Saturday, September 16, 2023

A Field Guide to LBGs: Magic Streets

Lately my main location based games have been Pokémon Go and Jurassic World Alive. There is a post stewing about JAW.  However, I wanted to highlight another game I play every once in a while: Magic Streets.  I've never seen it covered by anyone else, and it hews closer to a PC MMOPRG than any other LBG  I have played.  

Magic Streets, the location based RPG!  At least the splash screen doesn't lie to you with a pretty painting, those ate definitely the graphics.

Magic Streets is a fantasy LBG inspired seemingly heavily by classic Runescape, with a dash of the old PS2 game Shadowhearts in terms of combat mechanics.   Magic Streets is a bit primitive in some ways.  For example, to me the graphics (as you can see) are whatever is the opposite of charming.  However, the game also has a lot of interesting features that I really like: timing mini-game based combat, good depth that isn't overwhelming, tons of loot to dig through, and a skill based character development system that lets you build out for whatever combat style you like. 

Overall I like it a lot better than Orna, which is the only fantasy RPG LBG that anyone ever seems to talk about.  The issue with Orna for me was that it got repetitive very quickly.  Magic streets doesn't have the same depth of classes as Orna, but I find the combat to be a lot more fun.  The combat and other features, like being able to gather crafting mats, has kept me engaged with Magic Streets for much longer than I ever was with Orna.

Here I am wandering around my neighborhood.  The bunny person near me (with his face turned away) is a pet that I think helps me  in a fight.  What trade-offs choosing to level one pet vs another represents I really have no idea.  As you can see the graphics are overall quite primitive.  I suspect it's a conscious style choice to mimic Runescape, which is a MMO that you used to be able to run in a browser even in the 2000s. The NPC in the back sells stuff.  The cave entrance leads to a dungeon where you can fight a series of increasingly stronger mobs for better loot.  The other icons represent mobs you can fight, or NPCs you can rescue (also by fighting mobs). What this screenshot doesn't show are any crafting material nodes, but in general they are quite abundant.  As nearly as I can tell, your ability to harvest mats is limited only by your inventory space and your ability to walk over to a node IRL.

What do you do?  The basic gameplay is to wander around killing monsters to take their loot and gain XP.  However in addition to that, you can train pets that fight along side you, harvest crafting materials, and craft either lots of different types of gear and consumables or create and upgrade buildings in your personal keep.  More on that below.

The character development system is skill based.  As you level up you get points to spend on the attributes of your choice.  There are also simple skill trees to unlock and level up combat abilities.  Note that these screenshots were all taken nearly a year ago, my current character is a bit further along than this.

The character development system is based on allocating points to skills. You have no class, instead you level up abilities that qualify you to use better gear. There are also simple skill trees where you can purchase and level up abilities.  For example, as I am writing this my guy can wear most medium and heavy armor I find,  and is pretty good with big two-handed weapons and missile weapons.  However, he is terrible with more mage-style stuff like magic wands and cloth armor.  The combat skills I have invested in mainly allow me to execute melee attacks that auto-crit for a lot of damage. I can only use one of these attacks two or three times before I have to rest and regenerate mana, but the attacks are pretty close to an "I win" button in a fight where I use one.

When you click on a mob, you get this info screen about it and you can decide whether to attack it.  One way in which it is very different from a real MMO is that mobs will never attack you, it's always your decision.

For me the combat is what really sets the game apart from Orna, the closest LBG competitor I am aware of.  In Orna, you attack pretty much like you would in an old Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game.  You choose an ability from a menu, and that's about it.  In Magic Streets, the combat is still turn based. But there is also small element of skill, where timing your attack well determines how much damage you do. 

For example, for big two-handed swords when you attack a small circle inside a larger one starts growing.  If you time the attack so that the two circles overlap you do a ton of damage.  Hit the attack too soon and you will do very little damage.  Wait too long, and the attack will miss altogether.  Different weapons have slightly different mechanics to them, but they are all about a timing mini-game.  The closest analogue I am familiar with is the Shadow Hearts series of games on the PS2 from the late 1990s (a reference that I am sure at least no readers whatsoever will instantly get!). 

With this weapon type the circle slowly shrinks, and you try to tap it when the circle is as close as possible to the point in the middle.  Wait too long an the attack will miss.  Hit the circle closely, and you will do massive damage.  Different weapons have slightly different timing based mini-games to use them.  Special attacks, here greyed out because I decided to make a normal attack, use mana (the blue bar) and are guaranteed to do good damage, heal you, or whatever else.  I'm not far enough into the game to really know what the possibilities on offer consist of. 

What is the world like?  The world is filled primarily with random mobs and crafting material nodes, like many many PC MMOs.  Mobs drop a wide variety of gear, most of which you won't be able to use unless you have specialized in the skill it needs.  For example, I can wear a lot of heavy armor and very little cloth. You also have a keep that you can level up and build out however you like.  Mine has some merchants for buying and selling random loot, an alchemist that will give me a free mana potion once a day if I check in, and a camping area where I can rest.  Lots of other building types are available, but I have no idea what most of them might do.  You also have to gather a heck of a lot of wood, rocks, and other stuff to create any building.

When you attack mobs, very often you also rescue an NPC. These can be recruited for your keep in a system I barely understand.  You can also use all the crafting mats you gather to craft your own gear, but I get so much random gear as drops that I am a bit fuzzy on why you would ever bother with that. You will quickly murder all the monsters nearby if you don't go walking around.  You can't just sit in your living room and grind your brains out like Orna.

You can see the keeps of other players out on the landscape.  However, the game doesn't appear to be all that popular.  Only a few people in my entire neighborhood seemingly play.  

Loot is abundant, and comes in the standard array of MMO rarities from gray common gear to rare and powerful epic gear.  One of the main reason to level up skills is so that you can use different pieces of gear.  I spent a ton of points on missile weapons so I could use this shuriken, and it paid off.  I immediately became much stronger, able to quite easily take down mobs I was struggling with before.

Asynchronous interactions.  You can enter the keeps of other players and buy and sell stuff. There also appears to be some PvP system where you can attack someone's keep and try to loot it.  However I haven't attempted this.  The few keeps I could have attacked had high level guards that likely would have made short work of me.  My keep hasn't been attacked even once since I have been playing.  Whether this is because there is some flag I haven't set, because I'm too low level, or because my neighbors are polite I can't really say. 

How do you interact with other players? As nearly as I can tell this is quite limited. If there is a way to form parties or hook up and do a raid, or collaborate to clear a dungeon, I haven't figured it out yet. I assume there is some kind of guild system, but I haven't found it yet if there is.

In addition to dropped loot, wandering NPC merchants sell items.  There is also a blacksmith in my keep that has a bunch of random gear when I check in with him.  However I mainly use him to break the gear I don't want down into crafting mats.  It takes a lot of wood and rocks to upgrade an Inn, I'm not going to let the handle of an axe dropped by an ogre just go to waste!

Is it good exercise?  As I said above, you will exhaust everything within striking distance of you fairly quickly if you don't walk around.  However, I find that by the time I have cleared out my yard, or the parking lot of a doctor's office, or whatever, I am satisfied with my progress.  If I want more stuff to do where I am, generally I'll switch over to Pokémon Go instead of walking anywhere. 

I can imagine that if you really got into the crafting and building aspects, it would be to great advantage to walk around your neighborhood looking for crafting mats to harvest.  There doesn't appear to be any way to get stuff to respawn quickly, or any way to move to a new location short of actually walking there.  If I were more deeply invested in the game, it might be very good exercise indeed. 

This is the 5th post in a series on Location Based Games.  Here are the others:


Pokémon Go

Walking Dead Our World (sadly shuttered earlier this year)


Wednesday, August 30, 2023

What is a MMORPG, and why does it matter to me so much?

I think many if not most online multiplayer games have become MMOs in the broad sense.  To me MMORPG is a narrower concept, and seems to be the pretty much the same thing that Tipa means when she says MMO in this recent thought provoking post.  I articulated "everything is a MMO, MMORPGs are different" much more fully in a post here a few years ago.  However, I inadvertently typed 99% of a blog post in the response to Tipa's post, and I have never really explored where I feel the limits of MMORPGs here.  So here we go!

To me what distinguishes a MMO from a MMORPG is not really any particular mechanics but a design sensibility.  If the one of the central design goals is to create the illusion of a shared fantasy world (or fictional world in general), with at least some of the expected entertainment coming from social interactions with other avatars being run by players (even if indirect like an AH or looking at other player's outfits when you run through town) it's a MMORPG. It's more of a "I know it when I see it" than a hard limit, and any two observers might disagree on the edge cases.  But if there is a straight line in the design history from the game to UO or EQ (or a MUD) I likely consider a game a MMORPG.   

Social interaction is also key. The only way to experience the game has to be to hang out in at least some areas where other people you don't know could also choose to play.  It's kind of like when you decide to leave your house and go to a store.  You might not see anyone, but you certainly could and it isn't your choice.  The only way to physically shop in the store is to take that risk.  The only way to play a MMOPRG is to engage in shared social spaces that could, and in fact almost certainly do, have total strangers in them.  

However that is far from enough, or Fortnight would be a MMORPG.  Fortnight is definitely not a MMORPG to me, and the main reason is that design goal of the game is different.  Some edge-case examples might give a better idea of where I am coming from.

To me DDO and Guild Wars 1 are edge cases, because the only areas that aren't instanced are villages, cities and keeps that lead either directly to quest instances or to wilderness areas that lead to more quest instances.  However a major design goal is to create the illusion of a shared world inhabited both by yourself and other player characters, so I tend to include them.  Diablo I-III don't count in my mind because you can get to the hub areas offline. It's by design that you don't have to fool with other players if you don't want to. Same with PSO, and any number of survival games like Arc Survival Evolved.  However,  a particular server of Arc that is always up and has a lot of players comes really close to being a MMORPG in my mind.  Especially if it has more active players than can be logged on at once.

Second Life is another edge case, but I wouldn't include it because the original design goal is not to create the illusion any specific fictional world.  The only reason I consider even an edge case that games made by users are now embedded in it, making a kind or proto-metaverse.  Location based games are yet another edge case, but I don't include them because our world is so integral to them.  I am on pretty shaky ground there with Orna or Magic Streets I will allow.  However, I consider LBGs in general something new.  

RPG is also a necessary part to me, but almost everything seems to have some RPG mechanics such as XP and levels these days, so presence of RPG mechanics is not all that useful by itself.  But in what I think of as a MMORPG the mechanics are there at least in part to help make the world feel more fleshed out, kind of like in a PnP RPG.  They aren't there purely to give players more things to grind towards. 

All this is a very long winded way of saying I consider MMORPGs a specific genre with fuzzy edges.  All bloggers and commentators seem to agree on what's in the middle, and there will probably never be a huge amount of agreement about where the exact edges are.  

Whatever a MMOPRG is is though, it's a genre that's really special to me.  They are a lot more enchanting and "sticky"  than almost any other type of game.  For me they have an indefinable magic that really makes them pop.  It's a genre that hints at endless possibilities to me.  However, it's a genre  that also often makes me somewhat wistful, because I believe the potential will almost certainly never be fully realized by any design team.  I'm not sure whether that's possible, even in theory, for a single game. 

That said, I certainly love seeing how different teams of designers have taken a crack at it!  Doing so most of my adult life has led to a series of fascinating journeys.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Creator appreciation week: all the teams running retired MMOs

I have been way too busy to post this year.  As I feared in my previous post, lurking on other people's blogs is about all I have had time for lately, though my "unusually busy" stretch is taking even longer to abate than I imagined it would back in January.  However, I couldn't resist joining in on Blaugust fun in a small way when I saw this post over at Inventory Full.  Developer appreciation week was always one of my favorite parts of the event back when I used to regularly participate.  

This year, my appreciation goes out to all the volunteer teams keeping defunct MMOs alive.  Off the top of my head there is the one for Warhammer Online, the one for Myst Online: UruProject 1999 that is keeping the launch era Everquest experience alive, the one for Vangaurd: Saga of Heroes,  a pile of them for City of Heroes (of which Homecoming is my favorite), a wide variety for Star Wars Galaxies, and the one for Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst.  

These teams are doing a great service for fans of these games, and for anyone interested in the history of MMOs in general.  Beyond that, they are often actually doing a better job with their games than some of the teams running "live" MMOs.  In general unofficial server teams are legally forbidden from doing more than simply breaking even on their server costs, and they have zero incentive to do anything other than create the best experience they can with extremely limited resources. These are people that care about making players happy first, and everything else second.  Their passion really shows in a lot of these projects.  

For an enlightening comparison, contrast the experience that MitchManix had in Champions Online vs City of Heroes.  One is full of interesting ideas but ruined by lack of developer attention and poor monetization.  In the other you can't spend money to play even if you want to, and the game absolutely thriving.  For a live team to not be able to keep up with what a bunch of volunteers can do in their spare time is absolutely embarrassing, and is a decent microcosm of what has gone wrong in some parts of the MMO space.  

These games can also be a lifeline to people that can't afford to keep up in a pay-to-play MMO.  A relative of mine is in the middle of a divorce, and has never been financially all that well off to start with. She has about enough money to keep her PC running and an internet connection going, and that is literally her entire entertainment budget.  I introduced her to Homecoming, and it has been absolutely wonderful for her.  We meet about once a week to hang out in the game, and it has been a blast for both of us.  

The fact that so many of these games exist is a constant reminder to me that most people are actually pretty decent.  So my hat goes off to all the teams that sink their time into these projects! They really are making the online world a richer and happier place.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Virtual people?

Via CNBC, and for me via slashdot originally, you can now hire a virtual person for around 2-14K a year in China depending on whether you want a 2D or 3D person.  My first thought was "Why in the hell would you want to do that?" However, after a bit of digging I found this handy guide to how you too can create your own virtual person.  The article mentions some reasons why you would want to create one that I am a bit skeptical of.   For example, in my experience "automating simple tasks with AI" is a great way to generate a ton of data you will need to double check manually, or at least spot check and take into account an assumed error rate when you use it for anything.  The fact that AI image generators often generate multiple images and let you pick the one that turned out well is not a quirk of that application of AI.  

There was one thing on the list that caught my attention.  The idea that there is a ton of interest in metaverses, and virtual spaces need virtual people so they don't seem empty when you enter them.  It's still not exactly a home run. The metaverse is such a poorly defined term that I think it's all but meaningless.  However, I do think there is real potential for something like Roblox or Fortnite but open for the public to build out whatever they like, so it can grow organically.  Second Life did this in the 2000s, but the tools to build stuff for it were clunky and arcane.  You also had to set up an account and install a client to get to any of it, and Second Life itself was hard to navigate. ROBLOX and Fortnite* have done a good job addressing some of these pain points, but they remain locked into single company ecosystems so there is a limit to how big they can get.

I believe it's only a matter of time before someone creates something a lot like ROBLOX but with open access tools under a freeware style license.  Much like the early days of the web, as long as you are willing to host whatever you create on your own hardware you will be able to link it to a central listing/ network/ link repository and anyone that cares to can visit.  Once that happens, a bunch of linked virtual environments that you can wander around in might become a thing.  It will never be as big as the web proper, because for most purposes a flat webpage with scrolling text is actually much better.  For example, Amazon would not work nearly as well for me if I had to screw around with navigating a virtual store to find items I want to buy, and being able to rotate a 3d model of a DVD case, PS5, first edition of some book or whatever doesn't really give me additional information I need to figure out whether to buy it. 

Regardless, once virtual spaces start popping up more organically, to capitalize on the potential advantages of the medium one of the things many of them will need is virtual people.  We MMO enthusiasts have a lot experience with how exciting it can be to jump into a virtual space and feel like we are setting foot into a new community that we might want to be a part of.   However, if you stick your head into one and it's dead as a doornail, often you won't hang around to give it a chance.  The designers of online communities have recently started to catch on to this, and have begun to take steps to address it.  

For example, when Reddit first got going the founders had hundreds of fake accounts.  They would post links under different user names to make the site look more populated than it was.  After a while, the site had enough real users that it took off on its own.  However if they hadn't tricked users into thinking other people were around, it probably never would have gone anywhere.  It isn't as if user moderated message boards weren't thing before Reddit.  Less benignly, dating apps that are trying to get off the ground often have a lot of fake dating profiles embedded in them.  After early app makers that did this got the crap sued out of them, newer ones now apparently often embed the right to do so into their EULAs.

In MMOs, we can see various levels of this same basic idea.  In bars, dance halls and other areas that are meant to function largely as social gathering places, there are generally obvious NPCs hanging around drinking, talking, dancing or whatever.  The obvious reason for that is that a dead empty dance hall completely kills any fantasy you might be able to maintain that it's a real place.  You will promptly turn right around, and the chances of any real people deciding to hang out there becomes approximately zero.

However, I am also starting to see designers blur the line between PCs and NPCs in a few games.  I am sure any MMO vet has experienced an occasional brief moment of confusion where you weren't sure whether someone you encountered in a game was a PC or NPC.  Fortnite also allows you to hire a NPC to team up with in a match with other players.  In FFXIV, the game is making joining a party of real players more and more optional for group content.  Past the starting areas, you can now clear every dungeon in the game with NPCs, and when I do that it's generally me rather than them that bones a run by failing on one of the complicated raid boss dances.  They will even do their best to keep you rezzed when you screw up if you don't cause such a catastrophe that everyone dies.

The most amusing example of this I have encountered recently was in Phantasy Start Online 2.  Every time I would enter a dungeon zone, teams would fill out nearly instantly.  At first I assumed that this meant the game had amazing matchmaking.  However, after a while I realized that these "teams" were usually entirely made up of randomly generated NPCs.  The thing that's funny about it is that they gave me about the same level of interaction that I often get from some of the less social groups of real players in random dungeon runs in WoW or FFXIV, which is why it took me so long to catch on.  However, it did allow me to get hip deep into some of the group content and get my sea legs without having to wait around for groups to form.  I probably would have bounced right off of the dungeons without them.

How to get players to bond with NPCs is also a topic designers have been thinking about for a while.  I don't know if  NPCs will ever be convincing enough to fool most users in my lifetime.  Even it it becomes possible to do so, I think for ethical reasons it should always be clear whether there is a real person behind whoever you are interacting with.  However as a tool to set up some sort of virtual social space that users don't reject the moment they set foot in, I think more realistic NPCs have a real place.  Call them virtual people if you like. 

An aside:

My blogging schedule is likely to be quite haphazard again this year.  My work schedule will be frankly insane for the next few months, though I do have  a lot of goals I am genuinely excited about. This may be my last appearance save for random comments on other people's blogs for a while.  May your 2023 be awesome! 

*Whatever the hell Facebook/ Meta is doing with the vast sums of money they are setting on fire is barely even worth mentioning in this arena, imo. 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Standing Stone Games: the perils of being part of a captive audience

I was recently reading the "biggest MMO disappointments" piece over at Massively, and one of the comments really stuck out to me.  MJ Guthry talked about how a close friend of his/ hers had their extremely expensive lifetime LoTRO account stolen, and after two months and many customer service requests Standing Stone Games has done absolutely nothing about it.   Normally I might be a little skeptical of this friend of someone I have never met, but this is Standing Stone Games.  That story not only tracks, I would be slightly surprised if it went any other way.  

I personally have been lucky enough never to have any issues I needed CS assistance with in LoTRO.  But I have had a handful of issues come up in the other SSG game, DDO.  I stopped submitting tickets over there altogether a couple of years ago because the chances of one getting resolved in a way that is helpful seems to be zero.  Out of something like a dozen tickets over the span of a decade, most of them were closed without any comment.  I did at least get comments on two. The first comment was "You weren't online when I checked so I have closed the ticket." Note that this was done in the middle of the day more than 48 hours after I submitted the ticket.  I do have a job, why on earth anyone would expect me to be on then I can't imagine.  

The other one said "I don't understand what you are asking for, ticket closed."  I submitted the ticket a third time, laying the issue out in enough detail that a mentally challenged elementary school student  that was only vaguely familiar with DDO should have been able to figure out what my problem was, and that one was completely ignored.*  It may still be in the system to this day for all I know.  I stopped paying attention after about the first two or three months after I submitted it.

I fully believe that the only reason SSG even has a ticket system is as an escape valve for pissed off customers.  They hope that most players will submit a ticket, give up after a while, and then forget about the entire incident that made them submit one.  This might make a slight bit of sense if SSG was some unknown studio working on obscure games no-one has ever heard of.  But they aren't and they don't'.

Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings are incredibly well known properties in fantasy nerdom, arguably among the two most important.  Right up there with Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Final Fantasy. The games themselves are also doing well.  The last set of hard numbers we got indicated that DDO and LoTRO alone have a "net revenue" of somewhere in the 10 million a year range.**  However, since then revenue has apparently more than doubled.  This is a company that could easily afford to have a functioning CS department.  They simply don't care to allocate the resources to it.  

SSG is also in a good position to get away with this because the two games they run don't have any real competition.  There really isn't any other MMO that combines the insane character customization of DDO with traps, puzzles and real time combat.  Probably the closest competitors to DDO in terms of character customization are City of Heroes, Champions Online, Star Trek Online and Project Gorgon.  Most of those are in a completely different genre, and the combat and gameplay loops of Project Gorgon are completely different from those of DDO. 

LoTRO is another game that for me has no real competition.  There isn't any other fantasy property I'm as invested in as Tolkien's Middle Earth.  Even if there was, LoTRO is an amazingly faithful realization of the source material that I seriously doubt will soon be equaled for Middle Earth, the Harry Potterverse, or any other property.  While you can quibble about some of the MMO mechanics, the world itself is a damn near perfect reproduction of the areas of Middle Earth that Tolkien described in detail.  Other areas that SSG has filled in itself, such as the depths of Moria, are very logically and respectfully extrapolated from the limited descriptions Tolkien did give.

SSG has a small, but essentially captive audience with these two games, and they act as if they know it.  The utter lack of functioning CS is part of a larger pattern where it's pretty clear that very little of the income of either game gets folded back into development or support staff.  That isn't to say that they don't put out new content.  In the grand scheme of things, SSG is actually better than average at putting out decent sized hunks of new content for their MMOs. 

The problem is that they appear to have no internal testing department.  They also tend to completely ignore player feedback on the test servers, to the extent that expansions get put out with bugs and balance issues that players have already documented.  They seemingly have the bandwidth to either create content or maintain it, but not both at the same time.  For example, the last big expansion of DDO, Isle of Dread, actually broke the reincarnation system for nearly two weeks.  That's a central gameplay loop in DDO. It would be analogous to the Alternate Advancement system broken in a way that prevents you from earning new AA points for a couple of weeks in Everquest, or all the raid dungeons at the cap being closed for maintenance in WoW.

All in all, the studio seems more and more focused on figuring out how to get the most money possible out of their big spenders.  For example, to celebrate the holidays they currently have a deal going where you get a free mount if you buy the $200 package for DDO points for the item shop.  However the mount can only be added to your stable on one server, it isn't account wide. Even their end of the year holiday sales this year only offered a 25% discount on their two most recent expansions, one of which came out more than a year ago.  Even giving the studio the fact that the total amount of content they put out in a year is usually pretty good, the quality control on it tends to be abysmal.  Recently the single most well known DDO content creator***, Strimtom, has even started begging the studio to slow down and take more time for quality control. 

Yet despite all that, I keep handing SSG my money.  DDO is by far my most played MMO this year.  LoTRO also remains likely my most played MMO of all time by a wide margin.  I do keep trying new-to-me MMOs and revisiting old favorites.  This year alone I have ventured forth into Everquest, Everquest 2, Guild Wars (the original), Phantasy Star Online 2, Terra Online, Destiny (also the original), Warframe and probably some others I am forgetting.  Yet it is the two SSG games that I always come back to.  Analogies to bad relationships certainly suggest themselves  . . .  

I don't mean to imply by all this that DDO and LoTRO are bad games, or you shouldn't check them out.  To my tastes they are both amazing games, which is why I have spent so much time in them.  I just wish that the studio seemed more committed to giving them the resources they need to flourish instead of constantly doubling down on milking the current player base.

*The issue I had is that one of the expansion bundles comes with a new pet, a pseudo dragon vanity pet,  and a cosmetic wizard hat that you can use once, and only once, for the pet of your choice.  One would naturally assume that the hat would work with the pet that it comes with, but that is not the case.  In fact, the hat is completely invisible on that pet. If you use it on an pseudodragon, you have essentially set the item on fire.  Keep in mind, this hat comes as part of an expansion bundle that was originally roughly $100.  Supposedly CS can give you a new copy of the hat if you make that common mistake.  However,  I was never able to get whatever random janitor they have going through tickets to even understand what my issue was, much less help me with it. 

**Based on 22% of 63 million in "net revenue" (= 13.8 million), which I assume means profit or I am not sure why they would have the term "net" in there.  Regardless, it's very hard to crunch the numbers that we have available and come up with a financial picture of a company that couldn't afford to pay a CS team of a dozen people 30K a year.

***That's admittedly a lot like saying the most well know species of kinorhynchan sea worm, or the perhaps most well known Czech silent film, but he does feature prominently in the tiny DDO community :-)

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Why I like blogs and blogging better (it's not just because I'm old)

Bhagpuss put up a really thought provoking piece about blogging the other day.  I typed out a response and realized I had most of a blog post.  Given my spare time quotient, and since I am not ready to turn all my blogging over to an AI just yet, I can't really afford to waste a 90% written post these days :-) So here we are.

I think everyone that follows blogs knows that the form is in the middle of a slow decline in popularity.  However, I don't think anything that's come along to replace it really will or even can.  There are things I like about prose communication that podcasts or videos are not good substitutes for.  For example, there are a lot of blogs like Inventory Full (and everyone else listed off to the right if you are viewing this on a PC) on which I will at least check out almost every post that goes up.  There are exactly zero YouTubers or podcasters that I follow closely enough to watch/ listen to everything they put out.  Even my absolute favorite YouTube channels like  Kurzgesagt and Eons have a lot of videos out I have never watched.  

Why is that?  Am I a cranky old person?  Well yes, obviously, since I wasn't playing EQ as a toddler in 1999 and I blog about it a lot.  I also have a lawn, but the last person I had to chase off of it was around my age.  However, there is more to it than that!

For me personally, a really big part of it is that I can suck down prose at my own pace instead of having to set aside whatever hunk of time the person making content has decided I need to invest.  Guides to games especially, I absolutely hate having to sit through a video to get past one thing I am stuck on.  I am absolutely amazed at how many people prefer a ten hour video walkthrough to a prose guide where they can just look up exactly what they need.  You know there are indexed text guides to damn near everything right here, don't you? **Waves cane around wildly**

I also don't find that many opinions are worth sitting through a 20+ minute video to experience.  Obviously an insightful opinion can be thought provoking in any format.  I have become a big fan of Josh Strife Hayes for example, just like everyone else in this corner of the blogosphere.  Not a big enough fan to watch everything he puts out of course.  If I have a solid damn hour to fart away I will almost certainly spend it in a game.  But what I have watched is great, entertaining and often insightful.

In contrast, there are bloggers I almost never agree with, yet who I will still read everything they put up.  The risk you take when you decide read through a blog post is a lot less than when you commit to a video.  If some blogger that I follow posts something that strikes me as patently myopic or cranky, I can still engage with it and not be upset that I read it.  I'll even consider their opinion and occasionally change my own as a result.

For example, it's worth sitting through one blogger's somewhat disconnected-from-reality screeds because there are still occasional posts I enjoy, and sometimes even ideas embedded in the screeds that are interesting to consider.  If I sit through an hour long video to get to a punchline that I think is idiotic, I am generally quite upset over the time I wasted.  Five minutes or less spent reading a blog post to get there, not so much.

There is also something a bit more honest about prose.  It has to get by on what is there, the ideas being presented, much more than a video does.   To me an audience of even a few hundred steady readers feels like a badge of honor.  A few hundred or a few thousand views on YouTube is all but meaningless. 

Finally, I have the feeling that bloggers are more often motivated by the pure love of what they are writing about than other sorts of content creators.  These days blogging is a terrible way to even become internet famous, much less attain actual fame and fortune.  This news story went around recently saying that more than 80% of young people want to be social media stars.  Now I am sure if you dig into that the number it's exaggerated, really shocking headlines like that often are.  Regardless, I really doubt that any of those hopeful youngsters are firing up a blog!  

No-one does this for any reason at all any more save that they simply enjoy it.  It's nice to be able to settle into a chair and engage with a community united by a love of what they are doing, and not by any delusions of grandeur, fame or fortune.  I like the honesty and the (general) lack of pretension that comes with that. 

Saturday, June 4, 2022

History of the Erudites Part III: Everquest 2

This is the final post in a series about the Erudite race across three games.  You can find part one here, which covers Erudites during the time of EQOA 500 years before Everquest.  Part two here covers Erudites dring the time of the original Everquest.  This final post covers them during the time of Everquest II, set 500 years after the original game.  

A male Erudite from EQ II. The race has been altered so much by years of close association with magic that they are beginning to take on a rather alien appearance. Erudites of this era are completely hairless, and have skin and eye coloration far outside the human norm. They also still have the highest starting intelligence of any race, expanded cranial volume apparently no longer being necessary for this heightened mental capacity.   

Erudites began as a regal race of dark skinned but fairly normal looking  humans based out of the city of Highborn, on the shores of Antonica south of Quenyos.  During the time of EQOA they colonized the Isle of Odus to the west.  Always a race of mages and magic using warriors, by the time of Everquest  their long association with magic had begun to alter them on a physical level.  Members of both genders showed greatly expanded craniums and foreheads, indicating a vast expansion of the brain areas responsible for language and reason. By the time of Everquest II this process has gone much further.  They no longer have expanded craniums, but in other ways Erudites of this era have begun to look positively alien.  Now completely hairless, their skin tones tend towards towards shades of gray or bone white, their eyes no longer appear wholly human, and under certain lighting their skin now glistens with a faint metallic sheen.  Tattoos have also become extremely commonplace.  However they mark themselves with magical glyphs rather than ink, and the designs can only be clearly seen under bright light.

The city of Paineel, near where you first arrive.

The history of the race since the time of EQ has also been eventful. EQ II is set after a mysterious cataclysm that destroyed much of Norrath and reduced former continents to a series of archipelagos.  When EQ II launched the homeland of the Erudites on Isle of Odus had apparently been completely destroyed, and Erudite players were forced to start in one of two primarily human cities.  However, during the 6th expansion of EQII, Sentinels of Fate, it was revealed that Odus had not been completely destroyed.  Instead, a disaster involving teleportation spires transported the island into a pocket dimension.   For decades or centuries the inhabitants of this dimension were isolated from the rest of Norrath.  However at the beginning of Sentinels of Fate the Erudites inhabiting the ruins of Odus were able to reactivate a dormant teleportation spire in the city of Paineel.  

The Sundered Frontier, one of the two major landmasses that remains after most of Odus was destroyed in yet another magical accident that the Erudites caused.  Like most zones released during this era of EQ II, this "zone" is actually a large region containing many different areas with distinct biomes and separate quest lines.

During the time of EQ Paineel was inhabited solely by Necromancers, Shadowknights and Clerics of Cazic-Thule (god of fear).  However,  when you are able to travel there 500 years later you find a city that is also inhabited by wizards, enchanters, and even paladins.  As during the time of EQOA, practitioners of all forms of magic and worshipers of both Cazic-Thule and Quellious (goddess of peace) now once again live and work side-by-side as a single people. At first no explanation for this state of affairs is given.  However, after questing for several evenings, a NPC reveals the story of the final cataclysm of Odus.  The Paineel of EQ II is the third city to bear the name.  It was rebuilt after an accident involving teleportation spires built by the Erudites transported Odus into a pocket dimension called Ultera. Ultera exists between the prime plane, where most of Norath still lies, and a plane of void.   Though most of Odus and the surrounding islands were unstable in this new area of extraplanar space, the connection to the Plane of Underfoot beneath the ruins of Paineel created a large stable area of land. Here, under the leadership of necromancers, Paineel was rebuilt for a third time.  

The character I played through Sentinels of Fate with, a Necromancer now in the mid 90s. I did finally figure out what familiars are about, that space octopus boosts all of my stats by 12% and will grow stronger as I level it.  

At first the rivalry and isolation of the two factions of Erudites seems to have continued in Ultera.  However, this was disrupted by intelligent beings from the realm of void.  They appeared to the leaders of Erudin, and at first seemed friendly.  However, one-by-one the leaders of Erudin became possessed by these evil beings. By the time anyone outside the inner circle of Erudin elites realized what was happening, it was too late to save the city.   Erudin was captured without so much as a battle, and those few followers of Quellious that remained untainted were forced to flee.  The inhabitants of Paineel, showing remarkable kindness of a city full of "evil necromancers", took in the refugees. Though the Erudite race is now in exile from their greatest city, it is once again united.

It took me more than a week of evenings to make it far enough in the Sentinels of Fate questlines that any NPCs would explain to me what happened to Odus since the time of EQ.  Here, one of these NPCs is describing how the remnants of Odus were sucked into a pocket dimension called Ultera, which is connected to the Void.

The Erudites that you encounter in the shattered remains of Odus are truly neutral, caring for little but knowledge.  They do have their own odd sense of honor.  For example self sacrifice, even dying, to preserve knowledge is considered a noble and necessary act under certain circumstances.  However, in most ways that count the Erudites of EQ II are completely amoral.  They place almost no value on the lives of most humanoid races, and those few Erudites that are even aware of the other races that inhabit the Sundered Frontier seem to consider them of little importance.  Though they don't go out of their way to persecute outsiders, the inhabitants of Paineel will kill anyone that seems to threaten their society or their individual scholarly pursuits without the slightest regret.  Many of the experiments they conduct, especially into the inner workings of death and resurrection, would be considered depraved by members of races such as men and elves.  Even the deaths of other Erudites involved in this work are taken completely in stride.*
This village of Kerrans lies on a small island isolated from the larger landmass that contains Paineel.

Because of their moral ambivalence, the other two humanoid races that share the remains of Odus with with the Erudites avoid all direct contact with Paineel.  The cat like Kerrans confine themselves to an island which they only leave occasionally to gather supplies.  They also keep a small force of spies near Paineel to make certain that no threats issue forth from it.  Another race of humanoid pandas have a small community in the village of Hua Mein.  It lies in a valley which is hidden from the rest of Odus by powerful magic. The Erudites of Paineel seem to believe they succeeded in a war of extermination against the race of Hua Mein several hundred years ago, and the modern villagers are careful to maintain this fiction.  In order to enter the valley you need to perform a series of tasks proving that you are willing to lie to the inhabitants of Paineel and help the Hua Mein avoid discovery.

The island is protected by these magical devices, which also maintain the same physical conditions on the island that it experienced before yet another magical accident caused by the Erudites transported Odus and the surrounding islands into the Ultera.  The Kerran's have little direct contact with the Erudites of Paineel, who in turn completely ignore the Kerrans.

In the Erudites of EQ II we see a race completely transformed by the reckless pursuit of knowledge.  Both physically and philosophically, they are now quite alien from the other human races.   Their resilience is admirable in a way.  After each cataclysm they rebuild and continue to gather ever greater knowledge as they always have.  However, this quest for knowledge is so single minded and so heedless of the damage that it causes that Erudites as a race are only a step removed from truly selfish and sadistic races such as the Trolls and Dark Elves.  Though not truly evil, no-one could mistake them for a force of good.

The inhabitants of Hua Mein, another humanoid race that was nearly destroyed by the Erudites centuries ago.  It is unclear what the two races were in conflict over.  However, the Erudites clearly believe they completely destroyed this race, a fiction which the villagers of Hua Mein are eager to maintain. As an aside, whether this race was "inspired" by the Pandaran's of World of Warcraft is unclear. Mists of Pandaria was also not even announced until 2011, so it seems unlikely to have been a direct inspiration. Kung Fu Panda came out about the time development of this expansion likely got underway.  The movie came out in 2008 and the expansion was released on 2010, but my guess is that too is a coincidence.  Trying to appeal to the same demographics as a children's movie seems as though it would have been an odd choice for this rather complex MMO.  

Perhaps more than any other race, Erudites have often proven themselves a dire threat to all of Norrath.  When they colonized Odus in the time of EQOA, they pushed aside the native races that inhabited the area without a thought, treating them no better than wild beasts.  Some time after, a magical war between two factions of Erudites nearly destroyed the world.  Finally, in between the events of EQ and EQII they again caused a major cataclysm, this time involving experiments with the teleportation spires.  Odus was ripped from the world into another dimension, and  whether this played any role in the wider cataclysm that so drastically transformed the rest of Norrath is unclear. However, even if the Erudites knew for a fact that they had caused this devastating event, seemingly very few would regret it. Knowledge is the only master they truly revere.  This is a race that would have been delighted to discover the atom bomb, or something even worse.  

Series Wrap Up

Erudites are an interesting fantasy race in a game where every other playable race in launch EQ was "borrowed" from first edition AD&D.**  Even Barbarians were a class in AD&D Unearthed Arcana. It's mainly in the Erudites where we get a truly original fantasy race. They have few analogues in other games or fantasy fiction in general that I am aware of.  Their accelerated physical evolution due to connections with magic is especially unusual, and I find the fact that it is an Easter egg you can only experience by playing three completely separate MMOs delightful.  

I can only think of a handful of game series like Star Wars and Elder Scrolls where it's possible to time travel by moving back and forth between different games, and in most of them the changes from one time period to the next are mainly cosmetic.  Not so Everquest.  In only 1000 years we see a world radically transformed by a series of magical cataclysms.  The world map of EQOA is completely unrecognizable by the time of EQ II, much like a map of planet earth during the Triassic era bears almost no landmarks recognizable to modern eyes.  The races and classes you can play also change a good bit from one game to the next. Deeply associated with magic, and themselves responsible for many world shaking events, no race has been transformed during the history of Norrath as much as the Erudites.  Though they have friendly relations with many "good" races such as the humans and elves, for those races that live near them such as the Kerrans Erudites have also embodied the worst aspects of humanity.  The Erudite legacy is one of towering achievements in the magical arts, particularly the construction of the spires linking Norrath, Luclin and planes beyond.  But it is also a legacy of colonialism and perhaps even attempted genocide in the case of the Hua Mein.  

The singular focus of Erudites on the pursuit of knowledge above all else also is both admirable and tragic. It's an admirable fictional counter example to our world, where where members of different political parties have stopped even agreeing on fundamental reality.  But Erudite history also reflects how badly things can go when the pursuit of knowledge and the power than comes with it is not balanced by any sense of morality. Even the banning of "evil" necromantic arts from the city of Erudin during the time of EQ comes across as hypocritical.  Time and time again it was the practitioners of other forms of magic that truly threatened the world. In the end it was the city of Paineel that was the last major refuge of the race and all the knowledge they collected.

*I don't mean to convey that Sentinels of Fate is some sort of grimdark expansion.  These deaths are very much played for darkly humorous laughs in the questlines that involve them.

**Undoubtedly this is because DikuMUD also drew so heavily on AD&D.  AD&D in turn borrowed heavily from Tolkien of course, but the precise collection of races and classes in launch EQ is very much 1st Edition AD&D.  For example, Dark Elves first appeared in the AD&D Fiend Folio. Races and classes added in expansions, starting with Kunark, were much more likely to be original to the setting.  For example Iskar and Beastmasters don't closely resemble anything in AD&D I can think of.