Monday, 26 June 2017

Secret World Legends: First Impressions

Like a lot of people, I've had a love-hate relationship with The Secret World.  The premise is original, the attention to detail absorbing, the writing and voice-acting both about as good as I've seen and heard in any MMO. On the other hand the relentless grimdark wore me out and I literally couldn't complete the main story quest because it was too hard.

I was never a committed, long-term player. The game was never my MMO home. Still, I played a solid two months from launch and sporadically ever since, took many hundreds of screenshots, wrote a couple of dozen blog posts and generally enjoyed myself more than somewhat.

When Funcom made the surprising - shocking - announcement that the whole game was going to be rebooted as an Action RPG I tried to keep an open mind. I understand that Funcom has been in some financial difficulty for quite a while and that TSW was not bringing home the bacon the way they'd hoped it might.

I also get that the very strength of the game - its depth and detail and quality - are part of the problem. Good voice acting is expensive, quest content this good is hard to produce on a timely schedule, challenging puzzles put off more players than they attract and so on. And though I never really thought the combat was that bad, apparently many people did.

With that all in mind I was willing to give Funcom the benefit of some considerable doubt, go in with an open mind and hope for the best. After a couple of hours I think I'm going to need more than good will and crossed fingers to keep me logging in.

Here we goooooooooooooo!

Download and Set-Up

Secret World Legends is a 50GB download. Fortunately, as Boon says when you first meet him in Kingsmouth, this isn't my first rodeo. I downloaded the tiny set-up file from the official website, let the installation run up to the point where the SWL patcher took over, then I stopped it and copied my RDB files across from my TSW folder. That saved me around 48GB of downloads.

Thanks to MJ at MassivelyOP I also knew to copy my LocalConfig.xmlfile from my account page so as to allow me to go on logging in to both the old and new versions.

That all went smoothly enough but you might think those are both things that could have been automated into the installation process itself. PC developers do seem to assume a level of technical facility in their customers that would be bizarre in most other businesses.

Excuse me, Miss? I don't want a goblin head!

Character Creation

I may be in a minority in finding TSW's characters aesthetically pleasing. It's actually close to being my favorite MMO for what my character looks like. I was anticipating fun.

Fun was a long time coming. The new interface is both ugly and unintuitive. I spent longer than I would have liked just clicking on stuff to see how it worked and when I had that sorted I was underwhelmed with the options on hand.

Eventually I was able to make a character I was happy to look at but it felt all the time as if the game didn't want offer much of a choice in, well, anything. Each step came down to "pick a shape" from a hexagonal grid. It reminded me of Otherland, which is not a comparison any developer wants to hear, I'm sure.

Of course, I have only ever made two characters in The Secret World and the more recent of those was getting on for five years ago. I couldn't remember for certain what the old character creator was like, so I fired TSW up and used my one free character slot to check.

Turns out that pretty much all the actual options are the same. It's the presentation that's changed and in a way that's emblematic of the whole revamp - it's been simplified, if you approve; dumbed down if you don't. I strongly prefer the original, which, ironically, feels more intuitive and, well, obvious, than the supposedly more user-friendly version.

I'm taking it all the original cut-scene artists have left the company?

The New Tutorial

Oh. My. God. Where do I start? This is bad. This is really, really bad.

In fact, the new tutorial is bad on the level of if I didn't know this was a good game because I already played it, I think I'd be going "You know what? The hell with this crap!" and uninstalling.

All of the excellent dynamic flow of TSW's original introduction has been thrown under the bus. Funcom haven't removed it or replaced the bee-in-mouth beginning or any of what follows from it - it would actually be better if they had.

No, they have simply dropped a terrible, TERRIBLE hand-holding, "never played a video game before? It's easy!" tutorial slap-bang in the middle of the atmospheric opening. After you eat the bee and wreck your room you now get a dream sequence in which your entire bedroom is transported to a graveyard.

There, under the tutelage of a very bored voice actor,  you learn how to open your inventory, equip your weapon (just the one because you're easily confused) and click your left mouse button in the general direction of a lot of zombies, revenants and some boss mob or other whose name I was too depressed to notice.

How much more black could it be? None more black!
What's more, you get to do all this in lighting so dim you can't see what you're fighting or where you're going. It's the classic "start in a cave" scenario. Technically the graveyard is probably outdoors but it was so dark I couldn't tell. After the graveyard it's down some dark passageways to solve some insultingly insipid "puzzles" and dodge some traps that wouldn't trouble a tortoise in a full body cast.

This took longer than it should have done because the sound wasn't working properly. I never had the slightest issues with sound in TSW but in SWL all that wonderful voice acting sounds like people chatting in another room. Quietly. I spent more time fiddling with the audio settings than I did killing zombies and in the end I gave up. Nothing that was being said at that point was worth hearing anyway.

The godawful tutorial ends with a godawful set-piece in a city (Tokyo I guess...) in which you fight a fixed, unwinnable battle, die and wake up back in your room, after which everything proceeds just as it always did. I went Templar (of course - what other choice is there?) so after the Tokyo flashback (seemed much easier but then you never could die in it) I ended up in London.

Put Tab A into Slot A.

The New Old Tutorial

There's a much shortened version of the part where you try out weapons to see what you'd like to use later on. Basically, you don't.

Now you get a very quick run-through of the new upgrade system for gear and weapons, which seems to be not much more than a very, very simple version of the upgrade mechanics used by most Eastern F2P MMOs.

Here's how it works:

  • Open "crafting" interface 
  • Slot item you want to upgrade in main slot 
  • Slot item(s) of same archetype (weapons for weapons, amulets for amulets etc) into the other slot(s)
  • Press the upgrade button.
  • Voila! Upgraded thing.

It's hardly thrilling but then TSW's original crafting was a hot mess so it's probably an improvement. At least it should help to keep your bags empty.

The Drill Master or whatever he's called still goes on about being able to try out your weapons on bound demons but nothing prompts you to do that and I was impatient to get on so I didn't look around for them. Not sure if that's a lazy leftover that hasn't been re-voiced or an actual option you can still use.

I know a great name for this club. Sacrilege.

The Argatha

The tutorial was functionally bad. The Argatha revamp is just in bad taste.

It's true that the hollow earth did become a de facto gathering place in the original game. Players preferred to hang out there instead of the truncated streets of London or New York. By that logic it probably made sense to add the facilities that were missing and make it a full-strength service hub.

It also utterly destroys the weird, unearthly ambience the place used to have. There's a frickin' dance floor there now, for Pete's sake. Worse, the little people from Transylvania have been pressed into service as vendors. They have "cute" names. I actually found that slightly sickening.

On the plus side, there are jump pads that deliver you to the zone portals. No more endless running along random branches hoping to find your stop. There are probably other  quality of life improvements but I'd had enough.

Drowned any good kittens lately, Andy?

Kingsmouth, Combat and the U.I.

I only got as far as the makeshift police station. Quests and gameplay seemed identical except that  everything died incredibly fast.

Since I have as yet made not the slightest attempt to learn how the new combat system works and all I was doing was clicking LMB as fast as humanly possible I conclude low levels are easier than they used to be. Not that they were ever hard.

I found the "Action" U.I. to be irritating. Really quite irritating. I don't like ARPG controls but I'm very familiar with them and I can tell good from bad. These are bad.

My benchmark would be DCUO, whose controls I find straightforward and comfortable. Black Desert was good, too. Neverwinter Online is passable as is Elder Scrolls Online.

This is worse than any of those, mostly because it's inconsistent. Incoherent, even. For example, you have to use a keypress to send a Mission Report but if you get a mail back from your controller you have to hit Alt to get a cursor and open it with the mouse. Why not make it one or the other, or allow you to choose?

There were a few things like that. The controls aren't so bad I wouldn't play under any circumstances but they're awkward enough to make me not want to play.

"These trousers are bloody velvet" has been a meme chez Bhagpuss for the best part of five years. It's up there with "You've ruined your own lands..."


I don't like it. The overarching impression I was left with was one of disrespect. The Secret World was a unique and original creation: this is just another bash 'em slash 'em F2P MMO. What a shame.

Only the outside possibility that I might be able to get further in the storyline than where I beached might keep me logging in. That would rely on the fighting being this much easier all the way to Carpathian Fangs, though, which I'm sure it won't be.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

PvP: It's Not Going To Kill You

This week brought several interesting posts about PvP. Wilhelm took Syp to task, in the mildest manner, over the commonly-held belief that EVE is "a gankbox". The biggest takeaway from the lengthy discussion there seemed to be that no-one really knows what a "gankbox" is. Or agrees on what costitutes "ganking" for that matter...

UltrViolet had something to say about PvP in FFXIV. Once I'd got over the shock of finding that FFXIV has PvP (who knew?) some of his observations had me re-assessing my own attitudes and assumptions.

Lastly, Jeromai had plenty to say about the recent, significant changes to GW2's World vs World. This is PvP I actually know, in some depth, from personal experience and yet at times he seemed almost to be describing a game I'd never played at all.

The crux of the problem seems to me to fall squarely where it usually does - on definitions. Like "MMO", the term "PvP" has become so stretched by overuse, so baggy and warped, that it can be fitted over almost anything. Badly.

I see Commander Chris Goes Deep in there so I'm guessing he ran off a cliff and we all followed. We'd follow him anywhere except to Jade Quarry, which is where he went :(

UltrViolet is uncomfortable with what he describes as "a pervasive attitude of what I’ll call … well, cowardice, for lack of a better term" among PvPers in MMORPGs, something he compares unfavorably with pre-MMO days, when "in a fight with someone in Quake, they usually fought back, and a duel ensued (a duel with rocket launchers)". It's apparent that what underpins his understanding of the term "PvP" is a literal stand-off, head to head, toe to toe, between individual players, conducted primarily, probably entirely, for the honor of a clean victory.

In Wilhelm's comment thread, however, Gevlon defines PvP in an utterly unromantic, purely functional fashion. PvP for the Greedy Goblin is "an in-game reason to fight, you seek to complete an in-game objective". When he says "’s competition" he means competition for resources.

Gevlon dismisses fighting other players for the sake of fighting them as merely a means of staving off boredom or promoting an out-of-game self-image. For him, and indeed for several other commenters in the thread, PvP is primarily a means to an economic or political end, not any kind of an end in itself.

Jeromai, meanwhile, in a series of lengthy, detailed and thoughtful essays, analyses both his actions and his motivations, which, unsurprisingly for any regular reader of "Why I Game", largely seem to revolve around testing and refining the limits of his own skill and ability.

The new reward system gives me the pip.

These three approaches, which most likely represent only the shallowest foothills of the mountain of nuance that exists to be scaled on the topic, amply demonstrate that, where any discussion of PvP is concerned, what we are most likely to see are people talking past each other. As in all negotiations, without agreed definitions at the outset, little progress can be made towards consensus.

It would help if, when we talk about PvP in MMORPGs, we made it clearer what kind of PvP we were talking about. There are well-established names for some of these subdivisions, after all.

Let's take Dueling, for example. Dueling is the apex of the consensual, one-on-one, "honorable" fight. Most MMOs offer it in some form or other.

I absolutely, utterly loathe dueling. It was the single aspect of EverQuest I most hated from the moment I began playing. In all the time I ever played, from 1999 to now, I only ever dueled once. That was in a Guild event, when I did it with extreme reluctance so as not to seem "difficult". I won, easily, as it happens. No-one was more surprised than me.

My objection to dueling has nothing whatsoever to do with whether I would or would not be any good at it. My issue is with the extreme intimacy. I find it skin-crawlingly creepy. To be locked in a virtual rope-fight to the death with another human being is just beyond anything I ever expected or wanted to discover in a fantasy world. I set all duel acceptances to "automatically decline" where the game allows and never accept or respond to them where it doesn't.

Left a bit..left a bit...right a bit...FIRE!

GW2's complete lack of a duel function is unexpected and also one of the very best things about the game. Unsurprisingly, I don't try to replicate dueling there in the kind of lone-wolf WvW roaming Jeromai describes.

I do, however, travel alone in WvW all the time, scouting, taking objectives, simply moving from place to place. I'm not remotely apprehensive about being alone and vulnerable because, as Hording says in Wilhelm's thread, in "games with no consequences you just shrug and continue from the graveyard or waypoint. Who killed you – who cares?".

If someone attacks me in when I'm alone in WvW I simply wait for them to kill me. Then I waypoint and get on with whatever I was doing. I have no skill as duelist and no interest in acquiring any. My interests and aptitudes lie in matchplay. I want our team to win. I want to do my part. Dueling harms not helps that objective so I feel virtuous for avoiding it.

When I play, even five years in, I care whether we hold all our own keeps. I care whether we win the Skirmish and the match. I care where we place in the table, even though everyone agrees the whole scoring system has been so broken for so long it's effectively meaningless.  

It doesn't much matter to me that it's all pointless, repetitive and silly. It's an MMO. Of course it is! I'm as easily able to suspend my disbelief to become immersed in the fortunes of my server as I am to believe that each battle against Tequatl is the only one needed to defeat him forever, even though I already killed him twice today and the moment he dies I can look up his next scheduled appearance on a website created for that purpose. If you can't believe, why play at all?
Personally, I'd "fix" WvW by removing every single "reward" other than the score. If that means only a hundred people left playing then at least it would be the right hundred.

GW2's mass combat - army against army, battling to take and hold territory - is perfect for me. It removes all of the uncomfortable intimacy while retaining a very strong sense of purpose and identity.

That same approach  - wanting to be an effective part of a team and to see the team prosper - scales well. I prefer the larger stage but I enjoy most types of instanced, group PvP. I liked all the various Battleground options in DAOC, Warhammer, Rift, WoW, and EQ2, but they come with a self-limiting factor that's absent from WvW, which I can and do play, quite literally, for hours at a stretch.

I find battleground matches exciting for a while but they come with diminishing returns - after an hour or so I begin to feel enervated. Still, I always go back, eager for more, once my synapses have had a chance to discharge.

When conflict-phobic players like Syp talk about PvP in terms of dread they generally don't mean the kind of sanitized, organized, structured - ultimately safe - play we see in instances, however large or small. The two things that terrify them, it seems, are the specter of loss and the prospect of becoming a target.

I'd keep the bags - I just wouldn't put anything in them.

I can see their point. No-one likes to lose stuff or have their time wasted. Even dedicated PvPers don't like a bully. Few rational voices will be raised to defend the handful of sociopaths who spend lonely evenings on their max-level characters or level-locked twinks, killing the same newbies at spawn over and over until they force the hapless neophytes to log off and uninstall.

Still, there's a world of difference between that kind of apocryphal abuse and real, open-world PVP as it actually happens, be it consensual or otherwise, with or without item or xp loss, level restricted or FFA.

Yes, in theory it can seem a bit more unsettling, certainly more personal, to be jumped by another player when you're alone in the wilds, especially if you're half-health and locked in a tough fight with a wyvern at the time. In practice, though, is it really very much different to being blindsided by a Sand Giant as you concentrate on killing a mummy, only to be rooted by a ghoul as you try to run away? Or, worse, being trampled by someone's train as they exit the dungeon just as you zone in?

Pre-WoW MMO worlds - even Vanilla WoW, by reputation - were dangerous places. You didn't need your PvP flag on to get ganked - a griffon or a werewolf would take you out without malice or mercy just as quickly as any player. You could lose a level or, worse, your corpse and everything on it.

They also serve, who only stand and scout.

We lived in fear every day of our gaming lives back then. And, yes, having players as predators did make it scarier still. But not orders of magnitude scarier, the way random, unconfined, unexpected, non-consensual PvP appears to so many MMO players today.

I'm not advocating a return to xp and item loss as standard. Nor am I nostalgic for the days of Zone Sweepers and corpse runs. I'm certainly not suggesting all MMOs are better with PvP in the mix. I don't, by and large, choose to play on open PvP servers, given the option, even now. Virtual life can be hard enough with just the A.I. on your case.

All I'm suggesting is that PvP comes in many flavors. A little taste of it, once in a while, can be delicious. A whole meal can be gloriously satisfying, provided you order from the right menu. It's an acquired taste, for sure, but, like most such, it's worth acquiring.

It's been a very, very long time since the letters "PvP" included anywhere in the description of an upcoming MMO caused me make the sign of the cross and back away. Now I take every case on merit. As Dire Necessity says about Syp's oft-repeated concerns over the risk of being ganked " He’s really not talking about EVE as typically played at all, he’s talking about the stories he hears about EVE."

In most MMOs these days the only thing to fear from PvP is the fear of PvP itself. Don't listen to scare stories. Try it out and see for yourself. What's the worst that could happen?

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Archetypal Behavior

And we're back. We had the best holiday for a long time and we're pretty good at going on holiday so that's saying quite a lot.

The whole of the Iberian peninsula was in the grip of a ferocious heatwave. There were huge forest fires all over the place, some extremely serious. Temperatures broke records. The nightly news was filled with multicolored maps and spiraling numbers.

We spent a lot of time in the mountains, in forests or by lakes. We avoided cities, staying in small, dusty towns and villages. We drank a lot of water and sat in the shade.

As we traveled we marveled at how many new wonders still remain to be discovered even in places you've criss-crossed so many times before. Also, how readily those old fantasy tropes become real.

We took to parceling up the landscape by race. We passed through wood-elf country into the lands where humans and elves intermingled. Half-elven hinterlands slipped into dwarven stonelands. In the peaks the evidence of giants and rock trolls lay all around us.

Little wonder these images are so prevalent or that they come so easily to mind. In times when it took days to travel from town to town, under the hammer of the sun, surrounded by birdsong and the drone of insects, every new horizon must have shimmered with strangeness and change. They still do.

We drove along dirt tracks to a Visigoth church, whose stones were piled close to a millennia and a half ago, to find it filled with music, the keyholder sheltering from the sun, playing his guitar in the dim, dirt-floored interior, waiting on the off-chance anyone should happen by. We stumbled across pocket castles not much bigger than cottages and craned our necks looking up at sprawling fortifications half the length of a city.

I had good intentions of posting at least once or twice while we were away but technology frustrated those hopes once again. Wi-fi has improved in availability since the days it was listed as an occasional luxury but it has yet to improve significantly in any practical sense. Most days I counted myself lucky if I was able to keep a connection long enough to book ahead for the next night.

I didn't do myself any favors, either. I took three internet-capable devices with me - my Teclast dual-OS 10" tablet, my aging Android 7" and my ancient iPod Touch, now almost a decade old.

I forgot the charging cable for the Teclast and it wouldn't charge from any of the several other cables I did have. The 7" died completely three days into the trip. In the end I relied mostly on the iPod touch, which performed stolidly. One up to Steve Jobs.

It seems that a mobile (cell) phone is expected these days if you plan on staying in anything less well-equipped than a three-star hotel. The Rural Hotels, private apartments and rooms above bars I was picking all expect you to call them by phone when you arrive so the owner can pop on their sandals, put down the pruning shears and trot round from their home several streets away to hand you the key, after which you never see them again.

Mrs Bhagpuss had her iPhone so that shouldn't have been a problem - except that her network, O2, has a known bug wherein it adds spurious extra digits to any non-UK number. I, of course, don't own a mobile at all.

We couldn't phone anyone, anywhere, ever. That led to some shenanigans. We eventually got in to every room I'd booked although there were times I thought we might not. Always depend on the kindness of strangers. Still, I'm taking a mobile next time and I'm buying a local sim card to put in it when I get there.

We agreed that we made for the very model of the Explorer Archetype throughout, with a fair portion of Achiever thrown in (we took a lot of video and photographs and ticked off a lot of culturo-historic Points of Interest). The repeated performance of the Ritual of the Keys gave us a decent smattering of Socializer cred. The only Bartle box we didn't tick was Killer - unless you count the thousand tiny insect bodies smeared across the front of our car.

Due to a peculiarity of this year's working schedule it's less than three months until we go away again. I can hardly wait!

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Magic Carpet Ride

Things are likely to be slow around here for a while. We're off on our travels again.

I did by a keyboard you can roll up so there's an outside chance I might post while I'm away.

Probably not. We'll see. If not, I'll just have to make up for it when I get back.

Meanwhile, always remember, fantasy will set you free. As Pizzicato 5 never said. That was someone else entirely.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Give A Dog A Bad Name... : GW2, EverQuest

Here's a controversial proposition: Heart of Thorns was a good expansion.

I know, I stalled GW2's commercial progress dead in its tracks, almost killed World vs World for good and ended up having to be nerfed into the ground to appease the pitchfork-and-torch-waving crowd.

For an encore, six months later Colin Johanson, the guy responsible for HoT's design and direction and the game's prime mover, fell on his Legendary Greatsword and left the company. From that point on GW2 has been in recovery and repair mode, trying to fix the damage wrought by the first, botched xpack.

Or so the narrative goes. Factually that's not an inaccurate summary. Only problem is, it misrepresents almost the entirety of my experience in the jungle itself.

From the day I first stepped into the sweltering heat of the Maguuma heartland I was having fun. Yes, it was a tad over-tuned to begin with but not unusually so. Almost all MMO expansions come in hard and soften up later.

Benchmarked against the harshest expansion I've ever slogged through, EverQuest's notorious Gates of Discord, HoT isn't just a walk in the park; it's a sun-lounger on the beach with an ice-cold beer in your  hand and a chillout mix on your iPod.

Okay, unfair comparison. GoD was not just hellishly hard; it was actually broken. The developers knew that but released it anyway. John Smedley later called it SOE's "worst mistake in five years." and despite many unwitting attempts to unseat it since, GoD still  wears the crown.

Giant Bomb has an excellent overview of the expansion itself, with a coda that partially explains just why EQ players who were there recall the game's seventh expansion with a sense of horror:

"... the seventh expansion ... was largely unfinished with many encounters either not working properly or simply unbeatable. It was later revealed that the development team built much of the expansion's content with the idea in mind that the level cap would increase to 70, but that did not happen."

Well, that would make a difference, wouldn't it? What's more:

"GoD brought about an entire overhaul of EverQuest's graphics engine, issues with the world's geometry were affected throughout the world of Norrath, both new zones and old.

This is why Daybreak's new Undercover Classic server, Agnarr, stops at the sixth expansion, right before the gates to disaster open. A shame, really, because once they'd fixed it, and with its companion, eighth expansion Omens of War in place (the one that actually had the level cap increase) it turned out to be a pretty good era as Norrathian adventures go.

Too late. Too late. Reputation once lost is hard to recover, ironically.

The main reason I'm thinking about this right now is that I finally applied my half-price HoT code to one of my two base-game-only accounts. I figured with the second expansion almost certain to arrive before the end of the year, dragging free HoT access for all behind it like a White Elephant no-one's going to be allowed to refuse, I might as well get the benefit while there was still some paid value left.

I wasn't particularly relishing it. Not because I don't like Heart of Thorns; I always liked it. Check pretty much any of my many posts on the topic. The tone is bemused but happy. I never expected to like it but it turned out I did.

In the year and a half the expansion's been with us I've only completed the main story-line once. It's okay. About as good as any other ANet story. Faint praise, I know.

What I have done, though, is explore the entire jungle to a degree I have still never managed with Core Tyria to this day. I have Heart of Maguuma map completion in multiple zones on multiple characters and I loved doing it.

I've done the lengthy Ascended Weapon "collections" ("quests", translated from Anet Newspeak) on every class and I really loved doing those. I've filled out almost all the Masteries and the few I haven't I've only left because I don't feel I'll ever need them. Most of those, again, I thoroughly enjoyed doing.

There's more. On top of all that designated content I've spent hundreds of hours over the last couple of years just gliding the updrafts in Verdant Brink for sheer joy. I've spent happy winter evenings doing the ninety-minute Dragon Stand event, not because I needed anything from it but because it's bloody good fun.

Even so, I was a little apprehensive about returning to the Heart of Maguuma on a fresh account.

The thing about modern MMO design is that all your characters bar the first are twinked by design.
Once I'd run one character through the entire storyline and opened all the maps, every character on the account could take advantage of the enhanced travel and survival options. Not only did I know where everything was, I knew all the shortcuts and had all the passes and permissions. It got easier and easier each time - and as I said I dispute the widespread belief that it was ever very difficult in the first place!

Going back to yesterday's post on Survival games and how they key into progression mechanics that have always worked well for me, it shouldn't have been the surprise it was to find out that Heart of Thorns without all the shortcuts is even more fun than I remembered. Having to get around with only the most basic gliding skill, the one that only keeps you aloft so long as your endurance bar lasts and that's not long at all, turns out to be exciting, satisfying and entertaining.

Not being able to just bounce on a mushroom to get up a cliff, having instead to work out the paths, dodge roll past the Pocket Raptors and glug Elixir B like cooldowns were going out of fashion - is that frustrating? The hell it is! It's thrilling.

Naturally, in the tradition of every MMO ever, your goal in having fun is to acquire the means to avoid having to have the fun you're having ever again. As my Mastery points accrue and my xp bar fills (soooo slooooowly - must use boosts...) soon I'll be bouncing and leaning with the best of them.

That's fine. There's new kinds of fun to be had with each new skill. I'm already planning my path to becoming a Scrapper. I'll need all the tricks. After that my fourth ranger (or is she my fifth?) can get Druid.

One thing that concerned me a year or more ago was whether anyone would still be "doing" Heart of Thorns as the expansion aged. Back then it seemed unlikely.

The expected exodus may still happen one day, as the next expansion or the one after that arrives, but for now the maps are hopping - and not just with Itzel. Anet have done a sound job of tying desirable rewards to the content in both HoT and all the LS3 maps that followed.

Map chat is busy with people organizing Hero Point runs or calling out events. Better still, the improved LFG system successfully fills maps with like-minded players set on achieving specific goals. HoT's not the hysterical, overheated chaos it was for a few months after launch but it's a very long way indeed from being dead.

Tomorrow sees the latest WvW revamp. That's going to take up most of my game-time this week, I'd imagine. Then we're going on holiday for a while so I won't be playing at all.

My latest run through the jungle will have to go on hold but it's off to an excellent start. If this was Anet's "bad expansion" I can't wait to see how the next one turns out.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Hybrid Vigor

It occurred to me the other day, when I was reading Azuriel's post about "Crafting Survival", that I have never played a Survival game, crafting or otherwise.

I know what Survival games are. I know the names of several. I even have a vague idea what they look like and how they play; at one time or another most of the MMO bloggers I follow have written about them, often at considerable length.

By and large they're games that sound interesting, on the surface, but I've never translated that interest into action because I can't shake the feeling that, more so than almost any other sub-genre of video game I can think of, Survival games are objectively pointless.

They do, of  course, share the single purpose of all leisure activities, which is to pass the time in an entertaining manner, and time spent enjoying oneself cannot be considered to be time wasted. Still, there are many ways to keep yourself entertained; countering a set of pre-determined conditions in order to achieve stasis has never struck me as being one of the more appealing ones.

Games - or perhaps they could better be described as entertainments - where surviving is merely a backdrop to achieving another goal, those are a different matter. Minecraft, when played in a certain way,  may require the player to focus on surviving a number of threats but, once that's achieved, other, more creative goals take the place of simply not dying. At least, I believe so: I've never played it.

Conversely, looked at from the outside, titles like the reflexively-named "Don't Starve" seem to hold as their ultimate goal a state of Nirvana in which, finally, nothing happens, nothing changes. It's a state that can never be achieved because the game is coded in such a way as to ensure that, no matter how long you postpone the inevitable, in the end you will starve.

Enjoying these entertainments probably requires a similar mindset to that which seeks to experience and record incremental improvements in anything: a runner trying to improve her best time; a raider trying to improve his DPS; either by even the smallest measurable margin. Such a mindset may be the signature of someone as, or probably more, interested in process than in outcome.

In the comment thread to Jeromai's post linked above I asked "Is there any reason we couldn’t have a Survival MMO with persistent characters?", a question to which Jeromai gave, most likely, a fuller and more convincing reply than the question deserved.

It wasn't really a very intelligent question. Just how would I expect a "Survival MMO" to work, anyway? What would the players do once they had "survived"? Pacifying an unruly landscape and bringing civilization to the four compass points is a healthy ambition for an empire but settling down to a quiet, virtual existence in a safe, stable and peaceful world scarcely seems a viable endgame for an MMO intended to run on (and take money)  indefinitely. (Then again, Second Life...).

Presumably this is why sandbox MMOs, which frequently require a good deal of surviving, also tend to include the endless existential threat of player versus player violence. It's either that or never-ending waves of AI attacks (wasn't that one of the USPs of both Rift and the original Horizons?).

Ashes of Creation, currently taking three million dollars to the bank along with the title "Most Successful MMO Kickstarter Ever", doesn't look as though it will start you off in a cave with a club and a loin-cloth, while expecting you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to become Emperor of All The Nodes, but it does have a faint whiff of survival about it, at least on a meta level.

Supposedly, all your works there, like Ozymandias's, can turn to dust. Were this a survival game that would, presumably, signal game over and a restart, whereupon you, the player, would attempt to last longer or build bigger, so as to beat your personal best.

Since AoC is an MMO, with persistent characters and a persistent world, that can't happen. The Emperor and his acolytes may lose face along with all their nodes but all the players who counted on their protection will find most of their progress wrapped up and packed away for a quick and painless return. More like moving to a new apartment than starting a new life.

Persistence is both a problem and a predicate of the MMORPG genre. Many MMOs start out as survival games of a kind, where the player-character begins with literally nothing more than a worn vest, a badly-sharpened stick and a dream of slaying a dragon. At the start it's all scrubbing for a living and trying not to die; by the end it's DPS meters and dance parties with a couple of dozen of your new best friends.

After two decades of this it's increasingly hard to see how the two ends fit together. Often they don't. For those of us, who find the grubbing about in the mud for a piece of old armor the rust might not have eaten all the way through yet the most enjoyable part, a reset now and then is a requirement. That's why we play alts or change servers or move to a new MMO every once in a while.

Endgamers, meanwhile, curse the leveling curve as a waste of time and resources, while developers increasingly treat it as legacy content, once required but now best leaped over with boosts, preferably paid-for. The difficult introduction to the world, first surviving then consolidating, that seems like an anachronism.

Going back to "Don't Starve" for a moment, does anyone even remember the days when you had to eat and drink in MMOs? I struggle to recall the details now but in original EverQuest, if you failed to keep up your liquid intake, didn't you cease to regenerate health? Or maybe it was mana. I'm sure there were other MMOs where running out of food meant, if not the end of your character's life, the end of their progress for that session.

Despite the strong showing of Survival games over the last few years I sense no desire to re-appropriate such mechanics to the mainstream of MMOs, either theme-park or sandbox. As the wheel turns and MMOs emerge, gasping and spluttering, from their long submersion and MOBAs begin their slow, inexorable slide, it may be that Survival's short, Edwardian summer is also drawing to a close.

Conan Exiles appears to have stalled. H1Z1 "Just Survive" is choking through lack of interest. ARK appears to be on a one-way trip to self-parody. The Battle Royales that are currently raging, as H1Z1 King of the Kill gives way to PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, are surely too far removed from anything we recognize as "MMORPG" even to count as belonging to the same genre. 

If Battle Royales and Arenas are scarcely even distant cousins, MMORPGs, Action MMOs, MOBAs and persistent Survival sandboxes all have closer ties, a shared DNA. Perhaps the next stage in the evolution of the strain will draw from the strengths of all of them.

Wasn't that yesterday's seven-day wonder, Crowfall's, plan? A genuine MMO with restarts? Is a true survival MMO what we'll find when we enter Amazon's New World? Will the Ashes of Creation give birth to a Phoenix that burns brightly with the combined energy of everything Intrepid threw into the flames?

Or maybe we'll just find ourselves sifting through another generation of muddled compromises. And
perhaps I should at least try a survival game before writing about them at such length. Y'know, just so I can pretend I have the shadow of a ghost of an idea of what I'm talking about...

Nah. Life's too short to just survive.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

You Can't Uneat The Apple

It seems that by coincidence, while I was musing over whether MMOs are more fun at launch or later, Syp was thinking along similar lines, when he asked his readers if they thought any MMOs they'd tried and not liked deserved a second chance.

The thing about returning to an MMO, either to see if it's improved or in hope of reliving some fondly-remembered good times you once had, is that you quite literally cannot go back to the same game you loved or loathed before. With the exception of truly time-locked relics like Guild Wars in maintenance mode, the game you knew no longer exists.

Even frozen in stasis as it is, Guild Wars today offers only a snapshot of one specific moment in that game's life. The game I played just after launch back in 2005 is gone forever as are all the other Guild Wars that came after.

The nature of MMOs is that they change, always. Some even come with a caveat at log-in: "Game experience may change during online play". MMOs that last for years become almost unrecognizable to players who drift away.

A conversation I find myself having, often, at work concerns the importance or otherwise of re-reading. Children re-read obsessively. I read some of my comics until they literally fell apart. I would take the same books out of the library over and over again. It was nothing for the ten-year old me to be found reading a book for the sixth or seventh time with power to add.

I was still re-reading in my teens, into my twenties. As an undergraduate studying Eng. Lit. I sometimes had no choice but I re-read for pleasure, too. For many years I would read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the beginning of spring each year and often I'd read the entire Narnia sequence over. I should do that. I really should do that.

A theory I developed, which I sometimes retail to dubious reception, is that the third reading is the one that counts. The first is all about the plot; the second you compare and reassess; only at the third call do you come to a story clean.

This theory may not stand up to rigorous critical analysis but it can't be applied at all to MMOs. If the key flaw to the re-reading scenario is the reader, who can never be relied on to be the same reader twice, or the circumstances of the read, which are even less likely to remain the same, at least there's no non-metaphysical argument that the text is other than it always was.

There's no re-reading an MMO. The editing process is ongoing, the text receives constant revision, even the authorship alters. Nothing else that I can call to mind is comparable, not even such seemingly endless, ever-fluctuating propositions as long-lasting television or comic book series; not even soap operas.

Every other narrative-based entertainment (and all MMOs are narrative-based, even when the narrative is written by the players on the page of the game itself) breaks down into a sequence of discrete, permanent, immutable recordings: novels, issues, episodes. Sometimes some fragments are lost to time but these days mostly nothing is: if it happened the data holds, somewhere.

MMOs are not like that. If they resemble anything it might be the long professional life of a singer or a band, the same songs showcased night after year after decade, the players, the arrangements, even the melodies (Hi, Bob!) changing all the while, yet staying always something like the same.

MMOs are both the message and the medium, the signal and the noise. MMOs are alive. Alive with possibilities, alive with personalities, alive in time. Little wonder, once discovered, how other entertainments often fall so flat.

None of which really helps me to decide when to play what. I'm Kickstarting Ashes of Creation. I'll get an invite to Beta 2. I'll play then. Of course I will. How could I stop me? If it's not utterly irredeemable then I'll play on at launch.

Is that a good idea? How can I know? Ashes of Creation at launch will not be Ashes of Creation a year from launch, three years, five years, after the first, the second, the fifth expansion, after server merges, revamps, re-envisionings.

I regret not playing World of Warcraft at release. If I had I might have stayed, as so many did, for years, instead of just the six months and spatter of returns that followed my eventual jump, five years after the fact, to see what the fuss was all about.

Or, I might have hated it. Our one gaming friend, who did play WoW at launch, lasted barely a few weeks before he returned. Two people I worked with who tried it later (but before I did) didn't make the end of the free month. Some of those went back. Then stopped.

It's a lottery. A dice throw. A gamble. It's more than that: each entry point takes you to a different game. Maybe you'll like this one. Maybe you would have liked that one. No way to know but try but trying may ruin everything. You should have waited. It got good later. They fixed it up. You missed it, coming in too early. You missed it, coming in too late.

This has been bothering me for days now, since I realized what I've been doing. Never learn your patterns. I can't change. I'm too old to change. Maybe I'll change. What can I do but change?

Let's go. (He does not move).
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