Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Monumental Success: EQII

The 15th Anniversary Event for EverQuest II has turned out to be one of the best I've enjoyed in any MMORPG. It didn't look like much on paper but in the game itself it has been popular, compelling and well-received.

Any event that runs 24/7 for a full month and can still draw a crowd just a few days before it ends has to be reckoned a major success. When those crowds are still upbeat and positive even after hundreds of repetitions that's pretty much a miracle.

The last time (quite possibly the only time) I saw an event on this scale go down as well was probably the demonic invasion in World of Warcraft that preceded the release of the Legion expansion. The two have some significant factors in common.
  • The events are open to all levels and classes (The tradeskill event does require Level 20).
  • They are easily accessible.
  • They give excellent XP.
  • They give desirable rewards.
  • They are extremely alt-friendly.

The adventure events all take place right next to the Ulteran Spires, a transportation network open to everyone, meaning you can be at any event in seconds. The areas around the spires are also close to 100% safe from wanderng mobs, meaning even Level One characters can and do join in.

For any characters under Level 100 the big attraction is abundant xp. Low level characters gain multiple levels on every dragon kill and even in the 80s and 90s the xp gain is significant, as is AAXP if toggled.

Loot is good, too. Every kill gives generous rewards, sometimes as many as four items. There's a huge variety and some of the best are tradeable so there's money to be made as well.

Killing dragons caught the imagination of the playerbase from the start but the crafting event was more of a slow burn. In the opening days, progress was slow and few people seemed interested but as time went on the numbers participating increased and a real buzz developed.

Today, on Skyfire, my main server, both the monuments are complete and they look magnificent. They will be a memorable addition to the permanent landscapes of Commonlands and Antonica.

Even though the statues are finished, the quests remain until the event ends in a few days time.  I was particularly impressed that the questgiver acknowledges this and has new text explaining why help is still needed.

For players there's an obvious incentive. The rewards for crafting, which were lacklustre compared to those for dragonslaying, have improved significantly now the project is done but the real reward for tradeskillers, at least those with levels yet to hit three figures, has once again been the xp. So far I have taken my Carpenter from 50 to 100 and my Alchemist from 20 to 90.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the whole event, however, has been the great spirit in which it has been taken by the overwhelming majority of players. There has been a real community feeling  about the whole thing, both in the co-operative and helpful way people have called out the timers for the dragon attacks and in the the many expressions of support for the crafting effort.

I have spent most of my gaming time this month killing and crafting dragons and I'll be sorry to see it all end on Thursday. It's been a worthy accolade for fifteen years of EQII and best of all, there will be permanent reminders in the form of two majestic statues on the coasts of Karan.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a few more dragons to kill.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Look Around You, Art Is Everywhere

I was digging around in the depths of my files yesterday and I came across a whole load of screenshots I'd forgotten. Since it's coming up to the end of IntPiPoMo and I just knocked out three long-winded posts in a row, I figured I'd give myself and everyone else a break with some pretty pictures.

Rift has to be one of the best MMORPGs I've ever played for taking landscape shots. The eponymous rifts, the stunning weather effects, the numerous, mysterious ruins and monuments and the rich color palette all lend themselves to virtual nature photography.

It also has more bleak, downbeat, lonely zones than just about any game I can remember. There's a huge amount of open space, much of it moorland or desert. There are, famously, no cities. It feels like a world coming to the end of its time. Maybe that's more appropriate now than ever.

Allods, by contrast, is bright, cheerful and does cities brilliantly. It's also hugely underrated and probably the MMORPG I most wish I'd stuck with and played to a higher level. It's still going so maybe that could happen yet.

The mittel-europa, art deco, constructivist montage works magnificently, especially in a genre over-stuffed with this kind of thing done badly. So many imported games use the Imperial Palace motif but almost all of them look like movie sets where no-one could actually live.

One reason Allods visuals work so well is that the artists get the physical and emotional scales just right. The buildings are huge and imposing but the doors, the windows and the rooms are human-sized. There are parks and bandstands and restaurants and advertisements. The whole place feels like it could taken straight from the pages of a National Geographic photo essay from the 1930s.

Not all imported MMORPGs look like they've been blown up to double size on a cheap color copier. Twin Saga looks far more beautiful than any game featuring guinea-pig mounts, houses on the backs of turtles and giant, bubblegum pink pussycats has any right to look.

It's another game I wish I'd played more of, although in Twin Saga's case the shut-off point came from ramped-up difficulty rather than dodgy monetization issues. I was going great guns until I hit a leveling wall in the 50s. Maybe I should just make a new character and start over. That never gets old.

Perhaps the most frustrating title among games I'm not playing as much as I feel I could be is Dragon Nest. As the screenshots here suggest, it's a quirky, characterful setting, painted in rather blurry brush strokes but oozing with personality and charm.

Unlike Dragon Nest M, the mobile version, which is brash, loud and garish. Which would be bad enough, but the PC version is still running in some territories, just not the one I'm in. Grrrrrrrr.

That's probably enough pictures for one post. I could go on for a while. Quite a while... My screenshot back-up file is 36GB. More than 30,000 files. And that's by no means all of them.

Sometimes I think the main reason I play MMORPGs is to take screenshots. I am a virtual tourist, first and foremost, after all. And a virtual travel writer.

Since it's Thanksgiving, even though that's a holiday not celebrated here, let me give thanks to the countless, unsung, uncelebrated artists who created all this wonder we take for granted. Not for them the kudos and reward of exhibitions or auctions, let alone the gravitas and honor of retrospective documentaries and movies about their lives.

I've always loved commercial art - advertizing, posters, spot illustration - and I guess video games are just the latest in a long line of work-for-hire exploitation. If you can call doing something you love and getting paid for it being exploited.

We're just lucky there are always people whose need to express themselves artistically outweighs their desire to be recognized for doing so. Thanks, to them all.

IntPiPoMo running total: 119

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Slaying The Dragon Is The Easy Part

Wilhelm and Everwake both posted yesterday about the problems of coming back to EverQuest II after a layoff. It's not just the familiar issue of looking at a whole load of items and icons you don't recognize and feeling overwhelmed. It's also knowing what to do next once you've gotten past that.

Inventory issues like Everwake's can usually be resolved quite painlessly, unless you're coming back to Lord of the Rings Online. In the case of EQII, which has what I believe to be the most generous storage offer in the genre, it's almost always possible to kick the problem down the road by emptying your bags into one of the many off-character storage options available.

Working out what icons mean is also straightforward in most games. Everything has a mouseover or a right-click tool tip these days. A few minutes kicking seven bells out of some unthreatening mobs in a familiar area should refresh your memory and return you to your preferred rotation.

Beyond those basics, though, lies unknown territory, which is where Wilhelm finds himself. Getting back up to speed in the upper reaches of an MMORPG you haven't played for a while can be a real challenge. By their very nature, these games aren't static. They rely on adding new content all the time to keep players invested and frequentlythat  new content either overwrites old content or invalidates it.

The knowledge you painstakingly acquired a few years (or even a few months) ago may not hold good any more, even if you can bring it to mind. Worse, the game almost certainly won't explain any changes in a way you can understand and any and all out-of-game resources may be compromised.

Wikis and guides are only as useful as they are updated. Even the most successful games don't necessarily generate accurate and comprehensive advice. When I first played World of Warcraft in the middle of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, all the top results on a google search about how to manage Hunter pets went to detailed descriptions of the complex system that had recently been made obsolete. Only last night I was struggling to find up to date information on exactly how the Ascension system works in EQII these days.

Screen and spellbook c. 2007.

For the first many years I played MMORPGs, developers didn't really care all that much about returning players. Those were the days of post-launch growth and they were in the business of selling fresh boxes to new players.

To encourage entryism, EverQuest added complete new starting areas and leveling paths to the game twice in the first two-and-a-half years. The expectation was that populations would continue to grow and newcomers would begin from scratch, while current players would roll alts and join them.

As the genre began to mature and settle, expectations began to change. The games were lasting longer than anyone, especially their developers, ever expected. The potential lifetime of even a moderately successful MMORPG began to be measured not just in years but in decades.

With longevity came another unplanned and unanticipated phenomenon: the returning player. Running for years, a passably successful MMORPG could develop a tail of ex-players hundreds of thousands, even millions long. The tally of players who'd played a particular game and stopped far outnumbered those still playing at any given time.

Over the past few decades, entertainment providers have worked out how to sell old product to new customers as well as how to re-sell those same things to people who already own them. A favorite method is a change of carrier medium, always promoted as an improvement in quality. Vinyl to Compact Cassette to CD to MiniDisc to Digital Download to... vinyl again.

The other perennial is repackaging. Add some booklets or a bonus disc of demos. Put the thing in a big, shiny box. Slap "Anniversary" across the front.

Screen and spellbook today. Much the same only more of everything.
In this way and using a hundred other marketing tricks people can be persuaded to rebuy the same content almost indefinitely. The same process works perfectly well for games, although I've yet to see one re-released with in-game commentary by the designers and voice actors. Only a matter of time.

For MMORPGs, though, none of that really fits. For one thing, no-one in the genre sells boxes any more. Hard to repackage your digital download. Not impossible, granted, but hard.

The real problem is that these games don't conveniently sit on the virtual shelf, pristine, unchanged since the day they were created, just waiting for a re-launch. They grow and change. A lot. Often almost out of recognition.

And in doing so they bloat and age. Old, bloated games are, surprise, not as attractive as new, sleek games. Prospective customers, looking at the choice between a game made in 2007 and one made yesterday, are likely to skew new. It gets harder and harder to attract genuine new customers, leaving a choice of either making new product to attract them (very expensive and always high-risk) or re-selling the old product to old customers.

Except, as noted, the old product those customers remember, possibly fondly, no longer exists. A long-running MMORPG is an oxymoron: too old for new customers and too new for old. All at the same time.

Necro pet stats c. 2007
The problem was probably first identified by Sony Online Entertainment, who began experimenting with "Progression Servers" almost a decade ago although they may only have been feeding off the interest generated by the then-illegal Project 1999. That faithful reconstruction launched a decade after the original and offered proof of concept in its immediate success. This summer we saw the apotheosis of the trend in WoW Classic.

These retro-servers attempt to re-create their games in a form readily recognizeable to those who remember it with blurred affection. Technological and practical obstacles may render the experience less than pristine but compared to the alien and alienating landscape presented by the Live game it feels just enough like coming home after a long trip away. Sure, a few things may look a little different to how we remember but it's the same old place, right?

All fine and dandy but what about that Live game? For most companies the extra income from re-selling old successes is welcome but current product remains the focus. How do you get old players to try that? More importantly, how do you get them to stick not bounce when they do?

The glue of MMORPGs has always been the social bonds between players. Allegedly. Don't buy it myself but it's the accepted narrative. The problem with long-running MMORPGs is that the "community" is often invisible to both new and returning players alike.

The bulk of active players reside at the level cap and in high-level zones, inaccessible and invisible to newcomers. Or so it was for a long time. Developers came up with several ways to break this dam blocking their income stream, the most prevalent of which are Level Boosts and downscaling.

Level boosts simply skip all the old content completely. Downscaling makes all content available to all levels. About the only MMORPG I can think of where this really works is Guild Wars 2, which was designed for it before the game even launched. In most other games, where I've experienced both methods, either comes with as many problems as it solves.

Take EQII, which both Wilhelm and Everwake were talking about in the posts linked at the top. All recent expansions come with a level boost that lets you jump an existing character or start a new one in the ten level range below the current cap. In theory that should be enough time to learn or re-learn the ropes before joining in with the population bubble on current level-cap content.

Only it doesn't really work. Daybreak, to their eternal credit, pump out a new expansion every year.
Necro pet stats today. Now with scroll bar.
Each of those expansions includes a number of changes to systems, as do some of the major updates between Xpacks. Frequently, sysytems that formed the core of an expansion receive extensive revision, often because they were poorly received or were intended to take up time that the developers now prefer to direct elsewhere.

As Wilhelm eloquently describes, the effect on a returning player can be discombobulating, although it can be ameliorated if the player has come back to play with friends or to rejoin an active guild. All of the problems can be most effectively resolved by other players in game, either explaining systems or by grouping up and guiding the returnee through content.

Alone, though, a returning player is thrown back on their own resources. These include any crumbs the game might toss out. Some developers hand-hold better than others.

The EverQuest titles have never been long on breadcrumb trails. Other players are the best resource. Asking for advice or guidance in General chat can elicit helpful responses but the average returning player will have a lot of questions and the patience of the crowd can wear thin.

Out of game resources for EQII, almost all maintained as volunteer work by players, are among the best in the genre. The wiki should be the first stop for any unresovable in-game issue other than bugs. It's not infallible, though, and crucially it does require that you know what you're looking for. If there are systems you don't even know exist you can't look up how they work.

Gearing up is a huge part of traditional MMORPGs and EQII is particularly gear-centric. Wilhelm was having some problems with mobs taking a long time to kill which he thought might be related to his character's equipment and abilities. And he's probably right. Most likely that's the root cause.

I would have liked to give some pithy, succinct advice that, together with a couple of links to online guides, would fix the problem. Only I can't do that.

After several years of playing modern EQII fairly regularly, having six level-capped characters and having completed almost of all of the current solo content, I still don't entirely know what I'm doing. Not even after spending whole afternoons and evenings researching systems and reading guides.

Commonlands Wizard Spires Construction Project c. 2006

I have a working knowledge of how equipment and upgrades work in the game now. My Berserker sits at 75 million Hit Points and 50k potency, which is functional if not ideal. All his Combat Arts, give or take a few he rarely uses, are at Master level. Getting him there has taken me a couple of years, on and off. I still have to go check things when I want to make changes.

I'm well aware that there's a good deal more I could and probably should do. I read on the forum last week that a "casual" character should easily be able to hit 80k Potency. Unfortunately the person who made that claim neglected to expalin how it might be done. I can't figure it out for myself.

There is one exceptionally useful resource which helped me enormously a couple of years back: EQ2 Library, whose tagline is "Endgame progression made easy". For anyone trying to get to grips with the game's ferociously over-complicated progression and gearing, this is the place to start.

Unfortunately, Ablivion, who runs it, hasn't updated it since the last expansion. It's close to being current but not quite. He's had a number of technical and hosting issues but hopes to re-launch the site in time for Blood of Luclin.

Let's hope so. In the meantime, EQ2 Library is still the best information on endgame progression, be that Solo, Heroic or Raid, out there.

Commonlands Monument Construction Project 2019. Systems may change but content remains the same.

The upcoming expansion comes with the bi-annual 10 level cap increase, meaning it will be a full gear reset. All those painstakingly upgraded spells and abilities, all that Panda gear, all those augments will be invalidated on Day One as we move onwards and upwards in the search of ever-more inflated numbers.

For anyone wanting to re-learn the game, a new expansion provides the best opportunity. Even the base offer comes with a Level 110 Boost and there will be a full set of augmented gear better than Panda, free for the taking, in the hub zone on Luclin. (I know that for sure from the beta forums).

What's more, everyone will, briefly, be in the same boat as there will inevitably be vital resources attached to the solo signature line, meaning everyone from raiders to casuals will enjoy a brief window of communication. Then the doors will slam shut on the silos again and we won't see each other outside of Public Quests for another year.

Consequently my advice, just for the next couple of months, would be to buy the expansion and not worry about the fine details until then. By next Spring, with a bit of luck, maybe EQ2 Library will be up to date and I can just point returning players there.

It's a hell of a way to run a genre but we are, as they say, where we are. We'll just have to make the best of it until someone comes up with something better.

IntPiPoMo count so far: 100.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Don't Go, Kitty, Kitty

The PC Gamer post-WoW roll-call of births and deaths I was discussing yesterday includes eleven MMORPGs I could reasonably claim to have played plus one that no-one ever did. They break down into three categories: games I took seriously, games I dabbled with and games I merely glanced at.

Of the twelve, there are two that shouldn't even be on the list in the first place: EQNext and City of Heroes. I'll get to EQN later. First, let's think about City of Heroes.

Did no-one fact-check the copy? The title of the piece is "25 MMOS that lived and died since World of Warcraft launched" but the North American launch of CoH pre-dates WoW's by a full six months. It says so right there in the article! I believe I may have played it in beta as early as late 2003.

CoH looked, on paper, like something I'd really enjoy. I've been a superhero fan since before I learned to read. My mother, in her late eighties, still occasionally complains about how she had to read those speech bubbles out loud to me when I was four years old. At the time the game was announced I was deep into EverQuest and the MMORPG genre - it looked as though it could have been made for me.

It wasn't. Not even close. What always appealed to me most about superhero comics, even as a child, was the soap opera. The fighting? Not so much. CoH, in beta at least, seemed to be nothing but an endless conveyor belt of  meaningless battles, most of them in featureless offices and warehouses or bland city lots.

I played the beta in a desultory fashion for a few weeks, on and off. It was deeply disappointing. When the game launched I didn't buy it and during its eight year run I never once considered giving it a go. For my money there has never been a good superhero MMO. DCUO is the best I've played but that's more for the glorious movement controls, the well-realised cityscapes and the housing than anything to do with the combat or the story.

When City of Heroes miraculously re-appeared earlier this year (in true superhero "I was never really dead" style, I might add) I gave it a try and enjoyed it a lot more than I had back in 2003/4. Just not enough to keep logging in after the initial rush.

Moving on from the game that shouldn't be on the list at all, we come to the ones I tried just to say I had. Chief among those is Hello Kitty Online. I played HKO maybe two or three times. I downloaded it because people insisted on using it as a pejorative in general chat in MMORPGs I did play and that irritated me.

What's not to love?

My feeling was that none of the people using the fashion-challenged feline as a stick to beat their supposed inferiors with would actually have played the game. If I wanted to be able to call them out on that I had to have some basic experience myself.

Also, I do like Hello Kitty, with whom I have a little history. I remember the first time I happened upon a display of HK merchandize in real life, in the El Corte Ingles department store in Barcelona sometime in the early '90s. I was so amazed I bought a couple of items, one of which I later gave to someone I worked with as a leaving present, when they went back to the U.S.

I can remember all of that but almost nothing about Hello Kitty Online, except that it was a lot less casual than I'd imagined. I know I used that as a deflating counter-argument in chat battles a few times, although finding Hello Kitty Online more challenging than I expected was perhaps not exactly the argument-clincher I was looking for.

Speaking of memory and its failings, this is where I offer a practical dmonstration. I thought I'd played Mythos, which is why it's in this section instead of in yesterday's post, where it should have been. Turns out, on fuirther investigation, I never played it at all.

There was a brief period when a clutch of online games using Greek and Roman mythology as a backdrop appeared at around the same time. I played at least two of them and I thought Mythos was one of those but, looking at some reviews and screenshots, it clearly wasn't.

The game I was thinking of, which I remember playing quite a few times, was Mytheon not Mythos. It's still running. You can get it on Steam. Looking at the screenshots, Mythos looks like a more interesting title. I kind of wish I'd played that instead.

Moving swiftly on, we come to games I played a fair bit, on and off, but which never made it into the majors. Minions of Mirth is almost the poster child for my personal minor leagues. (Way to go there, Bhagpuss! A mixed metaphor combining two cultural touchstones, neither of which form any part of your own immediate culture. Some kind of a record, I think. Plus now you're talking about yourself in the second person...)

Someone exploring much further into Minions of Mirth than I ever managed.
MoM was unusual in that it could be played either as a full MMORPG or as a single-player game. That seemed like a great idea back in 2005 and it still seems like one now. Wouldn't it solve all kinds of problems? And if an obscure indie like Prairie Games could do it, what's stopping the big guns?

Minions of Mirth was an EQ-inspired game with graphics that looked more dated than EQ's even in 2005. I must have played through the starting area four or five times over the years but I never really got much farther than the equivalent of Qeynos Hills. The MMORPG closed its gates a couple of years back but the single-player version is still available. I even have it installed although I doubt I'll ever play it again.

Marvel Heroes is an odd one. I played it quite a few times and read about it a lot more because several bloggers I followed seemed to be very into it indeed. For me, the game doubled down on two things I really don't like at all: the Diablo-style lootfest and the aforementioned superhero action mode.

I grew up with the Marvel characters, although I was (and remain) a DC fan at heart. Marvel Heroes seemed to me to strip away virtually everything that had made Marvel the most successful comics publisher of the late twentieth century and which went on to make it one of the most profitable and worshipped global brands of the early twenty-first.

It seemed to me like a game designed by people whose only knowledge of the characters came from a short conversation with a six-year old child. Costumes? Check! Powers? Check! Personality, motivation, backstory, depth? I dunno what those things are, mister. It was the MMORPG equivalent of smashing action figures together and shouting "Bam!", something I didn't even do when I was six years old.

The most interesting thing about Marvel Heroes for me was the bizarre way it ended. Made no sense at all. Just like the game.

Stolen from my own blog.
But then, what happened to Marvel Heroes at the end happened to Firefall time and time again, while it was still running. Was there ever a game that changed direction so many times? Or suffered so many public disputes among its developers?

I played it in a couple of its variants. It wasn't the sort of game that seemed likely to appeal to me - I'm not mad keen on shooters and I don't have a lot of time or affection for mech-suits - but a couple of bloggers kept writing interesting stories about it so I thought I'd give it a try.

I enjoyed it much more than I expected, even though I was absolutely terrible at playing it. I liked the environments and the jetpack movement. It also looked great in screenshots, which always helps, particularly since, by this time, I had a blog to put them in.

The thing about opinions on Firefall is this: they depends entirely which version the opinion-holder played. Each major revision was so radical Red5 might as well have re-marketed them as new games. I liked the version with the public quests based around thumping. That one would have made for a solid MMORPG experience, I think. When they took that out I liked it a lot less. It felt more like a single-player game the last time I logged in.

That's the last of the also-rans. looks like this is shaping up to be to be a trilogy. Part three will get to the games I played for long enough to have something of substance to say about them. Or so we may hope.

Except there's one anomaly to dispose of first. The game I mentioned at the top of the post. The one that really has no reason being on PC Gamer's list at all. Not because someone can't read a calendar but because someone apparently can't read reality.

Much though some would like to believe otherwise, EQNext never existed. There was no game, ever. All there was were some videos, a lot of concept art and a few minutes of faked gameplay put together for a convention.

Blurry and out of focus. How appropriate.

It's quite hard to dig that little fact out of the welter of "Oh noes! My beloved EQNext is no more!" eulogies that clog the filters of a google search but as Feldon explains in an incendiary demolition of the entire EQNext debacle at EQ2Wire, "The EverQuest Next “combat demo” shown at SOE Live in 2013 was entirely smoke and mirrors, with developers back at the home office “playing” NPCs."

It wasn't just the demo; the entire EQNext project was smoke and mirrors. There was no game. There never had been a game. There never would be a game. It has no place on a list of MMORPGs that lived and died because it never did either of those things. I'd say good riddance to it but even that gives its existence more credence than it deserves.

Landmark definitely did exist, though, and I'll get to it next time, along with Vanguard, Warhammer, Free Realms and Wildstar. I'll even bring my own screenshots!

Monday, November 25, 2019

No I Never

PC Gamer published a list of dead MMORPGs recently under the headline "25 MMOs that lived and died since World of Warcraft launched". I first heard about it by way of Paeroka at Nerdy Bookahs and there have been follow-ups by Rakuno, Nogamara and Everwake, so far.

The list includes a round dozen that I actually played at least once. Then there are ten more that I know of but never tried. Either I wasn't interested, they weren't accessible in my region or I meant to but somehow never got around to it.

That leaves three whose names were new to me: Dynasty Warriors Online, Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine and Starquest Online.

The first two were Japanese releases that also had English language servers for the North American region, according to PC Gamer. Whether the "NA" servers were also open to other regions I have no idea. It seems a bit late now to go find out, although DWO is apparently still running in Japan.

The third, described witheringly by PC Gamer as an "unconventional, and ugly, sci-fi MMO" looks to have been a cut-price and even less casual-friendly version of EVE Online, at least if its badly edited wikipedia entry is to be belived: "The game itself is an online persistent sandbox where there anything can happen at any time. A hostile player ship can sneak up on another player and attack at any time, in any solar system."

Starquest's developers seem to have been determined to put as many obstacles in the way of commercial success as possible: "Starships require several players to function...and cannot be used at all without at least one of the players present who serves as a senior officer in the game...When the player logs off... ships will still fly towards a destination while offline, and players can still be attacked if their ship is moving." Plus there was a $9.99 monthly subscription.

Can't say I'm sorry to have missed any of those three. On to the ones I have at least heard of...

I never had any intention of playing Phantasy Star Online, a spin-off of an offline series I also never played. I don't believe it was ever available outside of Japan, anyway, so I couldn't have played it even if I wanted to. Fantasy Year Zero, also a Japanese title, apparently did have North American servers. I must have missed the memo.

Battlestar Galactica Online rings a vague bell. I might have thought about trying it once. I have some limited affection for the I.P., having watched the original series back in the 1970s. The game is (loosely) based on the noughties reboot, which I haven't seen, despite having it strongly recommended to me more than once by a close friend, back when it was on tv. It's currently available on Amazon Prime so I might get around to it one day. As for the MMORPG, that (space)ship has sailed.

Tabula Rasa I made a conscious choice to avoid but I can't now remember why. I vaguely remember thinking it looked silly but that hardly seems a valid reason in light of some of the games I have played. I kind of wish I'd at least tried it because it seems to have been historically significant in the development of what came to be known as "dynamic events" and "public quests",

I am very sorry I never got around to playing The Matrix Online. The screenshots make it look like something I'd have enjoyed. I have absolutely no rational explanation as to why I didn't at least give it a go. It was included in the SOE All Access subscription that I was paying for, for heaven's sake! All I had to do was download it. I even remember reading up on it to see what the gameplay was like but somehow I never took that final step. I've also never seen the movie(s) even though I've owned the first one on DVD for at least a decade. I must have some kind of mental block about trenchcoats.

I did play the original Myst. Didn't like it much. It seemed a bit...pointless. And dull. There's a nagging sense at the back of my mind that I might have tried the online version but I think that's a false memory. I can't see why I'd have wanted to - I didn't have a blog back then to make playing  games I know I'm not going to like seem like a good idea.

Club Penguin was out of my age range. That seems a bit rich, considering I played a considerable amount of both Free Realms and Wizard 101, not to mention Toontown back in the day, but there always seemed to be something about Club Penguin that made me feel I wouldn't be welcome there. Possibly because it had the word "Club" in the title. Wilhelm used to write about it occasionally, though, so, like EVE and TorilMUD, I feel as though I've played it vicariously.

Dark and Light I remember being quite interested in at one point. I think the reviews put me off. It was a fanmous stinker. I was also quite keen on the reboot until I found out it wasn't a proper MMORPG.

Darkfall is listed, somewhat pedantically, by PC Gamer as "Darkfall Unholy Wars", presumably to differentiate it from the two versions currently running, Darkfall Rise of Agon and Darkfall New Dawn. Or possibly they just have journalistic standards. I guess that was its proper name, even though everyone just called it "Darkfall".

I did consider playing it but I read so much about it, mostly on SynCaine's blog, that there hardly seemed to be much point. I was pretty sure I'd never have as much fun in the game itself as I'd have reading stories about it. Much the same reason I've never bothered to play EVE, even though you can do it without paying these days.

Pirates of the Carribean, though, I was never going to play. I've neither seen the movies nor wish to and I struggle with piracy as a theme and setting. I'm fine with the clothes and the dialect but naval battles bore me to distraction and piratical sword-fighting is tedious beyond belief. Also all that dithering with treasure maps. Nope. Not for me.

And that's all the ones I didn't play. I've managed to get a whole blog post out of rambling on about games I never played. Imagine how long I could bang on about the ones I did...

Guess what's coming next.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Size Isn't Everything: Guild Wars 2

ArenaNet have problems. The recent introduction of the much-ballyhooed "Build" system has been received extremely poorly by its target audience. The only demographic that appears to have anything pleasant to say about it are those, like me, who never had any interest in builds in the first place. And even I'm not as happy about it as I was, now I've had a chance to experience some of the drawbacks for myself.

ANet have retreated behind the barricades to think again. Not for the first time, a structural change to the game has had a destabilizing and demoralizing effect.

Never mind, though. Here comes the first full instalment of the revamped Living Story/World, rebranded this season as The Icebrood Saga. That'll take our minds off the build crisis. But wait! What's that? There it goes! Did you miss it? Well, you shouldn't have blinked, should you?

The shortness of episodes has been something of an issue for many years. The average time to complete the story part of any update in Seasons Two, Three and Four has been around four hours or so. Not impressive for a quarterly delivery.

For the longest time even that duration was padded with increasingly tedious and frustrating boss battles and an annoying insistence on adding new skills and tutorial sections for every episode. The very good news is that The Icebrood Saga, so far, has avoided those pitfalls. The less good news is that, without the time-wasting filler, "Whispers in the Dark" takes about two and a half hours to finish.

And that includes map completion of the new zone, the oddly-named Bjora Marshes. Not that map completion is required, per se. Nor are there any of the repeatable "Hearts" that formed such a significant component of releases in the last couple of Seasons, helping to spin out the storyline for an hour or so more.

There is a story requirement to participate in and complete several map events, which feels a lot more organic than the "help the locals" trope Hearts offered. The events are all at least approximately part of the storyline.

Completing those got me so close to having the whole of the map open I thought I might as well finish the job. It was easy because, in keeping with the rest of the episode, the new map has to be one of the smallest we've ever seen.

It's also another glorious tribute to the never-failing strength of ANet's art department, who also contribute some gorgeous interstitials as well as some fabulous, frost-rimed frames. Bjora Marshes, one of the least marshy zones imaginable, is by some margin the most convincing winter landscape yet, in a game that does cold weather exceptionally well.

Most of Tyria's snowy areas feature blinding white snow and a great deal of arctic blue. Bjora Marshes has none of that. The scene is unrelentingly grey. The sky is perpetually overcast, flickering with boreal light. It's a land locked in endless twilight.

When snow falls it feels desultory, hopeless. There's no sense of wonder or delight, just a grim, cold emptiness. The forest is a wasteland of broken, lifeless wood. The snowfields are barren wastes of grey, studded here and there with the ruins of a civilization long ago driven into retreat.

The whole place is one of the most convincing replications of winter I've seen in a game. I have walked through woods that felt like these (minus the Aberrant wildlife, naturally). The quality of the light feels familiar. The eerie, muffled soundscape rings true.

So, I liked the new map as an aesthetic experience. As for the gameplay, I'm not sure I'll ever know what that's like. There are a bunch of events and a meta as always. From what I read it's a short and easy meta, which would fit the rest of the episode perfectly.

There's a new currency and a vendor with stuff I don't care about, like there has been in every new map for years. I haven't spent any significant time in one of the new maps since Season Three. Other than for their brief appearance in the story itself, most of them might as well not exist as far as my time in GW2 goes.

Ah yes, the story. The supposed reason we're here. How's that going? Other than quickly.

It's... okay. If anyone reading this hasn't done it yet and plans to, perhaps it's time to skip ahead. Don't look at the pictures after this, either. There will be spoilers. Come back when you've played through it. You could go do it now. It's not like it'll take you very long...

A good test of how engaging and well-handled the story is could be how much of it I remember. I'm writing this three or four days after I completed the whole thing. Let's see...

It begins with a rather good set-up, a suspiciously distorted call for help from a supposed ally. I thought it had "trap" written all over it but of course we have to go find out for ourselves. There's a brief meeting with the extended "family", in this case Rytlock and Crecia, the ever-bickering exes, Braham, once again slipping into post-adolescent angst, and Marjory, seemingly herself as always. That won't last.

I do like the characters. Affection for them is just about the only thing that carries me through some of the unconvincing, incoherent plot twists. It irks me more than somewhat when the characterization slips.

I can just about cope with Rytlock's conversion to guilt-ridden 90s New Man Charr, emotionally scarrred by relationships past. I'm teeth-grittingly inured to the way Braham lurches from brash, drunken frat boy to viking warrior to emo soul-searcher. The days when I expected continuity and contact with all of my character's extended family are long over.

Even by those standards, Marjory's breakdown in the Labyrinth stands out as poor writing. It happens during the heart of this very short episode, a puzzle-based trip through a maze once used to test potential followers of the Norn Spirit, Raven.

It's a decent segment. The puzzles are intuitive and the Labyrinth limited enough that I was able to move through the whole thing with reasonable facility. There was no point when I even thought of stepping out of the game to look anything up.

Nothing much happens in the spooky corridors that hasn't happened to all of the characters countless times before. Being faced with phantoms from your past is par for the course in Tyria. Why Marjory should react to the spectral sight of her dead sister Belinda with a set of the vapors worthy of a Victorian melodrama beats me.

I've jumped ahead a little, though. Before the Labyrinth comes a very nicely handled horror movie intro in which the crew arrive at the military outpost where they're supposed to meet their contact, only to find it deserted. The grey light and softly falling snow play wonderfully into a sense of impending doom. I thoroughly enjoyed that part.

The camp leads to the new map, the weakest part of the episode in terms of narrative. There's a half-hearted attempt to pad things out by splitting the team up and sending the player character - sorry, The Commander - off to help each party in turn but the effect is ruined by poor design and buggy implementation. I could hear Rytlock and Cre bickering from the other side of the map!

The only other part I remember is the finale, a blessedly short boss fight of the kind that would have been sub-boss #2 back in Season Two. I can't actually remember how we got there but I do recall how the fight went.

There were no pointless new skills to learn, just a single special attack button to press at the appropriate moment with a big on-screen prompt in case you couldn't figure it out for yourself. As for the infamous "the floor's on fire, the air's full of lightning" mechanic so beloved of ANet's fight co-ordinators, there is some of that but it appears to be largely for visual effect only. I didn't bother dodging much, took very little damage. Also, if you want a break you can just back into the corridor for a timeout.

There is one celebrity death, part of the reveal that caps the aforementioned "suspicious call for help" plotline. Anyone who played through Heart of Thorns will surely have figured out the twist at the first hint of a mysterious whisper. Dragons will be dragons.

The impact of the death, which apparently upset some players quite a bit, was muted for me since I couldn't remember having seen the character before this Season. Apparently she was a key figure in Path of Fire but I've evidently blocked most of that farrago from my memory. The further we get from PoF, the more I loathe everything about it. The only good thing about not getting a third expansion is that we've been spared another one as bad.

And that's about it. As far as I can sum it up without fact-checking, Jormag is somewhere under the ice, whispering doubt into everyone's minds while promising some kind of help with some kind of threat. The Charr general and his followers, including Rytlock's son, are somewhere out there doing whatever it is they threatened to do (I've forgotten what that was) and we're no nearer to catching up with them than before.

Marjory's having a nervous breakdown, Taimi, Kas, Cannach and all the rest are off somewhere, doing something about which we don't need to know. Zojja is still missing. No one ever mentions her. She's been in rehab since Heart of Thorns. When and if we'll see any of them again seems almost entirely random.

Despite all the carping, I did enjoy "Whispers in the Dark". It's ludicrously short even by ANet's unimpressive standards, some of the characterization is threadbare, to put it charitably, and the new map is pocket-sized but I'd still take this episode over pretty much anything from Seasons Three and Four, if only for the hugely improved combat sequences, which allow me to use my character's regular abilities while fighting manageable opponents.

Perhaps the strangest thing about "Whispers" is the labelling. Described in the press release as "The first episode of The Icebrood Saga", it's much, much shorter and contains far less content than the "Prologue", "Bound by Blood". I suppose there's no reason the preamble shouldn't be several times the length of the first chapter but it's an unconventional approach.

Looking forward, Wintersday is next up on GW2's calendar. That would usually take us into the New Year. Lunar New Year follows that fairly swiftly. It wouldn't be too much of a surprise to see the second instalment of The Icebrood Saga drop sometime in February, although it could be any time, since the whole point of moving to a saga format was supposed to be flexibility.

A recent interview with a German website, as reported on Massively: OP, confirms there are no immediate plans for new Fractals, Raids or Legendaries. Even new hairstyles are nowhere in sight. None of this affects me personally, since I neither raid, run fractals, craft Legendaries or re-do my characters' coiffures on a regular basis, but all of these are matters of pressing interest to the hardcore GW2 player.

It is now almost impossible to picture ArenaNet as anything other than a studio in difficulties. The entire seven and a half year run of GW2 has been a series of badly mishandled changes of direction evidencing a complete lack of vision. The core game remains strong enough and - absolutely essentially - replayable enough to hold the attention of thousands of players but the increasingly feeble drip drip drip of new content is taking its inevitable toll.

I'll be on board for the whole trip, one way or another, but I foresee a future of sporadic visits, dropping back in for the infrequent updates then moving on to other MMORPGs where stuff actually happens. How long that can remain a viable business model is hard to judge but from waht I read, revenues don't seem to be down all that much, if at all.

Guild Wars 2 was originally conceived as a user-friendly, hyper-casual experience. Perhaps what we're seeing is a return to the game's roots. For all the drawbacks that come with this latest lurch in direction, I think I prefer the way things are going to the last couple of years.

IntPiPoMo runing total 93
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