's got grandfather rights. Grandmother rights. Whatever. Point is, she's not going anywhere.

Oh, oh, the hokey-cokey!

So I dug into my Daybreak Cash reserves and bought another character slot. Then I made a Dirge. A ratonga, naturally. I've never played a Dirge before. I don't generally get on with Scout classes in any MMORPGs but I've had a Dirge mercenary running alongside my Inquisitor for a while and it looked not that bad. Plus Mrs Bhagpuss used to play one and I remember it being badass.

When it came time to choose a name I did something I almost never do: I went for something that loads of other people were bound to have chosen before me. Only no-one had. I got it. I couldn't believe my luck. Now, even if, as I expect, I never end up playing this character beyond the first few levels, I have that name in the bag.

What's more, if I make it to level 20 (I think you still have to do that first) I can use /lastname to name my Dirge... Lana DelRey! I probably won't do that... maybe Lana Lang...

Room for a little one?

Everything went very smoothly. No login queues, no lag, no crashes. I whipped through the opening sequence on The Far Journey, before stepping into instance #19 of the Isle of Refuge (Outpost of the Overlord), where I hung about just long enough to turn straight round and get back on the boat to Freeport.

I spent a few minutes questing in Sunken City, died three times, made Level Four and logged out. I was itching to get started on Selo, EQ's new superfast unlock server.

Back in the elder game things went somewhat differently. When I made it to character creation, which took a while, I found myself faced with a blank slate. Eight free character slots and no buttons to press. I went to the forums where I found plenty of people talking about that.

By the time I'd read the thread and posted an ironic comment, my character slots had made themselves available. I looked through the various options. I wanted to start on Luclin as a Vah`Shir but the class choices - Shaman, Warrior, Rogue, Beastlord, Bard - weren't doing much for me.

My first time in Luclin, back in 2002, I rolled a Vah`Shir Beastlord. I didn't play her that much right away but a few years later she ended up being my main and for a long time she was the highest level character I had. But Beastlords are a slog at low levels. Didn't fancy it. Rogue and Warrior were right out. Shaman is solid but again it takes a while to get going.

Dark and lonely

Then I thought, why not? I've just made a Dirge on EQ2. Why not make a bard in EverQuest? I know they get tough to play eventually but it's not like I'm planning on playing her all the way to the cap, after all. She'll be lucky to get into double figures.

Riding my luck, I tried for "Lana" again. The server took something like ten minutes to respond. Someone already got it. Surprise. And then I had a bit of a moment.

While I was running around Sunken City I noticed in chat that someone had nabbed "Buffy". I'm currently deep in a complete watch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, start to finish, on Amazon Prime. I got to Season Five last night. Why not? I won't get it anyway. Someone will already have it. Bound to.

Nope. When the server finally acknowledged my request it went right through. I now have a Bard called Buffy. When she hits 20 I could give her the last name Summers. I wouldn't, obviously. Probably. 

It wouldn't technically be breaking the Naming Policy if I did. I checked. They've changed it since I last looked. In both games. I'm certain it used to forbid well-known names from either popular culture or real life but now there's just this:

5. Do not pick a name that violates anyone's trademarks, publicity rights or other proprietary rights. In the event that the holder of any trademarked or copyrighted material contacts Daybreak Game Company LLC and requests reference(s) to their intellectual property be removed, any names containing trademarked or copyrighted material will be changed.

I can live with that. I mean, who's going to dob me in? Spike?

So, having established myself as having a mental age of about fifteen I was set to go. Only, so were a lot of other people, it seemed. Unlike EQ2, which either has much better hardware or a lot fewer players (and I know where my money's going on that one), EQ's login server was melting under the pressure.

Take a look at what you could have won.

The first couple of times I tried I couldn't get a response at all. Then Mrs Bhagpuss arrived home from work with a takeaway so I took a half-hour break. When I tried again I got the 46 minute warning above. It's been longer than that now and I'm still not in.

All of which suggests a nice problem for Daybreak to have. And for all the complaints and chuntering about how come they never learn, you know every MMO company really wants to see news items about how their servers couldn't cope with the demand.

There's a 20th Anniversary Producer's Letter up with some solid news about the promised fan gathering, or one of them at least, and a very nice new Infographic that I'm going to be referring back to instead of the Wiki when I want to know the date an expansion launched. This party's just getting started!

I'm going to give up on Selo for tonight. Tomorrow will be easier. I have the whole week off work (by sheer good luck - I didn't book it to co-incide with EQ's twentieth. I haven't lost all reason) so I can afford to dawdle. There's also a whole new, major update to EQII Live to dig into but that deserves a post of its own.

It's all jolly exciting! Happy Birthday EverQuest. Let's hope for many more to come!

More Than Shooters, More Than Looters

I am not now, nor will I ever be, an Anthem player. All the same, I seem to know quite a lot about it. For one thing, I know it's a "Looter Shooter", a term I don't ever recall seeing until last week.

The name itself may be relatively new but the looter shooter genre (sub-genre, whatever) claims a history stretching all the way back to the 1970s. It also seems to encompass a staggering range of games, most which, on the face of it, have little in common.

The PC Gamer article from last summer (linked above) traces the origins as far back as Dungeons and Dragons' random loot tables, which sounds a bit like tracing the origins of cyberpunk back to Caxton's introduction of the printing press. Still, it's an intriguing timeline that goes some way towards explaining, or at least illuminating, a few anomalous entries in the MMORPG catalog.

I always thought there was something off about including Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, Defiance and even Warframe, the only one I've actually played, in the core genre. That's indicative. Even though I sometimes trawl the web for new MMORPGs to try, and even though some of these games arrived when the field was considerably less crowded than it is now, most of them never appealed to me. I was never really sure what they were.

It was always clear, even from the few crumbs of detail I was able to scavenge back then, that neither Hellgate: London nor Tabula Rasa was likely to play much like the MMOs I enjoyed. There seemed to be altogether too much desperate running and shooting and nowhere near enough pottering around pleasant countryside performing trivial tasks for locals too lazy or inept to manage for themselves.

By the time Defiance arrived I was somewhat more inured to the idea of roaming the wasteland, ever alert for the whoomp of an inter-dimensional portal that would herald the imminent incursion of death from above. Rift pretty much turned the key in that lock for me.

Even so, I never really connected the dots between those distinctly low-key entries to the MMO genre and the more recent surge of big names like the Destiny and Division franchises. As for linking any of them to the Diablo series or Borderlands...

Diablo, of course, is another game I've never played in any of its incarnations, although sometimes it's hard to remember that, so very much have I read about it over the years. And, anyway, I always thought of Diablo and its ilk (Path of Exile, Torchlight), as "ARPGs" not "looter shooters".

ARPG is another slippery term. I first encountered it when I bought Dungeon Siege back in 2002. By that time I'd already been playing MMORPGs for several years but I was still interested in some kind of offline alternative as backup for those occasions when my Internet connection was having issues. It's hard to believe now, but back around the turn of the millennium some ISPs considered a day or two to be a very reasonable response to a hardware failure in their system.

Dungeon Siege was a big disappointment. It looked fantastic and it was as slick as butter but I found it utterly pointless. Who wants to run from place to place, mowing down hundreds of enemies, stacking your bags with junk and then sorting through it for the good stuff? Not me. It seemed like the dullest kind of busy-work. Still does.

So much so, in fact, that when I ran into what felt like a similar always-on loot fountain at the start of EverQuest II's Rise of Kunark expansion in 2007 I walked away in disgust. I ran all the way back to the low-loot safety of EverQuest, where I stayed for six months until the taint of too much, too fast faded.

Ever since then I've been extremely wary of anything calling itself an "ARPG". Not that it's always been easy to sift out the suspects. The waters have been muddied by the adoption of the acronym to describe games that use the mouse for combat, like DCUO, Neverwinter Online or Black Desert. Technically, I believe, we should be using the acronym ACRPG (Action Combat Role Playing Game) for those but no-one ever does.

It would, then, be quite useful if the term "looter shooter" replaced ARG for those games whose primary purpose is to kill vast numbers of enemies for vast piles of loot. I would safely be able to put all of those to one side and forget about them, leaving me to concentrate on trying to work out which mouse-mode ARPGs deserve a closer look.

Given my well-established predilection for inventory management it is, perhaps, somewhat surprising that I don't like loot fountain games more than I do. Or, indeed, at all. I'm not entirely sure why it is. There are probably a number of reasons. The foremost, however, is undoubtedly that I find such games silly.

For any form of entertainment there's a point beyond which it becomes impossible to continue to suspend disbelief. Once that point is passed there's really no return. If you're watching a movie or reading a novel and you find yourself thinking "Well, that would never happen..." you might as well give up.

In video games most things that happen would never happen so the bar is set slightly differently. For me, when it doesn't make any real difference what I kill because everything drops everything all the time, well that would never happen...

About the only MMORPG - well, kind of - that used something like this mechanic and got away with it was the original Guild Wars. There was (still is, I guess) an awful lot of loot in that game, all of it color-coded, most of it non-specific to the mobs that dropped it. I didn't like it but it wasn't quite annoying enough to ruin the rest of the game, most of which I did like. Sometimes it came close, though.

Guild Wars 2 has followed that path, somewhat. The sheer quantity of items that drop there these days is staggering. It's also a frequent source of complaint. For a long while it didn't really bother me too much, mostly because GW2 also has a decent range of options for disposing of the detritus quickly and painlessly - auto-loot, auto-banking, mass salvage...

It does seem to be getting worse, though. I am starting to find even the parts I used to enjoy, like opening all the little boxes and bags that drop to see what's inside, irritating. Once again, it's nowhere in itself enough to make me stop playing but add it to the game's other ongoing longueurs and things mount up. I've reached the stage where even one more minor annoyance makes me feel like playing something else instead.

The other major thing I have against ARPGs or Looter Shooters or whatever we're going to call them, something to which I alluded earlier, is the way the mechanic emphasizes the sheer pointlessness of the whole endeavor. Video games are pointless enough to begin with, without having that meaninglessness repeatedly driven home by a never-ending shower of stuff, almost none of which you want or need.

For me it turns the entire process into the fantasy equivalent of sorting your garbage for re-cycling. And yes, I do understand that that's ironic given, as I said, my love of inventory management. It's not for nothing I chose Emerson's oft-misquoted line "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" as my personal motto. Some inventory management is fun and some isn't. It's important to know the difference.

The upshot of all this is that it really makes no nevermind to me whether BioWare sort out their loot tables or not. No doubt they will, eventually, although whether anyone will be left to care by then is probably the bigger question. Meanwhile it's moderately entertaining, watching them flail and fail.

The real concern from my perspective isn't so much whether any of the particular Looter Shooters gets its looting or its shooting right. No, it's more how that success might cast a longer shadow across the wider genre.

With both EQ and EQII opening retro-servers today that at least pay lip service to returning to the values of the past, I'm kind of looking forward to a return to the days of camping specific mobs for specific drops. I always liked doing that.

Looking ahead, I think limited loot is going to feature quite high on my tick list of features that make an MMORPG worth trying. Assuming we get ever any new MMOs that look worth trying in the first place...
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