Sunday, 2 August 2015

Test Department: GW2

One of the supposed perks that comes with a pre-purchase of GW2's Heart of Thorns expansion is "access to all beta weekend events". Although that sounds mighty inclusive, ArenaNet has a very specific understanding of what counts as an event.

It doesn't, for example, include the testing of the new Desert Battlegrounds for World vs World, which is By Invitation Only. It also doesn't in any meaningful sense include testing of the Stronghold sPvP map, which, on occasion, has simply been dropped into the live game for all PvP players regardless of any preference they might have had to the contrary.

Similarly, while only pre-purchasers got to drive a Revenant in the recent weekend event, since testing took place on Live maps everyone got to test out what it felt like to fight alongside someone trying to come to grips with a max level class they'd never played before whether they liked it or not.

It's a very odd way to run a business. I can't imagine it going down too well if Microsoft had decided to activate various features of Windows 10 for all users of Windows 8.1 for a few days to see how they worked before switching them back off and fiddling about with them based on how many complaints they got. How would a football team like it if half way through a match a bunch of people charged onto the pitch wearing roller-skates and joined in? That was pretty much how it felt when the Revenants appeared in WvW.

I guess when you don't charge an entrance fee you can get away with these kinds of shenanigans. If I was a paying customer, by now I'd be starting to have some serious issues with the cavalier attitude to the service for which I was paying but since I'm not I guess I just have to put up with it.

First impressions can be misleading

As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I have paid up front for the expansion, which means that at least next weekend I get to be the one running around on Live maps getting in everyone's way as I struggle to understand a whole load of new Elite skills rather than being the poor schmoe who has to stand back and watch. Go me! I guess.

Like Jeromai I'm fortunate (if that's the word) in that the first of who knows how many beta weekends falls on a long weekend off work. Should I wish to do so I'll be able to give the whole three days over to "testing" the limited content on offer. We'll see how it goes but I'm anticipating the novelty will wear off a lot sooner than that.

My interest and enthusiasm for HoT waxes and wanes depending on what aspect ANet has hyped most recently. Currently it's at a low ebb. The announcement on the proposed changes to Fractals seemed almost beyond parody. As I was reading it I kept hearing Nigel Tufnel's voice saying "These go to 11".

Then there's the threat promise to bring us "challenging group content". They've been at some pains to stress that we haven't seen any of this yet. It appears to be ANet code for "Raids". The reveal is probably what they have planned for the trailed live announcement of "the details of one of our Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns features" during next weekend's livestream from Gamescom. Can't say I'll be on the edge of my seat for that one.

Don't think much of the view.

They do seem to be mordantly committed to making things slower, more painful and more tedious. Sorry, sorry. Off message. Of course I mean more challenging, fun and involving. As they put it in the request for focused feedback after next week's test:

"Do you feel the need to use your entire skill bar in battles? 
Does teaming up with other players feel more rewarding? 
Do you find yourself wanting to change your skills and traits to overcome encounters?
Warning—creatures will be more challenging than in the existing Guild Wars 2 world

To which I would expect my answers to be

"Why would I want to? 
It already did, thanks.
At the risk of repeating myself, why would I want to? 
If this is something I'm supposed to enjoy, why do you feel the need to issue a warning about it?"

Oh well. As Jeromai, who has already seen and played the Verdant Brink content that will be available for testing next weekend puts it, " felt like more of the same. Which wasn’t -bad-, it was comfortable, familiar, a little bit grindy, but neither was it blow-your-socks-off-spectacular either. It felt like, okay, we’ve had Dry Top, we’ve had Silverwastes, and now Verdant Brink is the next continuation of that. Right. It’s (more or less) playable. I get where you’re going with this. I guess… it’s all right, it’s acceptable".

And this isn't much better.

That is very much what I expected and feared. I enjoyed Dry Top and Silverwastes for what they were, but what they are is levels in a video game. I'm not really very interested in that and it certainly doesn't offer much in the way of replayability beyond the specific rewards that have been attached to it. I'm much more interested in immersion in an imaginary world, something I found, and still find, in most of the games original maps.

It's going to be interesting to take a look at what our future holds but I'm not getting my hopes up. Three years after launch I still spend most of the time I'm not in WvW in The Shiverpeaks and Ascalon. After the expansion launches and I've worked my way through the storyline, which probably won't take long, that's almost certainly where I'll end up once more. Assuming I'm still playing at all, that is.

Indeed, from my perspective, perhaps the most important part of next weekend's beta and the best reason I have for giving it a fair trial is the chance to experience and evaluate the proposed incentives for continuing to play in "Old World" maps: the unfortunately-named Map Bonus Reward System. Call me idealistic but I thought the reward came from the pleasure, even joy, of being in that world. What do I know?

I very much hope that a week from now I'm back here, publicly eating both my hat and humble pie, and gosh-wowing about how great it all is and how wrong I was to be so cynical and downbeat. Place your bets now.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

It Begins: Blaugust

As no-one who's reading this can possibly have failed to notice, today is the first day of Blaugust. Just on the extremely off chance that someone has stumbled on this from Mars or even The Real World, where everyone doesn't already know everyone (even though no-one actually knows anyone, if you listen to the people who know) then here are the obligatory links:

The Driver of this Crazy Bus

The Operating Manual

What's On

For some reason that eludes me I have never read, let alone followed, Belghast's blog. Other people mention it regularly but somehow I've always thought of it as something outside my plane of existence, like ectoplasm or Montreal. Even last year, when I first became aware of Blaugust, I didn't think to participate or even investigate where the whole thing originated.

I did, of course, read a lot of blog posts tagged "Blaugust" and I followed the success or otherwise of the various participants with considerable interest. This year the posts started even before August poked it's hot little head over the calendar wall and it's pretty plain that I'll be participating as a reader even if I don't sign up to post myself.

Not "post myself" like John Cale in "The Gift". That would be weird. Post, myself.


I've rectified my bizarre omission and added Belghast to the blog roll and I look forward to Blaugust with interest. (Is it pronounced Blogg-ust or Blaw-gust, by the way?). I don't propose to enter "officially" but I may run alongside as a fellow-traveler for a while. I don't need much encouragement to post regularly but I certainly could use some practice in writing shorter posts and getting them finished faster.

Good luck to everyone who's taking a run at it this year! Pace yourselves and be sure to drink plenty of fluids!

Friday, 31 July 2015

Open Door Policy : Everquest, EQ2

With the success of Ragefire, Lockjaw, Stormhold and Deathtoll and the prospect of  yet-another-Everquest-special-ruleset-server to come, Daybreak Games appear to have twigged at long, long last, something I could have told them a decade ago - players go ga-ga for new servers and special rulesets. They always have and probably they always will. Anyone remember Discord, Everquest's short-lived permadeath (aka Hardcore PvP) server? Even something as demented as that was rammed - for about a week.

There's the gleam of a sustainable and potentially lucrative idea in what DBG are doing. It could offer a solution to that awkward bloating problem suffered by all long-running MMORPGs, the one that comes when the sheer weight of content accrued over years of updates and expansions, most of it towards the top end, threatens to topple the entire ship.

Once that sets in, to entice anyone new to play your game the whole process - leveling, stats, gear, you name it - has to be slimmed down, speeded up, thinned out and somehow made to look more like a gentle ramp and less like a sheer cliff. That's a road that ends with A Free Level  90 With Every Expansion, 89 levels of content that no-one plays any more and an economy that looks like the Weimar Republic crossed with Uncle Scrooge's Money Pit.

When EQ was the big dog in the park and a new server seemed to open every month I made characters on all of them. Everyone just loves that new server smell. Mostly I'd level up for a week, occasionally a month, then slip back to whence I came. Occasionally one, like Luclin, would stick and I'd have found a new home.

In the long years since those glory days, few MMOs have found a reason to keep opening servers (apart from in that embarrassing first week about which we don't talk anymore). Until recently the usual scenario was a long, slow drift downwards, with larger populations eating smaller and any special cases like RP or PvP lucky to cling on to anything at all. /wave LotRO.

Of late companies have preferred to avoid the bad feeling and worse publicity that comes with consolidation and retrenchment. A whole slew of clever, technological solutions have been employed to shore up the cracks left by diminishing numbers. Cross-server dungeon finders, server clusters, megaservers, anything that makes it look like people are still playing in droves.

These things do work, for a while and to a degree, but in the end they mostly just aggregate the existing, shrinking population into more coherent population centers. That's a good thing but it doesn't address whatever underlying problems led people to leave in the first place. Sometimes those problems are nothing more than an aging, over-familiar game failing to fight off a plethora of newer, shinier competitors. Sometimes, though, as I said earlier, at least some of the blame is down to bloat.

When you've got a great product but so much of it that new players are scared to even try you out, what if, instead of just merging your existing servers as the entrenched population declines, you continued to open new ones periodically? Servers with different rulesets, targeted at particular demographics, or just standard ruleset servers, but always somewhere new, returning and stalled current customers could find an equal footing?

It's something SOE always did, sporadically, and it was, as far as I could tell, usually successful, in the short term at least. And by far the most successful of those servers seemed the ones that offered a genuine, unequivocal fresh start.

Stromm was an EQ server that allowed no transfers for a long period after launch. At least a year as I recall, maybe longer. I moved there and stayed. It was a fantastic experience that revitalized my Everquest addiction for almost two years. The same thing happened again when EQ2 opened the Freeport server, whose radical F2P ruleset forbade any possible crossing of the streams with the rest of the game's ultra-conservative playerbase, thereby guaranteeing, ironically,  that any previously-accrued in-game wealth and status meant nothing.

It's all very well attracting new players but you have to monetize them effectively if you want to stay in business long enough to have any chance of opening even more new servers some day. DBG seem to have worked this out at last. Even before Smed left to spend more time with his anger management counselor (or possibly his EVE Online Corp, which probably amounts to the same thing) you could feel the winds of change blowing. For DBG, unlike the latter years of SOE, the motto is clearly no longer Free To Play All The Way. There's a return to a very evident emphasis on regular payments, at least when it comes to having fun in Norrath.

All these new, popular, special servers with their cool names and their fashionably retro rulesets, they all require All Access membership, or, in plain English, what we used to call A Subscription. Yes, you can still play for free, but now you kind of feel as though you're standing out in the car park looking over the velvet rope at the door of that new club everyone's talking about, the one where all the exciting sounds are coming from.

Crowfall plans on premiering a new style of permanent impermanence for MMOs, with a non-combat world that persists and campaign worlds that don't. That still sounds like a recipe for bloat to me. GW2 takes enormous pains to keep all things relevant and bring down barriers to entry yet still somehow ends up with some of the highest, hardest-to-climb progression walls of any MMO ever. Coming up with ways to include everyone is hard and half the ideas that we're asked to accept break a lot of what made the games and the genre attractive to begin with.

If we could get a rotation rolling, where lower population servers merged and consolidated as new servers opened up, perhaps it might just be possible to manage the expectations and desires of both established players who are happy with what they have and don't want to give it up and new starters, prodigals and self-defined have-nots, who'd relish a clear run without all that Old Money and Old Boy's Network clogging up the field.

It's got to be worth a go, hasn't it?

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The View From The Long Grass : EQ2

When the EQ2 team announced their intention to follow up the surprise success of Everquest's third batch of Progression Servers with some nostalgia-based fun of their own I wasn't all that interested. The original 1999 version of Everquest thoroughly deserves the "Classic" tag but the only classic thing about the 2004 release of EQ2 was the classic misjudgment SOE made by releasing it at the same time Blizzard released WoW.

Over the long, hard decade since that brief fight was fought and lost an enormous amount of work has been done to retool and reshape EQ2 into a very different offering from its much more successful competitor. For my money, and I've been a subscriber since launch, the huge majority of those changes and innovations have been all to the good. I play the current game and I'm very happy with what's on offer there.

As a subscriber, when the subscription-required Time Limited Expansion (TLE) servers launched I was planning on popping in, running around for a while, enjoying the fresh New Server smell then logging off, never to return. At character creation I even had a wild fantasy of rolling on the open PvP server, Deathtoll. That lasted about five seconds before I settled on yet another good old PvE plod.

I spy with my little eye something beginning with L. Yes there is. Look up.
I know there shouldn't be. But there  it is.

The surprise return of The Far Journey and The Isle of Refuge carried me through a couple of sessions but I was still expecting to quit soon after my SK landed in Freeport. Only that didn't happen. Somehow, there I was, renting a room at The Jade Tiger, putting down my free table and bulletin board, then running out toThe Graveyard for a seemingly endless questline given by one of The Overlord's many impossibly verbose henchmen.

After that I found myself killing Brokenskull Pawns in the Ruins and ghostly pirates in Sunken City...on and on it went. Another session, in The Commonlands now, fetching ingredients for Mooshga's dubious dishes, killing more orcs from a different clan, culling armadillos, wild dogs and wisps. I've been all through Thieve's Way and down into The Decrepit Crypt. I've soloed thirty ghostly orcs at the start of Wailing Caves and picked up my Doom Stick from Cog Burn.

12 SK LFG. Oh, wait..SK..belay that, I'll just solo it.

I've gathered and mined and fished because, and I can scarcely believe I'm saying this, I'm crafting again. Yes, crafting. Let me tell you about the crafting. I ran all the way from Freeport to Qeynos just to use the World Bell on the Antonica Dock to get to Halas just to do the Tier 2 crafting questline.

It's a long run but it was worth it. After most of Tuesday spent in EQ2 my Shadowknight sits at level 15 with a Scholar level to match. He's going to be an Alchemist when he turns 20 so he can at least keep his spells and combat arts up to scratch. And he's going to get to 20, too.

Why? Why is this server getting traction with me that none of the three iterations of EQ nostalgia ever did? That's very easy to explain. Stormhold, the PvE server, isn't really about nostalgia at all.

That rhino is definitely not "vanilla".

Leave aside the ancient boat ride and the revived Isle (both of which, I'm pretty sure, will soon become starting options on the regular servers) Stormhold really isn't much different from a Live server. The main changes are in pace and population.

Because of the hype and because of the chance for a new start there are a lot of people playing. The world feels vibrant and busy and bustling. That would - does  happen with any new server but because of the specific TLE ruleset here it's especially effective. With only the base game available the options to spread out and get away from each other are limited. Without access to public teleports and flying or hyper-fast mounts the world is filled with people traveling.

You missed a memo, Kurdek.

When I wanted to go to Halas I had a choice: find a Druid or a Wizard to take me (and there are a few advertizing their services) or run it myself. I chose to run and it was fun and easy. I died just once, trying to bull my way past a pack of Level 24 wolves milling around the path in Nektulos Forest. I was level 13 and they made very short work of me but I revived a hundred meters away with nothing worse than a little xp debt that took just a couple of Discoveries to clear as I ran on again.

In 2004-5 the trip from Freeport to Qeynos via Nektulos Forest was notorious, especially at low level. Fish flew above the river, firebats nuked you from the sky, everything was aggressive and it all chased you forever. When you died (and it was always when, not if) you picked up huge xp debt that took an age to clear. It was a trial, a rite of passage, in so many ways. On Stormhold it takes a while but it's a pleasant jaunt.

I took the scenic route. Hey, my time's my own...

What the TLE ruleset has achieved doesn't have as much to do with nostalgia as it does with returning the game to a pace that feels natural, somewhere that rests very happily between the attrition of the first year after launch and the Benny Hill chase of leveling on Live in 2015.

Live, of course, has to be where it is. Over the years, as the level cap recedes beyond the horizon of a new player, XP gain in the Live game has been tuned up and up in everything but "current" content so that fresh starters and alts can catch up. Heroic characters allow you to begin at level 90 and Mercenaries replace the other players who no longer exist to fill out groups in the 20s and thirties (or indeed the 70s and 80s).

On Stormhold, for the while, it's not like that and it doesn't need to be. Everyone is moving and progressing at a relatively stately pace but don't kid yourself it's anything like it was Back In The Day. Compared to 2004-5 this is still EQ2 on speed and your character is on steroids. In 2005 I would not have been pulling four or five yellow-con mobs at once and coming out last rat standing. I wouldn't have been soloing my way through The Decrepit Crypt at Level 12. I wouldn't be 15/15 after less than a full day's play. I think that took me the best part of a month first time round.

How much can it hurt, right?

No, the TLE dev team have tweaked some specific stuff here and there and made some well-judged modifications to things that were glaringly overpowered but in most respects this is modern EQ2 slowed down. And that is exactly what I've been asking for for years!

It still doesn't mean I'll be sticking with it long term. The timing isn't great. I was just about to get back into WoW, there's F2P Wildstar coming down the pike and I have so many other MMO projects on the go. Added to that, Mrs Bhagpuss isn't interested in coming back for yet another run. We came to the game together in beta and played alongside each other on Steamfont, Oasis, Test and Freeport. There are plenty of MMOs I'll happily play on my own but playing EQ2 without her feels a bit odd.

And anyway, to some extent I've done this all before, when Freeport launched with the original, restricted F2P ruleset. I've leveled so many characters in EQ2. I've started over from scratch and gone to the then-cap on several different servers. Do I really want to go through it all over again?

Smart Loot? I thought it was my lucky rabbit's foot.

I'm not sure. For now, though, I'm having a great time. My plan is to level up at least far enough to have a vote when the thirty days are up, which means I have to get at least to Level 30. If I make it I'll be voting against the unlock but my sense from within the game is that the majority will want to move on. Desert of Flames is a big expansion, though, with a lot of high-end content. I'd be surprised if a majority is done with that in a month. Subsequent unlocks may not come so easily.

It's an odd time for EQ2 right now. Stormhold is a clear success and I think it will remain a busy, well-populated server. On the other hand, those extra servers they had put by in case demand matched what was seen when Ragefire launched haven't been needed yet and server merges are coming for the Live game. How many of the players on the TLE servers are new or returning and how many have just moved next door from another Live server is hard to guess.

What do you expect for 5 silver a week?

What is clear, though, is that Daybreak is quietly managing a return to a form of Subscription-based gameplay as the default for the Everquest franchise. With the Arch-Priest of Free-to-Play now free to devote more time to his EVE online corp, that's a trend I expect to see expand and grow in the months and years ahead.

I'm happy with that. I'm getting my money's worth and, if the Progression/TLE servers are any kind of indication, this is a team that, finally, seems to be learning who and where its audience is.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Once More To The Well: Project:Gorgon

Just a quick heads-up to say that Project:Gorgon is up to bat at Kickstarter yet again. This will be developer Eric Heimburg's third attempt to gain some funding traction for his excellent old-new-school hybrid sandpark-themebox MMORPG.

The last two Kickstarters failed to fund. This time around Eric is asking for a very modest $20k, which is less than he got in pledges last time round so I'm hoping along with Wilhelm that third time's the charm.

I've written about Project:Gorgon a few times before. Unlike almost all other would-be MMORPGs trying to get you to open your wallet, this one is already fully playable. Eric describes the version currently up and running as "an early alpha" but that undersells it. Underselling is one of Eric's things I think.

Did you hear something howl?

I first tried P:G back in December 2013 and it was already enjoyably playable even then. I've dipped in and out ever since, building my one character up slowly but steadily. Every time I take another look there are patch notes and updates galore. The game grows and changes and progresses and develops constantly, becoming larger and more intricate by the month.

I logged in this morning to take some screenshots for this post and, as usual, ended up playing for a lot longer than I intended. This time it occurred to me that I'd never explored further than the starting zone so I set out to explore.

My timing could have been better.  Last update saw the first iteration of the Day/Night cycle and when I arrived it was 3am. Boy, was it dark, but the moon looked beautiful through the trees. I saw explosions of light bloom in the distance, briefly lighting up the night, and I had a momentary flashback to my very earliest days in East Commonlands, when I stood in awe as the distant spell effects of other players bloomed in the near-pitch blackness of the Norrathian night.

It's getting lighter. I can see my hand in front of my face. Oh, wait, that's not my hand...come to think of it, that's not my face either...

P:G really does have those old-school feels. There are a lot of individuals and teams beavering away on various projects, claiming they're going to Bring Back The Magic that was supposedly lost somewhere along the way. It's something Brad McQuaid just made a very good case for, explaining rather movingly why it would be a good thing to do. If anyone's actually going to make it happen, though, I don't think it will be Brad but I do think it could be Eric Heimburg, his wife Sandra Powers and their team.

I base that faith on the very simple fact that they're already doing it. I saw the evidence again this morning and it's convincing.

After a lot of wandering around, surviving a revenge attack by Old Snouty while I was fiddling with settings, almost taking a boat trip to Sun Vale, which I'm pretty sure would have turned out badly, eventually I found the portal to the next zone. Eltibule.

I have a bad feeling about this.

I'd expected to be shredded by wildlife on arrival and the forest of player-tombstones that greeted me as I portaled in did nothing to calm my apprehensions. As it turned out, though, my time bumbling about in the newbie zone and one of its several dungeons hadn't been wasted. My gear, skills and level allowed me to travel safely to the first Keep I saw, speak to several of the citizens there, acquire a bunch of "favors", which is, I think, the preferred P:G term for quests.

What's more I was tough enough, or "sturdy" as the guy who refused to sell me new armor until I proved I could kill five panthers put it, to...well, to kill five panthers. And some feral cows. And even a feral bull, although the second bull did for me, as did the three tigers who came to help their panther pal on a spectacularly bad pull.

Why, yes I am. Thank-you for asking!

In other words, I was playing an MMORPG. A proper, working game that functions well in a lot more than just the basic respects. A game you could quite feasibly take up right now as your main MMO and expect to get stuck into for quite a while. Rough around the edges, sure. Unfinished, obviously. But fun already and only going to become more so.

I've backed it again and I very much hope Eric gets my money this time. If it funds, backers get to keep playing for free, until launch. Not sure if that means he'll be closing the door to non-backers but just in case he does I recommend taking a look sooner rather than later if you haven't already.

Don't be put off by the annoying cave beginning. Get past that and there's a big world out there. One well worth exploring. And backing, too.

Monday, 27 July 2015

MMO Breakfast Club

Keen had another post up a while ago, in which he bemoaned the state of the MMO nation, as he often does. It generated an interesting comment thread that demonstrated something we probably all realize but don't acknowledge often enough: not everyone thinks the same way we do.

Wikipedia defines the Echo Chamber Effect as "a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an "enclosed" system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed or otherwise underrepresented". MMORPGs, in common with most hobbies, are rife with echo chambers: your guild, your friends list, your choice of game, your RSS feed, they all tend to put up a wall of reflection, bouncing your own perceptions back at you.

Sometimes they return distorted, warped, off-kilter but almost always recognizable, cousins to the original thoughts or feelings. When truly alien opinions and attitudes attempt to insinuate themselves the tools are ready to hand - /block, /ignore, guild kick or disband, remove from feed. It's so easy to hear only what you expect to hear, what you want to hear.

We refine our Filter Bubbles until the world conforms to the way we think it should and when we can't do that we retreat into silos. The exact definition of last year's most infuriating business meme, Silo Mentality, may not be an exact fit but something very similar is going on when we huddle together in our separate cliques - raiders, pvpers, crafters, casuals, carebears, each at best ignoring, sometimes opposing or resenting, the others.

"Comfort Zone" is a another glib turn of phrase guaranteed to spark static with me. As soon as I see it employed to further an argument my fur bristles. My instinctive reaction is to counter or close down any discussion that sees being comfortable as a negative. I love being comfortable. If I didn't then I wouldn't be comfortable, would I? It's a recursive, self-defeating argument.

Then there's "Challenge": that's a buzzword that grates. I read it as "Threat" and who wants to be threatened? And yet, get away from the false language and maybe there's something underneath that has substance.

It was reading horror stories of ganking in Ultima Online that decided me on Everquest as my first MMORPG. I never thought then that I'd end up spending a significant portion of my play time cackling gleefully as I pounced on some other player's hapless character with determined intent to send him back to his spawn point cursing me. I did, though. I do. And when it happens to me, as it very often does, I shrug, brush off the dust and carry on. There's no fear in it any more. Sometimes it's even fun.

For years I disliked crafting in MMORPGs so intently I thought it should be banned. My AD&D group never wasted a session knitting chainmail vests. If we wanted armor we killed someone who was wearing it or looted some ancient crypt or temple and bought what we needed with the treasure we hauled away in our portable hole. Crafting? That was something NPCs did. These days if an MMORPG doesn't have a rewarding and/or interesting crafting system I wonder how it dares call itself an MMORPG at all.

Even dungeons, that great staple of the genre, once seemed to me to be something for other people, not anything I'd ever experience. There was that whole "indoor/outdoor" thing, now long-forgotten, going on in Everquest back when I first started. Only hardcore players dared to travel the depths of Guk or Solusek's Eye. The rest of us, lightweights that we were, scratched our living on the surface, where you could run to a zoneline at need. The barrier to entry between the regular leveling game and Dungeoneering wasn't much lower than the wall that sprang up to separate raiding from the rest of the game a year or two later. You knew your place back then.

As the months and years rolled on my interest in the hobby grew in both breadth and depth. I wanted to play all the games. I wanted to try all the things. Some stuck, some didn't. Dungeons opened up for me and although I probably never gave raiding a fair chance I did at least get to see enough to decide it wasn't for me. I'm never going to have the patience or dedication to be more than a dilettante decorator but it turns out that I actually quite like jumping puzzles and I'm not terrible at them either. And on it goes.

In the end I do like my comfort and I don't particularly want to be "challenged" but there's a vast hinterland between dozing in an armchair by the fireplace and poling a dugout canoe up the Orinoco. It's not entirely true that you never know what you'll like unless you try it because we can all extrapolate from our experiences but it's surprising what catches your eye when you raise your head and look over the walls.

To some extent I'm in my own filter bubble, of course, surrounding myself with positive bloggers who still love MMOs, but that's why I also value the burnouts, the cynics, the bitter vets, or at least those who still care enough to make their cases for why the hobby's gone all to hell these days. It's tempting to close out some of those uncomfortable voices but often they're saying something that casts a shadow that brings out a detail the rainbow-hued light of positivity failed to reveal.

Just let's not expect any miraculous makeovers or sudden conversions. They're kind of creepy, anyway.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Set Adrift : EQ2

Returning to The Isle of Refuge has given me a timely reminder of one of my personal touchstones for life: the unreliability of memory.  These days it's reasonably widely known and even grudgingly accepted by the set of people who browse the "Smart Thinking" section in bookshops and watch TED lectures on their iPads that memory is in great part a fictionalized, narrative construct. Knowing that you don't know what you know doesn't always help you to know what you do know, though.

Trying to remember the past with any accuracy at all, even the past you experienced personally, directly and physically, is already next-to-impossible. When it comes to the return of the Isle, add another layer of diffusion for virtual experiences. And another for the post-hoc recreation of the intangible environment in which they took place. Oh, and another for an admittedly inaccurate and approximate recreation, at that. It's a wonder anybody can recognize the place at all.

I used to remember things clearly. Then I took an arrow in the head.

Many of the players stepping down from The Far Journey onto the dock at The Overlord's Outpost or The Queen's Colony haven't seen those wooden planks for a decade or so. In a way you might think I have the advantage of them there, in that I saw the EQ2 starting experience through a number of iterations, probably all of them, from beta in September 2004 to earlier this year.

It turns out that having a deeper, more nuanced relationship with the Isle of Refuge is far from an advantage when it comes to trying to remember what happened when. I can't even recall the basic structure of the starting experience with any accuracy. For example, as Wilhelm reminded me, there was always a shared bank on the island. I could have sworn it was added later but no, it was there from the start. In the very month the game launched people were even complaining it was an exploit.

Wait, do I know you?
As my ratonga SK slashed and clubbed his way to level eight last night I was repeatedly surprised. Sometimes it was wonderment at things that appeared to me to be completely new, like the named ranger and his two named hawks I couldn't recall ever seeing before (although the more I think about it the more I seem to remember camping him in a group once upon a time...) More often it was nagging memories, things turning out to be different from how I remembered them, or going missing altogether.

In the way these things do, recollections began to reassemble, pieces began to fall into place. A picture began to appear of how things might have been. But how closely does that picture represent reality? To establish that I'd have to do some research. Do I really have time for that?

Now That's What I Call An Upgrade Vol 1.
I didn't think so. For the while I believed I was content enough to let a fuzzy image of the past coalesce. It would be interesting, to me at least, to compare it one day to the recorded history, available from many sources but probably most coherently and comprehensively here at the EQ2 Wiki but do I want to do that when I could be playing?

Well, apparently so, because here I am on a Saturday morning, doing it.

My first thought was that my personal version of the Isle of Refuge, the one I've been carrying around in my head, must be a later version. I'd forgotten there were ever two islands, one for Good characters and one for Evil. The one I remember was a single island where two Ambassadors, one representing Freeport, one Qeynos, competed for your character's attention.

There was a sequence of quests to perform for each of them that gave you an idea of the philosophy and culture of the two competing city-states. When you had made your decision and wished to leave you would give your decision to one of the Ambassadors and he would authorize your passage.

Here's a Ring Event I'd forgotten all about.

According to a comment from 2008 on this EQ2Wire thread, however, that version was the original: "There is no more Isle of Refuge. Today there are two islands, the Queen's Colony (13 quests) and the Outpost of the Overlord (13 quests)" The two islands we have back on the TLE servers would seem to be a later refinement after all.

I'm so confused. I probably need to make a Good character and run through the Queen's Colony questline to see how much of what appears to be missing is in fact over there. Perhaps the original content was largely split into two and parceled out accordingly? There's one quest I was never able to complete that I'd like to finish some day. Oh, hang on...didn't I finally complete that one with Milo?

And with that it occurred to me to log Milo in and check the Completed Quest list in his journal. He's the King of the Isle, after all. He even bought his own Isle and set up home there, although he still hasn't decorated. But looking at his Journal really doesn't help much at all.

Milo was born on February 11 2005. I wanted some peace and quiet from the guild I was in at the time so I made a new character on a different server and played him for one session on a Sunday. In that session he completed several quests, most of which appear in the Isle Of Refuge category when the Journal is sorted by zone (the rest, including the start of the old Archetype Selection series, are recorded under Hallmark Quests).

He was woken up again March, then again almost a year later in February 2006, by which time the quests appear under a different zone, Outpost of the Overlord. Milo then took a very long nap, not re-appearing until 2012, when he completed the sequence and retired until his unexpected resurrection at the gates of Freeport in 2013. (This, by the by, is a very representative example of how I play many of my characters -  I may not log them in often but they are always "in play").

All of which would seem like conclusive evidence that the original IoR disappeared sometime between 2005-2006, if it wasn't for the fact that Milo's journal shows one quest in the Outpost zone record on the same day as it shows another in the Isle of Refuge! In the end I just gave up trying to make sense of it and looked at the wiki, where it's all explained neatly and succinctly thus:

"Originally, all new players started on the same island, Isle of Refuge, but depending on which city you chose to start in the Isle would appear differently. Later they made two distinct islands...The original starting quests remain in the completed section of the journal for players who completed them. Those quests which were moved to Queen's Colony or Outpost of the Overlord also moved journal sections, and are listed on those pages".

I swear this used to be a longer sequence, not just the one quest.
So I could have saved myself the bother all along and just googled it, but then what would I have learned? Just the bare facts. Nothing about how memory and perception of memory warps and flows, adapting itself to new information without reference to any objective verification, creating a whole skein of inaccurate, misleading supposed personal experiences that are as subjectively real as, well, anything we can know.

The version of The Isle of Refuge that remains most firmly embedded in my mind seems to be the true original, the one where all the refugees arrived together and were sent on varying quests according to their alignment. Although I must have played through the later, discrete versions more often and certainly more recently it's the original that pertains.

What that means, if it means anything, I couldn't say. Other than never trust your memory even if your absolutely certain it's right. It won't be. But I knew that already.

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