Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Mask Slips

J3w3l posted some thoughts on the mortality of MMOs prompted by an AMA on Reddit given by Daybreak's new "Executive Creative Director", Jens "Spytle" Andersen. Until his recent promotion, Jens was Senior Creative Director for DCUO, by most accounts one of DBG's more successful properties.

Since the AMA takes place in the Planetside2 subreddit, most of the questions naturally focus on that game, so a lot of it may not be all that interesting or relevant to anyone who isn't currently playing PS2. If the headline quote pulled by MassivelyOP and echoed by Healing The Masses is to be believed, that means almost everyone.

While it's extremely unusual to hear a senior executive comment so freely and frankly on the poor health of an MMO under his authority, it was another of Jens' open, honest and revealing replies that really caught my attention. In answer to a question asking whether one response to the dearth of PS2 players might be to improve Membership benefits, Jens had this to say:

You know what is funny? No matter how many things we heap into membership on all of our games, it makes no difference in the appeal of membership to non members. This is something we saw on DCUO for sure. The amount of benefits to DCUO membership is staggering, but people don't take advantage of it. It's just not a really good strategy for us to keep trying to lead horses to water that do not want to drink. And the fact is, current members already get huge benefits from the monthly fee they already pay.

That really gets to the nub of the F2P versus Subscription issue in my opinion. There is a fundamental divide between those players who are willing to pay a regular, ongoing fee to access an online video game and those who aren't. Whether it's down to age or disposable income or available leisure time is unclear but somewhere along the line there is a clear split between the committed and the uncommitted that is not directly influenced by value alone.

Tobold was speculating yesterday about an old idea: the premium subscription. He found himself paying $10 a day to play League of Angels, a game I'd never heard of and which, from a quick glance at the website, appears to be the kind of competetive PvP affair I'd have expected Tobold to avoid like the plague. The experience led him to wonder whether there might be a market for "luxury niche MMORPGs with a $300 a month subscription fee".

Jens Andersen's insight suggests not, as does a much older experiment from the company formerly known as SOE. Way back in 2002, when EverQuest was the big dog of western MMOs, John "Smed" Smedly imagined a Velvet Rope experience might bring in even more cash. He was wrong.

The Legends server was launched with a flurry of hype that makes for hubristic reading more than a decade on. As far as I recall Smed's ambitious claims that Legends would provide "a tabletop RPG experience" in which players would "feel like they are part of a world that's changing at a much more rapid pace" came to nothing. If anyone on Legends ever did get a sword named after them that went on to become a drop on regular EQ servers then they kept pretty quiet about it, even if, as this thread suggests, it happened all the time on the Stormhammer server itself.

Although plenty of nostalgists in that thread confirm the $40 a month was money well spent, they also tell a tale of ever-declining numbers. There never was a second Legends server and by 2006 there weren't enough high-rollers left to keep the lights on any more. The experiment has not been repeated.

Here's the problem: an online game has to provide a minimum level of content and service to function at all. Getting that up and running and keeping it that way is the baseline without which you just don't have a game that anyone much is going to play, even for free. But simply by reaching that level of competence you have already satisfied the needs of most of your potential audience. If you're lucky you might sell them a few trinkets and toys before they wander off to the next game down the line.

Tobold (yes, him again) opined today that rather than being addicted to MMOs most of us are merely fascinated by them, and that it's a fascination that can easily be broken or redirected elsewhere. I don't wholly go along with the premise but it certainly applies to the wider mass market for online entertainment. When so much is available for free, and mostly at a relatively high level of quality, who would pay just to have access to one particular example among many and how much better than the competition would that example need to be?

As the world adjusts to the unending tsunami of free entertainment let loose by the transition to digital media and the growth of uninterrupted, immediate global online accessibility, "content providers" have to learn how to swim in these treacherous waters. Some are managing to keep their heads above the water; some are drowning. 

This, very clearly, is where current marketing strategies like those being developed by DBG and ArenaNet come into play. DBG, unlike SOE in the years before the sell-off, have finally noted the disproportionate importance of the comparatively small audience that has already chosen to play and to keep playing DBG's MMOs rather than someone else's. Instead of casting their net as far and wide as possible they are increasingly choosing to bait a hook with flavors many already playing find almost impossible to resist - nostalgia and character progression.

ANet, on the other hand, have sidestepped in the other direction. In a neat body-swerve they've opened the doors to let the F2P world inside, only to jink back, moving almost the entirety of the company's onward development focus to the commercial higher ground, locked behind the paywall of a Heart of Thorns purchase. You can play a GW2 for free; just not the GW2.

I logged into WildStar:Reloaded for the first time last night and spent an hour sorting out the perks and freebies from my single month of membership that came with the box. Then I spent a while browsing the cash shop on which the game's future in great part rests. I couldn't find anything to buy and I couldn't find much enthusiasm to play either. Whether Carbine will sink or swim is too early to tell but they must be eyeing FunCom's predicament with grim foreboding.

Sadly, while in this new, digital world nothing is ever truly gone, plenty falls out of reach. MMORPGs, with their infrastructure and population density requirements, are especially vulnerable. J3w3l, fearing for the future of Tera, wonders about the wisdom of putting "time and effort into and mmo that won’t last too long. Or that my friends won’t play much either". It's a conundrum alright.

As Telwyn from GamingSF observes, this is a problem almost unique to online entertainment. Stick to the offline world or better yet the printed word and your sense of security increases a hundredfold. Wilhelm just received his fresh Kickstarted copy of Tunnels and Trolls. Now he can "read through it and imagine all the great campaigns one could run without ever actually playing" just like I could do with my favorite forgotten system, Swordbearer, whose three Denis Loubet illustrated volumes sit on a shelf behind me as I write.

In the end though, unlike those free to play hordes who can't be led to the subscription waters they have no interest in drinking, we come to online entertainment willingly, because the range of choice is vast, the ease of access unparalleled. If the price is impermanence then it's a price we will just have to go on paying. As the Legends experiment proved, we only rent our time in these worlds. Open your wallet wide as you will, more money won't buy security of tenure.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Home Again, Home Again

Okay, that's not actually a picture of me and Mrs Bhagpuss on holiday but give it a few years...

Anyway, we're back and we had a fantastic time, thanks for asking. One thing that was very noticeable is how the quality of internet access in hotels is improving. We stayed in a different place every night (explorer archetype in full effect) and even in the most out-of-the-way, backwater locations (one of them at the end of a four kilometer unpaved dirt road) I was able to web-browse with barely any delay.

I took my Windows 10 tablet, which meant that, in theory, I could not only have blogged but even played some MMOs. In the end I did neither, preferring to read (actual paper books) and stare at the scenery. I did manage to keep up with my blog reading to some degree, if only to avoid a repeat of last time, when I came home to a waiting list of more than 250 blog posts in my Feedly.

When it comes to blogging, coming back from a break is always revealing. After hitting an all-time high in July my page-views fell by around 20% in August even though I posted twice as often as I usually do, literally every day. Views in September then promptly fell off a cliff although I returned to exactly the same posting schedule as normal.


In October they hit the bottom of the cliff and started to dig a hole. Going away and not posting at all actually improved my daily page views, partly thanks to Syp linking me in Massively OP's Global Chat, which always leads to a flurry of visits. It rarely generates any comments (well, not here anyway - I try to avoid reading the comment thread at MOP for reasons that should be obvious) but this time it did lead to one lengthy and thoughtful response.

I'm particularly poor at checking older posts for comments. About the only time I remember is when I come back from holiday. I have had comment moderation set to kick in when a post has been up for more than three weeks but I've just doubled that to six to cover for my appalling inability to go back and see what's caught in the net. I have just noticed that there's a field to set an email address for moderation requests (probably should have spotted that earlier...) so with that enabled perhaps I'll be able to do a better job of fielding them.

Judging by the experiences of a number of bloggers it's just as well I wasn't around for the WildStar F2P launch. It seems to have sorted itself out now and I hope to take a look at how things have changed later this week. There are a few practical considerations to take  into account before that can happen, though.

Hey, is that one of the new ranger pets?

One undocumented change that seems to have rolled up with the change to payment model is the dropping of region restrictions. That complicates matters somewhat because I would prefer to play on a U.S. server but the one character I already have is on an E.U. shard because the digital download I got was locked to that region.

I also have an unopened physical box, which I bought from Amazon U.K. but which arrived from a U.S. shipping address, meaning it was, at that time, presumably, region-locked to American servers. To top it off I have another unused digital code from the same source I got my E.U. one, which I bought so that Mrs Bhagpuss and I could play together if she decides to give WS a go. I might just start again.

It is, of course, less than two weeks until Heart of Thorns lands and chances are that will push most other gaming to one side for a while, anyway. The new information on Tarir, The Golden City, is intriguing. It does suggest that, eventually, there could be a city/service hub in HoT that might replace Lion's Arch and/or Divinity's Reach as the center of gravity for non-combat player activity but only after we, the players, progress the storyline far enough for that to happen. What with that and Guild Halls I wonder whether we will see something of the kind of siloing of populations other MMOs have suffered after expansions?

The first of the EQ2 server merges is going to go through the same week HoT hits if DBG stick to the tentative schedule they've announced. That one only affects my older characters that I rarely play any more so there shouldn't be any friction between the two events as far as I'm concerned. Still needs an eye kept on it, though. Don't want anything going missing.

All in all it's shaping up to be a very busy Autumn. Spring would be better for me but I'm sure I'll manage, somehow.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Pink Pet Parade : GW2

What with all the focus on CHALLENGE and DIFFICULTY and RAIDING and ENDGAME it never occurred to me that among the new ranger-tameable pets in Heart of Thorns there'd be anything like this.

I don't have either the time or the inclination to log into the final HoT beta that began tonight but in our brave new world of pre-expansion GW2 you don't need to log into beta - beta logs into you. There we were, minding our own business waiting for Rooba and the C.L.E.A.N. 5000 to go through their vaudeville routine for the n-thousandth time when this apparition appeared.

It identified as some kind of Juvenile animal, marking it as a ranger pet, but I was so taken aback I missed the exact name and by the time I'd finished posing next to it for screenshots and switched the UI back on, the ranger (that's her with the wings) had amusingly renamed the creature "I Love Asuras", thereby overwriting the species tag.

The pink fluffy *thing* scurries about like a cross between a bunny-rabbit and a hamster and occasionally rears up on its hind legs and peers goofily to the left and then the right. What the heck it's meant to be I have no idea but dignified it certainly isn't. Scary, yes, but not in a good way.

The announced list of ranger pets included fearsome beasts like wyverns, dinosaurs and tigers. No-one mentioned anything like this. Unless that is what Tyrian dinosaurs look like. There is a theory currently in vogue that dinosaurs were brightly colored with feathers but I don't think hot pink fuzz was quite what the proposers of that concept had in mind.

Makes you wonder what else might be out there. doesn't it?

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Never Say Never : EQ2

Among Blaugust's many discussion topics I seem to remember there was one about MMO regrets. When that subject comes up someone usually observes that it's always the things you didn't do that nag away at the back of your mind as you get older rather than the choices you actually made.

I've never entirely been convinced by that argument. It seems to me that, often, making one choice locks out all the others, in which case speculating about what might have been is singularly unhelpful, if not unhealthy. Otherwise, if the doors stay open, then regret seems pointless. You can just try again and see how that turns out instead.

Still, it's all very well applying your cognitive techniques, but be as pragmatic as you like, regret will creep in when you least expect it. It crept up on me the other day when I was playing EQ2. No, that's not really fair. I was waiting for it. Courting it. I went to look for it.

The seed was planted by Feldon at EQ2Wire. He reported that the second stage of the pre-events leading up to the announcement and eventual launch of the forthcoming, still unnamed, EQ2 expansion was making a mysterious and highly unanticipated callback to the past. I was reading the news squib with interest when I came to this paragraph:

"...the quest references the underground cities of Moradhim and Klik’anon which appeared in the now-sunsetted PS2 exclusive EverQuest Online Adventures (EQOA), which predates both EverQuest and EverQuest II. Moradhim and Klik’anon were the player starting cities of the Dwarves and Gnomes, respectively".

Reading that I felt an odd mixture of emotions. There was regret that I'd never made sufficient effort to play EQOA, something I only really thought of doing when it was too late, but there was also excitement that there might still be a chance to get at least a taste of what I'd missed.

EQOA launched all the way back in 2003, right at the point when I was most deeply engaged in the EverQuest experience yet I payed it little attention. It was a version of EQ available only on PlayStation 2. I didn't have a PS2. I didn't want a PS2. I had no interest whatsoever in consoles.

It was EQ, though, and I was and remain interested in all things Norrathian, so I filed it somewhere in the back of my mind as something I might get around to checking out someday. Then I promptly forgot about it.

A few years later, maybe around the time Rubies of Eventide closed down for the final time, I began to realize that these things weren't always going to be there. By then we were up to the PS3 and I had the idea that I could buy a PS2 for cheap just to run around EQOA and check it off the list.  If only.

First, the price of PS2s never really dropped all that much. Something about lack of backwards compatibility maybe. I don't know. Still, they weren't expensive and that wouldn't have been a problem. No, the problem was that just a few months before I began to look into the possibilities SOE decided to close down EQOA's only EU server.

Robot Wars!

At that time the US server was still running but there were a whole load of hoops you'd have to jump through to get on board. I forget exactly what they were but I think one was that the server could tell if the PS2 was a US or an EU model. Whatever it was, it was more effort than I was willing to make.

A while later, when SOE announced they were sunsetting the game altogether, I revisited the idea but once again nothing came of it. The final EQOA server closed and with it, I imagined, the door to that version of Norrath, forever.

And now here we are, all unawares, standing on the threshold of discovery. The simple yet intriguing Sundered Ground questline follows on directly from the equally straightforward and satisfying Malice in the Woods. I took my Berserker to see Lanxena T’Xith deep in the bowels of Neriak and then off around the world to investigate the inevitable rumors.

Hmm...this doesn't look right...
There was a brief blip when I mistook an instruction to see a gnome tinkerer in The Down Under, Neriak's crafting district, for a mission to visit The Down Below, one of the several sewer systems beneath Qeynos, but once we'd got all that sorted out it was plain sailing.

As promised, the elemental activity is clearly visible from a great distance. Finding one that would prove "a challenge" was simple. I chose to go to Cobalt Scar because it's one of my favorite high-level zones and I guessed it would be less busy than ones in the current expansion, Tranquil or Phantom Sea.

Reading comprehension FTW
The whole quest only took half an hour or so and most of that was traveling but it was disproportionately enjoyable. I felt that something really was happening, that what I was doing really was leading towards a genuine new adventure. Discovering that clockwork devices from an ancient, near-mythical city from Norrath's past were scrabbling up through the earth to broadcast a broken plea for help made me want to know more.

It may simply be that after a decade and a half I'm just that much more invested in the lore but I can't help contrasting the emotional heft of this very simple questline with the grinding PR overkill and badly mishandled live events in GW2. As Wilhelm likes to observe, DBG really do seem to have a handle on how to use nostalgia effectively.

It's not just the obvious things like the various retro servers and the return of the Isle of Refuge. The previous expansion, Altar of Malice, opened up an area of the map long puzzled over and brought back creatures not seen since the destruction of Luclin. Revamping the past is a way of life for DBG it seems and they are getting better and better at doing it in a way that appeals to the long-timers while not offending their sacred memories.

That, in essence, is why I'm looking forward more to the next EQ2 expansion than I am to Heart of Thorns, even though it's an odds-on bet I'll play the latter ten times as much. I may never get to see the original Moradhim and Klik'Anon but perhaps I'll at least get to adventure in their ruins.

Except...wait...what's this? Just look what I found while I was fact-checking this post! Maybe that door isn't closed after all...


Monday, 28 September 2015

Are We Nearly There Yet? : GW2, EQ2

The final Heart of Thorns beta arrives this coming weekend. I'll be skipping it for several  reasons. Firstly I'm working all day Saturday and flying to Bilbao on Sunday morning so I don't have time. Secondly, "due to large back-end changes to core systems that have corrupted some of the beta data" we will have to make new characters.

Well, they can forget that. Making a character in this beta test is a pain. Not only do you have to go through the entire regular character creation process, you have to unpack reams of equipment that fill your bags and then sort it all out along with your traits and skills and so on. I did it once but once was enough, which is why so far the only elite class specialization I've seen is the Elementalist.

Even if you were able to summon up the willpower to push through that barrier there's another right behind it: "Beta characters will begin by playing through a brief shared battle in the Silverwastes that leads into the expansion jungle region, followed by the intro story step of the expansion." That puts a very final cap on any passing fancy I might have had about trying, say, the new Druid elite spec.

I've done it once already, during the first beta weekend, and although it was not actively unpleasant I wouldn't call it fun. It was an obstacle placed in my way before I could get on with what I wanted to do. Leave aside the sheer futility of doing the thing a second time for a two-day beta that I could, at most, log into for no more than a few hours, I'm not looking forward, at all, to doing that first personal story step for a second time even when the expansion finally rolls around.  Again, once was more than enough.

It isn't that I'm unwilling to follow the storyline or that I'm not interested in what's happening to Destiny's Edge and the rest of The Pact as they make a Bay of Pigs Ear of dealing with Mordremoth. I just want control of my characters, freedom of action and the ability to make my own choices about how to spend my time when I log into the game. Don't make me jump through hoops just to get started.

Contrary to my usual position, which is that everything is better when it's character-based, I really hope the "personal story" turns out to be account-based this time around. It's bad enough when an MMORPG like FFXIV locks every progression step behind compulsory story arcs and cut scenes but at least there you can play every class on the same character so most people will only need to do it all once.

GW2 is a game of alts, much more so than most MMOs I've played. My guess is that most people have several characters that they play regularly. Just sticking to the account that's HoT-enabled and adding in the Revenant to come, I have nine characters on the go. Imagine having to play through the whole Personal Story nine times just to get through the four new maps! Not saying that's for sure what will happen but it's my worst-case, nightmare scenario.

I'll gladly forego seeing any minor narrative deviations based on class or race just to get the thing out of the way in a single run. Really, at the very least there should be a "skip this stage" button. I'd happily accept no rewards for eight of my team in return for the option to opt out of doing the whole thing nine times.

The presence of the new Personal Story is interesting in itself. People in map chat yesterday were confidently discussing what might happen in Living Story 3 but as far as I can tell no-one at ArenaNet has confirmed there is even going to be a third season. Other than the aforementioned intent to fix WvW, the developers' attention post-HoT appears to be focused firmly on producing Raids.

Ravious, in his overview of the weekend's Twitch streams, reports that it was suggested ANet "could get up to 6 raid wings a year", and there is certainly some suggestion that Raids are where the ongoing storyline will progress. With that and the set storyline taking place in the new Personal Story is there even room (or resource) for another narrative arc on a biweekly cadence?

My enthusiasm for Heart of thorns waxes and wanes. I like the look of some of the class elites. I enjoyed what little I tried of gliding. The Mastery system looks familiar and the mechanics fall well within my comfort zone. New maps to explore are always better than no new maps to explore even if there aren't as many as I'd like, they're not my choice of biome and they're awkward to navigate. The changes to WvW look ok on paper although I would like to have had the chance to experience them in person.

All in all I feel confident there's more than enough to justify buying the thing and giving it a few weeks of my time. On the other hand, there looks to be a lot of slog or grind or busy-work; choose your label. The process for crafting Precursors for Legendary Weapons, for example, follows the now-familiar "it goes to 11" approach to questing (and yes, call them what you will, these are quests). I've been opting out of Epic Weapon quests almost as long as I've been playing MMOs and I see nothing here that's likely to make me re-assess that policy now.

Then there's the "housing". The personal version would need another buttock to make it to half-arsed but Guild Halls look to have a bit more to them. We still haven't heard much in the way of hard detail on how they'll work though. I'm particularly interested, not to say concerned, over how small guilds fit into the picture. As the co-leader of a guild with three active members, one of whom plays regularly but only for two or three hours a week, I find it hard to imagine the format can be stretched sufficiently widely to include us. It would be nice to be proved wrong but I'm not counting on it.

Add in raids and that's three quite significant paths through the Heart of Thorns journey that I'm unlikely to find myself traveling. Still, that's not far from par for the course when it comes to MMO expansions. It's been a long while since I used more than half of the content in any of them - if indeed I ever have.

I didn't actually sit down this afternoon to write about HoT. I was going to explore a little of the pre-expansion content for EQ2, which I've been very much enjoying these last few days. The full reveal for that as-yet unnamed addition to the game comes on Thursday. It won't be until then that I'll be able to judge just how much of it will be useful to me but I have already decided to pre-order it, sight unseen.

One thing SOE/DBG have done with the last few expansions is open out all content to everyone. Rather than lock the storyline behind full-group dungeons or raids they've created a full range of options, using the same zones and story in solo, duo, group and raid settings. It's an excellent solution for an aging game with a smaller, more fractured population but really, why wait until then? A little bit more accessibility wouldn't hurt sales even in a flourishing MMO, I'd have thought.

As it stands right now I'm considerably more excited about the EQ2 expansion than Heart of Thorns, for reasons I might get around to discussing tomorrow. That might all change, when we learn more about what's in it, just as learning a lot more detail of what's coming with HoT slowly warmed me up to that one.

In the end, though, as Syp was saying a while back, I'm just glad expansions are back in fashion. Good, bad or indifferent, I'd always rather have one than not.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Make Way! Druid Coming Through! : GW2

Back when GW2 was still in Closed Beta I was feeling somewhat anxious. I knew it was an MMORPG I wanted to play but some of the aspects ArenaNet were promoting most heavily made me wonder whether they were making a game I'd find difficult to enjoy.

My primary area of concern was the emphasis on active combat and dodging. I don't like Action RPGs very much and at that time I had little experience of any that required constant ducking and rolling to survive. It sounded like a lot of work and not much fun.

I remember quizzing the Kill Ten Rats team, who at that time were quite deep in the loop, on how the combat felt and whether a traditional stand-and-cast player coming from an EQ/WoW background would be able to cope. They were re-assuring but it wasn't until the first open beta weekend that I got to test the waters for myself to find out whether they were warm and balmy or filled with sharp rocks and sharks.

As I wrote at the time "I was apprehensive about some of the things I'd read about GW2's "action combat" so I went with a class that could stand off a ways and see what was going on. That class, of course, was The Ranger and, as I soon discovered, a ranger in GW2 doesn't have to dodge at all. Not for nothing has playing a ranger in the open world been seen as playing the game on easy-mode ever since.

Staff envy
I stuck with my Charr ranger through all the beta weekends and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. When headstart arrived I simply re-made him and started over. He was the first character I leveled to 80 and he's still one of the key members of my team three years later.

Rangers have long had good utility in what ANet now likes to call the "soft trinity". They can stand in all three corners. They bring excellent "Control" (almost unsurpassably so, as was discovered to the detriment of many Mannequin runs) when using a bear pet as a tank. Damage is decent, with exceptionally good burst DPS on the Longbow and a range of conditions elsewhere. What has been less celebrated, although Zubon spotted it as long ago as November 2012, is their capacity for group healing.

Over the years a lot changed and it must be a very long time indeed since rangers were anyone's go-to healers in or out of a dungeon. GW2, of course, famously doesn't have a specialist healer class. The nearest would probably be an Elementalist in Water, a very common and required role in WvW, but there's never been anything even close to the kind of dedicated pure healer role of an EQ cleric or a WoW priest. Until now.

On Friday ANet lifted the veil on the final Elite specialization: The Druid. It brought the HoT wheel full circle. The Ranger was the very first class to have its Elite publicly named and its new weapon, the Staff, announced - all the way back at the start of the year. For once, when all is revealed, the method in ANet's mystery makes sense.

The Druid offers GW2's first and only full-time, full-on, full-function healing spec. Had that been made known back when we saw a ranger waving a stick for the first time there would have been uproar. Rangers get the shaft again. Why do ANet hate rangers? Well that's it - deleting my ranger now! And so on and so on.

Six months later there may not quite be a deafening roar of unanimous approval but there's plenty of love going around in the lengthy discussions and dissections of the new skills, traits and gameplay options offered by The Druid. The addition of raids to the game, the harder open-world content coming in the expansion and, most especially, direct statements of intent from the developers along the lines of "Upcoming content will have stuff that you can’t just dodge to survive" and "The Berserk meta is going away" make it quite clear that the class that gets the best healing is getting a plum job.

Not going to cut it in HoT. Allegedly.

Naturally that won't please every ranger. Not everyone wants to spend their play-session keeping the other folks upright. Enjoying playing a dedicated healer requires a particular personality. After three years in a game with almost no outlet for those tendencies is it likely there are even any would-be full healers still playing and if there are would they be playing rangers?

Well, I am. It's a long, long time since I filled the straight-up, main healer slot but it remains my favorite MMORPG group role. And what's more I don't just have my semi-meta zerker Charr ranger, I also already have a max-level Asuran Ranger, fully kitted out in Apothecary exotics and Ascended trinkets, who, when he hit 80, was specced with healing as his focus. Don't ask why. He just was.

What's more, in a piece of remarkable foresight (even if at the time it looked like a careless mistake) both rangers are on the same account and it's the one that's got HoT. I'm all set up ready for The Druid and I have to say the reveal has significantly increased my excitement for and interest in the expansion.

It was all so simple then. And we had hats.

It won't all happen at once. There will be an inordinate amount of theorycrafting and trial-and-error for weeks if not months before the inevitable codifying and concreting of The New Meta. Fun for those that like that kind of thing. Maybe in the end it won't turn out to be as spectacular as it looks on paper. Maybe it will be so overpowered it will die the death of a thousand nerfs.

I don't care. I'm just happy to see it tried. I've given the lengthy list of new skills and traits the once-over, surprising myself with just how many times I've nodded and smiled and murmured approval. For now I'm happy to wait until its time to test it out in the field.

There's one more beta weekend to come but I'm working the first day and going on holiday on the second so the first chance I'll have will be at launch. Can't wait!

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Test Of Patience : EQ2

See that up there? That's what you get for not logging in for five years, that is. A screen full of pop-ups and a cacophony of alarms and sirens. Oh, I get the message: everything's changed. Don't expect to just pick up where you left off, fairweather friend. There's plenty of work to be done before you'll be having any fun here again.

It's unavoidable, I guess. It would be irresponsible to let us just charge off, all unprepared, in our ancient, outdated gear, flinging our superannuated spells and clicking away at a cluster of icons that no longer connect to anything. An awful lot changes in most MMORPGs just in six months leave alone five years.

Still, it's offputting. How many potential returning customers take one look at the splurge of demands, instructions and warnings spilling across the screen, think "sod this for a game of soldiers" and log off for another few years? I know I've done it a few times.

This morning I logged onto EQ2's Test server. It was the the first time I'd been back since we left, supposedly just for a few weeks, when SoE began their Grand Experiment with the launch of the original F2P beta. We liked it so much on Freeport that we never went back. I still play there even now although Mrs Bhagpuss, despite maintaining an All Access account, hasn't really played anything other than GW2 for the last three years.

Before that Test had been our home for about half a decade. We both had multiple max-level characters and we'd had a long and often intense relationship with the tight-knit, idiosyncratic and frequently fractious Test community. It was a very different experience from playing on a "Live" server, what with the tiny population where, almost literally, everyone knew everyone else, something that often resulted in the server-wide equivalent of guild drama. Oh, the eternal politics!

And then there were the endless bugs, the broken content, the regular, direct contact with the developers, the permanent 50% xp bonus and the complete absence of customer service. It was a unique environment to be leveling up in, that's for sure.

Playing on Freeport felt almost like playing the game on easy mode after all that and I think we were about ready for some normality. Also, on Freeport we had our own guild. For most of our time on Test we were the only two active players in a guild we had helped to found but didn't own. The leader left fairly soon after we joined and before long so did everyone else. We did try to get the guild transferred to our leadership but at that time there was no mechanism for doing so.

Well, there is now. That was one reason I logged in today. I thought I'd start the ball rolling and get the guild switched to my leadership. Only, wouldn't you know it, in the five years since we left it, as I thought, in stasis the original leader has returned! It would seem she was playing pretty actively for a while until about six months ago. No-one else has been on and she's demoted the entire roster other than her characters to "inactive" status so I'm not even an officer any more, which means I couldn't even begin the leadership transfer process now if she takes another break for a few years.

As it happens, she logged in for the first time since February just three days ago. I thought about sending her an in-game mail asking to be re-officered but do I really care? I think that in the extremely unlikely event I was to go back and play regularly on Test I'd rather just make a branch of our own guild, move into that and start over. Maybe I'll sleep on it.

In the meantime I had plenty of busy work to occupy my morning. I only logged in two characters, Bruiser and Necromancer, both level 90. Naturally, even though I'd been actively playing them right up to the move to Freeport, they both had full bags. Completely full. Every slot.

My overflow filled up with discontinued or revamped items the game was throwing at me so I
needed to make space fast. A quick squint at the contents of the bags showed a lot of house items. That looked like an easy fix - go to my houses, dump the furniture, clear overflow and work from there.

Except I'd completely forgotten how nicely decorated my houses on Test are. How much time and effort and care and attention I'd put into them. How cosy and welcoming and familiar they looked and felt. So I couldn't just plonk crap down anywhere. I had to spend time looking at it all and placing it properly.

A watched gnome trap never springs
That would have been all well and good only, in the Bruiser's three-room Freeport apartment, nothing could be placed at all. I couldn't figure out why but luckily I found a couple of 36 slot boxes in my bags and free spaces for them in my House Vault so I shoved everything in there and slammed the door. Kicking the can down the road I think they call it.

It's not this bright and cheerful in game, believe me. I tweaked it in paint.net.
It turned out the problem with item placement was because I'd left the Bruiser's house "Published" under the viewing system so that people could come visit it. He has a Gnome Trap set up in there and he'd published the house under the name "Gnomes Welcome" hoping to catch a few. Sadly his little plan didn't work because he hasn't paid any rent since 2010 so no-one, gnome or otherwise, has been able to get in since then.

The Necro had no such issues. She put all her miscellaneous house items down thoughtfully and carefully although in the indigo gloom that passes for lighting in Neriak you could hardly tell. That gave me two characters with about 15% of their inventory available, rather above the average for characters played by me.

One thing I really love about EQ2 is how everything, including simple UI service functions, have lore-appropriate animations and mechanics.
From there it was on to the eternal round of resets. Racial traits and AAs mostly. I've long since lost track of how many times SOE and now DBG have enforced a complete respec by returning all my hard-earned points and insisting I spend them all over again. There was a point where it was a real nuisance, back when there was no option but to do everything manually. That's something you still have to do for the racial choices but some time ago they added a bunch of templates for AAs that let you install a default spec with a single click.

It's an option I greatly prefer. I just hit "Leveling Solo" for both of them and what used to be an hour's fiddly, annoying tool-tip reading and button-clicking went by in less than a second (not including casting time). Should I ever set to playing those characters "seriously" I'll probably need to make some tweaks but for now they can at least venture out of their houses without the risk of being knocked down and trampled by rabbits.

Welcome to my parlor, said the ratonga to the gnome.
It does still leave the issue of hot bars. I copied the UI layout over from my Berserker on Freeport so that part's done but the bars themselves are in a shocking mess. Everything's in the wrong place and loads of things are duplicated or even quintuplicated. It really needs for them all to be emptied out and re-filled by hand, which will take more time than I'm willing to spend right now.

Maintenance aside, it was great to see those characters again. They were such a huge part of my life for such a long time it seems bizarre that I'd left them so easily and completely. Not without a second thought, because I do think of them quite often, but certainly without actually doing anything to check on them and make sure they were getting on alright.

Now, there's a funny story about how I captured this one...

Partly it was that it used to be a major enterprise to set up an account for the Test server. You used to need a full installation in a separate directory for one thing. Now, though, it's as easy as selecting "Public Test" from the drop-down menu at log-on. It took me less than five minutes, from deciding to do it on a whim, to stepping onto the surface of alternate Norrath once again.

I'd like to keep logging in to Test regularly now I've made the effort to come back. I'd like to wake up all my old characters and get them fighting fit even if I don't ever take them out of their home cities. I'd like to...but then I'd like to do a lot of things.

We'll see. At least it's a start.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide