Friday, November 29, 2019

Ultima Online - A Tale of One MMO

Ultima Online is the best of it's time, and it's the worst of it's time, it was the hallmark of lasting game design, it was the feature of design foolishness, it's a game that looks like Diablo 1, it's a game that can actually be played at 4K, it's stat system is inscrutable, its quest system is straightforward, it's appeal as a game is obvious, it's appeal as a game in 2019 is questionable - in short, Ultima Online was so far like present MMOs, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

It's almost impossible to come at UO in a vacuum.

At it's heart, its a game where one slowly clicks on their screen while watching numbers slowly go up. This inherently describes just about every RPG ever made. But the spice is always in the details of how one surrounds that formula, and Ultima Online (at least from the several hours I've now put into it) is as bland as Minnesota cooking. Combat is clicking on an enemy. Several hours in, hotbar abilities are present, but seem unusable and unnecessary. The story was a three paragraph blurb during character creation that I've already forgotten. Character creation and customization (so far) was picking from one of several templates that we've all seen a hundred time before. Also, his beard is crooked.

Who's mamma's handsome boy?
UO's playability today suffers from everything that isn't in it's control. The neatness of an online open world is obviously no longer a novel feature. The Ultima brand has dissipated into nearly nothing. The many, many skills one must level for their character feels onerous instead of freeing. (Leveling parrying isn't fun. And no game will ever make it so.)

The developer's over the years have clearly worked hard to keep the game up to date though. The UI feels archaic but is perfectly usable after 5 minutes of getting familiar with everything. The game plays well with a 4K monitor and is perfectly usable with a second monitor (a feat that ArcheAge and Everquest 2 could not do). The graphics are obviously not great, but they've been updated with the enhanced client to be perfectly usable from a gameplay standpoint.

So while the base gameplay is failing to hook me, the dev team has done everything possible to actually get the game up and playable to a total newbie in 2019. It's a game about grinding (in one form or another) and technically there's very little in the way of that, other than my own desire to play something else.

But I know that there is more here. Crafting and housing for one. I also suspect that there is more charm and challenge to be had once I grind my way off this starter island. So I'm going to stick with this one. Maybe not as my main game, but as an enjoyable distraction while watching TV or a podcast.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Let's start at the beginning. A very good place to start.

As I covered yesterday, I tend to get a bit overwhelmed by the size of my backlog. I'm in the mood again to get my MMO on but I'm not really sure where to go with it.

I've decided to hear the sound of music and to start at the beginning.

Actually deciding where the "beginning" of the MMO genre is a bit fraught. Obviously the old MUDs are probably the answer. Meridian and Avalon have better claims as the first graphical MMO. But I've played bits and pieces of those and they just aren't that fun for me. And since I'm not a museum, I'm going to concentrate on Ultima Online.

Granted, I never actually played Ultima Online. So it might suck. In fact it's old enough that I'm presuming it will suck. But as I mentioned in my post about dead MMOs, I have some regrets on not trying out certain games before they bit the dust. I suspect UO won't be biting the dust any time soon, but there's no time like the present.

I'm also going into the game relatively blind. Unlike Runescape, UO doesn't seem to have much of a presence on Twitch or social media, so they only gameplay I've ever seen is from years old grainy YouTube videos. I know there's no character levels, it's mostly a sandbox, PVP and PVE servers exist, and I've seen tales of the time Lord British got dunked on in his own game.

I'm also not that familiar with the Ultima series in general. I've owned the series on GOG for several years now but Akalabeth and Ultimas 1-3 are old enough that it's difficult for me to get into. The dungeon crawling reads less to me as a video game and more as tech demo curiosity. I've held out hope for some sort of fan recreation or "remaster" from EA, but it's pretty clear this series is dead in their eyes. I'm hesitant to get into any of the later Ultima games because I'm just not sure when they start getting into a playable state, and I'm rarely in the mood to install them all and find out. One day. Maybe.

(I did play a browser game called Lords of Ultima for a hot minute in college. Most notable for being the first, and one of the few times I've ever spent money on a microtransaction. But that game had little to do with the series from what I can tell.)

Looking into the near future, Everquest feels like the next candidate after UO. EQ I have significantly more experience with, both when it was the premiere MMO on the market and later on as more "legacy" title. But I've never actually gotten a character to max level. I think the last time I played with any sort of earnestness was right when mercenaries got released. According to Google that was nearly 8 years ago. With fewer social commitments for the holidays this year compared to usual, I might  have my hands full with some very old games.

But this is all getting ahead of myself. I'm still waiting on UO to finally stop updating. I understand there is decades of content here, but I was really expecting this to be a quicker process. I'm not sure what the publishing situation is for UO, but the launcher could stand to show a bit more hustle. I had to sign in with EA Origin account to play the game, and the Origin launcher updates much quicker than this.

Tonight's dinner is Thanksgiving-eve Spaghetti and handmade tomato sauce. Let's hope I can get some game in before I'm called away to my domestic duties.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Where Have All the Good MMO Gone? And Where Are All The MUDS?

I really enjoyed writing my previous blog post about defunct MMOs of years past. Not that I'm happy so many games have shut up shop but rather it brought me back to that time when new, weird, niche, and AAA MMOs were reliably coming out. This is ostensibly a MMO blog but in the second half of this year there just haven't been any news or releases that excite me. Classic Wow had me feeling great up until the point that Blizzard decided to poop in it's own hand. ArcheAge never clicked with me.

At minimum we are blessed with some workhorse titles that are all seeing updates. The brothers Everquest are still churning. I see Knights of the Old Republic got a new update. Guild Wars 2 seems to be somewhat disappointing it's fans but that's certainly better than nothing at all.

So I guess I'm at an impasse as to what exactly to play.  EverQuest 2 sounds promising with all the Anniversary stuff going around. But logging into my main greets me with this:

Combine that with several hotbars filled with spells that I don't remember the purpose of and I feel it's an uphill battle just to get back to the content. I'm tempted to just start a new character and use this blog as a nice convenient journal so I don't lose the knowledge of how to play that particular class or where exactly I left out.

But at that point I might as well try one of the many MMOs that I've not spent a lot of time with. Half of the MMOs on that PC Gamer article are games that I never tried. Some, like Wildstar, I really regret not giving a chance when I had the ability to.

So really I'm staring at the age old backlog problem. There's too much to play and I'm overwhelmed by choice. This is not the first time I've complained about this "problem" on this blog.

Perhaps will be a night of reorganization. I have two different hard drives and a SSD that are filled to the brim with installed games but very few of them are actually getting played. Perhaps it's time to make my ISP earn it's month's pay and download a bunch of MMOs, get them updated, sign into all of the accounts, and clear out bag space. If I remove all the friction from actually playing the game, maybe I'll spend less time sitting in my chair being "bored".

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A Wake for MMOs Gone Past

Paeroke over at Nerdy Bookahs linked to an old PC Gamer UK article of 25 MMOs that lived and died since World of Warcraft launched. I love both a good list and an opportunity to reminiscence.

As a longtime MMO-Dabbler, I'm surprised that I never played a majority of these games. For the older titles, it was a matter of being stuck on dial-up at the time and having to pick and choose my games. It didn't help that free-to-play didn't exist yet and I was on a high schooler's budget. For the newer titles, it was about waiting for a lull in my play of other MMOs, so that I could dedicate a couple of weeks and play them "right". Unfortunately, that means I waited too long and never got to play Wildstar. Same situation with City of Heroes, although at least that has a thriving emulation community I can rectify that mistake with.

Of the games I did get to play though:

Club Penguin
I was never the target age for Club Penguin back when it was running, so I was always more of a tourist. But it had charm and the minigames were worth the hour or two of play. Mostly, I remember Club Penguin for the Banned from Club Penguin (NSFW) subreddit and a community forming around speedruns from getting banned by the automatic language filter.

Pirates of the Caribbean Online
I played this at the tail end of game's life, after it had been announced that it was shutting down. The graphics were pretty dated by the time I got to it. It was a mix between a small-scale Pirates of the Burning Sea and the single-player Pirates of the Caribbean game that was released several years later. The mix of third person action and some rudimentary naval combat were really fun for the 2-3 weeks I played of it, but by the time I got there the entire game was a ghost town.

It makes me nostalgic for a time when Disney was all in on "interactive medium", whether that was genuinely decent MMOs, satanically difficult flash games, or Disney Quest. Gigantic media conglomerates are more fun when they're making weird stuff.

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
I had a boxed copy of Vanguard and would give it an install every now and then, but it never ran well on any of the laptops I was using at the time. I did begin playing more in earnest once SOE got the publishing rights back and made it a part of their standard $15 a month MMO fee along with EQ, EQ2, and others. It always felt like a game made by people who like making systems instead of games. That sometimes works, but it often felt like I was staring at someone else's spreadsheet. I recall Bhagpuss mentioning that this game has an emulator starting to form, so I'm looking forward to giving this game a proper shake when that project matures.

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
Another game I could never really get to work on my computer right. Not being a fan of the Warhammer IP or off open-world PVP in general I didn't really try to struggle through the low framerates.

I do remember having a ton of fun with an extremely short-lived spin off of this game called Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes. It was basically World of Warcraft Arenas but as it's own separate game. I recall the number of abilities being pruned down to a MOBA level. It was the only game I played for what must have been a month or two. The game never got out of beta, and I do remember us being a very small and tight knit community fighting each over and over again. I don't even remember what the business model was, although it was obviously insufficient.

Free Realms
Ooof. Like Club Penguin I was never the appropriate age for this game, but nonetheless it was one of my favorite MMOs of all time. I use the word charm for SOE titles a lot and this game absolutely deserved it. The music, the animation, and just the general sense of cartoonish whimsy always felt great. There is an emulator project working on this, but actual details on it over the past few years have been scarce, and it seems the group is prioritizing other projects first. I keep waiting on the emulator to launch a public beta so I can do a big retrospective on the title. I do hope I get to do that soon.

Hello Kitty Online
I downloaded this game as a joke in college to show my roommates. What I remember though is how maddeningly difficult the flash-based minigames it featured were. I got my ass kicked by Hello Kitty Online in front of all of my friends.

Marvel Heroes
One of the few ARPGs that I preferred to play with a controller instead of a mouse. I had fun with it, but it's bizarre shutdown story was more interesting to me than the actual game.

Speaking of games where the shutdown is more interesting than the game itself: Firefall! I played this game for a week and don't remember a thing about it. I think they completely overhauled the game play a month after anyhow.

Everquest Next/Landmark
A SOE game that never got around to developing that SOE charm. It had an annoying time-limited beta that meant I could play for a week before I had to scrounge up another beta "ticket". The game was never in a good enough state to actually pay for, but I kept dropping in and hoping it would turn into something cohesive.  I'm obviously never a fan of a game getting shut down, but I wonder if even the developers were giving a sigh of relief once this one was over.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Good News vs. Bad News

Good News: I just got back from a trip in San Antonio, Texas and it's a beautiful city to walk through. It has a river system surrounded by walkways that rolls through the heart of the city. The landscaping and architecture is almost Disney World-esque. The food and the weather were decent enough.

Bad News: I got the flu on the plane.

Good News: Planes are loud enough that people in the cabin won't hear you violently throwing up in the plane's lavatory.

Bad News: That's probably not true, and the poor people in the backrow were just being very polite.

Good News: Being bed-stricken leaves plenty of time of for playing Dragon Quest on my Switch.

Bad News: A nasty case of the spins means I'm lucky not to just drop the Switch on my face.

Good News: I felt better on Sunday to give Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night a try on Xbox Game Pass.

 Okay News: So far it's just kinda okay.

I only made it an hour and a half in due to my flu-derived madness so this is not a complete review. I also have never beat Symphony of the Night, but I played through all the Game Boy Advance Castlevanias so I do believe I have a decent background in these types of games.

The first thing I noticed was just how bad the graphics are for a game that's not too overly ambitious in this department. There is a lack of anti-aliasing that very prominent here. The options menus says it uses a form of AA but it must be a very low-resource intensive version of it. 

The jaggies are very prominent even when playing on my 1920x1080 monitor. Additionally, this game has a lot of clipping.

The main's character's feet seem to clip through just about most floors in the game. This has me worried about how accurate the hitboxes are for actual attacks, although my playthough hasn't shown that to be too awkward on the surface.

I think the game's overall art style looks pretty good. I was getting some gothic Trine feelings from the game.

The actual gameplay seems fine. Castlevania has always felt a little bit unresponsive to me. I tend to prefer a more Mega Man or Super Meat Boy level of tightness to character movement that Castlevania is not necessarily about. That's a preference thing, but one that tends to stick with me.

I feel that I've barely scratched the surface into any of the game's systems so far, and most of the enemy types are just copy and pastes from the Castlevania series. So I'll have more to say on this once I get further along.


Hopefully I feel better enough today to get more gametime in. Although, I'm very, very behind in housework at the moment as well. I'm also playing through Dragon Quest 1 on the Switch, but by it's nature, there's not going to be a lot to say about it until I've completed it. I also have about 800 posts in the RSS reader to catch up on.

I have a very busy day planned.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Outer Worlds Complete

Previously, my excuse for not posting in a while was that ArcheAge wasn't inspiring me to say much about it. Now we have the opposite problem. During a busy week, my time was spent engrossed in The Outer Worlds instead of writing.

After approximately 24 hours of game time we've hit the final credits. I do believe I've hit just about every quest and experienced every major decision. Most people seem to have 30 hours for a complete run so I suppose it's possible I may have missed something, but I feel like I had a complete playthrough on Normal difficulty.

So I haven't really played Fallout 3/4/New Vegas so I don't have a great point of reference to compare Outer Worlds with. (I did play bits of Fallout 1/2/Tactics back in the day but I was young enough not to remember much of it.) But in a vacuum I thought it was a competent western RPG that occasionally rose up to great. The voice acting was top-notch for instance, but lacked the dedicated motion capture that Anthem had that really sold the talking bits. The combat was fine and fluid, but I don't feel like my skills or weapon choices had interesting impacts on what I was doing. The overall story was good, but nothing we hadn't really seen before. Some notable exceptions were some of the companion quests, with Vicar Max's questline as an unexpected peak.

Once I started dumping points into the various Dialogue stats, I found the writing rising to the occasion when it needed to. There is a "sorta secret ending" in the game that had me laughing so hard I was nearly in tears. I can't remember the last time a video game did that. The game is genuinely funny, and often (but not always) strings together coherent conversations regardless of how wild your inputs may be. Your choices in the game have some obvious cause and effect that is enjoyable to see play out. However, there are couple of points, one major one in particular, where the game takes a baffling turn in response to one of your choices you are forced to make. I don't want to go into spoilers, and not everyone's play through will run into this, but it was a clear case of the developers wanting to create a cool event and then backing the dialogue choices into causing it.

It was a fun run, particularly when I effectively spent $1 on it. I tend to grade things on a 5-star system.
  • 5 - A game so good even people who normally don't play video games should give it a try.
  • 4 - A game everyone who owns a console or a decent computer should at least give it a shot.
  • 3 - A game that fans of a particular genre or IP should give a go.
  • 2 - A game that can probably be ignored by everyone.
  • 1 - A game so bad that you have to play it.
I think Outer Worlds is something like a 3.8, rounded up to 4. In a vacuum that's pretty darn good, particularly in a genre that can be as difficult to pull off as Western RPGs are. But considering how many RPGs I play nowadays are so encumbered by their business aspects, it's just refreshing to play a game, enjoy it, finish it, and uninstall it. I've longed for this pedestrian exchange many times on this blog, it's nice to have it fully realized. The game was being developed before Microsoft's purchase of Obsidian added it to the Xbox Game Pass, but it's my hope that subscription services will let single player stories like this stand on their own again, without being swamped in microtransaction bullshit.

I'd like to go into detail about more Outer World specifics, but I'll give people a little bit more time to play through the game themselves. In the mean time, if you were on the fence and have a dollar to spare, I think it's well worth your time.

My goal for the month was to finish 5 Game Pass games. So far that's one down, which is not exactly on pace. Even worse, the next game that I picked up, F1 2018, isn't exactly a game you can "beat". It's a racing sim version of the real life Formula 1 racing series. I've enjoyed previously racing games by Codemasters before, but haven't paid much attention to Formula 1 in general since the 90s. Now that me and Mrs. Everwake have been watching cable again, I've been pleasantly surprised to enjoy some racing coverage on our early Sunday mornings. I've excited by it now, although the current season is almost over. That's probably for the best, as auto racing tends to be a little bit boring to watch, but much more fun to play. Anyways, I'm playing through a race weekend every day, so if I can finish up one full season of the game I'm going to consider that "complete".

Also a negative for my game completion goal: after I finish up this post I begin packing for a 5 day trip to Texas. A good opportunity to use my Switch and escape the Minnesota winter, but not an opportunity to do much PC gaming. I could take my laptop, but it mostly just runs Excel really well, and I suspect Microsoft hasn't added achievement for that program yet.

Either way, I imported a physical copy of the Dragon Quest 1+2+3 remaster for my Switch, and I'm looking forward to grinding out some levels during a very long layover. Going from Outer Worlds to Dragon Quest 1 is certainly some whiplash, but sometimes it's nice to have reminder about how far we've come.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Novemeber Goals - But Mostly Outer Worlds Talk

Last month I decided to try out the 'Goals for the Month' gimmick. It didn't go well. I didn't actually accomplish a singe goal. Yikes. In my defense that was mostly Blizzard imploding and me not wanting to stand in the blast radius. I also didn't get any traction in Breath of the Wild, stopping at my usual place about 5 hours in. I had to evacuate my flooded basement's contents to my workshop area, so fixing up the Japanese PlayStation 2 wasn't really possible.

It's easier to set goals in an MMO, so this post is bit harder to write than last month. ArcheAge didn't pan out in my opinion and so I mostly have Outer Worlds and Minecraft. I don't know enough about Minecraft to actually have goals, and I'm not inclined to look up to much as the exploration of game mechanics has been fairly compelling. 

I'm about 8 hours into Outer Worlds and having a good time. I'm actually enjoying the Bethesda-lite aspect of the game. The game world itself is as large as it needs to be, in contrast to Breath of the Wild which I've complained about as mostly filler. BotW's filler has a purpose, it lends a sense of size and gravitas to the world, but that hasn't translated into enjoyable gameplay. Outer Worlds is made of smaller levels. There seems to be exploration for those who are so inclined, but its also easy to get where you need to go and get on with the story, which is what I'm here for. 

And the story has been perfectly fine. Where BotW is about immersing yourself into the world, Outer Worlds is about immersing yourself into the people. It initially seemed odd to me that I would be so interested in character-based storytelling than world-based storytelling. In the real life meat space I operate in the complete opposite. But digital worlds have never held the same allure to me. My idea of a perfect vacation is to grab a hotel in the middle of city, drop off my stuff, and just start walking. Only Skyrim has ever given me that sort of pull in a video game. Video game worlds always feel a bit too designed for me. Real cities are never that well planned, and nature hikes certainly aren't. I'll admit it's not a strong reason, but it is how it is.

 I found the gameplay to be mostly fine. I find first-person melee to be clunky so I've went a full "Long Gun" build. The shooting is mostly fine, although it's clearly built around use of the slow-mo effect to hit constantly rotating weak points on enemy mobs. I often completely forget about the slow-motion mechanic, and just try to treat the game like a pure shooter. I do tend to play games the way I want, instead of the game that the developer's offer. Sometimes that leads to problems, but it's mostly fine here, at least on the Normal difficulty.

 I was up until 2 AM last night playing Outer Worlds, and I'm chomping at the bit to get back into it this morning. So I guess my goal is to finish the game before the end of the month, but I suspect that will not be much a problem. 

I think my goal is to play through at least 5 games on the Xbox Game Pass. I've always been a dabbler, playing a little bit of a game and then moving onto the next. Subscription services is likely to feed into that. But I do get great satisfaction out of a complete experience. It's not about getting my "money's worth", but more about being mindful of what I play. 

And maybe I'll finally get that PS2 fix up as well.

Friday, November 1, 2019

BlizzCon and Live Services

I didn't want to write too much about Blizzcon, partly because everyone else in your RSS feed is already doing that and mostly because I just feel very 'meh' about the company right now. But I thought the 'sorta apology' tied in well to my post from two days ago about game subscriptions. The apology that kicked off the festivities was fine. But we've heard some variation of "We hear you, and promise in the future to make it better" for as long as Blizzard has been a company. It might as well be their motto. It rarely matches with any actual action taken by the company. It is unusual that it was attached to the word 'sorry'. They don't usually break that word out until they've hit the 'mainstream press is noticing' level of notoriety.

(On a side note, I feel my usual ambivalence towards their actual announcements. My backlog is very full and my ability to care about games that I can't actually play yet just isn't there. That's been true for nearly 3 decades for me, so that's just business as usual.)

Back on track, in my last post I mentioned my excitement at game subscription services. A low monthly fee that acts as a content discovery vehicle is something that works for me. But Blizzcon does remind me of one negative aspect of these subscription services, as well as just any live service in general.

I cancelled my World of Warcraft subscription after the big brouhaha. As I mentioned in my post at the time it wasn't some form of formal boycott, nor did I feel like I was sending any sort of message towards Blizzard. Video games are entertainment and its hard to enjoy something tied to a company behaving badly towards something that actually matters. I removed WoW from hard drive to free up some much need disk space.

But GOG's rerelease of Warcraft 1 and 2, as well as Diablo 1 remained on that hard drive. Granted, I didn't play them, but I didn't remove their icons from my desktop either. Being tied to the hip with a misbehaving company on a subscription feels worse than having a static game. After all, I already paid for Warcraft 1. That deal is done. There is no outstanding relationship with Blizzard on that one.

But a subscription fee, or just a live game with microtransactions is a different deal. It's a relationship. But by it's nature it's always a one-sided one. My side of the relationship is an emotional one. I'm fulfilling my need to be entertained. Maybe more if we accept that video games are art and can deliver emotions beyond just bliss. But the company's side of this relationship is pure business. Sure there's some give-and-take. Microsoft wants to populate their service with games people want to play. That's acting on feedback from their playerbase, but only to the extent that it increases sub numbers.

Blizzard is in this place now as well. Blizzard hasn't been in the business of caring about player feedback in a non-business way for a while now (see the entirety of the Battle for Azeroth beta). Changes made to retail WoW are focused on increasing subs and nothing more. Blizzard leadership relented and shipped WoW Classic purely because it made too much fiscal sense not to.

This makes it either a one-sided relationship, or at least a very shallow one. Not a problem on the surface. But companies like Blizzard, Microsoft, etc. are motivated to pretend there is more to it than that. Blizzcon is a way to monetize product announcements marketed as a community event. As their CEO said during his apology, Blizzard is motivated to bring gamers together through 'epic entertainment'. Quite a grandiose statement. One that would be more believable if WoW's 15 year old social features were more robust than instant messaging programs from two decades ago. There is no 'higher standard' at Blizzard. There is no 'grand vision'. It's just a video game company that made it's name years ago because it was willing to put the spit shine on releases where other companies would have shipped subpar work out the door. That hasn't been the case for nearly a decade now.

Blizzard gets to charge a premium for its relationship with it's userbase. Blizzard gets to force users to use it's launcher to play its games, and innudate that launcher with it's own adds because of its relationship with it's userbase. It's a tangible, but emotional connection that means real dollars for the company. Blizzard had to make an apology because being perceived as special is worth real world dollars. Otherwise, 15 dollars for a WoW subscription, plus 50 dollars for an expansion every so often, doesn't make a lot of sense in the world of Game Passes, Humble Bundles, and Free to Play titles.

Live services and subscriptions have made content cheaper than ever and that forces companies to find something else to charge a premium for. For Microsoft, Game Pass will subsidize hardware sales and Gold Live subscriptions. For Blizzard, it's an emotional attachment to the IP and the company itself. For me, Blizzard lost the ability to charge that premium.

Users leaving a company because of various reasons has and will always be a thing. But for the next several years it seems most video game companies are really going to need to be on their best behavior and their reputation and reliability are going to matter more than it ever has.

I know this was more rambly than my usual posts, but this has been in the back of my mind for a while. I don't really want a closer relationship with random corporations. I'm perfectly content with purchasing a thing and then said company fucking off. But that's not really the reality for much of the current gaming landscape. Subscription services, I hope, are the way to make the best of that.