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.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part VII - Gearing Up For WoW

So I'm back in WoW, much to my surprise, and I have to say that I am really enjoying it. The game is like a comfortable pair of slippers, easy to slide back into it and gentle on the soles of the feet. There have been some issues with massive log-in queues, but they seem to have been fixed as of last Saturday. It's very comforting to see some old faces, and to exchange in good-natured banter with team mates, guild mates and the like. My gaming circle has transferred en-masse to the PvP Oceanic server of Gundrak. We left our old guild behind, which was an occasion for a little bit of remorse, given that we have been there since vanilla. Cross-realm grouping allows for us to stay in touch and play with people we left behind however, so it's not goodbye for good.

Tientzo in Shadowmoon Valley.

Season 16 kicks off on December 2nd, and as a PvPer pretty much everything I am doing is geared towards getting ready for the 10-15 week grind for full Conquest gear. It takes about 27,000 points to get full Conquest, which equates to 15 weeks for someone at 1800 cap (1700 in WoD), just over 12 weeks for someone at 2200, and even less for players with higher caps. My approach to this season will be the same as it has usually been for previous seasons - accumulate gear by hitting Conquest caps on a weekly basis via Arenas and Rated BGs, and then push for rating at the end of the season. First things first, however - we all have to first hit the level cap, and that requires questing. Ugh. TESO has inculcated a deep and abiding distaste of questing for me, and I had to say that I wasn't looking forward to grinding to 100 in WoW. I have been pleasantly surprised however - maybe it's just nostalgia, but I am having fun levelling in WoD. Can I just say that levelling in a PvP server is a frenetic free for all in contested zones? The Horde outnumber the Alliance two to one on Gundrak. To make matters worse, the Horde outnumber the Alliance more than two to one on Jubei'Thos, and since these two realms are linked, it has created an overall population imbalance of more than four to one in favour of the Horde. Not that it matters - I actually like being outnumbered, even if it means that I will spend a lot of time corpse running. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I spent a great deal of time being a ganker on Illidan, where the Horde outnumbered the Alliance a ridiculous 35-1. It's a little different on Gundrak, given that I chosen to main my monk this season. No stealth, Vanishes or Shadowmelds this time around - instead I have to be aware of my environment, group up when necessary, use the monk's amazing mobility to get out of trouble, or be flexible about where I can level if things get too hot in a given zone. I never read quest text in the best of times, but OMG turning in becomes Mission Impossible unto itself if there are Horde about. Killing quest mobs sometimes becomes a frantic case of darting in, getting the mob down ASAP, and then getting the hell out of there. It certainly keeps me on my toes, and I'm quite happy to relinquish a degree of control over my levelling experience to have this sense of constant danger around me. Sometimes there are periods of uneasy peace, where a bunch of Horde and Alliance stand nervously around a quest giver, but all it takes is one hawk on either side to start attacking, and the whole thing devolves into a massive brawl. There are more unspoken truces in one on one encounters - players circle around each other warily and go on about their business - but as soon as numbers begin to pile up in any given location, the odds of a peaceful resolution drop dramatically. You can inadvertently hit someone with an AoE spell while hitting mobs (I've done it a few times with Chi Wave), and this can constitute the provocation which sets off the ensuing bloodbath. "You dare poke me with your Chi Wave? I'll eat your heart, Alliance scum!"

The real meat of the season occurs when our team start actually pushing for rating. Everything else is just practice. Traditionally pushing for rating comes in two flavours. You can either push at the beginning of the season, and sit on your rating for the remainder. The pro teams do it this way, and there are some advantages associated with this. By pushing hard to a high rating you increase your Conquest caps, so much so that you can be 1-4 pieces of gear ahead of the opposition who only play to the regular cap. By the end of the gearing period everyone will be wearing the same gear, so the rationale behind this approach is to go hard early, get high caps and therefore get a gearing advantage, and then exploit this advantage to get higher ratings on the ladder before everyone else catches up to your level of gear. If you're going to go down this route you have to make sure that you start the season with full Honor gear before the Rated season begins. Some people are lazy about their Honor grind pre-season, and you may start with a gearing advantage if your opposition didn't bother grinding. I've attained the best ratings I've ever had by this method (1900+), going hard in the very first week of the season with a team of like-minded individuals with only Honor gear and one piece of Conquest. The gear differential may be miniscule, but in tight situations these disparities might be all that stands between the way of a guaranteed kill or a recovery by the enemy team.

The second way is the way I have usually done it, which is basically use the gearing period to practice and learn your class and spec before finally pushing for rating at the end of the season, once all your team mates are decked out in full Conquest. The teams I have played in usually reserve the last 4-6 weeks of a season to push rating, and it is a better fit for the people I play with, given that we all have varying demands on our time and schedules. I've been out of the game for eight months, I'm playing WoW PvP with a Razer Naga for the first time, and there have been massive changes to the meta. All of these factors require a learning period which I would prefer to spread out over 2-3 months rather than compressing into a two week period before Season 16 begins. Given what I know of the changes to the PvP meta it would seem that melee will be the king of this expansion. No more disarms, the pruning of instant cast heals, and less CC equals more uptime for melee to stay in the face of their target. MoP was unquestionably dominated by spell casters, with locks, mages, shadow priests, druids and shamans making up the bulk of high end tournament play. WoD looks like it might be the era of melee. Fitting, too, given the theme of the expansion. I was going to roll shadow priest this time around - I used my free 90 boost to level one - but when I looked at his defensive CDs I thought to myself, "How in the name of the Light am I going to get melee off of myself?" No more Psychic Fiend. Psychic Scream and Void Tendrils share the same tier talent, and given that most melee I know have at least two escapes from Fear (all have trinket plus DK's Desecrated Ground, ret pally's bubble, Warrior's Berserk, and a Windwalker's Nimble Brew) without taking into account defensive dispels from their healer, it looks like it's going to be a long season for priests. Can anyone say Choo Choo Train? These guys are going to be trained into the ground by melee teams, and their survival is going to be heavily dependent on the quality of the peels and heals from their team mates. This is the case for every class - this is why Arena and Rated BGs are a team e-sport - but there is a threshold where the advantages your class offers is offset by the disadvantages, and it looks like shadow priests might have crossed it. They'll still be great in Rated BGs, because offensive dispels, off heals and multiple target DoT pressure is still valuable in this setting. Arenas might be a different story, but who knows, my knowledge of the new meta is in its preliminary stages at the moment.

So rather than going priest, I'm going to main a monk, either as a healer or a melee dps. I will decide once Rykester, Ratsac and Lelle decide what specs they will roll - I don't have to decide until I ding 100, and the Honor grind begins. Even then the choice is not irrevocable, not until the purchase of my first Conquest piece. This initial purchase determines my spec for the season. For now I am questing as a Windwalker, and learning how to play him with a Razer Naga. As retarded as it sounds, I have only played Arenas and Rated BG's as a keyboard turner, and the difference is night and day - I hope that this transition to mouse based control will be the catalyst that will put me over 2k in the coming seasons. Fortunately I've become more proficient with the Naga, which I bought in March just when I was quitting WoW. I used it in TESO and AA, and my hand has finally adapted and learned the position of the keys, even the keys located in the most difficult hand contorting positions. In a way it was good for me to take a break from WoW. It erased my memories of my previous keybinds, and allowed me to remap them onto a control method which I had finally become comfortable with. One day I will level my rogue, and I will compare my footage as a keyboard turning rogue with that of me playing with a mouse.

I'm using questing as a way of practicing, assigning keybinds to mouse button, and learning their location via repetitive use. I aggro two mobs at a time, Paralyse one, and then practice unloading burst on the other. I'm trying to winkle out what my burst combo is, and am disciplining myself to pool my resources. PvE is different to PvP in that PvE requires you to dump resources before you cap, because sitting at full means a net DPS loss. In PvP you are required to sit on fully pooled resources a lot of time to ensure that when your team mate says go, you can put the pedal to the metal and unload coordinated burst on your kill target. The discipline part comes in when you are not bursting, and just putting out light pressure - it's hard not to dump all your resources into your current target, and then suddenly find that when it's time to swap you have your trinket and CD buffs but no resources to apply maximum pressure. In my monk's case, I need to have all my Tigereye Brew stacked and ready to go, as well as having a full pool of Chi. My preliminary burst combo is hitting trinket + brew, starting with a Rising Sun kick (the monk's hardest hitting ability with a healing debuff), then spamming Blackout Kick. I also need to practice kiting, which is something that monks excel at. If I can kite well I will have the option of two jobs in Rated BG play - one as melee DPS, and another as a FC (flag carrier). Not to mention heals if I roll Mistweaver. A lot of this is really simple in theory - the trick is to make these moves instinctive, fluid, and automatic through thousands of repetitions in a vast array of situations. This means duelling constantly against every possible class and spec, practicing in random BGs and Arena skirmishes, and finally playing lots and lots of Rated games.

Tientzo solos an elite in kiting him to the NPC guards. Hey, whatever it takes, right?

I never thought I would say it, but it's really good to be back. Moreover, it's good to be back with people who I enjoy playing the game with. None of this really matters - the grind, the gear, the ladder, even the rating itself - I proved that to myself when I walked away from the game. You don't miss it when you're gone. It's just something to give you focus while playing, and it is a worthy end in of itself, because it requires discipline, skill and team work to achieve. Nonetheless, ladder achievements all pale into comparison with the company you keep, and the comrades, friends and family you play with. Nothing beats the feeling of achieving goals with people you like, and hopefully there will be plenty of shared laughs, groans of agony, cheers of victory, agonizing defeats, and ridiculous out-of-your ass plays in the coming season. I'm sure there will be dummy spits and moments of self-doubt, too, in which I question my ability to play the game, but we've been playing together for literally thousands of games in both formats, and if we're still playing together after all the arguments, frustrations, and setbacks we've had then nothing in the future is going to stop us.

Bring on the new season, and let the games begin.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part VI - A Return to Azeroth

I really thought that I was done with WoW.
I penned a series of posts last year entitled Diaries of a Ganker, and in these posts I gave the account of my shenanigans as a ganker on Illidan, as well as my team's attempt to push rating on the Arena and Rated BG ladders. In March, however, I cancelled my subscription and called it quits for good, or so I thought. The fact that Warlords of Draenor was coming did nothing for me. Nor did the announcement that Australia was getting their own servers fill me with excitement. As a resident of Japan my latency on Australian and American servers are about the same, clocking in at roughly 120 ms. There are two other MMOs vying for my time - TESO and AA - and as I said in a previous post, the only reason why I would return to WoW is if the group of players I used to play with decided to jump back in the saddle again. Given that we have all splintered into differing pursuits the probability of this happening equated to the proverbial snowball's chance in hell.

The first inkling that the snowball might survive came when an old comrade-in-arms Sorgon appeared on Battlenet when I was playing Hearthstone. I haven't seen this guy for almost a year, and he is one of the two really excellent warlocks I've met on my old server. He is also an old Arena team mate and a 2k Rated BG player. We exchanged some light banter, and he surprised me by saying he was thinking of returning to WoW. I wished him luck, told him I had too many things on my plate, and said farewell.

The second hint that the universe was coming into alignment was the appearance of Tamati on Battlenet, a Kiwi team mate who had moved to the United Arab Emirate. After months of silence, he appeared, told me he had a stable Internet connection, said he was thinking of diving back into WoW rated play, and asked whether I was thinking of running Rated BGs this coming expansion? I said no, wished him well, and we went our separate ways.

The third revelation occurred when Rykester. a good mate in real life who called WoW quits at the end of last year, asked me whether or not I would be playing the expansion. I said no, then queried, are you? He said, well we have Aussie servers now, latency isn't going to screw us over anymore. We won't lose games based on bad ping. What about TESO, I asked. He said, the AvAvA is fun, but it's not Skyrim, which is what I really wanted. You should play AA, I said. It's more Skyrim than TESO is. Really? he replied. I might give it a bash someday, but WoD looks really fun. You know they are letting us transfer our toons over for free, right?


And there's a free week of subscription available?


At this stage I realised that the world was moving in mysterious ways, and conspiring to return me to WoW. I messaged a friend and team mate Ratsac on Battlenet. You playing WoW? Ratsac has been busy in real life building a new house over in Perth, and his reply was curt and to the point. Fucking oath, bro. He then went on, I've been playing boomie on the Oceanic servers, and owning everyone. It's a different game on 20-40 ms. You should listen to all the Americans QQing in Oceanic BGs about the bad ping, bitching that the game is unplayable. Now they know how us Aussies feel. Ratsac recently got his 2k achievement in Rateds at 200+ ms, so I shudder to think how much carnage he will wreck at 20 ms.
The final revelation occurred when I conversed with my sister on Skype recently. Known as Lelle in WoW, and Sally in TESO, she just had a new baby and being a new parent is consuming almost all her time. She asked me, so are we going to play WoW? I was rather taken aback by this question. What about the baby? And TESO? I can't play as much as I used to, obviously, she replied. But we can work around the baby. And I can play my warrior without lag!!! Hurrah!!! She was positively beaming with enthusiasm. I can't recall her being so excited for a game for a long time.
What finally sealed the deal was watching Blizzcon and the WoW Arena World Championships, which were the closest and most competitive series I have seen in the history of the competition (the semi-finals and the final are all embedded in this post). Both semi-finals had the winners coming back from a 2-0 deficit to take the series 3-2, with the title eventually being taken in 4-2 in a best of seven series. I also saw what may be the changing of the WoW guard - anyone who follows WoW Arena will know the names Cdew, Venrucki, Snutz, Talbadar and co., and I found it very interesting that long time stalwarts Skill Capped and Three Amigos tumbled to a new European team called Bleached Bones. Lazerchicken was a revelation, playing his hybrid boomkin class beautifully, putting out constant damage pressure, kiting in tandem with his healer when trained, and supporting his team with off-heals and peels to alleviate pressure when required. Watching these games rekindled the old love for this format, and a desire to mix it up and try again to hit that holy grail of PvP for me, a 2k rating. This is something I have never been able to do despite years of trying, and while I have come agonisingly close, I have never reached this milestone.
I have cancelled my TESO subscription after eight months in the game, and designated it as a title to return to in the future. I will keep pottering away in AA because it is the most alive persistent world I have been to despite its repeated attempts to scuttle itself by inept customer service. But my friends and family are going back to WoW, and they are doing so with big happy smiles on their faces. At the end of the day all the thousands of words about meaningful persistent sandbox worlds means nothing in the face of the bonds between friends, family, and old comrades. The stars have aligned - the signs in the tea leaves are clear - the augurs have spoken. WoW is beckoning.
Who am I to argue with the universe?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Adrift in Archeage, Part I - Immigrant Blues

It's tough to be an immigrant.

Stranger in a strange land. It's just Hatakeyama and her beast - mount - thingy - in a hostile world.
You're a stranger in a strange land. You don't know the language, or in the case of MMOs, the peculiar shorthands which spring up to describe the various dungeons, raids or what-not. The geography is confusing, and the road ahead is murky - you don't know what activities are level-appropriate, or what the best route to the power cap is. You are ignorant of the norms governing the space, nor do you know who the influential guilds are, a factor which becomes important if you want to dive into inter-guild warfare. The vast multitude of crafting materials and harvestable goods on offer present an intricate interlocking jigsaw that defies easy assimilation. The plethora of NPCs and their titles mean nothing to you as of yet, and the simple act of drawing water has you in a tizzy trying to remember where the last well you stopped at was.

As a tourist, however, you do possess a number of advantages. You have travelled through similar landscapes before, and there are many elements which are familiar. The tab targeting CD based combat is like a second skin, and soon the neural pathways begin to be mapped and reinforced by hundreds of key presses against generic mobs doomed to wander in circumscribed areas like lambs awaiting the slaughter. Skill trees are easy to comprehend, and you find yourself peering at the tool tips to try to winkle out synergies and combos. The gold sellers and bots are a familiar blight, as are the trolls, the idiots, the know-it-alls, the lost and confused, and the occasional wits with the genuinely funny comebacks and one-liners.

Yuri Hatakeyama, in yet another incarnation in another virtual world.
This is the situation faced by my avatar Hatakeyama in Archeage, now level 36, currently guild-less (actually now a member of Unreal Aussies - why do I always find these badly named guilds?), friend-less, and somewhat hapless in this brave new world she finds herself in. AA has had its share of detractors, most recently Syncaine of Hardcore Casual and J3w3l of Healing the Masses, and their most biting criticisms have been aimed at the (to use Syncaine's term) pay for power (P4P) elements of the game. While J3w3l is quite happy enough to continue playing despite Trion's dubious payment model, Syncaine has thrown in the towel and cancelled his sub. This has led to, somewhat interestingly enough, a spirited debate on his own blog where his buddy Mobs accuses Syncaine of not giving the game a fair shake. Not knowing either of the two protagonists I stay out of the argument - but it has led to a new resolution to view the game with my own eyes  rather than taking at face value everything that Syncaine has to say on his blog regarding AA.

So this posts, and all other posts marked with the pre-fix "Adrift in Archeage" will detail the tales of this wandering Haranya. In her travels she has noticed a few things, chief most being the different caste of citizens which exist in AA. The lowest caste are the people who play for free. They are unable to own property, and earn Labor points at a reduced rate. Labor is the bedrock of crafting in AA - all crafting actions cost Labor - and this caste only earns Labor while they are online, which led to some interesting ramifications during launch. On the upside, they have the chance to play without shelling out any real life currency before deciding whether or not this game is for them.

The second tier of citizenship belongs to subscribers. They have priority queuing. They earn Labor at a higher rate, but more importantly, they also earn Labor while they are offline and have a higher Labor cap. They also have the ability to own property. Property allows you to grow crops, raise livestock and builds houses on protected land - while anyone can plant or raise livestock pretty much anywhere in the world, these items are vulnerable to depredation from other players who chance on these items growing in the wild. Crops or livestock on protected land cannot be plundered, although I have to confess that I only know this to be true for "protected" (i.e. non-PvP) zones. Whether protected land in PvP zones offer the same guarantees is something I have to discover once I venture forth into these areas.

The very top tier of citizenship in AA belongs to the "whales" who are subscribers but are also willing to shell out extra cash for P4P items in the cash shop. While being a subscriber in WoW, Eve Online or TESO gives you access to the complete game supplemented by a cosmetic cash shop, Trion has taken the somewhat dubious road of implementing a cash shop which sells not only vanity gear, but also items which boost a player's power. These items include Labor boosts, crafting boosts, better gliders, and items which dramatically remove the RNG factor in the upgrading of gear.

So the question for me is whether I am willing to put up with this kind of blatant cash grab in order to play the game. In many ways AA is a strange beast - it forces PvPers to play PvE until level 30, and it forces PvErs to adjust to a PvP end game beyond 30. PvP can be avoided entirely by staying in protected zones and venturing into contested zones during times of peace only, so it is conceivable to play AA as a PvEr only, much like how high-sec industrialists do it in Eve Online. As a PvPer though I do have legitimate concerns as to whether or not I am willing to face players who can spend wads of real life cash to get a gearing edge on me in PvP.

The short answer is yes, for now. Quite a few reasons spring to mind, the first being the lack of alternatives. Single player games which I have been looking forward to have not met my expectations - Jagged Alliance: Flashback, by all accounts, is a steaming pile of manure, while Beyond Earth has been damned with faint praise, with one reviewer comparing it to a Civ 5 mod without the actual charm of historical leaders, units, wonders, religions and cultural works. I have no doubt I will buy and play this game one day, but coming off a Civ 5 marathon game on a Huge map on Deity difficulty which took about two weeks to complete, it is the last thing I want to do at the moment. I have TESO burn-out thanks to the immeasurable grind required to level Veteran ranks, and am willing to put off levelling until patch 1.5 goes live, and the experience requirement becomes drastically reduced. Being a long time WoW player I thought WoD would tempt me, but strangely enough it hasn't. When I was a WoW subscriber I didn't play WoW the MMO, but rather WoW the MOBA ladder tournament of Arenas and Rated BGs. The only reason for returning to WoW would be if the old gang decided to assemble one more time, but given that my team mates have scattered all over the world this has become increasingly unlikely. Corona is off on deployment, Rykester is doing his Masters, Sally has a new baby, Tamati has moved to the United Arab Emirates, and even Ratsac is focusing more on RL diversions. This is actually the first time I have really played an MMO on my own - I'm used to having Sally and Rykester having my back, and when we're together the thousands of Arena games we have played together means we can give as good as we get in the vast majority of encounters against other players in both WoW and TESO. Focusing targets, quick swaps, synchronising CDs and peels are second nature for us, and usually means we can leverage our years of teamwork against disorganized mobs of players. No longer. I'm just one guy now, and an ignorant neophyte at that. I tried joining Syncaine's guild in Ollo, but given that the guild has disintegrated prematurely that idea is still-born. If I'm going to play AA I'm going to have to start from scratch, with nary a friend in sight, but this isn't a prospect I am facing with dread, although I do miss my long time intrepid companions.

Seeing a skyship for the first time, Hatakeyama looks on with awe.
The more fundamental reason as to why I'm OK with playing in an environment like AA's is that I hold with the idea that asymmetry is a fundamental aspect of open world PvP. The distinction between symmetrical and asymmetrical games are very clear in my own mind - I place discrete, balanced and instanced games like WoW Arena, League of Legends and StarCraft 2 in one category, and persistent open world games like EVE Online, Darkfall, TESO and now Archeage in another. Each style of gameplay has its own appeal - in balanced PvP all things being equal the team with greater skill will win, which is why this type of gameplay has to be scrupulously balanced in order to ensure that player ability is the primary determinant of victory. In persistent world PvP there are so many variables that winning is not always determined by skill. It can be influenced by level/gear differential, state of readiness, time spent in the world, time zones, and even by the amount of friends you bring to the gunfight. I have written copious amounts of words on this topic here, and I don't intend to rehash it. Suffice to say that I understand that AA belongs to the latter category of PvP - open world PvP - and understand that I will be outgunned and outgeared by people who are willing to spend tracts of cash to obtain a gearing edge. I don't expect balance, nor will I be weeping and gnashing my teeth on the forums when I eat gank after gank while I level up in the contested zones. I will simply collect my bruised avatar at the Statues of Nui, and head off again and try to use my wits to avoid a similar fate. The trade off for me will be to live in a world that is alive, where people till and work their fields, and trade convoys go rumbling along the dust-beaten tracks on route to far away lands. I have yet to venture onto the open sea in Archeage, yet watching from the cliffs as convoys prepare to embark to distant shores I have to confess to a romantic stirring in my breast. The landscape of AA is an exotic one, born from the shores of Korea, and now transplanted uncomfortably to the west. Like J3w3l, I love the Korean speaking NPCs, but more than this I like the guild advertisements that scroll in zone chat looking for people in several different languages. I have seen Russian, Filipino, Portugese and French so far, and this adds to the feeling of living in a strange land far different from anything I have experienced to date in a computer game. MMOs are best when they convey the feeling of organic, shifting life, and this world, for all its perils and the all too-common brutish idiocy associated with F2P and OWPvP, is alive.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part V - A Brief Interlude

Much has changed since I last wrote about TESO. I lack the discipline to churn out regular blog posts, preferring to play rather than write about games, and when I actually do write, I end up creating massive, turgid and long-winded posts about issues which seem trivial in hindsight. Ah well, no one is forcing anyone to read this, so I will just potter along and write about things which interest me. Once an idea gets in my skull it festers in the back of my head, and only the act of publishing it liberates my mind from the fixation. It's quite a relief to get a post published and to forget about it.

The Siren Call of Archeage

I have been sorely tempted by the lures of Archeage. It has many features which interests someone of my background. One of the recurring themes of this blog is the quest for meaningful open world PvP, and AA appears to be one of the few titles that have incentivized it correctly and given it purpose beyond meaningless griefing. A game has to be doing something right if it is able to attract both self-defined "carebears" such as Aywren of Clean Casuals Gaming, and hardcore PvPers like Syncaine of Hardcore Casual. On the other hand, the horror stories about the prevalence of bots and hackers, Trion's unwillingness or inability to deal with them, and the controversy regarding the use of a rootkit program called HackShield are all red flags which dampen my interest in the game. I've already taken the plunge and joined Syncaine's guild on the Ollo server, but have yet to actually play the game online with my new guild. My AA avatar is in her 20's, and is a neophyte in all things AA related, so I don't expect to go on any roams with the guild for at least a couple more weeks. It's actually quite fun to be a stranger in a strange land - to not know the landscape intimately, to be unable to comprehend the meaning of the abbreviations in zone chat, or to know the potential strengths or weaknesses of my character's build. My avatar has simply been questing, following the bread crumbs like Hansel and Gretel in the big bad woods, except that the big bad woods so far have been non-PvP zones and have been quite uneventful, peaceful areas. I'm sure a rude shock awaits once she enters the contested zones, but it is something I am looking forward to. For now my avatar Hatakeyama is learning how to plant flowers and trying to wrap my head around how the crafting system works. No guides used as of yet - that will come once someone flattens me in PvP - but she is learning as she goes. At the moment of writing she has planted a bunch of lilies behind a non-descript barn, and is hoping that the flowers will still be around when she logs on later this evening. It is a joy to be able to interact with the world, and to see the mark of player agency everywhere, from the player-owned and tended fields, the vast melange of houses and the occasional convoy that come rumbling along the dirt roads. TESO is a far more beautiful game - look at these amazing screenshots of the in-game engine - but its beauty is akin to that of painting locked away behind a glass case, pristine but forever beyond alteration. AA is a rough work in progress, but more importantly it is a communal effort, and one that springs from the players themselves. 

Single Player Diversions

I'm still subscribed to TESO, but my avatar has stalled at Veteran Rank (VR) 6 (out of a possible 14), and levelling her to cap via questing is a concept that fills me with horror and trepidation. I'm pretty much with J3w3l of Healing the Masses on this one - I think I'd prefer to eat broken glass rather than do another quest, regardless of how nicely the graphics are rendered and how well the voice acting is performed. Instead I play around with my Templar alt, and occasionally do some PvP in Cyrodiil on my main. I am now very much out of touch with the situation within the PvP campaigns. The only time I play TESO is when I can organise a time when I can play with Rykester and Sally Mander, and those times are becoming fewer and far between due to Rykester's ongoing studies and Sally's new baby girl. Nowadays I am devoting much more time to activities outside gaming, and the time I do spend in gaming is spent on single player titles such as Civilisation V, Hearthstone and Wasteland 2. I finally beat Civ 5 on the hardest difficulty setting, and have no plans to ever return to it outside of multiplayer games. Unfortunately Beyond Earth is on the cusp of release, and I fear that this will be another title which will consume much of my leisure time. I started playing Hearthstone in August when I went back to Australia for holiday, and this title has scratched an itch for competitive play which WoW Arena and Rated BGs used to fill. I would like to become good at Hearthstone, and try to attain Legendary rank, much like Matticus in World of Matticus has done. This requires practice and study, however, and it might be something that is beyond me anyway. For now, though, Hearthstone is like Arena without the movement and the twitch requirements, and I am thoroughly enjoying learning and playing the game.

State of the Campaigns in TESO

The PvP landscape in TESO has changed significantly since Part IV of this series. For one, the original ten 90-day campaigns in Cyrodiil have been compressed into five - a non-VR five day campaign, a VR only five day campaign, two 7 day campaigns, and an open 30 day campaign. Another alteration occurred in September, when the Veteran campaign of Bow of Shadows was replaced by another open 30 day campaign (Azura's Star). I've relocated my toons to Thornblade, the first of the two possible open 30 day campaigns, and any subsequent posts about Cyrodiil will take place here. The rough chronology of the campaigns I have been involved with since the April release are as follows:

i) 90 Day Campaign (Wabbajack April-July 2014) - the first, and best campaign in my humble opinion, and I will always have fond memories of the great war in Wabbajack. The story of this campaign can be found here;
ii) Truncated 90 Day Campaign (Wabbajack July-August 2014) - this expired early when the campaigns were compressed into their present day versions;
iii) 30 Day Campaign (Thornblade August 2014) - won by the Altmeri Dominion;
iv) 30 Day Campaign (Thornblade September 2014) - won by the Altmeri Dominion;
v) 30 Day Campaign (Thornblade October 2014) - scheduled to end in just over a week, but it is CLOSE - any of the three factions can still win it.

In addition to the consolidation of the campaigns Zenimax has instituted a 50,000 AP minimum to be eligible for the rank of Emperor, as well as a 3 day lockout when switching campaigns. The horse has bolted however, as the title of Emperor is completely meaningless now given the prevalence of Emperor farming in the weeks prior to the implementation of patch 1.3. The only Emperors I have respect for are the ones I have seen on a regular basis on the other side, and who have been crowned legitimately in CONTESTED campaigns. Zenimax has also begun awarding items for players in top 10% of the leaderboards (top 2% get a gold item, 2-10% get a purple) in patch 1.4. Previously all you received from the campaigns was gold, the sum total of which was determined by your activity and how well your Alliance did in the campaign. Now being active in the campaign has more tangible inducements, and given the balance changes I see this as an overall positive. And finally in the upcoming 1.5 patch campaign buffs will be localised to the campaign you are physically in. There will no longer be instances where players set their home campaign to one where their faction is dominant, and then guest into other campaigns using the buffs they have in their home campaign. The reign of the Dominion Emperor-Farmers will finally be over - if people want buffs they have to earn it in the campaign they are fighting in.

Overall there have been a vast plethora of changes in TESO, and all for the better. Patch 1.5 promises to add a whole host of quality of life changes. Dungeon scaling is on the cards, Veteran Points will be abolished, and the experience requirement to go up levels has been reduced. Thank the Divines for that. Better facial animations will also be implemented in 1.5, which goes to show where the developer's hearts are in this game - they love their aesthetic, and will spend countless resources improving the lighting, particle effects, and now facial animations over the things I myself would be prioritising - the Imperial City and the justice system all come into mind. For me, however, the best thing Zenimax has done to date is the minor miracle they have wrought on Thornblade. Somehow the three factions are almost completely balanced, as by evidenced by the evolution of the campaign score below.

Even now in the last week of the campaign the result is poised on a razor's edge, as any of the three factions can still win:

Unfortunately the balance in Thornblade is in sharp contrast to the one sided dominance of EP in Azura's Star, the other 30 day campaign. This probably goes to show that these types of factional balance are always in unstable equilibrium, and hitting the sweet spot is more a case of luck than anything else. I just accept that asymmetry is part of these type of open world games and deal with it. If I want balance I play instanced games like WoW Arena, Starcraft 2, or League of Legends.

An Interlude

I plan to remain a TESO subscriber for the foreseeable future, but my attentions will be diverted to AA for the next few weeks. It's too late for me to return to the current Thornblade campaign and be in the hunt for top 2-10% of the leaderboards until the campaign restarts in November. I am really looking forward to the opening of the continent of Auroria in AA, because this is when we will see guilds claim castles and territory and engage in some real large scale skirmishes ala Cyrodiil in TESO. I look forward to seeing which guilds become the top dogs, and who their rivals will be. MMOs are blank canvases on which players can create their own stories, and while AA has its share of challenges to overcome, the battle over Auroria and dominion of the high seas is a player-generated story this old role-player can get into.