Yes, the blog lives. Technically, at least. Life gets busy and complicated, but when it eases up a bit or a topic strikes my fancy… well here you are.

On the heels of the announcement of WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King Classic, a number of recent posts have taken up the topic of WoW’s dungeon finder due to be added to the Classic version of the game. Wilhelm has some thoughts here, Rohan has a good post here, and a series of interesting somewhat related posts from Bhagpuss and Shintar, got me thinking.

We’re not playing WoW at the moment, but readers of TAGN will know that our little group of ageing adventurers have returned to Valheim after setting WoW Classic aside and exploring a few other games– New World and Lost Ark specifically. Part of what propelled us back to Valheim, for me at least, was the loss of a sense of place, of “worldliness”. I’ve been down this road before.

One day all this will be yours? No, not the curtains.

I play these games to be removed from this crazy world to spend some time immersed in that crazy world. Experiences are what I take away from these games and exploring and adventuring in a virtual world to me should be a unique experience– even if that experience is potentially very similar to that of another player’s– the pathway, choices and timeline are my own.

The recents posts weighing in on the WoW Classic Dungeon Finder debate, damage meters and dps rotations (and or the demise of “support class” play) struck a chord. These games have evolved from being a world to explore to largely being a single “story” line to experience, largely at the exclusion of all other kinds of gameplay.

I’d add a big third item to Rohan’s two ideas about Dungeon Finder– Dungeon Finder destroyed the “world” of WoW. In the guise of solving the group formation problem, a whole host of changes ensued which led to many of the issues Shintar and Bhagpuss discuss. The advent of the DF feels like it was perhaps the first big obvious manifestation of a new and shifting philosophy of game design.

As Wilhelm discussed, DF required that instance related quests were now placed within the instance itself rather than the instance run being the culmination of a world-based narrative quest line. I always trot out the Van Cleef/Deadmines story line from WoW Classic being the epitome of the before times.

A trot across the Northern Bree Fields

The “world” became irrelevant and needlessly time consuming. As the bar for accessing and experiencing content was reduced to logging in and clicking the LFD button, world questing and travel went out the window. With instanced content being simultaneously the easiest content to access and the repository for the best gear needed to progress to the, er, next best gear, an endless cycle of class and dungeon content revision and optimization ensued. The DF made adventures like this unnecessary.

The success of the new bite sized instance based experience depended on channeling players into set roles to feed into the DF to provide a predictable, homogeneous and optimized experience. Rotations, damage meters, gear score, “cleave” runs, etc. all grew out of this fundamental shift.

Likewise, the primacy of effectively lobby based instanced content in these and only these roles effectively killed off any other modes of game play. Crowd control? No longer needed. Stealth? Hardly. Unique “builds”? Need not apply. Specialized group buffs or other “support” activities? That went out with high buttoned greaves. Gear score too low? Pass. DPS checks? Yup. Fast travel to any and all points? Check. Don’t even get me started on “phasing”…

Kamagua Sunset

And all of these changes, some incremental, some more earth shaking, took us from somewhere close to the 1999 Everquest virtual world experience to something much more like Lost Ark’s fixed character archetypes, linear maps and story lines.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Lost Ark for what it was, and before that, our re-exploration of Diablo II. But what those experiences didn’t offer was an individualized character that I could relate to and take into a world to create experiences for that character. Fewer or no choices, no individuality, One True Way to gear and play.

To me, that cascade of detrimental changes fundamentally started with the DF whose original mission was to solve a quality of life problem– how to facilitate group formation for instanced content. Very soon after that, the tail began wagging the dog and my how much wagging there has been.

If the difficulty of forming dungeon groups was the problem, the DF wasn’t the only solution. WoW certainly could have taken other tacks tried in other games. Scaling dungeon difficulty to group size or other indicia of “power” (i.e., gear score, level, etc.) could have been one way. LOTRO essentially went this route.

Mercenaries could have been another. Need two more to fill out your party? Hire a merc. Everquest and other games have taken that approach. Either of those alternatives wouldn’t have done any true “violence” to the core idea of an explorable world in which instanced content serves a role to move story forward and provide for progression.

When I look back at the games I’ve spent the most time in over the years (or had the most affinity for), the ones that I have stuck with for the longest– WoW, LOTRO, Everquest, Minecraft, and to a lesser extent, Valheim all have (or had at the time I was playing them) a true sense of place, of worldliness.

Icebergs Ho!

I have memories of those places and experiences as if I had visited them and spent time there. These are entirely unlike the memories I have of reading a novel or watching a film. For that matter, even the experiences of separate characters in those worlds have their own unique recollections.

Are there any virtual worlds left to explore and experience any more? For the time being, I’m entirely content with the sense of place and worldliness I’m finding again in Valheim.

A Brief Revisit to Middle Earth

It’s been quite sometime since I’ve spent any appreciable time in LotRO for any number of reasons.  I tend to keep it patched so I can hop in whenever the spirit moves me, but the last few times I’ve logged in I’ve sat paralyzed and logged out five minutes later.  Re-immersing oneself into a game can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, especially if you don’t feel like you’re likely to stay a while.

I haven’t really be a regular festival goer in LotRO’s past events and really hadn’t planned on taking part in this year’s 5th Anniversary Event.  It had all but passed me by when I saw that it had been extended, so for no particular reason, I decided to drop on in, so drop in I did.

The festival was in full swing this weekend with lots of player activity in the main hubs.  This time, however, rather than attempting to pick up where I’d last left off, I ventured into Bree to see what all fun was to be had with the festival.  Thanks to Casual Stroll to Mordor’s festival guide, I quickly had things sussed out and to my surprise, it appeared that both festival mounts could be earned in relatively short order with little grind.

Quite cleverly, several of the quests send you hither and yon across Eriador conveying gifts to NPCs, retrieving lost invitations, setting off fireworks and talking with our old friend Gandalf, participating in horse races in Bree and the Shire and getting into the odd drunken beer brawl at Thorin’s halls.  With just a little forethought, several nice loops can be done taking you to many familiar and iconic landmarks.  Deliciously insidious.

For those of us prone to nostalgia (and LotRO is in many ways nostalgia squared– reminiscences of the game reminiscent of the experience of the books), this is almost dirty pool.  In many ways, LotRO to me has been more of a world in search of a game, but a wonderful and beautiful world and always a visual feast to visit.

Shire Race Grounds Bridge

So after a few of the quests and traipsing over familiar territory, the nostalgia gene kicked in.  So much so, that at least for this weekend, I managed to earn enough anniversary tokens to obtain the Fireworks Laden Steed on my Captain and nearly so on my Runekeeper.  An altogether silly mount that, as the name suggests, is laden with fireworks (which feature prominently in the festival and are quite nicely done), and from time to time lets one loose while riding along.

Two race tokens, 1 mount ownership document (purchasable from an NPC) and 40 Anniversary Tokens later, goal attained.

LotRO 5th Anniversary Festival Fireworks Laden Steed

For me LotRO is one of those games where its just satisfying to be in the world.  Toggling off floating names and just running around enjoying the world isn’t such a bad way to spend a few hours of the weekend.  Yes, I think I’ll be back sooner than later next time.

A trot across the Northern Bree Fields

Time is Money

Tobold asks the question when will WoW go free to play and how that might be implemented. Blizzard has certainly learned the lesson all good gym owners know– the neglected subscription is the ticket to success. Who among us hasn’t joined a gym or health club with a monthly fee and ahem how shall we say… neglected to make full use of it?

I have no idea what the average is, but it must be a significant percentage of members continue to pay but, even with the best of intentions, stop going to the gym regularly or at all. Call it guilt, call it taking a wee break, call it preserving your access should you want to play, it’s still recurring income.

Blizz may get there, but I don’t think they’ve lost enough people to justify going F2P yet.

For other games that, in Tobold’s words, don’t justify a subscription when compared to many players’ level of interest or commitment, F2P is just the ticket. DDO, LotRO and now STO are three that have come back on my radar specifically because they went free to play. Being able to match my spend with my level of enthusiasm and or time commitment is a boon to me.

Even with a traditional sub though, in theory I could maximize my return on the sub by consuming as much content as my time budget would permit. If I were only interested in the leveling game in SWTOR, and played obsessively since launch, I might have consumed all the storylines for all the classes/factions by now. I could see SWTOR going free to play at some point following the path others have taken– pay for fluff, utility items, progress enhances and or access to content areas/modules for progression.

Eve however remains the anomaly. One can legally buy characters, and effectively in game currency as well, but one cannot buy progression. Eve progression is skill based and skill training is time based. The only way to continue to progress is to continue to subscribe.

So why doesn’t Eve just sell time?

If I really want to spend the next year working through a skill training plan (not an unheard of amount of time) why not let me buy the time now, apply it to those skills I want to train and be done with it? If I’m going to spend $180 to learn to fly a Titan, why spend it over twelve months?

One of Eve’s major barriers for new comers is never being able to catch up skillpoint wise to friends who have played much longer. Granted that progression can go in any number of directions, but to switch from a hardcore miner industrialist to a 0.0 capital ship pilot would take a very long time.

Seems like a natural progression for Eve. Eliminate subscriptions, sell a time equivalent for skill training, or just skill points out right to be applied to skills of a players choice, make that freely tradeable like PLEX and you would have the most flexible model in the universe. Players could truly exchange time for money in whatever proportion they wish.

Earn isk by playing, purchase training and it’s truly free to play. Buy isk or training and your time budget is preserved. Of course the one element that likely prevents this from upsetting the games balance is that to survive in Eve, you still need to learn how to be a good pilot. Something that you just can’t buy.

Outstanding in My Field

As part of my return to LotRO, I convinced Mrs. P to return as well now that a major project that has been consuming her is winding up.  She hasn’t been as obsessive and I have, but has managed to get through the slightly disorienting “reacquaintance” phase of coming back to a game that you used to know how to play.

Saturday found three of us on, generally in the low thirties.  Dendromir, my Captain was a bit ahead of the pack, so I pulled out my Minstrel, Garfinkel, to join our wee fellowship for a bit of a romp through the Trollshaws and some cleanup in eastern Lone Lands.

Garfinkel was our LotRO group 2.0’s healer and primarily a group-oriented character.  Once upon a time, we more or less divided up tradeskills among those of us with the time and inclination.  The way it sort of worked out, Garfinkel ended up the Yeoman, leveling farming and cooking.  Realizing that everyone was a bit light in the food department, I resolved to hit the dirt today so to speak.

Oh the superlatives you'll earn!

Farming in LotRO has always been unique.  Over the various iterations since launch it has been revamped a few times.  At various points in the past, its been a money machine or second only to owning a boat as a money pit.  Traditionally, its also been a bit overly complicated.  And time consuming.

In the last iteration I recall, it also gave creedence to that old joke about how to make a small fortune in farming– start with a large one.

Once upon a time, it required no less than three crafting recipes and three vendor purchased ingredients (one unique to each recipe) to simple produce an item.  A farmer would purchase a “field” recipe, a “seed” recipe and a “crop” recipe.  You learned how to plant the field, harvest two different qualities of crop– one that could be processed into a usable item like “yellow onions” and the lower quality version which could only be processed back into seed, which could then be replanted for another attempt.

You purchased the applicable seed, the right kind of fertilizer, the right kind of water, went to the appropriate type of farmland (vegetable, grain or pipe-weed), and got down to it.  Reprocessing the lower quality output at least permitted you to “salvage” something out of what would be an otherwise unsuccessful crafting attempt.

The end result was often lots of bag clutter with odd lots left over and crafting menu clutter with three recipes to produce a single crop.  Left over seeds sold at a loss to vendors, basic recipes were often relatively expensive and the market tended not to be terribly great.  More importantly, with all the iterations: planting, harvesting, processing, ingredient making and finally cooking, going from seed to stomach represented quite an investment of time and often a substantial outlay of coin.

This round seems to have been streamlined a bit.  Turbine at some point eliminated the seed reprocessing step, so that’s one less recipe to buy and one additional time loop eliminated.  Likewise, they’ve done away with all crop specific seeds.  Now you simply by the appropriate tier seeds and they can be used for any crop in that tier.

While perhaps less immersive, its an immensely efficient improvement.  Zero waste, and it dramatically reduces bag clutter since I only need Artisan seeds for any number of different Artisan crops.  Likewise, eliminating the time burned on seed processing feels much better.

The task of the Yeoman is still not for the faint hearted.  Producing ingredients and cooked food items is still a substantial commitment of time to be efficient.  Witness this blog post, drafted while alt-tabbing out during long processing runs.

All for food that lasts only 5 minutes (or 20 minutes for the stat buff trail food).  Compare that with the 10 levels of use I get out of purple crafted armor from Wilhelm’s metalsmith or tailor… Granted, the gathering of raws or armor is not a zero time commitment process, but at least you can gather while questing.

Still, as a unique crafting element in the game, its not without its charms.  It would be fun to be able to truly build up a farming operation in your housing neighborhood on your own land, but of course that takes the slightly social element out, but would be an interesting game in its own right and offer a host of new items that could be used to enhance the growing process.

Oh Captain, my Captain

When we last checked in, our hero was stuck in the character transfer ticket queue.  Of course, no sooner did I post that then Turbine got around to letting me give them money.

Of course, even that wasn’t particularly easy.  One requests a character transfer through the Turbine support site, and then after sifting through a 2,100 word FAQ, there is a four character long hyperlink from the word “here” (as in click here) to initiate the transfer request.  That leads you to open a customer support ticket where one fills your account name and the particulars of the transfer.  When completed, the transfer would be billed to the credit card on file for the account.

So Monday morning I received a live inquiry from support asking me to verify the last 4 digits of the credit card on the account.  It only dawned on me then that the support site and the ticket submission form, etc. required to actual log in, hence their necessity to manually verify that the request was legitimate (or at least that I was the guy who also stole the credit card on file).

I’m a bit surprised that Turbine is essentially relying on sneakernet to process these transactions (and yes perhaps a bit concerned that internal security at Turbine might not be all that I’d hope it to be).  That said, at long last and about 9 days after starting the process, Dendromir was finally on Firefoot.

Aye aye

Dendromir was one of the first characters I rolled after beta and one that I was using for a while with LotRO group 1.0 way back in the day before we decided we’d need a minstrel.  I don’t profess to be much more than a novice at playing a Captain these days, but it seems to have been one of those classes that has been tweaked and retweaked a bit.

Its taken me a bit to get back into the swing of things.  Captains seem to have fairly high survivability, but when played well.  I find that if I get in over my head, I’ve really got to take the most advantage of my reactive skills (e.g., those that are primarily only usable after defeat of a foe).  After doing a bit of research to refamiliarize myself with where Turbine has taken the Captain since launch, I’m getting the hang of it again and pursuing a few traits that help will accentuate the class’ strengths.

As I’m expecting him to be primarily solo/small group, I need a decent balance between quick killing dps as well as survivability (especially when caught by respawns or dealing with larger groups).  With the benefit of some nice armor upgrades from Wilhelm’s armorer, Nomu, leveling through the mid 30’s is no where near as precarious as it was with a random collection of low and mid 20s quest gear.

As a Captain of Gondor, I thought it only appropriate to run him through Evendim on his way to catch up to Gaff and Wilhelm who have already gotten to Moria.  Other than the interminable hobbit quests in Oatbarton (cute, but too long), I’ve generally enjoyed Evendim, but I’m looking forward to getting him into Eregion and points south.