Archives for August 2012

Guild Wars 2: First Impressions

I’ve been looking forward to Guild Wars 2 for a couple of years now, ever since I read the earliest press releases from the developers. I was a big fan of the original game and the folks at ArenaNet were talking about a lot of exciting new stuff for the next iteration. As you can see here, I was so psyched by the release of the latest version I did something I have never done before, I bought the Collector’s Edition (pictures courtesy of my lovely wife, Radka).

GW2 Box

Rytlock

The Collectors edition comes with a very fine statuette of the Char hero Rytlock, a collection of prints of some of the concept art and a frame for one of them, a CD of the games music, a book about the making of the game, the disks for the game, and the activation code needed to create your account.

Contents 2

All of this is contained in a very nice tin with a map of Tyria embossed on the lid.

Tin

You also get some exclusive in-game items such as a golem banker and some tomes. I don’t know what some of these do because I have not tried them yet. All of the physical stuff is of very high quality indeed.

I got the package on the 28th and when I finished work, I began the long process of installing the game. In this case, it consisted of sticking the game disks in the drive and waiting for it to install. Once that was done, some time around 8 pm, it began to download updates and content. This took something like 3 hours. I spent the time watching the Wire and flicking through the Making of Guild Wars 2 book, which contains some truly stunning concept art. There was one nasty surprise. I tried the email activation and was told the link was out of date and the game could not be activated. Checking on-line I discovered this was a known issue and all you needed to do was hit Play once the game was fully installed. It would run just fine. Phew!

Around 11 pm-ish, the game was finally read to roll and filled with excitement I began the character creation process. I had already decided I was going to play a Char warrior. I like the Char. They have that whole steampunk thing going for them. For the Warhammer fans among you not familiar with Guild Wars lore, think of a cross between a beastman and a Skaven. They are predatory cat-folk with lots of alpha male/female conflict going on, a military society organised into legions. They were the villains of the original Guild Wars game but now they are a PC race.

I chose to play warrior because it was supposedly the simplest of the classes to master and because I have never really played one all that much in other RPGs. They are the only class I have not levelled to at least 80 in World of Warcraft for instance.

The character creation process was streamlined and interesting and only took a few minutes including such things as customising the size and type of my characters horns. (Hey such things are important!) Character creation complete, I was ready to dive into the game.

Imagine my horror then when I get an error message telling me there was a problem connecting with the log-in server most likely caused by security software or firewall conflicts. Multiple attempts later and all my security and firewall setting checked, I still can’t get in. I do a quick internet search and discover I am not the only one having this problem. Around midnight, I call it a day, still not having played the game. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Still such things are to be expected at launch.

Wednesday evening, I have no problem at all getting into the game but find I have another problem, although this one not of ArenaNet’s making. Frame rates are about 19 or less per second which gives everything a very jerky, unsettling appearance. My three year old Asus PC runs World of Warcraft just fine, never drops below 30 frames per second even in crowded capital cities like Stormwind. It appears that GW2 is not quite as well optimised for older machines as WoW.

I fight my way through the opening missions in a peculiar strobing jerky sort of way. The missions themselves are just great. I am on a war-front being yelled at by senior officers, thrown into a battle with angry human ghosts, and eventually facing a boss battle with an undead king and a sort of animated statue.

Here I first encounter what is one of the great differences between GW2 and most other MMOs I have played. I am surrounded by other players and we are all sort of fighting together, not exactly cooperating but its pretty clear we are all on the same side and in this together. There’s no kill or loot stealing because all the rewards are individually assigned. And there are a lot of other people around. It is kind of crazy and kind of cool, and all too quickly I am out the other side and into the Plains of Ashford.

At this point it finally occurs to me that I can resolve the frame rate issue by dropping my screen resolution way down so I do. Things speed up to a respectable 30 FPS at the cost of the graphics becoming coarse and slightly distorted. You know all those beautiful screenshots you see of Tyria? Well, that’s not how they look on my machine. For me, the graphics are not even as good as the original Guild Wars but, to tell the truth, that does matter because the gameplay is so good.

Why is this? Damned if I can put my finger on any one thing. Its a combination of factors. The first is ease of play. I never read the manual. I just wandered into the game with no real idea of what was going on just vague memories of the original Guild Wars, and it was a blast from the get-go. I started, as everyone does with only one weapon skill on my hotbar but these swiftly filled up as I progressed, adding new forms of attack with my trust sword. When I equipped my mighty hammer, looted from a downed foe, I got a whole new set of skills to develop.

Right there was one thing I liked. Different weapons give you different abilities and they feel different. The sword was one handed and fast. The hammer was two handed but slow. It took some time to swing and was thus easier to interupt but when it did the results were powerful and devastating. I was knocking folk over, throwing mobs back, inflicting heavy debuffs. When I finally got a shield equipped with my sword, I could block with it and interupt with it. Weapons feel different and they feel right, at least in the context of a high energy fantasy world. There is attention to detail here.

There is attention to detail in the world too. The Char opening missions convey beautifully the sense of their highly militarised and somewhat internally divided society. Char steamtech litters the landscape of Ashford and the Black Citadel, the capital city of the Char, does indeed resemble a steampunk version of the Death Star as more than one reviewer has pointed out.

Then there are the crowds. In a game like WoW, you don’t in general want to see crowds. It means competition for mobs and resources and the drawing out to great length of all those kill ten rats missions. In GW2 there are constant ongoing group missions, for you to take part in. They scale according to the number of people in the area and they are frantic, chaotic and fun. I’ve seen this before, most notably in Rifts, but it marks a major change in the way the GW series works.

The original GW was heavily instanced, meaning that when you and your party left the social areas for the adventure zones you went into your own individual version of the adventure. There was no one else around to help or hinder you, the world was empty of players and heavy with NPCs. It made for a realistic solo narrative but was pretty lonely once you were out adventuring. GW2 is the opposite. Most of the time, the world positively teems with other people, going about their business.

Instancing is not entirely gone, nor are the teams of helpful NPCs you could recruit in the original game. They make a return in story mode, which is, as the name suggests the personal narrative of your character. I am guessing story mode is somewhat influenced by those initial decisions you made in character creation. Certainly the person I mentioned as my best buddy during character creation showed up as the only surviving member of my wiped out unit once the storyline got under way. The story itself soon found me in conflict with my bullying but cowardly superior officer as he attempted to shift the blame for his own incompetence onto my guiltless shoulders. The voice acting was good and the story itself engrossing as it intermingled with my own adventures in greater Tyria. I don’t want to say more for fear of giving away spoilers. Sufficeth to say that I am recruiting my own warband in classic Dirty Dozen style.

Anyway, my first nine levels in Tyria have so far consisted of a lot of frantic group quests, high octane battles and a crash course in Char warrior culture. The world is beautifully detailed and has a real sense of place.

Don’t believe the hype about GW2 being the end of collect ten rats style questing. It has some nice new wrinkles and not so many NPC standing around with big icons over their heads but you still find yourself sent out to kill things or to fetch and carry for NPCs who seem incapable of walking the length of a city street for themselves. Supposedly one of the big differences is that actions have consequences. If you allow quest givers to be killed in a certain area or quests hubs to be over-run, the quests cease to be available until the interlopers are driven off. So far I have seen no evidence of this, possibly because any invading force foolish enough to try and eliminate the local quest givers is met with lethal force by a small army of player characters. Presumably, as the legion of newly arrived PCs spreads out throughout the world and the PC per square foot density thins out, this will change.

One thing I really like is that the world goes on around you. When you complete a group quest that forces a large enemy force to retreat, you don’t just fight on until the enemy are dead. They don’t simply disappear either. They run away! You can chase them. It’s a nice touch and the game is full of them.

There’s a lot more I could go on about, and I probably will, but right now I am approaching 2000 words on this post and I need to stop somewhere.

Conclusions? I am excited by GW2 in a way that I have not been by an MMO in a long time. I like the world and I like the game system a lot. There is no sense of having to grind through things. From the get go its been interesting and a ton of fun. There’s no monthly subscription either. You just buy the game and your good to go.

Would I recommend GW2? Hell, yeah.

Author’s Notes: Stealer of Flesh

I know, it’s a bit silly to be writing up the Author’s Notes five months or so after the book was released but what the hell– I’ve been busy and I’ve been sick and these things get done in their own time. 

Stealer of Flesh is a book that Amazon made possible. Seriously. All of my life I have wanted to write something like it but I was born at the wrong time. In order to explain that we need to rewind to when I was a very young teenager. I grew up reading, among other things, lots of good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery;  Robert E Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane; Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon books; Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Hyperborea and Averoigne stories and many more. These were not the sort of fantasy novels or series that fill the shelves these days.

For the most part they were relatively short books, often made up of collections of short stories or novellas. They very often featured a recurring hero or heroes in a quasi-medieval fantasy world. They were often very dark, and while they featured magic, it was not the sort of Swiss Army Knife tech substitute easily adaptable to a fully developed game system that we see in a lot of modern fantasy. It was often something that inspired awe and dread, fear and horror, in about equal measures. The stories were tales of a swordsman or swordsmen (only very occasionally woman like Jhirel of Jhoiry) fighting against wizards and monsters. They were fast-moving, hard-hitting and a product of a pulp sensibility. I loved them then as I love them now.

By the time I was a full-time professional writer, the time for such stories seemed to have passed. Somewhere down the line the market changed. Fantasy books got longer (and longer and longer), old-fashioned sword-swinging heroes went out of fashion. Magic became a good thing, a new form of power-fantasy for an age that put more emphasis on the intellectual and on technique. (I strongly suspect the rise of Dungeons and Dragons and such role-playing games had something to do with this but that’s a topic for another day.) It became almost impossible to get the sort of sword and sorcery books I wanted to write into print. They were too short and too focused for the era of fat-book fantasy. I got close once with Trollslayer which was a collection of the Gotrek and Felix short stories but that was about it. I took to writing long-form novels and my short story writing was put on hold to say the very least.

Back in 2005 though I wrote a story called Guardian of the Dawn about a monster-hunter called Kormak. I had the vague plan of building a fantasy world by writing a series of short stories. Guardian was picked up by Howard Andrew Jones then the editor of the Flashing Swords website. The story was popular and many people asked for a sequel. I thought the character had potential and I set myself to writing some.

I immediately ran into some problems, the main one being that I make my living from writing, and short stories are not an economical way of supporting myself and my family. The obvious solution was to write a novel. I tried and I tried and I tried. I just could not wrestle Kormak into the form or at least the variant of the form that was needed to sell to a publisher, you know  a 90-120,000 word quest fantasy. I wanted to do something shorter, punchier, more like the series of my youth. I added sub-plots, I tried to do epic quests, I spliced in multiple story-lines, I outlined, I wrote 35000 words and abandoned it because I just could not make it fly. It did not want to fit the shape I was trying to force it into. Oh well, I thought. I’ve abandoned projects before, I’ll abandon them again. Time to move on.

Fast forward 6 years or so. It’s late 2011 and I had just released the first of my Terrarch novels as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle. I was thinking about the possibilities opened up by this new publishing format and distribution system. It dawned on me that I was not limited to the word count limits and formats of conventional publishing. I released Guardian of the Dawn as an e-book and it sold very well, better than the first novels in the Terrarch series had on their release. It seemed possible that there was a way to proceed with the Kormak series after all. I could release them myself as short stories and then collect them together at the end. There was no need to worry about finding someone to publish them. I could do that myself with the minimum of fuss.

So, working in the inevitable intervals that occur in writing books and in my spare time and on my weekends, I started work on another Kormak story. It was set in a city, and it involved him in a hunt for a body-shifting demon. He met an attractive lady thief and an expatriate mage and there were hints of things darker and deeper in the background. I called the story Stealer of Flesh. It was novella length by the time I finished it and I was pleased. 

I realised that the story hinted at a much greater arc. It began in medias res near the climax of Kormak’s hunt for the demon prince Razhak and spoke of a hunt across the length of a continent. I decided I would write about that hunt and how it started. So I wrote The Demon Unleashed showing how a cabal of immortality seeking sorcerers had freed Razhak using Kormak’s own enchanted blade. It came to me then that I could write a book somewhat like Moorcock’s Stormbringer, which was a collection of linked novellas released individually that eventually built into an epic novel. 

I pushed on. Next came the Wolves of War, as Kormak’s hunt for the demon took him across a land haunted by ethnic cleansing werewolves and refugees from that terrible struggle, a place where Light and Shadow were just masks worn by old historic hatreds.

I had a false start with the next story although it came with a truly haunting opening, Kormak riding across an icebound lake filled with frozen corpses. I could not quite make it gel though so I pushed on.

Along the way the stories and fragments provided me with glimpses of Kormak’s world, of how the demon race that Razhak was a member of had come to be, and of the ancient empires that had shaped the world. It was an odd place, with echoes of Tolkien filtered through Robert E Howard. It was a place that looked a bit like a traditional epic fantasy world but seen through the lens of realpolitik. People claimed to represent the Light and that their foes were of the Shadow but mostly they behaved like the amoral denizens of an old-style sword and sorcery world, which is to say like most people have behaved through most of history. At the centre of it all stood Kormak, watchful, decent, struggling to do the right thing in a world where what was right was often hard to get at.

I rewrote the novellas as I went along incorporating all the new information as it came up. My original plan had been to release them as I wrote them, but I realised if I was going to be constantly rewriting and adding new bits of history I could not do that. No matter, I would just run with it. I was keen to see how it all turned out. I wrote a final novella, This Way Lies Death as a capstone to it all. The whole story of the chase came to a climax in the haunted city on the edge of the world where the demons had been born. 

And so I was done. All I needed to do was put the stories together and release the e-book, which is what I did. I never did get the frozen lake story finished in a way I liked so I left it out but I am sure that some day I will find a way to complete it. 

The E-book Experiment: Year One

On 7th July 2011 I uploaded my first e-book to Amazon. It went live on the 8th. I was curious as to how it would go. 6 months ago I published the data I had collected over the previous few months, and said I would report back again in six months. Six months passed. I was flattened by flu on the anniversary date but I took a snapshot of my sales with the idea I would write them up as soon as I felt better. Other factors lengthened the delay. More illness, deadlines and a holiday without access to the Internet intervened. Anyway, better late than never…

So how did it go?

Better than I ever imagined when I did that first upload. In my first year I sold approximately 18000 e-books. I say approximately because all of the numbers are not yet in. I don’t have numbers from B&N or some of the Smashwords associates for June but I can say with some certainty I sold at least 18221 copies.

The actual numbers were as follows:

January

 2297

February

 2203

March

 2869

April

 2354

May

 1833

June

 1552

 

(If you add the numbers above to the numbers from my first six months sales you wont get a total of 18221 for the year.  The discrepancy with the earlier published figures for the first six months arises because I did not have up to date figures back in January for my total sales on Smashwords and accurate figures for the last part of December on Amazon. I have added those sales in.) 

You can see that the first few months of 2012 went really well and then sales fell off as the summer approached. In some ways this is what you would expect, since there was a huge sales boom post-Xmas as all those new e-reader owners filled their machines with reading material. The spike in sales in March comes mainly from a boost given by a very successful free giveaway of The Inquiry Agent. 

I should also say that the numbers are complicated by my experiment in making Death’s Angels, my biggest selling e-book free in May. If I had kept selling the book, you could probably add 450 to the sales numbers in May, and 600+ in June.

The vast bulk of sales (14804 copies) come from my Terrarch series. The total numbers are as follows:

Death’s Angels

 5034

Serpent Tower

 3726

The Queen’s Assassin

 3164

Shadowblood

 2880

The Inquiry Agent

 1641

Sky Pirates

 509

Stealer of Flesh

 257

Various Short Stories

 1010

 

Again, sales of Death’s Angels are low because of the number of giveaways in May and June. What do these numbers tell us?

The first and most obvious thing is that series sell. The full Terrarch series of gunpowder military fantasy novels has been available since last December. It has sold in what would be respectable numbers for a small press. Death’s Angels sold for an average of 99 cents at a 35% royalty rate until May when it went free.  All of the remaining Terrarch books sold at an average price of $4.99 and at a 70% royalty rate. This means they have earned very well by the standards of a mid-list author such as myself. 

The numbers are not quite so rosy when it comes to the non-series books. Sales of my Victorian detective novel The Inquiry Agent are good considering it is in a genre where nobody has ever heard of me. The book did have two very successful Kindle Select promos earlier in the year. Sadly, since Amazon changed its algorithms these are no longer as useful as they once were to the vast majority of people who might try them.

The numbers on Sky Pirates and Stealer of Flesh, which had been on sale for roughly 5 and 3 months respectively don’t look nearly so  impressive. Sky Pirates, a sort of cyberpunk/anime/sword and sorcery novel, had one half-successful Select promotion earlier in the year, and I have done no promotion at all for Stealer of Flesh. I have not even had time to write my usual author’s notes for the book so far. Yet I am happy enough with the way things are going. I am pretty sure sales will pick up when I release new books in each series, as I intend to do. It should also be noted that I wrote Stealer of Flesh, a series of linked novellas about the monster hunter Kormak, in my spare time because I have always wanted to try something in that style. It seems peculiarly suited to the rugged form of sword and sorcery. 

So would I say the e-book experiment has been a success? Indubitably. The thing that pleases me most is that the books have found an enthusiastic audience who seem keen to read more. It has also proved to me that I can find a market for the sort of books that I want to write but that conventional publishers don’t see as being commercially viable. That is thrilling.