One Last, and One More

I’ve been having trouble on the video front of late; my hour-long kickoff to the Vanguard Let’s Play series failed to render more than once, and I’ve been having trouble owing to limited upload bandwidth with uploads failing after 6+ hours of wasted time. So even though I have a few vids in the can already, I’m still pushing them out.

First up this week is, I promise, the very last pre-launch Guild Wars 2 video that I’ll be doing. Headstart begins tonight some time around midnight… possibly as late as 3 AM even of everything goes smoothly. Finally, working the night shift is good for something, as I can plan to be awake for the first hours of real play. The vid is my first (filmed) and longest look at the Charr starter instance and low-level zone, the Plains of Ashford. I do have a Charr character planned, but likely won’t play him right away — I’ll be doing the Norn first.

Up next is the new Vanguard Let’s Play, continuing on the Isle of Dawn with the Crafting questline. I have one more of these ready to go and should have it posted some time next week. It is very unlikely I will make another video before next weekend, but when I do I’ll try to knock a couple of them out.

More Vanguard Gameplay

Over the last couple of days I stocked up a bit on videos. I have two more Vanguard vids in the can plus a new one from the recent Guild Wars 2 stress test; it’s just a matter of getting them uploaded, which has been problematic of late. Nevertheless, they will appear as quickly as I can get them up, and then there’s the planned weekend orgy in Guild Wars 2, so I should have more next week as well.

This time around we start in on the Isle of Dawn’s crafting questline, with an eye to completing the quests in all three spheres before leaving the Isle.

One more minor leak out of the Vanguard forums, by the way: the issue with rendering rain in Windows 7 is getting fixed soon. As someone who has only played under Vista and Win7, it’s occurred to me that I have actually never seen the rain in Vanguard, which is depressing especially in a game with dynamic weather that actually moves across the world.

Vanguard: MMO on the Rise?

When I returned to Vanguard I played a lot on my recreated Mordebi Psionicist, doing Crafting, Diplomacy and Adventuring first in the Cliffs of Ghelgad and then in the area surrounding Khal. I farted around with a couple of other characters as well. I did see a few players here and there, but not that many, and never more than one or two in any single place.

Tonight when my Bard rolled into Jalen’s Crossing for the first time there were three players there. (“Hey, three other players! Wow, awesome!”) When I logged to jump over to my Psionicist and make some bags, I found half a dozen players in the Crafter’s Forum alone (“Gee, there’s a lot of people on right now.”) and about ten player boats parked out in the harbor (“The hell? What’s going on?”) And at Stupid O’Clock in the morning, no less, not at or even near peak time.

I am reluctant to jump to conclusions, but these anecdotes suggest to me that perhaps interest in Vanguard is on the rise. Could it be that population is already increasing just based on the news that Vanguard is going free to play? It seems possible given the crosstalk on forums and the like, but I haven’t any hard numbers to demonstrate it, and checking player populations with /who and the Player Finder tool is a dicey proposition. Nevertheless, I plan to do just that if possible over the next week or two. And even a small uptick now, before freemium has even hit, is suggestive.

Vanguard is an easy, easy game to be pessimistic about, given its history. Its population has seen increases before, during winback periods and when SOE offered everybody a month and a half of free time last year in response to the hacks, and those gains never stuck. But free to play and the promise of some future development is a literal a game-changer. If, as I believe, there are a decent number of people with warm feelings toward Vanguard but who haven’t subbed. I’ve heard a ton of people say they’d come back in a minute if there was development in the pipeline. Could those people be starting to trickle back in preparation for the transition?

It could be real increase, it could be just a blip, or frankly it could all be in Ardwulf’s imagination. But I have never, not even going way back, seen that many boats in the Khal harbor.

Ultimately, we will need numbers to prove whether Vanguard is on the upswing or not. Anything we can extract now is going to be very sketchy. Even after f2p goes live, SOE won’t release any information for months, and then it’s be translated into marketing-ese. But there is, thanks to Vanguard’s server architecture, a surefire way to tell, very granularly, whether the population is in fact booming. If the population of active players goes up by six or eight times, they’ll be need for another server.

I am inclined to think that the dream result of an f2p Vanguard with four to six active servers is edging into unrealistic. But extending those numbers, it only works out to maybe 20-30K active players. A small population by MMO standards, not impossible in this case but unlikely. At worst, though, we should see a packed Telon server, and that in itself would breathe new life into a game that’s languished and slowly withered for the better part of the last three years. It’s easy (yet scary) to dream big, but even the modest result would be a triumph.

Crafting, Diplomacy and the Hazards of Overpolish

Sometimes, starting fresh makes a big difference. Mnembao, my new Psionicist, is now level 10 in Adventuring, level 11 in crafting (Tailor) and level 4 in Diplomacy. At 17 hours in I still have not left the Khal chunk nor visited the third Adventuring quest hub. I had seen the Cliffs of Ghelgad (starter area for the Qaliathari and Mordebi humans) more than once, but despite having done some crafting down in Khal, I’ve never gotten much past it.

I’m working on that now; Ksaravi Hollow is a dungeon in the chunk intended for levels 7-11. Like all Vanguard dungeons it is open to the world and a large piece of it is pretty soloable if you’re careful, even with a brittle Psionicist. But I did get in my first corpse run, which was unexpected — the death penalty doesn’t take effect until level 11, but level 11 in any of the spheres will do, and I had already hit that as a crafter. Thankfully, all was well once I made it back down there and the XP hit really is pretty modest unless you manage a streak of deaths. And yes, I have seen a couple of other players down there, but have not (thus far) felt the need to group.

I’ve also taken up Diplomacy again, something I’d let slip by the last couple of times I’ve been playing Vanguard. It’s hard to keep track of stuff after leaving it alone for a long time, but starting from scratch there’s a lot to do. Level 4 gets you a bigger strategy hand, which helps a great deal. There is one quest in the early Khal diplomacy chain that’s hard to follow: you’re told to talk to some guards until the nearby guard sergeant has finished up whatever it is he’s doing, but you’re not told explicitly what will trigger the quest’s completion. It turns out that this is hitting level 4, which, if you haven’t done all of the lower-level diplomacy quests (I hadn’t) can take a fairly large number (like twenty) parleys to reach. I almost stomped off without completing it before I figured it out. I’m glad I didn’t, because if I had, it probably would have been another character I’d abandoned Diplomacy on.

Coming off of my experiences with SWTOR and Rift last year (both of which I decided not to buy based on their “strengths” in beta,) ancient, teetering old Vanguard seems like a breath of fresh air. Those games, like WoW, are highly polished — and like WoW today all of the fun seems to have been polished off of them. What was once an unquestioned virtue has now become, to my mind, a liability, with openness, dynamism, atmosphere and interactivity sacrificed at the altars of balance, ease and accessibility.

Whatever deficiencies it might have, there is meat on the bones of Vanguard. It’s a bizarre twist when the great strength of WoW becomes a weakness, and the great flaw of Vanguard becomes an asset. I have a funny hunch that Vanguard’s dilute “old school” pedigree, never satisfying to EQ veterans who wanted something similar to the old hardcore grind, is something that fans of vanilla WoW who have grown to dislike Azeroth as it’s evolved might find appealing. It’s still a themepark game, and it gives you some guidance and direction, but you also have the ability to run off the rails and do what you want to a much greater degree than in those other titles.

Whether that potential audience will actually try Vanguard when it moves to freemium is another story. Deciding to launch EQ2 Extended instead of making Vanguard free to play in a market that wasn’t yet dominated by games with no cover charge represents a huge missed opportunity on SOE’s part. It would have been a gamble, but, y’know, sometimes you should gamble. What I hope for now is a nice boost to the population, which should help the game a great deal.

Crafting Progress and A Game Update

I’ve been out of Vanguard crafting for so long that I’d frankly forgotten many of the moving parts. Thanks to advice given on the previous posts and diligent study of Quert’s Crafting Guides, I’m starting to get caught up with it again.

Mnembao hit level 11 in Tailoring right before I finished up for the day. This opens up Tier 2 and several crafting questlines, some of which will take me off of Qalia. I’m starting to find sweet spots in doing work orders that net the most experience for time invested based on quality levels I can reliably hit. I am finally srating to make my own bags and such, and plan to craft a set of gear for myself before resuming Adventuring.

SOE has also announced that the first in a series of loyalty rewards is afoot. This is already up on Halgar and goes live on Telon later today. Visiting a Herald of Telon in any of various locations results in a “the Loyal” title, a Banshee pet and a Bracelet of Lucky Charms, which is (presumably) the same desirable trinket one gets from completing the Isle of Dawn storyline. The update also fixes the Ini-herat problem which has been lingering for a little bit.

These updates, while small, are starting come come to come out more regularly as the team ramps up activity in preparation for the free to play transition. We’ve already learned that no new content is going to get pushed out until then, but when it comes, that update should be fairly substantial.

The Crafting Game

In principle, I love Vanguard’s crafting system. It’s deep and detailed, isn’t click-and-walk, takes actual planning and forethought and lets you essentially design your own item bonuses to a large extent. On top of that, crafting in Vanguard is its own sphere, with its own level progression, gear, quests and abilities. It is an immensely rich part of the game.

In practice, I have never gotten all that far with it. This may be a function of having been in and out of the game along with a system that by its very depth discourages that kind of dabbling. I seem to recall reaching about Outfitter level 12 on the old pre-scrub Mnembao, but I may be inflating that number in my head. With the new version having reached adventuring level 8, I’d like to be able to craft him some decent gear before he outlevels it, and most of the desirable stuff is toward the top of the tier.

I’ve already harvested bunches of Jute and Hide outside of Khal, enough to top out my harvesting skills for the tier, and I’ve been systematically refining these into useful materials. Between that and the introductory crafting quests I’ve gotten him up to level 6, and I have more mats to convert. This has been fraught with peril; the crafting process can be punishing at times, and losing mats seems inevitable. It’s possible that I’m just bad at it, but it also seems certain that on some operations you’ll need four or five crafting tools when your toolbelt only carries three, or additional utilities that won’t fit on your workbench. And then there’s the chance of getting a ton of complications that burn enough action points that you can’t complete the combine at all. I think I’ve lost about ten units of mats to these issues. Some of these issues should be alleviated now that I qualify for the next highest level of crafting tools, which will be nice.

In any event, although I don’t see myself making especially rapid progress, the activity of crafting itself is kind of fun, much more so than the click-and-forget of WoW or LotRO or the twitchy, attention-hogging system of EQ2. Sometimes it seems obvious to me why Vanguard is as (un)popular as it is, and at other times it amazes me that it hasn’t attracted more people, when so many claim to want a crafting system very much like this.