Thursday, 16 April 2015

Progression Server Progress : Everquest

Pardon the typos. I can spell. I just can't type.

Daybreak have just published plans for the upcoming Everquest Progression server. In detail. A lot of detail.

It's a very good read. Fascinating, if you like that sort of thing. Which I do. Plenty of topics for discussion, which I expect we'll be having over at TAGN soon enough. I can retro a link in there later. It even has some jokes. 

We get an Open Beta and more polls. If we don't give clear answers the first time we do it over until we do. And you can win a backpack. Maybe several. Whoopeee!

The server arrives in "Summer", which is a lot better than "Soon". It will be called one of these names:

  • Anashti Sul
  • Gorenaire
  • Lockjaw
  • Meldrath
  • Mrylokar
  • Opal Darkbriar
  • Ragefire
  • Yelinak
I'll probably vote either for Lockjaw or Meldrath.  

There was one line that particularly piqued my curiosity:

"A lot of you suggested Quarm, which we like very much... for another purpose". Mmmmm... secret project...

All in all this seems to bode well. The execution appears speedy but not hasty and the way it's all being handled sets a different tone from the way these things have been done in the past. Shouldn't read too much into this stuff, perhaps, but since the transition to Daybreak I have been pleasantly surprised quite often.

D'oh! Now I've jinxed it.

Playing Hard To Get: Wildstar

So, according to the rumor mill, Wildstar might be going F2P. Or B2P. Dropping the subscription anyway. Maybe.

Apparently Australian game stores are the canary down the coalmine when it comes to payment model conversions. They start pulling boxes and packing for returns and that's the end of your exclusive club. This is based on...well, they did it just before ESO de-subbed so, proof!

Also Omeed Dariani, the gigglesome frontman who jumped ship from SoE to Carbine even before Daybreak was a thing, he said so on someone's Livestream. Sort of. Well, he said they were thinking about it. Bartillo told us so in the comment thread over at Keen and Graev.

Anyway, Wildstar's China launch is due soon, if you call the end of the year "soon". It could be next year. Before EQNext, anyway, I think we can count on that much, at least. They don't do subs in China so it's sure to be free there, which means they must be doing the conversion anyway, so it's inevitable here too, right?

No, I'm the cute one!

Syp thinks the recent re-focus on vanity pets and character customization presages a cash shop. He even plays Wildstar sometimes so he should know. That makes him the expert because for sure no-one else around here is playing it.

Yes. Well. Fine. But as Keen told me "it’s really not the subscription keeping you from playing, it’s the fact that the game isn’t good enough to justify the subscription". And he's right. Although he isn't.

I pay my subs. I'm paying Daybreak for All Access on two accounts. One of them we don't even use. I just logged it in this morning to claim the 500SC and five packs of Legends of Norrath cards and that'll probably be the last time it gets an airing until next month. (What's happening to Legends of Norrath anyway? Wasn't the last new pack Drakkinshard back in 2013?).

Wildstar is a fun game. I was interested in it when it was first announced then I went off it. That's the trouble with MMOs. They take so long to get here that by the time they get to where you are you're not there any more. /wave Black Desert.

So I wasn't even going to try it but then everyone else did and there was open beta or some such so I tried it and, yes, I liked it. The combat was frenetic, the tone was iffy, the colors were garish, the audio was jarring but the important part was...I really liked my little guy. That made up for an awful lot. Enough to get me to pay a sub, possibly. If...if...I also had time to play.

So, was Wildstar good enough for me to sub or wasn't it? I guess it wasn't because I didn't. I didn't even buy it and play the "free" month so obviously I didn't like it as much as FFXIV or TSW. And that's true. I like both of those games quite a lot more than I liked Wildstar.

Willpower. Willpower...

But I didn't sub those games either so, by Keen's logic, they weren't good enough. Maybe they weren't. I'd say FFXIV was and Wildstar probably wasn't but that wasn't why I didn't sub them.

In both cases the primary reason I didn't sub was that I couldn't foresee fitting them into the time I expected to have available. I was - am - already playing MMORPGs I'm committed to, at least to some degree. A day only has so many hours. A new MMO could even be better than the one I'm currently focused on and that still might not be enough to make me move: it would have to be a lot better to replace one I'm still enjoying.

The secondary reason was that Mrs Bhagpuss also didn't like either well enough to keep on playing. It's not like we are joined at the hip when it comes to gaming but it is more fun when we play the same MMO at the same time.  She tends to stick to one and I like to spread out a bit, so I play lots of MMOs that she doesn't, which is very easy now they're all there and thereabouts free, but it does makes a difference to which ones I'll pay to play.

Currently that's EQ and EQ2. I'm playing and she's not and I am willing to pay for the benefits of a subscription, apparently, even though I'm not sure I could tell you what those benefits are. I think I just like giving Smed money, that's probably it. I've been doing it so long it would feel weird to stop now.

Getting back to the point, and I did have one, I imagine, there are more reasons for deciding not to subscribe to a game than that game not being good enough to justify the cost. Once the subscription goes away, though, all those reasons go away with it.

Track now playing: EQ2 Warlock

I "play" a lot of MMOs. From memory, I am currently "playing" all of these:

GW2, Everquest, EQ2, Allods, Istaria, The Secret World, ESO, City of Steam, Project:Gorgon, WoW (free version), Eldevin and Neverwinter.

You have to define "playing". I have, at the very least, logged into all of the above this calendar year. I consider myself to be on hiatus from, but still not not playing, ArcheAge, Landmark and LOTRO. Added to which I have recently downloaded STO and logged into Guild Wars. There will certainly be others I've forgotten that, if you reminded me, I'd also claim to be "playing", even if only metaphorically. Or is that metaphysically? Something meta at any rate...

Conspicuously absent from that list are FFXIV and Wildstar. I would be "playing" both of those if they didn't have subscriptions. I'd be logged in taking screenshots for this post for a start, which is how I "play" quite a few MMOs these days. How much I'd be playing beyond that is hard to guess but I suspect it would be a not insignificant amount.

Would Square or Carbine make any money out of me by going F2P? I doubt it. Well, Square already got the box price and Carbine probably will too, because even if they declare the game is going to go full-on free, chances are I'll grab one from Amazon in advance like I did for ESO (ESO boxes were dirt cheap six weeks before F2P, when I bought ours. I checked yesterday and they are now going for collector's prices with almost none left so best grab a Wildstar box now, I'd say, while they're still selling at way under retail).

Of course you can always just play one MMO to the tune of another.

That will be all they get from me I imagine. I mean, I play GW2 about all the hours god sends and, other than buying three boxes for three accounts, they've never had a penny out of me. What can I say? I'm a cheap date when it comes to gaming.

If an MMO is storming away like FFXIV they can very well do without my custom. Very well. Wildstar, one imagines, can't afford to turn business down. They could seriously do with every warm body they can get.

Oh, there is the argument that an influx of unwashed oiks, shoving and pushing past the fallen payment barrier, fingering the merchandize and sneering at the decor, will spoil it for the last few remaining paying customers. That one comes up every time a game converts.

Having been one of those remaining paying customers I can't say I noticed anything like that. Things got louder and busier for a while. Bustling even. That was generally fun. Then, after the novelty wore off, it all quietened down and went back to much how it was before. Presumably someone made some money out of it. No-one's lands got ruined that I saw. Certainly not mine.

For some MMOs there surely must come a time when there's no point pretending any more. No-one loves you. No-one even remembers you're there. You have to do something or you may as well just shut up shop. We really have no way of knowing if that's where Wildstar is right now but it's where the sentiment is, that's for sure. We're all just waiting for the shoe to drop.

It needs to happen soon if I'm ever going to write another Wildstar post, too. I've used all my screenshots. Most of them twice.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Strong Showing For Stronghold : GW2

Last night was my first chance to try some of GW2's hot new content. Or should that be new HoT content? Either way, for 24 hours only, the upcoming sPvP map featuring the new game mode known as "Stronghold" is available for testing, using the "we beta on live" system that so impressed Ravious a short while ago.

I say "available". If you play unranked arenas, as most people doing dailies probably do, you'll be testing The Battle of Champion's Dusk, whether you like it or not. For a day and a night the new map replaces all others in that bracket.

You'll take this one and like it.
Not everyone reads patch notes or visits the news section of the official website so this seemed to come as a surprise to many. There were some lively discussions going on in map chat as I waited in the PvP lobby for my number to come up.

All but one of the PvP maps GW2 has had since launch rely on holding territory for points (the exception being a free-for-all brawl) so there was some confusion over what to do on a map that had no marked points where you stand in a ring to score. I'd taken the trouble to read the long and detailed overview so I had a fair idea of what was expected but it was still very confusing first time round.

Stronghold For Dummies
Confusing but also a lot of fun. I've never played a MOBA but according to what people who had were saying this is roughly how they work. To me it felt very much like a WvW mini-game, with keeps and Lords and siege engines and NPCs to hire.

For most of the lifetime of the game I've studiously ignored GW2's instanced PvP. It was the felicitous synchronicity of a couple of Jeromai's posts and the first 75% off sale that changed all that. Suddenly I had a new character on a new account, who had to do all three of his three (count 'em - three!)  dailies every day (one PvE, one WvW, one PvP) to get the "I've done three dailies" reward.

So I started doing instanced PvP and found I enjoyed it well enough, something that really shouldn't have come as a surprise given the countless hours I've spent doing the much same thing in WoW, Rift, Warhammer and EQ2. And, to pick up a theme, the recently-added extrinsic rewards for doing PvP are now so good they amount to open bribery.

There are two things you certainly can't say about GW2's PvP maps: as already outlined, you can't honestly say they offer much variety in gameplay and neither do they match up to the visual elan we're spoiled with throughout the rest of the game. The new map addresses both of those shortcomings.

A Pirate Captain, I !

Visually it's the only PvP map that looks as though any thought has gone into it at all beyond the necessary design that relates to functionality. Behind you at the spawn point is open sea with several impressive sailing ships moored at a dock. The fighting takes place in a small town that looks and feels like something you might find on an explorable map.

There's even some story going on somewhere. We appear to be working for someone to some end although I have no idea who or what that might be. A portentous voice-over does a little more than yell the usual banalities and statements of the obvious, suggesting some kind of life for our characters before and after the events in train.

Okay, Charlie!

All of that may be fluff when it comes to instanced PvP but it does set a tone and creates an atmosphere that makes this map feel more grounded than any of the others. Of course, for all I know there may actually be some narrative or storyline to sPvP as a whole that I've completely missed. In the end I guess it doesn't matter all that much because we're here for the fights and in the matches I played those were pretty good.

Seems clear enough...
I won't rehash the mechanics here but there's a lot more going on in than in any of the existing maps. You get a good deal of agency as a player above and beyond the usual "shall I go Home, Mid or Far?". There are plenty of options and they all feel like WvW to me: run supply, guard vital NPCs as they move across the map, fight NPC guards, break gates, kill the Lord.

Most of these activities also occur in the older PvPs but only in a nominal way. There it never seems to make much difference whether you do them or not because in the end everything comes down to one of two things: standing in a circle or stopping the other team from standing in one.

In Stronghold the ancillary activities actually matter. For one thing, the gates of the keep are impervious to player damage so if you don't spawn your bomb-carrying Skritt door-breakers then you won't even see the other team's Lord let alone kill him. And you won't have any Skritt unless you buy them with supply so better get running that.

I hope we get shore leave - it looks nice here.

NPC guards are also quite hard for players to kill so you'll need those NPC archers, which means more supply. If your team has two turret engineers (the go-to choice for lazy scrubs like my main PvP character) you can sit the pair of them on the two supply dumps and laugh at the other team because without supply you are stuffed. Or so they said in map chat. Only they didn't say "stuffed".

We didn't do that. We all ran around, swapping lanes and roles in the chaotic manner you'd expect from five people who'd never met before, who disdained the very idea of communication and anyway didn't remember or understand most of the rules. It was great!

Holding out for a Hero

I played two rounds, both of which were much longer than usual PvP matches. In the first my team was ahead on points right up to the end and I was confidently expecting a win on the timer when suddenly our Lord was dead, Game Over, you lose. Next time round it did go to the wire and we won by 285 points to 270 with both teams in the other's Keep, still hammering on the Lord as the timer ran out.

Colin in full spate.

When HoT arrives and this map enters regular play I foresee it being very popular. Certainly the feedback in open conversation in the PvP Lobby was very positive, which must have been sweet music to the three ANet devs, including Colin Johanson, who were hanging out there. I enjoyed it a lot, although like all instanced PvP I can only do two or three rounds in a row before I lose concentration.

Once people have more than a single day to get to grips with the map and the mechanics no doubt behavior will become more mandated, tactics codified and much of the chaos will leech out. You can easily foresee roles being assigned and blame being attached to those who don't stick to them and follow the prescribed path. Even then, I think it should be a fun diversion.

I just hope the Desert Battlegrounds turn out as well.

Monday, 13 April 2015

All Wrapped Up The Same

Time to drill down a little further into yesterday's topic. What set me off along this track in the first place was the question of whether players need extrinsic rewards to motivate them to do something that, by definition, is already a voluntary leisure activity.

My instinctive feeling is that they don't or, more properly, that they shouldn't. Nevertheless, it's evident, often painfully so, that at some point very close to the creation of the MMORPG genre a link was set between "activity" and "reward" and that supposed synergy is now hardwired into the form.

A few years back, whenever MMORPGs came up for discussion, there would often be talk of Skinner Boxes, Operant Conditioning and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's a well-trodden path but if anyone needs to get up to speed, Nick Yee, godfather of academic research on Everquest, runs through the detail here and Extra Credits do it with pictures here.

Nowadays you don't seem to hear so much about those psychological constructs that underpin just about everything we recognize as core behavior in this hobby. Latterly the discussion seems to have shifted to the uncertain dichotomy of Fun/Not Fun. As Murf points out this doesn't really help all that much.

sPvP uses the Fixed Interval Schedule. Read into that what you will.
In 2011, mainstream news outlets were hot to climb on board the fun bus and get all exercised over gamification. The BBC reported "According to research firm Gartner, 50% of companies that manage innovation and research will use gamification - the use of game-play mechanics for practical applications - by 2015 ".

Didn't happen? Well, that's because just six months later it was Game Over for Gamification. Far from predicting a gamified future Gartner had turned around to claim that "gamification is currently being driven by novelty and hype" and that by 2014 80% of gamification applications would fail to deliver "because of poor design".

So much for analysts and so much for the media's willingness to mine their never-ending stream of "reports" to feed the hungry maw of the twenty-four hour news day. Gamification never happened, for which we can all be grateful. Only no-one told the game designers about the change of plan.

Well, I guess you can't blame game designers for gamifying their games. I mean, they're games, right? What else can they do?

Suitable for Mature Players
Plenty, according to the Extra Credits crew. The second half of that video, which went up on YouTube the year after the gamification crash, mostly consists of suggestions of things developers and designers could do without dipping into the tawdry bag of psychological tricks to encourage people to play their video games.

Yes, they could do any or all of those things, couldn't they? But, why would they, when Skinner Box Logic continues to work so well? For all the negative evidence of burn-out and addiction and the positive cheerleading for fun, in the end aren't we all still pressing the buttons and popping the pellets? MMORPG's may be on the slide commercially but it's not like their replacements, MOBAs, Card Games, Match 3s and all, have eschewed the levers of control in favor of "Mystery" or "Novelty".

Getting back to core values and MMORPGs, here's J3w3l examining the issue of Reward Received vs Effort Expended as it applies in the acquisition of powerful and desirable weaponry in FFXIV and GW2. She perceives a substantive difference between Square's route to Relic weapons, which, while it involves "incredible grind", rewards "Lots of effort and Defined play" when compared to ANet's design strategy for Legendaries, which has "always been completely held up with ridiculous RNG so you often have no idea where you are in terms of progress" and "just seems a little off".

To me, as someone who would be highly unlikely to follow either path to its grim conclusion, they seem like two sides of the same coin. Indeed, they both sound like variations on Skinner's "random ratio" box, the most effective form of operant conditioning his research was able to reveal.

This all risks coming across as a criticism of the dominant mode of progression in this hobby that I spend so much time enjoying. It is and it isn't. The whole thing is horrifically complex, emotionally, psychologically, aesthetically.

On the face of it I make a very poor lab rat (or pigeon). If the reward goes any higher than the first couple of steps on Maslow's Hierarchy I tend to stop pressing the button early and turn my attention to gnawing a hole in the corner of the box.

I was playing Everquest when Epic weapons were introduced and over the next few years literally everyone I knew who played the game went out and did the often insanely lengthy and soul-crushing "quests" to get one. I never bothered. I just couldn't see where the fun was.
In that way I guess I was ahead of my time. No-one talked much about "fun" back then, not the way they do now. Gevlon, in a recent comment on Tobold's blog, put it rather astutely: "players who are capable of completing harder content are more likely mature, while those who "play for fun" are usually childish or even literally children". It's that pesky creeping infantilization of society problem again, isn't it?

That's really the point, though, isn't it? When I switch on the PC and step out into an imaginary world, I want to go somewhere that allows me to be "childish" or, to use a more positive nuance, "childlike". That's why I tend to prefer characters that look like children or anthropomorphic animals and players who would rather make juvenile puns than parse their DPS.

One of the fundamentals for me, when playing these "games", is that I don't get drawn into doing anything that feels like "work". I already have a job. I very much don't want another one on top of that. It goes some way to explain why I feel so strongly that the primary rewards for playing MMORPGs should all be intrinsic. In the end it's all about The Feels.

Take GW2. I play a lot of GW2. There are several reasons for that but the one that most matters here is the way the game looks, sounds and handles. Playing all my characters in GW2 feels natural. It's like driving a car that's right for you or wearing clothes that fit comfortably. The color palette, the saturation, the ambient soundscape, the fragmentary conversations of the NPCs, and, most especially, the fluidity of movement all come together to make being there a fulfilling and complete reward in and of itself. I don't need to do anything much when I "play" GW2 - I just need to play.

To a greater or lesser extent this is true of all the MMORPGs I really enjoy. What draws me in most of all and holds me are The Feels.

The Gift Shop is always open.
For a long time, when I heard people fretting over animations and timing, especially as it relates to combat, I found it hard to empathize. My understanding was that these things mattered only to those looking to optimize their rotations and maximize their damage output, things about which I don't generally care all that much.

Of late, though, I've come to realize that animations, combat timing, responsiveness, are as vital to the feeling of a game as the art design and lore. Playing EQ2 recently I've been thrilled by the tactility of the combat. As a berserker it's as though I can sense the impact of the blows I give and receive. Then there's EQ2's much-derided, vast selection of combat skills, almost fifty of them available to me at any time, spread across my five fighting hotbars. Far from representing a bloated mess of meaningless icons, they face me like the squares in a paintbox from which I gleefully paint my masterpieces of murder in swirling colors and crunching sound.

Meet my friend, Arfur Sixpence.
And yet, for all that, I don't mean to claim that Skinner Box rewards have no effect on me or that they have no place in the games I love. They do. They have. As Extra Credits observe, well-used, the RPG elements of item acquisition and character progression are powerful tools that we should welcome. But they aren't all, not even most, of what makes me want to play and go on playing.

We are, most of us, contradictory creatures. Despite the pre-eminent importance of The Feels it's hard to imagine keeping loyalty with a game that didn't also give me my stuff. By the Lord Harry, how I love my stuff! There's no way I could begin to claim I'd be happy playing a game, year in, year out, that gave me no material rewards, no character progression, to show for all my time, energy and commitment. I mean, you should see my Maj`Dul residence - it's a virtual museum - and when I ding a big number you can bet I'll be calling it in whatever channel is most likely to get me some validation.

It's not, then, in the end, a question of whether to have rewards.The question is how are those rewards to be delivered? As pellets from the pressing of a button or as a series of inevitable yet still surprising emergent moments within a virtual lifetime? Under the hood the machinery may be the same but the way that engine is set to purr makes all the difference in the world.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The Risk Of Reward

I'm very conscious that I haven't posted for a few days. It's not for lack of ideas or a shortage of things to say. Rather the opposite. There's been no lack of triggers but everything seems to demand some in-depth analysis or considered thought and there's not been the time

One thing I really wanted to tear up and shake around was the concept of reward structures in MMOs. It's a topic that's been popping up all over of late.

Ravious wrote about how pleased he was to see some of the proposed changes to WvW that will impact GW2 post-Heart of Thorns, supposedly making the whole thing more attractive to people who aren't enjoying it now by adding and improving the material rewards it offers. My immediate reaction was something along the lines of "but that's not the solution - that's the problem!".

Keen had his see-back-o-scope out and he was pointing it at Dark Age of Camelot. Several commenters accused him of having the rose-tinted filter fitted but he came back with some solid rebuttals based mainly on why caring trumps enjoying.

Topauz gave me some very helpful pointers in the comment thread to my post on how much fun I was having in EQ2. As a direct result of those I went out and had even more fun, remembering just why it is that I so appreciate the approach SoE and now Daybreak take to rewarding players for joining in with their vision.

That led me start thinking about motivations and rewards in MMOs across the board. About why I'm playing and what I get out of it. About who's playing me and what they get out of that. About fun, fulfillment and Living A Good Life.

This is the sort of thing that runs into dozens of hours and thousands of words and ends up eating its host. There's time to write and there's time to game but it's the same time. This week I chose to game, which, now I come to think of it, is emblematic of what I would have wanted to write about had I chosen to write instead.

It's over-simplistic to assert that, when it comes to play, the primary reward for playing should be to have played. Over-simplistic but not untrue. It's the addition of permanence in RPGs that complicates everything.

Role-playing games, on or offline, predicate character growth and character growth mandates markers. Merely having played a roleplaying game is insufficient; your character must also have progressed and be seen to have progressed.

This I understood immediately in Everquest from the moment the first dead bat incremented a yellow bubble. Everything since then has been about acquisition, attainment, moving forward. The Player versus Environment world requires it always; we understand that.

An "MMORPG" in which the character ends exactly as it began, other than by the difference of a few thousand hours of gameplay, is unthinkable. Maybe once upon a time, when there was still some roleplaying left in that acronym, but now?

When possession moves from pocket to pasture, though, everything changes. Now we define ourselves not by who we are but by where we stand.

Keen's telephone tree that pulled hundreds of sleep-eyed adolescents out of bed at three a.m. may have gone the way of 8-tracks and VHS but the sentiment, the commitment, carries on. Else what are we to make of Mrrx, driving his car around Burbank, cellphone in hand? Or Wilhelm, following the the Fall of ZXB-VC on a Twitch feed from his desk at work?

When these things matter they matter even though we know they don't. The reward is real is all the reward we need. Defending the keep. Holding the relic. Winning Sovereignty. Protecting the Portal.

The reward for doing is having done. Anything on top is sugar. And we all know, crave it though we may - sugar is bad for us.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Take Me To The Movies : Allods

Popular opinion would have it that post-Tolkeinian fantasy dominated the MMO scene from the get-go. Not that the good professor had much to say about it; or anything, really. He was a year dead by the appearance in 1974 of Mazewar, the first entry in Wikipedia's History of Massively Multiple Online Games or, much more significantly, the first published edition of Dungeons and Dragons in the same year.

He was supposedly open to the idea of his legacy living on in other hands. He hoped to create a "body of more or less connected legend" that would "leave scope for other minds and hands" to continue. All the same, given his reported comments on some of the attempts to popularize his work during his lifetime, it seems exceptionally unlikely he'd have approved of any of the later entertainments devised in his name.

On receiving one proposed script for a cinematic version of Lord of the Rings he observed, bitterly, hitching up his most impenetrable prose style for the defense of his canon, "I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about". It's just about conceivable that he might have found something positive to say about Peter Jackson's epic interpretation but it's probably best not even to try to imagine what he'd have made of the coming hordes of adolescents and post-adolescents dice-rolling and mouse-clicking their way through Middle Earth.

The Trollshaws? Nope.

Whether or not he'd have agreed with Syp that "LOTRO is a better interpretation of the books than other attempts" we can only guess but I think it's fair to say that, even if he had, it would have been a judgment on a par with choosing whether the world would be better to die in fire or in ice. At the very least, though, he would presumably have been able to recognize LotRO as something derived, however poorly, from his life's work.

This train of thought rolled through my mind this morning as I was playing Allods. It's one of those happy MMOs that seems to be set in a world all its own. On the face of it, it's yet another fantasy game, but scratch the surface and it quickly becomes clear that Tolkein and his legacy have contributed no more than the slightest sheen; an elf here, an orc there, those recognizable by little more than the names of their races. I have to say that the longer I play MMORPGs, the less Tolkein I find in them, the happier I am.

Ok, that could be anywhere! Give us a clue.
Astrum Nival, the original creators of Allods Online, are based in Russia and it shows. They draw their imagery and inspiration from their own history and legend, not from the trammeled imaginings of an Oxford don. The two factions, Empire and League, play with familiar tropes and images from Russian history, White and Red, but more than that they play with time. The League may feed fantasy but the Empire feels steampunk.

Ah, steampunk. Now we approach the core. When MMOs were climbing out of the cradle and learning to toddle steampunk was on the cusp of adolescence. The first use of the term "steampunk" was recorded in 1987; Richard Garriott coined "massively multiple online roleplaying game" a decade later in 1997. They grew up together.

Tolkein had been dead for almost a quarter of a century by then. His legacy was a dimly-understood, if fondly remembered, melange of willowy New Romantic elves, hirsute Hard Rockin' dwarves and pipeweed-toking Hippie Hobbits. Tolkein was past historic; steampunk past present.

Wait a that... is that a cinema??

Looking back it would be hard to come up with a fantasy MMORPG, even from the first wave, that isn't riddled with 18th and 19th century technology alongside the magic and mythical beasts. Everquest may have had a prohibition on firearms but Ak`Anon clattered and hissed with steam and engines. By the time WoW arrived, the gnomes had pushed forward in technological time to the 20th century, adding warplanes to their formidable arsenal of robots and machinery.

Call it clockwork or magitech, lift the fantasy cloak and, likely as not, you'll find gears and cogs. As the years roll by and the genre stretches and spreads, even the very terms lose their meaning. We're all science-fantasists now. It happened to the Discworld; why should we escape?

So, I guess I should never have been surprised to come across a questline in Allods based around the dawn of Cinema. And yet I was. Astonished.

Perhaps it was because it all happens in a rough camp out in the autumnal wildlands next to the starting zone of the tribal, primal Priden. Maybe a Picture Palace in the Imperial capital Nezebgrad, with its constructivist architecture and billboard propaganda, would have slipped past almost unnoticed.

Even then, I doubt it. I think it's a first. Oh, a projected image on a screen, that's nothing. GW2, with its merry technological mix-and-match that cheerfully puts ox-carts next to helicopters, has vid-screens fit for a starship. But an actual cinema screen, with a projector? Can't recall seeing one of those before. I think that was always going to stand out.

I've always liked Allods. I think it's an underrated MMO, with first-class design and aesthetics, solid gameplay, an engaging and amusing milieu and a facile and friendly UI. There's a heavy reliance on questing; some would say too heavy, but if there are arguably too many quests, at least the quality is consistently high.

Few quests are fully voiced in Allods but they're all fully written, and how. As it does in FFXIV, every quest comes with a lengthy discourse in English that feels just slightly askew. Some people loved that in FFXIV, some hated it. I loved it there and I love it here. I read every word of every quest and relish the odd flavor and fizz as it rolls across my subvocalizing tongue.

For anyone less enamored of off-kilter phrasing and arch characterization there's a benefit to playing Allods that FFXIV lacks: automation. If you're not interested in reading you can click straight through the text then click again on the quest log to autorun your character to the next quest location. Click, click, run. Click, click, done.

That's a feature I would once have sniffed at but now I just can't get enough. The combination of autoquesting and click-to-move makes playing Allods on my Win8.1 tablet a joy and I'm not too proud to use the latter when I'm playing on the desktop either.

Prompt... Prompt!!

Usually I rail against having my mundane tasks automated but this is one that just works. For me, anyway. Especially when much of the quest consists of finding NPCs and listening to them talk. Oh, there were fifteen or so crows to kill and a bunch of ambulatory plants to despatch, and the autorun function makes no compromise with aggressive wildlife so you have to take care, so don't run away with the idea this thing plays itself..

In the end, though, it was all about the strange story of Imperial Cinema versus League stagecraft. The stolen canister of celluloid was retrieved and returned and we all stood spellbound before the magic of the moving image. Which didn't actually, y'know, move, but hey, you can't have everything. Then it was off to assist an elven actress to prepare for performance before joining her on stage for some edge-of-the-seat improv.

One day. I'm not ready today...

I'm guessing that, since Allods is a two faction PvP game and the new Priden race starts unaligned, when she finally leaves the starting zone (which seems huge - she's already Level 11 and there's a lot of map as yet unexplored) there will come one of those decision points where she has to choose between the Empire and The League. That decision may have been made already.

The play was fun but...moving pictures!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Ton Up Boy : EQ2

It was only just over four months ago that EQ2's Altar of Malice expansion launched. Really? It seems a lot longer.

I bought AoM on release and spent a good deal of time there, going through the lengthy and generally interesting solo story quests, completing the solo dungeons and working on crafting. It's been a very good expansion from my casual perspective and from what I can gather it's been fairly well-received by the often cantankerous and curmudgeonly EQ2 careerists too.

Once SOE, as they were calling themselves at the time, got around to correcting the issues with tradeskilling progress, my weaponsmith hit 100 in something of a rush. Getting those last five adventuring levels solo, even as a Berserker, went a lot harder.

It's just as well the questlines felt enjoyable in and of themselves and that the material rewards - armor, weapons, augments, clickable items and so on - were worthwhile because questing in EQ2 is a painfully slow way to level. It's not just that each quest pays out only a small gobbet of experience, it's the time you spend traveling, hither to yon and back again, searching for the right creature to kill or the dead body to inspect.

Highhold Keep is a very pleasant zone to adventure in. Autumnal, open, full of xp.

Inefficient, then, if your sole goal is hitting the cap as fast as possible, and even if efficiency is not an issue there's the question of shortfall. For as long as I can remember EQ2 expansions have come with insufficient questing xp attached to bridge that gap from the old cap to the new. In the case of AoM I believe the shortfall runs around two full levels.

For group-oriented players that's rarely any kind of issue. A group player routinely hits cap in a handful of sessions "doing dungeons". Or so I'm told. It's quite a while since I grouped in EQ2. Even longer in anything that might have been called "current content".

Our guild used to be quite lively, with a dozen or so members and several on at once most evenings. For the last few months, though, and for the whole of the lifespan of AoM, I've been the only one playing.

I could, of course, look elsewhere for temporary group-mates but as yet I haven't experimented with the Level Agnostic Dungeon Finder. I want to - I just haven't had a moment spare.

Even if I'd had the time, though, it wouldn't have helped my Berserker. Those dungeons tap out at 94 and he was 95 coming in. In the end the gaps were filled with good old Chelsith, Chardok and Sebilis runs, done on double xp weekends with an xp potion running.

When the last of those weekends ended the 'zerker was still 25% shy of the target and I'm sorry to say I kind of forgot about him for a while. The job was so nearly done that in my mind it was. Then, the other week, when I needed to log him in to check something or other, I happened to notice he was still 99. Well, better do something about that, I guess.

The Phantom Sea is pleasant too - all sea-blues and greens and thick, leafy trees. Also xp.

This weekend, being Easter and a holiday, Daybreak chose to throw an xp party. Unlike the month-long birthday bash over in Everquest, where everyone got a 160% bonus for an entire month (and my Magician took advantage. tapping out at nearly 90), EQ2 only gets a weekend at double xp and you have to be an All Access member to get that. Which I am. So I did.

I began by gathering the plethora of daily and weekly quests on offer at the dock in Phantom Sea because why not have a little bit of structure? Then I flew up to Highhold Castle and dashed off the first of them, which amounted to repeating the solo dungeon step of the main questline.

It was only a few grimlings in that I realized something had changed. Instead of the infinitesimal, almost invisible, increments to my xp bar I was used to, I could see significant movement as each weak Heroic encounter dropped. Indeed, the amount of xp I was accruing looked remarkably similar to what I'd expect on a mentored run through those Kunark dungeons.

Just that single clearance to complete the quest left me with scarcely more than 5% of the level to go. I knocked that off today doing two short overland quests. Even the outdoor solo mobs seemed to be giving generous helpings of the yellow stuff.

Ssraeshza Temple may or not be pleasant and/or full of xp. I dinged 100 in the entry hall, ran into the middle, took this screenshot, then left.

So, either my perceptions have changed since the last time I played, or my memory is playing me up, either of which is possible, or Daybreak have tweaked things so that current, solo content is as good for leveling as mentoring down for older dungeons always was. I hope that's what it is because, if so, it certainly makes me feel a lot more positive about leveling up some of my other characters, who are currently languishing down in the 80s and low 90s.

The recent announcement on the future of DLC and "progress" for EQ2 made it clear there will be no level cap increase for a while; certainly none this year. With that in mind, the next step is to take a serious look at gearing up. The quest gear from the main storyline is a huge upgrade from what the Berserker was wearing before but I see that even Handcrafted, the lowest form of player-made armor, is better so there's massive room for further improvement.

Once the armor's settled, then it will be time to think about augments. That's a bucket of worms I've studiously avoided trying to untangle so far but it's going to have to be done sometime. Well, not really, but truth be told I'm quite looking forward to fitting some shiny gems in all those ugly, empty sockets.

Then there are the combat art upgrades - many of mine are still basic Apprentice level. I don't have an Alchemist to make those but Mrs Bhagpuss has one sitting at 95 that I could borrow and I already know how fast those last five craft levels go.

So many things to do. You know, I could probably be playing this game full time, if it wasn't for all the others...

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