RIFT: Hey look! Greener grass!

It must be frustrating to be one of my characters. Egads, the uncertainty that they have to live with, not knowing day to day if I’ll grow bored or dissatisfied with them and just kick them to the curb like yesterday’s jam. There’s never any assurance, never any guarantee — the Sword of Damocles always hangs over their neck.

So one has to imagine that for a person with limited gaming time, multiple other titles for distraction, and playing on a time-unlocking progression server, I’d perhaps be persuaded not to reroll and OH HEY I DID IT AGAIN. Because, look, there’s greener grass.

I don’t even want to explain why. Long story short, I missed my Cleric, I wanted a DoT build, and… yeah.

Why not reset one’s progress when the clock is always ticking? Trion doesn’t care. Trion sends out a company-wide memo when I reroll, because that’s another month’s subscription in the can. Buy Scott Hartsman another corgi.

Anyway.

Fully aware of my foolish impulse, I determined to go all-in, at least for a while. The first three nights after rebooting my character — now named Glittersneeze — I rushed as fast as I could through the opening zone. My build was actually pretty good at juggling multiple characters, so I pulled as fast and frequent as I could. I put my brain on auto-pilot and watched some Netflix while slaughtering everything in my sight. And while I didn’t get back up to level 30, where I had left off with my Rogue, I did manage a respectable 18 levels during that time. A good start, at least.

I continued my little hobby of trying to take close-up shots of mobs’ faces and torsos, because there is so much detail that I don’t notice while fighting them with the camera typically pulled back about 15 feet. These skellys were entertaining, especially with the one glowing eye.

I also was appeased to see Trion finally lay out what it’s doing with the progression server, at least in the near future. For now, I think I have breathing room. It looks like it’s focusing on level 50 endgame stuff like raids, whereas I was more concerned about the unlocking of new zones and the expansions. I’m also glad we’re getting the summer festival, because it was a major bummer not to have the anniversary content on Vigil when that was going on.

This undead mob has the strangest face and I never really noticed it before. It’s like the head was stretched out but the face compacted in like a baby’s. No eyes? I don’t think it has eyes. And the teeth are kind of off-kilter, which is a neat detail.

It’s also surprisingly hard to get a head-on shot of your pets, because they automatically turn when your character does. I fiddled a lot and finally got this profile picture of Tweezers, my faerie. I don’t think I’ll be seeing her past level 30 for the sake of DPS, but at least she’s hanging out with me now. Put a shirt on, girl. It’s cold outside.

I… HAVE… THE GLITTER!

Not the best battle-cry, but it’s starting to irk my enemies a little bit.

Why I’ve hated World of Warcraft’s Rogues

I think pretty much all of us have classes and races in RPGs that we don’t like playing. And I’m sure we have many reasons for these: playstyles, looks, lore, better alternatives, and so on. But there are those classes you avoid, not because you have a problem with their mechanics so much as the fact that you just hate what they are and what they stand for.

For me, this has always been World of Warcraft’s Rogues.

The weird thing is, I have no problem with rogues, thieves, scoundrels, and similar types in other games. In RIFT, I think I’ve played a Rogue more than any of the other three archetypes. I’m not huge on stealthing and backstabbing, to be honest, but I get why people think that this class concept is cool. After all, assassins and thieves make up a huge population of fantasy novel heroes. They dress cool, they strike hard and fast, and they get to fill the Batman role quite nicely.

So what’s my beef with WoW’s Rogues? Why, to this day, have I never rolled one, despite suffering from extreme altoholism?

For me, it really goes back to the first couple of years of the game and the PvP scene. When battlegrounds were first introduced with 2005’s Patch 1.5, many of us who were starved for content were lured into these instances. I did my fair share of Warsong Gulch, Arathi Basin, and Alterac Valley, sometimes to have something to do, and sometimes because I was chasing some rewards. And I did a stint on a PvP-RP server because friends lured me there.

My time in these PvP settings taught me one lesson the hard way: Rogues are everywhere and they are raging jerks who are out to spoil your day. Having a class that can literally pop out of nowhere, stunlock you, and slice you to ribbons in seconds did nothing but raise my blood pressure and make me wish that I could just press a button and wipe out the entire Rogue population in the game. I’m sure I was killed by many classes, but the Rogues always seemed to be the ones that would corpse camp, that would delight in ruining your day, and that would /spit on you before dashing back off.

I made it my mission to try to strike back against Rogues, but this only was ever successful if they were in combat against someone else. In a one-on-one fight, I lost, because it started and ended on their terms.

And you know how it is — when you develop a bias against something, it’s incredibly hard to let that go. I haven’t touched PvP much since 2007 in that game, and yet I still find myself growling under my breath whenever I see a Rogue. I have no idea if they’re jerks or not, they’re probably lovely people who can’t get enough of dual wielding daggers.

I haven’t thought about it head-on for a long time now. The other day I was musing why my dislike of Rogues differed from, say, Elves. It wasn’t the creation of the writers and developers that angered me, but past actions by players that are forever associated with this class in my mind. And for better or for worse, it’ll probably stay that way. At least there are plenty of other classes to enjoy if I want alternatives.

Secret World: For the night is full of terrors and I cannot sleep

With my first day done at the Morninglight compound, it’s time for a good night’s sleep and some fearsome night terrors.

Noises wake me up, and I head outside — against the cult’s curfew policy — to see that the compound is crawling with creatures. Mainly, these people-pterosaurs and neon demon hyenas. It’s a monster jubilee, and I’m invited!

A lady has been dismembered by some of the critters, and wouldn’t you know, she was due to be promoted to Ascended tomorrow. Well, nothing to be done but mourn her short-lived life and then scavenge the bracelet off of her arm — wherever it may be — so I can take her place!

Secret World, you do take me to such delightful head spaces.

As I explore the compound after dark, what’s really weird is finding these grates in the wall separating the newbies from the higher-ups. Obviously, someone on the other side of the wall is letting these critters through. For what reason? Curfew enforcement?

“Cleaners” come by to scoop up the dead woman and put a fake goodbye note on her bed. Judging by how many of those notes I found the day before, I’m guessing a lot of people get killed at night here.

Meanwhile, I’m killing packs of these mobs like it ain’t no thing.

Before heading back to bed, I engage in a few side quests, such as graffiti…

…and shooting fireworks at flying dinosuars. Seems legit.

Out of all of the questions that this zone has raised so far, the one I want answered the most is: What is going on in this room? What are those things? Is she telling them a bedtime story?

Biting the MMO hand that entertained you

A week or so ago, two of my MMO blog buddies posted essays in which they, at least for now, had turned their back on this particular gaming genre. Syl discussed her rising despair over “broken” MMOs — usually in early access state — littering up Steam, and Wolfy mentioned how his weekly D&D session had started to take on more meaning than his previous MMO expeditions. Both have stepped away from MMOs, and both are saying (in their own way) something I have witnessed many times in following online gaming.

The general formula to it is this:

  • Be a very dedicated MMO player for a long period of time
  • Have some measure of burnout or find some other distraction/hobby
  • Exit the MMO genre (temporarily or permanently) and then feel a need to turn around and bite the hand that once entertained you

I mean this last statement as VERY tongue-in-cheek, by the way. There was once a time that I would have considered such players mild traitors or somesuch, but that’s just silly talk. You don’t “owe” loyalty to MMOs or suddenly find yourself unable to criticize them if you stop playing them. In fact, sometimes when we experience a change in our gaming routine or step away do we gain a new perspective. We should use these moments to reprioritize, to reassess, and to understand our own habits and desires.

What does mildly frustrate me is that these epiphanies usually aren’t as deep as we’d like them to be. I mean, pick any video game genre, play the crud out of it for years, and then experience burnout. You’re going to have some harsh words to say. We often are the most hard on those we once loved, after all.

It’s true, MMORPGs, even the most fully featured ones, can’t be all things to all people. More specialized games can do some of these elements much better — the combat, the story, the graphics, the ingenuity. But when we come to MMOs, we’re looking for an overall package that, combined, we can’t find anywhere else. We’re looking for progression, persistence, and people. That’s the magic combination that makes these games work.

But to be utterly fair to Syl and Wolfy and anyone else who has taken a short, long, or forever break from MMOs — I get it. It’s good to have that break, to try other things, and to demand something better of the MMO genre. I completely agree with Syl that the early access phenomenon is a plague that’s hurting rather than helping the genre. I would totally love to see more MMOs take a deep look at what makes pen-and-paper adventures special and try to emulate that past the combat-centric DIKU design. I concur that MMOs can be very time demanding and can start to take time away from other, more important areas of our life.

Stepping away is your choice, and it’s fine. And criticizing in those moments, although not always productive, is equally your call. Maybe it’s one of those therapeutic moments that lets us get off our chests everything that we wanted to say and can see clearly now.

But I just would urge those who do find themselves in this position to get it all out at once and then leave MMOs alone until or unless you’re ready to return. I’ve seen so many bitter former MMO players who can’t seem to find anything else to do but lurk on forums and Reddit and grouse about the evil they now see in these games. After a certain point, it doesn’t help, and it definitely makes for an embarrassing situation if you end up slinking back to a game and have to eat all of those words.

DDO: Death House

You know those horror movies where the good guys rush blindly into a place of certain death? That’s me. Seriously, it is me, especially in video games. I mean, here is a place that’s called “Death House,” and my first instinct is, “Yeah. Definitely. Let’s do that.”

Welcome back to DDO’s Barovia, which I am totally in love with. I spent about 10 minutes poking around the starting village and soaking up the excellent pseudo-Transylvanian atmosphere. Huge props to SSG for all of this. It’s so well done on the visuals and sounds.

Anyway, let’s rush after a couple of kids who allegedly went into this place! I’m sure nothing bad will come of it!

I get kind of punchy in instances where the developers are clearly trying to unnerve and scare us, so pretty much the whole time I was running through this place, I was cracking jokes and perforating any surface I could with my automatic crossbow. You just know that the monsters in here were kind of regretting putting out the welcome mat for adventurers the day I showed up, all trigger happy.

Again, great atmosphere going on here. Really creepy haunted house, and I admire the devs restraining their hand at any jump scares or throwing tons of mobs at me right away. Instead, they encourage me to explore and let the spookiness of this seemingly abandoned house soak in. The sounds in particular definitely put me on edge.

Anyone getting a Blair Witch vibe right about now?

So what happened to these kids? We kind of find out through letters scattered about that the house was full of cultists trying to impress the vampire Strahd, but those darn kids, well, they were being disruptive.

They had to be locked in the attic.

For a very long time.

Once again I had to laugh at the similarities between this expansion and The Secret World, because this is TOTALLY the Nursery. Dead kids? Blood splatters? Creeptastic dolls? Dollhouses? All that in spades, baby.

Oh yeah, the kids are dead. But they’ve been talking to you the whole time, so it’s probably¬† all good.

Descending into the basement, the quest starts to cut loose with some monster encounters — ghosts, crawling arms, giant spiders, that sort of thing. Pew pew, don’t you regret your life’s decisions now?

When the secret basement of your murder house has a secret shrine to your vampire overlord, perhaps it’s a sign that you’re not to be trusted with babysitting duties.

The lord of the manor! C’mon dude, give me a smile. A little one? Eh? Eh? Fine. Keep scowling like that and it’ll stay that way forever.

The big bad monster in the basement is this muppet-looking trash monster. Honestly, I was kind of let down. He’s cute enough that I was looking for the mission’s gift shop so I could buy a plushie to take home to my kids.

In the end, I laid the kids’ bones to rest in these adorable little side-by-side coffins and pondered why burying kids’ remains makes for a successful miss… oh hey! XP and loot!

Novel: How long should a book be?

“Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

In his book on writing, horror novelist Stephen King advised that any serious writer should spend four to six hours a day doing some mixture of both reading and writing to hone their craft and become good at what they do. As you may imagine, this can be incredibly difficult for people who don’t have the luxury of just sitting around doing both hobbies for a large chunk of the day. I, for one, have two jobs, four kids, a wife, and other interests and activities. So should I just not write? Am I doomed to mediocrity?

I understand the spirit of what King is saying — mainly that it’s important to train in reading and writing to become better, and you can’t do this in tiny measures — but I don’t fully embrace it, either. You do what you can do. I don’t often get as much time to read every day as I might like, but I get a little in here and there — with devotions, audio books, and the occasional 10-minute bursts of Kindle while I’m waiting to pick the kids up, etc. I write a lot, but most of it is for my work, and that’s a much different style than fiction writing. So to make this novel work, I’ve had to restructure my day and carve out some time here and there to get a few more paragraphs done, maybe a page, maybe two. But six hours? No, it’s just not happening.

When I started this novel a month or so ago, it wasn’t with any sort of lofty ambitions. I had a story idea that I wanted to get out. I wasn’t even thinking of size or scope. But by the time I was deep into the fourth chapter and the structure of the book was coming along, I started to be concerned about the larger picture. Namely, how long should this book be?

That actually matters a lot, because it will influence how fast I progress through the plot and give me a target goal to shoot for. I know that some people might say, “Just write it and see where it ends,” but that has some problems. What if it’s way, way too short to be an actual novel? I would like this book to arrive in the 300-450 page range, and so I did a little bit of research on word counts.

What I found was general recommendations that gave me a better idea of general length:

  • 60,000 words or less is a very short novel or novella — not what I’m going for
  • 80,000-100,000 words is a nice, average length of a novel
  • 100,000-130,000 words is more expected for fantasy novels, as they typically have greater world building and more epic tales

My general concern is that I’m going to fall on the shorter side of the spectrum. What I’m discovering about my writing style is that I like things to happen. I’ll give some descriptions, sure, but I like to keep the plot moving and inject interesting explanations over spending the better part of a page setting the scene. I also keep my dialogue light, which I’m deliberately trying to address although it slows down my writing when my characters enter into a conversation.

So my goal is this: I’m shooting for 100,000 words for a first draft with a daily goal of at least 1,000 words. It’s pretty reasonable, and in fact most days I easily reach 2,000. I think NaNoWriMo had us pumping out 1,667 words a day to get to the 50,000 mark by a month’s end, so this feels about normal for that. With over 30,000 words already done, I should be crossing the finish line for a first draft sometime in June.

I’m not getting obsessed with word count, mind you. It’s just one way to measure progress, and I enjoy tracking it on a spreadsheet every day to see how it grows. Plus, it’s another good little motivational technique to encourage me. Another one of my “daily quests,” if you will.

To answer a question that I’ve been asked: Yes, I’ll make this novel available to the public if (a) it gets finished and (b) I put in a couple of rounds of serious edits and formatting. Even if it never sees the light of day in an official printing, I’ll still shell out some money to have a few copies made up for my wife and kids. So far, it’s a fun read and a fun ride, and I think you might enjoy it.

World of Warcraft brings Battle for Azeroth in August

Nothing like having pure white hair and no wrinkles to look that special brand of fantasy cute!

Thanks to Blizzard making a presence at PAX East this past weekend, we now have shifted from a larger launch window for Battle for Azeroth (summer) to a much more specific date (August 14th). Other than being somewhat earlier than I had anticipated, I don’t think that this really stunned me or anything. I mean, we were discussing a family vacation in either July or August this year, so now I might lean for the former, but other than that… cool? I guess?

At the turn of this year, I really thought Blizzard would be pushing the expansion off as long as possible for testing and whatever makes that studio take forever getting content out, but now it feels somewhat different. That the studio had a good pace going with Legion patches — 2017 was an excellent year for WoW in that regard — and it didn’t want to leave us with too long of a content drought.

Now that we have a start date for Battle, we can make more concrete plans for the coming months. At least for me, it’s the time to assess what I want to accomplish and what I have time to do. Let’s look at the timeline here:

  • It’s still early April.
  • We’re due for a pre-expansion patch around a month before the full expansion goes live, so call that mid-July
  • Then the launch on August 14th

That means that there’s probably a good three months or so before we get any new content. It’s enough time to level up a character, provided that one starts now and doesn’t dally. Might not even need that long, if you’re not really going to be that concerned with finishing Legion campaigns.

It means that there’s only a few months to keep making money with order halls before Blizzard shuts off the gold faucet there. It means that in four months, our artifact weapons will be kaput (or even three months, if that’s what’ll happen with the pre-expansion patch).

At the very least, I’m going to try to keep the money train going as steady as I can. I have two more allied races to unlock and some campaigns to finish. I’m feeling the urge to seriously work on a Horde character so I can have that “other side” experience for the expansion, since it’ll be more factionally divided than before.

Anyway, I’m excited. Should be a fun summer and give us a nice start into the fall!

Shroud of the Avatar: A good example of a bad beginning

With the official launch of Shroud of the Avatar — a game that has been in a persistent world state for at least a year now — I made a vow that I’d come back and give it a good try. At the very least, I’d check in with it. I even thought about doing a first impressions piece for Massively OP, but then when I got some time with the game, I had such a negative experience that I knew I wasn’t going to get far enough to even justify such a piece.

I came to it with some energy and curiosity, looking forward to seeing what I could glean out of this Ultima Online spiritual successor. On paper, it has a lot that interests me: a really strong legacy, a more immersive world, a PvE-focused experience, and actual effort toward alternative systems and roleplay. But an hour into the game, and I felt trapped. I couldn’t wait to log out and put this behind me.

What happened?

The first couple of hours in any MMORPG are absolutely crucial to get right. You have to hook the player while introducing them to the game world, entertaining them, and teaching them the new systems. And to be fair, the best thing that Shroud of the Avatar does is integrating character creation into its own little pocket zone that teases and hints at some weirdness (mechanical oracle, little watcher robots, a bridge between Earth and this other planet, a moon that exploded) while seeding a few of the game’s elements.

I honestly liked the keyword-focused NPC dialogue system — it feels interactive and much more like old-school RPGs than the streamlined MMO quest text. You could sort of fool yourself that you were talking with the character. And I also appreciated the nod to Ultima with the moral dilemmas that the Oracle gave you, although those are (pun intended) ultimately meaningless since you can choose your path regardless of your answers.

But it was in the opening zone — or “scene” as this game calls them — that SOTA started to lose me. The game doesn’t handle well, and that comes through in a lot of little interface and control actions. Jumping is weird and wrong. You have to hit an additional key to go into combat mode, which got me into all kinds of trouble when I kept forgetting to start and stop that at key moments. Combat itself was plodding and disconnected.

And while there were some general directions, I felt like the area wasn’t as focused or informative as it could have been. Should I be picking up everything I see? Is there a story I should be absorbing here? And why do the elves look like something out of a horror novel with their bald heads and beady black eyes?

Compared to how much I loved exploring the opening moments of Project Gorgon, which also encouraged you to look around, experiment, and interact, Shroud of the Avatar simply didn’t click with me. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t telling me all that I wanted to know, and it was loading me down with questionable inventory and these inventory documents that read like someone took a tech manual and ripped out pages to deliver piecemeal.

Another quibble: There was no zone map. I saw that you could collect maps for areas, but I never had one of the places where I was at, so I had no external point of reference for travel. I hoped that my character would perhaps make up her own map, but nothing doing. It’s amazing how much a lack of a mini-map or zone map changes how you play — and not in a good way.

By the time I was in the second area, I pretty much gave up hope. Oh, there were MMO staples, like questing and killing, but again it felt sloppy and weird. SOTA does its own thing its own way, and I get the impression that the devs were trying to reinvent the wheel instead of absorbing what worked well in similar titles. I had no idea how to best level up my character. I was a mage who only had one attack spell that worked on a 10 or 15 second cooldown, leaving me helpless unless I wanted to wack at things with a staff for a while. Should I use a staff? Or is a sword OK? I had no idea.

I probably would have benefited from reading up on a beginner’s guide or watching some player do a tutorial on YouTube, but you know what? If a game in 2018 can’t teach you properly while you play it, then that’s a failure on the part of the devs. I shouldn’t have to do homework to know how to play a game and derive enjoyment of it.

From my very limited perspective, Shroud of the Avatar isn’t as engrossing or connected as it should be. And it really should be, which is the shame here. It has so many elements I really do look for in online games, but something went askew in the development process, and I’m wondering if Portalarium was listening too hard to its “yes” fans and customers and not enough to its critics.

Oh well. There are plenty of other game worlds that want my time and attention and are willing to bring me into them without this level of frustration.

Secret World: Infiltrating the Morninglight

I think that a lot of us Secret Worlders were pinching our arms yesterday, unable to truly believe that the game had just added new story content, a new zone, and a start to the long-fabled season two. It was certainly surreal.

Almost as surreal as Che — Che! — offering me a ride down to South Africa on his dinky little plane so that I could help take down Philip Marquard. Still not sure why I should trust him or what his deal is in all of this, but hey, anything to get me out of Tokyo! Let’s do this.

We arrive at the Morninglight compound, which is very unsettling despite being out in the bright sunshine. Something about the walls, guard towers, and management by an organization that I have very good reason not to trust.

Che tells me to infiltrate the Morninglight and work my way up so that I can take a shot at Marquard. With that, he boogies off, because thank you so much you hippie stoner. My new mentor is a former Templar who joined the cult as a personal rebellion against the secret world.

So the idea with this zone, at least as it is originally presented, is that I have to work my way up through three ranks: foundling, ascended, and favored. Do certain tasks, get points, level up. It’s almost as if this is a snarky commentary on rep grinds and OF COURSE IT IS.

I did poke around a lot in the first part of the compound, but other than the occasional person who is having second thoughts about joining up, nothing really suspicious or sinister was spotted.

So… off to grow corn in the desert then? Yeah. Sure. This was worth two years of waiting!

I started to despair that this all was going to be a lot of repeated dull activities to grind points, and hey, it might be. I did get a measure of hope from the fact that at some point, my character basically says “forget this” and swipes a guy’s full corn basket and turns it in as my own.

Other “fun” activities: listening to the world’s most boring preacher, emoting in front of paintings, and delivering new member materials to cabins. It was interesting to read the farewell notes from the cabins’ former inhabitants. I kind of wonder if they’re all dead. Probably.

Just wanted to say that this is one of the cooler pictures that I’ve taken in this game. Stealthy me!

Toward the end of Day One, I spot some lights in the compound’s warehouse and investigate. Turns out that there’s an Agartha portal opening up inside. Iiiiiiinteresting.

As the day draws to a close, I wonder what terrors the night will bring. There’s a curfew, but since when do I follow the rules by crazy people organizations?

Unlike some, I’m not going to rush through this new content. Probably going to be a long while until the next batch, so it’s off to savor country for me! So far I’m liking what I’m seeing, although the zone is deliberately drab and I do have concerns about the amount of effort that it might take to advance in rank. We shall see.