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skyshardMy first beta experience with The Elder Scrolls Online happened in July 2013. At least, that’s when my account was created. I can’t honestly recall my reaction to the game at the time because subsequently I was invited to many “weekend beta” events and there was a character wipe between each one. So over and over I rolled a level 1 character and headed out to help Captain Rana (that was the only faction offered back then). I came to really dislike the game (doing the same content over and over is deal-breaker for me) but I knew I’d passed a point where I was giving it a fair shake. I stopped accepting beta invites other than to log a character in to help stress the servers.

I told myself I was going to skip TESO when it came out. Whether I would have or not…who knows? I’m really susceptible to peer pressure when everyone is enjoying a game. But when Green Man Gaming sent me a 25% off coupon code for the game I figured what the hell. I’d get it, play it for a few weeks and move on.

In the run-up to launch Scarybooster and I started talking about approaching TESO in a vacuum, so to speak. Rather than read a bunch of blogs and fansite posts about what is right and wrong with TESO we’d just experience it ‘pure’ on our own terms. We came to call this #DARKOUT…or at least I did. I’m trying my best to hold to this policy but it isn’t always easy. In particular it means not joining a guild, at least not yet.

For me Early Access started on Sunday. From the moment I entered the game with my first character, it was different from beta. Knowing all your work isn’t going to get deleted at the end of a weekend changes everything. TESO starts you off in a prison, as per Elder Scrolls tradition. Generally in beta I ran through there as fast as I could, but now we were in launch and I spent nearly an hour in there opening every container I could find. I wound up leaving the prison with some decent armor, a huge pile of lockpicks and lots of (mostly provision-related) crafting materials.

Zenimax now offers you a choice of going to the “Starter Islands” or skipping them. During beta there were lots of complaints about the starter islands being too linear. With my launch character I choose to do them anyway, since I was in a new faction (DaggerFall). I’m STILL on the starter island and have been enjoying every moment. I’m not saying people who complained about them were wrong… maybe if your focus is on leveling as quickly as possible they’re awful. Or maybe like me, people in beta had played the islands too many times. But I’m enjoying my time on Stros M’kai.

I’ve been doing quests, but in no particular order. Mostly I wander about, harvesting materials and riffling through bookcases to find things to read (some of which are funny or interesting enough that I read them aloud to Angela). I talk to everyone and listen to what they have to say. I help other players. I learned that I can resurrect anyone if I have a full soul gem, and I carry a couple and keep them topped up so I can help folks. I’ve been crafting some: provisioning, blacksmithing and (leather and cloth) armor making. I can’t do all these seriously on one character but you can do low level stuff without spending any points so I’m just playing around to see what careers I enjoy.

My favorite/proudest moment was a particular quest that is a kind of treasure hunt. Y’know, “start at this landmark, head towards that one until you find the such and such, walk 10 paces south. gaze between the trees at something, etc etc”. Normally I would’ve got this quest, opened google and found out what to do. But keeping to #DARKOUT meant figuring it out myself. I cheated a tiny bit in that I looked up the text of the quest (in the form of a poem) so I could keep it onscreen on my 2nd monitor and refer to it easily, but beyond that I figured the quest out on my own. I mean it wasn’t THAT hard but I was just proud of myself for not giving in to the temptation of cheating by looking it up.

I am LOVING combat in the game. My character is no doubt completely useless for group content. I didn’t read any guides or consider what role of the Trinity he could perform. But I simply ADORE the fact that I don’t have to be a Melee character or a Spellcasting character. My character does both. He mostly focuses on his weapon talents but I put a few points in some magic-y class skills and soul magic. His magic talents allow him to heal himself to some extent (and to heal random people around him, which is awesome). And for anyone there’s a great routine where you block a heavy attack from the bad guy, and it staggers him her, and then you can pound him so he drops like a sack of potatoes. It is EXTREMELY satisfying and combat has a bit of a feel of an action game at times.

That said… I die a lot. This is NOT a complaint. I’m so sick of MMOs where the low levels are such a complete Safety Zone that you can play while you simultaneously watch TV, eat dinner, get a massage and daydream about Tahiti being a magical place and still never die. My combat experience in TESO is that things can go south really quickly, mostly when you get adds. And dying can hurt. Death means your gear can get damaged and instead of working at 100% until it breaks, damaged gear gets less efficient. So (making up an example) if you have a shield with an armor rating of 10 and a durability rating of 20, and you die a bunch of times so that durability goes down to 10, the shield’s armor rating will be 5 until you get it repaired.

Anyway this is getting way long…

TL,DR version: I’m really enjoying wandering my way through the world of TESO. I WILL have to join a guild in order to enjoy higher level content but I still am going to make a point of leaving myself plenty of alone-time to just explore and drink in everything the world has to offer.

I don’t like the Trophy/Achievement system that Sony and Microsoft have shoved into our gaming. [I'm going to keep saying Trophy since I'm mostly a Sony guy, but really they're the same thing.]

At least, I don’t like Trophies in my favored genre, which is (broadly speaking) narrative-driven action-adventures. For MP games, or sports games, or puzzle games…games that don’t have a beginning and an end, trophies are OK, but not for narrative-driven experiences that are ‘finishable.’

I just finished Tomb Raider: The Definitive Edition. Great game, and I enjoyed playing it and I enjoyed the satisfaction of finishing it. But did I really finish it? Thanks to Trophies, that’s not clear.

Tomb Raider has a system where you’re ‘graded’ for every area you work through. This grade indicates how ‘complete’ the zone is, based on things like hidden relics, documents and GPS caches that you find while exploring. At the end of the game you get a ‘score’ based on how much you’ve leveled up Lara and on how thoroughly you explored all these areas.

At the end of the game I got a score of 84%. I’d completed the story, explored all the optional tombs and did a fairly good job of recovering relics and such. I didn’t bother with “challenges” since I found them tedious. Challenges are things like shoot 10 ‘dream catchers’ hidden in trees in a forest.

But 84% was pretty good, and I knew that if I wanted to bump that score up there were some areas where I was too caught up in the story to stop to find all the things. The game lets you keep exploring after the story is done.

And then I made the mistake of looking at the Trophies for the game, and I found I’d earned only 34% of the Trophies. 34% seems terrible! If I completed the game and uncovered 84% of the secrets and explored all the tombs, how did I wind up at just 34% complete when it comes to trophies?

I looked at trophies I missed and some of them I just randomly missed, like kill x guys using the shotgun (I tended towards rifle and bow). With the game finished there’re no more guys to kill so I’ll never get that one unless I start a new game and play until I get the shotgun and then shoot lots of guys with it. Others are “Hidden” Trophies so I have no idea how to earn them, without looking at a guide.

Then there are a bunch of multiplayer trophies; I was only vaguely aware Tomb Raider even had multiplayer. How about we start setting up two separate Trophy/Achievement categories: one for single play campaigns and another for multiplayer?

And on the Playstation platform there’s always (??) a platinum trophy that you earn by earning all the other trophies, and I’ll never get that because I have no intention of accessing the multiplayer aspect of the game.

It’s a little bit annoying to me.

On the other hand, with the PS4 Sony has added a rarity rating to trophies which is pretty interesting. It measures, roughly, how many players have earned a given trophy. So the trophy for taking X number of headshots, that’s a common trophy (everyone takes headshots whenever they can). The trophy for using rope arrows to yank 5 guys off of cliffs so they fall to their doom (I didn’t get that one) is a rare trophy.

What’s interesting about this is that every one of the multiplayer trophies are “Very Rare” which pretty much tells you that NO ONE is playing this game multiplayer. What a waste of resources that was!

I know a lot of people love trophies and achievements and for measuring how much time you’ve put into Call of Duty multiplayer or how many seasons of Madden you’ve played, I can see their value. But asking players to play through a game like Tomb Raider and rather than soak up the story of the game, to worry about whether they’ve shot enough crows and sea gulls to earn that Trophy (yes, that is a real example)… that’s just disrespectful to the writers and actors and animators who crafted this tale.

What? Lara’s friends are coming under fire and she needs to save them? OK but first I need to kill 10 rabbits to get that “Tastes like chicken” trophy. Her friends will keep. And of course they do which just bursts through the 4th wall and screams “This is just a stupid game, not a real narrative art form!” at you.

I wish they’d just remove the Trophy system from narrative-driven games altogether. Or make them “opt in.” You can turn off notifications but as far as I know you can’t completely turn off the systems. Maybe they should allow that so a game never even shows up in the “Compare Trophies” listing.

I’m not much of a joiner. Although I love MMOs I don’t often join guilds or groups since I don’t like feeling obligated to others. I’m pretty selfish when it comes to my leisure time and want to do what I want to do when I want to do it. Yeah I’m kind of a dick. I’m also a classic introvert and I find that spending time with people drains me, even when I’m having a lot of fun doing it.

When FFXIV launched I chose the Gladiator class because he was a melee class, and I enjoy a good dust-up. I don’t remember if I even researched the job enough to know it was a Tank class; when you solo all the time “role” becomes pretty meaningless.

But Square-Enix fooled me. They built a game where grouping is required, assuming you ever want to unlock everything the game has to offer. At level 15 your “Story Questline” takes you to your first instanced dungeon, and completing the story questline leads to unlocking things like mounts. My first thought was that I’d just grind levels until I was over-powered and then solo the instances, but you can’t (at least I don’t think you can) because you get scaled down to an appropriate level when you enter them.

I remember clearly when I hit this quest. It was late on a Saturday night back in September or thereabouts. I thought “Well it’s almost 2 am… I probably don’t want to get involved in this tonight, I’ll do it in the morning.” Sunday came and “something came up” and I did’t play FF XIV. Monday came and something else came up. Tuesday thru Thursday came and went. Then October, November, December and January came and many things came up and I never went back to do that quest. Every month Squenix sent me an email saying “You’re going to be billed for a month of access in a few days” (I wish more MMO companies did that!) and every month I’d think “I really want to get back to FF XIV…I’ll keep the sub.”

A week or so ago I finally bit the bullet. Of course by this time everyone else doing these instances has done them a dozen times and they expect everyone to know what they’re doing. I admitted this was 1) my first time doing the instance and 2) my first time tanking (in FFXIV…in the past I’ve tanked with friends in other games), and I could hear the groans flowing over the internet. Fortunately one of my groupmates was patient and gave me advice and we got through the instance with no deaths, but the whole time I knew I was doing a crap job of tanking. By the time we finished I was so stressed I was sick to my stomach. And then I realized another dungeon instance followed. So I logged out.

But I really wanted to see more of this game. So I came up with a new plan. Be a brain-dead DPS. There’s not much stress on a DPS as long as they don’t do something actively stupid and I figured even I could avoid that. So I switched jobs to Archer and started leveling that up (FF XVI lets you do all jobs on a single character).

You really can’t do any grouping until you hit level 10. Well I guess you could form a group but there’s no real point to it. At level 10 you unlock Guildhests which are repeatable group quests, like mini-instances I guess. As soon as I hit level 10 I started queuing for them with my archer. Sadly until level 15 there are only two of them to queue for (that I’ve found anyway). But the levels go very quickly.

Last night I repeated these things 4 or 5 times, and I think this was a good decision. Standing in the back firing arrows let’s me get used to reading the Party Window and target windows so I can quickly see who has aggro and who is in danger of getting/losing it. I’ve been playing around with the various markers and setting up some /assist macros and things like that.

I’m also getting used to the idea of just joining 3 random strangers to enter a battle. Sometimes everyone says hi, sometimes no one does. Sometimes people chat a bit at the end, usually they don’t. But so far no one has been an ass, and that’s important to me too. If I have enough good-neutral experiences in random groups, when I run into a bad one (and we all know that’ll happen eventually) I’ll at least be able to have good experiences to compare it to.

Now I’m actually looking forward to hitting level 15 so I can go back into that dungeon I did as a Gladiator. And I’ve been thinking about switching back to tanking at some point, too. This is way outside my comfort zone but so far at least, I’m enjoying myself. And I’m kind of vaguely proud of myself for overcoming my reluctance to do group content and trying to embrace the fun of it.

Heck I have half a mind to actually join my friends in some kind of multiplayer game!

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The more keen observers among you may have noticed that I’ve stopped writing posts about Everquest Next Landmark. The fact is I’ve cut way back on playing it for 3 main reasons.

First, I’ve done as much as I want to do over again. :) I ground out all the gathering I needed to do to make all the building tools and that was plenty, since I know everything is going to be wiped when we transition from Alpha to Beta. I actually didn’t mind the grind: mining is actually pretty fun (chopping trees much less so) but I don’t know if doing it all a second time will be as much fun. So now when I do log in it’s just to play around with building.

I should note that templates will survive the transition from alpha to beta, so I could be building cool things to throw down come beta but…

Second, I’ve become kind of discouraged. Early on I was building stuff that I actually felt a little proud of, but every day we see a dozen incredibly awesome projects that make mine look like crap. So unless I’m going to quit my job and live off of someone else’s money so I can spend 8 hours a day working on my Landmark claim, it hardly seems worth ‘pushing’ to get anything built right now. When more facets of the game get put in there may be more practical reasons to build; we’ll see. Or maybe I’ll just have fun gathering and fighting. This is my Sour Grapes reason for not playing.

Third, I made the age-old mistake of visiting the forums. As with just about every official forum in MMO land, it’s a toxic place and spending time in it just leaves me not wanting to have anything to do with the game or the community. What makes the toxic forum situation worse than normal is that, in theory, we bought into alpha so we could have a voice in the design of the game. And that may be true, but the only way to be heard is to post more frequently than everyone else. See above re: 8 hours/day to devote to the game. Any and every suggestion is attacked viciously by a contingent of people who want nothing to change, ever, and the only way to be heard is to post the same thing over and over and over. Meanwhile, every suggestion is attacked as “dumbing down the game.” I swear if you suggested “The game should crash less.” someone would give you shit over that. [Disclaimer: The game has never actually crashed for me.]

At the same time when I do log in, the populations across the servers are all “LOW” now, so it’s pretty clear changes need to be made to give normal players a better reward/hours spent ratio if you want them to stick around. I’m sure the dev team knows that as well as I do and that they aren’t taking the forum mafia too seriously, but it’s still a discouraging situation to be in the midst of.

By the time beta rolls around I’m hoping the forum toxicity effect will have worn off and I’ll be excited to jump in and start playing again. I still watch the weekly live streams and follow the devs on Twitter. I’m still excited to watch the game develop. I’m just no longer interested in being a part of that process. I don’t want to be a part of the EQNL forum community; I just don’t have the time or the patience to deal with the ‘hardcore’ contingent there. Now to be fair, there are definitely some saintly folk who’re in there trying to actually help. I can’t imagine how thick their skins must be but I admire them for fighting the good fight.

Tangent: The whole “dumbing down” thing really bugs me. We need a better term. Because when they complain about ‘dumbing down’ EQNL what they really mean is “making it less of a time sink.” In real world terms, if you wanted a swimming pool and started digging the hole with a shovel, and I came along with a backhoe, would you accuse me of “dumbing down” your swimming pool project? I doubt it.

For prosperity, here’s the project I was working on before I realized how pointless it all was.

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This is an early version of what wound up being a stable, or intended to be a stable. Mostly I’d been working on creating the roof with the angled beams built with the line tool The covering is wood thatch and you’ll note it’s running in the wrong direction. I never did figure out how to get it oriented properly.

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Same building but I’ve changed the walls and that’s about it.

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Here’s the finished (for now) building seen from the hill behind it. I trimmed in the open ends of the walls while leaving plenty of space for a cool breeze to blow through. I replaced the thatch with wooden shingles which are also running in the wrong direction.

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Stables from the front. All the way to the left is a storage area. It never rains or gets cold on this island, making the open design an easy choice.

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To make these thin cross beams I used the smoothing tool over and over. But see how they flare out where they meet the vertical posts? I haven’t yet figured out how to prevent that from happening. The engine seems determined to make the adjoining faces the same size (I paste in beams with no flare but as soon as they touch the vertical beams they just ‘blossom’). I can sometimes get it so the vertical beam caves in to become skinny but that’s no better.

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The whole building from another angle.

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And here’s the approach, though this was taken before I fixed the roof. H is for the Halasian Empire Annex. :)

This weekend the EQNL team is getting some much deserved rest, as far as I can tell. In a way, we players are getting a rest too. There was a fairly big patch on Friday, as well as a couple of European servers rolling out, and since then the game worlds have been up and running and we players have been able to stuff ourselves on Landmark goodness without having to worry about whether the worlds will be up.

I think the biggest aspect of the patch was the new system for finding available land for Claims. Instead of the confusing cross-hatch of 3D claim cubes you now get a map that is tinted red where you can’t build. It’s MUCH easier to find any available land on an island.

I was happy with my mountain-top claim on a Tier 2 island…right up until I started needing materials that were only found on Tier 3 islands, at which point the run back and forth to the Spire to jump between islands started to bug me. Saturday morning I island hopped around, checking a dozen islands on the Courage server, and found a new claim spot. It was close to the Spire, but not too close, on a Tier 3 island (Scarp) and in a wooded area. It’s not as cool a location as my mountain top but it is more practical and I’m pretty happy with it.

New Player Tip #1 Find a claim on a Tier 3 island. Yes, it’ll mean you have to go elsewhere to get started but you move through the stuff found only on Tier 1 & 2 islands really quickly. While you’re gathering materials like copper you don’t even really need a claim. You can use crafting stations that other players have built to get you going. [This tip expires the day SOE gives us some kind of 'teleport to spire/claim' ability.]

The big Friday patch did have some rough spots. Lots of people are struggling with trees and boulders popping up on their claims, over and over. And I noticed the camera has gotten a little jittery when harvesting. The camera tries to move when something occludes your view of your character and with this latest patch it seems to be trying to compensate for particles and/or your character’s pick head at times. So as these items move across the screen the camera flickers in close, then back out again.

Still the game feels in good shape, the servers are running with populations between medium and low, and things seem on track.

We’re starting to see some really incredible building projects crop up. As usual I refer you to Dave Georgeson’s twitter feed for examples.

I haven’t built much yet. I’m still working towards getting all the tools, and practicing techniques in little ways. Here’s the crafting station area on one corner of my claim:

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In terms of tools I now have Add, Delete, Heal, Select, Smooth & Paint. I REALLY want to get to the Line tool but it’s going to take me enough time that I’m not sure I want to bother during alpha since I know this will all get wiped. We’ll see though. I just finished making a Tungsten Reinforced Saw Table which will let me build a Gold Trimmed Work Bench which will let me work Amaranthine so I can make an Amaranthian Forge which will then, I think, let me craft my Line tool. Each of those steps will probably take me a few days of harvesting materials.

There’s been some debate on whether or not we should have to craft these tools. My mind is really divided. On the one hand, crafting the tools gives you a concrete goal to stretch for, so if you’re into the whole RPG Progression mentality, these are awesome ‘rat pellets’ to strive for. On the other hand, at least right now, Landmark is a building game, and making people do a lot of harvesting just to start making cool things seems like gating the fun.

[My feelings about this are changing now that tools are becoming so much more time consuming to get. The early ones come pretty fast.]

I do find mining fun, but harvesting wood is pretty tedious since it’s so passive. Target a tree, hold down a mouse button until the tree goes away. Walk 2 steps and target another tree. Repeat until you’re nodding off at the keyboard. In mining you first have to find an exposed gleam of minerals, then start digging, following the seam. It’s not rocket science but at least you feel engaged. Though when I started to need a bunch of elemental gold, even mining started getting tedious. You see, you find gold at the end of a seam of tungsten. So to get elemental gold you first find tungsten. Then you mine out that seam of tungsten until you get to the wad of gold at the end of it. Then, hopefully, you get a some elemental gold. You don’t always (and sometimes you get two). I think on average you probably get 1 piece per gold seam, but when you need 30 of them… it can start to get to you.

I know the amounts of materials you need for making all this stuff is in flux, and I’m guessing it’ll be toned down some. And once there’s combat and stuff in the game I think the whole vibe will change. We’ll see.

The building tools are cool though. I wanted to share one tip I learned. I already wrote it up for Google+ so I’m just going to cut and paste:
smoothing 2

smoothing1One thing that hadn’t occurred to me until I watched a couple of videos, is using the Smoothing tool with the Select tool. In these shots the upright posts used to be perfectly rectangular posts with razor sharp 90 degree corners. I was going for something more rustic so I used the Select tool to encompass an area around them. It was flush against the walls behind them but had some ‘buffer’ on the sides and in front.

Then I hit the Smoothing tool once or twice and here’s what I got.

I’m still not happy with the horizontal boards. One of them looks like living room wall paneling from the 1970s. The other is better but a little too perfect for my tastes. In an ideal world I’d be able to streak them with dirt or even leave tiny gaps between the boards here and there.

(These are supposed to be retaining walls that keep my dirt hole from caving in on my crafting stations.)

New Player Tip #2 Craft a grappling hook as early as possible. Not only do they help you get out of holes you’ve literally dug yourself into, but they help you travel faster too. Here’s a too-long video of me running out to my old claim but you can see how the grappling hook really helps climb hills, and it’s fun too!

I guess that will do it for today’s update. I can’t wait to see what the week brings now that the team has most of the fires under control and can get back to adding new functionality to the game!

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Hmm, I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep track of the day count?

I’m still not getting a super amount of time to play due to a big project finishing up at work this week, but that hasn’t kept me from keeping tabs on things. Angela and I both have the bug bad. The other night when the new server came online we got up at 4:30 am to find new claims. Last night we got to bed at about 3 am (I worked until about 1:30 then HAD to spend some time playing) and a few hours later I was woken up by her getting back into bed. I asked where she’d been. “Couldn’t sleep so I went to play some Landmark.” LOL

Anyway on to the changes. I’m wondering if SOE is regretting this ‘transparency’ experiment yet. There are two downsides that I can see from my position on the outside looking in. The first is the amount of time it takes the team. Transparency = communication and communication takes time. The second is the fact that they’re really taking a beating in the process of teaching customers what “alpha” means. You see a lot of upset people complaining in the forums and on Twitter that they lost work or were bitten by some other bug-related issue, and being typical hysterical gamers about the situation, screeching about how SOE is ripping them off or whatever.

In fact “It’s Alpha” has become something of a meme and source of ridicule among the players. When someone tries to report a problem they’re now met with a chorus of “It’s Alpha!” Some of these replies are in jest, many are from staunch defenders of the game who refuse to see it as anything but a perfect jewel. Of course the people BUILDING the game don’t see it as a perfect jewel yet.

Yesterday the Alpha forums were opened up so anyone can read them. You still have to be part of the program to post. This was a bold move because, as with any game I think, for every 10 people playing and enjoying the game, there’s one who is frustrated and venting in the forums about what a piece of crap the game is. I’d like to be more pro-active in the forums to try to balance that out but frankly they’re already pretty toxic (as most official forums are) and I usually just get mad at the stupid things people are saying. When I do say something I make it a point NOT to revisit that thread in order to avoid being pulled into an argument.

My one criticism of SOE as far as transparency goes is that they need to route all their communication through one source. As it stands you need to watch the forums and a few different twitter accounts to really know everything that’s going on. I mostly stick to watching John Smedley and Dave Georgeson but I miss things from other team members. The official twitter feed mostly focuses on the big issues, but by following Georgeson, in particular, you learn a lot about upcoming features; much of that info never makes it to the alpha forums, or if it does it quickly gets lost in the noise.

Anyway enough about that. How about the game? Well the past couple of days has seen a new server, and the addition of 13 more islands/shards/continents for each of the 3 servers. The three biggest pain points (as far as I can tell) up to this point have been claim changes not saving (the world kept reverting to its original state) which I believe is fixed, lost/missing bonus items, which I think they’re still working through, and a lack of claim space.

This last one… it’s a complex situation. I moved my claim just before Serenity (the 3rd server) came online. There WERE spaces to plant a claim. The problem is everyone wants to be near the Spire (you use the spire to move between shards and you HAVE to move between shards to harvest different materials). Those plots get snatched up quickly and then the griping starts. It’s like any real estate: Location, location, location!

So there have been open spaces to claim if you look hard enough. But you did have to look hard. When the new server came online it seemed to fill up to the same extent as the old servers within the first few hours. Where are all these people coming from? One problem was that some people had managed to get more than one claim. And when a character was deleted, that character’s claim didn’t go away…it just became orphaned. So another fix that was run last night was wiping out those orphaned claims, and wiping out any 2nd, 3rd or beyond claims players had. We’re told that freed up the equivalent of 7 additional shards of space.

Some people got burnt in this clean up, losing the only claim they were aware of (at one point I lost my claim for 2 days before stumbling upon it again and I suspect at least some of these people had a claim they thought had poofed, but hadn’t). As far as I know SOE is still sorting that situation out.

One of the next big projects is a re-working of the map and how it displays claims, and I think that’ll be a help. I relocated my claim (again!) last night and found that the new shards on the older 2 servers have lots of space left. I finally went up a mountain this time. I wonder if I’ll regret it, as climbing that hill is a pain!

A European server is scheduled to come online next (maybe this week) and even more servers are on the way.

But the one change I’m really looking forward to is a toggle for harvesting. You do a LOT of harvesting and have to hold the mouse button down constantly right now. In the works is an ‘auto attack’ for harvesting. Toggle it on and your character starts swinging until you tell him not to. That can’t come soon enough!

Oh, and some kind of compass on the HUD, PLEASE!?

That’s all I have time for this morning. I’ll leave you with a couple of random screenshots of my new hill-top claim:

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Work is pounding me this week, so I didn’t get to play Landmark much yesterday. Maybe 15 minutes all told? When I finally decided it was time to relax, the servers were coming down for a fix. Such is life! I went back to my own job and got a little ahead of schedule so maybe I’ll be able to play tonight.

So as has been mentioned frequently, SOE is being really open about the whole development process. When stuff breaks they tell us why and what’s going towards fixing it. We’re given a general idea of what’s being worked on currently and what’s going to be next.

As a player this doesn’t matter that much; knowing why the servers were down doesn’t change the fact that you can’t play, right? But as a ‘student of computer games’ I find this all fascinating. I’ve had Dave Georgeson’s twitter feed open constantly. By learning the specifics of what goes wrong you can start to build a kind of vague mental road-map of what it takes to build something like EQNL. Even if I didn’t like the game I think I’d keep reading his feed.

The Alpha Forums are locked down for people not in the alpha, but they hope to change that so anyone can read them, but only ‘Founders’ can post. I hope they can make this change because beyond Georgeson, there’re several devs who drop in to post now and then and they add to the knowledge pool.

The big fix from last night (assuming it worked…I haven’t had time to test it) is a problem with claims reverting to their pristine state any time the servers restarted. Assuming that’s fixed we should see some awesome building going on soon!

SOE says they think they can get lost tools back too (a lot of folks placed crafting stations on their claims and came back to find they’d vanished). So that’s more good news.

A new server should be coming online today and more are on order and in-bound. Should be plenty of open space to stake a claim soon! Also a re-work of the map is planned for the near future. Part of the issues with finding a claim are that the map shows bogus results under certain conditions.

I guess that’s it for today!

When SOE dropped the NDA for EQNL, they seem to have jinxed themselves. Last night (Saturday) they brought the servers down for an expected hour or two… which ended up being more like 12-15 hours. When they finally came up, they were having issues staying up until a queue system was put in place.

Last time I checked the team had been working for something like 30 hours non-stop in their effort to give us a good experience. And this after what was undoubtedly a crunch week in the run up to Alpha Launch.

Remember… ALPHA. The fact that they’re working so hard for us to have a good alpha experience is really impressive to me. I’ve seen “finished” games have worse launches, for sure.

Of course we had a certain segment of the gaming community bitching about the problems. SOE has already offered a full refund to anyone who isn’t liking the alpha experience, and the team is working literally non-stop to get things working. But that’s not enough for some gamers. What would be enough? Who knows? I think some gamers just enjoy being angry or something.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about folks voicing frustrations to a small group of friends, I’m talking about the people getting on Twitter or the official forums and endlessly bitching and whining.

My favorite exchange so far. Someone tweeted at Smokejumper saying “How does one demand a refund?” and he answers “No need to demand. If you feel Alpha is not your cup of tea, just call our Customer Service department and they’ll refund you.” So what does the guy say in response? “Thank you for the quick answer! I won’t refund, i have faith in you guys!”

I guess people just need to vent, but when someone is working as hard as these guys are… I dunno, show some restraint.

Anyway enough of that.

I did get some time to play… as the day wore on the servers seemed to get more and more stable and the queue got shorter and shorter. SOE will be adding more servers, they say. One could be in as soon as Monday and two more to follow.

Angela and I both lost our claim, so we spend our time gathering and improving tools (we’re confident the claim situation will be sorted out in short order). There are claims belonging to other players out there with crafting stations on them that are not locked down, either through kindness or the inability to lock people out of using them. Either way we appreciate them being there.

I got as far as crafting a bronze pickaxe and almost to an iron one. First thing you ‘ll learn about Landmark: You need more burled wood logs!

I also spent a lot more time just running around, exploring the world and looking at the sights. Digging tunnels for the joy of digging them. Building towers out of all the extra dirt I’ve harvested, then destroying them. Trying to climb over the wall that surrounds the world. I just find the environment a rather wonderful place to goof around, at least for now.

And remembered to take screenshots! So here’re a bunch of them! Click through for bigger versions.

Messing around with the building tooks on public property. Dirt is plentiful so that's what I used.

Messing around with the building tooks on public property. Dirt is plentiful so that’s what I used.

craft_station Here’s what the crafting stations look like. Of course silly me took the screenshot with the simplest recipe showing.

My first success at making something usable. And it even had some special properties!

My first success at making something usable. And it even had some special properties!

This is what mining looks like. Rocks and dust and ore flies in the air, and the good stuff gets sucked up into your pack. In the first shot I'm just getting the surface layer.

This is what mining looks like. Rocks and dust and ore flies in the air, and the good stuff gets sucked up into your pack. In the first shot I’m just getting the surface layer.


In the second, I've followed a seam and dug a little tunnel (a different project as you can see from the surrounding terrain).

In the second, I’ve followed a seam and dug a little tunnel (a different project as you can see from the surrounding terrain).


The last show shows the tunnel from outside. It's ugly, but it will 'heal' up soon enough.

The last show shows the tunnel from outside. It’s ugly, but it will ‘heal’ up soon enough.

shinyThis is… silver maybe? I found it after I’d mined out a seam of iron. My pick wasn’t strong enough for me to harvest it, but I was able to ‘work around it’ and expose more. I’ll know more when I get my Iron Pick completed, but I’m sharing this example just to show that we’re not talking about a world of nice even cubes here. There’s chaos wherever you look.

That same object after a bit more mining.

That same object after a bit more mining.

OK it’s late and I need to get to bed, so I’m just going to through a bunch more screenshots at you and let you imagine why I took them. :) Mostly they’re just pretty scenery.

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Late last night, Sony opened up Alpha access to Everquest Next Landmark. It happened very late for me, but I was able to at least log in and create a character before I went to bed. I entered the world, gathered a bit of dirt and stone, built a little wall thing, and then I HAD to go to bed.

All night I was like a kid waiting for Christmas Morning. At 4 am I got up, walked in and looked at the computer… then my inner adult took over and I went back to bed.

When morning came I dragged poor Lola (she’s our dog) around the apartment complex as fast as her legs would take her so I could get back in and play.

And I played as much as I could today. Which wasn’t nearly enough to scratch my itch. I am LOVING the direction they’re going with this game.

I’m also loving the transparency. Yes, it’s alpha. A for-real alpha with missing features and UI elements that SOE freely admits suck (and that they’ll be improving) and stuff getting lost and characters getting locked out of servers. So what did they do tonight? They lifted the NDA. So the Alpha NDA was in place for less than 24 hours.

The downside is I didn’t bother capturing screenshots or anything since I figured I wouldn’t be able to share them. So forgive the wall of text.

So what’s the game like? First, graphics. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I’m finding the world rather breathtaking. STUNNING skyboxes and when the moons come up I sometimes have to just stop and gaze at the sky. The character models are a little more subjective. I like them a lot. They feel vaguely Victorian, vaguely Steampunky. I think they’re going to be pretty polarizing but from my own selfish point of view, they rock.

Gameplay? Well for now this is just a building game. Enemies and combat aren’t in there yet (that’s how alpha it is). I spent most of my day running around the world harvesting materials.

A lot of people are calling it “Minecraft on Steroids” and sadly, I will too. Imagine if Minecraft wasn’t all giant blocks and you’ll have a good idea of what Landmark is like. When you gather rock, your pickaxe breaks up an irregular chunk of ground (and materials autoloot themselves into your backpack). Dig a tunnel and it isn’t a nice rectangular area. It’s chaotic and cluttered and rough.

One of the first things you’ll need is copper. When you see a glint of copper on the surface you start digging and you soon realize there’s a actual seam of copper. If you follow it, below it you’ll often find tin, and below that… gold? I’m not sure… a metal I can’t yet mine. But digging out these seams of metal is, for reasons I have trouble articulating, super fun for me.

In fact I spent most of my day doing just that, filling my pack with stone, copper, agate, tourmaline, and of course dirt. Oh yeah, and ogling the projects other players have been working on. One clever player staked his claim at the peak of a mountain and is sculpting the top of that mountain into a castle or a citadel or something.

Let’s talk real briefly about claims. In alpha everyone gets a flag to stake a claim with (later you’ll have to craft these flags). Angela and I found a spot pretty easily and staked our claims next to each other. But neither of us did much with them. I flattened some space and set out some torches. Then we ran off to gather and I haven’t been back since. There’ve been issues with claims disappearing, or things on claims disappearing, so SOE is looking to fix that ASAP.

Then there’s the whole area of crafting that I haven’t touched on. Your character progression is basically in the form of the progression of your tools. You gather materials and craft better tools to gather better materials and so on.

Between alpha issues and just regular Saturday chores, we only got in 3-4 hours of play so there’s still a ton to explore. I won’t admit how much time I spent just running around, sliding down hills and flipping over obstacles and sliding more. Just running around in this world is fun.

Servers are down for a fix this evening… I can’t wait to get back in. I’m having so much fun already and this is just the start. I only bought a Founder’s Pack to keep Angela company but I am SMITTEN by this game.

Next time I hope to have some screenshots or video to share!

[Angela had one! Here it is:]
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Early this week Robot Entertainment’s Echo Prime hit Steam. Between the fact that I’ve really enjoyed Robot’s earlier titles, Hero Academy and the two Orcs Must Die games, plus the fact I know someone who works there, I had to jump in and take it for a spin. Echo Prime is $7.99 until February 9th, $9.99 after that.

Echo Prime is a port from mobile platforms (iOS only, I think) and there are times when it really shows. For one thing, there’s a Gamecenter icon linking to the (non-working, as far as I can tell) social function, at times you’re given instructions like “swipe to dodge!” and the game feels designed to be playing in 10 minute chunks. There’s essentially no narrative to trip you up. You just jump in and start shooting things.

Basic gameplay has you blasting and slicing up bad guys with sword and laser. The levels are super short and tend to be fairly two dimensional (corridors running left to right). You run through a mission, level up your character some, get some coin to buy better gear, and repeat. It’s simple but pretty fun. The “Echos” of the title are entities who lend you special abilities during fights. You equip them, fight while being BFFs with them, and they seem to level up too. There also a system where you can ‘borrow’ Echos from Friends but I had no Friends and wasn’t sure how to get one. For me, I could rent a friend for 100 credits (pretty cheap).

It’s not super deep, but a game doesn’t have to be super deep to be fun, particularly an $8-$10 game.

Obviously on iOS you controlled Echo Prime by tapping or swiping. On the PC you can use keyboard and mouse, or controller.

With keyboard and mouse, you click to move, click on enemies to either melee or fire at them (depending on their range) and either click on skill icons, or tap the number keys, to fire off Echo Skills. WASD are used to dodge, right mouse button is used to block. Holding down Shift will lock your character in place while he shoots; a MUCH needed feature since gameplay is fast-paced enough that it’s easy to miss when trying to click on enemies. This all works, but I couldn’t help but wish I had direct control of the character using WASD. But I feel the same way about Diablo, so take that into consideration.

Steam doesn’t list controller support, but Echo Prime does support a controller and it plays much, MUCH better with one, with the exception of a few issues. Controls are (using an Xbox Controller’s iconography):

A: Melee
B: Shield/Block
X: Ranged attack
Right analog to dodge
Left analog to move
Echo Skills are bound to the D-pad, with Skill 1 triggered by pushing left, Skill 2 by pushing down, and then presumably around the dial.

With a controller you choose if you want to shoot a guy in the face even though he’s punching you. There’s some aim assistance going on to keep the pace of the game up. Dodging with the right analog stick feels much more intuitive to me than using the WASD keys.

The only problem is that some Echo Powers require you to draw a line on the ground. When you trigger one of these powers, the game slows way down, giving you time to draw your line. It’s pretty easy to do with a mouse (and probably really easy with your finger on a touch screen!) but feels super clumsy with the controller (you draw using the analog stick). I mean, technically, yes it works, but it’s more frustrating than fun. I quickly decided I’d just ignore any Echo Powers that required me to draw a line.

Worse, I eventually came to a mission where I had to capture, rather than kill, enemies. You use the Space bar to capture and I couldn’t find a way to do it using the controller. We need a way to map that to a shoulder button or pressing down an analog stick or something.

Basically I think Echo needs a patch or two before it’s really ready for Prime time. (See what I did there?) I’d like to see Robot work on polishing controller support, and totally rethink mouse and keyboard support. Give us direct movement controls via WASD and let us melee and shoot with the mouse, fire skills with number keys and block with the F key or something. I think it’d be a lot more fun to play that way. I’d like to see the difficulty curve tweaked (it needs to get harder earlier) and perhaps re-do the ‘line-drawing’ Echo powers so they just through out a straight line perpendicular to the player.

Ahhh, the joys of armchair game designing!

But don’t get me wrong, it’s already fun to play and c’mon, it’s $10 at launch. It’s probably not going to become your primary game, but it’s a great game to fire up when you have 10 minutes to kill and just want to run around and clobber bad guys for a few minutes. And then a few more to get one more level. And then a few more because you almost have enough for that flaming sword. And maybe just one more level because your favorite Echo is going to level, too.

You get the drift.

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