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EVERQUESTING: FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF EQII’S PROGRESSION SERVER

When it comes to a launch, rough winds are pretty much expected. But surprisingly, EverQuest II’s progression server launch on Tuesday was pretty much smooth sailing — especially compared to its older sibling’s run just a couple months prior. The server was up right when expected, players could actually log into said servers despite the load, and a lack of crippling lag made play possible. Even better than all that is the fact that folks landed on the infamous boat that started the original journey over 10 years ago. In many ways, it really is a blast from the past, albeit with a few changes.

So now that the opportunity to recreate those glory days of starting EQII for the first time is here, how does the experience measure up to personal hype?

Smooth sailing
There’s no doubt about it: For a launch, this one went surprisingly well. Sure, there was some lag involved (how could it be an authentic experience without it?), but at no time did I find the game completely unplayable, nor did I hear any such complaints from others. Heck, there wasn’t even a queue to log in, and I had logged in both right when the servers came up at 3:01 p.m. EDT and then twice more later, once at prime time before my launch-day stream. It wasn’t because people weren’t playing; within minutes, the server load on PvE Stormhold went from light to medium, and before terribly long it moved on up to heavy.

It could be that Daybreak learned from mistakes made during EverQuest latest progression server launch. However, EQII also had a few advantages, not the least of which being an instanced beginner island that could spawn new ones to handle the load. At one point there were 19 different instances of the Isle of Refuge — and that’s just one faction! More than just getting into the game, the existence of so many instances was key to actually getting the chance to play it; the island itself is pretty small, and having other instances you can easily move between via the bell on the dock or your group window helped lessen the tripping-over-other-players feeling that usually happens when everyone is starting at the same time, doing the same quests, and needing the same mobs. Basically, the Isle of Refuge is the perfect way to give folks the space they need to accomplish their goals while still granting access to plenty of other players if they need them.

Do I think this launch was a success? Oh yeah! It delivered what veteran and new players alike were craving: That true EQII beginning. A couple of days later the crowds on the isles have thinned out a bit as players have moved on to the cities, but there are still multiple instances to hop between, a fact I just took advantage of in order to find a mob that I needed for a quest but was farmed out on my current island. Even at 10:00 a.m. EDT on a Friday morning, there are still three Overlord’s Outposts to choose between.

Thanks for the memories
While starting over from scratch with none of the cool goodies years of veteran status and play affords is not everyone’s idea of fun, there is definitely something to be said for visiting the Isle of Refuge. I know players who had no interest in playing long term but made a character anyway just to ride the Far Journey again and help Captain Drake Varlos when the drakota (a smallish dragon) swoops down and sets things on fire, loosing the rude little goblin who begins chasing the first mate. It’s hard to resist the allure of skipping along the waves with the captain, then helping out the reps on either the Queen’s Colony or the Overlord’s Outpost to curry favor with your chosen city. I admit, I literally stood on the boat for hours before moving on. As such, I didn’t really experience any of the lag some folks were noting initially. I just wasn’t ready to leave the boat in a hurry; I soaked up the ambiance until I simply couldn’t resist the pull of the island any longer.

Oh, the Isle of Refuge! Saying it has been incredible seeing all the familiar places again is an understatement. After 10 years, there are some differences — the experience isn’t completely true to the the 2004 island adventure — but that doesn’t diminish the waves and waves of nostalgia that crashed over me. Once again, I swam seeking Bladefin, I climbed the treehouse, I visited the cemetery, I collected shinies, and I gathered resources. I ascended the stairs of that little mage tower, and I descended into the tradeskiller’s workshop below it. (I may not be able to die at the forge again, but I can certainly smile at the memory of it.) And I traversed every single inch of the space, not just to make sure I hit every single discovery but to revel in being there again. I also took not a few screenshots!

Of course, as the two versions of the isle are quite different, I had to run both instances of the isle. I made both an evil and a good character, which necessitated both deleting an old toon I hardly used and also buying a new character slot! On Overlord’s Outpost, I stood for a moment and just listened to the statue of Lucan D’Lere, taking a moment to remember the man who truly brought the Vissage of the Overlord to life (thank you Christopher Lee for sharing your amazing talent with us). The whole time I was delighted at each new rediscovery.

In all, even if I didn’t want to continue with the time-locked expansion server, which I most certainly do, the 15 bucks it cost to have an All-Access pass for one month was well worth it just to revisit this haven of memories. Possibly the only thing I didn’t miss was the hideous beginning armor! I can’t wait to change out of it into something better (thank you, appearance slots!).

The difference is in the details
Although much about the starter experience is the same if not similar, those who played way back when can pick out the differences. For one thing, as in the current iteration of the game, you pick your class at character creation; there are no archetypes and advanced classes. The crafting is also the same as it is in the live game, without the subcomponents and the chance of death by needle at the hands of the vicious loom.

Another difference that I personally took advantage of is the fact that players on the Overlord’s Outpost can choose to go to Neriak instead of just Freeport. When the game launched, there was no Neriak to go to, but since I created a Tier’Dal, it felt better to send her to her racial home instead of the streets of Freeport. Speaking of the main cities, I can report that they are their revamped selves, not the original iterations.

Other differences include selecting races that weren’t available at the game’s initial launch. It actually was a teeny bit jarring to see an Aeraykn on the isle, reminding me that I wasn’t back in 2004. Of course, Frogloks are also available, as are Freebloods for those who have purchased that unlock. As for added classes, however, those two have been locked to the expansions that introduced them: Age of Discovery for Beastlords and Tears of Veeshan for Channelers.

On top of all this I don’t remember the island being quite so easy. Obviously 10 added years of play in EQII — and MMOs in general — could account for quite a chunk of that; so many things are second nature now that were brand-new to me back then. Even so, it still seems much easier than that. If it weren’t for my wanderings to soak up the ambiance, I would have pretty well blown through the content in no time. And as the island truly is soloable the whole way, traveling with even a single companion makes it that much easier, never mind playing with a group of friends. Luckily, I am in no rush, though I am looking forward to seeing how life after the isle stacks up.

The future’s so bright
I see a great future ahead for this progression server. New players and returning veterans alike can get in on the ground floor and not feel constantly behind the curve. Current players have the chance to be a part of building a new community and experiencing each step of the way without having to feel rushed through 10 expansions. And plenty are taking advantage of this opportunity; it is amazing to see chat light up constantly with requests for groups.

Well done, Daybreak! I’m already having loads of fun here, and the journey is just beginning. Have you taken the plunge? Soon, we’ll have a guild based in Qeynos on Stormhold. And from there it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to taking over Norrath!

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THE DAILY GRIND: ARE YOU TRYING A DIFFERENT MMO THIS SUMMER?

I find that summer is a great time of the year to let my gaming wanderlust run free, giving me permission to try new games and return to old ones that I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve been on a tear of samping different titles, from the obscure like Villagers & Heroes to well-known favorites like Star Wars: The Old Republic. I even got a bit of Final Fantasy XIV in there, although I concluded that it’s not the game for me.

Are you trying a different MMO this summer? Are you picking up one of the recently launched titles or returning to a comforting favorite? Let us know your plans!

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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WildStar Advances the Action Combat Paradigm for MMORPGs

There has been a significant shift in the combat experience of MMORPGs with the introduction and evolution of “Action Combat” – and Carbine Studios is adding meaningful improvements to this paradigm in the upcoming game WildStar.

To fully appreciate the extent of change and what Carbine Studios is doing, let’s contrast the two dominant paradigms for combat in MMORPGs:

UI-Based Combat: as popularized by World of Warcraft (WoW) and implemented in pretty much every major MMORPG prior to 2012
Action Combat: as popularized by TERA and especially Guild Wars 2 (GW2) in 2012, and further advanced by WildStar
The Old Paradigm: UI-Based Combat

Here are the typical characteristics of UI-Based Combat:

The vast majority of abilities are usable only if the selected target is in line-of-sight and in-range, and in the majority of cases those abilities when fired would automatically hit
A significant aspect of skillful play involves managing the cooldowns of many different abilities
Abilities are often most effective when used in a predetermined sequence or timing, a.k.a. rotation
As the number of abilities increases, combat becomes more and more about staring at your ability bars (and addons) that track cooldowns and significant pre-conditions for using other abilities (e.g. target below x% of health, Execute is now usable)
These characteristics synergistically create a context where 80% of a player’s attention is devoted to the elements of the UI as opposed to observing and reacting to the actual fight, and combat often consists of the same ability rotations over and over. Think of the “9-6-9″ rotation for Paladin tanks in the WotLK expansion for WoW.

This is not the most immersive experience, and you can end up with rather ugly UIs such as this:
aionicthoughts’s Cluttered UI Example
Granted, the above example is an extreme case of a healing Druid, but it hammers the point home: the UI elements are king, not the actual combat. Heck, you can barely see the combatants and you don’t really need to. I ended up spending a lot of time evaluating, managing, and updating addons for WoW, and it was a headache.

How have game developers innovated in this particular paradigm? Often by adding “more of the same” (MOTS): more abilities, more UI elements. Maybe game developers figured that having more abilities would make gameplay more dynamic. What I do know is that over the course of several years, from WoW to LOTRO, WAR, RIFT, and SWTOR, the number of abilities available to a given character at endgame exploded to several dozens. Playing a character in an MMORPG requires the dexterity of a pianist, and it’s a reason that there has been so much discussion on the material I compiled on keybinding.

Of course, we know that more is not necessarily better. In the incredibly insightful book, Design-Driven Innovation, author Roberto Verganti talked about how commonplace it is for companies to innovate by adding MOTS, or what he refers to as “technology-driven“ innovation. For example, in the smartphone space, for years manufacturers focused on loading their devices with more hardware features, more battery life, better voice quality, and increasingly complicated UIs. Apple re-thought the smartphone experience and delivered disruptive and compelling “new-meaning” innovation with the iPhone, an elegant touchscreen device backed by a 3rd-party developer app ecosystem.

Is it possible to have engaging combat with a much more limited set of abilities? Absolutely!

The New Paradigm: Action Combat

In 2012, the TERA and GW2 delivered “Action Combat” to gamers in North America and Europe, and its characteristics diverged from UI-Based Combat significantly:

Abilities can be activated at any time, even if your target is out-of-range, not in line-of-sight, etc. Therefore, positioning and distance truly matter
Many abilities require active targeting with an aiming reticle by the player to determine their trajectory and destination
There are generally fewer abilities to manage, and the emphasis with abilities is on the timing of when they’re used, not just activating them whenever they’re off cooldown
The emphasis on combat in this model has shifted from the UI to actually observing and reacting to the combatants.

This is what ArenaNet intended when they said they wanted gamers to “play the game not the UI” as they outlined in their pre-launch Golden Rules for GW2. This is not to say that the GW2 UI is perfect; for example, I would love the ability to make certain elements more visible, such as the indicators for boons and conditions on targets and friendlies. But overall I believe ArenaNet delivered on their intended combat experience.

You could say that the Action Combat model has adopted some of the characteristics that were long present in First Person Shooters (FPS games), in particular active targeting. Five years ago, I would have said that this would be a slippery slope and combat could become too twitch-based. But after having experience the over-emphasis of the UI in the older model, I now prefer Action Combat. It’s far more engaging and dynamic.

And this brings us to WildStar…

WildStar Advances Action Combat

Carbine Studios has taken a very intentional approach in designing their combat system, as outlined in their videos on the 3 parts of the WildStar “Combat Sandwich”: Movement, Aiming, and Crowd Control.

In case you’ve been stuck under a rock bigger than the one I’ve been hiding under recently, here are those 3 videos (I put Movement last since the other two are more eye-opening to veterans of UI-Based Combat games):
Free-form targeting and telegraphs add the element of skill to hitting targets and avoiding being hit. Contrast this with UI-Based Combat, where hitting targets and avoidance are typically math-based stats, which is something which has always felt so counter-intuitive in other games.

Granted, good movement in PVP in UI-Based Combat games has generally helped, but making all aiming and avoidance based on player control is awesome.
Games prior to WildStar haven’t quite cracked the nut of crowd control (CC) in PVE or PVP.

In UI-Based Combat, you typically have a very limited number of options available when you are CC’d, and those abilities are tied to long cooldowns, and bosses are typically immune to most forms of CC, which devalues specs and gameplay that emphasize them. Many games have diminishing returns for CC in PVP, but the problem is that with the exception of SWTOR, the DR is not made visible (without an addon). Or with DR some knucklehead on your team may give an opponent CC immunity at a time which is actually advantageous to the opponent.

GW2 partially (and I tread carefully here) addressed the problem of CC by having no DR on CC, and letting players decide the extent to which they want to spec into CC-inflicting abilities and CC counters.

WildStar elegantly avoids all of these limitations with their Breakout Gameplay mechanics when you’re CC’d.
Finally in WildStar, we may have the expectation in PVE that tanks move and position themselves in ways that make sense. As a former WoW raid tank, my #1 pet peeve is raiding with tanks that don’t know how to position their targets. I’m talking about incompetent tanks who run up and facetank the boss, forcing all the MDPS to circle around so they don’t get cleaved. What the tank should do is strafe and flip the boss so that its back is exposed to the MDPS. It makes sense to have 1 person move than 8, amirite, and it boost raid DPS.

Potential Concerns for WildStar’s Implementation

Thinking through what I’ve seen so far, here are two potential concerns:

Not enough abilities
Combat will be World of Telegraphs
With WildStar, the number of slottable abilities will be even less than what we have in GW2. That said, I’m not concerned. Given the “Combat Sandwich” mechanics, there will be plenty for the player to focus on. In terms of abilities, less is more.

Keep in mind that with GW2, abilities are tied to weapons, some weapons have dud abilities, and some weapons are superior to others. With WildStar, the weapons for each class are fixed, and you can slot whatever 8 abilities you want. I’d prefer that model, which is more like the Chinese Menu approach as opposed to being stuck with a Prix Fixe setup. Hopefully Carbine will do a good job at balancing the available abilities and creating incomparables, so that players will have to make meaningful tradeoff decisions.

Regarding the 2nd concern, is it possible that WildStar is so telegraph-centric that we’ll be replacing our watching of UI elements with watching of telegraphs? Granted, it’s still a huge step forward in terms of immersive, engaging, skill-based combat. But if I can essentially just stare at the ground for telegraphs and ignore the boss / mob combat animations, I may get that disconnected feeling I have with UI-Based Combat games.

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How Ready are You for WildStar?

As I wrote earlier this year, WildStar game developer Carbine has thoughtfully diverged from traditional combat mechanics. They’ve been savvy about taking the community through the walk of their design thinking in a series of Dev Speak videos on YouTube.

WildStar is now in Open Beta, so anyone can download the game and play. People have been asking me on social media about my Beta experience. The answer is that it’s been intentionally short.

There are multiple reasons:

I’ve been really busy IRL. My priorities are work, spending time with my wife, kickboxing, gaming, and when I have time, blogging about gaming
I’ve been disappointed with the majority of MMORPGs I’ve played since 2008. This is not a new theme for me nor for many of you. I have spent hundreds of hours playing games in Beta; the list includes: Warhammer Online (WAR), Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), and Guild Wars 2 (GW2). All of these games came up short in the eyes of the community and what I was looking for personally after they launched. I’m careful to not get my expectations up too high nor to over-invest in Beta. If a game doesn’t grip me within the first hour (e.g. Age of Wushu, Elder Scrolls Online) or lack sufficient polish (e.g. WildStar back in February Beta), I wait til it launches. Or I skip it entirely, as I did with Neverwinter, Final Fantasy XIV, and based on your feedback ESO. I don’t want to play a game because it’s new. I want to play a game because it’s good
I’ve finally found one MMO that has skill-based combat: World of Tanks (WoT). WoT is not an MMORPG, and I do miss having character(s) to build up and relate to. That being said, WoT is the highest skill PVP I’ve ever experienced: positioning matters, spotting matters, aiming matters, flanking matters, awareness matters, terrain matters, etc, and there is no way to heal your HP. I’m not into pure FPS games because I find them to lack realism and they’re heavily twitch-based, whereas WoT is a nice mix of twitch and tactics. This isn’t to say WoT is perfect – I think the game has balance issues and gold ammo trivializes dealing damage – but I’ve found it challenging and enjoyable, and I’m working my way towards account-level Unicum (top 1% of players)
The gaming community has greatly evolved in terms of the content it produces. I’ve been writing gaming guides since 2005 and making narrated videos since 2008. When I started publishing my narrated videos in 2008, it was something that very few people were doing. Most PVP videos back then were instagib videos with music, not narrated commentary like my videos. Thankfully, there are many thousands of gamers who are cranking out videos and guides about upcoming games, so there is no lack of content on games
I am looking forward to WildStar. As with RIFT, I’ll be going into launch basically knowing very little about the game.

I leveled 3 classes to about 6-7 in WildStar (in order): Medic, Warrior, and Stalker. Right now I’m leaning towards Warrior or Stalker, as both classes are MDPS, and in PVP this means I’ll have the opportunity to circle-strafe keyboard turners and in PVE I’ll be able to tank, which has always been the PVE role I enjoy most.

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Gotten Gains Update Part 2 Arriving Next Week For Grand Theft Auto Online

Rockstar Games are excited to reveal that the second installment in the Ill-Gotten Gains update is expected to arrive next week on Wednesday, July 8th, introducing another exciting batch of new content to Grand Theft Auto Online. The new collection of content features extravagant attire, high class transportation, brand new weaponry and the introduction of the radio station, “The Lab”, that was previously only available on the PC platform.

Petrol heads will be happy to see the addition of two brand new vehicles with the stylish Coil Brawler, a vehicle that excels on every terrain whether that be the sidewalks of Vinewood Boulevard or the hills of the San Chianski Mountain Range. Fans of the 2 wheeled variety can look forward to the opportunity to pick up a stunning Dinka Vindicator while fans of ocean getaways can invest in new addition to their personal harbor.

The team have promised to release more details in the coming week including particulars on the next Social Club Event kicking off for Ill-Gotten Gains Part II on Friday, July 10th. They also announced an opportunity for fans that missed last years Independence Day Special event to snatch up some old favorites as they return at a reduced rate.

 

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