Friday, 24 April 2015

Rearranging The Furniture : GW2

If there's one thing ArenaNet really is good at it's running a sustained promotional campaign. The build-up to GW2 went on for a long, long time and even though I was by no means invested in The Project back then in the way so many were, there are PR pieces and interviews I can still remember quite clearly several years later. The skills that were honed in that campaign are coming into their own as the long run-in to the release of the first expansion, Heart of Thorns, grinds remorselessly onward.

We still don't have a release date for this thing, let's remember. We haven't even got a date for the beta. The content tap has all but been turned off in the live game. There's precious little for fans to focus on other than the carefully-managed flow of information - I would hesitate to call it "news" - that aims to open a window into our collective future.

The latest additions to HoT's "Pending" folder are two posts on the official website, catchily titled Specializations, Part One and Specializations, Part Two.  Between them they go into considerable, if repetitive, detail on the Specialization system that arrives with the expansion, whenever that might be.

So old school...
The gist appears to be some kind of paring-down or simplification of the existing Trait system and the replacement of the cumbersome Skill Point As Currency concept with a more straightforward version. It's a typical MMO mid-life crisis, in other words, the kind most MMORPGs undergo sooner or later. Mechanics and processes that were touted as revolutionary or paradigm-breaking back at the launch of the game are now deemed to be in dire need of an overhaul.

I would say that it puzzles me, why just about every single MMO I've ever played has to go through this constant unpicking of the seams, this endless re-upholstering and refurbishing. I would, only it doesn't. It's exactly what's happened around me in every job I've ever held for more than a few years. People can't leave well alone and no-one ever got on in life by saying the guy before him did a great job that can't be bettered. Not even if the guy before him was him.

It's annoying, all the same, this ineluctable desire to fiddle with things that are working perfectly well already. There's every chance the new Trait system will be fine and I'm sure we'll all get used to it in a few days. There's almost no chance, however, that it will be radically better than the old system. It certainly won't be such an improvement that, a couple or three years down the line, someone won't feel the need to change the whole thing up all over again.

Shooting for a round thousand by HoT. And that's just on one character.
It's tempting to pick away at all of this, worrying over the specifics, spinning conjecture and speculation out of the many gaps and elisions, but is there any point? As the writers take great pains to emphasize, "as with all things currently in development, there may be differences between the updates ... here and the traits that make it to the live game".

In practice most of the changes and additions will, I'm sure, appear in the finished version, in some form very close to what's being described. The lid of the box wouldn't be open otherwise. Whether they are very similar or strikingly different, however, as players we won't be in any position to judge the effect on our enjoyment until we experience these changes in play.

Often it seems MMO players find it all too easy to get worked up into a state of near-hysteria about proposed changes to games they love. Sometimes they seem to be able to reach a rolling boil of outrage about changes to MMOs they've barely even heard of. In the end, most of those changes turn out to be less invasive, less destructive, less interesting than anyone imagined. Barely noticeable in fact.

One of the reasons we still talk about the NGE is because it was an exceptional case, where a change to systems and mechanics really did make a huge difference to many players' ability to enjoy the game, or even go on playing it at all. I can think of half a dozen of those, maybe, in a decade and a half.

For the while all we can do is read, watch, listen and wait. No point crying over milk that's not yet been poured, much less spilled.


Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The View From Ehmry Bay or What's Wrong With This Picture? : GW2

A while back, when ArenaNet had the first of their 75% Off! sales, we each bought a third GW2 account. Since the coming of the Megaserver it really makes little difference which server you choose at character creation unless you plan on making some kind of serious run in the three-realm World vs World stakes.

Nevertheless it's not something you can opt out of nor is it something over which you have an entirely free hand. Here's a screenshot of the North American server list taken at 2pm UK time today, Tuesday. That's nine in the morning on the U.S. East Coast and six a.m. in the West. On a workday.

There are several Worlds that I have never seen other than full during my European play hours so I can only imagine they are permanently unavailable. As far as I'm aware, you can neither create a new character on a Full server, nor transfer an existing account there.


It seems rare for any server to fall below "Very High" these days.The rather well-handled, ongoing PR push for Heart of Thorns seems to have brought back a lot of lapsed players, while heavy discounting has filled the starting areas with eager ingenues. The ever-open-door policy of "Buy Once, Play Forever" means that no-one can ever really stop playing, only take a sabbatical, and almost every day sees the return of a flurry of names from the past.

Since we already have two accounts on Yaks Bend it seemed superfluous to add a third. I had already decided to concentrate all my efforts there onto a single account anyway as a result of the increasingly common and, to me, increasingly irritating trend of MMORPGs to move to an account-based model.

It's been so refreshing recently to return to playing EQ2, where each character has to stand on his or her own two paws rather then being towed along, willy-nilly, on the coat-tails of others. Even there the creeping specter of unearned perks looms, what with Heirloom items shared across the account, Daily Veteran Rewards being credited to the account not the character and experience bonuses being given for the account based on how many max level adventurers and crafters it has. Still, as yet it's a far cry from the Player-as-Unit model that GW2 suffers.

So, with all that in mind, I rolled my new account on Ehmry Bay, a server I still remember fondly from its brief moment of glory as Yak's Bend's Little Brother in Season One. I took a little tour before deciding, rolling on lower-ranked servers Devona's Rest and Ferguson's Crossing, but life in Tier 7 and Tier 8 looked just a bit too sedate.

EBay, as it has always, inevitably, been known, turned out to be a charming second home. In EU hours we generally have, at most, a single commander running and his "zerg" rarely adds up to more than a dozen even on a weekend. Most times gameplay in the Mists feels more like single-group play than zerging, with all three teams fielding single figure forces. It's all very 2012.

It feels refreshing, re-taking towers with a single, regular ram placed dead-center of the gate or marching to take a Keep with all of two alpha golems and half a dozen ground troops. Everything takes longer, the pace is stately, there are some amazing fights and even as a lowly uplevel I always feel both welcome and useful.

Good for me, but not, presumably for ANet, who can hardly wish for half of their servers to be providing content that appeals only to a fraction of one percent of the population. That, though, is scarcely the full picture.

World vs World is and has always been intensely volatile. Guilds move servers en masse, seeking all kinds of advantage or change, from the elusive "Good Fights" and the perennial, doomed attempts to set up the perfect environment to turn WvW into GvG - Guild Vs Guild - to a straightforward wish to just win a damn match for once or for their guild to be something other than cannon fodder in the pecking order.

Tier 2 has been a roiling cauldron of machinations and Machiavellian plots ever since we beached up there at the end of Season Three. There have been alliances, spies and trolls, concerted efforts to force Yaks Bend back into the outer darkness whence we came and, latterly, a grudging acceptance of the status quo. The hotly-tipped Yaks Bend Implosion never happened. We thrive on pressure. Meanwhile, around us, servers have been bandwagoned only to see the wheels fall off time and time again.

Currently Dragonbrand, who made it to T2 and looked for a while as if they'd push out Sea of Sorrows, are reportedly in freefall back in T3, their expected destination somewhere south of T5. Rumor is their ambitious guilds have gone to Henge of Denravi, something that seems likely given HoD's sudden surge, although for certain some came to The Bend.

This did not end well.
Maguuma, meanwhile, erstwhile home of some fragment of the infamous Goonswarm Federation, one-time worshippers of the Flame Ram and trainers of The Grub, always the least predictable, most volatile of servers, having crashed and burned for the how-many-is-it-againth time, is once again on the rise. They're burning through the tiers like a runaway sun on their way back to their supposed spiritual home in T2. Fear them.

It all makes for rough seas for small boats. Yaks Bend, being made of battleplate steel around a spent uranium core, takes the buffeting with grim determination and something almost like joy. Inside that bubble it's entirely possible my vision is warped. Having seen things from no other perspective in the 30 months I've played until now it's been very interesting to observe the action from EBay.

In the short time I've been there we've weathered HoD and Maguuma, neither of whom were a barrel of laughs, although I admit to always enjoying a match against the Magpies so long as I know they're going to be off fighting someone else the week after. With those forces of nature in effect I hadn't realized how much stronger than us Crystal Desert were, so it came as a shock to be knocked around by them like the inflatable dummy of a salaryman's boss for the last two weeks.

And then. And then this week we drew a wildcard and dropped a peg to face Sanctum of Rall and Anvil Rock in T6. I can't say we're having it entirely our own way, and indeed according to our Glicko score, which has fallen a little, we really should be doing better than we are, but suffice it to say that, when I logged in this afternoon, we owned everything. Everything.

Genius At Work.

This sort of thing happens a lot more often than you would expect. In order to render the whole affair less static and predictable, ANet long ago added a "wild card" system, whereby each Friday, when the new match begins, an algorithm runs to decide who will face whom. There's a very small chance for Worlds to be promoted or demoted not by merit but by luck. I say it's a small chance but it seems to happen surprisingly frequently. There have been suggestions that the "algorithm" is actually Colin pulling slips of paper out of a hat...and then swapping them around until he gets a result that amuses him...

When it does happen, however, the result is very often the same. The team that drops a tier steamrolls the unfortunate pair it meets - especially so if some unlucky world also got a wildcard up. What's more, because of how the Glicko system works, that server needs to steamroller without mercy because if it doesn't win by a wide enough margin it will lose standing in the rankings and begin to slide. 

It all tends to point up the extreme differences in coverage and population between the tiers, a very real problem of which everyone is already all too aware. A weak T2 server destroys the strongest in T3 and so on. Only when a server slumming it on a wildcard in the tier below chances to meet a bandwagon server bullying its way up do sparks fly and that doesn't happen very often.

When the expansion arrives we know we are getting new maps and new mechanics with them. We have been told there will be greater emphasis on and rewards for defense. For a while, as everyone comes to grips with the new environments and rule sets, there will be opportunities. The tectonic plates might even shift enough to crack open a passage into the closed shop of T1.

Aw, Bless!
If the underlying scoring system isn't addressed, from Glicko to Transfers, chances are such changes will be fleeting. For those of us enjoying the fights and feeling server pride perhaps that may not matter all that much but it won't do anything at all to improve the reputation of World vs World for those already jaded with its shortcomings.

That does at least represent some kind of hope for improvement, way off in the future somewhere, beyond the still-unanounced  launch of HoT. While we wait all we can do is make our own entertainment. Hence the plotting and the churn.

This would seem to be the ideal time to keep the masses happy with bread and circuses. A WvW season, derided though they always are, still gets people fired up. Surely one can't be hard to organize? In the absence of root-and-branch reform I'd take a meaningless competition with useless rewards. For now, anyway.

As yet there's no sign. It's now been more than six months since the last Season and several months since the ineffectual experimental rule change that was supposed to be the first of many. Like most aspects of GW2 other than the Gem Store and the failed eSport offerings in sPvP, everything seems to be on hold until HoT arrives. Whenever that might be.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

You Only Lieb Twice : The Liebster Awards

So I got the White Elephant. Or is it the Black Spot? Either which way,  Wilhelm nominated me for this Liebster thing I'd been trying to ignore and he also nominated Mrrx, who then nominated me as well. At least Mrrx opted to re-use Wilhelm's questions so I don't have to do 22 of the darn things.

If anyone else nominated me earlier I apologize and thank you. I didn't read all of the previous nominations. As I said I was trying to pretend it wasn't happening and waiting for it to go away but it is and it won't so here we are. It takes even longer to do than you imagine it would but it's one of those things that, once you get started, is also more enjoyable than you imagined so it comes out about even.

It's also probably the longest post I've ever done and I wouldn't expect many readers to make it all the way to the end, so to avoid avoiders avoiding, the way I was, I've front-loaded my nominations. Needless to say, many (most?) of the people I'd have picked have done it already and heaven knows no-one is going to want to do this twice

The original instructions suggest each participant nominates eleven more bloggers, each with "less than 200 followers".  Whoever designed this thing is purely obsessed with the number 11. Let's all pretend we didn't see that part.

There's a great temptation to try and waken sleeping giants like Gordon from We Fly Spitfires (last post over two years ago) or lure back great bloggers who have moved on from the "long form" to more modern means of communication, like Tipa at West Karana. And of course if either of you see this and feel the urge to join in, well that'll be my service to the community done for this year as well as a special treat for me!

My official nominations, however, are people who are still active and blogging fairly regularly. Please do not feel in any way obliged to respond. Indeed, I hope you just get the "it's nice to be asked" feeling without any of the "now I have to do something I didn't really want to do" part.

GamingSF

Null Signifier

ECTMMO

Skip to the end for eleven new questions. I don't think I can get away with reusing Wilhelm's yet again...

And now onto the  main event:

Eleven  Random Things

I wish I had a more flattering photo. I never did look my best in profile... Also from this picture anyone would think we were a mod band but that was what punks really did look like in 1977 once you got ten miles outside London




1. I used to play rhythm guitar in a band that was always changing line-up. Somehow I ended up as the singer, which was a problem because I could never remember the words. Even when I'd written them.

2. As a kid I loved to play pinball. When the table flashed "TILT!" I thought it meant I should grab the side and lift it. I wasn't strong enough so I'd try and persuade an adult to help me. Amazing how many adults don't know what "TILT!" on a pinball table means either.

3. I didn't learn to drive until I was 28. I didn't think I'd like driving but it turns out I do. A lot.

4. Come to think of it I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was 18. Guess I'm just a late starter when it comes to transport. Maybe I'll learn to hang-glide when I'm 78.

5. As far as I know I have no food allergies. I think I was born before they were invented. Or maybe it's because I didn't eat a cooked meal until I was twelve. I understand they can start any time though so there's still hope.

6. There are well over 700 movies on VHS tape downstairs from where I'm sitting as I type this. Most of them I recorded off the TV back when I thought it would be really cool to have a library of a thousand films. I still think that would be cool - only not on VHS cassettes. Why couldn't DVD recorders have arrived a decade sooner?

7. The other day I had to look up Bouncing Boy's real name on Google. I can't believe I couldn't remember it. And then I thought better of using it for what I had in mind. That's the good and the bad of getting older all in one package, right there. It's Chuck Taine in case you were wondering.

It could happen...


8. I've been a bookseller for longer than I've played MMOs but I've never trusted bookshops. I prefer libraries. That said, working in a bookshop is a great way to get free books. Another good way is to email publishers and tell them you want some. They have more proofs than they have people to give them away to most of the time.

9. The knife-crime media scare of several years ago meant I had to stop carrying my Swiss Army knife everywhere I went. When I carried it I used it several times a day and thought it was indispensable but since I stopped carrying it I rarely miss it at all.

10. I ordered new net curtains for the front room via Amazon yesterday and they came today. I put them up this morning and they look great. To quote Lloyd Cole, "very very rock and roll".

11. I found it a lot harder thinking up eleven random facts about myself than you would imagine.


Eleven answers


1. Why blog?  In this age of Facebook and Instagram and Twitch and what not, why do you work in a medium that is still mostly about words as opposed to video or connections
or other things?

I've always been a compulsive writer so the words come naturally. I've felt for a very long time that writing is a kind of compulsion, almost an addiction, not far from being some kind of illness. It just happens to be a socially acceptable kind of sickness that can open the doors to fame, fortune and the respect of your peers. Allegedly.

Pictures may not be as essential to a blog as words but they're of almost equal importance to mine. Most days they take up more of my time than the writing does. Without pictures a blog becomes something like a series of essays or diary entries. With them it becomes a lot more like a magazine. I do like writing essays and I often wish I'd kept a diary but most of all I've always loved the idea of having my own magazine.

I photocopied my first fanzine when I was still at school and I went on to publish and contribute to many more. After that wore out I spent most of the 80s and 90s deep in the APAzine scene. I worked hour after hour with scissors and SprayMount laying those things out.

I really love layout work. I learned how to do it in my first real job post-University, when I somehow ended up producing the in-house magazine for an Insurance Company for a couple of years. The blog format is really the APAzine experience rendered shiny by technology so it felt very comfortable and familiar. If we'd only had these tools back then...

I would also love to work with audio and video. I have dabbled but it takes so long... Right now I just can't seem to make the time. One day.

2. Why MMOs? (Or, why not MMOs?)  What is it about this never ending genre that pulls you in, relative to single player or even multi-player co-op games?

There are probably a million reasons by now but in the beginning it was the Three Cs: Childhood, Collecting and Company.

Right from the beginning, the whole experience of playing MMOs reminded me enormously of the happy estate of being a child; that ineffable feeling so perfectly encapsulated by Bill Waterson in Calvin and Hobbes or Richmal Crompton in Just William. The days really were just packed and there really was treasure everywhere. When I found Everquest it was like being transported back to the 1960s, exploring the woods and fields with a  gang of kids, getting in to all kinds of scrapes, with no responsibility other than try not to get yourself
killed and be back home before bedtime.

Then there's the company. An MMO is all the best parts of going to the pub or having friends round without any of the negatives. No missing the last bus, no falling asleep on the train home and waking up in the wrong town, no looking at the clock and wondering "are they ever going to leave?" It's an always-on social life with an off-switch. I admit I've gone out a lot less since started playing MMOs but I feel all the better for it and so does my wallet.

Finally, collecting. I'm a packrat and proud of it but there are downsides. Before MMOs we used to spend weekends exploring the charity shops, second-hand stores, markets and car boot sales of every town in a fifty-mile radius. The house was filling up with all kinds of finds. MMOs replaced all that with an almost identical experience (particularly in the days of vendor diving in EQ) while removing the travel costs and storage problems. Well, kind of... (points up at blog title...)

3. Science Fiction or Fantasy?  Which way do you lean when it comes to games, literature, movies, or whatever?

I grew up reading Science Fiction. I've read it all my life. I didn't really begin reading fantasy until after I left University. When I think of SF it tends to mean Dick, Ballard, M John Harrison, the New Wave, all of that. Fairly serious stuff. Fantasy struck me mainly as escapism and after three years doing Eng. Lit. escapism what about all I wanted.

Nowadays I don't see so much of a clear divide. I'm pretty much up for any of it. Genres are for publishers and producers, anyway, not for audiences.

4. What of Steam?  Do you feel like you’re missing something by not browsing the shelves looking at boxes when shopping for video games?  Digital distribution is here, on the PC at least (consoles still depend on a lot of physical boxes), do you miss the old way?  Are you old enough to even remember the old way?

I have a Steam account but I've never bought anything with it. I spent an hour going through everything in the store last year and couldn't find a single thing I wanted. As for using it as platform to play games I don't really get the point. Isn't that what my Desktop does? I'm not against it - I just haven't worked out why I need it.

Digital Distribution in general I like a lot but I still buy a box if I can get one. Just like I listen to all my music as MP3s but do it by buying the CDs and converting them. It still seems weird not having a physical copy even if I actually find the digital version hugely more convenient. I expect I'll grow out of that eventually.

5. What gaming relics to you hang on to, if any?  Chat logs? Screen shots? Physical boxes? Just memories?

All of the above and more. Packrat here, remember. I wish I could find my two years of EQ chat logs. I think they're on a HD that died...

6. Name three (or more if you like) video games that shaped the gamer you are today.

Eye of the Beholder - the first computer game I played that really made me feel I was "there". Searching for secret doors has never felt so real.

Might and Magic VI - The Mandate of Heaven - I think that was the first RPG Mrs Bhagpuss and I played together.

Everquest - The one that changed everything. If I had to describe my ideal game this would still be it. It would be great if someone would make something to knock it off its pedestal but so far there's no sign of that happening.

Baldur's Gate and Broken Sword 1&2 should never go unmentioned in a list like this, either.

7. You’re rolling up a new character in yet another fantasy title.  What race and class is always the first set you go with?

There isn't any particular combo although I do have some strong preferences and old reliables. If I suspect I'll find the game difficult to learn or adapt to then I usually pick a Warrior type because they tend to have the most straightforward mechanics at low level. Often those characters get abandoned quite early on as soon as I've got the hang of things.

If there's a short, cute race, particularly an anthropomorphic animal, I'll always be drawn towards playing that. I find it almost impossible to resist a catgirl. Who could and why would you even try? No-one who read The Ballad of Lost C'Mell at an impressionable age, like I did, that's for sure.

Catgirl. I said catgirl!
I have a bad habit of rolling rangers and then finding they're nothing like I imagined they would be. I often start out with one but few make it very far. I'm also partial to classes with a pet that can tank and any class with a lot of AEs.

The one thing I can't abide are classes that rely on positioning, which explains why I don't play many rogues.


8. What video games, if any, did you play before you discovered MMOs?  Did you leave them behind?  Or have you left MMOs behind?

Much though I like to say I'm not a Gamer, I've played video games since my (very) late teens, which is pushing four decades now. I used to favor Adventure games (text or graphic, I'm not a purist) but I've played all kinds.

Most of my gaming back in the '80s was done on the Atari 2600, the ZX Spectrum and the Amiga. I didn't get a PC until the mid 90s. That was when I really got into RPGs, something that was strongly encouraged by Mrs Bhagpuss, as we began to discover and develop a mutual interest in the hobby.

Once we went online we really never went back. I've probably played fewer offline games in the decade and a half since I started playing EQ than I played just in the first 11 months of 1999 alone. Playing offline nowadays feels like reading aloud to myself in an empty room.

9. By whatever definition you choose, what would you consider to be the Video Game Capital of the World?  LA? Austin? London? Elsewhere?  Maybe just the Video Game Capital of your world?

Strange question. I would never have considered anywhere to be "the Video Game Capital of the World". I'm going to say San Diego for obvious reasons.

10. Which MMOs have you really invested yourself in?  There are a lot of them out there, but you can realistically only really get into so many.  Which were they for you?

This is easy. I just instinctively know which ones count: 

Everquest
EQ2
Vanguard
WoW
GW2
Wizard 101
Rubies of Eventide

I can name plenty of other MMOs I played longer than some in that list and quite a few that I think are better or that I enjoyed more, but it has nothing to do with how long I played or how much fun I had. It's all about how committed I felt to what I was doing while I was there.

11. How do you spend most of your MMO time with relation to other players?  Are you solo, in a partial group, in a full group, in a raid, in a coalition-wide fleet operation, or some other formation?  What is your default mode?

Depends on the game. EQ/EQ2 is all solo play at the moment. GW2 is solo and duo and open-group play. Interestingly, zerg activity in WvW is beginning to be referred too quite commonly as "raiding" so I "raid" quite a lot, too, which is a first for me.

I would say my default mode is solo but I am usually open to offers. I do like grouping, a lot, especially old-style "Trinity" groups, where that meant CC/Tank/Heals. I'd do that again if the right game came along. I miss healing and CC a lot and tanking a little.

And no, FFXIV is not the right game.

Bring back healing on horseback.


Okay, since I don't think I can get away with using the same set of questions for a third time I guess I'd better come up with eleven new ones. Going to try to stick to MMO/Gaming related ones.

Eleven Questions

1. Are MMORPGs getting better all the time or going downhill fast?

2.Which cancelled MMO do wish you'd tried when you still had the chance?

3. And which cancelled MMO (including ones that never made launch) do you wish was still up and running?

4. Flying mounts or underwater zones?

My answer to Q5
5. What I.P. from books, movies, comics or T.V. would you most like to see turned into an MMORPG?

6.MMO cash shops: a welcome opportunity to give yourself a treat or a pathetic attempt to wheedle money out of the weak-willed? Or does that depend entirely on whether they sell anything you actually want?

7. Geez! Haven't we seen enough dragons already?

8. Has playing MMOs had any noticeable effect on your physical or mental health, positive or negative?

9. Do you PvP? Did you always? Or ever? If you changed your mind, why?

10. Would you put "playing MMORPGs" on your resumé/C.V.?

11. Do you play "in character"? Sometimes? Always? Never? 



Aaaaaand...relax!

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Progression Server Progress : Everquest

Pardon the typos. I can spell. I just can't type.

Daybreak have just published plans for the upcoming Everquest Progression server. In detail. A lot of detail.

It's a very good read. Fascinating, if you like that sort of thing. Which I do. Plenty of topics for discussion, which I expect we'll be having over at TAGN soon enough. I can retro a link in there later. It even has some jokes. 

We get an Open Beta and more polls. If we don't give clear answers the first time we do it over until we do. And you can win a backpack. Maybe several. Whoopeee!

The server arrives in "Summer", which is a lot better than "Soon". It will be called one of these names:

  • Anashti Sul
  • Gorenaire
  • Lockjaw
  • Meldrath
  • Mrylokar
  • Opal Darkbriar
  • Ragefire
  • Yelinak
I'll probably vote either for Lockjaw or Meldrath.  



There was one line that particularly piqued my curiosity:

"A lot of you suggested Quarm, which we like very much... for another purpose". Mmmmm... secret project...

All in all this seems to bode well. The execution appears speedy but not hasty and the way it's all being handled sets a different tone from the way these things have been done in the past. Shouldn't read too much into this stuff, perhaps, but since the transition to Daybreak I have been pleasantly surprised quite often.

D'oh! Now I've jinxed it.




Playing Hard To Get: Wildstar

So, according to the rumor mill, Wildstar might be going F2P. Or B2P. Dropping the subscription anyway. Maybe.

Apparently Australian game stores are the canary down the coalmine when it comes to payment model conversions. They start pulling boxes and packing for returns and that's the end of your exclusive club. This is based on...well, they did it just before ESO de-subbed so, proof!

Also Omeed Dariani, the gigglesome frontman who jumped ship from SoE to Carbine even before Daybreak was a thing, he said so on someone's Livestream. Sort of. Well, he said they were thinking about it. Bartillo told us so in the comment thread over at Keen and Graev.

Anyway, Wildstar's China launch is due soon, if you call the end of the year "soon". It could be next year. Before EQNext, anyway, I think we can count on that much, at least. They don't do subs in China so it's sure to be free there, which means they must be doing the conversion anyway, so it's inevitable here too, right?

No, I'm the cute one!

Syp thinks the recent re-focus on vanity pets and character customization presages a cash shop. He even plays Wildstar sometimes so he should know. That makes him the expert because for sure no-one else around here is playing it.

Yes. Well. Fine. But as Keen told me "it’s really not the subscription keeping you from playing, it’s the fact that the game isn’t good enough to justify the subscription". And he's right. Although he isn't.

I pay my subs. I'm paying Daybreak for All Access on two accounts. One of them we don't even use. I just logged it in this morning to claim the 500SC and five packs of Legends of Norrath cards and that'll probably be the last time it gets an airing until next month. (What's happening to Legends of Norrath anyway? Wasn't the last new pack Drakkinshard back in 2013?).

Wildstar is a fun game. I was interested in it when it was first announced then I went off it. That's the trouble with MMOs. They take so long to get here that by the time they get to where you are you're not there any more. /wave Black Desert.

So I wasn't even going to try it but then everyone else did and there was open beta or some such so I tried it and, yes, I liked it. The combat was frenetic, the tone was iffy, the colors were garish, the audio was jarring but the important part was...I really liked my little guy. That made up for an awful lot. Enough to get me to pay a sub, possibly. If...if...I also had time to play.

So, was Wildstar good enough for me to sub or wasn't it? I guess it wasn't because I didn't. I didn't even buy it and play the "free" month so obviously I didn't like it as much as FFXIV or TSW. And that's true. I like both of those games quite a lot more than I liked Wildstar.

Willpower. Willpower...

But I didn't sub those games either so, by Keen's logic, they weren't good enough. Maybe they weren't. I'd say FFXIV was and Wildstar probably wasn't but that wasn't why I didn't sub them.

In both cases the primary reason I didn't sub was that I couldn't foresee fitting them into the time I expected to have available. I was - am - already playing MMORPGs I'm committed to, at least to some degree. A day only has so many hours. A new MMO could even be better than the one I'm currently focused on and that still might not be enough to make me move: it would have to be a lot better to replace one I'm still enjoying.

The secondary reason was that Mrs Bhagpuss also didn't like either well enough to keep on playing. It's not like we are joined at the hip when it comes to gaming but it is more fun when we play the same MMO at the same time.  She tends to stick to one and I like to spread out a bit, so I play lots of MMOs that she doesn't, which is very easy now they're all there and thereabouts free, but it does makes a difference to which ones I'll pay to play.

Currently that's EQ and EQ2. I'm playing and she's not and I am willing to pay for the benefits of a subscription, apparently, even though I'm not sure I could tell you what those benefits are. I think I just like giving Smed money, that's probably it. I've been doing it so long it would feel weird to stop now.

Getting back to the point, and I did have one, I imagine, there are more reasons for deciding not to subscribe to a game than that game not being good enough to justify the cost. Once the subscription goes away, though, all those reasons go away with it.

Track now playing: EQ2 Warlock

I "play" a lot of MMOs. From memory, I am currently "playing" all of these:

GW2, Everquest, EQ2, Allods, Istaria, The Secret World, ESO, City of Steam, Project:Gorgon, WoW (free version), Eldevin and Neverwinter.

You have to define "playing". I have, at the very least, logged into all of the above this calendar year. I consider myself to be on hiatus from, but still not not playing, ArcheAge, Landmark and LOTRO. Added to which I have recently downloaded STO and logged into Guild Wars. There will certainly be others I've forgotten that, if you reminded me, I'd also claim to be "playing", even if only metaphorically. Or is that metaphysically? Something meta at any rate...

Conspicuously absent from that list are FFXIV and Wildstar. I would be "playing" both of those if they didn't have subscriptions. I'd be logged in taking screenshots for this post for a start, which is how I "play" quite a few MMOs these days. How much I'd be playing beyond that is hard to guess but I suspect it would be a not insignificant amount.

Would Square or Carbine make any money out of me by going F2P? I doubt it. Well, Square already got the box price and Carbine probably will too, because even if they declare the game is going to go full-on free, chances are I'll grab one from Amazon in advance like I did for ESO (ESO boxes were dirt cheap six weeks before F2P, when I bought ours. I checked yesterday and they are now going for collector's prices with almost none left so best grab a Wildstar box now, I'd say, while they're still selling at way under retail).

Of course you can always just play one MMO to the tune of another.

That will be all they get from me I imagine. I mean, I play GW2 about all the hours god sends and, other than buying three boxes for three accounts, they've never had a penny out of me. What can I say? I'm a cheap date when it comes to gaming.

If an MMO is storming away like FFXIV they can very well do without my custom. Very well. Wildstar, one imagines, can't afford to turn business down. They could seriously do with every warm body they can get.

Oh, there is the argument that an influx of unwashed oiks, shoving and pushing past the fallen payment barrier, fingering the merchandize and sneering at the decor, will spoil it for the last few remaining paying customers. That one comes up every time a game converts.

Having been one of those remaining paying customers I can't say I noticed anything like that. Things got louder and busier for a while. Bustling even. That was generally fun. Then, after the novelty wore off, it all quietened down and went back to much how it was before. Presumably someone made some money out of it. No-one's lands got ruined that I saw. Certainly not mine.

For some MMOs there surely must come a time when there's no point pretending any more. No-one loves you. No-one even remembers you're there. You have to do something or you may as well just shut up shop. We really have no way of knowing if that's where Wildstar is right now but it's where the sentiment is, that's for sure. We're all just waiting for the shoe to drop.

It needs to happen soon if I'm ever going to write another Wildstar post, too. I've used all my screenshots. Most of them twice.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Strong Showing For Stronghold : GW2

Last night was my first chance to try some of GW2's hot new content. Or should that be new HoT content? Either way, for 24 hours only, the upcoming sPvP map featuring the new game mode known as "Stronghold" is available for testing, using the "we beta on live" system that so impressed Ravious a short while ago.

I say "available". If you play unranked arenas, as most people doing dailies probably do, you'll be testing The Battle of Champion's Dusk, whether you like it or not. For a day and a night the new map replaces all others in that bracket.

You'll take this one and like it.
Not everyone reads patch notes or visits the news section of the official website so this seemed to come as a surprise to many. There were some lively discussions going on in map chat as I waited in the PvP lobby for my number to come up.

All but one of the PvP maps GW2 has had since launch rely on holding territory for points (the exception being a free-for-all brawl) so there was some confusion over what to do on a map that had no marked points where you stand in a ring to score. I'd taken the trouble to read the long and detailed overview so I had a fair idea of what was expected but it was still very confusing first time round.

Stronghold For Dummies
Confusing but also a lot of fun. I've never played a MOBA but according to what people who had were saying this is roughly how they work. To me it felt very much like a WvW mini-game, with keeps and Lords and siege engines and NPCs to hire.

For most of the lifetime of the game I've studiously ignored GW2's instanced PvP. It was the felicitous synchronicity of a couple of Jeromai's posts and the first 75% off sale that changed all that. Suddenly I had a new character on a new account, who had to do all three of his three (count 'em - three!)  dailies every day (one PvE, one WvW, one PvP) to get the "I've done three dailies" reward.

So I started doing instanced PvP and found I enjoyed it well enough, something that really shouldn't have come as a surprise given the countless hours I've spent doing the much same thing in WoW, Rift, Warhammer and EQ2. And, to pick up a theme, the recently-added extrinsic rewards for doing PvP are now so good they amount to open bribery.

There are two things you certainly can't say about GW2's PvP maps: as already outlined, you can't honestly say they offer much variety in gameplay and neither do they match up to the visual elan we're spoiled with throughout the rest of the game. The new map addresses both of those shortcomings.

A Pirate Captain, I !

Visually it's the only PvP map that looks as though any thought has gone into it at all beyond the necessary design that relates to functionality. Behind you at the spawn point is open sea with several impressive sailing ships moored at a dock. The fighting takes place in a small town that looks and feels like something you might find on an explorable map.

There's even some story going on somewhere. We appear to be working for someone to some end although I have no idea who or what that might be. A portentous voice-over does a little more than yell the usual banalities and statements of the obvious, suggesting some kind of life for our characters before and after the events in train.

Okay, Charlie!

All of that may be fluff when it comes to instanced PvP but it does set a tone and creates an atmosphere that makes this map feel more grounded than any of the others. Of course, for all I know there may actually be some narrative or storyline to sPvP as a whole that I've completely missed. In the end I guess it doesn't matter all that much because we're here for the fights and in the matches I played those were pretty good.

Seems clear enough...
I won't rehash the mechanics here but there's a lot more going on in than in any of the existing maps. You get a good deal of agency as a player above and beyond the usual "shall I go Home, Mid or Far?". There are plenty of options and they all feel like WvW to me: run supply, guard vital NPCs as they move across the map, fight NPC guards, break gates, kill the Lord.

Most of these activities also occur in the older PvPs but only in a nominal way. There it never seems to make much difference whether you do them or not because in the end everything comes down to one of two things: standing in a circle or stopping the other team from standing in one.

In Stronghold the ancillary activities actually matter. For one thing, the gates of the keep are impervious to player damage so if you don't spawn your bomb-carrying Skritt door-breakers then you won't even see the other team's Lord let alone kill him. And you won't have any Skritt unless you buy them with supply so better get running that.

I hope we get shore leave - it looks nice here.

NPC guards are also quite hard for players to kill so you'll need those NPC archers, which means more supply. If your team has two turret engineers (the go-to choice for lazy scrubs like my main PvP character) you can sit the pair of them on the two supply dumps and laugh at the other team because without supply you are stuffed. Or so they said in map chat. Only they didn't say "stuffed".

We didn't do that. We all ran around, swapping lanes and roles in the chaotic manner you'd expect from five people who'd never met before, who disdained the very idea of communication and anyway didn't remember or understand most of the rules. It was great!

Holding out for a Hero

I played two rounds, both of which were much longer than usual PvP matches. In the first my team was ahead on points right up to the end and I was confidently expecting a win on the timer when suddenly our Lord was dead, Game Over, you lose. Next time round it did go to the wire and we won by 285 points to 270 with both teams in the other's Keep, still hammering on the Lord as the timer ran out.

Colin in full spate.

When HoT arrives and this map enters regular play I foresee it being very popular. Certainly the feedback in open conversation in the PvP Lobby was very positive, which must have been sweet music to the three ANet devs, including Colin Johanson, who were hanging out there. I enjoyed it a lot, although like all instanced PvP I can only do two or three rounds in a row before I lose concentration.

Once people have more than a single day to get to grips with the map and the mechanics no doubt behavior will become more mandated, tactics codified and much of the chaos will leech out. You can easily foresee roles being assigned and blame being attached to those who don't stick to them and follow the prescribed path. Even then, I think it should be a fun diversion.

I just hope the Desert Battlegrounds turn out as well.

Monday, 13 April 2015

All Wrapped Up The Same

Time to drill down a little further into yesterday's topic. What set me off along this track in the first place was the question of whether players need extrinsic rewards to motivate them to do something that, by definition, is already a voluntary leisure activity.

My instinctive feeling is that they don't or, more properly, that they shouldn't. Nevertheless, it's evident, often painfully so, that at some point very close to the creation of the MMORPG genre a link was set between "activity" and "reward" and that supposed synergy is now hardwired into the form.

A few years back, whenever MMORPGs came up for discussion, there would often be talk of Skinner Boxes, Operant Conditioning and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's a well-trodden path but if anyone needs to get up to speed, Nick Yee, godfather of academic research on Everquest, runs through the detail here and Extra Credits do it with pictures here.

Nowadays you don't seem to hear so much about those psychological constructs that underpin just about everything we recognize as core behavior in this hobby. Latterly the discussion seems to have shifted to the uncertain dichotomy of Fun/Not Fun. As Murf points out this doesn't really help all that much.

sPvP uses the Fixed Interval Schedule. Read into that what you will.
In 2011, mainstream news outlets were hot to climb on board the fun bus and get all exercised over gamification. The BBC reported "According to research firm Gartner, 50% of companies that manage innovation and research will use gamification - the use of game-play mechanics for practical applications - by 2015 ".

Didn't happen? Well, that's because just six months later it was Game Over for Gamification. Far from predicting a gamified future Gartner had turned around to claim that "gamification is currently being driven by novelty and hype" and that by 2014 80% of gamification applications would fail to deliver "because of poor design".

So much for analysts and so much for the media's willingness to mine their never-ending stream of "reports" to feed the hungry maw of the twenty-four hour news day. Gamification never happened, for which we can all be grateful. Only no-one told the game designers about the change of plan.

Well, I guess you can't blame game designers for gamifying their games. I mean, they're games, right? What else can they do?

Suitable for Mature Players
Plenty, according to the Extra Credits crew. The second half of that video, which went up on YouTube the year after the gamification crash, mostly consists of suggestions of things developers and designers could do without dipping into the tawdry bag of psychological tricks to encourage people to play their video games.

Yes, they could do any or all of those things, couldn't they? But, why would they, when Skinner Box Logic continues to work so well? For all the negative evidence of burn-out and addiction and the positive cheerleading for fun, in the end aren't we all still pressing the buttons and popping the pellets? MMORPG's may be on the slide commercially but it's not like their replacements, MOBAs, Card Games, Match 3s and all, have eschewed the levers of control in favor of "Mystery" or "Novelty".

Getting back to core values and MMORPGs, here's J3w3l examining the issue of Reward Received vs Effort Expended as it applies in the acquisition of powerful and desirable weaponry in FFXIV and GW2. She perceives a substantive difference between Square's route to Relic weapons, which, while it involves "incredible grind", rewards "Lots of effort and Defined play" when compared to ANet's design strategy for Legendaries, which has "always been completely held up with ridiculous RNG so you often have no idea where you are in terms of progress" and "just seems a little off".

To me, as someone who would be highly unlikely to follow either path to its grim conclusion, they seem like two sides of the same coin. Indeed, they both sound like variations on Skinner's "random ratio" box, the most effective form of operant conditioning his research was able to reveal.

This all risks coming across as a criticism of the dominant mode of progression in this hobby that I spend so much time enjoying. It is and it isn't. The whole thing is horrifically complex, emotionally, psychologically, aesthetically.

On the face of it I make a very poor lab rat (or pigeon). If the reward goes any higher than the first couple of steps on Maslow's Hierarchy I tend to stop pressing the button early and turn my attention to gnawing a hole in the corner of the box.

I was playing Everquest when Epic weapons were introduced and over the next few years literally everyone I knew who played the game went out and did the often insanely lengthy and soul-crushing "quests" to get one. I never bothered. I just couldn't see where the fun was.
 
In that way I guess I was ahead of my time. No-one talked much about "fun" back then, not the way they do now. Gevlon, in a recent comment on Tobold's blog, put it rather astutely: "players who are capable of completing harder content are more likely mature, while those who "play for fun" are usually childish or even literally children". It's that pesky creeping infantilization of society problem again, isn't it?

That's really the point, though, isn't it? When I switch on the PC and step out into an imaginary world, I want to go somewhere that allows me to be "childish" or, to use a more positive nuance, "childlike". That's why I tend to prefer characters that look like children or anthropomorphic animals and players who would rather make juvenile puns than parse their DPS.

One of the fundamentals for me, when playing these "games", is that I don't get drawn into doing anything that feels like "work". I already have a job. I very much don't want another one on top of that. It goes some way to explain why I feel so strongly that the primary rewards for playing MMORPGs should all be intrinsic. In the end it's all about The Feels.

Take GW2. I play a lot of GW2. There are several reasons for that but the one that most matters here is the way the game looks, sounds and handles. Playing all my characters in GW2 feels natural. It's like driving a car that's right for you or wearing clothes that fit comfortably. The color palette, the saturation, the ambient soundscape, the fragmentary conversations of the NPCs, and, most especially, the fluidity of movement all come together to make being there a fulfilling and complete reward in and of itself. I don't need to do anything much when I "play" GW2 - I just need to play.

To a greater or lesser extent this is true of all the MMORPGs I really enjoy. What draws me in most of all and holds me are The Feels.

The Gift Shop is always open.
For a long time, when I heard people fretting over animations and timing, especially as it relates to combat, I found it hard to empathize. My understanding was that these things mattered only to those looking to optimize their rotations and maximize their damage output, things about which I don't generally care all that much.

Of late, though, I've come to realize that animations, combat timing, responsiveness, are as vital to the feeling of a game as the art design and lore. Playing EQ2 recently I've been thrilled by the tactility of the combat. As a berserker it's as though I can sense the impact of the blows I give and receive. Then there's EQ2's much-derided, vast selection of combat skills, almost fifty of them available to me at any time, spread across my five fighting hotbars. Far from representing a bloated mess of meaningless icons, they face me like the squares in a paintbox from which I gleefully paint my masterpieces of murder in swirling colors and crunching sound.

Meet my friend, Arfur Sixpence.
And yet, for all that, I don't mean to claim that Skinner Box rewards have no effect on me or that they have no place in the games I love. They do. They have. As Extra Credits observe, well-used, the RPG elements of item acquisition and character progression are powerful tools that we should welcome. But they aren't all, not even most, of what makes me want to play and go on playing.

We are, most of us, contradictory creatures. Despite the pre-eminent importance of The Feels it's hard to imagine keeping loyalty with a game that didn't also give me my stuff. By the Lord Harry, how I love my stuff! There's no way I could begin to claim I'd be happy playing a game, year in, year out, that gave me no material rewards, no character progression, to show for all my time, energy and commitment. I mean, you should see my Maj`Dul residence - it's a virtual museum - and when I ding a big number you can bet I'll be calling it in whatever channel is most likely to get me some validation.

It's not, then, in the end, a question of whether to have rewards.The question is how are those rewards to be delivered? As pellets from the pressing of a button or as a series of inevitable yet still surprising emergent moments within a virtual lifetime? Under the hood the machinery may be the same but the way that engine is set to purr makes all the difference in the world.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide