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
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.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Warm Impermanence : GW2

In just over a month's time the Alpine Borderlands maps that have been the mainstay of GW2's World vs World gameplay for the entire three year life of the game to date will vanish. When Heart of Thorns arrives they'll be replaced wholesale by the Desert Borderlands.

Unlike the new sPvP map, Stronghold, which has been made available several times for open play-testing, or even the PvE map, Verdant Brink, which has been revealed in piece-meal fashion to anyone willing to pre-purchase, the Desert Borderlands have remained shuttered behind a strict, invitation-only closed beta.

The absence of an NDA means those of us (almost everyone playing) who didn't receive an invite have been able to read the feedback of those who did and thereby garner some kind of impression. Nevertheless, unless ArenaNet choose to throw open the gates for open testing before the October 23rd launch, come the day we'll all be stepping off a cliff into the unknown.

That's just the beginning of what should prove to be an enormous shake-up for the niche activity that was originally posited as GW2's endgame. In an announcement that seems to have passed largely unnoticed and uncommented on, at least outside of the official WvW forums, ANet certified that following the launch and stabilization of the Heart of Thorns expansion their focus would move to sorting out World vs World once and for all:

"As work on Heart of Thorns wraps up, we’ll be treating resolving the remaining core areas in WvW as our #1 live development feature priority for the game".

John Corpening, the "game director for WvW", who made the announcement, lists a number of the longstanding problems that have dogged WvW ever since it began, with population imbalances, night-capping and the scoring system chief among them. He states that he wants to improve matters by encouraging "...Strategy, Competition, Collaboration, and rewarding the contributions of both players and guilds who participate in the daring adventures and epic battles that make up a great match".

The spectre of PvE hangs above the battlefield.

Whether by "Collaboration" he means more of the kind of "double-teaming" alliances between two of the three servers in a match that most WvW regulars revile and consider tantamount to open cheating isn't clear, although I strongly suspect that in going with a tri-partite system in the first place such alliances were always intended to be part of the plan. More likely he means collaboration between factions on the same team.

Changes already announced to the rules and processes for "claiming" structures like Keeps and Towers suggest that a huge plank of the forthcoming plan to save WvW rests on Guilds. Indeed it seems that with the arrival of the first expansion the development team have at last noticed that the name of their game does suggest, at least to players, war between guilds is what the game's about.

Mention this in map chat and someone will immediately explain the lore behind the name of the "Guild Wars" franchise, which has nothing whatsoever to do with player-run organizations. Commercially, however, it has never made much sense to have a PvP oriented game that features player guilds, call it "Guild Wars" and then do nothing whatsoever that relates to guilds fighting one another.

HoT is set to go some way to correcting that misleading impression with Arenas in the new Guild Halls and a GvG Leaderboard for Stronghold in sPvP but the area where ANet are particularly promoting the clash of guild against guild is in WvW. How that is going to work out in practice is something we won't even begin to understand until it's already upon us.

This huge, looming cloud of uncertainty is one of the prime reasons I'm not very invested in WvW right now. It seems rather pointless to commit time and energy and emotion to something that may be swept away in just a few weeks. In feeling that way I appear to be very much in the minority. Most people are behaving as though nothing is going to change at all.

Group hug!

Of course, we on YB are close to the culmination of what has been a very long campaign. Tunnel vision may have set in. Almost exactly a year ago Yak's Bend began an adventure that saw the server move from plucky T3/T4 stalwart with a history of slacking during normal play and over-achieving in the formal competition of The Season to unlikely contender, first for T2 and then T1.

It was a messy, bloody affair. Never a very popular server, in the long, attritional grind to the top, YB managed to fall out badly with just about everyone we encountered. Our enmities with Stormbluff Isle and Fort Aspenwood remain particularly vicious but they're just the most festering of a number of running sores from our past.

Typically, being Yaks, we profess not to care what anyone thinks of us and claim to thrive on the pressure. And by and large that's how it is in our bubble. Many times we were told we would be broken and yet here we are, more than holding our own in T1, having crashed the tidy little private party that Blackgate, Jade Quarry and Tarnished Coast ran for themselves for so long that it seemed it would always be that way.

To get there we somehow acquired a massive influx of guilds, some of which dropped down from T1 in an attempt to break the hegemony. As far as I know that was their choice. I don't believe we sought them but we welcomed them when they arrived with their carpet-bags in hand. They gave us weight of numbers and coverage that we had never had before yet surprisingly they seem not to have changed our deeply-loathed affection for and reliance on siegecraft and defense. Maybe that's what drew them to us or maybe we just assimilated them as we've done to so many before.

It wasn't meant to be like that. T2 was touted as "the fights tier" until we broke it. I believe that plan has been re-routed to T3. What T2 is like right now I'm not sure but there seems to be some plan afoot to establish a rotation that includes at least some of the two upper echelons, which would make a nice change. We had that in T3/T4 once and it was fun.

How can this even happen?

T1, now we're here, seems oddly familiar. We were led to believe that World vs World in the heady heights of T1 would be very different from what we knew from the minors. It's not. It's just the same only with more people. What does differ the higher up the tiers we rise is the politicking.

Back in T3/T4 eighteen months ago things were far more rough and ready. I barely knew the names of the guilds on other servers we fought against let alone the names of their commanders. These days I know plenty. What used to be an amorphous blob of red ants swarming across our precious borderland now has to be called out by tag and driver as we discuss the different tactics and styles of one guild over another. Behind the scenes deals are made, guilds work together, responsibilities are allocated. There's a modicum of seriousness to it all that never was there before.

That speaks to Anet's purpose. My feeling is that many playing WvW would welcome a structure that encourages and rewards a more formal, militarized approach. Personally I prefer anarchy, chaos and imagination and luckily I have a way to recapture that flavor one in a while. Two of my accounts are on Yak's Bend and always will be but my third account is on Ehmry Bay, down in the bush leagues of T5, and there the old, haphazard ways persist. It's like going on holiday to the past.

When GW2 began there was great hope among many for its three realm large-scale PvP. Old DAOC and Warhammer lags hoped to recreate the good times. Within a few weeks the shine went off that penny. Most of those hopefuls left, often in bad humor. And yet every day when I enter The Mists I find myself fighting alongside names I've known for a year, two years, even three. Some of our commanders have been tagged up since 2012. For a lot of people WvW just works.

It does for me. There's still no player versus player I've done in any MMO to date that compares with a two-hour keep defense like that of our Garrison on Saturday afternoon, when we held off the full map blobs of both JQ and BG working together under, if rumor is true, the command of two real-life brothers. Epic is not the word. Ok, epic is the word!
It'll be nice to have desert sunlight if nothing else.

So, for my money that Anet don't require me to pay, WvW is still working pretty well. Still, as John Corpening says, "...despite being a leader in large team open world battle games ...there are some areas that we can improve." I can think of a few for sure but whether any changes Anet can bring will ever be able to address the fundamental problem John outlines I tend to doubt.

He calls it a "concentration of talent", where "hardcore players from most worlds have migrated upwards through the tiers looking for new experiences and greater challenge", something that has led to "the most dedicated teams locked in near perpetual stand off against the same opponents week after week". And that's the thing; the best will usually want to play with the best. They won't spread out altruistically for the good of the community across all twenty-four servers just so everyone gets a good game.

It took months, literally months, of concerted effort for one server, Yak's Bend, to bull its way to the top. How equality, fairness and excitement is to be promulgated throughout all eight tiers of the North American league without the most committed, involved players clustering together in just a handful of servers for exactly the reasons he gives I have no idea. It would be good if it could happen but so would World Peace and flying penguins.

Still, whatever our Dev Masters have in mind, at least they are finally turning their long, slow gaze in our direction. I guess that's a good thing. I'm not quite sure. I don't quite know whether to be excited or afraid. Probably both I expect.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Race Goes To The Swift

Murf and Syl both have great posts up about DPS and The Holy Trinity. In the long and lively comment thread following Murf's piece (on which he offers extended commentary here) I chipped in with a lengthy ad hoc homily on how EverQuest, as usual, Got It Right. Which, of course, it did.

The trouble is, like a lot of other cultural experiences that have passed into folk-memory, the decade-old EQ gameplay experience is hard to communicate meaningfully to those who didn't encounter it when it it was in its prime. As the years roll on it becomes increasingly clear that you had to be there to understand just how very, very much more fluid, complex, intelligent and interesting the quotidian combat mechanics of a bog-standard, leveling PUG were in the MMORPGs of the first half-decade of the 21st century.

Just telling people how it was back in the day is hardly likely to convince anyone who didn't get to experience it for themselves. And, of course, there will always be pushback from those were there but who thought the things I'm portraying as positives were largely problems to be solved.  That, after all, is how we got to WoW and thence to where we are today.

It might be easier if we'd had YouTube and Twitch and all the rest of the streaming, videoing self-recorders to document the everyday lives of a few of the half-million people playing EQ at its peak. Moving pictures do trigger emotions well. At the time, though, I rarely thought to take a screenshot during combat let alone a video so words will have to do what they can alone.

In discussing DPS and The Trinity in the light of the experiences of those days a key point that should be remembered is that DPS often wasn't thought of as a full role at all. Even when it was credited with being a bona fide job it was seen as a highly specialized one. Most six-person groups would only take one pure DPS class, maybe two at a push if they were different classes.

When compiling a group, something I did often once I gained the confidence and couldn't con someone else into doing it, I'd usually allow just one space for pure DPS. Since Mrs Bhagpuss often played a rogue or a monk (DPS of a sort although a lot more useful and versatile, being one of the best pulling classes in the game and a very fair off-tank when required) it didn't generally leave much opportunity for anyone else to fill that slot in groups that she or I were leading. Consequently I didn't get to meet all that many DPS specialists, which might have colored my view if it wasn't for the fact that there weren't all that many of them looking for groups in the first place.

Everyone just had so many more important things to think about and so many more interesting options. There was so much to do in those days. Really, who would want to play pure DPS? Even most of the Wizards had probably rolled that way for ports. The long list of key tasks, all of which featured well ahead of just inflicting damage, included but was by no means limited to tanking, healing, slowing, hasting, pulling, crowd control, mana replenishment, buffing, debuffing and, of course, rezzing.

While all that was going on the DPS just somehow filled itself in in the background. The tank did a lot of constant DPS to hold aggro, almost everyone did their bit and it added up just fine. Having more than one person who was only going to stab things in the back seemed like a huge waste of resources.

For the other five non-DPS-specialists, as I said, dealing damage was something you'd fit in between all the other things that were taking up most of your attention. You'd throw in a nuke when you could, apply and refresh your dots as the opportunity allowed, but it was the bit no-one particularly cared about. If you missed a round, or several, no-one would either notice or care. As a cleric I prided myself on never doing any damage at all. If I had to smite it was a sign something had gone  badly wrong.

That general lack of interest, affection or desire for causing damage is one of the biggest differences between MMORPG combat then and now. Another, and the underlying reason, I believe, that perceptions on what's required have changed so much, is that over the years combat got faster. Much, much faster. It isn't just that DPS has somehow, perhaps almost without anyone meaning for it to happen, become an end in itself. That's merely a symptom. The real problem is the inexorable pick-up in pace that still hasn't peaked.

MMO combat used to be almost stately; highly tactical, it was more about thinking than doing. Increasingly the reverse is true. Modern MMO combat isn't necessarily less complex but it requires an entirely different set of skills, ones far closer to other forms of video gaming, where everything, all the time requires action, reaction, movement. Like the shark, if a group isn't moving forward it's dead in the water, or so the wailing and moaning that breaks out should anyone dare to pause to take a breath would seem to suggest.

When we did dungeons more than a decade ago no-one, and I mean no-one, cared how fast we did them. I cannot recall a single time when anyone commented negatively on how long it took to kill a mob, let alone complained that it took too long. The important thing was that it died and we didn't and that was a function not of patience but of difficulty.

Mobs were tough. Tougher than you. Always. The idea of racing through a dungeon never arose because it would have been impossible. Even though the standard respawn time was somewhere around a now-unimaginable 18 minutes, still in normal dungeon play it was often difficult for a full group to clear a whole room before the respawns began.

Difficulty levels in EverQuest peaked (unintentionally, as we discovered years later) in the Gates of Discord expansion but even by the time we got to Planes of Power, for players in my weight class each single pull was taking 2-3 minutes with another 1-2 minutes recovery time. If we managed twenty pulls in an hour we'd think we were kings. Most sessions it was four slow, arduous, careful pulls followed by a misstep that sent anyone left alive running for the zone-line yelling "Train to zone!". And that was outdoors!

In dungeons that louche, lax, relaxed attitude wouldn't wash. There, the focus was on a) getting in b) clearing a space and c) holding it. If the group was very confident we might "crawl", moving through the dungeon, doing a) and b) repeatedly as we moved from one room to the next while foregoing c) altogether. If we did, we knew we were almost certainly going to get in above our heads and wipe, eventually. We wouldn't even attempt a crawl unless we had a porting class (druid or wizard) with us to get us out when we'd had enough. There was no Gate spell, recall or hearthstone for half the classes in the game. Either you got a port or you walked out. And you weren't walking out.

Before the arrival of the sixth expansion Lost Dungeons of Norrath, (one of my personal favorites and the one where I and many, many others finally learned how to play effectively and efficiently in groups), which introduced the Instance to EQ, all dungeons were both persistent and open. Everything respawned. There were many roamers and some of them were other players and groups. About every mob you saw was powerful enough to kill any one player-character easily. Many were powerful enough to wipe the whole group. It wasn't always easy to tell which was which.

That meant there were often group discussions before each pull over how to proceed. Having been in a particular spot many times before did not preclude these discussions. We did the same dungeons nightly and yet we went through the same debates every time. Experience helped but variations in group membership, spawns and, especially, roamers meant circumstances were often far from predictable. Just deciding whether the Cleric should Lull, the Enchanter Mez, the Bard do that weird song thing they did, the Monk FD pull or whatever might take as long as the fight itself.

As I recall the main problem was too many people wanting to volunteer their own, particular skills and the discussions of their relative merits that always followed. And if you were crawling through the dungeon you'd have that discussion afresh at every junction, every doorway. Old EQ vets often reminisce about the social aspects of grouping but in my memory we talked far more about game mechanics than we did about our real lives. That's one of the things I miss most about the silent groups of the modern game - that technical to and fro.

Despite all the preparations situations frequently got out of hand. When they did, everyone in the group needed to be able to think on his or her feet, to adapt and innovate. DPS was rarely a solution to a problem because no one character ever had the resources to just burn something down. Just a single add might tie up most of the the groups resources. More  might mean a wipe and a wipe might mean ten or even twenty minutes just to get started again. At such moments the last thing you needed was someone standing around blasting away and hoping for a miracle.

There would be times, many times, when a bad pull, a resisted spell or a roamer arriving at an inopportune moment meant all six players going into triage mode. As a cleric I remember so many fights where every member of the group was dealing separately with adds, moving them into corners, locking them down, taking them out of contention using whatever tactics their wits and their spell selection suggested. I had to keep all of them and myself alive long enough for order to reassert itself. When it was all over we were either sitting down recovering our breath and our mana and laughing our heads off or lying on the dungeon floor hoping like fun that someone with a rez had managed to camp out. Oh, wait...that'd be me.

That was what passed for a normal leveling session back in the day. Is it any wonder people who had that nightly experience find the current vogue for speed-runs unsatisfying? Not least because in some important ways we aren't playing the same kind of game at all.

Over the last couple of years I've done dungeons in FFXIV and Fractals in GW2. I'm not for a moment suggesting they are easier. In some important ways they are much harder. But it's the kind of challenge that I don't enjoy. Everything comes down to dodging out of shapes on the floor, countering specific scripted events or burning hard and never stopping. It's a young person's game now. When I was younger it was almost the opposite.

In essence the core gameplay of MMORPGs like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot consisted of risk assessment and resource management. They were first and foremost games of strategy, planning, tactics and logistics. More chess than Twister. Combat was merely how the gameplay expressed itself.

That's why DPS didn't seem to be anything special and why it's so hard to take it seriously now, (although I'm quite sure that Mrs Bhagpuss, as a dedicated DPS specialist herself, would have a different view. She did then, too). Of course, even back in the day there did have to be DPS.  Progress would have come to a halt without it but then so it would had the pulling stopped or the mana run out or no-one was slowing (even by the time we reached Velious fighting unslowed mobs had become like trying to stop a buzzsaw by grabbing the blade).

It was a game of specialists and the loss of a key role might mean a rest for the whole team while a replacement was recruited, although usually someone had a second-best to offer. We'd muddle on with that while the group leader sent tells to find something more suitable.The one role whose departure would never bring pulls to a halt was the DPS specialist. Without him or her little would change except that the fights would take longer and no-one much minded that.

The thing is, for all we talk about it now, back then nothing was ever all about the Holy Trinity. It was a game designed around collective responsibility, around creativity, around imagination. There was rarely much agreement over who was theoretically best in class for each role and function and even if there had been it still came down to who was available.

We filled the roles with the best people we knew not the best classes and that applied equally to DPS specialists, the few we encountered. If I couldn't find the best people, though, I'd go with whoever we could get and then we improvised. With six spaces in the group and many classes able to handle multiple responsibilities we could have filled more slots with more DPS classes even then. We didn't because there weren't that many LFG. DPS was not what most players wanted to be doing most of the time.

It's not what I want to be doing most of the time now, either. It never has been. And yet for years and years it's almost all I do. Solo, duo, group, zerg: all the games, all DPS, all the time. At least that's how it feels. DPS players may feel they have the short end of the staff with the long queues but that's just a marker of the way what was once a niche specialization has grown to overwhelm an entire genre.

Whether the engine of change can be thrown into reverse I very much doubt. Those slow, thoughtful, careful, groups, who took each goblin on its merits and watched neither a clock nor a meter are gone for good. They say you can't win an MMO but it seems you can win a genre. Good game, DPS. We're all in your world now.
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