Thursday, April 30, 2020

Fifteen Again

Paeroka has a helpful post up running through some of the many free gifts and bonuses available in various MMORPGs during this time of trouble. She mentions the free questing in Lord of the Rings Online, now extended to May 31st, something I tried and found I didn't like. I find that particular game suits me better the fewer quests I do.

She also has also a nice picture of the free cape available in the Guild Wars 2 Gem shop. I logged all of my accounts in today to grab that one, including the third account that's largely dormant these days and my free to play account that I haven't used in several months. While I was there, I took the opportunity to credit the F2P account with the Saga of the Icebrood episodes, a totally pointless excercise since a) it would require Path of Fire to play, which I have no intention of buying even with the current 50% off and b) I only ever play Living Story/World/Saga content on my main account anyway.

Still, free stuff is free stuff, a point I believe I have made many times before. There's certainly a lot of it about right now but, for once, the giveaway in GW2 isn't related to the lockdown. It's part of ArenaNet's celebrations for the fifteenth anniversary of the original Guild Wars.

That set me thinking. I can't remember precisely when Mrs Bhagpuss and I decided to play Guild Wars. I know it wasn't at launch. We thought it was a PvP title and although by then we'd both had plenty of PvP experience in Dark Age of Camelot and elsewhere, we weren't really interested in another round of virtual fisticuffs.

By April 2005, though, our love affair with EverQuest II was very much on the rocks. Almost everyone we knew had left and we were finding it a real grind, leveling solo and duo in a game that was still designed almost entirely for groups. Plus EQII ran like a pig with a broken trotter on my PC.

My memory tells me we went from EQII back to EverQuest and I also seem to remember that when we were playing Guild Wars it was late summer or early autumn. That would fit the timeline, being maybe four or five months after Guild Wars launched.

I recall reading a piece on some gaming news site about the way the game had taken an unexpected turn from PvP to PvE, attracting a much greater number of players interested in the latter. That piqued my interest. I remember suggesting it to Mrs Bhagpuss as a game we might try as a direct result of that news item.

She agreed, I bought two copies, we tried it and we both liked it. It wasn't really an MMORPG. It arguably became one but in its initial form it was definitely a lobby-based dungeon crawler for PvE players with a well-developed PvP battleground alongside.

Belghast has a post up about what a mistake it is for developers to mix PvP and PvE in the same game. I don't entirely agree but I do think it's definitely better to keep the two modes separate where possible. Guild Wars and GW2 both do that very well but one thing that people rarely mention about the first game was that, at one time, you literally couldn't play the PvE campaign without first playing a little PvP.

Someone will probably pop in and correct me if I'm remembering this wrong. It was around eight years ago when I last made a new character in Guild Wars so my memory is hazy. As I recall, if you're playing Prophecies, as the campaign in the original base game is now known, when you reach the end of the pre-Searing introduction (itself one of the greatest bait and switch openings in MMORPGs, and there's some heavy competition for that), you have to enter a PvP battleground and complete a match.

If you don't you can't carry on to the campaign itself. It's a fairly harmless trial by fire. I don't think you can fail it in any way. You just have to endure it until it's over and then you never have to think about PvP again. But just that once you have no choice.

I remember being mildly irritated but not because I objected to the intrusion of PvP in principle. No, my problem was that PvP in Guild Wars is so insanely fast I can barely even understand what's happening when I watch a match, let alone do anything meaningful if I'm in one.

The game has a spectator mode which I used to use quite often when I played. Watching a match gave me the impression of two teams of tasmanian devils having a fight in an exploding fireworks factory. I did try playing a few matches but it was utterly hopeless. Given that, over the years, I've played with reasonable facility and moderate success in battlegrounds in DAOC, World of Warcraft, Warhammer, Rift, The Secret World, GW2 and EQII, just to name the ones I remember, I think it's fair to say Guild Wars PvP is on a different skill plane altogether.

Guild Wars is currently in maintenance mode but it still celebrates whatever anniversaries and holidays it had running when it was under active development. I read on Massively:OP that for this notable anniversary the handful of people keeping the lights on and dusting the furniture have made a special effort, adding a new boss and some elite skills.

I did think I might make the effort to see that for myself, which is how I came to be back in old Lion's Arch earlier today, but although I managed to find the NPC who hands out the doohickey that lets you fight the new boss it all looked like considerably too much work. I always forget just how complicated everything in the original Guild Wars has to be, involving all kinds of items and NPCs and fiddling about in menus and inventories.

Instead I contented myself with watching the hourly firework display then finding the Xunlai Gift Giver so I could exchange my Birthday Present Voucher for actual birthday presents (told you it was fiddly). I had this year's and last year's in my bag and I was fortunate enough to get a gold and a purple mini for them.

I took those to my Hall of Monuments and placed them on the podium. I'm not sure how many more I need to place there to get another HoM point for my Hall of Monuments in GW2 and it's rather a moot point these days anyway, but you do these things, don't you? Or I do.

It did surprise me that after I'd done that I still had both minis in my bag. I thought placing them meant you lost the use of them for good. There's even an in-game warning that suggests as much. Maybe they've changed it.

If I can summon up the willpower I might log in all my other characters. I believe they all get individual birthday presents. The minis are tradeable so I could, if I was feeling particularly insane, log in both accounts simultaneously and hand all the good minis from my old account to the one I have linked to GW2.

That might be taking the whole free stuff idea a little too far. I don't mind logging into games I don't play to get things I won't use but I have to draw the line at logging in to games I don't play to get stuff I don't need so I can use it to get stuff I still won't use in different game altogether.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

It Was Fun For A While

It's week five of Blapril and I can tell from many of the posts I've been reading that it's been a long month for some. I'm not going to link or quote the many expressions of exhaustion, frustration and general "looking forward to not having to do it any more" I've seen, but there have been quite a few.

Every time Belghast runs one of these things he takes great care to emphasize that it's not a competition, that there are no "win" conditions and that the awards are only there for fun. Even so, every time there seem to be quite a few Blaugustians or Blaprilistas who don't seem to be finding it anything like as much fun as they thought it would be.

It reminds me very much of the Seasons in Guild Wars 2's World vs World. Unlike Blaugust or Blapril, those, of course, were intended to be competitive. ArenaNet ran two Seasons, both of which stand out for me as highlights of my time with the game. Then they stopped, saying there would never be another.

The problem was that although Seasons drove participation in WvW to unprecedented levels of engagement while they ran, when they ended that participation dropped off a cliff. Worse, it never climbed back up even to the status quo ante. People burned out and in doing so some of them lost their enthusiasm for the game mode for good.

This isn't what anyone wants. The fundemental purpose of events like Blaugust and Blapril, as I understand it, is to encourage new people to take up blogging, to motivate current bloggers to continue and for everyone to have some fun. Blapril, specifically, came into existence as a positive distraction from the turmoil of Covid19.

The last thing anyone wants is for people to find blogging turning into a duty, a burden or a chore. We're in week five of six but it shouldn't feel like the light at the end of the tunnel coming into sight. It ought to feel more like we're gazing longingly at the last couple of slices of delicious cake left on our plates. Blapril needs to finish with everyone saying "Wow, that was amazing! When can we do it again?" not "Geez, thank god that's over. I thought it would never end".

So, how do you stay motivated if it's all starting to become a little too much? Sadly, I'm not sure I'm really the person to ask. I have the opposite problem.

It's extremely rare for me to have any kind of difficulty either coming up with ideas for posts or finding the enthusiasm to turn those ideas into something I can publish. Most days there's little I'd rather do than write. Only yesterday I was complaining to Mrs Bhagpuss as we took our daily walk that I had so many topics I wanted to write about I didn't have time to play my games as well. It varies according to what's going on but on average I'd rather blog than game, most days.

Even so, there are occasions when I don't really have anything pressing I feel I have to blog about. When there's nothing much in the news and all I'm doing in game are a few dailies, when other blogs are quiet and no-one's teeing up any juicy topics for me to bounce off, there are still a couple of things that can get my blogging juices flowing again.

One is playing about with style or presentation. Regular readers may have noticed that I don't always write in exactly the same way. Sometimes I post pieces that read as though they were intended for a news site or a magazine; journalistic prose, complete with sub-headings and pull-out quotes. Other times what I write could have been pulled straight from a personal journal, all in-jokes, asides and notes to self.

Just a few days ago I wrote this piece on the Block By Blockwest festival in Minecraft. It has a peculiar format in which every line ends with a carriage return. It's not free verse but it looks as though it might be.

I didn't sit down that morning intending to play with the form. What happened was I read the news item on Pitchfork, got an instant idea for a post about it, opened Blogger and started jotting down my thoughts in note form, with no paragraphs or line spacing at all.

When I started to edit I noticed what I'd written had a staccato ryhthm, all short sentences and phrases. Instead of fixing that up and turning it into properly punctuated paragraphs I started making it choppier still, cutting what I'd written into single lines.

It was fun. I re-wrote all the bits that read like normal prose so they'd fit the new format. I played around with ideas to get things looking how I wanted them on the page. At one point the whole piece was right-justified but although that looked good, it made it too hard to read.

It's not a great post by any means. I wouldn't hold it up as a particularly good example of my own work let alone suggest it has much merit in any other context. That's not the point.

This isn't a post about literary quality. It's a post about how to stay motivated when writing a blog and the point is I had a lot of fun writing that post. It amused me to do it that way and I was happy with the end result. Well, I would be. I'm both easily pleased and my own biggest fan, two personality traits that make it very easy for me to stay motivated.

Also, it's a post on a topic that I'm aware is not one that interests all of the people who read this blog. FFS, he's droning on about his terrible taste in music again. Wake me up when he has something to say about games. From the reader's perspective, posts like that can use any help they can get, which makes them a great opportunity to try some new ideas, have some fun.

If you already know you're mostly writing for yourself, it gives yourself permission to make yourself the audience, but while you're indulging yourself, you can also try to make it eye-catching or amusing. After all, when you write on the latest hot game or chime in with your opinions on a current controversy you can rely on the content to carry the weight but if you're off on a jolly the responsibility's all on you.

Bullet points, lists, unusual layouts, illustrations, video clips, anything to break the text up on the page. All of that adds interest, for you and for your readers. Okay, sometimes some of it will annoy someone and not everything you try will fly but you can't please everyone or get it right every time. Your blog is a safe space to experiment, or it should be.

It's not just the look of the thing, either. Try changing the way it sounds.

I like to write in different voices. Sometimes I'm demotic, sometimes formal. I can be chatty or academic. I can also be horribly self-indulgent but that's what blogs are for, isn't it? And there's nothing like an homage to Damon Runyon or Hunter S. Thompson to freshen things up, once in a while. Probably once in a very great while, unless you have a gift for mimcry.

The thing is, it's your blog. Not your readers, precious though they are. And anyway, if you're not having fun, chances are they won't be either.

I said earlier that there were a couple of things that juiced me up when I was feeling dry. Actually, they're both the same thing: variety. And as well as varying the form and the voice I vary the content.

I didn't used to do that much. It's kind of a recent innovation and I've found it liberating. I started posting on music last summer and it's fair to say that I've found I enjoy it even more than posting about games.

My range here on this blog is beginning to expand further. I've posted a couple of times recently about visual media and I talk increasingly often about ordinary life. In Pandemia everyone's doing a bit more of that. It's a difficult situation. We may as well get what we can out of it.

Posting about music motivates me not only because I get to share my discoveries but also because I get to listen to the music while I'm writing about it. That's something you can't really do with games. I find it very engaging to have songs or bands playing as I'm typing stuff about them. It also gives me an opportunity to watch videos as I choose examples to use in the post. It's a fun way to spend lockdown days.

It also feels creative and what motivates me in this hobby more than anything is the creativity. All of the ideas mentioned in this post are basically the same idea: making something that's fun in the making. Form follows function. If it's fun to do it should be fun to read.

That's the best advice I can give for staying motivated: indulge yourself. Have fun. Play.

Blogging isn't work and it very definitely isn't a duty or a responsibility. It's an indulgence, a pleasure and a privelige. Enjoy it! But never feel guilty if you don't.

If blogging's not working for you, if you're not feeling it, skip it. Come back to it tomorrow or next week or next month or don't come back at all. You aren't letting anyone down, not your readers, not yourself. No-one out there wants to read what you write so badly they want you to feel bad for having to write it.

Give yourself permission to enjoy blogging. If Blapril's wearing you down, rest on your laurels. You don't have to do this. You wanted to do this. Now you've done it. Go you!

And maybe when you feel you don't have to write you'll find you want to. People are funny that way.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

For The Price Of A Sleek Table

Freya is mine.

Goldie is mine.

Apollo is mine (whether I wanted him or not).

Muffy will soon be mine.

Many, many more will be mine.

I have a list.

Welcome to Camp California.

You'll never want to leave.

You'd better never want to leave.

If you know what's good for you.

Stop by, any time. We never close.

Five To Conquer

When I saw the replies begin to roll in on Krikket's post about her Five Favorite Games Series I was certain I wouldn't be joining in. I wasn't sure I'd even played five games series, let alone ones I could call favorites.

As I kept reading the posts, though, names began to bubble up from the swampland of my memory. Then the topic came up on the Blapril Discord and in thinking about it some more I found myself with four, then five, titles I had at least played.

Luckily I don't have Wilhelm's scruples on what counts as a series. I agree that including expansions to MMORPGs might be stretching a point but a check on the accepted definition finds "a number of similar or related events or things, one following another" from Cambridge University Press or "a number of things or events of the same class coming one after another in spatial or temporal succession" from Merriam-Webster.

There's no stipulation as to how large that number must be. For the purposes of this excercise, I'm going to allow it to be as low as two, although I don't genuinely believe that's  what we usually mean when we talk about a "series". If it was, we probably wouldn't talk about "pairs" or "couples" instead, would we?

I have considerably fewer qualms about the question, raised again by Wilhelm, of whether we need to have played all or most of the games in a series for it to count as a "favorite". In all seriousness and entirely without irony, I don't see any reason why we should have played any of the games in a series at all to consider it a favorite. 

I could perfectly reasonably include Pokemon based on the posts I've read and enjoyed about the games or Grand Theft Auto because of its cultural significance. I have favorite bands I've barely listened to and favorite authors I've scarcely read, after all. Why should games be any different?

I'm not going to do that, if only because I think I can come up with five series from which I have played at least two games. The first is blindingly obvious, of course.


My first MMORPG. Responsible for a fundamental change in the direction of my life and for much of my last two decades. 

There are more EverQuest games in the series than you might immediately remember. I've played only two of them although I own three and wish I'd played four. I played EverQuest itself from November 1999 and EverQuest II from September 2004 (beta). I played both of them this morning.

I own a copy of Lords of EverQuest but I have yet to install, let alone play it. It's an offline RTS set in Norrath that came out in 2003 and I just discovered that it's available as a download from a website called MyAbandonware. I've downloaded it, which gets me one step closer to playing it, I guess.

There were three Pocket EverQuest games released for a forgotten device called the PocketPC. I wrote about them less than a year ago. I still haven't gotten around to trying that free trial.

Then there's the console mmorpg EverQuest Online Adventures. I regret never playing that one and hope I still might, even though it sunsetted long ago. There's an emulator project called Return Home I have bookmarked to that end.

And of course there's Landmark, once known as EQ Landmark. Or EQNext Landmark. Or something. I liked Landmark. I don't miss it, though. It was a time vampire.

Guild Wars

A series of two, so far. Speculation on a third seems to have no basis in fact.

I played Guild Wars for something like a couple of months, close to the time it came out. I wasn't all that interested when I thought it was a hardcore PvP title, which was how it was advertized prior to launch. When reviews started talking about the large amount of PvE content, though, Mrs Bhagpuss and I decided to give it a try.

I stuck with it long enough to reach Ascension on two characters. Took me about six weeks. I have the clearest memory of how frustrating some of the fights were. I remember having to stop one Sunday afternoon and go for a long walk because if I'd carried on playing I probably would either have had a stroke or thrown my PC through the window.

Mrs Bhagpuss carried on for a couple of weeks after I stopped, taking her characters into some fiery hellhole that passed for endgame back then. When she stopped too we forgot all about the game for many years, until the sequel went into open beta. At that point I bought all the expansions, nearly finished Eye of the North, messed around in the others and collected points for my Hall of Monuments in Guild Wars 2.

GW2 has been my main MMORPG, on and off but mostly on, for the last eight years.

 Baldur's Gate

Mrs Bhagpuss and I both played BG1 through to the end, including the expansion or add-on, whatever it was called. We used to watch each other playing, often, but we never played co-op. 

My memories of the game are colored by the voice and image pack I downloaded right at the start. I made a custom bard and gave her the character portrait and voice of Daria from the eponymous animated tv show. I wrote about it here.

Mrs Bhagpuss played Icewind Dale, which kind of counts as part of the series. I tried it but didn't like it. Too hack and slash. I bought Baldur's Gate 2, played it and finished it. Mrs Bhagpuss was deep into MMORPGs by then and didn't have any interest in making time for offline games.

I'm currently playing (actually on a break from playing but I'm close to the end) Divinity:Original Sin 2, whose creators are working on Baldur's Gate 3 as we speak. I will buy that and play it. I hope it's better than D:OS2.

Broken Sword

Mrs Bhagpuss and I played the first Broken Sword together when were still a one computer household. When the sequel arrived we played it the same way even though, by then, we already had a computer each. Back in the early eighties, when I was married to my first wife, the two of us played text adventures that way on the ZX Spectrum. I still think it's the best way to play adventure games. 

I've owned Broken Sword 5 for several years but I still haven't played it. Well, I've played a little on my own but I'm waiting for a suitable opportunity for us to play it together. The fact that it requires a Steam account has put a block on that, simply because it adds a level of irritation too many when it comes to setting it up so we can both play. I wanted to install it on a handheld device and take it on holiday but my Windows tablet died, which put a stop to that.

We still do impressions of Nico's fruity French accent sometimes. We're such a caution.

Might And Magic

This is the longest series on my list, with ten numbered games and a load of spin-offs. We only played two of them, VI, Mandate of Heaven and VII, For Blood and Honor. That was in 1998 and 1999, immediately before we discovered EverQuest and MMORPGs, which explains why we never bothered with the rest of the series. 

We both loved Mandate of Heaven. I wouldn't mind playing it again right now. Mrs Bhagpuss often mentions it, particularly when we're out walking and she thinks some piece of farmland looks like somewhere lizardmen might lurk.

Might and Magic seems to be one of those series where the controls and the gameplay change from game to game. We neither of us enjoyed Blood and Honor as much. 

That's always a problem with series of games. Series of novels or movies frequently all stick quite close to each other in style but games tend to careen around all over the place. I think that's why I don't feel the same kind of drive to follow them. It's often better to find a different game that plays closer to what you remember about an old favorite than it is to keep adjusting for the inevitable disappointment and confusion series insist on bringing.

I also notice this list of favorites ended up being a list of series Mrs Bhagpuss and I played together. I don't think that can be a co-incidence.

Monday, April 27, 2020

In The Loop

I was flipping through a folder of old Guild Wars 2 screenshots (I have nearly thirteen thousand of them now), looking for illustrations for yesterday's post on NPCs when I happened upon the picture above. Just for a second I was back in the Loop.

The tall-trunked pines, the blue and gold automaton, self-dismantling architecture streaming up into the sky. The resonance felt uncanny.

I've been watching Amazon's latest high-profile project, Tales from the Loop.  So far I've only seen two of the eight episodes, all of which were released simultaneously in early April.

It's been described variously as "Thoughtful television for the slow days of lockdown" (The Independent) "Artfully slow-moving sci-fi" (The Guardian) and "Another dystopian drama for your lockdown watch list" (NME). Digital Spy believes the show is "more than just Amazon's Stranger Things" despite both being set in the 1980s. Well, a 1980s, although after the two episodes I've watched I'm not sure how you'd know. It looks as much like the 1950s as the 1980s to me.

The two things everyone seems to agree on, whether they like the show or not, is that Tales from the Loop" is very beautiful and very, very slow. That's what drove Joel Gilby of The Guardian to distraction: "Loop is very beautiful, but that’s where the praise ends. Fundamentally, I consider it rude to take an hour of someone’s life and only tell seven to nine minutes of story across it", he says of the first episode, one of the most thought-provoking and emotionally disturbing hours of television I've watched in years. I guess you either get it or you very much don't.

The pace is astonishing. I can entirely understand how some viewers might - will - find it frustrating. Shots don't just linger, they glaciate. There's a scene in the second episode where you can literally watch paint dry. Almost everyone speaks slowly, often quietly, often with little inflection. Conversations barely start, rarely continue, often drift. Half of every episode seems to be people walking through woodland.

I find the whole thing mesmerizing. I absolutely love it. Time seems almost to stand still while I watch. If you think nothing's happening, you're wrong. Everything is happening. If I was going to say anything negative, which I'm not,  it would be that an hour isn't nearly long enough.

Unusually (uniquely?) the series is based not on a novel or a comic but on paintings by Swedish Artist Simon Stålenhag. The soundtrack is by Philip Glass. One of the eight episodes is directed by Jodie Foster. This is a project that takes itself seriously and with ideas on this scale it needs to.

I need to re-iterate that I've only seen two episodes so this is not a review. In gaming terms it's a first impressions piece. What I would say is that, contrary to the numerous claims I've read suggesting Tales from the Loop as warm, cosy, nostalgic comfort viewing for lock-ins, I found it disturbing, unsettling, unsafe. If I had to slot the series into a genre, based on what I've seen so far, that genre would be existential horror.

The themes of loss, dissociation and identity put me in mind not just of Philip K Dick but of Kafka. The setting, a small town deep in pinewoods, inevitably invites comparisons with Twin Peaks. There's more than a touch of Lovecraft lurking in those woods, too.

To put it mildly, this is not an easy watch. It's bleak, dark, almost nihilistic. It's compelling. I really hope the next six episodes live up to the promise of the two I've watched. It would be one hell of a standard to keep up.

I could go on at length but I'll wait until I've seen the rest.

I wish I could remember what that golem in GW2 was doing, too.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Smashed Blocked

I wasn't expecting to mention Block By Blockwest again but since I was hyping it I guess I should also post an update about what happened. In a scenario woefully familiar to anyone who ever tried to play a hot new MMO on launch day, the servers managed to stay up for twenty minutes before bursting into flame.

The organizers attempted to salvage the event by whitelisting everyone logged in at the time then closing the doors to newcomers. More controversially, they continued to accept $15.00 payments for V.I.P. tickets, adding those people to the whitelist. Unfortunately for everyone that wasn't enough to mitigate the exceptional demand and the event had to be cancelled before it had really started. The Twitter feed tells the tale as does this NME report.

The organizers aren't giving up. The event has been re-scheduled for May 16th, by which time they hope to have scaffolded their infrastructure sufficiently to withstand the onslaught.

Given that Minecraft has already hosted successful events during April, featuring artists with major-league followings and international reputations (American Football, Charlie XCX) it's very clear that virtual festivals are a viable proposition but unless you have Epic Games' resources, maybe setting up a bill that looks like an actual festival, featuring headliners with a global reputation plus nearly forty support acts, many with very strong fanbases of their own, all performing on three seperate stages in the game and livestreaming on several socia media platforms simultaneously, does smack a little of hubris.

Easy to be wise after the event, I guess. Let's hope the people behind BXBW can get the show up and running in a few weeks' time.

I'm pleased to report that I did manage to catch the first twenty minutes before everything crashed and burned and what I heard and saw was very enjoyable. I had the website up as I was playing EverQuest II. At 3pm Eastern Standard Time, eight in the evening where I am, I clicked on Stage One to hear the opening act, Cannibal Kids.

They were new to me. They have a light, dance-inflected indie sound that made a fine backdrop to my latest run through the Corral.

There was a live feed on the website showing the stages in game. I watched the little blocky figures running around and dancing. It looked like a lot of fun. I wished I was "there". I watched for a minute or tow, then I flipped back and carried on playing EQII with the music in the background.

I was somewhere between the first and second named when Cannibal Kids' short set ended and someone astonishingly foul-mouthed began to hype up the crowd. It was obviously intended to get people's attention. It certainly got mine. Someone at the controls noticed pretty quickly too and the stream was cut after about twenty seconds of "colorful language" to be replaced by two people doing what I guess was a parody of the kind of announcers you hear on American sports radio.

They introduced the second act on Stage One, Dangerboy, who sounded pretty good from the half a song I heard before the stream cut out again. This time it didn't come back.

I tabbed out and checked the website. I closed it and restarted it. I tried the YouTube channel directly through YouTube. Nothing.

Mrs Bhagpuss popped her head round the door and asked if I wanted cheese on toast. I did. We had that and a cup of tea while we watched two episodes of series 45 of University Challenge on YouTube. It's one of our lockdown rituals. We have quite a lot of them by now.

When I came back about an hour later there was a notice up on the website explaining what had happened. My hour's absence had dumped me from whatever whitelist they were keeping. I couldn't get back onto the livestream so I forgot about it, finished my instance, went to bed and played Animal Crossing Pocket Edition.

This morning I checked the site again to see if there were recorded highlights to watch, which is when I found the whole thing had been abandoned.

All in all it was pretty entertaining and quite memorable. I learned a few things. I discovered some new bands. I'll go through the running order before the rescheduled event so I have a better idea who I want to watch next time.

The event raised $5000 in its truncated form, which according to the website, meets their goal. If they were only expecting to make $5k I'd have to wonder a) why they invited such an impressive line-up of performers and b) if they had any realistic idea of what would happen at all.

Oh well. As someone pointed out on Twitter, nobody risked their lives and everyone still has food and shelter.

We fail, we learn, we rise.

Common People

I should probably begin this post with an apology. I wrote it in response to Redbeard's thoughts about the importance of NPCs to our game worlds. There are two distinctly separate threads in Redbeard's post and I've allowed them to get horribly tangled in my reply.

The first is how important NPCs are to making the world feel inhabited, lived-in, convincing, real. It's something Bethesda found out the hard way in Fallout 76. Even when they realized their mistake it was far too late for some people.

The second is whether the ever-spiralling importance and significance of the player character in relation to events that shape the imaginary world serves to distance the player from the game. I should really have posted about the two things separately. I may well do that another time. For now, consider this a broad introduction to both topics.

On the first I wouldn't imagine there would be a huge degree of dissent. If you're interested in immersion, role-playing, narrative or lore, NPCs are absolutely essential. Even if all you care about are stats, gear, progression and glory, complete and total disinterest in the imaginary world that provide them would be difficult to maintain. If you really felt no need for any of that, chances are you'd be playing another kind of game entirely.

Anthropomorhic animals have a head start when it comes to emotional engagement.
Something like a battle royale, perhaps. As Mrrx explains in an excellent post on the game that's supposedly every parent's nightmare (tm The Daily Mail), there are plenty of ways to engage players without using NPCs. Just not in an MMORPG. Although maybe Fortnite is an MMORPG. I might wait until I've played it before I leap to any conclusions on that.

The extent to which NPCs matter varies from gameworld to gameworld. In games with strong, linear narrative structures like FFXIV there are times (quite a lot of times in my limited experience) when it seems as though the main reason players are even allowed into the game is to facilitate the stories of the NPCs.

In the kind of MMORPGs I prefer, the NPCs take something of a more democratic stance. They live there, you live there (well, your characters live there and you through them), you'd all just better try to get along.

In the original EverQuest, World Warcraft or EverQuest II, in Guild Wars 2 and most especially in the exemplary Vanguard, I never felt my characters were substantively different to the townsfolk, farmers and guards, who handed out jobs that felt like the kind of things Steinbeck would have had the Joads do, had they lived in Norrath not the Dust Bowl. The threats may have been wasps the size of turkeys or ratmen stealing apples but the reason they had to be stopped was so the crops could be brought in safely and merchants could bring them to market.

All of those games did have detailed and epic narratives but they took place somewhere high above the mortal perceptions of my humble characters. In some cases quite literally, away in other planes of existence.

EverQuest is one of the rare games I've played where even non-speaking NPCs seem to have personalities.
The practice then was to tell those stories only in raids. And by most estimates of the period only something like ten per cent of players raided. The rest of us picked up fragments, rumors, scattered news from the ethereal front lines.

It reminded me of warfare before modern telecommunications, where everyone knew something was going on, something that might change their entire way of existence, but it was all happening a long way away, somewhere across the water. If the war ever came to you, by the time you heard about it, it would be too late to do anything - as if you even could - so why worry? Meanwhile gnolls were stealing babies and orcs were in the woods and someone better do something about it and the someone might as well be you.

I used to feel very strongly about this kind of thing. Long before there were any MMORPGs I played a little Dungeons and Dragons. The group I was in played a bunch of different tabletop rpgs over five years or so in the mid-eighties but our first campaign was AD&D, first edition, and it set the pattern for all the others.

No-one was interested in fighting gods. We drew our line at trans-dimensional travel. Small dragons terrorizing market towns we might deal with if we felt no one else was going to do it The occasional minor demon lordling, at a pinch. By the time we hit level eight, though, our suspension of disbelief was shot.

That's why we kept starting over and over in new campaigns and new systems. Well, that and the insatiable curiosity for novelty among some of the group, plus the almost pathological passivity of the rest.

GW2 balances the very large with the very small rather well. Figuratively and literally.
When I transferred my roleplaying affections to online games I kept that mindset. Or tried. For many years I remained uncomfortable with extraplanar excursions and battles with demi-gods. I played so many characters partly so I could keep going back to the beginning, the leveling game, where the enemies were mortal and the stakes small.

As Redbeard says, "MMOs present a conundrum: you need to keep people interested by showing off "more" and "better" and "cooler" with each new expac". As characters get stronger so must their opponents and you can't sell your third, fourth, fifth expansion with a marketing campaign based on "yet more farmers with beetle problems in the lower fields, only this time the beetles are really big".

Developers seem to have two fundamental solutions to the problem of how to keep the players from noticing they just bought the same game for the umpteenth time: spectacular visuals and extremely big numbers. The new cities and zones become more fantastical, more other-worldly, more alien. The mobs become bigger and tougher and louder. All the numbers go up.

In many MMORPGs, higher levels turn into a dadaist fever dream, where you find yourself fighting woodland animals that could easily solo the raid bosses your guild took months to master a couple of years ago. Instead of battling ancient lich-lords you're back to beating up badgers because handing ten of their skins to a gate guard gets you a bracer better than the one the elder dragon dropped at the end of the last expansion.

My berserker in EQII now has 166 million hit points self-buffed. In solo instances the bolstering system bumps that to over half a billion. I upgraded one of his Ascension spells to Expert yesterday. It hits for between 86,340,040 and 178,114,878. The numbers are so big I can't read them without punctuation. That spell can be upgraded three more times.

Gnomes, eh? What you can do? Well, punt them, obviously.
Account based systems just confuse matters further. All my characters in Guild Wars 2 have senior military rank. Everyone who's anyone recognizes them on sight, even though most of them have never done anything more adventurous than some dailies and a few holiday events. It's disorienting. At least my EQII characters had to finish a few quests before people started addressing them as Mortal Champion or Drakinvess.

At some point it really ceases to matter whether opponents are the avatars of gods or overgrown domestic pests. Trying to hold the line on suspension of disbelief in the face of numbers that big would be fatuous and self-indulgent. It's a game now. The only question is whether it's a good one.

As the explosions get larger, the stakes higher (We have to save the world! What? Again?) and the numbers bigger, immersion and emotional involvement, for me at least, retreat into a dark corner and sulk. NPCs, though, they just keep on trucking.

Each new hub city, each forward camp and outpost, needs to be populated with people for whom all this is normal life. Or life, anyway. Often the NPCs I find myself working with seem almost at a loss to understand how they got there. Particularly the gnomes. The number of quests I end up taking on for gnomes who've somehow found themselves out of their depth in dangeorus waters yet again would fill a large volume of my virtual memoirs.

Social distancing in Khal bank.
I don't mind the gnomes. Their confusion and ineptitude does, at least, make some attempt at grounding the insane enterprises in which we engage. I'm in no doubt what I'd prefer, though.

Nothing beats recognizeable, human-scale cities and villages, their streets filled with murmuring shopkeepers and the hum of daily life. Bree in Lord of the Rings Online, as Redbeard suggests, or my favorites, Ahgram and Khal in Vanguard. It's ironic the full name of that game is Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. It always felt so much more like Vanguard: Tales of Ordinary Folk.

But Vanguard enjoyed the luxury of failure. There was never even a first expansion to shunt us into the Planes or back to the alien homeworlds from which several of the playable races supposedly came. It's easy to stay true to your roots if you never leave home.

I suspect incompetent NPCs, battles with demigods and vastly inflated numbers will be the best MMORPG players can expect for the foreseeable future. Better that than maintenance mode and closure, I guess.

Might as well just accept it and play on.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Block Rockin' Beats

Yesterday I wasn't sure what I was going to write about.
Not much seemed to be happening.
We've fallen into a comfortable routine under lockdown.
One day is much like another.

I did my dailies in Guild Wars 2.
I set my Overseer missions in EverQuest II
I went into the back garden and did some gardening.
I came back in and set my EverQuest Overseer quests.
I wrote four paragraphs of a post and saved it.
I had lunch in the front garden with Mrs Bhagpuss.
We did a quiz my mother had scanned and copied and sent us in the mail.
I came back upstairs and played EQII for a couple of hours; public craft quests and weeklies.
Mrs Bhagpuss and I went out for our daily, government-sanctioned walk.
We came back and sat in the back garden, drinking tea and playing a quiz game on my Kindle.
We came inside and talked for a while about our childhoods.
Mrs Bhagpuss started making an apple and date crumble.
I came upstairs and checked my Feedly.

Then I saw this.

My immediate thought was "Maybe I should install Minecraft".
I had an idea it was free.
It seemed like a reasonable plan.
Then I thought "How do you go to a gig inside an online game, anyway? I mean, how does that actually work?".
I went back to Pitchfork and read the piece again.
I saw a link to the Block by Blockwest website.
I clicked on it.
I didn't see a whole lot of information but I saw a big button marked "Tutorial".
I clicked on it.
It took me to a YouTube page.
There was a video.
I watched it.

It looked simple enough.
It specifically said you should have the Java edition.
I googled it.
On the U.S. site it costs $26.95.
It doesn't say whether it's available or playable outside the United States.
I checked
They have it for £17.19.
I stopped for a moment and thought "What about my Kindle?".
Amazon had the Pocket edition for £4.99.
Would that work?
I went and watched the tutorial video again only this time I paid more attention.
It says the Java edition "will run you about the price of a concert ticket".
I'd missed that part.
In the comments someone asks if the iOS version will work.
No, only Java on PC or Mac.

I looked at the poster. Closely, this time.
Massive Attack, Cherry Glazerr, IDLES.
Pussy Riot.
I never think of them as a musical group.
I guess they are, though.
A lot of interesting names I don't recognize.
Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Hunny, Argonaut and Wasp.
Names are important. And powerful.

I watched the tutorial video again.
Specifically the end part.
"If you don't have access to a Minecraft account, don't worry. 
You can still stream each stage, audio included, via the Block by Blockwest website.
Or any of these platforms"
Which seem to be Facebook and YouTube.
Also, presumably, Discord, since that's how you listen to the audio stream in game.

I think it would be really fun to walk around a virtual festival for a while.
For how long, though?
Half an hour?
An hour?
Would it be more fun than streaming the show?
Or watching the bands on YouTube later?
£17.19 more fun?
Probably not.
Although since it's for charity that seems to be missing the point.

I do want to go to a gig in a video game, though.
There seem to be a lot of them right now.
There was the one I posted about before.
And Travis Scott just broke the record for concurrent players with a performance in Fortnite.
12.3 million people!
Fortnite is free.
Maybe I should go watch something there next time.
Except won't we all die?
Or do they turn PvP and the storm off for concerts?

I decided not to buy Minecraft.
I probably will watch some of the gig on the website though.
And now I have something to write about.

Block By Blockwest is today, by the way.
If you're reading this the day I posted it.
April 25 2020.
I bet you all have Minecraft too.
What are you waiting for?

Friday, April 24, 2020

Call Of The West

The new Diaku Corral instance in EverQuest II is unsusual in that I've already completed it not once but twice. In common with all too many modern MMORPGs, EQII expects players at the level cap to spend a good deal of their time running the same instances over and over in order to gear up so they can then run a slightly different version of the same instance at a higher difficulty level so they can gear up so...

You get the picture. It's not a playstyle that's ever appealed to me. I don't mind doing instances multiple times so long as there's a healthy gap between runs - a few weeks, say, or better yet months - but grinding through the same mechanics and scripts day after day seems to be taking a love of repetition a little too far.

It's not a matter of principle. It's laziness. If you're doing instances because the bosses drop items that are better than what you're wearing it's almost bound to be a bit of a slog. I will do it, but I won't do it a lot.

Diaku Corral isn't all that different to any other Blood of Luclin instance in terms of difficulty. The ogres hit hard but they prefer to stand well back and pepper you with arrows from a distance. I've died a couple of times because there are a lot of obstacles that break line of sight, which seems to confuse my mercenary. Sometimes she stops healing altogether and sometimes she runs out of range as she tries to find a path.

All the named mobs have quirky mechanics. Some of them took me a while to figure out but most of them are reasonably intuitive. There's a walkthrough up on the wiki now, which explains everything very clearly even though it's written by someone whose first language plainly isn't English. By the time I got to read it I'd already finished the whole instance but it did answer a couple of lingering questions.

For once, most of the boss scripts aren't particularly annoying. The sound effects on the bucking bronco are nerve-jarringly loud and the winds that try to blow you into the shark tank are a pain but as these things go the whole instance is quite painless. The scenery is nice, if a bit orange and the wild west theme amuses me.

Even so, I probably wouldn't have gone straight back for another run had it not been for two things. Firstly, the loot is really good. The regular drops are 165 resolve, which was going to be my baseline for calling my max level characters fully dressed, but the uncommon drops are 170 resolve. I wasn't expecting to see anything that good in solo content this side of the next round of panda quests in late summer.

The bosses also seem very happy to give up their good stuff. I had more Exquisite chests than Ornate. In two runs I've had five 170 items drop, all of which someone can use.

Even so, the main reason I went back wasn't for the loot. It was that the questline carries on. That surprised me. I was imagining the quest existed only to act as an introduction, letting you know where the new instance was but there's more.

I probably should have guessed from the name of the first quest, "A Fistful of Diaku". Naturally, there had to be "For a Few Diaku More".

The second run was, inevitably, much smoother than the first. The whole thing took little more than an hour. My berserker is starting to feel powerful enough in solo content not to need the crutch of defensive stance. I swapped him to offensive, which sped things up considerably. It's also why he died when the healing dried up but you can't have it both ways.

As well as the stat gear, all of which is wild-west themed and looks fantastic, there's also themed appearance gear and themed house items. There's even a gnomophone that plays the theme tune,  "High Noon on the Moon". When Darkpaw throw a themed party they hang out all the banners.

When you down the final boss a cannon appears that shoots a barrel all the way back to Aurelian Coast. It's your fast trip home. I haven't seen one of those since the Moors of Ykesha.  I thought at first it was out of keeping with the cowboy motif but then I realised the whole plot revolves around a gnomish inventor working for the Diaku ogres and those cannons are classic gnome tech.

The cannon is canon, if you will. You won't? Oh, please yourselves.

As my berserker stood on the docks, picking splinters of barrel stave out of his armor, he noticed an ogre standing nearby with her shingle out. Who should it be but Grol Skullwielder, one of the BoL mercenaries whose hiring tokens drop from Overseer chests.

Grol is so highly thought of as a sword for hire her token currently sells on the broker for forty silver pieces. Or doesn't, more like. She suffers from being both common as dirt and largely useless. I already have enough of her tokens to give one to every character on Skyfire and still have a few left to play tiddleywinks.

Also, Grol being a berserker herself doesn't exactly make her the best duo partner for my berserker. She'll come in handy for Overseer duties though and she joins the Mercenary Battalion, yet another feature introduced with the Blood of Luclin expansion that I don't entirely understand. I hired her and noticed immediately that she charges for her services, unlike all my pre-BoL mercs, who all apparently decided to work pro bono as soon as we landed on the moon.

When I flew back for the hand-in I was expecting to be given the third quest in what would inevitably become a trilogy to match the inspirational source material. I wasn't disappointed.

Well, I was, a bit, but only with the name they'd come up with, "The Good, The Bad and The Broken". I have to admit I couldn't come up with anything better given the quest itself but I'd have rejigged the plot a little and called it "The Good, The Bad and the Buggy". All it would take is jar of metal-eating beetles and what self-respecting gnome doesn't have a few of those lying around?

Part three means another trip to the Corral but that's fine. I like it there. I might not even need a quest to persuade me to go back next time.

For a little variation I'd run a few more characters through the instance. It would be a significantly different ecperience with each new class. Unfortunatley, entry is restricted to characters who've completed the adventure signature quest line and I've been a little lax on that. Okay, a lot lax.

Maybe it'll give me the spur I need to take a couple more of the team through the final stages . Spur! Geddit? That's a good one.

Okay, no it's not. I'll just be riding off into the sunset then. Yippee kay yay... oh, wait, wrong movie...

Thursday, April 23, 2020

On With The Show

Last year The EverQuest Show ran a story about a visit to Daybreak Games' San Diego offices, where they interviewed then franchise producer Holly Windstalker Longdale and other members of the teams behind both games.

The lengthy interview with Holly was posted back in October but since then we haven't heard a lot from The EQ Show and I was beginning to wonder if the whole project had gone the way of so many others, into oblivion. Happily that turns out not to be the case.

Episode 8, just released, features interviews with the new producer of the EQ games, Jennifer Chan, as well as several members of the EQII team.

It's a highly professional production, better than some promotional videos from studios themselves. Fading, who put it together, apologizes for the long delay between episodes, saying "they do take a lot of time to edit because I like to have the quality there". It's there, no worries about that.

There are no great revelations in the thirteen minute video but there are a couple of very strong data points on that perennial topic, "how well are the games doing?". Fading mentions in passing that the EQII team is smaller than the EverQuest crew, which shouldn't be a surprise but kind of is anyway.

I know there are delusional EQII players who believe it's their game that carries not only the new Darkpaw division but the whole company. You see them chime in on the forums now and then, questioning who would want to play an ancient game like EverQuest.

A lot of people, apparently. We already knew from comments Holly Longdale made last year that EQ's population has been growing over the last few years. Now we learn that EQII's has as well.

In general the game is "doing great". In fact "we're doing better than we were years ago". There are a couple of references to the current server populations in EQII in which we learn they are "pretty strong" on every server, even "a little overpopulated" on some of the special rulesets.

It wasn't always that way. Several comments from the EQII team make it clear they went through some dark days not too long ago, when they thought they might not be able to keep on making expansions simply because they didn't have the resources. They also acknowledge the dispiriting effect of multiple rounds of layoffs.

Their claim that the smaller team is more effective may sound like wishful thinking or making the best of a difficult situation but it's entirely borne out by my experience as a player. I know there have been issues with testing and quality control and some players aren't happy with certain design decisions but my feeling is that recent expansions have been some of the best for many years.

It was also very surprising to learn that all of the music in EQII for the last few expansions has been done by one developer, unpaid and working in his spare time. They lost the budget for production of new music so Mark McBride began composing and recording it himself, together with input from the whole team, as a "passion project".

Which would be very sweet and rather sad if it wasn't for the plain fact that the music in EQII has improved almost out of recognition! I love the whole, new gothic style he's brought to the soundscape of the game and particularly the performing NPC bands and orchestras that pop up in the hub cities. You might want to try experimenting with a major chord once in a while, Mark, but other than that - good job!

I recommend the EQ Show video. It's a very interesting - and reassuring - watch for anyone who plays or follows the franchise.

My other public service announcement today is an in-game tip. Everyone probably already knows this but it was news to me.

I was puzzled when I got my free flying horse recently and found it had gone directly into the Mount tab of the character who'd opened the pack. I was sure it had been flagged Heirloom, meaning any character on the account could use it, but I couldn't see how that could happen if it was just an icon on a list belonging to a single character.

So I asked in general chat and someone said I should be able to pull it out and put it in the shared bank. You can turn any mount into a house item, they said. It's the same as that.

And so you can. I'd forgotten all about mounts being convertible to house items. I don't believe I've ever done it.

Having sorted that out, I happened to look at my currency tab, which once again is individualized for every character. I wondered if the same trick would work there, too, and it does.

You can drag and drop currency stacks from the tab into your bags to transfer them between characters. No more having to do the same holiday content twice because you're working on a different character, even though you have a stack of the currency left over on the first one.

I thought I'd share because although this is probably old news to most players, the very fact that I've gone fifteen years without noticing suggests it's quite easy to miss. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

And if anyone has any more tips on similar obscurities, don't be shy - share with the group!
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