Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Crow Will Remember Your Face : EQ2

This afternoon I finished A Stitch in Time, the Signature Tradeskill questline from Planes of Prophecy. The entire affair ended up being easier, shorter and more enjoyable than I had expected. I didn't time it but I'd estimate it took me somewhere between six and eight hours, all told. The story made just a tad more sense than the Adventure line, Legacy of Power. I thought the finale was a little more dramatic and scary, even though it didn't involve any combat - or indeed risk.

Speaking as we were of difficulty, it seems to me that whoever worked on the crafting questline took a deal of trouble to make sure it would feel solid, satisfying and sufficiently challenging. At the same time there was a clear and welcome understanding that those who invest the most time in tradeskills aren't necessarily the most digitally dextrous of players, ironic though that may be.

One good example of the care that had obviously been taken to make sure things remained inclusive was the way the quest offered a choice between either jumping across chasms or crafting a device to bridge them. Since it was clear that jumping was going to be faster I tried that first and found that, at least to someone used to GW2's jumping puzzles, the leaps were very easy indeed.

Roll out the red carpet.

What's more, the first chasm had a fall of a mere few feet and a teleport device where you landed to send you back for another go. What happened if you fell after that I can't say because I was as sure-footed as a cat (hem, hem...) but I'm sure there would have been no major penalty beyond a few dings in your armor and a slight delay as you re-oriented yourself back at the start of the zone.

When the final "battle" arrived it had all the chaos and drama of a big set-piece combat event but none of the danger. Even so, I found the whole experience of being yelled at by thirty foot tall gods while their ten foot tall minions barged me out of the way and bounced me from hither to yon quite exciting enough, thank you!

As I mentioned in another post, I have found the interactions between my character and the gods that he's grown up either worshipping, fearing or trying to pretend aren't real, to be surprisngly affecting. I only found out Ulkoruuk existed a week ago but I was still sufficiently impressed that when he appeared I found myself exclaiming out loud "Wow, that's Ulkoruuk!".

Yes, I know who that is. It's you I'm not so sure about.

Also I found out Ulkoruuk's not a him. He's a her. The Lady of Insurrection in fact. Saryrn, Mistress of Torment, also showed up to send a shiver down my spine. I already knew her name and gender. I remember her from EverQuest, or, more specificaly, I remember her ravens. I met them in Plane of Torment, one of the handful of second tier Planes I saw when the original PoP expansion was current. They were the first creatures ever to cast silence on my cleric, which was something many groups he was in probably wished they could do.

As for Innoruuk himself, I've been scared of him for twenty years, nigh on, so I really didn't need any of his progeny telling me what a reckless fool I was for bringing him back. Speaking directly to him after I'd restored him to something like his full pomp was one of the creepiest and most disturbing things I've ever done in an MMORPG.

All told, the whole thing did the number on me that it was meant to do. I certainly feel like I've gotten my money's worth out of this expansion and then some.

Will it now? We'll see about that.

Of course there's plenty more to do - mostly a lot of grinding to upgrade gear, combat arts, ascension spells and so on. If EQ2 was my main MMO, getting everything up to standard would most likely keep me occupied until the next expansion arrives.

It isn't, though, so I'll just pick away at things here and there until November. I considered getting an Alchemist up to 110 to make Expert CAs for my Berserker but then I checked the cost of buying them from the broker as against the value of the rares it takes to make them and decided I might as well buy some instead and save myself weeks of effort. So I did.

More player-controlled difficulty there, when you think about it. That's one of the pros of having a balanced and/or stable economy in an MMO. You can divert your effort to things you enjoy and buy your way out of things you don't. Although since I enjoy crafting I'm not sure that logic entirely holds in this case, other than recognizing it's definitely possible to have too much of a quite pleasant thing.

You've heard the expression "A cat can look at a king?" Well this is like that. Only more so.

Now I just have to take my Inquisitor through the rest of the Adventure line and my Warlock/Sage through both and I really will be done. I might, at a push, take my Necro through the Adventure stuff as well, if only to get the extra XP bonus for the account but I think that might be a few repeatable faction quests too far.

With the last one largely behind me, I'm looking forward to some news about this year's expansion, especially since we've had it confirmed already there's going to be one. Druzzil Ro dropped a few ominous hints about the ramifications of what we've done so I'm betting it's going to involve Innoruuk in some fashion.

I just hope he remembers who put him where he is today. Then again, come to think of it, maybe I'm better off if he doesn't...

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Being Difficult

Telwyn's recent post continued a discussion that began on Massively OP concerning so-called "difficulty" in MMOs. It's rare indeed for me to find myself agreeing with anything Eliot Lefebvre says but I do concur with him that the entire concept of "difficulty" in this context is highly subjective.

I also strongly agree with whoever it was who said that gamers these days equate difficulty with time spent. Indeed, more often than not when someone complains that something is "too difficult" what they really mean is it takes longer than they want to spend doing it.

"Too long" can be anything from a few seconds to kill a mob to half an hour to finish a dungeon. The baseline acceptable duration to do just about anything in an MMOs has shriveled over the years from hours to minutes. At the same time developers have used that increased impatience to provide supposed difficulty by padding shortened encounters back up to somewhere closer to where they were before the self-same developers cut them down.

The other very popular form of difficulty - popular with developers and the small subset of players who like to come to forums and tell everyone else to "git gud", that is - is reaction time. When MMOs began you could manage perfectly well with the reflexes of an elderly Colonel in a bathchair. Now you need to be some kind of combination olympic gymnast and concert pianist.

Can't mez giants. Gotta kill 'em.
As has been mentioned here on many occasions, GW2's Living Story is often blighted by both of these sloppy excuses for "difficulty". ANet seem to feel that so long as they throw in a boss or two for each chapter with the hit points of a blue whale and enough AEs to cover at least 98% of the available floor space they've earned their paycheck for the quarter.

I would be lying if I claimed I don't find that kind of content difficult. I do. I find it difficult to respect, difficult to appreciate and above all difficult to enjoy. I don't find it difficult to complete because it invariably allows infinite attempts and can always be overcome by sheer bloody-minded attrition.

On the other hand, if that safety-net - or safety-blanket - isn't provided, as it hasn't been in some  MMOs I've played, it's quite possible for the content to become quite literally "too difficult" for me to complete, leading me to give up playing those MMOs entirely. I'm nearly 60 years old. I was 40 when I started playing EverQuest. I do not have the dexterity in my hands or the flexibility in my joints to match the expectations of designers half my age.

Then there's the kind of difficulty beloved of the developers and fans of The Secret World and its supposedly more accessible reincarnation, Secret World Legends. I enjoyed TSW up to a point, the point being when I could look up everything I needed to know on the internet.

I wish they'd revert the Dire Wolf to the old model. By which I mean the OLD old model.

I am not a fan of logic puzzles and my idea of a pleasant evening's entertainment has never included trying to decipher a cypher let alone taking a crash course in Morse Code. Plus TSW has some bosses that are even more irritating than those in The Living Story.

At this rate it seems I'm going to rule out any kind of difficulty whatsoever. Perhaps, as I have heard so many self-proclaimed hardcore players suggest, I should go play Hello Kitty Online.

Actually, I have played HKO. It was too difficult. And, ironically, it was too difficult in the way I like my MMOs to be difficult: it was mysterious, confusing and bizarre. It was also like listening to Barbie Girl on a loop while being forcefed Haribo, or at least that's how I remember it. That's why I stopped.

Minus the sugar rush, my ideal "difficult" MMORPG is one I can't easily understand. I like things that start in media res and ramp up from there. I like confusing lore, weird dialog and complex, arcane, systems that make no sense. 

The best part of playing a new MMORPG is often that feeling of utter confusion. If the game's good enough it creates a deep desire to make some sense of the whole thing. It feels like the begining of a journey that could last weeks or months.

Fabled Fippy - definitely too difficult for a near-naked Level 3 Paladin. Note dead merc on ground. Picture taken immediately prior to ignominious run to gate guards.
When, eventually, you begin to see how everything fits together, then to fit it, the very best MMOs give a huge sense of achievement, satisfaction and ownership. At that point, even though you now know enough not to feel lost any more, you also feel you belong. And that's why you stay.

I suspect that many - possibly most - MMOs can achieve this for a genuine first-timer. If you've never played any MMO before then even the simplest is going to feel almost impossibly deep and complex. The more you play, though, the easier they get to parse.

That's why, I think, I had a good little run a couple of years back with several Eastern imports. Black Desert and Blade and Soul particularly used a whole raft of odd systems I hadn't run into before and I thoroughly enjoyed shaking the dust out of them. With each succeeding Western conversion, however, the thrill was increasingly hard to find, to the point that I may not even be able to summon up the enthusiasm to give Bless a try when it finally arrives.

It's not that I want "difficulty" in my MMOs anyway, I guess. It's the word we use but I'm not convinced it's the right one. I want interest and involvement and entertainment and I'd prefer to get that served up to me in comfort rather than have to carve it out of some digital monolith by main force.

Mons Letalis, where I had to FD, then get up and run for the zone line. Who knew Rockhoppers would swarm to fefend Stonegrabbers.
Well, I did, ten years ago...
On the other hand, I frequently find myself doing easy things the difficult way. I'm still hugely enjoying leveling my Necromancer in EverQuest but apart from doing Franklin Teek's daily tasks I find myself actively avoiding the clearly signposted Golden Path.

Today I spent an hour and a half running around what must be the largest open zone not just in EQ but in any MMO I've played. Eastern Wastes is a vast tundra plain with a lot of nothing interspersed with camps of orcs, giants and dwarves.

I went there to hunt Ulthorks, who give mediocre experience and have no useful or valuable loot. To hunt Ulthorks you often have to clear Walruses, who make Ulthorks look like positive loot pinatas by comparison. It took me 90 minutes to get the xp I could have got in half an hour in one of the Serpent Spine zones but I like hunting Ulthorks.

I also hunted them right in the middle of their spawning grounds which meant at times I had three or four walruses mezzed with my 18 second Screaming Terror while I played Ulthork Men of War like yoyos with snares and fear.

It's easy to take screenshots when there's only one.
It occupied my mind and my hands and kept me entertained in a way that chunking through one mob at a time generally doesn't. Of course, these days, with a cleric mercenary to heal and playing a necro who can Feign Death if it all gets too much, the "difficulty" is pretty fake. It wasn't always.

Back when there were no uncomplaining NPCs to chain heal and when I was playing classes that couldn't just fall down and play dead when they bit off more than their pets could chew, that difficulty was much more real. Especially when a level took a whole day, not half an hour, and a bad pull could mean a whole session wasted.

That's the kind of difficulty that used to come baked in to MMORPGs. Now it's gone, for the most part. It might be feasible to retain the accessibility that replaced it while adding back the enjoyable kind of difficulty in acceptable doses but no-one's claiming it's easy and not many are managing to do it convincingly.

At this point the idea of adding a difficulty slider to instanced content always comes up . You could do that. I'm not sure you'd have an MMO at the end of it but you might well have an enjoyable video game.

Until that happens, I think I'll stick to setting my own difficulty levels. After all, it's not that difficult to do.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Tiger, Tiger : EverQuest

I didn't plan on posting tonight but Belghast's observation that he hadn't been able to log in to EverQuest because "the servers went down at 5:00 am EDT on the 18th and did not come back apparently until 2:30 am EDT on the 19th" led me to check the patch notes to see what was going on.

They are extensive to say the least. There's all the usual, expected, ongoing tweaking of content from the 19th Anniversary celebrations and the current expansion, Ring of Scale but there were also some changes that struck me as rather odd:

Tigers across Norrath celebrate by roaring in delight! Reverted tigers in older zones to their original appearance.

The Minotaur Hero will again terrorize the Steamfont Mountains. Newbie gnomes beware!

Handing in the Tome of Order and Discord to a Priest of Discord will again flag the character as Player Versus Player

Hmm. I believe all of those are reversions to changes made at various times over the years that were intended either to modernize the game, make it more accessible, or both. I'm sure I specifically recall The Priest of Discord being disabled to avoid the endless customer service problems caused by newbies handing in their Tomes without understanding the dire and irreversible consequences.

What's more, it was only a few days ago, while I was hunting in Emerald Jungle, that I was admiring the gorgeous tiger models there. I very nearly did a post specifically about them. Those are the models they have removed in favor of older ones. I wish I'd taken some better screenshots now.

I wonder what the older ones look like? I do remember when they changed the Dire Wolf models in Velious from the ones that looked like they came from a Tex Avery cartoon to the inferior ones we have today but I can't recall any goofy, cartoon tigers.

What this presages, I dread to think. There seems to be altogether too much of a "good old days" vibe going on in some parts of DBG. On the other hand, if they feel like reverting Freeport to its former glory they can change every animal model in the game back to 1999 spec and we'll call it even!

Not everything old is deemed gold, however. By far the biggest and potentially most controversial change is this:

Performed additional upgrades to both the client and server to utilize more modern hardware and operating system features.

- - EverQuest will no longer run on Windows Vista or older operating systems.

- - Please refer to the minimum system requirements on our website.
It  was only last week that there was a big discussion in general chat about Windows. The consensus seemed to be that EQ was best played on Windows XP, which was what most of the people expressing an opinion were still using.

EQ players generally do not like change. We'll see how this goes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

To Be Continued : EQ2

Somehow, I managed to post about finishing the second chapter of EQ2's most recent tradeskill signature quest, A Stitch in Time, then look forward to doing the third and fourth parts to finish it up, all the while remaining blissfully unaware that it is, in point of fact, a five-part questline. Given that a) I read the walkthroughs for all five parts back when it released and b) I had the wiki page open in front of me as I was both doing the quest and writing the post, it suggests either an extreme lack of attention or the onset of some form of age-related mental impairment.

I didn't even realize my mistake as I was working through parts three and four this morning. It took me around three hours and the time positively flew. The quests are perfectly judged for non-combat, managing to retain interest and maintain tension throughout, offering plenty of variety, yet never requiring a crafter to behave out of character.

The dialog is sometimes a little peculiar. EQ2 quest writing has always had a particular tone that sits somewhere between polite formality and casual conversation, not always comfortably. Of late, that balance has tipped slightly towards the informal, as though the current writer is younger and possibly less well-versed in the conservative social etiquette of the 1950s, which has always seemed to me to be Norrath's spiritual touchstone.

No combat doesn't mean no action.

There was even a Facebook joke at one point, albeit indirect. That was unsettling. Mostly, though, the questline was able to pull off that exceptionally difficult sleight of hand whereby your character is able to converse with Gods on something close to equal terms without the whole thing descending into bathos or self-parody.

It's a very difficult trick to master. Most MMO writers struggle with it. I particularly notice the way it paramountly fails to work in GW2, where game design credits each character with every Living Story benchmark anyone on the account has ever hit. For someone who sees all the characters as indiiduals it's jarring to hear every one of them referred to as "Commander" or "Boss" or greeted as old friends by NPCs they're meeting for the first time.

Even though I'm no fan of the "Player Character as Hero" trope, in EQ2 I find the conceit a lot easier to swallow. Because I have played through every stage of the seemingly never-ending soap opera that passes for a narrative throughline on the same character it seems quite reasonable when people I worked with to stave off the apocalypse-before-last credit me with sufficent initiative to make myself useful saving the world one more time. And that they remember my name.

Just one of the Gods.

What's more, because I've been playing versions of EverQuest since the turn of the century, I remember a lot of their names, too. And who they are and why I should be fond or afraid of them. When the plot suggests I might have to bring Inoruuk, the God of Hate, back from whatever well-deserved deific hell his daughter Lanys T'Vyl sent him to in a previous instalment, I don't need Varig Ro to tell me what a bad idea it is. I already know.

In GW2, when Palawa Joko returns from wherever he's been, it doesn't have anything like the same effect. I don't have either the recognition or the feels to support the impact the writers expect. I played some original Guild Wars but not nearly enough for it to matter. Ironically, because I was there for her inception, lived through her rise, her reign of terror and her fall, just the mention of Scarlet Briar's name, let alone any slight hint that she might be coming back, pushes all my buttons.

I'm not a strong supporter of narrative or story for MMORPGs. I'm not opposed to it; it can have a place, but I tend to find it presents more problems than solutions. Lore, however, I believe to be absolutely crucial.

I confess I didn't quite follow this part. I did a lot of work to bring this Phoenix to life and then I just left without intereacting with it in any way. Maybe I missed something...

Where the boundary lies between them is uncertain. The tradeskill quest I'm doing does have a story but it's mostly fluff. Supposedly I'm crafting some device to prevent one of Meldrath's malfuctioning devices having some kind of apocalyptic effect on Norrath. I can't say I've been paying attention. I know it doesn't matter because nothing is going to happen to Norrath even if I never finish the quest.

What I have been paying full attention to is the way the quest elaborates on and opens up the relationships between various members of the Norrathian pantheon. To learn that Varrig Ro has carried a lifelong torch for Errollisi Marr, or that there's an even less desirable contender for the Throne of Hate, going by the even less pronounceable name of Ullkorruuk, adds far more to my appreciation for and understanding of the game than any plotline could hope to do.

I'm not alone in finding the lore far more appealing than the plot. Wilhelmina, the longsuffering European equivalent of Niami Denmother, who was once almost driven from the game by Smed's odious deal with PSS1 but who's now, thankfully, restored to her rightful domain, was sufficiently involved to record the entire dialog for the whole questline.

They also serve who only hide in corners until it's safe then run out and scrape up mephit vomit.

 Wilhelmina's website is in French but the dialogue is available in the English version at EQ2Traders and is well worth a read for anyone interested in the study of Norrathian comparative religion. Even for anyone who's done the questline itself, it's useful to be able to read it all back at lesiure. Some of those conversations took place in circumstances where it may not have been easy to concentrate on the nuance!

It was only as I approached the end of Part 4 that I began to wonder if I'd missed something. It was starting to feel very much like that moment near the end of a book when you realise what you're reading must not be a standalone novel after all but the first volume of a trilogy. Having constructed all my various devices, eavesdropped on the Mistresses of Hate, located Innoruuk's earthly vessel and prevailed on Varrig Ro to change his mind, it was apparent that  I was at least a chapter short of a denoument, and so it proved.

I had been hoping - expecting even - to finish the Stitch in Time questline today but three hours is about my outer limit these days. A closer reading of the wiki revealed that there was indeed a fifth chapter. What's more it looked substantial, as a climax should be. I decided to leave it for another day.

I'm looking forward to coming back to it later in the week, suitably refreshed. The rewards are fantastic but best of all, if the first four parts are anything to go by, it's going to be tremendous fun.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What Does Lisa Like? First Impressions: Auteria

There was a time when I would regularly trawl the dustier corners of the interwebs, looking for MMOs I hadn't tried. I was on a mission to play them all - or at least download them all. Mostly what I'd do would be make a character, walk around the starting area, log off and never return.

I made a list a few years back of all the ones I'd "played" and it came to over a hundred. It's probably over a hundred and fifty now. Even so, there are some major gaps. I've never played EVE, Age of Conan, SWtoR...

While my enthusiasm for the genre continues to burn as brightly as it ever has, my obsessive desire to collect every MMO as though it was a Pokemon (never played Pokemon either...any version) has dimmed considerably. For many years there weren't enough MMOs to satisfy my curiosity but those days are long gone, drowned in an ocean of WoW clones and cheap imported knock-offs.

Only, here's the thing; even those days of plenty are in the past. The tide peaked a while back and now it's receding. As has often been discussed around this corner of the blogosphere, shrunken and withered as it is, the prospects on the horizon are both few and poor.

All of which makes it particularly surprising whenever I happen on an MMORPG I've never even heard of. Yet more so when that MMO turns out to have been up and running for more than a decade.

The MMO in question is Auteria. According to the History section on its website it began development in April 2007. At some point between then and now it entered Open Beta, where, as far as I can tell, it remains. The last time it got an update, according again to the history on the website, was in June 2010 but it's still there and you can still play it.

I ran across Auteria entirely by chance when I was reading a Reddit thread about obscure MMOs. I'd found myself on reddit because I'd been googling "Mimesis", another obscure MMO that never made it out of beta. I was googling that because I'd just found an old log-in and password for it and I couldn't recall whether I'd ever actually played the game.

Most of the obscure MMOs the redditors came up with I'd played at some point, or at least heard of, but there were a few that were new to me. I checked them out and they were either long gone or those 2D sprite things that look like someone knocked them up on a ZX Spectrum in 1985. I don't count those as MMOs.

Auteria, however, had a proper, functioning website and the screenshots showed a genuine 3D MMO. One that looked quite interesting. The in-game shots looked not unattractive and the captions were...odd.

I downloaded and installed it, which took about thirty seconds. Then I let it patch itself up to date, which took maybe another five minutes. I hit Play and found myself at Character Creation, which was where I made a crucial error.

In most MMOs I've ever played the process of making your account is separate from that of making your character. Not so in Auteria. I filled in my email address (well, an email address...), made up a User Name and password and hit Enter.

Next thing I knew I was standing in the world, looking at the back of my head. The "User Name" turned out to be my character name, which is a shame because the name really doesn't fit the default character from the character creation screen, which unusually happens to be female.

It matters less than it might because I couldn't find any way to move the camera so as to see my character from the front. That trope, where it doesn't matter how long you spend getting your character to look just so because you'll spend the entirety of your game time staring at the back of their head? It's literally true here.

When I arrived in Tergratia (that's the name of the country where you begin) it was nighttime. Night in Auteria is dark. Very, very dark. And long. I ran around a little before realizing I was going to get lost pretty fast in the darkness. 

I stood next to the fire where I could see at least a little way and spent ten or fifteen minutes familiarizing myself with the controls. They are, shall we say, non-standard. Movement is WASD but almost everything else is not what you'd expect. Hitting "M", for example, doesn't open a map. It opens the crafting interface.

Hitting "I" doesn't open your inventory and nor does "B". That's because you don't have one. Yep, this may be the first MMO I have ever played where your character has no bag-type inventory at all. She does, however, have Storage in a hut. And things she loots (by running over a bag that drops on the ground - took me a while to figure that out) go straight onto one of the ten slots on her hot bar.

I futzed around for a while with all that then I set out to explore - darkness be darned! I found a big bridge and crossed it. There was a boat on the far side marked "Teleport" so I clicked on that and ported myself to the nearby town. It was still dark although they had some nice streetlights. In fact, the lighting effects were the best part of the game so far.

At this point I decided to log off and come back when it got light. While I appreciate the attraction of having recognizeable "Night" and "Day" in your MMO, I have always thought that making night so awkward that players log off to avoid it is a design error.

When I logged in again a few hours later it was 9am in game. I knew because there's a handy on-screen clock. I could see what I was doing at last, so I set about the life's work of the newbie - talking to anyone who'll talk back and doing anything they ask you to do.

In this case there's not much choice: you can talk to Lisa, a young woman who looks like she's about to go for a nice dinner at a fashionable beach-side restaurant sometime in 1986, or to her pet, a talking bear cub called Little Paw. Little Paw wants you to announce yourself to all and sundry in General Chat.

You might think that, in an eleven year old, semi-abandoned MMO so obscure that Massively OP doesn't even have an entry for it, speaking in chat would be safe enough. No-one's going to hear you, are they? Oh yes they are! There was a lively conversation going on when I logged in and during the time I played I must have seen half a dozen players speak. Someone plays this game.

I kept my own counsel and declined the bear's attempts to get me to socialize. Instead I completed a series of tasks for Lisa, every one of which required me to run somewhere then run back to her. I ran to three signposts, her garden, the nearby town, two of her friends and a dragon.

The dragon let me ride on his back for a sightseeing tour of the area. I don't generally suffer from motion sickness in games but this was one of the most emetic experiences I have ever had in an MMO. I was reduced to looking away from the screen, glancing back occasionally to see if it had stopped.

On the way to the second signpost I encountered an ant, which attacked me. It was a big ant. There's a joke there but I'm ignoring it. I couldn't work out how to fight back and the ant killed me. Death by ant is an ignominious beginning (or end) to any would-be adventurer's career. I respawned in the starting village, the appropriately named "Hometown", where I had to stand for a moment in the Healing Hut to recover.

That seems to be how you get your hit points back. A bit like going to an Altar in Neverwinter, if I'm remembering that correctly. I did find out later that mobs drop Healing Potions so there's a way to keep going without having to run to the hut every other fight but I didn't kill the ant so no potions for me.

I'd already been to the town when I found the teleport boat in the night so when Lisa told me to run there I cheated. Then, naturally, I needed to go back and tell her I'd done what she asked (even though I really hadn't), which meant running back - only I didn't know the way - because I'd cheated. Cheaters never prosper.

I got around that by cheating again. I ran into the countryside until I found something to kill me. Ranger Gate we used to call it, back in EQ. In Hometown once more, Lisa sent me to see her pal in a little hut outside the village and he finally - after about an hour of entirely non-combat gameplay - gave me my first combat quest: kill ten "little beasts". Why? For two very good reasons; they're "annoying" and "Lisa doesn't like them".

So I  did that. It took me a long time. Combat in Auteria is basic to say the least. The controls are very odd for an MMO from 2007. Attack is entirely by use of the left mouse button. You have to press "Q" to go in and out of combat mode, then either keep pressing LMB or hit "F", which autoattacks.

After the first couple of little beasts (pretty sure they were spiders) I took to tabbing out and reading the website. When my character's squeals and the beast's grunts stopped I tabbed back in, checked if I needed to use a potion or visit the Healing Hut, targetted another beast and did the same again.

By the time I'd killed ten and gone back to Lisa's friend I'd had enough excitement for one evening. I'm not sure whether I'll be visiting Lisa again. There are surely better ways I could be spending my time.

That said, like a few less-celebrated MMORPGs I could name, Auteria has...something. Graphically it looks like a game from much further back than the late 2000s. Visually, it reminded me quite a lot of Istaria (nee Horizons), which launched in 2003.

The scenery is sparse but not unappealing; the skybox is striking and attractive and as I said the lighting effects are delightful. The interiors of some of the buildings are bizarre. One room I saw looked as though actual fabric designs from a homeware catalogue had been overlayed onto some basic furniture shapes.

The way the characters are dressed in smart casuals that wouldn't look out of place at a suburban dinner party is weirdly endearing, too. According to the useful Help section on the website there are armor quests but I have no clue how you woiuld even equip armor and in any case I quite like the idea of fighting evil in blue jeans and a skintight blouse.

The whole game has the sweetly idiosyncratic sense of being someone's passion project. It wasn't much of a surprise, digging into the depths of the web page, to find that, like Project: Gorgon, Auteria is the result of the hard work of a real-life couple, Thomas and Elke. As they put it, "We both like to play computer games, and Tom to develop software especially games, thats how Auteria was born."

I doubt that Auteria would have changed anyone's life even ten years ago and it certainly won't now, when development on it has long ceased, but I'm glad I found it and I hope it hangs around a while longer.

I may well be back, if only for some sweet Ant Revenge.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Slow Club : EQ2

Since I seem to be incapable of playing more than two MMORPGs in rotation these days, my unexpected return to EverQuest pushed EQ2 off the wheel. Prior to that I had at least been harvesting my two shrubberies for mats and rares every day and keeping up with the basic requirements of the simple daily that funds the purchase of veteran rewards for characters who haven't been around long enough to earn them the slow way.

I was also - slowly - leveling up my Inquisitor towards the level cap by way of the Signature quest line from the last expansion. Last time I saw her she was Level 106 and facing a shortish grind on repeatable quests to max her Sphinx faction. Not something I was looking forward to, although it would only take an hour or so.

The main thing I was supposed to be doing was the Tradeskill Signature line. It wasn't ready when the expansion launched. It got patched in earlier this year and I waited a while before starting it back in the middle of March.

The god Karana, looking like your grandad on a weekend when Grandma's gone to visit her sister.
It comes in four parts. All the walkthroughs make a big deal of how long it takes, suggesting you allow several hours to do the whole thing. They go on about how much running around there is, how you might die to the Heroic or Raid level mobs that you're required to sneak past and how very lengthy and slow the combines are. Part of the reason I waited so long to begin was because the walkthroughs made it sound like a nightmare.

I suspect that some of the caveats derive from the experiences of the guide-writers as they plowed through the quests on the Test Server. I know from long and bitter experience that guinea-pigging any new content on Test can be like tap dancing in snowshoes compared to the eventual, tuned, debugged and eventually nerfed-for-convenience Live version.

Part One went fairly smoothly. I made a couple of elementary errors that got me killed but really the only thing that made it occasionally seem a little slow was the way I insisted on tabbing out to read the walkthrough, just to be sure I didn't take longer than I needed to. Yes, I know...

Please stand well back from the wyvern when it breathes fire on solidified lightning. It's only common sense.
I would have carried on from there but the very next day I started messing around on the Vox server over in EQ and bang! There went a month. Yesterday I finally got around to Part Two. Once again there were all kinds of warnings on the wiki about how long it was going to take me:

"The combines for this timeline are VERY long. Without potions they are taking 3-5 minutes EACH. Plan accordingly. There is a LOT of running on the quest. Bring as many evac items as you can manage. A floaty cloak is also useful to save time getting down from the towers".

Well, not really. The combines seemed to me to take a lot nearer three minutes than five, although I didn't actually time them. The thing is, I don't think three minutes is all that long for a combine. I'm sure I've done many longer ones over the life of the game and I seem to recall there was a time when three minutes wouldn't have seemed particularly unusual for a regular combine you might do while leveling up a tradeskill.

I certainly never felt the need to blow a potion on any of them. It was a pleasant, relaxing little crafting session. As for the running around, I do more of that every single day in WvW.

Thank you, Captain Obvious. Is it any wonder Voonark gets snarky?
In point of fact, I've probably done more running between writing paragraphs of this post, chasing across the map to defend Air Keep then back to our spare Bay, the one we're holding on Sea of Sorrows Borderland, to fend off attacks there. Not to mention that it often takes me longer than either of those to run from Plane of Knowledge to wherever it is I'm going to hunt that day, pretty much any time I play EQ.

It depends what you're used to, I guess. Whoever wrote the walkthrough clearly values his gaming "downtime" more than I value mine. I do seem to spend an inordinate amount of it just moving from one place to another or watching a progress bar fill. Or moving stuff from bags to boxes and back.

I did dig out my "floaty cloak" and put it on though. And swapped into my crafting gear. It's not like I want to go slowly for the sake of it. More like my idea of slow is stuck somewhere back in the late 20th Century, when "slow" meant "probably going to take a week or two".

Far from being slow on any terms, this tradeskill quest so far has been a lot of fun. It's an exemplary erm... example...of how to design an active, involving, exciting quest without combat. There's also minimal use of puzzles and no platforming, so it doesn't lean heavily on other genres. 

Dinging three levels at once was so loud it made me jump and I messed up the screenshot.
Mostly it sticks to gathering, crafting and not getting killed, which is quite enough to keep my interest and attention engaged.There's also a generous helping of utterly nonsensical plot, some incomprehensible and confusing lore and a hefty portion of snarky NPC chat - so EQ2 questing as we have come to know and love it, really.

I did worry a little that, with Domino gone, tradeskill quests would either fade away or begin to ressemble reskinned adventure quests but this one seems both substantial and authentically crafty.It also gives a humungous amount of xp. Granted there was a double crafting xp weekend running and I used my Veteran's hammer to refill my tradeskill vitality but even so to do six levels in an hour seems extreme.

As a result my weaponsmith is now maxed at 110 with half the signature line to go. Still, despite having capped out half way through, even if I wasn't enjoying the quest itself, which I very much am, there's plenty of incentive to finish it. The next step unlocks Guild Harvesting Missions, which I had no idea were even a thing, and gives my gathering pony a couple of new tricks, while the final stage puts two extremely powerful recipes in my book.

I think I might give part three a go tomorrow.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Compilation Of Links To Useful EverQuest Guides, Hints, Tips and Resources: Updated for 2018

I have a feeling I did this once before but if I did, I can't find the post. Never mind. I've stumbled across a few more resources since then anyway, so I think it's worth taking another run at it. The caveat is always Check The Date. Some of the information, even from recommended and reliable sources, can be outmoded or just plain obsolete. If in doubt, log in and try it. It won't kill you. Probably.

An awful lot of the things any EQ player would be better off knowing are buried somewhere in these links. Best of luck digging them out. If you can't find what you need, the best possible advice I can give is start playing and "just ask". Someone probably knows and if there's one thing EQ players enjoy even more than a double XP weekend it's a chance to show off their superior knowledge of the game.

Here are the links:

Almar's Guides

Fanra's Everquest Wiki incorporating Rasper's Repository

Allakhazam (especially the Wiki/Database)

EQ Traders

Brewall's EverQuest Maps

EQ Resource

Paul Lynch's EverQuest Guides inluding Pet Focuses and All The Good Quests

Hazmil Skelyd's EverQuest Resource Page

Pak'Cafan: EverQuest

EQ Interface

EQ Official Forums (especially the Returning Player Mage Thread for anyone starting a Heroic Character at Level 85).

EverQuest Reddit

And now, the gloss:

The reason I'm revisiting this topic is that there seems to have been a slight uptick of interest in playing EverQuest lately. Not just from me, either. UltrViolet tried it and didn't like it. Belghast just rolled an SK on Vox to see if recent negative comparisons with Project : Gorgon were justified. Keen has been  running out of partners while playing on Coirnav and although Kaozz hasn't mentioned it recently she's always there or thereabouts.

I've even had the odd comment asking for advice on starting or returning to EQ. I'm not sure that's something I'd advocate to just anyone. As has been discussed many times, MMORPGs come with a significant learning curve even when they're new and that curve can turn into a cliff face when the game's been running successfully for a few years, let alone nearly two decades.

Without any doubt, the single most forbidding aspect of playing EverQuest these days is the sheer volume of hidden detail. The gameplay itself remains relatively simple but the systems that support it are mysterious, arcane, convoluted and very frequently almost entirely obscure.

Over the years the developers, be it SOE or DBG, have made heroic efforts to retro-fit modern MMO conveniences onto the aging chassis, with varying degrees of success. For example, in my opinion, EQ currently has the best loot system of any game I play. It allows a degree of control that other MMOs either simply don't offer or, if they do, lock behind achievement or pay walls.

EQ long ago added a quest journal and quest tracker that offers all the utility you'd expect. It's far superior to GW2's kludgy version. There's a fantastic Atlas facility that not only shows you every one of the hundreds of zones but will build a path for you from anywhere to anywhere else and provide you with a glowing trail that shows you how to get you there.

The game even has a Calendar to let you know you when holiday or special events are coming. Hardly anyone seems to know it exists. Almost every day while I'm playing, someone will ask when an event begins or ends, only to be told to type /calendar. The response is usually "Wow! I never knew that even existed!".

I pick up most of of my tips from chat channels. That's how I discovered I could buy and sell through the Bazaar without having to go there. Yesterday I learned that you can control which spells and abilities your Mercenary uses by means of the /blockspell command or its menu-driven equivalent.

This is so counter-intuitive as to be positively perverse. Here's a detailed explanation. The way you can affect the behavior of your NPC Mercenary in this fashion is potentially game-changing, allowing you to solo (or, as the jargon has it, Molo) content that was previously out of your reach. I have no idea how you would ever discover this exceptionally useful function unless someone told you about it or you deliberately set out to read everything you could possibly find about the game before you started.

These are just a few examples of the scores of time-saving, ease of access, user-friendly systems available, many of which effectively change the way you might approach the entire game. And that's just the options open to everyone.

Once you begin to consider the range of Alternative Abilities you need to level up (around 10,000 of them according to Almar) I shudder to think how many more wrinkles there must be that I don't yet know. EQ doesn't go out of it's way to tell you about any of this. You have to find most of it for yourself. It's scarcely exaggerating to say that I discover a new trick every time I play, although sometimes they're tricks I used to know but long ago forgot.

Bearing all that in mind, there are several ways you could set about playing such a well-established MMORPG, one that hides 90% of its essential systems beneath the surface. You could take the "sink or swim" approach, treat it like any new game and just jump in. You'll probably sink but, hey...YOLO, right?

You could find a friend who plays and get them to handhold you through the scary parts. If you don't have such a long-suffering friend on tap, you could - as I have seen many players do - begin your new adventure by spamming chat for an active guild. Might take a while.

Or you could do some research. Every long-running game that was ever any kind of success has a legacy of guides, databases, wikis, Add-Ons and discussions that point back into the deep past like a comet's tail. The problem is, for good or ill, MMORPGs define themeselves by perpetual change. The issue isn't finding information - it's finding accurate information that's still relevant.

Still, it was ever thus. And it's not like games come with a manual any more, is it? Not that most people ever read the dam' thing back when they did... 

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