Thursday, March 31, 2022

This, That And The Other.

A bit of a grab-bag today, I'm afraid. I'm not really feeling it for long, involved treatises at the moment, which is probably just as well. Then again, I also haven't come up with any clever new ideas for short, pithy posts, so it's just going to be a little bit of what I've done and what I've read.

And mostly what I've done is get my Charr Engineer in Guild Wars 2 set up as a Mechanist, the new elite specialization for her class that comes with End of Dragons. I mentioned I was working on her in the post on planning but at the time about all I'd done was spend the points. That's the easy part.

Yesterday I got down to the detail. I went to Metabattle to look for a build. As I may have mentioned about a hundred times, I find making and changing builds every bit as compelling a piece of content as camping a two-hour spawn for a rare drop. Actually, not even that compelling. At least if the drop does finally drop there's a moment of euphoria before the grim realization of just how much time you wasted sets in.

My dislike of builds puts me in an odd position in regard to Metabattle and sites like it. In theory I kinda, sorta disapprove of them. They're somewhere in there with all the other forces that push mmorpg gameplay towards some kind of bland, cloned efficiency. It drives originality, whimsy and quirkiness to the perifery, whereas I'd like those sorts of behaviors to be right in the center.

On the other hand, they are really useful and they save a whole lot of time. When it's something I don't find fun to do the long-winded way, it's extremely easy to overlook the implications of taking a shortcut. 

In this particular instance I felt happier than usual about doing it because it's far too soon for any genuine "meta" to have coalesced. All we have so far are are suggestions. The build I followed, the Power Mechanist, is in the "Draft" section and so far just one person has voted on it. They did give it the full five stars, though.

I was drawn to it by the description: "Power Mechanist is a simple build that offers very high damage. It is exceptionally easy to play and is one of the best generalist options for open world farming currently."I especially like the part that says "exceptionally easy to play."

Naturally, I couldn't resist fiddling about with it. I didn't like the sound of the bomb kit much. I remember using that many years ago and finding it both exciting and unreliable. I stuck the speed signet in that slot instead and resolved to stick with my trusty rifle.

I did go with the suggestions for gear, more or less, which led me to a typically bitty, frustrating crafting session as I tried to remember which of my characters was the Leatherworker and then who had all the mats. Despite GW2's nominally excellent material storage, there's always something you need for Ascended gear that isn't where it's supposed to be.

In the end I opted for a mix of Ascended and Exotic gear, using some Ascended chests I had lying around, unopened, in the bank. They had the wrong stats, of course, so that meant making all the relevant items to throw into the Mystic Forge to change them to the stats I needed, namely Berserker (It's almost always Berserker for me, even now.)

After that I had to find which Guild's vault I'd used to store my runes and sigils and then of course it turned out I only had five Scholar runes so I had to buy a sixth on the Trading Post. Eventually I got it all done. It took me a couple of hours, including the most important part of all, coming up with an appropriate new look.

As the screenshots in the previous posts and this one show, the new look is radically different. As an Engineer, this character has always fancied herself something of a cool customer, clad in black leather and looking like she means business. As a Mechanist she's show-offy, stylish, even a little bit glam rock.

The gloves, which I think look great, come as a reward for becoming a Mechanist in the first place. All the rest are things I had unlocked in the wardrobe except for the rifle and shield, both of which come from the End of Dragons Saltspray set. I bought them on the TP for a few silver.

As you can see in one of the shots, but not, for some reason, in the one at the top of the post, which is from the login screen, I've given her orange, glowing eyes. I don't usually go for that look, which is very commonly seen in GW2, but the colors went perfectly and it seemed to fit the quasi-robotic theme.

All in all I'm pretty pleased with how she's turned out. Now I just have to learn how to play her.

New World

Following on from another recent post, I spent a couple of hours in New World today. The postponed patch has landed and as far as I can tell hasn't totally wrecked the game. Yet. 

I wanted to find one of the Easels for the new pictures you can put in your house but so far no luck. I was hoping they'd be marked on the map but if they are can't see them. I also didn't happen across any of the new random roadside encounters and the Level 40 Group Instance that was blocking me from continuing with the Main Story Quest is still in my journal. It hasn't been converted to a solo option. Boo!

On the plus side, the linked storage seems to be working. I completed a quest in Monarch's Bluff using some timber I pulled out of the storage in Weaver's Fen and it didn't cost me a coin. Even more positively, I had a great time running around Aeternum. I remembered very quickly why I enjoyed myself there so much for so long last year. 

I dinged 55, cleaning out some old quests and I feel moderately motivated to motor through to sixty. Fast travel and linked storage make the game feel considerably more like a regular mmorpg, something about which I have mixed feelings. I'm very glad I got to play before they changed it but as has always been the case for me, having had my chance to do it the slow way when everything was new and exciting, I'm more than happy to do it the fast way now it's familiar and routine.

A couple of other things of minor note to mention before I move on from New World. For some reason, all my Achievements had been reset. It was just a mouse-click to restore them at the game's prompt but I have no idea why it was necessary. Also there's a free bear-skin rug in the cash shop. I've claimed it but my rent hasn't been paid so I haven't placed it yet. Something to look forward to next time!

And finally, The Metaverse. Oh, god, not that again!

Don't worry. It's just a couple of links. I expect most people reading this would have already seen Andrew Ross's summary of the GDC 2022 panel entiteld “A Brave New (Virtual) World: Ethics and Governance of XR and the Metaverse” over at MassivelyOP. It's an interesting, if occasionally hard to follow, read. 

Less likely to have been spotted but even more interesting is this piece at The Atlantic by Ethan Zuckerman from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It's well worth reading not just because of the good sense Prof. Zuckerman talks about the Metaverse and what it can and can't be but also for a whole lot of historical detail about the kinds of proto-metaverse platforms that existed anything up to a quarter of a century ago.

It certainly wasn't news to me that we'd seen all of this before but it's very satisfying to see it laid out in chapter and verse with links to the evidence. This one, particularly, looks worth investigating further. It's the write-up of something called The Metaverse Roadmap Summit, which took place in 2006 and featured, among others, our good friend Raph Koster.

And finally, one more from The Atlantic. Dating back to late last year, this one goes under the provocative title "The Metaverse Is Bad." It's an extreme position, to be sure, but I suspect what the author really means is "Facebook's version of the Metaverse is bad" and no-one's going to argue with that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Rhythm Of The Rain

It is, though. Raining, I mean. Right now. Outside. Hasn't for so long I forgot what it looked like. Not really. 

Oh, wait... We didn't have the video yet, did we? My bad. (Do people still say "My bad"? I doubt it.)

 It's Raining - Superorganism feat. Stephen Malkmus & Dylan Cartlidge

So, when I came back from work, after I'd eaten, I logged in and checked my feeds and this was right at the top. They have an album coming so it shouldn't have been a surprise but it was. A really nice one.

Stephen Malkmus is from Pavement of course. I never really got Pavement. I remember being at a friend's house when the first album was out and the friend putting it on and me listening to it and liking it but thinking it sounded so very... easy. I said, out loud, "We could make this album." and I meant it literally. 

A year or two later that friend and I and some other friends did make not an album but a song and by that I can tell you we very definitely could not have made the first Pavement album but the point was I felt like we could have and that's why I never really got Pavement or, I guess, why they were such a big deal.

After I watched it (It's great, isn't it?) I had an idea. I knew I had to do a post and I hadn't thought of anything yet. I'd been playing around with an idea for a series of posts where I go downstairs into my room with a thousand vinyl albums in it and pull three at random then choose one of them and write a post about it. I wouldn't like to risk it on just a single random pull. I might get something I wouldn't want to cop to owning, which is why three.(Do people still say "cop to"? I doubt it.)

I wasn't about to do that now. Needs some prep. What I could do though would be to put "rain" into the search field in my big folder of downloaded songs and do a post about rainy day music with whatever came up. I tried it and got eight results, which seemed like enough until I looked at what they were.

The really good ones (The Rain, the Park and Other Things, Rainy Days and Mondays) I was pretty sure I'd used in previous posts. It's at the point now where I have no great confidence I can remember what songs or videos I've posted and what I haven't. I wish I'd had some coherent plan from the beginning, some way to record the ones I'd used, but of course I had no such thing. All I can do now is try to remember (Poor chance.) or put the title into the search field and hope.

Not that it matters all that much. If I can't be sure I doubt anyone else is going to notice. And it's not as if everyone's going to have read every post or listened to every track. Maybe repeating stuff is actually a good idea. I mean, that's how music radio works. 

The other songs, though, the ones I couldn't even remember hearing before, when I listened to them again, some of them turned out to be... not so good. Here, judge for yourself. Try I Like Rain by the Jean Paul Sartre Experience. No? Me neither. How about Shape of the Rain by Riley, Riley, Wood and Wagget? What are they, a law firm? And it's not even a song, just the title of an album. Not one I'd want to listen to, either, although it seems I thought differently five years ago.

As a plan for a post it all seemed to be coming apart. Then I watched this. I warn you now, it's disturbing.

Here Comes The Rain - Foetus

The charmingly-named Foetus is the oft-used nom de tune of one J.G. Thirlwell. He's been recording under variants of the Foetus brand since the early nineteen-eighties. He used to crop up regularly on John Peel's radio show, a forum where it was quite difficult to make yourself stand out through sheer unpleasantness simply because of the depth of competition. Foetus managed it well enough. I remember a couple of the band names he used back then and I don't plan on including either of them here.

Sonically, this one's actually quite tuneful for him and the video is excellent, if you like that kind of thing, which I do, when I'm in the mood. It's not that bad, honestly. If you're not confident, I'll allow a spoiler. It feels like something really terrible is going to happen all the way through but it never does. Not really.

At this point I was beginning to feel a little more confident. I only really needed a couple more solid tunes to make a post. It's not like it had to be epic. Just a midweek music post to keep the numbers up.

Rainy Day - Susan Christie

This one I was positive I'd featured before but search says no and it's convenient for me to choose to believe it. It's also utterly gorgeous and a perfect palate-cleanser after the last one. There's a curious summary of what it is and how it came to be at the top of the YouTube page. Apparently it's a "psychedelic take on Country standards... backed by a Folk-Funk rhythm section" that's somehow "similar to modern trip-hop." I'm not sure I can hear all that in this one track but it's utterly lovely all the same.

Not, however, as lovely as the next one, which was one of my most exciting finds back in 2019. 

11.11 :an original song in a car when it's raining - Tate McRae

Tate McRae uploaded this to her YouTube channel on 21 June 2019. I happened across it just a few weeks later on 13 August 2019, which is when I downloaded it. I'm as certain as I can be at this remove that at the time it had very, very few views. A handful. I loved it then and I still do. I thought I was pretty darn clever for having found it.

A few months later, on 20 October 2019, Tate posted a song called One Day. As her Wikipedia entry puts it, the song "went viral" (Do people still say "Went viral"? I doubt it.). Off the back of that she ended up signing to RCA, having "an international hit" with a song called You Broke Me First and pretty much carried on up from there. 

As I write this, One Day has 38 million views on YouTube. You Broke Me First, the official video, has 145 million. Or if you prefer you can watch her doing it live on Jimmy Kimmel like three milion people have or at MTV EMA (whatever the heck that is...) along with a bunch of dancers, where you'll be in good company - seven million of you.

The original video, the one I still think of as "that girl singing into her phone in a car", has almost seven and a half million views. It'd be nice to say I always knew she'd make it but what I actually thought was more like "I'm really glad I found this. I'm so clever at finding songs no-one else will ever know about!"

What a maroon. (Yeah, no-one says that any more...)

It's still her best song though. 

And I do know a good song when I hear one.

So there.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Method To Their Madness

No-one's playing New World any more, are they? I don't mean literally no-one. According to Steam's concurrency charts, just under twenty-four thousand people are playing right now. If we use the old estimate of two people logged out for every one logged in, that means New World has about as many players as EverQuest! I wonder how many will still be around in twenty-three years?

It's all too easy to rag on New World for the number of players the million-seller's lost in a just a few months but that's not what I'm here to do. When I said no-one plays it any more I was referring to us here in this corner of the blogosphere. When was the last time you read a post about New World from anyone?

It's not a reflection on the quality or success of New World as such - I could say exactly the same about Valheim, which I imagine we'd all agree is widely regarded as a more successful game. Iron Crown, though, is an indie. Different standards apply.

Valheim, as Wilhelm was saying only yesterday, has a very small team working on it. They work very slowly and carefully. As a result, all their updates work. There are very few issues or bugs with anything the team adds to the game. 

The whole thing looks quite exemplary, provided you're not in a hurry. It takes the the Valheim team many months to do anything at all and when they do add something new to the game it's usually so small or so specific it hardly seems worth patching up to check it out. 

Consequently, Valheim rests in a sort of virtuous limbo. Exactly a year ago a whole lot of us were playing almost nothing else. A year on, most of us seem either to have forgotten about it altogether or decided to wait until it's done before deciding if we're still interested enough to start over.

New World has a very much larger team behind it and they seem to work frenziedly fast. There have been plenty of updates, adding new content and changing systems and mechanics. Unlike Valheim, New World's updates have not always gone well nor been favorably received. At times it's seemed as though every new patch has created more bugs than it's fixed, mostly because it did.

I could go into detail about the changes that have already been made but why would I do that when Tyler F. M. Edwards has done it for me? What I did want to talk about, very briefly, were a few of the things in today's huge Heart of Madness update that Tyler didn't mention but which were enough, when I saw them in the extensive patch notes, to make me fire up GeForce Now and log in. Before I realised the patch was postponed until tomorrow, that is. Like that's going to make it bug free!

There's a whole lot of endgame stuff that I'm sure the game desperately needs. There's a new weapon that everyone's probably excited to try. There's a boatload of bug fixes and systems tweaks that will no doubt require their own fixes and tweaks in due course. I don't want to draw attention to any of that or at least not in this post.

No, what caught my attention were the sections headed "World Additions - Rewarding Exploration", along with a number of lines I spotted here and there in the rest of the notes. Notes which are, as I suggested, seriously long and extremely detailed.

Here are some highlights:

World Paintings - Vista Views 

Two easels can be found in each territory. Upon interacting with these easels, players will be given a painting of the view for their house. If a player loses their painting they can reacquire it by visiting the same easel again 24 hours later.

 Rafflebones the loot collector!

Rafflebones rummages around Aeternum for lost treasures and goods. He will spawn all around the map at various levels in every territory. When players encounter Rafflebones they will have 45 seconds to kill him in order to get rewards or else he’ll flee! Players will always be awarded a named weapon.

 Stinky the Hunter

Stinky the Legendary Hunter can be found wandering around the swamps of Weaver's Fen throughout the day, while at night he retreats to his humble abode. Stinky can drop three named items for level 30 players

Roadside Encounters

New random roadside encounters can be found along routes in Weaver's Fen and Restless Shores.

There's a fair bit more along those lines. The exciting thing for me is that it's new content for a range of levels, not just at the cap and it involves house items and random, roaming monsters. Two of my favorite things! Whether I think it's good content or not will have to wait until I have the chance to do it for myself but on paper I'd have to say the World Paintings sound like absolute genius.

I was also very happy to read the following:

New soloable quest options are available for the MSQ to allow players to progress without running certain expeditions. 

 Removed the level threshold requirements from Main Story Quests. 

Again,  I'm going to have to see just which expeditions have been excised from the MSQ. It doesn't sound like it's all of them, which would be my preference. It's very much a move in the right direction, though.

I also liked 

 Players will get back half of the original purchase cost when abandoning a house.

Coupled with the heavy reductions to rental costs, this makes housing even more attractive than it already was. 

Back at the start of the year, Amazon indicated that they intended to make New World more rewarding for solo play. This looks like a good start. It's enough, at least, to make me interested in logging in again, something I haven't been able to say since the early days of the Winter Convergence festival. If nothing else I want those paintings for my house!

Monday, March 28, 2022

No Plan Survives Contact With The Inner Me

Belghast's Damascene conversion to Guild Wars 2 has finally confirmed something I first began to suspect back when both he and I were playing New World and blogging about it: Belghast is the anti-Bhagpuss! I don't mean we're some kind of elemental forces that, should we ever meet, would react so explosively the fabric of space-time would be rent in twain, more like we approach the same games in diametrically opposite ways. It only goes to show how flexible the genre is and also how there's no right or wrong way to play an mmorpg.

Bel's post today is a great example of what I mean. He's been playing GW2 as a convert for just a few weeks and he's already talking about "the What Now problem". Granted, his point is that Guild Wars 2 always seems to have something new to do, but as I read his posts it's clear he's already done more in those few weeks than I managed in years.

Having things to do has rarely been an issue for me when I play. It took six or seven years of playing daily before I really began to run out of steam and then it had nothing to do with there not being anything left I hadn't already done. Even now, as we come up to the game's tenth anniversary, there's far more left in the game that I haven't done than there are things I have.

Let's see. What core game activities have I never done at all, not even once?

  • Map Completion.
  • Legendary Weapons.
  • Legendary Armor.
  • Skyscale Mount Collection.

And what have I barely touched in something like 12,000 hours? (8k on one account - haven't checked the others but they have to be at least half that - maybe more...)

  • Personal Story on twenty of my twenty-one characters.
  • Most of the Elite Specialist Weapons collections from Heart of Thorns.
  • Most of the Elite Classes from Path of Fire.
  • Almost all Fractals.
  • More than half of the original Dungeons.
  • The overwhelming majority of all collections of any kind.

And many, many more things I can't bring to mind because I've either completely forgotten about them or I never knew they existed in the first place.

Things I have done include

  • Finished the personal story on one character, my original ranger. It took me about eight years but I got there in the end. Not that I particularly wanted to.
  • Maxed all crafting classes, some of them twice (On different accounts.) even though most of them are next to useless.
  • Ranked up over 2000 times in WvW. Currently I'm a Gold Major. That's almost exactly halfway up the ladder in terms of titles although only a quarter of the way in terms of experience required. Mrs Bhagpuss hit the same point sometime around 2015.
  • Saved 17,000 gold, enough to buy nearly 60,000 Gems at current exchange rates. 60k Gems would cost over £600.
  • Hoarded vast stores of materials across three accounts, enough to double my personal fortune if I sold them on the Trading Post.

And I've had nearly a decade of all-but-free entertainment. That's probably the most important thing.

At this point I could claim I never make plans or set goals in mmorpgs. Sometimes I do like to give that impression. I think it makes me sound cool, which is something only a deeply uncool person would ever think, let alone say out loud. And it's not even true, anyway.

What I really do is make plans all the time and then forget I've made them or lose interest in them before they get going or put them aside after I've started and never pick up from where I left off. I quite like having a plan but unless it's something I can complete in a session or two there's every chance I'll just abandon it in favor of something else long before I get to the end.

Guild Wars 2 is both good and bad in that regard. As Bel says, there's an incredible number of things you could be working on at any one time. You'd need to be pretty determined to tick every last box the game puts in front of you. 

On the other hand, many of the activities presented involve what seems to me to be a positively horrific level of commitment. For me, they can all-too-frequently feel, quite literally, too daunting even to start, let alone finish. 

Take the Skyscale mount, for example. I would quite like to have one of those. They're ugly and annoying but inarguably useful. I have thought about doing the collection a few times but when I read up what's required I lose the virtual will to live. 

Other collections I've not been able to bring myself to do, even though I'd quite like the end result, include Mawdrey, the craftable Ascended back item that also salvages bloodstone dust (Okay, technically Mawdrey II does that part but you get them as a twofer so it's a moot point.) and the WvW Legendary Armor. That one's so long I feel ill just thinking about it.

Sometimes it's not even the time and effort that puts me off. I have most of the necessary items for a few pieces of that Legendary Armor, for example, and almost everything for several Legendary Weapons. I just can't imagine using them if I had them so it seems like a waste to burn the very valuable materials making them.

Mostly, though, it is the time and effort. Even things I've already proved I can do and which I genuinely enjoyed at the time lose a lot of their appeal when I come to do them a second or third time. I had plans to do all the HoT Elite Spec Ascended weapons, for example, and I said on this blog that I was going to make all the variants of the Ascended weapon Caladbolg

For years I've also been planning to do the collection for Princess for the third time so I have one on all my accounts. So far I still haven't managed to make myself do it. I did three or four of the HoT weapons before I ran out of enthusiasm, which might be my best effort ever. I still own just the one Caladbolg. 

So, as you can see, it's not plans I lack, it's discipline. When I do finish a project it's usually something I've started on a whim. It's the surge of energy that comes from an ad hoc decision that carries me though. 

That's pretty much how I ended up with map completion on all the End of Dragons maps. I just got fired up with how much fun it was and didn't want to stop. Map completion is per character, though, and I can already tell it's not going to be anything like as much fun the second time so my Elementalist may end up being the only character with all the Cantha maps completely free of fog.

This afternoon, with no forethought whatsoever, I made my Engineer, who I never play, into a Mechanist. I can't even remember how it started but somehow I found myself running round Dragons End, Echovald Forest and New Kaineng City grabbing easy Hero Points to fill out the skill wheel. 

It took me a couple of hours. Now I have a Jade Mech and a whole load of skills I have no idea how to use. 

In the course of doing it, I discovered only my Ele can use zip lines and mana batteries, despite the Mastery for them being account-wide. When I found my Engineer couldn't zip up a tower, I went and looked some stuff up and now I realise there's a whole upgrade path for Jade Bots I never knew existed, including various modules and power cores you can craft, buy or find as drops. I'd just been using the one you get from the story without even realizing it was the basic, minimal version.

The benefits of upgrading look substantial so now I have a plan to get my Ele's Jade Bot fully upgraded and then maybe do the same for any other characters I play regularly. We'll see if it actually happens.

As Bel says, though, GW2 is a bit of a smorgasbord. I'm happy to pick away at whatever looks good just as the fancy takes me. The great thing about the game is that, while there's an awful lot you might want, there's very little you actually need. 

It's nice to have plans but it's a lot nicer knowing you don't have to do anything about them.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Short Stories

For the first time in several weeks, I did actually play some Lost Ark last night. Played as opposed to just logged in to collect free gifts, that is.

"Playing" Lost Ark is a somewhat nebulous concept, something that's been a warm topic of late around this part of the blogosphere. I've commented repeatedly that I really don't understand what sort of a game Lost Ark is meant to be but now I'm starting to get the impression not many other people do, either. 

If I'm ever going to find out, I guess I'll have to rely on other people's reports. My own experience is too limited to make even an educated guess. Steam tells me I've racked up twenty-seven hours so far but that's only taken me as far as Level 34. By the measure of most mmorpgs, I might as well still be in the starting zone.

The problem is, most everything I read other bloggers saying about the game just confuses me even more. Apparently everyone finds the levelling tedious, no-one rates the storyline and the side-quests barely even qualify as filler. The only thing that carries people through all of that is the prospect of some kind of golden sunlit uplands at endgame and the fact that the combat is fun.

There was a time when people seemed to be praising Lost Ark for the wide range of non-combat activities and the breadth of horizontal progression it offered but none of that gets much of a mention any more. All the talk is of how long it might take to get to that fabled endgame and whether it will be worth all the time and effort when they do.

Mailvaltar, Naithin and Wilhelm have all posted about some or all of the issues above. Most of the other people who were talking about the game don't mention it at all. 

Naithin has a very interesting and revealing graph comparing the progress of Lost Ark and New World as represented by Steam's concurrency data. It's not a pretty picture if you're an Amazon Games exec. No wonder vice president Mike Frazzini is stepping down

Of all the bloggers I read who've written about the game, the only one who actually knows what the endgame is like from personal experience is Naithin. Even as an advocate for the game, he doesn't make it sound very much fun. 

Mailvaltar, who posted about his own uncertainty about the game, popped into Naithin's comment thread looking for reassurance. I don't think he got much. Naithin described Chaos Dungeons as "braindead" and said that, although they're available for groups, "you essentially have to solo" if you're trying to get the most out of them. Even the better Guardian raids and Abyss dungeons, which he did think were fun for groups, Naithin caveated by saying "you will typically only have one guardian raid and one set of abyss dungeons relevant to where you are and that’s it."

Wilhelm, meanwhile, gave us another very funny Carbot Animation ragging on the relentless questing that precedes any of the endgame content. It got a recognition laugh out of me even though it doesn't really reflect my own experience all that closely.

The thing is, the questing everyone else hates is probably the thing I like best about Lost Ark. I don't hammer the "G" key to get through the text as fast as possible. I think I can say with almost no exaggeration at all that I've listened to every word of spoken dialog and read every word of written quest text I've seen. Maybe that's why it's taken me twenty-seven hours to get to level thirty-four.

I quite like the questing in Lost Ark. I find it intriguingly abstract. It's as though someone decided to break traditional mmorpg questing down to its basic building blocks and then line them up in the most linear way possible. 

Every side quest has a plot but it's a plot that's stated, executed and concluded in a matter of moments. A guard will want to give flowers to a girl  he likes. He'll tell you he likes a girl and he'd like to give her flowers. He'll ask you to get the flowers and give them to the girl. 

The flowers will be ten seconds away from where you met him. You'll click the flowers and pick them up then you'll trot over to the girl. She'll be ten seconds from the guard in another direction. You'll give her the flowers. She'll tell you she likes the guard or doesn't like the guard. The quest will either end or point you to another NPC, where the cycle will begin over again.

Most of the side quests are like that. I think it works quite well. I definitely prefer it to the long drawn-out versions with more travelling over greater distances that are the norm in so many mmorpgs. I also find, over time, it builds up quite a convincing picture of the way these people live. I suspect I may be bringing some of thiin myself, rather than finding it already there but I also wonder whether there's not some kind of sophisticated, intentional, accretive storytelling going on. I like to think there is. 

The main quest differs mostly in that some characters make much longer, much more dramatic speeches and all the main and supporting characters constantly use you, the player-character, as an unpaid messenger service. I find that strangely enjoyable but other people seem to find it at best ridiculous, if not downright insulting.

Conversely, people who aren't me insist the game's saving grace is that the combat is good. I still don't get why. I find the combat every bit as dull as people keep implying I ought to find the questing. 

When there isn't much fighting to do, though, I can occasionally almost convince myself I like Lost Ark. Last night I played for over an hour, levelled from 32 to 34, did a lot of the kind of quests I just described, barely fought anything at all and I would rate it as one of the most enjoyable sessions I've had in the game. Jogging from NPC to NPC, hearing what they have to say, occasionally picking up an object and putting it down somewhere else is a very pleasant, relaxing way to unwind after a long work day.

It probably helps that my preferred genres outside of mmorpgs these days are point and click adventures and visual novels. I'll be honest. Lost Ark would make a poor showing against even a mediocre entry from either of those categories. I'm certainly not saying the stories are page-turners. The mechanics, though, are extremely similar and the stories aren't terrible. They're bland and conventional but as I suggested earlier, thre is a cumulative effect that weighs on the mind after a while. And some of them are quite funny.

If, that is, you read the text. Obviously, if all people are doing is hitting the G for "Get on with it!" key as fast as possible, any literary merit the quests might have is going to be moot.

If you factor in the off the hook levels of weirdness as evidenced in my recent post about cat cosplay, it really is extremely hard to work out just who Lost Ark is for. It seems as if all the parts are working in opposition rather than harmony and as Naithin's graph so ably demonstrates, the modern mmo player is hardly known for patience or longsightedness.

It's going to be interesting to see whether Lost Ark does indeed drift down over the course of several months to finish up bumping along the bottom of Steam's concurrency charts the way New World has. If that is indeed what happens, I think there will be as many questions to be asked about the attitudes and expectations of the people who choose to jump on these gaming bandwagons as there are of those who make them.

If Lost Ark and New World end up being judged failures, what exactly are we calling a hit these days?

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Let's Not Even Pretend Like There's A Plan...

Saturday evening after work. Clocks go forward tonight. Not going to be writing any long, thoughtful posts, that's for sure. I was planning on holding the weird cat suit post back for exactly this reason but I was short of ideas yesterday too. So.

How about let's just have some songs I heard this week that I like? Not very inspired but every day can't be ice cream. I had an ice cream on Wednesday, as it happens. First of the year, I think. It was a Magnum Classic. We went to the seaside because of the current mini-heat wave. Well, warm wave, I guess. Seventeen celsius is pleasant, not hot. I caught the sun, though.

Enough chat. Let's have a tune.

Levitation - Let's Eat Grandma

Fourth single off the upcoming album which, as regular readers won't remember, I have on pre-order. It's been put back to the end of April due to a vinyl shortage, something I find a tad irksome since I've ordered the CD and as regular readers also won't remember I have small patience with the current fad for vinyl.

Four singles is a lot to release from an album that hasn't come out yet. It's a lot to release from an album at all although I know it's not unusual. I still don't really understand what "singles" are in the current market, anyway. Sometimes I think it's just a marketing term now. 

Of the four, I thought this was the weakest on first hearing but the video is very strong and now I've heard it a few times so is the song. Still sounds more of an album track than a single to me but then maybe my ideas of what a single is are mired in the muck of the past.

 Milk Teeth - Prima Queen

Of all the bands I mentioned in this post the one I've listened to the most by far since then is Prima Queen. There isn't all that much so it's mostly been about four songs on a loop. Their Bandcamp only has four tracks. I wish they'd make a full album. I'd pre-order that.

Canned Air - The Klittens

This kept cropping up on YouTube's suggestions and in the end I cracked and clicked. I ended up watching it a few times. It has that nihilistic trudge that does things to me. If you stick with it resolves, too, which is always very satisfying. 

I watched a couple of their others and I fear they may be situationists. Either that or drama majors. They're definitely Dutch.

Last Year's Model Club - The Let Go

Very strange video. I get the point but the narrative's a little hard to untangle. I do like to see a video set in a launderette, though. I've always had a thing for launderettes. One of the very first songs I ever wrote was called "At the Laundromat". The chorus, such as it was, claimed "We do strange things there" although I never specified what they were. We never played it live, as far as I recall. I'm not entirely convinced we even rehearsed it. No recording exists. Shame, really.

Baby - Charli XCX

From the just-released album Crash, which seems to be somewhat controversial, one way and another. It's apparently a return to her pop roots but also a contractual obligation album, the fifth and final one under a contract she signed when she was sixteen. Is that even legal?  I don't know, I can't keep up with this stuff. 

Whatever, it's her first UK #1 album so I imagine both she and the record company are happy. As one of the Johnny-come-lately new "fans of her more outré work" with the likes of Sophie and 100 Gecs, I was indeed "underwhelmed by Crash's early singles" although only by comparison to the wilder hyperpop stuff. They're still great pop songs and the reviews have been stellar. The more I hear them, though, the better they sound, which is how all great pop music should work. Suck on that, fairweather fans!

Ex Stasi Spy - Luke Haines

Someone you can rely on never to surprise you with an unwanted change of direction. Okay, maybe a little unfair. Black Box Recorder was a departure. I've been listening to Luke since The Auteurs were a  Band To Watch in the early '90s, though, and pretty much every record he's made sounds like this. Catchy, though, isn't it?

Love Story - Black Midi

And finally, as if to prove that you absolutely need to listen to things before passing judgment, as if you didn't already know that, here come a band I previously had very little time for covering a song I love and it's both nothing remotely like I could have imagined it would be and also very fine indeed. Black Midi, from what I know of them, which isn't much, are an experimental band with distinct math rock tendencies. Who would have thought they'd cover a Taylor Swift song and make it sound, as one YT commenter aptly puts it, " like 14 year old Bruce Springsteen's cover."

And that will do for now. Gives me an hour to do my Guild Wars 2 dailies before bed. What I'm going to fill this space with tomorrow I have no idea. 

I'll think of something.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Feline Weird In Lost Ark

Here are some screenshots. I think they sum up just what a freakishly weird game Lost Ark is better than anything I could put into in words.

A six-foot tall, black and white cat, an unnerving, yellow sparkle in its eye, a gold bell on its crimson collar, sprawls in the middle of a cobbled city street. The cat leans back in a disturbingly human pose. Beside the cat sits a large, white rabbit. Strapped to the bunny's back are a pair of ornate leather panniers and a scroll case as though it were a beast of burden. Behind the unnatural pair an imposing, high-renaissance ceremonial arch reaches towards the blue sky. Heroic statues salute. Guards stand at attention. Children with wooden swords play at being soldiers. No-one seems to find anything about the scene remotely unusual.

Now the cat is standing up. From somewhere (Who knows where?) it has produced a pistol. It stands in a dueling pose, the gun in front of the eye that doesn't sparkle, the other arm (Hand? Paw?) concealed behind its back. The rabbit, unconcerned, seems to be playing with something on the ground.

The pistol vanishes. The cat begins to dance. The cat has moves. The cat wants you to know about them. The rabbit pays the cat no mind. Neither does anyone else.

As if concealing a weapon while naked isn't enough, the cat brings out a six-foot hoverboard. From where, again, who can say? The board, vividly illustrated, is decorated with, among other things, an embossed head. Whose head? Of what creature? That, at least, can be explained.

Although there is no photographic evidence to prove it, that is the image of a known associate of the cat, a small, teardrop-shaped entity with appendages that could as easily be leaves as ears. The cat has been seen walking the streets with the leaf-headed creature by its side. Where the creature is now is as much a mystery as where the hoverboard came from.

The cat, justifiably proud of its ability to dance while standing on a hoverboard, performs for its own amusement. No-one watches. No-one cares. The city has only recently avoided being destroyed by fire during a demonic invasion. The entire nation is locked in an existential struggle with the forces of darkness. A cat on a hoverboard doesn't merit a second glance.

As I said in a comment to Aywren, who posted pictures of her character in Lost Ark, dressed as a mouse "I was already having trouble trying to work out just what sort of game Lost Ark was trying to be but now these costumes are part of it I think I’ll just give up trying. Clearly, whoever’s behind it just doesn’t care, so why should we?"

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Difficult Matter Of Difficulty.

Unwise though it might be, I thought I might throw in on the recent hot topic of Difficulty. It's not as if it isn't something that's come up a million times before but I can't recall the debate ever having become as heated as it is right now.

I'm sure everyone knows the provenance. It's been entirely too difficult (Alanis says "ironically".) to avoid. A game called Elden Ring and a developer called FromSoftware, who don't seem to have a space bar on their corporate keyboard, are responsible, directly or indirectly, for the current kerfuffle.

Elden Ring is neither an mmorpg nor a point-and-click adventure game nor a visual novel nor any kind of quirky little confection featuring funny animals, so I have absolutely no business discussing it here. It doesn't interest me in the slightest, I will never play it and I don't care who does. 

It seems that's not everyone's opinion. Various arguments have been presented to suggest there's more going on here than mere personal choice. Rights and responsibilities have been invoked.

Having read a number of posts and discussions on the subject, there seem to be three major issues:

  • Availabilty.
  • Accessibilty.
  • Accuracy.

Okay, I tweaked those for assonance. I thought I was going to be a poet once and teenage dreams can be hard to shake. Let's break it down.

Avilability means whether anyone who feels they'd like to play Elden Ring ought to be able to do so. I think we can already see the problems there.

Accessibility is a much thornier concept, partly involving actual legal rights as framed by authorities able to enforce them but also bringing in a moral element of communal responsibility and a sense of who we'd like to be as people.

Accuracy could better be expressed as Truth in Advertising, only that doesn't begin with an "A".

Let's take the last one first. The reason it's on the list is because of a post I read this morning: Tobold, ostensibly talking about review bombing but actually joining in the chorus of complaint about an Elden Ring playalike going by the name of Tunic

The protagonist is a cute, cartoon fox that, as Tobold puts it, makes makes Tunic look "like a game for children." It's an impression srongly re-inforced by the developer's website, where the sales pitch reads "Explore a land filled with lost legends, ancient powers, and ferocious monsters in TUNIC, an isometric action game about a small fox on a big adventure". 

There's also a video showing the game in play. In it, the cute fox skips through a series of landscapes, solving simple puzzles and fighting big monsters. No single incident lasts more than a second or two. At no point does the fox appear to take any damage or get hurt, far less lose a fight. Tunic has an age rating of 10+ but looks like it could easily be mastered by a smart seven year old.

I haven't played the game, obviously, but if Tobold and the Gamerant article he links are to be believed, Tunic models itself on two other game series - Zelda for the look but Dark Souls for the gameplay. Since the usp of the latter is "brutally difficult boss battles" and very little handholding or explanation on how to play, there does seem to be a problem here. At best it's misleading advertising; at worst it's wilful misrepresentation.

To me, this one seems reasonably easy to call. Finji, the company behind Tunic, ought to make it much clearer to potential purchasers what it is they're selling. I can't see any reason why a ten year old shouldn't have the pleasure of fighting brutally difficult boss battles if they want to and I suspect many ten year olds would do a far better job of it than either Tobold or me. What seems off is for anyone to be suckered into paying money for a game that expects Dark Souls skills when what it purports to be selling is something very similar to a much-loved and much more gentle franchise like Zelda.

So much for Accuracy. It's a bit of a sideshow anyway. No-one's huffing about FromSoftware trying to pass Elden Ring off as anything other than what it is. On to Availibility, because I'm not taking my own bullet points in order, apparently.

Availibility, in this context, means whether anyone and everyone who feels they'd like to give Elden Ring a try ought to be able to do so with as good a shot at enjoying it as they would any other game. It's essentially a money argument - if you pay for something you ought to be able to use it for the purpose for which it was intended - but it also has an existential premise; that all games should be for everyone.

I have a bit of a problem with this one. It seems to expect something from video games that isn't expected from most other services or products. There are legal obligations in most jurisdictions concerning purchases being "fit for purpose" but that only means they have to function as intended, be mechanically sound, not be broken.

The screen I never saw.

Video games frequently fall foul of this kind of legislation for being full of bugs or missing major features but you can't usually get your money back just because you don't have the game-playing chops to finish the game you bought. If that was the case I'd have asked for my money back when I couldn't get past the tutorial in The Crew.

The grey area here is that video games frequently come with difficulty settings. There's a very good reason for that and it's called money. A lot of game developers seem to think that the more people they can sell the games to, the better it is for their bank balance. They're very happy to add safety rails and trainer wheels in the form of selectable difficulty, so long as it makes their games as potentially attractive as possible to the largest number of customers.

In the case of FromSoftware, however, a good deal of brand value seems to rest on them not doing that. I've read a lot of metaphysical extemporizing over how just knowing an easier difficulty setting exists would diminish the emotional impact of beating the game for players who choose not to use it. I've also seen some statements from one of the developers about the existential value of teaching players not to fear death. Video game death, that is.

Both of these make for very interesting lines of discussion - for a freshman philosophy seminar. I'm not sure how much light any of it sheds on what's actually going on. I have a suspicion what's really in play here is the potential damage to the company's bottom line. 

If such a difficulty setting was added with the full approval of the developers, would there be the same buzz about the next game from the same company. Isn't it the aura of exclusion that's fueling at least some of the enthusiasm for these kinds of games? If everyone could finish them, how many would want to?

I can see why a lot of people are miffed they can't play these games because they're too hard. I can see why they'd wonder whether their money oughtn't to be as good as anyone else's and that if difficulty settings are good enough for other developers, why aren't they good enough for this one? In the end though, so long as the game does what it's supposed to and doesn't fail because of technical flaws, the fact that a company chooses to limit its sales by making the gameplay unattractive to more people than it could be seems like a purely commercial decision.

And finally, the big one, accessibility. The one I really don't want to get into. The one I find much more difficult than the gameplay itself.

By accessibility, I mean the degree to which the game is designed to recognize real life differences among the people who might choose to play it. I've seen a number of discussions that touch on this, including posts by Naithin and Magi, both of whom discuss it in far more depth and with much greater subtlety than I intend to attempt. 

What I will say is that I agree entirely with Naithin, when he says "Accessibility Does Not Equal Easy Mode." I feel that's a misunderstanding that's fueling most of the heat in this debate. 

Difficulty settings are what you add to your game so that any given player can choose a graded experience. Accessibility settings are there to allow people who, for reasons wholly unrelated to their gaming skills, require certain aspects of the software to behave differently to give them the same experiences as players who do not have the same concerns.

If I might digress a little, this kind of accessibility affects decision-making at a far more fundemental level than just how hard the boss fights are. In my posts on Guild Wars 2's End of Dragons I've been highly complimentary to the art team and one of the things I've enjoyed the most about their work this time around is the sheer vigor and vibrancy of the colors. 

I'm on record, repeatedly, as absolutely loving both hypersaturation and sensual overload in video graphics. I have all my settings turned to the maximum my rig can stand and if there are explosions I try to stand right in the middle of them. I literally used to tweak the colors of my desktop so even that was hypersaturated although I had to stop eventually because it made my eyes hurt.

What I had not considered when I looked at the neon greens and pinks of Cantha was how those colors might be affecting players with different visual perception from my own. Then I happened to spot a thread on the forum entitled "End of Dragons - "Personally" the Worst Expansion to date."

Since I really like EoD I was curious to see what the poster found so terrible about it. Whatever I was expecting it wasn't this: "I have already been physically nauseously ill 4 times. Litterally having to throw up. I'm a Deutan Colorblind (seeing Greens as sharp Reds) and I am very prone to motion sickness."

The thread is full of players chiming in with their own variations on this theme and also pointing out that, despite talking a good game on community and accessibility, ArenaNet have done precious little to address these kinds of concerns, choosing if anything to keep adding more and more of the kind of content that actively makes things worse.

Games that have extreme difficulty in gameplay as a design brief do not get a pass on accessibility. Where there are modifications that can be made to accomodate players with differing abilities that are not just gradations of gameplaying skill, there's a moral and sometimes a legal responsibility to make those changes. 

The whole point is to allow all gamers to stand together on something as close as possible to a level playing field. From that start they can then diverge to whatever degree their gameplaying skill allows.

I don't play Elden Ring or any similar titles so I have no idea what could be done in this direction there nor what has already been done. I'm just saying it should be whatever's possible and that doing so should not in any way be conflated with adding any kind of "difficulty setting".

And that, I think, is probably as much as I have to say on the matter. It's a very complex and emotional topic and there are probably whole PhD theses to be written on it. I, however, am not going to be the one to write them.

Until the next time it comes up, then. Because you know it will.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Mixed Messages


In the vague hope of finding something to post about tonight I logged into Steam to see if anything had happened in Lost Ark since last I looked. I thought I might even play a little, do some more levelling there. It is on my To Do list, although I'd have to say it's slipping further down every day.

The first thing I saw was an absolutely massive "Message from the Team".  It's a few days old and it's been reported elsewhere so I don't propose to go into it in the way I did with the Guild Wars 2 Studio Update yesterday. If I'm honest, my main reason for not digging into the detail isn't so much that it's old news as that I didn't understand most of it.

I had a quick scan through the whole thing, then I went back and read it all more carefully. When I'd finished I knew two things: Amazon and Smilegate are giving us a big present and I have absolutely no clue what the hell Lost Ark is supposed to be.

A large chunk of the Message revolves around two things: end game content and "honing". It seems quite a few of us have been slacking and haven't gotten to the endgame as quickly as expected. Instead, we've been "progressing at your own speed and enjoying horizontal content such as exploration, collectibles, quests, and more." 

Don't worry, though. There won't be detention. Apparently it's fine because "Our goal has always been for players to progress at whatever pace they see fit". I have to say that's jolly decent of them. 

I could go on at considerable length about the implications of this. God knows, whoever wrote the Message certainly did. There are reams and reams of apologetic explanations, excuses, justifications and elaborations on how, why and when endgame content should have, will be or has been added to the game. My main problem wasn't with the whys and wherfores so much as the whats.

I don't get what the endgame in this context is. By that, I don't mean I don't understand it intellectually. That's straightforward enough. I mean, as the hippies used to say, I don't grok the endgame, man! 

It's not just Lost Ark, either. There seem to be a bunch of mmorpgs these days where the whole point and purpose of playing seems to be to spend inordinate amounts of time repeating harder and harder versions of the same content so as to get gear that allows you to grind harder and harder versions of the same content. Why would you want to? That's the part I don't get.

Most mmorpgs do it to some extent, although the ones I like better hide it more convincingly. I generally manage to ignore it quite effectively in those games. The more recent trend, which makes it harder to ignore even at a more casual, non-endgame-focused level, involves some variant of the process that Lost Ark calls "honing".

I am not going to pretend to understand what "honing" is beyond the absolute basics. I'm fairly confident, however, that it's one of those systems where you grind or buy materials that you use to try to systematically improve the quality or rating of your gear. All these systems have certain things in common: ever-escalating costs, heavy reliance on RNG and some means of spending real money to avoid the worst of the pain.

As the Message poetically puts it, "We know that for every triumphant yell as a player succeeds a low percentage hone, there are other players frustrated with their attempt failing, leaving them without enough materials to try again." In many games that's exactly the intention. It's why other players' successes are broadcast to the general population, so as to create a sense that other people are succeeding where you failed. That's how you get cash shop sales. 

For various reasons, not least a glut of bots drivng material prices through the roof, Amazon/Smilegate would like to assure players that honing isn't always going to be a completely miserable experience so they're "supplying more progression materials for players to earn through fun in-game events" and "injecting more gold into the mid to end-game" as well as, naturally, "continuing our hard stance against bots."

Which is all very nice, only from my point of view it doesn't really address the central issue, which is who thought "honing" or any of the myriad systems across the genre it replicates were ever likely to be fun in the first place? I know everyone uses them. There's not really any choice if you want to keep progressing through the "vertical" content. The question is, does anyone enjoy it?

Yes. I did. The first time. My initiation into the eternal upgrade path by way of mat grinding and random number generation came courtesy of one of my favorite mmorpgs of all time, City of Steam

That game was revamped several times over a number of years, something I recorded here on this blog as it happened. One of the later iterations, after CoS became a wholly Chinese-operated enterprise, involved a good deal of "honing" or whatever term was in use back then. I didn't even notice it at first. It wasn't until the game was under sentence of execution and I was playing as hard and fast as I could to see as much of the content before the servers went dark that I began to push the gear upgrade boulder up the hill in earnest.

The surprise to me was that I enjoyed it. It helped enormously that it was a very simple system and the materials needed were both generously available through login rewards and obtainable directly from normal gameplay. Even then, I could never get enough but also I never managed to get far enough up the ladder to hit the really steep part of the curve. The game closed down before I even got close.

After that I ran into the same kind of mechanics in Blade and Soul and Black Desert, just to name a couple of games where I made at least a token effort to improve my gear. Once again, I found it amusing enough so long as it cost me nothing and I mostly succeeded. As soon as it began to feel either expensive or annoying, however, my response wasn't to throw money at the problem - it was to stop doing it altogether.

All those games and many others puzzle me greatly. They all appear to have lots and lots of really enjoyable content, mostly the "horizontal" stuff, aka everything in the game that's actually fun to do for its own sake. More often than not, that's the part of the game everyone gets to enjoy for free.

The part of the game that's supposed to be the most appealing, the mythical "endgame", that gets tucked behind a virtual paywall by way of "gameplay" so frustrating and unnerving people are more than willing to pay to avoid having to do it at all - or at least to make it less likely to blow up in their faces when they do.

I'm really not at all surprised Lost Ark players have been slacking off, doing all that pesky exploring and collecting and questing. Can you blame them?

What does surprise me is the nature of some the presents we're getting to commemorate the Western launch of the game. It's almost all fun fluff stuff and I find it really hard to equate with what sounds like an incredibly hardcore endgame. There are pets and mounts, a big globe thingy, appearance change tickets and songs to play on your jukebox "when Jukebox content is released in the future."

Most surprising of all is the "New Animal Skin Collection Chest". From the image provided, reproduced at the top of this post, it seems we're going to be able to dress our characters in a variety of furry onesies. I can't wait!

Actually, I couldn't wait. I logged in to get mine right away, only it wasn't there. Too soon. Apparently we get the whole  "Thank You" pack "the week of March 21, after our weekly update and maintenance". It's the 23rd today but I guess we haven't been updated and maintained just yet.

I did still get a present for logging in, an entirely unexpected one. I'd already written off the current event, the Arkesia Grand Prix, which runs until April 14 because I'd read that you need a character with a minimum level of fifty to take part. And that's true but what I hadn't appreciated is that you also get a hefty chest full of the event currency just for logging in. 

If there's any kind of level restriction attached to that then my character exceeds it. I opened my chest and found three thousand Arkesia Coins inside. Of course, I had no idea if that was a fortune or a pittance. 

The tooltip suggested I find the Event Exchange Merchant if I wanted to spend them but nothing told me where that person might be. Fortunately, Lost Ark being very popular right now, I had no trouble looking it up. I found my answer here but there's a much more comprehensive guide to the whole affair here.

Having looked at what I can afford, it seems three thousand coins is a decent chunk of pocket change. There's nothing I couldn't buy, although a lot of the items are consumables you'd probably want to buy in bulk. I can get the hat, which is what matters!

None of which actually makes me want to play the game. Log in and get free stuff, sure, I'll keep doing that. Try it on, strut around town posing, take selfies, write posts about it? Yep, all of those. Other than that, I'm not sure I see the point. But then, I never did.

I'm still going to get a boat but only because I said I would. As for honing and the endgame, whatever it is, I think I'll carry on with the horizontal progression if that's okay with you, Amazon and Smilegate. I mean, you did say you were fine with us progressing at whatever pace we see fit, right? 

I just think maybe you didn't realize just how lazy some people can be.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide