Thursday, October 31, 2019

Customized Or Ready Made?

I wanted to put a musical post together for Halloween but I didn't think I'd be able to find a window in my busy schedule of running dailies, fiddling about with builds and farming gear and mats for characters not yet high enough to use them. It's a hard life...

Then I got home from work and found this in my Feedly.  For anyone who hasn't clicked on the link, I will elucidate.

I have a number of non-gaming blogs in my Feedly RSS feed. As yet I haven't added any of them to my blog roll although now that I drizzle some music posts in amongst the endless witterring about MMORPGs maybe I should.

One of the music blogs I follow is How Not To Write About Music by Everett True. I first came across his writing when he was all over the fanzine scene of the early 80s. Back then he was calling himself The Legend!, which maybe tells you as much as you need to know. If not, he has a substantial Wikipedia entry should you feel you need it. Something of a jaw-dropping read in places.

His musical taste overlaps handily with mine in certain areas although not so much in others. I was never a big grunge fan for a start. I like his blog because a) it's entertaining b) it occasionally introduces me to new things I like and c) it sometimes reminds me of old things I'd forgotten I liked.

So why am I mentioning him now? It's because he's done all the work of putting together a musical "treat" for Halloween and saved me the bother: here's that link again, only bigger. And green.

 Season Of The Witch: 60 Songs About Witches

I am not going to pretend I've heard all of them. There are plenty I haven't even heard of. There are also quite a few that definitely wouldn't turn up on any list I'd be willing to put my name to. The Eagles "Witchy Woman" or Santana's "Black Magic Woman". for example. Not to mention Cliff Richard doing "Devil Woman".

Odd how all those titles end in "woman". And awkward. Let's move on.

Most of the sixty look pretty good to me. I've tried a few of the unfamiliar titles by people I really like (Yoko Ono's "Yes, I'm a Witch", Poly Styrene's "Trick of the Witch", The Sensational Alex Harvey Band's "Isobel Goudie") and they are all great so I have very high hopes for the rest.

I could have left it at that but rather than piggyback entirely off (on?) Everett's efforts it occured to me to search my own YouTube download file for songs about witches. I got eight hits, only two of which were also in the sixty.

One of the pair that was is the terrifying "Another Witch Is Dead" by The Eccentronic Research Council (feat. Maxine Peak). I remember finding this late one night and wishing I'd run into it in daylight instead. It's magnificent. "Cross my palm with silver and I promise not to slaughter your sheep". Can't say fairer than that.

The other is "The Sad Witch" by Hefner. Hefner were a band that John Peel played an awful lot at around the time I stopped listening to him. I didn't think much of them then but I think a lot more of them now. This is clearly taken from a dodgy VHS tape recorded off the television when Hefner played a live set for the Spanish TV station RTE. They love this kind of thing in Spain, I'm very pleased to say. Great chorus. Cuts off rather abruptly at the end, unfortunately.

Of the remaining six songs, three are by Ciggie Witch, whose existence (and my interest in it) I had wholly forgotten. They seem to be Australian (from Melbourne, according to their Facebook page)  and not particularly spooky. This track is called "Shadow", which is about as witchy as they get. There's a live version but it's also not particularly well recorded so I've stuck with the official video.

Quite possibly even more obscure than Ciggie Witch are Witch Jail from Kansas City, Missouri (why is Kansas City in Missouri? That's pretty spooky...). Fronted by someone who both looks and sounds like Jeffrey Lee Pierce's younger, camper brother, they sadly called it quits in 2018.

Next up, Esben and The Witch with a haunting tune by the name of "The Fall of Glorieta Mountain". This one really does match the season. Their Wikipedia entry describes them as "Radiohead without the mithering" which is a backhanded compliment if ever I heard one.

Just one left in the bag but I saved the best for last. It's Lana, doing the unreleased "Maha Maha". According to the invaluable Lanapedia, she co-wrote it with Princess Superstar, creator of the notorious "Bad Babysitter" (#11 in the UK charts in 2002, apparently, although I only found it on YouTube last year...and kinda wished I hadn't). Princess Superstar also produced. Mind-boggling collaboration...

Lana, of course, is a witch. That must be obvious to everyone by now. She has to have magical powers. The video for this is from the movie "The Love Witch" (certified 95% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), which is how it came up on my witch search. Other than that is has absolutely nothing to do with witches or Halloween as far as I can tell. It would have made far more sense to have Lana doing "Season of the Witch" only I did that already.

The video's also very much Not Safe For Work, just to let you know.

And that's it.

Oh, wait, no it's not!

Mrs Bhagpuss just came in and when she found out what I was doing she sent me the link for something she wanted to add. I take no responsibility whatsoever.

Don't have nightmares!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Time To Build: GW2

Yesterday's update saw the arrival of Build and Equipment Templates for Guild Wars 2. As the lengthy and detailed official guide has it, Templates are "a much-requested feature" that's been "in development for a long time". Someone has a gift for under-statement.

Even I, as far as I am from seeing this kind of build management system as a necessity, indeed tending to think of it as yet another blinking nuisance I might one day have to deal with, could hardly have remained unaware of the demand. For years I've listened to people mithering on about the lack of such a facility, how it ruins their enjoyment, how primitive GW2 is compared to [insert name of any other MMORPG here] and how they're sure some solution could be implemented in an afternoon by any halfway competent intern.

ANet's developers, infamously, grind slower than the mills of the almighty, albeit to a far coarser scale. They've spent so long, first ignoring the demand, then delaying on their promise to meet it, that a third party alternative has been in place for years.

GW2 is not a game built for Add-Ons. They have a very dubious status and players can and do get banned for using them. Over the lifetime of the game there have been many anxious posts on the official forums requesting clarification on the legality of various unofficial plug-ins.

Usually such pleas receive nothing more than ANet's trademarked stony silence. Once in a while, when some such device becomes too popular or notorious to ignore, an official statement on its use will manifest. Even then, as a user of such an add-on, the best you can hope for is a vague, handwaving non-assurance that you won't find yourself locked out of your account for installing it...for the time being.

Consequently, even with an apparently satisfactory third-party option available, there will be considerable pent up demand for an unequivocally approved version that doesn't require a lot of fiddling about and doesn't have to be downloaded from a potentially problematic source. Unsurprisingly, that's a demand ANet would love to monetize.

Massively:OP ran a piece on the potential cost of using the new system to its fullest, suggesting that "If you’re the kind of person who runs nine characters, one from each class, then your fee could be pushing over $360." Well, possibly. Technically. Theoretically. Maybe.

There is, predictably, some outrage over both the implementation and the expense. It all seems a little overdone to me, although I freely acknowledge I'm not the target market here. I tend to agree with  Bree, author of the M:OP post, when she concludes, "...not a whole lot of people will need to buy anything at all". I'm pretty sure I won't. (Then again, there's this, which appeared just after I finished the post. Arguments over design and costs are one thing but breaking the whole game is something else again.)

More than that, I initially believed I wouldn't even use the system. I loathe changing builds. I quite enjoy setting them the first time but my preference is to do it just once for any given character and then never open that screen again.

In GW2 it's something I like to do as soon as the character dings 80. At that point I decide what the character's combat function is going to be and what they are going to look like. I go through my warehouses of rainy day items, go around the relevant vendors, pore through the Trading Post and have a jolly good time.

It's a little treat I often save for a Sunday after lunch. It takes me a good few hours. Once it's done, my fervent hope is that I'll never have to do it again for that particular character. Unfortunately, what with MMORPGs being vibrant, living worlds (hah!), inevitably there comes an update when I have to revisit and revise.

What I have never seen myself needing is a whole slew of pre-set options allowing me to turn, say, one character from a healer to a damage dealer in mid-fight. Except, actually, maybe I have and just hadn't allowed myself to recognize the fact.

When I logged in today to claim my free Build Template on all three of my eligible accounts (because my rule of thumb is never to turn down a free lunch even if I'm not feeling hungry) it took no more than a few minutes for me to realize that I had, after all, some pre-existing, vestigial pretensions to build diversity.

If not, how would I explain the full sets of soulbound gear mouldering at the bottom of the bags of several of my characters? I'd all but forgotten that, when some of those unwelcome updates had forced me to reassess and re-gear my most played characters, I'd stashed everything from the outdated build "just in case".

My Necro, for example, started out as full Condition (damage over time to the non-GW2 player). Inevitably, at some point and for some reason I can't now recall, the meta shifted to Power (direct damage) for classes that had previously relied on DoTs.

I was playing a lot of World vs World at that time and my Necromancer was the main character I took to The Mists. Condition builds were very lackluster in that mode and although I resisted for as long as I could, eventually I cracked and converted to Power.

My timing was terrible. Very soon afterwards ANet massively buffed condition damage and we entered what became a lengthy meta based on that change. Power necros became passé almost overnight but, as it happened, I was in the process of switching to Elementalist in WvW anyway, so it didn't really matter all that much.

My Necro these days mostly does content that requires a lot of AE tagging - something that occurs very frequently in GW2 - so she's back wearing her Condition gear to support her ground-targeted Marks. In her bags, though, she still has all her Power gear.

Well, she did. Until about an hour ago. Now it's all in her second Equipment Template and the space it took up in her bags is...well, space.

There will be plenty of people who bemoan the design of the new templates, which require you to own the gear you want to use rather than have your right to ownership recorded in a database, the way Skins work. As someone who keeps all kinds of used items in storage because they feel more "real" that way, I strongly approve of my gear not vanishing to leave nothing behind but an entry on a list.

I realize this is insanity. If there's an eternal debate on the meaning and value of authenticity in the physical world, which there most certainly is, how much more abstract must the argument become when the items in question only exist as icons on a screen? 

How can an icon in the grid of my bank vault be more "authentic", more "real", than the identical icon in the grid of my Wardrobe storage? I can't answer that. I just know it can. It is.

For that reason alone I welcome the new templates. I can keep my old gear and and have the bag space back. What's more, of my nineteen characters only a handful have cast-off gear sets but my storage is stuffed to bursting with gear I've acquired over seven years and haven't yet found a use for. Now I can move a whole lot of that onto Templates and free up yet more valuable space so I can fill it with even more worthess crap precious momentoes and valuable items.

Whether I'll ever use the Templates for their notional function - changing the way my characters behave in combat - I'm not sure. I might.

I almost certainly will on the Druid/Ranger I take through Living World instanced content. I use him because he's specced for extreme healing and very high survivability but his DPS is correspondingly dismal. I have, on occasion, re-dressed him in his old Condition gear to get past a particularly egregious roadblock so it will be very good to be able to hot-swap him from Heals to DoTs as needed. In fact, I've already set up his basic Equipment template for that.

I haven't yet looked at the other Template, his Build. I will, though. Since it's there I'll probably take the trouble to set one up for each of the characters I kit out with a second set of gear. It's not something that needs to be done this week or even this year. It'll save for those long Sunday afternoons in Winter.

To conclude, much as it surprises me to say it, I'm finding Templates a lot more useful than I expected. Notch up another win for the new management.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Complaints (It's My Department)

I've complained about this before but that's not going to stop me complaining about it again. For some very effable reasons (colder weather, daylight vanishing, people staying indoors) game developers always seem to start throwing freebies around and launching new product just when I find myself with the least time to enjoy it all.

This year it's even more ironic in that I spent the entire summer at home, free (at least when I wasn't hospitalized) to devote as much time as I wanted to playing video games and writing about them (not least because my medication made me extremely sensitive to sunlight so I had to stay indoors even when I was feeling pretty good).

And now I'm back at work so off they go again.

Astellia (which, as you will see if you follow the link (which is where you end up if you right-click the name in text and select "search google for "Astellia"" like I did) has possibly the most annoying landing screen since web site designers stopped using rinkydink music you couldn't switch off; almost as annoying, in fact, as this heavily over-parenthesized and scarcely readable sentence) just had a free weekend.

I only found out about it halfway through, too late to make time to take advantage of their generosity. There's a second chance to try out this new, supposedly oldish school MMORPG, without forking out for a "box" (that doesn't exist) or taking the we're-so-old-school-we-even-even-have-a-subscription option. That's next weekend, when I will almost certainly still not be able to find time to try it out.

Not that I was especially interested in Astellia anyway. As I mentioned somewhere once, it seems to instill apathy in all who've tried it. Still, I hate to miss out on an opportunity to post ill-informed snap judgments on new games based on blink-and-you'll-miss-it exposure to their charms, if any. Especially when it doesn't cost me anything.

Then there's The Outer Worlds, another game I never had the least interest in playing until loads of people started talking about it. I hate to be left out. Such a joiner, me.

It wouldn't be an issue if it wasn't that, apparently, you can play this brand new, high-profile, "exclusive" release for the princely sum of one dollar. That's if you join the beta for the XBox Game Pass for PC (I hope that's a working title. It's informative, sure, but it's hardly snappy, now, is it?) XBGPfPC, as no-one is calling it, has a confusing pricing structure. On full release it will run you $9.99 per month but you can get in for just $4.99 with the Introductory Offer Not sure if there are dates for either of those yet but you could be beta testing it right now for a buck. What's stopping you?

It's a pretty good deal even at the $4.99. There are some well-reviewed games in there. Now that I seem to be dabbling more in non-MMORPG titles there are several I wouldn't mind trying. It would have been great three months ago. Now?  Not sure I'd get round to using it.

Still, I might give them that dollar anyway. I probably ought to be able to get a blog post or three out of it, at least. That would be money well spent.

Finally, at least until the next Autumn Promo lands, there's an entire week of free flying in Star Citizen. Actually, more like free mining, given that's the tentpole feature of the new build. I did get as far as finding my login details and updating the client (an 8GB download) for this one.

I had a very surprisingly good time in the last Free Fly, back in the spring and I wouldn't mind another go. Unfortunately, while my details work fine and my account is still valid, my character has vanished into the void. I made a new character this evening and managed to get as far as finding my ship and launching into space but I was tabbing in and out so much, trying to refresh my memory on how to play the damn game, it crashed and I lost the will to carry on.

Maybe I'll get back to it before the hangar doors clang shut for another six months. Probably not.

And there we have it. Suddenly I have loads of ideas of things to do that will generate things to write about and I don't have the time to carry them through.

I would quite like to take another look at ArcheAge in its F2P version now that the Buy to Play version is making such a splash. There are supposed to be some quality of life improvements in Star Wars: The Old Republic that I really should check out. Anything that empties my overstuffed storage bays has to be worth a log-in. Occupy White Walls had another update. I always get a mild twinge of guilt when that happens and I let it pass...

No doubt there's more I've missed and more to come. Oh well, at least it gives me something to complain about.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Memories Like A Shroud

Bouncing off Shintar for the second day in a row, I was spurred to write this short post by something she said about the different versions of the Azerothian holiday Hallows End as they express themselves in World of Warcrafts Retail And Classic. Speaking of the latter, Shintar said "I can't help but notice how quaint the celebrations are" and that, I think, is a very good way of putting it.

I live in a world of "quaint" and always have. It's not a word that English people use much but it's a word we often hear used about us and the land we live in. I mentioned William Brown in yesterday's piece and I sometimes wonder whether I grew up in the "real" world or in a story.

As a pre-teen, from about the ages of eight to eleven, I spent much of the time I wasn't in school wandering around the countryside, sometimes alone, sometimes in a gang, trespassing across farmers' fields and being chased off, wading in rivers and falling in, finding stray dogs and following them home, having stone fights that only ended when blood flowed, generally making my own entertainment in a way that would, I assume, draw the immediate attention of social services in these more enlightened times.

When the weather was wet or otherwise inclement I spent my time reading about other children having similar, if more exciting, adventures. When I discovered EverQuest in 1999, at the age of forty,  it was, as I used to say with monotonous predictability, as if the years had rolled back to reveal the virtual equivalent of my own childhood, only with even more violence and magic spells that really worked.

That childhood in itself seems quaint now. I suspect that it seemed quaint to outsiders even at the time. There were other aspects of my environment growing up, ones I don't often bring into conversations about MMORPGs, that were a lot quainter than that.

I did go to garden parties where people did walk about with plates of cucumber sandwiches, talking about the weather. I went to village fetes and fayres, where I played tombola and guessed the number of sweets in a jar. I have seen a raffle drawn in which the top prize was a live piglet. Or maybe that was in a story. I get them muddled up, sometimes.

I definitely went to countless jumble sales where old ladies in duffle coats really did elbow each other in the ribs in the press to grab the best bargain china. I absolutely have seen maypoles on village greens put to actual, unironic use. In all those storms of quaintness, though, I barely remember Halloween figuring at all.

In the United Kingdom there's a widespread belief that Halloween began with the release of Spielberg's "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" in 1982. That, possibly, even probably, did kick-start the previously little-known practice of trick-or-treating but Halloween had been with us on these islands long before that.

My earliest recollection of the festival comes from an Agatha Christie novel. As a quaint English rising teen, naturally my introduction to "adult" literature came via Dame Agatha. I had completely forgotten the title of this non-classic, described in a contemporary review as "a disappointment", but according to Wikipedia it was called simply "Hallowe'en Party". Note the extremely quaint use of apostrophe.

The thing that stuck in my mind about that book wasn't the plot or the characters but the apple bobbing. I remember spending a considerable time trying to work out how it might be done. I think I even put some apples in a bowl of water and tried it for myself. I have a very vague memory of once attending a party at which apples were bobbed for but I may have fabricated that. No, I'm pretty sure it happened.

Undoubtedly, apple bobbing qualifies as "quaint". Pumpkin carving might, too, if it hadn't turned into something every supermarket promotes ferociously for several weeks in the Fall - or "Autumn" as we quaint Britishers have it.

Guild Wars 2 makes a fair old thing of pumpkin carving. There are uncarved pumpkins propped up in doorways and by campfires all over Tyria, just waiting for the tip of your knife. Carve enough and you'll achieve something, allegedly. I used to join in but my carving knife seems to have lost its edge after all these years.

In WoW Classic the pumpkins come pre-carved. They have a much cheerier, cartoonish look than GW2's oddly authentic vegetables. They glow as radioactively orange as the skies of Durotar and the slashes of their mouths leer with an appropriately seasonal frenzy.

Classic also has apple bobbing. For apples. It's so quaint I think I can feel my toes curling. And there's trick or treating, too. Speak to the innkeeper in any Inn and you'll get one or the other. Then wait an hour and do it again. I do.

It all feels so... innocent. Oddly at kilter, perhaps, with the modern world, not to say with WoW Retail and the currently embattled Blizzard. Were gamers and developers really so much less jaded just fifteen years ago?

In GW2 things are very, very different. The decorations are more Michael Myers than Agatha Christie for a start. The whole affair is hosted by a pair of psychopaths whose conversation strains the seams of the game's "Teen" rating.

The centerpiece of Tyria's celebrations each year is one of the genre's most enervatingly mindless grinds, a desperately joyless Benny Hill chase round and around and around the Mad King's Labyrinth in search of an endless torrent of loot. Multiple instances run 24/7 throughout the weeks of the event. Squads circle like hordes of zombies, mowing down skeletons and plastic spiders to scoop up the lucky bags.

It's said you can average thirty gold an hour doing Lab. Some people make their year's earnings there. I can manage about an hour before I feel eternity calling. I don't even know why I do it. I have more than three thousand of the little bags unopened in my bank, several hundred from every year going back to when it first began. And I've opened a lot more than that.

As Shintar says, "MMOs use a seasonal event as an excuse to make people do more of the same stuff they already do all year anyway (usually grind special currencies and cosmetics), but with a "limited time only" urgency message attached just to get you to log in every day." And they do it because it works. It even works on me, a little, and I like to think myself immune to such shenanigans, protected as I am by my Amulet of Quaintness.

I wrote not long ago about the Halloween celebrations in EverQuest II. As usual I think the way things are done in Norrath is the best. There's a wealth of activity without any of the mania. Lots to do but take your time, enjoy yourself, no rush.

It seems like the happy medium between WoW's set decoration and GW2's commercial grindfest. And who could feel more at home at Halloween than a happy medium?

Keep your spirits up, everyone. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

All The Tired Horses

Shintar posted this week on her World of Warcraft Blog, Priest With A Cause, that she was Level 40 with a mount. She'd posted a while earlier about how she planned to raise the cash, which is considerable, to make that happen.

I found myself commenting somewhat testily on both posts. There's something about mounts in MMORPGs that gets my goat these days. Not that I have a goat. Although I could, seeing as how I play a dwarf in both WoW Classic and Lord of the Rings Online. Theoretically, that is. I don't have the money in the first or the levels in the second but it could happen.

Do I really see myself astride a goat, though? It's fantastical, sure, but it's not a fantasy I've ever entertained. Not that I've never fantasized about riding.

When I was a child I went through a peculiar pony phase. I made my mother promise that if she won the Football Pools (the 1960s version of a lottery that would require a lot more explanation for the uninitiated than I'm prepared to get into here - just think Terry Pratchett and you're half way there...) she'd buy me a pony. I even knew what it would look like - black with a white blaze on its brow.

Motorbikin', motorbikin', motorbikin'

I grew up surrounded by horses. There were a couple stabled in the field above my house and several more running loose in the field next to our orchard. Yes, I had that kind of childhood. I liked them but I was wary. Horses have a wicked sense of humor. They're not to be trusted.

I sat on a horse exactly once. It was loose on the common outside my school, just standing there. I was with some friends. There were girls there. I ran at the horse and vaulted onto it. It let me. It barely moved, just carried on standing there. Once I was up I had nothing. I slid off and that was that.

Lucky it didn't bolt or turn around and bite me or throw me and kick me I guess, but that was how we rolled back then. Eight years old and no adults between breakfast and tea. Half Huck Finn, half Just William with a smidgeon of Lord of the Flies to keep us honest. The past isn't just a different country, it's a different universe.

Other beasts I have bestrode include donkeys at the seaside when I was tiny(ish) and a camel when I was full grown. I can't say any were expreiences I wanted to repeat. I've been on the back of a motorbike a few times. Never wanted to own one.

If you gotta go, go, gotta go motorbike ridin'
When it comes to games my views on mounts have changed. Are changing even now.

The first I remember were in EverQuest. Norrath didn't have any mounts when I arrived nor for some while afterwards. If you wanted to travel you got on Shanks's Pony as my grandfather used to say.

I don't remember when horses were introduced but it must have been fairly late on. I know they came before the Legends of Ykesha expansion in 2003 because that was when we got Drogs. Drogs (real name Drogmor) are large, lizardy creatures you can buy at the Lighthouse in The Gulf of Gunthak, a place where I've spent many hours and a good deal of platinum across the years. I wanted one for my Ogre Shadowknight because an ogre looks silly on a horse.

By the time LoY appeared my Gnome Cleric had been riding his own, tiny, horse for a while. For him, at the time, having a horse was far more important than having his "Epic", something all clerics were supposedly obligated to own but which he never bothered with and never missed.

The thing about having a mount in EQ was this: it wasn't primarily a means of transport. In most MMORPGs mounts are visually aggressive run speed buffs. In EverQuest their primary function, particularly for casters, was as mana batteries and aggro reducers. Still is, at least when I play.

A bug briefly brings Fallen Earth to EverQuest

In those days both mana and aggro management were key gameplay components. Casters had to sit to meditate to regain mana at an increased rate but the very act of sitting radically increased mob aggro. A healer who sat down mid-fight to regain enough mana to cast a vital heal would often find the mob peeling off the tank to come beat on an apparently helpless target.

If you had a horse, all that went away. On a horse, the game treated you as though you were simultaneously standing and sitting. You could cast freely but you regained mana at the seated rate. Mobs perceived you as standing so your aggro stayed low.

Also, as an added bonus, if I'm remembering correctly, you didn't suffer from encumbrance while mounted. Yes, you did go a bit faster as well - there were different grades of horse to improve your travel speed -  but that was the least of it.

In other MMORPGs, Fallen Earth springs immediately to mind, mounts operate as mobile inventory. They have saddlebags. That's a more interesting proposition to me than just going faster.

The real thing

Fallen Earth, of course, had the best implementation of mounts that I've experienced. There, your horse was an individual entity in the world. You couldn't fold it up and put it in your backpack or wish it away to some nether-dimensional no-space.

If you wanted to get off your horse in Fallen Earth you had to dismount and there it would be, standing next to you. If you wandered off and forgot about your mount, predators could attack and kill it. I left my horse by the side of the road once and came back to find it half-eaten by giant ants. If you wanted to leave it safely you had to find a stable and arrange for room and board.

Over the years I've seen a huge variety of mounts, from the quasi-realistic versions in Fallen Earth and Lord of the Rings Online to the extremes of whimsy in Riders of Icarus. The trend over the last decade or so has definitely been towards the spectacular and the ludicrous.

Retail World of Warcraft offers a mindbending melange of creatures and vehicles, some of which seat several players and come equipped with NPC services. EverQuest II long abandoned even a hat-tip to sanity, seating its characters on everything from distorted cats to full-size dragons, flying discs and leaping lizards.

As the decades pass, the frog of my suspended disbelief has slowly boiled dry. The last drops of my patience turned to steam with the introduction of mounts to Guild Wars 2 (and here I am running very much against the herd because there are many who feel ArenaNet's implementation of mounts represents some kind of gold standard for the genre).

I loathe them. I detest the hypersaturated bling they bring to what was once one of the best-visualised fantasy worlds in the genre. I condemn the unapologetic, unashamed, crass commerciality of the skin market, something that smacks of both desperation and the abandonment of principle.

More even than their appalling appearance, I abhorr their practical implementation. I detest the way they lurch and jolt and skid and stutter, every nausea-inducing plunge and check. The way each mount comes with a specific movement function turns fantasy role-play into a game of creature-feature mini-golf as you stop, assess the obstacle ahead of you and select the most appropriate "club".

What mounts have done to GW2, other than turning every public gathering into a six-year old's sugar nightmare, is to weaponize one of the most annoying of its original features - jumping puzzles. With mounts there's now no content that can't be reduced to a test of hand-eye co-ordination and keyboard dexterity. Accessibility can go drown in a bucket.

I think it's almost entirely down to GW2's doubling-down on all the worst aspects of the concept that has soured me on mounts everywhere else. I used to quite like the silliness and the showing off. I still do in games like Riders of Icarus, where crazy rides are the whole point of the game.

In anything that still feels like it might just have a chance of passing for a virtual world in a dim light, though, I'm not feeling the love for mounts any more. I may have become inured to the merry-go-round in EQ2, where population density at least renders visual pollution no more than a sporadic problem, but it's notable that even there my own choice of mounts tends towards a discreet set of wings that leave my characters looking much the same as if they were on foot, except when they're actually in flight.

That's why I'm not at all bothered that I don't yet have a mount in Classic as I bear down on Level 50. I can't afford one and I don't intend to make any effort to change that. I'd rather spend my gold on things that matter, like better weapons or more inventory space.

I'll get a mount eventually. Probably that goat. Maybe a horse. Nothing flashy. When I have it, I'll use it sparingly. Long before my current discomfort with the concept I already found the constant on-and-off nature of mount implenmentation in many MMORPGs annoying.

One of the main reasons I don't have the same degree of dislike for mounts in EQ2 and Riders of Icarus that I do in other games is that they allow your character to do much the same mounted as dismounted. Either that, or they handle the mounting and dismounting automatically so I don't have to bother with it.

If and when I finally get a mount in Classic I plan on using it for long trips on auto-run and not much else. And I won't be buying one until I have enough money that the initial cost leaves me with at least as much left in the bank as I just spent.

If I'm mounted before I hit sixty I'll be surprised.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Losing Focus

So, I'm back at work, albeit on short hours for a couple of weeks, hence the sudden drop-off in posts here. That said, after several months of continually finding more to write about than I had the time to get to even with all day to myself, things seem to have gone somewhat off the boil.

Something that Wilhelm said in a comment on a recent post about WoW Classic chimed with another something that I noticed, going back to work after four months away: talking about the Blizzard Boycott he observed "I can’t tell what impact the boycott is having, if any ... Of course, there is a very good chance that this is just another thing that the weirdo hardcore players like us have noticed and nobody else cares."

Having worked in the book trade for over twenty years, I have always had a fair idea what's trending in both popular and serious literature, who the hot, new names are and whose star is fading along with their sales. I keep up with what the current "must read" titles are for the dinner party circuit and what's being read on the bus today, only to be found clogging up the second-hand shelves tomorrow.

In that bubble it's easy to believe that all these things are central to the culture; that everyone is talking about the new, break-out young adult title or the debut novel by that woman fresh out of university. They're not.

In a long summer of absence from the trade, I spotted just one newsworthy publication that struck the wider culture with sufficient impact to penetrate the wall of disinterest that holds the written word penned in its largely forgotten corner. When I got back to work and read the lengthy in-house guides to the titles that had done well this year and of which we should be aware for the coming peak sales period, the one and only name I recognized was "The Testaments", Margaret Atwood's belated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. I very much doubt I'd have heard even of that one title had it not been for the original novel's strong afterlife as a movie and a t.v. series.

That's not to say that people aren't buying and reading books; they are, albeit in smaller numbers than they once did. Nor am I suggesting that those who read don't talk to each other about their experiences with the printed page. Were it not for the visual media's strip-mining of published fiction for source material for movies and television, however, I strongly believe that most of even the best-known stories and characters would have very short and subdued lives indeed.

If you doubt it, take a look at the New York Times' best seller lists going back a few decades and see how many names you recognize. Then subtract all the titles you know mainly from the movies and tv shows they spawned.

The whole Blizzard fiasco has seemed like a big deal because we've all been talking about it or choosing not to talk about it, and it has had some currency outside of the gaming bubble: undeniably the involvement of elected politicans has brought the issue into the wider political arena. That said, I very much doubt that I could walk down the high street of the city where I live and find one in a hundred people who could even tell me the name of the company responsible for World of Warcraft, let alone give me a summary of the trouble that company is in right now.

What's more, based on my long familiarity with the deep lack of interest of most players in the origin of the MMORPGs they are playing, it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to discover that hardly anyone playing WoW these days even knows there's a problem. I'm so used to people acting  surprised by the content, or even the existence, of regular game updates that the idea the average player pays any attention to anything beyond whether the servers are up or not seems notional to me.

Video games are big business but I wonder how many gamers know or care who makes them? I can say from personal experience that it's a rare book buyer who can name the publisher who puts the work of their favorite author into their hands. What does or doesn't happen at Blizzcon will tell us how upset or otherwise those who've been paying attention are but what would really interest me is finding out how many of WoW's millions and millions of current and former players even know Blizzard runs an annual convention for fans of its games.

Maybe most of them do. It's on the log-in screens, after all. But how many players read that stuff? And of the ones who do, how many pay any attention to what goes on at the convention itself?

It's a big world, after all, and there's a lot going on. All the time. Taking a few months out really brought it home to me how specialized and insulated my own professional sphere of interest is. When I retire in not too many years from now I imagine that will be about the last I ever learn of what people are reading these days. I could make the effort to keep up with those trends but you can bet I won't.

I'll be just like everyone else. If it's not advertised on the side of a bus I won't know it exists.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Saturday Night In The City Of The Eyes: Neo Cab

Around eight-thirty last night I'd about had enough. I'd started maybe twelve hours earlier and I'd been at it ever since, with the usual breaks for food and excercise.

I'd been thinking about blogging but I'd come up empty on ideas again so I decided to give myself a day off. No reason to force it it if the feels aren't there but before I gave up for the night I flipped down the roll to see if anyone else was feeling more inspired than I was.

There was a post by Bhodan at Backlog Crusader that caught my eye: Neo Cab (PC) Review – A Dystopian Uber Simulator. That's a header just packed with hooks. "Neo" and "Cab" are triggers for both cyberpunk and noir and I already consider the real-world Uber to be one of the four motorcycle outriders of the coming Dystopian Apocalypse. This might be something.

I read the review and my intrigue, already piqued, spiked. It would be redundant to repeat Bhodan's detailed take on the game, not least because they've played the damn thing and I've only seen the demo. If it's true that "When you meet a new face, they do feel like a pastiche of a stereotype: a doomsayer, rebellious teenager, chill sage, mysterious lady – you name it. Meet them for more than once, however, and you will begin to see behind their mask", well, I wouldn't know, would I?  In the demo you only get that first face-off.

What I will say is this: it's a hell of a demo. For a start it hangs on and won't let go. I guess you can close the app to get away but if there's any kind of Pause or Save or "Come Back and Finish This Later" button, I couldn't find it.

The demo downloads in a minute or two via Steam and plays perfectly. I say "plays". It does feel more like an interactive graphic novel than a game. Not that there aren't gamelike elements. There aren't many but if I have a criticism it would be that even "not many" is too many.

There's this thing called a FeelGrid that you end up strapping to your wrist. It's like a 1970s Mood Ring only it works. Lina, the protagonist, gets it as a gift from Savy, her quondam and to-be-again BFF and the game presents it in glowing, positive terms. I thought it seemed like something the STASI would have used.

I found it ironic that Lina and Savy would willingly submit themselves to 24/7 unrestricted public exposure of their emotional state at the same time as decrying the intent and will of corporations to subject the population to something not at all disimilar but that may well be wholly intentional. Cognitive dissonance is endemic under neon lighting.

Leaving the ethical and philosophical subtext in the box, the thing is a damn pain when it comes to gameplay. The main effect it has is to block you from taking some of the listed options when you talk to your passengers (aka paxs).

The idea is you can't deviate from Lina's emotional state and the FeelGrid tells you what that is. If she's angry the game won't allow you to back down or make peace or just put on a professional face, keeping all your seething inside so as to protect your rating. Which would all be well and good if it didn't also leave the alternate replies on screen for you to click on in frustration, trying to dial the situation back a notch, before you realize you don't actually have a choice.

That's about the only thing I didn't like. Everything else was spot on.

The tone is perfectly judged. There's a brittle edge to everything from the beginning. Lina doesn't know what she wants, Savy, her friend, is clearly lying out of both sides of her grim little mouth, every pax has an agenda they're not revealing even though you can clearly see it sticking out of their top pocket...

The visuals are muted, spare, typical and effective. There's a deal of less being more going on here. I took over forty screenshots in ninety minutes and honestly I could have taken twice as many. Not because of anything that happens on screen but for the dialog.

The writing is sharp, pulpy, clever. There's nothing original here but someone knows what all the parts are and where they fit. You can see the gears moving. I like that. The story, what you get to learn of it in the demo anyway, is intriguing. Not unexpected but enticing.

The characters are key. Lina is floundering but struggling hard to stay afloat, Savy is... I hated her! Okay, hate may be too strong but I wouldn't trust her to open a jar of pickles, something she spends most of the time looking as though she'd just eaten. The last thing Lina said to Savy when they fell out years before was to call her selfish - on the evidence I've seen that would count as a compliment. I'd say she was self-obsessed, bordering on sociopathic.

Evidence? What would you think if your ex-best friend got in touch out of the blue, after never speaking to you for years, to invite you to move cities to share an appartment with her. Then, when you arrived just before midnight, tired after the long drive, she strung you out with a load of excuses about what a bad day she'd had before leaving you to drive around the city while she went clubbing?

Plus she has a sour face and talks like the worst kind of hypocrite. Compared to Savy, all three of the paxs Lina picks up are joy unconfined. And they really aren't.

What they are is convincing, compelling and in two out of the three cases laugh out loud funny. I found the Neo Cab demo to be one of the best laughs I've had for a while. 

The first pax, a would-be photographer on a year's sabbatical from his "real" job (which he doesn't explain and about which the game doesn't allow you to ask) just seems like a nice guy. When Lina picked him up by the side of the road in the middle of the desert I was getting ax-murderer vibes but he's cool.

The next two pick-ups are your choice. There are several calls but you only need to make a total of three for your quota. I picked Gideon, who turned out to be a teenage girl with a boy's name, locked in a spacesuit called a Kiddiemech (I think it was...). Her mother, Yancy, put her in it when she was four years old after a car hit her and she can't get out of it until she turns eighteen. Not even to sleep.

She is, understandably, pissed. She made me laugh out loud more than once. She reminded me of me when I was about sixteen although I was neither rich nor sealed in a spacesuit. I did want to set the world on fire just to see it burn, though.

When Gideon gets into the car in her suit Lina hopes she's going to turn out to be a robot, which is some gorgeous ironic foreshadowing right there. Her final fare turns out to be two German "tourists" who appear to have stepped straight out of a Blade Runner parody.

They've heard that American taxi companies are starting to use robot drivers and they don't believe Lina can be human. They insist on putting her through a hilarious version of Phil Dick's Voight-Kampff empathy test. Theirs even has a soundalike compound name, the exact detail of which escapes me but the first name was Higgs.

The questions become increasingly surreal and sexual. I was quite surprised that Lina took it all as well as she did. I was expecting her FeelGrid to lurch into the red at any time but it stayed solidly in the green chill out zone. She seemed to find the whole thing as amusing as I did.

I guess after the pax that she had before, the one that just jumped into the backseat without going to the bother of using the Neo Cab app, then started ordering her about, a couple of nerdy Germans with an AI fetish must have come as light relief.

The demo wraps on something of a cliffhanger. It also leaves Lina alone in Los Ojos with nowhere to sleep and no news of Savy's current state of existence beyond her smashed phone, found in an alley.

I am in two minds whether to buy the game. It's very well done and I enjoyed the demo a lot. But boy, was it intense. After an hour and a half I felt drained. There's a lot of moral decision making and I don't find that much fun. I like everything to be nice and I place a huge value on politeness. I find games that only give me dialog options that I consider aggressive or rude to be trying and Lina's FeelGrid sometimes pushed me down that road further than I felt comfortable with travelling.

Still and all, I managed to score a maximum five-star service rating from all three paying customers and the freebie liked me even though I yelled at him a lot. That did feel satisfying.

Chances are I'll buy Neo Cab eventually. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of "moral decision" gameplay although I do get the feeling that no matter what choices you make the whole thing is going to play out like an animated movie anyway. I think I'd prefer it was a movie. I'd definitely watch it.

The demo is worth an hour and a half of anyone's time, though. I might play it again, if that's allowed, just to see what the paxs I didn't pick have to say for themselves.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Blood Moon Rising: EverQuest, EverQuest II

Following on from yesterday's interview with Holly Longdale, today we have two Producer's Letters from her, one for each of the EverQuest titles. Both reveal the name of their resepective upcoming expansions, details of the various packages on offer and a few (a very few) details on what to expect.

There's also a tentative beta date for testing the new content. Pre-orders for the EQ expansion open next week on Wednesday 23. There doesn't appear to be a date yet for ordering the EverQuest II version.

As soon as there's an order button to press, I will be buying the basic pre-order package for the EverQuest II expansion, even though I have absolutely no intention of entering the beta to which pre-ordering provides access. My days of testing content I'll be playing live only weeks later lie deep in the past.

This year, in addition to the usual three grades of opt-in - Standard, Collector's and Premium - there's a fourth, "Family and Friends". Both games are getting the new offer, described as " experiment based on years of requests from players who like to share their generosity, families, guildmates and others" and about which we are warned "The bundle is set at a high price point".

The main feature of the new deal, which also includes all of the contents of the lesser packs, is a range of tradeable items and services, including mounts, character boosts, character slots and even another copy of the expansion itself.

I get the impression the team are nervous of being called on this one over what will almost certainly be an eye-watering price tag but it's quite true that people are always asking for the option to buy services and items for other players in the EQ games. The claim that this is "by popular demand" is almost certainly based, at least in part, in reality.

Won't stop the very same people who asked for it from complaining bitterly about being gouged and scammed but that's the community in a nutshell. And I would be ecstatic to find myself proved wrong on that...

Norrath has (at least) three moons: Luclin, Drinal and Morrel. There also three other known planets in the Ro system, Anbeal, Cordan and Trorsmang, none of which I had ever heard of until this morning.

The EverQuest expansion, the twenty-fifth, is called "Torment of Velious" so we know where that's going. The contents are as you'd expect:
Torment of Velious brings you a level increase from 110 to 115 with new spells and AAs, gear, and content with 6 new zones, and quests, raids and more.
My days of trying for cap in EverQuest are over, I believe. Expansions play to the established base that lives at end game and I haven't been domiciled there since 2005's Depths of Darkhollow.

My highest EQ character is a Level 93 Magician, who I boosted to 85 with the original Heroic Character freebie and soloed the rest of the way in the following five years. I could carry on doing that and maybe reach the current cap by the time I'm seventy. I think I'll pass.

There is an alternative:
On November 5, in support of EverQuest II’s 15th anniversary, we are going to be launching a new type of progression server, named Miragul, that will start at the House of Thule expansion that launched in 2010. You start as a Level 85 Heroic Character with live server experience rates, and all the trappings of a server that starts with a level cap of 90 with in-game housing, loads of raids, over 800 AAs, and more.
That is quite tempting. I could start at 85 on a brand new server and level up in the many PUGs that will surely be clogging /lfg for weeks. I'd have the same starting gear as everyone else and House of Thule is about the last expansion of which I have personal experience and a little knowledge.

The thing is, Miragul opens on the same day EQII launches its own new server, Rivervale. This is a regular server with no funny ruleset, Just a straight new start because, as Holly says, "It’s been a LONG time since we’ve added a new one". It's "Membership Required", which I find both interesting and revealing. I think F2P for the EverQuest franchise is all but dead and buried now.

The new server experience is more than enough on its own to draw me in. I will definitely be making some characters there. How long I'll play them for is anyone's guess.I wouldn't expect it to be more than a week or two, but I thought that when the Freeport server started and I ended up playing there almost exclusively for five years.

I think this is Drinal but don't hold me to it.

The forthcoming EQII expansion, due some time in December, will probably put a stop to any futzing about on new servers. Titled "Blood of Luclin" it kicks off the long-awaited return to Norrath's once-shattered, now restored moon. I have always been a big Luclin fan so I'm not about to miss that.

As with the EverQuest expansion, detail is limited so far but it appears to be exactly the "more of the same" most core players want and expect:
This expansion will bring you a level increase from 110 to 120 for adventurers and tradeskillers with new quests for both, signature lines, and more as you explore Luclin.
We’ve got all new solo, heroic, and raid content, including new challenge modes and contested raid fights.
There is one new feature, about which I am less than enthusiastic. Called "Overseer", it's one of those agent mission deals about which I have read plenty and thought the worst. I forget which games have similar systems except that I know World of Warcraft used it in whichever expansion added Garrisons and I think I've seen it but never used it in some F2P titles.

I made a decision when I was about twenty-five years old that one thing I never wanted to do in my work life was manage or supervise other people. I've never regretted that decision. The idea of becoming a virtual supervisor or, in this case, Overseer is about as unattractive a concept as I can imagine.

That said, the EQII team is good at this sort of thing. I really enjoyed the Tradeskill Apprentice system that came with earlier expansions. Maybe it'll be more fun than it sounds.

It's a particularly busy Autumn for EverQuest II because not only do we have the expansion on the way but it's also the fifteenth anniversary. Fifteen isn't the most significant of birthdays but it does end in a five so it deserves some recognition.

This too, probably.

We're getting an event about which we so far know nothing other than its name - Dragons Attack - and the date it begins, November 7. From the little that has been revealed so far ("Join with all Norrathians for Dragons Attack, because you’ll need them to conquer the challenges!") I would guess either a Public Quest (maybe several), a community collect-and-build project, a series of open-world attacks similar to WoW's lead-up to the Legion expansion or all of the above at once.

Whatever, it all sounds like fun. The end of the year looks like Back-To-Norrath-time for me.

Last and very definitely not least, as hinted in Holly's interview it seems we'll be learning some hard facts about the future of both Daybreak Games and the EverQuest Franchise in just a few weeks time:

Keep your ears perked in November for even more news about our teams and our commitment to the franchise.

I'd take that to mean we're going to find out what all those new trademarks are for and maybe even get some indication of whatever new EverQuest game is in development. We may finally have something to bite down on when we chew over the fat.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Don't Start Me Talking... : EverQuest, EverQuest II

Yesterday, as Wilhelm pointed out in the comments, I magnificently managed to miss the post-hook I'd been waiting on for weeks. Instead I chose to witter on about how I had nothing to write about. Comedy gold.

The news I'd missed was that The EverQuest Show had put up their interview with Holly "Windstalker" Longdale, Executive Producer of the EverQuest franchise. They were also good enough to provide a full transcript, which I've read. I haven't watched the video so anything that's given away by facial expression or body language is going to have to wait until I do.

As Wilhelm says, there aren't any major revelations but there are several tasty morsels of detail and a whacking great hint of something big to come. The whole thing doesn't take long to read but I'll pull out a few of the more interesting quotes anyway:

EQ Show :
How are the games doing?

Holly :     
...since 2015 , since I came on board, breaking all the rules both games have grown. So where we had a trend of the audience trickling off, we’ve now grown and we’ve grown revenue at the same time, so we’ve actually hired some people to fill out the teams...
Well, that's reassuring. And surprising.

It's been my consistent impression as a player and customer that, despite the surrounding intrigue, chaos and conspiracy theories, and notwithstanding the sequential layoffs and downsizings, my playable experience has undergone continual improvement throughout Daybreak Games' curation of the franchise. Even so, I would have guessed that both the audience and revenue for EverQuest II in particular would have decreased over that period. EverQuest, I would have imagined, would have done well to hold steady.

That both games have grown both numbers playing and money taken is fantastic news for those of us who want to see Norrath prosper. As Holly says, after fifteen and twenty years,

"It is staggering that both these games are still profitable ventures..."

Part of the reason for this turnaround is, as we more than suspected, some smart and effective managing of players' nostalgic affection for the franchise and the life experiences it has given them over two decades:


...obviously nostalgia is really important to our players. Being able to revisit places we visited 15 years ago. 16, 20 years ago. 

That accounts for the popularity of the Progression servers but there's more to it than that:
...we’re trying to be smart about the content we do do... We don’t want to go too far out... I know we’ve been to the moon and back but you know, we don’t want to go too much farther and too much crazier than that. So we want to go back to those themes and develop those stories.
That's why almost every expansion is some kind of return to versions of the past:  areas, regions, continents or (coming up, we all believe) moons that players know and remember from the core game and from earlier expansions. It's not just a clever re-use of assets, although I believe there's some of that too; it's a key turned in the lock that opens the heart.

It's a policy that means Live players are as entangled in past glories as are those engaged in Progression. They are different audiences and the same all at once:

EQ Show:
How do you balance the TLP players, with the LIVE players, because they seem to be two vastly different groups playing the same game.

They are. But they’re also almost equal to each other now, in numbers.
That's another surprise. Although we all knew the Progression servers were doing well it's only natural to assume the bulk of the game is on the Live side. I imagine an expansion year with level cap increases for both games will unbalance (or balance, if you prefer) the ship a little but clearly the future of the franchise lies in the past.

Or does it?

EQ Show:
...a lot of people have asked, what are you guys going to do with the intellectual property... is there another game in development? 
I can’t talk about what’s in development. But I promise you there is a future for EverQuest. I promise you. There’s a lot of work has gone into evaluating our past. We’re in a really unique position where we have more than 20 years worth of data on players and what they like in MMOs and MMOs we’ve made. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that when we craft something new for EverQuest?
Which is about as broad a hint as the PR person, who was confirmed to be in the room making sure nothing got said that shouldn't get said, would allow. I read that as confirmation that DBG are working on another title in the franchise and that, unlike the ill-fated and ill-advised EQNext, it will be squarely aimed at the faithful.

As one of them I can't but be happy to hear it.

There's a lot more in the interview that's worth reading or watching or listening to for any dyed-in-the-wool EverQuest Franchise fan. There's stuff about the dedication of the team and their insistence on doing work on the EverQuest games in their own time; there's confirmation that they've had to learn how to do more with less, something I personally feel has contributed to the improvement in the games that I mentioned at the top; there's aknowledgment of the lag and database issues currently dogging the games and there's even a little squib about the upcoming re-organization of the whole Daybreak portfolio.

I'll leave you with Holly's reply to Fading from the EQ Show's "final" question:

EQ Show:

Final question I’ll ask you. How long is this game going to be around?


At least another 10 years.

EQ Show: 

You think so?



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