Friday, July 31, 2020


As promised last time, here's the first of an excitng new, monthly feature that's really just an old feature hacked up into smaller, more digestible chunks. Doing the quarterly round-up last time took me days. Even I was beginning to get fed up with it by the end. Always take small bites and chew properly or you're going to choke, that's my advice.

The rules are the same as before:
Full song titles used as post titles (even if altered)  - Large, Bold, Green
Quotes from lyrics used as titles (even if altered) - Large, Bold, Blue
Original titles from which quotes were drawn - Small, Italic, Bold, Green
All other music - Small, Italic, Green

That's the short version. The somewhat longer yet disappointingly no more helpful version can be found here.

Posting slowed down a little in July as I weaned myself off a daily routine that started with Blapril and didn't seem to want to stop. With Promptapalooza incoming that may not have been the best timing.

Not that I slowed down all that much. I posted twenty-six times in July and all but four of those posts had some form of song reference in the title, including this one and that aforementioned quarterly megapost, which I entitled, with no little irony,

Too Much Of A Good Thing - The Shirelles - I have a strange history with sixties girl groups. In theory they represent the sound of my childhood. One of the sounds, at least. This one, for example, came out in 1967, when I was nine years old. In fact, I have no memory whatsoever of hearing anything remotely like The Shirelles back then. My introduction to the wonderful world of three part vocal harmony co-incided almost exactly with the first intimations of punk in 1975. It was around then that I began listening, quite obsessively, to Phil Spector and discovering the wonders of 60's garage. In my circle, "punk" was as likely to mean The Monkees or The Crystals as The Ramones or The Damned. If it was fastish, upbeat and two-and a half minutes long, it qualified. That open-mindedness lasted until about the middle of '77, by which time battle lines were being drawn and I was already changing sides.

Broken English - Marianne Faithful -Broken English is a great album. If it doesn't sound quite as sharp thirty years on that's only because time rounds the edges of all things. Back in 1979 it was about as smooth as a mouthful of broken glass, which is what Marianne sounded like she was singing through on half the tracks, particularly the jaw-droppingly NFSW Why'd Ya Do It? Plenty of people tried to re-invent themselves when the new wave looked like it might wash their careers straight down the drain but few made such a convincing job of it as she did. And she kept on doing it, too.

So Stick Around - Benny and the Jets - Elton John - Ah, Elton. What an enigma. One of the strangest megastars you could wish for. A singer-songwriter who doesn't write any of his own lyrics. A flamboyant peacock who looks like a small-town accountant. A self-obsessed self-publicist who's also open, honest and endearing. And the songs. My god, the songs. Benny and the Jets is unsinkable, indestructible, relentless. And I love relentlessness. Also much harder to sing than you might imagine, as evidenced by Elton's assault on the falsetto line in the Soul Train clip above. Could be why there aren't many good covers out there, either, but there are a few. The Beastie Boys ft. Biz Markie is a particular favorite of mine. Biz Markie's having no truck with the tricky bits, that's for sure. The song about the song, Benny and the Jetts by TV Girl is even better, although why they added the extra "t" is anyone's guess.

Tested By Research - Death or Glory - The Clash -  July turned out to be something of a conventional month when it came to picks. Mainstream, even. Entirely unintentional, but even I can't be self-consciously obscure all the time. The Clash weren't exactly mainstream when I saw them do one of the best live shows I've ever seen on the ill-fated White Riot tour but they very, very much are now. It's almost unbearably ironic to see the band that once howled "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones" become the archetypal heritage act but it happens to the best, I guess. Not that it was long in coming. As this swaggering, sing-along stormer suggests, they were already preparing for stadium stardom as early as 1979.

Defiant Pose - The Cortinas -  I wouldn't be quite as cynical as to suggest the Cortinas' title refers to their contemporaries, the Clash, although it is tempting to make the connection. There's a more tangible link between the two bands, though. When I was crammed into a basement club the size of my mother's front room with a hundred or so sweating, swearing, pogoing teenagers, yelling along to Fascist Dictator and Television Families, I would have headbutted anyone daft enough to suggest one of the acned adolescents on stage was going to end up in the already legendary Clash, but somehow guitarist Nick Sheppard did. For about five minutes. Local heroes, the Cortinas were the first real punk band I ever saw, falling out of a van like cartoon clowns at the Ashton Court Festival in the summer of '76. They never really got out of punk's second division and their one album sounds like it was recorded by a different band entirely but they gave good live while they lasted.

Summer ForeverSeth And Summer Forever - Babygirl -  Much though I loved the original punk thrash at the time, it was what lay behind the doors it battered down that came to mean much more to me. Such a sweet sequence from Subway Sect to Babygirl. These days it feels like the continuum it always must have been.

"It’s so surreal and polychrome
The way it comes and then it runs and never lets you know
Head over heels
Just take the wheel and take me home"

Take The Cash - Wreckless Eric - I'm a little bit worried about Wreckless. He contracted covid19 earlier in the year, recovered, then had a heart attack, trying to get back to normal too quickly. He posted a couple of lengthy, detailed, beautifully-written pieces about it but the last one was a couple of months back and its bloated comment thread is rife with spam. Never a good sign.

This Year, Next Year, Sometime, Never - The Honeycombs  - I wouldn't click that link if I were you. When I wrote the post, I came up with the title first, vaguely remembering I'd heard a song called something along those lines. When I'd finished it I searched the web and found several similar titles, only I'd never heard any of the songs before and quite honestly I'd be more than happy never to hear any of them again. Still, as a matter of record, here are the two exact matches, The Joe Meek-produced horror above and this forgettable instrumental by Mick & Kate Stannard. I plead ignorance.

The Impossible Dream - SAHB - We seem to have hit a bit of a musical low point in the show, I'm afraid, even though I love the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. If "love" is the right word. Maybe "fear". Alex was very possibly the scariest live performer I've ever seen, as this video clip attests. He for sure had the scariest audience. I didn't dare look left or right the first time I went to see him, for fear I'd catch someone's eye and their fist would be the last thing I'd see. I never really rated his assault on this over-dramatic show tune, though. It seemed already too arch to sustain the irony he seemed to expect it to support. Then again, it could have been worse. He could have taken it seriously, like Jimbob and Fruitbat...

Change My Gamma - Bring It Down To Earth - Ultramagnetic MCs - Phew! That's better! Some real music at last.

Every Convenience - Don't Worry About The Government - Talking Heads - And now we're cooking! As I said last time we did this, I've been on a bit of a Talking Heads rediscovery tour of late. This was always one of my very favorites. I know all the words by heart, which is almost unheard-of. I have such a terrible memory for lyrics I sometimes had to take a crib sheet on stage when I performed. There's a great version from a 1978 edition of the Old Grey Whistle Test but the Shine Children's Choir just nail it. That's the pace the damn song needs! And even David Byrne can't dance like that!

All The Trees Of The Fields Will Clap Their Hands - Sufjan Stevens -  How can a song that starts with "If I am alive this time next year" be so insanely calming to listen to? There's a comment on the YouTube thread that just says "I listened to this on loop for a nine hour car ride and didn't get tired of it." Neither would I.

Restless In Tyria - Restless - Cold War Kids - There's a little serendipity in this one. I'd just started on Season Three of Lucifer when I was writing this post but I hadn't yet reached the episode where this plays over a very emotional scene towards the end. I called the post "Restless in Tyria" as some kind of pointless half-nod to Eyeless in Gaza, a book which, naturally, I have never read. Then I went looking for songs called "Restless". There are a few of those, including some by bands I like - The Bangles, maybe, or New Order.  The New Order one's really good, actually. Let's have that , too, why not?

I could have gone with any of them but my eye was drawn to Cold War Kids. I'd not heard the of them before but it's a half-decent name, so I figured maybe they'd be half-decent, too. I listened to the song, which was nice enough, if not really my kind of thing. I'm never sure what that style is called. I just know I hear a lot of it in soundtracks. Directors seem to like it because it yearns. When I made the Lucifer connection that sealed the deal but it wasn't until I reached the episode where it features that I was certain I'd made the right choice. Would have been a bit late by then to find out I hadn't, I guess.

Get A Job - The Silhouettes - That girl group sound we were talking about earlier grew out of fifties doo-wop. If I don't remember The Shirelles I'm hardly likely to remember The Silhouettes, for whom this was a hit in the year I was born. And yet I do know this song. I can't remember where I first heard it. Maybe it was on the soundtrack to some movie or maybe John Peel played it. He loved him some doo-wop. And so do I. In moderation. It seemed almost impossibly ancient to me, when Sha Na Na were making a career out of reviving the sound. I imagine that was kind of what they were counting on, yet everything they were playing must have been barely a decade old. It'd be like someone today dressing up and singing the hits of... 2010. Is anyone doing that?

Always The Same - Legends -What an unironically appropriate title. I always thought the Marychain coud use a female singer.

I'm In A Film Of Personal Soundtrack - Nag Nag Nag - Art Brut - Perfect syntax. I was so happy when I ran across this, looking for songs with the word "soundtrack" in the lyrics. I do wish I'd seen Art Brut, back in their pomp. They may think they're generational but they're just universal.

August, I'll See You Soon - Rilo Kiley - Not my favorite Rilo Kiley tune (not keen on those drums) but the perfect title for the post.

Action, Time And Vision - Alternative TV -  I have a niggling feeling I've used this one before. I should have checked. I usually do. I must have been in a hurry. ATV were one of those bands that manages to define a scene and stand outside of it at the same time. Those are the ones that matter, by and large. And the ones that last.

It's Elemental - Elemental - Tears for Fears - They may well be the most famous and successful band ever to come out of the city where I've lived for the last thirty years but to the best of my knowledge, I have never owned anything by Tears For Fears. Nor wanted to.

More Than One Membership - In Or Out - Ani DiFranco - Bit of an anthem. or so I gather. Ani DiFranco's one of those performers I feel I must have known about forever and yet I seem never to have actually listened to. Obviously, I should have. Reminds me of Brenda Kahn, who I really like, even if no-one else does.

On The Rise - Bad Moon Rising - Creedence Clearwater Revival - I've definitely used this one before. Last time it turned up I led with a rambunctious cover by The La La Love Me's. This time I'm quoting a different lyric, though, so that's okay. Every busker and bar band in the world does a version of this and they all thought it would be an original idea to put their unique take on YouTube, which makes finding any genuinely interesting version something of a challenge. Most interpretations seem to emphasize the jolly jug band stomp but there are a few that go the other route, like this swampwater surge by Craw NeQuent or the pull-out slow burner above by La Maurette ft. Kevin Johnson, which goes hard on the horror in more ways than one.

I guess I'd better think twice before I use Bad Moon Rising again but unfortunately it's one of those songs with lyrics that lend themselves to post titles and it happens to be one I can remember easily. Unfortunately, it seems, so can everyone who ever picked up a guitar. Or a ukele.

Mainstream - Lloyd Cole and the Commotions - Let's end on a high note. The highest. If we're talking quotable lyrics I guess I could just stick to Lloyd, Lana and Lou and forget about the rest. Also, I think this is the first time I've linked the title of the portmanteau post in the portmanteau post itself. Kinda neat.

That's all for this month. Come back around the beginning of September  and we'll do this all over again. I'll try and make it a bit more eclectic next time. No promises!

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

On The Rise: GW2

The latest instalment of Guild Wars 2's Icebrood Saga went live yesterday, around about teatime, my time. I was at home (aren't I always, these days?) so I could have played it right away. A few years back I'd have been waiting in game, eagerly watching for the update message so I could log out, grab the patch and get back in as fast as possible to pick up where we'd left off last time.

Long, long time since I've felt like that. Instead I carried on playing EverQuest. I guess in some ways that could be considered quite encouraging for ArenaNet. I'm sure they'd be pretty chuffed to have a few thousand players left in 2033 who still prefer grinding out progress in their game as it reaches the age EQ is now rather than jump onto something new in a game that's a dozen years their junior.

And maybe they will, because against all the odds GW2 is improving. I really didn't think it would happen but I can't deny it now it has. For whatever reason, the death spiral the game seemed to be locked in has been broken. For the fifth consecutive episode (counting the Prelude) the Icebrood Saga gives solid entertainment.

I do like a ley line. And they work, too. I tried them.
So far I've only done the storyline part. It took me about as long as usual. I didn't time it - always a sign I'm having fun - but I think I started before two o' clock this afternoon and I finished just after five pm, so about three hours. Pretty much on par.

I'd love to go into details but there's not a huge amount I could say without throwing out spoilers right and left. It's a very "story" episode with a lot of talking and more than one "revelation" or "surprise" or "plot twist" or whatever you'd like to call it.

I'm of the opinion that even mentioning a story has a plot twist is a spoiler in itself so I'm not going any farther than that. I'll just say that whatever it is that I'm not talking about I definitely didn't see it coming, that I did go "Wow! That just happened?" at least once and that anything unexpected that may have taken place made one hell of a lot more sense than that time Aurene ate Joko.

Yes, and I bet it won the Snaff Prize, didn't it?

Yes, we have taken a step up. I'm not making any great claims. It may be only the step that leads from gibberish to generic but at least we're heading in the right direction. And as generic fantasy storylines go I've seen plenty that were less interesting, less imaginative and less amusing than this one.

I did find it amusing. I don't think I laughed out loud at any point, more a wry smile, but I'm fairly sure there were a couple of times when I would have lol'd, if we'd only had voice acting in play. Once again the pandemic has silenced our cast of grumbling, huffing, growling misfits and I'm now prepared to say that I definitely miss the vocals.

The narrative itself is far from humorous, it has to be admitted; the usual dire forebodings of existential doom, peppered about with violence, betrayal and malefice. Whoever's wielding the pen, though, has their tongue quite firmly tucked. I look forward to hearing the irony and the sarcasm as ladled out by practiced actors.

The Commander loses patience with being asked to present his credentials, yet again.
Given the name of the episode, Jormag Rising, it's not much of a spoiler to reveal the titular character makes an eventual appearance. Or, at least, some of them does. The old head-through-the-wall trick. Seen that one before.

What is new is Jormag's pronoun of choice. In the coda, a debriefing with Aurene at her lair in the Eye of the North, the ice dragon is referred to consistently and exclusively as "they". Whether this is new practice I'm not sure but I can't recall the Norn referring to their arch-nemesis in like fashion.

I was sufficiently curious about this to google it. Jormag has, it seems, tentatively been identified as non-binary for some time. There's a lengthy discussion on the subject on the GW2 wiki. If there was any doubt, I'd say this episode firmly puts it to rest.

Technically this is a spoiler. Good luck working out how.
Of course, as the discussion also suggests, "It's unclear whether Elder Dragons even have sex or gender identity at all." I'm not sure how far assigning pronouns to such enigmatic, fictional entities progresses the culture but I thought it was a nice touch, all the same.

As for the gameplay, I won't repeat myself (much) from what I said about all the previous episodes of the Saga, save to say that this one managed to find my sweet spot even more surely. The difference between the set piece fights in the Icebrood Saga and those in the previous two or three seasons of the Living Story reminds me of that between a pillow fight and being beaten to death with an iron bar. Personally, I'd go with the pillows. Pillow fights are fun.

There is, naturally, a new map or, I should say, the second half of last episode's new map, Drizzlewood Coast. I haven't explored it beyond the minimal amount required by the story but it looks as good as we've come to expect.

Rytlock says what we're all thinking. Again.
It includes another map-wide meta intended to emulate the World vs World experience without any of that distasteful PvP nonsense. I haven't tried it yet but the last one wasn't at all bad so I look forward to joining a squad and following a tag at some point. Although since I do, in fact, play and enjoy the actual WvW experience, which remains lively, I'm not sure I'll be doing it more than once or twice.

All in all, then, another successful and enjoyable episode. It's very pleasing to be able to say nice things about the game I've played for all these years. Not before time. Just makes me wish the third expansion was less than a couple of years away.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

More Than One Membership : EverQuest

In retrospect it seems like a strange decision but I'll say up front I'm very glad I made it. There I was in the Guild Lobby, looking at my raid-buffed pet, feeling like it was a waste to dismiss him just because he was a few levels off his game and I had a better option waiting on the bench. I mean, in the context of conservation of resources, one outgrown pet with a few replaceable buffs scarcely signifies. If I canned him, who'd care?

Well, I would, apparently. Last time I got to this point I'd been able to pocket the pet, pop out the new one and carry on. It miffed me that I couldn't do it again. I still had the old-old one, even though I really didn't want him any more, but the problem was, I couldn't call him to tell him his services were no longer required without first sacking the new-old pet that I wanted to keep because the game wouldn't let me have two pets at once even for that nano-second of transition. So, until I got past that impasse, I couldn't summon the new-new pet, the one I was actually going to use unless I was willing to destroy the one standing next to me.

Catch 22 and then some.

Here's how it breaks down. You might need to take notes. The ability to pack a pet away for a rainy day is an Alternative Advancement ability (henceforth referred to as an "AA"). The specific AA in question is called Companion's Suspension and it comes in eight grades. I had seven of them, which meant I could suspend a pet with full buffs then log out and still have it available to recall at some future time, most likely during some dire emergency my active pet had failed to contain.

I could then summon a second pet to have with me in the world. What I couldn't do was swap the suspended pet for the active pet. To do that I needed to spend that final point. (Actually, from memory I think it cost five points for the final grade).

I had the points. I had over two hundred and fifty, unspent, just waiting to be assigned. Unfortunately, assigning AA points is one of the key perks of All Access Membership.

As a free player in EverQuest, each of your characters is capped at 250AA points. To give that some context, filling out all the AAs available to a single character costs tens of thousands of points. I've heard it said, more than once, that an end-game player, particularly a melee class, should expect to spend over 30,000 AA points to become viable in capped content.

As a "Silver" account, a type of account that no longer exists but to which I was fortunate enough to be grandfathered in, I'm entitled to a thousand AA points per character. Since accounts that unsubscribe also get to keep whatever AAs they bought before they cancelled, my counter read something like 4900/1000.

I didn't grind those out, or not all of them. Another huge benefit of membership is something called Auto-Grant. It's a feature on a toggle. If you switch it on, every time that character levels the game will automagically grant whatever AA points as a character of that level "should" have and also spend them on the appropriate AAs.

That carries on until the character reaches the level cap from a specified previous expansion that runs a fair way behind the current one. Currently it's 2015's The Broken Mirror, for which the level cap was 105. All of which is fine and dandy and a great benefit for subscribers but I just wanted to spend one frickin' point! Okay, five points, but let's not split hairs.

So I sat around and thought about it for a while longer. Did I seriously want to subscribe for a month just to buy one grade of one AA, just so I could swap out two pets, just so I could keep a bunch of buffs, buffs I could most likely replace by letting the game idle in the background for a few hours while I played something else? Is that the action of a rational adult?

Maybe there was another way. I have a lot of Daybreak Cash, after all. Could I maybe buy some kind of extension to my AA cap on the Marketplace? That way I at least wouldn't be spending real money.

I looked in the store. There was indeed something there that looked like it might do the job. I'd tell you what it was called but I didn't take a screenshot and now I can't see it any more. (Can you guess why? There's a clue there, somewhere). Whatever it was, it cost 250DBC, it applied per character (not per account) and it increased the cap on AAs by one hundred.

It didn't look like such a great deal but I wasn't bothered about that. What concerned me was whether it would work. Reading the small print I was pretty sure it wouldn't. What I reckoned it would do would be to change my cap of 1000 points to a cap of 1100. Since I was already the best part of four thousand points over my cap anyway, what good would that do me?

Still, I had all that DBC just sitting there and I was curious to see if I was right. Curious enough to pay 250DBC to find out? You betcha! And guess what? I was right!

So that was 250DBC down the imaginary drain and there I was, back where I started. I had another think.

I've been incredibly impressed with the speed of levelling via Overseer quests. Sticking at them diligently, I've been making a guaranteed ten per cent of a level a day, for weeks. If I get critical successes, and especially if there's a server xp bonus, that can go to fifteen per cent or even twenty. By contrast, if I can get one per cent of a level in an hour's hunting I think things are going pretty well.

When I dinged 106, though, that changed. Overseer xp per quest dropped by about half. That's clearly intentional. At 106 a character is becoming very viable for groups (albeit as a junior partner) in something approximating current content and Daybreak are very canny about protecting the integrity of the population bubble.

That said, even at five to ten per cent a day rather than ten to twenty, Overseer quests are an excellent addition to solo levelling rates. It does make the prospect of hunting more attractive than it might have been, though. But not as attractive as the prospect of grinding AAXP!

Where it takes days, or more likely weeks, of soloing to grind one level in the hundreds, AAs take no more than a few minutes. Killing comfortable, safe, light blue mobs in a Hot Zone nets five to seven per cent of an AA point per kill. I can rack up a couple of AAs in an hour that way. And quests reward several AAs at a go.

And how do I know that? It's obvious, isn't it? I subbed, didn't I? Yes, on my second account, because my main account is already frickin' subbed, isn't it? Because I play EverQuest II on that one! If I could only stop and start again...

Ah, I'm just play-acting. I'm fine with subbing two accounts for a while. And it's cheaper than I expected. When I went to check how much it would be for a single month the on-screen information said $14.99. With the pound sterling currently tanking in preparation for the UK's grim walk into the north Atlantic's cold and lonely embrace next January, $14.99 is worth £11.63 but, much like our own dear government, Daybreak don't seem to have caught up to economic reality. They're still charging UK customers just £8.99.

Which I happily paid. I'm subbed until late August, which should give me plenty of time to grind some AA points. I made more than twenty yesterday. I also spent most of what I had banked, which may have been a mistake, because when I zoned Auto-Grant kicked in and the game funded me at least as many again. If I'd not just bought a bunch of AAs, I'd most likely have been given those, too.

Even with a few minor errors of judgment it's feeling like a very good decision. I was decorating the kitchen last week and I spent more than the cost of a month's sub on a tin of wax to seal the surfaces. I know which I'm going to get the most pleasure from, that's for sure. You have to keep these things in perspective. Although I do like my wax...

With the added incentive of being able to see my xp (okay, my AAxp) move without the aid of an electron microscope, I spent most of yesterday hunting. I travelled to a bunch of zones I'd never even seen before, found a great spot with good light and plenty of space, killed a bunch of new-to-me mobs and had a great time.

Money well spent, I think. Now I just have to make some in-game money so I can upgrade all my gear and kill things even faster for even more AAXP so I can kill things faster still....

I could be at this a while.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Always Read The Instructions: EverQuest

Before I even begin I need to make a correction to yesterday's post. When I claimed with (unfortunate) confidence that "I'd already researched pet focus items for my new level" and found that "there were none. No tradeable ones, at least. No affordable tradeable ones", it transpires I was talking through my hat.

It's true, I had done my research. I just hadn't done it thoroughly enough. I'd checked several usually reliable guides, ones I've been using for years, ones I've always found to be accurate. Sadly, I fell into the trap of assuming they'd been updated to include the most recent information. As any MMORPG player ought to know, that's never a safe assumption to make.

The excellent EQMagicians has a comprehensive list of pet focus items that, at first glance, appears to be entirely up to date. I mean, it includes items that focus pets all the way up to level 120, five levels above the current cap. If you look more closely, however, you'll see a clue buried in the body of the text that suggests all is not as it seems: "As of the (final) Call of the Forsaken expansion..."

The Call of the Forsaken expansion is very far from being the "final" anything. It actually came out seven years ago. The reason the effects on the focuses on the list go so much higher than the then-cap of 100 is that they come from what was top-end group content, endgame questlines and raids - in 2013!

If you look at the level required to equip them, rather than what level pets they affect, you'll see it tops out at 101. Whoever was running EQMagicians back then clearly intended to carry on into the following expansion, The Darkened Sea, with its raised cap of 105, because they added entries for focus items with the next two numbered effects. Those have a Required level to equip of 101.

And that was where they stopped. Like so many legacy resources for so many MMORPGs, the information sits there, looking pristine but rusting at the core. And rust spreads.

Allakhazam, still the most reliable information source for EverQuest, doesn't have a focus list of its own. Instead it links to the EQMagician page and also to a discussion thread at, a forum for people who play Necromancers in EQ (what else did you expect?).

Since I'm playing a mage I didn't think to click that link. If I had, I'd have discovered that the Enhanced Minion line goes way beyond EQMagician's ceiling of XXIII. All the way to XXX in fact, as Allakhazam knows full well.

All of which amply demonstrates that half-assed research is worse than no research at all. I could have dug the truth out - if I'd just kept digging. Instead I stopped with the surface barely scraped.

All of this began to become clear to me only by chance. I was standing in the Guild Lobby, fiddling around with the search function on the Bazaar window. I'd been trying to decide which pieces of Conflagrant armor to buy first when it occured to me for some reason I can't quite recall, even though it was less than twenty-four hours ago, to remove the qualifier "armor" from the search.

In EverQuest the term "armor" tends to refer to what are known as the "visible" slots. The ones where what you equip shows up not just on your paper doll but on your in-game character as seen by everyone else. Unlike more modern games, jewellery and accessories aren't visible in EQ, so when I took that limiter out, a whole load of earrings, belts, rings and so on popped up.

And one of the earrings was called a Summoner's Conflagrant Earring. In Norrath, "summoner" is a synonym for "pet class". A magician is a summoner. Clue!

I examined the earring and sure enough, there it was in hyperlink purple: Enhanced Minion XVIII. A quick run to the actual Bazaar itself and there I was, forty thousand platinum pieces lighter and the proud - if somewhat red-faced - possessor of a pet focus item fit for my exalted level of one hundred and six.

The moral of this cautionary tale is that you can't always believe everything you read, especially if you don't take the trouble to read it properly. It also means I've gone on so long about my mistake that I probably ought to leave the real second part of the story for next time.

Not that it's much of a story. It's mostly about how I wasted a small amount of imaginary money and then saved a small amount of real money, doing something I was fairly sure I'd never do again. Still, it's something to post about, isn't it?

Just don't hold your breath or anything. I wouldn't want to over-sell it. And I don't give refunds.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

It's Elemental: EverQuest

There's not an MMORPG out there that can touch EverQuest for putting the fear into you when you're trying to do something as simple as buy your new spells. Even in 2020, when death in Norrath has long lost its sting, just the thought of having to travel to an unknown zone to trade with an unfamiliar vendor is enough to bring the casual player out in a cold sweat.

I've been parsimonious with my purchases while I've been levelling up by way of the daily Overseer quests. In the comfort and safety in the Guild Lobby experience rolls in so fast, comparatively speaking, it seems wasteful to spend money on spells or gear I'll barely use.

Now I've started spending more and more time out hunting, though, I've been feeling increasingly sensitive about my under-developed abilities and my undercooked ambition. Mobs in the zones where I feel comfortable are drifting from light blue to green to grey. It doesn't really matter since the huge bulk of my xp comes from those Overseer quests and the weaker the mobs become, the easier it gets to bully them out of their dinner money.

Outgrowing a zone is still an uncomfortable feeling all the same. Even though the xp I'm missing is all but insignificant it still seems somehow wasteful not to be getting it. If I'm ever going to take the next step, I'll have to equip myself adequately for the adventure. Can't put it off forever.

I've already bought several batches of spells as I've gone along. I like to have the latest nukes and as a soloing mage I rely entirely on my elemental pet (well, that and my cleric mercenary, of course) so keeping up to date on summoning spells is crucial.

Magicians get four elemental pets, the traditional Earth, Air, Wind and Fire. At lower levels the usual choice is Earth, a tank with high hit points and the ability to root enemies to prevent them running away but somewhere in the fifties preference shifts to something that can also put out decent damage.

The fire pet, a ranged caster, is the go-to for magicians who group but soloists go for either air or water. Water has decent hit points and survivability and puts out very good damage. A lot of guides recommend it. Air, however, almost matches it in those departments but adds a frequent and effective stun. Stunning isn't quite as effective as rooting when it comes to stopping runners but it comes close. Air has been my choice for as long as I can remember.

The four pet spells cycle round in a regular five-level pattern, with the spare level being taken up by a generally useless spell called Monster Summoning that calls up a weak pet using the model of a random creature from the zone you happen to be in at the time. It's fun to play with but you learn pretty quickly not to trust that pet to do anything more challenging than follow you around and make heads turn.

The air pet, by chance or design, happens to be first in the cycle. At level 96 I took another trip to Shard's Landing. The first time I made that journey was an adventure in itself.  This time I made sure to pay the fee and take the simple, safe port from my Guild Hall.

I picked up the pet but the timing was a little unfortunate, co-inciding with a bonus xp weekend. Overseer xp rolled in faster than ever and the new pet didn't last me as long as I'd thought it would. A week or so later, in another deja vu journey, I was off again to Katta Castellum: Deluge.

I'd made all my mistakes the first time around so those expeditions went as uneventfully as you'd wish. I bought the next air pet, along with some my key spells for several levels ahead while I was there. Then I ported  back and spent the next couple of weeks enjoying the fruits of my minimal labors.

Inbetween hunts I idled in the lobby soaking up buffs and since I had nothing better to do I spent some time researching upgrades. There seemed to be plenty to choose from. I almost bought several different sets of gear, any of which would have been a major improvement on the increasingly level-inappropriate choices my mage had been making do with for longer than I care to admit.

Several expansions in a row employed a system of upgradeable armor, the raw pieces of which dropped commonly from mobs, were tradeable and could be improved with items bought from an NPC when combined in a device purchased for the purpose. Those pieces often sell relatively cheaply in the Bazaar. All that's needed is a pocketful of platinum and yet another exciting trip to some far-flung, long-forgotten quest hub in unfamiliar zone to purchase the requisite reagent.

I was on the cusp of making a choice, mostly based on what I could afford, when it occured to me that level 106 marked something of a watershed. Whereas all the preceding sets had focus effects that decayed after five levels, built-in obsolesence to ensure their replacement with each new expansion, by the time 2017's Ring of Scale expansion rolled around the developers had tired of the process.

Conflagrant armor returns to the traditional upgrade route of having a player-crafter make gear for adventurers using items dropped by mobs. As a result it's significantly more expensive to buy in the Bazaar but it's very much worth the investment. The stats are very good for a solo player but most importantly the focus effects operate at full efficiency all the way to the current level cap of 115.

Almar's excellent, if outdated, guide says "Conflagrant Armor ... is the best non-prestige armor you can get for players 106 - 110 and the second best non-prestige armor at 110". A set of that will do you proud for a long while. All you need to do is make enough money to buy it.

106 is also the level the next air pet appears. For that I had to find my way to yet another new zone, albeit one that sounded eerily familiar: The Overthere. Ring of Scale is one of several expansions that re-uses older zones, in this case those originally introduced in the much-earlier Ruins of Kunark.

I remember The Overthere as the foothold of Norrath's evil races. Back at the turn of the millennium its only settlement was well-known to players as the Evil Outpost. Given its reputation, I was understandably nervous when I ported in, having bought my Miniature Worker's Sledge Mallet from the guild hall functionary and handed it imediately back to him to activate the portal.

The docks and the buildings beyond looked very familiar. I carefully conned every NPC I could see. I couldn't see many. It was too dark. Well, it was night-time, of course. Isn't it always?

Everyone seemed to be either apprehensive or indifferent. Safe enough. Although most of them also conned red. Not so re-assuring. I took a deep breath and headed into town.

It was fine. I found my vendor, bought my new air pet and all the other level 106 spells she had. Then I backed out, took a few quick screenshots and gated home. Didn't even hang around to scribe the spells into my book. Why take chances?

Back in the safety of the Lobby I had more decisions to make. I'd already researched pet focus items for my new level, the ones that let you summon pets at a higher level than the base spell affords. For the first time in pretty much the entire game there were none. No tradeable ones, at least. No affordable tradeable ones. There is one super-rare tradeable focus, the Golden Sage's Earring, which I've seen quoted at ten million plat. I have a hundred thousand to my name.

Lack of a suitable focus being a moot point, I saw no reason not to summon my pet there and then. No reason except that I already had a fully raid-buffed pet and it seemed a waste to dismiss it. I had a spare pet stashed in my invisble pet pocket courtesy of the Suspend Companion AA so I thought I'd swap those two over, dismiss the lower-level one, suspend the buffed one and summnon a shiny, new level 105 pet. Then we could loaf around for a few hours until he got buffed, too.

Only it turns out you can't swap current and suspended pets until you have all eight grades of the AA and I only had seven. Which is a problem, because as a free player I can't earn any more AAs.

Next time I'll explain exactly how I fixed that. Hint: it cost me. Although not as much as I expected.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Action, Time And Vision

Yesterday, Taylor Swift dropped a new album, entirely out of the blue. I do like this trend, where albums appear, fully-formed, out of the void, like Venus rising from the waves. Don't you wish it would happen that way with games?

I'm not sure when it started. I only began to notice it a year or two ago. I imagine it's a function of digital distribution systems, changes in listening habits, musicians being able to exert more control. I know it has something to do with algorithms and streaming. There will be money involved as much as art, no doubt. Always.

Change has been rolling over the creative industries for a while now, since long before the current crisis smashed the old models out of shape. The pandemic poured on gasoline, sure, but it didn't set the fire.

Fire, infamously, terrifyingly, both destroys and creates. The sudden and complete collapse of the structures we've relied on threatens the commercial and creative existences of individuals, businesses, entire artforms, even as any number of extraordinary and unusual projects come blazing out of the darkness. Light shines through the cracks as the building burns.

Some of the possibilities revealed have gotten me very excited indeed. Over-excited, probably. I've been waiting a long time. I was beginning to wonder if I'd live long enough to see promises made in the eighties and nineties come true. The sixties and seventies, if it comes to that. Some of what I imagined would be my past by now suddenly feels tantalizing close to being my future, but I've been fooled this way before.

A lot of people with money or status to lose are doing their damnedest to haul normal back by sheer force of will but no matter how hard they pull, they don't have the status quo ante on the hook. We're all staying in this strange place for a while and we're going to be doing things differently. There's a chance to do some of it better. Why not take it?

Yes, why? Because there's still a vast nostalgia for the traditional, not to mention that pesky humanity of ours to consider. The old ways may yet win out, given time.

Seriously, could this be any more Lana?

Which is fine. Babies and bathwater and all that. One step forward, two cliches back. But let's take that forward step. It would be disappointing to come out the far side of something so terrible only to find ourselves back in the same place we left behind. Wouldn't it?

All of which is a little more intense than I was expecting when I sat down to knock out a very quick post pointing out that Taylor Swift seems to have filmed some of her new video in Dierdre's Steps. It was just going to be a little joke but jokes have an awkward way of turning serious, sometimes.

I do believe the worlds of music and movies will change because of what we've all been going through. They've already started and anyway they already were. Taylor and Charlie wrote and recorded their albums in lockdown but why wouldn't they? They document their lives in their art and this is our life, now.

I'm not one to say prizes matter but I hope Charlie wins the Mercury this time. She deserves it.

Games, though? I'm not so sure. According to Gamesindustry "The UK video games industry has proven to be resilient in the face of a global pandemic, with the majority of businesses reporting lockdown has not put their company in danger of layoffs or shutdown." Also, the same source tells us, the pandemic has driven interest in games to new heights even as old practices persist.

The way games companies work may change and so may the way they behave. God knows it needs to.  But then, what doesn't? I mean, if you can't trust garage rockers to set the standard, what's the world coming to? We live in unusual times, that's for sure.

And it's hard, when one minute we're yearning for games like the ones we used to play and the next we're complaining that everything feels the same. There's no pleasing us.

(Careful with this one. It has triggers. "The following short film contains scenes that some may find disturbing . Viewer discretion is advised.")

But things are moving forward. What's ahead can better than what we've left behind. Not that getting there is going to be easy. To quote Polly Scattergood "... if you could see into the future, would you make the same decision again? Knowing you would have to go through both bad as well as good".

Well, I don't know. Would you?

Friday, July 24, 2020

August, I'll See You Soon

August is shaping up to be an interesting month in MMORPGland. In addition to the regularly-scheduled returning holidays and festivals like Tinkerfest and Festival of the Four Winds, here's what I have pencilled into my diary so far:

Guild Wars 2

Dropping on 28 July, we have the next episode of the Icebrood Saga, Jormag Rising.

The current iteration of the Living Story, as we don't call it any more, has been markedly more enjoyable than many of its predecessors, so I'm quite looking forward to this one. That said, neither of the two trailers nor the checklist of features really does a lot for me. At first glance there doesn't seem to be much in there, although Wooden Potatoes somehow manages to get half an hour of speculation out of two minutes of video. There's a surprise.


Next up is Wonderverse, debuting 30 July. I'm considerably more interested in this than the usual DCUO update. It's a very solid game that knows just how to service its substantial audience but for a casual drop-in like me, interest in each episode tends to revolve around what freebies I can score and whether there are any easy-to-get housing items I can use to bling up my lair.

The pre-publicity for Wonderverse suggests something rather different. It's reported to be "large-scale...with level-agnostic event versions of content available to all players for a limited time" but most intriguingly it promises to introduce a brand-new "massive open-world" zone to the game.

Open-world play in DCUO is a lot of fun but I can't say I've seen much of it since the (extensive) starting zones. There might already be lots of open world zones for all I know - certainly every time I play one of the episodes there's a smallish area open to all-comers - but I can't remember any being touted as a feature before, so I'm guessing this one is something different to the norm.

Final Fantasy XIV

Moving into August proper, the 11th sees the arrival of FFXIV's exotically and evocatively named "Patch 5.3". Sometimes I think whoever decided to call the company "Square" must have been having a quiet chuckle to themselves.

Oh, all right, it does have a name: Refelctions in Crystal. Spoils the joke a bit. Here's the really horrible promo video, featuring a vile, squalling rock soundtrack and clips from what look to me like an entirely different game. If that's what it's like at the top end these days I'm really glad I stopped when it was still a fantasy MMORPG.

Still, you can never judge an update by its number, that's what I say. I wouldn't usually spend even a passing moment considering the contents of a patch for a game I hardly ever play but this one's a very different proposition from the usual run.

It does, of course, have all the regular tweaks and treats the game's large and committed audience expects but it has something far more interesting for the uncomitted: a massive upgrade to the endless free trial.

FFXIV already had a very enjoyable play-for-free option. I've posted about it a few times. It's allowed me to enjoy the parts of the game I find appealing without having to bother with all the rest of the grindy, boxy, paternalistic trappings that make it so unappealing as a full-time MMORPG choice.

Under the existing trial you can only go to level 35. Since that's almost exactly the point at which the game begins to feel heavy and sluggish for me, I didn't really have a problem with that but it's always nice to have a higher ceiling, even if you never reach it.

Patch 5.3 sees the free trial extended. Bizarrely, the best summary of the changes I can find is at the NME. The short version is that, when the patch lands, anyone will be able to play the full, original game plus the first expansion, Heavensward for free. The new free trial level cap will rise to sixty and three new classes and a new race will open up.

There's a little more to it than that, too. As part of a wider overhaul of the game, the original core narrative of A Realm Revisited (aka "the base game") is being streamlined. There's a reported reduction in content of thirteen percent, which might sound like a nerf but is probably a buff, because that's one storyline that could sure stand to lose some dead weight.

"Experience and gear rewards for ARR main scenario quests have also been increased, so new players won’t have to do side quests to reach level 50", as the AOTF report, linked in the last paragraph, explains. Flying is also being enabled in the game's original zones and flying mounts will be available to free players as part of the new content to which they gain access under the raised level cap.

That all sounds pretty good. I've always had mixed feelings about FFXIV. There's a lot to like but nothing like enough to make a monthly subscription seem like a good idea. As a F2P title, though, I can see a lot of merit in giving it another run. I might even persuade Mrs. Bhagpuss to take a second look. She liked most things about it other than the forced grouping and I suspect that can fairly readily be avoided in the lower levels, these days.


This one I only heard about this morning. It came as a total surprise.

For the week beginning 10 August we'll all be able to check out the in-development superhero MMORPG as it goes into "open beta". I won't quibble over the nomenclature. Call it what you will,  it's a showcase arranged to co-incide with a virtual convention, PlayNYC,  that'll allow anyone who might be interested to check how the game's coming along.

And I am interested. Of the three supposed successors to the sunsetted City of Heroes, Valiance was always the one I liked the look of the most. They've run open tech demos and pre-alphas before and I've played them and written about the experience.

There wasn't all that much to see back then but what there was I rather liked. It'll be very interesting to see how things have developed.

All of those should put some much-needed spice into my somewhat stodgy schedule over the coming few weeks and give me a few pegs to hang posts on.

There was one other potential new addition to the roster I was hoping to get a post or three out of and that was the irritatingly monickered "V4", the latest cross-platform effort from Nexon. Unfortunately, when I tried to download it yesterday the Nexon launcher, which I already had installed, resolutely refused to co-operate.

I could have fiddled around, re-installed the launcher, probably got it running somehow, but the reports from those who had managed to get it going were... less than encouraging. So I've shelved the idea for now. Reportedly, it does look absolutely gorgeous, so it might be worth the effort for the eye candy but as a playable entertainment it doesn't look it's going to have legs.

With or without V4, though, August's looking like it could be hot!.

Yeah, okay, okay... Maybe pleasantly warm.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

I'm In A Film Of Personal Soundtrack

A couple of days ago I ran through a few music-related ideas I was considering for posts. One of them involved songs based on video games or video game characters. I haven't done any prep work on that one yet but I'm willing to bet there are plenty to choose from.

What I didn't suggest was posting any music from the games themselves.

I find myself in a strange place when it comes to video game scores. Judging by countless comments I've read over the years, many players, quite possibly most, don't listen to in-game music at all. They prefer to have their own music or other audio running in the background. I always let the game music play.

These days the in-game music tends to be all I have playing. I don't often listen to anything other than the game and even if I do it won't be music. And if I have speech radio or a podcast on, I still don't turn the game music off. I just turn it down a little.

In that way, it does look as though I ought to count myself an admirer of video game music, but I'm not. Not at all. I barely listen to it. In fact, one of the reasons I always have it on is that half the time I don't even hear it.

I think music in games is important and necessary but I see music of this kind as almost purely functional. Like film music, it sets mood, creates atmosphere and directs emotion but if it's doing its job well, it does all that without you noticing. If you do find yourself paying attention to the music in a movie or a game then something's gone badly wrong.

Of course, games are different to movies and MMORPGs are very different. Movies are linear; MMORPGs are cyclical. In a movie, the score moves with the narrative. It can lead or it can follow but it always moves forwards. In an MMORPG it just has to hang there, biding its time while you kill your ten rats or wait for the rare spawn to appear. For as long as it takes. A minute, an hour, all day.

There's a whole art to composing music that loops infinitely without becoming annoying or even noticeable. I've heard a couple of composers talk about it in interviews. I imagine its a skill that most musicians would prefer not to have to acquire, although clearly it has any number of resonances with certain strands of compositional theory from the 20th century. Steve Reich and Philip Glass could probably have written some amazing video game scores. Or Brian Eno, come to that.

Those are all composers for whose work I have plenty of time so it's a little surprising, even to me, that I find listening to video game music outside of the games such an unappealing prospect. But I feel exactly the same about most film scores.

I know there are people who really enjoy film music for its own sake. I used to work with someone whose hobby was collecting film scores. He knew a huge amount about the composers and the musicians but he wasn't all that interested in the films. I never really got that. Without the images for which the music was specifically composed, what do you have? Something broken.

In this community we have Syp and Aywren (and Steff, who I don't actually "know" even in the context of knowing people via what they post online) whose long-running Battle Bards podcast "reviews and discusses the soundtrack of MMORPGs". And I confess I have never listened to a single episode.

I've thought about it, a few times, because I very much enjoy reading their written posts. If they were writing about video game music I'd definitely read whatever they had to say about game scores. I just don't want to listen to any.

Some of my lack of enthusiasm comes from the nature of the music itself. As well as having the aforementioned goal of being infinitely repeatable without becoming annoying, which, if achieved, is bound to tend towards unmemorability, if not outright blandness, the huge majority of all MMORPG music I've heard could be roughly be described as "orchestral".

I'm not a big fan of orchestral music, whether it's performed by an actual orchestra or emulated on a synthesizer. That thing where certain instruments and arrangements are said to evoke specific images and emotions? It never quite works for me. Occasionally I might just about be able to make out an allusion to a season or a color but anything much subtler misses my ears by a mile. I imagine it's like wine-tasting: you need to train your palette. Who has the time?

On the other hand, on the odd occasion I've happened across an MMORPG that employs a non-orchestral score, it's become apparent all too quickly why so few break with the tradition. Other forms and styles are a great deal more intrusive. It's pretty hard to come up with a two and a half minute heavy metal loop that doesn't grate on the ears after about, oh, two and a half seconds, in my case.

What started me thinking about all this was a post I saw over at The EverQuest Show this morning. Darkpaw Games have just re-issued the 20th Anniversary remaster of the EQ OST. It's been available digitally for a while but now you can buy it on vinyl.

I love EQ and I love the soundtrack. I should. I've been listening to it for the best part of twenty years. I've probably heard certain parts of it - some of the Karana or Commonlands themes, for example - more times than I've heard any single song in my entire music library. Still doesn't mean I'd want to play it over headphones on my commute, much less sit in a darkened room on a chair postioned just so to listen to it playing on a turntable!

The whole vinyl thing completely mystifies me. I have a thousand vinyl albums downstairs and almost as many vinyl singles. I haven't played any one of them in longer than I've been playing EQ. Vinyl's an awkward, annoying, archaic format that was rightly superceded not just once but several times by superior platforms and yet here it still is, clinging on like some kind of incurable fungal disease. Yecch!

Yeah, I have no nostalgia for vinyl. It amazes me anyone could, although I know people my age who do. I'd kind of give a reluctant pass to someone who was too young to have grown up with vinyl as the dominant music transmission system. I can see how there'd be a weird, retro "so bad it's good" thing going on there, but old people really should know better.

And who could be the target market for EverQuest collectable vinyl other than old people? I'd love to know what the average age of an EQ player is in 2020. I bet it's in the fifties. I guess if you still play EQ, the idea you might also own a hi-fi isn't that much of  stretch. I do.

And yet, I am not going to be buying an EverQuest OST album, for oh so many reasons. Not the “Mez Spell” edition with “pin wheel” blue and gold vinyl and a gatefold sleeve. No, not the “Field of Bone” edition in blood red and bone white vinyl, either. Not even for the Keith Parkinson artwork, which we've all seen a million times.

Which is just as well, because as I type this, three of the four editions are already  >>>
If I do want to hear the music I'll play the game and hear it the way it was intended to be heard, although the chance of my ever getting the notion that I want to hear EQ music when I'm not already playing EQ seems more than a little fanciful.

It might be different if EQ wasn't there to play. For all my ranting about never wanting to listen to video game music outside the games themselves, when Vanguard was about to sunset both I and Mrs Bhagpuss downloaded the entire soundtrack, which was on YouTube at the time. 

Mrs Bhagpuss plays it not infrequenly, sometimes while she's playing other video games, which is oddly meta. I don't think I've ever played the files I downloaded although they're all still on my hard drive, somewhere, But then I've never needed to, thanks to the magnificent Vanguard emulator. I just log in and run around the game when I need a nostalgia fix.

Vanguard is one of two MMORPG soundtracks I own. The other one I actually paid money for. In complete contradiction of almost everything I've said so far, I not only have the complete soundtrack to City of Steam on my iPod but I listen to it about as often as I listen to anything else I have on there.

The Vanguard and City of Steam soundtracks have one thing in common, which I suspect is the reason they're the exceptions. They have vocals. The music's still largely orchestral but occasionally there's a human voice. There aren't any words, or not words I can understand, but it makes all the difference.

Of course, if there was a City of Steam emulator, I wouldn't have to listen to the soundtrack. It's a very poor substitute for playing. In some ways, being able to hear the music makes the sense of loss more acute. I do miss that game.

In time, I suspect my feeling on this subject might alter. Even writing this post has made me evaluate some assumptions. Maybe I'll even give Battle Bards a try.

Meantime, it seems I did make a post featuring video game music, after all.

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