Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Archetypal Behavior

And we're back. We had the best holiday for a long time and we're pretty good at going on holiday so that's saying quite a lot.

The whole of the Iberian peninsula was in the grip of a ferocious heatwave. There were huge forest fires all over the place, some extremely serious. Temperatures broke records. The nightly news was filled with multicolored maps and spiraling numbers.

We spent a lot of time in the mountains, in forests or by lakes. We avoided cities, staying in small, dusty towns and villages. We drank a lot of water and sat in the shade.

As we traveled we marveled at how many new wonders still remain to be discovered even in places you've criss-crossed so many times before. Also, how readily those old fantasy tropes become real.

We took to parceling up the landscape by race. We passed through wood-elf country into the lands where humans and elves intermingled. Half-elven hinterlands slipped into dwarven stonelands. In the peaks the evidence of giants and rock trolls lay all around us.

Little wonder these images are so prevalent or that they come so easily to mind. In times when it took days to travel from town to town, under the hammer of the sun, surrounded by birdsong and the drone of insects, every new horizon must have shimmered with strangeness and change. They still do.

We drove along dirt tracks to a Visigoth church, whose stones were piled close to a millennia and a half ago, to find it filled with music, the keyholder sheltering from the sun, playing his guitar in the dim, dirt-floored interior, waiting on the off-chance anyone should happen by. We stumbled across pocket castles not much bigger than cottages and craned our necks looking up at sprawling fortifications half the length of a city.

I had good intentions of posting at least once or twice while we were away but technology frustrated those hopes once again. Wi-fi has improved in availability since the days it was listed as an occasional luxury but it has yet to improve significantly in any practical sense. Most days I counted myself lucky if I was able to keep a connection long enough to book ahead for the next night.

I didn't do myself any favors, either. I took three internet-capable devices with me - my Teclast dual-OS 10" tablet, my aging Android 7" and my ancient iPod Touch, now almost a decade old.

I forgot the charging cable for the Teclast and it wouldn't charge from any of the several other cables I did have. The 7" died completely three days into the trip. In the end I relied mostly on the iPod touch, which performed stolidly. One up to Steve Jobs.

It seems that a mobile (cell) phone is expected these days if you plan on staying in anything less well-equipped than a three-star hotel. The Rural Hotels, private apartments and rooms above bars I was picking all expect you to call them by phone when you arrive so the owner can pop on their sandals, put down the pruning shears and trot round from their home several streets away to hand you the key, after which you never see them again.

Mrs Bhagpuss had her iPhone so that shouldn't have been a problem - except that her network, O2, has a known bug wherein it adds spurious extra digits to any non-UK number. I, of course, don't own a mobile at all.

We couldn't phone anyone, anywhere, ever. That led to some shenanigans. We eventually got in to every room I'd booked although there were times I thought we might not. Always depend on the kindness of strangers. Still, I'm taking a mobile next time and I'm buying a local sim card to put in it when I get there.

We agreed that we made for the very model of the Explorer Archetype throughout, with a fair portion of Achiever thrown in (we took a lot of video and photographs and ticked off a lot of culturo-historic Points of Interest). The repeated performance of the Ritual of the Keys gave us a decent smattering of Socializer cred. The only Bartle box we didn't tick was Killer - unless you count the thousand tiny insect bodies smeared across the front of our car.

Due to a peculiarity of this year's working schedule it's less than three months until we go away again. I can hardly wait!

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Magic Carpet Ride

Things are likely to be slow around here for a while. We're off on our travels again.

I did by a keyboard you can roll up so there's an outside chance I might post while I'm away.

Probably not. We'll see. If not, I'll just have to make up for it when I get back.

Meanwhile, always remember, fantasy will set you free. As Pizzicato 5 never said. That was someone else entirely.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Give A Dog A Bad Name... : GW2, EverQuest

Here's a controversial proposition: Heart of Thorns was a good expansion.

I know, I stalled GW2's commercial progress dead in its tracks, almost killed World vs World for good and ended up having to be nerfed into the ground to appease the pitchfork-and-torch-waving crowd.

For an encore, six months later Colin Johanson, the guy responsible for HoT's design and direction and the game's prime mover, fell on his Legendary Greatsword and left the company. From that point on GW2 has been in recovery and repair mode, trying to fix the damage wrought by the first, botched xpack.

Or so the narrative goes. Factually that's not an inaccurate summary. Only problem is, it misrepresents almost the entirety of my experience in the jungle itself.

From the day I first stepped into the sweltering heat of the Maguuma heartland I was having fun. Yes, it was a tad over-tuned to begin with but not unusually so. Almost all MMO expansions come in hard and soften up later.

Benchmarked against the harshest expansion I've ever slogged through, EverQuest's notorious Gates of Discord, HoT isn't just a walk in the park; it's a sun-lounger on the beach with an ice-cold beer in your  hand and a chillout mix on your iPod.

Okay, unfair comparison. GoD was not just hellishly hard; it was actually broken. The developers knew that but released it anyway. John Smedley later called it SOE's "worst mistake in five years." and despite many unwitting attempts to unseat it since, GoD still  wears the crown.

Giant Bomb has an excellent overview of the expansion itself, with a coda that partially explains just why EQ players who were there recall the game's seventh expansion with a sense of horror:

"... the seventh expansion ... was largely unfinished with many encounters either not working properly or simply unbeatable. It was later revealed that the development team built much of the expansion's content with the idea in mind that the level cap would increase to 70, but that did not happen."

Well, that would make a difference, wouldn't it? What's more:

"GoD brought about an entire overhaul of EverQuest's graphics engine, issues with the world's geometry were affected throughout the world of Norrath, both new zones and old.

This is why Daybreak's new Undercover Classic server, Agnarr, stops at the sixth expansion, right before the gates to disaster open. A shame, really, because once they'd fixed it, and with its companion, eighth expansion Omens of War in place (the one that actually had the level cap increase) it turned out to be a pretty good era as Norrathian adventures go.

Too late. Too late. Reputation once lost is hard to recover, ironically.

The main reason I'm thinking about this right now is that I finally applied my half-price HoT code to one of my two base-game-only accounts. I figured with the second expansion almost certain to arrive before the end of the year, dragging free HoT access for all behind it like a White Elephant no-one's going to be allowed to refuse, I might as well get the benefit while there was still some paid value left.

I wasn't particularly relishing it. Not because I don't like Heart of Thorns; I always liked it. Check pretty much any of my many posts on the topic. The tone is bemused but happy. I never expected to like it but it turned out I did.

In the year and a half the expansion's been with us I've only completed the main story-line once. It's okay. About as good as any other ANet story. Faint praise, I know.

What I have done, though, is explore the entire jungle to a degree I have still never managed with Core Tyria to this day. I have Heart of Maguuma map completion in multiple zones on multiple characters and I loved doing it.

I've done the lengthy Ascended Weapon "collections" ("quests", translated from Anet Newspeak) on every class and I really loved doing those. I've filled out almost all the Masteries and the few I haven't I've only left because I don't feel I'll ever need them. Most of those, again, I thoroughly enjoyed doing.

There's more. On top of all that designated content I've spent hundreds of hours over the last couple of years just gliding the updrafts in Verdant Brink for sheer joy. I've spent happy winter evenings doing the ninety-minute Dragon Stand event, not because I needed anything from it but because it's bloody good fun.

Even so, I was a little apprehensive about returning to the Heart of Maguuma on a fresh account.

The thing about modern MMO design is that all your characters bar the first are twinked by design.
Once I'd run one character through the entire storyline and opened all the maps, every character on the account could take advantage of the enhanced travel and survival options. Not only did I know where everything was, I knew all the shortcuts and had all the passes and permissions. It got easier and easier each time - and as I said I dispute the widespread belief that it was ever very difficult in the first place!

Going back to yesterday's post on Survival games and how they key into progression mechanics that have always worked well for me, it shouldn't have been the surprise it was to find out that Heart of Thorns without all the shortcuts is even more fun than I remembered. Having to get around with only the most basic gliding skill, the one that only keeps you aloft so long as your endurance bar lasts and that's not long at all, turns out to be exciting, satisfying and entertaining.

Not being able to just bounce on a mushroom to get up a cliff, having instead to work out the paths, dodge roll past the Pocket Raptors and glug Elixir B like cooldowns were going out of fashion - is that frustrating? The hell it is! It's thrilling.

Naturally, in the tradition of every MMO ever, your goal in having fun is to acquire the means to avoid having to have the fun you're having ever again. As my Mastery points accrue and my xp bar fills (soooo slooooowly - must use boosts...) soon I'll be bouncing and leaning with the best of them.

That's fine. There's new kinds of fun to be had with each new skill. I'm already planning my path to becoming a Scrapper. I'll need all the tricks. After that my fourth ranger (or is she my fifth?) can get Druid.

One thing that concerned me a year or more ago was whether anyone would still be "doing" Heart of Thorns as the expansion aged. Back then it seemed unlikely.

The expected exodus may still happen one day, as the next expansion or the one after that arrives, but for now the maps are hopping - and not just with Itzel. Anet have done a sound job of tying desirable rewards to the content in both HoT and all the LS3 maps that followed.

Map chat is busy with people organizing Hero Point runs or calling out events. Better still, the improved LFG system successfully fills maps with like-minded players set on achieving specific goals. HoT's not the hysterical, overheated chaos it was for a few months after launch but it's a very long way indeed from being dead.

Tomorrow sees the latest WvW revamp. That's going to take up most of my game-time this week, I'd imagine. Then we're going on holiday for a while so I won't be playing at all.

My latest run through the jungle will have to go on hold but it's off to an excellent start. If this was Anet's "bad expansion" I can't wait to see how the next one turns out.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Hybrid Vigor

It occurred to me the other day, when I was reading Azuriel's post about "Crafting Survival", that I have never played a Survival game, crafting or otherwise.

I know what Survival games are. I know the names of several. I even have a vague idea what they look like and how they play; at one time or another most of the MMO bloggers I follow have written about them, often at considerable length.

By and large they're games that sound interesting, on the surface, but I've never translated that interest into action because I can't shake the feeling that, more so than almost any other sub-genre of video game I can think of, Survival games are objectively pointless.

They do, of  course, share the single purpose of all leisure activities, which is to pass the time in an entertaining manner, and time spent enjoying oneself cannot be considered to be time wasted. Still, there are many ways to keep yourself entertained; countering a set of pre-determined conditions in order to achieve stasis has never struck me as being one of the more appealing ones.

Games - or perhaps they could better be described as entertainments - where surviving is merely a backdrop to achieving another goal, those are a different matter. Minecraft, when played in a certain way,  may require the player to focus on surviving a number of threats but, once that's achieved, other, more creative goals take the place of simply not dying. At least, I believe so: I've never played it.

Conversely, looked at from the outside, titles like the reflexively-named "Don't Starve" seem to hold as their ultimate goal a state of Nirvana in which, finally, nothing happens, nothing changes. It's a state that can never be achieved because the game is coded in such a way as to ensure that, no matter how long you postpone the inevitable, in the end you will starve.

Enjoying these entertainments probably requires a similar mindset to that which seeks to experience and record incremental improvements in anything: a runner trying to improve her best time; a raider trying to improve his DPS; either by even the smallest measurable margin. Such a mindset may be the signature of someone as, or probably more, interested in process than in outcome.

In the comment thread to Jeromai's post linked above I asked "Is there any reason we couldn’t have a Survival MMO with persistent characters?", a question to which Jeromai gave, most likely, a fuller and more convincing reply than the question deserved.

It wasn't really a very intelligent question. Just how would I expect a "Survival MMO" to work, anyway? What would the players do once they had "survived"? Pacifying an unruly landscape and bringing civilization to the four compass points is a healthy ambition for an empire but settling down to a quiet, virtual existence in a safe, stable and peaceful world scarcely seems a viable endgame for an MMO intended to run on (and take money)  indefinitely. (Then again, Second Life...).

Presumably this is why sandbox MMOs, which frequently require a good deal of surviving, also tend to include the endless existential threat of player versus player violence. It's either that or never-ending waves of AI attacks (wasn't that one of the USPs of both Rift and the original Horizons?).

Ashes of Creation, currently taking three million dollars to the bank along with the title "Most Successful MMO Kickstarter Ever", doesn't look as though it will start you off in a cave with a club and a loin-cloth, while expecting you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to become Emperor of All The Nodes, but it does have a faint whiff of survival about it, at least on a meta level.

Supposedly, all your works there, like Ozymandias's, can turn to dust. Were this a survival game that would, presumably, signal game over and a restart, whereupon you, the player, would attempt to last longer or build bigger, so as to beat your personal best.

Since AoC is an MMO, with persistent characters and a persistent world, that can't happen. The Emperor and his acolytes may lose face along with all their nodes but all the players who counted on their protection will find most of their progress wrapped up and packed away for a quick and painless return. More like moving to a new apartment than starting a new life.

Persistence is both a problem and a predicate of the MMORPG genre. Many MMOs start out as survival games of a kind, where the player-character begins with literally nothing more than a worn vest, a badly-sharpened stick and a dream of slaying a dragon. At the start it's all scrubbing for a living and trying not to die; by the end it's DPS meters and dance parties with a couple of dozen of your new best friends.

After two decades of this it's increasingly hard to see how the two ends fit together. Often they don't. For those of us, who find the grubbing about in the mud for a piece of old armor the rust might not have eaten all the way through yet the most enjoyable part, a reset now and then is a requirement. That's why we play alts or change servers or move to a new MMO every once in a while.

Endgamers, meanwhile, curse the leveling curve as a waste of time and resources, while developers increasingly treat it as legacy content, once required but now best leaped over with boosts, preferably paid-for. The difficult introduction to the world, first surviving then consolidating, that seems like an anachronism.

Going back to "Don't Starve" for a moment, does anyone even remember the days when you had to eat and drink in MMOs? I struggle to recall the details now but in original EverQuest, if you failed to keep up your liquid intake, didn't you cease to regenerate health? Or maybe it was mana. I'm sure there were other MMOs where running out of food meant, if not the end of your character's life, the end of their progress for that session.

Despite the strong showing of Survival games over the last few years I sense no desire to re-appropriate such mechanics to the mainstream of MMOs, either theme-park or sandbox. As the wheel turns and MMOs emerge, gasping and spluttering, from their long submersion and MOBAs begin their slow, inexorable slide, it may be that Survival's short, Edwardian summer is also drawing to a close.

Conan Exiles appears to have stalled. H1Z1 "Just Survive" is choking through lack of interest. ARK appears to be on a one-way trip to self-parody. The Battle Royales that are currently raging, as H1Z1 King of the Kill gives way to PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, are surely too far removed from anything we recognize as "MMORPG" even to count as belonging to the same genre. 

If Battle Royales and Arenas are scarcely even distant cousins, MMORPGs, Action MMOs, MOBAs and persistent Survival sandboxes all have closer ties, a shared DNA. Perhaps the next stage in the evolution of the strain will draw from the strengths of all of them.

Wasn't that yesterday's seven-day wonder, Crowfall's, plan? A genuine MMO with restarts? Is a true survival MMO what we'll find when we enter Amazon's New World? Will the Ashes of Creation give birth to a Phoenix that burns brightly with the combined energy of everything Intrepid threw into the flames?

Or maybe we'll just find ourselves sifting through another generation of muddled compromises. And
perhaps I should at least try a survival game before writing about them at such length. Y'know, just so I can pretend I have the shadow of a ghost of an idea of what I'm talking about...

Nah. Life's too short to just survive.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

You Can't Uneat The Apple

It seems that by coincidence, while I was musing over whether MMOs are more fun at launch or later, Syp was thinking along similar lines, when he asked his readers if they thought any MMOs they'd tried and not liked deserved a second chance.

The thing about returning to an MMO, either to see if it's improved or in hope of reliving some fondly-remembered good times you once had, is that you quite literally cannot go back to the same game you loved or loathed before. With the exception of truly time-locked relics like Guild Wars in maintenance mode, the game you knew no longer exists.

Even frozen in stasis as it is, Guild Wars today offers only a snapshot of one specific moment in that game's life. The game I played just after launch back in 2005 is gone forever as are all the other Guild Wars that came after.

The nature of MMOs is that they change, always. Some even come with a caveat at log-in: "Game experience may change during online play". MMOs that last for years become almost unrecognizable to players who drift away.

A conversation I find myself having, often, at work concerns the importance or otherwise of re-reading. Children re-read obsessively. I read some of my comics until they literally fell apart. I would take the same books out of the library over and over again. It was nothing for the ten-year old me to be found reading a book for the sixth or seventh time with power to add.

I was still re-reading in my teens, into my twenties. As an undergraduate studying Eng. Lit. I sometimes had no choice but I re-read for pleasure, too. For many years I would read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the beginning of spring each year and often I'd read the entire Narnia sequence over. I should do that. I really should do that.

A theory I developed, which I sometimes retail to dubious reception, is that the third reading is the one that counts. The first is all about the plot; the second you compare and reassess; only at the third call do you come to a story clean.

This theory may not stand up to rigorous critical analysis but it can't be applied at all to MMOs. If the key flaw to the re-reading scenario is the reader, who can never be relied on to be the same reader twice, or the circumstances of the read, which are even less likely to remain the same, at least there's no non-metaphysical argument that the text is other than it always was.

There's no re-reading an MMO. The editing process is ongoing, the text receives constant revision, even the authorship alters. Nothing else that I can call to mind is comparable, not even such seemingly endless, ever-fluctuating propositions as long-lasting television or comic book series; not even soap operas.

Every other narrative-based entertainment (and all MMOs are narrative-based, even when the narrative is written by the players on the page of the game itself) breaks down into a sequence of discrete, permanent, immutable recordings: novels, issues, episodes. Sometimes some fragments are lost to time but these days mostly nothing is: if it happened the data holds, somewhere.

MMOs are not like that. If they resemble anything it might be the long professional life of a singer or a band, the same songs showcased night after year after decade, the players, the arrangements, even the melodies (Hi, Bob!) changing all the while, yet staying always something like the same.

MMOs are both the message and the medium, the signal and the noise. MMOs are alive. Alive with possibilities, alive with personalities, alive in time. Little wonder, once discovered, how other entertainments often fall so flat.

None of which really helps me to decide when to play what. I'm Kickstarting Ashes of Creation. I'll get an invite to Beta 2. I'll play then. Of course I will. How could I stop me? If it's not utterly irredeemable then I'll play on at launch.

Is that a good idea? How can I know? Ashes of Creation at launch will not be Ashes of Creation a year from launch, three years, five years, after the first, the second, the fifth expansion, after server merges, revamps, re-envisionings.

I regret not playing World of Warcraft at release. If I had I might have stayed, as so many did, for years, instead of just the six months and spatter of returns that followed my eventual jump, five years after the fact, to see what the fuss was all about.

Or, I might have hated it. Our one gaming friend, who did play WoW at launch, lasted barely a few weeks before he returned. Two people I worked with who tried it later (but before I did) didn't make the end of the free month. Some of those went back. Then stopped.

It's a lottery. A dice throw. A gamble. It's more than that: each entry point takes you to a different game. Maybe you'll like this one. Maybe you would have liked that one. No way to know but try but trying may ruin everything. You should have waited. It got good later. They fixed it up. You missed it, coming in too early. You missed it, coming in too late.

This has been bothering me for days now, since I realized what I've been doing. Never learn your patterns. I can't change. I'm too old to change. Maybe I'll change. What can I do but change?

Let's go. (He does not move).

Monday, 29 May 2017

Easy To Be Comfortable : FFXIV

My second run at FFXIV:ARR is turning out to be quite a change from the experience Mrs Bhagpuss and I had when we played at launch. This time around the pacing feels very different but there's more to it than just that.

I'm playing alone rather than in a duo and the world around me, while still busy enough to feel alive, is no longer a feeding frenzy of fresh players, desperate to level. With no leveling bubble around me and no partner alongside I find myself without much to benchmark myself against. As I drift along, from my solitary perspective the overriding impression is one of an MMO that's become much more forgiving, much less intense and a lot more fun.

I'd go further. The whole experience feels almost orders of magnitude more relaxed and relaxing. Where most of my older memories of FFXIV:ARR involve tension, frustration and hard work, this time it seems almost...easy.

It's not just that I no longer feel strapped to the engine of a speeding train as it careers from one meaningless cut-scene to the next (although feeling free to click through without watching, listening or reading is extraordinarily liberating). It's that everything, every part of the process, seems to happen faster, more fluidly, without abrasion.

Just give me the pass and shut up for pity's sake!

It was while I was working my way through Copperbell Mines last night that the penny finally dropped: it's surely true that the game has changed but perhaps not so much as the way I'm choosing to play it.

As an explorer I'm a malcontent. I will not complete one set of appropriate content before moving on to the next. I don't "finish" maps or zones. I don't do every quest in a hub before taking the final breadcrumb trail to do it all over again in the next village.

Instead I tend to push forward, outward, onward, grabbing tasks I'll never finish until my journal won't hold any more. I have absolutely no compunction about leaving things undone. I really don't care at all about tying up loose ends, ticking boxes or finishing lists.

This means that almost inevitably, when I play a new MMO, I find myself dealing with content at or over my level almost from the very start. It's only when I run up against creatures I literally cannot kill at all or run out of NPCs willing to talk to me that I pull back and re-calibrate.

I also love not knowing what I'm doing. I'm never happier in an MMO than when I don't understand the systems, don't know where to go, don't know what I'm supposed to do next. I like it best of all when I don't even know what it is that I need to know. The sense of being a stranger in a strange land is exhilarating. To a great degree it's what I play for.

"The Slasher of Fisherman's Bottom"? Wait, don't tell me. I don't think I want to know.

All of which means that my experience of most MMOs at the lower levels is that they are harder than the developers probably meant for them to be. It makes even the most by-the-numbers content shine - for a while.

In the case of FFXIV at launch, however, the developers were very clear that the game was supposed to be experienced in a particular way. It was never amenable to the approach I wanted to take and I rubbed myself raw chafing at the constraints it tried to impose.

This time round everything is different. The bonds have been loosened, yes, but perhaps more importantly I've already seen just about everything the game has to show me, at least below the mid-thirties ceiling of the endless trial. Now, every time I travel, instead of the jangling buzz, the shock of the new, I feel a comforting tingle: the familiarity of the known.

Without the desire, the need, to see what's over every next hill I find myself staying much longer wherever it is I happen to have found myself. As a consequence my levels rise and my gear improves and everything feels easier.

Some of this may be the result of changes to the game; maybe the quest rewards have been upgraded along with the xp. Maybe abilities have been buffed or monsters nerfed. Most of it, though, I think, is me.

You can take good screenshots in a dungeon or you can do your job. Or you can try and do both and end up doing neither.

It's an indicator of how much things have changed that I've been using the Duty Finder to run dungeons even when the storyline hasn't forced me into it. Granted I've only done a handful so far and the novelty may soon wear off, but several nights in a row I have chosen to use my hour or so of FFXIV time to queue for the Duty Roulette.

I'm doing the dungeons because they feel like fun. They feel like fun because they are easy. They're easy because I'm doing them over level and with people who know them intimately. And because I'm playing an Archer.

Back at launch, playing an Arcanist, I began by queuing as DPS. It's not a choice. Your role is  hard-coded into the Duty Finder according to your class. I still healed a lot. I remember more than once, when the healer died, the two DPS, both Arcanists, traded heals on the tank to keep things going. Once we finished without a main healer after the real healer quit.

I was healing anyway so as soon as I was able I turned Scholar and queued as a Healer for real. If you'd ask me my preferred class archetype in MMOs I'd always say Healer. I love healing but it's often stressful. Main healing  pick-up groups through dungeons you've never seen before can sometimes be exciting, sometimes satisfying; I don't believe it can ever be relaxing.

Bow for hire. Will work for hats.

Playing ranged DPS, following a competent tank with a competent healer, while over-level for the dungeon you're doing, is not stressful even when you've never met nor even spoken to anyone in the party. My one concern going into the first dungeon was not to get anyone else killed.

Finding that to be an exceptionally unlikely outcome I upgraded my ambitions to not getting myself killed. Managing that, I concentrated on providing useful assistance in getting the job done. So far it seems to be working. I haven't died, every run has succeeded, no-one has complained. I even got two commendations, presumably for the things I didn't do wrong rather than anything I did right.

In the same way that boss battles like Tequatl in GW2, which started out as miserable, stressful failures I wanted to avoid, only to turn in time into relaxing, fun entertainment I actively seek out, so it seems FFXIV dungeons can be enjoyable after all. Provided, in both cases, that they have been trivialized by time and experience: mine, other players, the developers'.

With the recent launch of EverQuest's Agnarr server I've been thinking back to the white-heat of my dungeon days, particularly Lost Dungeons of Norrath. There was a time when I came home from work and ran back-to-back dungeons night after night until bedtime. Seems a long time ago. Perhaps there was something to it after all. I'd forgotten.

I wonder what's on those islands...

It isn't just the dungeons, though. Everything in Eorzea is easier now and so much the better for it. I get where I'm going faster and less gets in my way. If I need to kill things they die sooner and I don't die at all. I have more bag space than I can imagine using and I seem to have no real needs that the game doesn't provide for automatically.

Once again, I think this is as much me as it is the game. I don't have to speak to every NPC, start (even if I never finish) every quest, stash every item in case it sells. The F2P  version of FFXIV has somehow morphed into a laissez-faire, freewheeling, slacker's paradise and that suits me just fine.

Whether the Primals are up to speed with the new program I guess I'll find out when I renew my acquaintance with them soon. I joined the Scions of the Seventh Dawn last night and Minfilia wasted no time (Joking! She wasted all the time!) giving me my orders to put Ifrit back in his box.

I loathed every Primal battle with a passion first time round. I'm hoping this time they turn out to be pale shadows of their former selves. That's assuming I can even get a group to do them these days.

Whatever happens, I feel I've learned an important lesson. It's not going to stop me taking the same breakneck, see everything, do everything approach to each new MMO but with luck it might lead to some better, or at least more relaxed and fun experiences when I return to graze in old pastures.

On the back of this epiphany I'm looking forward to Secret World: Legends a little more than I was. I wonder what else might look better second time around?

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Jump To It!: FFXIV

Be careful what you wish for. It might just come true.

Only yesterday I observed of FFXIV's Endless Free Trial that "If I could just opt out of the Main Story questline entirely and have the few significant rewards (Airship access, Chocobo) auto-granted at level I'd say this would be the perfect version." I followed that up with a little mild speculation: "Perhaps when Stormblood drops Yoshi P might even loosen the reins a little more."

This morning, when I sat down to flip through my Feedly after breakfast, I came across Aywren's commentary on the changes to the Battle System as trailed in the latest Producer's Letter. Even before I found out what was in it, two things about the Letter struck me as surprising.

Firstly it's the 36th (or, I should say, the XXXVI, in line with Square Enix's unfailing obeisance to the classical tradition). Three dozen producer's letters in five years (I believe the numbering began in 2012) is going some. Secondly, it's not an actual letter. It's not even a post on a forum or a PR handout. It's a freakin' four-hour long video presentation.

Even though I have the whole day to myself there was no chance I was going to watch four hours of power-point slides and projected game footage, narrated in Japanese and live-translated in voice-over, for an expansion for a game in which I only dabble, which I am almost certainly never going to buy. Indeed, I probably wouldn't even have given it another thought had it not been for a bullet point towards the end of Aywren's post: "I’m okay with the level and story jumping potions."

Say, what? "Story jumping potions"? Does that mean what I think it does?

Rather than try to find the relevant five minutes in the four-hour presentation I took Aywren's handy link to Reddit instead. Reddit, like YouTube, is a wonderful place. You can pretty much guarantee that if there's any human activity that's even vaguely legal someone will have videoed themselves doing it and put it up on YouTube, from opening a can of sardines to how to fly a helicopter (and yes, I just thought those two up at random, typed them into YouTube and there they were!).

Reddit is like that but for precis. If anything's been said anywhere at inordinate length someone will have boiled it down to bullet points and stuck it up on Reddit. And so it proved.

The Megathread Aywren linked breaks down into a slew of more specific discussions. I skipped all the ones about changes to classes, pvp and combat. Instead I went to the subreddit that focuses on "Level Boost/Scenario Skip Items".

The thread itself is an interesting read. Reddit gets a lot of stick for being unruly and unpleasant but I have to say that whenever I visit it always seems a far more cultured and educated environment than most in-house game forums. For once, though, I wasn't particularly interested in how people were reacting to the changes: I just wanted to know what the changes were.

As far as I understand it there will be two new options:
  • Skip all Main Storyline Quests
  • Automatically raise one Job to Level 60. 
In order to take advantage of these shortcuts you'll need to buy items from the Mog Station. (I mistakenly thought this was the same as the Cash Shop would be in other MMOs but it's effectively your account page). There will be separate items on sale allowing you to skip either the Original Main Story only or both that and the main scenario from the First Expansion, Heavensward.

At first you will only be able to raise one Job to 60 with a potion but the clear implication is that later on you'll be able to do more. As far as I can tell, all the items affect only the character that uses them, not the whole account.

This has apparently been in the wind since the end of last year but this is firm and final confirmation that it's coming, and soon. There are even prices and they are quite reasonable by the standards of these things: skipping the story will cost $18 for the base game or $25 for the two. The Job potion costs $25. All the items go on sale June 16th which is , I am guessing, the start of Early Access for Stormblood.

All of which is very intriguing. As several commenters in the Reddit thread point out, this could be seen as Square throwing the leveling game under the bus. The strong message is that from now on the real game begins wherever the latest expansion starts. Everything before that is scenery.

I'll save my thoughts on what the increasing willingness of MMO developers to take that road implies for the future and the identity of the genre for another day. Right now I'm more interested in what it implies for me as a very casual, non-subscribing player.

Nothing that I've seen so far relates to the Free Trial and as far as I can tell it won't. The terms of the trial exclude "in-game microtransactions" but in any case it seems highly unlikely Square will sell something that skips the storyline up to level 50 to players who cannot in any event progress past level 35.

That's a shame. I would pay £13.32, the current, pedantic conversion from $18.00, to get the right to ride a chocobo and join a Grand Company without having to set foot in a Duty-Finder dungeon. What's more, there's a better than even chance I'd pay more than once to do it for characters of different races.

What would, of course, be even better would be if Square emulated Blizzard and allowed us to play our sub-expired accounts up to the level of the Free Trial, or if they copied ArenaNet and made the entire base game genuinely Free to Play. They may well do something along those lines as the game ages and the endgame recedes further and further out of reach.

I did briefly muse the possibility of re-subbing my old account, buying the Scenario Skipper and finishing those last fifteen levels. I can't really see the point but it's something to keep in mind if I find myself at a loose MMO end some month. Not before I activate that Legion code I'm sitting on though. Or the unused Heart of Thorns I bought when they were half-price...

Nope. Looks like I'm just going to have to do it the hard way. And really I can't say I'm all that sorry. I trundled through to level 19 yesterday, stopping only when I reached the cavernous entry to Sastasha, the first obligatory dungeon. I'm going to queue for that this afternoon.

Better get it done sooner rather than later. There won't be many queuing come June, I'm guessing. Although, of course, there will be all of us freeloaders. We'll have no choice.

It'll be intriguing to see if a whole "1-35" subculture develops out of this, although since the free trial forbids the use of several major chat options as well as the creation of linkshells or free companies it might be a little difficult to tell.
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