Thursday, 26 February 2015

It's Good News Day: GW2, Everquest

Operating as Wilhelm observes at the equivalent of the speed of light, Daybreak Games have a poll up for the ruleset of the proposed new Everquest Progression server.

I'd take any of the first three. I'd even try the crazy-race last option. Of course, unlike almost everyone else expressing opinions on this thing I'm very happy indeed with the current 2015 version of EQ, which I still play (okay, not as often as I mean to but I logged in last week!).

If I was going to go back to play EQ even semi-regularly I think I'd probably rather get my Magician to 100 rather than hit 50 in Classic fifteen years late but the first few weeks on a real brand-new, all in it together server are always a blast. I'll take every rare opportunity that comes along to savor that experience, even if I do know that I'll probably still be level 12 when they vote to unlock Velious.

If you vote (and you should if you have the slightest temptation towards reliving a past you may or may not have lived through the first time, which in turn may or may not bear any recognizable resemblance to your memories or your imaginings) then be warned that the voting panel appears to register your vote as soon as you click a button. You get no option to change your mind.

Unless, of course, you have seven accounts. Not that I know anyone like that. And not that such a notional person would indulge in such 18th century practices even if he existed. Or she! Or she!

In other news GW2 is getting a First Person Camera. To which I can only say in chorus with Jeromai


Looks like it also comes with a whole lot of fixes for what are quite possibly the worst camera controls I have ever suffered in any MMO. Ever!

The bit about relative height positioning vis a vis character race brought back memories of lumbering along at Ogre speed in EQ. I use the word "speed" ironically. But not the word "lumbering". So glad I only have one Norn and many, many Asuras.

I wonder if Charr pov will change according to whether they are running upright or on all fours? That could bring on motion sickness. Or hairballs. Who knows? It might even make doing jumping puzzles as a Charr possible enjoyable.

They say good news always comes in threes. Or is that bad news? Maybe it was buses. What's the third thing going to be, I wonder? I don't think it can be this can it? No, we don't like buy-in betas, do we? Although $20... that's cheap...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Mission Creep: GW2, WoW et al

Over the past few weeks I've found myself idly pondering one of the eternal questions: what do I want out of an MMO? It's a very different question from "what makes a good MMO?" or even "what makes a successful MMO?"

Those are questions for which you might hope to devise some kind of scale or standard in order to reach some approximation of an objective answer, but the question of what you, yourself, want from the games you play is, by definition, entirely subjective. You might imagine that would make it easier to pin down. Not so, or not, at least, for me.

Mood and whim play such a large part. Circumstances within and outside the games dictate any number of changes of attitude, opinion and reaction. What felt good ten years ago may feel less so today; what feels good on a Sunday morning may grate on Monday night. Getting to a clear understanding of why the form appeals at all and what precisely I want and hope to derive from it is not a simple task.

Up above the roofs and houses...

Still, after more than fifteen years of doing this thing, I am starting to feel I might at last have a handle on what works for me in MMOs and what doesn't. At some point I'd like to set that down in some detail, so that I can consider it in another five, ten, fifteen years, should I be fortunate enough still to be around then to look back and see how well my argument stands up.

This is not that point and this is not that post. Thinking on it this morning, though, something else occurred to me. I've just had a long weekend during which I was free to play whatever I wanted. Before it began, in my mind I had a picture of what I might do. I imagined myself engaged with various this-and-thats in various MMOs - Everquest, EQ2, Istaria, GW2, TESO,  the Valliance demo, TSW...

It was an eclectic, engaging, appealing vision. In the event, though, I played GW2 for three days solid, the only exception being a couple of short visits to Tamriel, where my simple goal of reaching level 10 remains unrealized. Why did I do that?

One does not stop for a photo opportunity in Dragonball. It was this, the entrance hall or me, dead.

Is it because GW2 is the perfect MMO for me as Jeromai has claimed it is for him? Is it because Mrs Bhagpuss is ensconced there? Is it just habit? Or is it because, in common with a number of maturing MMOs, GW2 isn't really an MMORPG in the sense we once understood the term at all but the graphical front end of a suite of discrete games and activities, each of which scratches a different entertainment itch?

Here's a list off the top of my head of what I did in GW2 this weekend with a gloss on how they fit into the tapestry that is Guild Wars 2:

  • Dailies on three accounts. (Character progression with rewards available, in a mix-and-match format, for all three major game modes - PvE, sPvP, WvW)
  • Lunar dailies on three accounts. (Fluff Holiday content with PvE/WvW rewards)
  • Dragonball. (Instanced PvP Holiday Content with possible, very minor, PvE/WvW rewards and gold)
  • Instanced PvP. (Separate game mode with its own character progression but also with PvE/WvW-relevant character progression rewards)
  • The World Boss Train. (PvE Zerg content with large PvE rewards)
  •  Tequatl. (PvE Open Raid content with large PvE rewards)
  • WvW. (Separate game mode with its own character progression but also with PvE-relevant rewards)
  •  The Obsidian Sanctum Jumping Puzzle. (Open World (kind of) Exploration (kind of) Platforming (kind of) content with WvW/PvE rewards).
  • Open World Exploration. (Mainstream PvE character progression. What we would once, naively, have called "the game")
  • The Overgrown Grub. (Competitive PvE zerg/raid content in a WvW environment with PvE/WvW rewards)

Plus an awful lot of standing around in Divinity's Reach, Lion's Arch and the PvP Lobby making smart alec remarks in map chat, having trivial conversations with total strangers while taking screenshots of the Toy Golem Uprising.

Speculation on the forums was frenzied for a while but no, its not a Content Harbinger. It's a bug.

As can easily be seen, ArenaNet have made a concerted effort to tie all those activities and enterprises together by mean of the rewards they offer. Almost anything you do in GW2 gives you some tangible reward that can, theoretically, benefit your character in PvE and in the PvE-based player versus player WvW mode. Structured PvP, designed to keep a permanently even playing field, is the real standalone exception.

The theme seems to be "do whatever you like but remember it's all one game". It's a smoke and mirrors routine that all theme-park MMOs seek to bring off without anyone feeling they've been misled. Increasingly the audience seems ever-willing to play along. Hardly surprising; what we all fear is a content drought so we tend to grab on to anything that passes with both hands without questioning too closely what it has to do with what we came here for in the first place.

Atten-hut! Golems, by the left, kawiiiick march!

I don't play WoW at the moment and I didn't buy Warlords of Draenor but even from my remote vantage I can hear the rumblings of discontent over in Azeroth. Green Armadillo is scratching his head over what he might do with the second 30 days of his 60 day timecard since he's about finished with the expansion after just three weeks. Eliot at Massively OP, discussing the postponement of the much-desired Iron Docks content drop, summarizes things thus: "...the problem here comes down to one of perception, presentation, and the simple fact that there’s plenty to do at level cap in Warlords of Draenor… but also absolutely nothing to do.

It's nonsense of course. There's simply masses to do; in WoW and in all the mature, developed, maintained MMOs. It's just not always what people expected they'd be doing or would have chosen to do. What surprises me most is how many of these things are really other games in disguise, from the Pokemon-inspired Pet Battles to the MOBA-like Arenas as experienced by The Duke of O , who observes "My friends and I don't even play WoW as an MMO - we play it as a MOBA, spending the vast majority of our time in instanced Arena or Rated BG matches, and consider the rest of the game as an added bonus."

It probably shouldn't surprise me. It's been going on for a long time. I guess the first example I can bring to mind was the introduction of instanced Battlegrounds to Dark Age of Camelot. That was the first time I can remember seeing content separate from the game housed within the game in an MMO.

Open-field siege is not considered bad form when you point your ballista at a Grub. We still got trebbed from the keep though.

As Virtual Worlds the game-spaces always gave themselves willingly to self-directed segregation by players. In any public space knots of activity tend to grow around individuals who share a common interest and MMOs were no different for being virtual. Like people in a park, however, all those groups needed to be aware and mindful of the other groups around them. No kicking your ball through the picnic area or throwing your frisbee over the bowling green. Not if you didn't want the Parkie to turn up and tell you off. Or the GM. When we had in-game GMs.

Over the years we seem to have moved to a patchwork, ad hoc arrangement, by which some activities take place in the open but in set locations out of everyone else's way while others are hosted out of sight in the walled gardens of instances. Moreover, there are entirely enough of these discrete and semi-discrete pastimes and pleasures for any one of them to absorb most or even all of a given player's attention.

I only went to Obsidian Sanctum to find the GvG arena. I have no idea how I ended up doing the entire jumping puzzle and missing Tequatl. I don't even like jumping puzzles although it seems these days I don't even know what I don't like.

In GW2 there are plenty of players who only play WvW or only play sPvP. They are at best amusedly tolerant, more often sarcastically dismissive, of much of what constitutes the bulk of the game. In EQ2 there's a whole community of people whose main and sometimes only interest lies in designing and decorating houses. Every mature MMO plays host to special-interest groups largely unknown each to the other. At some stage, without my noticing, it seems MMOs ceased to be single, coherent entities and morphed into portmanteau collections.

I don't have any great conclusion to draw from these observations. I'm just thinking aloud. Maybe it isn't so different from the days when Dungeon players looked down on Outdoor players in EQ or Raiders considered themselves a breed above non-Raiders in...well, every MMO that has raids (except, on Aywren's evidence, FFXIV).

I don't like sPvP either. Except apparently now I do. Especially when I win.

It does feel different though. It's as though the set meal of the first generation MMOs has been replaced by a buffet. The whole concept of playing a specific character in a specific place alongside other people doing exactly the same seems oddly old-fashioned, although no less attractive to me.

And maybe it's why I keep on playing GW2. I don't have time to play several MMOs when the one I'm playing is half a dozen different games already.  And since all the games feed my characters the things they desire it's all too easy to slip into believing I'm still playing one of those old virtual world, character-based MMORPGs after all.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Glass Half Full : Daybreak Games

Pete at Dragonchasers has an excellent post up about the Daybreak situation. GamingSF has a great catch from the Everquest forums confirming the new company's intent to bring up another Progression server, something I'm sure will be music to Wilhelm's ears.

The EQ2 team has been talking about Progression servers as well, although they stress that the younger game's architecture is different, implying that may make it harder to bring one to market. I'd love to see an EQ2 Progression server just so long as no-one tries to recreate the miserable experience of the first six months.

Over at Visionary Realms Inc (were they always called that?) Brad McQuaid and his Pantheon team have a lengthy survey up that seems to be aimed at assessing the desires of the potential audience, presumably with the intention of giving the people what they want. I filled it out. It took me the best part of an hour. It was fun. I recommend it.

The questions make heavy reference to both Vanguard and the EQ franchise. Brad clearly sees himself as a contender for Torch Carrier of The Vision (TM). He's burned more bridges than Tipa has photographed and yet...and yet. Compare what little we know about Pantheon and EQNext. Which sounds more like EQ3? Which feels more like vaporware? Not so clear cut as all that, now, is it?

Meanwhile, Smed and/or his Columbus Nova overlords have given the StoryBricks team their marching orders, sending Tobold off to sulk in the gloomiest corner of the Hundred Acre Wood and spinning SynCaine's snark generator up into overdrive. Unlike Keen and with all respect to Psychochild I was never all that sold either on StoryBricks in particular or advanced AI in general so it's a bit of a non-story for me. Ironically.

Just to cap it all off for the week Massively Overpowered, already off to a storming start and so welcome back in my Feedly feed, fillets the recent Daybreak video Q&A and picks out the choice headline Everquest Next May Not Be F2P. Cat, meet pigeons.

I don't think that means Daybreak are considering a subscription model for EQNext. I imagine it's much more likely they're eying the Buy-to-Play market and so they should be. Why give away the farm?

Everything considered, I feel surprisingly sanguine about the future, at least where EQs and EQalikes are concerned.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Smelling The Flowers: TESO

I'm still playing TESO. It's a slightly strange experience. Similarities with Vanguard continue to abound, mostly in the look and feel, rather than the gameplay or the content. As Lani mentioned in the comments to a previous post the orc island, Betnikh, shares distinct similarities with the orc starting areas on Telon, although not nearly as much as the previous desert areas did with Qalia.

It's all there in the architecture, the textures and, particularly, the color palette. The music and the ambient sounds also throw some weight behind the associations. And the rain. Always the rain.

I logged in the other evening and the first thing I read in zone chat was someone asking plaintively "Do we always have to fight at night?" Weather and light conditions do seem to play a significant role in Tamriel. I'm not sure what the day/night cycle is, exactly, but I believe it was still night-time when I logged out over two hours later.

The next day, when I logged back in, I found myself in the middle of a massive thunderstorm. I spent the best part of half an hour trying to take screenshots. If there's a more effective way to waste fifteen minutes than trying to hit a key at the exact moment a flash of light appears in a video game I don't want to know about it.

Catch the lightning!
In the end I fired up FRAPS, took a couple of minutes of video footage and pulled the frames out of that. And they still looked terrible. I guess you had to be there. It was a darn good storm! I'd give the oscar for Best Weather Effects in an MMO to FFXIV but these run it close.

Other than trying to photograph lightning I've mostly been questing. Ye gods, but there are a lot of quests here! Kaozz at ECTMMO mentions the exceptionally high quest density in Allods but I can't believe they have more than TESO. I can barely walk five paces without acquiring a new goal in life.

Several people have made representations for the quality of the storyline in TESO but so far it all seems rather generic. Most of the quests seem unoriginal. There's a surfeit of events of earth-shattering importance, especially given the single-figure level range. Also the degree of trust shown in and responsibility given to complete strangers is terrifying. No wonder society is on the verge of collapse.

The writing continues to be, on the whole, rather flat. The voice acting remains, by and large, uninspired. There are exceptions.

Wait, let me guess. Under "Profession" in your passport it says "Loveable Rogue", right?
The lengthy sequence with Captain Kaleen and her crew is quite intriguing. It introduces several moderately memorable characters, some of them even voiced by actors who seem to be awake, and I am beginning to experience something of the "moral dilemma" aspect of the gameplay that I've read about.

Without giving too many spoilers, there are decision points where my character can't, as I as his player would like him to do, tack carefully around the fixed positions of various NPCs and stay on the right side of all of them. Choices have to be made and with those choices, perhaps, enemies.

This is all rather well done. By the time I had to make the choices I felt that I knew enough about the individuals making demands on me, and about the situation, to take a meaningful decision. More importantly,  I had a reasonably clear grasp on how my character felt about several of the NPCs, what his emotional reactions would be and where his loyalties might lie. When it came to the moment there really was no decision to make - I knew he could only act one way and would have to deal with whatever consequences arose.

All of that may be good game design but it's a very poor fit for me as a player. I don't enjoy making difficult decisions in games. I play MMOs in part to get away from having to think about such things, to enter into an environment where any choices I make don't really matter all that much. I'm not especially keen on having my moral compass re-calibrated in the guise of entertainment.

Are you sure this is the best way to get bloodstains out of leather?
As a rule, when I play MMOs, I like to play affable characters who get along well with everyone. If I can avoid bad faction I will go out of my way to do so. Even if the game clearly intends me to pick sides, if I can find a fence to sit on, I'll climb up there and get comfortable. I foresee difficulties for my long-term engagement with an entire game designed around moral choices.

I imagine one solution would be just to go out and kill stuff. While questing is ubiquitous I'm not sure that it's essential. I get the feeling I might progress just as easily by gathering mats, crafting my own gear and killing random monsters, bandits, zombies, cultists and animals for gear drops, gold and xp. It might even be faster.

It's certainly as enjoyable. I haven't played an MMO for a while where random slaughter was so satisfying. Loot is decent and sticking to mobs around or just under my level results in a TTK of around 3-5 seconds. It also completely removes any need to learn how to fight using blocks, dodges or most of the keyboard shortcuts. Three or four swings of my fiery greatsword (well, it was fiery until the enchantment got used up. Must do something about that) and the job's done.

Speaking of the control system and the combat; it's not too bad. I prefer it to NWN's version and possibly to DCUO's as well, both of which are similar. Holding down LMB for a big hit is very simple and straightforward and the fights themselves tend towards the slow and stately, which gives me plenty of time to look at my UI, remember which key I need to press for a particular spell, look at my keyboard, locate it, press it and get back to mouse-clicking, all  before very much has happened.

Come to think of it, that looks more like something you'd find in Halgarad than Martok.
So, combat works, the world is inviting, there's lots going on and all in all I'm having a good time in Tamriel. So why don't I play TESO more? I played a lot more ArcheAge, for example, when that was fresh, even if I did come to a sudden and unexpected dead halt there after just a few weeks.

For some reason I can't yet quite put my finger on I find TESO quite tiring. An hour there feels like three or four hours in other MMOs. After a short session I often feel both satisfied and satiated. It can be several days before I feel ready to go again.

I can't quite figure it out. An hour of TESO is less intense than a single five-minute Dragonball match in GW2 and I sometimes do half a dozen of those back to back. It's not difficult to understand or to play. There are no timers running down or scores mounting up. I have no plan, no agenda, my time is my own and mostly I just potter around. It should be relaxing, it is enjoyable, and yet when I log out I metaphorically wipe my forehead as if I'd just had some kind of a virtual work-out.

If I had to give an explanation I think I'd lay it on the questing and particularly on all that having to make up my mind about stuff. It does feel like playing a single-player RPG sometimes, with the sheer quantity of story-driven, directed content being thrown at me. I probably need to get off that train or at least take a few more station stops.

Overall, though, I'm pleased with how things are going, exhaustion aside. I like the pace and I like the place. My loose goal is to hit level 10 this weekend (dinged 9 last night) so as to be eligible for some three-faction PvP. I hear they have moveable siege engines. I want to see those!

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

If It Looks Like A Tank And It Taunts Like A Tank... : GW2

Taunt (Status Effect)

“Involuntarily attack foes.”

In this expansion, we wanted to open up gameplay options using taunt. Taunt will be used to both reposition foes and change your foes’ targets.

Source: The stand-out paragraph lurking right near the end of the lengthy and otherwise largely mind-numbing PR squib for GW2's new Revenant class due to be introduced in the "when it's ready" expansion Heart of Thorns.

Predictable first reaction on official forum:

"Really? Taunt? What’s with you dev’s? Its not WoW, not L2, its game with unique experience, where we don’t need tank/healer/damage dealer trinity."

Predictable reaction to predictable reaction:

"It’s not like what you’re thinking."

Probably shouldn't have called it "Taunt" then.

Or opened the bidding with "The revenant is the ninth profession, added into Guild Wars 2 as a unique archetype not seen in other games" (Ibid).

I'll hang fire on any bold statements until, y'know, we actually see this amazing innovation in action in the promised demo at PAX East. Possibly even until I get to try it out for myself in beta. Or when HoT goes live if beta turns out to be a real beta that you have to apply for and be selected or something bizarrely old-school like that.

In the meantime let speculation run wild on the possible addition of some kind of Holy Trinity Lite structured group combat to GW2. Going to be a rough couple of years if we have to wait on the second expansion to get a real healing class. Just sayin'.

Monday, 16 February 2015

You Want Me To Do WHAT? : GW2

Not so very long ago, either here or in someone's comment thread, I mentioned two things I had no plans on doing in GW2. Things, indeed, that I specifically planned on not doing. The first was sPvP. The second was dailies on the third account that I bought in the recent 75% off sale.

So, naturally, I'm now doing both. The second kind of led into the first, although Jeromai had a little bit to do with it, planting a seed back in this post.

The experience of leveling up a first character on a fresh account these days deserves a post or several of its own, which I may or may not get to at some point. For the moment let's focus on just one of the many, many oddnesses: the Dailies Anet clearly doesn't expect anyone to do.

If a complete newbie, on a complete newbie account, wants to complete his or her dailies and receive the "Daily Completionist" achievement and the ten achievement points that accompany it, he or she gets no choice whatsoever. Completion requires three dailies and three is all you get: do them all or go home.

Excuse me but I'm new this Ascalon?

Each day brings a "choice" of precisely one PvE, one WvW and one PvP daily. As soon as you exit the Tutorial you have immediate access to the achievement window in which they are itemized under "Daily". You also get the daily Log-In reward jiggling away in the bottom corner to draw your attention to the mechanic.

You might well imagine these dailies are something you could get started on right away. You'd be wrong. You can do the PvE one, provided you know where to go and have opened the maps, highly unlikely at level two or three, but as for the other two? Forget it.

A new account is hard-blocked from entering either WvW or PvP by using any of the UI buttons that you might spot via a mouse-over tooltip. Those don't become avaialable until level 18 for WvW and level 22 for PvP. These are also the levels at which your Level Rewards will inform you that you are ready for these activities.

What, then, is the point of dangling that daily carrot in front of the player right at the beginning and then making it as plain as can be that you shouldn't try to reach for it? Fast though leveling is in GW2, few ingenues are going to hit 18 on their first character on the first day. Or the first week, quite possibly. Neither is anyone genuinely new to the game going to know, or discover other than by sheer, blind chance, that you can access both  game modes by going to Lion's Arch, finding the relevant Asura gates there and right-clicking them.

The logic behind making the new player's first few sessions easier to enjoy by offering clearly visible tasks while simultaneously locking them behind obscure access methods escapes me, as does much of ANet's logic. Imagine I was one of those players developers frequently cite, and for whose benefit many of the NPE changes were supposedly implemented, the kind of player who gives up at the first hurdle and never logs in again. Well, let's just say that's one heck of a hurdle you just put in my way.

It doesn't end there either. When you do find and use the Asura Gate to the Heart of the Mists you have to complete a mandatory, if perfunctory, tutorial that seems to have little or no relevance to what actually happens when you get into a PvP map. Then there's the barricade of the sPvP interface itself. To call it confusing and unintuitive would be an understatement.

All must win prizes.
I had to go to the wiki several times before I was able to use that interface effectively and I still don't claim to find it straightforward. I can only imagine that the entry into WvW is just as confusing for anyone who hasn't spent countless hours there. Add to this the unfortunate but salient fact that many WvW players are considerably less than welcoming of "uplevels" and that everyone in every competitive game mode is likely to be intolerant of players, new or old, who are only there to "do their dailies" and you really do have to begin to wonder about the clarity of thought of the people who came up with the whole concept.

As a coherent, considered approach to introducing brand-new players to all the game modes - it sucks. Why not just stick to PvE dailies until there's at least one character on the account that reaches the recommended level for the other game modes? Just finding out where to go for those now they're location-specific would be challenge enough, I'd have thought.

Of course it was only my account and my character that was new to GW2, not me, which
makes for a very lopsided assessment. Things that a real new starter would possibly find frustratingly difficult and confusing I, as an experienced player, found positively bracing. It's a very different experience, for example, trying to solo a yak or a sentry-point as an ungeared uplevel than it is as a Level 80 Bronze Major in full Exotics/Ascended. I had to play a lot smarter and use a lot of cunning. It was a lot of fun.

The PvP (about which I was going to write here but which now may to have to get a post of its own) was entirely new and was pretty confusing but I very much enjoyed it. Whether the rest of my team welcomed having a Level 2 Engineer with almost no gear at all, using pistols with no stats , with only two out of five weapon skills and no utility skills other than a heal and, obviously, no traits is hard to say. No-one complained at me or to me, though, and I was able to hold my own and be fairly useful. I killed people, took points, defended them, all the good stuff.

I didn't die much more than anyone else, either ,as far as I could tell. I'm guessing the group-maker matches people of equivalent rank together so none of us had much idea what we were doing. We must all have been Rabbits together. I even had enough fun that I ran a few matches on my level 80s.

I was enjoying the whole thing so much in fact, the low-level, no choice daily experience, that it was disappointing when I hit level 11 and suddenly my daily horizons expanded to a choice of three from nine. Not for the first time I wished GW2 had some potion or toggle that allowed you to lock your level.

All that and I didn't even get around to mentioning Dragonball.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Hope You Like Our New Direction: Daybreak Games

Yesterday I spent a considerable amount of time drafting and re-drafting a post about the ongoing situation at Daybreak. I never finished it because as I wrote more news kept coming in, almost all of it either reported or generated by Feldon of the invaluable EQ2Wire.

David Carey, a former producer and systems designer for Planetside2, himself now out of a job at Daybreak following the layoffs, posted a revealing and intriguing open letter on Reddit in which he explained, in most convincing fashion, why Columbus Nova does not deserve to be treated as the bad guy in all this:

"They are more like white knights than negative forces here. SOE needed a shake up/new direction, and CN provided that. They have done nothing but been gracious in their new ownership, and they went out of their way to make sure that Devs and support teams that got laid off were taken care of."

Before I'd had time to formulate my thoughts on that Feldon put up a no-holds-barred editorial dismantling SOE/Daybreak president John "Smed" Smedley's role in and version of events:

"You would think that Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley would have sought bids from companies that had the best interests in mind for the long-term growth and survival of the company in mind. However you would be wrong. According to an anonymous source at SOE and verified by a source in the gaming industry, SOE turned down three serious offers to buy the company, with one deal falling through literally days before the papers were to be signed".

The editorial makes a number of incendiary claims and it drew an immediate response from Smed. After an exchange of emails Feldon posted a follow-up in which he quoted Smed directly :

"We absolutely made sure that taking care of our employees was the highest priority and this deal was by far and away the one that took care of people the best."

Feldon confirmed that "It is absolutely true that Columbus Nova honored severance packages for those who were laid off and so salaried employees have time to find a new job, most with several months not including unemployment."

That exchange between Feldon and Smed corroborates and confirms the latter part of what  David Carey had to say in the quote above but it doesn't address his opening gambit. A look at the (complete?) list of the individuals who were laid off as posted this morning by Azuriel at In An Age is more illuminating in that regard.

Leaving aside for the moment the degree to which the President of the company is, or should be, responsible for its failings and avoiding metaphors relating to ship's captains and samurai warriors, that list does indeed suggest something more like a new broom sweeping clean than the clearing of deadwood. The lay-offs appear to fall into three broad categories: Communication, Content and Direction.

Communication has long been something SOE found diffcult to manage effectively. There was a long history of aggressive and antagonistic communication going all the way back to  the confrontational styles of community reps Absor and Abashi. At one point things got so bad SOE had to close down their own forums because of the damage the negativity there was doing to recruitment of new customers.

That did get sorted out and the individuals who fronted those communication channels over the last few years were largely popular and well-liked. There is, rightly, a sense of loss within the community they cared for and a concern for their future. The tributes coming in for Ashlanne, Afista, Hats and especially Brasse (about whom even SynCaine felt compelled to say something nice) show that it wasn't any fault in their ability to do the job required of them - to speak to and on behalf of the playing customers - that lost them their positions.

Overall, however, and despite the efforts of willing and able people, communication between the company and its customers remained confused and confusing. SOE employed a lot of people to talk to us on a lot of channels and yet somehow clear messages never seemed to get through. Let's hope there are changes to the structural approach, how communication is handled at Daybreak in the future as a result of this re-organization, and that past problems are avoided.

Then there are the creators; the designers and developers who fill the games with things for players to do and for characters to use. The removal of so many of those people from EQ2 and PS2 suggests a bleak future for the creation of new content for those games. That, of course, does depend on whether their roles have ended or are simply vacant, to be refilled with new talent with fresh ideas. Unlikely, I know.

It also raises an uncomfortable question, which is this: just how much new content does a game like EQ2 actually need? EQ2 is already one of the most content-rich MMOs in existence. If anything it has too much content. Might it not benefit from some streamlining, with the money saved going towards better marketing aimed at bringing in new players who could enjoy what's already there, rather than endlessly building more attractions to amuse the increasingly jaded palates of the existing audience?

As for PS2, I don't claim to know much about it or its audience but isn't it a jump-in, jump-out, massive persistent shooter? Does that game model require regular additions of designer-created content or just a better reason for people to blow each other to atoms?

Finally we get to the real crux of the issue: Direction. The Future.

Supposedly Columbus Nova bought SOE at least in part because of their belief that new properties like EQNext and H1Z1 could become large, popular, commercially successful products. Let's focus on EQN and Landmark.

For eighteen months, in this corner of the blogosphere and elsewhere, people have been asking two questions: "What the heck is Landmark supposed to be?" and "When are we going to see some actual progress on EQN?". Feldon emphasizes just how long and unproductive the road to New Norrath has been:

"EverQuest Next has been a going concern at SOE since at least 2008, more likely 2007...If we are very conservative on our timing, that’s January 2008-December 2011 or four solid years of development thrown in the trash before the team started over with what we see now in Landmark and what we will eventually see in EQNext."

Dave Georgeson was the face of Landmark/EQN. He's a fine communicator and an enthusiastic and lively presence in any Livestream. He writes a good producer's letter and he brought some solid ideas to EQ2 in his tenure there. I'd be very interested to look at any MMO project he goes on to head up after this. Jeff Butler co-created Everquest and understands, if anyone does, what made that game work. He has a great, dry wit and is always good value in a panel discussion. Steve "Moorguard" Danuser was in charge of EQN's story. On his blog, Mobhunter, he's as optimistic as David Carey: "I poured my heart into the story for EQN, just as I did for Amalur before it. Norrath is in good hands, and I can’t wait to see what Daybreak achieves."

They represented the core of the team responsible for what EQN would become. They are all gone. And yet, for all their estimable qualities, after two years of selling the concept of EQN and Landmark to an initially willing and eager audience, what is their legacy? The footprint of a building game that might be playable for the ordinary, casual player sometime this decade but certainly not now and a lot of rather silly Round Table discussions along the lines of "What pelt markings would you prefer to see on the Kerran?".

As David Carey said "SOE needed a shake up/new direction". We all knew it. We've all been saying it. Now it might just be happening.

Everyone with a functioning heart feels for the individuals who've lost not only their jobs but almost certainly in most cases jobs they really loved and did well. Everyone playing the games is apprehensive, even fearful, about what this means for their virtual homes and families, their characters and their guilds. We all remember what happened to Vanguard and Free Realms.

Not everything has changed, of course. Smed still stands on the bridge, hands on the wheel, gazing to the horizon. Is he Richard Phillips or Captain Ahab? (I know. I said no captain metaphors. I lied). Terry Michaels, Steve Klug and Emily "Domino" Taylor are still driving EQN. Will they go on following the same road-map or tear it up to head off on a road trip all their own? Holly "Windstalker" Longdale and a number of familiar names remain at EQ2.  Does that mean business as usual or battened hatches and a bunker mentality?  

Feldon's right: it didn't have to be this way. This, though, is the way it is. Smed says he did what he did for his people but who are his people? His employees or his players? Could he have done better by both or did he have to make his own hard choice? And anyway, would we really have thanked him if he'd sold us to PWE? We sure didn't like it when he sold us to PSS1. Maybe he actually learned something from that.

Still, in the end, something had to give. The drift had to stop. And we are, as they say, where we are. Will this shake things up enough? Will we like the new direction? Will there even be a new direction? What happens next?

Ah, now that's the adventure!

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