More Here Soon! Blog Resurrection

Hopefully without blog DNA transcription errors

I’ve been playing games!  Games that are online and are played with other gamers! I’ve been doing it for a few months now, so I’ve decided to work with the blog again. Why not?

First on the list, and in the rotation since winter, is Clash of Clans. It’s a free to play mobile strategy game. The monetization scheme is rather fair — spending money might advance your village faster, but that will just put you up against stronger opponents sooner. There’s a lot of depth and strategy to the game — much more than I expected, so much more that I occasionally feel bad for my clanmates when I don’t take the time to play, learn, and improve. If you’re looking for a clan, you can find a bit more info about the one I am part of here.

About two months back, that old MMO itch came back again. I had little interest in Wildstar and no interest in Elder Scrolls Online, so I decided the easiest way back in was just to boot up Guild Wars 2: it was still on my system and did not cost anything to return to. So I checked with Havok, and she had been thinking about playing it again as well. We got back in just before the second Living Story season started. The game has gone through some changes since I quit around this time last year, which for the most part I like.

I did find that the Living Story took little time to complete, however, so I found myself looking for more. Which led to spending more time in WvW, which led to joining a WvW guild, which actually led to spending more time in structured PvP to level a thief. And now I mostly play a thief in any pvp mode — the engi still comes out for PvE and dungeons.  And until I have one of each, there’s always at least one character that I’m leveling. So now my current stable of GW2 characters contains an 80 engineer, 80 guardian, 80 thief, 80 mesmer, 44 elementalist, 42 warrior, 40 necromancer, and a 20 ranger. My first 3 80s have full exotic gear, with the engi having several ascended trinkets. The thief has a few ascended trinkets and a few pieces of ascended armor. Currently leveling the ele, though I’m not really concerned about playing with that pro at a high level or equipping out anymore 80s I achieve. Other than occasionally running map completion or world events, usually while only half paying attention, most of my game time goes into learning about fighting other players with the thief. I have a few guildies that prefer thieves, so I know I have a lot of room for improvement.

Last night, I launched into Archeage. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game and have yet to encounter any of the sandbox features that make people I know so excited about it. But I am already enjoying the class system. And looking forward to the crafting. I’ll probably be playing this more than GW2 by the end of the year — partly because I have payed for Patron status and want to get my money’s worth. I’m not a huge fan of the combat, but it is better than pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies, and I loved that game. I don’t think the combat will be the main draw for Archeage any more than it was for SWG.

I have quite a few article ideas brewing, so more here in the near future.

Obligatory Everquest Next Reveal Impressions

I’m dragging myself out of the depths to which inactive bloggers are banished in order to talk about the topic of the moment.  During the SOE Live 2013 Everquest Next announcement, I was in the office working on formatting the latest revisions to one of our manuals, but I’m alone on Fridays, so I put the livestream on one computer while working off another.

I almost regret that choice.  Now I have to go in and work tomorrow to make up for how unfocused I was for the last three hours of the day.  But it will only cost me a little in gas.  Seems worth it.

I can sum up why with a single quote:

What we do is we tag everything in the game world with what it is.  The game is constantly polling the world to find out where the guards are, how often people have gone down a lonely stretch of road to find out whether it’s lonely or not.  And so what we do is we create orks and then we just release them into the world.  And then it’s up to the orks to find the spots that they like.

I’m glad I work alone on Fridays, because the following video is actual footage of what happened in my office next:

I never realized how much I look like Winona Ryder.

Anyway, no static spawns: instead, mobs have behavioral subroutines that assign likes and dislikes, preferences and aversions.  Further explanation revealed that the same scenario can have multiple results — players may be sent into the woods to push back goblins that have recently arrived.  And the goblins might start withdrawing, or the goblin king might decide he needs those woods and respond by sending armies.

Actual change in the world.  Actual change over time without updates needed.  It’s what many expected from GW2.  But rather than dynamic ghost story events, EQN, as described at least, does not have dynamic events — instead, it has a dynamic virtual ecology that will vary from server to server.

This part of the reveal, by itself with nothing else, is enough that I can say I will play the game to at least see this claim in action.

The cynicism of the MMO community is well-earned, but I don’t find myself agreeing with many of the complaints that are already circling.   The new art direction is frequently under attack — I find myself not caring at all about the changes to character models and otherwise impressed with the environment art.  The combat style is under attack.   I’m not sure it’s possible for me to have feelings about the combat that based on video, even the video in which various developers play the game live on stage.  I’d need to take the controls myself.

Syp over at Biobreak seems unimpressed with the Rallying Cries, EQN’s version of public questing, stating that “practically everything they’re saying about them makes [him] think of Guild Wars 2,” but I would disagree there as well.  Sure, the basic mechanic reminds me of GW2 or Rift or that game that shall not be named where the term PQ comes from, but I think that’s missing the point.  PQs are static in all three of those games, but if things work as claimed, Rallying Cries will be generated organically by the emergent AI in the applicable mobs and NPCs; in other words, there will be no dragon timers for EQN.  On one server the dragon might be attacking the city because too many adventurers have threatened his hoard while on another he’s still guarding the hoard and terrorizing the mountains.  And that dragon might have settled in different places on each server to begin with.

My only disappointment is that I’m not seeing how EQN will itself be a sandbox.  From the reveal, the sandbox elements seem safely confined to EQN Landmark. I would play that game even if it wasn’t tied to an MMO — even if it was just a AAA graphics version of Minecraft.  In fact, I’m strongly considering upgrading my PC or buying a new one before EQNL releases.

But I’d be more impressed if the two were a single game.


Guild Wars 2: Yes, there is an endgame

Yes, there is an endgame.  Yes, there is progression at level 80.  Popular opinion says otherwise, but popular opinion also elevated Justin Bieber to celebrity status and Shades of Grey to bestseller.  Dismissing popular opinion as mindless drivel is not only justifiable — it’s pretty much the only way to approach everything these days.  The endgame exists.  One could say that he or she doesn’t personally find it entertaining, but to claim it doesn’t is just objectively wrong.

The problem, for some, seems not to be a lack of character progression—as mystic weapons and legendary weapons are clearly character progression— but that the content itself does not progress.  One does not have access to only a single raid that must be repeated until certain rewards are earned and can move on to the next raid.  And the dungeons that are available are all available at once.

But these dungeons are not linear dungeons.  And when they branch, there is no way to backtrack and complete all branches in a single run.  Between story mode and the multiple explorable mode paths, five dungeons ends up being about 20 unique bits of content, each a very different experience than the others even though there are only five starting points.

I cannot begin to count the number of ways I prefer this method.  I can pick any of these endgame activities at any time — I’m not stuck repeating the same one indefinitely.  And I do mean indefinitely.  In the traditional tiered raid structure, I might need to run that first raid only once before I randomly get the item I need to survive the next raid, but I also might need to run it 57 times.  There’s absolutely no way to gauge how long it will take before one can move on.

I hate that.  Hate.  Despise it with every fiber of my being.  It’s blatant Skinnerian conditioning.  The pigeon will peck the lever the most if rewarded inconsistently.  Not every peck, not every 5 pecks, but just sometimes.  The pigeon keeps pecking hoping that this peck will be the time.

Unfortunately, most people are pigeons.  They call this “endgame progression” — I call it being a sucker.  Hand over your $15 a month while we hide our content in a Skinner box to make you keep handing over $15 a month.  Some found this fun.  I pitied their fun.

Some complain that there are not tons of marginally-better-than-the-last-one items as rewards in these dungeons.  Once again, that complaint is a selling point for me.  I don’t want massive itemization — it’s just another way of forcing players into the Skinner box.

Are you beginning to understand that I find hidden behavioral manipulations terrible?  I hope so.

Because that’s what I like about the Guild Wars 2 endgame.  It doesn’t pretend.  It is not attempting to insult my intelligence by claiming to have a lot of content to work towards after hitting max level.  It’s saying, “Here is what we have, you can do almost any of it at almost any time, and there’s a lot of variety.  If you enjoy it, do it all, and repeat the parts you enjoy.  As you complete each part we’ll reward you by showing you clear progression towards a goal.  We will not take these goals and hide them behind Skinnerian conditioning, forcing you to press that lever indefinitely.  We will tell you exactly when that lever press will give a reward.”

And that’s damn refreshing.  Well, that is, it’s refreshing if you see the Skinner box for what it is — a con.  It’s not refreshing if you’ve allowed yourself to be convinced that endgame must be a single piece of content repeated indefinitely in hopes of a reward that leads only to repeating another piece of content indefinitely.  If you’re willing to do that without knowing when the end will be, why in the world would you be upset that you can do any content in any order and know exactly when the end will be?

Conditioning.  This popular dismissal is yet another example of people stuck in ruts, unable to see the walls that create the rut, insisting that the rut is the entirety of the world.

Just some brief Thursday morning snark

People ask the most absurd questions in general chat in MMOs, questions that just scream “learned helplessness.”

From Guild Wars 2:

“As a weaponsmith, when will I be able to use silver?”  Gee, I dunno, but to find out, I would simply leave my mouse pointer over the item for a fraction of a second and it would tell me, jackass, so why don’t you go ahead try that for yourself?  In this case, it took me less time to find out than it took him to type the question.  The answer: never.

“Where’s the best place for copper?”  Since you must have been looking while you were playing, you must have noticed, like everyone else, that it appears in the lower level zones.  Even if you find a clump, it doesn’t respawn quickly, so shut up and wander around.  There is no magic infinite copper cave that everyone knows about but you.

“When should I upgrade my weapons?”  This one was a hoot, because it took chat about ten or twenty questions just to identify what the person meant by upgrade.  In this case, he meant “replace with one that is more powerful,” as opposed to actually upgrading, which is a game mechanic.  The answer: when you feel you need to.  When else?

“What attributes should I look for on my equipment?” The ones that support the way you play, genius.

Clearly I didn’t get enough sleep last night.


Guild Wars 2: GW2 and Me

Where do  I stand with GW2?  Playing it still clearly, and probably for some time to come before I exhaust the content, based on my current pace.  I have five characters, four if you only count the ones I’ve advanced.  They are levels 26, 12, 9, and 8.  Even the number of alts really doesn’t entirely explain my slow pace — but Glitch is still my main game, and there’s not a day of gaming that hasn’t seen me check into Glitch.   And not out of some sense of obligation — GW2 is a lot of fun and has some fascinating stories, but I feel much like I do standing in the center of a busy city.  All alone among thousands.

I’ve seen very few conversations come about in local chat — and map chat is absolutely inane and idiotic more often than not.  The game itself does not create compelling reasons to meet and interact, socially, with others.  Events create interaction, but without any social aspect.

For example, the other night I was killing undead something or other in a swamp with my main, a Sylvari Engineer.  Typical of a theme park MMO, I was solo, pulling enemies one or two at a time, working on a “heart,” the GW2 version of quests.  I could see one or two other players within “draw” distance, but while we would occasionally, and wordlessly, help each other out, we mostly stayed out of each other’s way.  Then, on the minimap, the swamp becomes surrounded by an orange line, and text, the equivalent of a quest tracker, comes up telling me the undead are trying to form an army, asking me to help break it.

Immediately, the two other players in my vicinity becomes 5, then 10, then tops out somewhere around 15.  And working side by side, we take out the army before it can form.  Without speaking to each other, without spamming chat with “lfm” followed by more strange acronyms, we have spent about 10 minutes in something resembling raid level content.  I say resembling because there’s no coordination, no lead on tanking, and no healers watching our backs.  But stories like this one pepper my play experiences with all four of my characters.  All of them have been part of groups taking down something big and dangerous before they even reached level 10.

That’s pretty damn cool.

Putting that aside, it works as a single player game better than any other MMO I’ve played, including SWTOR.  The questions answered during character creation have a real effect on how the story line plays out, including at least one question I thought would matter the least.  Allow me to explain:

With five character slots, and five races, it seemed natural for an altaholic like me to create one character for each race.  My second character was a Norn Thief.  I say was because I decided I could not stand the thief profession, and after reaching level 11 with him, decided to give him a quiet death and replace him with a Norn Elementalist.  Going back through the character creation process again, I answered every question exactly the same, intending to get the same story to be able to continue it once I caught back up.  When I got to the part about the character’s disposition, however, I answered differently, thinking little would be affected.  But while the story has followed a similar path, with the same problem to solve and the same characters involved, entire story missions have been completely different simply because I made this Norn prefer his fists over his charm.  The way he approaches the problem reflects that answer, despite that the actual elements of the problem have not changed.  I’m tempted to spend a lot of money buying character slots and make a Norn character with every possible combination of answers to the character creation questions, just to see how much variety can be found from a single character race.

Not going to happen: I have enough on my plate with the slots the game comes with.

Between story, exploration, and events, most people seem to be running about doing their own thing.  There really seems to be no obvious way to meet people in the game.  Seems my only option would be to join every guild spamming chat or sending random invites.  Those tend to be the guilds I don’t want to join, but at least with GW2 I can join all of them, at the same time, and check them out.

I had originally planned to apply to Inquisition and play with those folks, and I might still do that.  But I seem to be in this small population of GW2 players whose machines should be able to run this game without issue but are having a lot of issues.  I could run Skyrim at medium settings with respectable framerates.  I could run it at ultra and not crash or lock up, but animations looked a bit choppy as the fps would fall to around 20.

In GW2, no matter the level of the settings, even at the lowest, I am rarely getting fps over 20.   And in WvWvW, the element I assume INQ, as a PvP focused guild, is most fond of, I am getting even lower framerates. At one point, it actually said one.  One frame per second.  Someone could run a few circles around me and end up standing where they started in one second, and my screen would not even show them move.  Not really fun, at all.

I plan to give things a bit of time to slow down over there, then start hitting the support department with “hey, what gives?” emails.  I seem to not be alone and cannot find any consistency about the issue.  It’s not just Nvidia users, though we had it the worst until the latest drivers.  And it’s not just people with two year old video cards like me — I’ve read claims of systems with current generation video cards getting around 30 fps.  Given server transfers are free right now, I’ve wondered if moving to one of the new ones would show an uptick in performance, if the fps issue could possibly be related to the number of people logged in and playing simultaneously.  I have no idea if that even makes sense, but I’m loathe to leave my server knowing I’d be unlikely to get back to it.

In my next few entries on GW2, I’m going to have a bit of fun and just talk about my characters, their stories (probably with spoilers), and what I enjoy about playing with each.

Coming soon: probably a post about Glitch, and definitely a post, maybe even a series of posts, about my ideal vision of a “next gen” MMO.

Guild Wars 2: Dynamic Events are Ghost Stories

When I was a little Sauce, I wasn’t a fan of horror movies.  My parents would not stop me from watching them and tried instead to warn me away, but of course I knew better than my parents as soon as I could walk and insisted on watching the end of one with them, burning myself with nightmares and a permanent inability to let anything touch my eye.

Ghost stories were scary enough for me.  Around second or third grade, I became both frightened and obsessed with a movie called Lady in White (imdb).  In this movie, there are a pair of ghosts whom nightly reenact the circumstances that led up to their death.  They go to the same locations, follow the same path, have the same conversations, and inevitably, they both end up dead at the bottom of the same cliff.

In Guild Wars 2, I’ve met a lot of these ghosts, frozen in time, doomed to repeat certain circumstances in the exact same locations with the exact same companions for all of eternity.  Or until the servers turn off at least.  Oh sure, as Syncaine points out, the events are stuck in victory mode, but he’s probably right as well that later they will be stuck in failure mode instead.  In Lady in White, the main character eventually breaks the cycle by finding the killer.  But instead of switching from a murder event chain to a confronting the killer event chain, the ghosts, and the narrative, move on.  The poor ghosts of Guild Wars 2 will never have that freedom.

GW2 is the best theme park MMO that I have ever played, and it has addressed a number of the minor annoyances that made me run quickly from most theme park games.  But it’s still a theme park, and dynamic events hammer that point home.  They’re the absolute lowest point of the uncanny valley.  They’re clunky, plastic, animatronic Abraham Lincolns giving the Gettysburg address at quarter past every hour for bored, sweaty, easily distracted tourists that only caught the speech at all because it started while they were sucking down hot dogs and soda before moving on to the next ride.

We’ve reached MMO 2.5, the refinement of the second generation.  And I feel part of that refinement is the acknowledgment that this style of game doesn’t deserve a subscription fee.  There’s not enough variety in the play mechanics and systems, there’s not enough variety in the ends, not enough variety in the game’s motivations to create social groups to retain players, to convince them to pay that entry fee for a long period of time.

What there is, instead, is a large variety of content and a respectable variety of game modes.  And while the stories told by the content are varied and often interesting, they all utilize the same underlying systems and feed into a predefined progression.

And while that’s provided for a heck of a lot of fun, the subscription model still hangs over most developers as a proverbial carrot on a stick, an admittedly attractive carrot made out of millions of $15 payments dependably arriving every month.

Getting that subscription out of me again is going to take a 3rd generation MMO.  Declaring something as a “next gen” MMO is going to take something else.  More on that another time.

Still, it’s pretty

Obligatory Guild Wars 2 Head Start Weekend Wrap-up Post

Looking around the blogs I read, my options for a head start weekend wrap up post seem to be (1) talking about the effect of the launch on any other games I play, (2) praising the game as the best thing since ballsack, or (3) trolling about the game’s fanboi community.

Let’s see, it had little to no effect on Glitch — no huge surprise there given the games’ target audiences just barely overlap.  Maybe a few of the devs are playing GW2 in their spare time instead of dreaming about drunken kangaroos.

I don’t know if it’s the best thing since ballsack, but it is better than ballsack.  I’m not convinced that it’s better than toast though.

Trolling fanbois is too easy — we can skip that.

Overall, I’m enjoying the game.  Clearly not as much as some, as by the end of the weekend I have one character at level 12 who is nowhere near finishing the Sylvari starter zone, and I’ve read a number of bloggers a bit beyond that, some of whom I know have unavoidable responsibilities I do not share.

I’m playing it much like I would a single player console RPG.  For the most part, I play alone, just with other people around that sometimes help out.  And then much along the lines of Mass Effect 3, I can queue up for multiplayer now and again when I tire of the game’s stories and settings.  I imagine if I were to put a lot of time into the game in a short span, I’d quickly tire of it.  I don’t see anything about the game that will retain me longer than other theme parks have in the past.

But that’s okay.  That doesn’t make me snicker behind my hand and believe the game is a failure, unlike other recent games I’ve ignored.  Just by simply not charging a sub, I don’t expect Tyria to be my new digital home.  I expect it to be a game I play now and again, jumping in and out when the urge catches me, killing time when I tire of Glitch.

Guild Wars 2 is certainly not the best game that will ever be.  And theme parks are still not ultimately where I want to put my money.  The theme park still doesn’t feel like it’s built for retention.  They still have an end that can only be extended by doing PvP and other repeated activities.  Given that’s exactly what most single player RPGs do, take players through a story then end with optional multiplayer modes to extend the experience, the only difference between such an RPG and an MMO seems to be the presence of other players while you run through your story.  And that alone has not been worth a box cost plus a subscription fee to me.

But even if GW2 were identical to WoW or SWTOR in every single detail, it would still get a thumbs up from me.  It’s an interesting RPG with some entertaining multiplayer modes thrown in.  Can’t ask for much more than that for my 60 bucks.  But I’ll still demand more, from the same game, for $14.99 a month.