Sunday, January 18, 2015

Adrift in Archeage, Part V - Crossing Over

Ever since Hatakeyama reached the shores of the great sea in Archeage the beautiful blue waters have held a deep and abiding fascination for this young Harani. Born and raised in the orange, dusty savannah of the Arcum Iris, she had little knowledge of the sea as a youth - the idea that a body of water could encompass the entire world seemed fantastical to her. But when she finally reached the coast for the first time, and saw the azure waters stretching to the horizon, she was smitten for good. She would love the sea until the day she died, and beyond.
The sea in Archeage is both beautiful and perilous.

It was for this reason that I was resolved that her first oceanic crossing would be done under her own power. She still had her final trading quest to complete - this quest would award her a free 16x16 plot, but it entailed crossing the channel separating Haranya and Nuia and delivering a trade pack to a trader in a hostile port. Noisy had offered to run me across and act as escort/bodyguard, and while I told him I was keen, I was already making preparations for a solo crossing. I gathered up all the mats for crafting my pack, consulted the map numerous times and tried to pick a route which seemed the safest to me. Ollo is a North American server, and so I planned my run during evening my time, which would translate to early morning for the Americans.

Zero hour arrived, and Hatakeyama made her way to the specialty work bench in Mahadevi and duly constructed her pack. Trade packs have heft and weight and severely restrict your movement - they can also be stolen and plundered. This is a nice compromise between the very light death penalty imposed by WoW in open world PvP (i.e. a short res timer at the graveyard) and the total loss suffered when you lose your ship in EVE or when you are killed in Darkfall (all your gear is dropped where you died). In Archeage your gear and your progress as a character remain unaffected by death, but losses can be incurred or windfalls gained when undertaking in commerce in AA via the mechanism of trade packs. Trade packs can be expensive to make, require varying degrees of time and material, and constitute non-trivial losses, thereby giving meaning to these trading runs for both merchant and pirate alike. In my mind I was already adopting the EVE mindset of "don't fly it if you can't afford to lose it" - I mentally prepared myself for the worst case scenario, in which pirates boarded my ship, murdered me, tossed me overboard, plundered my pack, then set fire to my ship and sent it to the bottom.

The journey begins in this deserted cove on the Blackrock Coast in Mahadevi.

Which is not to say that I didn't want to succeed. At the time of crossing I was in my mid 40s, which meant that I was completely defenceless. Any 50 on the prowl would have taken me apart with ease, and so any plan involving combat was out of the question. If I did encounter hostiles my contingency plan was based on outrunning any hostiles, making wide, looping detours if necessary to avoid danger. If outrunning was out of the question I would despawn my ship before combat was initiated (once combat begins your ship is unable to despawn until the fight is over), hit stealth, and dive to the bottom. Yes, I would swim with speed of a constipated elephant, and have the manuovering abilities of the same, but the sea is deep and big, and stealth can be refreshed every 30 seconds. What I envisioned would ensue would be a demented MMO re-enactment of Das Boot, in which I play the part of a U-boat pursued by Allied destroyers. The destroyer (played by the enemy ship) would steam to my last sighted position, and drop depth charges (in the form of enemy players) who would spam AOEs in the vicinity. The danger for me would be the brief interval between stealth and re-stealth - if the enemy got a fix on me I was as good as dead. The speed at which I would swim at with a trade pack on my back meant that as soon as someone saw me they could power to my position, unleash some AoEs and force me out of hiding. But if it came to that I would go to the bottom and drown intentionally. If they want the pack they'll have to bring scuba gear to retrieve it.

Seagulls whirl about off the starboard bow.

As plans went it was pretty shithouse, and not based on reality - I have no idea how pirates pursue their prey in AA, and whether a lone runner in a clipper is a target even worth attacking. But making contingency plans gives you the illusion of control, and is better than just mumbling a few "Hail Maries" under your breath as you cross hostile waters. For good or ill, that was the plan, and Hatakeyama set about putting it into motion. She brought her trade pack to a deserted cove on the Flotsam Shore, and spawned her ship. There she practiced manuouvering in and among the jagged inlets, and also did some mock "abandon ship" drills in which she practiced quickly despawning her ship and diving off the side. After a few minutes of this I was bored senseless, and so I abandoned the drills and pointed the Miyagi seaward to set sail for the Nuia continent. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Who knows what monsters lurk in the depths of the ocean, watching and waiting for the careless or the unwary.

The first few minutes were nerve-wracking to say the least, but nerves soon gave way to exhilaration. The sea in AA is beautiful, perilous, and alive - sea gulls circle above the waves, and sharks and other sea monsters lurk beneath. I've been told that the best gear in the game drops from the mythical kraken, which prowls the deep waters of the central ocean and requires a large armada to defeat. The first hiccup of the voyage occurred when the Miyagi ran afoul of floating sea bugs. Much like packs of jellyfish or blue bottles in Australia, these creatures float together in shoals, and while a single one is just a nuisance, a group of them can pose real problems. Especially if you are just a lone sailor manning the wheel, unable to defend yourself. Unwittingly plowing through a pack of these parasites, they swarmed all over Hatakeyama's ship. A single one affixed itself to Hatakeyama much like the dreaded facehuggers from Alien lore, and started chewing her face off. I was in a quandary. Did I stop the ship, and try to clear the decks of these sea-borne vermin, or did I just keep on pushing ahead at flank speed? I was paralysed with indecision. It seemed that the maiden voyage of the Miyagi was about to come to an ignominious end. Just when all seemed lost, the bugs started falling away. The one affixed to Hatakeyama's face hung on the longest, but it, too, was eventually dislodged. She was at 20% health and badly shaken, but still alive. After that close call Hatakeyama took great care to spot and circumvent these shoals of bugs. She also spotted a shark or two, and these she gave a wide berth - if a pack of mutant sea bugs almost tore her face off, then she didn't want to know what damage a shark could do.
The second hiccup of the trip occurred soon afterwards. The glorious blue of the virtual sky gave way to grey and gloom, and soon flashes of lightning began to light up in the distance. No one I'd talked to had prepared me for bad weather at sea in AA, and what the possible ramifications were. I was reacting on a visceral level - being caught in bad weather in the open sea is never a good thing in real life - but fortunately in this virtual world it was merely smoke and mirrors, and it didn't impact upon my vessel in the slightest. In fact I believe that the doom and gloom had been precipitated by my vessel straying too close to a mysterious island, whose approaches were guarded by tumultuous storms akin to those found in classical Greek mythology. I wondered what secrets the island held to be warded by such dramatic weather, but it was a mystery that would have to be solved another time. Once the Miyagi pulled away, the darkness gave way to blue skies and calm seas once more.

The weather takes a turn for the worse.
With the inclement weather behind her Hatakeyama turned her attention to the dangers posed by enemy players. She was now near the enemy coast, and there would be reds about. In AA you are either a green (same faction), a blue (someone in your own party/raid), a red (a member of the enemy faction), or a purple (a player who is flagged to be able to kill members of the same faction). Doone of XP Chronicles once argued that OWPvP is "thin"  content because it doesn't happen 24/7, and the Nosy Gamer tried to use the same reasoning to argue that EVE is not a PvP game because PvP only happens sporadically. Both commentators are wrong in my opinion, because they limit the impact of OWPvP to the act of PvP itself, while failing to take into account the ramifications on player behavior and the virtual world based on the mere possibility and threat of OWPvP. In EVE the destruction of ships from PvP is the engine which drives the game's economy, and the threat of PvP is leveraged into null-sec politics and diplomacy. OWPvP adds layers to the world, imbuing it with a human element of danger in addition to the PvE hazards. The sea becomes a much more dangerous place in AA simply because of the potential for conflict, loss and gain. I don't have to fight a single pirate to feel danger - just knowing that they are out there made my journey much more immersive and exciting, and turned what would otherwise be a dreary and tedious boat ride into a calculated gamble with something on the line.
The enemy coast is in sight.

Fortunately for Hatakeyama no black sails materialised on the horizon. The coast was now in sight, and another dilemma posed itself. The trader was located on the main docks, and the question now was whether to brazenly sail the ship into the dock, or disembark and despawn some distance away and stealth walk in the rest of the way. Hatakeyama decided to sail the ship by the docks, and make the call depending on how busy the docks were. To her delight she saw that the dock was deserted - she wasted no time in heaving to, despawning her ship, and walking unmolested to the waiting trader. Mission accomplished.

Seconds after turning in her trade pack and completing her quest, a pair of hostile vessels steam into the harbour.

To her chagrin, however, mere seconds after turning in her pack two fishing trawlers filled with reds docked behind her. The trawlers launched harpoons to pull themselves into the dock, and several reds leapt off the side of the vessels and glided  in to land beside Hatakeyama. There would be no return trip - there was not enough time to respawn her ship and sail away, and she didn't want to give the enemy the satisfaction of watching her trying to open a portal and escape. There was not enough time for the latter even if she wanted to, and so she just sat on the dock, surrounded by a dozen reds, and waited for the end with dignity.
Surrounded by enemies, Hatakeyama prepares to meet her end with dignity.

The end came swiftly. Despite the presence of the NPC guards, the nearby reds dispatched Hatakeyama without undue ceremony, and escaped reprisal by gliding away from the docks. But unlike real life, death doesn't mean the end in virtual worlds, and soon Hatakeyama awoke to find herself on an unknown beach studded with wrecks. She had accomplished her mission, and in this simulation of reality all her death meant was a loss of time. Her gear remained intact, and the one thing they could have stolen from her, her trade pack, had been safely turned in already. All that remained for this virtual version of Hatakeyama was to open a portal back to her homeland of Haranya. But she tarried awhile, captivated by the lonely, windswept beauty of this beach at the end of the world. Walking from wreck to wreck, and occasionally wading into the surf to place her hand on the barnacle-encrusted remains of these shattered hulks, she eventually returned to the beach and built a bonfire from the pieces of driftwood littering the sandy dunes. Here she waits - but for who or what, she can't really say.

Life beyond death. Hatakeyama awakens on a lonely beach studded with wrecks.
The real Hatakeyama has been gone eight years now, and while by all appearances I have moved on in life, body and spirit, I catch myself occasionally thinking of the girl I once loved, and wonder whether I will meet her again when my time comes. I have long since ceased talking about her with close friends and family, and now only I am privy to how profoundly and tenaciously this memory clings to the essence of what makes me who I am today. It makes me sad to think that her memory only lives on in the minds of a small few, and that eventually all recollections, thoughts and fragments that try vainly to encapsulate the person that she was will be obliterated by the relentless tide of time. An undercurrent of sorrow runs through the sum of all our experiences, and while that is not the be all and end of all of the human condition, it makes the mind reel at the thought of how many ties, connections and bonds have been forgotten, lost and buried in the swirls and eddies of history.  Since she passed all my female avatars have been named Hatakeyama - my EVE avatar, my WoW rogue, my TESO Nightblade, and my AA Harani all sport her namesake in a clumsy, makeshift and fruitless attempt to remember. My world view is rooted in empiricism and the scientific method, and so I harbor no illusions about what dreams may come when we finally make the final voyage over the great ocean of the unknown. But even science doesn't hold all the answers, and my layman's knowledge of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics all tell me that there is much more to reality than meets the eye, and that the nature of the multiverse may be beyond our limited understanding as a species. Who knows? Perhaps one day I will wake up on a deserted beach much like this one, and there, in and amongst the flotsam and wreckage there will be a Japanese girl warming herself by a large bonfire on the beach. Time will have no meaning in this place, and she will spot me and shake her head and grumble, "Osoi yo! Doko ni itteta no?" I think that I would be too full of emotion for words - contrition and joy would render me speechless, and in this dream I can see the look of displeasure on her face giving way to concern, before she finally laughs at my maudlin sentimentality. I've always been the sentimental one, and she the pragmatist. Still chuckling, she takes me by the arm, rests her head on my shoulder, and together we start walking inland into the green of the undiscovered country.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Adrift in Archeage, Part IV - Of Soil, Stone and Sea

This post was written during my second run at Archeage, the first having been terminated prematurely by the advent of WoD. Now that all my toons in WoW are at max level and geared, I have much more free time to devote to other pursuits - I only need to log onto WoW once or twice a week to grind Conquest. I decided to give AA another bash - despite all the negative reviews surrounding the game my experience has been nothing but positive, and I wished to at least hit the level cap before calling it quits. My first run in AA ended with my avatar owning two small 8x8 farms at the foothills of the Windscour Savannah, and her progression halted at level 41. The first three posts of this series chronicled Hatakeyama's wanderings during the first run - the subsequent posts will detail her adventures in the second.

Hatakeyama returns to AA during the festive season.

When Hatakeyama returned to her small dusty holdings at the foot of the Windscour Mountains, she found to her dismay that they were no longer hers. She had been evicted for failing to pay her taxes, so she was once again a landless, penniless vagabond, a rough miner by trade without clear prospects or direction. Forearmed with knowledge now, however, she wasted no time in riding her Leomorph around the circumference of the savannah, looking for places where she could replace her farms. Fortunately the Windscour Savannah seemed to have gained an ill reputation amongst the denizens of general chat, as evidenced by the transcript below. Compounded by the fact that many players had deserted AA for the cultural juggernaut that is WoW, I reckoned her chances of finding a suitable spot were much better now than in the early land rush which accompanied the game's release.

Hatakeyama's search was not in vain. Windscour's reputation meant that there were vacant plots available here and there, and it didn't take long for Hatakeyama to find a new spot to put down two 8x8's (her plot and her alt Beorn's). She couldn't believe her good fortune - in contrast to her previous holdings, which were situated miles from any available amenities, these two farms were literally beside the vendors and the warehouses. She wasted no time claiming them, and as a celebration, she planted a few stands of cherry trees around her plot to thank the capricious gods of Archeage. She was then ganked by a passing red, but she didn't care - she was a land owner again, even if it this province was considered to be the ghetto. She was an immigrant after all, and immigrants historically begin their journeys in places disdained by the middle class and the well-to-do. This was an advance on scrabbling and scratching a living on hidden farms in haunted manses, and Hatakeyama was happy to have it.

Hatakeyama's new holdings in the Windscour Savannah. The vendors and amenities can be seen in the top right, just over the celebratory cherry trees planted all around her humble plots. They didn't last long - they were chopped down by a passing player less than a day later.

It was during this time that Hatakeyama finally met Noisy (Adam from The Noisy Rogue). Despite having played on the same server since October, December was the first time that our paths had crossed in-game. We had both followed Syncaine of Hardcore Casual into the game, joined his guild, and then watched with bemusement as Syncaine fell out of love with AA as quickly as he had fallen in love with it. From initially labelling the game "the spiritual successor of Ultima Online" he has since concluded that "good design can't overcome a bad business model and stupidity" and takes pot shots at AA at every opportunity. He's not alone - J3w3l of Healing the Masses has also fallen out love with the game, despite lavishing it with early praise, and Alysianah of Mystic Worlds, while not giving up on the title, has changed her status to F2P as protest for what she sees as the game's many ills. I'm not going to argue with their criticisms, because a lot of it is justified. I have since concluded however, that the perfect MMO in my brain will never likely be made, and nowadays I now try to weight the pros and cons of each title to see whether it is worth my time. AA has pulled me back in, which means that there is something I like about this game despite all the bad press surrounding it.

So Hatakeyama is back - for now, at least. She was given a re-invite back to <Unreal Aussies> after being kicked out for inactivity. AA is an old school MMO, which means that socialisation actually improves and enhances your gameplay. People who think PvP games are anti-social are flat out wrong - shared danger and mutual gain are powerful factors which compel socialisation, and are much more natural drivers than LFG and OQueue. For now though I have little to offer my guild - I hope to become a decent healer one of these days, and join the guild on a trade run or roam so I can be of some use. It's funny how you can tell what game players come from from the vocabulary they use. I instantly pegged a guildie as an EVE player due to his use of the word "primary". WoW PvPers use the word "focus" or "train" to express the same idea. Being a member of <Unreal Aussies> also introduced me to the phenomenon of cross-gaming guilds, something which I have seen but have not been part of yet. As a relative newcomer I'm focusing on soaking up information, keeping my ears open, and trying not be annoying. You never want to be that "guy" - the annoying newcomer who always has their hand out. So far however my new guild has been quite helpful - I'll detail more in later posts, because I don't want to get ahead of my narrative. Noisy also offered to take my avatar out on the ocean for the very first time on his brand new clipper, an offer which I gladly accepted. He even turned over the wheel to this landlubber, who repaid him by driving straight into a naval battle in progress.

"Erm...are those bad guys?" I asked, peering at the ships in confusion.

Fleeing from pirates on Noisy's clipper.

"Yes." Noisy replied. I had to admire his restraint - if I had been him I would have been shitting myself and screaming turn the boat around now FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. Instead, he very calmly said, "Just turn around, and head straight for the coast." Which I did, as best I could. Which was not as easy as it first appeared, as I had removed my turn left and turn right keys from my keybindings, in an attempt to transition to mouse turning. Luckily, Reck, another Kiwi on TeamSpeak, told me I could navigate with the arrow keys. Boats handle fairly realistically in AA - they don't turn on a dime, and you have to gauge the degree of your turns to get the boat going in the direction you want. I managed to get the boat on the right heading, and after a few tense moments, we were once again back in the safe waters of the coast.

This encounter did nothing to dampen Hatakeyama's love of the sea, and in fact, only fuelled her desire to get a seafaring vessel of her own. Noisy was able to give me some advice on how to acquire the plans on the AH, and how to raise some gold. He also alerted me to the fact that Hatakeyama was unwittingly sitting on a fortune of raw stone.

"You're a miner, right?" he queried.


"Stone bricks sell for about 45 gold per stack."

A cursory check of my inventory revealed that I had over 10 stacks in my inventory, and after a brief and anxious struggle with the AH interface, Hatakeyama was transformed from a penniless pauper into a woman with a stake. Mining serves two purposes for me in AA - as a way to gain experience (I'd levelled from 35 to 45 chiefly by logging on and mining), as well as a means to dump Labor. Who knew that the humble raw stones accrued along the way were going to become her main source of revenue? I guess when people are building houses and consuming Hereafter Stones to teleport from zone to zone it creates an endless demand for stone. All those hours spent mining in the Anvilton mountains had been worth it. Just pure dumb luck that I had chosen to mine as a way of levelling.

Hatakeyama constructing her very own clipper.

Hatakeyama knew exactly what she wanted to do with her newly won gold. She acquired the plans for a harpoon clipper from the AH, and then set about buying the materials required to fabricate her very own seafaring vessel. She made her way to the port of Austera, created her own dry dock, and set about manufacturing her own ship. There was another anxious moment when she brought the packs down to the dry dock in the wrong order, and she was forced to stash her fabric pack at the end of a dingy alley and hope that no one would find and walk away with it. She quickly created an iron pack and hauled it down to the dock as fast as her donkey would allow, then darted back to the alley, recovered her fabric pack, and then brought it to her ship.

The clipper takes shape after Hatakeyama lugs shipments of iron, lumber and fabric to the dry dock.

The ship was completed shortly thereafter, and Hatakeyama was now a proud owner of her very own seafaring vessel. It cost her around 150 gold (50 for the plans, and a further 100 for mats) which for Hatakeyama, translates to about one and a half hours of mining - not really a grind at all, especially compared to some of the rep grinds I have undertaken in the past. According to my own limited knowledge, the harpoon clipper is one of the fastest ships in the Archeage armada. Unlike her sister, the adventure clipper which sports a single cannon on her starboard side, the harpoon clipper is armed with a harpoon which is used to anchor itself to enemy ships and to keep them from escaping or despawning. They serve the same function as tacklers in EVE Online. One of my AA dreams is to become involved in a naval battle - the larger the better. That would be an MMO dream come true.

One of the proudest moments for this young Harani, as her new clipper slips her berth from the dry dock, and enters the sea for the very first time.

Every ship needs a name however, and I played around with a few before finally deciding on the Miyagi. Japanese convention named battleships after provinces in their nation, and so I called the new ship Miyagi, after Miyagi-ken in the north-east part of Japan. The real Hatakeyama was born in Miyagi, and while the clipper is no battleship, it seemed to fit nicely. Besides, I also like how the name coincides with the name of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. Serendipity all around.

Now that Hatakeyama has a ship the world is her oyster, and immediately a course of action came to mind. She still had to complete one more trading quest to acquire her free 16x16 plot, and this entailed crossing the ocean and delivering a pack to a trader on hostile shores. I was going to swim it, the same way Noisy had, but now I had a ship of my own. Noisy and a couple of other guildies had already offered to take me there and to provide an escort, but I fobbed them off with excuses. This one she was going to do on her own.

The Miyagi sets sail for lands unknown.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Adrift in Archeage, Part III - Crime and Punishment

Note: This post was written in early November, during my first run in Archeage - I'm now in my second run, having picked up from where my toon had stalled (41) when WoD was released.

I've now stood trial on two occasions in Archeage, and in both cases the jury has found me innocent of all charges. “Innocent” is actually a misnomer in AA – the game keeps a perfect log of your behaviour in the game, and the jury's role is not to ascertain whether or not you did those things, but rather to determine if your offence is pardonable (“innocent”) or punishable (“guilty”). I haven't been a juror yet, but the impression I'm getting is that the jury has the option to apply a sliding scale of sanctions based on the severity of the charges. Every time you steal, assault or murder someone in AA, you leave behind bloody footprints as “evidence” of your misdeed. Any player can come along and click on these, and once done, your crimes are added to an online rap sheet. You can tell if you have been reported by players by the accumulated Crime and Infamy points on your character sheet. Once these numbers begin to rise it means there have been “witnesses” to your crime, although they may not have actually seen what you did first-hand. They have an option to write an account of what they actually saw, but most of the time they have simply chanced upon a blood spatter on the ground, and clicked on it.

My first ever trial, in the main court. The NPC judge sits in front, the jury sits behind (in this picture we are waiting for two more jurors to port in for a total of five), and spectators can wander in from the outside to watch proceedings. The court room is not instanced, it is part of the persistent world at large.

In my first trial I was accused (and rightfully so) of stealing crops and livestock growing in the world at large. There was no need for the prosecution to prove that I had done the nefarious deed - the computer with its all-seeing eye had recorded my misdeeds, although it did need someone to click on my bloody footprints for my crime to be reported. This means that AA requires players to be active citizens if they want to uphold “the rule of law”, because unreported footprints eventually fade away and the offenders escape “justice”. It would be an interesting experiment to see how many people actually take the time to report crimes in AA. I used to do it religiously, until the presence of bots changed my mind. Because you can kill members of your own faction, you can effectively kill bots in PvP zones by flagging yourself purple. The downside is that this is considered a crime, and you will have to convince jurors that you were, in fact, killing bots as opposed to innocent friendlies.

My second trial in AA, in Court Room B. I was wondering if there was only one courtroom in the game, but clearly there are quite a few, as this one was different to my first. It's actually below the one depicted above.

In my defence I didn't originally set out to be a thief. I just chanced upon some plants growing in the world and pulled them out. I only realised that they belonged to another player when I started to leave a trail of bloody footprints behind me. A cursory mouse over is more than enough to reveal the status of a plant or animal, so ignorance is only an excuse in the first few instances until you become familiar with the mechanic. In my second AA post I mentioned my difficulties in establishing an illegal farm, and how my makeshift plots kept being plundered by other players. I no longer uproot or harvest plants or animals I chance upon the world, given my epiphany about F2P players not being able to own land and being forced to plant in the wilderness to do any kind of farming. But in the early days of scrabbling for crops I undertook in some tit for tat behaviour, uprooting and harvesting other crops which didn't belong to me because my own farms had been subject to depredation. It took that encounter in the haunted manor to make me change my behaviour (see last post). I'm not saying I won't steal crops I see in the future – but for now, whenever I see plots of illegal farms I leave them be. I have to confess that the prospect of spending jail time acts as a mild deterrent, although I'm sure I won't care should I chance on an Archeum tree growing in the wild.

Killing bots. In this fight, Xigfsm feels the wrath of Hatakeyama. Luckily they don't fight back!

In addition to the thefts, I was also charged with several counts of murder. AA is one of only a few games I know which allows you to flag and kill members of your own faction. This has several interesting repercussions. As mentioned earlier, you are able to kill bots on your own faction – something which every gamer has had dreams of doing, I'm sure. While farming in the haunted manor, I noticed that I wasn't only the one who had noticed the seclusion of this place. There were also about three to four bots merrily farming the man-eating plants roaming the manor grounds. Bots in PvP zones have to choose the most secluded, out-of-the-way places in order to run their scripts to avoid being ganked. When the light bulb went on in the brain I went on an orgy of bot-killing, using them as moving target dummies to test out combos and to measure my damage output relative to an enemy player's health bar. Despite being a PvP game I have seen almost no PvP at all in AA – levels 1-30 are spent in protected zones, and even the contested zones, despite my earlier trepidation, are fairly tame compared to the carnage happening in the levelling zones in the opening days of WoD. This bout of bot killing represents the high point of PvP for me in AA to date – all the other times have involved a level 50 running by and swatting me down as a casual afterthought, or being completely ignored. There was one occasion where I blundered into the war in Halcyona by mistake, looking for a quest turn-in which also happened to be the enemy objective. I was trampled by over a hundred red enemies, and had to rethink this plan. Before I could do anything, however, I was teleported away from the battlefield, and I suddenly found myself in a packed courtroom filled with AFK players, a solemn judge with a funny looking hat, and a jury panel behind, which filled up as the jurors arrived. A rap sheet appeared in the middle of the screen detailing a list of my offences, the times and dates, as well as commentary written by “witnesses” who had reported my crimes. My first trial had begun.

So there I was, looking for a quest turn in over on the Western continent - that is, the enemy's continent - and I found it. Along with about a hundred reds who ran over me, and whose actions sent me to court. Once you have 50+ Crime points, being killed in PvP will send you to trial for your crimes.

In AA players become eligible for trial once they have accumulated over 50 Crime points, and are initiated the first time the player dies in PvP combat after this threshold is reached. The aforementioned rap sheet appears before the "accused" as well as the jurors to help them in their deliberations. Before long the entire jury had been assembled - five players picked at random – and I was asked to plead my case. I played the wide-eyed newbie card, which wasn't far from the truth.

My rap sheet, where all my heinous deeds are recorded by Big Brother. I ask you, members of the jury - is this the face of a murderer?

“Does the defendant have anything to say?”

“Oh wow, this is cool – court room and everything.” I went with the wide-eyed and bushy tailed approach.

“First time?”

“Yes, sir.” Best to be respectful to people who hold your fate in their hands. And hope this juror isn't a woman, lest I offend her with my presumption of her maleness.

“Do you want to experience jail life?” Hell, no – I was looking at maybe an hour of downtime here. And thank God it's not a girl.

“If that is your decision.” Have to stay humble.

“All the PKs look like bot kills to me. Innocent!” My heart leapt.

“Lots of uproots, though. He should do some time for those.” Oh, shit. I willed for this guy to have a disconnect or something, lest he influence the rest with his clear-headed, rational thinking.

The jury deliberated. After a few minutes, the verdict came in – innocent. I had gotten away with my stealing because bot killing is an approved activity amongst the general player base, and in my case, the amount of bots I had killed outweighed the crops I had stolen. This would vary from jury to jury of course, and there is no way of knowing the character and the composition of the players judging you. In my second trial my defence was curt and succinct. “I killed bots. That's all I did.”

“How do you know they were bots?”

“Look at their names on the rap sheet, please.”

I received my second innocent verdict without further deliberation. Bot killing is a publicly approved activity in AA it seems, although I believe if you roll the dice enough you will find a jury that will convict you anyway. Jury trials are broadcast in zone chat, so it is interesting to see how these player trials play out and the vast array of defences put on offer by the defendants. Some defendants come out transparently humble and apologetic like myself, only to turn nasty when convicted. Others are courtroom lawyers, using logic and precedent to plead their case, only to find to their dismay that logic and precedent don't always have a place in MMOs. The funniest moments for me occur when one defendant is acquitted for a series of crimes, and the subsequent defendant gets hammered for an identical one simply because he/she drew a belligerent, irrational or simply apathetic jury. I can sympathise with the subsequent defender, who can rightfully complain, "Wait a minute...the last guy killed more people than me, and he gets off scot-free? WTF is this?!? I only killed people in self-defence!!!" You can imagine hearing them screaming in outrage as they are clapped in irons and dragged away to the prison. It makes me chuckle every time.

Justice is served - not guilty!

One particularly memorable defendant was a player who jumped on the podium and went on an long-winded tirade against the jury, saying, “Fuck you all, you bunch of baddies. You lot are a bunch of sorry excuses for players. What a joke. Learn to play you useless twats. Go ahead, do your worst. This is all you losers can do. ” He got hammered with a three hour sentence, so clearly that defence didn't work out so well for him - however, there is something slightly inspiring about going down in flames unapologetically. There are also cases of brazen corruption, in which the defendant offers gold for an innocent verdict. They sometimes get it, too, which makes me wonder how the jurors get their assurances that they'll receive their bribes. It's not all one way traffic either – unscrupulous jurors will sometimes put their hands out and ask for gold in return for a not guilty verdict. Sometimes prominent or infamous members of the community, or players associated with hated guilds are put on the stand, and people in zone pipe up with comments like “Innocent!” or “Free him!” Alternatively, there can be cries of “That bastard killed me”, “he's a Pker – put him away!” or “he belongs to a pirate guild - max sentence!” It's a great feature of AA – it really makes the world come alive, builds or destroys player reputations, gives context and consequence to “illegal” acts, and allows players to make the decisions whether to commit, report, and convict acts which would otherwise be meaningless in less layered MMOs. 

It's such a shame that the game is plagued with such chronic P4P issues, because AA is a rough but unmistakeable sandbox belonging to the same species of games as EVE Online. However, I don't play AA the way I play instanced, balanced PvP games like SC2 or WoW Arena, and I don't have the same expectations - namely, the requirement for scrupulous balancing to ensure that skill is the primary determinant of victory. In sandboxes like these I accept that asymmetry is a fundamental characteristic of persistent open world PvP, and just accept the real money element as another factor similar to levels, gear, state of readiness, group size, political affiliations, time played, individual player skill, etc., which can contribute to unbalanced encounters in the virtual world. The onus on me as a player in these type of games is to maximise the factors which work to my advantage (i.e. practising, joining large social guilds, taking advantage of surprise, etc.), while mitigating the areas in which I am weak. Of course, some players take exception at the intrusion of real world asymmetry (money) into the virtual world, and I can't say I blame them. At this stage however, I am willing to overlook these to take part in an interesting virtual sandbox - at least until i) TESO releases their Justice system (and open world PvP) and/or the Imperial City; and ii) Camelot Unchained is released.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part VIII - Embracing the Grind

So December 2nd has come and gone, and S16 has commenced in earnest. Season 16 has been renamed Warlords Season 1, as befitting an expansion whose underlying theme seems to be the reboot of the WoW franchise. I still can't quite believe I am back, doing exactly the same thing I have been doing in WoW since the days of the Burning Crusade. I must be mentally defective or something - isn't that the definition of insanity, doing the same thing every time and expecting a different result?

My first level 100 - Tientzo the Mistweaver.

I have just finished levelling my 3rd character - my paladin - and have a mistweaver monk and a feral druid already at cap and wearing full Honor gear. The information I posted in my last post RE acquiring the Conquest cap is out of date and incorrect, which should teach me to research my facts before posting them publicly. Apologies if I misled anyone. The Conquest cap, previously 2200, has been dramatically slashed to 1700. 1500 is the soft cap for Arenas and Rateds, with an additional 200 points available from Ashran quests. Given that my servers (Gundrak/Jubei'Thos) are outnumbered over 4 to 1 this makes it very difficult to get the cap if acquiring points are dependent on victories in Ashran, but we shall see. I haven't delved deep enough into Ashran to learn the ins and outs of the questing mechanics there, but at first glance it appears that this clumsy attempt to incentivise world PvP penalises players who belong to less populated factions. The smaller weekly cap extends the gearing season to about 16-18 weeks, as opposed to the 12-15 week duration which characterised earlier seasons, although as per previous seasons, you can increase your weekly cap by increasing your ratings. I've also noticed that the Blizzard catch-up mechanism is still in effect, in which toons have their cap increased by a 1000 for every week they miss. This means that you only lose 700 points of potential Conquest for every missed week, although you will still have to play your games to get the points.

The good news is that Blizzard has largely done away with the gearing grind. You can literally gear up your toon in one to three nights, as each win in a random BG will award you a tithe of Honor and a strongbox, which more likely than not will contain a piece of blue Honor gear. A friend of mine also mentioned that having the Gladiator's Sanctum in your garrison will allow you to gear up in a few hours - work orders placed in this building apparently generate blue level PvP gear. Blue level PvP gear comes in three flavours - Aspirant, Combatant, and Warforged Combatant, and there are incremental differences between the three, but they can all be won through lockboxes dropped in random BGs. All of them are still superseded by purple Conquest gear. It is no longer mandatory to win a Rated BG to cap Conquest, although the substitute, a requirement to do win battles in Ashran, is unsatisfactory because outnumbered factions are largely at a disadvantage. On the plus side, Blizzard has given the players the freedom to cap any way they want - it is possible to cap through Skirmishes (random Arenas with no rating), Arenas, random BGs, Rated BGs, Ashran quests, even through work orders from level 3 Gladiator's Sanctum buildings in the player's garrison. As a way to incentivize Rated BG participation (aside from rating pushes), the player's first three wins each week will give the player a chance to roll for a piece of purple Conquest gear. The rolls can be modified via the use of Seals of Tempered Fate, which gives PvPers an incentive to farm what once were items only important for PvE.

My second WoD 100 - my Worgen druid transforms into his true self under the light of Draenor's twin moons.

The further I go into this expansion the more the gearing landscape becomes clearer. In subsequent seasons a possible gearing strategy for super fast PvP gear acquisition begins to present itself, which would allow an early season push based on farming Seals, winning three Rated BGs each week, PvPing/questing in Ashran and pushing Arena rating as high as you can as early as you can. This would give the player an early season gear advantage which they could try to leverage into higher ratings at the beginning of the season. Unfortunately given the state of my server in Ashran this strategy is not viable, but other players whose faction dominate Ashran could conceivably do this now and in future seasons. As for me any rating push I undertake will have to be done at the end of the season, when everyone will be wearing the same gear. I'd already committed to this approach prior, so it really doesn't change anything for me. At the end of the day any gearing strategy is secondary to simply becoming a better player via practice, meta acquisition and developing team synergy.

My first forays back into the Arena scene were not pretty - I felt like I was moving and reacting in slow motion while my opponents were zipping around in fast forward around me. I started my Arena season with my mistweaver monk, having decided during the levelling process to switch him from DPS to heals, and to use my feral (and later my ret paladin) whenever I felt inclined to DPS. The very first game I played I ran into a melee cleave composed of a warrior and a ret paladin, and it ended quickly with my poor panda sprawled out comatose on the ground. The next five, ten, twenty games went on in a similar vein, with my face getting pounded into the dirt, but little by little I am learning my keys, and learning how to react in specific situations. I made the dumb mistake of putting my sprint keybind for my druid on the same button as my monk teleport, which invariably led to me push teleport whenever I actually just wanted to roll forward. I also found out to my chagrin that the mistweaver is the weakest PvP healer in this expansion, at least according to the learned contributors on Arena Junkies and Skill Capped. No matter - it's not like I'm ever going to be a top tier player. I just want to improve my personal best, and get over 2k if possible.

All the characters I have levelled so far in WoD don't feel unduly different to when I played them in MoP. The removal of Disarms across the board impacted monks most of all. Previously universally hated by all melee in MoP because of Disarm and Ring of Peace, monks have become a juicy target for any psychotic, axe-wielding close combat class. The loss of Dematerialise also compounded the woes of the monk class, because this ability used to give monks a 2 second damage immunity whenever they got stunned every 10 seconds. In MoP melee were leery of stunning monks, because those 2 seconds represented the loss of a valuable 2 seconds of burst. Now we just eat stun after stun after stun. In fact, in a lot of games I basically end up counting stuns while I sit in them, just so I know when diminishing returns immunity will kick in, and I can have some space to cast or move or do something apart from being a big fat target dummy. It's not all bad, however. To compensate monks for their losses, Blizzard gave monks instant teleports on a 25 second CD, and a lot of a monk's survival nowadays relies on exploiting this ability to the utmost. This means intelligent placement, and calculated kiting designed to pull opponents away from your portal in order to give yourself the maximum amount of time possible to top yourself or your team mates back up. It's great against lower teams, but higher rated players are aware of this trick and sometimes even split when I am low to give me no respite. Another addition to the monk arsenal is the shorter CD on Life Cocoon (55 seconds). This is pretty amazing, because if used intelligently you can keep this ability in tandem with the enemies' burst. All in all, I think our losses have been made up by our gains. It just means that monks have to play differently to survive and be effective.

Ferals and ret paladins are much easier to play now given Blizzard's commitment to simplify play and reduce button bloat. Let's face it, ret pallies were never the most complex class to play rotation wise, and their current incarnation might make them the simplest class in the game to play. Ferals went from being one of the more complex melee classes (slightly below rogues in difficulty) to being one of the easiest, just being edged out by ret pallies in terms of simplicity. The only real difference between them in my opinion is that kitties sometimes have to juggle Savage Roar when it falls off (even it then, it is auto-applied when opening from stealth, so it's not difficult at all), and time Tiger's Fury to optimise its use in conjunction with either Ferocious Bite or Rip. Ret pallies don't have to worry about Inquisition anymore, so for them the game is just basically whack a mole - hit whatever button comes off CD first, and people will die.

My latest 100 - Theodorius returns to WoD as a balding, avenging and hard hitting ret paladin. For Sigmar! Erm, I mean, for the Light!

The trend towards simplicity doesn't unduly bother me, and is in fact a welcome development, because anything that makes the game easier makes it easier for me to play better. On the face of it MOBAs are exceedingly simple games to play - each character has perhaps 1/4th of the buttons that a WoW avatar has, if that, and yet games can become highly tactical affairs because of the teamwork required and the overarching meta. The same applies for WoW, even for the simpler, sleeker WoD version of PvP. Not everyone feels the same way about this, of course - the forums on Arena Junkies and Skill Capped abound with people complaining about the removal of the skill cap for their favourite classes. For me, however, this is a good thing, as advancing age slows down my reflexes and reaction time. I can always study the meta, and my team work and communication is quite good (I think?). Twitch, however, deteriorates with age, and anything which mitigates against this is good for me. At this point in time WoW requires you to push a button roughly every 1.5 seconds, with a few buttons interspersed here and there off the GCD. If concert pianists and similar musicians can continue their excellence into their advancing years then there is no reason why we can't enjoy playing competitive games into middle age and beyond. We just have to compensate for deteriorating reaction time with comprehensive meta knowledge, practice and team synergy.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Adrift in Archeage, Part II - Squatter's Rights

I'm now a proud landowner of a scratchy 8 by 8 plot in the northern foothills of the Windscour Savannah, courtesy of a helpful guildie named Promac, who pointed it out to me when I plaintively asked for help in guild chat locating a suitable site. It's no piece of paradise – the land seems more suited to lantana (a vicious, noxious, invasive, scrub and thicket forming weed I've had the misfortune of having to clear vast tracts of when I was a youth) than anything else, being set an alarmingly steep 45 degree angle and located at the foothills of a ring of mountains. It's at the very edge of a large player settlement north of the Windheart Lake, miles away from amenities, vendors and the like, and located in a PvP zone which cyclically erupts into open war. Like an immigrant to a new country, my avatar has to begin at the margins of established society, to fill vacancies and do jobs shunned or avoided by the mainstream. If the established players of AA are the landed gentry with plush homes, fast gliders and sleek seafaring vessels, then my avatar Hatakeyama is a penniless immigrant, with more in common with the thousands of folks that poured into America and Australia during the days of the gold rush in California and Ballarat respectively. I can visualise her going to sleep at night with her belongings tucked carefully underneath her, her Gildas rattling in a can, counted and recounted numerous times. In the morning she climbs the mountains north-east of Anvilton to mine for ore. It's backbreaking work, but she does it dutifully, humming a tune in an exotic tongue, to the mild bemusement of her fellow miners. On the way home she walks past the row of beautifully appointed homes in quiet envy, and in her heart of hearts resolves to one day have a house like this.

It's no piece of paradise, but it's hers.

Before finding her plot Hatakeyama had to resort to planting “illegal” farms all over the world, and hoping that her produce wasn't pilfered before she was able to return to harvest her crops. This led to a kind of twisted game of hide and seek, as I found out to my chagrin that there are players out there who specialise in finding and uprooting these types of plots. The very first time I planted out in the world was around the corner from the crafting vendor behind a nearby barn. When I returned my pumpkin and lily patch was gone - instead, the ground around the area was littered with red footprints. Some cheeky bastard had stolen them, but thanks to the footprints I could actually see their name, as well as report the thief to the judiciary. Undeterred by this initial failure I decided to try my luck again, by finding a spot a little further secluded and out of the way. Once again I sowed, watered and congratulated myself on my cunning, then logged off. On my return I found that the pumpkins and lilies had been carried off again, and not only that they had been carried off by the same guy. It made me wonder if he was running some kind of script which allowed him to find these farms.

As a last ditch attempt Hatakeyama resolved to find the most remote, inhospitable, out-of-the way locale she could find, and try to raise some crops there. She found it in this abandoned mansion below – a quest area some distance from the nearest settlement, populated by man-eating plants and bots. Behind a stand of bushes at the rear of the mansion, Hatakeyama found a secluded spot far away from normal transit routes and questing pathways.

Here, in this eerie and forbidding location Hatakeyama found the ideal location for her “illegal” farm. These farms are "illegal" in the sense that people pay no taxes on them. Player owned property guarantees security from pilfering and theft at the cost of a tax upkeep. Planting crops or raising livestock in the wild avoids this tax entirely, but your produce is vulnerable to the predations of other players, although there is a deterrent in the form of the justice system, which catalogues these types of actions as a punishable offence. Whether they get punished or not is up to the jury they draw in their trial. For Hatakeyama, however, this haunted manse gave her a place to grow crops and raise a gaggle of geese in relative obscurity.

The site of Hatakeyama's secret farm - a dark and foreboding manse on the edge of nowhere.

Her secret garden was only discovered once in the three or four days she spent there. While feeding her geese another player walked into her patch, leading to a tense confrontation. She was unsure as to what to do – this area was, after all, a PvP zone, which meant either player could flag and attack each other, despite being on the same faction. Hatakeyama was prepared to defend her ducks to the death, but it didn't prove necessary. The other guy backed off. Hatakeyama followed, like an angry bear whose cub had been threatened, but to her surprise, he didn't go very far. She found him at the far corner of the estate, and there, behind some cottages, was another illegal farm, much more substantial than hers. The other guy didn't realise he had been followed, and an awkward silence ensued when he realised that she was there. From his buffs I could tell that he was not a Patron – he was a F2P player who could not own private land.

“I'll leave yours be if you leave mine be,” I offered.

“Deal.” And with that an agreement was reached, and both of us were able to farm in peace for the remainder of the week.

Hatakeyama tending to her flock of geese.

Those days are over for Hatakeyama, given that she has her own plot of land now. She actually has two plots – Promac showed me two places where I could place an 8x8, and I claimed both using both Hatakeyama and my alt Beorn. Beorn's journey to claim the second plot is an odyssey in of itself – he travelled across 40+ PvP zones as a level six avatar, dodging mobs and flagged enemy players before finally descending down a sheer cliff face to get to his destination. He made it to the plot and was able to claim it, but was then subsequently ganked by an irate purple (same faction) player who perhaps had designs on his land. Too late, bud – once Beorn planted his farm it would remain his as long as he remained a subscriber and paid his taxes on time. So now Hatakeyama has access to two small plots of land (you have free access to your alt's land as well, although you have to pay taxes separately). When she left her “illegal” farm for good, Hatakeyama debated whether to butcher her remaining geese, but decided against it. Game mechanics dictate that these geese would eventually starve and die if not looked after, but I like to imagine that Hatakeyama released them into the wild to hopefully thrive and raise further generations of geese. In the grounds of a haunted manor. Occupied by man-eating giant plants.

I have never played Ultima Online, or Star Wars Galaxies, and thus my only experience with player housing up until now has been the instanced type typified by SWTOR (player spaceship) and WoW (Halfhill farm, and now the WoD garrison). I've never played Minecraft or EQ Landmark either, so manipulating the environment is a new thing to me – in my limited experience the world has always been just scenery, not something a player can interact with in a meaningful way. I love the non-instanced housing in AA, and the fact that crops and livestock can be raised anywhere. I think I understand why AA has a half-finished feel to it now. Perhaps it was a design decision to leave vast tracts of land open, for the pure purpose of allowing players to modify it in their own way. Last week in the region of Ynstere, there were cherry trees as far as the eye can see, travelling the length of the road from Glitterstone in the mountains to city of Carnord on the coast. Some areas in Ynstere have been converted from barren hills into dense woods composed of hundreds of cherry trees. The screenshot below shows a battle at the Crimson Rift (a raid level world event against hundreds of AI soldiers) taking place underneath the boughs of this man-made wood. Player reaction to this has been mixed – some players have been cooing at how beautiful the wood is, while others are annoyed at the disruption to the Crimson Rift event. It's a mystery to me how the wood survived the week – I would have thought that a bunch of avaricious players would have taken an axe to these trees already. The presence of this wood is a clear mark of player agency made manifest in the persistent world. I don't know how long the wood stood, or if it still there now - I wrote this post in early November, just prior to the launch of WoD. But the fact that people can alter the persistent world in such a fashion has opened my eyes to the possibilities of virtual worlds beyond the instanced, phased, and carefully sub-divided versions typified by WoW and its clones.

This beautiful wood composed of cherry blossoms is completely player made, and in this screenshot is a site of an ongoing battle.

Archeage is dying a death of a thousand cuts, roundly criticised by all and sundry for the inept mismanagement shown by the stewards of the Western version of the game. The consensus on AA seems to have been that Trion had a rough gem on their hands, but any attempts to leverage this into mainstream success has been torpedoed by their failure to clamp down on the rampant hacks, the botting, and the flagrant "double dipping" epitomised by their subscription fee and the P4P cash shop. I can't tell you how disappointing this is, because I really do like this game. It is the first game of its type I have played, and I am hoping to see more MMOs like this in the future.