Thursday, May 30, 2019

Those Endless Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have to talk. We have to talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Instructions Not Included : SW:TOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about here?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Up On The Roof : SW:TOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you run inside and fetch me a cushion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess I probably should start thinking about getting some furniture if I'm going to stay. I wonder if you can buy a rooftop pool?

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Happy Holiday : EverQuest, EverQuest II

I was planning to post something today, what with it being my day off and not having posted since Saturday. Unfortunately, I discovered I didn't really have anything to say, which certainly made for a refreshing change. Rather than go all the way from weekend to weekend in silence and bearing in mind I'm going to be away on holiday for ten days in early June, I thought I might just drop a public service announcement about Daybreak's plans for the coming long weekend.

After years of relying on either Massively(OP) or Wilhelm to remind me of any special events in the Norrathian calendar I finally had the brilliant idea of adding the official EverQuest and EverQuest II news feeds to my Feedly. Still doesn't help me to remember to log in but at least I know what I'm missing.

EverQuest has a straightforward 50% XP bonus on all servers from Friday to Tuesday. Exact dates and details here. There's also a 50% bonus to Faction and to Rares, although I confess I don't entirely understand what that means.

DBG seem to have settled on 50% as the standard bribe treat for players of the elder game. I'm not sure why. It's not quite enough to motivate me to log in when I otherwise wouldn't. It always used to be 100%, which was. I wonder why they changed it?

 XP is already hugely easier to get in EQII, where there are enormous permanent boosts available for regular customers (my main account is set at something like +200% minimum, rising to +400% with Vitality and Loyalty/Veteran boosters), so naturally they're offering the full +100%, aka double XP.

On Live Servers only, that is. As usual TLE (Progression) servers have to peer through the bars of their gated compound at everyone else living the easy life. Well, that's what they wanted.

There's double Status for everyone, too, TLE included. Status is a really big deal for EQII regulars, probably a bigger draw than XP, so that's going to go down very well. Both bonuses start and end at the same times as the ones in EverQuest, which is by no means always the case.

Both games have cash shop offers and sales because of course they do, but EQII is dangling a particularly juicy tidbit: the Year of EverQuest Pack. Among other things (quite a few other things, in fact), this bundle contains a flying mount, a 66-slot backpack, a 100 slot broker crate that reduces all sales taxes and fees to zero and some boots that give a 15% movement speed boost that stacks with whatever run, mount or flying speed boosts you may already be using.

Those are top-end perks and the pack is decent value at the regular price of $34.99, which makes it a must-buy at the reduced holiday price of $19.99. Well, it does if you're already sitting on a mountain of DBC like I am!

All I have to do is remember to log in - although since the low-price offer runs till the end of June I really don't have much excuse for missing it.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Rewrite Or Revise? SW:TOR, GW2

Yesterday I posted about some shortcomings in Guild Wars 2's storytelling. A few days earlier I made some similarly jaundiced observations about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Some new evidence arrived today which might have made a difference. Timing is everything.

Not too long ago my Agent did a series of Missions involving Watcher X, a superannuated, super-intelligent, clinically paranoid, possibly psychotic operative. The Empire, valuing his skills but wary of what he might do with them, were holding him under what amounted to house arrest.  Some kind of explosive device implanted in his head was meant to keep him from getting any funny ideas.

My own Watcher, Watcher 2, sent me to do some business with him. Naturally I ended up doing Watcher X a few favors I didn't tell her about. She is astonishingly gullible. The upshot was that Watcher X escaped and he owes me.

I didn't think any more about it but when I logged her in this afternoon, my Agent had mail: two slightly garbled transmissions from Watcher X. Instead of the usual thank-you note with a few credits attached he'd sent me information. Some of it on Watcher 2. Some on my Companion, Kaliyo.

The first memo offered a possible explanation for Watcher 2's apparent incompetence. It seems her genetic modifications aren't performing as they should and she is "unable to integrate new variables". That certainly would make her gullible.

The second told me some things about Kaliyo's background that my Companion had kept to herself. It also made some suggestions about how I might use the information to "control" her if need arose. Given that she and my Agent recently had a major disagreement that ended with Kaliyo making some scarcely veiled threats, that could prove very valuable.

There was also some additional information about Watcher 2: her real name, gender and species. It appeared to have been appended to the wrong message as a result of the garbling caused by Watcher X's advanced encryption.

This all seemed to me to go well beyond the standards of creativity I'd seen anywhere in the game before. It created an impression of something moving beneath the surface, a sinuous and sinister undertow seeking to draw me in. And succeeding.

Putting all that behind me for the moment, I set out to adventure a little, make some XP, earn some credits. In short order I found myself promising to do a certain thing for someone, then doing something entirely different without asking them if they approved. As usual.

It was a military man who wanted me to plant doctored comms units on dead rebels, the idea being that the remaining rebels would salvage them and blow themselves to oblivion, possibly along with their base of operations. The chap who supplied me with the devices was concerned that children might get to the bodies first.

He had a plan to use some rigged grenades instead, his logic being that children would leave those but soldiers would take them, thereby limiting the damage to genuine military targets. He also assured me, confidently, that my military contact would be pleased with the results so there would be no comeback on either of us.

Being the bleeding heart liberal snowflake she is, my Agent agreed. I planted the grenades and went back to the officer for my reward. He asked me if I'd used grenades instead of comms units and I said I had. I also told him whose idea it was and that I'd decided it was a good one because it meant no civilians would get killed.

Based on previous experience I fully expected him to roll over and thank me. He did not. He was steaming mad. He told me that killing civilians was entirely what he'd had in mind; he pointed out that the whole point of the plan, which he had explained to me when he first told me about it, was to spread fear and despair among the enemy, something the death of a few children would do a lot more effectively than would the demise of any number of soldiers.

He then told my Agent that, to his regret, there was nothing the social structure of The Empire permitted him to do to her, but that no such restrictions stopped him from sending the idiot who gave me the idea in the first place to the stockade, where he would be soundly beaten. Finally, he gave me a warning: it's a bad idea to get on the wrong side of people who make bombs and conceal them in everyday objects for a living.

I was so taken aback by all of this I forgot to take any screenshots.

In a way, one, angry soldier had effectively undercut much of the argument I'd made against the way this sort of anarchic, undisciplined behavior by my characters had been handled so far. In another it strengthened my case that much of the writing I'd seen up until then had been poor. If genuine, convincing, logical reasons why my characters can get away with murder (literally and figuratively) exist, then good writing ought to be able to bring them out. This was good writing (or at least better). It proved it could be done.

All of this, taken in combination, makes me more optimistic for the future of the narratives in TOR. I'm hoping these are the first shoots of a quality that will flower as the plot develops. That said, something else occured to me: if it wasn't for the progression mechanics of the game, I would never have stuck with the storyline long enough to find out if got any better.

In TOR so far, I haven't done a single Mission that wasn't a genre staple, which is no refelction on the game itself, just a fact of life when you play MMORPGs. It's more of an issue for me here than it is in most games because the a plain, unavoidable fact is, I don't find much of the Star Wars mythos all that interesting to begin with.

The backdrop is generic and even in the movies the plot is the least important element.  For me, the whole thing relies entirely on character, which is why I'm still fond of the first two original movies and can't remember a thing about the rest.

It's no coincidence that in a total of 85 levels, the only characters I have really responded to thus far are Watcher 2, Watcher X, the angry soldier and Kaliyo. That's largely because they're the only ones I've encountered who seem to have even the glimmerings of an inner life. Or a personality.

It's also why, for all my whining and whingeing about the very considerable flaws in GW2's lunatic farrago of a plot, I still slog through the frustrating set pieces just to get the chance to hear what every last character has to say. Dragon's Watch and its fellow travelers may be a ragbag of cliches and stereotypes but I know them and that counts for plenty.

I don't think GW2's story is better than what I've seen so far in TOR .I'm reasonably certain that as I discover more about the Agent's story in particular it will prove to be more coherent and less insane. On today's evidence, I'm hoping that a few of the characters, at least, may stick around for long enough for me to get to know them.

I suspect, though, that the structure of the game, with its eight classes all with their own, presumably discrete, storylines, will mitigate against any long-term familiarity developing. One of GW2's peculiar strengths is that everyone who plays knows the same imaginary people. Love 'em or loathe 'em, you can't help but meet them, unless you opt out of most of the core game altogether.

Whatever, it's been an interesting couple of days. I feel as though I've learned something. Even better, I feel as though if I keep on I might learn more.

Someone must be doing something right.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Playing Dead : GW2

Let's get this straight from the start: this post has SPOILERS. If you haven't played Guild Wars 2's latest Living World episode, War Eternal, and you don't care to know what happens then LOOK AWAY NOW!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Never Satisfied: GW2

When I decided to throw a quick post together about Guild Wars 2's latest Living World update (Season Four, Chapter Six for those keeping score), I was going to do the usual thing of avoiding spoilers but when even the name of the new map gives most of the game away it hardly seems worthwhile worrying.

The map's called Dragonfall and Jeromai has some great widescreen shots of it. He's also very enthusiastic about what he's seeing. I'm... less so.

Yes, the art department has done its usual superb job. This is top notch scenery. It's also the same scenery.

It's a bit cavalier to complain about consistency, isn't it?. After all, I'd be just as likely to complain if the pieces didn't fit together, wouldn't I? And isn't one of GW2's strongest suits the way the worldmaking manages to avoid the pitfalls of so many MMORPGs by maintaining coherent and geologically believable transitions? 

That's not really what I mean, anyway. "Consistent" and "same" aren't synonyms. And the new map is beautiful. Stunning, even. I particularly love the verticality that brings back such good memories of Heart of Thorns.

I don't mind the kitchen sink approach that grandfathers in every previous movement system - bouncing mushrooms, lava tubes, whirlwinds, ley lines, updrafts, even those vines that turn you into Spiderman. Although, as I worked my way around the strikingly different subdivisions last night, I did get the distinct impression someone wanted to show off every tool in the box.

And I did enjoy myself. It was fun. It's good work and I appreciate it. I just didn't hear myself go "Wow!" I'm not sure I will, again, not until we go to somewhere truly new. And even then I suspect it will feel surprisingly familiar.

Wherever it is that we end up in Season Five or Expansion Three (if there is one) there'll be places that look as though they were designed by the world's most talented six-year old: sparkles and stars and twinkling lights as far as the eye can see. There will be the areas that look like the covers of prog rock albums from the 1970s, specifically the ones designed by Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews. 

There will be an immense reliance on deep hues that make every screenshot look like something from the Color Field playbook. The rest will be a mix of stuff that's on fire or dragged up out of the sea or frozen solid or baked dry, just like every other MMORPG only with seriously better production values and far more attention to detail than most. I'm finding it something of a challenge to get excited by any of that any more.

For all the technical skill on display, have any maps been added to GW2 over the last seven years that can stand comparison with the greatest cities of the core game, Divinity's Reach, The Black Citadel or Rata Sum? Does anywhere feel as timeless and true as the eternal autumn of fallen Ascalon?

I do love all the maps that came with Heart of Thorns but even I wouldn't claim they're as complex or complete as those that preceded them. A jungle is a jungle in the end, even if most of it does feel more like a forest.

There's no obvious solution to this problem, if it's even a "problem"that exists outside my head. Most MMORPGs end up being more of the same. We've seen the trouble it can cause when they try not to. Having one of the best art teams in the industry with a portfolio of immediately recognizeable signature styles is as likely to emphasize the issue as conceal it.

Oh well. There are plenty of worse problems to have.

Just ask the writers.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Makes No Sense At All: SW:TOR

Star Wars: the Old Republic has a lot of story, most of it delivered by typical MMORPG quests. They aren't called "quests", of course. SciFi games have "Missions". Call them whatever you like; if you're following the plot, you're going to have to talk to plenty of NPCs. And all of them want something.

Every Mission begins with a playlet. The NPC talks and you listen. Then it's your turn to reply. A dialog wheel offers three (or, rarely, two) choices. It's meant to make your progress along the pre-determined path seem less inevitable.

As well as making you feel like you have some say in what's happening, there are, supposedly, potential repercussions to make your choices meaningful. Your Companions might like or dislike you more depending on what they hear you say. Your slider might move up or down the Light/Dark scale.

These are things that sound like they might matter. They don't.

Last night my Agent managed to piss off her companion, Kaliyo Djannis, so badly I thought there was going to be a fistfight. Kaliyo threatened eternal enmity then my agent gave her some trinket she found in the bottom of her bag, Kaliyo gosh-wowed her thanks and the two of them went off to do another Mission together as though nothing had ever happened.

I wasn't surprised. It was established a few posts back that nothing you do makes much of a difference. In later expansions, I hear, miffed Companions can storm off and never come back but in the core game the most they can manage is empty bluster.

If we're going to settle this with a staring contest, Kaliyo, you're going to have to take thos ridiculous glasses off.

Companions' opinions are irrelevant. The Light/Dark system is purely cosmetic. There's still the narrative, though, right? Your moral choices must be stacking up to something there, surely?

Nope. Not so far as I can tell. Do what you want: all Missions have the same outcome, regardless, because whatever the Player Character decides is just fine and dandy with everyone involved. Execute or excuse, imprison or pardon, help or harm. No one gives a damn. You did the job, here's your pay, now let's all get on with our lives.

Oh, your handler or your boss or whichever random NPC handed you the job for absolutely no explicable reason in the first place may kick off for a moment but they'll always come around. At most it might take them a few hours before they realize they were wrong and you were right.

On a couple of occasions it's looked as if I might have made an actual enemy. No such luck. Just wait. Even if they left mad, soon enough mail will arrive explaining how everything turned out alright in the end. With a cash bonus attached, just to thank you for being so clever.

Playing a Light-inflected character on the Republic side, the anomalies were easier to handwave away. I was working with the grain. Sure, it was disconcerting to hear my Smuggler spouting homilies about sparing the innocent only seconds after she'd slaughtered forty or fifty data entry clerks for a Bonus Mission, but that's MMORPGs for you. At least Stealth meant she didn't always kill everyone that got in her way.

If it's relatively easy to  look the other way when my Smuggler's halo slips, playing Pollyana for The Empire takes a blindfold. The game wants to offer everyone equal opportunities to win Light or Dark points but it's a lot easier to be a loose cannon on the good team than a saint on the bad.

Where indeed? I'm basically The Empire now, right? What exactly is it the rest of you do, anyway?

Taking the the path I've chosen, Mission after Mission ends in an outcome that ought to see me on trial for treason, always assuming someone didn't just shoot me dead on the spot. I could cite literally dozens of cases because, to a greater or lesser extent, it happens almost every time but I'll stick to one particularly egregious example.

I'm jogging down some corridor when someone from the upper echelons of the Empire's military hierarchy buttonholes me as I pass. As usual he's mistaken me for Supergirl. He explains that Revan (aka The Ravanchist aka Revan the Butcher aka Darth Revan) left an active but abandoned facility on Nar Shaddaa. It's guarded by seemingly inexhaustible autonomic defenses that The Empire has been trying - and failing - to breach for years.

In the attempt they have lost a thousand men and ten thousand droids. He quotes those exact numbers. He's convinced I can do better. On my own. With no preparation. Now.

Plenty of Missions have set ups as utterly ridiculous as this but the set-up is the least of it. Off I go to do what a literal army hasn't managed in a decade of trying. And I succeed because it turns out I am indeed Supergirl, assuming  Supergirl solved every problem with a burst of automatic gunfire.

I take out all the defenses then I trot back to the military man to tell him the good news. He musters the troops and sends in a strike team to secure the target they spent all those years and lives trying to secure.

Oh, wait, no he doesn't! because that would make sense! What he actually does is ask me to go in, alone, find out what's there, then come back and tell him. So I do.

10,000 droids and little ol' me.

I find nothing much. Only a few aliens, the remnants of the slave force Revan brought in to run the facility. They're not aggressive so I'm not allowed to shoot them.  Not until I get that dialog option, anyway.

I talk to them and they explain they're maintaining something called The Infinite Engine. I could choose to kill them and take it or accept their gift of a "fragment" that will eventually grow into a new engine. If I do the latter the implication - no, actually, the stated outcome - will be peace and continued, unchallenged occupation of the facility for the aliens.

Being Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes I opt for the fragment. I take it back to the officer who sent me. He's not impressed. "Is that all you found?" he asks, looking at the speck of who knows what I've handed him. I assure him it is.

"Oh, well", he says. "Fair enough. I'm sure you did your best. Here's some money. Buy yourself an ice cream". Or words to that effect.

Excuse me? You're a (presumably) senior officer in the armed forces of a galaxy-spanning military dictatorship, who spent years of your life, a thousand of your men and ten thousand of your machines trying to get inside this place, but now you're going to take my word for it that there's nothing in there worth bothering with? You don't want to take a look for yourself? Send in some experts? Get some photographic evidence? You're going to leave it at that, walk away, never think of it again?

Are you clinically insane??

Seven hundred and ninety-seven credits? Seriously? I guess you blew the entire budget on those droids.
 It would be one thing if this was a freakish exception but it's so very far from that. It's pretty much the standard result when my Agent does anything you'd imagine she'd be put in irons for suggesting. In my experience so far, the player character can literally do no wrong. It's like living under some sort of reverse curse, where everything that can go wrong... doesn't.

I understand the gameplay reasons behind it. Most MMORPGs do something similar, if rarely so blatantly. The problem is that TOR's reputation rests in considerable part on the quality of its storytelling and as far as I can see, this blows that reputation out of the water.

Long before the end of Chapter One, my Agent should either be dead, on trial, in prison or on the run. Her name should be on Most Wanted lists across The Empire, her face on posters, every guard primed to arrest her on sight. Instead her reputation for reliability and efficiency grows and grows and she's entrusted by more and more important people with more and more important tasks.

I understand she's supposed to be an improviser, an innovator, a self-propelling bomb. I understand that results matter more than methods. What I can't understand is how any of that allows her to get away, repeatedly, with doing the exact opposite of what she's been ordered to do. Once in a while she'll lie to cover her tracks but mostly she just strolls back in and tells her superiors to their faces that she's disobeyed them and they'll have to put up with it. And they do!

Maybe this is all going to turn round and bite her later on. Maybe I'm just not seeing the long game BioWare are playing here. We'll all have a good laugh when I find out just how hard they pulled the wool down over my eyes.

Or not. I'm betting on not.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Goo Goo Barabajagal: SW:TOR

Three weeks ago, when I decided, pretty much on a whim, to give Star Wars: The Old Republic a try, I didn't expect to enjoy it anything like as much as I have. I'm still playing just about every day, although the relentless narrative drive does mean I have to stick to shorter sessions than I might in a less obviously structured game.

The sheer volume of story is quite astounding. I've put in more than eighty hours so far and I'm still on Chapter One of both the Smuggler and Agent storylines. I must have spent ay least a quarter of that time on the main plot, so let's say twenty hours, split 60/40 between the tow characters.

As far as I can tell, without reading anything with spoilers, all the original Class stories have three chapters and it looks as though they're roughly the same length. That would mean each class story would run somewhere around thirty hours.

There are eight of them, which comes to two hundred and forty hours of story, the equivalent of four to six complete AAA RPGs, given people generally expect those to have forty to sixty hours of content.

That's just me, though. I go really slowly. I still haven't used Quick Travel and I still don't own a speeder. I run everywhere and it takes forever. I could probably cut my hours taken significantly if I took shortcuts like those.

According to this 2018 Reddit thread, other players estimate fifteen to twenty hours per Class story. That sounds a lot more reasonable but it still brings the total in at 120 to 160 hours of gameplay, several times the length of a typical single-player RPG.

And that's just the core game class stories. The Planetary Story Arcs must add another RPG or two, not to mention all those Exploration Missions BioWare included back when they still thought they were making a regular MMORPG. And the Heroics, although, to be fair,  those tend to be more fist to face than face to face.

Someone had to write all that. And then someone had to say it all out loud. More than two hundred someones, actually.

At launch, TOR took a Guiness World Record for most voice acting in a video game. That must have had a great deal to do with the spiralling costs, believed by some to top half a billion dollars but agreed by just about everyone to be more than $200m.

With that in mind I can't work out whether it was belated fiscal prudence or creative burnout that led to the bizarre decision to have large numbers of NPCs spout nothing but incomprehensible gibberish.

Uncharismatic speaking-in-tongues becomes increasingly irritating the longer you have to listen to it and with this amount of narrative that's a serious problem. As Pallais pointed out in the comments to the post about playable species, "Even with subtitles, the average person gets weary of not being able to understand the character, especially since in Star Wars the same nonsense phrases get repeated many times over masquerading as another language".

That's the nub of it. It's not as if we were listening to quality voice acting in a language we don't understand. That could be both aesthetically valid and euphoniously pleasing. Instead, what we get are a handful of nonsense phrases strung together seemingly at random.

They don't sound remotely convincing as language even the first time you hear them, not least because the translation frequently includes proper nouns, which don't feature at all in the spoken version. As anyone who's used the universal language of football (soccer, if you must) knows, "Manchester United" sounds like "Manchester United" just about anywhere in the world.

Lack of authenticity isn't the worst of it. Not nearly. There's the endless, blatant repetition. Most species seem to have no more than a handful of phrases. Even gibberish becomes recognizeable if you have to hear it repeated often enough.

Pallais suggests there may be some canonical lore reason behind the apparent inabilty of some species to speak Galactic Basic Standard but Wookipedia seems to knock that idea on the head: "Most sentient species that made galactic contact could and did speak Basic in addition to whatever native or regional language they might have used on a daily basis". If it's not a problem for the species then we must be dealing with an extraordinarily large number of elective monoglots.

Whatever the reason, it's infuriating and it's made even worse by the lengthy pauses after each alien finishes their garbled gibbering and the game waits a few extra seconds for the slow readers to pick their way through the translation. For a game that feels polished in so many ways it's jarring and it feels cheap.

It's not even as though there aren't better examples of non-standard communication within the game itself. Droids of various kinds express themselves in types of fractured English while the soundtrack bleeps and boops, which is somehow nowhere near as annoying. The Gree have a fascinating, nuanced manner of expression that hints enticingly at their society. A bit of effort and imagination could have imparted that sheen to every species.  

Alien speech is the most glaring although by no means the only slipshod design choice. I still find my characters' lack of proper idling animations disconcerting. If I'm not actively pressing keys to keep them moving they turn into mannequins. I also wonder, every time I take a cab, why it's called a Taxi when I'm the one driving. And don't get me started on the appalling elevator music that plays in every cantina.

Those are mere quirks. Easy to ignore. The gibberish-spouting aliens are much more problematic. Does anyone really want to hear a pig choking on a turnip, which is what you get every time you're unlucky enough to take a Mission involving an Ugnaught.

If this was a single-player RPG you know someone would have produced a language-pack mod by now to do the job BioWare should have done in the first place. Since it's an MMORPG I guess we'll just have to put up with it.

I might have to invest in ear plugs.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Not The End: Guild Wars 2

A few things came up this week around Guild Wars 2, which I am barely playing right now. There was the trailer for the final chapter of the current Living World season, for one.

The promotional trailers ArenaNet create for GW2 vary wildly in both style and quality. This is one of the moody, elegiac ones, a tone poem of sorts. It's not up there with the best they've ever done but it's not at all bad.

The first three characters you see, not co-incidentally I imagine, are Caithe, Zafirah and Rytlock. That's the same line-up that features in the Requiem series of vignettes that followed the previous chapter, All or Nothing.

I'd forgotten about the Requiem stories. I read the first, Rytlock's, when it was published a while back. I didn't like it much. It seemed an awkward retcon of my favorite GW2 character, struggling to turn the cynical, confident Charr warrior into some kind of 90s "New Man" throwback. Uncomfortable and unconvincing.

This morning I read the second and third tales. I'd forgotten who Zafirah was. She's the Deadeye people complained about in the fourth chapter, A Star to Guide Us. Her Requiem read a lot better than Rytlock's.

Caithe's, the last, was published this week. I read that and thought it was the best of all of them. Then I re-read Rytlock's. I still don't like it. I don't like the direction it tries to send the character and I think it's the clumsiest of the three, but in context I understand what it's trying to do; what all the Requiem pieces are doing. They're giving the narrative the context it so badly needs, something it never even comes close to finding within the game itself.

Asmiroth posted recently about Plot vs Character. Most popular fiction that purports to have any lasting value whatsoever cannot afford that false dichotomy. Character is plot is character. That's so ingrained in serial media like comics, tv and prose fiction we barely notice.

It doesn't work so well in MMORPGs. The cadence is far too slow. The delivery mechanisms are incoherent and obstructive. There's far, far too much distraction going on for anyone to concentrate on nuance or subtext.

My feeling about GW2's extended narrative is that it wouldn't work at all without the ramshackle superstructure that supports it from outside the game itself. The good trailers pack more of an emotional impact than the gaming content they promote. The novels, perfunctory and workmanlike as they are, still operate at depths and across breadths the etiolated in-game arcs lack.

The Requiem fragments point up the discrepancy to an almost embarrassing extent. Reading Caithe's memoir today I felt I'd learned more about her in a few minutes than in several years of watching her often incomprehensible actions within the game.

I might not like what the writer is trying to do with Rytlock in his introspective reflections but at no point to do I fail to understand it. That's something I couldn't say about almost anything Rytlock's ever done in the game itself.

There was one other item of note this week. ArenaNet announced there would be a new voice actor for the female Charr player character. In a game where player characters express themselves out loud, that's a non-trivial change to the experience for anyone who plays that race and gender combo.

I have several female Charrs but I don't usually do Living World content with any of them. Hearing Mara Junot's vocalization, I might start. I found the short interview very revealing about the process and she impressed me with her take on what it means to be a voiceover specialist.

What the video emphasizes, perhaps more srongly than ANet might realize, is just how important voice acting is in keeping the narrative afloat. GW2 has good voicework, by and large. Together with the equally-reliable musical direction, sound does almost all of the heavy lifting when it comes to telling the story.

ArenaNet's art department is rightly regarded as one of the strongest in the genre but few of those artists strengths are best displayed in the service of story. In most Living World chapters the Player Character either fights (and all fights look much the same) or stands around and listens.

The stunning backdrops of Glint's Lair or the Durmand Priory make for amazing screenshots but they do very little to carry the narrative forward. The art department shine in the new maps but few of those have narrative significance, being remembered, if anything, for the productivity of the farms they intentionally or accidentally encourage.

As I said at the top, I'm not playing much GW2 right now. Yesterday I logged in, did my dailies on three accounts then logged out. I'm down to doing that every few days, if I remember. Even when I was logging in every day I barely did anything more for months.

The prospect of a new Living World chapter does not encourage me to believe that's likely to change. It's been a while since I was excited about another installment. When I was playing regularly and enjoying it, I tended to think of the Living World as a slightly annoying interruption to normal business. Of late I've begun to see it as a bloody nuisance.

It's not that I've lost interest in the plot. I still want to know what happens next. Nor is it that I've fallen out of love with the characters. I'm still very fond of Rytlock and Taimi and increasingly interested in Caithe. And I really want to know what's happened to Zojja.

I'm just beginning to think I'd get all of that and more just from watching edited highlights of the in-game material on YouTube and reading all the ancillary material. I'm not sure what I gain by grinding through the mostly tedious, occasionally deeply annoying, combat.

Of course, I'll end up doing it anyway, just because it's there, but it really is a terrible way to try and tell a story, not just for GW2 but for MMORPGs in general. It barely works in Star Wars: The Old Republic, where it's the entire focus of the game. BioWare had to hide (or remove) the rest of the gameplay to accommodate it.

That last line in the trailer, though. They do know how to set a hook...

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Only Human: SW:TOR

Something Shintar posted today set me thinking about a puzzling aspect of Star Wars: the Old Republic. It's a game with galactic reach, set against a backdrop of unimaginable complexity. According to Wookieepedia there are "over 20 million sentient species known to the galaxy". Wikipedia lists more than 250 of them.

Among that multiplicity of intelligences there are thinking plants, arachnids, slugs, rocks, wasps and jellyfish. There's even sentient fog. Not to mention the seemingly endless variety of AIs, housed in droids of every conceivable shape and configuration.

And what do we get to play? Humans with funny heads!

TOR has eleven playable species: Cathar, Chiss, Cyborg, Human, Miraluka, Mirialan, Rattataki, Sith Pureblood, Togruta, Twi'lek and Zabrak. Maybe that means something to someone but in case not I'll break it down, based on the headshots:
  • Cathar - Human. Looks a bit like a cat
  • Chiss - Blue Human. Looks almost exactly like a Dark Elf from EverQuest 
  • Cyborg - Human with a few bits of metal stuck to their head
  • Human - Um, Human, obviously
  • Miraluka - Blind Human
  • Mirialan - Green Human
  • Rattataki - Human with goth facepaint
  • Sith Pureblood - Red Human
  • Togruta - Varicolored Human with horns and big, dangly head-tentacles on each side
  • Twi'lek - Varicolored Human with no horns and big, dangly tentacles going down the back.
  • Zabrak - Human. Looks a bit like a devil. Or Hellboy.
Shintar was talking about what TOR players might want to do before the next expansion arrives in five months time. Since I've barely made any headway in the core game, it's not really the kind of help I need right now, but I was interested to see that one of the features of the Onslaught expansion is a new playable species.

This is a Twi'lek.
For Nautolan add more droopy bits and color green
The latest addition, bringing the total to a round dozen, is the Nautolan. As far as I can see, the Nautolans, described by Shintar as "the undisputed fan favourite at Star Wars Celebration" is a human with an octopus stuck to the back of their head.

Technically, the Nautolans are amphibians. Much good may it do them in a game where the deepest water comes to just above your knees. Maybe there's some waterworld later on I don't know about.

I was looking at the picture of the Nautolan and wondering why BioWare were so insistently humanocentric when several blindingly obvious answers struck me all at once: animations, gear, demand and cost. Cost is both the most and least important: I'm sure money would be found if the payoff was worth it.

Animations are one reason we do sometimes see given for why new mounts or playable races in other games are obvious re-skins of existing models. I know nothing at all about 3D modelling but even I know that creating animations from scratch is a very time-consuming and skilled job.

That explains why we don't get new, complicated creations with lots of moving parts but look at one of the few non-humanoid races we do see plenty of, albeit as NPCs, The Hutt. There's vast potential for playable characters with next to no animations when you have races with hardly any visible limbs.

It's not even as though they need to move about much. All a Hutt ever does is sit there. Occasionally they might smirk. How hard would that be to animate? There must be some species that could just squat on a hover-disk and float. It was good enough for Zirk. I bet those sentient rocks wouldn't need a lot of animations, either.

The issue isn't so much about the cost of animating new, weird alien lifeforms. That could be sidestepped. It's more about whether anyone would want to play them in the first place. Most F2P imports offer nothing more in the way of "racial" choice than pretty humans, big humans, short humans and pretty elves (who look like pretty humans with pointy ears). The ambitious ones might stretch as far as humans with tails (catgirls) or wings (fairies as imagined by a five-year old).

The reason they do that is cost, yes, but also because experience has taught them almost no-one chooses to play anything that doesn't look human. Even in Western MMORPGs, whose players are considered to be more willing to experiment with appearances, the less human the race, the fewer people choose to play it.

Let's say BioWare did decide to take a chance and add a non-humoid race anyway, choosing an easy-to-animate one that looked nothing like a human. Maybe without a head or obvious limbs. The next hurdle would be gear, with its twin functions of buffing stats and looking good.

Sheena's in a Goth Gang. (Mildly NSFW!)
TOR isn't Guild Wars 2, with an endgame that consists almost entirely of playing dress up and posing, but it does have a fairly elaborate wardrobe system and an income from armor sets in the Cartel Market to consider. Hutt, to pick on them again, don't wear much in the way of clothes. Or, indeed, anything, most of the time. I can't imagine sentient rocks are big on designer labels and as for fog...

Then there's the stats to consider. The whole system is predicated on everyone having the same number of arms and legs, not to mention heads. The paper doll gives that much away. I suppose you could keep all the slots and just rename them - Top, Middle, Bottom, Left, Right... Sounds bit generic. Or you could have one piece of gear, like a belt, and put lots of slots on it...

Whatever solution you come up with, it's going to be a kludge. And take a lot of work. Why would you bother? If you'd had non-humanoid species from the get-go, you could have come up with something elegant - or at least something that worked. Too late now.

There are probably lots of other very good reasons to stick to humans but the ones I've given are more than enough to convince me we're never going to see anything thatt deviates from the humanorm by more than a few tentacles and a respray.

Which is a shame. I'm one of those peculiar players who likes to go for the least humanocentric option character creation can offer. I'd play a sentient rock.

Okay, probably not as my Main.
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