ESO and Open Worlds

If you read back into the dim prehistory of this blog, I talked a lot about open worlds, and made no small amount of hay about those open worlds which lack (or mostly lack) load screens. This is still relatively rare among MMORPGs, as we’ll see. But while a lack of load screens removed barriers to immersion, it’s probably a peripheral point. Seems to me that the more important consideration for MMORPGs is actual people out in the world doing stuff.

Hilariously, this has always been the nominal objection from Blizzard and its apologists when the subject of player housing comes up. It is undesirable, so it is claimed, to have people out of the world and doing stuff in a private instance. Which, okay, I agree with that. But then why does literally every other design decision that WoW has made in the last decade or so do this exact thing?

Modern WoW is essentially a lobby game. After you finish the comparatively quick leveling process, you sit in a hub waiting for the instance finder to pop. All meaningful play occurs in private instances; open-world content exists but is unrewarding drudgery, by and large. Hands have been waved at open-world play, but then when it develops issues Blizzard traditionally just abandons it rather than trying to address its issues. Instancing, as used by WoW and its imitators, keeps people out of the world (which is a shame, because WoW’s open world is really very nice.)

It would be quick to say “the enemy is instancing” or some other such neatly reductive thing. But as usual, there is a balance to be struck and the answers are complicated. There were extant problems in MMORPGs that instancing was developed to solve. Those problems do not go away if you remove instancing. So the bigger issue is not instancing as such, but how instancing has been deployed in for example World of Warcraft, where it overwhelms other play modes. Used to be, before the modern instance finders, that it took some doing to get an instance run going. You had to put the group together (not necessarily a trivial thing) and then you had to actually go there. And at some point, you’d have to return to town to restock supplies or dump loot. Now you can stand next to that same vendor and just let the dungeon finder port you in and out, never having seen the open world.

New World, to name the obvious New Big Thing, not only has mostly no load screens, but while it has instanced content, those are by no means a primary avenue of play, nor are players massively incentivized to run them. You can get nice gear out of them, but you can get equally nice or better gear by crafting or from your faction, both of which require you to be out in the world doing stuff. And there’s an additional gate in front of the instances in the form of keys.

Now, contrast this with The Elder Scrolls Online, which in a lot of ways occupies a middle ground between these two examples. ESO has plenty of instanced content in the form of raids, dungeons and battlegrounds, and there are instance finders for the latter two. The rewards for these, though, include things like titles and achievements and cosmetic doodads that accrue to them. There’s gear, but this gear is not automatically better than anything that you might find out in the world or can make via crafting. And just as much desirable loot is in zone gear sets that you get out in the world or in public delves or dungeons.

ESO’s Dungeon Finder works basically the same way as WoW’s; you queue up for either a random or specific dungeon, with randoms incentivized (once a day) to help queues pop faster. Same deal with the Battleground Finder. You can sit in town and just run these over and over if you want. But ESO has alternatives that do not remove you from the world. ESO’s “Delves” are instances meant for single players but which are nevertheless public. And there are “Public Dungeons” which are tuned to groups (but can be soloed if you have decent gear and Champion Point loadout). In almost every zone, even during suboptimal hours, you find people in those, or out in the zone itself, because there are strong incentives to do those things. Not just gear, but finding crafting materials and grabbing Skyshards and doing the zone questlines for the skill points.

So even though ESO has a ton of load screens (and any zone-to-zone load screen takes a good long time) the world is populated and feels alive. I am not the most social of MMORPG players, but I also like having other players around. WoW is dead outside of the instances and a small number of hubs. That lovingly-detailed world is just wasted. Even though ESO is “open world” only in a limited way, its at least Open in the sense of having players actually in it.

The Blizzard Dumpster Fire

Somebody’s prolly gonna ask about my opinion on the current Blizzard… whatever it is. “Clusterfuckalypse” seems inadequate. I’ve worked at a lot of companies, but the stories — stories that have yet to be proven in court, but which are highly credible — out of that place are BEYOND THE PALE. Far, far worse than stuff that would get you insta-fired at even the shadiest places I’ve ever worked. There is absolutely no explanation for the insanity that was going on at Blizzard that does not include negligent and incompetent leadership.

As creepy as I think J. Allen Brack is, Blizzard is Mike Morhaime’s baby. He set up a culture that valued sycophancy more than talent. He built the company that allowed a government torture advocate (or, if you like, a specialist in helping the powerful evade accountability for their crimes) to be hired as chief compliance officer even if he didn’t sign the paper himself. Now Brack is out the door, no doubt accompanied by millions of tiny golden parachutes, and it’s very likely that the Activision side of the company is going to exercise much more authority over Blizzard moving forward. There was a point at which that would have been considered a bad thing, but while I doubt Activision is a paradise, it’s hard to imagine “worse” than a company in which there are gangs of drunks wandering through the corridors and in which employees are harassed into suicide.

Incidental to the damage that’s been done to the actual humans working for Blizzard is the obvious impact on their games (and most evident in World of Warcraft because it’s an ongoing thing that people check into every day). It has long been obvious (and pointed out by many) that at least the people making major development decisions are cluelessly disconnected from the game and the gameplay, and the game’s not getting the best out of the people in the trenches because they’re working in a toxic hellhole. Maybe I’ll riff on this more in another post; right now it seems trivial.

Now, does all this mean “we should boycott Blizzard?” Well… that’s complicated. You can’t boycott everybody. And there are demonstrably worse companies (remember when Union Carbide killed almost 4,000 and injured over half a million when they released deadly gas in a residential area?) People get more out of MMORPGs than just being consumers of a product; they get community, they get friendship, they get escape from the turbulent shittiness that may comprise their lives. I’m not going to tell them to give all that up, nor is it just about “sunk cost”. Me, I wasn’t giving Blizzard any money right now anyway (though I was a few months back). But I can certainly say that I do not feel any need to start giving them money again unless meaningful steps are taken to address the problems. But I’m not telling you what to do; follow your own conscience. I’m not holding anyone’s feet to the fire should they choose differently.

ESO as Waiting Room

This is 100% a coincidence with my resumption of blogging about MMORPGs (and I might end up blogging about other stuff,) but it is Blaugust. So check that out if you’re interested. The Blaugust Discord server is like a festival of old, familiar names, many of whom are participating even if they’ve been inactive for years, and only a few of which I kept up with. And many new voices in this diminished MMO blogosphere.

So anyway.

New World’s launch has been pushed back to September 28. On the one hand, this is irritating! But on the other, a month is no big deal and I’d rather have a polished launch, even if none of the obvious development gaps (like swimming) are filled in this extra few weeks. Lots of folks had a variety of issues both humorous and serious in the recent beta phase. I personally had few issues; some bugs, sure, but on the whole the client and network were very stable for me. Then again, I didn’t get into any big PvP situations, and that’s where things like lag, rubberbanding and framerate are likely to cause significant problems. And of course there is much need for additional tuning of various things, like PvP healing or some of the weapon abilities.

One wonders whether there will be another beta phase now, since they’ve added so much time. Much as I would like to play, I would prefer we not see more beta; I would rather see Amazon focus on fixes and improvements rather than be distracted by running an operating game. Amazon has denied the rumor that a bunch of additional content in the form of new weapons and zones will be making it out for launch; there are clearly “hidden” parts of the map even as it was during the beta. So I’ll be interested to see if Amazon has this or any other surprises at launch. But again, I’d rather they focus on polish and tuning. Regarding new zones, though, which I’m sure we will see sooner or later, there may be concerns about spreading the populace too thin in a game so reliant on its open world. I’d say how that dynamic will work is tricky to predict from the outside until we see the launch landmass and launch populations. If Amazon’s smart their team should have metrics on this and be able to model it.

Speaking of open world, though, it’s damned refreshing to find a new MMORPG that actually has one. This coming from a game in which every building interior is gated behind a load screen. Speaking of ESO, while playing New World I still dutifully grabbed by daily rewards and did my crafting writs (on multiple characters). I should probably just move all characters to Rimmen, which is my preferred hangout with everything (housing, crafting, stables, bank, guild sellers and vendors) in a nice small space. What I wasn’t doing was playing, really. But right around the time the New World beta wrapped up, I started running out of crafting mats… and I remembered the giant horking pile of treasure maps and crafter surveys sitting in my bank. So I’m taking my erstwhile main and going to those zones, grabbing the skyshards, running the delves while I’m at it, and also doing all the various surveys and maps. Certainly I can use the skill points. So I figure I have plenty to do in ESO while I wait for New World.

New World Forward

The New World closed beta has concluded, and nobody seems to think there will be a further beta phase before it launches, the date of which currently shows on Steam as August 31. I will be playing it at that time.

I’m sure that the “new & shiny” factor is part of it, but I found myself preferring play of New World over ESO, the MMORPG that I am currently subscribed to. Although for the record I did play some ESO as well, as the current Pan-Elsweyr event is something I’ve been enjoying (and I love the Northern Elsweyr zone). But even so, I sunk more of my limited gaming hours into New World this week, even fully aware that progress would be wiped at the end. I did a runthrough of a couple more zones than I’d already seen, and tried to see more of the Azoth Staff questline, but I didn’t finish it. I think I closed it out at level 22.

New World is going for a weird niche; it rests on three pillars: a PvP gankfest, a PvE themepark and a survival sandbox, but it does not fully commit to any of them, and none are fully fleshed out. It remains to be seen whether this balance will appeal to audiences in either the short or long term, but I definitely found it compelling for the beta. What’s there is very clean and works well, but there’s a lot of room to expand, and I think a need to deepen all three aspects. Overall I think New World is as strong a start as I’ve seen in MMORPGs in some years, but it needs to further develop its strengths as it grows.

A reasonable concern, I think, is that noisy PvP advocates will overwhelm voices enjoying other aspects of the game. But then, New World already went through an alpha phase in which it was an always-on, full loot PvP game and the consensus of players and devs was that it sucked, which is why the current game is not in that place. I am very happy with the current opt-in mechanism but I question whether the rest of the game has enough depth to support long-term play while leaving out one of those three pillars. I suspect that it does not, but Amazon has a plan for the title moving forward, and it’s possible they’ll stay ahead of the curve. I’m very curious to see what the forward-facing model is for New World, but we likely won’t know for at least a matter of months.

There are many obvious places where expansion could happen; current weapons could get additional spec trees, and new weapons could be added. (For those who haven’t played it, the various weapons are basically New World’s equivalent of classes.) New tiers of crafting could be added, although I would urge caution, lest we see the same kind of power treadmill that we’ve seen in so many other titles. Maybe there’s room for more tradeskills, but the current selection of 17, divided into harvesting, refinement and production skills is very robust and I’m not sure there are many gaps in it aside from creating some new whole-cloth thing like WoW’s glyphs. Obviously new zones could be added (you can see these now, at the edges of the map, concealed by the mists). What would be nice to see is additional housing out in the world as opposed to in settlements, but that could run up against hard architecture limits. The thing that a lot of folks are currently talking about is mounts, which the game could definitely use; the world is more than large enough to accommodate them. My hunch is that mounts will be bundled with some kind of major expansion.

Another potential “expansion” area is the New World cash shop. This is in the game already, but in the beta it was a limited selection of cosmetic items, which I think everyone is perfectly fine with. At the moment the buy-to-play model is completely amenable, but if we start to see so-called “convenience” items that are backdoor pay-to-win, then we will see justified complaints. Now, maybe we won’t – Amazon has deep enough pockets to fund ongoing revenue via actual content delivery, but no publisher seems to have actually made that work without subscriptions. Let’s see if Amazon can pull it off.

Brave New World

I gotta be honest, I was sufficiently disinterested in New World to pay it nearly zero attention all this time. But then its open beta loomed and it started getting a lot of traffic on my YouTube feed. And it’s launching at the end of next month. So I started looking at it. About two days later I pre-ordered it (through Steam), giving me beta access.

Turns out it’s a pretty different thing than was being pitched a year ago, which is in turn different from what was being pitched a year before that… and so on. The vision for this thing has been though more realignments than my 2005 Kia. And the thing it is right now… is actually pretty good. It’s a solid MMO with fairly simple action combat, opt-in world PvP, fabulously chewy crafting and a huge open, seamless environment. It looks great — the view distances are spectacular — and has a distinct visual style. There are tons of ways to progress; not only by leveling but by increasing the weapons skills that provide the game’s abilities and through the 17 (!) craft skills. A single character can do all the weapon and craft skills, eliminating the necessity of alts, which I think is great. There is still a ton to do after reaching the level cap, which as far as I can tell is 60 and which I am nowhere near.

There’s also dungeons, which I have not seen. From what I hear the early ones (available starting around level 25) are quite easy, but difficulty ramps up steeply as you get to the later ones. From my superficial point of view this seems a sensible approach.

You can flag yourself for the open-world PvP in settlements, and those settlements can then be claimed by guilds. Other guilds can challenge (a.k.a. invade) owned settlements and a set-piece 50v50 PvP battle is scheduled to resolve it. Not sure how the timing will work out on this, or the selection of players for these sessions in guilds with more than 50 people, but on paper it seems neat. Guilds can improve their settlements with higher-tier crafting stations and the like. I see no particular obstacle to totally ignoring both the PvP and guilds and just playing it like a survival game; your progress is likely to be slower, but some folks probably don’t care about that. And there’s player housing and player-crafted furniture and décor.

It’s got weaknesses, of course. The combat is probably too shallow… although it feels fine to me. Character customization is rudimentary, although it does have some thoughtful touches like all faces and hairstyles being available to all genders. It has roughly as much customizability as WoW, so it’s way behind what one expects from a modern AAA MMORPG. Some elements such as Questing and achievements feel tacked on; quests (both PvE and PvP), are clearly procedurally generated and are feel the lack of variety. It’s also super grindy, but I think that’s a feature of MMOs that one has to either accept or avoid the genre altogether.

Of course there is the usual regimen of bugs, network issues, tuning quirks and login queues one expects from a game a month from launch. Most famously the game is alleged to be bricking a specific high-end video card (the GTX 3090), but that’s actually a hardware fault on the card; most if not all manufacturers are replacing them.

Honestly I am not inclined to put much more time into New World during the beta, as all this progress is just gonna get wiped anyway. But there I was last night, chilling away for an hour or two. It has great potential to serve as either a chill, relaxed experience or as an exciting PvP spectacle. And I hope it can pull this off. For now, it’s a diversion from ESO, which I continue to play as my “main game”. But I’m looking for a guild, which tells me that I’m going to be playing this avidly at launch.

Whose Story is It?

On a recent Massively Speaking  podcast, Justin mentioned that he’s trying to get through the story in Final Fantasy XIV. Now, FFXIV is a bit of a hot button right now; bigshot streamers are flowing to it from WoW and that’s driving a lot of traffic. By some measures it’s overtaking WoW at least temporarily as the #1 game in the MMORPG space. Briefly, Square Enix sold out of copies. Digital copies. There are technical reasons that make it less ludicrous than it sounds… but it’s still pretty ludicrous. People who did buy the game find that they cannot make characters on full servers, and login queues are lengthy for those who did. It’s bananas is a way we haven’t really seen in MMORPGs for many years.

Which is actually great; anything that breaks up a status quo in which no real progress has been made in the genre in over a decade is a good thing. Final Fantasy XIV is, by all accounts, a solid game and a true MMORPG rags-to-riches story. When it launched in 2010, it was universally panned. To their credit, Square Enix recognized this as well, and saw it as damaging to their franchise. So they did the right thing — and had the deep pockets needed — to pull the game backstage, redesign it nearly from the ground up and relaunch it three years later. It’s grown steadily ever since, with three major expansions and a fourth scheduled for the fall.

So I am, in general, fairly pleased to see this. However, I have tried Final Fantasy XIV multiple times now and have softly bounced off it each time. Part of that is the general slowness of it… and I’m not talking about the combat, which is a pretty standard and generally acceptable MMO tab-target affair, or about lag (although the client is not as responsive as it could be,) but about the pacing of the gameplay. But part of it, and maybe the bigger part, is the story that Justin mentioned. It’s not that that story is bad… again, by all accounts, it’s very good, and a lot of folks definitely find it compelling. But it’s not my story, nor is it yours… it’s Square Enix’s story, and you’re just along for the ride.

For me at least, this is a critical factor in investment in an MMORPG: the character has to be feel like mine, And the story has to feel like it’s mine. This can create problems with games like Black Desert, where the classes are gender-locked, or with games like FFXIV, where there is a primary story thread around which the whole affair revolves. Part of the appeal of the MMORPG is its open-endedness, and I need at least a convincing simulation of agency. In contrast, games like Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online have core storylines, but there is so much more story elsewhere in the game that I feel like I am pushing the story along rather than being dragged in its wake. This may actually be true of FFXIV as well, but it’s not visible from where I am; ESO and GW2 make it evident immediately even though there’s a story beat to get you started.

The Hill Folk Pursue, Part 2

Introduction:This the second part of the first scene of a larger fantasy story that I’m writing. It should be seen as a work in progress, and I should very much appreciate any feedback. Enjoy!

His breath was heavy and labored now. He had run for four hours, two at something close to his fastest pace. Known though he was in his Legion for his stamina, he could not sustain such a pace for much longer.

The pursuing war-cries had not diminished, and now they rang out from the south as well, echoing between the wintry boughs. He changed direction when he began to hear the second group of pursuers, but now he considered that the hill-men, whatever their true numbers, were driving him somewhere… very likely to a place where their numbers would be larger, or where an ambush was already set.

With this thought the pure urge for flight abated, and though his running pace did not slacken, he began to think, as a solder, once an officer of the Shentegha legion, and not merely as a man fleeing from others who sought to kill him.

He had no weapons. Now his jerkin was torn ragged from careening through the brush, and he himself bled from a handful of small cuts. But in this cold forest his enemies would wear no more than hides themselves and he could obtain a cudgel easily enough.

In these woodlands the clans fought mostly each other, and their tactics were predicated on stealth and surprise rather than assault. If he chose terrain favorable to defense, he could limit the foes that could face him at once and so diminish their advantage of superior numbers. Though he was but one, and the number of the hill-men surely greater, would they take the bait? Or would they call a soldier’s bluff, deny the engagement and force him to flee again, until they could overtake him at night, or in sleep?

It was a fair gamble, he decided. Even an arrow in the back or a knife in the dark would be better than ending his days in a Yerayn cookpot or flayed alive on a rack in this forsaken wilderness.

When he found a broken hillock, therefore, unclimbable from the rear and tall enough to protect his back, strewn in front with thick old elm and aspen, he stopped, panting. The Yerayka would be upon him before long, but at least he would have a few minutes rest before facing them. Looking around, he selected a stout limb of elm as big as a smith’s forearm and snapped it from its tree. A blade would be better, especially against the copper axes of the clansmen, but this would do. He eased his breathing as he uttered a prayer to Desheng, dimly recalled from his youth, in a low chant. He would take as many as he could with him to the Afterlands.

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The Hill Folk Pursue, Part 1

Introduction:This is a small part of a larger fantasy story that I’m writing. It should be seen as a work in progress, and I should very much appreciate any feedback. Enjoy!

It was said that the hill shamans commanded the spirits of the weather. Perhaps the tempest that had raged across the Sea of Doorways last night was their doing, summoned from the pit by some bone-white animist. The truth of such yarns the man called Veheruth could not attest. But he did know, with the certainty of grim memory, that the tales told of Yerayka warriors were true — that they cut the hearts from their living foes and ate them, raw and still beating, to consume the strength and virility of those they conquered. His eyes had seen it, and the pale daughters and sons of long-fallen Mánthezar had fallen far indeed.

The frozen ground crunched relentlessly beneath his feet as he ran, away from the rocky shore where the splintered timbers of the Red Ox’s hull lay dashed upon the stones, and where lay the lifeless bodies of her sailors and of the legionaries she had carried north from the colonial capital of Shentégha. He darted between the frost-rimed pines and aspen, making his way inland. His breath, for now, was hard but even and measured. The pace he set was rapid, but he could sustain it for hours yet.

He wore only what he had worn aboard; stained leather jerkin over a tunic of thick linen, rough-spun woolen trousers and — thank all the gods — his tough and well-worn legionary boots. He would be warm enough in this still air so long as he kept running. But he was unarmed; the knife he carried at his belt was lost in the wreck. Here in the wild lands he had the means to forage, or even to make crude weapons for himself given enough time. And he would need food and water; yesterday’s ration aboard ship would not sustain him much longer, especially if he were forced to run many miles, even more if he were forced to fight. But at this moment, as the light of the descending sun turned gray, filtered through the white-strewn canopy, he sought only escape.

Behind him he again heard the howl of Yerayka war-cries, closer this time. Veheruth ran faster.

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Apple TV’s Foundation: First Look Trailer

Thoughts on the Foundation adaptation from Apple TV, embedded herein. I’ll warn you now that that there’s a few spoilers ahead.

The Foundation series is a sequence of ten books by Isaac Asimov and eventually others, about the collapse of a galaxy-spanning Empire and the resulting Interregnum. It was a titanic edifice of written science fiction for about half a century and was massively influential; the Empires of Star Wars and Traveller likely would not exist without Foundation.

I read the original trilogy as a kid and afterwards read all the prequels, sequels and associated works. Nowadays Asimov is seen as a troubling figure, not generally for his literary work (there are exceptions) but for his intensely creepy and predatory personal behavior. But Foundation was a cornerstone of my childhood reading. And remember: it’s okay to like problematic things, but important to understand why and how they are problematic, and the context in which they were created.

Anyway, the original trilogy is pretty clearly the best of the bunch, written from 1942-1953. A lot of the ideas hold up pretty well even today, the execution not so much. The later prequels and sequels are arguably better written, but they abandon the Big Idea that got people interested in the first place. With the ultimate fate of the galaxy mathematically preordained, Asimov felt he was stuck, unable to see that there could be human drama and unpredicted nuance in his deterministic arc of history. So he wrote prequels instead, or broke psychohistory in various ways for the sequels. The seeds of this appear in what is generally agreed to be the best part of the whole thing, “the Mule,” which is the second half of Foundation and Empire. Here Asimov gives us the series’ best characters and best narrative, but was still unable to see that drama can exist despite plot, or that a great deal can go on in the nooks and crannies of a fixed and suspenseless history.

The entertainment industry has flirted with adapting Foundation for decades, but the core trilogy is essentially unadaptable as written. All three books are fix-ups, and only Second Foundation was written with a single storyline in mind. The characters are wooden and although some are nevertheless memorable, all of them vanish after a single story, at most two. The setting is Gibbon’s Rome as seen through the curious lens of Mid-Century America spread across the Milky Way. There are no aliens in this Galactic Empire — an artifact of John W. Campbell’s editorial whim that all such be portrayed as fundamentally inferior to humans — by which he meant white human males. Asimov, knowing this for what it was, refused therefore to use aliens, while nevertheless continuing to submit to Campbell out of personal loyalty and because Campbell’s Astounding was simply the best and most prestigious market in the 1940s.

Rather than adapt Foundation as the world’s dullest stage play, showrunner David Goyer and his team have elected to focus, at least at first, on “The Psychohistorians,” the first part of the book version of the first volume, added in 1951 when it was published as a fix-up. He adds “Brother Day,” a weird Emperor-figure played by Lee Pace, casts Jared Harris (an inspired choice) as his Hari Seldon, and gender-swaps the short story’s remaining important characters, mathematician Gaal Dornick and the real power behind the throne, First Minister Eto Demerzel. Young Lou Llobell captures the innocence of Gaal quite well, from what we can see in the trailer, while Demerzel, as played by Laura Birn, seems luminous and enigmatic, which is as it should be, considering who Demerzel really is.

I don’t yet know how many episodes we’ll get, or how far into the books this first season will go, but looking at the cast list, we’ll get into “The Encyclopedists”, but maybe not further than “The Mayors”. The visuals are striking and seem to strangely fit better than you’d think — parts of the trailer are clearly visualizations of Seldon’s predictions, unless the season is going to takes us as far as Foundation and Empire, which would surprise me, as The Mule ought to give us a good chunk of episodes.

So color me curious enough to consider resubscribing to Apple TV for this thing, even though they make unsubscribing a pain in the patoot unless you’re already embedded in the Apple ecosystem. Also, last I checked, their web player was a slice of ass, but hopefully it’s better now.

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The Adwulf’s Lair Patreon Launches on Friday!

The Patreon for Ardwulf’s Lair (my historical tabletop gaming YouTube channel, for those who don’t know) is live for pre-launch. It’s still a bit of a work in progress, so there may yet be some minor tweaks. Formal launch will be this Friday, 2/7.

Meanwhile, please share this around and you can even sign up as a Patron. There may be a tiny bonus for pre-launch Patrons!

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