Sunday, September 27, 2020

September Songs

A day or two early with the monthly musical round-up but I'm working Monday and Tuesday and I have a ton of stuff to do on Wednesday so there probably won't be any more posts in September. Might as well get it done while I have both the time and the inclination.

Last month's collection was particularly fine, I thought. September's isn't quite up to that standard but it's not bad. Not at all. And it's not obvious, either. Obvious is so much worse than just plain old bad, don't you think? It just doesn't feel very... oh, I don't know, coherent. I think that's what I'm saying.

Hardly surprising, when you pull the lyrics out of a hat the way I mostly do these days. It's not what you'd call an organic process, is it? You wouldn't program a radio show this way or even the playlist for a party. 

Or maybe you would. Isn't that what Spotify's algorithm's doing? Not to mention the shuffle setting on your iPod. 

Whatever. Let's get to it, why don't we?

Summer's Over - Rialto - Okay, you got me. I picked this as the title of last month's music post, when summer really wasn't over, just so I could open with it this month, when it really would be. That's the only actual programming you're going to get, I promise. 

I love this song. It's got that classic seaside town out of season vibe. Gets me, every time. I bought it on a CD single when it came out in the '90s. I would have seen them live, second on the bill to My Life Story, but I went with someone who didn't think it was important to get to the gig in time to catch the support band. Never, ever miss the support band. I learned that when I was, like, fourteen.

Out Of Time - The Rolling Stones - By contrast, I've never really liked this one much. I'm a huge Stones fan, have been since I was about thirteen, but there's a good reason they gave this one to Chris Farlowe. Even in my teens in the 1970s I found the lyric uncomfortable and the melody brays along with the sentiment. The Ramones get about as much out of it as anyone could.

Labor Day - The Dead Milkmen - I think if I'd had to watch Jerry Lewis doing a twenty-four hour TV marathon each and every year, I'd feel that way about it, too.

Ready For Combat - The Archer  - Taylor Swift - I dunno, is it just me or is Taylor Swift totally punk rock? The way she sits on a note and rides it, line after line. The way she builds flatness into a crescendo. It reminds me of the classic New York sound, when Richard Hell was still in Television. I mean, I'm not saying Taylor would have written Blank Generation but y'know, she could.

Read The Fine Print - The Fine Print - King Geedorah - I love feeding these generic phrases into and seeing what spits out. Sometimes it's nothing good, other times it's cornucopia. King Geedorah toplines because it's a fine tune but also for the Dr. Doom video, which is apparently a thing, although this was the first I knew of it. I can see why.

Want to know what I rejected? Coming up!

Blood Money by The Church. I believe I've mentioned them before. One of those odd bands, where I've liked everything I've heard by them yet don't own any of their records. Might have gone with it if there'd been a live video.  

Superball by Aimee Mann, which is distinguished by not being on YouTube at all! How many songs can say that? I saw 'Til Tuesday in a basement club back in the eighties. I prefer that period to her solo stuff, I think, but she's always good, whatever she does. 

Last and definitely least, even though I like it well enough, Sweet Talk 101 by Cute Is What We Aim For. Pop-punk with an emo whine always goes down well with me. Again, no video. Try harder, dude!

Stargirl Interlude - The Weeknd feat. Lana del Rey - I literally yelped when this came up on a search. I put "Stargirl" into the field expecting no returns at all and I got Lana del Rey! Probably the most perfect match I've ever had since I started this. Of course, I ought to have known about it before - it's Lana ffs - but she does so much I can't keep track. Not all her collabs have the genius she brings to her own stuff but she always works well with The Weeknd. Glorious glorious glorious!

Didn't Know What I Wanted - Sheena Is A Tee-Shirt Salesman - Future of the Left   Now, see, I would have gone with Cool Rock Boy by the ever-wonderful Julianna Hatfield but she didn't have an attention-grabbing video like this lot. If they were that angry in 2012 I shudder to think what they must be like now.

Park Life - Traffic Accident - Sleeper - Told you what I thought about being obvious, didn't I? And anyway, we've got Blur coming up later. Plus I freakin' love Sleeper. Louise Wener is crazy underrated. I must get the rest of her novels. In fact I'm going to put them on my Amazon wish list right this second.

Threatened By My Work Ethic - Whateva Will Be - A Tribe Called Quest -Never heard anything by A Tribe Called Quest that I didn't like. I'm a sucker for daisy age rap as must be very obvious by now.

I Can Take A Hint - On The Road Again - Canned Heat - Hmm. That thing I was saying about Taylor Swift and the New York sound? Just the blues, innit? If you want your work to last, take it down a notch. Dying young never hurts, either, sadly.

What Does It Mean? - Twinkle Song - Miley Cyrus - A search for "what does it mean" on returned fifty-eight thousand results. This was the first on the list and so it damn well should be. A seriously wonderful performance in which Miley fails to hold back the tears as she sings a heartfelt tribute to her dead dog.  Sent shivers down my spine the first time I saw it. We love Miley in our house. 

Back To The Mountain - The Mountain - Ladytron - No video, sadly, but that's such a Hipgnosis album cover it almost doesn't matter. 

Touch Too Much? - Arrows - No question mark in the original song title but let's not quibble over punctuation. Arrows were big enough once to have their own t.v. show, which is where this clip comes from. Not big enough to stop the producer cutting them off before they'd finished, though. They're probably best-known for writing I Love Rock n Roll, which Joan Jett adopted and turned into her trademark after seeing them do it on the aforementioned show. Contrary to a story Rolling Stone once ran, suggesting lead singer and co-writer Alan Merrill had sold the rights to Joan Jett for $2,5000, he actually retained them, which made him a very wealthy man. His parents both lived into their nineties and he looked about ready to do the same until he died of coronavirus in March. He was in good health with no underlying conditions. Good luck comes and then it goes. 


That got unexpectedly dark. Maybe I should have gone with AC/DC. I saw the original line-up on a school trip when I was about sixteen. Yes, our music teacher organized an official school outing to see AC/DC in concert in 1976. He was one of those teachers who wanted the kids to treat him like a friend, the ones no-one trusts and most despise. I was already well past the stage of liking hard rock and metal by then but a school trip to a rock show isn't something you want to miss, even if you're not that struck on the band. According to wikipedia AC/DC actually played the venue twice that year, which is pretty astounding. I think it must have been the May date that I saw, with the Tyla Gang in support. I vaguely remember seeing them, maybe... I very much remember seeing AC/DC, who were predictably great. Even as a sixteen-year old hipster I couldn't pretend otherwise.

D.A.I.S.Y. Age? De La Soul - My interrogative. De La Soul weren't in any doubt. Just like I've never been in any doubt about them. Pure genius.

Ghost Ship - Blur - I'm not really up to speed on later Blur. On this evidence I probably ought to be. Other ghost ships in competition included Faroa and We Are Parasols - both very good tunes but no videos, so...

Just Relax - Relax - Superorganism  - I toyed with Electric Relaxation by A Tribe Called Quest (again) or Relax Relax Relax Relax by Cold Mailman but I wasn't going to miss the chance to showcase one of my favorite bands of recent years. Whatever happened to Superorganism, anyway? I had them pegged as the next Next Big Thing, what was it, two years ago? One amazing album, a scattering of phenomenally dissociative media appearances and that's it? Also, I only just found out half of Superorganism is/are/was/were The Eversons, a band I always thought of as a comedy act, which kind of puts a different complexion on the whole project...

Let's Go To The Moon (Like We Did Last Winter) - Jet Set - Alphaville - One for Syp's playlist, I think. As the top comment on the YouTube thread puts it, "the most 80s thing I've ever seen in my life". I never really rated Alphaville at the time but they afford a certain nostalgic comfort, forty years on. 

It's All Panda Panda Now - It's All Panda - Ex-Norwegian - Great title but not a great song by any means. Arguably, not a song at all. Don't write them off, though. They have better tunes. Or, tunes. This, for example  

Extreme Makeover - Automatically - Neil Leyton and the Ghosts - Good performance, lousy sound, unfortunately. The studio version is better, anyway.

And that's it. With the return to work these monthly wrap-ups are going to be shorter but that's all to the good, I think. See you in November!

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

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Extreme Makeover : Secret World Legends

's short Massively OP news report on the upcoming update to Secret World Legends came across as admirably even-handed and professional, I thought, given his history with the title. Like many, I'm sure, he's on record as being, shall we say, less than impressed by Funcom's handling of the revamp no-one asked for.

Described as "one of the biggest updates ever", the patch notes supposedly run to "nearly 9,000 words". I thought that sounded a little unlikely so I copy-pasted them into a word counter and yes, I guess you'd have to say 8,792 is "nearly 9,000".

I did not read them all. Instead, I read Community Manager AndyB's overview and summary, much more manageable at a sprightly 644 words. Then I had a quick scan through the epic specifics of the notes. 

I came away puzzled. Not by the brain-crushing detail. I ignored most of that. In part it was the nature of the changes that seemed curious but mostly it was the mere fact that change on this scale exists at all in a game many of us, in this part of the blogosphere at least, had most likely written off long ago.

Maybe that's premature. I was quite surprised, checking the dates for this post, to see Secret World Legends only launched three years ago. It feels like a lot longer. Of course, the original game, The Secret World, debuted all the way back in 2012. The two do tend to blur in the memory. Hardly surprising, given that they're arguably the same game. 

The narrative, such as it is, seems to have been that Funcom, under great commercial stress, attempted to re-tool and re-market what was then their newest, highest-profile property to attract a broader audience and failed. Then their financial fortunes took a turn for the better and they scored an unexpected hit with the little-fancied Conan Exiles, after which the company appeared to lose interest in MMORPGs altogether. 

New content dried up. The older MMORPGs remained in service but to all intents and purposes appeared to have moved into de facto maintenance mode. No-one in this part of the blogosphere talked about the game any more and such news items as appeared on MMO sites seemed both desultory and scarce.

And yet it appears someone must have been playing. Possibly rather a lot of someones. With no new content in years and no prospect of any in the foreseeable future, what could those people be doing?

Judging by this update they've been running dungeons and raiding. Obsessively. I suppose that shouldn't come as a surprise. If TSW/SWL ever had a solid reputation for anything other than story it was probably dungeon play. 

Not that I'd know. I've never done a dungeon in SWL, only a couple in The Secret World, and those in pick-up groups. I didn't form much of an impression. I have read plenty of praise from players who have, though.

SWL doesn't even have a lot of dungeons. Just eight, according to the wiki. As of this update "You may now queue up to Dungeon Elite difficulty 17". I have no idea how many you used to be able to queue for but I'm guessing there's a progression system similar to Guild Wars 2's fractals. 

There does seem to be a demographic within MMORPG players that's happy to run the same dungeons over and over again, always provided there's a number against their character's name that keeps going up. I'm guessing that's Secret World's Legend's core audience these days.

How else to explain Funcom's perception that not only does the dungeon and raid offer need to grow but that the fundemental combat systems which support it deserve a major re-visit? The sweeping changes detailed in the notes suggest an enormous amount of work. Why bother with any of it other than to consolidate and expand a potentially profitable segment? And time-consuming though I'm sure it must be, it's almost bound to be cheaper than creating new narrative content.

It's not going to affect me. Probably. I still log into SWL occasionally but only to ride my motorcycle and look at the scenery. Okay, I might do a mission now and again but it's exceedingly unlikely I'll ever make another serious attempt to progress my character. Even less so that I'll ever set foot in a dungeon.

Even so, I admit to a frisson of concern at the news that healing potions seem to have been nerfed and that "solo survival passives now cap healing at 15,000 max HP". Also "...all nine weapons have received significant changes. Some weapons may even be completely different from what you’re used to".

Doesn't exactly spark joy in the hear of the casual player, does it? It wouldn't be the first time that changes intended for dungeon and raid play spilled over to make life harder for solo players. 

If there are any left, that is.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

It's All Panda Panda Now : EverQuest II

As you can see from the screenshot above, Yun Zi the panda is a popular chap. It's not so much his friendly, affable personality or his open, childlike enthusiasm. It's more that he gives you stuff.

It's pretty good stuff, too. For any casual player who hasn't been putting in the hours since last year, the gear Yun Zi hands out is likely to offer some serious upgrades. And even if you have made the effort, the fact that he's happy to equip as many of your characters as you care to bring makes doing his simple runaround quests an annual ritual no-one wants to skip.

He's always surrounded by players, digging through his stockpile, but he's starting to develop a bit of an entourage of his own as well. When he first appeared, back in 2017, he was on his own but when we saw him again the following year he'd acquired an assistant, Pas Yu, to handle the merchandise. 

This year Yun Zi isn't giving out quests at all. He seems to have sated his thirst for third-party adventure. He's basking in the reflected glory of being the only panda who knows anything at all about the world outside the secluded village where he and his friends and family live.

He's become such a local celebrity, off the back of the tales we've told him, that a panda by the name of Mei Lan has been tasked with arranging a celebratory feast in his honor. Naturally, since Yun Zi is such a well-travelled explorer, albeit vicariously, she wants the menu to reflect all the myriad places he's visited. Or had us visit, I should say.

It's a delightful conceit. I was wondering how long Yun Zi could hold up the narrative of the naive rich kid blowing the family fortune on a personal obsession. The story was starting to get a little threadbare but this refreshes it perfectly.

This year, instead of zipping around the world each week in search of stories to tell, we're tasked with finding ingredients for Mei Lan to turn into amazing "local" dishes. The first excursion takes us to Antonica, where we need to find the makings for Coldwind Clam Chowder.

I know Antonica pretty well. A quick glance at the list told me just about everything I needed to know. 

I figured the giant Coldwind clams would be on the wide, desolate beach just down from Archer's Wood, where Mrs. Bhagpuss, myself and a friend spent hours hunting crabs for spell drops in beta and after launch. And yes, that's where they were.

I went for the old oak potatoes next, thinking they might be in the woods above the beach. Silly of me. Yes, those are oak trees, but who ever heard of potatoes growing in a forest? They are, of course, in the tilled fields just outside gates of Qeynos, where the bugs are so huge you can make a good living killing them for the farmers nearby.

The last ingredient on Mei Lan's list was wild Coven onions. There's only one coven I know in Antonica and that's along the riverside between the bridge and the aquaduct. 

The onions were there, sure enough, but so was something I wasn't expecting at all. As I said, I reckon to know Antonica pretty well. I must have spent hundreds of hours there over a decade and a half. I know I don't have the greatest memory but I think I'd have remembered if there'd been molehills the size of hobbit houses all over the fields next to the stream.

I stopped and looked at those for quite a while before I noticed something else I swear wasn't there before. A farmhouse, in the typical Antonican log cabin style, up a path in the low hills looking down on the river.

I don't know. There are a lot of farmhouses like that in Antonica. Maybe it was always there? I'd believe that before I believed those molehills were, that's for sure. 

The farmer was standing by his porch, gazing out at his fields. I thought maybe he'd have something to say about the infestation so I went to talk to him. He was happy enough to tell me how he felt about his lot in life but on the topic of the giant molehills peppering his land he remained strangely silent.

I filed it away as another of Norrath's mysteries. Must have been some event I missed. Forgotten, abandoned debris from those litters the lands from Qeynos to Freeport and far beyond. Everyone likes to organize events but no-one wants to clean up afterwards.

Back in Sundered Frontier I gave Mei Lan her makings and moved on to see what Pas Yu had new for us this year. I've been a lot more diligent than usual since the return to Luclin so I wasn't expecting much in the way of upgrades on my berserker, who's had first pick of all the goodies from instances and Overseer missions.

The items become available week by week as the questline continues but you can see everything from the start. There are some very nice adornments to be had, which is good because one area where I have been lax is in making top-notch white adorns. My berserker is a maxed-level Adorner and he has almost every recipe but the mats are a bit expensive. Also I kind of forgot.

I noted those for the future and carried on sorting through the new "Shadowed Excursion" gear. I followed my usual policy of checking the Resolve to see if anything was worth equipping. Resolve isn't specifically intended as a gear score but it acts as a very reliable benchmark. 

As I expected, there was nothing with resolve much higher than 170. My berserker isn't wearing anything lower than that and much of his gear is 175 or 180. Most of my roster have similar although I'm sure there must be a few 165s and even 160s lurking here and there.

I'd all but dismissed the idea of taking anything for the berserker when I happened to notice some of the rest of the stats. In EQII, as you mouse over gear, an automatic comparison with what you're wearing in that slot pops up. It seemed that although these new items had a lower Resolve rating, some - if not most - of the other stats were higher.

I spent a while doing a close compare on several slots and the conclusion was inescapable: the panda's gear was better than most of my berserker's, whatever the difference in resolve. What's more, the base stats on the Shadowed Excursion were often better than the enhanced stats on the gear I'd poured platinum and infusers into improving.

Even the rather nice 350 resolve, planar level six, two-hander the berserker had wasn't as good as the 340 resolve, planar level one Heavy Staff of the Shadowed Excursion that becomes available right after you complete the first of this year's quests. With the Two Handed Shadowed Excursion Rune: Power of the Planes that also opens up after the first quest installed, it was a serious upgrade. 

It looks as though I'll be swapping out almost everything for panda gear once more, after all. Maybe not the 180 resolve stuff. Definitely not the 200 resolve ethereal cloak. But most of it.

And then, quite possibly, that will get replaced with free stuff from the box beside the first questgiver in the new expansion. And that will get swapped out for the first set of quest rewards. Which will soon give way to drops from Overseer missions and instances.

You could be forgiven for wondering what the point of it all might be. It does seem a little self-defeating, all this built-in obsolescence. Only, having played a game for eight years where I haven't needed new gear for almost as long, I know which I prefer.

EQII's a funny old game, but I like it.

I just wish I know where those giant moles went.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Let's Go To The Moon (Like We Did Last Winter)

Right after I finished yesterday's post I found out EverQuest II had dropped a double-sized update, including some pre-expansion events and this year's somewhat inaccurately-named Days of Summer questline. That makes me very happy, for two reasons. First, new content. Yay! Second, something to post about. Yay!!

Last year the run-up to the expansion was spectacular but that was largely because it co-incided with the fifteenth anniversary celebrations. The two things were very cleverly intertwined.  

The expansion-related quests themselves were relatively low-key. Some collection and crafting for tradeskillers, some solo slaughter for adventurers. The real attraction was a sustained draconic assault on the wizard spires, which created huge crowds and a party atmosphere. There was a big tradeskill event, too, with the corpses of the defeated dragons providing the materials to build the giant statues that now stand proudly in Antonica and the Commonlands.

It was enormous fun and the desirability of the rewards kept people coming back all the way until the expansion launched. I spent many hours across a couple of months, leveling tradeskills and fighting dragons, to my great profit and satisfaction.

It would be a bit of an ask to expect Daybreak to repeat the whole extravaganza all over again, although I admit I was hoping they might. Based on what I saw last night, that's not going to happen but there is some solid, enjoyable content in the form of the by now traditional repeatable quests.

Like last year, the action begins in Teren's Grasp, the icebound mountain city high above Kylong Plains. I woke up my berserker and sent him there, via the spires, to grab whatever was going. 

There are five tradeskill quests, all of which I have and none of which I've done yet. Probably should have thought about that before I started the post, really. I don't imagine they take very long. Why don't I do one now and see how it goes? Talk among yourselves for a moment...

And just as well I did! That wasn't exactly what I was expecting. Oh, the gathering of the one specific quest material went as I'd imagined it would. Just run around Teren's Grasp and harvest from the many spinning crystal formations. 

No, the unusual part happens when you come to craft whatever item the quest requires, in my case a Box of Nails. The dwarf who gave me the quest said he wasn't picky about what materials I used, something confirmed in the quest description in my journal, so I was planning on using whatever ore I had the most of. 

I wasn't expecting the combine to decide at random which materials I was allowed to use and I certainly didn't imagine they'd all be rares! The recipe requires seven mats and you need to repeat the combine three times to complete the quest, making twenty-rares in total. And for that you get a measly two G.L.E.E.S.H. Marks, the new currency. (You don't need to know what the acronym stands for, trust me on that).

I know rares aren't what they once were and I can certainly farm a lot of them fast these days, but even so that seemed out of order, so I checked. God bless EQ2Crafters is all I can say.

Niami Denmother is recovering from some very major surgery (get well soon, Mum!) but Wilhelmina from the French crafting site EQ2Artisans has stepped in to keep us all informed. It seems that you can indeed use regular mats but the quest doesn't select them randomly at all. It picks the smallest stacks in your inventory. 

If, as I did, you go to your home and let the stupid AI loose on your materials depot, it brilliantly  manages to spot that all your smallest stacks are, inevitably, rares. Because of course they are. That's why we call them "rares"!

The solution is to pick out the materials you want to use and have those in your inventory and to do the combine somewhere other than the zone where you have your harvesting depots. Shame I didn't read that first, isn't it?

I'm not sure I'll bother going to all that trouble. Not when there's a nice, simple adventure quest that, once completed, lets you farm an infinite number of invading mobs, each of which has a fifty-fifty chance of dropping a mark.

That quest, by the way, is called "The Not So Nice Yet Accurate Prophecies of Beckah Stormsong", which has to be a hat-tip to Pratchett and Gaiman's "The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch". As well as giving props to the masters, the quest also throws a little shade on the work we're all doing to facilitate the next phase of the recovery of Luclin. Let's hope Beckah isn't really as accurate in her prognostications as Agnes turned out to be.

Last but for my playstyle definitely not least comes a repeatable Overseer mission. It follows the familiar pattern we've come to expect from previous holiday and event chains. You speak to an NPC in Teren's Grasp to get the initial quest and then each subsequent mission gives you the next in the sequence. 

I'm on part five, I think. It's called Iksar Intent: Into The Essence. There's at least one more part after that. Not sure what you get but I'm betting on a title.

And that's about it. All of the above will be with us from now until the expansion launches which is... well, we have no idea yet. I don't believe we even know what it's called, do we? Unless it's "Haven Bound". But I think that's just the name of the pre-expansion event.

It's always like this. I rather like the vagueness. We'll find out soon enough, I'm sure.

I ran on so much there, I think I'll save what I have to say about the new Panda quests for tomorrow. I've done the first one and I do have a few observations on how that went.

Meanwhile, I think I'll go farm some marks. I do want those petamorph wands and who says no to free mounts?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Just Relax

Syp and Belghast both posted today on the relaxing nature of leveling. I should need no reminding of that. Syp even talks about how the whole process can be made even more stress-free by avoiding quests in favor of killing mobs and farming crafting materials, something I was doing an awful lot of this time last year.

Ah, last year, eh? Remember that? When the biggest thing we had to worry about was whether to cancel our subscriptions to World of Warcraft to teach Blizzard a lesson? Happy days...

I was doing a lot of leveling back than. Two months, at least thirty hours a week, taking a Hunter into the fifties and a couple more into the twenties. When that all fell apart there was the EverQuest II expansion with another ten levels to do. Wouldn't have taken very long with the new accelerated xp but I had a lot of characters so I managed to make it last well into the New Year.

This year it's mostly been good old EverQuest picking up the slack. My highest character was level 93 back in the spring. Now she's 113, just two dings from cap. For much of the summer I was taking her out almost daily to hunt in all kinds of new zones and do all kinds of new content (new to me, obviously, not to anyone who's actually been playing since about 2013).

I kind of fell off that wagon when the recent double xp ended. I'm back to just logging in to set and collect the Overseer dailies. Since those give orders of magnitude more xp than I'm likely to get by going out and soloing there's not a huge amount of incentive to do anything more effortful.

It's very nice to get levels for doing nothing but I'm starting to get twitchy. I love leveling. Like Bel and Syp I find it relaxing but I also find it involving and interesting, too. I'm generally at my most  engaged with an MMORPG when I'm actively leveling a character.

I've been thinking about what I could do about it for a while. I have a Fury in the nineties in EQII I could dust off  but the nineties can be a real struggle in that game. It's why I stopped there in the first place. 

It's also so close to a hundred it feels crazy to slog through seven or eight tedious levels when I'm sitting on several boosts I haven't used. I could skip to 100 or even straight to 120. Which would defeat the object, so there she sits, dithering.

In Guild Wars 2 I considered converting some of my extensive gold reserves to gems to buy a new character slot. Leveling in GW2 can be a lot of fun and although I have all the classes, most of them twice at least, there are plenty of race/class combos I haven't tried yet, not to mention weapons.

And then I remember how my bank vaults groan with every kind of leveling boost. Last time I counted I had enough consumables to jump thirty or so characters from zero to eighty. I know I don't have to use them but just knowing I could is undermining. Plus, they're taking up space!

There are other options. I was enjoying leveling my Final Fantasy XIV character under the endless free trial  back when that only went to thirty-five. She's level thirty-three if I remember correctly. Now she can go all the way to sixty. I could do some more with her.

Then there's that new Microsoft game, Elder Scrolls Online. I was enjoying that one for a bit. And Blade and Soul, didn't I go back there for a heartbeat not a month or so ago? And I took the option to have all those Lord of the Rings quests for nothing back when they were giving them away. I could level up the normal way there instead of grinding mobs and pretending it's a prettier EverQuest.

Oh yeah, and Star Wars: the Old Republic too. Let's not forget that one. All games where I'd like to level up some characters - in theory. I just can't seem to commit to doing any of it in practice. 

And y'know what I blame? The weather, that's what.

Doesn't proper get-stuck-in, do the hours leveling feel like something you do when it's cold or wet or dark outside? Doesn't it feel a bit weird to be grinding away on mobs when the sun's shining through the open window and the birds are singing away?

In fact, back in the summer, when I was leveling away in EQ, it was mostly wet and not that warm. I remember doing a whole bunch of adventures with Test Match Special on in the background as the team desperately tried to fill an entire week of airtime with random conversation as a whole five-day test match was rained off. And they were playing not that far away from me, so we had much the same weather.

September has been glorious. I've spent most of my time either out enjoying the late summer sunshine or using the dry, warm weather to do a whole load of stuff around the house. What with that and going back to work, albeit only two days a week, I haven't felt much like sitting down at the computer for anything much, neither blogging nor gaming.

I'm coming to the end of the home improvement projects I wanted to get done this year, though, and today the weather broke. Tomorrow it's going to feel much more like autumn and that ought to do it.

The timing looks good. Blizzard are still being coy about the precise date of the Shadowlands pre-patch but everyone seems to think it's imminent. When that drops I've decided I'll definitely re-sub for a month. I'm hoping that the squish and the new leveling mechanics will give me as much to chew on as the launch of Classic last year.

Back then, the blog posts all but wrote themselves. Here's hoping history repeats.

Whether the pre-expansion experience translates into a desire to try Shadowlands itself will be interesting to find out. If I had to bet, I'd bet against it. In the end I never did play through any of that Legion expansion I was given. But who knows? Maybe I'll get the WoW bug and use the squish to explore all the supposedly good leveling content from Pandaria, Legion, Battle for Azeroth (people did say the zones were nice...) and Shadowlands itself.

That ought to keep me going until the next EQII expansion comes out. Which, now I think of it, won't have any new levels, anyway.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Ghost Ship

As I may have mentioned I have favorite spots in various games, where I like to park characters when I log out. If there's housing and I have time I like to settle down for the night at home but for one reason or another I often end up logging out in a favored quiet corner of the city or under a chosen tree out in the country instead.

In EverQuest II I have quite a few characters who are citizens of Freeport. My preferred camp spot there is under cover of the open roof on the seaward side of the smaller of the two East Freeport banks. It's convenient, cosy and ... haunted.

I always thought there was something odd about it but it took me quite a while to pin down exactly what it was. I was convinced that there had once been a large rowing boat resting on its side, propped against that back wall of the bank. I was sure I'd seen it but whenever I remembered to look there was no sign.

Later, as various characters acquired larger and larger entourages - combat pets, vanity pets, familiars, mercenaries - I began to notice one or two of them would sometimes mysteriously go missing when I was in that spot. I'd look around for them and not find them and then as I'd turn around they'd re-appear.

One day, it must be a year or two ago now, I was arriving or leaving, I forget which, when I spotted the ghostly outline of a rowing boat in the exact spot I remembered having seen a real boat, long before. I stopped and stared, then I carefully moved all around it, examining it from all angles. And then I stepped through it.

Was I hallucinating? Having some kind of flashback? Was it a secret quest or the ominous warning of some forthcoming event?

No, of course it wasn't any of those things. It was - and remains - a graphical glitch. There's something wrong with the code at that specific spot that makes odd things happen. I could bug report it but I would hate for it to be fixed. It's a part of the game for me, now. I'd miss it if it was gone.

Very, very occasionally I'm able to see the location as I imagine it's intended to be seen, with a large, solid boat leant against the wooden wall. Sometimes I see the ghostly outline of a boat but mostly I don't see anything at all. 

I've become so used to the anomaly I rarely think about it at all. Not until it pulls a new trick on me. Like it did tonight.

This evening, when I logged in to collect my Overseer rewards and set the next round, I was greeted with a most peculiar sight. My berserker was sitting on his winged warhorse in front of a brightly glowing cutaway of the small East Freeport bank. I could see the banker and the broker, an iksar customer and some crafting tables through what should have been the wall. And the rowing boat.

All around was darkness. Not the familiar gloom of a stormy Freeport night but the stygian blackness of a featureless void. I had the berserker turn his mount in a tight circle. For three-quarters of a rotation the void maintained. For the other quarter East Freeport flicked into view, solid and bright in full daylight.

I love graphical bugs and glitches in MMORPGs. When I run into a good one I always try to get a screenshot. This was a classic. I moved around carefully, trying various angles , hoping not to fix what was broken.

And then the ground fell away beneath my feet. The flying horse unfurled his wings and went into a majestic glide. Sparks streamed backwards from my berserker's glowing crown. The East Freeport bank grew smaller and smaller, slipping into the distance behind us as we fell into the void.

Until the game caught onto what was happening and teleported us to the zone safe point beside the West Freeport gate. Spoilsport!

In all the times I've come and gone in that spot, which must be many hundreds by now, this is the only time I've fallen through the world. I suppose I ought to find somewhere more stable to camp out in future. Hanging around near any graphical glitch is tempting fate. There's always that outside chance something could happen to your character or even your account.

Yeah, that's what I should do. What I actually did, naturally, was log two more characters in who were parked at the same spot to see if I could get it to happen again. 

It didn't, but because I was paying attention for once I noticed that what I saw each time was different. The berserker got the full works with the cutaway buildings and the void, the warlock got the ghost boat and the necromancer got a solid wall and an emprty space.

What no-one got was what they should have: a neatly stowed, ordinary rowing boat, leaning up against a solid wall. That's the rare version.

Long may it stay that way.

Friday, September 18, 2020

D.A.I.S.Y. Age?

This morning I received a typically busy and garish email from DAISY, the A.I. from art MMO Occupy White Walls. For an artificial intelligence devoted to aesthetics her personal style certainly does remind me of a particularly intense Geocities homepage circa 1997.

OWW (suggested pronounciation, according to the website, "Owouawwouaw") is still in Early Access on Steam. Or maybe it's alpha. I'm not sure there's a difference. On the website, developer StikiPixels defines Early Access as "the game is mostly stable but under heavy development", the exact phrase they were using for the alpha, when I first wrote about it back in 2018.

They're not kidding about the heavy development, either. In two years the "game", if game it is or ever was, has changed almost out of recognition.

When I first tried it I was quite excited, particularly for the building possibilties. I saw it as a potential replacement for Landmark or, conceivably, "the hipster Minecraft".

I was also eager to test the proposition that DAISY could educate me in art history and help me expand my tastes by leading me to new artists whose work I'd enjoy. She seemed to be quite capable of it. As I wrote at the time "Within a few minutes the artworks she was suggesting were beginning to pique my interest and stimulate my pleasure centers... After a dozen or so iterations... the problem was stopping myself from buying everything she put in front of me. I loved it all".

Sadly, that promise went largely unfulfilled. Each time I dropped in to see how the project was progressing I found it moving further from what I'd imagined it would become. Over time focus began to shift, away from what I'd seen as primarily an educative tool for dabblers in art history and towards an alternative means of self-expression and self-promotion for living artists.

I began to find DAISY less and less useful as she suggested contemporary artists in preference to old masters. It didn't seem as though she was learning my tastes, more like ignoring them.

As for building and decorating, even as the range of options and the quality of the tools improved, the possibilities shrank. Each account was limited to a single gallery. I made mine and was happy with it. I'd have liked to start again on another but to do that I'd have had to tear the old one down. 

I wasn't prepared to do that so that was the end of my adventure in architecture. What's the point of a building game that doesn't let you build?

Unsurprisingly, I haven't logged in much as the game's developed from there. In fact, Steam claims I've only ever played for 7.3 hours, which seems exceedingly low. I definitely haven't logged in for a long time. There didn't seem much point.

Not until today, that is, when DAISY's email arrived, bringing news of a couple of very significant changes. One of them opens fresh possibilities for exciting gameplay, the other makes me curious to see where the game is going next. 

Multiple galleries! That was the specific change I suggested in a recent feedback survey would be needed to get me back and playing once again. It's only two more slots but, as the email says, that's a 200% increase. More than enough to keep me amused for a few more hours. 

I'm not going to jump straight in and not only because you need to be level 20 to get the second gallery, 30 for the third. (I'm currently level 10). It's more that I find OWW suits the darker days. 

Putting a gallery together is a very enjoyable way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon. Right now, with the sun shining and the sky full blue it doesn't feel like quite the thing but when the rain comes maybe I'll start another project.

The other major development doesn't impact me directly but it's highly significant for the future of OWW: you can now upload your own art for a one time fee of $9.00. Per picture.

It seems a bit steep to me. The fee places the submission in DAISY's database and also on the Kultura website, where it remains for as long as the game and website persist, or so I assume from the assurance "Once your artwork is in, it’s in".

There doesn't seem to be any way of capitalizing on the investment directly, as yet. The FAQ mentions "sales" when making the point that no commission is charged but it seems to be a reference only to such sales as the artist and buyer may arrange outside of the game itself: "OWW is designed to drive traffic to social media and/or other sites. Many artists are contacted by fans (who discover them in OWW) over social media and in several cases, people bought artworks in the ‘real world’ "

The drive and direction seem clearer, at least. Occupy White Walls never seemed all that much like a game although it undoubtedly contains gamelike elements. For someone like me it's a toy and the addition of two more building slots makes it a much better toy than it was. The real thrust, though, is an ambitious assault on the established art market.

That's quite a manifesto. The various comparisons with Napster and Spotify that pop up elsewhere in the narrative make StikiPixels' ambition plain.

Whether there's a demand for such an open-access, global clearing house for artwork and, if there is, whether OWW is up to the job remains to be seen. Not being an artist I can afford to sit back and watch (although if I were an artist I think I'd still want to sit back and watch for a while before I started stumping up $9.00 a punt to test the market).

I'm just happy for the opportunity to build a couple more galleries. I'll see if I can't be a bit more forward-thinking this time, too. Last time I had no idea what I was building until I'd finished.

Before I can do that, though, I suppose I'll have to get leveling. I guess it is an MMO after all...

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Touch Too Much?

"Made many improvements to the Overseer system to make it simpler to find Agents you need when you need them."

Everquest Game Update Notes September 16

The strapline in yesterday's patch notes made me nervous. There's a fine line between welcome assistance and unwanted interference. It's been a comedy staple since, well, since forever.

I've been keeping up with my Overseer quests in EverQuest religiously. Every morning I log in to set five of them, mainly the twelve hour ones. I try to get them up and running before ten in the morning so I'll have time to log in again in the evening, collect the rewards and set another five before I shut the PC down for the night.

When I mess the timing up, which happens a couple of times most weeks, I pay the very small fee in Daybreak Cash to finish ahead of time and get things back on track. Alternatively, I set some six hour quests for one cycle. That does the job.

It also has the benefit of reminding me there are a couple of mission types I still need to level up. I have most of them maxed now but I'm still nominally working on Plunder, Craft and Harvest.

After nine months plugging away, barely missing a session, I have almost all of the possible agents. As far as I can tell, the only ones I'm still missing are two elites, King Kazon Stormhammer and King Tearis Thex. Oh, and Fippy Darkpaw, the only agent that has to be bought for DBC.

Setting ten missions a day, every day, means I pretty much know which ones are good at what without having to mouseover their icons or consult the drop-down menus. If a quest asks for a fierce high elf paladin I know Joren Nobleheart is the man for the job. If a rugged, frivolous dwarf's what's called for I give the nod to Tumpy Irontoe.

Having acquired this knowledge I look forward to employing it. Even after spending the whole of the year setting these missions I still actively enjoy the process and the more I understand the strengths and weaknesses of my extensive stable of agents, the more satisfying that process becomes.

Knowing who to pick for which job is one thing. Getting them slotted, set and ready to go is another.

Every quest has a number of required agents. How many varies according to the level, quality and
difficulty of the quest. You have to fill those slots or the quest won't start but you can also slot a variable number of optional agents to enhance your chances of success.

This is where it can start to get tedious. Five quests might use seven agents each and even when you know who's good at what, finding and slotting thirty-five of the buggers takes a while. Also, counter-intuitively, once the important agents are in place it's their lower-ranked assistants who take the time to select. You're not going to have a plethora of rank five Artisans to choose from but you might well have four or five bold rank one Soldiers.

Not that it makes a difference which you use, but you don't want to be sending someone on a mission because she's Frivolous, only to find out on the next quest she was also the only Malicious Scholar you had left. You can cancel a mission after you've set it to regain use of the agents it uses but if you do that it still counts against your maximum ten a day, so you want to avoid it, if at all possible.

Much more annoying than shuffling through the drop-down menus for an exact match, though, is finding the agent's picture to put them into service. After all these months I know just about every agent by sight but scrolling down to pick the right ones from the line-up got old a while ago.

It seems I'm not the only one to feel this way. Yesterday's patch addresses a number of issues with the Overseer system but the best change is this one: 

"Modified how Available Agents are sorted in the Quests tab for non-conversion quests. They are now sorted by the total number of matching traits and jobs, then by job ranks, rarity, and finally name. This change will usually result in sorting Agents with the highest potential contribution ahead of the pack."

I was curious to see how well this might work. The answer is perfectly. In every quest I've set so far, the exact agent I would have chosen has been first in line.

Then there's this change:

"Agents who offer no benefit to a quest no longer appear in the Available Agents list in the Quests tab."

Well, you really can't argue with that, can you?

And finally:

"Optional quest party slots now display their required job rank."

I didn't even know optional agents had a required rank.

There are other changes too, some of them very welcome,  but those three are the ones that are going to save me ten or fifteen minutes a day. The first two sets I completed after the patch took me considerably less than five minutes each. I normally allow anything up to a quarter of an hour.

That's very welcome, especially given that, now I'm back at work for a couple of days a week, I'm having to fit some of these sessions into a tighter timeframe. And yet, welcome as it may be, it does still bring up the question of how much assistance is too much.

I'm always wary of games that play themselves. I don't mean idle games. Those are fine. It's a genre. It's when MMORPG developers begin to engineer out the boring parts that I start to get twitchy.

In this case I'm fine with the changes made. I still feel sufficiently involved in the process to get that spurious sense of satisfaction that makes playing video games so dangerously alluring. It wouldn't take all that much more "help", though, to turn that sense of satisfaction into a queasy awareness that what I'm doing could all too easily be reduced to a single click.

I'd hate to read the patch notes some day and see that some bright spark had come up with the clever idea of having the game itself allocate the best available agents automatically, as soon as the player selects the mission. Obviously now the game can sort those agents effectively it could just as easily slot them for you. 

And then what would be the point of me?

For now I'm happy. I like the changes. The new ease of use even feels like a reward for all the effort I've put in up 'til now. I'd prefer it stops there, though. I'd like to keep my illusions of usefulness a little longer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Back To The Mountain : Trüberbrook

I finished Trüberbrook. It took me just over eight hours. I didn't use a walkthrough until the penultimate chapter. On the few occasions I did go for help it almost always turned out that all I needed to do was exactly what I thought I needed to do, only in a slightly diferent way.

That's a problem I'm very familiar with in aging MMORPGs, where quests have been designed and implemented by different developers over the course of many years. You don't really expect those kind of inconsistencies in standalone games but as flaws go it's a very minor one.

Overall, I'd rate Trüberbrook quite highly. Without a doubt its greatest strength is the visuals. Every scene is beautifully rendered, with a wealth of detail, but it never indulges in the kind of complexity for complexity's sake that turns an adventure game into "spot the hidden object". 

Almost every location would make a fine book illustration or jigsaw puzzle. There's a great illusion of depth created by the use of actual scale models for the sets and backdrops. Possibly for that reason, compared to almost any game of it's kind that I've played, Trüberbrook has very few locations.  

Far from feeling limiting or claustrophobic, it genuinely works in the game's favor. Hans, the protagonist, moves fairly slowly, even when you force him into his stoop-backed, shuffling run, so you wouldn't really want too many long treks. Even with the relatively small number of transitions, when you acquire a map late in the game that allows you to travel instantly from location to location, it comes as a welcome surprise.

One thing that makes the game feel more extensive than its limited number of scenes would suggest is the creative and satisfying way those scenes are re-used. As you progress through the narrative, places you've already explored demand further visits to see what may have changed. 

In other adventure games I've played re-tracing your steps can become tedious but in Trüberbrook it never does. The game lets you know quite plainly if there's no point returning to dead location but chances are you won't even try, since almost all the changes feel as though they're a natural consequence of the actions you've taken or the way the plot has turned.

There are a couple of occasions when something entirely unpredictable happens and that's when I would have welcomed a clue to point me in the right direction but mostly I found myself returning to the correct place to check on something I had an inkling about. More often than not my hunch was correct and even when it wasn't there was usually something else new instead, something that hadn't occurred to me but easily could have.

Obviously I'm being vague here because if there's one thing you don't want in an adventure game it's spoilers. It's possible I'm being too circumspect. If there's one area where Trüberbrook could do with some serious tightening up it's the plot.

I'm not saying it's bad. (It's pretty bad). It's no worse than any number of video game plots I've raised my eyebrows at over the years. If it wasn't for the claims made on the website ("a gripping sci-fi storyline", "a puzzling sci-fi mystery") it would be easier to ignore the fact that at no point does the plot threaten to make the slightest sense whatsoever. 

Much more accurate are the assertions that the narrative deals with "universal themes like love, friendship, loyalty, rootlessness, self-discovery and dinosaurs". It kind of does, although in an oddly eliptical fashion. This could be construed as a spoiler, in the way that just announcing a movie has a twist is in itself a spoiler, even if you don't say what the twist is, but Trüberbrook ends with a straightforward moral choice that I found surprisingly affecting. And it's certainly some time since I saw not one but two character arcs satisfyingly concluded through emotional commitment to inanimate objects.

Trüberbrook is very much a game that's more than the sum of its parts, which is just as well because some of the parts don't add up to much on their own. Those would mostly be the "game" parts. There were quite a few moments when I felt certain scenarios and set pieces existed more to justify selling Trüberbrook as a game at all than because anyone believed they would be inherently entertaining. 

Given that the team had gone to all the trouble of making the scale models and the sets I did occasionally wish they'd just doubled down and made an animated movie instead. They would have needed a better plot, though. Movies aren't as forgiving as games when it comes to that sort of thing.

Even so, I did have a lot of fun playing. There are plenty of times when something you do has an effect that's funny or surprising and that sense of agency is one thing no movie can give you. 

There's also a lot of genuine curiosity to be satisfied by poking around. Unlike most adventure games there seem to be an unusual variety of examinable and even useable items and objects that don't appear to further the plot in any way. 

An awful lot of work has gone into some of them, too. It's by no means uncommon in an adventure game to come across a journal or a guest book or some photos but to create ten or a dozen pages of a ledger filled with names and dates and times and notes, most of which don't have any obvious narrative or humorous value and none of which relate in any meaningful way to the plot seems to be taking verisimilitude to an almost obsessional level.

 It does make the place feel real, though. I'd rather they did it than not, even if it does feel odd to have spent five minutes reading something that isn't funny and doesn't help.

I have no such reservations about the superb set piece that happens late on in the game and which also has no discernible relation to the plot other than to leave a single item behind to be picked up and used later. That item could just as easily have been acquired through any regular conversation with an NPC but instead we not only get  to watch one of the better in-game musical performances I've seen anywhere but also to engage in some on-the-fly songwriting!

I was so taken unawares by this event I didn't have the presence of mind to save before it started so I could replay that segment and video the performance. Fortunately someone else did. This is definitely a spoiler in that I found the unexpected appearance of the event itself  to be the highlight of the whole game but it doesn't really spoil much, if any, of the plot.


Actually, the song wasn't the highlight. Here's another spoiler. 

There's an after-credit sequence. I knew there would be. The game just has that feel. There had to be one and there was. 

What it was, though, was completely unexpected and really quite beautiful. I took some screenshots and I was going to use one here but on second thoughts I don't think I will. It really would be a shame to spoil the surprise.

I'm generally not much of a one for re-playing games to see alternative outcomes or endings. I probably won't replay Trüberbrook. I might, though. The choice you have to make at the end is so stark the outcomes have to be very different. I am curious to know what would have happened...

Or maybe I'll just watch it on YouTube. I did say the whole thing would work better as a movie, after all.

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