Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Look In The Envelope

Guild Wars 2's Lunar New Year festival ends today, although at time of writing it's still running. The boom will come down whenever ArenaNet release the weekly Tuesday update, something that happens any time from three in the afternoon to eight in the evening, where I live.

As I wrote, back on January 11, I was a little late to the party this year, what with not actually playing the game on the regular any more, but once I'd been made aware it was happening, I was diligent in not missing a single day. Not that I did much while I was there, nor intended to. 

Other than running a few races for the fun of it, if they happened to be up when I arrived, all of my efforts were concentrated on buying every Lucky Envelope I was allowed on each of three accounts, then transferring all of them onto my main account to open. Just doing that took me fifteen or twenty minutes a day, easily.

For once, I didn't cash out as I went along but kept everything in my bags 'til the end. That means for the first time ever I'm actually able to see exactly what I got and how much money I made - or lost.

I opened all the envelopes in the Silverwastes, a map with a permanent 30% bonus to magic find. Lucky Envelopes are one of the very, very few openables to benefit from that generally useless stat so it's theoretically worth making some effort to raise it when opening them. 

For the first week and a half or so, I really didn't try all that hard. I ran a booster or two and had some MF food up but my magic find was somewhere around 450. It's generally reckoned it has to go over 500 to make much of a perceivable difference. About halfway through the run I grabbed some banners and boosts from various sources and by the last day I was running more than a hundred points higher. 

I finally topped out at 569 although it would have been twenty points  more if I'd taken the right accessory out of the bank. I was wearing the wrong one the whole time. It's not a large enough sample to be statistically significant, I'm sure, but subjectively it definitely did seem that my luck improved once my MF passed 500.

In the three weeks I was doing the event I received a ton of festival food and fireworks, the total amount of which I haven't bothered to tally. Nor have I worked out the value on the Trading Post should I choose to sell. I could do that. It's almost all tradeable. Most of it goes for coppers but some of the food is quite valuable so the total would run into a few gold, I'm sure.

I also acquired enough sparks of luck to add three percentage points onto my permanent magic find. MF is a fairly arduous stat to raise after about two hundred or so, so that's a not-insignificant jump. I also got three small lucky envelopes every day for a daily achievement whenever I opened the big ones. Those all gave minor rewards too but I didn't keep a track of what I got. Nothing significant, that's for sure.

In the twenty-one days I kept up with the event I bought five hundred and four Lucky Envelopes at a cost of one gold piece each. Here's what I got back, not counting the food, fireworks and luck:

Cash Items

  • 13 Ornamental Gold Trophies - (8g 88s 88c) - Total Value 115g 55s 44c
  • 519 Golden Rabbit Figurines - (88s 88c) - Total Value 461g 28s 72c

Total Value 576g 84s 72c

Useable Items

  • 8 Lucky Rabbit Lanterns
  • 4 Minis of Festival Lantern
  • 3 Superior Runes of Fireworks
  • 2 New Year's Weapon Chests

The rabbit lanterns, a back item with stats, can be upgraded into Golden Rabbit Statues but you only need one lantern per statue. I'll be making some of those at some point because the appearance is actually quite nice, for once. As for the rest, they don't sell for much now but as the years pass they tend to go up in value so I usually hang on to them. (And then never sell them but that's a different issue altogether...)

The minis are nice but absolutely worthless. There are tens of thousands for sale at 3 copper a time. The runes are decent and sell for over a gold each but I already have quite a few. They'll go in the bank.

The pick of the bunch is definitely the two weapon chests, if only because neither the box nor the weapons it contains is tradeable. If you want the skins, this is the only way you're going to get them. And, as it happens, the skins aren't bad. 

I chose the staff, called First Night's Spark, which is a cluster of red firecrackers on a stick. It goes
rather well with my Elementalist's current outfit and fits her style as a fire mage. I'm saving the other chest for now. You get to choose one weapon per chest and there are two skins left I don't have. I haven't decided which I want first yet.

All in all I'm pretty satisfied. I came out just over 70g ahead on the deal after the full three weeks. I could have made considerably more by just selling the envelopes on the Trading Post but then I wouldn't have got the two weapon skins or had the fun and excitement of opening the envelopes. Seems like a fair trade-off to me.

One thing I have come to believe as a direct result of the event and my rection to it: at this stage of my mmorpg career I almost prefer login rewards and free gifts to actually playing the games, at least when it conmes to games I know well already. I was incentivized to return to GW2 only by the prospect of opening these envelopes and every evening I found myself actively excited to do it. 

As numerous posts here over the past two or three years can attest, I can often find more to say about these kinds of giveaways than I can about the gameplay. I've often claimed to be able to see the positive side to lockboxes and as time goes on it's becoming harder and harder to deny that in many ways it's the boxes I like best about the games I play. I wouldn't ever pay a cent to open one but if they come free I'd rather open boxes than kill monster, most days.

Luckily for me, there seems to be no shortage of free boxes to open and no sign of the flow drying up any time soon. I've done opening envelopes in GW2 for now so imagine I won't be logging in there again for a while but I'm sure another game will pick up the slack soon enough.

If not, it's only a day until the next Amazon Prime giveaway. There'll be a post about that, too, I'm sure.

Monday, January 30, 2023

High School Never Ends

Until I came across the name in a passing reference in Roz Kaveney's entertining and informative analysis of teen television and movies, Teen Dreams, I had never heard of Freaks and Geeks. Given the involvement of several internationally celebrated Hollywood names - Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, James Franco - and a whole raft of very familiar faces from later shows, including Linda Cardinelli and Busy Philipps - combined with my lifelong interest in the American High School Experience, an infatuation most likely contracted through an early exposure to Spiderman and Superboy comic books, my ignorance of this particular show seems, to say the least, surprising.

The surprise intensifies when you factor in the critical reputation of the show itself. Although it ran only one season, a third of whose episodes weren't even broadcast during the original run, Freaks and Geeks, as Wikipedia relates, "has appeared in numerous lists of the greatest television shows of all time, including lists by Time, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide and Rolling Stone." At time of writing, it has an IMDB rating of 8.8/10 and a Rotten Tomatoes perfect 100% from critics and a near-perfect 96% from the audience.

This, by any standards, has to be an important show, particularly for anyone interested in the sub-genre within which it sits. As soon as I became aware of its existence, I knew I'd have to make an effort to track it down. 

Once upon a time, such an undertaking would have been anything from a challenge to an impossibility. It took me many years to scrounge up a copy of another short-lived series set in high school, the wonderful, if now somewhat dated, Square Pegs. I spent years searching, without success, for a DVD or even a VHS copy of the twenty episode long single season that aired on CBS in 1982-3 and in the UK on Channel 4 a few years later.

When I did eventually surface a copy on EBay, I ordered it gleefully, only to find with bittersweet irony that almost by the time it arrived the show had unexpectedly appeared on the listings of Amazon Prime. I ended up watching it there. My DVD copy remains unplayed.

These days, following a number of similar experiences, I almost always run a "Where Can I watch...?" check before committing to ordering a hard copy of anything. Or I just take a glance at YouTube. The extent to which various rights owners police their back catalogs varies hugely. The free-to-play profile of some IPs extends no further than a scattering of clips and trailers, whereas other shows are available in their entirety, uploaded by fans for the pleasure of sharing a fancy or an obsession, then left to sit, unmolested, for years.

The apparent lack of interest by the relevant authorities in older, cancelled shows with little potential for resale is, of course, a huge boon to those of us not lucky enough either to live in the countries where they were originally shown or not to have been aware of their existence at the time. YouTube was, for example, where I watched all of the excellent Boston Common, which was not then and is not now available to watch or buy in any other way, unless you can find a used or pirated copy.

With this in mind, acting purely on a single mention of the title in a paragraph that elided it with all-time favorite My So-Called Life, and knowing nothing of the show's storied heritage and critical plaudits, my first port of call immediately after learning of its existence was indeed YouTube. I figured such an obscure, obsolete, unsuccessful show would be very likely to have at least one afficionado, eager to spread the word.

And it kind of does. Someone going by the name of JackoTV has uploaded the whole eighteen episode run - as two solid blocks . As if to emphasize the seemingly random nature of rights enforcement online, the two seven-hour long entries are separated by a two minute trailer on Paramount Movies' official channel, promoting the show in its current official release.

I didn't watch the show either on YouTube or Paramount. I watched it on Amazon Prime where, seemingly by pure, synchronous happenstance, it popped up in my recommends that very evening. Of course, it's most likely it had been there a while but I'd had no reason to notice it. I don't click on everything Prime or Netflix try to push at me. Something has to trigger me.

As soon as I found it there, I started watching. From the magnificent opening credit sequence, sublimely underpinned by the Joan Jett classic Bad Reputation, I was hooked. Limiting myself to my usual one episode a night ration, I worked through the full season in two and a half weeks. I watched the final one last night.

I found the experience initially disconcerting. Not for any intrinsic problem with the uniformly excellent writing, acting or production but because two of the main characters looked more than a little familiar. At this point you'd be forgiven for assuming I'm referring to the aforementioned presence of a number of actors well-known for many other high-profile performances but that's not it. Not at all.

Although I've known for years who Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen are, I've never knowingly seen them in anything. I know them purely on the stength of reviews I've read or heard, many of them unfavorable. It's never occurred to me to seek out any of their work. I assumed it would not be my kind of thing at all. James Franco, I do know, but only of late and only by way of his writing.

No, the thing that weirded me out as I began watching Freaks and Geeks was that one of the leads (Jason Segel as Nick) looked uncannily similar to someone I was at school with, while another (Linda Cardellini as Lindsay) looked not entirely unlike my first wife at the same age, a resemblance strongly intensified by the way Lindsay dresses, which is pretty much exactly how my ex-wife dressed when I was first going out with her, what with the brushed denim jeans and the green combat jacket.

Far from detracting from the experience, this aura of faux-familiarity added an extra layer of value to what is, in any case, an exceptionally subtle and unexpected show. I've seen a lot of movies and TV shows use the US High School system as a backdrop but I can't recall seeing any that did it so knowingly yet unselfconsciously. It's far from being a quasi-documentary and it doesn't even qualify as realism, but it has the grainy, shabby, well-worn patina of authenticity. 

As the season develops and the characters expose themselves more fully, it also reveals a very surprising warm-heartedness, something I was not expecting from the brittleness of the early episodes. By the time you've seen all eighteen, there are almost no unlikeable characters or at least there were none that I didn't end up liking once I'd found myself coming to understand and appreciate their motivations. 

It's not just the leads and supporting characters, either. All the usual stereotypical high-school/teenage villains - parents, bullies, teachers, authority figures - are given their moment to explain or illuminate their behavior, which always turns out to come from some emotional core that's believable and relatable. For a show that relies quite heavily on the comedy of embarrassment and humiliation - there were times when I literally had to look away out of sheer, excruciating empathy - it never leaves a sour taste. Every encounter, no matter how toe-curling, somehow resolves into a feelgood glow.

Watching Freaks and Geeks in 2023 is a bizarre excercise in time-shifting. It was made at the turn of the millennium but it's set in the very early 1980s. From forty years and three thousand miles away, the illusion feels near-perfect. Allowing for the slight cultural drift between the US and the UK back then, those could have been my friends; their musical tastes, the way they dress, the way they relate to each other and the world around them. I found it not so much nostalgic as reminiscent.

For a show that ended unexpectedly, Freaks and Geeks is extemely fortunate in its final episode. Not only does the show conclude with the end of the school year but there's an almost movie-like shifting of focus from character to character as the credits prepare to roll. It's just one scene short of a "Ten Years Later" post-credit sequence. Watching it, knowing there was no more to be learned about these characters, for once I almost felt satisfied.

After all the talk of unexpected, unwarranted or unecessary cancellations in the current streaming climate, it's perhaps instructive to be reminded that there never really was a golden age, a time when shows just ran and ran until they had nothing more to say. Freaks and Geeks failed to establish itself after an opening plagued by chaotic scheduling and conflict between the creative team and the network but even a successful start never guaranteed a long run; Boston Common finished in the top ten shows of the year in its first season but a schedule change in season two saw it fall out of the top fifty. There was no season three.

Quality just is not a factor in success, it seems. Freaks and Geeks really does live up to its critical reputation but despite the all-round excellence of the cast and the supple brilliance of the writing it couldn't even limp home to the end of season one.

Fortunately, in this brave new world of everything, everywhere, all at once, nothing ever really goes away. If anyone else, like me, either hasn't seen the show or maybe even heard of it, I thoroughly recommend hunting it down on whatever streaming platform carries it in your jurisdiction. 

There is one more chapter to the story. Freaks and Geeks spawned a kind-of sequel, a college-based show that featured many of the same cast, albeit not playing the same characters. That show, Undeclared, also only lasted one season. It's available on Amazon Prime to buy at what seems to me a pricey $1.99 per episode but that's only on Amazon.com. Amazon.co.uk declares it unavailable.

It's also pretty hard to source on DVD. EBay lists one copy but it's in Canada and the postal charges to ship it here ae prohibitive. It is, however, available on YouTube, in full, from several channels and, since Judd Apatow himself posted on Instagram to say "You can watch all of Undeclared on YouTube right now for free. It isn’t streaming anywhere currently but it’s here", I feel we've been given a free pass to watch it.

I'll start doing just that tonight. If it's even half as good as Freaks and Geeks, I'm in for a treat.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Phenomenology For Fun And Profit

I have a vague feeling I once posted something about fictional bands here but if I did I never made a tag for it and the search function can't find it either so it's lost now. Whether I've mentioned it before or not, I have a particular interest in things that exist at a fractional remove from reality, somewhere in that liminal space between the extant and the imagined, the subjective and the objective, the internal and the external.

Imaginary friends, guardian angels, spirit animals, your characters in World of Warcraft... all those entities that feel at least as real as that kid who sat two desks behind you in fourth grade... what was his name? If you can't remember that or visualise his face, how is he any more real than that character in that series of novels you went on to name three game characters after? You know more about any of them than you ever knew about that guy, right? 

There are two kinds of fictional bands: ones you can hear and ones you can't. Then it splits again. Among the bands you can actually listen to there used to be two main sorts. There were the ones made up of flesh-and-blood people, who played (or pretended to play) musical instruments while appearing on stage and then there were the ones you only saw on screen, a strand that subdivided yet again into live action or animation. 

Examples of the first type would be Spinal Tap, Bad News or the Blues Brothers. They're all "fictional" in that they're mostly actors playing a part. Other than that, they're just bands, I suppose. They all made albums and toured. 

Does recording and touring make it real, anyway? The Monkees did both and I'd certainly call them a real band. They'd be a special case, though. They started out very fictional but ended up very real. How often has that happened?

These days there are at least two more categories of fictional bands you can listen to and they're so close to the fiction/fact line it's hard to call. Gorillaz are "the world's most successful virtual band" but not the only one, although most of the supposed lists of "virtual" bands are just fictional bands of a different stripe. Genuine virtuality requires more than four actors in costume or a catchy, animated video. It needs magic, too. Technological magic.

Virtual bands are subtly different again from the latest fork on the fictional rock tree - AI performers, writers and artists.

Artificial Intelligence, it's becoming impossible to deny, is going to bring the next, great wave of social, economic and cultural change. It promises - or threatens, depending on your optimism/pessimism duality - to re-write the very definition of humanity itself but even if you don't buy all that singularity malarkey, it's going to put a lot of people to the trouble of finding new ways to keep themselves busy, when the machines intelligences are doing all the jobs people used to do.

It may help creative artists like Nick Cave to feel better, believing AI songwriting "will always be a replication, a kind of burlesque". He may even be right. A more telling question than "could people tell the difference?" might be "would they care?" Do the pop charts from the last half century or so suggest audiences are only happy with songs that are "predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation."? I wouldn't think so.

As time moves forward, as it subjectively if not objectively must, then fictionality becomes ever harder to define. Naevis is booked to appear at this year's SXSW, the music festival for "new, developing, and established... Artists." Nothing remarkable about that. Only Naevis doesn't exist. 

Who - or what - is Naevis, then? That's not so easy to explain, or understand, but it's fun to try.

As far as I can unpick it, Naevis is a fictional AI who "connects" a real band to that band's virtual doppelgangers. If you'd like an extra layer of confusion, the real band in question is a product of the KPop hot-housing system, which presumably makes them at least as real as the Monkees when they began but probably not as real as Westlife, when they did.

The band's name is Aespa, which "combines the English initials of "avatar" and "experience" (Avatar X Experience) with the English word "aspect" ", suggesting an initial intention to push towards something beyond mere physicality. And so it was. Aespa are part of what is apparently a growing trend in KPop (and probably elsewhere) to integrate a number of performers within something calling itself a "Universe". I blame Stan Lee.

In this case, responsibility falls squarely on their management company, SM, whose Culture Universe could, according to the NME, be "K-pop’s most ambitious alternative universe yet". It's certainly bidding fair to be the most self-reflexive. In the lore, data that was collected online in our reality was used to create counterparts of all the band members in a world known as Kwangya. So far, so batshit insane but that's just the set-up.

These other-world counterparts will be playing a virtual reality concert premiering at SXSW. Not the band; their other-world avatars. Naevis, the AI from that reality, who somehow connects the virtual counterparts to the real band-members and who was "previously thought to have sacrificed herself to help aespa, following the events that transpired in the music video and lyrics of ‘Savage’" (Look up - it's the embed you just skipped.) will make her own musical debut at the same time.

This, you can be absolutely certain, is just the beginning. The boundaries between the real and the irreal are already blurring. Soon you won't be able to see them at all.

The same could be said about my plans for this post. At the top, I mentioned two basic categories of fictional bands. I've ended up writing about the ones you can hear; I meant to write about the other kind, the ones you can't. Until, suddenly, you can.

That's going to have to wait for a post of it's own, now. This one's disorientating enough already.

Friday, January 27, 2023

What's That You Say, Timmy? Astrid's Fallen Down The Old Mineshaft?

At the beginning of the week I couldn't think of much to write about. Come the end, I have half a dozen topics roiling around in my head, any and all of which could make a full post. Naturally, I'm also working this weekend, so I either have to save them up for next week, by when they'll either have gone stale or been shunted to the sidelines by something new.

I was going to try to cram them all into one portmanteau post under the Friday Grab Bag rubric but having drafted the first entry I realise that'd take me all day. I guess we'll just have to go at them in a series of small bites. That way, maybe they won't be entirely indegistible.

Up first...

Steamworld Build

Let's start with a new game I played. An actual, new game, not an old game I dug up from the relic pile. 

Of course, when I say "game", I really mean "demo". I'm not entirely sure how I came across it. I thought at first it was part of Steam's Base Builder Fest, a promotional event for a genre I didn't even know existed but, scanning down the not-very-long list of promoted titles, I don't see it there. Maybe it popped up as a recommendation because I've played a bunch of other Steamworld titles, although I rarely even glance at things Steam thinks I ought to try, so that doesn't seem likely, either.

However I found it, I'm happy it happened. The Steamworks games are charming, even if I'm not a hundred percent sold on developer Thunderful's penchant for trying a new genre with every release. For the next instalment in the franchise they've gone for what I always think of as the City Sim, not a game-type that's ever done much to get me excited.  

I played the original Sim City back when it was released in the late 1980s and found it pretty tedious. I mean, who dreams of being a city planner? Wouldn't you rather have Adventures?  Nothing I've seen or heard about the genre since has encouraged me to try it again - until now. 

I had a good time with a couple of the earlier Steamworld titles. I even finished one of them. A demo seemed like a safe way to dip a toe into unfamiliar waters. Demos rarely outstay their welcome and I nearly always manage to finish them, which is a lot more than I can say about most full-length games.

Oh, it all looks very Garden City Movement now...

And I enjoyed it. I played through the whole demo in a couple of hours. You begin with nothing and end up with a sprawling industrial complex and a deepening excavation project, each of which feeds resources to the other. There's an unoriginal but interesting plot and some typically - some might say stereotypically - charming mechanical characters. 

The dialog is sparky and gets a lot done in just a scattering of cut scenes. It needs to because most of the gameplay involves placing structures to build and improve resources above ground, then doing the same, plus digging through dirt, sandstone and bedrock below the surface to uncover different resources in the once-abandoned, now restored, mineshaft.

Don't trust him, Astrid!

For the first hour there was the usual lingering feeling of "I could really be doing something more useful with my time" I always get when playing these kind of games but once I got the mine open for business much of that went away. For some reason, digging stuff up feels like a valid leisure activity for me, whereas laying down roads just doesn't.

The mining part of the game - and indeed the basic plot, involving as it does the scavenging and repurposing of fragments from a vanished, technologically superior civilization - reminded me a lot of the "My Time At Portia/Sandrock" series. It's pretty much identical, in fact, the main difference being that in Portia/Sandrock you do your own digging whereas in Steamworld Build you direct tiny robots to do it for you. 

Why do I get the feeling you guys are having more fun than I am?

They look like ants as they scurry around, although you can zoom in to see them close-up. That was one thing that slightly bothered me; I felt there was a more interesting game happening at ground level but I was stuck, for practical purposes, with a drone's eye view. Ever the problem for the city planner, I guess.

I am absolutely not the person to review something like this but I can say that I had a good time with the demo and the full game is now on my Wishlist. I think that has a lot more to do with the strength of the Steamworld IP than this specific game but it's still an endorsement of sorts. I hope they pick a genre more to my taste for their next outing, though. 

The entire Steamworld back catalog is also heavily discounted right now, in case anyone wants to give it a go.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

You've Never Still Got Your Deccies Up? You Have! What Are You Like?!

When I exited the tutorial in Villagers and Heroes on Tuesday and arrived in the starting city, I was surprised, especially given its name - Summer Hollow - to find the Christmas event still in progress. There was a portal just off the town square leading to somewhere ominously labelled "Grinchta's Lair", through which I could just about make out some tinsel-decked firs and a flurry of snowflakes.

January 23rd certainly seemed late for celebrations. I was curious but also pushed for time so I took the risk that the event would last another day and moved on to other things. On Wednesday I tried to go back to take a look inside the Lair but found myself thwarted, not by the inevitable and overdue end of the season but by Steam refusing to run the game at all.

I spent a while searching for fixes and applying them. Apparently it's been an issue on and off for a few years although, judging by the comments I saw, not one most players have experienced, thankfully. None of the fixes had any effect and once again I didn't have time to keep fiddling with things so I put it off for yet another day.

I was fairly sure the problem had started with some of the graphic settings I'd changed while I was inside the game. It's a problem I've come across a few times in mmorpgs, when there's a conflict between the screen resolution the game's trying to set and the default demanded by whatever platform it's running on. Sometimes you can reset things from the launcher or by digging around in the preference files but in this case none of that was working so I went for the nuclear option of uninstalling and reinstalling the entire game.

One thing you have to say about Steam - it's fast. The estimated time for the 3GB download was eight minutes but it was all over in half that. I hit Play and this time everything worked perfectly. Resisting the temptation to change the graphic settings yet again, I left everything on default and headed over to see if the portal to Christmas was still up.

It was. It is. For how much longer I can't say but I can tell you it's been there since 14 December. That's forty-three days and counting. Six weeks! It may be the longest I can remember seeing for a holiday event. Someone call the Guinness guys. They seem very comfortable adjudicating on pop culture these days.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect inside the "lair". It might have been one room with a boss but it turned out to be a whole zone and not a small one, either. It has a frickin' mountain in the middle of it. It also has a massive range of towering peaks all around, looming in the middle distance, while the Northern Lights flicker eerily overhead. There are stands of fir trees, some of them surrounded by piles of presents and, of course, snow everywhere. 

There are paths leading in all directions, lit by brightly-colored lanterns. The whole thing looks jolly as hell. I wandered around for a bit, not sure what to do next. After a while I caught sight of someone wearing the traditional questgivers punctuation headgear so I jogged over to find out what he wanted.

He had a present he wanted me to give to his brother (Boy, don't get me started on how that turned out...) but before I could work out where he was I ran into a whole gang of elves, all just waiting to hand out tasks to passers-by, because naturally no-one can do anything for themselves in one of these places.

I introduced myself to each of them in turn, found out what they wanted and told them I'd do it. I won't, of course. Some of the quests are clearly flagged as requiring a group, others need crafting skills I don't have. Still, easier to grab the lot and do what I can than think about it.

There was a Kill Ten Rats that was actually a Kill Eleven Rangers and a "Find My Fairy" that I realise now I forgot to finish. I also picked up a bunch of stolen presents and killed umpteen guards and snowmen for crafting mats that are still going to be in my bags when the event ends - whenever that is.

After I'd knocked a few quests out I went back for the hand-ins and to see what I could buy with the two Christmas currencies I got as a reward. The event is specifically a Christmas one, by the way, not Winter or Snow or anything named after a local deity. I always find that a bit unsettling. It's best not to think about the implications.

A couple of reindeer handle the two sets of merchandise on offer for either Yuletide Joy or Yuletide Spirit. The goods on offer are quality; Epic gear as well as the usual holiday-themed costumes. The prices are on the hefty side but some of the quests are repeatable daily and with the event running this long, there's little to stop a dedicated, regular player getting everything they want.

There are also several bosses loitering around the lair and every so often their bosses turn out to challenge all-comers in an open raid. One of those kicked off while I was playing but unfortunately I was otherwise engaged at the time, busy getting repeatedly killed inside a lair-within-a-lair, the hideout of the evil wizard who'd fooled me into taking a bomb to his "brother". It's a long story. I won't go into it now.

In a nice touch I don't recall seeing in other games, the names of everyone involved in the two raids were broadcast to the zone. There were maybe twenty people in each. There were also plenty of other players running around the zone, doing the quests and checking the vendors. At lunchtime on a weekday in a holiday zone that's been running for six weeks, it seemed like a sign of robust health for the game although the Steam charts would tend to disagree. Maybe everyone from all platforms is on the same server after all?

However under-the-radar popular the game might or might not be, I am not about to claim I'm going to drop everything to start playing Villagers and Heroes full-time. As Josh Strife Hayes found out, V&H is broad but not deep. 

He says, "It feels like someone's made a paint by numbers MMO".  I think that's a bit harsh but then I think almost everything Josh says about games is a bit harsh, mainly because I think he has much higher expectations than I do. Also, like a lot of people, he seems to believe that "Good enough" doesn't mean exactly what it says, an interpretation that confuses me. Still, I don't think he's necessarily wrong, either. It was certainly my experience, last time I played, that I ran out of enthusiasm for Villagers and Heroes after a few sessions, largely because the game feels tiresomely flat after a while.

Nevertheless, if I was thinking about giving the game another run, this would certainly seem to be the time to do it. On the website there's a truly huge edition of The Ardent Ledger newsletter discussing, among many other things, what's on the agenda for 2023. There's plenty and some of it's big news: 

"The most exciting new feature to arrive in the early months of 2023 is the one you’ve all been waiting the longest for.  (Some of you have waited over a decade!)  Rumors and whispers of its impending approach have circulated for months.  Strange messages began appearing in-game.  Was it a bug, wondered baffled players who happened to click on their house doors and were told: “Your house is currently under renovation.”  No, it’s not a bug, and yes, the rumors are true: the single most requested feature by VH players of all time, that which the Otters gave you brief glimpses of in long ago livestreams and tantalized you with images of its creation process, is at last soon to be a reality: interior housing and the ability to customize your own homes is coming to Villagers & Heroes in early 2023! "

Villagers and Heroes has always been odd in that you get a house but you can't go inside. You can grow crops and keep animals in the garden but that's all. Until now. Housing you can decorate always scores highly on my favorite feature list so this automatically raises my interest several notches. Enough to check it out when it arrives, for sure.

Until then, I imagine I'll probably find some more flavorsome game to occupy my time, although I do want to go back and find that runaway fairy. I wonder if the Christmas event will still be running if I log in tomorrow?

Only one way to find out.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Oh, I Remember This One! Well, Sort Of...

Spring is supposed to be the time for having a clear-out, isn't it? When it comes to house and garden I'm no bucker of that trend but it's the very beginning of the year that often finds me sorting through my virtual cupboards, searching for things I'm sure I remember enjoying, once. I blame all those end-of-year round-ups for sowing the seeds of doubt, making me feel there might be something, somewhere, I might have overlooked; that I could be having even more fun if only I made a little more effort.

Honestly, it's probably for the better most of these things stay locked away in the past, dimly remembered, safe in their rose-tinted, nostalgic haze. Does anyone really need to revisit a game they haven't played since the Obama administration, just because a desktop icon happened to catch the eye for the first time in years? If you find a forgotten .exe while cleaning up your hard drive, instead of sending it straight to the recycling bin, should you really decide instead to find out whether the game is still running?

Nope. Pretty sure not but does that stop anyone? I doubt it. Certainly never stops me.

As recorded, I've already patched up and logged into Final Fantasy XIV again, a game I never had, or most likely will have, any intention of playing in anything but the most casual of fashions. I've also expressed a desire to revisit Elder Scrolls Online, a game I've never been felt than lukewarm about at best. It can only be a matter of days before that, too, gets updated, posted about and forgotten. Until next time.

I'd be fooling myself if I didn't admit that half the attraction is the possibility of finding something fresh to write about, even if what passes for fresh in this context is nothing more than rehashed leftovers, a description that applies equally to both the games themselves and whatever it is I find to say about them. If I ever had anything of substance to recount concerning FFXIV or ESO, you can be certain I exhausted those insights years ago, but don't think that'll stop me trying again.

It's perhaps one thing to return to a well-known, popular mmorpg, looking to find out if and how it's changed before reporting back with the perspective of distance. By definition, people play popular games. Someone might be interested. Re-visiting titles that few knew or cared about the first time I wrote about them with any expectation that they'll draw more interest now they're older and even less well-known would seem to be the very definition of a futile waste of everyone's time. 

All the more reason to do it, then! It's with that attitude in mind I give you my second (Or is it third by now?) First Impressions of Villagers and Heroes! 

In case anyone's forgotten (Form an orderly line...) V&H is the game originally known as A Mystical Land. The creation of the marvelously named Mad Otter Games, AML originally appeared in 2011, when it was playable in a web browser and boasted "full Facebook integration". It changed its name to Villagers and Heroes in... well, I don't know exactly when, but before November 2013, which is when I posted about the game, observing with a touch of sarcasm "At some point in the recent past Mad Otter, the company behind A Mystical Land, must have decided having the blandest name in MMOdom did them no favors in the 'getting attention' stakes so they changed it to Villagers and Heroes, which frankly isn't that much of a zinger either."

Name aside, the game must have something going for it. It's still here a dozen years later and judging by the new characters running through the tutorial and starting zone alongside me an hour ago, it's still getting that attention, somehow.

Being on Steam has to help. When I had the notion to take another glance at the game this afernoon it was purely because I was going through the icons on my desktop, tidying them up, when I spotted one for "A Mystical Land". Had it been there since the game was actually called that? Surely not...

However the it got there, seeing the name again made me curious to know if the game was still running. I clicked on the little picture of a shield to see if anything would happen.

The launcher still worked but it couldn't find a connection to the server. I went into the folder and found two other options, neither of which could find a connection either, but somewhere in the nest of failure screens that appeared while they tried I spotted a mention of Steam. Surprised to find the game might be available through that platform I checked and sure enough, there it was

From there it was a simple 3GB download and I there I was, back at character creation. Playing through Steam meant starting over but it seemed like a small price to pay for the convenience, not to mention I'd made precious little progress the last time I played. It wasn't as though I had a lot to lose.

I'm very glad I did re-roll. Had I been able to recover my dormant character, I'd not have had the pleasure of what surely must be one of the most impressive character creation processes in all mmorpgs. It really deserves a whole post of its own but to save trying everyone's patience I'll try to shoehorn it in here.

Firstly, the character creation screens look gorgeous. Significantly more impressive, it has to be said, than the game itself, even though V&H looks reasonably attractive for its vintage. Character creation, though, employs a highly successful storybook design that marries clarity with subtlety in delightful fashion. It doesn't look dated at all.

Better yet, it feels great to use. Not only is the whole process of making a characer tactile and intuitive, it's imaginative and evocative as well. As you proceed, you make choices from lists that combine to define not just the usual gender, class, appearance and skills but also the emotional timbre and cultural background of the character. You even get to pick the style of house you'll live in.

There's a lot of choice and much of it appears to be meaningful, although to what extent, if any, it affects gameplay is unclear. Taking apparently detrimental personality traits like "Shy" or "Fearful" does feel like a risk without that knowledge. 

Then there are the regional or ethnic bonuses. There are half a dozen or so heritages to choose from and each comes with its own set of traits, something I didn't realise until I'd picked mine. At that point I could still have gone back, checked all of them and chosen again, but on the grounds I'd probably never play enough for a mistake at character creation to matter, I pressed on.

As you make your various choices, a detailed narrative appears. It's well-written and lengthy enough to scroll right off the screen by the time you're done. There's also a quality voiceover to keep you amused as you consider your options. All told, it's a very impressive introduction.

I ended up with a "cool, laidback hunter" from the heavily forested province of Greenhaven. She has an affinity for finding plants and bugs and she's handy with a saw and a chisel. It's probably the most detailed resume any character of mine has had since the launch of Guild Wars 2, another game that attempts to send you into its world with a fully fleshed-out backstory, whether you wanted one or not.

Based on my thousands of hours in GW2, the chances of any characters I play ever conforming to the narrative prepared for them by someone else are negligible but I appreciate the effort. It makes me want to go back and create a bunch more characters just to see how they turn out.

Once I knew who I was, it was into the game itself and quickly through a very brief tutorial that I don't remember seeing before. It's a fairly traditional checklist of some usual rpg tropes although I have to say it is unusual for the very first task you're given to be catching a minnow. I know we all like a bit of fishing in our mmorpgs but that seems a tad outré.

As it happens, it also seems more than a tad irrelevant because I got attacked before I even reached the river and things moved on apace from there. I never caught my minnow and no-one seemed to care.

The tutorial also appears to be atypical in that it features some moderately amusing dialog and charming voice acting. Also in that you can die before you get to the end of it. I didn't but the player in front of me did. I watched him drop. Stood well back while it was happening, too!

The final, boss-like fight that finished him off is peculiarly challenging for a tutorial. I was forewarned by having watched the other guy fail so I was ready to kite the Ghost of Mallok all around the harbor, plunking him with poison arrows and waiting for his hefty health pool to tick down. Even so, it was a damn close thing. I was on about 3% health when he finally gave up the ghost. So to speak.

With him out of the way it was on to the boat that takes you to the game proper, at which point I found myself on familiar ground once again. Since I've written about that before and it doesn't seem to have changed all that much, I'll finish there for now.

Whether I post about the game again remains to be seen but I will say that Villagers and Heroes is another cross-platform game, meaning I could in theory play it on this mythical armchair gaming device I still don't own. Then again, even if, as the website boasts, " Crossplay is seamless between mobile and PC! Unlike other crossplay games." (Their emphasis.) I don't imagine the Android or iOS versions allow crossplay with Steam's walled garden. There's a standalone PC client. I bet you'd need to use that, which would presumably also allow me to retrieve my old account and character.

I guess I'd better not make too much progress on Steam just in case...

Monday, January 23, 2023

Twelve Years In A Rubber Suit

Even as I was compiling that list of mmorpgs I remembered playing in 2022, I was aware there had to be some I'd forgotten. One that seems embarrassingly obvious in retrospect is DC Universe Online.

I've been "playing" DCUO since beta. It's set in my lifelong spiritual homeland, the DC Comics metaverse, and I'm eligible to play as a "Member" thanks to the game's inclusion in Daybreak's All Access pass, an excellent offer to which I subscribe annually, mainly for EverQuest II.

I put "playing" in quoatation marks because all I ever really do in DCUO is log in to grab the  giveaways that catch my eye, something that happens several times a year. I'm mostly interested in decorating my base, which is coming along quite nicely, thanks for asking. DCUO probably isn't the first game you'd think of when it comes to housing but it's probably my second-favorite after EQII these days.

After I've picked up any new posters, furnishings and house pets, I generally take a look at the current Episode, as the regular content drops are known. Featuring familiar locations, characters and plotlines from the extended DC Universe, these often tie in with whatever movie is in the cinemas at the moment. I'm not sure if they ever follow developments in the actual comics, which increasingly seem to be there purely for the purpose of providing a foundation for expansion into just about every other medium imaginable.

That's a whole other post, though. For now, let's stick to what happens when I log into the game.

To an extent, coming back to DCUO every few months is like dropping back into any mmorpg. There's always some patching as the client catches up, followed by a flurry of pop-ups and notifications when you log in to the game itself. 

Compared to some, DCUO is really quite tidy and well-organised when it comes to catching you up on what's been happening since you last dropped by. There are usually some big, banner headlines about the current Episode and any Holiday or, in this case, Anniversary content that happens to be running. You're offered a choice: jump straight into the action or save it for later. 

Once you've made your decision, everything you didn't pick remains available from a neat sub-menu, accessible by pressing F1. A smallish icon in the shape of a wrapped gift sits on screen, reminding you not to miss out but as soon as you press it once, it goes away, trusting you to manage your own affairs from then on.

This morning, when I hit F1, I was faced with the choice of either claiming my "Granted" items or collecting Doctor Fate's Daily Rewards. I can't say I recognized the screen that appeared when I selected the latter. I can't honestly remember if DCUO even had daily login rewards last time I played. Maybe the entire system is new.

This, of course, is something that happens every time I log in to any mmorpg after a few months (Or years...) away. It's not just the new stuff that confounds expectations - it's the not-so-new stuff I've forgotten since the last time I was there.

Naturally, my first inclination is to claim absolutely anything on offer. I'm all about the free stuff. Unfortunately, in most games, a hoarding habit leads to inventory issues that are only made worse by this kind of wantonly acquisitive behavior. It was no surprise at all today, when I hit the buffers on storage before I'd hoovered up all the freebies on offer.

That led to the typical secondary behavior of checking everything in my bags, finding a vendor, selling a few things to make space, opening everything that could be opened, equipping any upgrades that fell out, selling everything that didn't seem like it was going to be needed and destroying whatever could neither be sold nor used. After that I was able to go through the "Granted" list and refill my bags from the freebie pile, before repeating the above sequence with a whole new set of boxes.

One of the reasons I prefer DCUO's housing items to any other kind of handout in the game is that they're comparatively simple to process. Not absolutely simple because DCUO's decoration system lies somewhat towards the technical end of the spectrum, requiring multiple steps and the use of in-house devices just to hang a picture on the wall. Still, compared to the actual gear, weaponry and ancillary combat support paraphenalia, placing a poster or adding a light fitting seems a lot more manageable.

In this session, for example, I received Batman as an Ally. The Ally system was added relatively recently and I have no clear understanding as yet of how it works. 

Batman comes with a list of features and abilities so long it requires a separate command to scroll through all of them. I'm sure he's a great asset in a fight. In the comics, somehow he always manages to be useful, even though he has no actual superpowers and would, you might think, very quickly be reduced to a bloodstained smear by even a run-of-the-mill alien invasion.

For now (And most likely for ever.) I settled for recording his availability by "Collecting" him. There's a lot of "collecting" in DCUO, where the term covers both actual collections of objects and data found in the world and the adding of styles, appearances and, as in this case, allies to your hero's repertoire.

With the acquisition stage out of the way, what I tend to do next is visit the starting area of the current Episode, where the feature character and a selection of their team-mates, amanuenses, acquaintances and professional nosey-parkers stand around wearing exclamation points for hats. The idea is to scoop up all the missions then run around the dedicated instance, ticking off tasks until everyone's satisfied. That gives you currency to spend at the Episode vendors - or something. 

I'm not really clear what it gives you, if I'm honest, because I rarely if ever get to the end of an Episode. By the time I've been playing for an hour or so I usually find I've had about as much DCUO as I can take in one bite. Despite being very well-documented and approachable, it can still be a little overwhelming, a trait it shares with just about every mmorpg ever made.

I imagine it's a boon to the regulars but for a returning player, the overlap between events can also prove daunting. As well as the current episode, featuring the new-to-me Black Adam, who just happens to have a movie out right now but whose previous existence in the extended universe had otherwise somehow managed to pass me by, DCUO is celebrating it's twelfth anniversary

I'm not sure if it says anything about the resources available at Dimensional Ink or just points to the understandable ennui that accompanies all but the most significant of birthdays after a certain age, but the event for the Twelfth is a repeat of the Anti-Monitor event from previous years. Actually, for all I know, that's the annivesary event every year. I mean, it's not like I was at any of them... oh, wait a moment...

There are, naturally, new rewards even if the content is old. One of the most notable is a free character advance to Combat Rating 333. To unpack the jargon there, it's a bump-up of any one character of your choice to the current minimum entry requirement for end-game content. Everyone gets this, free players too, and it's available to claim until the end of January, so if you've ever played the game or think you might like to try it, don't hang about. You do need a Level 10 character to qualify but you can get to ten in an hour or so, so don't let that put you off.

If you do miss the skip bus, don't worry; there'll be another along in a while. As you can see from the screenshot, this would appear to be at least the fifth such Advance I've claimed and I think it's more than that because I have a couple of characters who seem to be a lot higher level and CR than I remember putting in the time to achieve.

I haven't yet decided who to use my boost on. Chances are, by the time I make up my mind, CR333 won't be the tipping point any more, anyway. Not that it matters. It's not like I'm ever going to do current content outside of the easy-mode, all-levels episode instances and the open-world holiday boss zergs. Mostly I won't even manage those. I ran out of steam today before I'd even started any of the half-dozen missions Black Adam and his gnag had handed me.

But of course I'll be back. I always am. Twelve years and counting. DCUO is never going to be my main mmorpg or even my significant other but I'd bet I'll be picking up my comic-book cover posters and hanging them in my base until either the game ends or I do. And based on current trends in live service gaming, the smart money has to be on the game.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Can't Leave It Alone, Can You?

I said I would, so I am. Or I will be. It's taking a while. Four hours, apparently, although it's speeded up some since I took the screenshot.

Square's infamously archaic front end gives the strangest first impression, doesn't it? I mean, I realise it's nothing compared to the PlayOnline version FFXI still uses but still...

Even as I typed that, I wondered if it was even true any more. It has to be fifteen years since I last logged into FFXI. Maybe longer. So I typed "PlayOnline" into Google and I'm pleased to say it looks a little less terrifying, albeit much the same as I remember. 

There's a Free Trial, too. I was curious, so I clicked. This is what I got:

Well, that's encouraging. I'm sure it's all perfectly fine, though...

Not that I want to play FFXI, which I remember as being one of the most ferociously solo-unfriendly mmorpgs imaginable, but I was kind of curious to try it with a controller, now I have one. It was the insane PC controls that put me off last time. Apart from that, I quite liked it. Oh, well, maybe later.

While I'm on the subject, how come you can play the base game and first expansion of FFXIV absolutely free but the ancient and allegedly "in maintenance mode" FFXI still requires a subscription? Is it intended to dissuade people from playing the older game in favor of the newer, in which case, why have a free trial at all? (Yes, I found a link to that page that doesn't kick off a securty alert.)

Arguably odder yet is the exact nature of the "free" version of FFXIV, which as this detailed breakdown explains, is also, technically a "Free Trial" not, as it would first appear, a F2P offer with level limits and restrictions, such as you see in other games like EverQuest, EverQuest II or Star Wars: the Old Republic

That's if the information in the article is up to date. It's from 2021 so it may not be. The reason I linked it first, rather than the official web page, is that nothing on Square's site clearly explains that once you convert your "Trial" account, not only do you have to start paying a subscription, which obviously makes sense, but that you can never go back to playing that same account without one. You'll never see your characters again unless you pay up each month, which these days feels almost immoral.

It's why I can play FFXIV on an account I made after the Free Trial was added but can't use the same offer to log in my older characters on my original account. It's also why I will never be able to subscribe to FFXIV for the odd month here and there, as I have done for World of Warcraft and SW:tOR, which does seem an awful lot like that "leaving money on the table" thing companies are supposed to hate. 

I guess Square don't care. After all, they've had a lot more problems of late with too many people wanting to play their flagship title than too few. They really don't need to offer any concessions to bring in the business.

It's no fur off my tail. There's absolutely no chance I'll ever get a character far enough up the level ladder for the restrictions to matter and in any case there are orders of magnitude more content in the free trial than I'll ever see. 

Or want to. Yesterday, Asmiroth at Leo's Life posted a detailed precis of all the things there are to do in the game and it sent a chill through my veins. It doesn't sound so much like a leisure activity as it does a life choice. 

Then again, you could say the same about most mmorpgs. Best taken in small doses, all of them, that's my feeling these days. That's how I intend to take FFXIV, if and when it finally sets itself up, which as I type, should be right around... now!

Let's go see if it works.

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