Saturday, 22 July 2017

Anyone Want To See Some Pictures Of My Pets?

Atherne observed in a comment to my last post that she had no idea I played so much PvP. Ravanel said that her blog doesn't accurately reflect what she does in game either.

Meanwhile, Gevlon, who's recently been trawling the entirety of Syp's extensive blog roll in search of something worth reading (sooner him than me!) likens most of the bloggers he's found there to people who put up pictures of their breakfast on Instagram.: "They are alike the facebook pages of random nobodies that are full of everyday busywork that no one cares about (not even the poster) and literal photos of food. Why does someone cares to share a meal? Or a minipet? Or a storyline."

When I was growing up, one of the very many aspects of the adult world that mystified me and made me mildly apprehensive at the thought I'd one day have to learn to do it was "small talk". I was nervous about small talk without really knowing what small talk was. The concept came up occasionally in books that I'd read but it never seemed to be properly explained.

I could tell it was something that the characters were instinctively either good or bad at but being good at small talk didn't seem to confer any great value or status, while being bad at it was often pointed up as a problem or a drawback, even for those characters who clearly found the entire idea an anathema.

In retrospect I recognize this probably says more about the authors than it does about either the characters or about small talk itself, but as a teenager I found a lot of adult life looked like that: opaque, mysterious, worrying. Then, when I finally worked out what the grown-ups were talking about it often often turned out to be an anticlimax; usually it was something I already knew how to do, had been doing all along, without even thinking about it.

Writing a blog turned out to be very much the same. It took me a good while to decide to start one and even when I'd picked a platform and a title and a layout it was well over a year before I found the nerve to upload my first proper post.

Once I'd got started, though, it ended up being just about exactly the same as several things I already knew how to do and had been doing for a long time. As I've mentioned before, blogging is really nothing more than the internet-enabled version of the APAzine scene that took up so much of my time and energy throughout the 1980s. All I was doing was picking up where I'd left off about a decade before only now I didn't have to keep buying glue.

Writing a blog is also not a huge step up from commenting on the blogs of other people or even on pontificating or arguing on Forums, which is how I'd bridged the gap between my last zine and my first blog. Honestly, now I look back it's like I started with my first fanzine in 1977 and never really stopped.

Blogging is an activity that also fits extremely well into the Bartle gaming schema . Bloggers can be Explorers, Achievers or Killers (that would be an interesting way to subdivide a blogroll) but they pretty much have to be Socializers. 

Or do they? Certainly the kind of blogs that puzzle Gevlon are very heavy on the socializing, which is, I guess, why he finds them so puzzling.

Posting pictures of your mini-pets is the blogging equivalent of small talk and as such it's both trivial and essential. The success of any social gathering (and for many of us doing it, blogging is a kind of social gathering) often relies not only on preparation and organization but on the willingness and facility with which those attending are able to engage with each other by finding common ground on which to stand. Small talk is the grease on the party wheel.

Which is all very well as far it goes...only there are some of us who really do love to talk about the weather - not because it's a safe, neutral topic but because weather is bloody amazing!

I grew up in a house with a barometer in the hall. My grandfather would tap it every day and tell us
what the weather was going to be. It wasn't a very good barometer so he was mostly wrong but I grew up with an understanding that talking about the weather was just something people did because weather was something worth talking about.

I love weather. I could talk about it for hours. Mrs Bhagpuss would tell you I do talk about it for hours. It's still my go-to topic for small talk but if I sense the slightest flare of interest then "small" drops out of the picture.

When it comes to MMOs and blogging about them, storylines, mini-pets and everyday busywork are exactly like weather. Yes, they provide a simple, uncontroversial backdrop for a little mild socializing, which is what many people want from their blogging, as well as their MMOs, but to some bloggers and readers they're not the sauce but the meat.

I do want to see pictures of other people's mini-pets. I do want to hear their accounts of quests they've done and how that turned out. I find reading this stuff and looking at the pictures entertaining. The fact that it also gives a warm burr of social inclusion is a welcome bonus.

It is indeed a warm, pleasant feeling and as I  blog, I increasingly feel an obligation to pay it forward. When I began Inventory Full I was writing almost entirely for myself but as the years pass I have come to accept that, as Ravanel says, all of us who publish blogs are "writing for (some sort of) an audience". 

An audience is not compulsory. There is an option in Blogger to make your blog accessible only to people you permit to read it or even to make it entirely private. There will be people out there writing MMO blogs that no-one has ever read but them.

If I truly only wanted to keep a diary of my MMO adventures then I'd be one of those people. When I took the plunge six years ago and submitted my first post for the approval or otherwise of the entire world (I got 13 page views) I was crossing the threshold to join a party already in full swing.

The party's still going on and having chosen to hang around it's on me as much as anyone to help keep the plates spinning. Some days I just feel like slumping in a corner of the kitchen, letting the buzz of conversation filter through from the next room. Other times I find myself talking too loudly and spilling my drink over someone's photos of their mini-pets.

So, I try not to bang on too much about the weather or how we lost Garrison last night because it was Reset in four hours and everyone was goofing off. I try to think of interesting conversation starters but I always have my wallet-full of pictures of the pets to hand in case there's an uncomfortable silence.

Whatever it takes to keep the party going.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Welcome Back, My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends : GW2

If it's anything at all, this blog is a record of the MMOs I've played over the last umpty-ump years. It's the diary I always wished I'd kept and, like most diaries, it's highly selective. To accurately reflect the way I spend my gaming hours, almost every post would need to be about GW2 and most would need to focus on World vs World.

I have three GW2 accounts that I play every single day. On two of them I mostly just do the dailies but those dailies always include a trip to The Mists, where I often find myself answering a call to defend a tower or a keep. One thing leads to another and before I know it half an hour or more has passed, all of it in WvW.

I have camped Veteran Creatures for dailies for a lot longer than I ever camped anything in EQ.

Eventually I'll arrive on my main account and settle down for the full session. On a weekday evening that usually lasts two or three hours; on a weekend it could easily be double. However long it lasts, it's in World vs World that the time is mainly spent.

How long I stay does depend on the match - who we're playing, who's commanding, how urgent or exciting the current situation - but even on a dull day, in a dead match with no-one tagged up and nothing much happening, it's odds on I'll hang around.

Competetive? Moi?

On days like that I sort my bags and bank in Citadel. I've done all my inventory chores in WvW for so long I think of it as the hub for all practical concerns. Until they took out the crafting stations it was where I did all my tradeskills as well. If everything's good and tidy I roam around killing sentries, taking camps and generally tidying our home borderland so it's all one color.

Sometimes I don't do anything at all. I just stand on the battlements at Hills or Garrison and stare. I have dozens - scores - of screenshots of empty keeps with a lone figure under a bleak, blue sky. Several times, most weeks, I position my character in spots known to be vulnerable to attack - the cata wall at Hills is a favorite - then I tab out to read or write blog posts, browse the web, look stuff up...

Alarum! Alarum!
With the sound set to bleed through, my character acts as the canary in the mine. When I hear the distinctive crank of the siege engine, the zing of the sound effect that signifies a structure contesting, or, most dramatically, my character screaming as some invader yanks her off the wall and stamps on her head, I tab back and raise the alarm. Even when I'm not in WvW I'm in WvW.

Anything else I write about here, even when it's about GW2, is an outlier. Or, at least, it is quite often. Not always. While Mrs Bhagpuss threw herself wholeheartedly into WvW from the very start, it took me a year or so to acquire the taste and of late, for most of this year, that taste has staled. There were a few months this spring when I didn't think I was going to bother with WvW much longer.

Rather more than that now...

Something always changes. Something pulls me back. This time it was the recent, extensive changes to both scoring and rewards, which made the game mode spasm like a jolt to a corpse.

Hordes of long-lost names re-appeared together with hosts of people I'd never seen before. The frenzy only lasted a week or two but with the novelty over we arrived at a new norm; populations are higher, people are more focused, winning skirmishes and matches is back in fashion. It's better all round.

Anyone seen a fatted calf around here?

More significant for Yaks Bend than any rule change, an immensely influential and endlessly charismatic Commander came back from a long break. Within days of his reappearance the entire feel of the game on YB changed. In his absence we'd slipped into something like a second-rate "fights" server without the guilds or the skills to make it stick. Now we're almost back to our old, loathed, siege-humping best.

How one person can have such an effect is difficult to figure but the more I learn about other servers the clearer it is that many have one or two such major players, able to swing the server behind them without apparently even trying. Once you know it you can immediately tell whether or not those Commanders are running even when you're on the other side. They make the whole shaky structure stand; without them it all falls apart.

And a few I wish I didn't.

Little of this translates well to prose. For all the play PvPers make of the vitality, the vibrance and unpredictability of their playstyle compared to rote PvE questing or the formal dance of the raid, running in one zerg is much like running in another and every Stonemist three-way blurs into one as the years drift by. 

Of course the detail is always unique. Every single time my Zerker staff ele makes another death-defying run through the the enemy blob, arriving inside the besieged keep stretched flat in the dust gasping for breath, it thrills like the first time - thrills me. Not so much anyone who has to hear about it.

Yeah, whatever...
Other people's war stories are tedious. Not, perhaps, to those who stood side by side as fifteen fought thirty in a half-hour rearguard until, at a famous last stand in Air Lords, the fifteen finally prevailed, but to anyone who wasn't there? So what?

In a never-ending Valhalla, where you fight forever to hold what you own and never own what you fight to take, where nothing changes then everything changes in a game of musical keeps and shifting colors, sometimes it can be hard to remember what you're fighting for, if you're even fighting for anything. EVE stories have such currency outside the game because they mirror recognizable gain and loss. In WvW only memories matter - memories and pride.

If it's purple it has to be important.

Still, this is my diary. My web log. These should be my memories, here, set down for me to remember. I should write more about these things that matter to no-one but me because it's for certain-sure I shan't remember them in anything more than form and shape come the day I can no longer stir to the call.

A picture, though. A picture tells a thousand stories. Or something like that.

I'll make myself an album. Someday.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

I See A Darkness : EQ2

Darkness and night-vision have long been contentious topics in MMORPGs. At one end of the argument you have the "Night-time should be Freakin' Terrifying" crew, mostly survivors of the Rivervale - Kithicor - Commonlands run or those few Barbarians who actually owned a Greater Lightstone.

At the other extreme comes Team "Mommy lets me Sleep with the Lights On".  They feel a gentle blue tint is more than enough to let you know darkness has fallen.

There seems little doubt where the good folk at Daybreak Games stand on the matter. Allow me to illustrate:

Antonica at Dawn. A little too much of the Roger Deans, perhaps, but bright and cheery with it.

Antonica at Noon. Overcast. Looks like rain. Visibility: good.

Antonica at Sunset. Air pollution index: high. Or possibly I am. 

Antonica at Midnight. Good thing my pet's made of granite. Granite's radioactive, didn't you know?

Also, isn't it lucky I'm a Conjuror? We have Infravision! Look what a difference that makes!

The sea around Antonica seems to be mildly phosphorescent. Doesn't help much, does it?

This is The Caves. It's underground. Can you tell how it's different to Antonica at night? No? Well, this is The Caves in day time!

Antonica, just before Dawn. You can tell it's just before dawn because the crickets start chirping. And it gets just light enough to find out where in the hell you are.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Taking Sides

Syp started the ball rolling last week when he suggested MMORPGs would be better without side quests. As well as spawning its own lengthy comment thread, the modest proposal sparked replies at GamingSF and Endgame Viable along with a comprehensive and convincing rebuttal from Azuriel at In An Age.

I've been mulling all week. I find my own views are...complex. Contradictory. Conflicted.

My instinctive response was to leap to the defense of the "Side Quest" as a fundamental, structural component of the entire genre: one of those essential elements without which it would be awkward to argue a game was an MMO at all. That lasted about as long as it took me to remember all the MMOs that have managed passably well without one or more of those so-called "essentials". Levels, dungeons, races, classes - you name it and you can bet some developer threw it under a bus back in pre-alpha.

It would, then, without question, be possible to design an MMORPG with no side quests and still have it be, indisputably, an MMO. But would that be a good idea?

No. Not to my mind. For one thing, Azuriel's argument, that "Sidequests are the mechanism by which imaginary worlds are built" is persuasive.

Trapper Borgus? Trapper Bogus, more like!
So-called side quests are often the parts you remember best, longest and most fondly. I'd be pushed to recall a single line of dialog from the "Ages End" storyline that formed the narrative spine of EQ2 for a decade but certain phrases from far less portentous plots come back to me over and over, like restless ghosts.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I often croak "Oh, my aching back!" in imitation of the malingering dwarf who doles out a series of tedious "quests" at the entrance to Thundering Steppes. I recently added someone to my GW2 friends list purely on the strength of a conversation we had that began when I sent him a tell about his character, who he'd named after Baby Joseph Sayer. Only a week ago Mrs Bhagpuss, making a new character, named her after a quest-giver from a quest she hasn't done in a decade. I could go on. And on.

Side quests are like off-topic conversations in a movie. They bring both the characters and the world they inhabit to life. It's more than two decades since I last saw Pulp Fiction, for example, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of it is the "Royale with cheese" speech.

That scene does absolutely nothing to further the main plot but it's of paramount importance as to why the movie had such an extensive and long-lasting impact on cinema. Seemingly irrelevant details like this make the difference between bumping your nose on the back of a wardrobe or pushing on past fir branches covered in snow.

Suuure you did. Got a doctor's note?
Apart from being the warp (or is the weft?) in the weave of the world, side quests are also integral to gameplay. Or they are if you want to have a particular kind of game. You can hardly call your game "EverQuest" and then not put any quests in it, can you?

And yet...

The original EQ did indeed have plenty of quests but you didn't have to do any of them, not if you didn't want to. You could level up, equip yourself and generally find plenty to justify your $14.99 a week without ever stooping so low as to do a favor for an elf or help a halfling out of a bind.

What's more, the game kept its quests to itself. There were no feathers over anyone's head, no question marks or exclamation points or slowly rotating neon donuts hanging in the air. If you wanted to find out if an NPC had something on her mind you had to ask - and not by right-clicking and listening to a voice actor or watching a cut scene, either.

No, you had to read a wall of text and then type in a reply. If you were good at spotting keywords or just sufficiently verbose you'd get an answer and on it went. And you had to pay attention. The game didn't record anything in a journal for you. There was no journal, other than the notepad and pencil you kept next to your 15" CRT monitor.

Well, you were either there and you know all this or you weren't and you really don't need to. We won't be going back there again, will we? Oh, wait...

Of course, those weren't "side quests". We didn't have side quests back then. We just had quests.

In fact, we couldn't have side quests. Can't have sides without a main and main quests hadn't been invented yet. I played EQ, Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online, The Realm, Endless Ages - a whole bunch of early noughties MMOs. If any of those had a through-line or a central narrative or a Main Quest Sequence then I never tripped over it.

"Quest". It's "Quest"! For heaven's sake get the jargon right!
Come to think of it, that doesn't mean there wasn't one. Just that, if there was, I neither knew nor needed to know about it. The games themselves certainly made no attempt to push Story at me. What they served up was Lore and plenty of it. Also, world-changing events, but even those you mostly had to discover for yourself. If there was a story it was one we lived, not followed.

That pre-lapsarian world lasted a few years. Then World of Warcraft came along and changed everything. Or so the legend goes. And, yes, it's undeniably true that WoW's model of gameplay, particularly the level-by-quest format that's relevant to this discussion, was adopted so widely over the following decade that it came to constitute a new orthodoxy for the genre.

But it was WoW's unprecedented commercial success that irrevocably and inaccurately attributed the quest-based format to the first ever MMO, leaving every other developer toddling along behind, hanging on to Blizzard's shirt-tails . In fact, by the time WoW launched, the floodgates had already breached. EQ2, which launched two weeks before Azeroth opened its doors to the paying public, plumped for an almost identical system. Quest-driven gameplay was set to become the meta for the genre whether or not WoW got there first.

Over the years that followed questing became so ubiquitous, so unavoidable, that whatever luster it briefly enjoyed, tarnished. And yet, even as excitement over unfettered access to an infinitude of unrelated quests began to fade, along came Lord of the Rings Online, upping the ante with its inevitable foregrounding of a central quest-line so portentous no-one could hope to ignore it.

The final nail in the coffin of player freedom hammered home when BioWare joined the party; with their Fourth Pillar the assimilation was complete. MMOs had morphed into single-player RPGs that single players didn't have to play on their own. Go, socializers!

Almost without anyone noticing there was anything odd about it, we woke up in a future where every MMO, even supposed sandboxes, had to have a plot. A story. A narrative. A beginning, a middle and an end. It was like a collective bad dream from which the genre is only now beginning to awaken.

Wait while I get you another pint, old-timer. Then you can tell me more about your fascinating life. Said no-one, ever.
How did it happen? And why, exactly? Why did just being in a world, killing monsters, leveling your character and getting better gear cease to be enough? How did MMORPGs sleep-walk into becoming a narrative medium?

Don't look at me. I drank the same Kool-Aid  everyone else did. And, like I said, I'm conflicted.

It's not as though I don't welcome some direction. I was never swept up by the sandbox craze that followed the perceived failure of the Theme Park narrative. I like to go my own way, sure, but the exhilaration of taking the path less taken requires there be a path more taken, too.

I've heaped enough praise on The Secret World's story, after all. I'm invested in the GW2 "School for Dragon Slayers" plotline even though I know it's incoherent nonsense. I've even found much to like in the ultra-linear central narratives of the likes of Twin Saga and Blade and Soul. I enjoy a good - or even not-so-good - story as much as the next addict.

Stepping back, though, trying to be objective for once in my life, I have to wonder whether, rather than putting side quests on ice, it isn't the Main Quest itself that should be deep-sixed. If side quests add breadth and depth to the world, don't main quests try to put that world in a box and close the lid? When it comes to exploring a new world, the contrast between side quests and main quests can feel like the difference between hitch-hiking across the USA and taking a "twelve cities in ten days" coach tour.

You'd better close that fourth wall - I think your meta's showing.

None of which is meant to suggest that side quests are perfect as they are. The love and attention the writers give to some side quests make reading the label on the back of the ketchup bottle feel like studying classical literature by comparison and, much though I love settling down to a good evening's rat-killing, I'd hardly describe pest control as "questing. I'd far rather see a bulletin board in the market square or a notice pinned to a wall, signed by the relevant council official, declaring open season on vermin, than have to listen to some NPC's spurious backstory, trumped up in an intern's lunch-hour to justify the slaughter.

As players we need stuff to do - but everything we do doesn't have to come with a tale attached.
That's why someone invented "tasks. Or "missions", if you still want to be able to pretend to yourself that what you're doing matters.

Quests, though; if you're going to dignify them with the name, quests require gravitas. Or humor. Or pathos. Something.

I'm all for improving the quality of side quests. Reducing the quantity, though? Or eliminating them entirely? Nope. I'm dead set against it. In fact, I want more and I want better.

As for grand, all-encompassing, over-arching Main Questlines, well, if there's a petition going around to get Main Quests out of MMOs and back into single-player RPGs, where they belong, show me where to sign! I've got my pen right here.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

It's A Boot Time : EQ2

You might not think getting to Level 10 in an MMORPG much of an achievement. I'd agree with you, although longtime veterans of EverQuest and its contemporaries could give you an argument, I guess. As far as EQ2 is concerned, however, reaching your tenth season, as the roleplayers used to say, is something to be celebrated.

That's actually going to kick me in the small of the back...
When my Conjuror dinged 10 last night not one but two banner headlines flashed across the screen. There was the regular accolade for hitting double digits that the game hands out on any server - usually in the first hour or so, if you haven't been slacking - but there was also a second pat on the back for doing it on the new, time-limited progression server, Fallen Gate.

I say "pat on the back". It was a bit more than that. More like a kick up the backside.

As has been observed elsewhere, Daybreak chose to sweeten the progression pot this time around with a variety of rewards that apply not only on the new server itself but to any character on the account, regardless of which server they call home. The most prominently promoted of these has been the execrable Pedipowered Posterior Punter.

This abomination has the effect of a mount (29% ground speed bonus) and it goes in the Mount slot but visually it's a back item. As a Fae with wings it looks terrible. Even more terrible, that is, than on anyone else.

The "Leaping" effect also seems to cancel my Fae "glide", a short, aerial coasting effect that kicks in every time I hit the space bar. At least it doesn't cancel the Fae "featherfall" racial trait that eliminates falling damage.

Fortunately, the joke mount, which I am never going to use on any character that has anything else to ride, obviously, isn't the main cross-server benefit of playing on Fallen Gate. If you get to Level 30 there's a boost for the newly-added Familiars that looks worth having. There are also account-wide rewards for completing any Heritage Quest.

I'm a bit hazy on what those rewards might be. From a modicum of research it appears to be infinite access to the HQ reward itself, for free, in perpetuity for any and all characters you might make on that account... always providing the vendors that supply them are a) present on your server and b) present in game.

Any color you like so long as it's orange.

At the moment the Inheritance Merchants are disabled due to some exploit or other. I fully expect that, if and when new Progression servers appear, those Merchants will be on vacation in much the same way the /claim window on Fallen Gate is miraculously empty.

Well, almost empty. For some arcane reason (appropriately) there's single item left in my claim locker: the Arcanna`se Effigy of Rebirth. I believe this has survived because somewhere in the small print of the sales literature for the last expansion it stated that this freebie would be useable on TLE servers.

Should be applied to inventor.
Of course, no-one said it would work there.

I'll save claiming my effigy for the Live server (actually I'll probably forget to claim it at all and even if I do I'll certainly forget to use it...) but it made me think about the whole outlawing of claimable items on Progression servers. The intention, supposedly, is to avoid tainting the pure, retro ambience with all the fluff and powercreep of later expansions. It's an explanation that doesn't really bear up under even the most casual scrutiny.

Anyone who's played EQ2 for a while - even a few hours - has access to a number of rewards that include things like speed boosts and xp potions. These weren't in the original game, true, but then neither was the Lucky Wolf Paw, a 17 % speed boost, charm slot item that the game virtually gives you in an attempt to lure you into taking up a tradeskill. Neither could you buy all your Expert crafting books from 1-10 from a vendor in the crafting hall when the game first began - or for a long time afterwards.

After swimming my wings lock in the downward position which makes me look like some kind of steampunk angel

The cloth of the supposedly "original" game is riddled with such holes in this unconvincing reproduction to the point where you wonder if it could possibly fool anybody. As for potions to improve the sluggardly rate of xp, excluding the large number of free ones veterans can claim might come across as more "authentic" if you couldn't just buy the very same potions in unlimited quantities from the Daybreak Cash Shop. Could there be some connection between those two facts? I wonder...

Oh well, they have to make money somehow. And I'm finding the leveling speed on Fallen gate just about right anyway. I looked at the xp potions for a minute or two before realizing that, no, it's not about the cost - I don't want to go any faster.

There are worse places to settle down.
So much for Adventure. When it comes to Crafting, as yet I still can't see any difference between tradeskilling on FG and the way it works on a Live server. The bald statement in the official FAQ that "Tradeskilling should look similar to the original EverQuest II launch" seems to be out-and-out nonsense. I'll persist a little just to see if that changes but I think it unlikely.

Apart from that I imagine I'm done with Fallen Gate for now. Or, rather, FG will become yet another server on which I have a character who I like but rarely play.

Perhaps the most useful thing about the whole exercise has been the discovery that I enjoy playing a Fae. Conjuror, I'm not so struck on but being a little floaty thing with butterfly wings? That works for me.

Might have to buy another character slot...

Monday, 3 July 2017

Getting My Wings : EQ2

Yesterday, in a move that would have had my grandmother wondering "if Johnny jumped in a lake, would you jump in too?", I made a character on the new EQ2 progression server, Fallen Gate.

I had said I wouldn't, and even when Wilhelm flagged up the launch I shrugged it off . Stargrace's brief exposure to what can, these days, be the somewhat toxic atmosphere of the EQ2 vet pack in full cry did little to make me change my mind.

But then I read Atheren and Telwyn talking about it in warmer tones and it was Sunday and the sun was shining and I didn't have much in mind for a blog post that day...

As with the Secret Worlds Legend revamp, the whole (arguably the only) point of the exercise is to keep the money coming in. Therefore, you need a subscription to play on Fallen Gate, even though, "subscription" still being a dirty word at Daybreak Games even with Smed long out the door, the scheme must be referred to at all times as "All Access", as though it was some kind of exclusive backstage pass.

I notice, however, that someone, possibly someone from Legal, possibly some off-message long-timer in a windowless cubicle somewhere at the back of Marketing, has seen fit to add an asterisked line in very small print to the All Access page, clarifying that, yes, $9.99 a month really is a "12 month subscription". So, you need a sub.

Don't you hate getting your wings wet? Oh, and Spoilers! Sorry!

I have a sub. I have two, actually. Mine and Mrs Bhagpuss's, which I pay for and which she hasn't used since the day GW2 launched and will, most likely never use again. Still, the proprieties must be observed.

It's been more than a month since I logged into EQ2. I may even have missed one of my monthly stipends of 500 Daybreak Cash, something I am assiduous in making sure I never do, even though I rarely spend any of it. Even before Columbus Nova took over the reins, old SOE changed the rules so you have to log in and claim that imaginary money, rather than have it stuffed into the sock under your ratonga's bed automagically, as happened in the good old days.

That was another good reason to jump in, make a character, wreck around for half an hour, log out and write it up for laughs. Only, in order to make a character you not only have to have a sub - you also have to have a free character slot. I didn't.

I think you get eight slots as an All Access member. I have nine on that account. All full.

They also serve, who only stand and bank.

I absolutely detest deleting characters. To me, they are all people. Deleting them is murder. Still, I did look, just to see if anyone might be expendable. Nope. All of them are freighted with history of one kind or another, even the Level 17 channeler I'll probably never play because I really don't understand how the class is supposed to work.

The only possible candidate for oblivion was the Level 3 wizard. Never played, never going to be played. A female human I don't even much like. But...she is one of the founders of our guild.

Indeed, the account she's on was started specifically to bump up the numbers when the first of SOE's F2P servers, Freeport, began. You needed six separate accounts to make a guild and we didn't have enough, so, since it was free, I made another and the Wizard was the character I pushed through, taking all the default options at character creation so as to get into game as soon as possible.

That's why I'll never play her and never delete her. So, what to do?

Hardly made a dent.

Well, remember all that DBC I mentioned, stacking up, month after month, with nothing to spend it on? Turns out I was hoarding more than 16,000DBC on that account. Extra character slots come at 1000DBC each.

Next question: what class? I thought about that for a good while. I looked at all the options. Scouts I just cannot get along with in EQ2. Never could. I've tried Swashbucklers and Dirges and Rangers with not much pleasure and no success at all. The only "Scout" class I've ever enjoyed and leveled to the (then) cap is the Beastlord, which to my mind is no kind of "scout". Should always have been a Fighter, like it is in EQ.

Beastlord is a lot of work, though. Scouts out, I looked at Priests and Fighters. Plenty of excellent options there but that's the problem: I already have all the ones I like, multiple times. I don't want another Berserker or Inquisitor or Shadowknight or Bruiser. Playing one of those will just remind me of all the other, more established versions I should be leveling.

I feel pretty, oh so pretty...
To cut what was a twenty minute internal debate short, I went with Conjuror. I only have one of those and although he's in the 90s I never really gelled with him. I named him after an author I liked and later found out I'd misremembered the author's name, so that always niggles. Plus he has a mustache. What was I thinking?

After class comes race. First choice is always ratonga. If it's not a ratonga it's going to be a gnome. Not much else even gets a look-in. Kerra, maybe, or Dwarf, but I have never really liked the models for either.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, I looked at the Fae. I have tried to play a fairy before but it's never taken off, so to speak. Those wings, though, they're really pretty...

I played with the sliders and the drop-downs for a while and got a character I rather liked. It's not like I'm going to be playing on Fallen Gate for years, anyway. Why not?

Off with the Old Old, on with the New Old.

And so my new Fae Conjuror was born. Having, if not broken, then at least slightly cracked the mold, I determined to carry on in the same vein. I took the option to skip the ride on The Far Journey and when I arrived at The Queen's Colony, instead of leveling all the way to seven or eight as I usually would I went to speak to Captain Varlos when I was still only Level 2.

As befits a Fae I continued to flit around. I tried The Peat Bog, Forest Ruins, The Caves and Oakmyst Forest, searching for somewhere I could kill something. Anything I could kill had no quest attached and gave little xp. Anything that a quest required I couldn't kill, either because it was Level 6 and I was Level 2 and almost naked or because a dozen other newbies were queuing up to kill it too.

Experience gain and leveling speed on Fallen Gate have supposedly been pegged back to resemble (vaguely) what people remember (inaccurately) from launch. It was, let me tell you, much slower than this back then. Much, much, much slower.

My time spent exploring the options available turned out to be far from wasted.The xp you get from discovering a new area doesn't seem to have been adjusted at all. I was getting half a level just from poking my nose into a new zone. Well, maybe not half but as much as dozens of mob kills would have given me and in a tiny fraction of the time for no effort whatsoever.

Screw authenticity. Where's the loot?
What I wasn't getting was any gear. Embarrassing myself as I remembered the pompous and passive-aggressive comment I'd left on Telwyn's blog, where I claimed "I don’t have a lot of time for any of the four recommended starter areas, regardless of the fact that they drop much better gear and have much better quest rewards", I took the Mariner Bell to Frostfang Sea so I could do the starter quests and get better gear and drops.

As a Fae, where I wanted to go was Greater Feydark and its city, Kelethin, built by elves but now the Official Home of The Fae, but it wasn't on the bell. I'd forgotten; it wasn't rediscovered until the Echoes of Faydwer expansion. That was EQ2's seventh. At the set unlock date of once every three months we should see Kelethin sometime in early 2019.

So, Frostfang Sea it was, except that the Bell drops you next to Halas at the Level 19 end of the map. I did almost a level in discovery xp just getting back to the starting area. Once there I bedded down and did some quests, got some gear, killed a named rolling rock (twice) and generally had a good time.

I'm sorry, could you say that again, only slower? I'm trying to take notes...

For a quarter of an hour or so I planted myself in the path of an endless stream of orcs emerging from the sea and slaughtered them all. It was like a conveyor belt to an orc chipper with me doing the chipping. I got a ton of drops, learned to speak Orc and completed Orc Mastery.

Not sure any of that was remotely in keeping with a return to the spirit of the original game. Try that back in 2004 and you'd have had xp debt up the wazoo and enough soul shards to start your own graveyard, which is where you'd be waking up after each wave of orcs was finished with you.

No, playing on Fallen Gate is nothing like the game at launch, praise be to all that's holy and Scott Hartsman. It's fun for a start. So much fun that the half hour I meant to spend there turned into an hour, then two, then three.

I was hoping to get to Level 10 so I could take a picture of the execrable mount you get then. Despite not being launch-era slow, however, xp on Fallen Gate is slowish. I stopped at Level 6 with my crafting at Level 7.

I wish I could say this is what I made for myself but actually this is Legacy gear I bought from my trainer, displaying from the Appearance slots, something else we didn't have Back In The Day.

Speaking of crafting, there was some talk about it being similar to how it was at launch. Indeed, the official FAQ claims "Tradeskilling should look similar to the original EverQuest II launch." This caused a lot of excitement in certain secure facilities where the walls are soft and the inmates write in crayon but as far as I can tell crafting on FG is identical to crafting on Live at the same level.

Because I'm not a masochist I wasn't hoping for the return  of WORTS and class interdependency but I did feel a tremble of excitement at the though that we might once again be able to level up on tradeskill discovery xp. Nope.

Anyway, I made myself a full set of crafted armor and jewellery. All I have to do is make all my spell upgrades and I will be as ready for action as it gets.

Bring it on, Level 10!

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

More Than A Number: Secret World Legends

I take it back. I was wrong. It is not helpful to have the game tell me I'm not ready to continue with the main quest.

It is, in fact, annoying. Irritating. Frustrating. It might, I suppose, be something I could grudgingly come to accept, despite it's grating paternalism, if it was at least an accurate assessment of my abilities. But, no...

Tier 5 (of 22) of the main quest sequence, Dawning of an Endless Night (hang on...isn't it days that "dawn"?) requires you to be Level 12. It's not a suggestion. It's an actual quest step, right there in your journal: "Reach Level 12".

I was Level 9 when I hit that roadblock yesterday. I spent a couple of hours this morning getting to Level 11. At first I was cautious, taking quests around my level, but as my options shrank I found myself at the Orochi camp by the New Colony Span Bridge, accepting quests with a suggested level of twelve; in one case, thirteen.

The Orochi camp - a rare chance to see one still breathing.

While I was completing these, which I did without any difficulty at all, killing scores of mobs two or three levels above me, I ran into a couple of rare spawns. One was a very big bear I don't remember seeing in The Secret World. I don't remember seeing any bears before, come to think of it.

I'd upgraded my gear as far as I'd been able so my main weapon was Level 8, my secondary Level 6. My two accessories were Level 6 and Level 4. I was under-geared, under-leveled and my "rotation" consisted of mashing LMB and RMB without knowing or much caring what either of them did.

I was woefully ill-prepared and yet the missions were easy. The named mobs were easy. Everything was easy.

I was having fun but not nearly as much fun as I had been having when I was still following the main quest. Now I felt as though I was marking time, rehearsing for the real performance.

He looks bigger sideways on.

I didn't feel in the least as though I was following my own guiding star, expressing my individuality, becoming a free spirit or doing my own thing. I didn't feel like an adventurer or an explorer. I felt like someone stuck with a not especially unpleasant chore that nevertheless had to be gotten out of the way before I was at liberty to do the thing I really wanted to do.

At Level 11 I mentally told The Man to Stick His Job. I sprinted over to the tunnel to Savage Coast, reasoning that if I had to do quests I didn't much want to do, at least I might as well do quests that gave more XP or better rewards. And look at some different scenery while I was doing it.

I did have some trepidation. If the game thought I wouldn't be able to handle the main quest for another level yet, would I be able to survive in Savage Coast, let alone get any xp there? It was going to be interesting to find out, or so I thought.

Never look directly at the sun.
And perhaps it would have been. We'll never know. Because Savage Coast is also Level Locked. Or maybe it's tied to a stage in the main quest, which would seem to amount to the same thing. Either way, when I tried to go there, the game told me I didn't "meet the requirements" and refused to let me in.

I don't remember zones being level-locked in The Secret World but then again TSW doesn't have levels. If this is part of the deal that comes with having a number next to my name then I'm going to have to side with Patrick McGoohan.

Seriously, why is this supposed to be a good idea? If I want to get my butt kicked then let me get my butt kicked! I understand the intention is to avoid disgruntled customers trundling off to more forgiving MMOs, when they hit the brick wall of repeated death, but is it really less frustrating to be told to go away and grind out levels and come back in a day or two? I don't think so.

I wish I'd thought of calling myself Jane "Nickname" Doe. How we would have laughed.

The most infuriating part is that I'll never know whether I needed those levels or not. Well, I suppose if I get in there at Level 12 and get my backside handed to me in a sling I'll be able to take a guess but I doubt that's going to happen. I'll be sure to come here and eat crow if it does.

In my world there's a vast difference between trying something, finding it's too much for me, making an informed decision to go away and train or skill or gear up, then going back for another go, as compared to being told to go and level up because the game "knows" I'm not ready.

The difference has a name. It's called "Agency".

By all means put a warning sticker on the door. "Recommended Level 12" is helpful. I can calibrate with that. Locking the door and handing out the key only when I can produce the correct identity card? That's not helpful at all. That's wasting my time and trying my patience.

And my patience is wearing thin.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

If You Can't Say Something Nice... : Secret World Legends

So, after yesterday's hostile report, here's something a tad more positive. Well, kinda...

I played Secret World Legends again this morning. I picked up where I left off, at the start of Kingsmouth. It was daylight for once and I could see what I was doing for the first time. That helped.

It may be my memory playing tricks but I think Funcom may have toned down the fog somewhat. I first noticed it after I finished throwing body parts on Norma's bonfire. I could see clear to the far side of town. I'm fairly sure that's new.

Blue all the way to Canada.

Out in the shallows of Kingsmouth's hip-deep harbor I looked back to shore. Once again, the fog appeared to have lifted. The revamp hasn't really dialed down the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere of the starting zone - just as well, seeing it's the whole point of the place - but being able to see a bit further than the end of the street does help to keep that claustrophobia where it belongs - in the narrative.

Something that very definitely has changed is the pacing. I started the morning's session at Level 4 and finished Level 9. I played for around three hours and things fairly zipped along.

The narrative flow of the main quest is largely unchanged as far as I can see, although it's a long time since I last followed it. What's very different indeed is the degree of direction it gives.

She must have ticked the "No Publicity" box.

The main quest-line has prompts that weren't there before. Explanations of what you have to do and where you have to do it. Ambiguities have been excised. Everything seems clearer, more focused, more linear.

My intention was to follow the plot and I very nearly managed it. I didn't take a single, optional side-quest. As I was sprinting along, though, the game occasionally decided to give me one anyway.

There's a new mechanic whereby you can trigger a mission just by entering an area. It's disconcerting when it happens. A computerized voice pipes up unprompted, like some sister of Siri or Cortana, informing you that you've accepted whatever mission it may be. Then it's auto-added to your to-do list without so much as a by-your-leave.

I saw complaints in chat about it. It does seem incongruous. It's never explained, this voice. Is it your Faction? Is it some rogue New England A.I.? Are you having a psychotic episode? Or is it just another example of Funcom no longer caring enough about their own I.P. even to pay lip service to lore or logic?

Another immersion-crushing innovation that makes no sense whatsoever.
Bonus points for using a completely inappropriate visual style as well.

Whatever. I just speed-read the instructions and killed whatever I was told to kill. Killing things in Kingsmouth is easy!

Yes, let's talk about combat. I gave myself a little test at the beginning: I was going to try and do everything using only the basic left mouse button attack. For a while it looked as though it might work but it proved to be over-ambitious. They've made things easier but not that much.

At first it was simple enough to mow down at-level zombies by the pack using just LMB although if I ran from group to group I would eventually run out of anima or whatever it is that powers Chaos Magic. Then I had to fire the pistols a few times to get my mojo back.

Surprisingly good dental work for a zombie.

Other than that it was easy-peasy until I ran into Suzie's Diner to grab a lore honeycomb. Suzie herself was there behind the counter. I have all names off but I could tell right away she was no ordinary zombie. She was about eight feet tall. She was also Level 8 and I was level 4.

That was my first death. I only died once more, also doing something stupid. I came back at Level 7, having upgraded some of my gear. That time it was Suzie on the floor.

As has been noted elsewhere, the quondam "rare spawns" from TSW are nowhere near as rare in SWL. I killed Suzie, Father Appleby, Mr Freezie and at least one more that I didn't recognize.

Apart from that first run-in with Suzie they were all easy, even under level as I was. In fact I killed Mr Freezie while I was playing in first person with the UI off. I didn't even know it was him until I stopped and re-opened the UI about ten minutes later and all the Achievement messages and rewards the game had held pending popped up, one after another.


That tells you a lot about how easy the game is now, at least at these levels. I'd been messing about with the controls while taking screenshots and I'd managed somehow to get myself wedged in first person, so I decided to switch off the UI altogether and run about taking, yes, more screenshots.

Naturally I aggroed some zombies. They were quickly dispatched with a few mouse-clicks. It occurred to me then that the one big advantage an Action RPG control system has over the regular MMO version is that you can just hammer the mouse buttons. You don't need to look at anything but the screen. You don't need a UI. All that clutter we call "the game"? Forget it!

So I ran around for a good while just killing things and taking yet more screenshots. You can get some great fight pics that way plus you get to see what the mobs look like. It's refreshing.

See how I blew the one on the right's head right off?

All the "Nameds" dropped a loot bag with a green-quality item. Once or twice a random zombie did, too. Apart from that there was no loot at all. Given that every mob in TSW is a virtual loot pinata this is one heck of a change. I've certainly not had any inventory or storage issues so far.

The upgrade system relies on a constant flow of items to throw into the maw of the crafting window. That absence of drops might become an issue, later. I've heard it said that the end-game will be a continual grind to get fodder to fortify your gear, a grind that Funcom hope to help you mitigate via a Subscription or the Cash Shop or both.

I doubt it'll be my problem. I'm not headed for end-game.

On the other hand, I am feeling a little more optimistic about maybe - just maybe - completing the main quest at last. It was too hard for me before but it comes with trainer wheels now, as I discovered for myself.

Come back when you're bigger, little girl.

I was merrily trucking along through the story. I'd hacked Dr Bannerman's computer. That seemed easier than I remembered,  which, when I checked, turned out to be because it is now easier than I remembered. The quest no longer expects you to know who wrote "The Four Seasons" or even to google it. There's a CD of the thing just lying there. In case you still don't twig, a nearby note explicitly explains that the Doctor loves Vivaldi.

With the data from the Doc's files I went looking for the Creeds. I found Derrick dead and, close by, the green footprints of his brother, leading to a manhole. I was going to follow them but the at that point the game put a friendly hand on my shoulder and said "I don't think you're quite ready for this - why don't you go level up a bit?"

As far as the system was concerned I was seriously under-leveled for the next stage. I was Level 9. The quest requires Level 12. As someone who perennially goes into quests both under-level and under-prepared I probably need this kind of intervention.

Any fight you can walk away from, right?

Like everything else in the revamp it seems to be designed to protect the player from any nasty surprises. That seems amusingly ironic. Whether it's feasible to make a casual-friendly, unchallenging MMO out of pre-existing content in which things happen that will likely give you nightmares for weeks, I'm really not sure but Funcom seem determined to give it a try.

All the same, I would be lying if I said I didn't have fun this morning. It was pretty mindless fun, sure, but it was only when my Bagpuss talking alarm clock started up (yes, really) that I realized I'd been playing for three hours straight.

This is the thing with Secret World legends. It's not that it isn't fun. Or that it can't be fun. It's that it's not The Secret World.

In the original version the fractured, scattered, elusive nature of the quests complemented the enigmatic, elliptical, gnomic narrative. The frequent, lengthy cut scenes, the digressions into character and family history, the monologues and soliloquies and, above all, your own, silent protagonist, all came together with the slow, thoughtful, puzzling gameplay to create a tapestry of wonder and mystery.

Oh! Baron Saturday!

In this revamp a straightforward, linear "personal story" combines with a highly simplified talent tree and much accelerated combat to produce what is probably quite a decent Action RPG, if looked at objectively. If a half-decent ARPG is what you want then this will fit the bill.

How much of the magic remains is the question. It may be that, for players who never stumbled and crept through the shadow-world of the elder game, this new world, too, will shimmer with an eldritch fascination. Or perhaps it will appear as two movies, projected on the same screen, flickering out of sync, each struggling to overwrite the other.

Almost all the time I played the general chat channel reflected this dichotomy. Discussion scrolled so fast it was hard to follow. Few were happy with everything, few thought nothing had merit. The tenor of the conversation was uncomfortable, disgruntled, edgy. Exactly, in fact, the tenor of general chat back in 2012 when I played the game at launch.

Anyone remember corpse art in EQ?

So, perhaps nothing much has changed after all. The big revamp has altered enough to annoy almost everyone who loved the game, but there were never enough of those to keep the lights on anyway. At the same time it may not have done nearly enough to satisfy all those who wanted to like The secret World but couldn't, or who never even pretended to want to like it in the first place.

The real stumbling block may, in the end, turn out to be the underlying premise itself. Even watered down as it now is, this is still an odd, difficult world, in which concepts and systems that do not easily fit together are made to try. The smoother and more fluid the mechanics and the quest flow, the more convincing the animations, the shorter the TTK, the harder it becomes to appreciate those things that made the game stand out from the crowd.

Time will tell. If I had to bet I'd guess that once the flurry of interest fades Secret World Legends will find itself with not that many more players than The Secret World used to have. Whether Funcom will be able to monetize them more efficiently is another matter. By all accounts they could hardly do worse.

Did I hear you say something about my hat?

I will most likely carry on, for a while. Until it gets difficult. Or slow. Or tedious. I'd like to get to the end of the story arc one day. I'd like to see the dungeons. I'm not not having fun.

Then again, maybe, in a week or two, I'll already have stopped logging in, will have moved on to something else. If so, I suspect I won't be the only one.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide