Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Sandrock, On And Off The Rails

Today was a much better day in Sandrock. There was none of the lag or stuttering that made playing such a struggle yesterday, although moving from area to area still took longer than it should. 

The Steam screenshot key now works and the game appears in the "View" list, complete with the correct link to the right local drive. I did try following Pallais' suggestion but I didn't see any change until the latest update from Pathea. They're hotfixing every day at the moment and even though nothing in the patch notes seemed to relate to my issues, maybe it comes under "bug fixes" or "optimization".  

Or more likely my computer isn't playing the giddy goat with me for once. It's becoming increasingly clear I'll have to upgrade sooner rather than later, not least because it's now beginning to fail to reach the Minimum Required Specifications for games I would like to play rather than, as it has done for years, games I have no interest in playing.

For example, thanks to some powerful endorsements, I've had my eye on both Horizon Zero Dawn and V Rising. I put HZD on my Steam wishlist a while ago and this week it went on sale at half price. I was about to buy it when I thought to check the minimum specs and saw it would be very much touch and go whether I'd be able to run it at all, let alone find the experience enjoyable.

As for V Rising, I miss the minimum spec for that one by a mile. My PC is six years old and I've never upgraded a single component in that time so it's hardly surprising. The question now is whether I upgrade the obvious, easy to install items like the graphics card, RAM and processor or whether I just replace the whole thing.  

I live on the wrong side of the tracks. Literally.

I'd definitely do it piece by piece and hope to get maybe another three years out of it but I have a suspicion my recent problems may stem from some failing in the motherboard itself. I'd hate to buy a bunch of new pieces and then find they made things even worse. 

Anyway, fingers crossed, everything's working at the moment so I'm going to kick that particular stone down the road for now. I'm sure I can get by with the games the machine can run. There must only be about ten million of them.

Getting back to Sandrock, I'm finding it considerably harder to get going there than I remember from when I started in Portia. Things seem less intuitive somehow, even though the gameplay is all but identical. 

There are a number of possible explanations for that:

  • My memory is bad (Known fact!) and Portia was just as difficult at the beginning.
  • Sandrock is more complex under the apparently similar surface.
  • Early Access means the game isn't yet as polished as Portia was at release, when I bought it.
  • I am getting worse at playing games.

Any or all of these could be true. None of them mean I'm not having a good time, though. In some ways, the more I have to scratch my head about it, the better I like it.

One thing I'm less keen on is the time management aspect of the game, which so far seems identical to Portia. That's something I'd forgotten about or more probably blanked in that way we have of only remembering the good parts of experiences we broadly enjoyed, while conveniently forgetting the bad. 

I find it interesting that most descriptions of the "My Time At..." series describe them as "Building Games". The Steam Store page for Sandrock puts building front and center: "After accepting a job offer to become Sandrock’s newest Builder, you’ll arrive in the wild and rugged city-state, where it’s up to you and your trusty tools to restore the community to its former glory. Gather resources to build machines, befriend locals, and defend Sandrock from monsters — all while saving the town from economic ruin!" 

The player character is even referred to as "Builder" by every NPC. There's really no getting away from the idea. And yet it's not at all what I think of when I hear the term. Landmark was a Building Game. Minecraft is a Building Game. A Building Game is a game where you build things.

My workshop, named after one of my favorite books, Flora Segunda of Crackpot Hall. That's Flora, standing in front of it, too.

You don't really build anything in Portia or Sandrock. You manufacture things and place them in specific locations dictated by the game. That's not building. 

The "My Time At..." series is well-named.  The way you spend time is crucial to the experience. These are Time Management Games. Almost everything you're required to do revolves around timed events, from the micro to the macro. There are annual events that come around on the calendar, there are projects you're given that have deadlines, there are daily construction orders, there's a weekly competition...you even have a set bedtime!

More significantly, every item you make is constructed from parts that have to be manufactured in various machines and each machine takes a specific number of minutes to make each part. In Portia, like just about everyone else whose experiences I read about, I ended up with assembly lines of machines all chugging away, turning out bricks and bars and widgets by the score.

Of all the elements of the game - exploration, story, gathering, combat, mini-games, social interaction - it's the "Building" I find the least enjoyable. 

I'm not saying I don't enjoy it at all. I find it both entertaining and satisfying up to the point when I've made all the crafting and manufacturing machines and upgraded them as far as they'll go. In Portia, that probably took me well over half of the seventy hours I played, so it seems a bit rich to complain about what happens after that. I'd already had my money's worth by then.

It's a problem that's far from unique either to this series or this genre. Many, perhaps most, games suffer from it. Once you've learned the ropes and made yourself about as capable as you're likely to be, all that's left is to use the skills you've gained and the items you've made and that can all too quickly begin to feel like work, not play.

Wouldn't you rather sit in the shade all day, reading, rather than build stuff for a living?

In other genres, specifically mmorpgs, that becomes the "Endgame Problem" we're all familiar with but in narrative-based "building" games like Sandrock and Portia it's more of a mid-game issue. Those seventy hours I spent in Portia weren't nearly enough to get me to the end of the storyline before I ran out of patience with the never-ending factory management.

Seventy hours, though. It's a long time for a game to hold the attention. Yes, I know mmorpgs rack up thousands of hours and last year I put over 300 hours into Valheim (Nearly 400 by now...) but for a game with a single, linear storyline, seventy hours is some going.

Of course, most of that time I spent hitting rocks with a pick or critters with a stick but even so. If I get anything even close to seventy hours out of Sandrock I'll be very satisfied.

And I never really explored the social aspect last time. I didn't try to date anyone or even really make close friends, let alone get married. It's a major part of both games and it seems quite well-done from what I can tell, although I'm very far from being an aficionado of such systems. Maybe if I focused more on that and less on trying to build all the things I'd feel less like I owed my soul to the company store.

The characters in the two games are worth getting to know, too. They're varied and nuanced and the "wholesome post-apocalyptic world" makes for an unusual backdrop to the usual rivalries and romances. 

Passive-aggressive much, Nia?
The writing isn't at all bad, either. Take, for example, the five-page letter my character received in the mail today. It's from the best friend she left behind when she took the train to Sandrock to become the Builder there. Here, read it for yourself...

That's an impressive piece of correspondence to wake up to, especially when there's no real indication it has any relevance other than to fill out your character's backstory and tell you something about the world she lives in.

The series is good at that kind of worldbuilding, which makes it a very satisfying experience for an explorer, so long as you don't mind reading between the lines. Sometimes, though, I wonder if I'm reading things that just aren't there. 

I was deeply suspicious of the Church in the first game and I'm even more dubious about the branch in Sandrock but I have a suspicion that my suspicions are unfounded. I think I'm too used to expecting darkness beneath the bright surfaces in games like The Secret World or Doki Doki Literature Club to take a "wholesome" world at face value. Maybe these really are just nice people.

Yeah, Maybe. I guess I'll find out if I ever make it to the end of the story this time. I'm certainly going to give it a go.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Catching Up

A couple of updates on previous posts today, just to tidy things up a little. I continue to grub around the peripheries of various games, ticking a few boxes here, indulging a whim there. It keeps me amused but it isn't creating a lot of fresh ideas for posts about gaming. 

This might well be the least gamey I've felt for a couple of decades. Most of my time seems to go either on playing with the dog or doing things around the house and garden. The weather is fairly good and it's nicer to be outdoors doing physical stuff than inside, going digital. It won't last. We'll get some rain soon enough and suddenly sitting in a chair staring at a screen will seem like a much more attractive option.

I've been plugging away dutifully at my Overseer Missions in EverQuest II and I've finally managed to acquire enough Celestial and Fabled quests to fill my ten-a-day quota. It's not quite that straightforward, since some of the Celestials take a little over a day to complete and some equally extraordinary length of time on cooldown but most days I only have to fill in a couple of slots with Legendary missions to make up the shortfall.

The slightly disappointing part, after all the effort I've put in, is that now I've been able to inspect the full loot table, including the Celestial Bonus Chests, there don't seem to be any Fabled weapons, armor or jewellery. There's only Legendary, which tops out at 295 Resolve. 

That's still very useful and upgrades much of what I had from questing but I'm sure there were Fabled items in the previous seasons and those were another five or ten points of resolve above the Legendary. 

Of course, it's all somewhat notional when I'm not actually doing any adventuring. I don't think I've swung a sword or cast a spell in EQII for the best part of a couple of months, even though I log in at least once every day, often two or three times. It does sometimes make me wonder why developers bother creating any old-school adventure content at all. I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer the games without it.

Okay, no I wouldn't, but it is interesting just how long a diet of log-in dailies and setting missions can hold not just my loyalty but also my attention these days. I think I burn out faster on actual adventure activities than I do on the background maintenance. It's no wonder things like World of Warcraft's Garrisons had such appeal for a certain demographic. I fear I might be part of it.

Partly, as must be obvious, the appeal for me comes from working out the mechanics and figuring out just how these things operate. I've mostly got the hang of the latest Overseer season now but I would still like to know just what effect, if any, levels have on the system. 

Overseer xp is painfully slow but I've inched my way to the mid-point of the five-level range. I can't say I've seen any difference. I'm guessing it's nothing more than a qualifying pre-requisite for the next season but even that's a guess. I've always been maxed on the season before so I don't have any direct knowledge of whether you have to hit the cap on the last season before you can do the next.

The other mmorpg I'm still notionally playing is Guild Wars 2, although there, for the first time since they were added not that long after launch, I have finally fallen off the Daily roundabout. There was a while when the puppy made it difficult to get the dailies done every day and somehow that seems to have broken the habit. I could easily find time to do them every day again now but often I just can't be bothered. 

Surprisingly, that doesn't mean I'm not playing at all. I logged in this afternoon to do some more of Living World Season One. I was hoping to find out if we ever get to see any more of the old Lion's Arch but I was also curious to revisit the introduction of Marjory Delaqua. (I'd completely forgotten, naturally, that we all got a doohickey at the conclusion of the original outing that lets you replay the whole thing any time you like.)

After I'd played through the Dead End chapter I was even more curious to compare my feelings today with what I thought about it the first time round, when we were first introduced to the concept of a 1940s film noir detective agency in a 21st century fantasy mmorpg. I had a vague recollection that I'd been a lot more impressed back in 2013 than I was with the rerun nine years later.

In fact, it turns out I barely mentioned. it. I reviewed the Dragon Bash event in full but consigned the story to a single paragraph, where I summed it up as "Good, on the whole". I was considerably more generous towards the Raymond Chandler pastiche back then than I would be if I was reviewing it now, saying it "worked surprisingly well".

This time around I found the writing unconvincing and the voice acting labored. Marjory has always sounded downbeat but on her debut she comes across as just bored. I think it's supposed to convey world-weary cynicism but it just made me feel she wasn't interested either in her work or life in general.

As for seeing more of LA, sadly that didn't happen. It's back to the main plaza, where they haven't even covered the body of the Charr representative, much less moved it to a more suitable resting place. I carried on with the storyline until I got to the part where you have to complete events in Bloodtide Coast to fill a progress bar, at which point I lost patience and gave up. 

For now, anyway. I don't hold much hope that I'll get to see any more of the old, pirate version of LA in the rest of this revamped episode but I'll probably carry on to the end all the same. It is a bit of a nostalgia trip, after all.

And finally, My Time At Sandrock. Bizarrely, there was a news item about the game at NME earlier today. I really wasn't expecting that. It suggests the series has something of a following, since the thrust of the piece is that Sandrock is already more popular than Portia, even in Early Access. 

As I type, MTAS stands at #83 on the Steam chart, one place above Cyberpunk 2077. Just over twelve thousand people are playing but the peak so far is not far off double that.

I've been playing too, but so far I've only notched up about three hours, mostly because it can be a bit of a struggle at times. Nothing to do with the gameplay, which is identical to Portia and a lot of fun. The main problem is loading and transitions. It can take several minutes to get into the game and a couple to move from one location to another within it; opening any window - inventory, map, options - takes thirty seconds or so.

At first I thought it might be yet another problem with my machine and it still might be but there's a note in the latest patch notes saying "Optimization is a high priority" so I 'm hoping it's them, not me.

As soon as I can play comfortably I'll be racking up those hours, I'm sure. At least, I will when it starts raining.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Battlesuit Telara

One curious side effect of using Steam as a portal is the way I occasionally find myself logging in to something I had no intention whatsoever of playing. Take today, for example. I was planning on getting stuck in to My Time At Sandrock but what did I end up playing instead? Rift

Of all things, Rift? How did that happen? Good question!

I have Steam set up to open on my Library, which is asking for trouble to begin with. There's every chance my eye will light on something in the list and my brain will light up with recognition as though I'd seen an old friend across the street.

I can usually suppress the urge to run into traffic to greet them but across the top of the screen there's always a ticker showing me "What's New" for any of the games I own and I'm a bit of an easy target for that kind of soft marketing. It feels as though I'm discovering something for myself and that always makes me more receptive.

It helps to pique my interest if the headline or image is something I wouldn't have expected. Seeing the news that New World has an update caled "Arenas", for example, doesn't move my dial much. For one thing I knew about it already but more importantly, even if I didn't, it's obviously a PvP feature and although I don't have much interest in PvP in Aeternum, I know enough to recognize it's an area Amazon are currently keen to support.

A picture of a bunch of angry-looking battlesuits stomping toward the camera over the tagline "Mechs on Parade" in a news item about a fantasy mmorpg like Rift, though? That's something I wouldn't expect.

It certainly got my attention. I clicked on the image and read all about the event. I'm not sure how long it's been running but it ends next Tuesday, May 31. It's also clearly a repeat of a previous event because the blurb reads "Lightning strikes on the horizon. Roaring thunder echoes throughout Telara. It has happened, the powerful Mechs are back and causing the earth to tremble. Their mission? Revenge and Chaos."(My emphasis.)

A little research tells me the event first happened back in 2019 and has been repeated a few times since. I can't recall ever having heard of it. I would have thought I might have done, if only because I do still play Rift now and again, mostly thanks to it being right there in front of me every time I log in to Steam. 

You can see why even mmorpg devs want their games on the platform, even if, like Trion and now Gamigo, they have their own in-house corporate launchpad. Even when you log in through Steam it still takes you to Glyph but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have bothered if I'd had to go look for that old thing on my own. Since I added Rift to Steam, though, I have 60 played hours there.

The event may be a rerun but it's new to me and the sight of mechs tromping about the familiar landscape of Telara seemed like it would be worth a look. I logged in my mid-30s Rogue, the character I'm vaguely levelling on the odd occasion I feel like playing and took her to one of the starting towns, where it appeared I could get some quests relating to the mech invasion.

I had no trouble finding the questgivers in Meridian. They happily gave me the quests but if I was hoping for some context that would make sense of this apparent incursion from another genre altogether, I was set to be disappointed. All I got was a bit of hand-waving about the Storm Legion sending a force of "mechanized soldiers" and a "powerful new weapon" they'd developed by hammering five "mechanical dragons" into one megamechadragon. Should have called it that instead of Volt-1, which sounds more like a sports drink than an existential threat.

Once I had the quests I went looking for Mech Rifts to close or Mech Invasions to crush but I couldn't find any. I tried taking an Instant Adventure just in case it might be focused on the event but it dumped me in one of the new zones with one other person doing something unrelated so I dropped group and logged out.

In the evening, after playing Sandrock for an hour or so and taking the dog for a long walk, I was still thinking about Rift so I tried again. I was hoping to get lucky and find the event up and running. I did. It was. I was also hoping there might even be some other people doing it. There were!

I closed a couple of Mech Rifts on my own. There was one handily right outside Meridian, along with an Outpost, both of which proved little challenge since my Rogue is level 35 and the zone caps out around twenty. The only trouble I had was when my own skill, one with a leap-back I'd forgotten, pranged me off a cliff and I nearly died from the fall.

After that I worked my way across Silverwood to defend the one remaining Wardstone. I knew other people were in the zone because the required rifts were being closed but it wasn't until I got to the stone that I saw the first player. 

I joined the open group and we finished off the final invasion before the next phase started. We moved to that and then to the final act, the gigantic dragon mech, Volt-1. By then there were seven of us, the most people I've seen in one place in Rift for a very long time. 

With the dragon down and the Mech Invasion halted I returned to Meridian to do the hand-in, at which point I realized that none of the rifts I'd closed or mechs I'd killed counted towards the quest because it stipulates they have to give xp. At thirty-five I was way over the xp limit but I'd been enjoying myself too much even to notice.

It didn't matter because the important thing was that I'd seen the event in action. It's the same as every other Rift event: close some rifts, stop some invasions, hold at least one Wardstone, kill some mini-bosses, kill a boss. It's a great format. Why mess with it?

The whole thing also reminded me how much fun Rift was up until about three or four months after launch, when the zones were packed and events like this ran constantly. I've rarely had more fun in any mmorpg than I had on a good Wardstone defence back then. 

I'm half minded to try and find the event running somewhere in a zone the right level but given the imminent end-date I probably won't make the time. It wouldn't really mean much anyway. A lot of the items on the event vendor can be bought for the currency I got back when Rift converted to Free To Play and there's not much chance of making enough of the specific event currency itself to buy any of the rest, if I even wanted to, which I don't.

I'm happy to see the game still limping along, at least, although it's a pale shadow of a pale shadow of its old self. Still, better a shadow than a sunset and even a repeated event is better than no event at all.

Friday, May 27, 2022

My Time And Sandrock

Let's begin with an apology. Or maybe an explanation. This is the post you should have been reading yesterday.

When I checked my email first thing yesterday morning I was more excited than I would have expected to find a notification from Steam that a game I had on my wishlist had gone into Early Access. Half the titles on the list don't even have realse dates, so it was nice to see some movement at last.

Of course, looked at another way, that means half the titles are already available and yet I haven't bought them, so I guess that means half the titles I say I want I don't actually want as much as all that. Not enough to pay money for, at any rate, but that's a post for another day. This post's about a game I did buy: a game called My Time At Sandrock.

MTAS is, as you might imagine, the sequel to My Time At Portia, a building game of sorts that I played and wrote about back in 2020, during the first Covid lockdown. It actually feels like a good deal longer ago than that, which probably says something about the way time has stretched over the last few years.

According to the email, the asking price for MTAS was only £19.99, which seemed like a very good deal to me. Most of the indie games on my wishlist are priced between £15 to £20 but they're probably only going to be good for ten or fifteen hours play. Sandrock ought to give me four or five times that, based on how long I spent in Portia. 

Checking Steam, I see I have just a hair under seventy hours in My Time At Portia and I know for sure I wasn't even close to finishing. I only stopped because some other game came along and stole my attention. I've been meaning to go back and do some more ever since but what with one thing and another...

If value for money wasn't an issue so the real question hanging over the purchase was whether or not I'd be able find the time to play. Since we got the puppy my gaming time has shrunk to next to nothing. On the other hand, assuming MTAS to be very similar to MTAP, something I felt pretty confident in, it seemed like a good fit for short sessions with a dog asleep on my lap.

More to the point, I immediately knew I wanted to play. As I said, I'd been thinking repeatedly of going back to MTAP, so a brand-new, possibly improved version of the same game had considerable appeal. 

As for the Early Access aspect, as discussed numerous times before it has both benefits and drawbacks. I do like to watch the games grow and change and develop, you get to play sooner rather than having to wait, and quite often it's a cheaper buy-in. I don't know at what price point My Time At Sandrock will launch but I wouldn't be surprised if it was more than £19.99.

As for the drawbacks, I chose not to think about them. I bought the game. Then I downloaded it. And that's where there the trouble began.

I've never had even the smallest problem downloading a game through Steam before. It's always been a seamless process. Not this time. The download stopped about a third of the way through with a "Corrupt Disk" error. 

There was a Retry button so I retried. It happened again. And again.

I googled it and found a list of possible reasons and fixes. I tried a few, stopping short of uninstalling and reinstalling Steam. I started the download going again but I didn't keep an eye on it because about then Mrs Bhagpuss and I had lunch. After that we took Beryl out for a walk and by the time I got back to the computer it was about four in the afternoon.

I was all ready to log in and play, always assuming the game had downloaded successfully. Sadly, it had not. That would have been annoying enough but much worse, the screen was frozen and the entire PC unresponsive. I had to pull the plug and reboot but even a couple of restarts the whole machine remained all but unuseable with everything taking orders of magnitude longer than it should. 

I won't go through the litany of attempted fixes other than to say it took over five hours to get it working again and even now I have no real idea what the problem was. For the final fix, the one that worked, I made the classic mistake of changing a lot things at once, everything from deleting the entire Start Up menu to opening the case and reseating all the components.

One of those things must have been the problem because when I powered up, everything worked perfectly. Better than before, in fact. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

It was getting late but I was determined at least to take a look at the game. Naturally there was another patch when I went to log in. Heaven forfend the version I'd downloaded would be the current one. That only took a few minutes, fortunately, and then there I was, in character creation.

I probably need to run through that again for another post at some point. It seemed to be a lot more detailed than the equivalent in MTAP but I couldn't take any screenshots to check because Steam's screenshot function doesn't seem to work in the game. Also, neither does FRAPS, although I didn't know thaat the time. For the shots in this post I was reduced to hitting PrtScrn and tabbing out to paste them into Paint.net.

My haste in rushing through character creation to get into the game proper also left me with a character I don't very much like the look of. Especially those weird lips. I might have to re-roll unless I can find an in-game makeover option.

Next came a short cut scene in which my character arrived in Sandrock by rail. The graphical quality immediately struck me as superior to MTAP although I probably ought to log back in to the older game to re-calibrate my impressions before making any rash statements. Sandrock certainly looks gorgeous, anyway.

There was barely time enough to meet the man who'd hired my character to come work in Sandrock as a Builder, following the retirement of the incumbent. I also met Mi-Ann, who's been employed for the exact same purpose as my character. Apparently it takes two women to do the work of one man in this town.

The retiring builder kindly left me his workshop although not any of his tools or crafting stations, other than a very basic workbench, so from here on in I'll be fixing up my own place as well as doing all chores the townsfolk can't be bothered to do for themselves. Same plot as the last game, in other words.

That was it for the first session but this afternoon I logged back in and spent another hour just exploring the town and talking to a few of the residents. Whereas Portia was a quasi-European market town, Sandrock looks more like a moderately prosperous railroad burg from the American West circa 1870 or so. It's a period I feel hasn't been done to death yet in gaming so I'm happy to see the change of setting.

As I was wandering about a small girl ran up to me and offered to give me a tour of the town. There was the option to refuse, claiming I already knew as much as I needed, but why hurt her feelings that way? I accepted and off she went at a dead run. Just as well each location was marked on the map because I kept losing sight of her as she disappeared over the brow of a hill or round a corner, teddy bear backpack bouncing along behind.

She talked a lot, too. The voice acting seems solid, if a little mannered, something I seem to remember was a feature of the first game. If I'm honest, I was fiddling around trying to take screenshots most of the time so I wasn't really paying attention to what she was saying. I'm sure I'll be able to work it all out for myself in due course.

After the tour I pottered around for a while, chatting to the locals and taking pictures. Before I knew it, the sun was down and a massive, desert moon was rising overhead. By the time I got back to my room in the workshop it was after midnight and the game was giving me dire warnings about what would happen if I wasn't in bed by three. I'd forgotten that part. 

Apart from the lack of a screenshot facility, about the only Early Access weirdness I noticed was that I couldn't find any way of quitting. I went through every menu option and key-bind but nowhere could I find any way to Exit or Log Out. In the end I had to tab out and close the game through Steam.

Oh, and a T-shirt turned up in the mail. A "Backer's T-Shirt". For people who backed the game on Kickstarter. I am almost certain I didn't do that. Did I?

Other than that everything was smooth as butter and just as delicious. I really like butter and I really like this series. Looking forward very much to getting stuck into both the story and the character progression. I'll report back on what I find but early impressions are very favorable..

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

I Love LA

The second instalment of Guild Wars 2's revised, revamped, restored, Unlimited Edition of Living World, Season One, Chapter who-the-hell-knows? dropped in today's regular Tuesday update. ArenaNet gave it a title: Sky Pirates. Maybe I should just have called it that.

The first and last time we saw this content was the best part of a decade ago, so forgive me if I can't remember if it was called "Sky Pirates" the first time around. It wasn't, though. Possibly a part of it might have been. It's a portmanteau of the original version, several bi-weekly episodes welded together with all the loose, awkward bits lopped off.

Or I guess it is. I've only played the first part. That also has a name. A weird name. I mean, if you were sitting around a table or in a bean bag or hanging over the divider of your cubicle or however they do it at ANet Towers, a bunch of you blueskying ideas on what to call to call your opening act, would you have come up with this?

"Ceremony and Acrimony." Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Okay, yes, well, maybe it does, meliflously-speaking. It has mouth feel, I'll give you that. But it reeks of academia. Is that the first impression you want to make? 

And subtitling it "Memorials on the Pyre"? That just makes the whole thing sound even more like an essay title you'd be unreasoningly proud of until your tutor trotted out that line about killing your babies.

Whatev. I played through it. Took me, I don't know, fifteen minutes? I wasn't counting. 

I remembered it very well, once it got going. It's the one where you get invited to the inaugural Dragon Bash in Lion's Arch and get to stand there like Magnus's spare prosthetic while the one-eyed pirate introduces all his pirate pals and makes some piratical jokes that are about as funny as you'd expect. 

Then all the minor races or whatever now-unacceptable phrase we used to use back in the Personal Story waddle or stride or slither forward (No, come to think of it, no-one invited the Krait.) to throw their memorials onto the pyres.

I always found that part a little strange. I don't think you get any idea what the "memorials" are. I couldn't see them but then I was having a lot of lag. Gendaran Fields was a slideshow, thanks to everyone standing about pointlessly just outside the gate to LA. and my PC was still struggling to recover for a while even when I got into the instance.

As soon as the pyres catch fire, a whole load of pinky-purple lightning shoots out and zaps everyone. It was quite a shock the first time around but I was expecting it this time. As I said, I could remember nearly everything, much to my surprise. 

At the time it seemed like everyone either got zapped into the air or ran away or fell over but I see from the above shot that really all that happened was everyone stood there gawping as if it was all part of the show. Probably the most realistic thing in the entire episode, then.

After that there's a whole load of yelling, all of it by Ellen Kiel, at this time still some kind of officer in the Lion Guard, I think. I won't spoil the plot and tell you what happens to her later but it was one of my favorite parts of Season One... other than the result. Vote Evon!

Eventually a dolyak turns up, towing what looks like a scout tent fitted with anti-grav. You, the Commander, get drafted for escort duty as the hairy yak plods across the big bridge that goes to... dammit, I should know this... some part of the Old Lions Arch I used to visit all the time... no, it's no good, it's gone.

The main reason I was hyped to play this right away was the rumor I heard that we'd get to see the old Lion's Arch again. Not the original original, the one that was damaged by the Karka Invasion. That's gone for good, I think. This would be the one after that, with the lighthouse still in ruins and some of the wooden temporary bridges still in place.

I never thought we'd get  a free run at the whole city but I did think we might get to see the Lion Fountain again. I wasn't sure about that, either. It got destroyed at least twice and rebuilt at least once but I couldn't tell you without looking it up what state it was in when Dragon Bash came along.

Wouldn't have made any difference if I could because the Captain's Council had the thing replaced by a hologram projector for the festival anyway. I remembered that as soon as I saw the ugly Asuran contraption. (You can see it in the picture at the top of the post, if you really want to.)

You can see from the above map exactly how much and which part of Lion's Arch you get to reminisce over. From the Grand Plaza to Fort Mariner. Fort Mariner! That's the bunny! Geez, my memory...

It's not much but it gives you the sweet taste. It's a tease to be able to see the rest of the city, just out of reach. Clearly they could give us back the whole thing if they wanted. Maybe in another chapter. I seem to remember Dragon Bash itself took place right across the city.

Of course, they'll have to bring back the entire map if they plan on doing Scarlet's attack on Lion's Arch and I don't see how they could conceivably run Season One without it. By then, though, half the city's a smoking ruin so it'll hardly be the same.

I would happily have carried on with the next chapter but Beryl the Dog chose then to go completely crazy and I had to spend half an hour throwing things for her in the garden until she calmed down. It's a puppy thing. I'm working tomorrow so it'll probably be Thursday before I get to carry on.

Here's hoping we get to see more of the Old Lion's Arch, while it's still almost in one piece.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Plus Support

has a post up under the declarative title SWTOR's Endgame Is Alts, Not Gear. I haven't played Star Wars: the Old Republic for a long while but the post immediately started me thinking about the way my own gaming habits have changed. I left a lengthy comment but as I was typing I realized I had more to say, hence this post.

Shintar contends that "SWTOR is and has always been a game about alts." She's referring mainly to the (in)famous "Fourth Pillar" on which Bioware rested all their hopes for the game: story. As Shintar says, the game "launched with eight unique class stories, and you better believe that the devs didn't intend for you to only play one of them!"

In the early years of the mmorpg genre, story was nowhere near as central to the experience as it's become. I have very mixed feelings about the whole concept of narrative storytelling in live service games I don't believe it's a good fit at all for a number of reasons.

For one thing, every long-running game with an ongoing storyline featuring recurring characters risks turning into a bad soap opera. The longer the game lasts, the more convoluted, contrived and contradictory the backstories of the major players become. Every time I read another blogger bemoaning the sorry state of World of Warcraft's storyline I'm reminded of the decades when I followed the soaps and how in the end I had to stop because, while I could remember the past, the characters clearly couldn't.

Even in the rare games where the writers manage to maintain a degree of consistency, there's the Everything Everywhere All At Once issue. Since players react negatively to having any content taken away, even if it's content they'll never use again, every storyline has to remain in the game and playable, leading to a broken reality. 

Most devs just ignore it, which is probably for the best. ArenaNet eventually came out and stated that each map in Guild Wars 2 exists in some kind of temporal stasis, a snapshot of frozen time, a solution I find as inelegant as the problem it purports to resolve. Blizzard have tried a number of fixes, from the deeply unpopular revisionism of the Cataclysm expansion, through heavy-handed use of phasing to the recent introduction of Chromie Time. None of it really helps all that much.

SW:tOR probably made more problems for itself than most by leaning so heavily on the concept of multiple storylines. GW2 had already gone some of the way down the same road with the Personal Story, a narrative that had the odd characteristic of branching inward, starting out like a delta, streams flowing not just from each race but from a number of choices made at character creation, before all the streams joined together into one not-really-all-that-mighty river, sweeping every player over the same final cataract.

Shintar is clearly correct when she suggests Bioware didn't do all that work for nothing. If you go to the trouble of commissioning eight separate narratives to take players from creation to cap you certainly don't do it for redundancy. Had the game been as commercially successful as they hoped, perhaps all those narratives would have continued to expand indefinitely. Then there would have been less need to find alternative ways of keeping the hardcore happy.

Story, though, may be something of a distraction if we're talking about the choice between alts and
endgame. In the years when few mmorpgs even pretended to have anything you could call a narrative arc, many devs still seemed to expect players to create and level multiple characters. If not, why put so much time and effort into designing multiple starting areas and levelling paths? 

In part it has to be because leveling was originally seen almost as much as a goal as it was a means to an end(game). For many years, while I was playing anything up to forty hours a week, I wasn't leveling characters to get to anything or anywhere. I was leveling them because leveling was the game.

At the very beginning, mmorpgs didn't really come with much in the way of pre-designed endgame content, anyway. The levelling process itself took so long that many players would spend their entire time in a given game without ever reaching the level cap, let alone settling down there. It would have been seen as a poor use of resources to create content few players could access.

As the months and years passed and the games carried on, finding things to do for the increasing number of players who'd reached the cap became much more of a priority. That was how we got endgame zones, raiding and gear grinds. I doubt any of it was planned. It certainly didn't seem like it at the time. 

Once the pattern was set, though, it was set in stone. As Shintar says, there is a widespread belief among many mmorpg players that "engaging with an MMO in-depth must mean focusing on a single character, doing some sort of max-level grind, and expecting a steady stream of more of the same so that your single character's progression rarely comes to a halt."

My anecdotal experience is somewhat at variance with that reading. It probably goes without saying to any long-time readers of this blog that getting a single character endgame-ready never formed much of a part of my plans. I've played a lot of mmorpgs over the last near-quarter century but in very few of them have I even reached the level cap, let alone stayed there long enough to gear up.

Back when I was more sociable than I am now, though, I was often a fairly active member of a guild. Over the course of five or six years, I was in half a dozen or more small to medium size guilds on different servers in EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and EverQuest II, as well as a couple of fairly large ones, in which I was less obviously active.

Only in the large guilds did I see a significant number of players focusing their efforts on endgame activities. In the rest, even when there were forty or fifty members playing fairly frequently, most of them were leveling and not just the one character, either. 

Plenty of people never even got a single character to the cap before they drifted away and disappeared for good, sometimes with a goodbye, more often not. Not infrequently, people would play several characters to the mid-levels before settling on one to "work on". 

With the the leveling pace so much slower back then, even people who played most evenings and every weekend took months to get anywhere close to the cap, a target that was in any case always moving, thanks to the annual or even semi-annual expansion cadence that was the norm at the time. 

One of the reasons so many people kept rolling alts was the differential in advancement between low, mid and high level characters. When you found yourself looking at ten, fifteen even twenty hours to earn a single level, the lure of a level you could knock out in an hour or two, as things went back at the beginning of the game, could be too much to resist.

Then there was the appeal of variety. As I mentioned earlier, mmorpgs used to come with multiple starting areas and a wide choice of low and mid-level zones. In some games it was quite possible to level several characters to the higher end of the game without duplicating any content at all. Even when you did retread the same ground, the differences between classes and even races was much more significant than it was later to become.

It's no great exageration to say that playing different classes or races could feel like playing a different game altogether. In Vanguard, for example, there were three very different continents, each of which was probably as large as the full landmass of a latterday mmorpg. Raising a character in the deserts of Qalia felt existentially different to raising one in the forests of Thestra or the jungles of Kojan and even playing a different race on the same continent could make you feel as lost as if you'd never been there before.

Many mmorpgs were like that, then. As Shintar says about SW:tOR, for many players, playing multiple characters wasn't "some kind of side activity that you engage in when you've hit a bit of a lull with the "main" game - it is the game!" Not for everyone, of course; possibly not even for the majority, but for a very substantial minority, those people who either never aspired to reach the endgame or realised it was going to elude them if they tried.

In all the games I've mentioned and plenty more, I have multiple characters, usually a handful, occasionally a dozen or more. In one or two the count passes a score. In newer mmorpgs, ones I've started in the last decade or so, those figures fall away alarmingly. I'm not sure I've played a stable of characters in a single game since GW2 launched in 2012.

I hadn't really thought about that until I read Shintar's post this morning. My first reaction was to blame ennui or over-familiarity. I've been playing these games a long time, now. The appeal of starting over and over again must have palled.

Thinking about it for a little longer, I realized that's not really the case. Yes, there is a little of the "been there, done that" mentality creeping in around the edges these days but it must be evident in the enthusiasm with which I regularly write about new mmorogs I've played that I'm far from done with the genre yet.

A more likely explanation might be the way mmorpg design has changed over the years. For sound commercial reasons, few games these days launch with multiple starting areas or leveling paths. Developers like to keep players together as much as possible to enhance the impression that a lot of people play their game and anyway, leveling itself is out of fashion; it's all about the endgame and how fast you can get there.

Even so, only the most linear design supporting the most meager content lets you see everything on one trip through the levels. In most modern mmorpgs there still some juice to be squeezed from playing different classes or races or from making different choices at various decision points. And yet these days I rarely bother.

The real reason, I believe, lies not with my level of interest nor with game designers' methods but in a change of payment models. It's no co-incidence that I seem to have begun to find rolling multiple characters in the same game less appealing at around the same time the Free to Play revolution kicked in.

The choice used to be between carrying on playing the same character or rolling another in the same game and starting over. Games cost money then and mmorpgs also required a subscription. Re-rolling made sound economic sense, a way of both extracting extra value from an existing purchase and feeling like you were getting something new at the same time.

Once developers began to give their games away for nothing and stopped charging a monthly fee to play them it began to be both practical and attractive not just to start over in the same game but to start over in a new game altogether. That whole "three-monther" thing, which eventually slimmed down into a single month, when players would game-hop almost continually, ostensibly searching for the next forever game, might perhaps be more realistically interpreted as a more intense, more exciting way to re-roll. Instead of rolling a new character we began rolling a new game.

Well, I did. I still do. Having the blog allows me to paint my serial re-rolling as research rather than
self-indulgence but I very much doubt I'd be behaving any differently if I didn't have a blog to post my experiences and opinions of every new tutorial and starting zone. If you're the kind of player who rarely settles down to play a single character in a single game anyway, the kind who always wanted to see all the starting zones and play all the classes and races, it's quite unlikely you'll be able to resist the lure of so many new experiences that cost you nothing at all.

Nothing, of course, other than any final sense of accomplishment, except perhaps for the broadening of your understanding of the hobby itself. After ten years of game-hopping, I feel I know a lot about mmorpgs as a genre but not all that much about any one of them in particular.

Which is fine. It's pretty much how I felt about all those games where I played a lot of characters. I always felt I knew a good deal more about EQ or Vanguard as whole than many of the people I played with, even though I would freely acknowledge many of them knew a good deal more than I did about specific aspects. 

Playing a lot of characters gives you a good overview. It gives you perspective. Playing one character exclusively gives you depth of experience and thorough understanding of the detail. The really dedicated players end up acquiring both but most of us have to settle for one or the other.

I've always preferred to contextualize. I like to feel I have some perspective. If that means missing out on the fine detail, I can accept that. For now, that perspective and context applies mostly to the genre rather than to any specific game. The time will come, I hope and trust, when the pendulum will swing again and I'll find myself re-rolling and starting over in the same game just to see more of what I'm already playing.

Friday, May 20, 2022

You Wait Seventy Years For A Jubilee And Then Two Come Along At Once

I was going to skip posting today for the very good reason I didn't have anything in particular I wanted to say. Well, I did have a few ideas...

I read Paeroka's post on How to Return to LotRO, which mentioned the boosters we all got for the anniversary, so I thought I might log in and use one of those and see how it went. I got as far as character select once and the login screen three times (I'm tabbed out from it now.) but every time something happened to make me back off before I could get any further. Usually something dog-related.

Then there was Belghast's post, the one he called "New World Has Improved Significantly", a sentiment with which I don't disagree but about which I felt I had something to say. Then I thought about it and realised I'd probably said most of it the last time I wrote about the game.

There were even a few things I might have contributed to the discussion arising out of Blizzard's thrashing about as they try to increase diversity and reduce toxicity but that would have required some serious thought and I wasn't convinced I was up to it.

I'd just about decided to take a pass on the whole thing for the day, when I logged into EverQuest II to do set my  remaining Overseer missions and saw a new link in the patcher. It said Welcome to EverQuest II's First Annual Summer Jubilee!

Excuse me? 

I clicked through and this is what I got:

A whole new way to enjoy your summer and gain access to exclusive items.

We're proud to announce the launch of our first annual Summer Jubilee! This event lasts all summer long and will incorporate Tinkerfest, Scorched Sky Celebration, and Oceansfull Festival where players can earn Copper Jubilation Medals which can be used to purchase exclusive items.

There's a whole lot more, naturally, explaining the event in detail:

Live Servers

  • Jubilation parades can be found in each of the player cities, pathing near the event merchant.
  • Jubilation merchants can be found in each of the player cities exchanging event exclusive armor, house items, recipes, instruments, and equipment for Copper Jubilation Medals.
  • Copper Jubilation Medals are heirloom and can be gained by completing most Tinkerfest, Scorched Sky Celebration, and Oceansfull Festival repeatable content.
  • Daily Mission for each event dungeon end boss and can be updated in either solo or heroic.
Special Rules Servers (Including Varsoon)
  • Start earning Copper Jubilation Medals during Tinkerfest and continue earning them through Scorched Sky Celebration and Oceansfull Festival.
And a lengthy section on the upgradeable bracers you can get that become more powerful the more events you do in all three of the summer holiday events:
Along with the Copper Jubilation Medals, we’re also adding in Golden F'Aestival Bracers. They're huge, they're shiny, and best of all, they're pretty powerful especially if you complete the Summer Jubilee event! How do you get a pair? Just log in during Tinkerfest and complete the event dungeon, Innovation: Tinkerer's Trial, six times. Once you do that, you'll have your new, Mythical bracers and ready to take on Scorched Sky Celebration and Oceansfull Festival.  
If you're interested in what they look like and what the stats are it's all there on the website at the link above. Suffice to say, the fully upgraded version clocks in at 340 Resolve and I'm currently turning cartwheels if I get anything over 295.

I'm assuming the Jubilee replaces the familiar Summer Ethereal event that's been running in the same slot for many years, although nowhere does it actually make that explicitly clear. I suppose the two could co-exist but I very much doubt that's the plan.

This looks much more inclusive and better-designed to me. Tying everything in with the existing holidays and expanding all three of them seems like a great idea.

Of course, great ideas also need great implementation so I'll reserve judgment until I get to try them all out. Tinkerfest is already up on the Test Server so I'll at least read the forums to find out how that's going, even if I don't log in and test it for myself.

It all kicks off on June 2, which just happens to be the same week as Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee. I know where I'll be celebrating...

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

Azuriel mentioned the other day how he's been finding it more difficult to find new music these days. It's a common problem, I think. Partly it's a function of the aging process. It's not not inevitable but it creeps up on you if you don't pay attention.

When I was at school, then college, every day was a swapmeet for new ideas of every kind, with music right at the forefront. As I went through my twenties I was out more than in (Much more.) and the same cultural cross-pollination moved to after-work drinking sessions and endless parties. We all read the music press, swapped fanzines, traded mixtapes and generally competed to find the best new things before anyone else.

As I burned through my thirties I slowed down some. Offline socializing receded to a gentle background hum then all but stopped altogether, when I discovered mmorpgs. I stopped following the trends. Meanwhile, all around me people seemed to be settling into an understanding of the things they liked, willing to settle for what they already knew.

Around the same time, music itself began to fracture. Distribution channels proliferated while radio fragmented. I lost track of the culture for a decade and when I emerged, blinking from my long sleep, nothing looked much like I remembered.

Over the past few years I've put the pieces back together or tried to. I began by rifling the riches of the past, miraculously restored to the present by way of YouTube and its millions of pop culture evangelists. I think the key that opened that lock was probably the first time I found footage of the Monks performing Oh How To Do Now on German TV back in 1966 but I can't remember now how I came to be searching for it.

Since then, it's been a gradual recovery. I started following Pitchfork a few years ago, then Stereogum and more recently I've added my adolescent bible, NME, to my feeds. The three of them have a good deal of redundancy but that's helpful. With the torrent of news some days, I need the reinforcement of multiple mentions to drive the message home.

I also follow a few music bloggers although I've been wary of adding any more than a few. There are only so many hours in the day to read blog posts and I'm sure you've seen my blog roll, which, come to think of it, generally doesn't include music blogs. Maybe it should.

The problem with music bloggers, in my limited experience, is that just as I get comfortable with them, they go silent. I have eight in my feeds right now but only two, Simon Reynolds' blissblog and Spavid's Willfully Obscure post with any regularity. I really need to replace the quiescent ones with people who are still feeling it.

My other main source is YouTube, of course. It's a well as deep as the Mariana Trench. I could find something new there every minute of every day if was crazy enough to try. 

I do a lot of primary research, a fancy name for entering random keywords and following links until I'm dizzy, but I also have a few channels subbed to give me curated suggestions. Elefant Records I've mentioned many times but I also follow the LazyLazyMe, MrSuicideSheep and Jarret Wolfson, who I guess doesn't need a fancy internet nick since he has such a cool name already.

I also sub Mermaid Motel, maker of amazing unauthorised music videos, and triplej, "Australian youth broadcaster and the home of Like A Version" as well as several individual musicians, although not necessarily the ones you might imagine. It's not all that many but I find that subscribing to too many YouTube channels has a tendency to result in diminishing returns. There's not much point subbing them if you never find time to watch them.

At this point I'd like to thank Azuriel for spurring me on to write this post and thereby examine just what my current methods and resources are. It's apparent to me that I could do a lot more and a lot better. I'm going to make more of an effort to find some new voices and sources to add to the ones I've mentioned and to replace the ones I've lost.

It also encourages me to keep doing what I have been doing, namely sharing things I've found that seem worth mentioning here on the blog. Word of mouth is the best recommendation.

Before I get to the videos, I'd like to call attention to a couple of very illuminating interviews I read today. One is with Lana Del Rey, the other with Jack Antonoff. Both reveal some intriguing details about their respective and collective methodologies as well as a good deal of insight into their personalities. The Lana one has some amazing pictures, too. 

I'd recommend both pieces to anyone interested in either of the artists but also to anyone who finds the processes behind the creation of the music we love either curious or obscure or both. I learned something from each of them.

And now... the music!

Lydia Wears A Cross - Julia Jacklin - A new name to me, I came across Julia by way of a brief news item about this, her new single, which I clicked on purely because I liked the title. I'm a bit of an easy mark for song titles with names in them and anyway I do tend to pick things out based on what they're called. It sounds shallow but it's a trick that's served me well, not just with music but books and movies as well.

After hearing this once I played it again right away and then a third time. Writing this post, I've listened to it three times more. She has a great song about Jesus, too (Well, he's in the title..) but I'll save that for Christmas. 

Nikki Go Sudden - Pink Mountaintops - Speaking of titles. with names in them... My eye was drawn to this immediately when I saw it in a news item. Nikki Sudden is one of my longtime favorites, or he was while he was alive. I bought the first Swell Maps E.P., "Read About Seymour" when it came out in 1977 and I own a number of Jacobites albums, mostly on cassette, which means I never get to hear them any more. This is a fine tribute that manages to evoke that instantly recognizeable Sudden delivery without sounding like a tribute act. 

There's a very good live version too. Actually, listening to it again, it might be better than the recording. Let's have that as well.

Once again, I'd never even heard of Pink Mountaintops. I dug back into their extensive catalog as well but most of it seemeed a bit rocky for my tastes. This one was okay, though. It's called Lights of the City. Very '80s.

Claire Danes - Damn The Witch Siren -Double header! No! Double double header! If there's one thing that gets my attention faster than a name in a song title it's the name of someone famous. Bonus points if it's someone I like. I do like Claire Danes but really it's Mrs. Bhagpuss who likes her. We've had a framed still of Danes as Angela from My So Called Life on the hall wall since the '90s. It's one of Mrs. Bhagpuss's all-time favorite tv shows.

I'd have given an ear to any song called "Claire Danes" but one by a band called Damn The Witch Siren? Slam and - if you'll permit it - dunk! That's three acts I never heard of until the last week and two of them are keepers. Here's their latest. It's good.

They have more but I'll save them for later. Pretty sure they'll turn up here again, as will Julia Jacklin. Proof that my methods for surfacing new-to-me acts really work. Of course, keeping up with new work by old favorites is just as important...

Roadkill - Starcrawler - It's been a while. I was wondering what they were up to. If it's got to be rock, this is the way I like it. Sharp, smart, self-aware and with the treble turned all the way up. And a chanted chorus, too. Arrow and Henri are the Mick and Keef of their generation. Unfortunately for them, it's not 1966 any more. Unfortunately for whom? Yeah... leaving that hanging...

Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty) - Horsegirl - Not, I think, the strongest track from the soon-to-be-released debut album, "Versions of Modern Performance" but it's a grower. I haven't pre-ordered. I need to save a few things for the birthday and Christmas lists.

Doritos and Fritos - 100 gecs - Wow! That was almost conventional! Well, by their standards. I notice a lot of YT comments along the lines of "Gecs is a rock band now" - "They always were". Not sure I'd go that far but I do agree they rock.

And that's it for this time. I might try to do this on the regular, post new stuff I've found just for the sake of it. Beats coming up with some thesis every damn time!

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