Syp’s gaming goals for February 2020

January 2020 in review

  • My carefully laid gaming plans from last month got thrown out of the window pretty quickly and I found myself on a wild adventure that I had not foreseen.
  • So let’s start with Lord of the Rings Online — By around the fourth day of the month, I had finished up Rise of Isengard on the progression server, leaving me with little to do in that game. I put a bookmark in LOTRO for the rest of the month.
  • Playing Witcher 3 weirdly made me want to get back into Elder Scrolls Online instead (and the upcoming expansion that was announced didn’t hurt neither). So I dropped W3 for ESO and didn’t regret it as I made headway through more of Elsweyr on my Warden. Not really loving the combat, but the scenery and quests make up for it.
  • I spent a lot of time winding my way through the dark European alleys of Disco Elysium. What a strange, bizarre, lovely game. Kind of depressing at times, but always engrossing. Finished that up on January 25th.
  • I went into Star Wars Galaxies hoping to find a groove there, but other than objective curiosity, I wasn’t feeling it as much. So instead I turned, late in the month, to Neverwinter, where I started a new Trickster Rogue and then transferred my attention back to an older TR that I had from 2016.
  • For Retro Gaming, I started in on Toonstruck. This quickly became one of my favorite adventure games of all time, pretty much for its slick production values and humor.
  • And finally, half-off sales and the new Tiny Living stuff pack drew me into the Sims 4 once more. I spent some time watching build videos and learning a few new tricks on how to make neat homes.

February 2020’s gaming goals

  • Did January just teach me not to make any plans or set goals whatsoever? Eh, I’m still going to do that anyway.
  • I will be finishing up Toonstruck for Retro Gaming and moving on to an old college favorite of mine — Master of Magic.
  • Mid-month, Riders of Rohan is unlocking for LOTRO’s progression servers, so I’ll need to factor in some time to get through that massive expansion. If I can finish by mid-April, I think I’ll be doing good with that.
  • Neverwinter? After experimenting with both new and old characters, I’m settling into leveling up a Chaos Warlock for the time being. If I can get to level 50 by the end of February, that’ll be good.
  • I’m also having some fun dipping back into Star Trek Online. I want to play the 10th anniversary quests, fix up my inventory, and maybe clean up a few quests that I’ve missed.
  • In Elder Scrolls Online, I’ll be pretty modest with my goal: Finish up Elsweyr, at least the first zone of it. You’d think that one of these days, I’d actually reach the max level, but no, I’m nowhere near it yet.
  • For my solo gaming, I’ll be moving on to Control and also getting in some more Sims 4 gaming and blogging. For the latter, if I could stick with a household and actually make it through a full calendar year, that would be unprecedented.

Neverwinter: Many knives make light work

Neverwinter may be one of the few MMORPGs that tells you, right there on the character selection screen, when the last time you played any given character. Because of this, I know without looking it up on this blog that my last *serious* character of merit was retired back in 2016 at level 58. It seems high time to come back, especially as I’ve been feeling the call of Cryptic lately with its upcoming Torchlight Frontiers and Magic Legends.

Plus, wouldn’t it be neat to actually get through the whole game? I’ve never done that. I should do that.

After a bit of class deliberation and experimentation, I went with the character that I previously had as my main — a Trickster Rogue named Myfanwy. It was a fun slice-and-dice class, and I liked the AOE fields it could throw down. Neverwinter loves to throw crowds of mobs at you, so taking them all down at once instead of one at a time is preferable.

Of course, things have changed mightily since 2016. My old feats were… gone. The tutorial intro was redone. What is this crazy world?

But really, it was the same old Neverwinter in its core, a kind of mindless experience of following the sparkly trail, slaughtering tons of mobs, getting loot, and generally enjoying the sights along the way. It’s kind of the MMO experience that I crave right now.

And it helps to get a boost at the start with several account unlocks that I’ve accrued over the years. This giant armored spider may be my most favorite starter mount ever. I also have three companions from the get-go. I kinda feel spoiled here, guys.

The only downside here is that while I haven’t pushed far into the mid-to-end game more than once in my entire gaming career, I’ve done the first 30 levels so many times in the past. A lot of this feels like retreading very worn ground, and I tried to push quickly through it so that I wouldn’t get bogged down in the familiar before getting to the relatively fresh. It helped that there was a double experience booster running on the server at the time.

This sight in a solo dungeon made me chuckle the more I looked at it. So they hung three guys — as the nooses testify — right alongside the smoked meats? I don’t know if it’s suggesting that the orcs were taking spare limbs as snacks, but the fact that they managed to do this without dislodging most of the bones is impressive.

I also appreciated the voiced quest bestowals, many of which continue past clicking “accept” so that you can catch up on the flavor text while starting to head your way to the quest objective. This graveyard quest, about a grumpy lich who is looking for a new home, prompted another laugh.

Toonstruck: A cow wearing leather ain’t right

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1996’s Toonstruck. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Drew and Flux head back to Zanydu to take a closer look at Jim’s Gym. Before they go in, however, they check out the odd-looking security guard who is guarding an outhouse. Since everything in Zanydu is nonsensical, he’s guarding the place against illicit fish-flushing and won’t leave his post until the Zanydu clock chimes. Which it won’t, since it’s broken. I love the guard’s Dragnet-like monotone as he quotes his regulations and threatens Drew with dry violence.

Ever wonder what a gym for cartoons would look like? This… this would probably be it, especially if a bulldog (who sounds a lot like Arnold Schwartzenegger) ran it. He’s a bit antagonistic toward Drew, so in return, Drew butters up his vault and asks for a demonstration of Jim’s routine. This results in a delightful cutscene:

The bulldog’s exit leaves an opening for Drew to pump up. I love Christopher Lloyd’s little muscle flexing animation he does at the end of this.

Meanwhile, Count Nefarious used his Malevolator to turn the Cutopia barn into something dark… something twisted… something far more grey.

I don’t even want to show you this next screencap. You shouldn’t have to be subjected to the… horrors… the udder depravity of this new barn. But we must see what we are up against in the fight against Nefarious!

OK, I’m out. That’s it. I’ve hit my weirdness quotient and need to go eat some vanilla ice cream and watch Wheel of Fortune for an hour or so to normalize.

[one hour later]

Anyway, the barn’s turned into this BDSM show with way too much whipping and leather, and Elmer is gone while a glue machine is happily churning out its new product. That mystery doesn’t take much mental work to solve. Poor Elmer. He’s now glue. Oh! I get it!

Battle Bards Episode 161: Dragon Quest X

While Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV is enjoying rousing success here in the west, its other MMO — Dragon Quest X — never made it across the Pacific. Today, the Battle Bards assemble to examine the soundtrack to this overlooked fantasy game and see how it holds up by itself and in comparison to the Dragon Quest franchise.

Episode 161 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Bright Horizons,” “Soprano of Blue,” and “The Race of Water”)
  • “Overture”
  • “The Heavens” 
  • “Good Night Villagers”
  • “Town Music”
  • “Melody of the Blade”
  • “Casino”
  • “Exploring the Hills”
  • Which one did we like most?
  • Listener notes from Druidsfire, Bill Champagne, Katriana, and Wolfy
  • Jukebox Picks: “Endless World” from Dragon Quest II, “Main Theme” from Toonstruck, and “Edge Water” from The Outer Worlds
  • Outro (feat. “Comedic Fight”)

Elder Scrolls Online makes me laugh, and that goes a long way

I’m setting the world on fire, one cart at a time. Viva la revolucion!

I know that last week I started in on Elder Scrolls Online’s combat system, and more specifically, why I am so unsatisfied with it. It’s not horrible, but I feel fairly safe in saying that the general consensus among players is that it could be so much better.

However, we gamers are always evaluating the merits of a game as a series of trade-offs. It’s bad over here, but it’s really good over there, so does that balance it out or tip the scales in the game’s favor? I can put up with some measure of disappointment if other aspects of an MMO exceed expectations. And I think that’s the case with ESO; it’s never going to be my mainline game, but it’s a very, very good game because its world, its stories, and its humor make up for having to slog through dull combat encounters.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve resumed my journeys through Elsewyr and haven’t been disappointed by a quest yet. I keep forgetting that John Cleese is in this game no matter how many times I encounter his character Cadwell, and I’m always filled with glee when he gets a minute or two of screen time.

There’s also something about the pace of this game that sits right with me. Unlike most other MMOs I play, I’m not scrambling to do a dozen or so smaller tasks in the same questing zone. Instead, I get the luxury of starting a quest and playing it all the way through its twists and turns. Elsweyr has a lot of good ones, ones that aren’t “let’s fight dragons and save the world entire!”

Probably my favorite quest bestowal — ever — came when I was running through a town and this NPC crashed through a second-story window and onto the cobblestones below. He snapped up, briefly introduced himself, and invited me to join him on a treasure hunt. I was hooked on that questline from then on, which had undertones of Indiana Jones without getting blatant about it.

Another absolutely hilarious questline involved helping a clueless but rather upbeat Nord ambassador try to charm the locals with various gifts and efforts. All of them go spectacularly bad, although the one where he gave the Khajiit a bunch of cat skins had me laughing out loud for more than one reason.

So yeah… good times. I find that logging in to do one full quest a night hits the spot for me, and while that’s not exactly racing through this expansion, I’m not in any particular rush to be anywhere else. Might as well enjoy what I purchased, yes?

Looking ahead to the big MMO drops of 2020

Here we are, almost one month into 2020, and I still feel like I’m trying to get a handle on the full year ahead. I know there’s a lot coming in MMOs — updates, unlocks, expansions, launches — and I wanted to sort out which ones I’m anticipating the most.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands — It’s now been a few months since I’ve played World of Warcraft, and I don’t feel any incredible urge to get right back in at present. I’m done with Battle for Azeroth and still not pleased with Blizzard’s actions last year, so it can sleep in the doghouse for a while more as I have fun elsewhere. That said, I’m all about new expansions, and while I’m not ecstatic over the feature list of Shadowlands, I’m always up for a romp through new zones (I do like the afterlife theme). Plus, I might want to take a new alt up through the revised leveling process to see how that feels.

Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor — You can keep your vikings and vampires, but northern zones and underground cities have my attention. There’s so much I haven’t played through in this game yet, so while I’m not starved for a new expansion, I’ll welcome it. Probably Greymoor’s biggest effect will be to boost my excitement for the game at large.

Lord of the Rings Online — Still waiting to hear about content plans for 2020 on the regular servers, so all I know right now is that I’ll be working on Riders of Rohan on the progression server come mid-February. No more alts, at least not this year.

Torchlight Frontiers — Definitely a Day One acquisition for me. Really ready for this game to come out and be a good 30-minute MMO in my rotation.

Phantasy Star Online 2 — Sometimes games are more about curiosity than an overwhelming desire to dive in, and that’s where I stand with this title. I’ll try it out, see if it’s for me, and go from there. I definitely do want to try it, in any case.

New World — Depends how PvE-friendly and relatively stable this ends up being. I’m getting the feeling the team is rushing this to launch, but we’ll see. Might be relying more on word-of-mouth than normal to determine if I want to take a crack at it.

Book of Travels — I try not to think about this one too much because I so, so want to play it and yet I can’t force myself to believe that it’ll actually make its 2020 release window. Could be really cute, could be frustrating, I have no idea. But it’ll be different!

Magic Legends — I’m a bit bummed that Cryptic scaled back from a regular MMORPG to an action MMO with this one, but even so, it’s Cryptic and I’ll play pretty much anything that studio puts out. The card collection and deck building aspects could be really appealing, too.

Sunday Serenade: Jeangu Macrooy, Isafold, and more!

Time for another Sunday morning dose of random songs that I’ve been listening to this past week! Welcome to Sunday Serenade — now let’s crank the jams up with…

“Dance in Acid Rain” by Isafold — Sometimes it’s nice to turn on a track that gets you into a good mental groove and then just stays there for a while. Such is the case with this one.

“Matutu” by Isetern — Lovely music. Lovely music that I can’t snap my fingers in time to, apparently.

“No Place to Hide” by Jace Everett — Got a bit of Johnny Cash with this, both in tone and in biblical content.

“Fume” by James Carter — Relaxing tropical and summer vibes flow through this track. Makes me wish I was on a beach somewhere.

“Gold” by Jeangu Macrooy — Minimal instrumentation makes this song into more of a worker’s chant or African spiritual. It definitely grew on me.

“Main Theme” from Aspar GP Masters — I was inclined to pass over this track, but it had juuuust enough of a hook that I couldn’t. Plus, it’s short. Weird and short. I’ll go for that.

Elder Scrolls Online: Why is this combat so unsatisfying?

With LOTRO on pause until mid-February (due to no content releases/unlocks), my attention and time has turned back to Elder Scrolls Online as a main MMO game of choice. It’s been a good decision, all in all, due to the rise in excitement over the upcoming expansion and my general desire to want to return. I’m continuing to make my way through Elsweyr with my Warden, generally enjoying the quests and sights as much as anything else.

But one thing I’m not enjoying, one thing I’ve never really enjoyed in this game, is its combat. I know that ESO’s combat is a common criticism, although I haven’t read up much on it. Instead, I’ve tried to formulate in my own head why fighting in this game seems so… unsatisfying.

I suppose I can point to a limited skill bar and rather dull weapon choices for starters, but I don’t think that’s it. It’s not even the action combat angle, although I think that this is much more dull than tab-targeting combat in MMORPGs. It’s certainly not the time-to-kill; I can jump into a small pack of mobs, throw on ice armor, throw down some AOEs, and hack everyone down with my trusty bear in about 20 seconds or less. That’s pretty decent. So it’s not that combat is lengthy, it’s just unfulfilling.

What makes the combat experience fulfilling, then? There are a lot of factors that devs have to get just right — to fine-tune — but perhaps the greatest among these and the least talked about is feedback. No, not “players whining on the forums,” but the audio and visual feedback from combat actions.

Early MMOs had rather lousy feedback. What you would see and hear visually would almost always be disconnected to what was actually happening in the combat log; it was more of a vague visual representation than an accurate reflection of reality. It always felt loose and encouraged you to look at the log more than the visuals.

ESO is better than this, but there are some of the same problems at play here. It feels loose… that’s the only way I can put it. Hits and attacks don’t have strong audio sounds to go with them. Enemies don’t react to most individual blows. And the health meter of both the player and the enemy is downright weird: It grows shorter from the outsides to the middle in a loose way that doesn’t seem to register what’s happening at that very microsecond but rather just in general. I’m used to MMO health bars depleting in more definitive and noticeable ways.

The end result is smacking bad guys around doesn’t have that feedback that draws me in. I don’t slam a mace against a head, hear a crack, and see a chunk of life instantly disappear. I’m just spamming a few special abilities and a lot of mouse clicks while moving to reposition to avoid attacks or aim certain cone abilities just so.

As we look ahead to a year of vikings and vampires, I hope that ZeniMax looks for ways to improve the combat feedback in ESO to make it much more satisfying to all of us.

MMO developers and communication channels

Here are two questions that I think are pertinent for any MMO player: How often should developers communicate with players and through which channels should they communicate?

These are questions that bounce around in my mind a lot because I’m not only a player but also an MMO journalist that is seeking and using such communication in my articles. What I’ve come to realize over the course of a decade or so of doing this is that there is no standard answer to either one. And that can be incredibly frustrating.

The best studios are the ones where they communicate regularly (at least weekly for longer dev diaries or wrap-up posts) and engage daily (answering smaller questions and addressing concerns) through as many communication channels as is available to them. But what I find is that many CMs end up slacking off on the frequency and favoring just one or two channels while ignoring all of the rest. When this happens, information is passed along haphazardly to just a fraction of the playerbase while the community team pats itself on the back and says “mission accomplished!”

One of my first initiatives as a senior pastor when I came to my church was to make sure that communication was top-notch. That meant different committees had to be talking to each other and that we were doing ALL that we could to get important info out through as many channels as we could. Previously, they relied on printed Sunday bulletins for all announcements. Now, we use bulletins, text messaging, a weekly email newsletter, powerpoints on posted monitors, flyers, Facebook, and a website. I cannot depend on everyone using just one channel, so I use all of them to get the coverage as complete as possible.

I’d think this would be the type of thinking with studios, but nope. To pick on one I’m familiar with, Standing Stone Games (LOTRO, DDO) tucks away almost all of its dev/player communication either in scattered forum posts or in lengthy livestreams during which a CM is playing a game and might or might not talk about something important. Really important announcements go to Twitter. There haven’t been dev diaries (blog posts) in ages. There isn’t any sort of dev Q&A session with the actual devs. We hear from the producer just once a year in a longer post. I’m constantly dinging the studio for its poor communication because it has so many more avenues for quick and more comprehensive coverage.

Consider how many channels a studio has:

  • The website (dev diaries, videos, pages)
  • Forum interaction
  • Livestreams
  • AMA sessions (Reddit, etc.)
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Other social media
  • The launcher
  • The in-game welcome announcement on the chat panel and mail system
  • In-game popup screens (welcome)
  • Press releases to media outlets
  • Interviews
  • Email newsletters

If you wanted maximum player interaction, you’d take to the forums, Reddit, and Twitter. If you want the most comprehensive coverage, especially for announcements, you’d leverage email, the launcher, and in-game popups. If you’d want the most publicity, media outlets, YouTube, and interviews would be the way to go. But my point is that you wouldn’t get complacent and rely on just a small handful of these, because you’re going to miss people while thinking that you did your job by getting info out there.

Toonstruck: Welcome to Zanydu

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1996’s Toonstruck. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

One thing that’s really hard to convey in a blog post format is how animated each screen is on Toonstruck. A lot of stuff continually moves around and makes noise, including Drew’s friend Flux. Christopher Lloyd, on the other hand, usually stands stock still as if he has a knife to his back and is listening intently on the mugger’s directions.

I guess subversiveness, below-the-radar innuendo, and general weirdness is par for the course for cartoons, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel uncomfortable talking with this cow about her intense desire to be milked. I notice that there isn’t an actual option to do that the old fashioned way, for which I am profoundly grateful.

If you’ll recall, this world is divided into three kingdoms: the bad place (I forget the name), Cutopia (land of the overly cute animals), and Zanydu (the land of insane cartoon things where Flux lives). Drew and Flux are off to the latter via a shuttle powered by an elephant scared of a small mouse.

But… how will I know when we’ve arrived at the right place? Subtle, this is not.

Flux takes Drew over to Wacme, where just getting into the building is a challenge (you have to take the revolving door with a light on over it at just the right time). Inside is a dog-and-cat team that have taken their love of beating each other up and turned it into a profitable enterprise of equipping others with “abuse tools.”

I should mention how the soundtrack is amazingly done in the style of classic cartoons. So many of the cues sound spittingly familiar to anyone who has watched Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, and Disney over the years.

If you do find yourself at Wacme, you really should ask for a demonstration of all of their products. It’s highly entertaining (and extremely lethal) to say the least. In a clever bit, Drew is able to scoop up the stars over Warp’s head when the cat is smacked with the glove. The human/toon interaction is pretty well-done for an FMV game.

MEANWHILE… a cutscene appears in which Tim Curry (as Count Nefarious) is informed that there’s a strange new presence in the land. Ahhh. I do so love a good Tim Curry bit. That man is a treasure.

I… um… er… hum. So. This game instantly makes me regret bringing back a magnet from Wacme to search the haystack for the missing piece of the butter churning machine. I’m just saying that when I die, please do not put the above on my headstone.

As far as I can tell, this is not one of those adventure games with any sort of moving narrative. It’s very much — as Toonstruck said itself at the start — a scavenger hunt in which you have to find the things or find the things in order to find the other things. It’s a stuff hunt in which you’re invited to deeply examine the world and experiment with different actions and combinations. That’s fine, but I could see this being very frustrating to fully unlock.