Back to ESO

This place started almost twelve years ago as a place to talk about MMORPGs. But as I drifted away from the genre I also drifted away from the blog and sought new avenues (primarily social media and my YouTube channel) to share my experiences with other types of games. While I made some efforts to write here about wargames and tabletop games, blogging about them never really caught fire for me.

The massively multiplayer space as we once knew it is stretched beyond recognition. Now almost everything is online and multiplayer, and where stuff’s not really massive, it often pretends to be. The state of what we might then call massive online ‘virtual world games’ has been dire for several years, with any number of shaky launches and disappointments and not a few embarrassing closures.

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Those folks already entrenched and happy in an older and well-established title like WoW or EVE or EQ2 (for example) had little reason to notice this deterioration in the larger space — although in all three examples there has been noticeable turmoil. But for those of us who never stayed attached to a single game, the prospects have grown thin indeed. That’s probably one reason that the MMORPG blogging community, prone to game-hopping and once quite robust, has largely evaporated or moved on to blogging about other things. But most of us are still here, lurking and waiting.

I spent a good chunk of May playing World of Warcraft, for the first time in a long while. This was in the current retail game, not the WoW Classic beta, and I had fun, but it certainly wasn’t social. Maybe three weeks in I felt the familiar drift. So I hemmed and hawed for a few days off and then stepped back into Elder Scrolls Online. Which, if it isn’t perfect, is maybe the best we’ve got right now.

ESO happens to be the only MMORPG right now that is growing. After a shaky launch to tepid reviews, it did some things to address structural issues and has been relentlessly pounding new content ever since. At this point there is a crazy amount of stuff to do even without the shiny new Elswyr expansion, which I don’t have… although I did pony up for the sub, because the game is frankly hard to play beyond the first zone or so without it, due to the difficulty of managing an inventory with an enormous number of crafting materials, unless you just vendor everything.

ESO also has a number of incentives to sign in every day, from the daily login rewards to the daily crafting writs to the need to bump your riding skills every twenty hours. Some days that’s sign in and fart around on that stuff for fifteen minutes, and other times it’s like “well, I’m in, I might as well do some questing” and only sign out three hours later. Plus random daily PUG dungeons, except in ESO the PUGs actually talk to each other. It’s crazy.

Anyway. I’m, into the week three Death Zone. So check in on me in about a fortnight.

Lost in the Dark

Elite Dangerous: Beyond Chapter 4 released yesterday. It contains a host of things, all minor enhancements in the grand scheme of things. I left off in Elite some 5,000 light-years from the “bubble” of settled space, exploring. So the overhaul of exploration was of some concern. Would my existing exploration-related modules work or just disappear?

Inconveniently, returning to Elite after an extended absence (I’d been out more than a year) can be a little bit of a project. Updating the game is effortless thanks to Steam, but I also had to update Voice Attack and the voice pack (which I had to contact HMS to do) and do the tiresome HOTAS setup again. I’m flying with the relative cheapie Thrustmaster T-Flight, which lacks all the hats, switches and buttons you’d want for Elite but at $50 is priced at a level commensurate with my level of involvement in this type of game. It is probably more accurate and efficient to use a mouse and keyboard, but the HOTAS adds immensely to immersion, and immersion is what Elite does best.

All this done, I got back in before the patch but didn’t have enough playtime to get back to settled space before the update hit. So I was concerned that I’d just be stuck out there with no usable modules and nothing to do except head back.

This turns out not to be the case. It is a thorough overhaul, but the old Discovery Scanner functionality has become a general ship function (supposedly people with the module got refunded its cost, although I didn’t check that,) but that activity is radically different now.

System scanning pre-update was basically binding the scanner to a fire group and then holding the button down in the system. This revealed, assuming you had the most powerful scanner, all bodies in the system on the system map, which you could then look at to figure out which ones you wanted to fly out to and explore. This no longer happens at all.

Now one enters a special Discovery Scan mode, in which you get an overlay atop your surrounding space. You execute the system scan and learn the system ecliptic and some number of “signals,” which could be bodies or other weirder things. Scan waves pass over this space, briefly revealing highlighted patches, which you then have to match up to spectrograph signals to reveal the system’s planets and other bodies. Only stuff you have scanned in this way shows up on the system map, unless (maybe — I’m not totally clear on this) that system has already been explored by someone else.

The Detailed Surface Scanner still exists as a module, but it functions very differently. Used to be you get close enough to a body and point your ship in 9its direction and wait for the scan to finish. Now, at a presumably similar distance, you enter a surface scan mode in which you have a map of the planet in front of you and you launch micro-probes (of which you have an unlimited supply) at it. Each probe will map the planet’s surface near where it hits, and can reveal surface features that only seem to be present on some bodies. If your probes map 90% of the surface you’ll get a “mapped by” tag for the planet.

Particularly in systems that are either large or contain multiple interesting bodies, this takes much longer than the old push-the-button system scan. It will vastly slow down the speed of exploration, and will definitely change its tone, with explorers skipping over the abundant but genrally unprofitable M systems in favor of G and K starts that have a larger change of having interesting planets. Very probably some players will not like it, and players who aren’t (or who don’t aspire to be) fairly serious explorers probably won’t learn it.

Provisionally, though, I like it quite a bit sor far. Now, I haven’t really explored the Codex (another new feature,) have only monkeyed with surface scanning a little bit, and haven’t yet turned in my (fairly large) bank of current discoveries, so I reserve the right to change my mind, but right now it feels more like exploration and is more immersive. Which is, after all, the best part of Elite Dangerous.

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Blizzcon Thoughts: WoW Classic

I was never a hardcore player of MMORPGs. I had trouble setting into each and every one, and the only ones that I stuck with for any serious length of time were Vanguard, EVE Online and World of Warcraft. Of those, I got the most serious about WoW, reaching the level cap in the Lich King era, doing some of the “endgame” stuff, running lots of dungeons and even joining a guild and doing some light raiding. Casual or not, though, I spent years and a couple of novels worth of words on this blog trying to feel out what makes MMORPGS good. I don’t know that I ever settled on anything firm even for me, let alone for everybody else.

Since I played most heavily during Lich King and came into the game just before Burning Crusade, I never really got much “vanilla” experience as such. But while WoW continued to evolve the whole time, the massive revamp to both world and mechanics were still a ways off by the time I stopped playing regularly. As a leveling character, Azeroth in the BC and LK eras was still very like it was back before expansions happened.

Frankly, the game at the time was slow and often frustrating, even aside from the various technical glitches. Classes varied radically in how fast they could level or how useful they were. It was easy to mis-spec, and respecs were costly. It was easy to die, especially in leveling content and especially for certain classes like the Warrior, where an extra add could spell certain doom. Death itself was costly in terms of time spent running back from graveyards — and occasionally getting lost on the way.

But at the same time it really did feel like there was a world there to explore. You had a direction but you could also run off the rails. Content left partially complete by the developers stayed in the world, leaving mysteries that would only sometimes be solved. Little nooks and crannies with neat stuff in them were all over the place. People weren’t afraid to try wacky things like swimming between the continents. And then there was the PvP that happened spontaneously in the open world, and raids on major cities weren’t uncommon.

That way of playing off the cuff, of saying “I never noticed that before… I wonder what’s over there?” has pretty much gone away in favor of a far more structured experience. There’s tons to do but it’s almost all rails, everywhere. The class mechanics are streamlined to the point of sameness, where classes no longer feel especially distinct. The communities that grew up around guilds and servers withered with the advent of the group finders and Battlegroups. Crafting became an unrewarding grind early on, where anything you made leveling was valueless. I was by no means the biggest fan or player of WoW back in the day, but even I felt the drift in the Lich King era. And — when we think about it — that very epoch, when there was some stagnation but the game hadn’t yet been radically changed, was when WoW’s subscriber numbers peaked. The game is indisputably much easier to play now, but is it more fun, or more rewarding?

I played on Nostalrius, before Blizzard shut it down with legal threats in 2016. No judgements there; it was within their legal rights to do so and the whole point of Nostalrius was to make available an experience that you could no longer get from Blizzard. And on Nostalrius there was indeed an indefinable magic that was missing from the game the last time or two I played it.

Which brings me to World of Warcraft: Classic, launching next summer. Based on the demo footage I’ve seen and the news out of Blizzcon, it’s looks like an attempt to exactly replicate the pre-BC experience, probably/hopefully minus all the technical glitches, even to the extent of gradually rolling out the post-launch but pre-expansion content: Onyxia and Molten Core at first, then adding Blackwing Lair and Zul’Gurub, then Ahn’Qiraj with its massive world event, then finally Naxxramas.

This itself raises any number of questions. How fast will this stuff roll out? After Naxx, is that it? Or will there eventually be BC and LK content as well? Will have have perpetual, parallel deveopment efforts?

As of now we don’t have those answers, but I wonder. WoW’s subscriber numbers were at their highest Wrath of the Lich King. The new expansion Battle for Azeroth didn’t bring them back up to those levels even temporarily. This is obviously much more copmlicated than just the degradation of the WoW experience… isn’t it? What if Classic brings the numbers way, way up in a year between expansions, when we would have expected them to be at a historic low?

I guess we’ll find out. As of right now, I may or may not stay, but I’m in when it launches.

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Winterfest 2018 Report

Here’s a pile of pictures and commentary from Winterfest 2018. This was the 21st year of the event but my first in attendance. I had a magnificent time and definitely plan to attend next year.

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Winterfest is a tiny event — this year it drew less than 30 — but for committed board wargamers it feels like a much larger affair. There’s usually a couple of big monster games at the center but a ton of smaller games, some of which are monsters themselves.

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There was also an enormous miniatures game, which ran twice in the day it was set up. I gather there is sometimes minis and sometimes not.

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I got to play Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg, OCS Sicily II, GMT’s The Napoleonic Wars, Clash of Arms’ Close Action and a double-blind game of the classic Flat Top, which was a ton of fun.

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My personal acquisitions were GMT’s A World at War, Columbia’s Julius Caesar and The Gamers’ Black Wednesday from the idle TCS series. This is, nevertheless, not a shoppers’ event — there are no dealers and it’s pretty much all gameplay, but some stuff inevitably changes hands privately.

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As someone who (relatively) recently got back to board wargaming and has been looking at events for the past few years, I have to say that Winterfest was the best wargaming event experience I’ve had. Short of going to the CSW Expo in Tempe, it’s hard to think I could find a better one.

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