Monday, February 23, 2015

Make Way For the Heavyweight Champion of MMOs

Back in 1974, in an open workout before the seminal fight of the 20th century - Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman - the older, wiser, but ever mercurial Ali strode into the gym, and started drumming on a pair of bongo drums, chanting, "The champ is here! The champ is here!" George Foreman was the reigning champion, but Ali was the challenger in name only. In the hearts and minds of the majority of the public Ali was in Zaire to reclaim his crown, which had been unfairly stripped from him because of his stand as a conscientious objector against the Vietnam War. Boxing experts of all stripes however, predicted a crushing defeat for the uppity Ali, citing Foreman's demolition of opponents which had given Ali trouble in the lead up to the fight - Joe Frazier and Ken Norton - as proof of the incumbent champion's devastating power. If Foreman could knock out both Frazier and Norton in two rounds apiece, then the ageing Ali, who had been beaten by both men in the past few years since his return from boxing exile, would have no chance at all. Or so everyone thought.

The fight didn't play out that way. Ali not only went on to win, but he won in convincing style - he never looked hurt, and he let Foreman wear himself out with the now famous "rope-a-dope" tactic, laughing at Foreman's attempts to knock him out and taunting him with words such as "show me something, George!", "you ain't popping popcorn, George!" and "George, you ain't nothing but a sissy." The enraged Foreman tried to knock Ali out for five rounds and in doing so eventually punched himself out. The sixth and seventh saw Foreman moving in super slow motion, leaning against Ali and trying to get his wind back. In the eight round, however, Ali applied the coup de grace with a combination that floored the soon-to-be former champion. Foreman was able to get up before the end of the 10 count, but the referee waved the fight off prematurely. It didn't matter in the end - there was no protest from Foreman when he was shepherded back into his corner. No histrionics about a premature stoppage - he had the look of a man who was well and truly beaten.




This past year has seen not one, not two, but three aspiring challengers to a champion supposedly in decline. One by one all these challenges to WoW's crown as the world's most successful MMORPG have been decisively rebuffed. 10 million subscribers, without counting the Asian markets of China, Korea or Taiwan. Some people accuse Blizzard of massaging the numbers, but show me an MMO who doesn't do this, and I'll show you a marketing team in denial. Others also point out that this spike is a temporary aberration, and that subscriber numbers will eventually drop. They would be right, but it is irrelevant. What other MMO can do what WoW has done? Breaking the 10 million number not once but twice, and peaking at 12 million during the days of WotlK. Final Fantasy XIV is the only other MMORPG that has come even close at 2.5 million, which makes WoW almost a full order of magnitude bigger than its nearest competitor. If this game was a country it would rank in around the 80th most populous nation on Earth, beating out Hungary, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few. This feat is also all the more impressive given that it achieved its 2nd 10 million milestone on its 10 year anniversary. There is only one other game - EVE Online - which has been able to maintain and increase their subscriber population over the duration of a decade. Other 10 year old plus titles such as Dark Age of Camelot and Everquest 1 and 2 are shadows of their former selves, and even in their heyday never scaled the amazing heights that WoW has. Finally, if these two facts were not impressive enough, WoW did this in a year where not one, not two, but three AAA titles were released in direct competition, and in a fully saturated market awash with rival titles such as Guild Wars 2, SWTOR and The Secret World.

WoW. Literally, wow.

TESO

TESO was the first challenger to WoW in 2014. It was released on 4 April 2014 to a lukewarm and an even outright hostile reception. The virulence of the anti-TESO sentiment can be measured by the hostile reviews collated here on my first post on TESO, with the pick of the bunch being Paul Tassi from Forbes Online, who predicted that the game would be the biggest video game disaster of 2014. Time has since proven him wrong and full of hyperbole. TESO could claim over 750,000 subscribers in June last year, but who knows how many subs they have now, and whether or not this number represents the apogee of their mainstream appeal. Nonetheless, this figure beats every other MMO except for WoW, Final Fantasy XIV (over 2 million) and SWTOR (which raced to 1.7 million subs in its honeymoon period), which puts it in very good company - hardly the disaster the pundits were hoping for. The big news for TESO of course is their transition to B2P and its release on consoles on 9 June this year. The end of the subscription model puts paid to the predictions I made back in March last year, in which I stated that TESO would not go F2P one year after release. B2P is not F2P, but the spirit of the wager was more on TESO sticking with the subscription model, and in this sense I was incorrect. I now eat vast helpings of humble pie garnished with crow's feet for being so wilfully blind, and admit that yes, I was wrong. Despite this I remain cheerfully optimistic about the title's future. FFXIV has shown that there is a massive market for MMOs in consoles, and its imminent release on the XBox and PS4 platforms, along with the removal of the subscription model, ensures that the title will get tremendous exposure and a good chance at retaining a significant proportion of players who enter Tamriel for the first time.

TESO was my adopted title for most of 2014 - I gave up WoW in March 2014 to play this game, and was even able to convince my gaming circle to migrate with me. My verdict on it remains pretty much unchanged - theme park style quest mechanics with high production values, extensive use of phasing which occasionally posed problems for group play, and great tri-partite world PvP in Cyrodiil. It was not Skyrim turned MMO - the NPCs stayed in fixed locations, they did not have Radiant AI or their own schedules or agendas - but rather it was an iteration of the WoW model, with prettier graphics and voice acting, complete with dungeons, raids and an LFG finder. There was no player housing, instanced or otherwise - the world was simply scenery, and zones become abandoned and desolate as they were outleveled and rendered obsolete. Changes in the world were rendered via phasing, and occurred at the pace in which the player completed their quests. Despite megaserver technology, TESO was a prime example of the single player MMO, in which players play alone together. Only in Cyrodiil could player agency interfere with other player agency, and this zone was safely fenced away from the rest of Tamriel. With the virtue of hindsight I can see that I was guilty of imbuing TESO with qualities that it might not have necessarily have possessed out of sheer contrariness. Nonetheless I plan to return to the game in March - there are many good things about TESO which would justify a second look, and I am also looking forward to the implementation of the Imperial City and the Justice system.

Wildstar

I never played Wildstar, seeing it as the chief rival of the horse I had chosen to back, and watched with glee when it started going down in flames shortly after its release. It took the writing of bloggers who believed passionately in this title to shake me out of this phase of petty one-upmanship, but being the shallow human being that I am, I have to fight this impulse at every opportunity. I know that it's not a zero sum game, but I have to confess that bloggers that i) panned TESO, ii) praised Wildstar, but iii) don't play Wildstar anymore in its hour of greatest need are the ones that raise my ire the most. I have to admire people who are passionate advocates of the game without being unfairly critical of TESO, and put their money where their mouth was by playing the game and supporting it despite its rapid fall from grace. I have less admiration for people like Scree from The Cynic Dialogues, who tear into TESO and come up with declarations such as "I am entirely opposed to this game succeeding", go on to play Wildstar and spout high-minded rhetoric like "what's a bigger testament to a game's success and justification for your passion for a title than to see it succeed and its gaming population flourish" without stopping to think of how that sentiment could be applied to people who actually like TESO, before finally leaving Wildstar five months later, citing "I'm not as hardcore anymore" as the excuse for abandoning the game. So much for passion for a title. Not that I'm much better mind you - I talk TESO up, play for eight months, and then abandon it for Archeage. I guess we're both just hypocrites.

Tobold made the estimate that Wildstar had around 450,000 subscribers in June 2014, but there seems to be no doubt that subs are now a fraction of this number, and the initial acclaim and fanfare surrounding its release have given way to pundits making bets on when this title will go F2P. At least Wildstar supporters can say that their title outlived TESO in the subscriber stakes - TESO will have been a subscriber title for 11 months and one week (TESO was released on 4 April 2014) by the time it transitions into B2P on 13 March, and Wildstar will beat this mark in early May this year (Wildstar was released on 3 June 2014). The ominous news regarding Wildstar lies with the figures released by NCSoft for 2014, which show that Wildstar sales are down 500% from the quarter of its release. At this rate a transition to F2P may be the least of their worries - there is a distinct possibility that the title may go the way of Warhammer Online and City of Heroes, and be shuttered for good. Wildstar, out of the three AAA titles released in 2014, most closely resembled WoW in terms of its cartoon art aesthetic (despite the sci-fi setting) and both its endgame PvE (dungeons and raids) and endgame PvP (Arenas and BGs). The fact that it singularly failed to challenge WoW and is now struggling to stay afloat is the final death knell to the aspirations of any publisher who ever had faint hopes of out-WoWing WoW.

Archeage

I had no intentions of playing AA until my interest was piqued by articles written by several bloggers, and I thought, what the hell, it's a F2P title, I have nothing to lose. I downloaded the game, booted it up, and immediately fell in love. I'm a latecomer to the genre - I have never played MUDs, nor have I played influential titles such Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies or Everquest. Persistent, non-instanced housing was a new phenomenon for me, as was the player's ability to "terraform" the world by raising crops and livestock, and by building farms, cottages, houses, manors and castles in the world itself. My favourite memory of AA will always be the massive cherry forest planted by a number of departing players on the Ollo server. Their efforts changed the world completely, and it was strange to see what was once a barren plain completely transformed into a deep and extensive wood which almost covered the entire zone.

AA has many things going for it which should have ensured a bigger success than the one they currently enjoy. The tab targeting combat system, while not especially innovative, is made interesting by the fact that players can mix and match the 10 talent trees into 120 possible combinations, giving variety and depth to class make-up. The crime and justice system is interesting and well thought-out, and the ability to become a turncoat and attack your own faction gives a new lease of life on the old and tired concept of two faction warfare. This was OWPvP with consequence, as traitors to their faction accumulated Crime Points and were eventually exiled to eke out a living on the high seas as pirates and buccaneers. The game boasts a very deep crafting system, and the incentivization of trade creates traffic on the roads and seas, and keeps zones which would otherwise be bereft of players productive and relevant. The crown jewel of the world, however, is the great ocean separating the continents. It will be a long time before another MMO creates an ocean zone which is remotely similar to the sea in AA, which is in equal parts beautiful, wide, deep and perilous. Ever since I crafted my boat in AA I have been content simply sailing the seas in my clipper, dodging hostile vessels, and imagining coming upon unexplored islands and exploring their interiors. Alas, the reality of the game never actually squares up with the wild flights of fancy that take place within my head, but sailing the seas in AA almost makes me believe I am in another world, a quality which most MMOs lack these days.

The verdict on AA however, based on Syncaine's blog, J3w3l's, Aywren's and Alysiana's, to name a few, is that the game's good points are overshadowed by the unscrupulous F2P model used by Trion, and the rampant use of cheats and hacks in almost every facet of the game. I've seen this now at first hand, being present when a bunch of guildies and myself were waiting around to claim an expiring plot, only to see it snatched away by a housing hack when the plot was vacated. It's a real shame, but there is a silver lining in the cloud in that it shows that there is a market for this type of open world sandbox fantasy game. AA's failure is a market opportunity for a team savvy enough to see it, and at this point in time it looks like Camelot Unchained is best positioned to exploit this in 2015. They may never reach the heights of WoW, but if there's a lesson to be gleaned from all the bloodied competitors left in WoW's wake, it is this - don't take on the gorilla at his own game, but rather carve out a niche for yourself. For all the criticisms bloggers, writers and academics levy at the concept of theme parks, it is unquestionably the most popular MMORPG paradigm in the world, and WoW excels at making them.

WoW

So TESO, Wildstar and AA all tumble before the cultural phenomenon that is WoW. The magnitude of WoW's triumph can be measured in how its greatest critics are playing the game despite of themselves. One of the reasons why I started this blog was to respond to Gevlon's continued attacks on WoW as a game for morons and slackers back in 2013. It absolutely boggles my mind that Gevlon is now playing WoW again in his old role as a healer, although I do suspect that a lot of the reason of why he plays is because his girlfriend is a devoted WoW tank, and you can never underestimate the "social" pull of friends and family as a catalyst for bringing people back to a title. He has since cancelled his subscription again, but I was amazed to hear him say that "without M&S WoW isn't a bad game", which is something I would have never picked that hoary old goblin of ever saying. The venerable Raph Koster, an early pioneer of MMO design, calls WoW "the biggest game design achievement in all of virtual world history." The young but articulate Murf calls WoW the "greatest online RPG of all time" and makes a similar observation that "I am not sure it is massively multiplayer anymore, but a decade of success, an incredibly well-received new expansion, and newly re-assembled fan base of ten million hungering for more make that opinion a non-factor." The best posts are the ones expressing awe, bewilderment and consternation. J3w3l's post made me laugh the most, because it encapsulates the bewilderment of people who don't like WoW, and cannot fathom why such a game has such amazing mainstream appeal. Nobody knows - least of all me. My friends and I don't even play WoW as an MMO - we play it as a MOBA, spending the vast majority of our time in instanced Arena or Rated BG matches, and consider the rest of the game as an added bonus.

WoW's continuing success is especially galling to its critics because a number of people have laid the demise of the genre as a whole at the feet of WoW. Wolfhead's blog should be entitled, "Why Everquest Is The Best Game Ever, and WoW is the Spawn of the Devil." Wolfshead takes great pleasure at levelling scathing broadsides at WoW with epithets such as "the once mighty Blizzard Entertainment has had to suffer the embarrassment of years of declining subscriptions" and "the massive and aging ship USS: WoW lurches toward the iceberg of its obsolescent doom in a sea of ice cold reality". I wonder what Wolfshead thinks of WoW's rebound back over 10 million. The silence on his blog is deafening at the moment, but I'm sure that when subscriptions start to fall again the attacks will resume in earnest. Another clanger belongs to Keen and Graev, who wrote that "I still believe Blizzard is phasing out WoW" in August of this year. Erm, no. If that statement seemed far-fetched in August 2014 (who in their right mind would want to phase out 6.6 million subscribers, which is still three times the size of its nearest competitor), it seems positively ludicrous now given the light of recent events. Thousands of bloggers, writers, players, forum posters, academics and developers (Roger EdwardsSigMrBTongueMark KernRiot55Seanxxp, and Ionomonkey are random samples drawn from a cursory Google search) have made claims to the effect that WoW has ruined MMOs. In fact Raph Koster's thesis in a nutshell is that WoW redefined a genre that was already over a decade old by the time of its inception, and by virtue of its success changed the meaning of MMOs from the "virtual worlds" represented by Ultima Online and MUDS, to effectively mean games "similar to WoW." This is why he concludes his argument with the words "WoW effectively made MMOs perfect, and in the process, it killed them.




WoW simply doesn't care. It just steamrolls past bloggers, opinion pieces, and academics, swatting them aside like flies. I don't disagree with people who criticise WoW - I am one of WoW's critics, too, and I have critiqued WoW for its use of the "hero narrative", its compartmentalisation of play styles, and the sterility of its virtual world amongst other things. Nonetheless, WoW's success seems to indicate that the opinions of bloggers and writers such as myself only represent a tiny minority of what the world likes in an MMO, which is why Blizzard completely ignores whatever we say or write. We are irrelevant. The vast majority of the world seems to like theme parks, group finders, questing, instancing, worlds as scenery, tab targeting combat, play style compartmentalisation, easy and accessible game play which can be turned up to higher tiers of difficulty for those so inclined, and bite sized chunks of content. Which, come to think of it, seems pretty sensible really.

I claim no prescience with regards to WoW's astonishing return to form. I am flabbergasted just like everyone else, and my initial reactions are best reflected by pieces which express their disbelief and astonishment at the number of returning subscribers. NO ONE PREDICTED THIS. If you can find an article that predicted "WoW will rebound from 6.6 million to over 10 million subscribers with WoD" I will eat my hat. When WoD was released they picked up more subscribers than all the subscribers in TESO, Wildstar and AA combined. That's mind-boggling. I'm completely surprised to find myself playing the game again, and I can say with all honesty that I had no intention of returning until about one week prior to the launch of WoD. That's when I was deluged by messages from friends, family and old comrades returning to WoW, and being the social person I am, I was happy to join them. I can't believe that I am doing the same old routine that I have done since vanilla. I've done this for almost a decade now - that's just bloody insane. Why? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY? I'm never going to bet against WoW again. That game is a monster.

Back in Zaire 1974 Ali and Foreman had to share the same gym, and so the rival camps coordinated their schedules so that the two fighters would never have to meet. Ali, upon learning this, deliberately came to the gym early so that he would meet the champion just as he was finishing his training session. He did this to demonstrate that he wasn't afraid of Foreman, whom the press had labelled invincible and unstoppable, and to show his disdain and contempt for the current champion. WoW's approach to the MMO battlefield is equally disdainful. Blizzard remained confident enough in the appeal of their product despite declining subscription numbers to wait two years before releasing an expansion. They gave no sign of ever reacting to the release of TESO, Wildstar or AA, but rather marched to the beat of their own timetable, and released WoD to coincide with the game's 10 year anniversary.

In the words of the great Muhammad Ali - bow down, chumps! The champ is here!

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.

"Yah."

"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.