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In space, no one can hear you sigh

You would think, given that Cataclysm has been out for almost two weeks now, that my first post-Cata blog post would be about it.  About how Linedan is level 85 and Cataclysm Loremaster after just nine days without really trying; about how good the new zones are (and they are very good indeed); about how good the new instances are (ditto); about his grinding out gear to get ready to do heroics, to get ready to raid by The Anvil’s self-imposed January 13, 2011 start date.

You would be wrong.  My first post since the Sundering, in fact, isn’t even about World of Warcraft at all.  It’s about a completely different game…a completely different universe, actually.  In more ways than one.

I’ve always loved games set in space.  One of the very first games I ever got for my first IBM-compatible PC was the immortal Bell and Braben classic Elite.  Like a lot of other people, I played through the entire Wing Commander series, all five games, from the days when Blair and Maniac were just VGA pixels until they turned into Luke Skywalker and Biff from Back to the Future. In fact, it was a space game that brought me to WoW originally.  In early 2005, I was playing an obscure space MMOG called Jumpgate when people in the squadron I flew with started playing this other game on the side…an RPG called World of Warcraft.  The rest is history.

So it should come, therefore, as no surprise that I play EVE Online.  I don’t play it to the same level that I play WoW; it’s a much more sporadic pastime, where I play for a while, then slack off, come back and play some more, burn out, lather, rinse, repeat.  It isn’t a joystick-based “flyer” like the old Wing Commander and Privateer games that I loved so much; navigation is automated and click-based, you don’t directly fly your ship except by selecting various celestial objects, or double-clicking in a direction in space to move that way.  But I still like it.

EVE is, really, the ultimate sandbox game.  The developers, CCP of Iceland, have a very hands-off approach to what goes on in the 23,000 star systems of New Eden.  Things that would get you banned for griefing in virtually any other game–stealing from other players, raiding their corporation (guild) hangars (banks), tricking newbies to shoot at you so you can gank them without repercussion, scamming on contracts–aren’t just allowed in EVE, they’re raised to an art form.  The legendary year-long corporate espionage and ultimate betrayal of Ubiqua Seraph by the Guiding Hand Social Club is the most famous (and reading about it is how I heard about, and first signed up for, EVE).  The economy is 95%+ player-driven, almost every item you’d ever use is not created out of thin air by server gnomes, but manufactured by players, from raw materials mined by players, and sold by players.

It’s a game where huge swaths of space–I think about three-quarters of it–are wide-open for PvP with no interference from New Eden’s NPC “cops”, called CONCORD.  In so-called “nullsec” space, with its security rating of 0.0 (on a scale to 1.0), alliances of corporations can lay claim to the space and its resources to build their empires and fill their coffers.  In claimed but lower-security space, pirates lurk to jump any poor sod that stumbles through their system.  Even in the most secure and patrolled systems, you can be attacked at any time if the attacker is willing to sacrifice their ship to CONCORD to do it.  EVE, in short, is a world where there’s not much safety.  Your fellow players are bigger threats than any NPC pirate.  The playerbase is sizeable (around 300,000 worldwide), generally very passionate, knowledgeable, maybe a bit arrogant, and not inclined to cut anyone any slack.  In New Eden, the milk of human kindness is laced with generous doses of Everclear and arsenic.

Into this wretched hive of scum, villainy, and warp drives, a certain roleplaying carebear Panzercow wandered about four years ago.  Like most EVE newbies, the thing I struggled with the most is the sheer scope and open-endedness of the game.  You can do almost anything if you’re willing to put the time into it.  Taking missions (think quests) for NPC corporation agents.  Exploring space wormholes.  Learning to play the market by trading.  Getting into PvP.  Piracy.  It’s all there, it’s all viable.  The only limiting factor is the time it takes to train skills…skills are what allow you to use different ships and objects in EVE, and they are trained in real-time, whether you’re logged on or not.  Simple skills take a few minutes to train.  Complex skills can take weeks or even months to max out.  And there are hundreds of different skills.

I decided that I would pursue a carebearish path of becoming a miner.  And so I created Jonathan Harmon, Gallente miner, and set out to make my fortune in New Eden.

I found out very quickly that EVE Online kind of sucks when you’re alone.  Oh, it’s perfectly capable of being soloed in many areas, but compared to being in a player corporation, your progression will be slow and limited.  I struggled along for months in an NPC corporation (the effective equivalent of being unguilded…in EVE, you’re always in some kind of corp) until I joined a corporation called Oberon Incorporated.  Oberon was full of good people, but they were vastly richer and more experienced than I was.  I was the level 14 guy struggling through the Barrens and the rest of them were raiding Icecrown.

Then the corp joined one of the big power alliances in EVE, Morsus Mihi, and moved to nullsec space.  Nullsec is a place where you can never let down your guard.  Even flying from one system to another in territory that your alliance allegedly controls is a dangerous act.  The NPC mobs are bigger and nastier, too.  It’s a place where being a carebear is a disadvantage…as I was told repeatedly when Morsus Mihi fleet commanders would rudely reject my attempts to join their huge war fleets in my humble tech-1 cruiser or battlecruiser.  I wanted to learn more about EVE PvP, but I wasn’t given the opportunity.  I couldn’t drag my mining ships out except under heavy escort and most of the rest of the corp were off doing things that I couldn’t participate in, so no escort.  Then I had to drop the account for a few months due to money pressures, and when I came back, I found I had been booted from the corp for inactivity…and was ganked by a MM alliance pilot when I tried to move from one station to another, because I wasn’t in the alliance any more.

So I quietly let the esteemed Mr. Harmon fade away, and eventually deleted the character.  I was determined to make another go of it, avoiding the mistakes I’d made before.  And so, Ellison French, Gallente miner part 2, was born, and set out to make his fortune in New Eden.

Flying solo wasn’t any more fun the second time than the first.  After a few months of grinding and running missions and boring solo mining, I joined another corp.  That one lasted a couple of months before another, more experienced in PvP, corporation declared war on us–meaning they could shoot us anywhere, anytime, without interference from CONCORD.  We ended up mostly hiding in stations.  When our enemies destroyed our corporation’s player-owned station, the corp fell apart.

A bit later, I joined up with a small mining and industrial corporation called Farsight Systems.  This seemed a better fit for me than the big, nullsec-oriented Oberon had been.  And for a while, I wandered on my casual way, logging on when I could to quietly mine or run missions, or sometimes just logging on to set my skill training up and then logging back off again.  A lot of the corp was on Australian/New Zealand time, completely opposite from me; those who were on US time tended to be scattered around doing different things.  I admit, I didn’t really avail myself of the opportunity of asking people to do things with me.  I’m pretty quiet in that regard, doesn’t matter what game we’re talking about.  Plus, I didn’t have a real coherent plan of what I wanted Ellison to be going forward, and trying to make the money to buy the mining barge I wanted for him was a long, tiring grind.  Economic numbers in EVE sound like something right out of Weimar Germany; billions of ISK (currency) are thrown around like they’re nothing.  And there I was, trying to save up 175 million to buy a ship and taking months to do it.  I never have figured out why I’m so bad at making money in that game.

The guys in Farsight were great, but eventually, I just got bored with it.  So I stepped away, again, for a while, and quietly deleted Ellison French.

Last month, in the run-up to Cataclysm, I decided to pick EVE back up again in the pre-expansion WoW lull.  This time, I vowed, I would break the mold.  I created another Jonathan Harmon, but this time, he was Caldari, not Gallente, and he would be more of a mission runner with an eye toward deep space exploration, not a miner.  I was excited.  I had new ships to learn, a new way of fighting to learn, and this time I had a corporation goal right off the bat…to get into EVE University.  EVE University (usually called “Uni”) is a corp that’s specifically designed as a place where newer pilots are trained to survive the rigors of life in New Eden.  Was I a “newer” pilot?  Eh, not really, since my account had been around since March 2007 and I had two previous characters.  But trust me, when it comes to EVE, I’m a noob.  Whole vast areas of the game–how to make money trading, how to PvP, how to do higher-end missions–are black holes to me.  This time, I vowed, I would learn, and I would do it right.

EVE University has an application process that is rather in-depth.  There are multi-page web questionnaires to fill out and steps to go through and a long, long wait for a personal interview by a recruiting officer.  I was honest about my previous characters and their history and deletion in my application, because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?

It took me 19 days to finally get an interview.  And when I did…it wasn’t what I expected.  I figured it would be a casual “what do you want to get out of the Uni” type thing.  Instead, well, let’s just say I’ve had job interviews in real life that were less intense…and less awkward.  The recruiter seemed to fixate on the fact that I had joined Oberon three years prior with a fairly low number of skill points (a few million) in apparent contradiction of corp policies, I told him I didn’t remember there being a skill point limit and I had no trouble joining.  He asked me “who vouched for you when you joined Oberon?”  Honestly, it was three years ago, I didn’t remember, and told him as much.  There was a brief pause, and then he came back with “actually, Oberon has always had a skill point restriction, it used to be 40 million and they’ve always required someone to vouch for a pilot joining under that limit, would you care to revise your answer?”

“Would you care to revise your answer” is not something I expect to hear in an interview to join a game guild, really.

I was told that I would have to be referred to a senior recruiter, and when I met one later in the day, I got the news I’d kind of been expecting after that first interview.  My application to join EVE University was rejected, on the grounds that I was too experienced and that their slots need to be reserved for true newbies.  It’s a legitimate argument, given their charter, and I don’t hold any hard feelings toward them…they really are a bright spot in a game that notoriously sees new players as fodder instead of assets.  But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t rankle me a bit.  No, I had no way of proving what I said, and it did contradict what the recruiter apparently found out, and suspicion is as pervasive as oxygen in that game.  I can’t blame them.  But it still stings a bit to all but be accused of lying.

(And to the senior RO I spoke with, who said he’d actually read this blog at some point?  If you come back and read this, thanks, seriously.  Best rejection I’ve ever gotten.  I understand your point and I’m not upset.  There really are no hard feelings.  I’m over the butthurt.)

So there I am.  Jonathan Harmon Mk II sits in a station in the Libold system, his small collection of starships with him, unsure of his future.  At this point I’m giving thought to just cutting my losses, cancelling the account, and uninstalling the game, because I don’t think I want to slowly solo my way through a few months again, losing interest.  I have to focus my time on WoW anyway.  Or I may just park Jon for a bit, logging in to train some long-duration skills, while I think about what I want to do next.

Maybe New Eden really is no place for a roleplaying carebear.  Or maybe I’m just doing it wrong due to my lack of assertiveness.  I think more the latter than the former, but we’ll have to see.


The spring of our discontent?

Well, things in the WoWosphere certainly look like they’re entering coasting mode, don’t they?  I mean, they are for me.  Of course, my two-week absence from this here blog thang is largely due to finally getting a true non-working vacation for the first time since, uh, I got married almost nine years ago.  The wife grabbed her jewelry and Nublet, and headed off to her usual spring craft show in Georgia with a friend to help out instead of me.  Meanwhile, I stayed here in the Bunker, put a sign up on the door that said “FUCK OFF UNLESS YOU’RE DELIVERING THE PIZZA I JUST ORDERED,” and engaged in five and a half days of hardcore wholesale nothing. And that “nothing” included a sabbatical from WoW.  I even took a voluntary night off from raiding for the first time in, well, a damn long time.  After my ICC 10-man finished on Saturday afternoon, I didn’t re-enter Azeroth until this morning, to start getting ready for ICC 25 tonight.  I spent the time reveling in the silence of a house without a four-year-old in it, sleeping, getting back into EVE Online, sleeping, doing some virtual flying on Microsoft Flight Simulator, sleeping, watching way too many video clips on Youtube, pigging out, and sleeping.  And occasionally taking a nap.

Isn’t that the way things kind of feel right now in and around Azeroth?  We’re starting to hit the convergence of two things–the normal burnout-slash-holding-pattern that people seem to hit a few months before an expansion comes out…and that bane of raid leaders everywhere, summer.  Blog posts are slowing down, mine included.  More and more raids (including ours) are out there beating the bushes for people, whether for regular or sub spots, and the people just don’t seem to be as easy to find as they used to be.

The Anvil has, by my count, cancelled four out of our past seven Friday night ICC-25 runs due to lack of bodies.  A combination of these Friday problems–which will probably only get worse with summer coming on–and the time it took us to finally clear the cockblock that was Professor Putricide have greatly slowed our progress through ICC.  Right now, we’ve cleared Lower Spire and the Plagueworks, and easily one-shotted Team Edward.  Blood Queen Bella is our new challenge, one we have not yet conquered…largely because by the time we get to her on Thursday, we’re close to our hard stop time of midnight EDT, and we’re not getting regular cracks at her on Friday.  One of our component 10-mans has killed Arthas; the other, the one I tank, has cleared through Putricide and is working on the Sparkle Boys (which I don’t think is bad at all, considering that the other 10-man runs seven hours over two nights and the 10-man I tank only runs three hours on Saturdays with time carved out for the weekly).

This puts our officers into an impossible situation–do we start extending raid lockouts?  Extending the lockout would give us the time to use a Thursday night to progress through Lana’thel and Valithria, but at the same time, a lot of us still need to nom as many Emblems of Frost as we can.  In my case, it’s not so much more pieces of tank T10–I have better ilevel 264 pieces in both my remaining non-T10 slots, so I’d need a token to make getting the T10 worth it anyway.  It’s more about getting the Primordial Saronite for Pillars of Might and then possibly looking at starting to get T10 for my DPS set…or the Primordials for my Shadow’s Edge.  Our officers are going to have tough call over the next few weeks in terms of extending lockouts versus collecting badgers.  We’re trying to recruit, and having some success, but our bench is still thin, and there are so many raids now, the pool of available raiders with the proper attitude, maturity, gear, and skill is small.

What I’ve been seeing around the wider WoW blogosphere is…well, fatigue is a good way to put it.  People seem a bit bored, a bit tired, a bit snappish.  Now that we’ve seen the shiny new class previews for Cataclysm, and we’re seeing beautiful new zones pop up on Blizzard’s site every week or two, going back into Icecrown yet again to work on the same content yet again may not hold the same appeal, nor may writing about it.  There’s been blog drama popping up in places I never expected to see it.  Old standbys are closing their doors.  There’s this haze of ennui drifting around like funny smoke at a Grateful Dead show…OK, maybe nowhere near that thick, but you get the idea.

So you can say I’m a little bit concerned.  I remember how things got leading up to the release of Wrath of the Lich King.  The Anvil eventually suspended our raiding without ever killing Kael’thas, Archimonde, Illidan, or Kil’jaeden before 3.0 came out.  (Our final tally pre-3.0 was, IIRC, full clear SSC, all but Kael in TK, 3/5 Hyjal, 0/9 BT, 0/whatever Sunwell.  Post-3.0, we killed Kael easily and then went 7/9 BT in our one visit.)  That felt like a long time to be coasting, and I remember hardly logging in for good chunks of it.

I have no fear for the long-term health of the game, or the WoW blogging community, or The Anvil.  Cataclysm will bring everybody back and things will ignite to a fever pitch once again.  I know we’ll kill Arthas in 25-man someday, whether it’s before Cataclysm or after–although everybody is still dedicated to doing it beforehand, that much I know.  I just can’t help but wonder if it’s going to be a very long spring and summer in Azeroth.