Monday, 16 January 2017

Bitter Turns To Sugar

Armathyx posted a recipe for a great MMORPG that started me thinking about how and to what extent my own MMO wishlist might have changed over the years. The game Armathyx proposes would have fitted me like a bespoke chainmail shirt back when I began thinking about braving the unknown waters of online gaming around the turn of the century.

Even now several of those bullet points hit the target almost dead center. Yet when I consider whether it would be a game I'd settle down and live in the way I have in GW2 these last few years I'm not so sure.

In another thoughtful post, Jeromai joined the ever-lengthening line of about-to-become ex-MMO players. He wisely nuanced his resignation notice with an essential qualification, saying "I think I’m done with MMOs for the time being". And that's the thing, really. The time. And being.

It's not just MMOs that have changed. Our involvement with them has changed too. For some of us they've long since ceased to be just something we play, if they ever were. As the hobby and I grow older together I find myself not only playing Massively Multiple Online Roleplaying Games but writing about them, thinking about them, picking over their minutiae endlessly. Here, on this blog, in the comment threads of others, on forums and in conversation at home.

And if I really think about it, I've been doing something similar almost since that day late in 1999 when I installed EverQuest and took my first, terrified steps into a virtual world. I never could just shut up and play the damn game.

You might think, then, that after more than a decade and a half, after hundreds of thousands of hours of game time and what must certainly by now amount to millions of words of argument, declaration, pondering and plain gossip, I might at least have begun to come to some kind of concerted, considered position on what, exactly, it is that I want out of it all.

Well I haven't. I have, if anything, less of an idea now than I did when I began. A lot less, if I stop and think about it.

Looking back, for the first two or three years my views on what made for a good MMO were somewhat rigid. Unbending. You might say harsh. Yesterday's post on exploits alluded to it: zero tolerance. And not just for cheats. If I'd had my hands on the controls back in 2000 people would have been kicked from game not just for exploiting but for talking out of character or dying their armor the "wrong" color.

Anything that broke the fourth wall was entirely unacceptable. I switched the /ooc channel off in EQ as soon as I discovered what it was. I was confounded that such a thing could even exist. It seemed to me to  be the antithesis of the immersion I sought. And if I wanted it, everyone should want it.

I was an extremist in other ways, too. For the best part of a year I played a Druid who was so in thrall to the teachings of Tunare, Norrath's Goddess of Nature, that not only would I not attack any animals at all but if animals attacked me I would root them then camp or zone to drop aggro rather than cause them any harm. At one point I was so gung-ho about following Tunare's mandates (none of which I had actually read, if indeed they even existed, but all of which I had, somehow, intuited and made up) that I refused to kill any living creature that did not attack me first.

You can imagine how popular that made me in groups. And how slowly I leveled.

So, eventually, I stopped doing that. Of course, I'd been having my cake and stuffing it down all along, playing other characters that allowed me much more freedom of action. My Necromancer, for example, who killed anything he pleased even if it didn't look at him funny. But after a while, as I began to get really good groups with my druid, main-healing at back door in the Sarnak Fort in Lake of Ill Omen or outside The Tower of Frozen Shadows in Iceclad Ocean,  I felt those self-imposed restrictions beginning to chafe. So I dropped them.

Slowly, piecemeal, bit by bit, all my lines blurred. Twinking, for example. There was that time I was in Riverdale and some halfling asked me to hold an item for him then he sat down and disappeared and a diferent halfling popped up a minute later and asked for the thing back. I felt like I needed a shower after that one, yet a few months later, there I was in the upper back rooms of an inn in Freeport, dropping my valuables on the floor and camping out to log in another character to pick them up. Just like the twinker I'd become.

Sometimes it hasn't been moral slippage towards self-interest that's changed the way I think or play. Armathyx  suggests that, in the perfect MMO,  "trading should be done between players and not via some server wide auction house". Been there, done that, ripped up the T-shirt and used it as a duster. When EQ introduced the Broker to Norrath with the Shadows of Luclin expansion I thought it was about the best thing that could ever happen to the game. I still do, or at least one of the best.

Daily quests, when I first heard of them (which, I think, was probably in EQ2's Desert of Flames expansion) seemed to me to be the very definition of a terrible idea. Nowadays I live for my dailies in GW2. I look forward to doing them and I feel happy when they're done. I don't want or need the rewards they give but they form a ritual in my daily routine and I have always loved ritual. And routine.

I could go on and on. Fast movement, flying mounts, in-game maps, name it, I was against it. I thought it would ruin the game, spoil the world, wreck immersion. Maybe it did. Maybe it did and it didn't matter.

Either way, all now things I want, even maybe need, in any MMO I'm thinking of giving serious time. Modern, convenient, casual : good. Traditional, challenging, hardcore : bad. Right?

If only. At the same time I relish all those new, fast, automatic contrivances I yearn for sloooow leveling, meaningful death penalties, falling damage that hurts. I want vast, open worlds that take forever to explore, distances that take hours to cross. I want crafting that requires dedication and commitment, dungeons that need nerve and forethought, quests that make you think and reflect not just click and collect.

Yet at the same time I want to auto-path to the killing fields for my ten rats and have my reward automagically delivered to my bags. I want to shop in a window for things I can't be bothered to chase down in game. I want my log-in freebies and my xp pots and my fireworks and silly hats and and and...

I want it all. There's no point asking if MMOs are better now or were better then. They were best, they are best, they will be best. There is no right way to make an MMORPG. There are many ways to make an MMORPG right.

And that, I think, is about as close as I'm going to get to understanding how I feel about the genre and what I want it to be. The possibilities are endless. MMOs can hold all the variations imagination can conjure.

Individual MMOs, alas, cannot.

If I have a wish for the future of the form, then, it's for more focus. For developers to contour their enthusiasm and direct it towards a specific audience. I want more MMOs that are more different one from another, developers who concentrate on what to leave out as well as what to include.

As a player I can decide whether I want to log into GW2 and have free-form, no hassle fun within seconds or into EQ, where, even in 2017, it will take me twenty minutes just to get set up before fun can begin. I can decide to give half an hour to the craziness and color of Digimon Hunter or three hours to the psychodrama of The Secret World. That's where my choice lies, not within each game but outside them all.

Pantheon does not need to take account of every modern trend and I very much hope it never does. The audience it's seeking to attract shouldn't balk if there are no dailies, no flying mounts, no achievement leaderboards. Crowfall doesn't need an overarching narrative that twists and turns and grows year after year.

And I don't need to beat myself up over why now I twink with glee and kill with abandon. Each MMO world needs to lay out choices, codify what is and isn't permitted, expected, required, then serve whatever audience those decisions attract. I'll fit myself in.

At least, that's how I see it today. Tomorrow I may think very differently. I have very strong opinions and I often violently disagree with them.

The perfect MMO doesn't exist but as the wise man said, nobody's perfect. We'll get by.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

I Say! That's Not Cricket!

There's something untoward going on in Star Wars: The Old Republic and Shintar and Ravalation both have something to say about it. I don't play SW:TOR but that hasn't stopped me chipping in with a couple of lengthy comments on Shintar's thread because the issue at hand is that universal bugbear of the genre - exploits.

The problem with pontificating on exploits in MMOs, as I rapidly found while arguing myself into a corner in the aforementioned comment thread, is that it's far too complex a topic to deal with meaningfully in anything short of a PhD thesis. Even that would be selling it short.

My attitude over the years has varied from "Ban 'Em All!" to "Who Bloody Cares?" Any time I stop and think about it my head starts to hurt so mostly I try not to think about it.

At root, an exploit depends upon the existence of a rule to break. If it isn't "not allowed" it can hardly be an exploit, can it? Except, of course, most MMOs don't have rules, or at least not in the parts where the kind of exploits I'm concerned with arise, namely the progression of your character.

There's the EULA, which we all click through and almost no-one reads. Actually, I did used to read them. I read the full EQ EULA before I decided to subscribe back in 1999. In those days and for several years I wouldn't make a character before reading the EULA in full but in those days EULAs were shorter.

The issue of the legality and enforceability of EULAs is another topic entirely. Suffice it to say that they are filled with catch-all clauses intended to provide fall-back positions for the game companies should they ever be needed. We have similar "Terms and Conditions" where I work but we are explicitly instructed not to apply some of them in normal day-to-day trading. They exist to be called upon in need, not to be rigidly followed regardless of commercial good sense.

MMOs exist in a strange hinterland between Product and Service. The game you buy and its updates are clearly Products, albeit digital ones, but the continued provision of servers on which to play them is clearly a Service. There are very different obligations on Producers and Service Providers and MMO developers need to maintain balance between them , especially when those needs conflict.

In the olden days, when the worlds were young, all players in a given MMO were obliged to share the same virtual space. Whole cultures arose within which players were socialized to varying norms. An EverQuest player would need to learn the etiquette expected - respecting camps, joining lists, refraining from kill-stealing.

When players stayed in one MMO that was manageable. It was never comfortable because, as in real life, people chafe against restraints even when those restraints are communally imposed. As the genre exploded and players moved from game to game, trailing their acquired and often conflicting social and cultural expectations behind them, however, it became harder to agree on what constituted acceptable conduct.

Over these many years, in numerous MMOs, I've observed more exploits than I could hope to remember. I can, however, very clearly remember those in which I have participated. There are two reasons for that: firstly, I very, very rarely indulge in "exploits" and secondly, when I do I always feel I've done something naughty and doing something naughty is always a memorable experience.

A strange thing has happened to me over time: I have become increasingly less likely to take advantage of a glitch in the game to accrue personal benefit at the same time as I have become less concerned about doing so. The less likely I am to do it myself, in other words, the less I care whether other people do it.

In part this derives from my increasingly convinced belief that, outside of formal PvP or organized PvE competitions, MMO design and MMO developers should in no way encourage or endorse any form of competitive activity between players. Competition and comparison with other players has and should have absolutely no role in the leveling aspect of the games, which I love so much.

With almost all character progression in almost all MMOs now being tied directly either to solo play or to group play that takes place in instances I can't see it as any valid concern of any other player what goes on in another player's or group of players' play sessions.

This, I appreciate, puts me in a minority position that derives from the solipsistic outlook on life I've had since my teens. I am, simply, not competitive at all in most aspects of my life. I don't benchmark my progress by the progress of others but by standards I set for myself. When it comes to leveling characters in MMOs it means any "Win" conditions are in my head and my head alone.

I began this piece by observing that the topic is far too extensive, nuanced and ruminative to fit a quick blog post so rather than even attempt to fit an ocean into a wine glass I'll leave things here, scarcely reviewed let alone resolved.

One thing I do know for sure. Exploits are going to be with us as long as we have MMOs and no consensus on how they should be handled is ever going to be reached.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Making The Cut

I've been meaning to take a look at my Blog Roll for a while now. It trails down the right-hand side of the page like a wild vine slipped loose from the penthouse garden of a skyscraper. Or, more aptly and less psychedelically, it totters like a pile of old fliers, current offerings resting precariously atop a stack of adverts for attractions long past their due dates.

A swarm of Chinese referral spam (over 7000 page hits yesterday alone) sent me to Google Analytics for an overview of the traffic I might actually be getting at the start of this brave new year and I ended up digging around for an hour or so in the Acquisition results. That was interesting, particularly the Referrals section, which featured a number of familiar blogs - Keen & Graev, The Nosey Gamer, Kill Ten Rats, MMO Gypsy, MMOQuests - the usual suspects.

It was interesting to see Atherne's Adventures in the top 10 while several I expected to find there, TAGN chief among them, were nowhere to be seen. There were also several I didn't recognize. Analytics doesn't make it especially easy to click through to referrals, probably intentionally, but with a bit of cut and pasting I found a few familiar names from the comment threads of other blogs. I didn't know Scopique had a blog, much less that the blog he does have is Levelcapped, which I have often heard mentioned. Neither did I know that Dàchéng trades under the sobriquet Casualnoob.

I added both to the Blog Roll along with Mersault, who I thought I'd added in the past. Most likely I did and forgot to hit "Save", something I've done embarrassingly often, only usually I notice my mistake. Armathyx Does Gaming was in there too but I'd already added that one last week, when Armathyx dropped a comment here.

My general rule is that if someone comments on a post and their name is back-trackable to a blog then I add that blog to the roll. Occasionally, if it's something that seems completely inappropriate, I might demur, but that would be exceptionally rare. I don't always remember, though so if anyone's commenting and wondering why I'm ignoring them please do poke me about it.

If people put me in their blog roll but never comment, of course, I remain blissfully ignorant. Perhaps "blissfully" isn't the best choice of words... If I hadn't been truffling through Analytics I would never have known Inventory Full was listed on a blog prosaically titled World of Warcraft and Other MMOs, for example, or on another blog by the same Blogger, Andre, the magnificently-named  ...through wiping, we learn.  

I love everything about that second blog name: the way it begins with an ellipsis, the lower case, that comma... It's a shame Andre hasn't posted on either since last summer but I've added them both anyway. 

I might as well because dormant blogs certainly still get eyeballs. Analytics shows traffic still coming from Player vs Developer, Nils MMO Blog and Werit among others, although none of them has posted anything in months.

Thinking it over, I couldn't see a good reason to remove anything, at least not as long as the links still work. Blogger handily sorts the list by order of most recent activity so the ones that sit beside my most recent posts are the ones that ought to be flagged up, while the older ones remain a useful resource, neatly shunted out of sight unless you scroll down. 

Until you hit the very bottom of the stack, that is. Right down in the depths, beside yesterday's post, is where you'll find the blogs that aren't just dormant but dead. Blogger is smart enough to spot defunct links and to put them into quarantine lest whatever killed them infect the merely sleeping. 

Well, it's where you would have found them, until today. Not any more. Hosting links that go to 404s or available domain listings is taking archival responsibilities a smidgen too far, I feel. So I culled them. If Scree or Jaedia are still blogging somewhere, speak up, send a link. I'd love to reinstate you.

I didn't take a note of the others I excised before I brought down the knife but if you know you were there and you want back in then the same applies.

Lastly, the other thing I did was move "Previously on Inventory Full" to the top. Now you can wander through my back pages to your heart's content without having to wear out your mouse's middle wheel. Go nuts and you're welcome!

And let's hope that's it for blogging about blogging at least until NBI 2017.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

All For One : EQ2, WoW

Telwyn posted recently about the dubious attractions of repeating the same content you just completed with one character on a second...or third...or fourth... This was something of a theme throughout 2016, from Legion leveling in World of Warcraft, through the Dark vs Light event in SW:tOR to the pre-reqs for EQ2's Kunark Ascending expansion.

There's nothing strange about repeating yourself while playing an MMO, of course. We all know the MMORPG genre was built almost entirely on repetition from the very start. Indeed, all the way back in 1999, when I was doing a little research before deciding whether to plump for Ultima Online or EverQuest, I remember being struck by the extent to which the anecdotes I was reading centered around doing the same thing for what sounded like a very long time. Chopping wood, mostly, as I recall.

In the early years there was, by and large, a distinct division between that sort of repetitive rote activity, required to raise levels, skills or faction, and what we might loosely call story-related content. Quests tended to be a once-only affair, often relevant only to a particular class or race.

There were also, usually, many classes and races in an MMO and many starting points for the leveling journey. Add to that the length of time it took to take a character from creation to cap and the problem of finding yourself doing the exact same thing on a new character you'd done only the week before on another rarely arose. By the time you did get round to doing something for the second time, chances were it was so long ago you'd pretty much forgotten it anyway so it might as well be new content.

Wait a minute...haven't I been here before?

One of the innovations that WoW brought to MMOs, many of which swept through the genre like a forest fire in the years following Blizzard's unforeseen runaway success, was The Quest Hub. It established The Quest as the basic unit of currency for both progression and narrative and that has caused problems ever since.

Certain activities, it seems, can be repeated ad nauseam by many players, with the nausea not appearing for thousands, tens of thousands, millions of iterations. We call it "grinding" and whether it's good, bad or neutral has been discussed, debated and battered into the dirt as a topic for as long as there have been MMOs, without a consensus ever being reached.

Still, people will do it, if grudgingly. Over the years there's been a move by many developers to hide or soften the grind to make it more palatable. Daily quests, weekly quests, bonuses, points systems, you name it, someone's tried it. Perhaps the most dramatic of all these shortcuts has been the move from character-based play to an account-based focus.

When MMORPGs began they were very strongly rooted in the RPG tradition. The idea of characters being interchangeable bits on the drill-head of the player's account, slotted in and out to fit a specific purpose, would have been an anathema to the core playerbase of the era. There was an expectation that the player would have done at least some minimal imaginative homework in preparing the character. The Paper Doll often came with a space specifically for that background to be entered so that it could be perused by other players in the longueurs between pulls or in the fashion parade in front of the city bank.

No, but I have.

WoW changed that not by any intentional move away from its roots but by the sheer, runaway success with which it mainstreamed the genre. With an overwhelming influx of paying customers for whom "RPG" had a very different meaning and with every developer scrambling to re-bottle Blizzard's lightning there was a race towards convenience and ease of access that led directly away from the granular nature of character-based progress towards the inclusive, smooth integration of Account play.

At the same time and for much the same reason, leveling and progression paths were flattened, focused and accelerated. Starting choices were restricted, divergent options were culled and bottlenecks through which all characters had to pass were created. Players arriving in a new game would learn to ask "Where do I go to level at 20?" and expect to get a simple, unequivocal answer.

With each new character taking a fraction of the time to level up and with the progression path taken by a healer, a tank or a scout looking very much the same, player resistance to going through the same content was considerable, exacerbated by the indissoluble connection with narrative through the Quest Hub mechanic. Some developers dealt with this by mono-focusing their design to encourage players to stick with just the one character but, since it's presumably commercial good sense to encourage players to keep making more characters, the more common approach was to make doing so simpler, easier, more convenient.

And then that stopped. Last year several major MMO developers seemed to decide that the trend towards encouraging large stables of characters should come to an end. I'm sure that's not what happened but reading back from the decisions that were made it does look a little like a gentleman's agreement. However it came about the outcome doesn't seem to have been entirely what was expected.

At least it gives me a chance to admire the amazing Art Nouveau interiors.

As Telwyn and others have pointed out, basing a major selling point of your expansion around diversity (Class Halls) and then implementing mechanics based on unity is not an entirely coherent through-line. At least that all involved new content. In EQ2 and (as I understand, not being a player) SW:tOR, the requirement included going back and re-doing (or doing for the first time had you chosen to dodge it first time round) older content.

Since Kunark Ascending was announced and the pre-reqs revealed there's been a continual grumbling about it in the EQ2 community (although when isn't there, over everything, he grumbled?). A few months after release the positions seem to have hardened to "It sucks but suck it up", "Well it's your own fault - you should have done it the first time" and "Stuff this for a game of soldiers - I'm out". Naturally, because all MMO communities are in the end, a self-selecting group of "willing" volunteers the consensus is settling on "Suck it up".

Whether this is a valid or sustainable design decision in commercial terms I guess we will have to wait and see. Wilhelm has an excellent analysis of the current prospects for the remaining DBG MMOs and as he observes the litmus test is whether these games continue to get expansions. If development money continues to be spent making expansions then the least unlikely explanation must be that those expansions make money.

DBG has a year to assess whether taking this particular approach has made more or less money than they expected or hoped. Only a year because for all the troubles and tribulations of recent times SOE/DBG have always managed to knock out full-size expansions for the EQ titles at least once a year and they have already confirmed that work on the 2017 EQ2 expansion has begun.

And I'm still too short to reach the pestle and mortar. #ratongaproblems

Blizzard takes a lot longer. They may not even announce an expansion this year and certainly no-one on the planet expects them to release one. With those longer gaps between them WoW expansions tend more towards game resets anyway so it's always likely that each will see a sharp change of emphasis, direction or approach.

I'm in two minds. Emotionally I'm a fervent backer of character-based play so I see enforced requirements for each individual character as a positive. For that reason I back the return to content that needs to be completed by each character individually, not just by the player as controller of the account.

Which is fine in theory. In practice I have become soft just like everyone else. I've become used to convenience. Having to do the same thing on my Warlock that I just did on my Berserker and thinking while I'm doing it that I'll have to do it on my Inquisitor next week is not necessarily firing my pleasure centers.

Then again, I don't dread it, either. When all's said and done, this is entertainment. I am choosing to do it. If I decide I don't want to click through another fifty screens of overwritten fantasy twaddle or click on another fifty glowing ground spawns there's no-one making me but me. When I stop having fun I can stop trying to have fun.

The stage awaits. Who's on next?
The current approach to progression, narrative and character that developers seem to be taking in many MMOs, especially the ones that have been around a while, is a muddy, messy compromise but when wasn't it? MMOs are messy.

Trends and fashions in game development come and go and we as players live through them. This, too, will pass. For now I'm probably going to set my focus a little more narrowly and try to run a smaller team in most of my MMOs than I have been wont to do. Something closer to The Legion of Super Pets then The Legion of Super Heroes.

Which, come to think of it, is an analogy that's more apposite than I'm likely to admit.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

It's Not Easy Being DBG : Landmark, EQNext

In a move that surely surprised no-one Daybreak Games yesterday announced the intent to sunset Landmark on February 21 2017. Why this particular date, who knows? It's a Tuesday, which is DBG's regular patch day, so I guess it's just convenient. Everything has to end sometime. Why not then?

The announcement has stirred up the inevitable, expected and by now immensely tedious flurry of schadenfreude and faux-rage from people who most likely never played Landmark or indeed any other SOE or DBG game. Not, at least, in the last decade or so. Tyler F.M. Edwards at Superior Realities has the best take on the hand-wringing, fist-shaking echo chamber that passes for a community in some quarters these days:

"To be blunt, I think the blame for Landmark’s end rests squarely on the shoulders of the MMO community. When EverQuest Next was cancelled, the community turned on Daybreak, apparently not understanding that sometimes new concepts simply do not work...the community, however, chose to demonize Daybreak as some sort of ogre. They took EverQuest Next’s cancellation personally. And a lot of that hate spilled over to Landmark.

People hated Landmark because it wasn’t Next. People hated Landmark just because it was made by Daybreak. People hated it because they had misinformed or unrealistic expectations of what it was supposed to be".

Read the whole of Tyler's post. It catches the tone exactly, how Landmark meant a lot to those who loved it, how much it will be missed, and how galling it is for anyone who actually spent real time in Landmark to see the almost self-congratulatory bloodletting unleashed by those who never did.

An even more instructive read is Feldon's excellent post-hoc analysis at EQ2Wire. Feldon, as always, knows more than he's able to articulate openly but here you scarcely even need to read between the lines. The numerous quotes from ex-SOE devs, who worked on Landmark and EQNext during what must have been some very miserable and disturbing times in the dying days of the ancien régime, are devestating.

These are just a few of the highlights:

"…the decision to publish Landmark was not driven to sell something to players. It was done to show that SOE had a pipeline of products so it would be more attractive to prospective buyers"

"Landmark was a disaster. It should have remained a toolset for building EQN and nothing more."

"Landmark was Dave’s (Georgeson's) obsession, and there simply was no way to convince him otherwise about it being a game. I believe this ultimately killed EQN."

"Dave approached the project with the wrong assumptions and when the market pushed back he doubled down on his mistakes. EQN was his responsibility and he blew it, and Smed should have removed him sooner when it became clear what was happening."

 All from people who worked on the project. And there's a lot more. Go read it if you haven't already.

Feldon himself has some choice observations, the headline among which is probably this one:

"The EverQuest Next “combat demo” shown at SOE Live in 2013 was entirely smoke and mirrors, with developers back at the home office “playing” NPCs."
 This one won't surprise anyone who plays EQ or EQ2:
"Feedback from the existing EverQuest and EverQuest II teams was largely ignored. Instead, credence was primarily given to outside feedback from recently laid off 38 Studios staff and other outsiders in the industry."

And, perhaps most tellingly of all:

"Sony Online Entertainment took a $62 million writeoff in 2013 for development costs associated with EverQuest Next and H1Z1". 

I hold my hand up. Dave Georgeson, John Smedley and the rest of that whole, sorry crew fooled me the way they fooled the industry, the media and the rest of the fans. I wrote pieces in praise of EQNext even as I understood it would be an MMO that wasn't being made for me or for the millions of former and current EQ and EQ2 players but for a whole, new, much larger audience. I understood the compromises that would require and I knew and wrote that the game would not, in all likelihood, be one I'd enjoy very much, yet I wished it well and hoped it would succeed.

What I didn't realize was that there would be no game, no matter how long we waited, because no-one who was making it had any idea how it could be made. I didn't realize the Smed and Smokejumper dog and pony show was just that - a carnival huckster operation linked to some of the widest-eyed, most naive wishful-thinking ever seen outside a pre-school playground.

The very first comment on the EQ2Wire piece sums it up nicely:

"I am just speechless as how much Georgeson fucked over this franchise."

Aren't we all?  And yet I don't "hate" him for it. I don't believe anyone in this whole unholy mess was acting maliciously. Like so many other games development stories it's a tale of people who think they know more than they know, who think they can do more than they can do, and above all, who believe if they say something often enough and loud enough it will become true by the sheer force of their wishing it so.

Well it doesn't. It won't. It can't. EQNext always sounded too good be true and it was. Or rather it wasn't and never will be.

As for Landmark, far from being the full-fledged MMO Dave Georgeson claimed, promised and finger-crossed it would be, it never even managed to be the toolset it should have been. As Feldon's investigations plainly discover, even the tools didn't work and when they did no-one knew how or why.

And yet for all that we had fun. I had funAywren had fun. Tyler had fun. Even Wilhelm, who's keeping a list, had a few moments. Hundreds, thousands of amazing structures were built, projects started, memories made. I had good times in Landmark, some of which I've written about here. I spent many happy hours noodling around there and if I regret anything it's only that I spent too much time.

Far from feeling ripped off for paying some $150 for two alpha packages I feel I got my money's worth and then some. Between us Mrs Bhagpuss and I spent hundreds of hours in Landmark and almost all of those were good hours.

So, will I miss Landmark? No, not really. I'm glad to have experienced it but if I'm honest I was done with it a while ago. All my houses eventually fell down, including the final one I built after the game officially went Live. The main he reason was I couldn't ever remember to log in often enough to keep them standing. When you have to remind yourself to log in you can hardly claim you'll miss it when it stops.

And in the end, what was Landmark? It wasn't quite a game and it certainly wasn't a virtual world. It was supposed to be those things and a toolset too but the best description I can come up with is that Landmark was a toy.

Like a toy, I played with it now and again, when the mood took me, but as soon as I put it down I forgot all about it. If I miss it, ever, it will be the way I miss my old Hot Wheels set, vaguely and with a mild, warm nostalgia. I wouldn't go out and buy another.

I understand that's not how many will be feeling right now, although you'd need to define "many" rather specifically, since these days peak population across the entire game falls short of a couple of hundred people. The builders and creators, working on some of those stunning projects or just puttering around, like my old gaming friend who was busy building his own take on The Shire with some guildmates from LoTRO, those folks will be angry, upset, hurt, bereft.

Some will feel tricked. Some will feel betrayed. They will curl in or lash out. Inevitably, the blank slate of Daybreak Games and the faceless corporate monolith that is Columbus Nova will take a splattering of paint while the real perpetrators of this outrage not only escape condemnation but even reap the deeply undeserved rewards of misplaced sympathy: Dave Georgeson, who appears to have left the industry and Smed, who the industry appears to be leaving behind, not to mention the ever-anonymous Russell Shanks, who presided over DBG while more poor decisions continued to be made, as well as the rest who slipped away quietly while the sign-painters were changing the names on the doors.

Yes, Columbus Nova and the current Daybreak management could have finessed the end of both EQNext and Landmark with a softer touch. It was foolish to claim EQNext was being canned because "it wasn't fun". They should have said "because it won't run and never will". Because "we bit off more than we could chew, we had dreams bigger than our ability to realize them, because we made promises we couldn't keep".

They might have adopted a warmer, more empathic tone. They might even have resisted slamming the door on any remaining hope quite so fiercely, although that in itself might merely have compounded earlier errors of judgment.

They should have said sorry and meant it but by the time there was no putting off the inevitable any longer all the people from whom an apology would have meant anything were nowhere to be seen. I imagine the main thing Columbus Nova is sorry about is that they ever got involved in this farrago in the first place. Like the rest of us I imagine they were mesmerized by smoke and mirrors and sold a handful of beans. When they rubbed the fairy dust from their eyes the carnival was gone.

I'd love - I'd love -  for the closure of Landmark to draw a line under this whole sorry episode. I'd love for late-period SOE to slip away into the history books taking its ill-conceived, ill-fated, ill-humored EQNext project with it, never to be mentioned again. I'd love for the current management team at Daybreak to be allowed to get on with day to day operations and business as usual.

Yes, I'd love that but this is the internet. This is gaming. No grudge is ever forgotten. No wound is ever allowed to heal. The very best those of us who love the franchise can hope is that Daybreak under Columbus Nova finally becomes so boring that no-one remembers it's there.

Fat chance. Next up, some necessary but controversial decision involving LotRO or DDO. Or an announcement of some new game that everyone can project their fantasies and fears onto without ever needing to see let alone play. The caravan rolls on.

Monday, 2 January 2017

MMOs On The Horizon - 2017

As is traditional, when the number at the end of the date rolls over, lots of people are making predictions, plans and pledges. Those are always fun to read but what really started me thinking were the lists of upcoming MMOs that might, or more likely might not, appear in 2017.

Syp gave us the full rundown of every wannabe WoW killer that managed to throw together a PR release over the last twelve months. The Ancient Gaming Noob and Endgame Viable both offered their thoughts on what we might expect. Or fear.

Wilhelm covers a round dozen, of which I observed in the comments, somewhat hyperbolically, "Seven of those titles I wouldn’t play even if every other MMO in the world closed down. I’d find another hobby first." UltrViolet comes up with no less than thirty-two possibilities, which is actually more than Syp found for his "All the MMORPGs Coming in 2017" article, but even there I struggle to find anything to get especially excited about.

Of the entire collection probably the only two I'm actively interested in are Project: Gorgon and Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. The problem with those two is that I already feel like I've played the first and I wonder if I'll ever get the chance to play the second.

Project:Gorgon I first blogged about back in 2013 when, as you can see from the screenshots, it looked like it might be a very good-looking game. Unfortunately, since then it seems to have undergone a major graphics underhaul and now looks like DAOC circa 2003.

The gameplay is solid and I've spent a good few hours there already. I backed the first, failed, Kickstarter, missed the second entirely and then backed the third, which succeeded. I've yet to do anything about getting the key from that so when the game finally moves to Steam Early Access, which it looks as though it will do very soon, a year later than planned, I'll have to dig through my old emails or else I won't be able to log in any more.

That wouldn't be too traumatic, though, because the last time was probably 2015 and I can't say I've missed it much. I suspect that Project: Gorgon will be one of those MMOs I think about playing but rarely play. There's no shortage of those.

Brad McQuaid's Pantheon, however, looks increasingly like an MMORPG I would actually spend a considerable amount of time with. The graphics may not be spectacular but they look more than serviceable and the art direction looks solid. The world looks...well, it looks like Telon. Or Norrath. The gameplay looks like...well, it looks like EverQuest. Or Vanguard.

Oh, let's not be coy! It's the same bloody game, isn't it? The same MMO Brad made last time and the time before that. He hasn't even bothered to change the names of half the classes or the spells they use. And that's fine by me. The last two MMOs he made are either my first and second favorites ever or they're at least in the top five, depending what mood I'm in.

I like that game. I'd love to play it again with a new skin. The only issue is whether I'll ever get the opportunity.

So, with those two out of the way, what's left? Well, there are a few I will most likely at least kick the tyres and take for a test drive.

Crowfall - I started off loathing this because of the arrogant and aggressive tone their PR took but that has cooled down and I've warmed up. I like the episodic approach they are trying and I'd like to see the game succeed if only so that other developers might steal from it. I also like the sound of the non-combat, permanent housing. It's odds on I will buy this just to futz around in the safe areas.

Camelot Unchained - I do like Realm vs Realm combat. I have some, if not many, good memories of DAOC and more of Warhammer. It's got to be worth a look. On the other hand, I was bored to tears with DAOC in less than six months and the best part of Warhammer was the instanced battlegrounds...

New World - It's Amazon, I trust them to at least make something that works and comes out on time. Plus I have an Amazon account already. We know so little about it it's impossible to guess if it's something I'd want to play long term or not but it's very likely I'll at least give it a go, along with almost everyone reading this, I bet. Of course it won't be coming out in 2017 so I don't know why we're even talking about it.

Revelation Online - This years Black Desert. Or ArcheAge. I liked Black Desert. I liked ArcheAge. Okay, I only lasted a month and a half in each of them but it was a dam' good month and a half. I'm up for doing that again. Plus everyone will try it and I'll get a string of blog posts with great screenshots.

Bless Online - See Revelation Online.

Dark and Light - See Bless Online and Revelation Online. Come to think of it, isn't D&L out already? One of those Early Access package deals maybe? I can't keep up with those.

Shroud of the Avatar - It's a fantasy MMO with housing. That alone gets it onto the watch list. Then again, it looks really dull and nothing I've read or seen from anyone who's actually played it suggests otherwise. A possible but not a probable.

And that's about it. Of the rest, there are some I would actively avoid, some I don't believe will ever launch and some I don't know enough about even to make a call. A few, like Ever, Jane, I wish nothing but success but I can't imagine ever playing them myself. A few more, like Peria Chronicles, I might try out of curiosity. (I mean, I downloaded Twin Saga last week so my standards aren't exactly high...)

The rest look boring beyond belief. Someone, somewhere, presumably, is excited over Gloria Victis, Life is Feudal, the two Darkfall remakes or The Exiled but it isn't anyone I know. I'll try pretty much any MMO but even I have to draw a line somewhere.

Missing from the lists I linked are any of the various City of Heroes remakes and several emulator projects for closed-down MMOs. I have a soft spot for Valiance. I'll probably keep an eye on that one. I'm also still logging into the excellent Vanguard Emu every couple of months for my Telon fix and it's coming along splendidly.

All in all, though, it doesn't look like a bumper year for the genre. 2018 or 2019 should be better. And that's fine. There are literally hundreds of MMOs out there already and I have literally dozens on my hard drive. How many MMOs do you need, anyway?

The coming year may be weird and scary in all kinds of ways but I think it's a safe bet that as far as MMOs go it will look much the same as the last one. I can live with that. Quite happily. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Day Million

Despite just telling Jeromai that I never feel guilty for not playing MMOs, and even though I often make the point that I only write for my own amusement, I do nevertheless find myself feeling just a tiny bit uncomfortable about the lack of activity this blog has seen over the holiday period. Yes, December is my busiest time of year, both in and out of work, but even so ten posts is a bit feeble.

Last year I managed a round dozen: the same as 2013. Between those two came a baker's dozen in 2014 and back in 2012, presumably flushed with enthusiasm at the end of my first full year of blogging I somehow managed an absurd nineteen December posts! I can't imagine how that happened.

The turn of the year this time around marks five complete years since Inventory Full began. I actually started posting rather cautiously in July of 2011, racking up just 43 posts in six months, but once I gained momentum things began ticking over fairly steadily at just under 200 posts a year.

This year looks a little slack at 175 but that's the same figure as 2014 so I don't think it indicates any particular decline either in effort or interest on my part.With remarkable consistency, 2012 and 2013 tied at 197 posts, while 2015 ran them both close with 190 exactly.

When the blog hit the landmark half million page views I recorded the fact with a stereotypical British show of  false modesty. I was expecting to do the same again when (if) I hit the full million but the Russian onslaught documented earlier somewhat took the gilt off that particular piece of gingerbread and I didn't bother.

According to Blogger's basic dashboard stats, the ones I've been paying attention to since the blog started, the one million page view milestone was duly passed sometime last month. December 2016 also saw the blog record by far its highest tally of monthly visits, virtually doubling the previous record.

As the visits per country show, China is now riding Russia's coat-tails in a heartening display of (post) Communist solidarity seldom seen since the 1960s. While it's true that they do play a lot of MMOs in both Russia and China I don't flatter myself that I've suddenly acquired a whole host of new readers behind the erstwhile iron or bamboo curtains.

What I have got is meaningless stats so I'm not going to pay any further attention to them, or not, at least, until such time as Blogger cleans up its act. Blogger, of course, is owned by Google, eponymous providers of the widely-used information traffic tool Google Analytics. That tells a very different story.

I've never really followed my GA stats. I look at them maybe once a year. They used to mirror the Blogger stats fairly closely, with GA generally showing lower numbers by maybe 20-25%. That's changed.

According to Google Analytics, rather than just shy 60,000 page views in December this blog actually received 6,500. Around 10% of the figure Blogger gives me. Tellingly, according to GA, almost none of those views came from either Russia or China, or, for that matter, the other minor player in the drama, The Ukraine.

If you drill down past the Top Ten, however, some very odd things start to happen. Take a look at number 12, for example:

Let's blow that up so we can see it better:

Or how about number 19?

Then, all the way down at #37, there's this...

I wonder I ought to bring it to the attention of... Oh, wait...

There's more but that's more than enough. If the stats ever begin to make sense again then maybe I'll pay some attention but for now it's back to how many comments I get and who links to me or writes posts in reply to something I've said.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide