Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Jump To It!: FFXIV

Be careful what you wish for. It might just come true.

Only yesterday I observed of FFXIV's Endless Free Trial that "If I could just opt out of the Main Story questline entirely and have the few significant rewards (Airship access, Chocobo) auto-granted at level I'd say this would be the perfect version." I followed that up with a little mild speculation: "Perhaps when Stormblood drops Yoshi P might even loosen the reins a little more."

This morning, when I sat down to flip through my Feedly after breakfast, I came across Aywren's commentary on the changes to the Battle System as trailed in the latest Producer's Letter. Even before I found out what was in it, two things about the Letter struck me as surprising.

Firstly it's the 36th (or, I should say, the XXXVI, in line with Square Enix's unfailing obeisance to the classical tradition). Three dozen producer's letters in five years (I believe the numbering began in 2012) is going some. Secondly, it's not an actual letter. It's not even a post on a forum or a PR handout. It's a freakin' four-hour long video presentation.

Even though I have the whole day to myself there was no chance I was going to watch four hours of power-point slides and projected game footage, narrated in Japanese and live-translated in voice-over, for an expansion for a game in which I only dabble, which I am almost certainly never going to buy. Indeed, I probably wouldn't even have given it another thought had it not been for a bullet point towards the end of Aywren's post: "I’m okay with the level and story jumping potions."

Say, what? "Story jumping potions"? Does that mean what I think it does?

Rather than try to find the relevant five minutes in the four-hour presentation I took Aywren's handy link to Reddit instead. Reddit, like YouTube, is a wonderful place. You can pretty much guarantee that if there's any human activity that's even vaguely legal someone will have videoed themselves doing it and put it up on YouTube, from opening a can of sardines to how to fly a helicopter (and yes, I just thought those two up at random, typed them into YouTube and there they were!).

Reddit is like that but for precis. If anything's been said anywhere at inordinate length someone will have boiled it down to bullet points and stuck it up on Reddit. And so it proved.

The Megathread Aywren linked breaks down into a slew of more specific discussions. I skipped all the ones about changes to classes, pvp and combat. Instead I went to the subreddit that focuses on "Level Boost/Scenario Skip Items".

The thread itself is an interesting read. Reddit gets a lot of stick for being unruly and unpleasant but I have to say that whenever I visit it always seems a far more cultured and educated environment than most in-house game forums. For once, though, I wasn't particularly interested in how people were reacting to the changes: I just wanted to know what the changes were.

As far as I understand it there will be two new options:
  • Skip all Main Storyline Quests
  • Automatically raise one Job to Level 60. 
In order to take advantage of these shortcuts you'll need to buy items from the Mog Station. (I mistakenly thought this was the same as the Cash Shop would be in other MMOs but it's effectively your account page). There will be separate items on sale allowing you to skip either the Original Main Story only or both that and the main scenario from the First Expansion, Heavensward.

At first you will only be able to raise one Job to 60 with a potion but the clear implication is that later on you'll be able to do more. As far as I can tell, all the items affect only the character that uses them, not the whole account.

This has apparently been in the wind since the end of last year but this is firm and final confirmation that it's coming, and soon. There are even prices and they are quite reasonable by the standards of these things: skipping the story will cost $18 for the base game or $25 for the two. The Job potion costs $25. All the items go on sale June 16th which is , I am guessing, the start of Early Access for Stormblood.

All of which is very intriguing. As several commenters in the Reddit thread point out, this could be seen as Square throwing the leveling game under the bus. The strong message is that from now on the real game begins wherever the latest expansion starts. Everything before that is scenery.

I'll save my thoughts on what the increasing willingness of MMO developers to take that road implies for the future and the identity of the genre for another day. Right now I'm more interested in what it implies for me as a very casual, non-subscribing player.

Nothing that I've seen so far relates to the Free Trial and as far as I can tell it won't. The terms of the trial exclude "in-game microtransactions" but in any case it seems highly unlikely Square will sell something that skips the storyline up to level 50 to players who cannot in any event progress past level 35.

That's a shame. I would pay £13.32, the current, pedantic conversion from $18.00, to get the right to ride a chocobo and join a Grand Company without having to set foot in a Duty-Finder dungeon. What's more, there's a better than even chance I'd pay more than once to do it for characters of different races.

What would, of course, be even better would be if Square emulated Blizzard and allowed us to play our sub-expired accounts up to the level of the Free Trial, or if they copied ArenaNet and made the entire base game genuinely Free to Play. They may well do something along those lines as the game ages and the endgame recedes further and further out of reach.

I did briefly muse the possibility of re-subbing my old account, buying the Scenario Skipper and finishing those last fifteen levels. I can't really see the point but it's something to keep in mind if I find myself at a loose MMO end some month. Not before I activate that Legion code I'm sitting on though. Or the unused Heart of Thorns I bought when they were half-price...

Nope. Looks like I'm just going to have to do it the hard way. And really I can't say I'm all that sorry. I trundled through to level 19 yesterday, stopping only when I reached the cavernous entry to Sastasha, the first obligatory dungeon. I'm going to queue for that this afternoon.

Better get it done sooner rather than later. There won't be many queuing come June, I'm guessing. Although, of course, there will be all of us freeloaders. We'll have no choice.

It'll be intriguing to see if a whole "1-35" subculture develops out of this, although since the free trial forbids the use of several major chat options as well as the creation of linkshells or free companies it might be a little difficult to tell.

Monday, 22 May 2017

I Remember When It Was All Fields Around Here: FFXIV

When I began typing yesterday's post I fully believed I was going to be writing about FFXIV. Turned out I was wrong about that. What with having to make it all up out of whole cloth it took a lot longer than I expected, which is why, when it was done, I just slapped in most of the pictures I'd been going to use and called it a wrap.

That meant I had to take a whole new bunch of shots for the actual post I'm writing now. It was no hardship: I was glad to log in again. Eorzea is endlessly photogenic and for the moment FFXIV seems to have pushed out the competition (LotRO, EQ2, Twin Saga) to become my late-evening goof-off game of choice.

It's curious and educative to see how the game and my reaction to it has changed over the seven years it's been around. Yes, it really has been seven years, if you allow that FFXIV and FFXIV:ARR are the same MMO, which is how I see it.

I counted myself lucky when I got into the closed beta of the original version back in 2010 although my feelings changed quite quickly once I began to see what was hidden behind the curtain. There was a strict NDA at the time so, even had I been blogging, which I wasn't, I wouldn't have been able to reveal either the appalling condition the game was in or the complete state of denial that appeared to exist within the development team.

The world found out soon enough. I declined to buy FFXIV at launch but I played a fair amount during the months Square Enix operated the game as a de facto Buy-to-Play, when they were too embarrassed to ask anyone to pay a monthly subscription.

I'm finding the clothing a lot weirder as a catgirl than I did as a Lala. Yellow minidress with green clogs? Is it 1972?

The original FFXIV ran for more than two years with the cracks papered over. A subscription fee was eventually required, at which point I said my goodbyes and left.

Despite its many, many flaws, there was always something about FFXIV that I liked. There's something about the look and feel of the world, the freshness, the clarity of the air. I've never played another video game that felt so much like being outdoors.

I was very happy to give the game another chance when the reboot arrived in 2013. By then this blog was well-established and I documented both my beta impressions and my post-launch journey quite extensively. Although I was clearly having a great time in some ways, it became apparent quite quickly that the love affair was destined not to last.

There were several reasons I fell out of love with FFXIV but chief among them was the overbearing paternalism. I rarely felt like a free agent let alone a responsible adult. The NPCs ordered my character about and the game mechanics ordered me about. Mrs Bhagpuss felt the heavy hand of authority on her shoulder even more keenly than I. When our thirty days were up and it came time to subscribe we mutually agreed to decline.

Since then I've revisited my old characters for the occasional free weekend but there's not much you can do in Eorzea on a forty-eight hour pass. What's more, as I read numerous accounts of the game's extended leveling process and endgame, I began to lose any nostalgic affection I still felt.

Environments and lighting remain a joy although I have severe reservations about some of the textures.

Rather than finding a neutral space there was a period when I felt actively hostile to the game. For a year or two there were few MMOs whose mere mention could irritate me as much - or at all. The only one that comes to mind is the inexcusable Tera.

I do still believe that, in certain ways, FFXIV represents precisely those things I least appreciate about MMOs: paternalism, exclusivity, elitism, a quasi-protestant work ethic. Concepts with which, by dint of its relative success, it risks re-infecting the rest of the genre at a time when I had thought resistance had been established.

Most of those problems, thankfully, are exemplified by and largely confined to the endgame. As the game ages, as it closes in on its second expansion and a further increase in the level cap, some of the worst of the obstructive, tedious repetition has been removed or at least reduced at the lower levels.

It's quite hard to remember which mechanics featured in which iteration but I'm reasonably certain that leveling is now faster and less painful. There's increased XP for Main Story quests and alternate classes get a substantial XP bonus relative to the level of the highest level your character holds, although I'm not quite clear whether that holds true for every class you take after the first or just for the Secondary and Tertiary options.

Probably the best gear swap utility I have used.
Without having played all that much my Archer is now level 17 with Conjurer at 11. (I only took Conjurer for the heal and because the Conjurer's Guild happened to be in Gridania). It's been entirely painless, I've felt no need to grind mobs or FATES, take side-quests I didn't want to do or travel to other areas just to find something to give me xp.

By and large I've been able to follow my whims, wander around, explore and have fun. So far, although I've amassed a fair amount of cash, I haven't needed to spend a single Gil. Quests provide more than enough gear and there seems to be nothing I need beyond what I'm given.

The underlying mechanics of maintaining a character appear to have undergone an overhaul. Again I have difficulty remembering exactly how it used to be but I seem to recall having the usual inventory issues and problems with swapping gear between classes.

That hasn't happened this time, not yet. I have a great deal of unused bag space and the UI option to store, update and retrieve different sets of gear for each Job is exemplary. The map also seems a lot clearer and easier to follow.

It's always disconcerting when an NPC comes charging into your story instance to "help".
I thought this was another player intent on KSing me at first.
Also things seem to die a lot faster than I remember. The combat itself remains the same - pedantic, mannered, formal - but it seems a good deal less tedious. Maybe that's just because I'm playing an Archer rather than an Arcanist.

I guess I'll find out when I get to Limsa Lominsa, where the Arcanists hang out. In order to do that, though, I have to use an Airship and you can't get past customs control without you complete the Main Questline to a certain point.

That's something that hasn't changed and it should. I'm enjoying FFXIV again with the new-found freedom of the endless free trial but one thing I could very much do without is the storyline. I didn't find it particularly engaging the first time around and it very definitely does not improve with repetition.

The class quests that come every five levels are equally inane but they have the merit of being short, or they do if you click through all the conversations without reading them. First time round I read every word and watched every cut-scene as is my usual practice; this time I feel I've paid my dues.

Overly dramatic cut scene for a simple skill acquisition, I'd say.
Free of any sense of obligation to follow the plot or take anything in any way seriously I find myself enjoying FFXIV all over again. If I could just opt out of the Main Story questline entirely and have the few significant rewards (Airship access, Chocobo) auto-granted at level I'd say this would be the perfect version.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of my slight return is the degree to which I find myself involved with and interested in gear and class progression. It was an aspect of the game I barely noticed last time around, when most of my attention was taken up either with exploration and discovery or fighting the systems.

With a UI that works with rather than against me and having already seen and photographed just about everything I run into, I'm starting to wonder if the Class/Job system might not have some small capacity for entertainment in and of itself. I don't often write about gear/skill progression and as an Explorer Prime it might be assumed I'm either agin it or totally uninterested whereas in fact I do like a good gear and skill ladder.

I'd like to hear the logic of the dev who decided an eyepatch would be a good idea for armor for the head slot. Isn't an eyepatch what you end up wearing because you didn't put your helmet on?

To clarify, I like both as part of a well-structured leveling process. I just hate with a passion that endgame conceit whereby developers set you to occupy your time in repeatedly grinding the same instanced content for weeks and months to increase incrementally the stats on the armor you're already wearing, so as to keep you subscribed, or at least playing, until the next paid-for expansion can be cobbled together.

With a level cap of 35 in a game soon to cap at twice that I dare say endgame grind is something that needn't concern me. Perhaps when Stormblood drops Yoshi P might even loosen the reins a little more. I hope so, although by then I'll probably be playing something else anyway.

If I do wander away, I imagine I'll come back eventually. I always have so far, much though I thought for a while I never would. There's just something about that Eorzean air...

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Don't Give Up

Earlier this week, over at Massively OP, Eliot Lefebvre posted a deeply nihilistic piece on the mortality of MMOs. The truism that "every... MMO is going to shut down" doesn't get us very much further than "everyone living is going to die" or "the sun is going to burn out"so I'm not sure quite what demons he was trying to exorcise but he sure sounded angry about something.

Yes, nothing lasts forever. We get that. The world will burn. What we want to know, we never can - until it happens: when?

There's an obvious flaw in the argument that says because "no MMOs...last forever" we must compose ourselves immediately for the inevitable day when the last server closes. The flaw in that line of thinking is that, while our favorite MMO will indeed not last forever, it may very well last longer than we do.

If we revert to observable fact rather than emotional grandstanding, the history of the genre to date suggests that MMOs, by and large, are rarely in imminent danger of closure. Meridian 59 is already in its third decade.  Ultima Online and Lineage will soon follow it, with EverQuest, Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot and the rest of the pack not far behind.

Without question, all of those games have outlived many who once played them. More than fifteen years ago I met people in both EQ and DAOC who were then in their sixties. They may still be playing now, in their seventies and eighties. I know I hope I will be. Whether they, or I, make it that far, it's a certainty not everyone will.

When it comes to fears of mortality it seems to me that a more appropriate concern isn't whether what you love will last long enough for you to enjoy it to the full but at what point you may have to concede that it has more fullness than you'll ever get to experience. You will end, it will go on. You'll never know what happens next.

I had a conversation with someone I work with yesterday about Dr. Who. I'm not a Whovian but I have watched the show for almost all my life. I was five years old when it began and I'm told I saw the first show when it was broadcast in 1963 although I can't remember it.

Dr. Who was cancelled, apparently for good, in 1989, by which time I had been following it, on and off, mostly on, for more than a quarter of a century. At that point I thought, if I thought about it at all, that I'd had all the Dr. Who I was going to get.

I was, of course, entirely mistaken. First there were the legacies. Old shows existed, in fragmented part, on video. There had been novels, audiobooks, movies: fragments a devoted follower might shore against their ruin.

More than a past, though, the show had a present. The rights owners may have deemed it unprofitable or, more likely, a poor fit for their current portfolio, but there were still creatives who felt it could be a good vehicle for their talents and there was, always, an audience willing to encourage them to prove it.

In the decade and a half between the last transmission of the original run and the first episode of the reboot there was a perpetual stream of new content, everything from radio shows to comics. Interest never abated. Eventually the series returned to television, where it has prospered for almost as long as it was absent and shows every sign of continuing to do so.

As Conan Doyle discovered to his irritation, popular creations are hard to kill. What's more, despite the best efforts of lawyers, intellectual property cannot readily be ring-fenced. If a creation is popular enough it will outlive not only its creator but the statute of limitations on its exclusivity.

Many of the great successes of the 18th and 19th Century, all now in the public domain, continue to live a vibrant afterlife, often one more vivid and certainly more varied than they enjoyed while their creators survived. Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Mr Darcy,  Dorian Grey, they all stride confidently onward into the 21st century.

Video-gaming is a younger medium than the novel, movies or even comic books but I see absolutely no reason to believe it won't follow exactly the same trajectory. There will be reboots and remakes and re-imaginings as each generation seeks to rediscover, revisit or re-invent its own past.

The process is self-reflexive, self-perpetuating. Millennials who grew up watching Next Generation or Deep Space 9 take the torch from the Late-Boomers/GenXers who grew up with original Trek. Once momentum builds the train is hard to stop.

Video games in general and MMOs in particular tend to identify less with characters, more with settings or styles. There are relatively few Marios or Lara Crofts and fewer of those seem to make the transition across the generations that we see so often in older media.

When it comes to franchises, though, there seems to be no such reluctance. Eliot chides "Do you like Final Fantasy XIV? It’s going to shut down" but I notice he doesn't make any such claims for the Final Fantasy franchise itself, even though its ultimate demise is as assured as that of all things.

There was much wailing and rending of garments when Daybreak Games cut the rope on EQNext but it would be a brave and most likely foolish commentator who'd take that commercial decision to signal the end of EverQuest as a commercial entity. Franchises measure their lifespans not in decades but in centuries; myths in millennia.

Commerciality is anyway only a part of it. Yes, when MMOs cease to make money for their owners they will be ended. As NCSoft so inelegantly demonstrated with City of Heroes, even making a profit isn't always enough to keep the lights on.

Life isn't all about making money, though, and neither is running an MMO. Sometimes MMOs carry on even though you can't imagine how they could. Alganon is still running. So is The Hammers End. Sometimes they become community projects and grow.

Even if there's no official afterlife, when the money stops coming in it doesn't mean the games just disappear. Leaving aside the ever-growing hinterland of Let's Plays and other love-letters from the past to the future, from the sanctioned to the forbidden to the apparently overlooked there's a whole shadow world out there, where lost MMOs live on in more than just memory.

It may be orders of magnitude more difficult to create fan-made MMOs than fan fiction but it's not so hard there aren't people doing it. And just as tribute bands can not only pull a crowd but eventually become legitimized by osmosis so the emulator may eventually become the new original.

It's true, as Eliot says, that "your favorite MMO is going to die". It dies every day. The World of Warcraft you play tonight isn't the WoW you played last month, last year, last decade. If what you seek is stasis then you're ever out of luck and, really, what were you doing looking here in the first place?

It's also very sadly true that not all MMOs attain the critical mass required to sustain a life beyond their immediate commercial end... or so I was about to suggest.

I lack faith. The universe chides me.

Searching my memory for a long-forgotten MMO to use as an example I hit on Crowns of Power. I googled it to be sure I'd remembered the name correctly. I had. Almost unbelievably it's back.

Read the MMORPG.com story explaining how this supposedly unloved, unlamented, scarcely noticed MMO failed to go quietly into the night. It exemplifies everything I've been struggling to express. I thought I had more to say but after that I don't think there's anything I can add.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

What's Going On? : Shroud of the Avatar

Somewhat to my surprise I find myself warming to Shroud of the Avatar. I played for a couple of hours today and it was an oddly compelling, if confusing, experience.

I find the whole "pre-alpha" thing disingenuous to say the least. I'm sure there are plenty of parts missing. There may be mechanisms that don't work, whole systems yet to be included. I know it's supposed to be a story game and the story isn't done yet.

Never mind all that. It's more than playable as it stands. I've played final betas a week before launch that were buggy, chaotic messes compared to this. In fact, I have yet to run into a bug. It's often clunky but it all works.

The overriding impression remains not one of a brand new MMO in early development but of a much older game from a time when many of the modern conveniences we take for granted had yet to be invented. The infamous text parser SotA uses for questing is only the most obvious example.

Looting, for example, is old school, click the corpse on the ground. Bank vaults are unique to the town in which you fill them. If you find yourself lost in the dark you have to take a torch out of your backpack and walk around holding it in front of you.

As for fighting, well, it's early days but so far I haven't died once. Quite literally all I've done since I found a rusty sword and put my bow away is to hit auto-attack and chain-cast my single self-heal. So heroic is my character that, when he found himself cornered in the crypt by a Thug and two Archers, his health already low from the arrows he took in the back as he tried to run away, he was amazed to find himself able to auto-attack all three of them to death before they could finish him off.

With just that trusty, rusty sword and a torch in his other hand, so he can see what he's doing, he's seen off skeletons, bandits and fireball-hurling mages. The only thing he couldn't handle was the caiman that unexpectedly charged his ankles as he stood pondering on a boardwalk over a swamp.

What, you may very well ask, was a caiman, native in our own  world to Central and South America,  doing in the shallow waterways of what appears at a casual glance to be a northern European forest? Don't look at me. I didn't stop to do field work. I ran away!

There's a strange, almost surreal mash-up of East and West everywhere in Shroud of the Avatar. Villages that look to be taken straight from the European Town Planner's Handbook c. 1450 brush up against ruined country estates with gateways guarded by what look like Chinese Guardian Lions. In the country peasant chic is in while in the big city on the coast the fashions and faces take an oriental turn.

As for the local tech level, your guess is a good as mine. It's not just the steampunk factor, those mechanicals I mentioned last time, or the hot air balloons tethered above the docks of the player-run town. Everywhere, timeslips abound.

There does seem to be some background to all this only I don't know what it is. When you fire up the game for the very first time you're treated, if that's the word, to a lengthy animated introduction and a fervid voice-over. I tried to tune it out but some of it leaked through my mental barriers.

I vaguely recall the player-character being shown as a Crowleyesque dilettante, inadvertently sucked into another dimension after meddling with things best left alone. Something along those lines. That would account for the book I found in a bookcase in the crypt under the Soltown cemetery, the one that mentions cameras and telephoto lenses. I'm guessing that was written by another "Outlander" from wherever it is my character came from - contemporary Earth, presumably.

All well and good but it does nothing to explain the Watchers. These sinister hoverbots cruise the paths and alleyways of Soltown, that small, ostensibly archaic village buried in the forest. They swoop up to you like something out of a movie loosely based on an idea by Philip K Dick, scan you with a scarlet ray, then leave. Whatever tech they're using it's a long century past our own, let alone the faux-nineteenth required by the steampunk trope.

Let's give Portalarium a pass on all this. Assume it makes sense when you follow the story. Even if it doesn't it's certainly entertaining. The pertinent question is, am I having fun?

Yes. Well, to a degree. The oddness is definitely appealing. The mechanics are comfortable. There's a lot to see and do. And yet...

I wonder if it might just be me. If this was fifteen years ago, maybe even ten, I would have been more willing to make an effort. I was actively seeking out this kind of labor-intensive, quasi-convincing virtual world back then. SotA may not be Vanguard when it comes to immersion (precious little is) but it's giving it the old college try.

As I discovered when I briefly tried The Elder Scrolls Online a year or two back, though, I fear I may be getting too old for "realism". The relentless earth tones, the convincing body armor, the scruffy, muddy streets...they don't heat the blood the way they once did. If it wasn't for all the the weirdness I think I might have lost interest and wandered off after the first session.

I could go away and read up on the lore but honestly I'd rather not know. If I go on playing, which isn't certain but equally isn't unlikely, I'd sooner pick away at the seams from inside. Knowing there's a proper Story with a capital "S" at the heart of this project, if anything, puts me off.

Sometimes not knowing what's going on is the best part.

Monday, 15 May 2017

A Familiar Story: EQ2

Last week saw the delayed arrival of EQ2's 103rd Game Update, "The Menagerie", named for the  new class of creature it brings to the game - Familiars. As you'd expect, these are pets that don't fight but do boost your stats.

I was quite keen to get my hands on one. It turned out to be both harder and easier than expected.

There are three paths to Familiarity: quest, drop or purchase. I've tried all of them but so far only my trusty Daybreak Cash Trust Fund has come up with the goods.

For reasons that seem more sentimental and nostalgic than anything else, I started off by trying to get one as a drop. In the olden days that would have been the only way and it would have taken weeks, possibly months of camping some Named or other.

It still does, in a way, only now you camp alongside forty or fifty of your new best friends. The Familiars, which come in Cages, have been added to the loot tables of the current Public Quests, which run in three of the four original Kunark zones, Fens of Nathsar, Jarsath Wastes and Kylong Plains, plus a quest-triggered PQ in the new Obulos Frontier.

I'm currently doing the Tequatl event in GW2 every day because I don't know why. This is exactly the same. There's a bit of a wait for the event to start then a frenzy of activity for ten minutes or so, at the end of which I get a bunch of stuff I don't need or want and someone links the thing I did want in chat. Then we all go somewhere else to twiddle our thumbs until next time.

It's fun or I wouldn't do it. I like the community spirit, the in-jokes, the bustle and fuss. It's not a particularly effective way of getting a specific item, though. RNG is unkind.

Questing is more reliable. If you can complete the quest you get the reward. Unfortunately the "quests" that reward Familiars aren't quite the quests you'd like. Okay, they technically aren't "quests" at all - they're "Missions".

The thing about Missions in EQ2 is that they don't give a specific reward. They end with a chest that might contain a whole load of things but usually has exactly what you got last time or the thing you were least interested in getting at all. RNG at play once more.

I haven't yet done a Mission since the Familiars arrived so I can't say how commonly they appear in the chests but I note that Naimi Denmother got hers from a boss chest in a Mission rather than the reward chest itself, which is good.

There seems to be just one full-fledged quest that guarantees a Familiar at the end. Unfortunately it requires you to complete a match in the new Proving Grounds.

The Proving Grounds is the other major addition to the game in GU103. It's not proving to be very popular, at least not according to the forum thread, which is almost entirely composed of bitter complaints and claims of accounts being cancelled.

EQ2 players often appear to use cancellation of their accounts the way your mother might raise one eyebrow and frown so I don't take that too seriously as an indicator of passion but it's undeniable that The Proving Grounds are a buggy mess.

There's already been one hotfix and a major patch is due tomorrow to try to wrestle the thing into some kind of shape. The forums blame all this on the dire state of DBG, the extreme lack of resources and the skeleton crew left working on the game. I wonder how many of them have played any other MMOs in the last few years.

GW2, which almost certainly has fifty times more devs working on ithas improved somewhat under Mike O'Brien's direct leadership (wasn't that supposed to be a temporary thing...?) but back in Colin Johansen's day we had update after update in which major elements didn't work properly or at all. Indeed, it became a truism that there was no point playing a LS episode the day it dropped because it would need four or five hot-fixes before you could even tell how it was supposed to work.

Despite the dire warnings on the boards I thought I'd go see for myself. The new Proving Grounds matches use the old Battlegrounds cross-servers lobby and log-in. I vaguely remembered where the zone-in was but I completely failed to work out how to queue for a match so I had to go and look that up (it's Alt-Z).

I could have called out in the /LFG channel to get a group the old-fashioned way. The lobby was full of people doing just that. I didn't, because I haven't done any serious grouping in EQ2 for about five years and since I was playing my new, boosted level 100 Necromancer I figured it would be best to keep a low profile. I only wanted to get a screenshot or two for the blog, anyway.

Things went better than expected, especially given the horror stories I'd read. We managed to kill the first boss without mishap. I haven't played a Necro for a long time but the class was my "Main" for several years and I could remember the basics, just about.

The first boss was standing about twenty feet from the zone-in. It was when we tried to move forward that the problems began. We ran along a ledge covered in roots and every root we stepped on spawned a beetle. A very tough beetle.

After we wiped someone said we shouldn't step on the roots. That was helpful. The group broke up and I left as well. After the obligatory five-minute penalty I queued again.

Optimal path. Allegedly.

This time I joined a party that had already killed the same boss and moved past the roots. I clambered along the wall to join them, thereby avoiding death by beetle, and we pulled and killed several trash mobs.

There was another partial wipe but we reformed and clambered back. We set ourselves up for Boss #2, a treant going by the great name of Galumph. Someone had done him before so we were warned about his huge knock-back.

We all stood with our backs to a rock, someone pulled him and we went at it like a swarm of hornets. Six DPS, no tank and no healer. There's a problem with the automatic group matchmaker. It's supposed to get fixed tomorrow.

Take a look at what you could have won.
We got Galumph to around 20% and then he did something and we all wiped. "He hits hard without a healer", said Captain Obvious and the group broke up again.

Contrary to the bleak reviews on the forum, I thought The Proving Grounds looked like they could be good fun. If they fix the most egregious of the bugs and if I was playing a class I felt confident to group with, this might be something I'd do, now and again.

The real problem is that DBG have chosen to add a number of Best In Slot items to the Proving Ground vendors, along with a lot of other very good gear. It means nothing to casual players like me but for regular players who want to remain fully competitive at endgame it makes this content anything but optional. That's probably not a great development plan.

Even though I waited until the match ended and I got the pop-up window to say I'd completed it, my quest didn't update. Not sure if that's a bug or if you actually need to win a match for it to count. Either way, I didn't get a Familiar.

So I bought one. It was that simple. I could have done it at the start and saved myself an hour or two of messing about but the messing about was pretty entertaining so it's all good, as our Commanders like to say when we lose the last tower on our home borderland and end up cowering in our Citadel.

A single Familiar Cage costs just 599DBC. With my member's 10% discount that's 539DBC, fractionally more than the monthly stipend that comes with membership. I have well over 10K DBC on the account I'm currently subbed with and maybe twice that on the one I used to pay for so money was not an issue.

I stumped up and opened the cage. Inside was a low-slung lizard that looks remarkably like my Magician's mount in EQ1. It has a gormless look I like. Apparently it's a Lowland Tuatara. I re-named it Totoro although I thought of another name I could have given it...

Don't ask me. I just got him.

And that was more or less that. Familiars, like Mercenaries and Mounts, are another thing to collect, which is good. I wouldn't be at all surprised if at some time in the future we get Familiar Gear and a Familiar Leveling System. That would also be good.

If I wasn't playing so many other games right now I would be quite happy to run Missions, do PQs and queue for Proving Grounds matches to fill out my Familiar Family as well as gear myself up. Whether the people who are playing all the time feel the same way I'm not so sure.

EQ2 has a very hardcore hardcore these days. They seem to be grumpy about just about everything that doesn't directly lead to Heroic Dungeons, Raids or Fabled revamps of older zones. I do wonder why DBG don't simply stop trying to innovate and go back to spoon-feeding these people what they want. It's not like there isn't enough already to keep the rest of us occupied.

Despite the grumbling and the slamming doors the game seems busy enough. I have faith it will rumble on for a year or two yet. I'd still like to know what Columbus Nova's long-term plan is, though. Assuming they have one.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Looks Like A Duck: Tanzia

For as long as there have been MMORPGs there have been players who preferred to solo. Over the years I've listened to and joined in with countless discussions, debates and arguments on the merits or otherwise of playing alone in a genre supposedly built around partnership.

There's a belief that MMOs prosper when they encourage the creation and maintenance of social bonds. We play because our friends play. It's a stance that Bartle Socializers fall into easily. Achievers follow along in search of approval and Killers have to have their prey.

Explorers, though, well sometimes they can seem less convinced by the need to share. You can see the view so much better when there's no-one standing in your way, after all.

Dude, where's my board?

The nuanced positions of individual, group and community in gaming would make a better subject for a doctoral thesis than a blog post but one thing I just want to put out there is this: there's more to an MMO than the people who play it.

Classic MMOs use specific mechanics that, in and of themselves, provide sufficient traction to grasp and hold a player's interest. Other people can be either the sugar on top or the sand in the gears but for some of us, when it comes to gameplay, it's the way MMOs set themselves up for business that compels us to keep playing them. In other words, there are people who play MMOs because of what they do there, not who they meet.

This seems to be the thinking behind Tanzia, a self-described "old-style RPG made with modern tech" that "combines elements of favorite classic action-adventure RPGs in an open 3D world". There has to be more to it than that, though, because, were it nothing but another retro-RPG, I wouldn't be writing about it here.

I'm getting deja vu again.

What's more, I certainly wouldn't have paid £10.99 for an Early Access copy on Steam, as I did last night. I was always going to buy the game, I just wasn't planning to buy it yet. I was going to wait until the full launch, supposed to be happening in just a few weeks. I don't really have time to play another game right now, MMO or otherwise, not on top of the ever-lengthening list of titles I'm failing to do justice to already.

Even so, I've been keeping tabs on Tanzia's progress since it went into EA a couple of weeks back and yesterday I took a look at the reviews on Steam. There aren't many as yet, too few to allow for an official rating, but the half-dozen people who'd taken the time to review it so far were all very positive:
"It's fun to play, and feels satisfying..."

"...really enjoying the game so far"

"The art is beautiful and the game play is smooth and reasonably polished."
Why's he casting a fireball then?

But here's the key comment, the one that had me reaching for my wallet:

"Fun little game. Reminds me of the older mmos"

Why wait when I could be having not just fun but that specific kind of fun? And now I've had a couple of hours to try it out for myself I'd have to say it was a good decision.

Parody. It's parody, okay? Oh c'mon, there's no need to call Legal!

Tanzia really does have that older MMO vibe but it's no co-incidence. The developer is Arcanity Inc. "...an American independent game studio ... founded in 2015 by former inXile, Obsidian and Sigil Games Online employees". A strong RPG pedigree but the part that really got my attention was the name-check for Sigil, along with the inclusion of both EverQuest and Vanguard in the list of games the team has worked on before.

Now it's a team but in the beginning Tanzia was primarily the work of a single developer, Jason Jacobitz. He seems to be more elusive than the average game-maker but I managed to find a revealing interview at an unlikely source, a Nintendo blog called MikeTendo64.

I told you...now you just feel stupid, right?

It's a good read throughout but the most intriguing part comes towards the end, when Jason speculates about where things might go from here, should Tanzia prove as successful as he and the team hope:

"After Tanzia, I’m not sure if we’ll do something else or jump right into a Tanzia 2...We also want our 2nd game to have a strong multiplayer aspect.”

So maybe Tanzia could become an MMO after all. I hope so because if anyone knows what the genre is all about it's a guy who can say this:

"When you’re heading into a new area, I want you to feel the excitement of exploration. You should be thinking, ‘This looks awesome. I want to see more. Is this dangerous? Maybe I’d better stay clear of that thing just in case. OMG a new village! OMG they have new equipment! OMG this equipment rocks and I can almost afford it!"
But hitting people with sticks is such fun!

That's as good a definition of the true MMO experience, as seen from the perspective of the Explorer, as I've ever heard. After playing for a couple of hours last night, I'm very happy to confirm it's also an accurate description of  what it feels like to play Tanzia.

All of which does absolutely nothing to explain why I'd still rather not be playing it alone. I'll ponder on that. If I ever figure it out I'll get back to you.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Shroud of the Avatar: Very First Impressions

Shroud of the Avatar has been around for a while now; longer than I realized. It seems Richard Garriott's spiritual successor to Ultima Online went into Early Access two and a half years ago, back in November 2014. There are MMOs that have released, failed and closed in less time than that, not least among them Garriott's own sophomore effort, Tabula Rasa.

I had to look up those dates. I haven't been following SOTA's development all that closely. Or at all, really. I never played Tabula Rasa and I have no nostalgia for UO, a game I bought back around the turn of the century, played for a few weeks in a somewhat desultory fashion, then uninstalled, never to bother with again.

I'm not sure what it is about Richard Garriott. He may be a founder of the genre but somehow most of his work to date has passed me by. I've probably read more about his space adventures than his game-making ambitions. Most of the very little I do know about Shroud of the Avatar comes from a few sporadic reports from various bloggers who'd tried it.

Most of them seemed puzzled by what they found. Having spent an hour or so under the shroud, courtesy of the current three-week free trial, I can easily see why.

Downloading and installing the game was very straightforward as was registering an account. The patcher looks oddly home-made but it works just fine. The game sits at around 12GB, quite small for a modern MMO.

There's a prominent disclaimer that makes it very clear this is an unpolished, unfinished project. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite so cautious on the front end of an MMO before, not even on a pre-alpha. It seems particularly nervous and defensive when attached to something that has been up and running - and taking money - for two and a half years.

Come to think of it, how can this still be a "pre-alpha"? Whatever Portalarium choose to call it, SOTA is a thing you can pay for and play and has been for a long time. We're breaking the language again.

At this point I would go to the official site to check just what they are selling and how much they're charging for it but when I tried that ten minutes ago my virus checker popped up no fewer than five alerts, all of which turned out to be for trojans, so I'm slightly nervous about digging any further. (It gets worse - I tried looking something up on the official forums and that triggered nineteen alerts, all for trojans again. I think they have a problem, even if it's just a false reporting issue).

Getting back to the game itself and what I've seen of it so far, I have to concur with most of the commentary I've seen elsewhere: Shroud of the Avatar is odd.

The overriding impression is one of stepping back in time, not just to the quasi-medieval setting but to the late 1990s. The graphics gave me a flashback to playing Return To Krondor in 1998, the year before EverQuest appeared.

Of course the resolution, textures, lighting and so on are far more sophisticated but the look and feel is remarkably similar. That's not a bad thing but it does suggest a very particular take on what "fantasy" should look like.

Or, at least, it does until you meet your first robot. That was a surprise. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First there's a short tutorial to navigate. You might think character creation would come first but you'd be wrong. You begin as a featureless shadow. The tutorial itself leads you to embodiment by way of a magic makeover mirror. It's in the woods, just hanging there. Don't ask, just go with it...

You can be anything you want so long as what you want to be is a really ordinary human. There are some sliders. Quite a lot of sliders. They don't do an awful lot. I didn't spend too much time fiddling with them. One human looks pretty much like another, I find.

As every guru will tell you, appearances aren't everything. Looking at the character I'd made that's just as well. It's what's inside that counts and SOTA comes with one of those identity questionnaire systems to fine-tune your imaginary personality.

The first MMO I remember using one of these was probably Horizons but they've always been popular with developers who want to show respect to their traditional RPG roots. And GW2 has one as well.

In a building further along the path I found The Oracle. He/She/They/Xe interrogated me, then as much as told me I was wasting my time. So far, only one of the Paths, the Path of Love, has made it into the game so whatever choices you make, that's what you are.

I settled for Love, having neither any choice nor the slightest clue what it would have meant if I had. I just wanted to have a nose around.

It was at this point that I turned the music off. I'd already had to turn it down because, in common with many MMOs, the default setting appears to be Ear Shatteringly Loud. I once sat inside the bass bin for an entire song at a Satan's Rats gig, after which I literally could not hear anything but the ringing in my ears for three days, and that still wasn't as loud as the music in SOTA.

Turning it down solved the pain threshold issue but it didn't do anything for the assault on my aesthetic sensibilities. The soundscape of The Shroud is every bit as reminiscent of mid-90s video gaming as the visuals. If that presses your nostalgia button then you'll just love it. In fact, here, knock yourself out!.

With the peace of the forest restored I went about exploring. Or I did once I'd finished the obligatory "rescue this child, follow that mysterious stranger, equip this weapon, kill these undead" dance to complete the tutorial.

Combat was - guess what? Odd. There's both a hot bar and a reticule. I couldn't quite figure out if you needed to aim or not. While I was slaying the undead none of my arrows ever seemed to miss but later, when I tried my hand at hunting a few wolves, almost every shot went wide of the mark, even when I tried to center with the cross-hair. I ended up having to close to melee range and shoot the wolves in the head from a foot away.

That said, I quite liked the combat. At least it isn't full "Action Mode" and you retain the use of your cursor throughout. All skills raise on use, too, which is a mechanic I absolutely love. There's no more satisfying form of progression in MMOs than seeing your various skills improve as you use them, preferably with a bar you can watch fill out. SOTA has those.

It has quests, too, and a quest journal and a quest tracker in the UI. What it doesn't seem to have is a mini-map or any other directional indicator to show you where to go to complete any of the quests you might have picked up on your travels. I may be missing something or, more likely, you are supposed to go out and darn well look, with your eyes, old school style.

I did a bit of that but of course I got distracted and in doing so I stumbled into the oddest part of the game so far - "Overland Travel". If I was giving awards for Most Bizarre Implementation of a Basic Concept in MMORPGs this would be a shoe-in.

The idea is straightforward enough: rather than spend a lot of time, effort and money creating a seamless, open world, Portalarium have just made the playable bits and linked them through a non-playable map. Loads of games do that.

What no-one else has done, as far as I know, is to render that map as a three-dimensional space that resembles nothing so much as a Model Village. When you reach what would be a zone boundary in another MMO you transition into the Overland Map, a three-dimensional space where your avatar is represented at normal size, while every town, village, bridge or footpath is at a much smaller scale.

You stride across the countryside in your Seven League Boots until you reach the place you want to go. Then you click on the 1/10th size model of that town or whatever it is and it zones you into the full-size thing. Bizarre doesn't begin to cover the experience.

That was how I found myself, almost entirely by luck and not at all by judgment, in a settlement called Soltown, the very place I was meant to be heading to tell the mother of the child I rescued that she was safe and well. Serendipity at work.

Still couldn't find the woman. I wandered around the town for half an hour or so and never saw her. Most of the houses seemed half-built or less. Many had no roofs. Or walls. And yet they were often lavishly furnished.

Housing is a big part of Shroud of the Avatar's offer. You can't buy or furnish a house in the free trial so I won't be able to try it out but it looks interesting. There seemed to be a fair selection of items placed, many of which were interactive to a degree. I was particularly impressed with the pianos and chessboards.

I was more astonished than impressed by the Aether Vibration Device, which I discovered in the same building as the bank. The bank itself was a bit of a shock, being run as it was by a steamwork robot. I'd entirely missed the steampunk element of SOTA in the little I'd read about it so I wasn't expecting mechanicals. Always happy to see them turn up, though. You can never have too many mechanicals.

The AED is more problematic, both aesthetically and immersively. Minus the fancy name it's a radio tuner. It links to web radio stations in the same way the radio in The Secret World does. In TSW's contemporary setting that makes perfect sense and works brilliantly. In the fantasy context of SOTA? I'm not so sure.

And that was about as far as I got. I logged out intrigued, puzzled, curious. That's not at all a bad reaction to a new MMO. There are some good ideas here along with some not-so good ones (I can live happily without ever again having to type conversation into a chat line to communicate with an NPC, for a start...).

Having wandered around for a while, that big warning notice at log in seems less like over-cautious self-protection and more like a straightforward statement of fact. Even after nearly three years in Early Access this does feel like an alpha not a beta. Pre-alpha might be over-egging it but it definitely feels like there's a long way to go.

Still, I'm more interested in Shroud of the Avatar now than I was last week. I guess that's a win for the Free Trial.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide