Saturday, March 17, 2018

Drive, She Said

Azuriel came up with an interesting analogy that found approval from Gevlon, which might be the first time the two of them have ever agreed about anything. The gist is that "action gaming" is more like driving to see a movie than it is like seeing the movie itself:

"The action of driving somewhere is much more involved than watching the screen – there are thousands of more individual choices and reactions necessary to drive somewhere safely. But is it more engaging? At the end of the night, which do you remember more?"

At first blush I thought this summed up the situation brilliantly. For many people, learning to drive is a complete pain; stressful, difficult and sometimes it seems to take forever before things click into place.

Once they do, however, there's a surprisingly swift and often sudden transition to thoughtless facility. Almost without noticing, you move from concentrating ferociously to the whole thing happening almost automatically. Even more so if you do, in fact, drive an automatic.

It's an appealing metaphor for the experience of learning to play a game that uses "action rpg" controls - usually a combination of hammering left/right mouse button and a handful of Function keys. The more I think about it, though, the less sure I am of its fundamental truth.

I should admit up front that I'm hardly in a position to judge as far as action games are concerned. I have never reached that autonomic stage, where my conscious mind no longer has to deal with the controls. I know exactly how that feels in driving, though. I can even pinpoint the specific moment when the transition occurred.

My brain in an action rpg.
I had two goes at learning to drive. The first time was when I was eighteen. Unlike  many teenagers, I had no interest in driving, but my mother was positively evangelical about it, believing driving to be an essential life skill. I let her pay for me to have lessons, mostly to get her to stop chewing my ear off about it.

I took my test, failed, told her I'd done my bit, then went off to a University whose rules dictated that students were forbidden to own or operate a car anywhere in the city. That suited me fine. I forgot all about learning to drive for a decade.

Ten years later, aged 28, I found myself going out with someone who believed it was a cardinal rule that anyone who rode the bus after age 30 was a failure. It was the 80s - what can I say? I didn't subscribe to that theory, then or now, but I did once again subscribe to not having my ear chewed off if there was something I could do to stop it. I took some more lessons, took my test and this time I passed.

Very soon after that the relationship ended. With no more motivation to drive, the day I took my test was the last time I sat behind the wheel of a car for about five years.

Fast forward to the early 90s and my first ever foreign holiday with Mrs Bhagpuss. For reasons that are now lost in the mists of time we decided to fly to Lisbon and hire a car to drive into Spain. I had, at this point, never driven a car for any other purpose than taking a lesson or a driving test, far less driven a strange car on the wrong side of the road in a foreign country. It was the 90s, what can I say?

It's all so much easier in the sky.
I took a few refresher lessons before we went, just to remind myself where the steering wheel was, and then off we went. It's quite surprising we're still around to tell this story, I guess. Actually, it's quite surprising I got the car out of the airport car park.

What did happen was revelatory. Somewhere on the long, straight, quiet multi-lane highway that runs along the south coast of Portugal into Spain, I became a Driver. I left Lisbon in a sweat of concentration and terror and crossed the border in a state of calm control.

Ever since then I have been able to drive. I'm not recommending it as a method - it's from the "throw them in the deep end and they'll learn to swim" school of thought, I guess - but it worked for me.

My action gaming has never enjoyed such an epiphany. When I play DCUO or Neverwinter I still have to concentrate on the controls. I never get to experience the game directly, only me playing the game. I'm comfortable enough with DCUO in particular that it's not offputting or unpleasant, but it's a good way from Azuriel's "just like with driving, I kind of zone out the experience when I’m killing enemies in Action games."

So, I can't really speak to the accuracy of the analogy from personal experience. But even if I could, I see another flaw: I really, really love driving. From the moment those pieces fell into place back on that Iberian highway I have found the process of controlling and moving a vehicle to be a pure joy.

I'm one of those people who sees every minute behind the wheel as an opportunity for entertainment and pleasure. I drive for the sake of driving. I go the long way just so I can have more of it. Almost every holiday we take is a driving holiday and while the scenery and the exploring are a huge part of the attraction, so is the opportunity to just get out there and drive.

A little trouble with the exhaust on that broom...
I can unironically affirm that for me driving to see a movie is often more engaging than watching the movie itself. It doesn't even have to be a bad movie for me to feel that the best part of the evening was the drive there and the drive back.

Given all that, how can I know how I'd feel about action game controls if I ever mastered them? Maybe, as Azuriel and Gevlon contend, facility would lead to ennui. Or maybe I'd just be so thrilled by the process I'd want to keep doing it and doing it and doing it...

My time with GW2, which is sometimes considered to use a hybrid of traditional and action rpg controls, gives me reason to believe it would be the latter. One of the main reasons I have stuck with GW2 so loyally and so long is the way it feels when I'm driving my characters there.

I find the controls wonderfully fluid and intuitive. I love the constant movement and especially the dodging. I fling my characters around as though I'm driving at speed - all the sensation with none of the danger. (It's also the main reason I so dislike GW2's implementation of mounts. It turns my elite sports cars into clumsy, awkward trucks).

Whether Azuriel's analogy has universal application or not, it's been very useful to consider. I'm now wondering whether, rather than veering away from games with action controls, I should steer into the learning curve instead. If I could push through the membrane that separates thought from action, would I find myself zoning out in boredom or riding the crest of an ever-breaking wave of exhilaration?

Okay, now we've gone surfing. Time to stop. Suffice it to say I recognize that it might be me that's missing out here. Whether I'm even capable of making the transition is another matter. And while we're on the topic of driving, how ironic is it that the one MMORPG whose controls I literally cannot master, even to the minimal level required to finish the tutorial, is The Crew?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Lost Time Is Not Found Again: Rift Prime

Rift Prime launched last Wednesday, with the traditional log-in queues and lag. Or so I read. I wasn't there. I'd forgotten all about it.

It wasn't until Wilhelm posted the day after that I remembered one of the things I was supposed to do on my week off work was decide whether or not to give Prime a try. I was leaning very strongly towards not bothering until he pointed out that the required Patron status is purchasable with Trion's funny money rather than real cash.

Like Wilhelm, I'm still sitting on a huge pile of credits from the F2P conversion years ago. In what was the most ill-judged purchase of my MMO carreer, I pre-purchased the first Rift expansion, Storm Legion, in the version that came with a full year's subscription. When Trion later decided to drop the sub they gave cash shop credits.

That wasn't the ony reason I felt I'd made such a bad decision. There was some odd background to it that I'd like to record here for posterity.

The Background Story

Mrs Bhagpuss and I played Rift for around six months from launch in 2011. We had a good time for a while but only a year later we were already playing GW2.

Although we took to GW2 immediately, at the time the first Rift expansion was announced, GW2 was having huge - really, really huge - problems with bots. Just a couple of months after launch those issues were so pervasive and unavoidable that we discussed our options and decided that, if ArenaNet couldn't get things under control, we'd quit and go play the Rift expansion instead.

So I bought two 12 month packages, which seemed like the best deal. Then we went on holiday to Spain for a week. When we came back ArenaNet had cleaned house. The bots were gone. All of them. It was like magic.

I never heard exactly how ANet did it but overnight they either removed the entire population of bots or made it so we never saw them. In a matter of weeks it went from being the number one issue that threatened to destroy the entire game to something no-one even mentioned. Now the whole episode is utterly forgotten.

So there we were, with a year-long sub to a game with a new expansion and no real desire to play it. When it launched we didn't even log in. We probably never would have, only a friend, who was also in both our GW2 guild and our old Rift guild, left GW2 for Rift so she could build houses with the new Dimensions feature.

Her positive feedback eventually convinced Mrs Bhagpuss to go take a look at the housing there, which happened to co-incide with the F2P conversion in 2013. I went along to try Storm Legion. It was dour and dull. I lasted less than two weeks. Mrs Bhagpuss spent all her free cash shop credits on fixings and furniture, stayed for about a month , then left, never to return.

Since then I have dipped in and out, now and again, on a new F2P account and on my old one with all the perks. I never spent any of my store credits, all 19,290 of them. On Saturday, I logged in and blew a couple of thousand on the shortest period of Patron Status available, two weeks.

Two hours would have been plenty. One, if I could have skipped the tutorial.

The "Review"

Rift always had a terrible problem with its opening act. The tutorial is numbingly tedious, full of technobabble and lore twaddle that makes no sense, plus a lot of shouting and yelling and explosions. It's supposed to create a sense of excitement and urgency but it just makes for an extremely annoying roadblock to the game you came to play.

A few years in Trion added an option to skip the Tutorial but that seems to have been removed for Prime. Unless I missed it. Anyway, I slogged through the tutorial for the umpteenth time, rolling my eyes. I think they might have shortened it a bit. It only took me half an hour.

All the time I was "entertained" by a perpetual stream of moaning, complaining, swearing, boasting and arguing in the default chat channel, which seemed to be set to Level 1-29. To call it disheartening would be a major understatement. It was grim.

There appeared to be a very large number of players with nothing better to do than talk incessantly about what a bad time they were having, how Trion could have done it better or what great things they would do when they got past all the annoying leveling stuff to the Raids they came for. That stream of collective consciousness continued unabated for the entire two hours I played. If anyone who was actually between levels 1 and 29 ever spoke about the content in those zones I must have lost it in the static.

Rift's scene-setting problems don't end when you get out of the tutorial. The game dumps you at the wrong end of the starter zone and throws a whole lot more lore nonsense at you before offering you the first of what will be a seemingly endless series of the most mundane, trivial quests ever seen in a major MMO.

At root, Rift is a very old-school quest-hub theme park MMORPG, extremely closely modeled on WoW but with absolutely none of WoW's elan or imagination. I honestly think I have never seen so many lacklustre quests in one game. Even the dullest of imported F2Ps has more to offer in terms of wit or imagination than this.

That doesn't matter as much as it should because no-one comes to Rift for the questing or the lore or the story. These days they might come for the Raids, I guess, or the Dimensions. Back at launch everyone came for two things: the Rifts and Invasions and the flexible, innovative"Soul" class system.

It always took too long before you found your first Rift or got run over by your first invasion. This time I almost logged off in frustration before - almost an hour and three-quarters after I left character creation - I heard the familiar blast of brass that signals a major invasion.

I'd found a couple of Rifts by then. They were disappointing. I did one with two other people and one in a duo. Both failed. There were scores of players all around but no-one seemed interested. Rifts, apparently, were giving really terrible xp when Prime launched and everyone had immediately learned to avoid them. Trion buffed that xp but from what I was getting it was still very poor.

The invasion, when it came, was better. People did join in to do that and I got a very brief and faint reminder of how exciting it used to be. Even so, there was none of the genuine thrill we used to feel, no hint of players co-ordinating defence or working towards a common end. There were no call-outs in chat, no-one organizing groups, none of the desperate racing from Rift to Rift to close them down before the event failed.

By the time the Invasion ended I was just shy of Level 8. I finished a couple of quests to ding just out of a sense of tidiness. Then I logged out. I haven't logged in again.

For me, the lure of Rift in those first few months was always the Rifts and Invasions. For as long as the community was focused on those, taking them seriously and responding to them enthusiastically, I remained involved and committed.

As the months passed, Trion made numerous changes to both Invasions and Rifts that made them less appealing, less exciting, less essential. By the time we had Raids and Crafting Rifts and PvP Rifts and Lures the whole point of the exercise had been lost, for me anyway.

ArenaNet took the concept that Trion had borrowed and expanded from Public Quests in Warhammer Online and blew it up into an entire gaming eco-system with GW2. Going back to Rift now, even a highly populated Rift Prime with actual Rifts and Invasions is like going back to watching television on a 12" B&W portable when you're used to a 48" plasma screen.

I still would play Rift again, if the game could guarantee a steady stream of those zone-wide Invasions along with a population of players ready and willing to do battle with them. And that might happen - for a while - in the mid/end-game zones, Iron Pine Peaks, Shimmersands and Stillmoor. I'd love to see that but I'm not going to grind through forty levels of brain-sappingly boring quests to get there.

Whether Rift Prime will be a commercial success for Trion the way Progression servers have been for SOE/DBG I very much doubt. Rift simply doesn't have the depth or breadth of content of either of the EverQuest games, nor the nostalgia factor. Trion, as Brasse's comment on this Massively OP thread confirms, are well aware that interest in Prime may not be sustained.

Mine certainly wasn't. I might log in again before my two weeks Patron access expires. I won't be buying any more. Not even with credits.

P.S. For a much more detailed and considered review, try this at Endgame Viable. It wasn't up when I wrote my post or I'd have worked it in!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Up The Hill Backwards : GW2

Sometimes, I wonder if I'm playing MMOs the wrong way.

It all started the day before yesterday, when I finally hit exasperation point with the state of the inventory on my primary GW2 account. No matter how many bags I give my characters they will insist on filling them up.

I'm used to working with limited storage space in every MMO I play. My playstyle involves acquiring much and using little. I like to do the activities that get you rewards but I don't like to use those rewards unless I have a very good reason. I'd rather tuck them away for when they might be needed.

That causes an inevitable storage problem that I always deal with first by acquiring bigger bags. Sadly, that doesn't work forever. You can only upgrade your bags so many times and then all your bags are as big as they come (or, in the case of GW2, as big as you can afford).

The next stage is more inventory slots, if the game allows. Games with cash shops always allow. ArenaNet have made most of what little money they've seen from me on bag and bank upgrades.

I'm not a fan of wearing things when they're still on fire but this seemed to fit the look.

In extremis I make more characters (mule is such an unfortunate word), start new guilds, buy extra houses - whatever the MMO in question lets me get away with, but once again it can't go on forever (except in EQ2, where it really can...). In the end, whatever the upgrade path, however generous the storage options, if I play long enough there always comes a time when there's nothing left for me to do but clean up the mess I've made.

It takes a while. Hours. Sometimes days. Honestly, I never finish. I just get to a point where I can breathe again, then I call it done. With luck a good spring clean might buy me another three months.

This time, when I hit the wall, my first idea was to buy another bank slot. I thought I'd clear some bags, throw in a whole load of stuff, slam the door and forget about it. Only it turns out I've bought all the bank vaults ANet is willing to sell me. You'd think they'd want more of my money but apparently they have standards. Unlike me.

So many new stat combos. I can't keep track of them all.

Next I thought about buying more bag slots. Those come per character not per account and I have plenty of leeway left there, but the idea was to get this stuff off my characters, not enable them to lug around more. Also bag slots cost too much.

So I buckled down and started tidying and that was when I had my bright idea.

This might not sound conected but earlier in the week I'd finally decided to put my Elementalist, the character I play in WvW most of the time, into full Ascended. She was nearly there already. I just needed three more pieces of armor.

I got her sorted out quickly enough. It seemed easier than I remembered. And cheaper. That tends to happen when you already have all the mats lying around and the mat economy has tanked due to oversupply.

With her finished, I turned to my Charr Guardian. A few days ago, playing my Elementalist (Tempest, technically) as usual, I was following a Commander I like when something happened. After several highly embarassing wipes he began begging someone - anyone - to swap from DPS to Heavy Support. No-one did. Eventually the Commander tagged down with one of those "I'm not angry I'm just disappointed" sighs that always leave you feeling it was somehow your fault.

Lookin' good after a trip to the bank.
I rarely play a Guardian; never in WvW (due to complete incompetence), but I have all the classes. So ,why not? Well, I can think of two reasons: 1) I may have the classes but I don't have the skills and 2) I am so far from the meta these days I'm not sure I could find it with a map. Learning is fun, though, isn't it? Or if not it's at least supposed to be good for you. And (here comes the connection, at last) I thought maybe if I geared up my Guardian for WvW I could clear some inventory space doing it.

It's at times like this when a tendency to hoard really comes in useful. I've been doing dailies in WvW for years and when Living World Season 3 started, giving us a new map every chapter, I did those dailies too. I did them for months until I gradually fell out of the habit.

My bank is full of unopened gear, loot and currency boxes from all aspects of the game  I have most of the armor and weapon boxes from various story stages and major events, along with stacks and stacks of LS map daily chests. I even  have separate stacks of some of the various map currencies from when I used to potter around there doing stuff just because. I spent some at the time but I saved a lot more.

What's more, because I spend at least some of my time in WvW every single day, I have stacks of Skirmish chests and over a thousand unused "Potions of WvW Rewards". It only takes 80 of those to complete a WvW Reward Track and there's a reward track for every LS Map so if I ever need more of anything in a hurry...

Speaking of WvW reward tracks, that's how I came to have a dozen or so Triumphant Armor Boxes lying around unopened. Each of which can be used to obtain the Precursor pieces you need to buy ascended Triumphant Hero armor, assuming you have enough Skirmish tickets, which of course I do because I've been getting them for months just for enjoying myself and I've never spent any...

And, well, I won't go into excruciating detail about how it all works. I play the game and it took me hours of reading to understand it all. The point is, I've spent the last two days working on kitting out first my Elementalist (Tempest, going to swap to Weaver soon) and Guardian (now a Firebrand) in full Ascended gear, then swapping my Ranger (the one that's not a Druid) into a mix of Exotic and Ascended using the new-fangled Marauder stats.

All of this came about just because I wanted some space. I've ended up with one bank vault cleared and a much better understanding of how the gear system works. In the game I've been playing every day, several hours a day, for five and a half years, that is. You might have thought I'd already have known. I did, kind of. I just never felt it until now.

This turned out handy.
Instant travel to all the vendors I needed for my Ascended accessories.
I'm starting to see that there is some point to doing these dailies, farming these currencies, running around taking towers and keeps, generally doing all the stuff I do every single day, beyond the sheer fun of doing it. This stuff is actually for something! Who knew?

Well, I guess, everyone but me. That's why GW2 has gained a reputation as a super-grindy game, where everything revolves around doing repetitive activities to earn currencies to spend or materials to craft.

It's no wonder people get fed up or burn out. Who'd want to go round the same set of bushes with ten characters every day, picking berries? Who'd want to play a game mode they don't enjoy for hour after hour just because it's a bit faster or cheaper than the alternatives when it comes to getting upgrades?

Not me. But maybe that's how I'm supposed to play. It seems that's how the people creating this "content" expect me to play. It's how plenty of people do play.

Now I've worked out what it is that I'm supposed to be doing - at last - I think I'd rather carry on as I was. Bimbling along doing this and that and letting stuff pile up, then having a big clear-out and a spending binge every few months seems like it would be more fun than chipping away at the gear mountain a piece at a time.

Of course, the only way I've been able to come to this realization is because I've been doing the grindy stuff all along without even noticing. I wouldn't have had all those boxes and chests ready to open if I hadn't. Imagine if I'd finally gotten around to reading it up and discovered I was two years behind...

Two days work...

Then again, you have to ask, would it matter? I'm not "gearing up" because of issues with content. I'm still one hundred percent certain that, outside of Raids and high-level Fractals, no-one needs anything more than Exotics to play GW2's "end game". I was only doing it because I needed the bank space and I only carried on doing it after that because, like a lot of other things in GW2, once I'd started it turned out to be fun.

In the end, I guess there's no "right" way to play. Just so you're enjoying yourself. It's supposed to be entertainment, after all.

I might be a bit more focused from now on, though. I read up the path to WvW Legendary Armor while I was doing my research and it doesn't look as impossible as I thought it was. Maybe, if I carry on playing the way I do, in another six months I might be able to binge-make a whole set of of that on a whim!

That really would be something.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Trash (Go Pick It Up)

Telwyn wrote a thoughtful post a week or so back on new uses for junk items. It's one of those perennials that come up periodically in discussions about MMORPGs. I seem to remember arguing about it back on TNZ, the old EverQuest Newbie Zone forums, around the turn of the century.

There's always been a strong body of opinion that believes MMOs should have no "trash drops" . Things with no reason to exist other than to be sold vendors for cash have no reason to exist, period. The lobby for nothing but coin drops existed even back when when dropped coin had weight.

In this post-F2P world there's a conspiracy theory that claims vendor loot has a secret purpose - to create demand for the inventory slots and bag expanders on sale in the cash shop. There may even be a grain of truth in that one.

I recall very clearly how surprised - shocked even - I was by the extremely limited inventory space in one of the earlier F2P titles I played, Allods Online. It did seem that part of the financial plan there included making things awkward enough that you'd want to buy your way out of a bind.

The theory doesn't really hold water, though. Trash drops long predate the F2P concept, let alone the dominance of that particular payment model. What's more, just about every MMORPG I ever played uses inventory space as a form of character, account or guild progression.

Yesterday I wrote about my excitement over having the opportunity to quest for a 32 slot bag. I completed it last night and it was one of the more satisfying things I've done in GW2 for a while. ArenaNet funds itself primarily via cash shop sales (between expansions, at least) but you can't buy bags for gems. You can buy extra inventory slots but if you want big bags to go in them you have to "quest" for them or craft them.

EQ and EQ2, post F2P, both have active cash shops. They'll sell you bags but it's not the best way to get them. Each game has a wealth of baroque and complex in-game paths for both adventurers and crafters to obtain large containers. Bag quests are a staple and a new tier of slightly larger crafted bags and boxes forms a regular, expected and essential part of the offer in any expansion that also comes with a level cap increase.

So, no, I don't believe trash drops are there just to pad cash shop sales. There must be other reasons why they exist. Someone has to sit at a desk and design them all, draw the illustrations, come up with the names, write the little descriptions. It doesn't just fall out of the sky - or out of a wolf's gutted corpse - without a little help from someone being paid good money to make it happen.

I have a vague memory of reading a developer interview once that discussed the use of vendor loot as a social engineering mechanism. By filling your bags with things that have no use other than to be sold to vendors you can ensure that players return periodically to set points, the places where those vendors stand. With the addition of other services like banks and auction houses you can create social hubs where players can meet and bond and the game can come to life.

Something like that did used to happen, back in the day. Still does, in new MMOs, for a short while. Indeed, if you could travel back in time to the dawn of the 3D MMO, you'd find players forming relationships with other players based on transactions that centered purely on trash loot. A whole evening's gameplay might amount to one player waiting just inside a dungeon to buy vendor trash off other players who felt they were too busy to run all the way to the next zone just to sell. There were people who really did want to be known as "that guy that'll sell your crap for you".

Then there's the realism argument. It might be convenient to have every animal drop a few silver coins but where would a wolf keep his wallet? Wouldn't it be a little more convincing for a rat to drop a tail or a set of whiskers rather than 70 copper?

Nice idea, seldom thought through. Clearly someone was thinking along those lines when they designed and created all those animal body parts that have no function other than to be sold to vendors (we'll leave the question of why those vendors want to buy such utterly useless items for another time...).

Unfortunately, someone else must have had oversight of the final loot table because those rats and wolves often ended up dropping weapons and armor and spell components anyway. Depending on the MMO, there might be some attempt at consistency, with gear drops limited to the kind of creature that could use them - bandits, orcs, goblins - but as often as not the drop table seemed to have more to do with the level and the zone than the creature you were killing.

Over time there's also a retro-fitting effect, whereby things that used not have a use acquire one. Sometimes developers will incorporate existing trash drops into new recipes and something that no-one wanted suddenly finds a demand. Mostly, though, trash is trash and stays that way.

Which makes it all the more surprising that someone behind the scenes puts so much effort into it. In many MMOs I've played the tiny spot illustrations for vendor loot have been exquisite. In EQ, back before SOE added housing, I used to hoard some of the more attractive vendor drops just to give my characters the illusion they owned something beautiful.

In GW2 right now, there's someone sitting in an office writing piquant, delicate prose about coffee pots and buckle prongs destined for nothing better than the "Sell Junk" button. I always used to wonder who drew the short straw when it came to writing the "thank you" notes that came in the mail after you completed a Heart. This seems almost a step below that.

It has to be the office junior or the intern, doesn't it? Or maybe someone really just loves doing it. Maybe some dev sits there writing this stuff in his lunch break or begs her boss "it'll only take me a few minutes". Once again, just about every MMO I've ever played is stiff with flavor text. That deserves a whole post of its own.

Whatever the reasons behind its existence I would really miss vendor loot should it ever disappear. It adds granularity and context. Yes, it can be annoying when it fills the last few spaces in your already overfilled bags but without annoyances like that I'd maybe start to feel I was playing a game, not living a virtual life.

I wouldn't be adverse to some of Telwyn's suggestions, all the same. Just because you can't equip something doesn't mean you should have to sell it to a vendor. I'm not wedded to an infinite series of trips to the store for a few silver a time.

What I'd really like is the equivalent of an in-game Panini sticker album, where I could collect all those little icons and captions to browse and enjoy at leisure. Add something like that and suddenly those vendors might find themselves in competition with players willing to pay a whole lot more than a few coppers - for the rare stuff, at least.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Good, The Bag and The Ugly : GW2

So, here's the question. Did the latest chapter of GW2's Living Story live up to the promise of that trailer?

Hmm. Yes and no. Leaving aside the inevitable problem of raised expectations, in some respects "A Bug in the System" is certainly one of ArenaNet's better efforts. In others....not so much.

I'm trying to avoid spoilers but the format of these things is so very well established by now - not to say ritualized - that there's not that much to spoil. Some traveling, some banter, a lot of large battles, a couple of boss fights, a new map with a new currency, the whole thing wrapped up in two to three hours. This is also one of the episodes with a lot of "puzzles" and non-combat sections, of which we tend to get one or two each Season.

As Telwyn observes, the Boss fights aren't as awful as they could be. The first boss is incredibly tedious, as about 90% of the comments in the traditional Living Story Boss Fight Complaint Thread confirm. It's just a massive hit point sponge in a confined space most of which is on fire most of the time. The usual, in other words. I thought it had outstayed its welcome after about two minutes but it hung around for a lot longer than that. I didn't find it hard other than on my patience. Mrs Bhagpuss loathed it.

I hesitate to say it but the second boss I almost enjoyed. There was a lot more room to move, we went to several different locations, which helped keep things fresh, and even though everything was on fire all the time again, nothing seemed to burn.

The puzzles were very straightforward. I solved them all quickly without needing to look anything up on Google, which was just as well because no-one had had time to write any guides or post any videos, not even Dulfy.

Most could be brute forced anyway. It seems almost to be expected. One of the puzzles even defaults to an option labeled "Brute Force". In the part where you're supposed to sneak, Mrs Bhagpuss ignored instructions and just killed everything, which earned her an achievement.

The new map is very good. It's possibly my favorite Path of Fire map to date, probably because it looks and feels nothing like one. Geographically, it appears to be something akin to a temperate rain forest, lush, filled with lakes and waterfalls and raining all the time. Really, I've spent maybe four or five hours there now and I don't think I've seen the rain let up once. A Portuguese expatriate thanked Anet effusively on the forums for giving him a nostalgic blast of his home country and it's true that parts of it are eerily familiar to the countryside just in from the coast, south of Lisbon.

I like it enough that I'd probably have spent some time there just enjoying the ambience, but for once there are also things I want. There's one thing in particular I might even say I need: a 32 slot bag.

Large bags are a big deal in GW2. For five years the maximum size was stuck at 20 slots, then sometime last year recipes were added allowing crafters to make 24, 28 and 32 slot versions. Unfortunately, that luxury came at a corresponding cost.  A 32 slot bag comes in somewhere close to 250 gold, which in GW2 is a very great deal of money. I haven't been able to bring myself to make one yet.

A free 32-slotter is well worth making an effort to get but in this case what you have to do to get it is also relatively straightforward and quite good fun. You start with the 20-slot "Bandolier" that comes as one of the rewards for finishing the story. You can then upgrade it three times via a series of what any other MMO would call quests but GW2 calls Collections. Dulfy has the full skinny.

I've already done the first two upgrades. Mostly it was running around talking to people or doing events on the map. In part three I think there's one side trip to Elon Riverlands but apart from that it all happens in situ, doing things you'd most likely be doing already if you were there, like the meta or bounties.

As well as the bag there's another upgradeable reward for finishing the story - a back slot item. I don't particularly need another Ascended backpiece but for once this doesn't look entirely hideous. I might even not hide it if I wore it. I'll probably get that next.

Then there are the usual Ascended trinkets from the new currency vendor and various minis and suchlike from the Heart merchants. The map itself is visually delightful. It's very interesting to explore and for once you can do so in relative peace. There are hardly any of the usual cc-crazy PoF mobs that have kept me out of the rest of the expansion these last few months. It all feels much more like a "normal" map and so much better for it.

I'll keep away from the specifics of the plot for now but I have quite a lot to say about the marked change in tone. I noticed it almost immediately. It reminded me of the jarring lurch that often occurs when a new producer or script editor takes control of a long-running tv show. I don't know if there's been a change of personnel in GW2's story department but it certainly feels like it.

Rox has changed in a very literal fashion: she's played by a new voice actor who sounds absolutely nothing like the old one. This has been mildly controversial. I found it offputting. It's not that I was especially fond of the old Rox but I was used to her. Now she's someone else and it's weird. Apparently the writers want to take her character in a new direction, which kind of assumes someone thought her character had a direction to begin with. There's been precious little evidence of that in years.

Presumably Rox's new direction will involve the hitherto unheard-of tribe of Charr hippies we discover, living a peaceful life of fishing, basketweaving and storm-calling that goes entirely counter to everything previously known about the race. Perhaps she'll settle down and try to teach all those precocious cubs some manners. She was working in a nursery when we first met her, after all...

Braham also appears to have a new direction in mind. He still has the same voice but he seems to have had a bang on the head - one that's knocked some sense into him. Between episodes he's dropped 95% of the deeply unpopular brattishness he acquired at the beginning of LS3.

He makes a couple of passing references to his change of heart but everyone is too busy trying not to die to pick him up on it and the issue is neatly kicked into the long grass. There's some awkward "bonding" at the end and that seems to be that. All back to normal, everything forgiven and forgotten.

Where this leaves his obsession with Jormag I have no idea. In the file marked "bad ideas" I imagine, which seems to be where someone has decided to dump most of the inherited baggage of the last couple of years. I can't wait to see who Jory and Kas come back as. I'm betting it won't be the increasingly bizarre, dysfunctional basket cases they were both fast becoming.

All that's probably, or at least possibly, to the good. Not so the Inquest. The Inquest have always been problematic but in this chapter they cross the line into full-on unacceptable. The practices revealed in Rata Prime and the Inquest Labs come straight from the playbook of Dr. Mengele. 

This would be difficult enough from an outright evil organization but The Inquest have always been played at least partially for laughs and this is no exception. It won't wash. Nazi death camps are not a suitable setting for jokes about beaurocracy recycled from Dilbert.

Even worse, in Blish and Gorrik we have two Asurans who - in the most favorable possible light - have been complicit in nightmarish experiments on captured prisoners. Gorrik, by his own admission, has been actively involved. These two should be heading back to Pact Headquarters to be a) interrogated and b) tried for war crimes.

Instead The Commander (aka the Player Character) sets the two little psychopaths up with their erstwhile college friend and current hand-waving apologist Taimi to do some more experimenting - this time for our team. No! Just No!

I may get into that in more detail when spoilers aren't such an issue. For now, to sum up, I liked the gameplay elements of this episode and the basic plot is moving along nicely but as for all the stuff going on in the's all over the place! And isn't this game still rated PEGI 12? There's more horror in a couple of Inquest asides than the whole five hours of DDLC...

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Like A Heartbeat

How did I end up playing Doki Doki Literature Club? Not only is it not an MMO but, on the face of it at least, it's not even the kind of game I'd normally be aware of. I must be aboout as far from the target market for a cute Japanese teen dating game - or even a visual novel about one - as it's possible to get. I've read the odd blog post, where someone I followed was playing one, so I was vaguely aware they existed, but I've never played one myself or thought about it.

It all started when I was on YouTube, watching a video I've already forgotten about some game more in my wheelhouse. Something in the suggested viewing down the side caught my attention for reasons I can't recall - maybe it was the word "Literature" or maybe I thought "Doki Doki" sounded funny. Maybe I even meant to click on something else entirely. Wouldn't be the first time.

However it happened, a few minutes later I was intrigued enough by what I'd seen to pause the video before I spoiled things for myself. I read a few of the comments. They piqued my curiosity even more but then I had to stop that too.

I've been a complete sucker for post-modern irony since the late 1980s. It can't get too meta for me. I love things that turn out not to be what I thought they were and even more than that I love being lost, at sea, struggling to work out what's happening. I love self-aware, self-referential, playful art and entertainment that takes no prisoners when it comes to explaining itself. This looked like it might be any or all of that.

If I sound vague it's because this is something that deserves not to be spoiled and honestly, even saying that is a spoiler. I imagine the best possible experience would be to have downloaded the game thinking it was exactly what it appears to be. Or maybe that would be the worst possible experience. DDLC is not to be taken lightly.

Since we've come this far, though, I'll try to open things out just a little. I guess it's obvious that, like Dr. Langeskov, DDLC is not a straightforward proposition. Oh, boy, is it not...

I downloaded it via Steam a few days ago. It's free. I played for about an hour, my first session. Nothing much happened. The characters were well-drawn. The writing was decent. It definitely seemed to be more of a visual novel than a game. There wasn't a lot to do other than click and read.

Next evening I played again. By then I was kind of hooked on the characters. I wanted to see what would happen next. Something was off, though. Behind the haribo-bright surface, little anomalies and oddnesses were starting to appear, a queasy, off-kilter feeling beginning to build.

Around the end of the second hour I hit a major decision point. I made a choice that had implications that unsettled me. I stopped to let it filter and went to bed.

This morning our internet went down. The estimate was at least three hours. I did some housework but then I wanted to play something. I have very, very few offline games to call on but I wondered if DDLC could work without Steam being able to connect. It could.

It took me another two hours to reach what is apparently known as the "best" ending, which I seem to have hit upon entirely by chance on my first playthrough. Geeez. If that's the best one I dread to think what the rest are like.

I fired up FRAPs at the start, knowing I might blog about it and I have some really excellent screenshots... none of which I can use because from the first five minutes everything went straight to hell. Any of those shots will give away more than I would have thanked anyone for telling me before I started so I'll have to keep them to myself.

Even with some idea of what to expect there were a couple of occasions where I swore out loud and a couple more where I just leaned back in my seat and stared. Having finished I feel a strong desire to play the whole thing through again right away to see where else it can go. And then again after that.

Or I might just watch some playthroughs on YouTube. It would be appropriate, given that's where it all started. Anyway, it was an experience. An intense experience. If this is typical of the standard of visual novels I need to try some more.

As must be obvious, I highly recommend joining the Doki Doki Literature Club but be aware of the potential risks. The game opens with an onscreen warning : "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed" and they aren't kidding. The full warning contains spoilers but might be worth checking before you play, if you have any concerns.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Pirate Love? : Sea of Thieves

I tend not to write about MMOs I'm not playing. Nor about those I've never played and most likely never will. Time was, there weren't many.  I used to try just about every MMO I heard about. Now, not so much.

When I posted a while back about not needing any new MMOs, about being quite happy with the ones I already have, there was a subtext. They aren't making the kind of MMOs that interest me any more. Whoever "they" are.

It's not the controls, not really. I make a fuss about not liking action gaming but I like it well enough when it's in a game I enjoy - DCUO for example. I probably won't ever have an Action MMO as my long-term go to game but I'd certainly not let the mechanics prevent me taking a good long look at something if it piqued my curiosity.

It has more to do with the "gameplay loops" as we now seem to be calling what we used just to call gameplay. The set of things you do, then do again, then keep doing, until you uninstall and take to the forums, or these days Reddit or your Twitch channel, to rant about what a terrible game you just wasted a thousand hours playing.

When I fell in love with MMOs they were almost all MMORPGs. Some of them had pretentions to being virtual worlds. Everyone, developer and player alike, was making it up together as they went along but the general gameplay loop seemed to be that you played a character (or several) and that character experienced growth. When growth stopped there was an expansion or an update that reset everything and off you'd go again.

It was an open-ended but largely vertical experience. There was often a huge amount of breadth, a wealth of options, but the underlying narrative was the story of you as expressed through your character. And the stories of your friends and guildmates and the celebrities on your server or in the game expressed through theirs.

As the genre grew and developed those personal experiences became sidelined and eventually shut down altogether. The new narrative was just that - an actual Story with a capital "S", written by writers, performed by actors, experienced by players only, at best, as bit-parts and walk-ons, sometimes merely as extras or the audience.

Tick off a few more years and even Story becomes old hat. The new MMO modes take their cue from other genres entirely; FPS, Survival and, most recently, Battle Royale. The gameplay loops that used to move beneath the surface are now exposed, out in the open.

Yesterday Syp, spurred by Wolfyseyes, expressed his concern over one of this year's hottest MMO tickets, Sea of Thieves. Scopique followed on with a sharp observation on that game's predicted and predictable loop.

Sea of Thieves may be one of 2018's few major, AAA MMO releases but I haven't been paying it much attention. It falls squarely into the category I outlined at the start. I have no plans on playing it at all, much less paying $60 just to be sure it's not for me. I don't have a thing for pirates. I hate sailing ships (other than my sloop in Vanguard, which handled like a mount). This was never going to be my game.

Nevertheless, I have been aware of it for a long time. I've seen news squibs. I've read a number of blog posts by people in the various alphas and betas. My impression was a somewhat unfinished quasi-mmo in which gangs of pirates chase, kill and rob each other. Nothing about the game has ever caught my attention sufficiently strongly even for me visit the website. Until yesterday.

When Scopique observed that "SoT was never intended to be anything other than a sea-based esport" my initial reaction was "did anyone ever suggest it was anything else?". If so, I seemed to have missed a memo. So I went to see how developers Rare described their own game on the official portal. Turns out they describe it like this:

What kind of game is Sea of Thieves?

Sea of Thieves is a shared world adventure game (or SWAG) with crew co-operation at its core, designed to let you be the kind of pirate you want to be. Want to follow maps and solve riddles to find legendary treasure? Assemble the mightiest, most fearsome crew to sail the seas? Set a course for the horizon and just explore? Our ambition is to build a game that lets you pursue whatever adventure your salty heart desires.


Venture out onto a vast, open ocean, uncovering new regions scattered with unspoiled islands and the sunken ships of less agile sailors. You're free to approach this world and its wealth of challenges however you choose. Sail for the sheer joy of discovery or undertake dramatic voyages, following maps and untangling riddles, learning to expect the unexpected...

Fragments of the Past

The Sea of Thieves' vast expanse is steeped in myth and legend, filled with curious ruins and outlandish encounters spoken of wherever crews meet to swap their stories. Whether you find yourself witnessing mouldering wrecks in the world's wildest regions or plundering painted shrines beneath sun-dappled jungles, there's a rich history here waiting to be awakened – and within that history, riches waiting to be taken!

There's plenty more like that, with the focus very squarely on the exploration and discovery of a vast, open world which exists just for you to roam to your heart's content. The lush illustrations and overripe prose paint an enticing picture of an explorer's paradise. How could I have missed this gem? No wonder explorers like Syp had been feeling the hype for months.

It goes on in similar PvE mode. There are sections on Action and Encounters and they all talk lyrically about...monsters and NPCs:

Trading Companies

Not everyone you'll encounter makes their living as a pirate. Alongside the shopkeepers and shipwrights who ply their trades at outposts, you'll find representatives of various Companies ranging from legitimate businesses to secret societies. These Companies have their own reasons for braving the Sea of Thieves, and will be only too happy to reward crews willing to undertake dangerous work on their behalf.

Keep Your Guard Up

Rival crews aren't the only foes you'll encounter on the Sea of Thieves. Many other threats can and will make themselves known on your journey, often when you least expect it. Should you find yourself nose-to-nose with a starving shark, fending off the skeletal mob that's overrun a tumbledown fort or facing down some other unforeseen menace, you'll need to make full use of your wits, weapons and environment to survive.
And so on. There are sharks and skeletons aplenty and although there's no attempt to conceal the PvP element - those "rival crews" - ("Every ship that comes coasting over the horizon in Sea of Thieves, large or small, is crewed by real players on their own voyages"; "Whether adventuring as a group or sailing solo, you'll encounter other crews... but will they be friends or foes, and how will you respond?") the emphasis throughout is firmly on Player vs Environment.

Is it any wonder some people think this is going to be World of Watercraft? Boy, are they in for a surprise.

Wolfyseyes says "there will always be a subset of players who get bored of what the game offers and will only find fun in making others miserable and right now it’s far too easy for that to happen without repercussions." He's mostly talking about how things are already in beta and in my experience betas are very forgiving and cosy environments compared to Live games. Launch could be a bloodbath!

I don't have a horse in this race. Or a ship. Even if the game really does turn out to be the explorer's dream the website promises it's still pirates and I'm still not very interested. I might one day summon up the enthusiasm to poke around on a free trial or promotional weekend but that would be about the size of it.

It's going to be fascinating to observe from the outside, though. Launch could be anything from a damp squib to a spectacular implosion. Or the game could find its audience and truck along merrily, serving the very demographic that's looking for the gameplay loop it provides, while a horde of excluded PvErs press their noses to the porthole and curse.

I wasn't looking forward to the launch but I am now!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Perfect Blue : GW2

Should you awake, dear, from your beauty sleep

 To find your room swimming in blue and green

 Should you awake to feel like you never slept

 And feel so very old
 Well, don't you feel alone.

 Perfect Blue.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

It's All In The Trailer

Always been a tricky job, making trailers. Drumming up interest without giving too much away.  Heard a lot of complaints lately, movie trailers following the whole plot, telling all the best jokes, using scenes that aren't even in the film. Awkward balance to strike; too much, not enough.

Still, easy compared to making trailers for video games. Those tend to split into two types: mini-movies with production values orders of magnitude above anything in the game or "gameplay footage" that looks like, well, like someone playing a video game. Worst case scenario: the assets of the latter used to make the former.

The standard can be very high. The pre-launch trailers for DCUO were impressive at the time, although watching them again now they seem... clunky. Still, 1.3 million views on YouTube...

I suppose you might expect a developer like Sony Online Entertainment, backed by the resources of one of the world's largest entertainment megacorps, to rise to the occasion. Then, at at the other end of the resource spectrum, we find Standing Stone Games...

That jaw-droppingly terrible promo provoked more pity than outrage but at least it got some kind of response. Standing Stone tried to fix some of the PR damage they'd done, issuing a follow-up that was... not wholly embarrassing. To cross that minimal threshold they had to use a lot of long shots and no combat at all.

This is one of the big problems for MMORPGs, particularly older ones. What you get to do in the game is often repetitive and prosaic. Epic boss fights, spell effects going off like explosions in a firework factory, look thrilling; hours of attritional grinding, questing and busy-work that get you to that point? Not so much.

Many marketing teams approach the problem obliquely. Keep the trailers very short. Use a lot of title cards. Edit so the whole thing looks like it was filmed in a hall of mirrors, lit by strobe lights during a lightning storm. If it all moves fast enough, the theory seems to go, people will see what they want to see. That's always going to be better than letting them see what they're really going to get.

ArenaNet largely follow that logic. GW2 trailers tend to be brief, enigmatic and uninformative. Guaranteed to spawn a lengthy discussion in the Lore section of the forums, over-invested fans arguing their obsession from one blurred background shot a millisecond long. Other than that, cast a cursory glance then move on.

Not so with the current trailer "A Bug In The System". It may be the best ANet have ever produced. I've watched it five times so far and it still gives me thrills.

The last time I can remember GW2 taking this many risks and having this much fun doing it was Marjory Delequa's noir pastiche intro all the way back in June 2013, although that was actually an in-game cut-scene, not a trailer. It had encouraging confidence but none of the polish or punch of Bug.

If Bug ended half-way through it would still be one of the better trailers the game's "enjoyed" in the last six years. It's the unexpected mood switch that takes the whole thing to another level. The transition from cheeky Bond pastiche to foreboding horror is chilling and much of the emotional heavy lifting in the second act comes from the soundtrack; particularly that song.

I have still never finished the original Personal Story on any character, so in my case the inspired revisionary use of the heroic anthem that celebrates final victory over the elder dragon Zhaitan found no nostalgia buttons to press. It sent shivers down my spine all the same. I can only imagine how it must have affected those who recognized it and understood just how deeply their fondest memories were being played with and perverted.

Whether the Living Story episode itself can live up to the promise and threat of this exemplary trailer we'll find out on Tuesday. I imagine it'll turn out much like every other episode - a lot of talking, a tediously lengthy boss fight and plenty of busy work to make it seem like there's something to do for the next three months.

That's as it may be. The difference this time around is that at least my anticipation and excitement has been pumped enough to create the possibility of disappointment. If there's nothing more thrilling in the update than the trailer itself, well, at least we got a good trailer!

Take your wins where you find them, I say.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide