Tuesday, 9 February 2016

On Patrol : Valiance Online

Another day, another download. This time it's Valliance Online, one of several contenders for the cape of Spiritual Successor to City of Heroes. I forget the names of the others.

I only remember Valliance because of their open door policy. A while back they had a sneak peak/tech demo up and now there's a pre-alpha build available for any interested parties to test drive.

Unlike the Early Access cash grabs of yesterday's post, this is a genuine "come and help us kick this thing into shape" community effort. There are no "Packages" to buy, no NDA agreements to sign, no application forms to fill out. Just an email address, a password and a download and you're in.

City of Heroes was famous for its immensely flexible and varied character creation system. There were supposedly people who played the game for a fair old while without ever getting any further than the character create screen.

Any would-be successor is going to have to at least attempt to replicate that. Valiance is planning on ninety different power sets. For now, though, choice is fairly straightforward. I went with my basic Super Hero fallback, a fire-flinger.

When it comes to choosing costumes and clothing for a new character I tend towards the blue end of the spectrum but fire powers almost dictate reds and oranges so that's where I went.

It was challenging to choose a look, not because of a lack of options but because nothing I selected actually displayed on the image I was looking at. In the end I just clicked Accept and hoped for the best. I think that's why she has huge thighs and a tiny head. At least the color scheme seems to have worked.

Emerging into the dazzling sunlight  found myself in a city eerily reminiscent of the skyscraper streets I remember, albeit dimly, from the original City of Heroes beta all those however many years ago. My abiding memory of that game, which I beta-tested but declined to buy, is of huge plazas, towering buildings and wide, blank streets populated by an unseemly crowd of muggers and petty criminals all just asking for some rough super-hero justice.

If that's what SilverHelm, the developers, are going for then they're on the right track. The very first, introductory mission had me running off across town in search of an elderly couple who'd just been mugged in broad daylight.

When I say "run" I mean prance like a six-year old who's just watched The Bionic Woman for the first time and realized what she wants to do with the rest of her life. I know it's just a pre-alpha and all these animations will be tweaked and toned to unrecognizability but boy, I wish they'd keep this running anim. It's adorable.

Also, when I say "across town" I mean across town. Maybe the designer had the inevitable plethora of movement powers in mind - super-speed, flight, teleporting - but my poor character just has one small heal and a fireball about the size and potency of a burning paper bag. Don't they even have moving walkways in this vision of the future?

So, getting to the mugged couple took a while. Luckily, like all NPCs, they seemed to have nothing better to do than stand around and tell their story to every passing stranger. They also seemed remarkably unphased by their unpleasant experience, chatty even.

They gave me a good description of the perps.  Not that I needed one because a little marker pops up with each quest to give you both direction and distance to your target. It's amazing anyone bothers to break the law with this kind of infallible surveillance.

Another kilometer jog and I found them. Three ne'er-do-wells loitering on a walkway above what might be a sports stadium someday. I would have laid about them with fiery retribution only that was the point when I realized I didn't have any fiery retribution to hand.

Somewhere on the long jog one of my hotbars must have fallen off. You can see it clearly in the second screenshot, nestled neatly below the other one, but when I came to use it it just wasn't there. All I had was a heal and try as you might you can't heal someone into jail.

So I revived and ran back. That was fun. On the way I fiddled about with the options but wherever my bar had gone it was staying there, out of reach.

In the end I tried casting with the keyboard, which worked, technically, in that I threw some fire at a bad guy. Unfortunately, by the time he was beginning to look a bit singed he and his two pals had put me on the floor again. For the first fight in the starting zone I think this might be a tad overtuned.

For a project "in the Pre-Alpha, but moving towards the Alpha phase" Valiance feels quite solid. Super-hero MMOs have never really done much for me although given my very, very long love affair with the comic book version they really should. I'm very glad they exist, though, and I'd be very happy to see more of them.

Good luck to Valiance and all the other CoH flagwavers. May there always be enough muggers and mad scientists to keep your streets full of screaming citizens and happy players both!

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Hard Road To Lambda Mall : Otherland

2016 has taken a somewhat surprising turn as far as MMOs go. Looking ahead from the dying days of the old year, once again there didn't seem to be anything very much to look forward to beyond more of the same.

Heart of Thorns was solidly in place. Expansions for every other MMO I play or might consider playing were either not announced yet or drifting far off beyond a haze, release date unknown. Daily news reports for the genre seemed mostly to feature minor updates and tweaks to established favorites and the incremental, glacial progress of a plethora of crowd-funded hopefuls that may or may not eventually reach some state we could generously describe as "done".

Then, out of the blue, one of my favorite bolt-holes received a death sentence. I didn't expect to spend most of a week and a half in January playing City of Steam, that's for sure. For every door that closes, though, as they say...

Blade and Soul is a title that some people have been watching for years but it had passed me by almost entirely. I knew the name, I had the very vaguest understanding that it had released in some other territory and done not terribly well - that was about it. Something about martial arts? Oh and it was an ARPG.

Now I'm playing it and enjoying it. Not sure how that happened.

Otherland, on the other hand, is a project I've been following, in desultory fashion, since the day it was announced. There have been various points at which I could have played some testbed version but didn't. For the last few months it's been in Early Access yet, although I thought about buying in, I never did.

Now I'm playing it and...am I enjoying it? That's hard to say.

There's been a roiling torrent of discussion over the merits and drawbacks of Early Access as the concept has bedded in and taken hold over the last two or three years. I was an early adopter with Landmark, a purchase I have never for a moment regretted, but until now that remained my own venture into the minefield of half-released half-games.

Otherland offers a prime example of why the buyer should beware. It is, to put it politely, buggy as hell. There are even bugs in the tutorial for which the developers' advice on the official forum is to delete your character and roll again. This is at the same time that PR puffs are being sent out promoting the addition of four new zones.

You might, rightly, think that before you start adding more to your game you might consider getting the parts you already have into working order but no, that is not the Way of Early Access, so it seems. One of the most successful of all Early Access titles, ARK, has almost made adding new content while disregarding shortcomings a defining feature and people seem to be fine with that.

There's something of the tottering run of a toddler about all this. To stay on their feet these Early Access titles have to keep running regardless. If they paused for just a second to look around them and consider their position they'd fall in a heap.

Not for them the painstaking iterative processes of a five-year development plan, nor the slow, steady, incremental climb of a traditional alpha/beta/launch development arc. No, just get the damn thing out there, start taking the money, bosh it up as we go and keep adding bells and whistles to bring in more punters all the while.

The people behind the current version of Otherland, Drago Entertainment, do get something of a pass on this. After all, the game was dead in the water before they stepped in. If they weren't around then presumably we wouldn't have the chance to play the game at all in any form.

And that would be a shame because Otherland has...something. Not the vast, sprawling, overwhelming something-everything of Tad Williams' monstrously huge trilogy on which it's based, but at least a clear and present ambiance that reflects some of the strangeness of that setting.

So far I've made it only as far as Lambda Mall, the central facilities hub in both the game and the books. The real (or unreal) world lies outside. To get even that far has been a struggle.

Not because the gameplay is hard. So far it seems to consist of the regular MMO cycle: talk to NPC, kill enemy, interact with object, talk to NPC again. Combat is simple to the point of being simplistic.

No, the difficulty stands in bugs that block progression completely. In order to arrive at Lambda Mall it's first necessary to negotiate the basic tutorial, then a zone known as "Limbo" and finally a third zone, in which your character and his or her helpers are held prisoner in cages.

I managed to avoid the gamebreaking bug in the tutorial itself but I hit one in Limbo. The portal to the next area would not permit any interaction from my character. He was left to stand in frustration as a stream of NPCs he'd saved plunged through the tesseract to freedom, stranding him in Limbo all alone.

That one I "fixed" by dropping and retaking the quest half a dozen times over three separate sessions until, for no apparent reason, it just worked. There followed a rather impressive cut scene that, in the way of these things, wiped away any lingering frustration and freshened me up to carry on.

Until the next bug. This time it was a crate that wouldn't open. Inside were my weapons, taken from me by the finger-wagging gang leader at the top of the post and without which my character would be spending the rest of his dismal imaginary virtual life in a 12x12 boxroom underground.

Again repetition won through. Take quest, try quest, fail quest, delete quest. Close game. Relog. Take quest, try quest, fail quest... I think it took about half a dozen tries before, once again, it just worked.

This is all so familiar. Back in the days of real betas and playing on Test servers I treated this kind of thing as routine. It was part of the deal - players volunteered to test stuff for free on the understanding that they got to see new games and new content before anyone else. Even then some people grumbled about companies getting their QA work done for nothing and companies occasionally felt badly enough about that to hand out rewards to testers just for showing up.

Now here we are, not only testing the games in our own time for no reward but paying for the privilege. This is what's called "progress". Or possibly irony. Or being played for a sucker. One of the above.

In the end, though, you have to face the fact that no-one is making any of us do any of this. I downloaded Otherland because I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I stubborned my way through the bugs and glitches because I really wanted to see Lambda Mall, a place I remembered both from the novels and the original promos for the game.

Along the way there was something of a plot that seemed mildly intriguing and my character began to acquire a marginal personality that started some vestigial attachment process going. When, due to the inept response feedback of the inadequate selection UI in the makeover store, my character received an unintentional gender re-assignment and emerged as a woman (with the wrong facial features and the wrong haircut to boot) I actually felt more attached to her still.

I've always enjoyed buggy MMOs. I don't like game-breaking bugs. How could anyone? I would prefer not to have to do quests five times just to get them to work once. But glitches and strangeness have a charm all their own.

No, if I end up not playing Otherland all that much it won't be because of the ropy, unstable, unfinished nature of the product. It will be because it's wearing. The data-cluster textures, the harsh neon, the strip mall styling, the Blade Runner on a Budget chic...it just wears me down.

After an hour my eyes hurt and my soul feels abraded. It's not a world I can relax in and that's a problem not just with Otherland but with all hard-SF settings. Sharp edges, harsh color palettes, hard surfaces, ugly fonts, clinical UIs, they all make for a tiring place to spend an evening. I love reading SF but I've never been as keen on watching it and I certainly don't have a hankering to live the life vicariously.

Of course, one of the key aspects of Tad Williams trilogy is that Otherland can, quite literally, be anywhere, anything you want it to be. So it may be that, once I step through a portal at Lambda Mall and emerge in Four Square or Water Isle it won't feel that way at all.

We'll see, because I am, at least, interested enough to go and look. Otherland does have something. Whether it has enough of whatever it is to make a mark in the current climate I doubt but it's here now and while the opportunity to explore it exists it would be foolish not to take it. Bugs permitting, naturally.

What lies ahead for the rest of this year I wouldn't presume to say. I have no plans at all, for example, to try Black Desert, which launches in March, but I would have said the same about Blade and Soul.  

Dragon Nest:Oracle, another game that, like City of Steam, I've let slide, has just had a massive technical failure, on the back of which I've re-downloaded and installed it via Steam because my local client no longer works.

WvW, which had seemed moribund to the point of collapse has suddenly revived to the extent that last night there were fifty people in the queue for Eternal Battlegrounds and big fights on the other maps at the same time.

There's really no second-guessing all this stuff. My big plan for 2016 is not to have a plan. I'll just take it as it comes.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

New, Shiny : Blade and Soul

Like Ironweakness I'm finding a lot more to like about Blade and Soul than I expected when I downloaded it on a whim last week. Kaozz promised in the comments to my first impressions post that "the game gets a bit more interesting as you move along past the initial zone" and it certainly does that.

After a few short sessions my Summoner has reached the heady heights of level 9. Leveling seems well-paced so far. Just killing things gives a not-insignificant amount of xp, which is something I always like to see, but the greater part comes from questing, as usual with every MMO since WoW.

There are quest hubs but thankfully the flow from one to another feels relatively natural. You can move back and forth between them quite freely although there do seem to be triggers that open new options, as you'd expect, so there is a degree of direction. The quests themselves are anything but original and some of the dialog, while efficiently translated, seems strangely stilted but I've seen much, much worse.

The bulk of the petty tasks I've been asked to carry out for guards, gravediggers and minor officials have verged on the believable. There's a peculiar meta-textual frisson hanging behind much of the action, partly encouraged by the thought-balloons in which NPCs counterpoint their own bluster and blow with self-doubts or self-delusion.

Sometimes, they also seem more acutely aware than the average questgiver of the ironies of their position. I can't recall having heard so many excuses and explanations and apologies in other quest-based MMOs as people apparently rooted to the spot send me to do jobs they could and should be doing for themselves. I'm finding it quite amusing.

Visually the game is beautiful yet weirdly artificial. There's a really great sense of space with the mountains looming at the back and the sky a great bowl overhead. The shoreline has a spritz of salt air about it and the bamboo jungle looks dense and deep.

Everything is so clean, though. The light glows, the trees look like someone comes out in the evening and polishes the trunks - it's like a managed park rather than farmland or wilderness. And the buildings still sometimes have a sense of movie flats about them.

There are some very odd transitions as you move from area to area. We're all used to the way that a snowy area in an MMO can slide unfeasibly into some lava-strewn badland but Blade and Soul slips from day to night at the turn of a graveyard path and then back again around the next corner. There's probably an explanation. I imagine magic has something to do with it.

Nevertheless I like it. It's intensely photogenic, which is handy because Blade and Soul categorically has the best screenshot UI I have ever used in an MMO. Not only does the game give written and spoken confirmation every time you take a picture but you get an in-game album in which you can open and inspect the shots you've just taken. It's fantastically useful for someone who not only takes screenshots obsessively for the fun of it but also to serve as illustrations for pieces like this.

Solo gameplay is solid. Fights are still easy and I still haven't needed to learn what most of my abilities do. There are solo dungeons from very early on in the game. I found myself half-way through one without even realizing that's where I was until I noticed the mobs weren't respawning.

They're decent dungeons, too, in that they look like actual places, where the inhabitants seem to have a reason to be holed up. They even have something to do that's superficially convincing. Mostly guarding boxes and patrolling paths but hey, it's better than literally just standing there in empty rooms.

Loot, rewards and skill progression is making my head hurt. Things I receive often seem to be locked and require keys, which I also have, although I'm not sure if they're the right ones. There are things called "Soul Shields" that drop in pieces that look uncannily like slices of pizza. You put them together to make complete sets with set bonuses or you can mix and match. You can have a spare one as well.

There's a lot of that sort of thing. The behind-the-scenes part is very busy. It feels like an MMO that's been around for a good while, which I guess it has. There's that sense of systems piled on top of systems that you get in games that have been running for a year or three. Odd to find such complexity in a supposedly brand new game but maybe it's an Eastern thing - I remember the much-missed Zentia, of which Blade and Soul sporadically reminds me, feeling much the same.

I know, though, that if I should end up playing B&S for a while, all this will come to seem like second nature. When I think of the insane complexities of systems in EQ2, for example, this really is nothing. When you become invested in these worlds and the games set within them, confusion gives way to welcome fascination.

And perhaps I might play Blade and Soul for a while, after all. It has a good vibe. Not only does it look good and feel good to play, the conversation in open chat has been refreshingly positive. There's a constant flurry of LFG requests for dungeons with intriguing names. Wouldn't you want to party up to go visit the Pot Dog Shelter?

When some poor inadequate who didn't get enough love as a child started up in chat about some trolling enterprise he had going with new players the reaction was particularly heartening. No-one was amused but neither did anyone call him names or swear at him. The reaction was one of bemused sadness. "Why would you do that? That's not nice!", someone said.

I blocked him along with a couple of hyperactive gold sellers but that was the only disruption to the peaceful, casual, lighthearted mood as I went about my merry way poisoning bandits and setting their homes on fire while my disturbing black and white cat cheered me on. Good times.

There's something about Blade and Soul that makes me doubt whether I could ever become drawn into its world the way I fell into Tyria or even Telon. Something about the sheen and the glow and the oversized structures makes everything feel a little ephemeral, unreal. As Ironweakness says, though, who knows? Maybe I will end up with character at the cap and no real idea how or why I got there.

Wouldn't be the first time.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

H1Z1: Take 2

Yesterday Daybreak Games announced that H1Z1, their already-aging but still Early Access zombie survival game, will split in two. Reaction has been predictably negative, as reaction to just about anything with DBG's name attached tends to be. Thanks, Smed.

Keen sums up the general feeling with the very title of his post on the subject: WTF is Daybreak Doing? The very idea of marketing and selling the same game in discrete packages to different audiences is outrageous, desperate, just plain nuts.


I've thought for years - probably since around the time Planes of Power codified the raid end-game - that many MMOs could, very effectively and sensibly, be partitioned off into segments and sold and marketed separately. I used to say back then, often, usually to a thudding silence, that Raiding, just to take one example, is and should be a game in itself, not a whole second game bolted on to the end of a perfectly good existing one.

As a non-raider playing EverQuest at that time, I'd have jumped at the option to play on a non-raiding server with its own development team, dedicated to producing and maintaining non-raid content. Over the years we've all seen how MMOs have to try to provide entirely separate, unconnected, often mutually destructive progression ladders to satisfy cadres of players who have no time, respect or interest for each other. We've seen how well that works for everyone.

Balancing the whole game to meet the needs and requirements of Raiding, PvP, RvR, open world PvE, instanced group PvE, soloing, leveling, roleplaying, crafting, housing and decorating etc etc etc turns almost all long-lasting games into rats' nests of dirty compromise. Diminishing resources end up chasing increasing demands, serving legacy interest groups that frequently contain the game and the company's bitterest critics: players who profess to hate the game they're playing and what it's become, yet still won't leave.

It's not as if splitting a game into two parts (or three or a dozen) is even anything new. It's been happening ever since Ultima Online span off its consensual PvP/PvE shard,Trammel back at the turn of the millennium.  When it comes down to it, how different is having two versions of H1Z1 for sale in the digital store from a game having PvE and PvP servers? Or indeed, as EQ and EQ2 used to do, having four different PvP ruleset servers, half a dozen varying PvE ruleset servers, F2P servers, Premium servers and even a Pay-to-Win server (remember The Bazaar?).

Just about every MMO I've ever played that's been successful enough to hang around for a year or two has gone down this route. Almost the only exceptions are the few that operate on a single shard like EVE, and even that's a poor counterpoint, with CCP spinning their IP across multiple games on different platforms, while sharing the same universe.

The idea that having two versions of H1Z1 will negatively impact development resources is just fatuous. Development resources in MMOs are already fatally compromised and always have been. ArenaNet, operating what is unarguably one of the genres bigger and more successful MMOs right now, has a massive development team and yet they profess, perpetually, to be heavily stretched.

The current extensive and much-needed WvW revamp had to wait years beyond the point
at which everyone could clearly see it was urgently needed, simply because resources were not available. Each new, major game development, change or project cannibalizes resources from all the others, spawning anger and resentment in every group that, often rightly, feels its own needs are being ignored.

Splitting a game like H1Z1 into two entirely separate games may not alleviate any of that stress. It may not produce any additional resources or make anything happen any faster. It may not make players feel any happier that their chosen format is getting a fair shake compared to its mirror.

It may not, in other words, make anything better but I fail to see how it can make anything worse. At the very least it adds some clarity. If you want an open world zombie survival game, you can buy one and play it without having to work around a bunch of fight-to-the-death FPS crazies. And vice versa.

What if you want both? Well buy both. It's two games. You want two games? Buy two games. That, as we all know, is the point, because, as we've seen from Trion's recent inelegant (okay, ugly) revisions to their payment model, the latest in a lengthening line of attempts by MMO producers to row back from the supposed commitments they made to "Free To Play", a model whose mechanics and modes most of them seemingly didn't fully grasp at the time, getting MMO players to pay for anything is hard.

I'm the worst possible example. F2P has been fantastic for me. Hardly any MMO locks anything that interests me behind a paywall these days. All the bits of the game that I relish - exploring, leveling, pottering around in low level zones imagining I'm myself aged about eight, just after the last coat in the wardrobe gave way to snowy pine branches - they're all there waiting for me to enjoy them for nothing.

Like most people, so it seems, I don't spend anything in most MMOS. Not on premium perks nor in the cash shop. Great for me until the game closes down. And I don't want the game to close down. Any of the games. I understand that bills have to be paid and I sympathize with companies that need to come up with ways of making that happen. Especially unambiguous, straightforward ways, like selling me content in discrete packages - DLC, Expansions, Games.

So, if splitting MMOs into their component parts and selling only the bits that interest people to those people, separately, turns out to be more financially rewarding for the people making and maintaining those games then so be it. I don't have any ethical objections.

The big question, of course, is whether it will bring in more money. Maybe it will just split the same audience and make no difference. Maybe it will put some people off, who would like to play both styles but balk at paying twice for the privilege. We'll have to wait and see.

It seems to me, though, to be an experiment very well worth trying. If ANet announced tomorrow that they were going to split the revamped WvW from the base game when it launches and sell it as a standalone with separate development I'd be open-minded. If they announced they were going to spin off an open-world version of GW2 with one-time events, no raiding and no pseudo end-game I'd be ecstatic.

Harder, of course, to pull something like that off in a game that's up and running, which is why Early Access, that period when we players get to watch the band rehearsing before the real show starts, is a better time to try something like this, see how it flies.

Many MMO fans, particularly the more jaded, have been agitating for years for the genre to move to a tighter, more focused, niche-based approach. This is something of a move in that direction and worth encouraging for that reason alone. It probably won't change much but if it should turn out to be successful it may have influence. If there's one thing MMO companies do understand, after all, it's how to borrow each others' clothes.

So, good luck with your new twins, Daybreak. Now can we have some kind of update on EQNext?

Monday, 1 February 2016

Here We Go Again : Blade And Soul

Okay, I admit it. All I really wanted to do was post that screenshot. Now I suppose I'd better think of something to say about it.

I blame Kaozz. Her blog, ECTMMO, has a long history of nudging me into downloading MMOs I probably shouldn't. Perhaps I should say a Loong history. Of course, I'd heard about Blade and Soul before I read her moderately enthusiastic review earlier today but I'd never worked up much interest in it.

It looked pretty enough in pictures and those cats were...a thing...but Wuxia is not a genre that I have any history with, in or out of games and most of all it was another Action MMO. As I keep saying, I can play action MMOs if I really have to, but I prefer not. What's more, I already have a new no-cursors-allowed game on the go in Otherland.

Then Kaozz has to go and mention that if you hit shift-F2 the entire UI converts from action mode to a WoW-style hotbar clicker. Add to that the fact that, as I noticed a while ago, B&S is published by NCSoft, with whom I already have an account, so form filling would be at a minimum and my resolve, never strong at the best of times when it comes to resisting new MMOs, collapsed.

After a couple of hours play I'm scarcely in a position even to do a First Impressions piece but here are my first impressions:

  • Slick, smooth, fast installation process. Really top notch. I love the way the tiny installation download simply installs the game's regular patcher from which you patch the entire game. Elegant.
  • Character Creation is equally well-designed. Very easy to follow, plenty of choice, lots of presets, no sliders. Classes seem to be locked to races. Didn't notice if they're also loked to gender. I went Summoner because That Cat which means I am the cute, small race. Win!

  • Atmospheric opening cut scene leads into dull tutorial leads into extremely atmospheric, extended cut scene. This in turn leads to some tonal shifts that I found problematic and these continue in the starting area. Hardly an unusual problem for either Eastern or Western MMOs, that.
  •  Thought bubbles beside NPCs telling you what's going on in their mind as they talk to you is something I can't recall seeing before in an MMO. There's potential in that idea. Not sure it's going to get used for much more than comedy effect here but still...

  • The UI is awkward and ugly. It's moveable but the editor is cluttered and confusing so I left it as it is, mostly. Too much text in the center of the screen, which I guess is an action MMO thing. Functionally it's fine. 
  • Having to hold down shift to sprint is annoying. If there's a keybind for it I couldn't see it. I wouldn't bother sprinting at all but you need to sprint to get into the air and glide, which is fun. Also, pro tip, don't glide off the cliffs in the tutorial. I did and I couldn't get back. At least I know how to revive when I die now.
  • This game has the best screenshot function I have ever seen in an MMO! They take screenshots really seriously. There are multiple formats to choose from, the game prints the file location in chat so you know where they've gone and best of all a voiceover confirms you've taken the shot. Just brilliant. 

  • Visually Blade and Soul is okay. Sometimes it looks amazing, other times it looks flat and false like the set for a movie. Some things don't seem to have the weight or density or mass you'd expect. Not really seen enough to judge how much of a problem this might be. I felt the same in ArcheAge at the start but a few quest hubs the world started to look and feel much more solid. Maybe it's an acclimatization issue.
  • Quest translations are, largely, in good English. I only noticed one glaring error. Voiceovers are bland but competent. I'd already started reading ahead and cutting them off before they finished speaking by the time I was halfway through the tutorial.
  • The opening scenario is incredibly cliched but the writers know it is and play with it. Without spoiling much I can confirm that my character was woken up from a comatose state not once but four times with increasing ironic intent. It amused me and made me mildly optimistic for the storyline to come.

  • The quests did not. Not by a very, very long chalk. I don't think there's one in the first three or four locations that I literally haven't done before almost action for action in other MMOs. Anyone with a low tolerance for potboiler filler quests is going to be tearing their hair out in ten minutes. Fortunately my tolerance for that sort of thing is sky high.
  • If you think that cat looks creepy you should hear him talk. And he's the least creepy of the five you get to choose from. 
  • Fighting seems easy enough but then it always is at these levels. You'd hope. I'm just pressing keys at random. I didn't bother to read any of the spell descriptions. Everything so far has died in a couple of hits. If I start to struggle, then I'll look into what does what. Anyway, the cat can do the heavy lifting.

I don't get the feeling this is an MMO I'll pursue for long but I've thought that about a few Eastern conversions and ended up pottering around in them for a good while so who knows? It's certainly been worth the very small trouble it was to download and install. What more can you ask for free?

Musings On A Wet Monday Morning

A little while ago Azuriel posted some thought-provoking observations on the inherent structural problems facing the MMORPG genre. These boil down to the slipperiness of definitions and the willingness of the audience to be satisfied.

That post, which I found myself mulling over yesterday, after the sad and arguably unnecessary demise of City of Steam, was prompted by another from SynCaine, that infamous pillar of the Axis of Blogging Evil.  The Evil One was bouncing off yet another post, this time from Wilhelm at TAGN, which itself derived from what was probably no more than a routine space-filler for a slow starting year at PCGamer.

So the circle turns. Often lambasted for negativity, SynCaine is more an agent provocateur, a satirist even. Like Keen, who professed rather bizarrely only yesterday that "there’s nothing out right now except for EverQuest that comes even close to satisfying a TRUE MMORPG experience", the register is often closer to disappointment than contempt.

Theirs are the voices of gamers who are not easily satisfied. As Azuriel explains, that makes them a bad fit for MMORPGs in the first place: "I’d wager that most people that stick with the MMO genre long-term generally find one game and settle in. And why wouldn’t you?"

Sometimes you just have to find a new home.

SynCaine, in common with many other long-time bloggers and commenters and countless millions of players who choose not to share their opinions with the world, has drifted away from the genre altogether. Keen, after many, many attempts to find a home elsewhere, has ended up back where he began, or as close as he can get.

It seems most long-time MMO fans don't do that. They settle in. They settle down. They never leave.

The frenzied years of WoW tourism left us with a different impression: MMO players as a vast swarm, filling the virtual skies, whirring and scrabbling as it descends on each new, bright hope, stripping it clean and wheeling away, leaving the bones to bleach and crumble.

It happened. It still happens. Look at Blade and Soul. Game developers even expect and plan for it. People do like a new shiny. But when the swarm moves on do those bones really lie still and forgotten?

Another road to take.

It seems not. Mostly those MMOs pick themselves up and go on. Remember the hype trains of the last half-decade and change? Allods, Aion, Rift, SW:ToR, ESO, just to name a handful. All still with us. MMOs are very hard to kill (although Trion seems always to be working on new ways to test the boundaries of extinction).

Those that drop seem often to have been culled rather than to have met a natural end. Rubies of Eventide sits in someone's wardrobe, a ball taken home. Tabula Rasa and Helgate:London lost their nerve. Star Wars Galaxies didn't fit the portfolio. City of Heroes was making good money, well-populated and popular, just not enough for corporate targets. City of Steam was scuppered by technology and poor decisions.

WildStar may be the next big beast to fall. It probably won't make it, so everyone says. Missed its market, misjudged its targets, mismanaged its way to the cliff's edge. Take your pick. It's not gone yet, though. Nor is Firefall, another of those MMOs you wonder just who plays and which underwent many of the same trials and still does.

I played it for a while. I might again. I never gave Red 5 any money, though, because I am the problem not the solution. I pay money every month to Daybreak Games, whose games I don't play all that often because I'm busy playing every MMO that catches my attention for free. That great long list of installed MMOs I have, growing week by week, earns no-one anything much. I'm not a rational consumer. Don't survey me.

It's no good looking back.

And yet someone must be paying, somewhere. As I was thinking about this yesterday I remembered a few MMOs I played long ago. With sunsets in mind I thought perhaps I ought to revisit a few before the chance was past. Perhaps the chance was already past. That's happened to me before.

Not this time. Anyone remember Eden Eternal? I doubt it. I mostly remember it because it let me play a giant cartoon mouse. Well, it's still there if I feel like doing that again. It's only five years old though, a mere stripling. What about Regnum? Once also known as Realms Online and now known as Champions of Regnum but still the same game. I had a short and happy frolic there and look, here it is. Next year it will have been running for a decade. It's even on Steam.

Ah yes, Steam. There, perhaps, is a partial explanation for this fountain of youth the genre seems to have found. Only partial, of course. The core reason for the insane longevity of even the most apparently unappealing MMOs is surely, as Azuriel says, that some people never leave. Even so, attrition must wear them all down over time. An infusion of new blood is necessary if the corpse is to keep on shambling.

Even when it seems you're all alone.

I'm new to Steam but I'm fast beginning to see its attractions, both to players and producers alike. My Library, which stood at no games at all for years, then one for twelve months, now has three. Thanks to SynCaine (him again) I downloaded Sunless Sea, which is not an MMO, even by the broadest definition. Its predecessor, Echo Bazaar (later known as Fallen London), which I played for a while and for which I made my Twitter account, something then required, arguably was. Is. It, of course, is also still running.

I played 19 minutes. By the time I got around to playing again my free weekend pass had expired. I'm not sure I'll play Sunless Sea again - it's a bit more of a "game" than interests me and a bit less of a story - but I'm sold on the ease of access.

One of the annoying things about trying new MMOs is all the form filling, the registering, the passwords and so forth. Steam circumvents much of that and if for no other reason I will likely end up using it as a portal for MMOs that use it. Like, perhaps, Knight Online, a game I have never before considered trying, a game that launched in the same year as WoW but which has only arrived on Steam in 2016, a dozen years later.

And your past glories mean nothing.

This isn't going anywhere in particular. I'm just talking out loud, working things through. We'll come back to this, over and again, I'm sure.

There are all these MMOs, you see. Some people start playing them and never stop so the games keep rolling along and as they go they pick up more players as others drop off. Meanwhile game companies look at them, see them there, keeping on going, and think "we'd like some of that" and make more. And people start playing those and some of them keep playing...

There are a lot of people in the world. The internet is endlessly accommodating. There is no clear reason why any of this would stop unless the critical mass of people interested in playing this type of game falls below a viable threshold and who knows what that threshold might be? It's clearly not very large if Istaria and Ryzom can survive and even prosper.

There's always a new dawn just over that hill.

The whole thing clearly isn't going to come to an end just because a lot of people lose interest, get bored or disenchanted and wander off. There are, after all, as noted, a lot of people in the world, more every day, and most of them haven't even had the chance yet to be bored by an MMO. They still have that life-experience ahead of them.

So, yes, some MMOs will go under. As the years wear on more ghosts will walk. Changes in fashion, taste, technology and definition may slow the flow of newcomers from production and consumption both but will the stream be dammed entire? I wouldn't bet on that.

I'm thinking the trick is to attach to the genre and not become overly infatuated with the individual games but that, of course, is impossible. It's always going to hurt when one you love falls. It's comforting to know there are so many but there's always that one, isn't there?  Not to love isn't a response.

The more I consider this the less I understand. It's magic, after all. One morning I'll wake and like fairy gold it will all be gone. Until then, we're rich. Let's enjoy it.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

All Journeys End Here : City of Steam

Then came the last days. The slow groan as the gears wound down. The air dull and heavy, a miasma hanging in the tired air.

The great plazas of Arkadia thrummed with nervous frenzy, tall Aetherlords and Harbingers pacing back and forth, idling as their masters gamed the Transmute terminals, sifted through their storage.

Across the airwaves messages spat and crackled. A Golden Tortoise discovered, another amazing find, another. All worthless now. Futile. Done.

Few ventured further in these darkening hours. The Spire hung high above, unclimbed. The endless incursions of the Trow continued unopposed. Somewhere, Imraphel maintained his deceptions, as yet undiscovered.

The Nexus grinds on, its long creep to Neruvia still a quarter-century away around the Spiral. No-one living now will see its end.

Tiska had her plans. She'd come far and, lately, fast. So many sunken corridors ticking with clockroaches, so many dusted library halls, thick with unread books, unquiet dead. So many killings.

From those desperate days in Denton, where it all began, fleeing the Mythspikes, her hapless family clinging to her coat-tails. Through the great stations of the Railhauler down to Refuge, where the airships hung like iron clouds against a ragged sky, loudspeakers blaring their incessant warnings and commands.

On through the mazes and labyrinths of The Mechanism. Out across the blighted plains of The Ironwaste, The Broken Stair. To Heartland Road then on again, Meluan's Gate, The Vault, Founder's Annex and, at last, The Gardenworks. End of the line.

Each new discovery brought danger, disappointment, deception and despair. Imraphel cajoled, flattered, darkened. Tiska performed miracles, made broken promises whole, met lost legends, long thought dead. Above all, she survived.

No more. It all ends here. Imraphel revealed at last in his shining lie. The Progenitor Fey, Paragon Child, Nexus' doom. This tale is told.

Somewhere, in another world, another Tiska travels on, farther up the Spire, towards an inevitable confrontation with her tainted mentor. That Tiska's story goes untold, unseen.

This Tiska rests. In Refuge once again, with her family, Frella, Frezyl, Fizzgig and Fnort, her travails ended.

There will be fireworks in Arkadia later, a final, futile fist shaken against fate, lighting up the skies one last, one very last time. Tiska won't be watching.

Her journey is over. She did her part. Everything she set out to achieve, she achieved. Nothing lasts forever and nothing ever lasts. We all follow The Spiral.

Farewell, City of Steam. Farewell Tiska. Sweet dreams through the long night.
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