Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Get Lucky: EQII

Yesterday evening, after I got back from work, I had my tea and watched a couple of ten year old episodes of University Challenge on YouTube with Mrs Bhagpuss (once a punk, always a punk, eh?). Then I logged into EverQuest II to check on my Overseer missions and something pretty amazing happened. Amazing enough to make me yelp "Yes! Yes! Yes!" out loud.

Back up a bit.

Managing Overseer missions requires some thought. Ever more so as the options open up. The maximum number of missions per account, per day, is ten but you can collect far more missions than that. The longer the mission, the better the potential reward (and the higher the risk of failure), so as you acquire more missions and your pool of potential adventures widens, the ones you really want to do are the longest ones you have available.

Only you don't get to choose freely from all the missions you've unlocked. The server selects seven (randomly, I'm assuming) for the day, meaning you have to do three of them twice to get all ten done. When a mission you've undertaken completes, it goes on cooldown for the same length of time it took to do. Or maybe twice that long. There seems to be some variation I haven't quite figured out. Either way, it's a significant tranche of time.

Similarly, each Agent needs a sit down and a cup of tea before they're ready to go again. Because I've been doing Overseer missions with half a dozen different characters I have Agents all over the place. And because the Bonuses and Mishaps rely on which unlocked mercenaries and familiars each of those characters have available... well you can see how that goes.

The very best potential rewards come from the ten hour missions. I now have two of them. On a day when I have to go to work, if I want to be sure of completing all ten missions, including any ten hour ones the game has been kind enough to give me, I have to log in and set seven running before I leave. And I have to remember to log in pretty soon after I get home to let the cooldowns cool down so I can get the last three done.

This is a significant commitment. Considerably more so than doing my dailies in Guild Wars 2, something I also still do every day, or getting my login rewards from Riders of Icarus, which I've abandoned, mostly because the botched transition to the new owner meant I couldn't log in for three months. I mean, can now but I don't want to. The moment has passed.

Getting back to EQII, the Overseer feature looked at first to be a fairly straightforward piece of fluff but it's turning into a significant time commitment, requiring planning and forethought, neither of which are my strong suits. It's probably not something I'd stick with for long once the novelty wore off if it didn't offer something meaningful in return. Building my collection of Agents and missions is fun but the kind of fun that only amuses me for so long.

The main reason I still do my Dailies every day in GW2 is that completing them gets me two gold every time. On three accounts that's more than forty gold a week and forty gold is serious money in that game's economy. Also, they're generally quick and involve playing the game fairly normally.

I thought I'd lucked out when I got this.
EQII has a daily like that, too. I do that every day but it pretty much completes itself if I just play normally. Overseer Missions are a thing apart and it would be easy to ignore them if the rewards weren't highly desirable.

They aren't, for the most part. As I was saying the other day, there have been plenty of complaints
about the useless and inferior items included in the loot table, complaints with which I have a good deal of sympathy. Or I did. Until last night.

Another aspect of Blood of Luclin that's received considerable criticism from some quarters is the change to the way crafting works. I've already covered that. I won't go back over it in detail. The key thing to remember is that to make Expert spells and Combat Arts, Sages and Alchemists now need both the new Shadow materials and the Shadow recipe books.

The implementation of the new mechanic for gathering Shadow rares has been tweaked so that it's no longer a problem. If anything, it's easier than acquiring rare mats under the old system, certainly if the wide availability and rapidly falling prices of Shadow mats on the Broker is anything to go by. Getting hold of the books so you can actually use them, though? That's a very different matter.

In the olden days crafting books dropped from just about any mob. In recent years they were moved to the loot tables of Named mobs in instances and raids. In BoL, according to Niami Denmother's invaluable write-up on EQ2 Traders, the recipe books for Expert Spells and CAs (and for Mastercrafted gear and items from all the other tradeskills) come only from the ten hour Overseer missions. And the chance of getting one is very, very small.

I imagine you can guess what's coming next. I got one! What's more, I didn't just get any one, I got one I could use. And it was a good one. A really good one.

The motherlode.
The book I received from one of my ten hour missions was Shadow Alchemist Studies 15. After I'd calmed down, the first thing I did was check the Broker to see what nominal value it had. I wasn't going to sell it, obviously. I just wanted to rub my hands and cackle like Uncle Scrooge.

When I searched the market, the cheapest any of the Shadow Alchemist books was selling for was a couple of million plat. The highest level book on sale was the one I had and only one person was selling. They were asking ten million plat.

Whether that's a sum anyone's prepared to pay I can't be sure but it's not unlikely. EQII has hyperinflation and some people have a lot of money to burn. I don't. I have just over 800k, which is plenty for general purposes but way short of being able to buy spell books.

I passed the recipe book to my Alchemist and he scribed it. As I said, it's a good one. It contains several key AEs for Berserkers and Bruisers, both of which are classes I play regularly, as well as some key buffs and heals for those classes. There are important CAs for other melee classes in there, too.

The next thing was to check the mats the combines require. I had all of them in quantity. So I made all the Experts in the list for the classes I play. They were all big upgrades. What's more, having them scribed means I can now use the offline research system to upgrade those abilities to Master without having to go through the intermediate steps, each of which takes weeks.

Having sorted my own needs I began to think about the commercial possibilities. I checked the going rate for the Experts my Alchemist could now make. They ranged from 400k to 750k depending on how desirable the ability might be. I had plenty of mats left so I made one and put it on for about two-thirds of the the lowest-priced.

Then I checked the price of the materials needed to make it. Buying all of them came to not much more than a tenth of the selling price of the finished item. This is obviously a potential goldmine, always assuming people are actually buying Experts at these prices.

Given the relative ease with which the materials can be found, the only throttle on Experts coming into the game would seem to be the limited availability of the recipe books. To some degree this is the reverse of what we've been used to, where books came onto the market fairly fluidly but rare mats were comparatively, well, rare.

I suspect this may all be subject to further iteration and amendment as time goes by but for now getting lucky with a ten hour overseer mission might just be a license to print money. Is that a good thing?

That's where we enter the debate on scarcity as a game mechanic, which is a whole different post and one I may get around to at some point. Certainly, knowing you might score big is a huge motivator for some people - if it wasn't, we wouldn't be having the lockbox controversy. For others it's a major turn-off.

But then, that's true of just about any game system you care to name. One person's demon is another person's darling, as we all know. The complicating factor in this particular case is the inarguable utility and perceived necessity of the items involved. A lot of people either need - or believe they need - Expert-level abilities just to play the game at all. Locking them behind this kind of luck wall is problematic for both for the winners and the losers in the Overseer lottery.

I'll worry about that later. For now, though, I got a Shadow Book!!! I'm not going to overthink it. I'm just going to enjoy it. And you can bet I'm going to be doing all the ten-hour Overseer Missions I can get my paws on.

Maybe lightning will strike twice. Although that would probably count as a Mishap...

Monday, January 27, 2020

Try Another Flavor: EQII

If you believe the forums, itemization is the biggest problem with EverQuest II's latest expansion, Blood of Luclin. If that's true, it wouldn't be the first time.

Itemization, like balance, is a perennial issue in all MMORPGs that rely on gear as a progression mechanic. In many cases items represent the "Reward" in the "Risk vs Reward" equation. Get it wrong and the whole game comes off the rails.

As with most things, it's not quite as simple as that. The question of how "good" crafted gear should be, compared to quested or dropped, has dogged many games that I've played. Too good and adventurers start to complain that their supremacy is being undermined; not good enough and crafters begin to wonder loudly what the point of crafting even is.

Crafting in Blood of Luclin has changed significantly, changes that aren't to everyone's taste. The new Overseer system, likewise, has come in for a significant degree of criticism. There are a couple of (conspiracy) theories floating around, purporting to explain what's going on.

One is the usual "They don't care and even if they did they don't know what they're doing" mantra that's dogged the game since beta in 2004. It may well even be true, at least in part. I don't believe the EQII team doesn't care but in the company's straightened circumstances it's easy enough to imagine that people may have found themselves taking on development and design roles with which they have yet to come to grips or for which they aren't ideally suited.

More intriguing, particularly in the light of both the recent re-alignment within Daybreak and Executive Producer Holly Longdale's assertion that "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", is the idea that Darkpaw Games is re-envisioning EverQuest II to meet the demands of a new and different audience. As one comment on the thread puts it "...they're working toward a different game design and they expect to lose customers because of it. They're just trying to extract as much money from folks they know are bound to leave along the way."

Were that to be true, it  would make some sense of another comment I read (and now can't find) which reflects on something I've noticed for myself. Conversations about the current expansion taking place in open chat within the game itself seem to be considerably more positive than those on the forums. Apparently the kind of people likely to chat ad hoc in General are having a better time of things than those who prefer a more formal approach to discussion. Change, as always, benefits some and disadvantages others.

All of this is a lengthy pre-amble giving context for something that might appear to be entirely unrelated: flavor text. Flavor text is an aspect of game design that's not just under the radar, more like under the floorboards.

Why, we might very well ask, does flavor text even exist? It fulfills no gameplay function whatsoever. It's not like the informational or instructive text that appears on a click or a mouseover to explain the use of an item or define its statistical value. Flavor text exists purely to be read and enjoyed for what it is. In a gamespace where many players don't even read quest dialog, what can that be worth?

To me, quite a lot. It's a meaningful factor in the elevated levels of satisfaction I'm experiencing in the current expansion, compared to the relative dissatisfaction felt by others.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, as a direct result of ongoing changes in game design I find myself engaging with a whole raft of daily tasks, all aimed at "progressing" my characters. Two of those, the Overseer missions and the "Familiars Wild" quest, can result in the acquisition of agents or familiars.

Each of these comes in the form of an icon, a tiny portrait of the individual in question. When examined, these pictures tell a story.

It's a peculiar irony of the genre that the less important the text is to the function of the game, the more likely it is to be well-written. I've seen exquisite thumbnail descriptions on items whose only reason for existence is to be sold to vendors for cash. Frequently the miniature illustrations are delightful, too. Even crafting mats get a line of context.

When it comes to Agents and Familiars, I'm finding the act of discovering each of these new "characters" is a reward in itself. A reward sufficient to justify the time and effort involved.

The loot tables attached to Overseer missions do indeed have some very real shortcomings: some of the items are all but useless and many of those that look appealing on a first glance prove to be inferior to equivalents rewarded by the regular quests. The Agents and the Missions themselves, dropping infrequently but repetitively as they do, are also of limited practical value.

And yet it's the appearance of a new Agent or Mission that elicits the most immediate response from me. Any frustration that might be building as a result of receiving repeated "rewards" I can't use and don't need is, for the time being at least, alleviated by the anticipation of receiving another Agent or Quest for my collection, each complete with another tiny tale.

As for the Familiars Wild quest, there I could be quite cross, were it not for two things: firstly the quest itself is a lot of fun and secondly the familiars are highly amusing. The reason I might be cross with this quest is that, as I suspected, most of my characters are bugged and can't get it at all.

After a judicious exploration of the way it's (not) working for me I have concluded that every character who did the quest on the day it first appeared in game, back in February 2018, is considered still to be doing it now. They all get the "come back tomorrow" message that appears if you've done the quest since the last daily reset. Characters I've made more recently are able to get the quest as normal.

I petitioned this, not hoping for much. I got an excellent, prompt, accurate and polite reply from Darkpaw's Customer Service team, telling me, as I knew would be the case, that there was nothing they could do. malfunctioning quests are obviously a problem outside of the scope of customer service. I was just hoping they might know of a workaround.

The impressive thing was that the person who replied had very plainly both read and understood my petition, something that has not always been the case in other MMORPGs where I've had similar interactions. I've always found DBG's (and previously SOE's) customer service to be exemplary. I'm glad to report that level of professionalism is still being maintained.

With the quest bugged on most of the characters I play regularly, it would be reasonable to expect that I'd stop doing it. The outcome has been somewhat different. I'm now doing Familiars Wild every day on those new characters that are able to get the quest normally.

There's a good chance I won't play those characters all that much, although you never know. It doesn't really matter because I'm not doing the quest to make them more powerful - I'm doing it because I look forward to seeing what new familiar I get each time. Partly that's the fun of collecting and working towards completing a set (and yes, I have been considering buying Tem Tem) but mostly it's for the fun of reading the flavor text.

To add a further layer of nuance to the meaning of "reward" (as well as hanging another question mark over my sanity), I don't even need to do the quest to read the descriptions on the creatures. Every familiar in the game is shown in the Familiar window and the full text for each is visible on mouseover. Except I find it more fun to receive them randomly as "rewards", the reward in this case being a few lines of text that bring a wry smile, often as not.

I very much doubt this is the thinking that represents the new kind of customer Darkpaw is supposedly hoping to attract, should that conspiracy theory have weight. It is hard to deny that the game is changing but why, let alone to whom those changes are intended to appeal is extremely hard to parse. Personally I always tend to suspect a combination of incompetence and unforseen outcomes in these situations, rather than any clever plan.

Whether the churning engines of change will plow the game into the ground or prepare it for the seeds of a bright, new future remains to be seen. For now, I'm enjoying losing myself in the undergrowth that springs up in the furrows.

So long as someone's being paid to write biographical entries for notional non-player characters there can't be too much wrong with the state of the game. Or, at least, that's the tale I'm choosing to tell myself.

Friday, January 24, 2020

New World Coming

Earlier this week, Amazon announced that their upcoming MMO, New World, will no longer feature free for all player versus player combat. FFA PvP for short.

Stripped of the unmelodious jargon of the genre, this means players who don't choose to fight other players don't have to. It also means players who do want to fight other players will have to wait until they meet someone of like mind before getting down to it.

Self-evidently, this is a decision with winners and losers. Pacifists win. Aggressors lose. The reverse of the most probable outcome, should an actual fight ensue.

Hey! Say! JUMP Brand New World (Karaoke version)

It's also a radical re-envisioning of the game, from one where "You'll probably be murdered in New World... players will be able to freely kill other players" (ex-Studio Director Patrick Gilmore) to one where you'll "experience PvP by opting into Faction conflicts and Wars for territory ownership", as the latest dev blog puts it

It's not the only fundamental re-positioning for the game. All of the original promotional material focused on a setting relatively new to the online space the game hoped to occupy: the colonial era of the seventeenth century, albeit with added supernatural elements. The very name of the game reflects that choice.

But colonial adventurism no longer enjoys the swashbuckling image that once made it the staple of Boys' Own adventure stories. Invasion, exploitation and slavery make a poor backdrop for fun and games. Particularly so if we, the players, find ourselves cast as the invaders, exploiters and slavers rather than the invaded, exploited and enslaved or their defenders.

Nina Simone New World Coming

Beyond the look of the armor we'll be wearing and the sailing ships that take us there, the New World we'll all be able to explore when the game launches in May 2020 won't bear much resemblance to South America in the 1600s. It's now set to be something much closer to the generic fantasy we've become so familiar with, we no longer even notice its more unsavory implications. We'll be fighting undead and monsters as usual. The "New World" even has a fantasy name: Aeternum.

Predictably, these changes arrived to a mixed response. News of the revamped setting was met mostly with a shrug. There were some grumbles at the loss of a potentially original-for-genre option, a few catcalls from the usual suspects over the supposed caving to political correctness, but for most the change probably represented the most trivial of course corrections. After all, the gameworld, even in closed alpha, was already awash with restless dead and supernatural artifacts. It didn't seem much like our world to begin with.

The complete and unapologetic removal of what was for many the whole point of the game, though? That has not passed unnoticed. The news was met with the expected howl of anguish from that section of the potential audience which considered itself, not unreasonably, to be the intended core demographic.

Nas New World

And why not? For them it must feel as though teacher has taken the toy out of their hands, passing it to Timmy, saying "If you can't play nicely then you don't get to play at all". And Timmy, picking himself up from the floor, clutches teacher's skirts and grins. Smugly.

It's a truism that the only people who like ganking are the ones doing it and yet it's a truth that every developer seems determined to prove for themselves. Never take anyone's word for it. Never trust the evidence without testing it. To destruction. As the astonished tone of the recent Amazon dev blog has it:
"One of the problems we observed with this system was that some high level players were killing low level players, A LOT. Sometimes exclusively. This often led to solo or group griefing scenarios that created a toxic environment for many players."
 Gosh! Really? Who'd have thought? 

"We set out to build a compelling world full of danger and opportunity that begs to be explored. The intended design was never to allow a small group of players to bully other players."

It's so plaintive it's heartbreaking. But the good news, the really very good news, the news that reinforces my belief that Amazon come to this process like the grown-ups in the room, is that New World didn't have to launch and fail in flames like so many other "the players will police themselves" pipe dreams for the lesson to be learned. 

Sophie Whole New World

The closed alpha was one of the most professionally run and certainly one of the most purposeful and focused I have ever been a part of. It always felt as though information was not only being gathered but account was being taken. It never felt, as many alphas do, that the tracks had already been laid, the train was running and the only change likely to be made was to the livery on the carriages. 

Speculation now moves to whether Amazon can add sufficient PvE content and tune the new, more formalized territorial PvP in the scant few months before the late-Spring launch. It does look tight. Then again, Amazon have considerably more resources at their disposal than the average MMO developer.

The closed alpha took place under a rigorous NDA, which has been breached considerably less than is usual with these things, but as we move into the next phase, lips are loosening. It's been interesting to read the experiences of those who participated, not least because some of them seem to differ so significantly from my own.

Curtis Mayfield New World Order

I wasn't repeatedly ganked. The opposite, really. I can only remember getting into one fight, somewhere out in the wilds, which started with some wary circling before the stranger decided to rush me. I just stood there and let him get on with it. Then I respawned and carried on with my business.

Other than that, every encounter with another player outside the safe zones ended either with the two of us waving as we passed or simply ignoring each other altogether. Some fool did once attack me in a safe camp. I just carried on sorting my storage and since he'd flagged himself by attacking me, someone else standing nearby killed him. 

None of that particularly added anything to my enjoyment. I'm very happy to see it gone. I imagine almost everyone else will be, too. If people want to fight, they can fight. If they don't, they can get on with whatever it is they do want to do, unmolested. Seems like a sound commercial decision to me.

Anna Tsuchiya Step Into The New World

I'm less convinced by the proposed "50 versus 50 PvP battles by appointment". This sound a little over-optimistic to me and also somewhat arid. "Companies will declare War on territories they wish to take over, draft a roster of 50 combatants, and agree on timing for the battle"sounds like quite a big commitment in organization. It's like PvP Raiding, isn't it? 

The format of the engagement itself, which is basically "Protect the Flag" in an instanced setting, seems a long way from the immersive ownership of land in the world, something which proved highly popular in alpha. It's an attempt to provide riskless territorially-based PvP, I think. It could be interesting. Might need some iteration in beta, I suspect.

As for the enhanced and expanded PvE offer, scheduled to include "new enemy types" and "world events where the ground opens up and erupts with corrupted energy and enemies", that sounds like some welcome fleshing out of what was already a very intriguing gameworld. I've read a few testers complaining that PvE in alpha was lackluster but I think they mean the kind of PvE you find in a theme park MMO. 

Motörhead Brave New World

That gameplay was all but absent, it's true, but there was a wealth of exploration to be enjoyed. I spent hours just wandering through the woods, taking screenshots. When it comes to PvE I guess it depends what you mean by "environment" and what you mean by "versus".

I am curious to see the proposed home invasion mechanic: "Territory owners will need to protect their Forts and withstand an onslaught as waves of enemies attempt to bash theirs gates down and wipe out their Company". I wonder if monsters are required to make a formal application and receive acceptance before setting a time and date for the battle, as PvP invaders do? I somehow doubt it.

Nothing in the latest announcements from the dev team has affected my decision on whether or not to buy the game. I pre-ordered at the first opportunity. That said, I don't expect it to be something I play a lot, let alone for it to become my new forever game. I see it as a dip in, dip out amusement.

80 PAN! Carry A New World

The main reason for that is the skill floor. New World is intended to be a game that rewards player skill, by which they really mean reaction time and manual dexterity. I'm sixty-one years old. I'm not the player that sort of combat is designed to attract. Let's be honest, I wasn't that player when I was twenty-five.

So long as I can wander and explore with reasonable facility, gather resources, craft and maybe build a home (if that's an option outside of a Company) I'm certain I'll get my money's worth. The removal of FFA PvP makes that a certainty, I think. And it will be good to be able to talk about the game in detail, with pictures, at last. It's been very frustrating, having to talk around the edges all the time.

Closed beta comes as a perk of pre-ordering. Looking forward to it. It can't be too far away.
Maybe the NDA won't be quite as ferocious. Let's hope so.

If not, at least there's no shortage of songs with "New World" in the title.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


Just going to put this up to mark the day everything changed and everything stayed the same. 
I'm sure everyone's already seen the announcement via whichever hyperactive MMO news site they use. Here's the straight, professional reportage minus the tedious snark. Oh, wait a moment... that was snark right there, wasn't it?

The gist is this: Daybreak Games is splitting into three new, quasi-independent Studios: Dimensional Ink Games, Darkpaw Games, and Rogue Planet Games. DCUO, which seems to have drawn the short straw where naming is concerned, goes to DIG; the fortuitously yet somehow wholly inappropriately acronymed RPG gets Planetside, while the innocuous DG becomes the new home for the EverQuest franchise.

Planetside is more than welcome to wander off and do its own thing as far as I'm concerned. I did try playing it once but I never really got on with it. I wish them well and wave them goodbye.

Jack Emmert, the erstwhile head of Daybreak (I think - it's so hard to keep track), takes control of the superhero success story. His team are also already working on a new "action MMO", title and subject unknown. I still play DCUO occasionally and would like to retain the option so I have a small dog in that fight.

My main interest lies inevitably with Darkpaw Games, headed up by the estimable Holly Longdale. Having lived through twenty years of highly variable management under numerous versions of Verant, Sony Online Entertainment and Daybreak, I can safely say the last few seasons under her stewardship have been some of the most stable and satisfying I've enjoyed to date. I'm very happy to see her and her team given autonomy to carry the existing games and the franchise forward.

There's a Darkpaw Producer's Letter up already. It doesn't give an awful lot away, unless you're gagging for an EQ T-shirt.  It does, however, say very much what I'd want to hear, as this paragraph suggests:
"Immediately, and in practical terms, our focus is on the fans and investing in our current games and the business of starting new ones. We’re already executing on the plans we had for 2020, like expansions and events for EQ and EQ2."
I read that both as a promise of Business as Usual and confirmation that we will get the usual annual expansions at the end of the year and maybe even a new EQ title someday. That's as much as I'd hope for and more than I would have expected a couple of years ago.

The letter also assures us that
"Currently, nothing will change for your accounts and membership."
Note the leading adverb. Given the supposed independent nature of the three new studios I wouldn't give too much for the continued existence of the All Access Membership. Time will tell.

Anyway, I have Overseer Missions to organize so I'm going to leave it at that for now. I think this looks a positive move, especially for the EverQuest games. Only time will tell if my optimism is well-founded, but things certainly look more promising than they did a while ago.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Different Angles: In Which I Talk To Myself About EQII For No Particular Reason.

As threatened, yesterday I made a new character in EverQuest II. That makes thirteen on my All Access account. I have quite a few more on what used to be my regular account, a couple of whom I still play.

My ratonga Necromancer over there was on for a while yesterday. I logged her in to invite the newbie into my one-player guild. (Technically, there are well over a dozen people in the guild but the last time anyone who wasn't me logged on was over five years ago). Once she was on, naturally she had to go and do a little bit around the house.

It's slightly annoying that some of the Prestige houses I bought a few years back belong to characters on the account I don't play much any more. In a way, though, that's only a nominal problem. EQII housing is incredibly flexible. If I could be bothered to set up the permissions, any and all of my characters on any account I play could use any of the houses on any other account with almost exactly the same freedom as their owners.

That's what I did with my Berserker's Mara Estate a while ago. It's become the central meeting point and crafting area for anyone I play. I already had a forge and a sage's scribing desk there, along with a full set of storage bins (one of the best purchases I ever made in the game) but now I also have a maxed-out Alchemist and a Carpenter closing in on cap I thought I ought to complete the set.

I remember when the cost of crafting tables capable making of what were then called "Pristine" quality goods seemed outrageously expensive. Not in money but in Status, the real currency of EQII. Looking at them now, they seem like absolute bargains. Time changes scale.

The Mara Estate functions as a de facto Guild Hall. I have an actual Guild Hall but it's been mothballed. It costs 69,000 Status per week to maintain, which isn't much between twelve or fifteen people but a lot for me on my own. That said, if I moved some of my furniture out of my overstuffed Maj'Dul mansion, where I currently enjoy a rent-free existence (in fact, my rent is reduced by 200%, although I don't believe I get a rebate) and put it in the Guild Hall, I could probably reduce that Status to next to nothing.

There would be a couple of advantages to doing that. It would make travelling a lot easier, for a start. At the moment everyone has to go to their own house first to use the portal to the Mara Estate. Not everyone has a portal yet, either. The house owner, in this case my Berserker, has to visit the house and install it himself, which also means that house's owner has to set permissions to allow him access.

It's an extremely flexible system but it does require some effort and understanding to get the most out of it. Not to mention time. A Guild Hall simplifies things a lot. All you have to be is a member and you can just go there directly from the Housing screen. That would save quite a bit of time.

The other big advantage would be access to crafting writs. At the Mara Estate I have everything necessary to craft anything at all. My storage bins are stuffed with every kind of material and I have a fuel bin too. I have all the workstations in place, including the Frostfell ones, should I feel the urgent need to make winter clothes in August.

What I can't do there is level up by doing writs. As Wilhelm found, that's not necessarily the way you'd want to go these days, but at certain levels it can be very convenient, grinding out xp in one spot rather than running all over the world doing crafting questlines.

Only, writs can be quite annoying. They require specific materials relevant to the particular level range and if you're trying to steam through twenty or thirty levels with xp potions running you're going to need a whole lot of different mats. I always find I'm missing some stupid bit of wood or some fish or other and since the best xp comes from doing Rush Writs, which are timed, running to the bank to resupply is hardly optimal.

If you have a Guild Hall you can hire an NPC to stand around all day offering you writs. NPCs, as is well known, don't have lives or families, unless they're required for questing purposes. If I had all my bins and workstations in my Guild Hall along with an NPC to feed me writs I could blitz through a few dozen crafting levels in no time. Well, in an afternoon.

It's something to think about. It would be a lot of work, though, and my Mara Estate is a gorgeous, open, outdoor landscape with trees and rivers and a wide, blue sky. Not to mention all the trees I've planted. Whereas the Guild Hall is a bit boxy and cramped. We couldn't afford a big one back when we got it and I certainly can't now I'm on my own.

Something to think about, anyway. The more consistently and committedly I find myself playing EQII, the more I realize just how vast and deep the waters beneath me are. And everything ends up taking so long, even when it looks so simple.

I started clearing out some old Legend and Lore quests on the Berserker a couple of weeks ago, thinking it would take me an hour at most. It took a couple of sessions and even then I ended up buying the last few items on the Broker. I found out pretty quickly why I'd never finished them in the first place - they were all flying creatures in the underground caverns of Thalumbra.

There was a huge amount of swooping through tunnels and trying to land on pinnacles of rock and each creature seemed to have at least one body part that refused to drop. It was hard going at times but it worked out nicely in the end. I cracked and bought the last couple of parts for several thousand plat but then I put all the extras in my packs up for sale and they've been making me a steady income ever since. Evidently I'm not the only one to lose patience trying to find that last, elusive Fathomlurker Spine.

Burke and Hare's Body Chop Shop
Getting back to the new character I made, I followed Mailvatar's advice and went for a Fury. I dithered over the race for a while. I'd quite like to try the premium Freeblood but the price is prohibitive. In the end I went for an Arasai, which is basically an evil butterfly. Supposed to be a fairy or a pixie but look at those wings.

I have one on another server and they're great. You can make them very, very small with the help of the Mystic Moppet you get from one of the Veteran Rewards and they get the Glide skill, which means no falling damage and semi-flying from level one without a mount.

So far it's been a lot of fun. I can't really tell much about the way the class plays because I claimed the Monk Mercenary that came with one of the expansions and mostly I just follow him around as though I was paying him to powerlevel me. Which I literally am, except I only pay him a few silver, not the soul of my first-born, like a player powerleveller would demand.

I had to buy a character slot to make the Fury. It cost 1000 DBC, which seems very reasonable, especially when you're sitting on 18k of the stuff. I could have deleted one of the three characters I have no intention of playing seriously - the Channeler and the Beastlord, two classes whose mechanics I don't much enjoy or my Level 3 Wizard.

That robe has to go. And the hoodie.
The thing is, I've spent a fair amount of time with the Channeler and the Beastlord. I'm not going to claim deleting them would be committing murder but I worry the guilt would approximate to having a healthy pet put down. Or it might. Don't feel like risking it. As for the Wizard, she was the very first character I made on the account on the day the Freeport server launched. She was a founder member of the Guild. She has seniority. She's not going anywhere.

Having bought one character slot I was idly wondering whether to buy another so I could make a character on either Kaladim, the Time Limited Expansion server, currently running at High population and a great success, or the recent Rivervale Heroic Server, running at Low and not being very successful at all.

It turns out I already have a character on Kaladim. A level 21 ratonga Dirge who's also a level 20 Jeweller. I logged in this morning and couldn't see a character I wanted to play, which was when I realised I have so many I have to scroll down to see them all. So I scrolled down and two characters I'd forgotten blinked at the light. As usual, I remember them well enough now I've been prompted but without a nudge I'd have had no memory of creating or playing them at all.

I'll log the Dirge in today and see how things are over there. I might still buy that extra slot and make someone on Rivervale, too, but mostly I think I'm going to play my Fury. She did twenty-six levels in a couple of hours last night just to prove that, fast or slow, levelling is always fun.

I'm going to level her the old-fashioned way (well, the new old-fashioned way, with a Merc, 120% Vet bonus and xp potions) until it's not fun any more, if that ever happens. Then I might bump her to 110 with one of my boosts. Or I might save those for someone else. Someone new.

So many possibilities. It feels weirdly as though I just started a brand new MMORPG. I wonder how long it will last.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Familiarity Breeds Confusion : EQII

You know how you can look at something every day and not really see it? Happens to me a lot. I like to think of myself as an observant sort of person but really, like most of us, I only see what I expect to see. I know we'd all like to believe we're the one who'd spot the gorilla but the whole point is that almost no-one does.

I like almost everything about EverQuest II's latest expansion, Blood of Luclin, but the thing that's really grabbed my attention is the new Overseer system. It's all the better because I never expected I'd be giving it any attention at all.

It's a fairly abstruse addition to a game that already feels gnomic. It's taken me a while to get to grips with it. I'm sure there's more to learn. I know there is.

Since I wrote about it I've been sending my Agents out on Missions every day, so I do have some practical experience. There's also a detailed entry on the wiki, which I've studied at some length.

Even so, it was only today that I got around to playing with the fine controls, the two Plus signs at the bottom of the window. One affects  Bonus, the other Mishap. You can use them to increase your chance of the former and reduce the risk of the latter, both things you'd very much like to do.

Unlike the system itself, there's a veneer of internal logic to this. To increase the chance of acquiring a bonus chest you can send one of your Mercenaries to accompany your agent. To help them avoid being captured you can lend them one of your familiars.

Okay, it's a very slim thread to hang a sense of reality on but it's something. You could imagine the Merc and the Familiar giving the Agent some kind of edge. I wouldn't say I'm feeling any immersion here but it at least has internal logic and a certain storybook charm. More pointedly, it's a mechanic with repercussions in the game proper.

To send a Mercenary to assist your Agent you must first have unlocked the "Hire Anywhere" option for that specific Merc. Some, the ones that come with expansions for example, are unlocked when you first hire them but you can unlock any by paying a small fee (currently 149 DBC which is about a dollar-fifty at the basic exchange rate).

That's a possible revenue stream for Daybreak, although I'd imagine it's more of a trickle. Most people who care probably have plenty of Mercs unlocked already. My Berserker has half a dozen on staff. Still, I'll probably spend a smidgeon of my triple-SC-sales savings on mercenary contract extensions for some other most-played characters.

Also, why are all my Mercs working pro bono now?
Although EQII may well have turned into a whaling operation at the difficulty levels above my ceiling, for me it's still nickel and dime stuff, if even that. At my level of involvement it's more a game of time-management than a wallet thrasher. As I've mentioned before, modern EQII comes with several offline training systems: mercenaries, mounts, abilities and familiars. There may well be others I've missed. I've been reasonably diligent in keeping up with the first three but I never really got going with Familiars.

That's because the only way I know to do upgrade them for free is to complete the daily Familiars Wild quest, the purpose of which is to catch a familiar to feed to one of your existing stable, thereby making that one stronger. Brutal.

I did the quest when it was introduced almost two years ago. I wrote about it at the time, praising it to the skies and saying I found it "very moreish indeed". Then I promptly forgot about it and never did it again.

Actually, that's not entirely true. I didn't blank the quest from my mind. It occured to me now and again that I should be doing it but I was well aware that if I did I'd just add every new familar to my stable rather than feeding any of them to the others. Not that I have a problem with that. It just never seemed to be the best use of my time.

Well, now things have changed. I could use a few more familiars to send out on missions. And the better quality the familiar - Legendary, Fabled, Mythical - the more it reduces the risk of the agent it accompanies getting captured.

With all that in mind, this morning I went to get the quest. I had a vague idea the NPCs were in Freeport and Qeynos but I couldn't remember where, so I went to the wiki, found the loc, cut and pasted it into my EQII Maps window in game and followed the glowing trail to... the exact spot I've passed by almost every day since the quest was added.

2019 was a good year for free familiars.
The three Conservators stand around under the gables on the street side of the East Freeport bank. That's the local branch most of my characters use. I'm in and out of there several times a day. Did I ever notice them? What do you think?

I was a bit confused as to why no-one was flying the feather to show they were open for business but my Berserker spoke to Steward Kres anyway. His reply? "I'll have more tasks for you tomorrow".

What? Why? I haven't seen you for two years! How can I still have a timer?

It occured to me that perhaps I still had the quest in my book. I have some stuff in there that goes back a lot longer than a couple of years. I opened my Journal to look but I couldn't find "Familiars Wild" anywhere. Off to the wiki to check what Category of quest it was.

"Mission", apparently, which I didn't know even was a category. But then, I could write a book on the things I don't know about EQII. If only I knew what they were...

Something else I didn't know until today is that the Quest Journal now has five tabs. If you'd asked me yesterday I'd have said there were three: Quests, Collections and Achievements. If I'm honest, I might have said two, because although Achievements have been in the game and the Journal for many years, I always forget about them.

As the most observant among you will already have noticed, this screenshot was taken nearly forty minutes after I finished writing the post. Blogging takes up a not inconsiderable portion of the day.

I had no idea there were tabs for Daily Objectives and Missions as well. When did they appear? I open that book almost every day and I swear I never saw them before. But then, I wasn't looking for them. Remember that gorilla?

It didn't help much. I found a "Familiar Daily Mission" on the astoundingly lengthy list. Seriously, there are pages and pages of Missions, almost none of which I ever do - or indeed ever have done. Every one said "No" under Completed but they still all had Reset Timers, including the Familiar. What that means I'm not entirely sure. At all sure. I don't have a clue.

To be on the safe side I logged into every character on the account and checked they didn't have the quest. No-one did. Then, because I'm nothing if not bloody-minded, I logged in the account formerly known as my main account (and even more formerly as Mrs Bhagpuss's account. Don't get me started...). My Necromancer there was also told to come back tomorrow.

I refer the author of the flavor text to Dorothy Parker's review of The House At Pooh Corner.
Also, could you please add a Merc or Familiar called Katy so I can use my "Katy On A Mission" gag? Oh, wait, I just did.

And that's where I'm at right now. Reset is in exactly five hours as I write this. That's seven in the evening where I am, midday in San Diego. I guess I'll have to wait and see what changes then, although since I haven't done the quest for two years I'm at a loss as to how the daily reset could affect things.

Always something new to learn. Always another puzzle to solve. I'm just hoping it's not some kind of bug. I could do without exploring the intricacies of Daybreak's Customer Service system. I'm all for exploration, discovery and lifelong learning but there are limits.

I'll come back and update this post when and if there's something to say. With luck, I'll have a picture of my new familiar to show off. Either that or a screenshot of my ticket number.

EDIT: Hmm. Reset made no difference at all. Steward Kres still says "Come back tomorrow". But... I made a new character and she was able to get the quest and complete it. Now Kres tells her to come back tomorrow as well. We'll see what happens then.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Throw Me In The Deep End, Watch Me Drown

Returning to MMORPGs you haven't played for a while is hard. It's become something of a truism to say that. Harder yet, verging on impossible, to begin from scratch in a game that's been around for a decade or more. Only this week, UltrViolet of Endgame Viable, talking first about the EverQuest titles then expanding to include the genre as a whole, said
"You simply can’t join in today unless you have the 20 years of institutional knowledge that comes from starting at the beginning. Actually that’s true of almost every MMORPG except World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2: If you take a year or two off of any MMORPG, you might as well plan on never coming back, because you can’t."
And it can be true, especially if you take the increasingly common boost options that jump your character somewhere close to the current cap. Indeed, in a reply to comments on his thread by myself and Wilhelm, UltrViolet clarifies his position, specifically on EverQuest II:
"I’ve always struggled with EverQuest II. I do okay with the lower levels, but there’s such an exponential increase in complexity as you gain levels that whenever I try to skip ahead with one of my free level boosted characters I just can’t make heads or tails out of it."
This is the crux of it, I think. Few, if any, MMORPGs become any less accessible than they ever were through the simple passing of the years, provided you approach them as though they had launched last week. Granted, changing aesthetic and gameplay standards may have rendered some games unattractive to the point of repulsion for many but that just makes them games you wouldn't want to play, not games whose complexities are beyond reach.

I was thinking about this today because I spent the morning playing DCUO. I had no plans to go back to Metropolis but a couple of news items popped about the game's ninth anniversary and I heard there were free gifts to be had.

This happened at the same time last year (Go figure! Anniversaries, eh?) when I logged in to buy myself a dog. On a sidenote, this is why I love blogging. Had I not written about it in two posts last January I'd have had no recollection of how I came to own Krypto or even that I did, although I'd have pretty soon worked it out the moment I logged in and saw him romping exuberantly around my Base. He's not exactly easy to miss.

What's more, the fact I was once in an all-female League called DC Bombshells would have completely slipped my mind. Female characters, that is. I probably didn't need to clarify that part. Given how unusual, even radical, a move that must have been for me, you might think I'd remember it. And I do - now I've read my blog.

Getting back to the point, one of the reasons I was keen to update (a 6GB patch) and log in was the lure of yet another max-level boost. I already have one boosted character in DCUO - possibly two - but you can never have too many. Also, I'd read that you don't have to use the boost right away; just logging in before the end of the month clips it to your account to be used whenever you feel the need.

DCUO's patcher is smooth and fast but six gigs still takes a little while. I passed the time by clicking through the link about the anniversary, which took me to the forums. There I found this thread which, I think, exemplifies the reasons it can be so difficult to restart an MMORPG by jumping in at the highest levels.

Captain1 Dynamo, the thread's author, takes several thousand words to explain, in mindnumbing detail, exactly why clicking on a boost that changes the number next to your character's name does nothing to prepare you for playing at that exalted level. He's absolutely right and not just about DCUO. It applies to most MMORPGs and for the same reason: endgame play is rarely intuitive.

Everwake was ranting about levels earlier in the week, complaining that they don't mean much any more. And he's right, too. Partly. As I said in a comment there, levels do still matter - just try going up against endgame content without them, if the game even allows you to try - but other things now matter as much or even more.

MMORPGs seem to have become games about understanding sytems and mechanics. The genre long ago abandoned "easy to learn, hard to master" if indeed it ever embraced it. It's true that newer entrants to the field have streamlined gameplay to a degree, particularly some of the F2P imports that few in this part of the blogosphere seem to play or write about, but not by all that much.

Looking at the newer MMORPGs I've played in recent years I certainly wouldn't describe ArcheAge, Black Desert, Blade and Soul or even Revelation Online as any easier to pick up and play than World of Warcraft Classic. If they seem easier it's  only because we, as veterans of the genre, have done a lot of the learning already.

As for the mid and endgames, every MMORPG, from the most hands-off, plays-itself mobile game to the extremely hands-on Star Citizen, comes drenched in convoluted progression mechanics that require considerable time and effort to unravel. Warframe, cited by many as an exemplar of accessibilty, confused me to the point where I gave up trying - and I was barely out of the tutorial.

DCUO is no exception. Even though I've been playing the thing on and off since launch - actually beta, I think - I've still never really understood many of even the more basic gameplay elements. There's a reason my bags are always full of exobits and Nth Metal - I've never had any idea what to do with them!

Until today. This morning I logged in to be greeted by a brace of overwhelming welcomes - firstly from Krypto, comically pleased to see me, and then the game itself, lobbing windows at me right and left. Being bounced at by a super-dog was new but the windows were very familiar. DCUO has always liked to start a session with a lot of "you should be doing this" advice, both in the form of pop-ups and voiced harangues from Oracle and the other super-nannies.

The suggestions on what's happening and where the action is are always welcome and it's nice to be pointed towards any free gifts that might be coming my way but for the first time I can remember, today I got some sound, simple, straightforward help with upgrading my gear. The reason it worked so well was that rather than explaining what I needed to do the UI did it for me.

I did still have to click things but arrows and visual prompts showed me what to click. For the first time I found myself using the heaps of stuff moldering at the bottom of my backpack to make my character more powerful. A paper-doll I don't recall ever seeing before appeared with my available Augments laid out clearly and the game led me through the process of choosing and improving them.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it was idiot-proof. On first try I wasted a bunch of exobites upgrading the wrong sort of Augment for my power set but really, if a player doesn't know whether the character they made relies more on powers or weapons then they have no-one to blame but themselves.

I got that sorted before I wasted too many resources. Then I got rid of all the detritus clogging up my bags. It was glorious - for a moment or two. Then I went on a claiming spree to grab all the freebies going and that filled up all the space I'd just emptied.

Luckily most of it was Chroma options, some kind of new color range for armor, which vanished into my Style tab on a right-click. There were a couple of Base items including a Daily Planet Vending Machine. I got those placed right quick. That left a few things I didn't know what to do with so I auto-sorted my bags and pretended they weren't there.

With that done, I thought about following up some of the prompts I'd been getting. Hawkgirl wanted to see me on Thanagar. I've never been there. Didn't know we could, even. It sounded like a plan.

The usual problem I have at this stage is finding the portal. It often tells me to go to The Watchtower but when I get there it's half an hour of searching, every time. The place is the most confusing hub zone I've ever seen.

But wait! Once again, someone's been tinkering. I opened my map and clicked on the Warp option, which allows you to instatravel to certain places. I don't recall it ever let me go anywhere much other than The Wachtower and my Base. Now it has a list of choices including the open area for the current episode, in this case Thanagar.

I was there in seconds. Instead of spending half a session flying down endless metal corridors looking for a mission terminal and a teleport pad I took a quick briefing with Hawkgirl, spoke to some Green Lantern or other and a couple of Thanagarian officers to load up my mission journal. Then off I went to kill stuff.

Looping back at last to the opening theme, this is where I suggest that coming back to an MMORPG isn't as hard as all that. So long as you stay safely within the parameters the game sets, that is. In the end, it's all about the killing, isn't it? How hard is it to run around, find the baddies and shoot them in the head? Or in my character's case, kick them in the head, then beat them to death with a stick.

I've never been any good at combat in DCUO but I like it well enough in short bursts. I'm very well aware that the game becomes extremely demanding quite fast above a certain level but so long as I take care to stay within the limits of solo and open-world group play I can manage well enough.

It may even be that not being very good at a particular MMORPG makes returning easier. If all you really want to do is splash about in the shallow end then it really doesn't need to be any more difficult ten years in than it was at launch. Especially if someone takes the trouble to put out some flotation aids.

If you want to go down the deep end with the big boys and girls, though, well you're just going to have to learn to swim, aren't you?
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide