Friday, 6 March 2015

Authenticity And Contagion

Syp's post on procedurally generated content kicked off a flurry of responses around this corner of the blogosphere. Murf has compiled most of the links here so I'll just link to him and add Tobold's contribution.

I wasn't sure I'd ever played a game that used procedurally generated content but apparently I have because Tobold says Anarchy Online uses it. That would certainly explain my early experiences in Rubi-Ka, running for what seemed like hours across a landscape full of landmarks yet devoid of context.

My instinctive response to the whole idea of algorithmically-inspired content is negative. Emotionally it hits all the wrong chords. That's why, as Syp points out, it's a risky proposition as a marketing tool. There's a lot more going on here, though, than either the mechanics of making an imaginary world or the business of selling one.

When I think back to the early days of playing Everquest, sooner or later, usually sooner, one image always floats to the surface. It's the crumbling, enigmatic portrait of the mysterious boy-king that gazes arrogantly down from the high walls of the East Karana ramp.

That face used to haunt me every time I took the long climb to Highpass Hold. Even more so when I realized that it was replicated on a ruined temple half-sunk beneath the snows of Everfrost. Who was this Young Ozymandias, his mighty works all forgotten and fallen to decay?

Because I knew enough to know that Norrath had a history, even though I had little enough idea what that history was, it somehow seemed to matter. For a long while I even believed I might one day learn the truth of it.

That was not irrational. Stepping back, I knew I was seeing a construct made by individuals, creative artists and writers and designers. That face hadn't just happened there. Someone had to have created the image and to have placed it where I found it. They would have had a reason. Wouldn't they?

I still have no idea who that boy-king is. If he has anything to do with Norath's gordian tangle of lore and legend I haven't been able to tease it out. What's more, now I'm able to peer into the world through a 24" screen at 1980x1020 instead of on a 15" CRT at 1024x768, I can see that the frescoes on the Everfrost ruin aren't even of the same face. (Although it could be the same person at different ages. Hmmm.)

In a world where one of the main cities has a name that's the name of the game and its operating company spelled backwards, chances are the "boy-king" is actually nothing more than a picture of one of the designer's children, placed there as an ego-gratifying in-joke. But there might be more to it. There might...

That first-person camera can't come soon enough

Every handcrafted MMO has a myriad of things like that. Odd little weirdnesses that seem like they might mean something but almost certainly don't. In GW2, in an inner room of an outpost right at the very limits of Snowden Drifts, there's a very large, overfed cat that likes to roll on her back and wave her legs around. When I first found her I was charmed and surprised. I'd never seen a cat like that before and I thought it must "mean something".

It didn't, of course. There are quite a few big-boned felines rolling about Tyria and I don't mean just at Meatoberfest. Still, I was back in Snowden Drifts the other day after a long absence and that cat surprised me all over again. Even though I know it's just set-dressing I still half-expected something to come of it.

Carrying on with the cat theme there's the Crazy Cat Lady house in LotRO. There seems to be no reason for that place to exist other than some designer thought it would be amusing. And he was right. By now it must have tickled the fancy of thousands of hobbits with time on their hands and an inquisitive streak.

I could go on and on pulling up examples like this out of memory. Some of them without cats, too. Done well, this kind of crafted serendipity has a powerful impact that creates lasting memories. So why am I leary of seeing something similar produced via algorithm? Why does it instinctively feel that that would be a cold, empty, enervating experience, where these examples feel, conversely, so warm, so pregnant with potential?

Is this handcrafted or procedurally generated? Could I tell? Would I care?

Authenticity is the obvious response. There's a lot of interest in nailing that one down and good luck to anyone that tries. George E. Newman and Paul Bloom took a run at it and it was from their paper that I learned of the psychological term "Contagion", which they summarize thus : "This is the belief that, through physical contact, objects can take on a special quality or essence."

That does seem to help. When you get right down to it, the huge majority of hand-crafted backdrops, scenery and set-dressing in virtual world MMORPGs don't have any special meaning. They have accretive value in building worldliness but there frequently, usually, is no lore or backstory that can be revealed, no matter how long and hard you dig. There was a space and someone put something in it is the alpha and omega of that story.

But there could be. There could be something. A creator's hand touched the keys. Magic could have passed. Probably didn't but you never can be sure.

Crafted or generated, it doesn't pay to stand still too long, or look too closely.

Of course, in virtuality we are already operating at one remove. Whether you can have contagion when there's no physical object is something for some other Yale psychologists to consider. Add in algorithms and that's two orders of reality between us. Is it a stretch too far to feel the touch of the creator of the mathematics and the logic through the layers?

Experientially, as a player, I can't truly say for sure whether I could even tell the difference between a hand-crafted and an algorithmically generated gamespace. It's even likely that I'm already doing as much of the imaginative work, as a player, bringing the world to life in a crafted game, as advocates of procedural generation claim they so enjoy doing in a procedural.

The problem, for me, then, is foreknowledge, which brings us all the way back to Syp's original proposition: "Procedurally generated worlds/zones are not a selling point". With that statement I definitely, unequivocally, do concur.

Procedural generation is a tool. Used knowingly and effectively by creative artists, I don't see any reason to discount it's value and effectiveness. The thing is, if you are using it, I'd really rather you kept quiet about it.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Last Night I Dreamt I Went To Manderville Again : FFXIV

Oh, alright! Manderville's the name of the guy who built it. And I wasn't dreaming. And I've never been there before so I could hardly go there again.

But, hey, if you're going to get picky, it's not exactly a saucer, now, is it? More like a giant cactus. In fact exactly like one. It is a giant cactus. And it's green not gold. And I did go back to FFXIV so it's not like I just shoehorned that quote into the title for the sake of a cheap pun. Not just.

Goes out. Comes back in again.

It all sounded quite simple. Square Enix were so thrilled with their million registered accounts they threw down a free week so former players could come back and help them celebrate. This corner of the blogosphere has been zinging with excitement over the coming of the Mandeville Gold Saucer for days. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to pop in for a look-see.

Things never turn out quite as simple as you imagine, do they? First I had to copy the entire game from Mrs Bhagpuss's machine because it seems I lost mine in the Great hard Drive Failure of 2014 and hadn't even noticed. Then there was the inevitable patching since Mrs Bhagpuss hadn't logged in since we quit back in 2013; that took the best part of an hour.

Next, presumably because it was treated as a new install, they made me watch the whole intro movie again and you cannot escape out of it, either. Believe me, I tried. There's only so much sonorous intoning I can take. Finally, I had to search for my server (once I'd remembered it was Goblin), which turned out to be hidden away under the the new Data Center tab.

With all that lot out of the way, out I stepped into Uld'Ah. This better be good, that's all I'm saying. That was when I realized I had absolutely no idea where to go.

Google is your friend but you don't always want to ask your friends for help right at the very first hurdle, do you? It's embarrassing. So I ran around aimlessly for a bit. Always a plan. Hired a chocobo, rode to the next zone, got off; nothing. Alright, Google, you're up.

Google didn't help much. A ton of information on what to do once you get there but nothing specific about where to go beyond "It's in Thanalan" and "You must have completed your Level 15 storyline quest". Well I'm in Thanalan and I've done my story, all the way through to level 33, so, covered there. Still no clue where to go.

As I wandered and pondered things began to come back to me. Don't they have some kind of Rapid Transit System here? Maybe it's a stop on that. Off we go to the Aetheryte in Uld'Ah and...nope. Nothing listed.

Oh, hey, wait a minute! I bet it's an airship ride! Come to think of it, isn't the Level 15 storyline quest when you get access to the airship system? That's why you need to have done that part!

Okay, I got this all figured out now. All I need to do is find the airship dock. That took another ten minutes, which is about twenty minutes less than finding anything in Uld'Ah usually takes me, so, result! Up to the counter (I'm down here!) speak to the Airship Ticketer (is that really a word?) and...she asks me if I have a ticket.

Wait, what? I thought you sold tickets! What are you, just the ticket clipper? I bet there's no unemployment problem in Uld'Ah, is there? So, is there a ticket booth around here or something? Work with me, can't you?

At which point, luckily, I remembered reading about some quest or other in one of the pages I'd googled, a quest I'd assumed was optional or additional or generally not anything I needed to bother with. Didn't that mention something about a ticket?

Yes it did! Some elven-tressed hooray Henry hanging about in the street outside deigned to hand over his unused ticket after a bit of to and fro - mostly fro since my character appears to be another of those silent sams, something I'd forgotten about FFXIV. Back to the Ticketer and it's up up and away into the wild blue cut scene we go.

Thus, after what turned out to be around two hours of set-up time, I arrived at Manderville's Golden Saucer. Was it worth the wait? Oh yes.

Good taste died at the door, that's the first thing that hits you. From bunny girls in fishnets to flashing neon signs to waddling anthropomorphic mascots this place has the lot. There's some kind of fin de siecle, art nouveau, Toulouse Lautrec brothel, Lalique-does-Las Vegas mash-up going on here that fair boggles the brain.

The most surreal touch of all, which is saying something in a place filled with Lalafels dressed like 1920s cigarette girls and three foot tall cacti dragged up as Mr Peanut, has to be the relentless oompah music, direct from Rivervale. I had to switch that off pretty sharpish.

The map is bizarrely rendered in Eorzean, an imaginary language in which I am not, nor do I intend to become, fluent, and the layout is baroque and convoluted. Stairs lead everywhere, some places are accessible only by lifts, and the whole place is completely overwhelming.

I loved it. There's an introductory quest that purportedly shows you where the essentials are but mostly I just filled that in as and when I happened across updates at random. Like any good fairground the Golden Saucer is made for getting lost and confused and a little bit fraught. Go with it.

It is a fairground, too, as well as a Casino. It has the best ever in-game reproductions of
traditional favorites like Test Your Strength, Through The Hoop and Grabber that I've ever seen. I played all of them for ages! They're all very satisfyingly tactile and responsive. The only way they fail to replicate their real-life originals is that you can come away from them with more money than you started and the Grabber occasionally picks something up!

What I'd really come for, though, was Triple Triad. From the little I'd read it looked as though it might be a card game along the lines of Vanguard's very much-missed Diplomacy. And guess what? It is!

You get a starting set of five cards in the very brief tutorial and then it's up to you to play against NPCs both in the Golden Saucer and around Eorzea. If you win you get some coin and occasionally a new card. Speaking to the NPCs gives you a line or two of dialog that hints at their skill at the game. The only one I could beat with my starter set was the hapless Jonas of the Three Spades but after I'd almost doubled my money taking him to the cleaners I had two more cards and with those I was able to beat Guhtwint of the Three Diamonds about one game in two.

I really, really like these card games inside MMOs, the ones where you can play against NPCs. I always think of NPCs as more "real" than players - they are the genuine peers of my characters after all - and playing cards with them is a great "in" to their world. More so than questing perhaps. There's a lot more that could be done with this kind of thing.

So, the trip to The Saucer was an unqualified success. For the time being I have no plans to return to FFXIV but as the game matures and broadens that day could well come. The main reasons we left were forced grouping and the unavoidable associated roadblocks along the main storyline. I still have serious problems with that approach and also an end-game that revolves around repeating group dungeon content ad infinitum for gear upgrades does nothing at all for me.

That said, an addition like the Golden Saucer feels very encouraging. FFXIV is going to be around for a long time. There's no hurry. I can wait for Eorzea to come to me and it seems to be moving in the right direction. Whether I want to pay a sub just to play Triple Triad, though...hmm. We'll see.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to Bentbranch Meadows to see a man about a Chocobo.

Monday, 2 March 2015

I Remember Dragon Bash: GW2

Maybe it was because I'd just been writing about how much there is to do in GW2 but I've begun to notice just how much has already gone missing during the short life of the game. It was the pictorial record that alerted me.

Over the three years it's been up and running, beta weekends included, I've taken over six and a half thousand screenshots. They pop up randomly as my desktop background, a new one every ten minutes. As we move steadily into the future these begin more and more to resemble glimpses of a lost age.

Living Story Seasons One and Two account for much of the change. I diligently documented their convoluted, fractured progress as I attempted to follow the quasi-linear narrative. One would not, perhaps, expect the chapters of a completed story to remain in play indefinitely but seeing those fragmentary images of the past reminds me strongly just how much happened that can never happen again.

A rift in reality

The changes made to the way Season Two operates, packaging it up into re-playable, purchasable instances, attempts to square that circle with some constricted success but despite the ongoing clamor for something similar to be applied retrospectively to Season One, it's very hard to see how something like Scarlet's Invasions could be replicated for latecomers. Even relatively simple events like the Shiverpeak refugee crisis would only be feasible with the introduction of the kind of phasing technology used in WoW and ESO, something I can't see as either likely or desirable.

Still, one doesn't expect an ongoing storyline, necessarily, to remain persistently available throughout the life of an MMO. Every MMO I've played for long enough to see it happen has had one-off story-driven events that did or didn't change the world. What's more surprising to realize, as these snapshots of the past pop up, is just how many set-piece events have been added to GW2 and then discarded in less than three years. Events that would, in other MMOs, most certainly have represented permanent recurring content.

A rift in surreality

Over in EQ2 right now Errolisi Day has just ended and Brewday is coming in. Those holidays come round every single year, bringing with them all the content they've accrued over the life of the game. Most years something new is added but rarely is anything taken away. Any year that I get the itch to revisit holiday events in Norrath or Azeroth or Middle Earth or just about any other of the imaginary worlds I've called home for a while I can be fairly confident the party will still be going on.

I'm hoping to visit FFXIV during the current "don't make a stranger of yourself" welcome back week that runs until the ninth of March. There I mean to board the much-ballyhooed Golden Saucer to see whether Triple Triad is really anything like Vanguard's much-missed Diplomacy card game. No-one knows what the future holds but I feel reasonably assured in suggesting that if I don't make it to Eorzea this time round the Chocobo races will still be running whenever I do find the time to drop by.

Things just don't work that way in Tyria. For all the lather and strop over "limited time events", for all the hue and cry and tarring and feathering after the Karka Invasion and the Taming of Southsun, the game has largely carried on with a modified version of the St Crispin's Day Solution.

Can't say we weren't warned

Remember Dragon Bash? In Telara something very similar happens every year. In Tyria it's a once-and-done deal. The Bazaar of the Four Winds managed one repeat appearance before it crashed and burned. Literally. Super Adventure Box similarly managed a single encore before the plinky-plink music stuttered into silence. When you come to think of it, what set festivals do we have left in GW2? Halloween, Wintersday and... erm...that's it.

Really, check the Wiki. Two, count 'em, two whole holidays! WoW has thirteen, EQ2 ten, LotRO has a big bash for each season of the year and half a dozen small celebrations scattered around between. You can quite literally mark them on your calendar except you won't need to because you'll have a calendar in the game itself that keeps track stuff like that.

Good luck planning ahead that way in GW2. True, you don't have to be there at a set time on a set day or forever wonder what could have been, the way everyone complained about so bitterly back in Autumn 2012. No, you just have to be there at some point during a set period instead and you'd better be paying attention because, likely as not, there won't be much warning before it starts.

We'll always have Halloween

Once that extended moment, which you can generally bet on stretching for two weeks, Tuesday to Tuesday, passes, chances seem to be increasingly slender whether you'll get a second shot. The subtle way this change has been slipped under the guard of the frenzied supporters of equal access gameplay is exemplary.  Give the people what you want them to have while telling them you have listened and are giving them what they said they wanted. Slick.

Counter to that, though, I do notice, as I gaze nostalgically at shots of Scarlet's probes in The Mists or blocky, primary-colored animals cavorting through Metrica Province, there is a move afoot to package and conceal temporary content neatly away in instances, where it doesn't frighten the horses that we don't have and can be sold on at a profit. The recent Golem Invasion that turned out to be a player-exploited bug not the harbinger of some unexpected World Event, reminded me sharply of how long it's been since some strange, unexplained addition to the open-world landscape sparked frenzied speculation.

I do hope things aren't going to become too tidy. I love looking back at all these lost moments. I love knowing they will never return. Let's have more of it. With an expansion in the works it's a fine time for some excitement-building intrigue and mystery. I never travel anywhere without my camera and soon I won't even have to be in every shot.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

It's Good News Day: GW2, Everquest

Operating as Wilhelm observes at the equivalent of the speed of light, Daybreak Games have a poll up for the ruleset of the proposed new Everquest Progression server.

I'd take any of the first three. I'd even try the crazy-race last option. Of course, unlike almost everyone else expressing opinions on this thing I'm very happy indeed with the current 2015 version of EQ, which I still play (okay, not as often as I mean to but I logged in last week!).

If I was going to go back to play EQ even semi-regularly I think I'd probably rather get my Magician to 100 rather than hit 50 in Classic fifteen years late but the first few weeks on a real brand-new, all in it together server are always a blast. I'll take every rare opportunity that comes along to savor that experience, even if I do know that I'll probably still be level 12 when they vote to unlock Velious.

If you vote (and you should if you have the slightest temptation towards reliving a past you may or may not have lived through the first time, which in turn may or may not bear any recognizable resemblance to your memories or your imaginings) then be warned that the voting panel appears to register your vote as soon as you click a button. You get no option to change your mind.

Unless, of course, you have seven accounts. Not that I know anyone like that. And not that such a notional person would indulge in such 18th century practices even if he existed. Or she! Or she!

In other news GW2 is getting a First Person Camera. To which I can only say in chorus with Jeromai


Looks like it also comes with a whole lot of fixes for what are quite possibly the worst camera controls I have ever suffered in any MMO. Ever!

The bit about relative height positioning vis a vis character race brought back memories of lumbering along at Ogre speed in EQ. I use the word "speed" ironically. But not the word "lumbering". So glad I only have one Norn and many, many Asuras.

I wonder if Charr pov will change according to whether they are running upright or on all fours? That could bring on motion sickness. Or hairballs. Who knows? It might even make doing jumping puzzles as a Charr possible enjoyable.

They say good news always comes in threes. Or is that bad news? Maybe it was buses. What's the third thing going to be, I wonder? I don't think it can be this can it? No, we don't like buy-in betas, do we? Although $20... that's cheap...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Mission Creep: GW2, WoW et al

Over the past few weeks I've found myself idly pondering one of the eternal questions: what do I want out of an MMO? It's a very different question from "what makes a good MMO?" or even "what makes a successful MMO?"

Those are questions for which you might hope to devise some kind of scale or standard in order to reach some approximation of an objective answer, but the question of what you, yourself, want from the games you play is, by definition, entirely subjective. You might imagine that would make it easier to pin down. Not so, or not, at least, for me.

Mood and whim play such a large part. Circumstances within and outside the games dictate any number of changes of attitude, opinion and reaction. What felt good ten years ago may feel less so today; what feels good on a Sunday morning may grate on Monday night. Getting to a clear understanding of why the form appeals at all and what precisely I want and hope to derive from it is not a simple task.

Up above the roofs and houses...

Still, after more than fifteen years of doing this thing, I am starting to feel I might at last have a handle on what works for me in MMOs and what doesn't. At some point I'd like to set that down in some detail, so that I can consider it in another five, ten, fifteen years, should I be fortunate enough still to be around then to look back and see how well my argument stands up.

This is not that point and this is not that post. Thinking on it this morning, though, something else occurred to me. I've just had a long weekend during which I was free to play whatever I wanted. Before it began, in my mind I had a picture of what I might do. I imagined myself engaged with various this-and-thats in various MMOs - Everquest, EQ2, Istaria, GW2, TESO,  the Valliance demo, TSW...

It was an eclectic, engaging, appealing vision. In the event, though, I played GW2 for three days solid, the only exception being a couple of short visits to Tamriel, where my simple goal of reaching level 10 remains unrealized. Why did I do that?

One does not stop for a photo opportunity in Dragonball. It was this, the entrance hall or me, dead.

Is it because GW2 is the perfect MMO for me as Jeromai has claimed it is for him? Is it because Mrs Bhagpuss is ensconced there? Is it just habit? Or is it because, in common with a number of maturing MMOs, GW2 isn't really an MMORPG in the sense we once understood the term at all but the graphical front end of a suite of discrete games and activities, each of which scratches a different entertainment itch?

Here's a list off the top of my head of what I did in GW2 this weekend with a gloss on how they fit into the tapestry that is Guild Wars 2:

  • Dailies on three accounts. (Character progression with rewards available, in a mix-and-match format, for all three major game modes - PvE, sPvP, WvW)
  • Lunar dailies on three accounts. (Fluff Holiday content with PvE/WvW rewards)
  • Dragonball. (Instanced PvP Holiday Content with possible, very minor, PvE/WvW rewards and gold)
  • Instanced PvP. (Separate game mode with its own character progression but also with PvE/WvW-relevant character progression rewards)
  • The World Boss Train. (PvE Zerg content with large PvE rewards)
  •  Tequatl. (PvE Open Raid content with large PvE rewards)
  • WvW. (Separate game mode with its own character progression but also with PvE-relevant rewards)
  •  The Obsidian Sanctum Jumping Puzzle. (Open World (kind of) Exploration (kind of) Platforming (kind of) content with WvW/PvE rewards).
  • Open World Exploration. (Mainstream PvE character progression. What we would once, naively, have called "the game")
  • The Overgrown Grub. (Competitive PvE zerg/raid content in a WvW environment with PvE/WvW rewards)

Plus an awful lot of standing around in Divinity's Reach, Lion's Arch and the PvP Lobby making smart alec remarks in map chat, having trivial conversations with total strangers while taking screenshots of the Toy Golem Uprising.

Speculation on the forums was frenzied for a while but no, its not a Content Harbinger. It's a bug.

As can easily be seen, ArenaNet have made a concerted effort to tie all those activities and enterprises together by mean of the rewards they offer. Almost anything you do in GW2 gives you some tangible reward that can, theoretically, benefit your character in PvE and in the PvE-based player versus player WvW mode. Structured PvP, designed to keep a permanently even playing field, is the real standalone exception.

The theme seems to be "do whatever you like but remember it's all one game". It's a smoke and mirrors routine that all theme-park MMOs seek to bring off without anyone feeling they've been misled. Increasingly the audience seems ever-willing to play along. Hardly surprising; what we all fear is a content drought so we tend to grab on to anything that passes with both hands without questioning too closely what it has to do with what we came here for in the first place.

Atten-hut! Golems, by the left, kawiiiick march!

I don't play WoW at the moment and I didn't buy Warlords of Draenor but even from my remote vantage I can hear the rumblings of discontent over in Azeroth. Green Armadillo is scratching his head over what he might do with the second 30 days of his 60 day timecard since he's about finished with the expansion after just three weeks. Eliot at Massively OP, discussing the postponement of the much-desired Iron Docks content drop, summarizes things thus: "...the problem here comes down to one of perception, presentation, and the simple fact that there’s plenty to do at level cap in Warlords of Draenor… but also absolutely nothing to do.

It's nonsense of course. There's simply masses to do; in WoW and in all the mature, developed, maintained MMOs. It's just not always what people expected they'd be doing or would have chosen to do. What surprises me most is how many of these things are really other games in disguise, from the Pokemon-inspired Pet Battles to the MOBA-like Arenas as experienced by The Duke of O , who observes "My friends and I don't even play WoW as an MMO - we play it as a MOBA, spending the vast majority of our time in instanced Arena or Rated BG matches, and consider the rest of the game as an added bonus."

It probably shouldn't surprise me. It's been going on for a long time. I guess the first example I can bring to mind was the introduction of instanced Battlegrounds to Dark Age of Camelot. That was the first time I can remember seeing content separate from the game housed within the game in an MMO.

Open-field siege is not considered bad form when you point your ballista at a Grub. We still got trebbed from the keep though.

As Virtual Worlds the game-spaces always gave themselves willingly to self-directed segregation by players. In any public space knots of activity tend to grow around individuals who share a common interest and MMOs were no different for being virtual. Like people in a park, however, all those groups needed to be aware and mindful of the other groups around them. No kicking your ball through the picnic area or throwing your frisbee over the bowling green. Not if you didn't want the Parkie to turn up and tell you off. Or the GM. When we had in-game GMs.

Over the years we seem to have moved to a patchwork, ad hoc arrangement, by which some activities take place in the open but in set locations out of everyone else's way while others are hosted out of sight in the walled gardens of instances. Moreover, there are entirely enough of these discrete and semi-discrete pastimes and pleasures for any one of them to absorb most or even all of a given player's attention.

I only went to Obsidian Sanctum to find the GvG arena. I have no idea how I ended up doing the entire jumping puzzle and missing Tequatl. I don't even like jumping puzzles although it seems these days I don't even know what I don't like.

In GW2 there are plenty of players who only play WvW or only play sPvP. They are at best amusedly tolerant, more often sarcastically dismissive, of much of what constitutes the bulk of the game. In EQ2 there's a whole community of people whose main and sometimes only interest lies in designing and decorating houses. Every mature MMO plays host to special-interest groups largely unknown each to the other. At some stage, without my noticing, it seems MMOs ceased to be single, coherent entities and morphed into portmanteau collections.

I don't have any great conclusion to draw from these observations. I'm just thinking aloud. Maybe it isn't so different from the days when Dungeon players looked down on Outdoor players in EQ or Raiders considered themselves a breed above non-Raiders in...well, every MMO that has raids (except, on Aywren's evidence, FFXIV).

I don't like sPvP either. Except apparently now I do. Especially when I win.

It does feel different though. It's as though the set meal of the first generation MMOs has been replaced by a buffet. The whole concept of playing a specific character in a specific place alongside other people doing exactly the same seems oddly old-fashioned, although no less attractive to me.

And maybe it's why I keep on playing GW2. I don't have time to play several MMOs when the one I'm playing is half a dozen different games already.  And since all the games feed my characters the things they desire it's all too easy to slip into believing I'm still playing one of those old virtual world, character-based MMORPGs after all.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Glass Half Full : Daybreak Games

Pete at Dragonchasers has an excellent post up about the Daybreak situation. GamingSF has a great catch from the Everquest forums confirming the new company's intent to bring up another Progression server, something I'm sure will be music to Wilhelm's ears.

The EQ2 team has been talking about Progression servers as well, although they stress that the younger game's architecture is different, implying that may make it harder to bring one to market. I'd love to see an EQ2 Progression server just so long as no-one tries to recreate the miserable experience of the first six months.

Over at Visionary Realms Inc (were they always called that?) Brad McQuaid and his Pantheon team have a lengthy survey up that seems to be aimed at assessing the desires of the potential audience, presumably with the intention of giving the people what they want. I filled it out. It took me the best part of an hour. It was fun. I recommend it.

The questions make heavy reference to both Vanguard and the EQ franchise. Brad clearly sees himself as a contender for Torch Carrier of The Vision (TM). He's burned more bridges than Tipa has photographed and yet...and yet. Compare what little we know about Pantheon and EQNext. Which sounds more like EQ3? Which feels more like vaporware? Not so clear cut as all that, now, is it?

Meanwhile, Smed and/or his Columbus Nova overlords have given the StoryBricks team their marching orders, sending Tobold off to sulk in the gloomiest corner of the Hundred Acre Wood and spinning SynCaine's snark generator up into overdrive. Unlike Keen and with all respect to Psychochild I was never all that sold either on StoryBricks in particular or advanced AI in general so it's a bit of a non-story for me. Ironically.

Just to cap it all off for the week Massively Overpowered, already off to a storming start and so welcome back in my Feedly feed, fillets the recent Daybreak video Q&A and picks out the choice headline Everquest Next May Not Be F2P. Cat, meet pigeons.

I don't think that means Daybreak are considering a subscription model for EQNext. I imagine it's much more likely they're eying the Buy-to-Play market and so they should be. Why give away the farm?

Everything considered, I feel surprisingly sanguine about the future, at least where EQs and EQalikes are concerned.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Smelling The Flowers: TESO

I'm still playing TESO. It's a slightly strange experience. Similarities with Vanguard continue to abound, mostly in the look and feel, rather than the gameplay or the content. As Lani mentioned in the comments to a previous post the orc island, Betnikh, shares distinct similarities with the orc starting areas on Telon, although not nearly as much as the previous desert areas did with Qalia.

It's all there in the architecture, the textures and, particularly, the color palette. The music and the ambient sounds also throw some weight behind the associations. And the rain. Always the rain.

I logged in the other evening and the first thing I read in zone chat was someone asking plaintively "Do we always have to fight at night?" Weather and light conditions do seem to play a significant role in Tamriel. I'm not sure what the day/night cycle is, exactly, but I believe it was still night-time when I logged out over two hours later.

The next day, when I logged back in, I found myself in the middle of a massive thunderstorm. I spent the best part of half an hour trying to take screenshots. If there's a more effective way to waste fifteen minutes than trying to hit a key at the exact moment a flash of light appears in a video game I don't want to know about it.

Catch the lightning!
In the end I fired up FRAPS, took a couple of minutes of video footage and pulled the frames out of that. And they still looked terrible. I guess you had to be there. It was a darn good storm! I'd give the oscar for Best Weather Effects in an MMO to FFXIV but these run it close.

Other than trying to photograph lightning I've mostly been questing. Ye gods, but there are a lot of quests here! Kaozz at ECTMMO mentions the exceptionally high quest density in Allods but I can't believe they have more than TESO. I can barely walk five paces without acquiring a new goal in life.

Several people have made representations for the quality of the storyline in TESO but so far it all seems rather generic. Most of the quests seem unoriginal. There's a surfeit of events of earth-shattering importance, especially given the single-figure level range. Also the degree of trust shown in and responsibility given to complete strangers is terrifying. No wonder society is on the verge of collapse.

The writing continues to be, on the whole, rather flat. The voice acting remains, by and large, uninspired. There are exceptions.

Wait, let me guess. Under "Profession" in your passport it says "Loveable Rogue", right?
The lengthy sequence with Captain Kaleen and her crew is quite intriguing. It introduces several moderately memorable characters, some of them even voiced by actors who seem to be awake, and I am beginning to experience something of the "moral dilemma" aspect of the gameplay that I've read about.

Without giving too many spoilers, there are decision points where my character can't, as I as his player would like him to do, tack carefully around the fixed positions of various NPCs and stay on the right side of all of them. Choices have to be made and with those choices, perhaps, enemies.

This is all rather well done. By the time I had to make the choices I felt that I knew enough about the individuals making demands on me, and about the situation, to take a meaningful decision. More importantly,  I had a reasonably clear grasp on how my character felt about several of the NPCs, what his emotional reactions would be and where his loyalties might lie. When it came to the moment there really was no decision to make - I knew he could only act one way and would have to deal with whatever consequences arose.

All of that may be good game design but it's a very poor fit for me as a player. I don't enjoy making difficult decisions in games. I play MMOs in part to get away from having to think about such things, to enter into an environment where any choices I make don't really matter all that much. I'm not especially keen on having my moral compass re-calibrated in the guise of entertainment.

Are you sure this is the best way to get bloodstains out of leather?
As a rule, when I play MMOs, I like to play affable characters who get along well with everyone. If I can avoid bad faction I will go out of my way to do so. Even if the game clearly intends me to pick sides, if I can find a fence to sit on, I'll climb up there and get comfortable. I foresee difficulties for my long-term engagement with an entire game designed around moral choices.

I imagine one solution would be just to go out and kill stuff. While questing is ubiquitous I'm not sure that it's essential. I get the feeling I might progress just as easily by gathering mats, crafting my own gear and killing random monsters, bandits, zombies, cultists and animals for gear drops, gold and xp. It might even be faster.

It's certainly as enjoyable. I haven't played an MMO for a while where random slaughter was so satisfying. Loot is decent and sticking to mobs around or just under my level results in a TTK of around 3-5 seconds. It also completely removes any need to learn how to fight using blocks, dodges or most of the keyboard shortcuts. Three or four swings of my fiery greatsword (well, it was fiery until the enchantment got used up. Must do something about that) and the job's done.

Speaking of the control system and the combat; it's not too bad. I prefer it to NWN's version and possibly to DCUO's as well, both of which are similar. Holding down LMB for a big hit is very simple and straightforward and the fights themselves tend towards the slow and stately, which gives me plenty of time to look at my UI, remember which key I need to press for a particular spell, look at my keyboard, locate it, press it and get back to mouse-clicking, all  before very much has happened.

Come to think of it, that looks more like something you'd find in Halgarad than Martok.
So, combat works, the world is inviting, there's lots going on and all in all I'm having a good time in Tamriel. So why don't I play TESO more? I played a lot more ArcheAge, for example, when that was fresh, even if I did come to a sudden and unexpected dead halt there after just a few weeks.

For some reason I can't yet quite put my finger on I find TESO quite tiring. An hour there feels like three or four hours in other MMOs. After a short session I often feel both satisfied and satiated. It can be several days before I feel ready to go again.

I can't quite figure it out. An hour of TESO is less intense than a single five-minute Dragonball match in GW2 and I sometimes do half a dozen of those back to back. It's not difficult to understand or to play. There are no timers running down or scores mounting up. I have no plan, no agenda, my time is my own and mostly I just potter around. It should be relaxing, it is enjoyable, and yet when I log out I metaphorically wipe my forehead as if I'd just had some kind of a virtual work-out.

If I had to give an explanation I think I'd lay it on the questing and particularly on all that having to make up my mind about stuff. It does feel like playing a single-player RPG sometimes, with the sheer quantity of story-driven, directed content being thrown at me. I probably need to get off that train or at least take a few more station stops.

Overall, though, I'm pleased with how things are going, exhaustion aside. I like the pace and I like the place. My loose goal is to hit level 10 this weekend (dinged 9 last night) so as to be eligible for some three-faction PvP. I hear they have moveable siege engines. I want to see those!

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide