Good or bad expansions, and theme

There’s been quite a discussion around the subjective topic of good or bad expansions recently, so far, on my limited catch-up on this via the blogs in my feed; I’ve not seen the topic of theme added into the mix of possible factors. I believe it may started at Kaylriene’s blog in post discussing the subjective nature of judging World of Warcraft’s  expansions. The post covers content cadence and volume, and draws an important distinction on overall quality issues:

Increasingly, the issue is not that the overall game is weak, or that there are huge weak points, but rather that enough points are below average or weak in a way that affects the game’s perception as a whole.

I think that sums up well a lot of views I’ve read about Battle for Azeroth. I think the point made about having a new coherent land to explore is also important, it was referencing the disparate level 80-85 content in Cataclysm, but applies somewhat to Battle for Azeroth. Players are split across to three-zone islands. If you only play Alliance or Horde that’s all you get to level alts through, no alternate paths like in Wrath of the Lich King. I’ll come back to this later as it relates to my main point for the post.

Other posts have added to the conversation, notably Wilhelm’s argument that expansions are generally bad as they split the playerbase in numerous ways, and Bhagpuss’ post offers the Everquest and Guild Wars 2 points of view. Both are well worth the read as they’re both very thoughtful additions to the original post. I’m sure there are others I haven’t yet discovered.

For myself, I think the factor that is missing from this discussion so far is theme. Although storytelling in MMORPGs is often critisized, I enjoy it immensely. I prefer MMORPGs over single player RPGs because of the former’s grander scope and longer lifespans. Expansions often have quite a strong theme and that can be a gamble. Rift’s Storm Legion expansion was quoted in this discussion so far as being a particularly bad expansion. It was criticised for the size of the zones and the punishing XP curve: I’d add the gear level step-change, but also more importantly the theme. It was too mono-thematic compared to what came before and didn’t have a strong enough central theme to make up for that. If the one and only main theme of the story, the one and only vibe of an entire half of the content, is dreary and dull (one of the two huge islands was all death, and more decay), then leveling very slowly through its zones is not going to go well. The original games zones were thematically varied, so it was a stark contrast.

Coming back to World of Warcraft, in the case of Cataclysm I think the lack of ‘new land to explore’ really did do it a disservice at least from 80-85. It may have made sense in the context of the revamp of all those 1-60 zones, but for the majority of the playerbase at the cap it felt like short shrift I imagine. The ‘good’ expansions (very subjectively) such as Wrath of the Lich King or Mists of Pandaria had enough new zones to offer at least some choices of levelling path, so that subsequent alts would have a different experience to some extent. Legion had a different variation of this, although there weren’t enough zones for varied paths, each class had its own content to keep things somewhat fresh as you leveled them.

The theme factor plays a role I would suggest. Wrath of the Lich King and The Burning Crusade both tapped into the deep lore, and nostalgia, links to the strategy game origins of the MMORPG. The storytelling kept me enthralled despite its less slick polish compared to today’s offering. I was mildly positive about Cataclysm’s storytelling, elemental stuff does interest me. Warlords of Draenor had a terribly mixed up plot and thematically was a bust, it was orcs, orcs, and more orcs. Legion by contrast tapped even deeper into those same lore and nostalgia roots and was very powerful thematically, perhaps because of all the class-specific storytelling that linked to the main narrative.

Battle for Azeroth so far has been a weak expansion for me, it’s not over so I won’t say it’s “bad”, but I refer back again to the quote from Kayrliene’s post. A lot of aspects of the expansion feel weaker than Legion even though they are so similar – the missions, the world quest rewards, the Heart of Azeroth vs Artifact Weapons – all seem progress in the wrong direction. Less incentive all round to do the same things on different characters or for a sustained period of time.

Azerite gear is not compelling

For me the biggest factor remains the theme. I care not one iota for the faction war. Playing through the Horde side has been painful because of how little my any of my characters would go along with a single thing they’re asked to do by the Horde. The Zandalari levelling zones are really beautiful, and there’s some nice zone-level stories to experience, but the war is omnipresent in its overshadowing of more local matters and you have constant reminders from either Nathanos or Sylvanus herself that you should ‘get on with the blatantly evil stuff quicker’.

Love the style, not so much the story…

Playing mainly on Alliance it’s better, although some of the war campaign stuff is troubling, especially on my Night Elf main. I just can’t wait for the much hinted at ‘reveal’ that the faction war was an orchestrated distraction while not-so hidden darker forces gathered strength.

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Unexpected AFK

I’ve come down with a rather sudden bout of flu, and find myself unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes on anything, so regretfully there’ll be no new blog-post until the weekend I would imagine.

Happy gaming in the meantime.

Posted in MMORPG | 1 Comment

Sharing the love of Erollisi

Bhagpuss’ post from a few days ago alerted me to something new and interesting going on in Everquest 2 for this year’s Erollisi Festival (goddess of love). The post features a picture of the exceedingly cute plushie familiar, a baby dragon with a love heart for a tail, that you can collect if you run the Erollisi Day Public Quest in the Commonlands zone often enough.

Familiar territory

Although I wasn’t planning on returning to EQ2 at the moment, something like this is guaranteed to pull me back in. I’ve always rather liked Public Quests in any game, and have had some fun with some of the more imaginative ones in EQ2 as well. This particular quest is something new. It involves two teams of players escorting and encouraging NPCs to cross this low level zone towards a meeting point. Beyond that I’ll leave you to read the specifics over at Bhagpuss’ post or to go experience the event yourself!

I’ve done the event three times so far as time permits, it’s on a rough hour timer so it’s not possible to go too crazy grinding it. I received the ‘egg’ for my plushie on the first try, and have received the top tier of involvement so far on each. According to the linked blogpost I should get the pet to hatch after another four or so tries.

I imagine some players might find the event a bit hectic, there’s always been a mass of players on both sides when I’ve taken part. That said, once I had the event flower items slotted on my main quickbar it became a lot easier to manage clicking the NPC within the crowd and using the items to contribute. I’m deliberately not going into extensive detail here, others have already done that, suffice to say I’d encourage anyone to give the event a go and to not despair at hitting the top tier of participation. If I can manage that having barely played the game in many months, I’m sure you can too!

The moderately long gaps between the timer actually help the event to not get too ‘needy’. I can play some Star Wars the Old Republic in-between runs, just keeping an eye on the zone chat in EQ2 on my second monitor to see when the 10 minute and 5 minute warnings are broadcast.

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Interactions of magic and data

This post is a creative piece offering some ideas for the Starfinder roleplaying game. Any resemblance to real life entities are purely coincidental. Please feel free to use this content in your own campaign or discuss or expand on these ideas in the comments.

The Starfinder system is a science fantasy roleplaying game, heroes adventuring in this futuristic setting are just as likely to solve their problems with magic as they are with computer hacking skills. Indeed, a party of heroes is likely to want at least one character covering each angle, whether through class choices (i.e. Mystic or Technomancer) or skill selection (i.e. Mysticism or Computing). To what extent do the two interact, and what sorts of interactions might be possible?

Magic and technology

Unlike early editions of Dungeons & Dragons for instance, where magic and psionics had no official interactions at all, magic and technology in Starfinder most certainly do mix. Certain breeds of technology even require magic to operate, Eoxian ships and inventions come to mind as they usually integrate a heavy dose of necromancy into their design.

Although the setting has explored some specific broad technologies that combine magic and science, I’ve not yet come across much exploration of how magic and data might mix.  This post provides some specific situations and new spells to illustrate how the two could overlap.

Protecting sensitive data

I feel it is likely that magic would be brought to bear to protect sensitive data in Starfinder. There are strict limitations on real-time communications especially if you’re talking between star systems. So data couriers are a viable line of business and being able to protect data from pirates, hackers and corporate rivals is going to be important. Yes, having the better computer experts than your rivals or the local criminal elements is one approach; but I suspect that having a good Technomancer available would be equally effective.

Encrypt data, Technomancer 2
School Abjuration
Casting Time 1 standard action
Range Touch
Targets one technological memory device (e.g. data chip or removable drive)
Duration 24 hours
Saving Throw none; Spell Resistance no
The encrypt data spell magically encrypts the entire contents of one technological data storage device for its duration. The caster can end this effect prematurely or access the data stored on the device without disturbing the encryption in place. For others, accessing the data requires a successful Computing check, with a DC of 20 or if other non-magical protections are also used a DC raised +10 by this effect. Tiny intricate spell glyphs are visible on the surface of the device for the duration of the effect making the presence of the spell obvious to anyone who succeeds a Mysticism DC 15 skill check.

If the caster chooses at time of casting to spend 1 Resolve Point they may add an optional trigger effect to the encryption. Should someone attempt to access the data and fail the skill check outlined above, then the optional effect is triggered immediately afterwards. Possible trigger effects include one of the following:

  1. The spell ends immediately as a magical micro-electromagnetic pulse is triggered inside the device to destroy all data stored on it.
  2. A loud alarm is triggered for 1 minute, a siren that is clearly audible within a 60 foot sphere centered on the device. The sound can be a standard alarm sound or a short phrase (max 20 words) that is repeated over and over for this duration (see the audible alarm effect of the Pathfinder alarm spell for more details).
  3.  A silent alarm is triggered that warns the caster of the hack attempt if they are within one mile of the device (see the silent alarm effect of the Pathfinder alarm spell for more details).

Finding that data treasure-trove

Computer systems in any far future setting are likely to hold unimaginably large sets of data files. Presumably file search and organisation methods would keep pace with this to ensure that an authorised user can find files quickly and easily (maybe that still depends on how disorganised they are as a user!). But what about unauthorised users of a system? It’s very likely adventurers will come across computer systems they aren’t supposed to be accessing: in such cases time can be of the essence, and hacking into every system or drive you find to locate the specific data you need or want to appropriate may not be the most sensible approach. The following spell offers Technomancers a less invasive means to locate a data treasure-trove.

Fast Index, Technomancer 1
School Divination
Casting Time 1 standard action
Range 5 feet
Targets one source of data (e.g. an active computer or data storage device)
Duration instantaneous
Saving Throw none or Will negates; Spell Resistance no

The Fast Index spell gives the caster an almost instantaneous mental overview of a set of data files within a nearby computer or data storage device. The spell allows them to visualise the file storage hierarchy and hone in, at the speed of thought, on one particular folder per casting. That folders files are listed within the casters thoughts, providing basic properties for each. The spell gives the file name, file size and file type for each. The encryption status of any protected files is also given as a simple yes or no. It is possible to use this spell to index files stored on the memory modules of a drone or other more complex technological form, however if the target is sentient (e.g. an Android or SRO) then a Will save against the Technomancer’s spell DC would prevent the spell from providing any information.

As an alternative to this standard casting the Technomancer may interrogate the devices file structure for a single specific file that he or she believes to be stored on there. If it exists the exact location within the file structure and other details as listed above are magically provided.

Note that this spell requires no technological connection to the computer or device. Nor will it automatically trigger any alarms or safeguards since the Technomancer is not actually attempting to login or otherwise gain direct access to the file structure. The spell will bypass standard password and firewall securities within the limitations of the spell’s effects. It does not allow the caster to access the contents of a file or to alter files in any manner – it is a strictly read-only indexing of files only.

Backup, backup, backup!

Given the many and varied threats in the Starfinder universe it seems sensible that data backups would be just as important as they are in the real world. The majority of data backups are likely to be made with technology, there are only so many Technomancers to go around after all. However, for those with the resources or finances to hire a caster with technological skills, having a means through magic to copy data would offer a means for complementary or emergency data security.

Clone Data, Technomancer 3
School Illusion
Casting Time 1 minute
Range 5 feet
Targets one source of data (e.g. an active computer or data storage device)
Duration instantaneous
Saving Throw none or Will negates; Spell Resistance no

This spell creates a magical copy of data from one nearby source to a destination data storage device equally close to, or held, by the caster. The source can be an active computer, a passive data storage device (data chip or portable drive) or even the memory store of a drone or other artificial form. If the target is sentient (e.g. an Android or SRO) then a Will save against the Technomancer’s spell DC would prevent the spell from accessing any data.

The spell is indescriminate but quick working, it will copy the entire contents of a smaller device or single specific drive – if a computer has multiple data storage drives then the caster has to choose one. The spell provides no details or the files cloned: i.e. their names, type or content. If the files are encrypted then the resulting copies are also encrypted in the same manner. Magical protection prevents this spell from copying data, the encrypt data spell above would totally negate any casting of clone data and the optional effect, if any, would be triggered.

The caster does not need direct access to the device such as a login or Computing hack skill check, however, the magic is not foolproof in the face of more serious technological safeguards. Limitations of the maximum volume of data obtainable are at the GM’s discretion. Also the spells interactions with computer security is also up to the GM, for example if the data is protected by firewall then the caster might need a successful Mysticism or Computing check with the standard DC 13 + (4x computer or device’s tier) in order to magically circumvent the firewall for that particular casting.

This post is based on entries in the Starfinder Core rulebook, please see this source for more details on computers, the Computing skill and other Technomancer spells and abilities.

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Anthem and industry trends

I read over at Inventory Full about Bhagpuss’ reasons for not trying Anthem, Bioware’s answer to the MMOFPS sub-genre. In Anthem you play a battle-suit wearing hero flying and diving around zones to complete missions, mostly in a small team. Sound familiar? It should do, Destiny (1 & 2) and Warframe both have already popularised this gameplay style over the last few years – story light missions that have you slaying hordes of enemies with guns, grenades and flashy ‘ultimate’ powers.

Destiny 2 has some pretty dramatic and varied locales

For a few weeks now I’ve been playing trio sessions of Destiny 2, we got the game for free as a give-away via Battle.Net a while back and have enjoyed it enough to buy the Forsaken DLC to unlock all the expansions thus far released. The game is very slick, although it’s not by Blizzard, the stellar graphics and slick gun and run gameplay make me think it is a Blizzard game. I played Warframe last Autumn for a few weeks and that game may have deeper customisation but I found the control scheme much harder to get into.

It wouldn’t be a MMO without mandatory-solo instances.

So unlike Bhagpuss, if I read his post correctly, my mostly positive history of playing multiplayer FPS games should place me closer to the ideal target audience for Bioware’s game. Yet I do not find myself at all interested in Anthem. Regardless of the varied reactions and frenzied attention its receiving in the blogosphere and streaming community, I’ll pass on it. We have a lot of content to play in Destiny 2, so I’m not in the market for starting yet another shooter game.

So pretty

I add my own concerns to the trend Bhagpuss’ post also addresses – if games like Anthem do really well, then maybe attention and money will be further diverted away from MMORPGs. I’m not enough of an industry pundit to offer a particularly informed view, but I would be greatly saddened if story-rich MMORPGs dwindle because of the rise of Anthem and similar games (or equally other sub-genres like Age of Conan or Fortnite).

Another voiceless character…

The story in Destiny 2 is well told, and quite entertaining, but it really hasn’t taken us long to reach the first expansion, and that seems even shallower story-wise. For a game built around repeatable daily quest style content and a lot of gear grind I guess this is fair enough. I find myself harking back to story-rich worlds to explore with characters that I can create with a rich palette of choices and that I can customise as they grow in experience. I will play Destiny 2 through as it’s an easy jump in game for our trio, but for my own gaming time I’ll continue to spend it in more expansive worlds. Long may they continue!

Keep doing this please Bioware

Posted in MMORPG, SWTOR, World of Warcraft | 4 Comments

Faction war and story agency

I was just writing a comment over at Superior Realities and I felt the need to expand on it somewhat here. The post on returning to Star Wars the Old Republic has evoked some discussion around the merits of the “Knights” era of SWTOR vs what we have now with Ossus and presumably will have going forward. With the Ossus patch, Bioware have returned us to pretty standard ground for content going forwards – the endless war between the Republic and the Sith Empire.

Since the launch of Battle for Azeroth, I’ve felt consistently that faction war isn’t that interesting as a driver of plot. Individual character stories in World of Warcraft are excellently told (e.g. Jaina’s) and the cinematics are stellar, but I’m not at all feeling invested in the faction war in that game.

I do not feel the same ennui with the similar Republic vs Empire conflict that has mostly dominated the various main story arcs of SWTOR. So why is this? Am I just more invested in Star Wars’ omnipresent faction-war? Possibly, I do strongly identify with the Jedi and Republic military as my favourite characters all come from one or the other. I’m not that comfortable playing Empire-side characters though I think that is mainly because of the annoying self-serving or duplicitous nature of most Sith NPCs.

My agent grew tired of the self-defeating politicking of most Sith

In World of Warcraft I feel more affinity with the Alliance and always have. However, I have Horde characters almost as old as my oldest character – our guild and friends have happened to play Alliance more but we have cherished Horde characters too. It’s hard to generalise but I suspect my play time in WoW is more balanced across both factions than my playtime in SWTOR which is rather more biased towards Republic. So perhaps I’m more invested personally, in terms of play hours, in one side over the other in SWTOR?

Dream team

I think the way in which stories are (or have been) told in both games and how faction conflict fits into that may offer more explanation than levels of faction-loyalty or identity. In SWTOR the faction war has been an ever-present backstory during the base game and most expansions, bar the last two. Even during the Knights expansions the two factions were often referenced in dialogues and choices – the factions hadn’t ceased to be, but were diminished in their roles.

In World of Warcraft the faction was has mostly been there in the background, well unless you PVP regularly as a chosen activity. The various expansion stories inevitably involved the two factions facing off against, or even uniting against, a common threat. Indeed, when Cataclysm reworked much of the original game zones a common threat was added to the base levelling arc as well in the form of Deathwing. So I feel like the faction war has often been alluded to, but then put on the backburner many, many times in WoW. As someone who hates PVP, and isn’t that invested in either faction as a tribal identity, the faction war has never felt like a motivator for anything. With BfA this is now our primary motivator, and the storyline is having us doing increasingly desperate or despicable actions. There’s a lot of times in the expansion, especially on a Horde character, that I wish I could skip a quest or two without blocking further progress.

In SWTOR, there certainly is the odd mission that the character I’m playing at the time might object too. Generally there is the chance to react to that in some form (however superficially), and I really appreciate that. Even if it’s just to snark at the mission giver, or to try to reject it (even if the mission then railroads you to do it anyway), that feeling of agency matters to me as a player.

If anything I would feel more invested in Battle for Azeroth if I could play a Horde character who, from the very start of the expansion, gets to resist Sylvanus’ take on events. Sylvanus is clearly manipulating the Horde, the pretense for the build-up to war was so very flimsy (mumble mumble.. Azerite.. Alliance threat.. mumble mumble) . If my troll Priest could have stood her ground and argued with Sylvanus and Saurfang, even if she lost the argument, I might feel more invested in the storyline that follows. There are signs of some improvement, with the ‘Saurfang choice’ snuck into the recent patch. But it’s very baby steps compared to what SWTOR is able to offer with the conversation/cut-scene delivery vehicle.

I just hope that going forward SWTOR keeps a strong sense or illusion of agency in the storyline, it’s something that SWTOR has done well in the past and really makes the game stand out in the MMORPG genr

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Running the Esseles in 2019

Wanting to finally get some group content done in Star Wars the Old Republic, I elected to queue for the Esseles on my baby Smuggler. I’ve been leveling him a bit since playing more SWTOR – one advantage of focusing on this game is I can actually find time for alts.

I have fond memories of running this instance on various characters but it has been years since I last played it. Going back to old dungeons (flashpoints as SWTOR calls them) is always fun for the nostalgia factor.

As Shintar notes in her detailed review of the instance it is rather unusual compared to most dungeons in MMORPGs, or even the majority of the flashpoints in this game. There’s a lot of story in this and that means a lot of interactive cut-scenes, the main story delivery mechanism in the game.

Unfortunately, MMORPG players being what they are almost immediately the request to “skip pls” came up. If I failed to skip all the multi-step dialogues fast enough, another “skip” would appear in chat – otherwise chat was devoid of communication the whole run. It wasn’t an unpleasant run otherwise, we were fast and efficient and I got some lovely loot upgrades for my character. I’ve done the instance a few times, albeit a long while ago, so it didn’t bother me that much to skip through the dialogues out of politeness.

Lots of running in PUG dungeons

That said these first two instances are so iconic and different, I would like to actually play them again properly at a more sedate pace. I felt most of the time that I had to rather focused to avoid having the other player waiting at the next click or lift shaft. I’m sure those who have run this hundreds of times can do it blindfolded on auto-pilot. For me it’s a distant memory.

Rushing in instances is a particular bugbear of mine, regardless of the amount of story there is or isn’t. I would doubt that joining a guild would help here; most of the World of Warcraft players in our rather large and friendly guild are equally of the “be polite but be efficient” mindset.  Perhaps I should start advertising in fleet chat for “full run no skip” or something, though I somehow doubt that would get many takers…

Posted in MMORPG, SWTOR | 1 Comment