Saturday, March 26, 2022

On difficulty, accessibility and Elden Ring

Bahgpuss has a great post up that does a really good job of articulating the of issues that have been floating around the blogosphere about game difficulty since Elden Ring came out.  Having been both both sides of the debate, both a kid that was a hardcore gamer and an adult that gives truly difficult games a wide berth, I had a really immediate response to it.  The core issue that really resonated with me is whether developers should feel obligated to put in difficulty settings that make their games clearable by anyone that is physically able to play them.  

I have been playing video games since the Atari era, so my thoughts on whether a game is obligated to include different difficulty settings for users of different skill levels is pretty simple: absolutely not. The original conception of video games was that they were kind of like any game: some of them were hard enough that not everyone could do very well in them.  I used to play insanely difficult games when I was younger. For example, I actually beat the game that is right at the top of this list.

I had to dump a solid month of my spare time into it to get good enough to do that, and I had the reflexes of a cat on amphetamines back then.  I absolutely could not do that these days.  I have neither the reflexes needed nor the spare time necessary to commit an entire game to muscle memory. However, the fact that it was so brutally difficult, and that getting really good at it was the only way to see the whole game was kind of the entire point of the experience.  Every time I was finally able to see a new level, it was elating.  Hell, sometimes getting to see a new six inches of a level I was working on was elating.  Absolutely, developers should be able to sell those kinds of experiences if they want to. The world would be a smaller less rich place without them.

A common counter argument is "Well if you want it more difficult, just crank up the difficulty. Why do you care what other people do?"  Once difficulty settings became the norm, I sometimes did just that.  For example I beat the N64 Goldeneye on "007" difficulty, and it felt like an accomplishment.  The absolute zen focus needed to do and the adrenaline rush when I finally did was similar to beating Super Ghouls and Ghosts.  But it wasn't exactly the same.  Knowing that literally the only way to see the next level was to buck up and get good enough to do it gave Super Ghouls and Ghosts a psychological layer that just wasn't there when I was playing through GoldenEye on "Holy crap, you must have a hell of a lot of spare time" difficulty. The closest thing I can compare it to is the difference between the view from a mountain where you can choose to either hike up or ride in gondola, and hiking out to a spot that you simply can't see without serious physical exertion.  

I don't think I have ever hiked a mountain when I could ride ride a gondola up.  However, I have taken 40 flights of stairs to the top of a tall building when I could have taken the elevator.  It was very much the Goldeneye "007" experience.  It was fun, it was elating to finish, the view at the end was nice, and I'm glad I did it.  But it was not the same as slogging my way down into a cave that most people will never see, or hiking out to some obscure waterfall most people don't know about.  The latter just feels more special.  I really think some developers are trying to let us have a tiny bit of that special "most people will never be here and see this" feeling in our living rooms.  That is not to say that that is a financially sane strategy for most developers in the modern market.  However, I really feel like that is what the Dark Souls games are trying to tap into.

Another aspect of the debate is whether developers need to be clear about what they are selling, and my answer to that is absolutely yes.  In fact, if a studio is creating a game for the tiny niche audience of "teenagers and 20-somethings with absurd amounts of spare time" they need to go out of their way to be crystal clear about it.  In 1990 it was expected that roughly 30% of games were hard enough that most people would never beat them.  That is very much not the norm now, and selling people a product they probably can't use without warning them is incredibly irresponsible.

There is also the issue of accessibility for people with physical disabilities.  I think developers should do their best within the constraints of their budget to support peripherals that allow people with various types of physical disabilities to play.  Some of the peripherals designed for people with neurological disorders that affect manual dexterity might also allow feeble old people like me to play some games as a side effect, so I'll admit this is a gray area.  However, I don't think of being older than 29 or fully employed as physical disabilities, and claiming that developers are morally obligated to cater to those demographics pretty absurd in my mind.  Admittedly,  since those are by and large the people with money to spend, it's generally pretty stupid not to. Nonetheless that is a different issue.

In the end I feel that the one clear moral obligation that developers have in this area is to be upfront about what they are trying to sell us.  Don't steal my money by tricking me into thinking I might be able to fully experience your game when I clearly will not be able to.  If a developer is dead honest about what they are selling, and someone that clearly cannot get full use out of it decides to buy it anyway, that is on the buyer.  If I bought a Formula 1 car, no one would get mad at the manufacturer when I couldn't get it out of my driveway.  They would think I was an idiot, and rightfully so. 

I will probably never see Elden Ring .  And that's perfectly ok with me, because I know it isn't for me.  That's also the exact reason I won't be buying the game.  They aimed their game directly at a market segment I'm just not part of any more.  Regardless, I'm not mad at FromSoftware for doing it.  Far from it, I'm excited to see a new RPG subgenre thriving, and I can actually understand why some people would feel that the game was diminished of there was a "story mode" that would let you skate through it. There are more games "for me" than I could possibly play through if all I did between now and my deathbed was sleep, eat, groom and play games. I think that's plenty.  

Saturday, March 12, 2022

They don't make expansions like they used to

Per my last post, I have been playing through some of the original EQ II expansions lately.  I remember when they came out they weren't considered particularly large expansions.  However, by modern standards they are quite meaty.  For example, I played through Kingdom of the Sky last month, and I am now in the middle of the Rise of Kunark, the second and fourth expansions for EQ II.  Rise of Kunark consisted of five new zones, a new 1-20 starting area and four new high level adventuring zones.  It was released a few months after Burning Crusade for WoW, which included two new starting zones and seven new high level adventuring zones.  So at first glance, it seems pretty meager for the era.

The Kylong Plains, one of four high level adventuring zones that came with the Rise of Kunark Expansion for EQ II in 2007.  The map is actually a lot bigger than it looks, each of the four main areas is about the same size as a normal MMO zone. For the last month I have been playing through some of the early EQ II expansions, and it's remarkable how much more content they have than some expansions I have been playing in more modern MMOs.  

Now of course this ignores the fact that by this time EQ II had released three previous expansions, to the 0 that WoW had put out.  The zones themselves are also absolutely enormous.  Playing through Kunark took me roughly three weeks weeks of evenings, and by the time I hit 80 and move on to the next expansion there are also still going to be huge areas I haven't yet set foot in.  However, Kunark vs Burning Crusade is really a debate for 2007.  What has really struck me as I have been playing through these expansions from over a decade ago is how much developers have degraded the meaning of the term "expansion" over the years.  

Back in 2007, if a content drop wasn't at least a good solid few weeks of entertainment for most players, you didn't call it an expansion.  For example, in EQ II SOE used the term "adventure packs" to distinguish smaller hunks of content from mainline expansions. They likely did this because (a) they didn't want to confuse their customers and (b) because they would have gotten crucified in the court of public opinion if they had tried to call something like The Fallen Dynasty an expansion. It only contained one new adventuring zone, two new group instances, one solo quest series, one tradeskill quest series, and 20 quest series of trials in the group instances.  Clearly that's not an expansion!

The Fens of Nasthar. This was actually the first zone from Kunark I got going in, and because I didn't know what I was doing I managed to royally jack up my faction here.  I am kill on sight to every NPC in roughly half this map (though the ones in the corners absolutely love me).  Games were a lot less likely to hold your hand in 2007, but at least they didn't skimp on content.  This map  does not remotely convey what a big zone this is.  Just flying from one corner to another on an NPC mount is a "go make a snack or something" moment. 

How much things have changed.  Legacy of the Sith is the ultimate case in point. The latest "expansion" for SWTOR came out last month, and reactions to it were not good.  A lot of the negativity has focused on things that are pretty subjective, like whether the new UI is any good or not or whether changes to classes and gearing have improved the game or made it worse.  However one repeated criticism that I think is a lot less debatable is that Legacy of the Sith doesn't have enough content to be called an expansion, clocking in at about two hours for most players.  It really has me scratching my head and wondering whether this is the smallest update that any MMO publisher has ever had the temerity to call an "expansion." It probably is, but in the modern MMO era it certainly has some competition.

So what even is a proper expansion? First off, if new content doesn't have have any actual new areas where players engage in whatever the normal gameplay loop is, I don't personally think of it as an expansion. New mechanics can help distinguish an expansion from a normal content drop, but if there is nowhere new to go the world hasn't really been expanded. The first MMO that I can think of that tried to get away with calling something that was clearly not one an expansion was Dark Age of Camelot.  The second "expansion" for the game, called Foundations, added nothing but housing and consignment merchants.  I don't consider that an expansion at all because it doesn't really add to the world, it's just a bunch of new mechanics.  Of course even at the time Mythic released Foundation they charged nothing for it, and always referred to it as a "free expansion" to distinguish it from paid expansions like Trials of Atlantis and Catacombs that did actually have a lot of new areas to adventure in.  So if that's not a good comparison, what are some bottom of the barrel examples of actual past expansions?

Kunzar Jungle.  This is definitely the smallest zone that came with Kunark, and it still has at least five quest hubs that I have found so far.  I haven't looked it up, but I think the first hub I did had around 20 or 25 quests.  There were five main NPCs giving them out, each of which had between three and five quests.   By the time I finish out the first two hubs, I will have hit 80 and be ready to move on to the next expansion, Sentinels of Fate.

Standing Stone Games certainly has to make the list.  Recently they have taken to charging for content drops that they would have given away for free with a sub in prior years.  They refer to these as "mini-expansions" rather than full expansions, but when you can pay up to $100 for collectors editions that seems like an inconsequential semantic difference to me.  A paid expansion is a paid expansion, and it needs to have a good bit of content.  The two content releases I am referring to are War of the Three Peaks in Lord of the Rings Online and Saltmarsh in DDO.  Regardless of what you call them and being the start of my list, they were actually both decent sized updates.  War of the Three Peaks has been compared to Evindim, which is a zone that can easily last you a solid week of evenings.    Saltmarsh consisted of  one wilderness area and ten quests.  That doesn't sound like a lot.  However, a quest in DDO is set in an entirely separate instance so in reality it's something like 11 new play areas.  One quest in DDO can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour.  Altogether I would guess that both "mini-expansions" contain roughly 10 or 15 hours of content if you really see everything.  Small, but not egregiously bad.  They only look bad in comparison to what has historically been done in both games.

Another example that comes to mind is the final content released in Secret World Legends.  In a move that many of us are still bitter about, when the original Secret World didn't do as well financially as Funcom hoped, they spent a year revamping the game so that they could re-release it as Secret World Legends.  SWL was designed to be easier to get into compared to TSW, and was released as a free-to-play game.  To help get players to move to SWL, Funcom released a new South African adventuring area. It is the smallest adventuring zone in the game by a wide margin, probably taking about six hours to play through at most.  In consisted of essentially two areas, a prison camp and a mansion.  What was there was good, but it was way too short and ended up being the last major piece of content ever released for the game.  Not a great expansion, but it was also added to the game completely free, whether you subbed or not.  It was also billed as the first content drop for a planned full expansion if SWL did well, which unfortunately never materialized.  

The Jarsath Wastes.  Save to grab this screenshot I will not have set foot in this zone before I move on to the next EQ II expansion.  I would imagine you could take at least three characters through the 70-80 content in EQ II and do very few of the same quests. Both Rise of Kunark and Shadow Odyssey cover this level range, and I have not been to any of the zones from the latter.  Not to mention content packs in this level range I have payed no attention to, each of which SSG or Bioware would refer to as "an expansion" in the modern era.

Another notable modern entry into the "should this really be called an expansion?" subgenre was the previous SWTOR expansion, Onslaught.  There was a lot of grumbling at the time about how short it was.  Despite this, it was still a good 3-6 hours per faction, and well worth playing through twice to see both sides of the story.  It also launched with two new sets of daily areas that were pretty entertaining, so on the whole I was ok with it being called an expansion.  Six hours for an initial play through plus new dailies for gear was not bad, and certainly larger than a normal update for the game.  However, clearly we can also see a the bar for "expansion" getting ever lower. 

Which of brings us back SWTOR's latest expansion, Legacy of the Sith.  For me personally this release has finally crossed a line that I think is pretty absurd.  Calling one zone that takes two hours to see an expansion is unprecedented as far as I know.  If they had called it a "10th Anniversary Update" or "The Legacy of the Sith Adventure Pack" I suspect they would be getting a lot less flack.  But they didn't, and they are not being called out purely on semantics. Bioware called LotS an expansion, they paid some inordinate amount money for a trailer for it, and chose to hype the hell out of it for months leading up to the release.  That really comes across as conscious effort at deception.   I know a lot of players subbed before it even came out in anticipation of it, and I feel bad for them if that is really the only thing they subbed up to see.

In addition to the new high level zones, Kunark had this new 1-20 levelling area, a new race (Sarnak) and a new capitol city.  I recall there being a bit of back and forth between EQ II and WoW players, because Burning Crusade launched around the same time.  It had two new races, two new starting areas, and seven new high level zones.  I think the days when we will be arguing about which of two competing MMO expansions with weeks of content is really bigger are well behind us.

In my mind the absolute extreme lower limit for something to reasonably be called an expansion is at least a few evenings of new content for an average player.  If almost anyone can get home from work and play through a content update in a single sitting, it is absolutely not an "expansion."  Calling a content drop that small an expansion is like calling a pair of socks a new wardrobe, or a large refrigerator box a house.  At that point you are so far outside of the accepted meaning of the term you are using that you are obviously intentionally deceiving potential buyers.   The entire debacle with LotS has really shaken my faith in Bioware.* 

So how did we get to the point that a major developer of a highly visible game feels justified hyping up two hours of content for several straight months as an "Anniversary Expansion."  We got here the same way we almost always start in a good place and end up somewhere that nobody likes.  Someone pushes commonly accepted polite boundaries a little, gets away with it, and then the next person pushes them a little more.  Since there is no clear line in the sand that upsets everyone, eventually we end up in a place that almost everyone agrees is terrible.  But at that point it's too late to go back.**  

Overall Rise of Kunark added an entire new continent to EQ II (Kunark  in the lower right hand corner).  On argument I have seen floated for the disparity between modern expansions and expansions of this era is that new content was easier to make back then.  While I am sure that costs have gone up, I am extremely skeptical that's the primary explanation.  As an example, Rise of Kunark has a ton of new art assets and new geography, all of which were built by hand.  It also has an absurd  number of snippets of voice acting, and two versions of it.  One that is gibberish (before you can understand NPCs), and the other is all in English (for after you have deciphered the language of a given NPC race).  I can't find hard numbers for RoK, but EQ II launched with 130 hours of spoken dialogue (that's 5.4 straight days) recorded by 266 voice actors.  RoK is not something that a small team could have whipped up in a few months, it represents a substantial investment of resources in any era. It's also not as if EQ II has ever made insane amounts of money.  I firmly believe that MMO studios simply aren't folding as much of their income back into new content development as they used to in the 2000s.  

Over the years a lot of developers wanted to have all the hype and free press that comes with calling a new piece of content an expansion, without having to actually make an expansion.  But this whole thing isn't just their fault.  We the players have let MMO developers get away with calling smaller and smaller content updates expansions, so it was inevitable that they would keep pushing the trend.  In a way I can't be mad at SSG and Bioware for doing what almost anyone would be tempted to do in their shoes. The reason that this trend bothers me is not that I think the English language should never change.  Nor am I really upset over the semantic distinction between "expansion" and "content pack."  I am upset over the the implication that a lot of developers seem to think their players are na├»ve children that will believe anything they are told, all facts to the contrary.  "It's an Expansion, no really!"  

In 2007 SOE was afraid to call a mere week or two of content, Fallen Dynasty, an expansion.  In 2022 EA/ Bioware released a mid-sized content patch, called it an expansion***, and the thing that players got most upset about overall was the UI changes that came with it. Now that Bioware has seemingly gotten away with calling one evening of new content an expansion, I imagine other developers will feel free to do the same. We have now firmly reached the point where you can't believe anything a developer tells you about a content release until after it's out.  Now that's not exactly a new trend.  If I'm honest,  we've been here for a few years already.  For me Legacy of the Sith just happens to be a particularly absurd case-in-point from a developer I used to have a lot of affection for. 

*Not that they have the most amazing track record.  

**Edward J Watts has argued convincingly that this was how the Roman Republic fell.  However, I do not mean to imply that the inspiration for this whiny post is in any way comparable ;-)

***I think it's worth noting that Bioware claims that they will be steadily expanding their "expansion" over the course of the year.  Some commentators have even given them a bit of a pass on LoTS being so tiny based on that claim.  I'm no phone psychic, but I am skeptical.  If Bioware really was sitting on an ambitious planned release schedule for the rest of 2022, they would be pretty daft to have told us absolutely nothing about it after the backlash that LoTS got.  

Saturday, March 5, 2022

EQ II in 2022

Roughly a month ago I got going on EQ II again to research my last post in the series series on Erudite lore.  My highest character was only level 60, having just finished out Desert of Flames* the last time I was seriously playing.  My goal for this run is to play through the past mainline expansions of EQ II in the order that they were released.  To get a better feel for what they were like to play through back in the 2000s, instead of using a level boost (and I have at least several available)  I have been levelling my character the old fashioned way, one quest hub at a time.  

This is the main character I have been playing for the last month.  He is a level 75 tailor, 76 necromancer as I type this. He actually has a ton of much fancier mounts, but I have taken to this lizard mount that I got from one of the early quests in the Kingdom of the Sky expansions zones.

One thing that's always a challenge about picking up a mid-level character in a MMO you haven't looked at in years, is figuring out what all the abilities do.  Oddly, in this instance having forgotten some of the really basic controls turned out to be a boon. The first week I was playing I couldn't figure out how to activate more than one hotbar.  Instead I just made do with the one bar that was up by default.  That bar turned out to have a solid three-spell single-target attack rotation on it that was really easy to figure out.  Even when I figured out how to get my other hotbars up, abilities on the other four I had set up the last time I played turned out to be for less common situations like wanting to travel while invisible, or needing a strong AoE rotation. 

This is the crew he normally hangs out with. From left to right: (1) a nightshade pet that does absolutely absurd damage. I cast spells mainly to aim him at targets via assist. (2) another non combat pet that follows us around and keeps the whole party buffed, and perhaps debuffs mobs as well (I'm not 100% sure what he does). (3) A mercenary.  He costs me four gold an hour to keep running, which is nothing in the modern game.  He can tank entire groups of mobs and hits pretty hard, but probably doesn't even do half the damage of the nightshade.  

Another  initial difficulty I faced was that as I levelled I was  earning new abilities. That doesn't sound like a problem unless you know a bit about the game.  EQ II has an interesting character development system where every ability in the game can be upgraded.  When you gain a level all the new spells you can cast are granted to you at the lowest possible power level, Apprentice (LV1).  From there they can be upgraded to better and better versions, all the way through Ancient (LV7).  However, in practice Expert  (LV4) or Master (LV5) is more than strong enough for nearly any purpose. Regardless, I needed a strategy to upgrade all of the new abilities I was learning at Apprentice level.

This is the zone I have been adventuring in lately. Every one of the biomes you see there is functionally as large as a typical MMO zone, and this "zone" functions more like a region.  It's one of five zones that came with the third annual expansion for EQ II.  It's remarkable how much meatier expansions were back in 2007.  However, that's a whole post . . .

There are a number of different ways you can upgrade your abilities.  One method is to study them over time, using an upgrade menu built in to your spellbook.  You select a spell, and after a certain amount of real-time (outside of the game) passes it will get trained to the next level up.  In some ways it's like the way all skills work in EVE.  This method works really well at low levels, when an upgrade can take only a few hours.   However by level 60, this method starts to takes an inordinate amount of time.  I was getting a up to three new abilities every time I levelled, and taking one spell from Apprentice (LV1) to Journeman (LV2) takes about four or five days of real time training.  To upgrade even a single spell from even to Expert  (LV4) would take the better part of a month. That would obviously not be a viable strategy for dozens of spells. 

Flying through part of the snow area on a "taxi-cab"  NPC mount that makes navigating the zone faster.  DAoC did these first, but EQ II and WoW were really the games that popularized them.  They have since become nearly universal.

You can also pay Daybreak points to upgrade abilities instantly, but that soon becomes pretty expensive. To "instant upgrade" one spell to Expert would be about $10 at current conversion rates.  Books that can upgrade your spells to Adept (LV3) do drop randomly, but with so many classes and abilities the odds of you finding one yourself for any given spell are abysmally low.  Due to inflation I also didn't have anywhere near the platinum I would have needed to buy one on the auction house.  This left me in a bit of a bind.  Fortunately, my second highest level character was a level 40 sage, the crafting class that makes spell upgrades.  You can very easily get all your spells to Journeyman (LV2) with one, which is nothing to sneeze at when you need to upgrade 2-4 spells every other evening you play.  With the right recipes and ingredients, you can even get them up to Expert (LV4). 

Here is my support crafter, making scrolls at a scholar's table.  He is up to 77 sage, and provides spell upgrades for my main. Levelling a sage from 40 to the mid 70s actually turned out the be the most efficient way to get my Necromancer's spells a slight boost.  Most of the time I play this character, a crafting table in Neriak is where you will find him.

Crazily enough, the quickest way to upgrade all my spells turned out to be to gain 20 levels on my sage.  A nice side effect of this was that I got to see what it is like to play a pure crafter, as my sage class (now level 75) quickly outstripped my adventuring class (Warlock level 40).   I had never seen the game from the perspective of a pure crafter.  It's not quite as well done as in FFXIV, where you can essentially turn mob aggro off when you are playing a crafter.  However there are quite a few crafting quest chains, and levelling as a crafter alone is eminently doable.  Because of all this, I am seeing both the adventuring side and the crafting side of each past expansion as I go.  On the crafting side, I see things both from the perspective of a tailor (level 75 so far) that is also quite strong in a fight (level 75 Necromancer) and from the perspective of a crafter that has to run for his life if he gets any aggro at all.

EQ II has a really great gathering system, where any character can gather everything, you can harvest the same node up to three times, and can get up to 13 items per harvest (for a range of 6 to 29 per node).  This all keeps the price of crafting materials down in the in game economy, and means that one high level character can very easily keep every crafter on your account in supplies. The wood I am gather here will be used by my sage to make spell scrolls for this character.

Once I got my sea legs back, how was the actual game?  In 2022 terms, EQ II is showing its age in a lot of areas.  However, it is also remarkable how many things it does better than almost any other MMO on the market. For example, character advancement.  In most modern MMOs there are a lot of empty levels, where advancing yields absolutely nothing except for an increment of one for the number next to your name.  Levels where neither your gear or ability loadout changes at all feel especially anti-climatic.  In EQ II, every time you level you will gain at least one new ability, even if it's only an upgrade of one you already have.  It also grants you the base level of all your new spells without having to hit a trainer, so if you are out in the middle of nowhere and gain a level it still feels immediately rewarding.  Finally, the myriad paths for upgrading abilities from the base power level gives the whole experience some real meat to dig into.  I have really enjoyed levelling my support crafter, and checking the auction house for bargains on the tomes that let me produce expert level spells for my main.

Very often, the best way to navigate the absurdly large zones is to turn invisible and sneak past all the mobs.  I don't know if every character can do this, but all of the cloth casters get an invisibility spell. The spell also affects my nightshade, and the other pet does not generate aggro.  My mercenary had to be dismissed before I could cross the river into hostile territory, since I have no way to make him stealthy.

The housing and crafting systems are also well above average. Crafting is not remotely hard, but it does have just enough interaction to it that you feel like you are really making something.   The items that you can make are also quite useful.  I already talked about needing to level up a support sage for my necromancer.  The necromancer is also a tailor.  Roughly every ten levels new sets of crafted gear  become available.  They are not quite as good as the gear that you will get questing.  But you can replace an entire set all at once.  For example at level 60 I immediately replaced all of my armor with crafted gear that was a huge upgrade.  By level 69 I had replaced all of it with gear from quests.  But a that gear was only a few points stronger than what I had crafted, and I couldn't even wear a lot of it until the high 60s.  It makes you happy to be able to craft, while still leaving a little bit of room for improvement so that you will also be happy with many quest rewards.  EQ II often splits the difference between competing design goals with unusual skill.

Even on my pure crafter, I need to leave the crafting hall occasionally to pick up crafting quests.  The gnome that no longer has a feather started a long chain that netted me three or four crafting levels, but involved a lot of flying around on gnomish airships.  EQ II was the first MMO I know of to offer full series of quests for crafters parallel to the ones for adventurers, and it's still fairly uncommon.   

The housing system is likewise really easy to understand, while still giving you tons of flexibility.  Unlike many modern MMOs, it doesn't force you to use hook points, you place place items anywhere you like.  It also largely lacks arbitrary limits on what you can place.  For example, in my apartment in ESO I found that by the time I had filled roughly half the space it looked like I had, my one bedroom apartment was "full" and I could place no more items.  Almost certainly the system in ESO is designed to get you to buy a bigger house in the item shop.  The housing system in EQ II will let you do pretty much anything you want right from the start.  The cheapest house you can buy has space for 200 objects, and a lot of items you can place are considered decorations and don't count towards that limit. 

My Sage on the mount he uses when he needs to actually leave Neriak. I think it came as a bonus with some expansion, or maybe a collector's edition, back in the day.

So many of the systems in EQ II are simply really solid.  You can tell that EQ II was designed by people that have played a lot of other MMOs, and know what works well and why.  I honestly can't think of anything else I have played recently that doesn't fall completely on it's face with respect to at least one core PvE system: combat, crafting, housing, character advancement.  For example, among all of the big five at least one of these things is true: (1) combat is way too easy or actively annoying to me, (2) crafting is completely pointless, (3) either there is no housing or the housing is way too restrictive, (4) gaining a level often does not change your character in any meaningful way.  I am not sure I would say EQ II exactly knocks any of this stuff out of the park.  But all of them work really well, and skillfully split the difference between conflicting design goals.  

This ghost wolf thing was hanging out on one of the adventuring zones I played through last week.  I have no idea what his purpose is, no quests directed me to interact with him.  As with nearly any older MMO, I often encounter things that are a bit mysterious to me.

The game isn't perfect of course.  The graphics are often dated, though for a game that game out in 2005 and tried for hyper realism they are also better than you would expect.  It has so many systems that it's often hard to get your bearings.  For example, I've been playing for a month and I still don't know what familiars are about, how to get one or exactly what they do.  The game itself is also often hard to navigate. When you finish questing in one area, it's sometimes next to impossible to figure out where to go next without consulting a guide.  Quests are often also quite old-school.  In some zones there are no in game markers, and the written instructions on the quests are vague.  You will often get stuck and need to consult a wiki. However, to my tastes these are mostly nitpicks.  I like exploring, and all that "cruft" that's accreted over the years actually gives me a lot to dig into.  I even like that I can pick whether to work through a zone that holds my hand with quest blobs on the map, or head to an older one where I will actually have to explore. 

My character's tiny apartment.  This is one of the cheapest ones you can get, and it allows you to place more than 200 objects anywhere you like.  The housing items also have a lot of neat little details.  For example, the books on the table on the left are individual books, any of which you can pick up and read.

If you can get past the slightly dated graphics and gameplay that is at times arcane, you will find a real gem of an MMO with months of content in every direction.  The core systems, when you finally understand them, are also really well designed.   "None of the core systems are completely broken" is so rare in modern MMOs** that it's practically a revelation. That this is true of a game that came out nearly 20 years ago, but not of so many more modern MMOs with budgets comparable to 100 EQ IIs is absolutely baffling.  

*Desert of Flames was the game's first expansion, released in September 2005.

**FFXIV perhaps excepted, and even there you have the issue where advancing a level often has almost no affect on  your character. 

Saturday, February 12, 2022

The future of LoTRO

Via Massively, the video game rights to the Lord of the Rings owned by the  Paul Zaentz Company are going up for auction.  This is the company that licensed Lord of the Rings to Standing Stone Games.  Unfortunately, I doubt that bodes well for Lord of the Rings Online. A MMO is simply too obvious of a game to make with the license.  I find it hard to believe that any company would acquire the rights and not at least contemplate creating a new one of their own, and there is a good chance that LoTRO would be seen as unwanted competition.

That isn't to say LoTRO would be in real competition with any new MMO.  A new MMO, Tolkien themed metaverse, online survival RPG or whatever would likely have little in common with Lord of The Rings Online save the names of characters and places.  LoTRO is a sprawling old school MMO with a lot of design elements that are clunky and quant by modern standards.  It's a deep game that focuses on accurately reproducing Middle Earth from the books as a core design goal, and executes on it amazingly well.  In many ways, the development priority of the game is seemingly (1) accurately portray the setting (2) anything else, including compelling gameplay loops.  However, for a certain bent of player that is delightful.  

Walking around in such a well realized depiction of the books is so inherently fun to me that I honestly don't care that the gameplay set there is sometimes a bit crusty.  In some ways, that even adds to the charm.  I like harvesting wood for hours, and then sitting in a crafting hall processing logs into boards.  I like all the quests in the Shire where you are asked do do some of the most inane quests imaginable (deliver pies!).  I think it's awesome when I arrive at some new village where, despite having saved Middle Earth more than once, no-one has never heard of me and a farmer asks me if I can help him round up farming equipment.  The admixture of big story arcs where you are an important hero and more mundane sets of concerns makes the setting feel more grounded and real to me.  The very things that turn off a lot of new players in LoTRO are some of  the exact gameplay elements I find charming.  Hell, my first post here that anyone actually read was basically about that.

Whatever new game gets cooked up by Amazon, EA, Microsoft or whoever ends up buying the Lord of the Rings license will almost certainly invert those priorities.  The priorities won't be "get the setting right first, everything else second." The studio assigned to create a new Lord of the Rings RPG or MMO will likely start by thinking about gameplay and systems, and then shoehorn the game they want to create into the setting of Middle Earth.  Because of that the game won't actually resemble LoTRO all that much, and the two games will not really be competing for the same audience in a significant way.  LoTRO and whatever new MMOish product gets released in the next few years could quite happily coexists.

However, much like EA, SWTOR and Star Wars Galaxies, I don't expect that will matter much.  Back in 2011 SWG was shuttered right before EA's new Star Wars MMO, Star Wars: the Old Republic, came online, despite the games having very little potential audience overlap.  That is not to say that the shut down was caused directly by EA.  The game had already shot itself in the foot long before EA bought Bioware.  You can find a lot of post mortems about how the "New Game Experience" doomed SWG by chasing off the existing audience in the hopes of attracting a different audience that never materialized. I don't debate that, the NGE was the first step on the road to doom for sure.*  However back in 2011 I also heard rumors that the final nail in the coffin of SWG was that SOE was not willing to pay for the license any more, and didn't even try to negotiate to keep the game going once EA and Bioware started working on SWTOR.  SOE would have had trouble even breaking even if they had needed to keep paying for the license, the price of which presumably went up once EA acquired the video game rights to Star Wars.

I fully expect the exact same thing to happen with SSG and LoTRO.  LoTRO will be safe for at least a few more years while the agreement that Standing Stone Games has right now with Zaentz still holds.  However, I will be moderately surprised if SSG (or Endad Global 7)  is able to afford to keep the license whenever it come up for renewal.  Whatever company ends up paying north of 2 billion for the Lord of the Rings License is going to be pretty jealous of it.  Even if that company is willing to let LoTRO keep going in principle, which seems somewhat unlikely to begin with, they will almost certainly want to charge a lot more for the Lord of the Rings license than SSG can afford.  LoTRO is solidly successful niche title, reportedly bringing in about 10 million a year.  However, a company that pays 2 billion for the license to Lord of the Rings is not going to happy with less than pretty much all of that in licensing fees. 

That said, the example of SWG also offers a ray of hope.  Pretty much from the NGE on, attempts to emulate Star Wars Galaxies began.  Once SOE shuttered the game a flood of projects got underway and existing teams redoubled their efforts.  The end result was in subsequent years a number of EMUs came online, some of which are thriving.  For fans of the original Star Wars Galaxies we have arguably entered a golden era with numerous successful variants of the game available to play 100% for free.  Some shards of the game are now arguably better supported than the commercial game was the last few years SOE was running it, with EMUs even developing and releasing new content. 

So will LotRO be able to follow the EMU route if SSG/ EG7 loses the license?   It's hard to say. I'm frankly astounded that Disney has let all the unauthorized SWG servers keep going as long as it has.  I am also skeptical that Amazon, EA or Microsoft would be as benevolent towards unauthorized LotRO shards.  However, I could also easily be wrong.  So far I can't think of a single major fan server that has been shut down by anyone besides Blizzard.  Servers for COH, WAR, and SWG are some of the more visible examples of shuttered MMOs you can play for free now, and at least one (the EQ server Project 1999) is actually officially sanctioned by Daybreak.  So perhaps it's not too farfetched to think that if SSG loses the rights it needs to keep LotRO going, a series of  semi-legal free shards will be able to launch.  In that ecosystem I can think of a lot of cool variants of the game that could spring up.  Another strong possibility is that SSG has a lot more clever agreement with the Zaentz Company than anyone outside SSG knows, and they have the option to renew once or twice at their current price.  

Regardless, we'll see how it works out the in next few years.  Commentators including myself have been saying for a while now that LoTRO needs to shake things up.  One way or another, that seems likely to happen soon.

*Or maybe not, see the discussion in the comments :-)

Friday, January 21, 2022

History of the Erudites Part II: Everquest

At one time it was possible to follow the cultural and physical evolution of the races of Everquest across three games, EQOA set 500 years before EQ, EQ and EQ II which is set 500 years after EQ.  For most races there weren't particularly interesting changes from one game to the next, most of the changes relating to the quality of the character models available.  However in the erudites we can witness a profound set of physical changes as the race is slowly altered by their close association with magic.  There are also dramatic shifts the Erudite society during the 1000 years the games cover.  You can find Part I of this series here.

Erudites in the time of Everquest: civil war and the first cataclysm 

In the time of Everquest, we see the first clear signs that magical experiments are beginning to alter erudites on a genetic level.  While they still have hair, they gained noticeably larger foreheads than even the most naturally "five headed" of normal humans.  Presumably this reflects their brains beginning to expand, as their high starting intelligence (compared to most races in Everquest) begins to be due not only differences in cultural traditions and educational systems, but also differences in physical characteristics.   Always a tall and thin race of men, they are now starting to look not just regal but also a bit alien with their bulging craniums.

Erudites from the character selection screen in EQ.  Tall humans that are slender and dark skinned.  In this time period they are still fairly normal looking humans, save for their greatly expanded craniums.

In EQOA, high men started in the city of Highbourne, a city along the coast of Tunaria south of Quenyos.  The city seems to have been completely abandoned by the time of EQ.  It may have been somewhere in the modern Southern Plains of Karana, or it may have been swallowed when the much smaller lake Rathe, that appears on maps of EQOA , expanded into modern Lake Rathetear. However, the most interesting change since the time of EQOA is that there is now been a rift between the erudites that study most forms of magic and those that study necromancy.  

The part of their brains that seems to have expanded to most is the cerebrum, associated with higher brain functions such as reasoning, language and learning.  The 500 year gap that separates EQOA and EQ is not nearly long enough to have wrought such dramatic changes via organic evolution, representing perhaps 30 or 35 generations.  We can only assume that this rapid evolution represents the influence of magic, something that will become even more clear 500 years hence when we revisit erudites in the time of EQ II.

In the time of EQOA, players that studied all forms of magic lived in the same settlements.  The fact that one of the main NPCs that necromancers interact with in Highbourne at higher levels was a little hidden away hints that this may have been a somewhat uneasy alliance.  Nonetheless, High Men of all faiths and professions were still working towards common goals, and were part of the great crossing when the race began its migration to Odus from the mainland of Tunaria.   The settlement they founded on Odus, originally Arcadin, was renamed Erudin some time after the great leader Erud died.  During the time period of EQ this elegant city is where most erudites can be found, and where players of erudite Wizards, Enchanters, Magicians, Paladins and Clerics of most gods start.

Erudin, where erudites of most classes used to start.  An elegant city reflecting an enlightened people. Of course now mebers of all races and classes start in the neutral city of Crescent Reach by default.

However, players that choose to play a Necromancer, a Shadowknight, or a Cleric that worships Cazic-Thule are no longer welcome in Erudin with their brethren.  Instead they start in the city of Paineel or in the neutral city of Crescent Reach.  In fact, players from Paineel are so despised by other erudites that they are kill-on-sight to guards in Erudin.  This is also where the erudite lore starts to get really interesting.  According to multiple sources, the founding of Paineel was related to a civil war caused by erudites that recklessly pursued necromantic magic. 

The ruins of old Paineel.  Paineel is the city where erudite necromancers and shadowkights used to start.  I assume these are the ruins of an older settlement beneath the city.  I ended up here after trying to jump down to the city proper from the edge of the Hole.  Since the character I was taking screenshots with is not friendly enough with the local guards, none of them were willing to give him a copy of the key to the secret elevator leading there from Toxxulia Forest.  Getting around in EQ is often the opposite of convenient. Everquest is a game that still flies its oldschool MUD roots proudly, which I actually find delightful when I'm in the right mood for it.

The story (which you  read more of here) goes that an Erudite named Miragul was obsessed with dark magic and personal power.  Followers of Miragul visited the Dark Elf city of Neriak, and returned with knowledge of both necromancy and the god Cazic-Thule (the god of fear).  Miragul's followers concluded that Cazic-Thule was the strongest god, and the best way to serve him was through necromancy. When the high council of Erudin  discovered what they had been up to, it led to a civil war.  The followers of the high council  eventually won the war to all intents and purposes with a blast of magical power focused on the largest concentration of forces in Miragul's army.  So great was the power of this blast that it ejected part of Odus into space.*  Miragul's followers were presumed killed by the victorious inhabitants of Erudin.  However a few survived and founded a new hidden city, Paineel, deep within the crater created by the blast.  There they can be found to this day, in a city populated by more animated skeletal servants and guards than by live erudites.

 I find this story really fascinating, because I know that it isn't true. . . or is at least extremely misleading.  I have been to the past (EQOA), during the time of the great crossing.  At the time erudites already had a long history of necromancy, and necromancers worked alongside practitioners of every magical tradition.  Erud himself embraced followers studying all forms of magic, including necromancy, and worshipping any gods.  In the screenshot of him for my previous post, if I remember correctly I was even talking to him while playing a Shadowknight!  So what really happened? 

The famed library of Erud.  According to several sources, it is the largest and most famous library in all of Norrath, It's filled with merchants selling spells, and I presume in the launch era used to have one of the better selections available anywhere.  In the modern game, this function has been supplanted by the Plane of Knowledge.

I suspect that it was not the followers of Miragul that caused the rift, but an intolerant high council of Erudin that tried to outlaw necromancy, holding that only elemental, arcane and holy magic was fit for civilized society.  When erudite Shadowknights and Necromancers tried to protest these changes, their calls fell on deaf ears.  The eventual result was a civil war and a cataclysm.  

The cataclysm itself was probably the nearly inevitable result of a war between arcane and necromantic spellcasters.  Presumably in any prolonged conflict with necromancers, things soon start to go quite badly for the opposition.  Anyone that falls and leaves a body in either army during the fighting is raised from the dead and added to the ranks of the necromancers.  Perhaps desperate to end the battle in a way that wouldn't leave even more fodder for undead soldiers, the followers of the high council of Erudin resorted to a concentrated blast of pure magic.  However, they seem to have underestimated the power they harnessed, nearly cracking the planet asunder.  The explosion left an enormous crater, and the dust thrown up probably caused a period of global cooling (similar to volcanic winters) and famine from failed crops across Norrath.  Ironically, it was the practitioners of arcane magic that nearly destroyed all life on Norrath during the conflict, not the "evil" necromancers.

From the entrance of the crater leading to Paineel, you can see this intriguing structure separated from you across a chasm.  I am not sure whether it's part of Paineel or something else.  The crater formed by destructive magic during the erudite civil war is referred to as the Hole, though this chasm is only part of it (most of it, the Hole proper, is a zone connected to this one).

The story of Miragul's followers sneaking off to learn about necromancy from the sadistic Dark Elves is probably just propaganda written by the victors after the war.  But clearly there was a change in policy towards necromancy at some point.  So why the sudden change after hundreds of years of coexistence between all schools of magic in Highborn, Arcadin and later Erudin? Perhaps the followers of  Quellious, the goddess of peace, decided that they could no longer coexist beside followers of Cazic Thule.  Or perhaps the association between necromancy and sadistic and brutish races such as dark elves, ogres and trolls became an embarrassment to some faction that sought a closer relationship with students of arcane magic among the High Elves.  Or perhaps the followers of Miragul truly did do something abhorrent that triggered the war.  We will likely never know what really happened, since history is written by the victors and in this case they seem to be lying. 

A brand new level 2 Erudite Mage in the tutorial area, with his pet and a free mercenary (the later makes the modern game a lot easier solo experience than it was a decade ago). Erudites were always one of my favorite races for Magicians. They have high Int, so a deep mana pool, and they learn magical skills extremely quickly.  Of course in the modern game starting stats make little difference, because even a Troll or an Ogre is going to have capped Int. by the ripe old age of level 19 or so if they focus on it. However, at least in places like Project 1999 I would imagine it's still a consideration.

Regardless, by the time of EQ, the story of the evil Miragul and his followers causing the great war has become broadly accepted as truth.  Even the erudites that live in Paineel seem to believe it, and to revel in the fact that despite the best efforts of powerful foes they survived the cataclysm and have prospered in their own way.  However the test of erudite resilience is far from over.  Though the cataclysm was dramatic, even that planet shaking event will pale before the next disaster that erudites will contribute to.  

My next and final post in this series will be about erudites in the time of EQ II, 500 years in the future.  I originally was going to cover EQ and EQ II in this one.  However after I got done typing up the absolute bare minimum I wanted to say about erudites in the time of EQ, I had a full blog post. 

*This chunk of Odus it landed on Luclin carrying some Kerrans, a race of feline humanoids that lived on Odus before the high men arrived.  The descendants of these Kerrans later evolved into the Vah Shir.  Of course this is a vast oversimplification.  To read about what really happened to the Kerrans and the history of Erudite colonialism, see the first comment below from Bhagpuss.


Thursday, January 13, 2022

History of the Erudite Race I: Everquest Online Adventures

The Erudites are a humanoid race in the Everquest series of games.  It's actually one of the more original races in the game, with no direct analogues in fantasy fiction I am aware of, though they did borrow somewhat from Tolkien's Dunedain. By traveling through Everquest Online Adventures, Everquest, and Everquest II it once was possible to witness their evolution first hand, as they gradually evolved from regal but normal looking humans to a hairless and somewhat alien looking race. EQOA is no longer with us, but I took a bunch of screenshots of it the last few days it was up.*  And so I present the first post in a planned series on the history of Erudites across three games.

Erudites in the time of Everquest Online Adventures: the High Men

EQOA was set 500 years before the original EQ.  Several things were noticeably different.  For example the wood elves and high elves had not yet diverged into separate races, and many bits of geography mentioned only in lore in EQ were still around to be visited. Perhaps the most noticeable difference was the erudites. 

Male and Female Erudites from the character creation screen of EQOA. While they have prominent foreheads, they also still appear quite human
  
Originally the Erudites of all professions lived together in one city, Highbourne, on the same continent as the other human cities, south of Quenyos on the coast.  They also referred to themselves as "High Men."  Though taller, thinner and darker skinned than most humans, they didn't really appear to be a distinct race from human at this time (at least not the the same degree as barbarians and humans, for example). If you looked around  Highbourne, you could stumble across this mysterious figure in a shrine: 

Duke Morthalis, a mysterious NPC in a part of the city of Highbourne that only Necromancers and Shadowknights were likely to go to.

I assume he granted class quests to erudite necromancers at higher levels than I ever made it to.  However, the presence of this somewhat secret NPC hinted at the rift that was to divide the erudite race in the future.  When EQOA first came out, high men were confined to the mainland.  However, if you went to the shore you could find boatbuilders talking about preparations for founding a new colony in lands to the west, over the sea. 

This stone greeted you when you first traveled to the new colony of Erudites, founded on the island of Odus.

The new landmass, the Island of Odus, was added with the first and only EQOA expansion: Frontiers. Erud was the leader of the high men in the time of EQOA.  The stretch of sea in between the mainland and Odus is referred to as Erud's Crossing in some later maps. Erud founded a colony on the island,  which he named Arcadin.  However, some time after his death the name of the city that sprung up from it was changed to Erudin in his honor.  Erud had such a profound impact on the cultural development of high men that members of the race were generally known as Erudites in later years, regardless of whether they lived in Erudin proper or other parts of Norrath. 

Erud, for whom the Erudites (i.e., followers of Erud) are named.

In the time of EQOA, you could talk to Erud by travelling to Arcadin.  If you had played the original Everquest, it was kind of that fantasy equivalent of getting to chat with George Washington.  When you talked to him, Erud gave the following speech:**

Behold you bear witness to the founding of Arcadin!

[Response: " What is Arcadin exactly?]

Now it is but a humble beginning, stone and wood slowly being fitted together to reveal the shadow of what is to come.  I have envisioned a great metropolis, one that will span for miles across the land and stretch upwards to the heavens.  It is here that we will give birth to the epicenter of enlightenment,  arcane mastery and discipline, and prosperity in peace. 

Enlightenment, prosperity, and peace. The are the elements upon which Arcadin is founded and destined to uphold.  And not just the people of Highbourne shall bask in the glory of this place. Nay, for this is our gift to the world. All beings who share a thirst for enlightenment and bear within their souls the pursuit of peace and mortal righteousness . . . it is them who are welcome as friend and citizen. She will hold them dear, for it is they who are her lifeblood and her pulse. 

This is my vision, this is our intent and it will be done for no being stands above the cause . . .And none who strive in parallel of her goal . . be them high man, elf, dwarf or man . . are beyond her reach.

As NPC speeches went in EQOA it was a heck of a long one.  For any kind of Everquest lore grognard, the whole encounter was also a guaranteed nerdgasm.  

High men had the highest starting Intelligence of any race in the EQOA. Intelligence determined the size your mana pool, and I believe also affected the chances that mobs would resist your spells.  Oddly, dexterity determined how much damage spells did.  Regardless, the high starting Int. made high men a good choice for wizards, magicians, necromancers and enchanters. They were also an interesting choice for a Shadowknight, the racial option that yielded the strongest possible spellcasting ability for the class.  

Magic was central to the culture of high men, an association so intimate that it eventually began to affect their physical evolution. High men were very much a neutral race in the time of EQOA, fully embracing all forms of magic. Practitioners of elemental magic, enchantments and illusions, as well as both holy and death magic, all lived together in several communities in western Norrath.  However, what started as different areas of intellectual interest soon became philosophical differences, and later led to real conflicts.  Eventually followers of the necromantic arts were banished from Erudin entirely.  
 
My next planned post is on Erudites, as the high men came to be known,  in the time of Everquest.  Though given my current spare time quota, I can't put a timetable on it!

*Apologies for the quality of these "screenshots", they are actually photos of my old CRT television.

**Yes, I did sit in front of my TV and transcribe the speech word for word.