Appreciating whimsy

Playing some more Skylanders, specifically the Sheep Wreck Island adventure pack, I was struck by how much I appreciate some playful humour. Sheep are a constant source of humour in the Skylanders series – they are portrayed both as sinister and the butt of many a joke. This adventure pack takes this to the max since sheep are the theme of this long but entertaining level. Mild spoilers follow this line.

These games do not take themselves too seriously…
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Starting a new SWTOR character in 2021

I’ve played a good amount of Star Wars the Old Republic, though not so much of late. I started playing way back in beta before the game launched. Since then I’ve played in blocks of varying lengths of time (from multiple years down to 3 or so months) over the intervening years. Among the many MMORPGs that I’ve played it has tended to be one that, once started, I stick to playing for a good length of time. That’s saying something compared to other games that I might return to play for one or two sessions and immediately ‘bounce’ from again.

Korriban, back in the day

My gaming trio has come to a “let’s take a bit of a break from WoW” moment, and discussing the alternatives we decided to go with leveling a new trio in SWTOR. The base levelling content is some of the very best coop MMO gaming there is in the genre. This time around they’re both playing Imperial Agent; I’d previously recommended this storyline (no spoilers in comments, please!) and it makes a nice contrast for both of them from the Sith classes they played in the last trio. I’m switching from Bounty Hunter dps in that group to Sith Assassin tank for this group. I played Jedi Shadow tank as my most recent ‘solo main’ character and really loved the class mechanics, so in my new role as tank this was the obvious class to choose.

A new Sith Assassin is born

It has been long enough since I last created a brand new character that I was surprised by the lack of base class: at the character creation screen you now choose the “advanced class” right away. Simplifying such nuances of character customisation is the overwhelming trend in the genre so it came a no surprise to see it here. After levelling this way through to 10 and off Korriban and on to the Fleet, I think it didn’t detract anything from the original, probably quite confusing system. There was no way to change advanced class once selected at level 10 before, so choosing it from the get go makes no real difference. One could argue that playing the class a bit first might help to choose, but in reality the few abilities you gained in that time were generic and not particularly representative of either advanced class, so how did it really help? I guess most players would pick what they liked the sound of, or go to the website pages to read up on it. In any case, despite this little surprise, I knew what I was going to play anyway.

Trying to find a single angle of Korriban I haven’t used before…

I’ve done the Korriban levelling experience a lot over the years. I played both Sith classes through here in beta. Then I redid it on both classes again to create alts, my Sith Marauder languishes at level 28 and my original Sith Assassin remains abandoned at level 11. I guess playing Sith has never really stuck with me that much, I’m not that into the whole “evil and cruel” thing.

As a counterpoint to my own arguement, and despite playing through Korriban pretty efficiently in one session yesterday evening, I did find myself enjoying the Sith Inquisitor story this time around. That was in contrast to the last time I played through it (in 2013!). I guess the enduring quality of the eight class stories in SWTOR is the complexity to the storylines, at least compared to most MMORPG class-related offerings. Despite wanting to eye-roll a few times at the clownish “I am the most evil!!!” nature of some of my rivals at Sith school, I do find the political scheming theme of the storyline engaging. The dialogue and alignment systems offer more replay value than most MMOs can muster in their questing content, as I was able to reflect on what I may have answered eight years ago. While playing I also decided on what to choose for this character’s nascent identity and personality. It’s not often I do any such “character building” in a MMORPG to be honest, SWTOR has always encouraged that from me.

Obligatory shot of my Shadow tank main…

I’m on a bit of a Sci-Fi binge at the moment: running my Starfinder RPG campaign, watching some good TV series (e.g. the Expanse), so a return to SWTOR, for however long this visit lasts, is a welcome occurrence.

Posted in MMORPG, SWTOR | 2 Comments

Mobile gaming and auto battlers #Skylanders

I find myself suddenly, for the first time in many, many years, playing games on more than just my desktop PC. PC gaming has dominated my computer gaming hobby ever since I first bought a 386SX computer back in 1992. It’s part of the reason why I never got into console gaming in any big way, since before I was an adult, I’ve had a PC to game on.

The only ‘big’ console I have in the house is a venerable Playstation 3, one that for about a month now has been de-mothballed to replay several Skylanders games. For years it has faithfully served us as a Blu-ray movie player and nothing else. The lack of serious use of this console for gaming is a big reason why we haven’t moved with the times generation-wise.

By chance really my husband discovered just recently there is an “auto battler” Skylanders game: Ring of Heroes. I’ve paid so little attention to mobile gaming over the years, the existence of this passed me by until now. It was released back in 2019 with the revamped version coming out late last year – I pay no real attention to mobile gaming news, unlike the MMORPG genre that occupies most of my interest and gaming time.

Auto battlers are unusual games, they can play themselves for the core game-play – the battles between your team of Skylanders and enemies. You can choose to manually control everything down to the minute detail of setting targets and choosing which abilities your Skylanders use on your turn, but in reality this slows down gameplay a lot and doesn’t, I feel, add a lot of value. Occassionally there are specific tactics in boss battles that benefit from ‘manual override’. The gameplay such that is, consists mostly of managing the team (or teams) of heroic creatures that you have collected: you form the team, gear up the characters and choose what adventures to send them on.

When logging in you are bombarded with free currencies, tickets, and items. It’s rather like some free to play MMOs in terms of the bewildering variety of popups and things to click whenever you login. There are events to take part in, mostly related to the random summon system that’s rather like a lock-box mechanic but specifically focused on collecting or upgrading the Skylanders.

I’ve not played any auto battlers before though I’m not a complete stranger to games playing themselves. When playing Black Desert Online, some activities are automatic. So if I’m reading blog posts on my second monitor while my wizard rides automatically to a waypoint, is that any different from watching my team auto-fighting enemies in Ring of Heroes?

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Buying every character slot #MMORPG #Skylanders

Husband and I have been playing a good amount of Skylanders, a series of console games where the playable characters are also collectable figures. The urge to play more characters is ever-present, and it is somewhat like having alts in a MMORPG to experience playing different character classes and the associated specific playstyle.

Each Skylander character can be levelled, complete with simple talent trees, and they can be equipped with some rudimentary gear to alter stats and appearance. Unlike in MMORPGs, however, each character is a real money purchase. As I thought of this, I likened it to the idea of needing to buy a character slot to create each and every MMO character.

In actuality this concept exists in the modern, mostly free-to-play, MMO genre. In games that were created as, or converted to lean heavily on, free-to-play monetization – buying characters slots is a thing. The game usually will give you a couple of character slots for free, maybe as many as eight, but after that you need to start buying the slots to make more. In Lord of the Rings Online a character slot costs £4.99 worth of Lotro Points, and in Everquest 2 extra character slots cost 1000 Daybreak Cash, or £8 at current prices.

In both cases those prices aren’t so different from the kinds of prices that you can pay for a new Skylander figure on Ebay (the games are rather old now), though as with any collectable figures rarer ones go for much more. I’ll admit I’ve not bought extra character slots in many MMORPGs over the years, maybe one or two in Everquest 2; but I have wanted to create characters and been stopped by the current account limit.

Skylanders differs in that you are paying for a real object, one that has separate value outside of the game they are linked to, at least if you like collecting figures. The figures are forward compatible, by which I mean that each new game in the series can use the figures from all the previous games. Many characters offer unique or varied ways of approaching in-game challenges: the characters have a lot more variety of abilities than MMORPG classes, although each individual character has pretty basic customisation compared to a MMORPG character. I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to create 50+ characters in any given MMORPG, though I’ve read of some players who do create a warrior of every race/faction or “one of everything”. I usually create one of most available character classes in a MMO that I’ve played more intensively: namely World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online and Everquest 2.

Our renewed interest in collecting Skylanders does feel a bit like a dose of alt-mania. We’ve been hunting bargains online since there are built-in mechanics encouraging collection of at least one of each type of figure (elements, movement abilities, trapmaster elements, etc.). That and we like the look or playstyle of specific figures and hunt those out for the sake of collecting them. The gameplay impact of this drives greater engagement, since each new figure is a new character to level, so more repetition of story levels or the repeatable content like arenas. Just like levelling a new alt of a character class you’ve not yet capped. It all feels rather familiar in the end…

Posted in EQ2, LotRO, MMORPG | 2 Comments

April Fools in Tamriel

I’ve not written about April Fools’ for a rather long time – that shows how little I care for the real world day. It happens that I found myself playing Elder Scrolls Online again this year, though I only managed one game session that overlapped with the week-long Jester’s festival. I read only after the fact that this festival offers a hefty experience buff, so it could have been a good moment to boost some alts up the levels.

On a whim I followed the welcome screen event notice to a quest giver near my character’s location in Stonefalls. After an amusing chat with a seemingly-confused khajiit, I grabbed a quest and headed off to rustle a pig. I may have skim-read the quest as I hadn’t realised this was basically a theft. It was only when the guard collared me, as I tried to return to said khajiit, that I realised this detail. Despite having played a good amount of this MMO, I’ve actually engaged with the justice system precious little.

It’s a pretty unique feature for a modern MMORPG to have, certainly it’s the only game I’ve played that has consequences for looting everything that isn’t nailed down from the game’s NPCs (player justice systems for PVP are something else entirely). It took a few moments for me to remember how the system works, and to think about how I was going to get the pig out of there without getting an increasingly large bounty on my character’s head.

Bounty is shown bottom right

Despite a brief moment of panic that I’d failed the quest outright, or that the bounty would then make it impossible to complete, I soon realised that it was relatively easy to avoid the guards if I stayed on quieter paths across town. Handing in filled my already full hands with boxes that I didn’t want to open for lack of space. This resulted in me taking a month of ESO Plus just to get the expanded inventory, so it looks like my ‘on a whim’ popping into the game may have to be a bit more of an involved stint…

‘Sneaking’ out

In the end I had no free evenings in-between to do more of the event, a shame as they quests seem entertaining and challenging enough, based on this first exprience. So, I missed out on the sweet experience boost, which would be useful as I’m seriously considering levelling my warden. I created him for the Morrowind expansion, but at level 5 he has a long way to go!

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Single-try dungeon challenges in MMORPGs

It’s a rarity in modern MMORPG gaming to face a challenge that you can’t retry. In single player RPGs there may be consequences for failure in fighting a boss or other encounter, though with save games such consequences are usually not so permanent. In MMORPGs, usually, there are no chances to “load back” if something goes wrong, but then you can just respawn and try again anyway. I’ve written before about death-zerging encounters that are maybe too high level or too tough for my character. In some cases you are able to reenter the fray after defeat before the fight even ends and can whittle down the boss’ health by repeatedly rejoining the battle.

It was with some consternation then, that we faced a “one-shot” challenge in the WoW Classic version of Scholomance, yesterday. Our beta-team Horde characters have finally reached the last tier of dungeons in Classic, and are now facing off against these rather challenging instances. The packs of trash mobs are large and dense, so very careful pulling is needed and downtime for mana regen is the norm.

Clearing this room takes AGES!

We used the rare drop item, Blood of Innocents, to summon Kirtonos the Herald. On this first pull things went badly and we wiped. Returning back into the dungeon we found the boss had fled. The signal fire used to summon the boss was still lit, and thus we had no way to resummon him. That was quite a disappointment, getting the blood in the first place took a lot of time to clear the first main area, so resetting the dungeon would entail a long slog just to get to the stage we could give this encounter a second try.

The summoning dance did not work…

It reminded me of another super annoying one-shot challenge in this very dungeon: the Paladin Charger mount quest chain. After investing time and money in this medium length quest chain to get various components and best smaller challenges, it was with no small frustration that I realised that the quest Judgment and Redemption shows this very same design philosophy.

Basically you have to gather a group to go to Scholomance, fight a good way into the dungeon and then survive waves of attackers to complete a ritual. We haven’t actively played our Alliance main characters for some time, so this is still incomplete on my Paladin. We tried twice on different occasions with our static 4 group plus a friend of a friend to make the necessary full group. On both occasions we seemed to be doing well, until suddenly we are overwhelmed by numbers and the tank or healer (myself) can’t keep up with the number of monsters or the incoming damage.

None shall pass

Wiping means hearthstoning back to Stormwind to abandon and reset the quest, you can’t retry it straight away since the one-use item that triggers the encounter is gone. If one person dies you can’t even get back to the room where the encounter occurs since a special gate has appeared blocking all access deeper into that section. It’s overkill, in my opinion: I’m all for having challenging boss encounters, and have no problem with needing to try a fight a few times to get the tactics. But if an encounter or a quest has a hard limit on tries, or imposes a lot of hassle on how you can retry it, then I think that’s going too far.

Posted in MMORPG, World of Warcraft | 3 Comments

Competition and quest objectives #WorldofWarcraft

Roger of Contains Moderate Peril has a post about Need vs Greed. He contemplates whether loot should go the way of gathering nodes, and be given to all characters in group content. Reading the post reminded me of a frequent complaint I and friends have had in recent retail World of Warcraft play sessions: that of competition over quest objectives.

MMORPGs have a bit of a weird, almost random, relationship with quest objectives and group play. Grouping out in the world while questing is generally possible, even on face value encouraged it seems in more recent expansions. In modern WoW, zones have areas with elite monsters, world bosses and world quests (plus ‘callings’ in Shadowlands) that promote these harder to clear areas.

World boss fight

Naturally, players will group up to clear it faster, you can use the group finder tool in game to look for others doing the same content for a social-lite experience. For world bosses there are pick up raids forming regularly to take out the piñata for loot. That loot is personal, you get something or you don’t, without resorting to the need vs greed lottery of half-buried social conventions.

Progress on this world quest is shared

Quest objectives seem to be one area of the game that remains very mixed in how it works. I see three broad categories in evidence:

  1. The good – quest objectives ticked off by any nearby party member count for all.
  2. The bad – quest objectives ticked off by any party member count individually only, so multiply the objective counts by the number of friends you play with.
  3. The infuriating – quest objectives may or may not count for all when updated for one -no clear pattern of proximity is clear, items that update it may or may not drop with each kill or click, and party members can be wildly out of sync with progress.
This world quest is individual, whereas bombing runs share progress…

Playing as a small group for quests is a pretty mixed bag, I have no hard evidence but it feels much worse than in previous expansions. I’m sure Battle for Azeroth had its fair share of problems, but I’d feel like Legion dealt with group questing better overall.

The kill count is shared, but the collect spirits goal isn’t…

Of course, it could be worse, we could be faced with splitting the party or repeating the same content for each character in the group because it’s forced solo. Equally, it could be better though, for the years that I played Guild Wars 2 exclusively as a duo or trio, I can’t remember any major problems with quest objectives not updating consistently. As is often the case WoW is in the middle of the scale when it comes to this issue – not the worst but not the best either. I can’t help being a bit disappointed with the apparent inconsistencies in this regard.

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Azeroth’s lack of pantheon

Belghast has a rather interesting post up about the lack of defined pantheistic religion in World of Warcraft. The few religious figures that are in the game are either very abstract, such as “the Light”, or rather niche such as the Troll-specific Loa. The Night Elves do worship Elune, but there’s very little detail about this deity, at least in comparison to other MMORPGs or the tablet top games the genre grew out of.

Elven temple in Val’sharah

I was the type of kid that was very happy to pour over the details of the Aztec mythology or the Egyptian pantheon for hours. Religion has always been one of the pillars of world setting and story-telling in roleplaying games for me. It explains, in part, why I eventually became pretty heavily invested in the story of The Secret World MMO; and why I really loved the Egyptian zones, areas that most players seemed less fond of. Interacting with the spirits of long-forgotten gods in dusty tombs across the second Egyptian zone really appealed to me.

Other major MMORPGs that I’ve played generally have organised religions, pantheons of gods and even mechanics linked to one or the other. In Everquest 2 there’s a large selection of gods that have alliances, rivalries and deep lore to explore; an overview of which Belghast gave in the linked post. Characters can take on a religion and gain new abilities via building up favour. Although I’m not that deeply versed in all the history or details, I know enough for an in-game reference to, or the appearance of the actual avatar of a god, to have resonance and to add weight to the story I’m playing through.

In Dungeons & Dragons Online and in Neverwinter, the two current MMORPGs based on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game, character creation involves selecting your deity from the available world-specific pantheons – Eberron for DDO (originally) and the Forgotten Realms for Neverwinter. DDOs rich character creation included lines of religion-specific enhancements (the game’s equivalent to talent trees), to offer flavoured ability or skill bonuses.

Belghast also writes about the gods of Elder Scrolls Online, something I’m less familiar with, though I’m aware that there are Daedric Princes, and the Tribunal or trio of Dark Elf gods, based on my character choices and playtime in the game. In a sense my lack of familiarity with the panthones of ESO is a plus as it makes me more motivated to delve into books full of stories or lore.

Dealings with a goddess

So I find myself in agreement with Belghast’s concluding remarks: I do think there is a gap in World of Warcraft’s world-building due to the lack of defined immortals that inspire, or demand, devotion. The danger that most of the equivalent beings in WoW are destined to become a raid boss at some point, leaves the game lacking mystery.

Posted in D&D, DDO, EQ2, MMORPG, Neverwinter, TTRPG, World of Warcraft | 1 Comment

Balancing for the end-game and moment-to-moment gameplay #FFXIV

We played over the last few days a good chunk of Final Fantasy XIV, as part of the latest free login campaign.

FFXIV is a game that I enjoy playing when I’m in the middle of a session, but for whatever reason it doesn’t manage to hook me longer term. Reflecting on this, over the last few days, I think it is partly that the classes we are playing have simple rotations; so, moment-to-moment gameplay can grow rather tiresome. Over the years that I’ve dipped in and out of this game, it has become more of an issue, the original release had pretty complex class building options, in A Realm Reborn class design has been progressively streamlined. I imagine it is now very much balanced around end-game (the cap is 80 at the moment), so lower level characters – like our Astrologian and Dark Knight pair freshly dinged level 40s – have a relatively small palette of abilities to play with.

I find myself spamming the basic attack or area damage equivalent *a lot* in combat, it is especially bad in FATEs or Battleleves where there are lots of enemies. I’m a tank class, so my ‘job’ is to keep the baddies off my husband’s healer. The most effective way of doing that is to spam area damage constantly on the global cooldown. Yes, I can throw in the line-attack, or the odd mana regen attack to keep myself topped up, but that does little to up my damage on average, and with a tank+healer combo we already face longer fights due to lower overall dps.

This isn’t a FFXIV-specific problem, of course. Many MMORPGs have simplified class ability rotations as the level cap stretched skywards. My knowledge of World of Warcraft is probably the most solid in this regard. For several expansions, Blizzard took away more and more abilities from all the classes to focus them on specific rotations and roles. In Battle for Azeroth to some extent, and in Shadowlands even moreso, this trend has been reversed. My Shaman has totems back that are not just for his current spec, and as DPS he can even drop a heal-when-hit shield on allies. This level of utility and breadth of abilities is a very welcome returning feature to Retail WoW. However, leveling new characters in Retail WoW can involve many levels of ultra boring gameplay, as classes start with very few abilities, and often lack the most fun ones until very near the level cap.

It’s kind of strange how narrow FFXIV classess feel now with a big gap in time between playing and with the comparative experience of playing a MMO that is developing in the opposite direction mechanically; perhaps, if we ever reach the cap, the classes will feel more interesting? The irony is, in this MMO much more than most, a single character can fill any role and playstyle with ease because of the class switching mechanic. But, if those classes feel so much simpler than classes in other MMOs, that class flexibility doesn’t necessary lead to more satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay…

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

Alting I will go

Massively OP had a post asking why readers play alt characters a few days ago. At the time I was focused on which game I could play more than which character. I’ve been playing alts almost as long as I have played MMORPGs. In answer to the Massively post, I play alts for two reasons: firstly, to fill party role gaps for startic groups, and secondly for crafting self-reliance.

I played a couple of sessions of Black Desert Online, and by pure chance I manage to find the quests to unlock farming, which I’d quested past many levels before without noticing. I started farming with expectations that I would really enjoy this aspect of the game. I had several cooking quests already, so being able to produce more of the raw ingredients myself appeals to me.

Sadly, I’d forgotten one of the major gameplay aspects of BDO, the game is designed around keeping you logged in for long sessions. Like many “life-skill” aspects, growing crops takes time, hours in fact, and the crops only develop while you are logged on. That had me leaving my PC running while I was playing games on the Playstation. Yes I could be playing other BDO content while waiting on this, but this is my holiday week and I want to spend a good amount of time away from my PC.

Then, I had the idea of just popping into Lord of the Rings Online to do some farming there. Down the proverbial rabbit hole I went. This is how alt-gameplay gets me every time, at least in certain MMOs. I logged on to my Minstrel, who happens to be my highly skilled farmer/cook alt. He lives almost exclusively in the Shire – hobbits make the best cooks after all. So, I did some farming and then some cooking and ended up with some rather nice buff food for my champion main character. As I was farming, it occured to me that this character isn’t so far removed from the level 45 new content that is coming. I remember Minstrel as being rather fun and a pretty good solo class, perhaps I should actually take him away from his fields and oven and do some adventuring for once…

Then I looked at his quest log and equipped gear and realised just how long he’s been a “crafting alt”, his gear was mostly from the mid-teen levels, and he dinged level 30 while cooking the buff food. LOTRO is arguably the game that I have alted in the most, specifically for crafting. This game kept the interlocking dependencies between professions that other MMOs removed, over the years. So it pays to have crafting alts, or good contacts in the server community.

All the grey quests belong to this alt

On a tangential note, by coincidence when I logged, the biweekly Michel Delving Market was underway as I cooked. This community event has music, trading and roleplay. The organisers camped near the crafting area to set up ‘stalls’ and other players came and went. As a crafter I’ve benefitted from this a few times, in terms of obtaining good quality crafting tools for alts, or for obtaining some rarer materials. It’s also nice to see a starter zone so busy with other players.

I then logged between several characters to check for what I could craft to gear-up my Minstrel for some levelling. That quickly led deeper down the rabbit hole since I realised I would need to go mining for gold and iron, and likely leather-gathering if I wanted fully upgrade his woefully out of date attire. So, the session vanished to checking crafting recipes, bags and vaults. Just what I enjoy doing on a lazy Monday evening.

There’s gold in these here hills

Even better, the next couple of sessions are mapped out now that I know what to gather on which alt…

Posted in BDO, LotRO, MMORPG | 1 Comment