Monday, September 30, 2019

Carry The News, Dude!: EverQuest, The Secret World et al.

Inventory Full has no pretensions towards becoming any kind of MMORPG news source but now and again I do read things in my blog feed that I feel I ought to share. I read a couple of items this morning that fit the bill.

One of them will be very widely reported on all the MMORPG news aggregators, I'm sure. The other might not get sufficient attention to draw it to the notice of the niche audience who'd appreciate it.

The first is the news that Chinese gaming giant Tencent has acquired 29% of Funcom, developers of The Secret World, Anarchy Online and Age of Conan among many other titles.

Here's the report from As they point out, this still only gives Tencent a minority interest, but it does make them the Norwegian company's largest shareholder.

Funcom's CEO gives the usual, upbeat, positive take, saying all the right things about the new investors having "a reputation for being a responsible long-term investor" and "insight, experience, and knowledge... of great value" but it looks as though the actual transfer of shares happened outwith any involvement by Funcom itself.

I hope this isn't going to affect the motorcycle parts supply chain...
Given Funcom's increasingly apparent lack of interest in the kind of MMORPGs they used to be known for, and indeed for the ones they're still curating, I'm not sure how much this matters. It's intriguing, all the same, especially following Pearl Abyss's acquisition of CCP. and that Chinese mining company's involvement with Jagex. The West is moving East, it seems, at least as far as European MMO deveelopment is concerned.

The other story will, I think, be of considerable interest to a few people who comment here now and then. It was only earlier this year that Wilhelm, blogholder of The Ancient Gaming Noob and longtime Norrath-watcher, drew my attention to a new website and videocast dedicated to the EverQuest franchise.

It's called The EverQuest Show and it's over there to the right, in my ever-growing blog roll. Over just a few months it's established itself as an authoritative voice in the EQ community.

Even Ulthorks watch The EverQuest Show

Most of the coverage revolves around the older of the two EverQuest titles, meaning The EverQuest Show isn't quite the replacement for EQ2Wire I might have hoped for, but it's doing a pretty good job of keeping the news flowing for both titles. It also specializes in covering the wider EverQuest community, bringing some amusing and surprising stories to light.

All this activity seems to have been recognized and acknowledged by Daybreak. The EQ Show team has just come back from a visit to San Diego, during which they "were granted a longform sit-down interview with Holly Longdale, executive producer for EverQuest and EverQuest II" as well as "panel interviews with developers from both EverQuest and EverQuest II about a wide range of topics".

From this they came away with "literally HOURS of video interviews and footage". Once they process and edit all of that it will be available in "several future episodes of The EverQuest Show". I'm particularly keen to hear the Holly Longdale interview, in which she's said to be "very candid about the approach to the future of the games, and the possibility of new ventures."

I wonder if she lets anything slip about the not-so-secret restructuring plans? Can't wait to find out!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Keep Pushin' 'til It's Understood: WoW Classic

I spent most of yesterday in The Badlands. It wasn't planned. Nothing much that I do in Classic ever is. When I logged in, around 10.30 in the morning, my Hunter was a sliver into 36. By the time I parked him in Ironforge for the night, around 9pm, he was a quarter of the way through 37.

I'd been playing Classic pretty much the whole day, with a few breaks for meals and so on. Every day I seem to play more and want to play even more than that. I don't have anything going on right now that says I shouldn't, so why not? I can see how people had problems back in the day, although I played EverQuest with equal levels of compulsion for many years and things never got out of hand.

Still, it's an odd sensation, one I haven't had for years and had almost forgotten. To a large extent it's why I became so connected to the hobby in the first place, this sense of doing what I want to be doing more than I want to be doing anything else. Not sure if it's to be commended or condemned but I'll take it for now and willingly.

As I've mentioned a few times, two of the biggest appeals, for me at least, of this type of gaming are, on the face of it, mutually exclusive. Firstly there's the zen-like calm of grinding. I purely love roaming around, finding solid spots to settle down for a while, clearing everything, filling my bags and my xp bar, then moving on to find somewhere new and do it all over again. It's calming, relaxing and satisfying.

Secondly, and apparently counter to everything I just said, there's the way leveling a character in a well-designed MMORPG makes me think. My mind is abuzz with ideas and theories. I watch the pathing, the spawn patterns, the way the zone is laid out, how the loot drops, trying to figure out the patterns.

How I ever hit anything firing into the air like that I'll never know.
At one and the same time I'm inside and outside the gameworld. The imaginative part of me is looking out through my character's eyes, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, living another life. The analytical part sits back and observes, making mental notes, seeking to lift the casing and pry apart the gears until I understand just how the mechanism works.

In many more recent MMORPGs either one or both of these aspects is truncated or absent. The mechanics are so plain and obvious they pose no puzzle or the gameplay is so linear and story-focused there's no space for imagination at all. In the least interesting examples of the genre both of those things co-incide.

WoW Classic, like EverQuest, Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot and most of the other MMORPGs that came before it, allows huge scope for the player to lose themselves in the moment while marveling at the architectonics. Classic is perhaps the most refined example of that model, the zenith of the design curve before the decline and fall into barbarism that followed.

It took me around six or seven hours to complete the whole of Level 37. I did it with a mixture of questing and grinding, much of that grinding coming via the very sparse quest drops themselves and the over-packed wildlife that somehow proliferates in the seemingly inhospitable Badlands, ironically a place far, far  more barren than the eponymous Barrens themselves.

From rain-soaked lakeland to arid desert in a journey of a hundred meters.
At 36 I was just about at the lower limit for the zone. The entry-level mobs in the valley leading from Loch Modan (and what a bizarre climactic transition that is...) were exactly my level but most of the time I was killing things two or three levels higher. With rested xp that gave between 400 and 500 xp a pop. My rested xp lasted about an hour.

I discovered through experimentation that the limit of my ambition was Level 40 mobs. I tried to avoid them but, due to some really selfish behavior by some other solo players, I had little choice. I was hunting Lesser Rock Elementals, for which I had two quests, both requiring drops. I had competition: a couple of Night Elf druids and another Dwarven Hunter, all in the low 40s, six or more levels above me. And they all had mounts.

We could have grouped but most players now are too canny to party up for quests that require drops. It often takes longer than soloing them. People only tend to do it if they're struggling on their own. If these players, in their 40s, had deigned to take on the Level 40 elementals, things would have gone better - for me. Instead all of them chose to cherry-pick the lower mobs, which, due to their mounts they could get to faster than I could.

"Suppose I shot you. How'd that be?"

That left me with a choice: wait until they got their quota of shards, when, with a bit of luck, they'd leave or take on the highest mobs in the spawn. I chose the latter. I only died once, when a second level 40 spawned on top of me as I kited my pull. I say "kited" - more like walking backwards, desperately trying to disengage, so my bear would take aggro, which he never did, then feigning death until the bear died before reviving him and starting over.

It was challenging, as gamers like to say. It wasn't efficient, though, or relaxing. I got about half my drops that way and then, suddenly, I found myself all alone. The other annoying members of my notional "Alliance" had, presumably, gotten what they wanted, leaving me to face the full respawn.

Which was great! I was able to choose my targets like picking favorites at a buffet lunch. In about a quarter of the time I'd already spent I had the rest of the drops. I handed them in, or some of them, and moved on. On to Shimmering Flats, a continent away, for the second hand-in. Classic is nothing if not determined to keep you moving.

 In the five or so hours I spent in Badlands I noticed several things:
  • Badlands may be the most orange zone of all time. And there's some stiff competition for the title. Orange is weirdly popular in MMORPG-land.
  • The developers made no concessions whatsoever for Alliance players when designing this Horde-oriented zone. There's no griffin station, no friendly town, no facilities beyond one merchant who'll buy your beast body parts while selling you nothing you could conceivably want. It's another example of world-building trumping convenience.
  • The concept of "Zone Sweepers", much higher-level or more dangerous creatures that patrol an otherwise level-consistent area, was still very much alive and well in 2005. I was killed while selling to that one vendor when a group of half a dozen patrolling ogres, all in the low 40s, passed by. Later I watched a Level 45 Elite Giant aggro and kill another player at the same supposedly neutral camp. I'd seen him coming and was high on the hill behind with a great view of the action.
  • Fixed camps with predictable spawn timers, familiar to me from almost all MMORPGs that preceded Vanilla WoW, are very much the norm in Badlands. I camped a three-spawn of ogres for half a dozen respawns and they popped exactly on cue, in the order and at the spots expected every time. The much larger camp of evil dwarfs did the same.
  • Loot in Classic is better-ordered and distributed than in most MMORPGs, then or now. It's a point that deserves a post of its own, but the gist is that creatures drop items that seem approximately appropriate to their species, and drop them with reasonable predictability and regularity. This means you can set out to hunt a type of creature in the expectation that it will give you the the items you need and expect. It also enhances the underlying sense that you are in a "real" place with rules that make some kind of natural sense.
  • On the other hand, the developers acknowledge that it's still a game and that players will happily step away from immersion for a moment if the door opens to advantage. Any mob can unexpectedly and entirely unpredictably drop Something Good. Few gamers are going to complain that they just found a Green chest piece worth several gold at the Auction House on the body of a buzzard.
In a day's play I looted maybe half a dozen greens, which seemed well-judged by Skinner's standards. It definitely kept me interested every time I searched a corpse, my interest turning to surprise and joy when I saw Blue.

As Shintar observed, Blue drops are genuinely rare in the open world of Classic. In my first, full month of play I'd found just one. Yesterday I found two. The first was a Blue gun, Ironweaver, pried from the bloody corpse of a Coyote. I'd considered buying the same gun at the Auction House several times but couldn't justify the expense.

It was a decent upgrade for me at 36, although it would have been better five levels earlier. The level of items that drop in Classic vis à vis the level of the mobs that drop them or the area they are in is something I might delve into in more depth another time.

The other Blue was utterly random. It came from a grey-con kobold I killed on my way to Shimmering Flats. I only picked on him because I thought he might be carrying silk. Instead he gave me a nice off-hand item for Priests or Druids. If only I had one of either...

All in all it was an excellent day's play. The pacing suited me almost perfectly and I came away with that curious feeling, so familiar from countless sessions in the semi-distant past but so unusual in the long years since, that I'd achieved something.

I used to lie in bed after playing EQ all evening (or all day if it was the weekend) and drift off to sleep while enumerating my achievements in game: two bubbles of xp (40% of a level) on my druid; half that on my Shadow Knight; a Named killed that dropped an item worth a decent amount of Platinum...

Those felt like real, imaginary achievements. Not like the codified "Achievements" so many games now record on my behalf for doing things so trivial I hadn't noticed I was doing them or so abstruse I would never have considered doing them at all, if it wasn't that they came with some bribe attached.

Again, I'm not sure how "healthy" this is. Some might suggest it's part of the wider problem solved by subsequent design choices that changed the entire genre for the better. I wouldn't agree. I might even mutter the word "lockboxes" under my breath.

Probably not. I wouldn't class myself as ever having been subject to an inability to control my own tendencies towards excess, either in gaming or any other sphere. I don't feel, and never have felt, the need to be protected from myself, either in how I spend my time or my money. Increasingly I object to being herded in that direction.

So, I'll carry on playing what might seem like an excessive amount of Classic until it either becomes impractical or I start to lose interest. Whether that will happen sooner, perhaps when I reach the doldrums of the forties as warned about by Belghast, or later, as I suspect, in a matter of months rather than weeks. As always, we will have to wait and see.

For now, I'm having fun and feeling pretty good about my choices. Can't really ask for more than that.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Road To Nowhere: Fallen Earth

I told myself I wasn't going to do this. What would be the point? I'd just be picking at a scab that closed over long ago. Best leave well alone. And then I went and did it anyway.

It was Syp's fault. I read his short news item on Massively OP yesterday and I thought "oh, the hell with it. Why not?" So I did.

I expected I'd have to download the whole thing all over again, but no. To my considerable surprise, not only did I still have Fallen Earth installed but the icon was right there, on the desktop. I clicked it. It took me straight to the login screen, where, naturally, my password wasn't recognized.

Easy fix. New password accepted. The patcher told me it would take nine hours to bring me up to date.  Then it went away to check its calculations and came up with a revised timetable: two minutes. I was back.

Back where, though? Not to mention back, why?

I have a long and fractured history with Fallen Earth. I bought it just after release, which, since the sunset is unhappily timed to co-incide with the tenth anniversary, must have been in 2009. I thought I was playing World of Warcraft exclusively in 2009 but who am I to know what I was doing? The past is a different country. I did things differently there.

At release Fallen Earth was a subscription-only MMORPG. Most were. I paid for the box, although I don't believe there ever was an actual,  physical box. If there was I can't find it and I have all my old games boxes going back to the early 1980s. I have a dim memory of it being one of the first digital downloads I ever paid for but don't hold me to that.

I subbed for a couple of months. Could have been three. By then I wasn't playing often enough to justify the spend so I stopped. Paying and playing, that is, since the two were conjoined.

While I was playing I got my one and only character just into the twenties. I remember it as being slow going but highly absorbing. Fallen Earth has some fairly simple combat but some pretty deep gameplay. There are a boatload of factions to balance, a sprawling skill system, some extensive and extremely time-consuming gathering and crafting options and a huge, vast, open world to explore.

If anyone thinks travel in WoW Classic is slow they really ought to take a look at Fallen Earth. Go on, it's free and you still have a couple of weeks. There are only a few zones but they are insanely huge. On foot it takes maybe half an hour - probably closer to forty-five minutes - to get from one end of Sector 2 to the other. On the road. If you survive.

I rode down that road yesterday on my Racehorse, the fastest of my four mounts. I started about three-quarters of the way North and it took me more than twenty minutes to get to Sector 1. I stopped a few times to take screenshots but mostly I just cantered.

And that's all I did. It's all I ever do. It's why I eventually stopped logging in, casually, every year or so, even though the game's been free to play for a long time. It's the same problem we all have, going back to former MMORPGs; all my bags are full and I don't know what anything's for. I have no idea where to go or want to do so I just ride around for an hour or two, take a lot of moody photos, then log out.

Endgame Viable had a post up yesterday about the new(ish) scaleable font in Lord of the Rings Online (who knew?). He ends with a zinger: "Now if only they could do something about those inventory icons…" He should see Fallen Earth!

It's an unfair comparison. FE's icons are orders of magnitude better than LotRO's. They're neat, detailed illustrations that have clear relevance to the objects they represent. There are always highly explanatory tool-tips, often with a good joke thrown in. They've been prepared with intelligence, wit and care.

Only there are so many of them. It's overwhelming. My entire inventory (and that includes a separate vault in each sector and large saddlebags on every mount) is completely full of things I obviously thought worth keeping when I last played "seriously", which was for a few sessions after the free to play transition. That overlapped with the start of this blog and I managed one proper post about it in May 2012.

I came back a few times after that. I remember logging in after they added craftable camps. I made the basic one. I thought I blogged about it but apparently not. Mostly, though, I log in, become overwhelmed at the prospect of doing anything substantive, ride around for a while and... that's it.

That's why I was going to skip the sunset. What would be the point? I know what the world looks like - unearthly, haunting, elegiac, atmospheric, mesmerizing in its stark, desecrated beauty. Then Syp mentioned there was an actual event leading up to the server going dark...

Plus, when I looked, it seems I have almost no screenshots of Fallen Earth. How that can be, when I know I took scores, maybe hundreds, and I have many much older shots from other games I can't exactly say, but it's an omission that needs to be rectified.

I took over forty screenshots yesterday. I hope to visit several old haunts and take a few hundred more before the apocalypse of the apocalypse. (With hideous irony, FE's rarely-used full title is "Fallen Earth: Welcome to the Apocalypse").

There used to be a way to hide the UI. The excellent wiki tells me it's Alt-F10 but it's not any more. As Wilhelm observes, information on the internet has a limited shelf-life, especially for games that change ownership and payment model. 

Having to crop around the UI isn't going to stop me taking the shots. If anyone knows the current key combo to hide the UI, though, I'd love to hear about it. That's assuming anyone else reading this is still playing. Or ever played.

If not, well, they say it's never too late to start. There's a whole two weeks left. That count as a good run in some of the imports I've played over the last few years.

And it might not be The End. Little Orbit, the current owners, have showed great good faith since they took the game over from Gamigo, who... didn't, much. LO say they would like to bring Fallen Earth back, somehow, sometime, with an engine they can maintain and with some kind of plan for the future.

I really hope they do. Fallen Earth is a gem of an MMORPG that somehow slipped through the cracks. It deserves a post-apocalyptic survival story of its own.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Out Of The Ashes Rises...A Lame Duck: Ashes of Creation

I said I wanted to do more short posts. Here's a really short one.

Ashes of Creation, the increasingly controversial would-be AAA MMORPG, which I kickstarted both for myself and for Mrs Bhagpuss in some barely-remembered epoch of geological time, just launched its Battle Royale spin-off/combat test bed on Steam. It's called called, not inappropriately as it turns out, "Ashes of Creation Apocalypse".

Developers Intrepid already tested the BR mode a while back, of course. I played and wrote about it almost exactly a year ago. Back then it was an invitation only stress test but it made a reappearance earlier this year as a limited-time open beta. Now it's listed as F2P Early Access and looks to be hanging around semi-permanently.

I thought it would be easy enough to jump in, play a couple of rounds, take some screenshots and bang together a post about it and so it seemed it wouldbe...for about ten minutes. The download went quickly and smoothly as did the installation. I had my AoC login details to hand and they worked. Well, they worked to log into my account on the website. For the game, not so much. The login screen for the game itself just made a pffffttt noise when I entered the password and then sat there, looking at me blankly.

I'm fairly sure I know why this is. When I was installing the thing, which is published in Europe by, my firewall popped up two warnings. I chose not to override them. Not that I don't trust, who also publish Allods, which I've played via their portal many times but...

If I was more interested in the AoC BR (it's all abbreviations this morning, isn't it?) I'd fiddle about with permissions and settings and such until I got it to work. Apparently gettng in to the thing is quite a common problem. Well, so I read on someone's blog that I now can't find. I thought it was at Kabalyero's but that's just talking about how badly the game runs when you do get it to run.

Steam reviews are a bombsite right now although there are fewer than two hundred so far. Not unexpectedly, most are peeved that Intrepid are wasting time on a Battle Royale spin-off at all, rather than focusing on the long-overdue MMORPG they paid for, which, according to the official release schedule, is stil in "alpha-0", whatever that means.

The other big complaint is that this Early Access fragment of a game not only has a fully-functioning cash shop but that it's a highly aggressive one at that:

I don't have much - or really any - interest in playing a Battle Royale right now, let alone in jumping through hoops to get an unfinished one to run. I have enough to be going on with trying to get Riders of Icarus to patch. (Still not working after a month).

I've also all but lost interest in Ashes of Creation as an MMORPG. If Intrepid ever do get as far as beta, for which my Kickstarter qualifies me, no doubt I'll try it but it looks increasingly like a half-assed hybrid of Black Desert Online and EQNext, which really wouldn't be anything I'd be looking for even if they could pull it off.

WoW Classic has pretty much convinced me that what I do want is a new, old-school, diku-MUD inspired MMORPG. About the only one out there is Pantheon and the way things are going I'd bet on Brad's team to hit some kind of buy-in closed beta before my AoC account gets flagged for anything similar.

And I'd happily pay Brad a hundred dollars or so for access to a working, persistent beta. At least I'd know I was getting some kind of game access for my money that way, not just throwing it down a hole or paying for some entirely different kind of game, one I never wanted.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

On The Road Again: WoW Classic

After all my heavy-duty thinkposts on Classic lately I think it might be about time for a simple recap of what Ive been up to in game. Shintar had the same idea, not that I stole it or anything...

I've been trying to focus on one character, my Hunter, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, levelling in Classic is slow and getting slower.

As I said in a comment on a post of Syp's yesterday, and as I mentioned several times here, back at the start of the Classic train ride, I found leveling from 1-10 went considerably faster than I expected. I really would like to do a benchmark test using the same Race/Class/Faction in Classic and on my F2P starter account in Retail. I still think Retail is actually slower from 1-10 on the Free Trial but I might just be imagining it.

Things start to slow down a bit in the teens, then noticeably so in the twenties. By the time you turn thirty you can really begin to feel the brakes coming on. Even so, it's still very fast by comparison to the MMORPGS that preceded it.

If I can play all day (6-8 hours), solo and in open world groups, I can reliably expect to do a full level in the thirties,  In EverQuest in 2004 a full level solo/overland in the twenties would have taken me a week. I used to think I'd had a really good day if I'd made 20% of a level back then.

The other reason for trying to maintain focus on my highest level character is that he's the one funding all the rest. Just buying his skills and keeping himself fed and watered uses most of his money but he's expected to sub the others for whatever skills they need and, especially, for their tradeskills.

I dunno about the future, bear, but South Stranglethorn is definitely orange.
As Bhelgast was saying, money is hard to come by in Classic. Yesterday, partly by following some of Bel's advice, I had my best money-making day yet; my Hunter finished with just over 10g in his purse, twice as much as he's ever had before.

I took him back to Darkshire and cleaned up on the green undead in the big graveyard. It was an interesting expedition. It didn't just make me some money - it gave me another data point for my theorizing on respawns and perceived difficulty.

I went down into the big crypt below the graveyard. It's packed with undead. I'd done it before in a group of four, when there were also other groups down there. That was a hectic, chaotic, frenzied time.

We were all in the high 20s, the same level as the mobs. We could kill them fast but nowhere near as fast as they spawned. We got add after add. There was nowhere safe to rest. The killing was constant and we were almost overwhelmed many times although in the end no-one actually died.

This time I had the place to myself and it was like strolling around a library. There was a full pop of undead and they all stood on their spots and minded their own business. I didn't see a single roamer. They were also all positioned perfectly for single pulls.

I was able to move smoothly through the crypt, picking off every mob in turn without ever getting an add. I cleared the whole place and by the time I'd finished only about half of the mobs had respawned.

I have to say I've eaten in classier picnic areas.
It makes me think, as I'd suspected, that respawn times are dynamic, adjusting to the number of players in a given area and the speed at which the mobs are being killed. I also believe that respawn points are dynamic as well; if someone has killed a mob in one room and it's due to respawn, if there's a free spot in another room, the respawn may pop there rather than back at it's original spot. That's how you see mobs apparently respawning instantly - or that's my current theory.

I made a fair amount of money doing that and picked up a stack of silk. That went to my Warlock tailor, who's leveling slowly on what the Hunter sends her. The Hunter, of course, is about three or four levels behind schedule because I had to take the entire weekend getting my Warlock to twenty so she could work with silk in the first place. It's like one huge jigsaw puzzle on my account.

After I'd done playing with corpses I thought I'd beter knuckle down and get some real xp. I looked in my journal, picked a zone and set about clearing my to-do list. I'd discovered that Southshore, although further north than Refuge Pointe, was a few levels lower. Questing there was fast and the rewards were good.

I killed a lot of turtles and murlocs, some lions and a few ogres. There was huge comeptition for the turtles along the river so that took a while, at least until some named dragon turned up, flew the length of the river and chased everyone away. I saw him coming, waited til he passed, then I followed along behind popping turtles until he turned aroud and came back.

Thanks for the group, dragon. I'd add you to my friends list but you're name's too hard to spell.
Here's a tip: I discovered late last night that there are dozens of the same turtles all along the shores of the huge lake in the adjacent zone, Hillsbrad Foothills. It would take far less time to run there from Southshore, kill enough turtles to get the meat you need for the quest, then run back, than it would to get your share of the spawn along the river next to the questgiver.

When I'd cleared my book of Southshore quests I hearthed back to Ironforge then griffed to Darkshire. I ran along the road and turned into Stranglethorn, where I had unfinished business with Nessawary and sundry goblins from Booty Bay.

I didn't take the griffin dierectly to the pirate port because every quest my level that starts there involves running the full length of the zone to the Northern end, killing a bunch of mobs, then running all the way back. Then doing it again. And again. I don't mind the running but there's just the one road and it can get a bit samey.

I wish I'd known last night that you lived here, turtle! And all your turtle pals!
Basilisks, elder tigers, lashtail raptors and goblin geologists all fell to my gun and axe. And dagger, because I was training that up. I was particularly pleased to get my own back on the geologists, who'd killed my Hunter many times as he tried to cut through the jungle back when he was many levels below them.

I tried to trim the ears from some trolls but it seems most trolls don't have ears. Even though I could plainly see their ears, both when they were fighting me and afterwards as they lay cooling on the ground, the Hunter seemed oddly incapable of lopping them off. The drop rate was so poor - I only had three out of the fifteen I needed after about twenty kills - I put that quest to the back of my book and moved on.

The boss goblin at Booty Bay wanted me to prove or disprove some rumor about a haunted island. I looked at my map and there were only a handful of possibilities. I tried the nearest first. It was inhabited by Level 40 mages. The next had Level 40 pirates.

I looked at the quest again and applied some logic. It was rated Yellow, therefore suitable for my level, which at the time was 34. What's the chance it's up North, with all the other thirties stuff? There was one large island in the North West that I hadn't yet visited. I ran all the way up the map yet again, swam across, avoiding the Elite Crocolisks basking in the sun, and yep, that was the island all right.

You were complaining your paws ached from all the running. Now you don't like your fur getting wet? There's no pleasing some bears.

All the quest asked me to do was find the island, check if it had elementals and a mage on it, then report back. Just for a change I swam the whole way to Booty Bay. I gave my report, took my forty silver and listened with feigned acquiescence as the bloody goblin told me to go all the way back to where I'd just been to kill some of the elementals and bring him their bracelets.

I'd had about enough of Stranglethorn by then. I tucked the quest at the back of the book, took the griff to Stormwind for some business in the Library, then griffed back to Southshore to see if there was anything I'd missed.

I finished up a couple of odds end ends, by which time I was in sneezing distance of Level 35. Thirty-five is a real watershed in Classic; it's the final "must be this high" for tradeskills. My Hunter's Leatherworking is only 185/225 but he's been holding back because of the restriction.

Also the cost. His Skinning skill has been pegged at 225 for a while, held back not by level (gathering skills have a ceiling of Level 25 Adventuring, or so I believe) but by the five gold fee. Until yesterday five gold is the most money he's ever held at one time and I just couldn't bring myself to bankrupt him so he could start getting skins he wouldn't be able to use until he dinged 35.

Well, he's 35 now and he has ten gold so those excuses won't hold water any longer. I stopped questing and went exploring, killing everything that got in my way, which is how he ended up dinging on those turtles along the lakeside in Hillsbrad.

Always a satisfying conclusion to a quest, seeing someone turned into a chicken.

As a reward I hearthed back to Ironfoge and parked him in the Inn. Then I logged in my Level 10 Warrior and did a full level on her in an hour in Don Moragh. It was bang in the middle of UK primetime, just going into late prime for the EU but I had the place almost to myself. If people are still starting new characters or alts they aren't doing it in the dwarf lands on the RP server. If it's happening at all it's probably going on in Goldshire and Westfall.

SynCaine has a post up considering the prospects for further growth in Classic. My feeling is that there won't be a huge influx of new people from now on but that the population currently playing is likely to hang around for quite a while. Judging by the server ratings at log-in, on the EU side numbers have fallen a fair bit - servers are Medium on weekdays during the mornings and early afternoon, where a week ago they were High. In the evenings most are High rather than Full.

Doesn't mean al those people quit, of course. Just that the initial intensity has subsided a little. And even so, that's still a lot of people logging in every day. With the mixed (and that's being generous) reception meted out to Retail's latest update, I can see Classic holding on to more of the tourists it picked up from the main game than would have been the case had 8.2.5 knocked it out of the park the way GW2's Bound By Blood just did.

I feel I'm in it for the medium haul, if not the long. Every day I want to play Classic a lot more than I want to play any other MMORPG. I prefer writing about to it any of the others right now, too. I like my characters, all of whom are developing personalities. I have a ton of stuff I want to do with all of them and I'm all too aware that doing even half of it will take a lot more time than I'm going to have available once I return to work in October.

It's a good problem to have.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

When I Feel Heavy Metal (Woo-Hoo): GW2

When I read that there was going to be a Charr metal band in Bound By Blood, all guitars, drums, bass and heavy amplification, I was skeptical in the extreme but at least I could see that it wasn't one hundred per cent out of context. Half the Charr NPCs in Black Citadel already sound as though they've wrecked their vocal cords throwing up into a bucket singing in grindcore or death metal outfits.

It's not as though Tyria doesn't have the technology to support rock and roll. It's too easy to think of most of these settings, from Azeroth to Eorzea, Norrath to Tyria, as classical high-medieaval fantasy but about the only one I can think of that fits that bill is Lord of the Rings Online.

The rest are either magitech or science fantasy. Every one of them has at least one technologically advanced race, usually standing about three feet high, whose devices and inventions far outstrip anything 21st century Earth could match.

Technological capacity aside, some MMORPGs just don't sport a culture that could accomodate something as brash and specific as heavy metal. I can't really see it fitting comfortably into EverQuest, for example.

If you were to design a race with the specific intention of housing a burgeoning hard rock and metal scene, though, you couldn't do much better than the Charr. Their entire capital city is made of metal. They have an Iron Legion that does nothing but make heavy metal machinery. They're big, loud and boisterous and everything they do involves either shouting or growling.

I can't say I've seen many hints of specific musical tastes among the Charr until now but if they're going to enjoy any kind of music it seems as likely to be metal as anything else. Now I think about it, I imagine the Norn favoring drinking songs, chanting and quite possibly prog rock, the Asura techno, EDM and math rock, the Sylvari folk, ambient and chillwave and Humans just about anything at all.

Charr most likely go for anything on the spectrum that ranges from Classic Rock at one end to Black Metal at the other. I really don't know enough about the intracacies of the genre to make an accurate assessment of the exact sub-genre of metal performed by Metal Legion, but it sounds to me somewhere around the late thrash metal period, something like Metallica.

I'm no metal fan and haven't been since I was about fourteen but if I'm going to listen to anything along those lines it might as well be something like this. About the only current band widely akcnowledged as "metal" that I genuinely like is Rammstein. Metal Legion are no Rammstein but they know how to ride a riff and chant a chorus which is plenty good enough.

Mrs. Bhagpuss attended the concert event in Grothmar Valley yesterday then came in after it ended to tell me how good it was and how it had made her laugh out loud. She's no metal fan either so I took that as a strong recommendation.

This morning, after I'd done my dailies, I made a point of going to see for myself. I had to look up the exact location (even though it turned out I'd already been there when I was exploring the map). I was somewhat surprised to find the stage was Blood Legion property and that Metal Legion's affiliation was also Blood. I'd just assumed they'd be Iron from the obvious metal link and the fact that it's Iron who are in love with technology.

The concert begins every day at sundown. I had no idea what time it was when I got there so I settled down in the bleachers to clear my bags and sell on the exchange, something that can easily occupy an idle half-hour. And that was about as long as it took. 

People began to filter in and sit on the benches or stand in front of the stage. After about a quarter of an hour someone arrived sporting a Commander tag and announced to general chat that he'd be hosting a full PoF/HoT achievement run. He asked everyone interested to join his squad and meet at the stage in thirteen minutes, when the gig was due to begin.

And so it did. The band, four Charr, one each on guitar, bass, drums and vocals, took their places, gave shout-outs to all four Legions in the audience, thanked the Imperator for the opportunity to play and then launched into their three-song set.

From start to finish the event was a joyous and atmospheric pleasure. All three of the songs were pretty good. The riffing was bodacious as Bill and Ted, who would have loved every minute, might  have said.

There were a host of mini-games and events throughout, all of which were intuitive and fun. The crowd was in constant, fervent motion. There was much moshing. My druid pogoed. A lot. 

The light show was psychadelic, the flames roared, the pyrotechnics got predictably out of control  towards the end and had to be extinguished by the audience. Many achievements were completed without even trying and there were presents at the end.

The whole thing was ten times better than I had expected when first I heard about it, although once it had received Mrs. Bhagpuss's seal of approval I knew it was going to be a good time.

Once again, whichever ANet team was responsible for Bound By Blood knocked it out of the park. If they carry on like this the game will be on its soundest footing since Season One.

Metal Legion! One Charr! Where do I get the T-shirt?

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Supposed Golden Path : WoW Classic, EverQuest

In almost every way I can think of, WoW Classic is "easier" than EverQuest would have been in same era, let alone during the five years that came before. There's one area, though, where Classic has EQ beaten hands down for "difficulty": the way mobs path and spawn.

The difference between the two games here is extreme and I believe it goes a long way to explain the divergence of cultures. WoW players prefer to be always in motion while EQ players, apart from kiting, strongly favor static play. Both have sound reasons for their choices.

In an earlier post I talked about the practice of "camping" a fixed location in EQ, something that, according to comments from those who were there, never really happened in Vanilla WoW. Well, frankly, I'm not surprised.

I picked these two to watch because they were the second-nearest to where I logged in. I started with the nearest bear but after a few seconds some rogue ran past and killed it. When I came to this couple  they were almost on top of each other.

The Defias bandits at the campsite I mentioned in that post behaved exactly as bandits do at similar camps in EverQuest. They had short, predictable paths, if they moved at all. They respawned in the entirely predictable manner they would in Norrath, namely in reverse order as they'd been killed and at the same intervals in the same spawn locations. This, I have discovered after extensive research (aka playing several characters to Level 10/20/30) is a rare phenomenon in Azeroth.

In many locations, mobs respawn in a seemingly random fashion. I have seen multiple examples of a mob respawning within a second or two of being killed, then not respawning for several minutes. Some mobs, which do respawn in the same place, take a minute or so to reappear, some take five or more.

Respawns in the many caves, mines and ruins tend to be more predictable - provided you are the only one there. If things are busy it's all but impossible to keep track of when a respawn is due, making it all too easy to waltz through a seemingly empty tunnel only to find half a dozen troggs popping into existence out of nowhere in five or ten seconds.

In EverQuest, even when low-level dungeons like Blackburrow or Crushbone were heaving with players, groups generally took long enough to kill each mob that respawns were staggered sufficiently to allow some predictability. In higher dungeons it took long enough to kill anything that the problem rarely arose.

Very quickly they separated. The tiger pathed in what seemed like a very small area, frequently turning and stopping. It was just like watching a bored big cat in a too-small cage at an old-fashioned zoo.

Unpredictable spawn rotations are the least of it. The real camp-stopper is weird, asymetric, unpredictable pathing. I'm tempted to say "random" but I'm not convinced there's anything random about it. It probably follows some unseen ruleset or algorithm. It's just very, very hard to work out waht that might be.

I see this almost everywhere I hunt above ground. Some mobs are more erratic in their movements than others but even the steadiest have paths that would and could never occur in Norrath.

Lots of creatures like to stop suddenl, turn at right angles, carry on, stop and turn again for reasons that are utterly opaque. Some come to dead halt, spin around then go back they way they came. Sometimes it's only for a few steps, sometimes they liketo take a lengthy stroll. If you try to set up and hunt near them it makes for an anxious, jittery kind of camp. You really are better advised to keep moving.

Mobs that have the kind of long, meaningful paths that are commonplace in EQ do exist. I watched a Defias Looter walk purposefully from an occupied farm to a campsite out of sight over the hill, stop for a while as though talking to her comrades, then turn and retrace her steps. Sentien tcreatures that make camps often have patrols or scouts with pathing that's compartively easy to map. There are also lightweight equivalents of EQ's notorious "zone sweepers", not just out-of-level-range mobs like the Level 18 dustdevils in Westfall but completely out of place Elites like the Horde group in Loch Modan.

This is about as far as the tiger ever went. The bear, however, wandered far and wide.

The ones I find the most deadly are those that switch suddenly from a slow walk to an outright sprint, sometimes combined with an abrupt change of direction. Vultures, by far the most anoying common mobs I've encountered, love to do this. I am so wary of vultures now that if I see any within about a hundred yards of a spawn I want to kill I get rid of the flying vermin first. Otherwise I can guarantee one of the feathered pests will turn up mid-fight and either kill me or force me to run.

Because of this, camping a fixed location becomes very unattractive. You can't, as you would in EQ, spend ten or fifteen minutes carefully watching the spawn and the mobs that roam nearby and feel confident you have a clear mental picture of what's going to be your reality for the next hour or two. I never feel able to settle at a spawn in Classic because I never know what might come bargeing past

It's hardly surprising, then, especially given the highly accelerated time-to-kill and the hugely reduced downtime between kills, that players in Vanilla chose to keep moving rather than stay still. The near-trivial death penalty must also have been a significant factor. My feeling is that this unpredictability adds significantly to the perceived "difficulty".

At this point the bear was almost out of view range. A few seconds later he disappeared. I watched the two of them for the duration of three Stereolab tunes, well over ten minutes. The two never came back together as they had been at the start although once they came fairly close. At no time did I discern a repeated pattern.
I don't particularly prefer one over the other. Both games have excellent pacing and highly satisfying gameplay. WoW doesn't have the zen equilibrium of EQ and EQ doesn't have the mass-market appeal of Classic. I'm very pleased that we have both.

It is, of course, possible I'm misreading this, although I can;t see how. If anyone can explain to me why I'm not seeing what I think seeing, I'm entirely willing to be proved wrong! It would certainly make leveling a lot safer if it turns out there's some key factor controlling all this that I'm missing.

I'm not sure that would make it any more fun, though. I rather like not knowing what's going to happen next.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Month One: WoW Classic

It's been almost exactly a month since the launch of WoW Classic so I thought it might be time for a recap. I only thought of doing this half an hour ago, while I was closing in on Level 20 with my Warlock, so don't look for any detailed analyses or amazing insights!

When Classic was announced it barely registered. I was five years late to the WoW party. I have a Vanilla nostalgia rating of zero. As the months passed, people with a closer attachement to Azeroth than mine became increasingly excited and even impatient for the thing to arrive. My own interest grew somewhat.

Obviously it was going to be a Major Genre Event and you never like to miss out on one of those. Also I was pretty sure I could mine Classic for a few blog posts. Always an incentive. And it would be a (weak) chance to experience somethinng (not much) like the original launch frenzy. Maybe.

My expectation, which I expressed freely and often in comments all over the place, was that I'd play for a week or two, write a bunch of posts about it, then move on (or more likely back) to something more to my taste. I was all but certain I wouldn't be renewing my subscription when the first month ran out.

Well, I renewed my sub a few days ago. If I ran one of those activity monitors that a few bloggers swear by it would probably show the huge majority of my PC time these last few weeks was taken up either by Classic or by Blogger, where 60% of all my posts since August 27th have been about the game. For the last month I've either been playing Classic or writing about it.

I've also played it for more hours and with greater intensity than any MMORPG since the launch of Guild Wars 2 seven years ago. I wasn't expecting to get bitten this hard again until and unless Brad ever gets Pantheon out the door.

I've thought long and hard about why this is. I've written a bunch of lengthy posts about it and left comments almost as long on the threads of other bloggers, many of whom have been wrestling with the same concerns. I wouldn't claim I've gotten to the bottom of the mystery but I have come to one important conclusion: Classic works becasue it has the kind of consistent, considered, coherent design that we haven't seen in a very long time.

This, I think, accounts for more of the reasons why the game clicks with me than any other single explanation. Classic runs like finely-tuned clockwork. Every piece meshes seamlessly with every other and together they drive the machine forward.

The effect Classic has on some players.
By comparison, other MMORPGs are a hotch-potch of mismatched parts, many of which don't fit together and some of which actively grind against each other. Take Guild Wars 2, for example. I've played it for seven years so it clearly has a lot going for it but with the best will in the world no-one could say it has ever been either coherent or finely-tuned.

Take the languishing, desperate World Vs World as a prime example. It's a walking disaster now (even though I still enjoy it, on occasion) but when was it ever anything else? I wrote a post in October 2012, just a couple of months after launch, which I titled "What's Wrong With WvW".

Back then I outlined four problems:
  1. Free Server Transfers
  2. Orb Bonus For World That Needs It Least
  3. Ladder-Style Server Matching System 
  4. Night Capping (not as much fun as it sounds) 
Of those, the only one that's been fixed in seven years is #2, for which ANet's nuanced response was to remove the entire Orb mechanic and replace it with... nothing. The Ladder has been tweaked and fiddled with and as a result is now even worse than it was. Free Server Transfers, now Paid Server Transfers, remain one of the most contentious issues as does night-capping, now expanded to include all "off-hours" play.

ArenaNet launched a major MMORPG with three disparate game modes, none of which had any synergy at all. All of those modes were compromised, flawed and poorly implemented at launch (sPvP crashed and burned as an eSport, a huge number of PvE events were bugged for months - some for much longer than that). In the succeeeding years Anet showed little sign of understanding how to fix any of their mistakes, nor in knowing what a fully-integrated, holistic MMORPG ought to look like.

Based on what I see and experience in Classic, the Blizzard team of the Classic era suffered few doubts, either over what their game should be or how to make it function exactly the way they wanted it to. Everything seems to have been designed to within an inch of its life and yet nothing feels stilted or formal or forced.

The much-discussed "difficulty" of Classic consists almost entirely of two things: patience and forethought. The developers evidently expected their players would be willing to stop and think before they acted. They trusted players to read quest text and NPC dialog, understand it and act on it.

Finally getting Unending Breath was one of the highlights of the last month's play for me.
They had no intention of facilitating any kind of "action" gaming as we understand it now, even though, in comparison to the MMORPGs the designers themselves played and loved, they were providing a smoother, faster (yes, faster) and easier overall experience.

When WoW launched in 2004 I chose not to play it for two reasons. Firstly, after three months of beta and two weeks of Live, I was already committed to EverQuest II and, secondly, everyone I knew in-game at that point was of the same opinion of World of Warcraft; it was a kiddie MMO.

I'm glad I didn't play it back then. I think I would indeed have found it "too easy" and "for kids". Five years later, when my views on many things, not least MMORPGS, had mellowed, I came to WoW and found it surprisingly good fun. A decade on from then I find I've changed enough that the recreation of the original game suits me almost perfectly.

Classic has most of the elements I love in games of the era that preceded it; a plethora of complex, interwoven systems that reward patience and close attention; combat that relies on the brain more than the fingers; pacing that allows plenty of time for thought.

I find that pacing almost ideal. Much though I love EverQuest, these days the pace of progress I enjoyed in the early years of the 21st century is just too glacial. I've proved that to my own satisfaction when playing on Progression servers over the years.

Unlike Isey, I don't see myself ever finding my happy place on P1999, even with that new server smell. Very much to my own surprise it's the accelerated pace and increased convenience of Classic that hits the sweet spot.

Amusing myself by making my Voidwalker run through the water while I stay on the shore. Serves him right for moaning all the time.
Which is ironic considering just how much the pacing and satisfaction of Classic's gameplay is built on inconvenience and what seem to many to be some very rough edges indeed. I guess it depends where you're making your comparisons.

Those "rough edges" are, of course, nothing of the kind. Almost without exception they are well-thought-out design choices, intended to structure and direct gameplay. All the running, all the fetch and carry quests, all the side-trips and searching and unexpected discoveries, the wandering vendors and elusive trainers are there to ground you in the world.

If you don't like that then, in 2004/5 at least, you really didn't like MMORPGs. That's what the genre was at the time and Blizzard, doing what they were known for, took what others had created and polished it until it glowed.

And that's why we have so much controversy over whether Classic is immersive or tedious, addictive or alienatiing. In the decade and a half since WoW launched, the entire genre it bootstrapped into the mainstream has fractured, split and changed out of all recognition.

We live in a world where PokemonGo and Dark Age of Camelot are supposedly both part of the same family. Where Black Desert Online can offer combat that largely consists of hammering one mouse button while EverQuest II can accomodate six hot bars of skills, most of which you might use in a single fight.

It's no surprise to me that players are deeply split over Classic and Retail. They're different games that appeal to different audiences. It's not aboout whether one is "better" than the other; it's about which one you want.

It seems I want Classic. No-one could be more surprised than me.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Everyone Thinks It's So Great Being Superman

When it comes to superheroes there's one name that stands above them all: Superman. He started out as a strong guy who could jump really high and somehow turned into a god. By the late 1960s he was so all-powerful few writers knew what to do with him and ever since then he's suffered a series of cuttings down to size.

He was my favorite superhero when I was a child because who else would be? I have never subscribed to the theory that all-powerful protagonists aren't interesting. I prefer stories in which I know from the start that the hero will win and win easily.

It's been a long time since Superman topped any sales charts. He's iconic but he's hardly of the moment. Nevertheless, his name and a number of his long-established tropes are embedded in the culture to such a degree it's hard to see how they could ever be excised. Like Holmes and Dracula and Achilles he'll be with us always.

It's probably not surprising, then, that he's been used countless times as the subject or inspiration for songs. I can't imagine any other superhero comes within a mile of touching his cape when it comes to music.

Songs about Superman fall into a few distinct categories: straight-up paeans of praise, downbeat deconstructions, sexual allegories and fluffy, happy pop tunes that use his name as a touchstone. Most of them are frankly awful, including some of the best-known.

They cross all styles, from country to hip-hop, disco to industrial. I spent an hour trawling YouTube this morning after breakfast and this is the pick of what I found. I'm sure there are shinier nuggets buried somewhere in there but after several hundred results I was starting to feel like someone had slipped kryptonite in my rice pops.

I already had the first one, of course. Peggy Sue, originally Peggy Sue and the Pirates, are one of my favorite bands of the last decade or so and this was one of the earliest things I ever heard by them. There used to be a better video of this floating around but it seems to have vanished. I have it downloaded somewhere but I'd need Superman's super-memory to remember where.

One of the most familiar of all Superman songs has to be REM's "Superman". I'm not much of an REM fan and never have been. Decent singles band. A bit obvious. Never listened to any of their albums.

I always liked this one but I had completely forgotten it was a cover. The original, by The Clique, is much better.

Before Blur were Blur they were Seymour, named after Seymour Glass from the J.D. Salinger Glass Family stories. What else? They'd still be called Seymour now if their first label, Food Records, hadn't insisted they change the name - and that drummer Dave Rowntree stop wearing pajama bottoms on stage. Is it any wonder bands want to self-publish these days?

There's some live footage of them floating about and they look pretty darned good even via the medium of hand-held audience shakey-cam. Damon looks like someone clipped an electric cable to his wooly jumper as he flails and thrashes while he wonders "What's it like to be superman/Oh what's it like/To be so special?"

Guess he knows now.

Still waiting to find out is Nataly Dawn, although she's getting there. Here, she's covering a song just called "Superman's Song", originally recorded by The Crash Test Dummies, a band about which I can't say I've ever given a second's thought. I vaguely remember they had an annoying novelty hit of some kind a long time ago and that's about all I've got.

I'm not all that struck on this song, come to that. I looked up the lyrics and it seems we have yet another of those "Superman really gets a raw deal" numbers, very similar in tone to the far superior Peggy Sue number. I can't say I quite get it. I find the "Superman's got it all - I wish I could get some of what he has" take on his character and life a lot more believable. Can being invulnerable and able to fly really be so bad?

I do like Nataly's performance, though, particularly the slight distortion on her vocals and her attack.

Speaking of someone who has it all, in walks Taylor Swift. Old Tay, from nine years ago. This is a great lyric that seamlessly stitches myth into reality : "I watch superman fly away/You've got a busy day today/Go save the world, I'll be around". Maybe she should have called the song "Lois Lane" instead of, yet again, "Superman".

Moving on from Taylor's wistful, romantic vision of the Man of Steel we come to Celi Bee and The Bizzy Bunch, who have something else entirely on their minds. A cover of a Herbie Mann disco floor-filler (I imagine), this is a prime example of the SuperMAN school of songwriting.

I could have used Eminem's "Superman" but, much though I like a lot of Marshall Mather's oevre, I have to draw the line somewhere! I should warn you that Celi Bee is a) not very good and b) quite scary. It also goes on far too long, like a lot of disco tracks of the period.

Speaking of songs that go on for a long time, I was thinking of including Lori Anderson's superb modernist classic "Oh Supeman" but despite the title I can't honestly say I ever thought it had anything to do with Superman. There's a very strange cover by David Bowie that's unusual in that Bowie, for once, sounds less futuristic than the artist he's covering.

Instead, let's finish with a radio regular from what was arguably Superman's heyday, the 1960s, the same decade when Donovan peaked, although I did once own his 1973 album "Cosmic Wheels", which I quite liked.

Ancient French TV features heavily on YouTube these days, luckily for the rest of us. There are some very strange performances on display but this is extremely straight, with the cameraman barely cutting away from the singer at all. Donovan looks a bit bored, most likely because he's lip-synching, but his white suit carries him through to the end.

If that's just whetted your appetite for songs about Supes, I found this alternative list after I finished combing YouTube. If I'd fiund it before I started I could have just ripped it off and saved myself an hour! I'm going to listen to them all later. Looks like some good stuff in there and it's just one of a series, too, but I'm about Supermanned out now, as I'm sure is everyone else.

Next time I'm thinking Pony Club. That could run long... maybe two posts. Or three...
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