Thursday, January 16, 2020

Levels

Warning: A big rant without much of a point. Buckle up.

Oh levels. You old buddy. You old pal. You old so-and-so. Always around. No MMO feels complete without you. Even if we aren't always sure why you're here. But we're always chasing after another one of you.

Levels are on the mind. Everquest 2 increased it's by ten levels, even if they go by so quick as to make one wonder why. World of Warcraft Retail will be undergoing it's customary reinvention of the wheel by crunching theirs down to 60 again. Black Desert Mobile has them, and yet a gear score-esque number called Combat Power seems to be the vastly more important number to raise. As I'm leveling a necromancer through EQ2, the most exciting power gains seem to come from Alternate Advancements, not levels.

I've never cared less about levels. It's a thing I've done, leveling. I've gained all sorts of levels. I'm gaining levels in genres that aren't even RPGs. I'm getting meta levels; I'm now level 8 on my PlayStation trophy thing. A spam email wants me to 'level up life' with some of their dick pills. I think my bank account has levels now.

D&D had them and thus forever it will be. But levels signified actual meaning in D&D (at least all the versions I played). Level 1 said something about your character. Level 5 and things start getting interesting. A level 20 is nearing the power of a small God.

But levels in MMOs are in a weird place. Battle for Azeroth had the inexplicable power downgrade from levels 110 to 120 because of content scaling. But that's in addition to standard new expansion leveling paradox, a fresh level 120 feels like a peon relative to a fully Antorus raid-geared 110. We go from punching out Cthulhu and his minions to being mauled by random wildlife.

We pay to bypass levels. DC Universe Online is giving away a max-level character to everyone for its own birthday. Mobile games include a button to let the AI level for you.

It's turned levels into a frivolous, meaningless thing. Which, granted, levels were always mostly a frivolous, meaningless thing. But it was a thing you could attach a meaning to. A level 60 in WoW was an impressive feat for a long time. Now max level is just the standard. Get to max level so you can increase your item Level instead.

It's an arms race by every MMO to shortcut it's own design. Playing Black Desert Mobile is just a constant stream of scrolling text, flashing buttons, and layered game mechanics all trying to shove as many Skinner boxes in front of your eyes as your 3.5 inch screen can handle. I have no idea what level my character is in Black Desert Mobile, and the game doesn't seem interested in making me care either.

It's gotten to the point where it's now difficult to walk into a MMO, new or old, fresh to me or an old favorite, and figure out which of the billion numbers on my UI matters. Hearing the old school Everquest ding was the ultimate dopamine rush, now it's just part of the game's background noise.

I know this is a rant, but I miss every level mattering. WoW Classic brought this feeling back for me. It was fundamentally built from the ground up to make a level gained feel like a level earned. At worst you got a talent point to be chucked into a meh passive. At best you got new skills or an increase in movement speed. But they did feel like they all mattered. I don't think it was 100% the novelty of it all. I had played plenty of RPGs before before WoW, and I've played plenty since.

EQ2 used to be the same as well. You didn't even get your proper class until level 20. You were a commoner until level 10. The game had its unpleasantness back then but the levels did matter. I've talked with someone who gained nearly 2 levels just on zoning into the new expansion. Why bother raising the level cap at that point? If were going to have a system of progression, let's actually make it feel like progression. Not every game needs to be a grind, but the number going up really ought to mean something.

It's complicated. How an MMO handles levels is indicative to the dev's overall strategy on a number of fronts: player retention, new player attraction, power scaling, how to sell new expansions, etc. But I'm advocating making levels a little bit more important than just a bullet point on a game's Steam page. I'm asking to bring back the journey to the top level and to make reaching max level mean something special again. Maybe the answer is a level crunch. Maybe it's more progression servers. Maybe meaningful levels are just a relic.

I keep a bell on my desk. I've had it for well over a decade now. I hit it everytime I gain a level. As I was leveling through the Freeport sewers yesterday I didn't remember to hit it once. Give me my dings back, dammit!

Friday, January 10, 2020

Everquesting and Racing

I've not had a blog post in a while, apparently the holidays had discombobulated me more than I expected. It also affected my dog a fair bit as well.


Herberta S. Everwake is my spirit animal.

But since getting back home,  I've found myself in a bit of gaming bliss. Normally around this time I begin to get burned out on video games. I've feasted on the glut of Black Friday and Steam sales and start looking towards other hobbies. But I've been playing a ridiculous amount of Everquest 2 lately.

Sadly, I've dropped the Let's Play series I was blogging because frankly it was too much work. Getting linked on Massively was cool but the constant start and stop of taking screenshots and translating the in-game story line into something bloggable was becoming a drag.

I'm playing EQ2 freely now and enjoying myself. Dusting off my main and getting her ready for the recently released expansion is simply too daunting. I've done a small bit of the last several expansions and literally don't know where to pick things back up again. The new expansion seems to have perquisite quests from all these different quest lines and putting it all together is more paperwork than I prefer in my games. Crafting wise I think I'm current up through Terrors of Thalumbra? That was the last expansion I actually remember buying but who knows. Sometimes it would be nice to have a little direction in Norrath.

But that's besides the point, I'm enjoying playing my lowbie Necromancer. I'm currently killing my way through the Commonlands, having completed the Freeport Outlying areas that I've never done before. I've also been decorating up the Isle of Refuge prestige house I got as a Veteran's Reward. Placing objects in an actual zone is a lot of fun; it almost feels like I breaking something or I'm playing with the same tools the dev team gets. Dungeon Maker or whatever it's called also felt a lot like that, but that feature has been functionally dead for some time now.

Sometimes I get into a gaming rut because I'm not really playing the correct game for what mood I'm in. EQ2 is great for a more relaxed, beginning or end of the day kind of thing. But I also want a faster paced game to pour some excess energy into. Since I have more money than sense I decided against simply playing any one of the many action games in my Steam backlog, and bought a racing wheel instead.






I struggled to find a desk that would work with the clamp system the wheel uses to stabilize itself. We did have one desk that worked. Unfortunately, it's my wife's desk for her desktop computer, so this is going to have to be a temporary setup. I'm playing Project Cars 2 right now and having a lot of fun.

What appeals to me in racing games is really the same thing that appeals to me in MMOs: small, constant, and measurable increases in ability. While just about every game has borrowed progression systems from RPGs these days, I'm talking about the core gameplay loop. The thing that drives me in a good MMO is getting just a little bit better at playing a more and more capable character as I go through content that gradually challenges my abilities. That's exactly the same gameplay loop as a racing sim. Starting with low power, easy handing cars and shaving seconds off of lap times, and then graduating to higher power and harder to control cars and shaving tenths of a second off of lap times. If only we could combine these two genres! My money to whomever can make me a wizard in a go-kart.

While a lot of games theoretically feature that same gameplay loop, I feel many games obfuscate it with a bunch of stuff I don't super care about. Cut scenes, open world markers, overly long tutorials, etc. I just want to do a thing until I'm good at it, and then do another slightly harder thing until I'm good at it, and so on. Every game used to do this, if for no other reason than there wasn't enough physical room on the cartridge or CD to do anything else. I don't want to sound like a boomer about it, there are times when I want fluff in my games. But what I want is what I want, and EQ2 and racing sims are my current preferred flavor of that right now.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

First Impression: Mirage Online


I'm in an experimental mood today, so I decided to sort through the various tags on Steam to look at what's come out the last month or so for MMOs.

Mirage Online Classic implies some sort of lineage that I am wholly unfamiliar with. If there is a Mirage Online Current I can't find it in a Google search. In fact, I'm having difficulty finding much of anything about it with a Google search. There's a very basic official website, a Youtube with a couple of short gameplay videos, and not much else. It seems to be a HTML5 game as I can play it either in a browser or in the standalone client downloaded from Steam. It must also be a mobile game as you can toggle to mobile controls in the game itself.

Character creation is bare bones at this point.



You get to pick a name, a gender, and a drop down list of Professions. The professions seem to have access to different spells, according to this chart on the official website. As far as I know, space bar is the only way to attack. There is an inventory slot for spells so I presume each class can pick up appropriate spell books. In the first hour or so of playing I didn't find any.

The game starts of linearly enough. It plays from a top-down perspective and control uses the traditional WASD keys. Spacebar attacks and E picks up items. Shift is a toggle for running. I don't believe there is anything to the controls other than that. 


The game gives you some starter items, asks you to kill a bunny and then teleports you off to the first town. A message in your chatbox sends you to the local well, where you navigate a simple maze to the end. You kill rats along the way that don't fight back and slowly accumulate gold and XP. The end of the maze gives you a full set of starter gear and dumps you to the beginning of the next quest.


I chose to navigate the overworld a bit and got some King's Quest vibes from the art style. I saw the idling of what could have been other players or NPCs, I'm not sure. The chat log showed about 25 players on when I logged in. Chat was busy enough. Exploring done, I descended into the sewers to take out a sewer dragon. It was slightly more complicated maze, this time with snakes and a bad guy who was a carbon copy of my character. Finally we made it to the sewer dragon.


The first time I faced him I died. In hindsight, tanking and spanking a dragon as a mage was a poor choice. On my second attempt I realized that kiting was possible in this game. The floor would occasionally give off a puff of smoke, and I needed to move to avoid the incoming flames. The dragon eventually went down and I was immediately teleported to a room in the overworld with bags of gold and health potions.

Unfortunately, I'm now stuck. Whereas the two previous quests were simply handed to me on screen or in my chat log, what I need to do from here on out is obscured. Supposedly, on certain maps, a UI button will light up to let me know there is a quest in the area. But that button never lit up. Chat seemed just as confused as I was. The official website gives a list of quests so I tried to follow that. I found the next 'boss' (after confusingly needing to teleport into some boxes) and tried to manually complete the nonexistent quest anyhow. Unfortunately, most of my attacks missed and the boss couldn't do enough damage to me when I'm kiting to outpace my innate healing. I got bored and closed the game.

The game isn't actually listed as Early Access on Steam, although the official website calls each update a beta release. It's fun to get in on the ground floor of a game sometimes, but it seems like I'm about to be asked to do quite a bit of grinding right from the get go. After dealing with Ultima Online last month, I'm not sure if I'm really down for that.

I do love the aesthetic and simplicity though. I reminds me of the simple flash and downloadable games I would gravitate to in my teenage years because of our tepid 28k modem connection. The game makes me want to give Realm of the Mad God a spin again. I'm not sure I'll give this one too much more play for the moment. But it's free to play and takes up virtually no hard drive space. No reason not to keep an eye on it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

New Year, New Me and Some Thoughts About Black Desert Mobile

New Year, New Me

No not really. I have survived the holidays as tired and grumpy as I always am. Overall, a good time was had in between two brutal 20 hour car rides. Major props to Everdog, who handled all that traveling with minimal complaint. She's earned all her treats for the year.

I have no interest in doing a year retrospective or even New Years resolutions. I've read enough of those in the past two weeks and I suspect so have you.

My MMO play was limited over the holidays to Black Desert Mobile. I had written before the break that I found BDM surprisingly enjoyable on my desktop. Granted, that wasn't as a full-fledged distraction, but as something to click on in the background while doing other digital chores.

I found playing on the cell phone to be a similar experience. The game proved to be a nice thing to do with my hands during the downtime between lunches and diners and trips to the mall. There is always something to do; a fact that I found to be both a plus and a minus. There are just systems packed on systems and progression interwoven with progression that it all becomes very overwhelming. The game does fill your screen with alerts on what you can be doing, but after a while it feels like you are just blindly following prompts and watching various numbers go up.

There's also limited combat gameplay. Questing and battling in BDM can be automated and I found that the only viable way to play on my phone. I'm simply too clumsy or ogre-handed to reliably deal with the controls on touch device games. So my gameplay experience is mostly of a management sim. Handle my character's camp with its upgradeable buildings and workers who can be sent out to gather or other various tasks. Redeem all of my "Boss Rush" stamps and have the game clearing those. Keep you inventory from overflowing by discarding unused equipment to upgrading your familiar. Use your black stones and skill books to constantly upgrade your gear and abilities. And try to get some overworld leveling done in between all of that.

I'd argue that it plays closer to a Tycoon game than a hotbar MMO. At the end of the day, BDM serves it's purpose. It's a casual distraction. It has a niche in my life for now but I think I'll continue to rely on Everquest 2 for scratching that traditional MMO itch.

On a final, non-MMO note. My family introduced me to an arcade that had recently popped up in their area. It took over the first floor of the old Sears in the local mall. It had the carnival games to earn tickets like the basketball hoops and skee-ball. It also had dedicated fighting game systems, racing games, and lots of rhythm games. Playing an Initial D machine co-op with Mrs. Everwake was a very enjoyable time. She got to try a legit Miku Hatsune arcade game out in the wild.

More importantly, I got to relive the high school days with a Dance Dance Revolution machine that I was able to squeeze 13 or so songs on in a row. I would have done more but I literally didn't have the stamina to continue on. Now I'm shopping for a USB DDR-pad online. If anybody has any leads to reliable controllers that are compatible with Step Mania please let me know.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Secret Blogging Santa

Who doesn't love a good Secret Santa exchange? Ellen at Livid Lightning coordinated a blogging Secret Santa event. Everyone who signs up gets another blogger assigned to them. The prompt was to give a shout out to your favorite posts on their blog and then gift them a gift from a fictional game/media.

(I do love events like this. I reminds me of old school Webrings. A way to check out other blogs that are all tangentially related to one another.)

My assigned blogger was Michelle from A Geek Girl's Guide. I hadn't actually known about her blog before this so this was a wonderful opportunity to add to my RSS feed. Nothing like a good binge read on the tablet while traveling for the holidays.

A gift from a fiction universe ... that's a tough one. Thankfully Michelle has a Geeky Facts About Me post that simplified this question a lot. She's a hardcore Harry Potter fan and board game geek. Thankfully I happen to be listening to a Harry Potter podcast called Potterless right now so the books are fresh upon my mind. Maybe this is a bit lame, but I kind of feel like a set of Wizard's Chess is the answer. I know, it's not technically a 'board game'. But a game of thinking and magical violence surely has to count. Chess just seems like the game of choice for a Ravenclaw.

Posts That I Recommend
A Geek Girl's Guide focuses on the broader 'geek' landscape than the more video game-centric posts that I do here. So I'm going to focus my recommended posts more on the digital gaming world than the tabletop or fandom aspects. Also, since a good portion of the blog are guides, it makes sense for me to focus on the posts I found most useful.

Board Games for Video Gamers 
A lot of my friends are more into board games than video games and it's sometimes a point of friction when it comes to enjoying a quiet night in with company. I also have a tendency to play board games as just slower video games, instead of enjoying the more social aspects board gaming presents. This list seems to be a good mix that let's one translate a more digital way of thinking onto the folding table. I've played a bit of Pandemic and Betrayal at the House on the Hill and always felt that board games should be more like that. It stands to reason that the other games listed here should also be on my short list.

How to Geekify Holiday Traditions
I love Christmas. It's special. But it also means spending time with people I don't always feel as comfortable around being just myself. I also feel like decorating my house is a bit more railroaded. This is my first year with my new house and our second year living far away from our family and friends. I thought this post has some thoughtful ideas on how to make Christmas a bit more personal and to my own taste.

Video Game Recommendations for the 4 Harry Potter Houses
Ravenclaw  | Slytherin | Hufflepuff | Gryffindor
I have the Harry Potter series on my mind and a reread seems imminent. These posts were a nice mish-mash of video gaming and Potterdom. And I think the selections for my own house (Gryffindor) were spot on.

So there you have it. Obviously it's tough taking someone's blog and reducing it down to just a few hundred words but I don't think I've made too much of a mess of it. I hope you found another nice site to persue and that everyone reading has Merry Christmas! My normal posting has been disrupted by my holiday travels but I'm itching to get back to it soon enough.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Black Desert Mobile for the Holidays

I had the first paragraphs of a draft about how my current genres of choice right now (MMOs, Racing, First Persons Shooters) weren't well represented by the Nintendo Switch I'll be limited to this holiday season. And then Bhagpuss reminded me that cell phones exist.


Wyatt Chang is so mad right now.

While the desktop MMO space has been pretty lacking lately, the genre is booming on mobile platforms. Bhagpuss points out that our particular MMO blogsphere doesn't give the time of day to these titles, but it's easy to see why. Just like my post yesterday about Halo Reach on the PC,  it's difficult to move from a more comfortable input setup to a less comfortable one. (I'm ignoring the riddled-with-microtransactions reputation mobile games have earned. After all, many desktop MMOs aren't much better in that regard.)

But my three year old Pixel has a lot of meat left on these bones. Actually, I suspect it's still more powerful than the hardware in a Switch. Black Desert Online is something that's sat in my Steam backlog for a while now. It goes on sale every holiday for a couple of book and at some point I chucked it into the pile. I never got around to playing it as other MMOs just grabbed my attention more. I feel like we have 10 different MMOs all with the same art style and they blend together in my head. I think I've confused Black Desert and Blade & Soul for years.


But while BDO may not stand out to me in the desktop space, mobile-wise its looking more enticing. It's competitors right now are DC Universe Online on the Switch and Everquest 2 on my aging, mid-range laptop. Both may get a fair shake at some point but it's almost New Year's, let's try a new experience.

Firstly, I kinda hate how these types of games update. They can't just use the Play store like a normal app, you have to actually open the game and then sit through a multi-gigabyte update. And if we're being honest, by the time that's done, my time in the bathroom is done. But BDO had a Flappy Bird-esque minigame to keep us occupied while we wait. That's really cool. Less cool is the 30 second, ear-screechingly loud trailer that loops over top of it. Could have done without that.

Character creation looks good. It seems the classes are gender locked, which always seems to be a point of frustration in reviews. Doesn't matter a ton to me, but it is here. I will say that I was actually able to make a reasonable handsome male in the character creator. I think this is the first time I've been able to make a dude in a Korean MMO that didn't look like a tool. Nonetheless, I decided to play a Valkyrie which is obviously gender locked to women. It seems to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades Paladin type and that's what I'm feeling right now. I guess technically she's a jill-of-all-trades.

Bhagpuss is right, good lord this is a busy UI.



I'm playing on the standard Pixel and not the Pixel XL with it's larger screen size. I'm beginning to see why people might opt for the bigger screen. This reminds me of playing Flight Simulator 95.



Another thing I hate is when I'm bombarded in the starting experience with other events. I've just gained consciousness and Santa Claus is hounding me about BD's Christmas event. Let me get my coffee first old man.


Same thing with a barrage of 'rewards' and check-ins. At least give me a couple of days before filling my inventory with stuff I don't understand to do things I can't yet do.

Actual gameplay seems so far to just be tapping or clicking. The quest text itself will auto-move your character to objectives. Combat seems to be using abilities on a rotation that we all know. Switching to other targets is also automatic, you just keep hitting the combat abilities and it'll pick out a target for you. Even gear upgrades are shown on your screen as soon as you get them. Simply click the flashing icon to switch the gear over.

Ironically, I found BDM to be a bit more compelling when played on my desktop in an emulator than on my actual phone. The gameplay is just a bit too simplistic to hold my full attention. But when I'm multitasking, like say, writing this blog post, folding the laundry, and playing a bit here and there on my other monitor? That feels more compelling.

So while I doubt I'll find much time for BDM over my holiday, I'm genuinely excited to dedicate a monitor to it. I genuinely had no idea Android emulation had come such a long way. When I had tried this exact things years ago it was very laggy and few games played nicely with a controller or mouse/keyboard.

But this could be a promising turn of events, even if it's not in the way the developer's intended.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Halo Reach

Like many a millennial, my memories of Halo revolve around several TVs linked together in a neighbor's garage or basement.

(Nowadays, the idea of physically linking several consoles together with a cable, finding multiple TVs, and coordinating schedules with 4-8 friends feels like an impossibility. The days of youth.)

Outside of that context, the Halo series has never resonated with me. Trying to play a first person shooter with a controller makes me feel like I'm working with two left-hands. I know what I want to do, years of PC gaming inform me on what I should do, I just don't have the motor skills to pull it off.

But I always felt like I missed out a little bit. Both my high school and college friends played Halo religiously in those times, and I didn't even know what the story line was. I eventually played through the Halo 1 remaster, but it was very much a product of its time.

(SPOILER ALERT FOR HALO 1: It's a campaign of maybe 2-3 hours that gets artificially padded by making you go through it again in reverse.)

Multiplayer was probably fine, but my rusty controller skills meant I needed to invest far more time into learning the basics than I wanted. I didn't own an original Xbox at the time to play my copy of Halo 2 anymore, so I just gave up.

But, Microsoft is now wooing the PC crowd again. Microsoft has always struggled to turn its computer gaming dominance into an actual tangible income stream. It's previous attempts mostly seem to center around starting their own Steam competitors: originally with the horrid Games for Windows and then again with the 'Microsoft Store'. Having realized they need to add actual value for people to give them money, they've introduced the Xbox Game Pass service. And part of pushing the Pass (as well as general holiday sales), they've begun releasing the previously console-only Master Chief collection.

Instead of releasing the whole thing of course, they've decided to drip feed the content to us computer plebs, straight away eroding some of my enthusiasm for the Game Pass idea. Either way, Microsoft made the savvy choice to start us off with Halo Reach and not Halo 1. Reach seemed to do well enough critically and it's not the relic that Halo 1 is. Reach is also a prequel to the Halo series so they kinda get away with it from a story perspective.

So how does it play? Fairly well. It certainly isn't a hack job where console controls were swapped out for mouse and keyboard and then called a day. The game is maybe a bit on the easy side, and maybe that's a result of a console game being ported over to a more accurate control scheme, but it seems perfectly playable. I should note that Legendary difficulty feels a bit odd here. The AI is robust enough to make things interesting. But the level of 'bullet sponge' here really leaves the design out to dry.

I think this is where the transfer from console to computer shooter really shows its roots. Being a cover-based shooter is inherently more interesting on a controller than a keyboard. With a keyboard skill can be differentiated by ducking and weaving through your opponent's bullets while you try to hit them with yours. You certainly use bits of the environment, but few games reward overly defensive turtling behavior. The higher level of control favors fast, accurate shooting, aggressive and creative approaches, and just overall higher-speed and dynamic gameplay. You're constantly making decisions and adjustments every second. On an inherently less accurate controller, you can't do this as well. Instead, cover-based shooting makes more sense. The gameplay is more methodical and is more reliant on positioning and defense. Setting up a kill takes more effort, and relies more on the environment, to compensate for the lack of control.

Halo Reach is clearly designed for a slower, more methodical game play style. Against harder enemies you have to slowly navigate the terrain to close the gap and get in your burst of offense. Then, most enemies have some way of punishing you for staying out of cover too long. Then you retreat and begin the process again. But with mouse and keyboard the pacing is just a bit off. Cover is only important on a handful of enemies, but mostly I can just constantly barrage their weakpoints with accurate fire, simply move out of the way of their own offense like a matador with a cape, and then continue firing. That cycle of approach-attack-defend-retreat is no longer as strong and the game is weaker because of it. The gameplay loops instead becomes about keeping as much 'uptime' on your shooting as possible. Eliminating a threat quickly and simplifying an encounter is more valuable than avoiding a threat's offense. Much of what makes the different encounters in the game unique and interesting lose their charm when you can shortcut the cycle with superior aiming and movement. 

It's still quite a fun game. And since I haven't quite finished it yet. Perhaps I'm in for some surprises in the end. But I do think proper pacing is something many games struggle with, and even more games have difficulty matching their difficulty curve to that pace. Games like Dark Souls use their challenge to ask the player to dig deeper into the game's mechanics. It contextualizes and elevates the various systems that make a game what it is. I suspect Halo Reach did a fine job of that back in 2010 on the 360, but it's lost just enough of that in it's conversion to the PC to feel a bit off. Not enough to make the game unfun, mind you, but just enough enough to keep the experience firmly planted as 'good' and not 'great'.

Note, I've not even touched the multiplayer yet. Perhaps I'll leave that for another post after the holidays.