Saturday, 19 April 2014

Always, Always, Eat Your Greens : Everquest, EQ2, GW2

Zubon at Kill Ten Rats has something to say about Plants Vs Zombies 2, which is not a game I have played or am ever likely to play. The point he's making has considerable relevance to MMOs, however, as he makes clear in the opening couple of sentences:

"Most games have learned that players respond better to incentives than penalties, even when they are mathematically equivalent. Instead of having a hunger debuff, food provides a buff, and all the content is balanced with the assumption that you are using food buffs."

When I began playing MMOs it was commonplace for the game to provide warnings along the lines of "you feel hungry", "you feel thirsty". I would respond immediately to those prompts for two reasons: firstly because I felt uncomfortable on behalf of my characters and secondly because I'd had my memory jogged to do something I knew I should be doing but had forgotten.

 What's a ravasect? You don't want to know.
As time and game development moved on developers began to learn that players preferred to be given a bonus rather than avoid a penalty; something that seems so obvious in retrospect that you might wonder why they hadn't thought of it in the first place. Food and drink, which at first had no magical properties but simply kept your characters from getting weaker and less effective, began to acquire all kinds of special effects.

Mostly these felt convincing, especially against the background of a world in which magic was real. Finding yourself more substantial (extra hit points) or robust (faster endurance regen) or stronger (bonus to strength) after a good meal felt right. A lot of sympathetic and ritual magic went into in the design, too. Eating the flesh of your enemy would transfer to you some of his power or cunning. Natural magic added the properties of medicinal plants and so on.

At first these were indeed just bonuses. Nice to have but nothing to fret over if you skipped a
meal or several. Over time, however, and as is sadly the way of MMOs, power creep occurred. By the time we got to Luclin in December 2001 we had already reached the absurdity of The Misty Thicket Picnic, a halfling extravaganza so vast it must have taken two halflings to carry, but without which no raider could consider himself fully prepped.

As Zubon observes, this approach led game developers, quite logically, to assume that, since everyone would be using the best available food, drink and other buffs, content should be tuned to match the increased power levels that implied. I was aware of this while playing Everquest but I didn't feel the full impact until EQ2.

I found several hundred of these on a vendor long ago.
Still eating my way through them.
From day one EQ2 expected characters to keep themselves fed and watered at all times. If you didn't eat and drink constantly your health and mana regeneration would be miserably slow. This wasn't a penalty as such; it was the default state. You were expected to stuff yourself with Jum Jum Pie and drink White Tea until you gurgled just to achieve basic adequacy.

EQ2 was a horribly-designed game at the beginning. I could put up a blog post a day for a month about its faults and still have plenty left to say. No surprise, then, that the implementation of food and drink was terrible. At low levels, which we all were, money was tight. The food sold by NPC vendors was cheap but had no stats and minimal regenerative qualities. Crafted food had a few stats and much better regen but it was time-consuming and fiddly to make and crafters expected a substantial return for the effort.

Consequently an awful lot of people (or a lot of awful people) didn't bother with food and drink at all and many of those who did made do with the cheapest vendor junk they could find. Because the primary effect of eating and drinking was to allow you to recover hit points and mana, not having supplies didn't just mean a reduction in a group's overall efficiency due to some members not being as buffed as they could have been. It meant that after every fight the members of a group who had provided well for themselves had to stand around at full health and mana, drumming their fingers as they watched the progress bars of their less-organized or more tight-fisted colleagues refill at snail pace.

Every pick-up group would at some point degenerate into an argument between the willing and the unwilling eaters. At some point someone would become so frustrated they'd start handing out freebies but as we all know there's no such thing as a free lunch and the bill would end up being paid in resentment and acrimony.

This was my big money-maker back in the day.
No-one got one of these beauties for free!
I was playing a cleric. I could speed things up somewhat by healing people after the fight ended but I couldn't do much for their mana. In the end I got so irritated I took up Provisioning myself so I could come equipped with drinks at cost to hand out to everyone just so we could get on with it. I did not do it with good grace.

Later, either in the Scott Hartsman revamp that saved the game or with the coming of Domino that saved crafting, food and drink got tuned up to be so obviously attractive that everyone wanted to use them. I was able to stop giving mine away and start selling them. For a while I actually had some money.

Fast forward almost a decade to Guild Wars 2 and what has been learned? Not much, it would seem. The profession of Chef in Tyria is a sprawling, chaotic confusing one that works differently to all the other tradeskills, flagged up even by the NPCs who offer training as harder than the others, and which, if pursued seriously, risks filling every available storage slot with half-finished dishes that could be made into something better later. Perhaps as a consequence, for a long time no-one seemed to pay all that much attention to food.

Mousse, Mouse, easy mistake if you're a Charr
At some point, inevitably, someone with a critical eye and a mathematical bent (never a
shortage of those in an MMO) must have run some numbers and worked out that our characters are, after all, what they eat. Prices on certain foods skyrocketed and it became de rigeur to carry a stack of Spicy Marinated Mushrooms or similar at all times. Moreover, GW2 being the communitarian enterprise it is, public-spirited folk can plonk down a Feast for everyone to share, while in the more militaristic setting of WvW a gruff commander can bark "Food Check" before slamming down rations for his ill-prepared militia.

Zubon goes on to to discuss how all this relates to the traditional dichotomy between the casual and the hardcore but it occurred to me that perhaps the real dividing line isn't how many hours you play or how seriously you take your gaming (two of the more common definitions of "casual" and "hardcore" behavior) but between how organized or disorganized you are.

Ascended Cookery? We don't even have Exotic yet.
Back when everything was flat-tuned and the game ticked out reminders to eat and drink like an irritatingly over-cautious scout master on a hike, being highly disorganized by inclination I found it much easier to maintain the expected minimal standards. Now that we're all supposed to recognize the inarguable benefits and behave like rational adults, I'm far more likely to forget about it entirely. The mobs have all had their extra Weetabix from the developers but my characters are muddling along on the memory of a snack they had last Tuesday.

Perhaps the disorganized deserve to be penalized, but as one of them I am no doubt that the original methodology worked more strongly in my favor than the current one. Perhaps one day game developers will begin to learn some of the lessons that economists are just now beginning to assimilate, namely that there is no such thing as a rational consumer. If and when that ever happens we might once again see fewer carrot souffl├ęs and more big sticks.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Burning In : GW2

Project Megaserver moves on apace. After the initial announcement (Level 1-15 maps) and the subsequent, fuzzier revision (lower population maps) we now have some actual hard information. This thread lists the maps using the new Asuran technology so far.

Here's the first batch:
  • The Grove
  • Heart of the Mist
  • Black Citadel
  • Timberline Falls
  • Southsun Cove
  • Rata Sum
  • Straits of Devastation
  • Fields of Ruin
  • Brisban Wildlands
  • Hoelbrak
  • Iron Marches
  • Blazeridge Steppes
  • Dredgehaunt Cliffs
 Assuming that they did indeed go with the least-populated maps, that's quite an interesting list. All the racial starting cities except Divinity's Reach plus most of the mid-level wilderness maps, suggesting a dearth of interest or activity outside of starting areas, max-level maps and the human heartlands. Just about exactly what you'd expect, given that most of the maps on that list were already sparsely populated three months after launch. And of course no-one in their right mind goes to Southsun if they can avoid it.

The first serving went down well enough that we got seconds very quickly:
  • Lion’s Arch
  • Lornar’s Pass
  • Kessex Hills
  • Diessa Plateau
  • Metrica Province
It's perhaps surprising that Diessa and Lornar's weren't included on the first pass, but I guess proximity to the alway-busy Wayfarer Foothills, Lion's Arch and now Gendarran Fields have helped keep the numbers up. Having Durmand Priory based there can't have hurt Lornar's either. Seeing Lion's Arch on the list is sad. It really does seem to have lost focus after the Terrible Events. I was skeptical whether Vigil Keep would work as a stand-in hang-out but load times for Gendarran Fields would seem to prove me dead wrong on that one.

See? I told you Diessa wasn't all brown!
Kessex Hills doesn't seem to have benefited much from the makeover it got from the Toxic Alliance. It was always a scrappy map and adding reeking fumes and tough, annoying mobs and events was hardly likely to improve matters.

Metrica, on the other hand, always seemed quite a happening place but then I generally only go there when the Fire Elemental's up, which I guess isn't a representative sample. It's curious that it's the only starter zone to go Mega so far. It's not like you don't see a plethora of Asura skittling about everywhere. I'd have thought Plains of Ashford would be less-used.

Enough theorizing. Time for experiment. Late last night, just coming into NA prime time, I took a jog from Wayfarers Foothills into Diessa Plateau to see if I could see any difference. Diessa has always been one of my favorite maps. I wrote about it during beta, although reading it back now it does suggest my initial reaction was less affectionate than it became later on. I've certainly spent a lot of time there on and off ever since so I must be quite fond of the place.

Who says you have to stand well back to fling a fireball?
Diessa was never bustling. The eternal Meatoberfest celebrations in Butcher's Block, right up against the Wayfarers border, always attracted a few visitors but even when the game was relatively new you could cross the map without bumping into much more than the occasional young Charr discovering his heritage. Your chances of getting enough people to down the Champion Giant in Nageling or open the mini-dungeon at Incendio Templum were poor indeed.

Not any more it seems. Within half an hour I'd done three Hearts (with their much-improved completion UI as noted by Syp), several Meatoberfest events, killed the Nageling Giant and even finished the really annoying Dredge event in Bloodcliff Quarry that always used to fail with too few people. In everything I was accompanied by a whole bunch of friends-I-hadn't-met-yet. Didn't see a single name I recognized from Yak's Bend.

Not that I felt out of place. The whole time I was there a Mesmer was porting all-comers to the very difficult vista and skill point at the Breached Wall and map chat was buzzing with cheerful, excited chatter. It was all very jolly if a little bit uncomfortable, a bit like the last day of term when your year tutor lets you bring in games. I wouldn't go as far as to say it was like launch week all over again but it certainly did make the whole map feel alive in a way it hasn't for a very long time.

Rock Solid Work, Name Deleted.
(Not actual name although there must be someone called that)
Today I popped down to Dredgehaunt Cliffs, a great map with some complex event chains that can be very challenging with low numbers, to see if the same magic was working there. There were people around, I can say that much. Not a huge number but enough that every event I tried found me fighting alongside two or three other players. People were constantly calling events and Champions and linking waypoints. It felt a bit less frenetic than Diessa. I liked it.

So, on the basis of those two snapshots and with the weight one should always allocate to anecdotal evidence, my conclusion is that it would seem the Megaserver is doing what it was intended to do. I'm not about to declare it "awesome" like Heartless but my first impressions are definitely positive, more so than I expected.

It's going to take some getting used to, though, and the benefits may be arguable in certain situations. I logged my engineer in earlier. He happened to be in Metrica right next to the Thaumanova Reactor and by chance it was only ten minutes before the Fire Elemental's new two-hourly slot. Crowds were gathering.

Stop shoving at the back!
There were so many people that the pre-events spawned Elites and Champions and I still couldn't get a shot off fast enough to get credit on anything as we walked the Clean 5000 around. The five-minute whirl in the reactor room was purely surreal. There were twenty or thirty of us scudding about trying to shoot things while as many or more lined the walls like the crowd at an arena. Actually, not "like". They were the crowd at an arena.

By the time the Elemental appeared I would estimate there must have been at least sixty players crammed in the room. The timer for the event runs fifteen minutes but I doubt the  "fight" lasted thirty seconds. Overnight FE has changed from a very, very challenging encounter for a few determined individuals to a trivial, challenge-free loot drop for a zerg.

With Megaserver populations that's going to happen to every event with a fixed timer and loot worth having. It risks putting us back almost exactly where we were a year ago when, even after all the difficulty passes, most World Bosses still melted in seconds when a huge zerg arrived. Except this time, with Megaserver technology, a huge zerg will always arrive.

Spectator Sport
I'm not saying that's a bad thing or a good thing but it's certainly a thing. Short of upping the standard World Boss difficulty to at least Karka Queen level, if not Teq/GJW, it's hard to see how it can be prevented. Always assuming someone wanted to prevent it. Honestly, I've done all these bosses so many ways now - easy, hard, small group, zerg, even solo - I really don't care any more. Most of them are mostly fun most ways. I'll just take them however they come.

After FE died, though, it should be noted that there were quite a lot of complaining comments in map chat. Some people couldn't get there before he died, some couldn't do enough damage to get credit, some just thought it was a lot less fun than it had been with a lot fewer people, some wanted to do it on their own servers and not some unnamed overflow, as they saw it. When I left five minutes later the post-match analysis was still going on.

Oh well. Never going to please everyone. At least it works. That alone is more than I was expecting. Looking forward, nervously, to seeing the new tech rolled out to those few maps I actually spend time in. Whichever those are. There must be some other than Wayfarers and WvW...

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Picking At The Threads : GW2

I'm just glad I have the week off work, that's all I can say. Although, come to think of it, that's hardly the most apposite turn of phrase, because there's quite a lot I could say about yesterday's Feature Pack Patch. The main problem would be knowing where to start. Or more likely when to stop...

Let's try and keep it short, unlike Anet, who opened nine dedicated comment threads in the hope of containing the howls of anguish from nerfed berserkers, crashed trains and other disgruntled customers. I'll stick with their categories.


Some people were really stoked for this. I wasn't one of them. GW2 is one of those annoying MMOs where you step out of character creation looking, there or thereabouts, like a regular Joe or Jane, at least in the context of the imaginary world you're about to explore, only to find yourself descending the spiral staircase of surrealism until you end up in a Daliesque daze, dressed like the third runner-up in an Ace Frehley lookalike competition. The recent flurry of screenshots from TESO on various blogs serve as a disturbing reminder of just how garish and tasteless GW2 has become. Roll on WildStar so we can go back to feeling all sophisticated by comparison, like we did back in 2012.

Never mind the ethos, what about the implementation? Not bad. Slightly odd that you can only access the Wardrobe from the bank, but given it works the same way as the Crafting and Mini bank tabs that kind of makes sense. Also odd to hear the little zinggg! sound every time you salvage some eminently forgettable item, thereby adding an equally forgettable appearance to the invisible, intangible wardrobe, when all you meant to do was grab a scrap of Luck, but, hey, it's a nice little sound sample, don't mind hearing it twenty times a minute. And of course as the Wardrobe fills up you'll hear that sound sample less and less often. Probably going to miss it in a few days.

With the five free Transmutation Charges and the twenty or so I got from converting the old stones and crystals clogging up my bank I now have about five times more conversions in hand than I've used in total since the game began, so I think I'm set. It's neat that they're now a Currency, too. What with that and Wardrobing all the unused skins I was hoarding, even though I knew I'd never use them because if I did I would have to play blindfolded, I've regained a dozen or more bank slots. On balance I approve of the Wardrobe although probably not for the reasons I'm supposed to.

Well, that was hardly keeping it short. Must do better. On to

PvP Reward/Gear/Ranks/Maps

Don't PvP. Pass. Wow, that got things back on track!

World Boss Synchronization

Immediately after the patch last night I logged in, arriving in Wayfarer Foothills just as The Frozen Maw was starting. I helped send the Shaman packing, grabbed my rares and retreated to Krennak's Homestead to try and make sense of my new Traits. Ten minutes later Brogun started yammering on about the Grawl and the whole thing started up again. And ten minutes after that. And ten minutes after that...

When Brogun kept getting as far as destroying the Svanjir totem then declaring the threat over and stumping back across the snowfields to reward himself with a fine ale everyone on the map assumed the event had bugged. Not so. Oh no, that would be infinitely preferable to the truth. After the cycle had repeated several times I went to check the immense patch notes , which I'd been avoiding on the grounds that I wanted to get in and play sometime before the sun came up. Here's the relevant section:

"If the event to destroy the dragon totem has succeeded when the boss is not activated, Scholar Brogun will declare victory and return to Krennak’s homestead without fighting the shaman."

In other words, in order to make this whole fixed schedule work, ANet have chosen to have the pre-events run on a continual loop (in the case of The Maw literally once every ten minutes). It's like watching Groundhog Day on fast-forward. I have yet to go see for myself but apparently the same is true of Gamarien's stroll, the Karka Queen pres and for all I know every other series of events that could, potentially, result in the appearance of a chest-dropping Boss.

Even in a "virtual world" that already resembled nothing so much as a series of animatronic tableaux, this takes some beating. It's one of the most openly cynical revisions to content I think I have ever seen in an MMO. Pragmatic, yes, I'll give them that, and at least it works, unlike the changes to the Shadow Behemoth event, which were supposed to increase the difficulty in preparation for the upcoming Megaserver population focus, but which initially made the event very hard to complete with the unmegaservered map population we still have and then bugged out entirely, so the event is currently not completable at all.

The feedback thread on World Bosses is extremely critical. Indeed, all the threads I read were. The forums have a reputation for negativity but in this case almost all of the commentary is well-reasoned, coherent and seems justified. I won't re-hash all the valid points in detail, such as the effect fixed timers have on people with jobs and families or the prohibitive costs of the Guild Event option that might otherwise be used to restore some flexibility. They're all there on the thread if anyone's that interested. I'll just observe that I don't think you'd be taking too much of a punt if you bet on quite a few tweaks to some of these "Features" in the coming days and weeks.

Guild World Events/Megaservers/WvW

Bit of an odd bundle. There are four people in my guild and one of them doesn't play any more so we won't be starting any Events. Pass.

The whole Megaserver thing hasn't really made itself evident yet. Whichever maps are using it aren't ones I've been on, or if they are then the population of GW2 really has taken a nosedive. The only place I did see it working was when I passed through the PvP lobby on the way to Lion's Arch Vigil Keep (they really need to put a new sign on that Asuran Gate), where I saw a large number of people standing around, presumably trying to work out what the hell had happened to their Traits or whatever it is that PvP people use. I'll take a rain-check on commenting on the Megaserver functionality until I actually see some.

As for WvW, that was one unalloyed positive for me. I'd been saving all my drips, tastes, and thimbles just for this day. I even had a keg. Drinking them all was good fun, even if every rank chest was stuffed with nothing but greens (I got one Exotic between two accounts and about 25 ranks and that was a speargun...). Ended up Rank 204 (I think it was) on one account and 115 on the other. Now I just have to decide where to spend the points.


ANet made two threads out of that but I've conflated it because I don't have anything to say, at least not yet. I was mostly already using full sets, not mix-and-match, and a cursory check suggests nothing much has changed. Browsing the Rune thread, the word that comes up most often seems to be "underwhelming", while the Sigil thread barely gets started at all and even when it does it mostly contains off-topic comments.  Confirms what I always suspected: no-one gives a damn about Sigils.


This is arguably the biggest Feature in the Pack. A full revamp of the Trait system, everything from the traits themselves to when and how you acquire them. Sitting on nine level 80s, all of whose traits have been grandfathered in, it doesn't seem terrible, just very confusing. I began this post by saying I was glad I have the week off work and this is why - it's going to take me a week to get all these traits sorted out.

The new interface is okay. Kind of a sideways move. I wouldn't call it an improvement but it's easy enough to follow. Being able to chop and change Traits infinitely, instantly, at no cost certainly removes all of the usual pressure these kinds of revamps bring, that of making a horrible mistake that will haunt you or cost you or both.  I found myself quite enjoying playing around with "builds", if you could dignify what I was coming up with such a description.

It's not really my thing, though, nor Mrs Bhagpuss's. We decided we'd just bang something in for now and wait til the theorycrafters come up with a new meta.Then we can ignore it and feel superior follow the herd.

Reading the forum thread, however, the most poignant and heartfelt comments came from new players, all of whom felt thoroughly shafted by the new system. This comment by Robert sums up the issues very well and looking at it from the outside it's hard to argue with his conclusion "If this is somehow supposed to make the game more enjoyable for new players, I fail to see how this is accomplished.. Sadly, for me, the opposite is true."

I'm very tempted to buy a new character slot, go try it for myself, see how "bad" it really is. It's too long since I leveled up and I never did get around to making that Charr Engineer I wanted. I suspect that the new, slower version of leveling, with its requirements to unlock traits by doing content might suit me rather well. I also think I'd be in a very, very small minority if that turned out to be the case and I fear this move could be commercial suicide when it comes to persuading new players to stick with the game.

The new Elite traits that my characters will have to unlock if they want to use them don't  look like being any kind of an issue. Two reasons: firstly, most of them look like they wouldn't warrant a slot anyway and secondly the price to buy them from the trainer is much, much cheaper than I was anticipating. I was guessing at 50g per unlock. I wouldn't have been surprised to see it pegged at the same as a Commander tag - 100g. When I got to the trainer it turned out to be 3g. Three! Oh, and 20 skill points. My ranger has nearly 500 of those, plus another 200 skill scrolls in the bank. Not seeing a problem there, other than it spikes the whole idea of going out to search for the things as a form of new content. Why the hell would anyone bother if they're only 3g a pop?

Profession Balance

Yada yada yada...

Every MMO does this all the time. Never worth getting worked up over. If you enjoyed something it got nerfed. If something was broken it didn't get fixed. A's still better than B, C's overpowered and D is gimped. Next time round move one place to the left. I treat class changes on a need-to-know basis. If something seems weird in play I'll investigate. Otherwise they  generally pass me by.

That's the gist of it although there's a lot more grain in the detail. There's the derailment of the Champion trains and the Contested Waypoint debate for a start, and dyes, but the change that got Mrs Bhagpuss the most irritated was one that's barely been mentioned anywhere: consolidation of Daily Achievements.

She took it as slap in the face for casual players, a demographic to which she somewhat confusingly aligns herself despite her thousands of achievement points, hundreds of WvW ranks and eight level 80s, half of them already kitted out in full Ascended. This pruning of dailies that limits choice and drops the old standby, Gathering, is more of a slap in the face of the hardcore than the casual, I'd say, since they're the ones chasing the Laurels, and whether it really will take longer to do the dailies now I'm not sure but, hardcore or casual, I can't say that I'm any more thrilled at being funneled into fewer areas to do them than Mrs Bhagpuss is.

Looking at the Feature Pack as a whole I'd say it's exactly what ANet claimed - an expansion-size patch with none of the content you'd find in an actual expansion.It's a bit like going to the cinema and having to  sit through all the commercials, trailers and safety warnings without ever seeing a movie.

I read the motivations behind the whole enterprise as a combination of three things:
  • A desire to drive substantially more business through the Gem Store
  • An attempt at avoiding the negative marketing hit that comes from server merges
  • The perennial inability of MMO developers to leave anything well alone.
I imagine having to do a lot of the background work to re-tool the game for the Chinese market has something to do with it, too. Probably gave them ideas. Oh well, if nothing else it gives us all something to talk about other than why we aren't playing TESO.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Coming Of The Megaserver : GW2

If Year Zero can have a Day One then, for GW2, tomorrow is it. Just another twenty-four hours, give or take coffee and do-nuts, and we'll know everything there is to know about Megaservers.

Except we won't, will we? It was all quite clear at first - start at the beginning with the 1-15 maps, see how that goes, work upwards from there. Then there was a hoo-hah, retrenchment ensued and we were told the least-populated maps would get Megaserved first. That didn't stick either.

The current position appears to be...fluid. From the most recent Dolyak Express thread:

Q: Since the megaserver changes will initially affect a few areas, will the World Boss schedule table be true just for the light yellow bosses or are the rest of the World Bosses also going into the new schedule even if their areas are still not part of the megaserver?

Samuel Loretan: No, the World Bosses schedule will be released globally on April 15th. Note that the order of rollout of the MegaServer system may still change, as we’re still conducting tests, and as we will be adjusting the parameters depending on our monitoring. While I know that it isn’t what was in the blog post, we’re adjusting this to ensure the best experience for everyone, and the smoother possible rollout of this feature, which has a very large scope and requires careful operation.

I just bet it does.

It's behind you!

Anyway, all this got me thinking about World Bosses (horrible descriptor that it is, although possibly not as horrible as World Metas, which is what they often get called when the Train is running). For the first few months of GW2's existence the big ticket events like the three dragon lieutenants, The Maw, Shadow Behemoth and Fire Elemental, had no specific rewards attached to them. A chest would pop but inside it you'd find just a litter of blues and greens, with a low chance of a yellow rare, a vanishingly small chance of an orange exotic and the purely theoretical possibility of the Pre-Cursor to a Legendary (are they purple? I wouldn't know).

Even though there was very little in the way of tangible rewards people still did those events. I did Claw of Jormag any time it happened to be up and I knew about it, which wasn't as often then as it would be later because if there was any equivalent of GWStuff or its predecessor the Dragon Timer, then I hadn't yet found it. Everyone moaned bitterly about the vendor trash but there were always enough people to get those dragons down.

You can criticize his spelling all you like but you can't fault him on his accuracy.

Then Fractals came and overnight it seemed like half the population had vanished. For a while the Claw of Jormag became all but unkillable and even the Shaman at The Maw scoffed at the feeble turnout, although I notice he never actually managed to summon that Elemental no matter how long he hung around.

For many, though, the fractal attraction didn't last and people were soon back at the large-scale set pieces that were supposed to be the jewels in the crown of GW2's dynamic events system, doing what they enjoyed most - complaining bitterly about the terrible loot.

Finally ANet bowed to the pressure to make the Dragons "worth doing", added guaranteed rares, fixed a few bugs and juggled the RNG. The Risk vs Reward ratio suddenly looked an awful lot better (as well it should, seeing that with the numbers turning up there was now no freakin' risk at all!) As I wrote here , by February 2013 a World Meta Train was already in place, although no-one back then was calling it that. anyone else still here?

Reading my own words, I'm quite surprised to find just how disenchanted and cynical I already was, just six months or so after launch. I guess that, since I thought even then that "Each event has a margin of error, presumably in an attempt to create some spurious sense of spontaneity but in practice all of them pop at numbingly regular intervals." it's hardly surprising the upcoming change from fake-spontaneity to an openly fixed schedule has had less impact on my sense of immersion than might have been expected. That fragile vessel shattered into fragments long ago.

The details are hazy now but somehow that first iteration of Guaranteed Rares got out of hand. I think you got one per character per day per boss and take-up was so great it was crashing both maps and the economy. By mid-March the train had picked up such momentum that the tracks were beginning to melt and ANet took the opportunity of the beginning of the Living Story to add some brakes.

Things calmed down after that and we all settled into a routine. I even put up a series of guides for the lackadaisical  that still work to a degree, although a number of much-needed passes on difficulty in the following months have meant that almost all the events now take a lot longer to complete than they did when I wrote the guides and the possibility of failure is now a lot higher.

If all these people are here, how come the only paw-prints in the snow are mine?

That long, rambling, inaccurately-recalled  trip down memory lane brings me up to yesterday, when, as is my wont of a Sunday (and most other days of the week come to think of it) I did several of the Dragon Events on both my accounts. I say "Dragon Events" because people still call them that once in a while. I didn't, of course, do any of the three actual dragons. What would be the point?

Tequatl, who so impressed me waaay back in September 2012 now needs an organized raid of a hundred people. Claw of Jormag and The Shatterer mostly work out their anger issues unobserved except when the train runs at Reset, the extended time taken to kill them being widely considered no longer commensurate with the rewards.

Even at a busy time on a Sunday a good turn-out is no longer guaranteed for the easier options but that scarcely matters because of one of GW2's dirty little secrets: barring the very biggest, almost all Dynamic Events are at their best when seen with as few people as possible.

Should have stopped half way through that sentence.

I did The Maw twice yesterday, the first time with four people and the second with about ten. It was exciting, well-paced and fun. People got knocked down and picked up, people kited the Shaman around, pets tanked. For a while it was touch and go but in the end we won in good time. I'm not saying either was as thrilling as the two times I've completed it with just two other players but sometimes you just have to share the fun. As I was glad to do at Fire Elemental, an event that's often hard enough to complete even with a good turn-out, but which we managed to knock off successfully with just four of us.

When the Megaserver beds in, extending its tentacles across all maps, there should be some definite benefits. It's been weeks since I last did Jormag or Shatterer and I miss them both. It'll be good to see a crowd gather for those. On the other hand, though, I wonder if there will ever be another Three-Man Maw. Melting the Shaman in seconds with a massive zerg may be a spectacle but it's not going to create many "I was there" moments, is it?

And maybe if no-one does turn up there could be consequences? Oh, silly me. 

I hope that, despite ANet's promise (or is it a threat?) that "the MegaServer system is just the beginning, and we are exploring all sorts of approaches in creating meaningful and solid social units for the system to use" there will still be the odd empty map here and there. They may have designed Dynamic Events to scale for scores of players but I get the distinct feeling that the  playtesting was carried out by an individual or a small group, because that's really where the detail and the love and attention that went into them all shines most brightly.

However it turns out, though, I'll still be doing the Maw every chance I get because I know another of GW2's dirty little secrets: you always get a Rare in the Big Chest at The Maw. Okay, almost always. I do it every day, often several times a day. Last time I didn't get a Rare was back in November. Often I get two. Or three. None of the other World Bosses pumps out the Yellows like the Svanir Shaman. I probably owe him for about a quarter of my Ecto Mountain.

Only being able to do him once every two hours is going to cut my income considerably so I just better make sure I don't miss any of my limited openings from now on. See you at The Maw, every other hour on the quarter.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

It Must Be A Sign! : Landmark

When Landmark went from alpha to beta, keys went flying in all directions. Everyone who bought a Trailblazer pack had four to give away (all ours found homes eventually, although it was harder to give them away than you might imagine). On top of that SOE sent out who knows how many temporary one-week keys.

I got one on one of my F2P accounts, probably because last autumn I applied for the EQNext beta on every SOE account I own and tossed Landmark in for good measure. I can't see much future for multi-boxing in Landmark although having an extra key opens up the possibility of trying to tun two Landmark clients simultaneously on my aging PC to see if it explodes or merely catches fire. Even in the genuine beta-tester's spirit of testing to destruction I think I'll pass on that.

Wilhelm of TAGN fame also found himself the unexpected owner of a seven day invite to a game he didn't remember applying for and yesterday he posted details of what he got up to there, which included putting up a sign. That sounded like a photo opportunity to me so this evening after work, before heading off to GW2 for some mayhem with this week's frenemies Isle of Janthir and Northern Shiverpeaks, I dropped into Landmark to follow Wilhelm's vague directions ("You can find my temporary awkward carbuncle on the face of the Lowland zone on the Courage server.")

There are already several ways to travel instantly to a claim in Landmark but they all involve you knowing a little more about it than the name of the blog of its owner. Fortunately Wilhelm had left plenty of clues in his post. I knew he'd found a claim near the spires, I knew roughly what he'd built on it and there were several screenshots to use for orientation. Even so I was anticipating a few false starts but no, as soon as I came over the first low rise from the spires I saw it.

I'd left a comment announcing my intention to have my picture taken next to the TAGN sign but I wasn't quite prepared for the personalized greeting waiting for me when I got there. I'm guessing Wilhelm ran out of time because you can't exactly run out of sand around that claim.

The question that's been asked over and over about Landmark is "what the heck is it for?". According to Massively, Dave Georgeson answered that at PAX East with the less-than-helpful observation that its "a game that can be whatever you want it to be". Thanks Dave, that clears it right up. I wonder if he's considered the possibility that Landmark could become the blogger's equivalent of leaving Post-It Notes on the fridge?

Oh, but why stop there? It might be a bit of an ask to expect bloggers to construct entire thousand-word posts out of obsidian-on-alabaster (although you just know someone's going to do it) but a 140 character tweet in bas-relief sand wouldn't take much longer than an hour or two and with with open permissions some community-minded types could get a forum going. Hey! We could do this year's NBI in Landmark!

Oh alright, please yourselves, as Frankie Howerd used to say, but it's opened my mind to some new possibilities, I don't mind telling you. For now, though, I'll just carry on working on my current project - Kelethin re-imagined as a 1970s caravan park.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! : Argo

Yes, alright, it's not that frabjous. It's not like SOE changed their minds and decided to give (or even sell) Vanguard back to its creators. What's so special about Pox Nora that it gets preferential treatment anyway? Not that I begrudge Pox Nora fans their luck. There must be some, right? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?.

Longtime readers of this blog probably have no recollection whatsoever of my brief flirtation with the SEA shovelware "steampunk" MMO Argo. It merited one post and it was something of a guilty pleasure, albeit a considerable one. It was the game I made an Allaplaya account for, which felt a little like forging my own long-handled spoon (not that I've ever actually forged a long-handled spoon, or indeed anything else...)

No sooner had I made a throwaway account on a garbage email address and bowed down to worship the devil himself PSS1, Allaplaya's mighty overlords, than they decided to pull the game from their sad collection of no-hopers roster of quality MMOs, leaving me bereft, or at least mildly irritated.

Yes, I've used these pictures before. What do you expect? Game's been down for 18 months.

In a pattern frustratingly familiar from my distressing experience with the even better SEA shovelware "steampunk" MMO, NeoSteam,  Argo continued to run successfully in Korea. Then, in July last year, it was reported that, purveyors of SEA shovelware quality MMOs such as Cabal and Ran (no, me either...) had acquired Argo for the European market.

Well, I'd heard that one before. Some company I'd never heard of, can't remember and really don't have the willpower to google, claimed they had bought NeoSteam for an EU release - that never happened. Fool me once and all that jazz.

Except this time it seems there really is a pony! Massively just reported that the European beta for Argo starts tomorrow and I just signed up. I really shouldn't be excited about this but I am all the same. It's like when your cat goes missing and he's gone for six weeks and you're certain he's gone forever and probably dead and then one day there's a knock on the door and you open it and a stranger says "Excuse me but I think this might be your cat" (True story).

So, I might get in beta or I might not and the game might actually come back or it might not but either either way it's another notch on the "MMOs never really die" tally-stick and that's a warm fuzzy if ever there was one, so be happy even if you never heard of Argo, never play it and have no idea what I'm making all this fuss about.  

Monday, 7 April 2014

Time Of The Season : GW2

Everyone's off playing ESO. A bleak wind blows across all the other MMOs, making NPCs clutch onto their pointy exclamation hats as they wonder how they'll ever get those ten rats out of the old barn now.

Or something like that. A few weeks (or was it months?) back, when ESO was having beta weekends twice a week and three times on Sunday, it was widely believed that you could see the drop in GW2's population, particularly in World vs World. The topic came up in map chat quite often. Some reckless individualists even admitted to a personal desire to go try the thing for themselves. We burned them as witches, naturally.

Finally we got to the  Five Day Head Start, then the Three Day Head Start and eventually the velvet ropes came down altogether, the doors opened wide and in poured the desperate millions long-starved of quasi-naturalistic earth tones and fixed-cursor mouse-click combat. Or so I read. The only problem is, no-one seems to have told Henge of Denravi.

She said through a mouthful of moss...

A week and a half back, GW2's second WvW Season, aka The Tourney, aka Spring Tournament, began. Not to be confused with the second Season of GW2's Living Story, for which no date has been revealed, nor with GW2's sPvP Tournament of Legends, which begins either at the end of April (EU) or the beginning of May (NA). Really, someone at Anet needs to buy a thesaurus.

The second WvW Season (I'm going to stick with Season) follows a different format to the first, which had a fixed schedule. What's now good enough for dragons is no longer good enough for players, so we're going Swiss. It seems that in addition to cuckoo clocks, Heidi and negotiable neutrality the Swiss are apparently famous for a system of competition that irons out differences and matches like with like.

Who knew? Well, chess nerds and ANet's WvW dev team, it would seem. I imagine there's some kind of a Venn diagram that could be drawn there somewhere. The upshot is that after the first couple of weeks it should all settle down with top worlds playing each other, the middle playing the middle and you get the picture.

The importance of accurate, detailed intel cannot be overstated.

We had to start somewhere, though, so the first week used the existing Glicko system (invented by one of the lesser-known Marx Bros. or so you could be forgiven for thinking, given the results it produces). Yak's Bend, following an increasingly desultory and lacklustre performance, largely the result of burnout on the back of the extreme effort expended by all during Season one, had slipped to the bottom of Tier 4, landing us solidly in Silver League again for Season two.

The first match was a repeat of the last pre-season teaming - Yak's Bend, Borlis Pass and Sanctum of Rall. We'd won that match handily and we improved on our performance in Round 1. Six points in the bag. Under the Swiss System that gave us the other two six-pointers as our opponents in Round 2. Step up, bookies' favorites for the title, Fort Aspenwood, and dark horse, long-odds gamble, Henge of Denravi.

FA we know of old. We played them often way back at the beginning, when matches turned over much faster, and we've run into them many times since. There's fairly good feeling between the two servers, certainly no history of grudges that I'm aware of, and we respect FA as a borderline T2 server that has almost always been more than a match for us.

NPCs - they really do care!

HoD are a completely unknown quantity. I imagine we must have fought them at some point but no memory of it remains. For as long as I can remember they've been in a tier below us but in the weeks preceding the season it became apparent that something strange was happening down there. HoD were consistently racking up scores that emphasized their dominance in Tier 5, something that became increasingly relevant as Yak's Bend appeared to be hanging on to the edge of T4 by our fingertips.

I did a bit of research. Henge of Denravi, it seems, is the latest in a long series of Bandwagon servers: lower tier worlds to which a bunch of large and/or powerful guilds, disenchanted with or disenfranchised from the organizational hierarchies of their higher tier homes, move en masse, hoping to bootstrap a failing team back up into the big leagues. The most famous example is Kaineng, a server that propped up the other 23 North American worlds for months until, in a move resembling performance art more than competitive gaming, a huge influx of T1/T2 guilds pushed it almost all the way to the top before the inevitable crash and burn sent Kaineng tumbling all the way back to the bottom of the pile.

When the tag is down the tag is DOWN. No backseat driving.

By the accounts of the unfortunate players on Crystal Desert and Northern Shiverpeaks, who had to face them week after week, HoD have incredibly high numbers and incredibly low skill. Screenshots showed how they could queue a map like a T1 server (meaning they had so many players trying to get into WvW that they had substantial queues on all four maps simultaneously) but the consensus view was that once they ran up against a well-organized, seasoned, close-to-T2 force like Fort Aspenwood those numbers, largely representing a disorganized, opportunistic rabble capitalizing on the work of a much smaller core of experienced transfers, would melt away.

And at first it seemed that was how it would go. Early in the weekend the sheer size of the zergs HoD were able to bring to several maps at the same time was staggering. Mrs Bhagpuss's PC gave up in despair, sometimes requiring her to roam the Northern towers, refreshing siege and lobbing poisoned cows at distant supply camps, while her GPU had a little lie down and a quiet cry. I had a field day (and a camp day and a keep day) raining meteors on the never-ending waves of HoDs who seemed willing, happy even, to stand in the fire and die then run back to do it again and again again.

Gradually, though, their zergs thinned out a little and their organization, marginally, improved. The numbers were still enormous all the same. On Yak's Bend we all knew this would be a very different week to the previous one, when at one point we briefly held the full 695 available points for the tick and when, on average, we ticked over 400 throughout.

Every hour after after midnight counts double

Like all matches where one team runs rampant things were far, far less entertaining than you might imagine on the winning side, although I doubt it was a barrel of laughs for the teams being trampled over either. I have to say that I always feel a lot more motivated to log in and Fight for the Honor of the Yak when we are getting a drubbing than when we are running tedious, boorish Karma trains for hour after hour.

In magnificent contrast, this weekend was largely one of stolid, sometimes desperate, defense against overwhelming numbers and it was more enjoyable and very, very much more exciting because of it. I've always enjoyed keep defense and we had ample opportunities to savor it in all its flavors this weekend. Could have done with the repair bill thing happening a couple of weeks early but otherwise it was all good.

With Henge of Denravi an unknown quantity, we did entertain hopes that our acknowledged strength in defense might see us holding second, should HoD turn out be as disorganized as we'd been led to believe and should FA tear through them as expected. After the weekend it seems clear we are looking at third place with our much-vaunted defense at best making defeat appear respectable. No points for style, sadly. Much more surprisingly it seems FA might not have the measure of HoD after all.

Bringing in the Yaks, Bringing in the Yaks, We'll come rejoicing, Bringing in the Yaks.

WvW matches have a variety of interlocking rhythms. Reset night, weekend, time zones, all can have significant impacts on the relative performances of the teams involved. Consequently it's too early yet to be certain of the result. Nevertheless, as I write this, just after midday on Monday, Henge of Denravi have a solid lead over Fort Aspenwood of twenty thousand points with Yak's Bend gamely hanging in there 15k behind FA.

A win for HoD would be a real upset. If it happens I wonder if FA will call on TESO to take the blame. I see absolutely no sign whatsoever that it's had any impact at all on Yak's Bend. All the familiar names are there (except one, the charismatic commander who arguably led the entire server to victory (well, second place but it felt like victory) who's allegedly left for good in favor of playing StarCraft) and there are countless names appearing that I haven't seen for weeks or even months.

No second place for us this time round I fear. Pre-season predictions mostly place us fifth but I think we could do better than that. There's a long way to go yet so don't go counting those North Camp chickens just yet, HoD.

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