Friday, July 19, 2024

Throne And Liberty: First Impressions (Intro and Tutorial)

Another day, another game. Will it never end?

Today's entry in the Big Summer Game Lottery is the long, long awaited Throne and Liberty, the latest spin-off from the Lineage universe, published in the West by Amazon and available for free through Steam

The game went into open beta yesterday at six in the evening. Where I live, that is. It was a global launch so it went Live at the same time where you live but your clock said something different. Unless you also live where I live, of course. Are you in my house? You better not be! 

I was eating quiche and watching Pointless at the time (If you ever needed proof of my lack of machismo, which I very much doubt, well there you go.) so I missed the very start but I was in and making my character by seven o' clock.

Steam tells me I played for eighty-five minutes. I'd guess about fifteen of those went on making the character. Could easily have been the whole hour and twenty five and might well have been, had this been an actual launch. For a beta test lasting five days, though, I think even fifteen minutes fiddling with sliders to get the eyebrows just right is probably too much. 

Where's the slider for Windswept?

Here's an idea for a blog. Or a YouTube channel. Or maybe a TikTok... what do they call it on TikTok? A series where you go into character creation in various games and make the same character every time - or try to. Has anyone done that yet? If not, I call dibs.

This time around I actually tried not to make exactly the same character I always make. As you can see from the screenshots, I didn't entirely succeed although I can see the differences. There is a problem with drifting too far from the familiar when creating a character, though, which is that if I make a character that doesn't feel familiar enough, I don't want to play them. 

In this case, I managed to come up with one who felt a little different - more hard-edged around the jaw-line, a little stubborn perhaps - but close enough to what I generally run with that I wouldn't feel uncomfortable playing her. I was particularly pleased with the hairstyle, the kind of fly-away, gamine-inflected, androgynous look you might have seen on the rhythm guitarist in a New Romantic band circa 1984.

Seperated at birth.

And then I played through the tutorial and found I'd basically made the first NPC you meet in the game. Honestly, it was freakishly disturbing how similar they were. They could be sisters, if they were the kind of unnerving siblings who choose to dress alike and do their hair and make-up in the same way.

And of course, my character's "sister" turns out to be the younger, better-looking one. Because of course she does. Oh well. At least I'll know better when the game goes Live in September. Always assuming I'll still be interested in playing it by then.

Finding out whether that's going to happen is kind of the point of joining in on the open beta. I'd say it would generally take more than an hour and a half to decide if I was likely to carry on with the game, although there have been plenty of times where I've made my choice in more like a minute and a half. In the case of Throne and liberty, though, eighty-five minutes has told me pretty much nothing.

You look strangely familiar, old man. Have we met before?

There are two reasons for that. Firstly, the huge majority of time not spent in character creation was taken up with watching melodramatic cut scenes or following an extremely on-rails, narrative-driven tutorial. I know it's pointless to complain about how unoriginal and formulaic these things are and certainly Throne and Liberty doesn't do the whole "introduce the mechanics and set the scene" thing any worse than the rest but coming off the back of one of the better introductions to a game I've seen in quite a while in Once Human, it really did feel like "Oh god, here we go again".

It was interesting to have full cursor control and a clickable hot-bar for a change. The main problem was the hot-bar coming pre-loaded with icons that meant nothing at all. 

Even that might not have been too bad if there'd been some breathing space to go through them all to find out what they did but no chance of that. It's all Go! Go! Go! with people yelling at you about how urgent it all is and things trying to kill you all the time and finally a big boss fight that naturally turns out to be scripted so you lose anyway, at which point you realize there was no hurry and you could have taken your time but now it's too late because the fighting's over and what your hot keys do doesn't matter any more.

At least I didn't have any trouble following the instructions or the plot. Translation at this early stage seems fine, if no better than that, as does the voice acting, although it doesn't give me confidence when the voiceover and the text don't match in the very first cut scene. Either we're Starborn or we're Star Children. Make your mind up!

Every F2P needs a few whales.

Visually, the developers have pulled a clever trick in the introductory sequence, which I'm about to spoil. All the action for a quite a while takes place in a horrible, ugly, red and black hellscape that looks like it was inspired by heavy-metal album covers from the 1980s. It was starting to get on my nerves when everything took a sudden and unexpected turn as my character emerged from the underworld into a vast, open landscape filled with light and color. 

It's a great set-piece moment. There's even a fricken' sky whale taking up most of the field of view. We've moved from Iron Maiden to Magnum with the Rodney Matthews covers. (Is that helping you to picture the scene? No, I thought not.)

From then on the game looks great. I could see a world I was definitely interested in exploring. If only I get there. Which I could not.

The tutorial, as far as I got, takes place in a single-player instance. After about three-quarters of an hour in there, I finally got to the point where it looked as though I was going to be sent into the gameworld proper, the shared space that makes the whole thing an MMORPG. 

This is Helpie. And here was I, thinking post-modernism was dead...

I was standing on top of a cliff with the endearingly geeky NPC my ersatz sister hand had handed me on to a while back, when he asked me to pet his familar on the head. Apparently that was going to make me glide like never before. I'm guessing it's a line that works for him...

It sure didn't work for me. I tried half a dozen times. Mostly the game just hung and then disconnected. Eventually, the cut scene started and I got to see my character throw herself off the cliff and rise up, flying like a superhero with her arms stretched out ahead of her until...

Nothing. Literally nothing. A blank, grey screen. I know there ought to have been more to look at because the voiceover carried on talking, describing things that weren't there. Then, after a minute or two, the server lost conection and dumped me back at login. 

Skip this amazing scene? I don't think so!

I tried once more but the next time I didn't even get off the cliff so I gave up. I'm assuming the servers for the multiplayer part of the game were under such load they'd stopped letting anyone else join. I'd picked one on the US East Coast but my ping had been excellent throughout the instanced part so I'm confident it wasn't anything at my end. 

By then it was time to take Beryl out for her evening walk and when I got back I wanted to play Once Human so that was it for the Throne and Liberty beta for the night. I'll try again today, when everyone's had time to get further into the game and when most of the Americas are still either asleep or at work. 

I feel I owe it to the game to get as far as the starting city, at least. That said, I'm really not feeling the need for yet another MMORPG right now. Maybe by late September, when T&L goes live, I'll be interested. Or maybe when I get into the actual game as opposed to the solo, instanced tutorial, I'll get invested and start counting the days until I can play the game for real. 

Kinda doubting it just now but we'll see...

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Be Careful What You Wish For: Gacha Mechanics In Once Human

It's been a while since I last found myself playing a new game that others in this part of the blogosphere were also playing - and writing about. I'm going to have rate the experience "Mixed", as Steam would have it. On the one hand, it's great to read other peoples' takes on the gameplay, the story and the setting but things can get way too spoilerific for my taste, even just in screenshots.

Every time someone posts about Once Human I'm torn between wanting to know what they think about the stuff I've already seen and not wanting to know what they've found that I don't know about yet. I haven't even opened Heartless Gamer's post on Once Human Surprises because I know he's much further into the storyline than I am and I'm scared of what I might learn. 

Ditto Scopique, who I'm sure has also progressed much faster through the storyline than me. Also the title of his latest post on the game - Once Human, Twice Shy, makes me think he's going to tear it apart and I don't really want the negativity. (Apologies to Scopique if that's a misinterpretation but titles are there to do a job and that's the job that one did on me. Great title, though.)

I did read Azuriel's Impressions post because I figured - it's a first impressions post! How spoilery could it be? Well, quite spoilery as it turns out, although in an interesting and useful way.


In the post Azuriel compares the game to the Fallout series, specifically Fallout 76, an impression shared by Nimgimli in a comment here. As I've said, I've never really gotten on with the Fallout games for a variety of aesthetic, conceptual and gameplay reasons but the similarity is fairly apparent just from what I've read. 

That didn't surprise me but something Azuriel said in a reply to a comment I made did. He referred to a "gacha arcade game" within Once Human, which I initially misread as a description of Once human itself but by which he was actually referring to the Wish Machine, something I'd encountered in beta but completely forgotten.

I thought I'd posted something about the Wish Machine back then but if I did I can't find it now. Just a picture in the Mid-Beta Review to prove I knew about it. From memory, at that time the machine was just a fun mini-game that gave trivial rewards. I seem to recall trying it a couple of times then not bothering any more.


From things I've read since, it appears the functionality changed in later testing until we get to the current Live situation, where the Wish Machine becomes a very important tool of progression. As Azuriel puts it "the Wish machine unlocks gun blueprints that are absolutely stronger than I have access to currently."

It certainly does and a lot more, too. It unlocks Legendary weapons and Armor sets. The machine is very clearly not a toy any more. Is it a gacha game, though?

Hell yes! It is precisely what Azuriel said it was: a gacha arcade game. I'm so used to hearing the term "gacha game" used to describe a specific genre of online video games, largely popularized in the West by the enormous success of Genshin Impact, that I didn't realize he was being entirely literal.

For the one or two people reading this who might not know (Actually, I did know and could swear I'd written about it already...) but had forgotten, the term "gacha", as used in online gaming, is a loan-word borrowed from Japanese, where it refers to those machines you often see outside supermarkets, (Where I live, at least.) that dispense small toys randomly when you insert a coin and turn a handle.


Apparently you can also get arcade versions, where you play a simple game and the same thing happens, although I have to say I'm finding that surprisingly hard to verify. None of the photos or descriptions I've found shows toys being delivered by those kinds of devices.

That's exactly what the Wish Machine is like though. It's a Whack-A-Mole game in a classic arcade cabinet that you can get through a quest in Deadsville or simply craft by spending the necessary mimetics to open the option on the tree. I made mine last night and almost immediately, in fact possibly as a direct result, also received the quest, the main purpose of which appears to be to give some lore-related context to the whole thing.

The Wish Machine in the quest is a Deviant by the name of Mr. Wish, who turns up outside Deadsville and freaks out the guards. As the local Mayfly, a status extraordinarily similar to being one of the A-Team, namely an itinerant do-gooder recognized by those in the know and called upon to fix pretty much any local problem, naturally the guards want you to go talk to the thing because, yes, it can talk...

I quite like the lore element although like most things in the game (And indeed most lore in most games...) it's hand-waving nonsense. There's a lot of stuff about Space and Time but in the end it comes down to loot, just like always.

And it's good loot, too. I'm not up to speed with all the color-coded qualities in Once Human but I've played more than enough games to know Purple is always good and Orange is usually even better. There are lots of purple and orange items you can win and that ought to be encouragement enough for anyone to drop some coins and pull the handle.

At this point I ought to make it quite clear that no actual money is changing hands here - or at least not necessarily. This might be a gacha machine but Once human is not a gacha game per se. The Wish machine takes an in-game currency called Starchrom and there are numerous ways to get some. I'd list them all but GameRant already did an exemplary job of that, along with a very clear description of how to spend it in the Wish Machine, so I'm just going to link to their excellent guide.

As they explain, if you have the patience of a five-year old and the disposable income of a trust fund brat you can just pony up for the inevitable Battle Pass, which comes with a Starchrom stipend. Otherwise, just play the game and the necessary coins will rain down. I didn't even know what they were for and I certainly didn't go looking for them and yet, by the time I made my Wish Machine, I already had over three thousand of the damn things.

After my first pull I had a thousand fewer. Not because it's a thousand a pull (I think it's 500 but I got a 90% discount for my first ten pulls. Or something) but because I had no clue what I was doing so I just picked what looked like the most obvious buttons to press and that's what it cost. I've read several guides since and frankly I still don't really understand the intricacies but the gist is spend Starchrom, get blueprints, get more Starchrom, repeat.

First time out, I got a Purple rifle (In more ways than one.) along with a bunch of lesser items. Then I went off to do something else, ran into a world event, had a couple of people join me, beat it and ended up with more Starchrom than I started with - so I immediately went and had another go.

If I had the patience I was taking other people to task for not having earlier, I'd stop playing the gacha game and just save my Starchrom for the things I really want. Always assuming I had any idea what those might be. That's because, if you prefer, you can opt right out of the gacha part and just buy what you want straight from the machine.

The Wish Machine is really just a gacha skin for a game system much more familiar to Western players: a Token shop. The Blueprint Store, accessible from the Wish Machine, contains all the same items you can win, at prices that, while fairly steep, are by no means unaffordable, especially given you don't have to waste any currency on things you neither need nor want. 

I have to say that for me rolling the dice and seeing what comes up is usually more fun than just buying stuff from a storefront, something I remember first seeing introduced in Dark Age of Camelot, much to my displeasure at the time. I'm a long-standing supporter of most kinds of randomized loot systems provided they only require in-game resources and getting to hit things with a mallet while I'm spinning the wheel just adds to the entertainment. Still, it's always nice to know you have the choice.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Just Because I Have Nothing To Say About The Throne And Liberty Open Beta Doesn't Mean I'm Not Going To Say It Anyway...


So, here's everything I really know about Throne and Liberty...





Yeah. That much.

What I do know is that there's an open beta. It starts today, about an hour and a half from now, as I write. That's 18.00 London time. No, wait, make that a day and an hour and a half. It starts on Thursday, even if some online sources say Wednesday.

As I keep saying, this is turning out to be just about the busiest gaming summer I can remember. I'm not at all sure I'd have bothered with this one if it weren't for two things:

  1. It's a mid-week start
  2. It's on Steam

The first is very unusual. Since I went to working just two days a week, one of which is always Sunday and the other every other Saturday, just about every short-term alpha, beta, sneak peek or pop-up test has been largely inaccessible to me. 

Companies seem to like starting these things on a Friday afternoon and finishing them around midnight on Sunday, which means I'm lucky if I can fit in a couple of short sessions. This one is a full five days and I'm only working for one of them, so it seems almost rude to miss it.

The second is a lot more common but always makes a big difference. All I had to do was open the store page in Steam, press the "Request Access" button, which granted me permission instantly, then let Steam download and install the client. That lack of faff makes me willing to try out games I otherwise wouldn't bother with. It's not hard to see why everyone wants to get their game on Steam.


That said, I do find the relationship between Amazon and Steam somewhat odd. New World and Lost Ark are both "Amazon Games" in a manner of speaking, one being developed by the internet giant, the other being published by them. Throne and Liberty is the next big Amazon game (They hope...). 

As far as I can tell, all of them are on only available on PC via Steam. Given that Amazon has its own gaming portal, runs a proprietary cloud gaming platform and has one of the biggest server rental businesses in the world, it seems a bit strange that they don't want to host their games themselves.

I'm  not complaining, although a quick google search shows some people are. I'm a Steam convert now, with all the annoying intensity that implies. Increasingly, if it's not on Steam I'm not sure I'm interested.

I certainly wouldn't be interested in a 50GB download for a five-day beta if I didn't know I could clear the unwanted husk of the client off my hard drive with a single click when it's all over. Steam does make it exceptionally easy to add and remove games. I just pressed the button and let it all happen automatically while I played Once Human

When it was ready I tried to log in, just in case they'd done something clever like pre-enable character creation but no such luck. I was able to do a couple of basic things like calibrate the monitor, something I've never known to make a noticeable difference. I miss the good old in-game gamma sliders that actually worked.


One thing I hadn't come across before was the option to have the whole game "Voice Guided". That seems like a really excellent innovation although I'm not entirely convinced "hard of seeing" is the accepted terminology. I was tempted to leave it on to see how effective it was but I thought I'd probably better concentrate on the game itself rather than its accessibility credentials, at least at first.

The other notable choice I was able to make was between action combat and "a classic control mode with separated character and camera controls". I think that means what has come to be known as "WoW Style" but we'll see. 

I picked that one but as I was saying the other day in a comment somewhere, I'm starting to think that I've been boiled in the Action Combat pot long enough now to feel more comfortable with that style than with tab target and hot keys. I know I keep trying to dodge and roll in older games that don't allow it and it makes me mad when I can't... 

The two modes are hot-swappable anyway so it's not like it's a big decision.

Other than that, as I said, I know nothing. Oh, except that it has something to do with Lineage. But then I know nothing about Lineage either. 

Still, I managed to come up with several hundred words about it, somehow, and I haven't even logged in yet. I could wait until the doors open then play for a while so I'd have something of substance to offer but then I'd have to log out and write the damn post and that would kind of defeat the object.

I think I'll leave it here for now but no doubt I'll be back with some First Impressions in a day or two. 

Bet you can't wait.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Anyone Have A Really Big Can Of Tuna?

Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised, what with all my talk about the busy summer of gaming ahead. Now it's here and I find myself with more to play than I have time for and no time at all to blog about it. Maybe not ideal with Blaugust coming up...

For example, I have about a gazillion things I want to say about Once Human, some of which I don't even think I've said already, but it would take hours to write them all up in the kind of detail they deserve and I'd really much rather just play the damn game. Which is just what I have been doing, to the extent of fifteen hours so far.

Full disclosure: at least half of that has been spent working on my beach house and most of the rest was foraging materials to build it. I have done a goodly amount of fighting along the way but only because pesky mobs keep jumping me when I'm exploring abandoned factories and shopping malls in search of plastic, beryllium crystals and the like.

I have at least managed to get far enough through the story to kill the first instanced boss, the Ravenous Hunter. I've done that fight at least four times since the first beta I was in and I'm happy to report it's much easier than it was at the begining. 


One of the unfortunate - or possibly fortunate, I'm not quite sure - side-effects of having done most of the early content in beta is that I know where everything is already so half the time I've been getting quests telling me to go explore places I've just come from. Luckily, the game is excellent at giving you credit when you do stuff out of sequence so it all works out the same in the end.

What I probably ought to be doing, if I was going to play the game properly, is concentrating on the current Season and the Scenario in progress, along with all the many attendant Events. There was a lttle of that in the betas I was in but now the game is Live there's one holy hell of a lot going on, way more than I can follow. We're already on Phase Two and I don't think I intentionally touched Phase One.

Once again, luckily for me, a fair bit of it seems to be filling itself in as I potter around doing whatever takes my fancy so I'm not entirely missing out. At some point, if and when I figure out how the whole thing works, I might try and write something about it but for now I'm quite happy to just let it all wash over me like weather.


One thing I can confirm is the number of people currently playing. When I logged in this morning there was an in-game mail waiting for me with some rewards attached in celebration of Once Human hitting a high-water mark of 300,000 players all logged in at the same time. The Steam charts show a Peak Concurrency of just over 231k so they would seem to have the bulk of the trade so far.

As I mentioned last time, there may be a lot of people playing but I hardly see any of them. It's weird. I definitely saw far more people running around in beta. I think that must be why I was able to snag the really excellent spot I picked to build my house. 

It's not just by the sea, it's on the beach. I've been spending most of my Memetics on building and crafting and yesterday I unlocked the one that gives you a much bigger plot of land so now I own most of the beachfront. I even have the tables, chairs and umbrellas that were already there, which add a lovely holiday touch to the property.


Building in Once Human is top class although getting parts to snap together can be a tad fiddly sometimes. It always works in the end but it can be frustrating in the moment. Still, that's part of the fun of these things, I always think. It gives you that spurious sense of achievement, when you get the parts to fit. Something you'd never have it all went perfectly every time.

I had to extend my home significantly because I have guests. Quite a few of them now. 

In beta, I never paid much attention to the Pet Collecting mini-game. I knew it was there but it didn't seem to have anything like the breadth and depth it does now. I do wonder if the incredible success of Palworld might not have something to do with the way it's grown. 

Whether that was the inspiration or not, I have to say I like Once Human's interpretation of the theme much better. It's simpler, more elegant and aesthetically much more stylish.

I had to build a whole wing onto my house just to find room for the containment facilities to hold the Deviations I'd collected. I have seven already. I had to spend a Memetic on increasing the number of display cases I could place from five to ten just to give them all somewhere to live. I suspect it won't be too long before I have to expand again. I think the maximum is twenty.

Among my collection I have several Deviations that can help me in combat, none of which I've used. At Level Ten I'm still happily slicing things up with the machete I got in the introduction. I wore it out and had to repair it. I don't believe you can craft another and I like it better than the baseball bat so it's just as well it can be fixed.

The time may come when I'm grateful to have a little buddy alongside me in a fight but for the moment I'm more interested in the ones that help around the house. 

There's one really useful one that absolutely everybody seems to have, a
Minecraftesque homunculus known as the Digby Boy. He trots about in the area around my house, bashing rocks with his tiny pick. Somehow he manages to get copper and tin out of them in considerable quantities. I've hardly had to go mining since I got him. Another, the Disco Ball, makes potions that extend the duration of Whims, which I'm sure will come in handy if I ever I get any.

My favorite so far, though, is the Extradimensional Cat, a cat the size of a carthorse, who wanders around your home being generally cute and cat-like, if also somewhat terrifying. You can pet him and pick him up and move him about but the best part comes when you go to sleep in your bed, something you need to do periodically for practical reasons. 

Once you lie down, the giant cat comes wandering in from wherever he was and curls up beside your bed. It's just as well he doesn't try to get on it with you because he's bigger than either you or the mattress! You do get a buff from him when you wake up but really they could have just gone with the animation and that would have been more than enough reward.

And that's where I'm going to stop because for once, I really would rather be playing than writing. Not just Once Human, either. I'm very much enjoying Solasta and I'm missing Wuthering Waves quite a bit since I haven't logged in for a couple of days. 

Nice problem to have, if you even can call it a problem...

Saturday, July 13, 2024

I'm Getting That Blaugust Feeling Again...

 

I wasn't even going to post today but let's just give Belghast a big shout-out for stepping up yet again to organize the annual festival of blogging that is Blaugust. I can't imagine there's anyone reading this blog who won't already have heard about it but every voice counts in getting the word out so here I am, doing my bit.

Bel has the full details on how to sign up plus an explanation of what there is to do and an extensive historical overview of how the event came to settle into the format we all know and love. Naithin has neatly excised the specific contact details, which I have stolen and pasted in below. I hope the links still work...

Right at the start of his post, Bel describes how very successful last year's Blaugust was in terms of outreach. It certainly brought in a whole new bunch of bloggers I'd never heard of and would never have read had it not been for the event. 

That's the fundemental purpose of Blaugust and it has to be welcomed. As with all things, though, success does not come without its own potential drawbacks. For me, the downside of the way Blaugust has expanded its reach so effectively is that there are now more Blaugustian blogs than I could ever find time to read, far less respond to.

Added to the sheer quantity, now that we've extended our remit far beyond gaming and related topics, there are also quite a few blogs on that list that I rarely read at all outside of Blaugust. It seems a bit weird to have a section on the blog called "The Places We Go" when I actually don't.

Consequently, for the first time I think I'll hold back on adding every last newcomer to my blog roll as they sign up, something I've been doing every year since I first joined back in... whenever the heck it was. Seems like forever ago. 

I'm not going to remove any of the ones that are already on there, regardless of whether I'm reading them regularly or not, but I think this year I will wait until Blaugust is over before I add whichever new blogs I know I'm going to keep following. I'm sure there'll be some great ones. There always are.

Other than that, I guess it'll be business as usual. I've already come up with a series of themed posts to slot in whenever I need them so as to reduce the stress of trying to hit that 31 post target. (Yes, I know it's just a number...) If anyone's found the pace challenging in the past, I highly recommend writing ahead. It really makes the whole thing a lot more fun, although maybe that's just me...

For once, I've also picked a topic that won't go out of date and have to be heavily revised before I can publish it, which was something I had to do several times last year. Kind of defeats the point of preparing stuff if you have to re-do it before you can use it.

I've written half a dozen posts so far. If I can just get another four or five done before the end of July then I'm golden. In fact, I think I'll stop here and use today's saved blogging time to go write another.

I'm all excited already!

Friday, July 12, 2024

Seasons, Single Characters And Security Issues: False Steps And Fixes For Once Human


Watching the reaction to the launch of Once Human on Steam has been very interesting. The game has been reasonably successful, cracking the top ten on the Steam chart, peaking just a shade under 150k concurrency. That puts it in Steam's Top Ten biggest launches this year. It's not Palworld but it's not bad.

Those numbers, while impressive, don't tell the full story. You don't have to play Once Human through Steam. You can use Netease's own portal or play through the Epic Games Store. Neither of those offer the same kind of access to population data as Steam but it's reasonable to assume the number of players there is substantial, too. 

It's probably fair, then, to call Once Human a hit. The launch was also very smooth by MMO standards, with the servers generally staying up and no wide-spread, game-breaking bugs requiring emergency patches. There was a minor issue with server lists not displaying correctly right at the start but that was fixed almost immediately.

Despite these indicators of success, the aggregate review rating on Steam is only "Mixed". More than half of the twelve thousand reviews are positive but there are a lot of naysayers and it seems most of them are unhappy with something other than gameplay or performance.

The three main areas of concern appear to be:

  • The single character per account rule.
  • Use of the Netease launcher.
  • Confusion over the Seasons system

All of those issues have already been addressed by the developers, which does at least seem to have gained them a modicum of respect for responsivity but of course the damage has already been done. It remains to be seen whether newer reviews will shift the balance towards the positive. 

Of more interest to me than the reviews is the substantive value of the concerns and whether they could have been avoided in the first place.

Single Characters

I'm not sure how unusual it would be for an MMO to limit players to a single character per Steam account. I'd bet plenty of players only have a single character anyway and might not even notice. My guess it that it would be fairly standard only to allow one character per account per server but to pare that down to one character, period, would be very rare.

Still, I don't think even that would have caused quite so much uproar if Starry Games hadn't made the bizarre decision to make that one character undeletable. I'm sure plenty of players, who end up happily playing just the one character, go through a few that don't stick first. Being forced to carry on with whatever character you made on your first attempt does seem harsh.

It was always clear from the start that the intention was to allow multiple character creation eventually. but the uproar was sufficient to bring the date forward - really forward. Multiple character creation was enabled almost immediately, the same day the game launched.

The given reason for not having it in the game from the start is very revealing: 

"Our initial decision to close multiple-character creation was due to the imperfect experience of playing with multiple characters."

This seems to come up a lot in MMORPGs from both East and West. Developers make assumptions about what would be good for players without taking into consideration the implications for players' sense of agency. I'm sure it's true that limiting players to a single character would avoid a number of potentially awkward and unsatisfying experiences, not least for Customer Service, but going so far as to make it impossible to start over without making a whole, new Steam account seems like insanity.

I find myself oddly out of sync with the whole thing. A few years ago, I'd have been outraged to be limited to just the one character. These days I hardly ever make a second in any game. I suspect that if this change hadn't had so much publicity, I'd have been one of the players that never even noticed the restriction existed.

External Launcher

I must say, of the three major issues, this is the one I have by far the least sympathy with. Once Human is far from the only game I've played on Steam that requires use of an external portal or app of some kind. It's nothing new or strange.

In this case, the main objection seems to be the China connection. Because Netease is a Chinese company, a substantial number of Steam players seem to believe any software it might install on their computers is going to harvest their data and send it straight to the CCP.

And I guess it might, although what the CCP would want it for I have no idea. I suppose it depends what kind of data you might have on your PC...

I never really understand what the fuss is about with data gathering. Obviously, from my own perspective, having played dozens of imported games over the last few years, most of which have needed to install launchers to run, all my data must have been sent to Beijing and Seoul many times over. 

In the specific case of Once Human, I already played it directly through the NetEase launcher for both the betas I took part in. I'm hardly going to balk at letting Steam pass-through to the same launcher now.

Plenty of people feel differently, which is why the Once Human Team had to issue a lengthy clarification on the situation. Naturally, they make great play of their integrity and purpose when it comes to safeguarding data but they also completely deny that Steam (Or Epic.) players need to download or use the launcher at all:

"Players who play the game from Steam or Epic will NOT need to download or use the launcher."

Now, that does seem odd. I could have sworn I had to go through some kind of hand-over between Steam and the Netease launcher the first time I logged in. And if that wasn't the case, how come everyone was up in arms about it to begin with? 

Whatever the truth of it, my feeling is that for most gamers, the ship on data privacy probably sailed long, long ago. Most of us have probably clicked on all kinds of things we shouldn't have, just to get a first look at some game were were over-excited about. Any data we ever had has probably been all around the world many times over by now. If we really want to keep our data private, we'd almost certainly need to stop playing online games altogether.

Seasons

This is the one that really stumps me. I completely understand why people are confused and anxious about it. I've read all the avaialable information on the proposed Season system for Once Human, including the lengthy clarification released yesterday and I still have no clear idea what the heck it all means.

In fact, I found yesterday's "explanation" raised a lot more questions than it answered. If anything, I  feel more confused now about how it's all going to work than I did before I read it. 

The specific detail about which currencies and items will carry over between seasons is fine. that I can understand. What mystifies me is the underlying structure. I've read and re-read the details and I just can't visualise how the mechanics are going to work. Apparently, when a Season ends, you'll have a choice:

"Once a season concludes, you can embrace a new challenge by joining a different scenario or taking on your current one with renewed vigor."

At first I thought this meant you could just opt out of seasons altogether and carry on as you are, almost like not buying an expansion in an MMORPG, but now I think it means something quite different.

As far as I can tell, the worlds "Season" and "Scenario" have separate and distinct meanings in this context. I think they're saying you can opt out of new scenarios but you'll still have to join a new season. That's highly significant because a new Season is a reset. Everyone goes back to Level One and starts over fresh:

"In each new season, your character begins at Level 1, and all exploration progress on the World Map is reset. "

It looks as though there's no way to avoid having to begin again from scratch every six weeks (Or however long the season is. The first couple are six weeks long but later ones could be shorter or longer.) What you could do is replay the same content again by not opting into the new "Season Scenario", although quite why you'd want to do that I' not sure. It'd be be like playing WoW Classic in January 2005.

If my interpretation is correct, I'm not convinced the argument about not losing progress really stands up:

"We are aware that many players are concerned that their in-game progress will be reset in 6 weeks, but we are here to reassure you that this will NOT happen! "

That can only be true if you don't class gaining levels and opening up the map, including activating all the many instant travel nodes, as "progress". I'm not at all sure most players are going to agree with that definition.

My feeling, which I've seen expressed in a few places now, is that we're going to have to wait to see how all of this works in practice before we can be sure whether we like it or not. It does seem like quite a radical departure from the way most online games with "permanence" work. 

That's not to say it will turn out to be a bad idea. I think it's quite easy to imagine some considerable advantages to having a partial reset every so often, especially if it brings new explorable areas and storylines.

On the other hand, most MMOs manage to do that already without sending everyone back to the starting line. Whether this kind of leveling of the playing field is really necessary is unclear.

If it turns out a lot of players really don't like being set back in this way, then based on the speed of reaction so far, I'd guess we'll see a quick re-assessment by Starry/NetEase. By then, though, the game will have been out for a month and a half. Based on previous high-profile launches this year, that may already be too late for most people to care.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Into The Sunlit Uplands - Pantheon Goes For Early Access


This is certainly a summer of surprises when it comes to MMORPGs. Guild Wars 2 finally caved and added the housing everyone's been asking for since 2012. EG7 bought Palia and gave it to Daybreak. And now Visionary Realms announces Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen will go into Early Access before the end of the year.

Or so I read at Massively OP last night. There's a confirmatory link to the game's Discord, which apparently I've never bothered to join. I have now but I don't have access to see anything other than the same quotes I've already seen in the MOP article.

The "Source" banner at the bottom of the post also credits a Press Release but there's no link. As for Pantheon's official website, at time of writing, the latest news there is the June Newsletter, which just covers the introduction of a couple of new classes, Ranger and Summoner, plus a few lesser details.

There will be a lot more information soon but who wants to wait for that when we can speculate wildly now? Not me, as you can see!

The first and most obvious conclusion that just about everyone not already committed to the game is going to draw from this sudden and completely unexpected announcement is that Visionary Realms is running out of money. The only problem with that one is that everyone's been assuming they were running out of money for years now and they haven't run out of money yet so why would it be true this time?

The other problem with that explanation is that it assumes going into Early Access is going to bring in more money than going it's going to cost. I have no idea how the finances of these things work but it's not immediately clear to me how that scenario would play out.

The Season system introduced a while ago allows you to "Pledge" (Aka pay.) to gain access to the servers for varying lengths of time, depending on how much you're willing to stump up. That's a one-off payment that gets you into the testing program with no further payment required until the game launches.

Those pledges are expensive. The cheapest is $50, the cost of a full game, and that gets you a fairly minimal amount of access, just a few weeks per year. For something closer to full-time access (Although the game isn't available year-round at the moment.) you'd be paying an unbelievable $750 at the cheapest "VIP" level.

Early Access is, presumably, going to be some kind of always-on, permanent affair. I'm not sure I can think of any games that called themselves "Early Access" and didn't keep the servers up all the time although I suppose it's possible to run EA in Seasons. 

If EA really does turn out to have something akin to permanency, even if there might be server wipes at some point before an offical "Launch", I'd be very interested in playing. I balked at paying $50 to play one week every couple of months but I'd be happy to pay the same for unrestricted access to servers that were generally up and running most of the time.

That, though, would seem to undercut the whole financial structure they've built to date, where they ask a relatively small number of people to pay a relatively large amount of money and then don't let them play the game all that much. Open EA would suggest an intent to reverse that, bringing in a lot more people and charging them a lot less. 


It's notable that the minimal information released so far assures the current testers they'll be covered. "Existing pledges will receive a copy of the Early Access release at no additional charge." That offer remains on the table for a few months, too: "Early adopters can still pledge for game access and additional perks prior to Early Access launch in December." Best of all "All pledges will be free to play during Early Access – no sub costs, no additional fees, and pledges will get a head start before Early Access launches."

On the face of it, that seems to peg an EA buy-in at $50, if you go for the cheapest pledge ahead of time. Will it really be more than that after December? That'd be a big ask for an EA build. I'll be very interested to hear the full details when they come but if I'm reading the intent correctly, there seems no point in waiting. If you want to play at any point, you might as well pay the $50 now. Then you'll be covered until the game launches for real, which on past history of the Early Access model is likely to be several years off.

All of that is highly speculative. What's clearer is the kind of content that's going to be available come December. The announcement proudly claims

6 full zones.

12 classes.

6 playable races.

And that's it? It's not much, is it? I mean, okay, the races and classes, fine. Lots of games have three or four classes and one or two races. But six zones...?

They'd have to be very, very big zones, wouldn't they? Pantheon has always tried to position itself as the true, spiritual successor to EverQuest and Vanguard. It's right there in the company name, Visionary Realms, which refers directly back to the famous Brad McQuaid Vision™ that became such a meme in the MMORPG community before memes were even a thing.

As Gemini neatly puts it "There isn't a definitive public record of the exact number of zones in the original EverQuest at launch in March 1999" but by my count, EverQuest launched with more than sixty zones spread across three continents.



Vanguard is even harder to assess since it used a different system, splitting the world into "chunks" that could be a lot smaller than EQ's "zones". It also had three continents (There were going to be five but two got culled when the game had to launch early.) and the list of named chunks runs to more than a hundred and fifty.

Game architecture and design has changed a lot since either of those games was new. I'm willing to believe Pantheon may pack a lot of content into the six zones it has. They probably make much greater use of the z-axis and it's entirely possible the count doesn't include dungeons, which I believe may be integral to the geography, not instanced, and therefore not counted separately.

No matter how much slack you want to cut the game, though, six sounds like a paltry number. At the very least they probably need to come up with a better way of counting the discrete, playable areas in the game before they pitch Early Access to people who aren't already invested. Otherwise it's just going to be embarassing.

Finally, there's the crucial question of whether the game is ready for even the limited exposure Early Access is likely to bring. According to the website, Pantheon is still in pre-alpha. I realize all game developers these days follow the Humpty Dumpty school of grammar, making words mean just what they want them to mean, but by any definition "pre-alpha" is very early to be thinking about taking money from all-comers.

According to the announcement "...processes are streamlined, focused, polished and productive. So much so, that we have built up the confidence to release into Early Access in December 2024." Confidence is important but is it enough?

Of course, Pantheon wouldn't be the first game to go into Early Access long before it was ready. It happens all the time. It's one reason why a lot of players won't touch EA titles at all. I guess the question is whether more damage would be done by keeping the game behind a super-high paywall indefinitely when it's already been that way for far too long or whether letting people who aren't card-carrying supporters in to see just how far along development really is will just confirm what a lot of people probably believe - that it's nowhere near ready for genereal release.

I've long been interested in Pantheon. Brad McQuaid's take on MMORPGs, based as it was on the tabletop campaign he used to play and the old DIKU-MUD mechanics he adapted for the primitive three-dimensional graphics of the late '90s, was my gaming comfort zone for a couple of decades.

I'm still very fond of it and I'm always happy to try another game in the same mould but when it comes to adopting one as a new, full-time hobby I honestly feel it might be too late. The world has moved on and to some extent at least it's taken me with it. I might be getting to the point where I have to admit I enjoy the faster-paced, more kinetic approach of the kind of games I've been playing for the last few years to the slower, more static style I once preferred.

At least now Visionary Realms have taken this unexpected step I'll be able to put that theory to the test. Maybe I am ready to go back to the old days after all. At $50 for unlimited access I'll certainly be willing to find out. Come December, I'll be there. How long I'll stay is another matter altogether.


Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Once Again Human

As previously noted, the summer of '24 is going to go down in MMO history as one of the busiest ever. There's so much going on it's hard to keep up and I certainly haven't helped myself by buying a highly addictive offline game in the Steam Summer Sale. 

Luckily, one of the good things about wishlisting forthcoming titles on Steam is Valve sending you an email when they go live. I received my notification that Once Human was "now available" at 9.48 last night, twelve minutes before the global launch at 10PM UK time. I guess you could argue the game was available already since you'd been able to download it for a while by then. 

I'd already done that. I was sitting there, waiting for the servers to come up. It wasn't that I'd remembered 9th of July was launch day. I'd just happened to notice something about it in one of my news feeds that afternoon., when my first thought wasn't "Yay! I get to play a great game today!", which is what it ought to have been, but something more along the lines of  "Oh crap! I forgot about that one. How the hell am I going to fit it in?"

"Somehow" has to be the answer. As has been very plain in all the posts I've written about it, I really like Once Human. The main reason I backed off and didn't bother much with the later playtests and the open beta is that I'd already played something in excess of thirty hours in beta and I was wary of burning out before I got started on the real thing.



There's always the disturbing possibility that, no matter how much you think you're going to enjoy a game, when the time comes you'll find it just isn't grabbing you the way you thought it would. That's already happened to me twice this summer, with EverQuest II's Anashti Sul and Tarisland. I fully expected to put a significant amount of time into both of those but when the day came I just wasn't feeling it. I don't think I've logged into either of them more than twice since launch day.

I'm very pleased to say that is very much not the case with Once Human. Ten o'clock was too late for me to do much last night. I'm old and I go to bed early. Still, I managed to spend fifty minutes making a character and getting through the opening section of the tutorial. Then this morning I played for another hour and a half until I'd finished the instanced introduction and made my way across the open world to Deadville, the starting town. 

The only reason I'm not playing right now is that I wanted to write this post covering some of what I'd done so far, while it was fresh in my mind. I'm not going to rehash what I said about the opening of the game back before Christmas, other than to comment on how interesting it is - to me, at least - that I seem to have made almost exactly the same character again. 

Character Creation in Once Human is immensely detailed and sophisticated. There's absolutely no need for me to have ended up with someone virtually identical to who I made six months ago. That's entirely on me. I definitely have a type when it comes to human characters in games and it's a waste of time pretending I don't.

Other than that, the main thing I wanted to talk about is how easy it is to get drawn along by the narrative like a donkey following a carrot hanging off a stick attached to the straw hat the farmer just plonked on his head and how that's probably not the smartest thing a player could do in this or any game. I did exactly that the last three times I went through the opening stages of the tutorial but for some reason, probably because I knew it was "for real", this time I didn't.

There were two reasons why I behaved differently the fourth time around. The first and most obvious is that it was the fourth time. It's almost like repeated exposure had innoculated me against the tutorial's charms. 

Once Human has one of the strongest opening sequences I can remember. It's compelling. Getting caught up in the unfolding narrative, doing what the game tells you to do, feels not just natural but necessary. Until today, I hadn't even questioned it. I'd talked to all the ghosts, picked up all the things, killed all the monsters and when it was time to leave, I left.

What I hadn't realised was that I didn't have to leave. Not right away.

The second half of the introduction takes place in a pocket dimension, an instance you have entirely to yourself. Once Human is a true MMO so that's not a situation that's going to continue for long. If you follow orders, it'll probably take you maybe ten or fifteen minutes, even if you read all of the quest dialog. Then you'll be out in the world with everyone else.

I spent a lot longer than that in there this morning. I found plenty to see and do that the tutorial doesn't tell you about. The part of the pocket dimension the game asks you to pay attention to is very small but the whole thing is huge. It's a sizeable chunk of the same environment you'll end up sharing with up to four thousand other players, the capacity of a Once Human server, but for as long as you can resist the temptation to join them, you'll have this piece of real estate all to yourself.

Chances are you won't even think of hanging around. The plot tells you there's a Big Bad coming and you'd better hurry up and stop it. There's a terrific sense of urgency but it's illusionary. There's no timer ticking and no need to hurry at all. The fight doesn't even start until you press a big button marked "Fight". Yes, literally.

If you hold off on that you can go exploring. And, more importantly, scavenging. The pocket dimension comes fully equipped, not just with trees and rocks and water, all of which the tutorial has you gather so you can learn the mechanics, but with numerous abandoned buildings and vehicles, filled with a wide range of materials and resources, all of which you're going to need later.

Of course, you can and will pick these up by the thousands in  normal play but by then a hundred different mobs will be trying to kill you and a dozen players may be after the same nodes. Why not fill your bags now, when there's no-one around but you and a few dozen harmless deer?

Or that's what I thought until an alligator waddled up to me and try to bite my leg off. A Level Five alligator. It was a pretty tough fight at Level One. I very nearly died. But not quite. 


There's no map available so I wasn't entirely convinced I'd seen everything there was to see and scavenged everything there was to scavenge. Visual range extends far into the distance but when you get to the edge of the explorable area the air goes all wobbly and hardens into an impenetrable barrier. Using that as a guide, I did my best to cover the whole area but it's very possible I missed something.

What I didn't miss were several lore items lying around on desks in derelict office buildings. There's an extensive collectible lore element to gameplay in Once Human and I don't know if these pieces are available outside the tutorial. I do know that in other games I've played in the past, that has not been the case, so if that's the sort of thing you're interested in, I wouldn't risk it. I'd go get them when you can. You might not get another chance.

The other reason I wasn't rushing to get through the story (Remember I said I had two.) was pants. I really wanted some this time.

One of the things people tended to notice about Once Human back in beta was the way that, if you made a female-appearing character (The game doesn't actually name genders in character creation.) you got clothing in the tutorial for every equippable body part except your legs. From memory, you don't actually get given a pair of pants until something crazy like Level 5. I'm guessing male-appearing characters don't get pants early either but oddly I can't recall seeing so many screenshots of that.

What I do remember are lots of shots of shapely backsides in skimpy leotards, even when the rest of the wearer was primly covered in camoflage gear. Comments were made and not just on this blog.

On my second beta run I quickly worked out you could craft
yourself some strides long before the tutorial told you how to do it but that was still when you got into the world with everyone else. This time I thought I might try to cover myself up before anyone got a peek.

And of course you can. It's very easy. The tutorial already has you building a tent and a tent comes with a basic crafting station. The tutorial only tells you to make some clean water and a crossbow but all the other starter recipes are there. If you can find the materials, you can make any of them

I had no difficulty finding the necessary mats to craft myself a pair of Rustic Pants. I felt a lot more comfortable and confident once I put them on, which is probably why I went straight to the "Fight" button and pressed it. In retrospect, I might have hung around the pocket dimension a little longer. I'm sure there were some more things there I missed.

The big fight itself was extremely easy. I'm not sure if that's because I've done it several times before or because they've made it easier or because I was fully fed, hydrated and dressed this time. Probably all of those. Whatever the reason, the walking phone mast fell over long before it got close and the ground troops supposedly supporting it never showed up at all. The visuals were great but the threat was purely imaginary. 


Back in the first beta, all I had was a handgun. Small-bore bullets put the zombies down fast enough but didn't make much of a dent in the big guy. To kill him I had to get knocked out, revive, find a gatling gun that happened to be lying about and use that to kill the monster. 

This time I had a crossbow the game had told me to make and all I had to do was fire it a few times in the general direction of the danger, which was over before it really got started. Whether that's an improvement is a matter of taste, I guess. I've had the advantage of doing it both ways now and I prefer the easy version but then don't I always?

After that it was through the door in the sky and freefall to earth, hanging onto the feet of an eagle. Just another day in MMOdom, in other words, especially since, of course, I have partial amnesia too. 

Well, my character does. I don't. Fortunately, I remember plenty about my many hours in beta, which is why this time I didn't follow the game's instructions to make a base. Instead, I thought about where I wanted to live and decided I'd like a nice beach-front property close to all the amenities so I jogged off to find a good spot.

Unfortunately for me, just around then I had the call to go take Beryl out for her walk so I settled for heading to Deadwood and camping there. That gave me the chance to collect my mail, which included a bunch of compensatory rewards for various launch-day misdemeanors and mishaps. 

Among those were eight "Seasonal Loot Crates", all of which I immediately opened. Some of them had boring old consumables but several contained new emotes and one had a mask. A really ugly mask but even so, nice to have.

If I was playing on the same account I created for beta, I believe I'd have been entitled to a few more freebies. I thought long and hard about that but in the end I decided I'd rather have the convenience of Steam than whatever they were handing out. 

Once Human is a reasonable-sized hit on Steam right now. As I write this at half-past four on a Wednesday afternoon, there are just under 125,000 players in the game. That, of course is only on Steam. The game is also available on the Epic Store and it has its own Netease launcher, which was the default for most of the betas, meaning a lot of people are probably using that to log in, especially if they care more for their beta rewards than I do. 

In due course (The estimated date is sometime in September.) the game will also come to Android and iOS. It seems safe to say that it's going to be quite a big deal for a while.

I think it deserves to be. It's very good. I have some questions and reservations about the Season format, details of which are beginning to come clear but which I still don't entirely understand. Those will, no doubt, be answered in due course. 

For now, though, I'm just going to dig in and enjoy a game I've been looking forward to playing for a while and which, for once, I find myself still excited to play now it's actually here.

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