Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Happy Wintersday, Skritt-Kickers! : GW2

Wintersday is here again and, with the repairs to Lion's Arch progressing slowly (euphemism for "not happening"), the center of celebrations has shifted to Divinity's Reach. Jennah, Party Queen of Tyria, was never one to miss an opportunity to spend taxpayers' money on having a good time so I doubt Magnus, Kiel or whoever is supposedly in charge of the burned-out wreck that is L.A. needed to ask twice.

All the usual favorites are back for us to ignore enjoy - snowball fights, toys running amok, amateurs who couldn't carry a tune in a blanket giving it plenty on the handbells... Tixx is around somewhere with his airship doing something or other. And like that.

Apparently you can make one of these trees and put it in your Personal Instance
so its Wintersday all year long. I'll get right on that.

There are a few new wrinkles. That "amusing", autonomic, self-aware golem is back with his bucket. This time around he's trading under the name Ho-Ho-Tron which suggests he may be self-aware but he lacks any sense of self-awareness. Also I'm pretty sure he's scamming. As he herds his present-laden cow from one side of the giant hole to the other he makes some comment about doing his community service but didn't he already complete his sentence, at our expense, months ago?

I'd like to be able to claim I was the one posing the moral dilemma rather than making the Katy Perry joke but...
Authenticity aside, he's nothing if not a hard worker. Round and round he goes, surrounded by a jostling pack of players determined to grab for themselves any presents that fall off the cart. Are we any better than the demented skritt who burrow up through the flagstones to steal them? Don't ask me difficult questions when I've got my kicking boots on!

At least they seem to be feeding him well
The oddest addition has to be the new quest. Yes it is a quest. Well what is it then? It's not an event. It's not an achievement. You speak to a Grawl, he tells you to get him something, you go speak to someone who might have it and he wants something else so you go get him that. Then you go back to the Grawl and he comes up with the next thing he wants and so on. That. Is. A. Quest.

It's also ill-considered and incoherent. This Grawl has stolen some Wintersday "ornaments" from a bunch of orphans, ostensibly because he doesn't like the noise they make (I think he means the ornaments but maybe it's the orphans. He's a grawl. Who knows what he means?). All this happens in your personal instance.

Pity you can't say as much for the education.
Just look at that spelling!
Now, if you're a Human, there actually IS an orphanage in your personal instance (just go with it) so there's at least a basis for suspending disbelief. The Quest, however, has to work for all players, so this Grawl and his attendant, ornament-deprived Orphans (actually one orphan, presumably elected by the rest and delegated to speak on their behalf. And his "friend") are lurking in the Personal Instance allocated to each race in lieu of actual housing.

In the case of a Charr player, that means there's a Grawl hiding at the back of a section of The Black Citadel that's positively teeming with heavily-armed Legionaries, many of whom are off-duty and liquored up. With a human child. And a Charr cub, who gets no lines.

Best mob skill ever
How did they get there without being, at best, arrested and, more likely, spit-roasted and eaten or used for target practice? What about that cub? Is he an orphan too? Would it matter even if he was? Wouldn't he just be in a Farhar anyway? Can't ask him - he didn't get a speaking part in this little nativity play. And why in the name of the gods we Charr don't believe in are they hiding in MY house anyway? I don't even have a house! No, don't get me started...

So, things don't get off to the most credible of beginnings and it doesn't improve from there. The Grawl insists on giving clues in some of the most execrable doggerel I have ever read. Yesterday's clue did manage to point to the next part of the quest, handily situated right across the metal gangway from the instance, but today he was rambling on about a place made of flowers.

Hey, Vogons! Better up your game!

The Grove perhaps? No, luckily for me Mrs Bhagpuss already went there and tried that and was able to save me from wasting my time and my silver. In fact you just go to the same place in Black Citadel you went to yesterday. I just gave up trying to make it make sense. It carries on tomorrow (there's a day's wait between stages). Maybe all will become clear in due course. Or it won't. I'm betting on won't.

He followed me home and I'm going to keep him.
As well as new things to do there are lots of new things to get. The familiar wrapping of the presents hides a slew of interesting additions to the usual range of socks and snowflakes. Runes, sigils, tonics and finishers abound. There are already complaints about inventory space being compromised. There was even an inexplicable occurrence where I opened something (I didn't notice what - I was opening so many things just then) and received an item that auto-completed the entire new collection (which I hadn't even started). I got a Skritt mini. Result!. Oh yes - there's a new collection. Did I mention that?

All of this abundance and confusion arrived with the threatened promised revamp of the Daily and Monthly Achievement systems. I was going to do a whole post on that but honestly? I can't be bothered. There's a eleven page thread on the forums about it already, running roughly 50-50 Love It/Hate It. I don't feel either. I just feel meh.

Could you be more specific?
The people who really love it are the ones who were previously doing the dailies just to get the Laurels. Laurels now come automatically through the Monthly, for which you have to do quite literally nothing more than remember to log in. The people who hate it are the ones who enjoyed seeing the daily fill out in the background as they dd whatever they felt like doing. The first lot feel liberated; the second lot feel trapped.

The WvW seem much, much easier than the rest
but maybe that's just me
I'm one of those weirdos who does the dailies because I like doing the dailies. I did prefer the old ones, which offered a lot more choice, but I don't object to the new ones, which are extremely specific. I'll do them as long as I continue to find them amusing and then I'll stop. As for the rewards, I don't spend the sodding Laurels anyway - I have nearly two thousand of them stashed away across the two accounts. The rewards they've attached to each individual achievement are marginally more useful.

As a revamp I'll give it five. Out of ten. It was completely unnecessary from my point of view but I'm sure they have their reasons. Getting everyone to cluster in the same maps so it looks like there are more of us comes to mind...

It might have been better not to have introduced the new system at the exact same time as adding a second set of holiday dailies that do reward a Laurel, though. Not likely that was going to confuse things, was it? Also, the two days of Wintersday dailies we've had so far have been identical. Not sure if that's a co-incidence or whether we'll just get the same half-dozen for the entire season. If so, I think that could get a tad wearing.

I'm begging you, don't make me go to Queensdale any more.

We're asked to perm any five from six but since one's completing the insanely hard Wintersday Jumping Puzzle that's actually five from five as far as this household is concerned. Of the five I can do, the Snowball one is really annoying, albeit simple if Mrs Bhagpuss and I duo it, and the Bell Choir looked to be impossible until I bothered to read a walkthrough and actually pay attention. Now I can do it with my eyes closed although with my ears closed would be preferable.

The remaining three are trivial but I have to wonder along with Mrs Bhagpuss, who, upon being faced with the second, repeated set of tasks, asked "How is this meant to be fun?". I don't really have an answer for that. Fortunately there's still a lot of non-directed content left that is fun, like marching a dozen golems around Fort Aspenwood's borderland and taking all their keeps like we did this afternoon, so I'll just have to make do with that.

And we do have Wintesday in WvW too, you know. We decorate and everything.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Embers Still Glow: Landmark, WildStar, TESO et al

We're not quite at the end of the year yet but several people haven't been able to hold off reviewing their previous prognostications. Wilhelm started it, followed by SynCaine and J3w3l, everyone linking to everyone else as they went. Like I just did.

Well, who am I to buck a trend? I'm not much for predictions but in the very dying embers of last year I did cast the runes for a few of the potential big MMO events of 2014. There were only three possible new partners on my dance card back then: Everquest Landmark, WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online.

Of Landmark I observed "I think it will confuse and disappoint in equal measure". Pretty much on the money I'd say. I bought the Trailblazer pack for Mrs Bhagpuss as a birthday present and tagged along myself on an Explorer ticket. How appropriate. We had a lot of fun for a couple of months and I don't regret those purchases at all.

For a while Landmark (with the confusing EQ prefix quietly removed) was a hot topic across the MMO blogosphere. Much of the discussion centered around mystification over what the "game" was trying to be, a mystery which, I think it's fair to say, has yet to be resolved to anyone's great satisfaction.

I enjoyed being a part of that. I also really enjoyed building my Thomas Crown Affair 1960s mountain aerie. Unfortunately I have a suspicion that those first two or three months in "alpha" may well be the most fun I ever have in Landmark.

By June we were in "beta", not that anyone could tell the difference, and I was already calling Landmark "the MMO no-one mentions any more". Wilhelm observed that "Despite being called beta, this is still pre-alpha development" and I can't argue with that. Almost a year on SOE are finally getting around to adding mobs this week, so perhaps by Spring of 2015 we might be somewhere close to a beta build, although I wouldn't bet on it.

TESO arrived next. I passed. I never liked any of the previous Elder Scrolls games and didn't imagine this would be any different. It was, perhaps, a little subjective and over-the-top to extrapolate my disinterest and distaste into a prediction that TESO would "disappoint just about everyone". In the event things didn't go that badly.

Some people certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves at the beginning but it wasn't to last. The positive commentary soon dissipated until literally no-one I read was mentioning TESO any more. I don't even see many news stories about it nowadays.

The console launch, already postponed for six months, has been pushed into next year but, while it hardly sounds like a success story, the game is still running on a subscription and there's no sign of that changing any time soon. TESO would appear to have achieved stability at least. The general feeling seems to be that it's a quiet success although on what evidence other than not having gone F2P or merged servers I'm not quite sure.

WildStar was my pick of the three to go on to fame and fortune but I certainly wasn't sticking my neck out even then, suggesting only that "I wouldn't be that surprised to see it making the best showing of these three in 2014, at least until something better comes along". Faint praise that turned out not to be faint enough. WildStar limped out of the gate to an indifferent welcome and drifted downwards from there.

I wasn't planning on playing it at all. I didn't bother with any of the long series of beta weekends until the very end, when I received a beta key I don't recall applying for. I tried it and I quite liked it. So did a lot of people - for a while. Within a very few weeks, however, interest had dropped almost to nothing.

Carbine swiftly went the now-traditional megaserver route, allowing them to consolidate shrinking server populations without having to announce an embarrassing series of server merges just a few months after launch. They followed that with a hefty cut in the rate of new content development and the abandonment of old-school 40-man raiding, both of which had been core concepts for the game in pre-launch publicity. There was much scuttlebutt doing the rounds about the dire emotional and professional state of the studio too.

And yet WildStar carries on, still charging a subscription, still claiming to have hundreds of thousands of players. Everyone who ever expresses an opinion says the game should go F2P and will go F2P...everyone but Carbine and NCSoft. If it does I'll give it a run. Until then it made its niche and it can sit in it.

So, definitely not a vintage year for much-hyped AAA MMOs. There was one more, which almost no-one, including me, thought to mention: ArcheAge. Trion slipped that one in from leftfield, grabbing a huge amount of attention and goodwill, almost all of which they proceeded to squander. By now their second-hand, refurbished import is beginning to look even more downtrodden than their own, largely ignored and forgotten offerings, Trove and Defiance (remember those? No, thought not).

Leaving aside Bungie's Destiny, about which I know almost nothing, the only other really big deal of 2014 was Warlords of Draenor. I didn't mention that one last year, mostly because I don't pay an awful lot of attention to WoW, but its fair to say its been the MMO success story of the year. Will it lead to another round of MMO companies scrabbling to emulate Blizzard, this time by plunging resources into fan-pleasing, lore-heavy expansions for older MMOs?

I bloody well hope so! 

Saturday, 13 December 2014

In Which I Give Myself A Good Talking To : GW2, EQ2

It's one of the fundamental tenets of massively multiple online roleplaying gaming that everything is subject to revision. The imaginary worlds we pretend to inhabit aren't static. They are meant to grow and alter as though they were real.

We understand that each time we slip on our pixel skins and step out under those familiar, unfamiliar skies something may have changed. In this way it mirrors our lives outside. The walk you take each day is never the same walk. Businesses open and close, the traffic shifts, whole communities change character around us without asking our consent.

For the longest while this was a great part of what attracted me to the form. The mutability. The potential for wonder and surprise. The thrill of the new, the unknown. Of late, though, I find I weary of it all. Instead of yearning for the new, the fresh, the unforeseen, I log in hoping to find things much the same.

The nature and purpose of the changes seem themselves to have changed. Casting back, more than a decade, to a time when rude individuals set up their rough huts across Qeynos Hills and the agents of Bertoxxolous worked secretly in the shadows to bring the plague for the Plaguebringer, in that the long, golden age of mystery and suspense, I had no real understanding of what was happening around me.

Over what seems in memory to be a very long time indeed, a slow, obscure narrative played out, bringing great disruption and a clamor of excitement. Places that had been safe became deadly. Great forces contended but for what prizes it was not ours to know. Opportunities arose for those quick enough to grasp them. Change was all around and it felt right and good and natural.

Why we cannot have nice things: Fig. 1.

Today all change comes forewarned. It arrives on schedule. From the rote formality of the Living Story, inching forward a notch every second Tuesday unless holidays intervene, to the sporadic Issues and Updates of The Secret World or EQ2, anticipated, awaited, advertized and analyzed before ever they are played, little reaches us unheralded.

Change you know is coming is very different from change you don't expect. Even should you choose not to visit websites, click on links, watch Twitch streams and YouTube presentations, open emails or engage with social media, on the day of the Update your characters will certainly receive direct notification inside the game. There is no option to arrive unaware at the point of crisis, to walk in innocence into the line of fire, the way I did the day I became suddenly and fatally aware of the Dark Elven invasion of Firiona Vie.

Change is unavoidable but the greatest changes, while vital, used to be contained. Boxed expansions brought whole new continents to explore but largely left the known lands alone. If you wanted to go on as you had always gone on then that option was open for you to take.

In a geographic sense that remains, largely, true but over the years a miasma of minor and major visual polishes and makeovers has settled on the glories of the past, leaving an unattractive patina, not of neglect but of mismanagement. The endless attempts to update appearances - better textures, new character models, improved graphic engines - often sit on the surface of older games like the fashions of youth on an aging narcissist, fooling no-one but disturbing many.

Once reviled, now revered.

Then there are the repurposings. The villages of Freeport and Qeynos, instanced and questlined; all those new New Player Experiences, those zone revamps that follow no logic or lore beyond that of the extended focus group and the metrics report.

We always had upheaval, of course. How many times did Splitpaw change hands; or Grobb? Even ailing worlds like Telon, where one might have expected the tide of change to flow slowly if at all, saw heavy-handed tinkering along its fringes, time and again. If change feels more ponderous, less organic now, perhaps it's merely that the stardust is off our eyes.

Even when the terrain remains unaltered, to revisit often feels false because our characters do not. Beneath their surfaces writhe changes wrought by hands other than their, or our, own: adjustments made by the Gods of Design, who bring endless alteration to the physical laws of the worlds in which our characters and their own frangible, powerless Gods reside.

Through no exercise of theirs our characters strengthen. Unborn imaginary generations outstrip the fantasies of their fancied ancestors. Learning curves flatten, enemies weaken, skills and abilities are handed out as of right. Weapons that would have graced a knight in a former age become fit only for farmhands. Nothing stays the same.

Well, why should it? Time moves on, the world changes, you can never go home again and all the rest of that dismal, defeated claptrap. Only...

To be retained for F2P players as a default 50% xp reduction. Thanks for that.
Recently I read several proofs of novels to be published this winter and next spring. They were all very good and they were all very bleak. I was exhausted both by novelty and despair so I went looking for solace in the familiar. Instead of another new novel I picked out an old favorite and began re-reading. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change. Everything was familiar. Everything was in its place. Some things remain immutable. Time runs off them like rain. You can go home there and they have to take you in.

Were I to begin to feel, like Stargrace, weary of MMOs yet still not weary of gaming I could, fathomably, return to an offline favorite and find it exactly as I remembered. Perhaps that might be a little harder to do than picking up an old copy of a book; complex hardware mitigates against reusability, over time. Not impossible, however; just harder. In MMOs, though, there truly is no going back.

Next week the daily achievement system in GW2 gets yet another reset and WvW gains a new ruleset for a month. The two things I most enjoy doing in that game right now will no longer be what they were. Also next week EQ2 implements a radical overhaul of both the Dungeon Maker and AA systems, something that will bring profound change to the game experience of just about everyone playing there.

Like it or not change is on the way; change followed by change followed by change. Yes, I weary of it. Yes, I often wonder if I wouldn't be happier playing an MMO where nothing ever changed. Well, wonder away. That MMO doesn't exist. It never has and it never will.

Our boats drift with the current, borne onward ceaselessly into the future. Tomorrow is always another day. Get used to it.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Level 100 - The Easy Way : EQ2

What a difference a patch makes. Just a short while ago the crafting channels and forums were buzzing with discontent and frustration. Tradeskillers appeared to have lost out to adventurers yet again in the leveling stakes. The crafting questline for the new expansion topped out with the best part of three levels left to go and other than a single daily giving around 8% of a level the only option appeared to be to grind writs and plenty of them.

Adding injury to insult the xp return from writs was dismal. Feldon at EQ2Wire calculated it would take around 180 timed "Rush Order" writs to do the full five levels, reduced to 130 if you first completed the quest sequences. Breaking the numbers down he observed "Each tradeskill writ from level 95-97 awards ~3% XP. This is with vitality and an XP potion. The number drops to ~2.4% for levels 98-100. These numbers have traditionally been 5-7% per writ!"

Players of most MMOs often express the opinion that no-one is listening to their concerns. The more cynical members of the community sometimes suggest that no, they are listening, they just want us to have a hard time. It's true that issues can often be left to fester for months, even years, before anything gets done. It's also true that the solution, when it comes, isn't always the one people asked for, or were expecting, or wanted.

This time no-one had to wait for long and the fix that went in with last week's update did, beyond any doubt, address the perceived problem directly and effectively. So, everyone's happy, right? Well, not exactly. There are a few naysayers:

"So, I just tested out today's change to tradeskill exp. I am now getting a FULL LEVEL of experience doing ONE writ at level 74! This is absurd!"

"SOE, you have made a big error here"

Those quotes are taken from the nine-page thread on the forums. I don't claim to have read it all but from a quick flip-through a more common reaction goes like this:

"THANK YOU for the change to writ xp! Awesome!! Now going to level all my crafters!"

"The change is appreciated."

"Thank-you very much for listening to crafters and increasing the xp for quests and writs. I think it is a good balance, I have to work to get to 100, but not feel like this is an endless grind. I read both of these threads, and it seems you can't satisfy everyone, but I for one am very happy. Thanks again!"

I was largely unaware this was going on. I'd read the patch notes, which say only that "Altar of Malice missions, repeatable quests and all Tradeskill Writs will now multiply experience rewards based on your experience modifiers such as veteran bonus, vitality, or potions. I hadn't even considered the potential effects on lower level crafting. I took the changes to be relevant to the expansion levels only. A close re-reading does make it clear that's not the case but who gives update notes close textural analysis?

I might have noticed, had I chosen, as I occasionally do, to knock out one of the Loyalty dailies with my Sage, currently somewhere in the 60s or 70s. As it happened I didn't. The only post-patch crafting I'd done was the Tranquil Sea daily, where I had noticed a very welcome increase: xp on the hand-in jumped from about 8% to over 20%. Nice.

That was clearly going to cut my time-to-cap from just doing dailies considerably. Indeed, it whisked me along so briskly that by today my weaponsmith was already a quarter of the way into level 99. I had a free afternoon so I thought why not make that up to a round 100?

After doing the daily (pickles again - what is it with pickles?) he had less than half a level to go. Back in Freeport he grabbed a Level 99 Rush Order. He even remembered to buy all the new "Essential" recipe books before setting the timer off, for once. Those are the basic ones the craft guild NPCs sell. The "Advanced" ones with the rare recipes are all dropped or come as quest rewards.

The rush order allowed about eight minutes to finish but it took well under half that, even allowing for running out of Effulgent Coal half way through and having to go to the vendor. The xp was very reasonable at over 5% with vitality (no potion). At that rate it would take less than 45 minutes to hit the cap.

On the down side, however, it would use up a lot of mats that I'd really rather hang on to for something more useful. And I really don't enjoy doing writs. So I abandoned that idea. I did the Adorning daily since the guy that gives it was standing next right there with a feather over his head. That was mostly for skill-ups but it did give a couple of percent. Then I thought I'd see if there was anything going on in Mara, which used to be craft central back in the day.

All the old favorites there were greyed out at my advanced level but stap me if I didn't run into Captain Ethan, who'd written me some letter I'd completely ignored. He starts the crafting questline for the last expansion I think. He sent me on a lengthy trip, first to The Feerrott, then to Stonebrunt Highlands, then Loping Plains and finally all the way to The Ethernere.

That took about as long as it would have taken to do most of the Rush Orders I was avoiding but it was about 10,000 times more entertaining. Unfortunately even a single writ would have given more xp. So I abandoned the idea of racing to 100 and decided to leave it to the dailies. It was only going to take a couple more after all. What's the hurry?

Going back to adventuring, which was lagging behind crafting by a little over a level, my ratonga changed his trade clothes and rolling pin for plate armor (another detail he's been known to overlook occasionally with fatal consequences) and headed over to Highhold Keep on Kithicor Island in the Phantom Sea. After a few tussles with one-legged undead orcs and skeletal gnolls he was doing his hand-in when he spotted a green glowing feather over someone's head way off in a corner.

There's a whole arcane language of feather-colors in EQ2 that I don't pretend to have kept up with over the years but that one looked identical to the one that hangs over Skritt the Crafting Daily ratonga. A quick flit across the lawn, another change of clothes, ten barricades quick-welded at the forge and a hand in later and boom! 100 Weaponsmith.

I was totally not expecting it and the deafening DING! and dazzling lightshow took me so much by surprise I barely managed to snap the screenshot above before the message and the glow faded away. That would normally be that because, much though I enjoy a little crafting now and again in EQ2, the prospect of taking another character all the way up to the top fills me with something quite like horror. Only now there does appear to be a window of opportunity...

I think I'll get my Sage working for an hour or two tonight. Just in case. Apparently there may already be a nerf correction on the Test server. It's not so much that I want to go faster for going faster's sake - its more I'd do just about anything to avoid doing writs ever again.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Can't We All Just Be Friends?

We all like a virtual dust-up. If we didn't we wouldn't be playing MMORPGs. They're all about the fighting, aren't they? Just about everything we ever do there involves combat at some point or other.
The majority of quests end in violence. Often begin with it, too, with plenty more liberally scattered along the way. Dungeoneering is home invasion on the grand scale. Raiding is violent revolution.

Then there's PvP: battlegrounds, realm vs realm, warfronts, world vs world, ganking, piracy, duelling, sovereignty - none of them amount to much more than a thin excuse for a ruck. You can gussie it up with a lot of talk about loyalty, pride and skill but really it's a bunch of kids trying to kick lumps out of each other in the park of a Saturday night because one lot looked at the other lot funny.

Crafting isn't much better.  Apparently innocuous activities like brewing and potion-making frequently involve the use of body parts ripped out of creatures (or people) who hadn't finished with them yet. Even picking up a few logs to make a chest of drawers generally involves killing half a dozen wolves and a goblin who had the temerity to think he was safe in his own part of the woods.

To quote The Slits - "There must be more to life"

I've never really had a problem with it. Well, how could I? It would be a bit like complaining tennis would be a fine game if it wasn't for all that knocking a ball across a net. Still, you can have too much of a good thing and despite what you might have heard not everything becomes a nail just because you're holding a hammer.

Of late I've taken to moaning about all the obligatory fighting that gets between me and GW2's Living Story narrative, where it does sometimes feel like trying to read a novel while the author challenges you to an arm-wrestling competition in the middle of every chapter. Hard to believe, I know, but sometimes yet another a fight really isn't synonymous with added value in an MMORPG and that doesn't only hold true for purely narrative content.

It was as I was exploring the excellent new "jumping puzzle" area added to the Silverwastes map in the last update that I realized that for once I wasn't being asked to fight anything. Nor even to avoid fighting anything. There just wasn't anything much there to be fought. It felt strangely liberating.

Clambering over those rocks, just exploring for the heck of it, made me recall a few other memorable explorations. There was that time in DAOC, when a bunch of us pushed all the way into Muspelheim not long after launch, before Mythic had found time to put any monsters in there. There were the hours I spent clambering around the rooftops in Felwithe; the days it took to find the way up to the Ironforge Airfield; all the many times I wandered across some unfinished dungeon or lair in Vanguard.

MMOs - they're all about the conversations you have, aren't they?

Thinking about it, some of my clearest, most lasting memories of nearly every MMO I've played consist of lengthy explorations in parts of the world where nothing actually lived, or indeed happened.  It isn't only exploring that goes better when things aren't trying to eat you either. I spent most of today sorting all the bags on eleven characters, cycling it all through two guild banks, getting it stacked and organized. That's one of my favorite ways to spend a Sunday. It's an experience that wouldn't be enhanced if I had to beat the banker around the head for thirty seconds every time I wanted to open another vault.

Then there's the gathering arts: foraging, mining, logging and all the rest. When I set out with my sickle in one hand and my basket in the other I instinctively search for the areas with the fewest creatures likely to chew on me. In EQ2, where gathering is a way of life, I used to know all the spots where you could just get on with filling your bags and forget about fighting for an hour or two.

Once you start to think about it there are plenty of activities in MMOs apart from exploring, gathering, crafting and listening to stories, that aren't obviously improved by close combat . All those shinies we love to collect, for example. The fun from those comes in searching for them, finding them and completing the collections, doesn't it? And what about achievements? Are the tick-boxes and titles you got for building snowmen or eating pies any less satisfying than the ones you got for killing a thousand foozles?

It's not the giving, its the receiving.

Then there's building and decorating, two in-game pastimes that have generally steered clear of combat in the past. The trend appears to be going the other way of late with plug-in home dungeons and do-it-yourself PvP arenas but at root homemaking remains primarily a non-combat option. As for the supposed bedrock of any game's longevity, socializing, it's often claimed that people continue to log in long after they've lost all interest in progressing their characters just so they can stand around in the safe zones chatting to their friends.

All of which makes me wonder if there would be any future for an MMORPG where combat was, at most, a minor background activity. What would be the commercial prospects for such a game? Would it attract any kind of audience? Would anyone pay to play something like that?

The history for non-combat MMOs isn't encouraging but there have been a few. A while back I wrote about The Endless Forest, arguably more of an art project than an MMO. Then there's Myst Online.  Both of those are still up and running but as community enterprises rather than commercial propositions.

Glitch, which I loathed, hoped to make money, launched, reverted to beta, then closed. The venerable "A Tale In The Desert" has done far better than that and does, I believe, run commercially to a degree although it's described in its indicia as "primarily self-funded". It can hardly be called mainstram though. The only self-identifying, openly commercial non-combat MMO I can recall was Seed. It wasn't a shining example; it closed down after just 149 days, making it possibly the shortest-lived MMO ever.

More to look at, less to kill? I dunno - when I go on holiday I always take a machete.

What all those examples have in common is that not one of them looks or plays much like a traditional MMO. Neither does the newest contender for the non-combat crown, Wander. I hope that one bucks the trend and does well. I'm all for diversity and variety. What I'd like to see one day, though, is something much closer to WoW, EQ2, LotRO, GW2 or any of the other several hundred roughly diku-mud-derived MMOs, only this time with much less focus on killing mobs or fighting other players.

Not a sandbox, where a non-combat role is one option among many so long as you do all the creative heavy lifting for yourself; there are a few of those and more due to come on-stream very soon. No, I'd like to see a themepark-style game with a plethora of professionally produced content provided and almost none of it combat.

Would it be feasible to provide sufficient new explorable areas, collections, achievements, tameable pets, crafting recipes, quests, events, storylines and all the rest to make it feel there was always enough to do without taking up 50% or more of the players' time by getting them to whittle health bars? Wouldn't that be prohibitively expensive?

Told you it would end in tears.

When you look at the incredible time and effort that goes into "balancing" combat classes for both PvE and PvP, a job that never, ever ends, and into the design and scripting of raids that are seen only by a small percentage of the playerbase, you'd have to think it's a possibility. When you consider the incredible work ANet's artists and map designers put in producing spectacles like the Bazaar of the Four Winds, The Durmand Priory Library or Glint's Lair, things they seem to be able to produce like shelled peas and which last about as long, you might decide the odds have improved.

Even if it was economically viable, though, would it work? Allowing that it was handled as well as the average moderately successful triple-A MMO? That's not a very high bar come to think of it. /wave Trion.

I'm not sure. Combat seems to be baked into the traditional themepark/diku MMO model. No matter how much fun you might be having decorating your nine-room mansion or sorting your crafting mats into ascending order by tier and tradeskill there always comes a point when you just want to get out there and kick some gnoll butt. Or maybe that's just me.

Still, I'd love to see someone try it someday.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Past Is A Different Country: GW2

Ravious has a very positive post up about the latest Living Story installment, Seeds of Nightmare. I'm not quite as impressed as all that but I liked it too. Well, what there was of it.

Adrian observed in the comments yesterday " It was shorter than the last one and not a whole lot happens." That about does it. I would guess there's maybe 10-15 minutes of dialog and cut scenes. There is a lot of really quite intriguing back-story and lore but the main storyline comes to a dead stop.

I don't think it's a spoiler to say that after completing the entire episode I have no more idea why Caithe took Glint's egg, where she went with it or what she might be about to do next than I had two weeks ago, when she ran off with the dam' thing in the first place. I do, however, know a lot more than I did about the Sylvari in general and several of that race's featured players in particular. If I was asked to sum up what I now know I think something along the lines of "they're a race of sociopaths" would probably cover it.

Take my word for it - you don't want to. Not this lot.

Of course, that description fits the Asura pretty tightly too. It's hard to say which sequence in the current chapter is the more unpleasant - the Inquest and their vivisection lab for sentient races or the Sylvari runaway-slave-recovery/ethnic cleansing squad. Either would sit a lot more happily against the relentless grimdark of The Secret World than the watercolor wash and neon rainbow backdrop of Tyria.

Safe to say there aren't a lot of laughs in this episode. The only one of either Destiny's Edge or the Biconics to make an appearance is Marjory and she's never a barrel of laughs at the best of times. Even less so now she's carrying her dead sister in the form of a six-foot sword and brooding on fantasies of revenge.

She and your character visit The Pale Tree, who is not best pleased when she learns you let Caithe get away with the egg. She's positively snappy in fact. She reminded me of a mother who just found out her son "forgot" to deliver a note from school. I never trusted her anyway and not one thing I have heard her say thus far gives me any reason to change my mind.

Pwincess! Come back from the edge!
After that it's the usual traipsing about to find this or that location, before entering an instance, where you have some fights. The McGuffin this time around is a handful of Memory Seeds that let you relive significant events in Caithe's past, the idea being that you might thereby get some handle on her future, viz and to wit where she went with the egg. Well I can't say that worked for me. Don't have a clue.

The traveling is done as yourself with Marjory tagging along. There's a nice new widget that uses a "...warm, warmer, now you're getting cold..." routine to locate the exact spot and then it's into Caithe's memories you go. Marjory stays outside, presumably guarding your inert body, while you get to spin and leap about in the form of Caithe.

Caithe is a thief. I have a level 80 Thief but I rarely play her. Leveling up I pretty much used the bow and spammed Heartseeker and that was it. Shadow Refuge if that didn't work. Whether Caithe's skills bear any resemblance to a player-thief's I can't say, partly out of ignorance and partly because I didn't bother to examine them. I followed the tried and tested method of spamming everything all the time whenever it wasn't on cooldown, dodge included.

Look, I've told you once. You'll be going in the bag if this carries on.

This had me throwing myself around like Batroc ze Leaper on amphetamines but it seemed to get the job done. I died once, thereby discovering Caithe has no downed state and the health of her enemies resets so I made sure not to die again, which wasn't difficult. Normally I'd say I'd rather play my own character but frankly anything that gets these obligatory fight sequences over faster is worth a try.

There's a bug in the Inquest Lab section where Caithe can get stuck in perma-stealth, meaning she can't fight or interact with objects - game over, start the instance again in other words. That happened to me but luckily Faolain was already in combat so I just sat back and watched while she cleared the room. She's unkillable but she has the DPS of an elderly armadillo so it took a while.

Oh yes, Faolain. Wherever you go in Caithe's head Faolain is sure to be there. She's Caithe's quondam lover and current leader of The Nightmare Court, a bunch of bona fide, full-on psychopaths who broke away from The Pale Tree a couple of decades ago so they could be free to act like emo teenagers. And kill people. Most of this chapter is effectively their origin story.

Canach shows his softer side. I think he's over that now.

It's also Canach's origin story and Trahearne's origin story. It's like a Secret Origins Annual! They come out of things about the opposite of what I'd have guessed. Trahearne acts like a stubborn, bigoted ass while Canach is empathic and sympathetic. I wondered if someone swapped a Post-It on someone else's desk back in the writers' room. Can't deny I found it intriguing though.

On it goes like that. Lore, backstory, characterization, no plot progression. Having riled up The Fans throughout Season One by seemingly turning their faces against anything that happened in Tyria prior to 2012 Earth Time, the writers appear to have done a one-eighty and decided the past is where it's at. Or The Fans are where the money comes from and long-term future of the game, if it's going to have one, has to be curated to their satisfaction. Both, probably.

I played a bit of Guild Wars. Origins around launch, Eye of The North and Origins again much later, when I was warming up for GW2. A smattering of the rest - I own all the expansions. I am no kind of GW lore buff though. About all I know of Abaddon or The White Mantle are the names. Consequently I am beginning to feel slightly at sea. I have to wonder how appealing this stuff is to the GW2 players who only know GW2.

Pwincess! Pwincess! I'm sorry I yelled at you. Oh, where did she go?

I imagine that's the demographic that wasn't quite so gosh-wow over the books in the Durmand Priory Library; the players who'd quite like the story to be more about the big dragon we're fighting now and less about things that happened twenty years ago. There are rumblings of dissatisfaction on the forum to this effect although that proves nothing. Rumblings of dissatisfaction is the forum.

It'll all lead somewhere. Most probably to an expansion in the Spring or early Summer. All will no doubt be forgiven and forgotten then. Meanwhile we'll take our story in drip-feed form and like it. It's not like we have a choice.

What's more, the story formed only the most minor part of this update. There was a big revamp of the PvP game, a small addition to the overland map and a humungous new jumping puzzle. To no-one's surprise more than my own it's the jumping puzzle that looks like being the highlight. It may well be getting its own post here, when I have time to explore it further. I spent a very enjoyable hour there today, mostly taking screenshots of my Charr Ranger in heroic poses (see above).

Charr ranger is categorically the worst class/race combo for jumping puzzles so next time I'll be taking an Asura. That'll mean a lot of screenshots looking up. As for that story about a big year for that I guess. Hope he's the patient type of dragon.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Skip To The Good Part : GW2

Sometime today the latest installment of Guild Wars 2's Living Story will hit the megaservers. I'm a little vague as to what chapter we're on but I know there's a trailer on YouTube. It's very short and choppy and when I watched it on a Tablet at work a few days ago it made me feel momentarily depressed because I knew I'd have to play through the unedited version eventually.

The first Living Story "Season" was muddled, chaotic and frequently infuriating. It had highs and lows and plenty of plateau states to bridge them. For all its flaws and shortcomings, however, I saw every single episode to its conclusion on both of my accounts. I never felt I wanted to skip one.

ArenaNet fielded a lot of criticism over LS1 and clearly it was criticism they took to heart. The second arc has been much, much tighter; more focused, more purposive, more targeted than the first. The writers have made a heroic effort to reconnect their rambling narrative with the lore established in the first Guild Wars. They have re-introduced important players from the past of both games: Destiny's Edge, Trahearne, Canach, The Pact.

In another popular move a significant amount of new virtual real estate has been added, first with the Dry Top map and then the adjoining Silverwastes. The achievement structure has been re-tooled to appeal to actual Achievers. All of the content has been allocated as much permanency as any content in an MMO can ever expect to enjoy.

All of this and more has been managed and yet the result, for me, is an increasing loss of interest. When each new chapter drops I dutifully follow the markers, talk to the NPCs, watch the cut scenes, grind through the fights, collect my rewards and that's it. It's all done in one evening. It takes maybe a couple of hours.

Turn round real slow Pwincess...I think it's really them!

After doing the story instances on one account I lose any interest in repeating them on the other. I just open my mail to flag the account in case I might one day want to come back to it; something that looks increasingly unlikely.

The open world maps fare a little better. When Dry Top was new I returned to it a number of times over several weeks. Silverwastes, however, has only seen my characters on the first couple of days and once later on when I had a new build I wanted to test. Other than for the rewards there really seems no reason to go back and the rewards don't do much for me.

The fundamental problem with LS2 from my perspective is how very formulaic it has become, and in so short a time, too. The first season was a hotch-potch. An awful lot of it didn't make much sense. Some of the writing was really quite poor. What it never was, however, was predictable.

We lived through a refugee crisis, saw huge, zone-wide attacks across multiple maps, explored new dungeons, met a whole raft of new characters, reveled in the best event ever added to the game (Marionette), took part in an election, even played a cameo role in a film noir pastiche. Mysterious artifacts appeared, entirely unannounced, all across Tyria and The Mists. A major city was turned into a battleground for weeks on end.

How d'you expect me to keep up with all this dragon stuff?
I've been here two years and I only just found my own kitchen last week.

LS1 was an attempt at a distributed narrative. Not always a successful attempt, that's undeniable, and it was certainly an attempt whose ambition was rarely recognized at the time. In retrospect, however, and particularly with the second season for comparison, I feel a little sorry I didn't appreciate it more. Although I did give it a B- which is a passing grade.

Let's not get too revisionist here. LS1 was no great work of art. Neither was it revolutionary or even particularly original in its approach. Plenty of MMOs have attempted distributed or accretive narratives before GW2 and some of them have made a better fist of it. Probably most of them. Still, it was more interesting and certainly more daring than what has replaced it.

The current Season appears to have condensed into a format as rigid as a crossword puzzle. For the main narrative, each week we speak to some NPCs, go to an instance, fight a mini-boss, speak to some more NPCs, go to another instance, fight a boss. Then it ends.

Some of the instances are spectacular it's true. Some of the boss fights have interesting mechanics (not interesting to me - I'd prefer a "Skip Fight" button - but they amuse some people). Regardless of the quality, however, the whole thing feels increasingly formulaic. It's all very well MMOs using repetitive structures - indeed it's intrinsic to the form - but when the player begins to notice the repetition that indicates a problem.

There has to be a better way...

The new, permanent open world content is much the same. Dry Top and Silverwastes have no real "feel" as parts of Tyria. They look and play like instanced battlegrounds not open world maps. It's as though all the effort that was expended throughout the original game to try and conceal the repetitive nature of the ironically-named "Dynamic Events" has finally been deemed a waste of development time. Instead of events triggering each other in cascading chains that branch according to outcome we get a series of set pieces on an unvarying timer.

It's a bit dull. I think that's what I'm saying. And it requires more effort than I feel it deserves. I'm not bored with the Living Story as such. I still want to know what happens next. I'm just not sure I can be bothered to trudge through the hoops to find out. I might just watch the highlights on YouTube. Someone's sure to post the cut scenes.

I'm not bored with GW2 itself either. I'm still exploring the world. There's a lot I haven't seen yet and a lot of what I have seen I've forgotten. I'll happily go round again. There are plenty of places in Tyria where it's fun just to spend time and be. Sadly, neither of the new maps is one of those places.

Twenty omegas to take a tower. Can we say "Overkill"?

As for WvW, since Yak's Bend graduated to Tier 2 after the last Tourney every match has been exciting, especially across the weekends. We have a bunch of great commanders and there's nearly always something going on. The fighting is more intense, there's more of it and it happens more often. The results are not always easy to predict.

Mrs Bhagpuss suggested a new build so I tried it and then tweaked it to an extreme. It's working very well for me. It certainly makes a change, not dying every second fight, although there's a question over whether I could solo a sentry let alone a camp. Still, I'm hell on wheels when it comes to holding a ring.

WvW somehow manages to be both repetitive and unpredictable at the same time. That's very much what I look to an MMO to provide. The open world of Tyria offers a wonderful environment to explore and relax in, which is also very much something I come to MMOs to experience. I'm not quite sure what value the current iteration of Living Story adds.

Today's LS update will be the last before Wintersday. That's good. I've about had enough of it already, short though the recent run has been, and I'm really looking forward to Wintersday this year. I didn't pay it much attention last go round, a oversight I intend to correct.

Get your airship warmed up, Tixx! My bank's full of stuffing and there are minis to be made. Saving the world from dragons? That can wait 'til next year.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide