Sunday, May 20, 2018

Read It In Books : EverQuest

Over the last few years I've managed to find reasonably cheap copies of most of the White Wolf gamebooks for the EverQuest Roleplaying Game. I think the only ones I don't have now are Al'Kabor's Arcana, Plane of Hate, Temple of Solusek Ro and Castle Mistmoore; of those four, the only one I really want is the last one.

It's just as well I decided to collect them when I did because as the supply dwindles the price increases. I don't think I'd ever have started buying them in the first place if the average cost then had been north of $50 per book, with some titles breaching the three figure barrier, like they are now.

As it is, at least I can rest easy, knowing that if (when) the final, official server goes dark, I'll be able to GM a tabletop EverQuest campaign with my pals in the old folks home. Or I guess I could just play P2002. Whatever.

When the affordable supply of White Wolf titles dried up, I did briefly consider scooping up the Prima Game Guides instead. There are still oodles of those up for grabs at exceedingly reasonable prices, many of them for no more than the cost of postage.

Pretty sure I knew a "Nugget" and a "Deena". I imagine everyone knew a "Lenore"
That's not surprising. In its day, EQ was a very successful game, with millions of players. Back then, I never felt the need (or desire) to buy a professionally produced hard copy of exactly the same kind of information I could get for free from Allakhazam or Caster's Realm. Clearly many did, though, because Prima pumped out guide after guide for years, eventually moving on to produce guides for EQ2 as well.

Out of curiosity I did put one of the Prima guides on my Christmas wishlist, just to see what they were like. I could have picked any of them but I plumped for the Ruins of Kunark. It duly arrived on Santa's sleigh and I've given it a good thumbing in idle moments since then.

It came well-thumbed already. "Pre-loved", as the marketeers like to say. Someone had obviously gotten a very great deal more use out of it than I ever will. I say that with confidence, not because it was battered or worn - on the contrary it was in excellent condition - but because it has been annotated throughout (very neatly,) in pencil.

Many of the spell lists have ticks or dots against them.  The previous owner seems to have been something of an altaholic, with a strong preference for casters and priests. Most of the notes are in the sections devoted to the Magician, Shaman, Wizard, Druid, and Enchanter classes. The Necromancer is a notable omission so I surmise the previous owner leaned towards the light.

As well as the pencil additions, which included a few extra notes about the Shadows of Luclin expansion (although nothing relating to Scars of Velious, which came before it), I found a few slips of paper tucked between the pages. One was a set of instructions printed from some unnamed website or forum detailing how to insert pauses in macros. Another, more poignantly, appears to be a list of the names of in-game friends or guild members - or possibly just some jotted ideas of names for characters.

As for the contents of the Guide itself, they're a curious mixture of the exceedingly obvious and the unutterably abstruse. There's a great deal here that's of historical (potentially academic) interest. For example, I found the lengthy diatribe by Gordon "Abashi" Wrinn on the notorious "Play Nice Policy" most instructive, especially  the paragraph that reads:

"For the first few months after EverQuest's release, we felt that a policy of non-interference in many of these matters was warranted. However, we continued to lose good players. This was not due to any deficiency or dissatisfaction in the game, but due to dissatisfaction with the treatment that they received from their fellow players, and the perceived inability of our Customer Service department to intervene."

A few pages later, under the heading of PvP Servers, we read that as far as Playing Nice is concerned "...we expect that the people on those servers will apply PvP combat in all situations where it is called for as a resolution to the problem. As such, the EverQuest Customer Service Staff will decline to intervene in cases where a PvP alternative exists..."

That certainly puts a different perspective on why Verant (later SOE) continued to place such an emphasis on PvP, despite the ever-dwindling interest among players, not to mention why Smed himself became such a fan of EVE Online.

Flicking through the pages, some arresting assertions leap out. Did you know that even by the time of the game's first expansion there were already 216 different types of player-made arrows? Or 63 different crafted bows? It also seems somewhat disengenous for an official guide to blandly confirm what all too many players already suspected - "Level 1 spells - Many casters find these spells worthless". True North, anyone?

Yes, I could have picked a less busy background.
And done something about the glare.
If only I was a photographer...
Reading the Prima Guide is a glimpse into a lost world. The sheer complexity of the game, even at this early stage of its as-then unimaginably lengthy life, is deeply intimidating. It's no wonder players felt they needed a helping hand. Not that Prima was having any truck with handholding. Item after item hammers home the unforgiving nature of the game and the world in which it's set.

The section on "Tactics" for Bards, for example, is succinct on playing solo: "Don't do it" . Bold type theirs, not mine.  The entry on experience is enough to bring on flashbacks : "After level 5, dying costs you experience. This XP loss gets bigger as you level up. Eventually you'll be losing about half a bubble of XP per death. In addition to that, it will look like you've lost less during a hell level (30, 35 etc.) but it actually hurts more." It's that casual "etc." that really twists the knife.

All in all, the Kunark Prima Guide was a worthwhile purchase (or would have been if I'd paid for it). It reminded me of a lot of things I'd forgotten and I may even have learned a few new ones. I'm not sure I'll be buying any more because I get the feeling there will be a great deal of repetition and a general sense of diminishing returns. On the other hand, at a penny a time plus postage it's not like I have a great deal to lose.

I'm rather glad, though, that I never bought one of these guides back in the day. Although whoever compiled the wealth of information it contains made a considerable effort to avoid pulling the curtain back too far, it still reveals more than I would have wanted to know when I was playing regularly.

One of EQ's - and the MMORPG genre's - biggest strengths for me was always its impenetrability. I loved not knowing exactly how things worked, having to try and deduce first principles by trial and error, preferably without getting myself killed in the process. I particularly loved the endless urban myths that surrounded the game's most arcane aspects - all those myriad theories on how to spawn the Ancient Cyclops or Quillmane, every one supported by anecdotal evidence from "a guildie" or "my brother".

As with the White Wolf books, it's very comforting to know that at least some sort of solid evidence of the fun we had will survive. Video games are slowly beginning to achieve historical and aesthetic recognition; an archival afterlife may yet exist for some. All the same, in my dotage I can't see myself toddling down to the gallery on my walker every time I feel in need of an EQ fix.

These books are the fragments I have shored against my ruin, as I suspect I may have said before. I might build the wall a little higher, yet.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Pirates Vs Wizards

It's strange how the mind plays tricks. I was sure I'd played Pirate 101 for a little while at launch, given it maybe a couple of sessions to make its mark, decided I didn't much like it and never played it again. Some of that is true.

A comment by Cutie DarkFae on my most recent Wizard 101 post made me wonder whether I oughtn't to take another look. After all, I'd been banging on about how much W101 had changed in the long years since I last played it. MMORPGs tend to do that. How much more might Pirate 101 have changed, given that it was barely formed when I made my judgment? Maybe I'd written it off too quickly.

I downloaded P101 and logged in. KingsIsle certainly make it easy. As with W101 the download took a matter of moments. My login for Wizards worked for Pirates too.

"Adrift" is right. Six years adrift!

I thought I remembered finishing the tutorial and getting to somewhere around Level 5 before I stopped the first time so I was a bit taken aback to see my Pirate was only Level 2. Level 2? Surely that means I'd barely started? In most MMOs made since about 2003 you hit second level pretty much the moment you step out of character creation. Sometimes before.

Fortunately, because I have a blog I can check these things. It's one of the main reasons I do have a blog, in fact. Looking down the insanely long tail of Tags at the foot of the blog I eventually found I'd posted about Pirate 101 precisely twice.

The first time was to mention the game was due to launch on October 15, 2012 and that I was looking forward to playing it. (Leaving aside the P101 aspect, the linked post there is very interesting for all kinds of reasons. I may well revisit it sometime soon for a follow-up - but let's not get sidetracked just yet).
I wish, I wish, I wish the one on the left was my character. Oh well, at least she's my Best First Mate

The second and last time I wrote about Pirate 101 was just two days later. I said I'd played the "Sneak Peak" and finished the Tutorial. Apparently I logged out when I reached Skull Island. It must have taken me all of half an hour, character creation included.

Despite a generally positive tone to the post, which I finished with a cheery, piratical "Looking forward to exploring the Sky Seas with all o' ye!", as far as I can tell I never logged in again. Any memories I had of playing at launch are false. I saw the Tutorial zone in a Sneak Peak two weeks before the game went Live and that was that.

No, really it was worse than that. Based on my experience today, what I saw back then wasn't even the full Tutorial. More like the pre-Tutorial. This afternoon I played for almost two hours, taking my Pirate to the dizzy heights of Level 5, and as far as I can tell I'm still in the Tutorial.

A still from a very strange "animated" cut scene. Not sure about this one at all.

I've written about Tutorials before and no doubt will again. The short version is I'm against them. Nevertheless, I do recognize that they are a necessary evil, the reasons for that being most convincingly and revealingly explained in this Journal entry from We Happy Few. (Incidentally, I recommend the journals and dev blogs from WHF to anyone interested in how games come to be - and especially on how they come to be something other than what they were supposed to be).

Pirate 101, like W101 before it, has the best kind of Tutorial. It's the game. You don't go to a Special Place to do Special Things. You start in the same world you're going to play in later, you talk to the same NPCs, do the same quests, fight the same fights... The only difference is that a voiceover explains what's happening and the UI points out things you need to notice if it looks like you've missed them.

When I played P101 the first time I didn't much like the combat. I didn't say anything about it in the piece I wrote, except to criticize the very concept of ship-to-ship combat, but I do remember quite clearly finding it slow, awkward and annoying.

The movement and action screen for fights is very easy to understand. Must be. I understood it.

Either that's another false memory or six years of development have made for some very significant improvements. This time round I found combat slick, entertaining and well-designed. Like KingsIsle's other game, this one is turn-based. Compared to the average MMO I think it would be more than fair to describe the combat style here as "stately". It's a lot faster than Wizard 101, at least, for which I am very grateful.

Like every MMO, combat begins when you get within aggro range of a mob. When that happens the game grabs the player, grab some mobs, positions them in a face-off , decides who has initiative and Round One begins. Every fight happens in a weird kind of invisible dome. You can see other mobs and players walking by but mobs won't ever join in once combat begins. The only way you can get "adds" is if a passing player decides to help out, which in W101 they can do at any time, whether you like it or not. If that happens the game can add extra mobs to even the odds, so getting "help" can be a mixed blessing.

I'm assuming Pirate 101 works that way too but I can't be sure because in two hours I never saw another player. Whether that's because the entry-level game is dead, or because I happened to have a legacy character on a shard that's become moribund over time, or whether in fact I spent the entire session in a private tutorial instance without knowing it, I really can't say.

Before the main combat/action screen comes this very elegant top-down schematic view.

I don't care much either, not at this stage, because I was too busy having fun. Also trying to catch my breath. It's a while since I played an MMORPG with such a relentless pace. It's not fast yet it's fast. Every time I thought I'd finished a quest it turned out to be just the lead-in to another. There's a strong narrative spine that may, for all I know, extend through the whole game but there are also many side quests, most of them either interesting or amusing.

Came a time when I had just been given my first boat (yes, "boat" not "ship" - that's a plot spoiler - probably shouldn't have mentioned it...). I set sail to chase a double-dealing wharf-rat to his lair, whereupon the plot took an unexpected left turn - and also split into three parts. I picked one at random only to find it promptly split again, sending me to a completely new area, where I met a completely different set of NPCs with a whole new set of problems...

At this point I decided I needed a break. The game clearly had no intention of giving me a clean out so I just camped where I was and came to write this post. It's too early to make any definitive statements - I'm still in the furshlugginer tutorial, for cripe's sake! - but  Cutie DarkFae may have a case: Pirate 101 may indeed be a better game than Wizard 101.

The climax to this Boss fight was so dramatic I have a strong suspicion it was fixed. I was dead, the tough NPC who'd come to help was dead, all my crew except the First Mate were dead. She had about 2% health left. One hit and she'd have been dead too and we'd have lost.
What did Sharkface do? Chose to move three squares instead of hitting her.
Then she shot him and he fell over. Seems legit...

It's certainly better-looking, as well as being faster and more dynamic. In terms of looks, I think W101 stands up well for its age but the screenshots from KingsIsle's sophomore effort show how much more detail there is in the characters. The backdrops, while not all that different, are probably a tad richer too.

There's nothing all that surprising about Pirate 101. It's very much "un game de KingsIsle", an improved iteration of the established formula. The most puzzling thing is why I've never played it since the official launch and why I was so sure I'd given it a fair try and didn't like it, when the evidence proves I hadn't and I did.

The one serious thing wrong with both W101 and P101 is that you can only play a boring human.

I'm very glad to have been nudged into going back for another look. Just goes to show you sometimes do get a second chance to make a first impression.

Time permitting, I intend at least to play through all the free content. It might take me a while but there's no hurry. I've waited six years already.

Add another one to the list.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Long Distance Runaround : Guild Wars

As far as I know, "Maintenance Mode" for MMORPGs is a relatively recent innovation. While any number of MMOs may have slipped into de facto maintenance-through-neglect over the years, the first time I heard of one being officially mothballed was when ANet decided to "automate" the original Guild Wars in 2013, following the successful launch of the sequel, GW2.

Square Enix followed suit, pulling the plug on further development for FFXI a couple of years later. It was a decision driven primarily by the increasing difficulty of keeping the game running on ancient consoles, although, like ANet, Square no doubt also hoped to avoid splitting the audience after the eventual, successful resurrection of FFXIV.

Not a huge difference between this...
That turned out to be a famously ironic decision.  There was no maintenance mode for the PS2 or  XBox 360 players. Their versions simply stopped. For the PC players, however, things carried on almost as normal. Three years after development supposedly ceased, FFXI still receives more updates in "Maintenance" than many MMOs get in their prime.

It's a telling example of how "maintenance" can mean very different things to different developers. SmokyMonkeyS began by abandoning their intent to create a fully-blown MMORPG with Ninelives before going on to give up on the single-player version too. The game went into what they called "temporary suspension" but it remains up and running and it's even received a couple of significant updates since development came to a halt. Funcom's The Secret World, on the other hand, seems to have dropped off the radar entirely since it was replaced by Secret World Legends.

...and this.
ANet have left Guild Wars assiduously alone since they announced the end of active development. Their version of maintenance included the full automation of repeatable events like holidays, aniversaries and special bonus weekends. The idea was that the game would remain up indefinitely for those who still wanted to play but it wouldn't require - or receive - any input or resources to keep it running.

It was something of a surprise, then, to read last week that the game was getting a graphics overhaul. It's certainly true that many MMOs start to show their age in the visuals long before the gameplay dates. As the genre ages some developers have been puzzled, even dismayed, to find a significant number of their customers sticking with old favorites for far longer than expected, which has led a number of of them to attempt to give their fading stars a facelift  - with varying degrees of success.

More noticeable here.
That makes sense if the old game is still the one bringing in most of the revenue. Moreover, if a developer is entertaining even the smallest hope, however misguided, of attracting new players, it's true that 2005 graphics don't make for much of a shop window.

Guild Wars doesn't seem to be actively promoted any more, although you can still buy it from the website, so why bother tuning the graphics? Turns out it was one of those "passion projects" we often hear about, most of which turn out to be something else entirely.

Not this time. This one was genuine.  According to Eurogamer, a power surge at ANet's European data center led indirectly to a couple of developers using their off-hours to tweak the old Guild Wars engine to add a whole slew of new options inluding "windowed fullscreen support, a new 8X MSAA anti-aliasing option, 16x Anisotropic filtering support for the existing "use best texture filtering" option".

The new version looks sharper, something that was even more apparent in-game.

They also fiddled with the draw distance and the LODs and added a toggle to maximize both. In my experience, changes to draw distance can be one of the most revelatory changes a developer can make to a game. When SOE pushed EverQuest's draw distance out to the horizon it changed the game overnight. Huge areas that had been shorouded in thick fog for the years I'd been playing suddenly came into view. It was awesome.

The changes to Guild Wars aren't on that scale of magnitude for the simple reason that Guild Wars zones tend to be designed rather cleverly to give an illusion of space while actually being quite constricted. Unlike EQ, where the plains of West Karana stretch into the middle distance, regions like Deldrimor Font or Borlis Pass are full of twists and turns that restrict the line of sight. Even the mountains that form the backdrop are scarcely a jog-trot away.

If the differences between the first two pairs were subtle, here they are unmistakeable.
 Or perhaps I just went to the wrong zones to test the changes. Maybe I should have tried the snowfields of  the Far Shiverpeaks or the savannah of Elona. Instead I went to revisit Yaks Bend, one of my favorite spots in Tyria and also somewhere I can remember very clearly. I figured it might give me a better chance of appreciating the changes.

The difference is quite subtle but noticeable and certainly worthwhile. I think it's fairly easy to spot the Before and After in the screenshots. The new version removes a deal of the "fog" from the zone walls, bringing the mountains into sharper relief. It also reveals details like smoke from the fires and the occasional previously unseen peak. In one shot there's even a mysterious light in the sky that might be either a graphical glitch or an astronomical object.

Not only do the hills and far trees come into focus but smoke can be seen where there was none before.

There's nothing here that's going to pull in new customers but for anyone still playing or returning for a nostalgic visit it should come as a very welcome sign that someone's still paying attention. Stephen Clarke-Willson, one of the developers who did the voluntary work to make these changes happen, along with less-visible but equally welcome fixes for the tools used to report bots and RMT trades, is quoted as saying he'd "like this game to run for many years".

Let's hope he gets his wish.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Aunt Trouble : Wizard 101

Wizard 101 continues to be the MMO I play when I'm not playing Guild Wars 2. This is not a sustainable situation. Currently I find myself with two gaming subscriptions (W101 and Daybreak All Access), which is at least one more subscription than I would like, given there are literally dozens of good, enjoyable MMOs I could play for nothing - including all the ones I'm currently paying for.

I also - somehow - still have an Amazon Prime subscription, which I seem mainly to be using to watch episodes of old tv shows that I already own on DVD, because watching them on a tablet is more convenient than using the portable DVD player I bought specifically to watch them on. This is the beginning of a potentially catastrophic behavioral change that could see me taking out subscriptions to all kinds of things - Netflix, Spotify, Audible... It needs to be nipped in the bud right now.

One thing I categorically do not want to find myself doing is resubscribing to W101 when I get back from holiday in mid-June. The problem is that Wizard 101 is really very good indeed. It was always a much deeper and more involving MMORPG than its reputation as a "kids' game" suggested but after a decade of additions it's turned into a real hidden gem.

It's also hard. Too hard for me.

This is The Maestro. Might be a fox. Maybe a jackal. Definitely Roger Delgado. Just look at the moustache.
This weekend I got as far as the third of the five B.O.X.E.S. The questline took me to MooShu, the zone based on Feudal Japan, if Feudal Japan had been populated by samurai cows and ninja pigs. Zones in W101 don't generally have precise level requirements but MooShu is broadly aimed at the mid-to-high 30s. My wizard is level 41. He finished MooShu (did the main questline and defeated the zone boss) back on the original run so in theory he should be in good shape to handle a quest tuned for the zone.

Should be but isn't. A lot changes in nine years. His gear wasn't great even then, being a jumble of whatever he happened to find while questing, but it looks severely underpowered now. The jewellery has (empty) sockets which I don't think were there last time I looked and nothing he's wearing has a required level higher than the mid-30s.

Added to that he doesn't seem to have spent a Training Point since about Level 10. That was probably intentional. I remember dire warnings about wasting Training Points and waiting until you were max level (50 at the time) before using them. Indeed, that still seems to be the advice. It's Thing #1 on Swordroll's list of Ten Things You Wish You Knew Before Starting Wizard 101.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, I neither have the right cards nor the knowledge and understanding to make best use of the ones I do have. I'm sure that to people who routinely play card-matching games like Hearthstone, let alone MTG, W101's combat system must seem infantile but it flummoxes me.
Victory pose after the defeat of the Boss of the Second B.O.X. That bloody frog did nothing!

I don't really do card games. Legends of Norrath was always a mystery to me. I struggled through the tutorial when LoN first appeared but by the end I had little more idea what I was doing than when I started. What's more, I certainly didn't have the patience to keep trying in the hope the fog might lift.

W101 is self-evidently less complicated than LoN but it still has a plethora of cards, each of which comes with a whole lot of little symbols that probably mean something, only not to me. I'm not sure I ever knew what most of them meant, although I have a vague feeling I did once know more than I do now. I couldn't really have known much less...

Also, back then I duoed with Mrs Bhagpuss whenever either of us ran into something too tough to solo and that made a huge difference. W101 is one of the MMOs that can be soloed but which is easier when you group. (And even as I type I realize that's a very dubious statement, which I may come back to in a later post).

Yeah, you do that, shortie. About time you learned to do something. Other than pose, that is.

The upshot of all this is that a combination of sub-par gear and spells plus a very low skill set is just not cutting it any more. I ran up against a brick wall half-way through The Professor's third quest, when I found myself facing Aunt Eunice, a Level 7 Boss with over 3k HPs, backed up by her Level 7 Elite Rotten Scallywag lackey.

I took her on and lost. Very badly. I fiddled with my deck and demanded a rematch. I lost again. Not quite as badly but badly enough to be embarassing. Third time lucky? No. Had enough humiliation for one evening, thank you, Aunt Eunice.

Instead, I did the sensible thing. I threw money at the problem.

Not real money, although I have a suspicion W101 does have a Pay To Win element via the Crown Store, where you can buy gear and hire Henchmen. No, I went to The Bazaar in Olde Town, where players sell their unwanted loot to each other for in-game Gold.

There was definitely no Bazaar last time I played but if you've seen one bazaar you've seen them all. Fortunately, even though the misleading tag for items that can't be sold via the Bazaar is "No Auction", Kingsisle have gone for the straight "put it up for sale at a fixed price" method. I vastly prefer that to any form of bidding. It's simple and you don't have to wait.

I replaced my Hat, Robe and Shoes for the small cost of about ten percent of my net worth. That mount is looking further away than ever. The result pushed my hit points above 2000, slightly increased my destructive power and left me looking like a banana again.

What is it with this game and yellow? Is it because I'm playing a Myth wizard? Is all Myth gear yellow? I'm going to end up permanently in hock to the seamstress at this rate, I can see that coming.

With the thirty-minute timer on my instance fast expiring I didn't have time to research upgrades for my jewellery or work out where to buy better spells. I went back for another round and this time things went better. I got the Elite down and Aunt Eunice took a few good thumps but the end result was the same. 3-0 to the Aunt.

At that point I decided to call it a night. There's a lot more work to be done. I need to research the jewellery slots and read up on those little icons so I can work out just what it is my cards do. There's a good chance I also need to get a couple more levels. More levels are always goos and if nothing else it'd give me a chance to practice tactics and earn some more Gold for my next trip to the Bazaar.

What's worrying me isn't that I won't be able to improve in all the ways I need to progress. It's that the whole thing is starting to look like a much more serious project than I anticipated when I re-subbed for a month on a whim.

The 5 B.O.X.E.S. event itself is only going to be around for another week or two. I'm not going to finish it no matter what because parts four and five require you to be Level 60 and Level 80 respectively and if I did nothing else for the next fortnight I'd not get that far. This has gone way beyond that event, though. I'm in grave danger of wanting to carry on playing for the sheer fun of it. And that would be very welcome if it wasn't for the whole subscription thing.

I'm going to have to think carefully about this. I'm quite glad of the enforced holiday break, coming right when I'd need to pay the next month's sub.

Hmmm... I thought I was done with this kind of thing five years ago, when F2P took off.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

There's Something In The Water! : GW2

Underwater content has never been popular in MMORPGs. I remember my first, terrifying trip to Kedge Keep in EverQuest as if it was...well, as if it was almost twenty years ago, which it was.

I do remember it, though. How could I forget?  All those disorienting angles and squirming perspectives; never being sure which way was up; the claustrophobia, the muffled underwater clangor, the ever-present threat of drowning, the nauseating prospect of failure and the inevitable, awful return trip to find my corpse

The undersea worlds of most MMOs weren't quite so unforgiving but still they were shunned. Developers tended to avoid them too, other than blocking out something wet and watery in the most perfunctory manner possible. It was quite a surprise when Guild Wars 2 launched with a goodly amount to see and do below the surface, any number of bodies of water, from inland lakes to the open seas, offering much the same opportunity and inducement to explore as their counterparts on dry land.

Not only were there plenty of Points of Interest and Hero Challenges (or whatever we called them back then) but the whole signature Dynamic Event system extended into the deep. There were even special underwater weapons, breathing masks and a whole set of unique underwater skills for every class.

All that effort and players still hated to get their feet wet. Map completion meant most had to duck their heads beneath the waves at least a few times but once that was out of the way not too many came back to take the plunge a second time.

After a while ANet seemed to give up on the whole idea. The entire lake that formed the centerpiece of the Alpine Borderlands maps in World vs World was summarily removed, along with the quaggans and their weather machine and when the first expansion, Heart of Thorns, arrived, the only water in the entire affair was confined to some tunnels deep under Rata Novus.

Most tellingly of all, the one new class introduced since launch didn't even get the standard choice of two underwater weapons. Revenants had to make do with nothing but a spear. Then again, Rytlock, who returned from The Mists to bring the secrets of the class to Tyria, is a charr. Maybe he just didn't want to get his fur wet.

ANet doubled down on the underwater content drought with the second expansion. Path of Fire, literally takes place in a desert (as do most of the many maps added with the Living Story). By now, new underwater content for GW2 seemed about as likely as playable Tengu - and about a million times less wanted.

Then this week, with no fanfare or warning other than a brief PR flurry, the game received a full revamp to all underwater skills. Revenants even acquired a second underwater weapon, the Trident.

Even the official website  admits, with what can only be described as severe understatment, that "We know [underwater combat] isn’t floating at the top of everyone’s request list". It's the change few wanted and even fewer were asking for. So why do it? And why now?

That's the 64 fathom question alright. Given ANet's long-established unwillingness to rush into anything - ever - let alone to commit resources to anything they don't see as essential to the long-term health of the game, it's all but impossible to imagine a major revamp of this kind being sanctioned just because the current version wasn't up to snuff aesthetically

After all, we've muddled along just fine with the original version for nearly six years. It was already arguably the best implementation of underwater combat anywhere in MMOs and still hardly anyone liked it, wanted it or used it.

There was certainly no indication of a valid reason for the changes in the update notes. Along with the complete rewriting of underwater combat, all we got was a series of Achievements that revolve around a single new Daily "quest". It's a nice addition and very welcome but it goes absolutely no distance at all towards justifying the expenditure of effort required in the revamp.

All of which leaves me to wonder what the future holds? A Living World map that's largely underwater? A new, underwater fractal? Even the two together would seem to be a couple of smallish dogs trying to wag a much larger tail.

Could they possibly be considering an underwater setting for the third expansion? Wouldn't that be commercial suicide? Then again, there is a sea dragon out there, somewhere. We mustn't forget Bubbles.

Whatever's behind the revamp, something's going on. I guess I'll just keep on doing my dailies until I find out what it is. I'm betting when I do I'll be wanting that +30 swim speed infusion. Might as well get working on it now.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Picture This: Occupy White Walls

Not content with hooking me back up with an old addiction, yesterday my MMO dealer, Massively OP, turned me on to something new. Something different and strange.

I'd seen the name Occupy White Walls a couple of times before but it hadn't stuck. Some kind of gameified art project, wasn't it? In closed alpha, I think? The sort of thing you file away for future reference to look at when there's something there to see, then promptly forget about.

I would have left it at that but the latest MOP piece came with a video and for some reason I watched it. I can't say why but it was definitely a moment.

Although the video was made by someone highly skeptical about the project, by his own admission not at all part of OWW's target demographic, it nevertheless turns out to be a very effective piece of promotion for the game. It's a considered, informative, thoughtful overview, well worth seven minutes of your time.

It was certainly enough to send me on to the official website. I thought I'd take a look at the application process for the closed alpha for which, according to Massively, sign-ups were being taken.

Only Massively is wrong. Sign-ups aren't being taken because the closed alpha isn't closed. To quote the appropriately arch statement on the front page of the site itself:

OWW is almost ready to go public and shake up everything you thought you knew about the world of art ... and frogs. So now we are releasing the Alpha version of OWW to the selected few individuals who have the courage, the audacity, the vision … or who just clicked our Ad. Alpha means that the game is mostly stable but under heavy development.

So I downloaded and installed the thing, which took maybe ten minutes. Then I made an account and "played" it for a couple of hours.

It's definitely an alpha. There's not much of a warm-up. It throws you right in. The Tutorial is tricky to navigate and the controls seem to be fighting the UI at times - windows overlap a little, you have to back up and come around now and again - but it works more than well enough already to give a clear idea of the potential.

For an MMO player the initial impression is something like a mash-up of Landmark and The Secret World's Museum of the Occult. There's an extensive bank of building pieces - walls, floors, ceilings, stairways, pillars, lighting and so on - which you can place in a way that feels very similar to how it was in Landmark.

It felt so familiar I'd already built my first room before the Tutorial prompted me to open the interface. I messed around with that for a while, changing my wooden avatar for a scarier shattered  glass model, topped off with a fedora.

The part I really wanted to try out was DAISY, the AI that supposedly learns from your choices and suggests art you'd find to your taste. Fevir, who made the video above, was very impressed by DAISY, to the point that he found the experience unsettling. He's not wrong.

I spent about half an hour letting DAISY learn my preferences. Within a few minutes the artworks she was suggesting were beginning to pique my interest and stimulate my pleasure centers. I was hard-put to pick even one of the first nine, random pictures she suggested for my walls. I didn't really like any of them. After a dozen or so iterations, and by the time I decided I'd spent enough of my $100K seed money for a first run, the problem was stopping myself from buying everything she put in front of me. I loved it all.

Although some of the pictures I ended up buying are mostly by artists entirely unfamiliar to me, while others are by established favorites, and though they hail from different countries, schools and centuries (although the time period is actually quite tight), the final grid of my initial acquisitions shows an astonishing degree of coherency. It's quite a weird, discomfitting experience, having one's thoughts, tastes and feelings second-guessed in this way.

With my purchases made, I was intending to stop as it was getting late but in that oh-so-familiar Landmark fashion I thought I'd just pop a couple of pictures on the wall. Half an hour later I was still fiddling around, changing frames, trying to get a couple of lights to go just where I wanted them.

As I was futzing about my tiny, one-room gallery began to fill. As you place art, it attracts visitors. NPC visitors, that is, although players can visit each other's galleries and comment on the works, the layout, whatever they choose, as well.

The more NPCs visit your gallery, the more money your gallery makes. You need the money to buy art and furnishings and gallery space. That, I guess, is the "game" part of this MMORPG. No doubt that aspect will be fleshed out in time and I note that the EULA (which, yes, I did read) contains all  the usual caveats and commands related to gameplay that you'd find in a traditional MMO.

Whether or not Occupy White Walls eventually turns into some kind of fully-functioning game or not it very clearly has a shining future in the MMO building/decorating sub-genre. It absolutely has that hook that Landmark had. I'm not saying it has the potential to be the hipster Minecraft but it might.

For now, it's free and open and it's well worth a look if you have any interest in either building stuff or looking at art. I will be working on my gallery in those quiet moments when I don't feel like killing monsters. Plus I'm really curious to see what I can learn about my own tastes and preferences, with DAISY's help. I just worry about what she might be learning about me...

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pony Pony Run Run : Wizard 101

If I wanted to finish Inventory Full off for good, turning it into a Wizard 101 blog would be a pretty good way to go about it. I don't think I've seen anyone in this corner of the blogosphere (can spheres have corners?) mention the game since Tipa stopped posting about it back in 2012. It's a risk but I can only write about what I'm playing (yeah, right...) so here's my third post in a row about the Hogwarts-inspired MMO.

W101 will be ten years old this September. It's notoriously difficult these days to estimate the health of an MMORPG because of all the tricks developers employ to hide any deficiency in population or popularity, but as far as can be told, things seem to be holding up pretty well for a game nearly a decade old.

Certainly the central F2P areas are teeming with players and there are a number of channels or shards or servers (I forget what Kingsisle calls them) to choose from, some of which appear to be "full". Further into the game, past the velvet rope that separates the freeloaders from the paying customers, population thins out somewhat, but then I can only see the low-to-mid game areas, the part of every MMO of a certain age most likely to suffer from de-population. It's highly likely the heavily-populated areas will be at end-game.

With names hidden it's hard to tell who's a player and who's an NPC sometimes.

Canny readers (assuming I have any readers of any degree of mental acuity left) will by now have worked out for themselves that, yes, I re-subscribed. Only for a month and I have already pre-cancelled to prevent an accidental rollover, particularly since I'll be away and unable to play for the two weeks that would otherwise immediately follow renewal, but money has nonetheless changed hands.

It only seemed reasonable. I spent whatever time yesterday I didn't spend out and about in the glorious sunshine, indoors playing the game. Partly what drove me to re-sub was the eye-candy.

W101 is one of those MMOs that features jaw-dropping, attention-grabbing mounts, everything from vintage cars and hoverboards to dragonflies and hydras. After someone sped past me on rollerblades, complete with hip-swaying animation, followed by someone else riding a fox, I decided I'd had enough of jogging around in my unfashionable trainers.

See fox. Want fox.

We didn't have mounts back when I played before so I had no real idea how to get one. I guessed they might be quested or dropped (they are - something to look into in detail later) but if there's a cash shop that's always the first place to try.

It turns out you can rent Temporary mounts that last a week or so via the Crown Store or an NPC but I never feel comfortable on a mount that's going to melt, especially since these particular loaners are hardly cheap anyway. Permanent mounts cost somewhere between 5000C and 15000C which is $10-$30. It's not unreasonable by established MMO practice but still more than I want to spend on a single item in a game I might only play for a couple of weeks.

Some things in W101 can be bought for either Crowns or Gold, the in-game currency. The Crown Store has a tab for paying with Gold but only a small proportion of the items are on it. Even those that are, are also far from obvious. Anyone would think it was done that way on purpose but I'm sure that can't be right...

Do I look like an eight year-old girl?
Don't answer that.
I tracked them down eventually, even if, in the end, I had to resort to yet more googling, wiki-reading and YouTube watching, something that's becoming a definite pattern with this game. Finally, I found some suitable mounts, including one I could afford, although it would nearly have bankrupted me. I have just over 60k Gold from my first run in the game and the cheapest mount, a pony, is 50K. And I don't want a pony.

That got me thinking about how I might make some more Gold. While I was musing on that I did a few quests. First I finished surveying The Commons and got my Range Pole. Then I started clearing out a few old quests from my journal. I ran into a Bear from Grizzleheim and did some errands for him, which unexpectedly gave me a peek at his home world, which I believe was added not that long after I stopped playing.

That in turn started me wondering about all the other, newer Worlds I'd never seen. One thought led to another and next thing I knew I had my wallet out.

With the entire game at my disposal as a paid-up Member, where did I choose to go? Marylebone, the canine version of Victorian London, that's where. Ostensibly I was still clearing out old quests. I did one, then another and then I ran into Sherlock Bones, who had some new mystery on the go.

You can't turn down a request for help from a legend like Sherlock, which is how I found myself an hour and a half into a forty-five minute dungeon, facing a Tier 5 Boss and his T5 Elite henchman. He wasn't even the final boss, either. She was standing on the sidelines, watching, no doubt waiting to provide the coup de grace should I somehow stumble to victory.

Well, there was no chance of that. I'd already had to create myself an entirely new build just to get past the previous two encounters with T4 Elites. I died about four times before I got that right. The T4 Elites had about 1800 HPs each. The T5 Boss had over 5,000.

I was too busy dying to take many combat screenshots.

I tried him once then gave up. Clearly I need to level some more, upgrade my gear, find a whole load of new spells and come to some basic understanding of how to play before I'm going to be of any use to Sherlock as a Baker Street Irregular.

I went back to journal-clearing and had a lot more luck with a different Boss from some old quest I'd forgotten to finish. Things were definitely looking up and I was about to move on to the next step in that chain when I realized I'd been playing for somewhere close to five hours without a break. I'd almost forgotten how that feels.

My memory of Wizard 101 is that it can be both very immersive and addictive and yet tiring and tedious at the same time. It's one of those "just one more try" games, which is fine when the one more try turns out to be the winning turn but not so good when it's just another in a long line of failures.

At the moment, though, it feels fresh and exciting, not least because I have such an enormous amount to learn. I plan on playing as long as it stays fun and stopping when it isn't. First thing on the agenda: make some money.

Hmm. I think that calls for some more googling...

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Hooked! : Wizard W101

The cards remain the same but an awful lot has changed since I last played Wizard 101 almost ten years ago. I remember it as a strongly quest-based, combat-focused MMORPG, whose only real alternative to solving problems for NPCs by judicial application of extreme violence was decorating your home castle.

Back then, W101 had a decent, if uninspiring, housing offer and some combat pets to collect and that was about it. There was gear progression of a kind but I don't believe there was any kind of appearance system or transmog, which meant that if you wanted the best stats you ended up looking like you'd been dressed in the dark by your eccentric auntie.

It's entirely possible I'm misremembering some of this. Maybe it was just me. I'm willing to bet that Mrs Bhagpuss's characters looked like they'd stepped staight out of some wizarding fashion magazine, not like Bananaman on dress-down Friday.

Seriously in need of new boots and hat but at least I don't look like a banana any more.

I am pretty sure that last time I played last you couldn't visit an NPC to have your repulsive yellow frock "stitched" into a smart, blue doublet, transposing the good stats of one onto the good looks of the other.. Nor could you take up hobbies and pastimes such as Fishing or Monstrology, both of which I started learning today.

There may or may not have been some form of crafting back then but the plain fact that my character's Crafting panel is enirely blank suggests it's another major game element that's been added since. There's also Gardening now and I'm positive that wasn't a thing back in my day.

I'm still waiting on Wilhelm's long-promised Guide To Fishing In MMOs. If and when it appears it's going to need to be pretty lengthy because fishing seems to be the one non-combat activity almost every MMORPG feels beholden to shoehorn in somewhere. (Except GW2, of course, because ANet took some kind of MMO purity vow long ago, the only exception being for the team that makes stuff for Evon Gnashblade's Cash Shop Emporium).

Is that fish on the right laughing at me?

Fishing in W101 follows a familiar enough pattern. First you find a place where fish live. Water is a good start. Then you open your special Fishing UI with your Fishing spell bar (you are a Wizard, remember).

You cast your fishing lure and watch it bob about while fish swim past, ignoring it. You recast it a few times until you realize you have no control over where it lands. Eventually a fish bumps into it by accident, the lure glows then submerges and you frantically hit the spacebar to hook it.

Apart from EverQuest, where you just stand there, and EQ2, where "fishing" means harvesting a node like any other, every fishing mini-game I have ever played in an MMO works approximately as above. There are all kinds of bells and whistles (literally sometimes) that come into play as you level up your skill and earn, discover or buy new lures, floats, rods, hooks, bait and gear but in essence it always comes down to pressing a button to cast and pressing another to strike. Occasionally, if the game in question prides itrself on realism and added immersive value, you might have to keep pressing a third button to reel your catch in.

Screenshot taken before I figured out how to block names.

Fishing in MMOs doesn't need to be original: it's already ridiculously addictive. I have lost too many hours in too many MMOs to mention, standing at the water's edge pressing two buttons or sometimes clicking the mouse, just to see my bag fill up with worthless vendor loot. Sometimes there's treasure, because everyone who's ever been fishing in real life knows how you can often hook a pirate's forgotten stash of gold doubloons or haul up a motorcycle that still works.

This time, I got a chest on about my seventh or eighth cast. It had over a thousand gold coins inside, plus a weapon and something I forget. That's the sort of catch that keeps you by the riverside until the stars come out. Then again, I'm not quite sure how useful gold is in W101 because, when I went to get my hideous hat stitched, after I'd had the Seamstress fix my even more hideous robe, I found I needed the cash shop currency, Crowns.

I'd had a hundred or so on me and used them for the frock swap without realizing I'd done it. Now I have to decide whether to pay some actual cash for more so I can finish my makeover. Probably going to do that. They're very reasonably priced - you can get 5000 Crowns for $10 and the stitching is only 100C a time.

Reasonable rates, swift stitching!

Fishing was easy enough to learn but I failed utterly in working out how to open my Angler's Tome, wherein the records of every fish I ever catch are supposedly recorded. I couldn't find the damn tome, let alone read it.

I tried every corner of the UI, opened every tab, checked while I was fishing as well as when I wasn't. I googled and read wikis and guides. I even watched a YouTube video. As far as I can tell the icon for the Tome is simply missing from my display but I'm sure it's because I'm doing something wrong.

I had almost as much trouble with the first quest in Monstrology. I picked that one up from a fox who happened to be standing outside my own School, Myth, in Ravenwood. I was looking for an uncluttered backdrop to take a screenshot of my new, blue robes when I saw him. Her. Them.

Knowing how W101 works this probably is supposed to be Edmund Burke, in which case maybe that accent was meant to be Irish. Pretty much impossible to tell...

Monstrologist Burke, who hails from the Spiral world of Albion, looks distinctly masculine in figure and dress but speaks in a strangely high, piping register, while essaying quite the worst attempt at a "Scottish" accent I've heard since... well, the launch of EQ2.

Seriously, have these voice actors ever even heard a Scottish person? It's hard to believe they could have and still come up with something this awful. As always, all the Rs are getting a thorough roll as we take a wild trip around the Celtic fringe, spending a good deal of our time in Ireland and some of it, quite possibly, in the Lousiana swamplands. I'd laugh but I've heard this particular joke too many times already.

I'm blaming the accent for making me flip through the quest dialog too quickly to take in all the highly complicated instructions. There were diagrams. There may have been a flow chart. Perhaps the reason W101 is considered a kid-friendly MMO is that it often feels like being back at school. There's certainly enough technical detail here to fill a semester or two plus a full set of finals.

Trial and error, otherwise known as blind luck, always gets you there in the end.

Which I would fail. Not only could I not find my Angler's Tome but it took me something like a dozen fights to get my Extract Essence spell to function properly. Once again I had to check everything in game twice, re-read the quest dialog, study the illustrations, google it and watch a YouTube video. And I still got it wrong.

Finally - finally! - I managed to enchant my combat spell with my Extract Essence spell correctly and then cast the enchanted attack on the right mob. I'd completed step one of the tutorial for a mini game in a kids' MMO. What a sense of achievement! Seriously, I'm not kidding, it really was...

I'm no further along in my quest to find the Five B.O.X.E.S but I may have hooked myself all over again. I'm very curious to see some of the new worlds that have been added to the Spiral since I left, which would mean re-subbing. Even if I don't go that far, there's evidently plenty of new fun to discover in the free world.

In fact, if the speculations of Swordroll - a W101 blogger I discovered in my desperate search for guidance and who I promptly added to my blogroll - prove correct, the free to play areas themselves may be about to see a major revamp. That should be worth hanging around for. I'm off to do some surveying so I can get my Range Pole before the builders move in.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Professor Who? : Wizard 101

When I go through the list of MMORPGs that both Mrs Bhagpuss and I played together for a significant period of time, there's one that I often forget to mention. Wizard 101.

We didn't play for all that long - it can't have been more than a few months - but it was our main MMO for a while and we both really enjoyed it. We left The Spiral before I began this blog and although there are a couple of mentions of it here and there, I've never actually posted anything specifically about the game before.

The reason I'm writing about W101 now is entirely due to a news squib I spotted on Massively OP a few days ago. As has been well rehearsed here, I have ambivalent feelings about MOP, which sometimes appears to be run by and for people who actively dislike the genre, but I have never questioned its worth as an aggregator of valuable and reliable news about the hobby.

Without that news item I would probably never have found out that Kingsisle are running a three-week event called The Five B.O.X.E.S. featuring a very (very!) thinly-disguised version of The Doctor from the (very!) long-running BBC series Dr. Who. I would have been quite annoyed had I found out too late to go see it for myself so thanks, MOP.

I'm no Whovian. I can't even name all the Doctors in order - not these days, when there seem to be hundreds of them. I just like Dr. Who and have done since I watched the first episode when it was broadcast in the early 1960s. I also like crossovers and mash-ups so when I read Syp's pleasantly non-ironic, non-sarcastic piece it seemed like it might be a good idea to go check the event out in person.

Returning to an MMO you haven't played in a long while can be anything from annoying to traumatic but going back to Wizard 101 couldn't have been easier. I found my old log in details and entered them on the website. My account was there, all in good order, exactly as I left it.

I pondered whther to re-sub for a month. W101 has possibly the best range of payment options of any MMO, ranging from F2P across the base game, through piecemeal Buy-to-Play options on all content as and when required, to a full sub giving unrestricted access to everything.

I thought that if I was going to play through the new content on my existing character I might need to be subbed to get to the higher zones. The description of the event on the W101 website suggests that you can start in various places according to your character's level and when I stopped playing back in 2009 my wizard was in the low '40s. Back then, that was just a few levels short of the cap. Of course the cap has moved since then - I think it's 80 now.

Before deciding whether to open up my wallet, I thought I'd download the game, log in and re-orient myself. Downloading and updating took about five minutes - very slick, like the entire Kingsisle operation. I reset my graphics options from the best I could do back in 2009 to something suitable for nearly a decade later and stepped out into Wizard City Commons.

Everything looked much as I remembered it. Looking around, I saw The Professor, standing not twenty yards away from me. The Professor is, of course, The Doctor. He's also a dog, which is taking regeneration at least an order of magnitude further than the actual show's current culture-quaking gender switch.

There's no mistaking the influence here. The Professor isn't merely Doctoresque, he's the canine spitting image of a very specific Doctor, namely the fourth, as portrayed by Tom Baker. I'm not entirely sure Tom Baker ever went out in public wearing converse high-tops, mind you, but the rest of the outfit is spot on.

I grabbed the quest. I'd forgotten that everything in W101 is fully voice-acted. Whoever voiced The Professor has even made an attempt to sound like Tom Baker. It's not a great impression, I think it's only fair to say, but it's recognizeable.

By the time I'd followed the little yellow arrow to the first B.O.X. I was beginning to ask myself at what point homage ends and plagiarism begins. Then again, if J.K Rowling hasn't complained... The B.O.X. is, of course, a T.A.R.D.I.S. and it doesn't just look like The Doctor's police box from the outside either. Inside it's a dead ringer.

The Professor could hardly be "The Professor" without a companion and he has one. Standing around inside the B.O.X. looking decorative is Rose Piper, another dog whose name might ring a bell. She doesn't seem to have much of a function beyond acting as the vendor for the event but that makes her more use than some Companions I could name.

After another chat with The Prof some plot ensued. It was actually rather good. Like most W101 narrative content I've seen it's refreshingly clear, comprehensible and straightforward. The game is nominally aimed at children so many of the worst excesses of the genre are pared away...

... Or so you'd think. What I'd forgotten is that W101 is, at heart, a surprsingly hardcore, combat-intense game with the old-school expectations of an MMO that was created well over a decade ago. For example, when you enter a dungeon you get an estimate of how long it will take to complete. You also get a warning that if you don't complete it in a single run you will have to start again from the beginning.

The novice-level solo quest dungeon I was about to undertake came with an estimated completion time of 45 minutes. You can leave the dungeon (to resupply for example) and it will save your progress for when you re-enter, but only for a maximum of half an hour and you have to stay in-game. If you log out, your dungeon's history.

Compare that with EQ2: solo instances there last for up to three days and you can come and go or log in and out as much as you want. Also, even at end game, 45 minutes would be considered a fairly lengthy run. If W101 is for kids then it's for kids with plenty of patience and a good attention span. Not to mention bladder control.

I was somewhat apprehensive about jumping into combat. I figured I'd get my clock cleaned in short
order as I was trying to remember the basic mechanics, let alone what my cards did. In fact, although I did lose the first fight, by the time I died most of the essentials had come back to me. I won the re-match and every subsequent battle - although one came right down to the wire.

Combat in W101 was always enjoyable, which is just as well because there's a lot of it and none of it's easy to avoid. The animations are fantastic although they do become less impressive by the thousandth time you see them and I imagine many players long for a "hide animation" option, if only to speed things up.

After the best part of a decade I was very happy to see old favorites like the giant toad and the gravedigger, not to mention my trusty troll sidekick. I was surprised how quickly I remembered them and more importantly what they did and when best to play them.

The whole thing did indeed wrap up in around three-quarters of an hour. I successfully corrected the timeline and unmasked the nefarious villain. He, naturally, turned out to be the mere catspaw of the real villain, The Maestro. Subtle, eh? (And who else was it going to be, if this is the fourth Doctor? Well, ok, I suppose it could have been Davros...). I spoke to The Prof and the first part of the adventure concluded.

It was all jolly good fun. I haven't yet returned to The Spiral to find out if I can carry on for free (there are five B.O.X.E.S. so presumably another four chapters of the story to go, although only three of them are within the level range I can handle). If it turns out only the taster was free and the rest comes at a cost, well I had a good enough time that I'm very willing to sub for a month to see the rest and have a general run around to see what else has been added since I last visited.

Plus I really - really - need to do something about that hideous yellow bath-robe I've been wearing for the last nine years ...

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