Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fifty is Nifty

Hard to believe a little wargamer get together has evolved into this:

From Geekdad.com. And yes, I've been there, just
not on a Thursday right before the opening.
Or this:

From icv2.com. I was in there... somewhere.

But Gen Con turns 50 this year, and the geeks have descended upon Indianapolis.

If you were, like me, hoping to go to Gen Con 50 and you don't have a ticket, you're out of luck. All of the tickets for Gen Con 50 sold out this week, and the tickets for Thursday (the first day) and Sunday (Family Fun Day) sold out well in advance.

I'm reduced to watching livestreams from places such as Boardgame Geek's twitch.tv stream, but I don't mind. I'm just happy that my clan has showed up to game in numbers not seen before at Gen Con.

If you want to see the BGG twitch.tv livestream, here you go:

Watch live video from BoardGameGeekTV on www.twitch.tv

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Just Horsing Around

Yesterday I spent some time hiking at one of the local public parks. This particular park has a riding center attached to it* that the mini-Reds have either volunteered at or attended a week long "horse camp" during the summers, so during my hike I was entertained by the sight of horses out in paddocks or with riders coming back from a supervised trail ride.

I have a love-hate relationship with horses. I love that my kids enjoy spending time with them, and that my in-laws were able to indulge that love by helping them to attend horse camp, but I personally don't see eye to eye with horses. They don't like me very much and I'm happy to return that aloofness. Still, that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate what the horse (and the ox) have done in human history.

You can't talk about a pre-steam engine society without mentioning the horse and the ox. They were the primary means of plowing the fields for millenia, and when there was no access to running water both animals provided the means of powering items such as forge bellows and workshops.

And, of course, there was the transportation provided by these animals, which brings me to MMOs.

***

Horses (and other magical beasts) are kind of glossed over in MMOs. They are a primary means of transportation, yet beyond that they are little more than decorations. This is obviously a design decision, as the effort it would take to model the care and feeding of a horse (or even a drake) would be dwarfed only by the in-game effort needed to keep a horse as viable transportation. Besides, people don't typically play MMOs to simulate equine care and feeding.

But still, items such as understanding language or handling mounts would make for a more realistic MMO.

Back in my high school (and part of my college) days, I DMed a campaign in Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP) system. One of the nice things about MERP was that it was skill based, but on a level basis as well in much the same way as 3.x D&D (and Pathfinder) is today. But one of the biggest quirks/features of MERP was that languages and riding were on a skill system too. For example, skill in a particular language ranked from a 1 to 5: 1 for being able to speak a couple of phrases ("Hello" or "Need to piss"), up to 5 for being able speak like a native.

These skill levels are the equivalent in WoW of the old weapon proficiency skill, where you had to spend time with a weapon to build up enough proficiency to wield the weapon effectively. This went away prior to Cataclysm, but I still remember it fondly as one of the quirks to WoW that made the game more realistic, along with having to train with a trainer to gain new skills.**

How an equine skill system would work in an MMO is something that I would think is similar to the level system for a mount that Archeage has***, but instead of having a mount trailing along behind you in combat like Archeage an MMO could have a player spend time and/or money at a stable to "train" their mount. A reward for this training would be better speed and the occasional bonus of an instant in-game transportation (which would be a real boon to F2P players in games such as LOTRO).

***

Still, this kind of begs the question "Why bother?"

True, if the design goal is to bash in a raid boss' head, then adding mount skills won't add a thing to the game. This is why WoW got rid of weapon proficiency skills and trainer visits in the first place.

But if the design goal of the game is to immerse yourself in a game world, then a mount skillset could be a valuable part of the experience. Of my regular games, I'd say that LOTRO is the game where immersion is a design goal. Sure, SWTOR does a pretty good job of immersion in its own right, but LOTRO is the only MMO I play where you have in game bands that get together and play on a weekly basis. But even LOTRO doesn't have immersion as a primary design goal any more, as players only seem to want to talk about endgame (Mordor) these days.

I consider the concept of mount skill something that would make for an interesting exercise, but given how MMOs are oriented less on the journey and more on the destination I can't really see an MMO actually doing this. A shame, really, because MMOs had the potential to be more than what they have evolved into.




*The riding center is publicly funded, but is also supported by people who pay for riding lessons. The riding center also has programs for the mentally challenged, called the Special Riders Program, and hosts an annual Special Olympics equestrian event. There's also a farm attached to the park, but it is managed separately from the riding center.

**I knew people who deliberately socketed a weapon skill that wasn't their most current weapon skill rank (for example, a Judgement that wasn't the current skill ranking but the one before that one) just so that they wouldn't use up so much mana or rage or whatnot when fighting. Sure, it was gaming the system, but they were deliberately sacrificing DPS for being able to stay in the fight.

***Guess which MMO I'm checking out now?

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Oopsie

I think my last post, the TERA review, broke Blogger.

I was catching up on blogs this afternoon and I happened to notice that my post hasn't been updated on other peoples' blogs, which I found rather odd.

Courtesy of The IT Crowd.

From what I've read, it might be a side effect of the size of the sucker, given all of the images I used. I just hope it wasn't an unintended side effect of actually using the scheduler for the first time to post when I wasn't around. (Yeah, even after 8 years of PC I've never used the scheduler. I never felt the need to use it, I guess.)


Friday, August 4, 2017

Fun With MMOs: TERA

I first became aware of TERA when reports surfaced about the so-called "panty run". You know, the YouTube videos that showed a female toon half bent over, running in such a way that you could see her panties quite easily. It was designed to titillate, and meant specifically for the male gaze to a degree I'd not seen in an MMO since Age of Conan.

ALL of Age of Conan.

For the longest time, I just simply wrote off TERA because of that video and how much it disturbed me. This was an MMO I'd be embarrassed to have the mini-Reds --or my wife-- find me playing, and if I did play TERA it would be really late at night or early in the morning, like Age of Conan.

So why review TERA at all? Like I said in the previous post, if I'm going to be asked my opinion, I need it to be an honest one, not just a knee jerk reaction to what I've seen via YouTube. And the longer TERA has hung around the MMO field, the longer my curiosity has grown. How has this MMO survived out there? Is it all strictly a young male fantasy, or something about Asian MMOs that I simply don't get? You'd think that if the male fantasy angle were the thing, then Age of Conan wouldn't be on life support. And I'll freely admit that I don't watch anime (at least anime newer than the original Speed Racer and Star Blazers), so there's likely a cultural component I'm missing.

So I decided that the only way to understand TERA was to actually get into the game, so I downloaded TERA, made sure it was late at night, and clicked "play".

The original TERA box cover artwork.
Because of the En Masse logo, this was
for North America consumption.
From Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I'm FATE-ed to Repeat Things

I've occasionally mentioned the pencil and paper RPG FATE Core, which I really think is a fun and well designed game.

Well, the people over at uptofourplayers.com created a comic describing the basics behind FATE. It's incredibly well done, and worth a look.

***

In other non-video game related news, I've been involved in an AD&D 1e campaign these past few months. The DM had hit his mid-life crisis, and decided that rather than go out and buy and expensive car (or get a new spouse) he'd much rather play D&D again. So, he rounded up some friends who like to play the game --and I in turn rounded up the oldest mini-Red-- and we began playing in late Spring.

What are we playing, you ask? Well, a classic module set:

Against the Slave Lords, Modules A1 - A4.
From greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com.
Wizards of the Coast had re-released the original four modules along with an introductory adventure, calling it Against the Slave Lords:

From dnd.wizards.com.
I've not played these modules since the mid-late 80s, so I was psyched for a trip down memory lane.

The DM did not disappoint, as he kept the action going and the pace fairly brisk. Sure, we players could take a step back and argue about what to do next, but this was light years faster than D&D 3.x and 4e that I'd grown accustomed to.

Who did I play? A cleric, of course.

As for how things will work this Fall while the oldest mini-Red is away at college, I recruited the youngest mini-Red to cover for her for the time being. And really, it's been a blast.


EtA: Corrected a basic spelling error. Sheesh.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fun With Computers -- College Edition

While I've been working my way through my next MMO, I've been keeping an eye on the oldest mini-Red as she has been getting ready to attend college.

This has been a surreal experience, watching the pile of "things to take to the dorm" grow.

When I left for college, I was the first person in my family to go away to get a bachelor's degree in four years.* As you can imagine, I had no clue what I was getting into when I carried my dorm stuff into my room that first time. Now, however, my oldest has two parents who went through that same experience, so while some things are different --cell phones, laptops, internet, and cable television-- the basic dorm experience is going to be the same as ours.

But that tech thing, that's been gnawing at me.

Her laptop is 3 years old, and while the processor/memory is still pretty good as far as non-gamer specific laptops go, the hard drive that came with the thing is slow as hell and I'm concerned it'll become a problem in the near future.**

With that in mind, I've begun an investigation into solid state drives.

Come to papa.
Image from Amazon.

Having seen the prices for SSDs, all I can think of is what it must have been like a few years ago when they were even more expensive. This actually reminds me of the old days --24 or so years ago-- when a local computer store ran their "Buck a Meg" sale. Yes, a dollar per MB of hard drive space, so a 300 MB drive cost $300.

The prices don't change --the drive pictured about is listed at around $270-280-- but the size and type of the storage does.

All I can think of is that I hope this (or a similar) drive is worth it and will extend the life of the laptop by a few years, or at least last her through her bachelor's degree.





*My father received an Associate's degree (2-year) in engineering, and then went to night school and a decade later finally finished his Bachelor's degree in Economics. My mother took a class or two at a time at a local college and finally received her degree --the only one of her siblings-- a few years after mine.

**That's a big part of the reason why the laptop is a $600 non-gamer laptop. Sure, the screen's resolution isn't full 1080, but the basic 5400 rpm HDD was designed to save energy and cost, not provide performance.

***I also looked at the performance hard drives, but since there's really space for one drive in the laptop if I want to make a real difference I need to go in the direction of solid state drives.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Chrysler Effect and Gaming

For those of you outside the US, there is a consumer publication called Consumer Reports that tests and evaluates products. They do not accept advertising dollars, and the entire enterprise is funded by their subscriber base. Their testing is considered top notch, particularly with household appliances and cars.* If you end up looking for a new (or used) car in the US, odds are very good that you'll have at least one Consumer Reports magazine with you as part of the process.

As part of the review process, Consumers Union (the entity that publishes CR) not only covers the specifics of how an item behaves, but also provides clues on how well an item will last. They send out annual surveys to their subscribers to provide input on items they own, as well as whether they would purchase that item again. This last one gives CU a decent idea as to whether people are happy with their purchase decision, which when we're talking about cars is a multi-thousand dollar purchase that people may own for over a decade.

This brings me to Chrysler.

Chrysler, the US manufacturer now owned by Fiat, has had a checkered history. Chrysler created the minivan**, and were among the first car manufacturers to add standard airbags. At the same time, Chrysler has been in bankruptcy more than once, and that last bout of bankruptcy ending in the purchase of Chrysler by Fiat.

Why, you may ask? Partially it is due to the economic meltdown of the late 2000s, but also because Chrysler cars have a reputation for poor quality.

Both word of mouth and data acquired by CU point to Chrysler having --by far-- the worst quality results of all US domestic automakers. Even when Chrysler makes a well received vehicle, such as the newly released Chrysler Pacifica minivan, in the new car issue of Consumer Reports CU hedges their bets on the quality of the new vehicle, saying they expect it to have poorer than average quality. Essentially, it's a "until you prove to me otherwise, we'll assume that this is going to be a car that will be in the repair shop a lot."

***

When I posted my review of Rift the other day, I knew peripherally about how Rift had gone F2P and how it had burned through its fanbase's support by moving in the direction of a more "pay to win" cash shop. Still, I decided to post without dredging that up. However, Shintar's comments about how she felt that Trion had turned Rift into a cautionary tale about how to destroy a fanbase's goodwill, I felt that it is important to address the elephant in the room.

Should a development house's or game's reputation/behavior have an impact on game reviews? I'm not talking about specific posts about a company, because I've got tons of those over the years that are critical of development houses, but rather a review of the game itself. In other words, should the previous actions/reputation of a development house be reason to dismiss a game, or at the very least give the player pause before deciding to play?

In a way, this is the Playstation/XBox debate in a nutshell, where people take sides and sit in their glass houses, lobbing grenades at each other. This could also describe how people respond to EA or Ubisoft games*** with the "burn it all down!!" or worse. (Much much worse.)

But at the same time, a development house's reputation can't be ignored, because there's frequently a reason why a company/dev house has that reputation. If a coworker has a great reputation, you're likely to cut that employee some slack if they screw up. And on the flip side, if you've a coworker with a reputation as being a screw-up, you're thinking "yep, expected that" when things don't go well.

Look at Blizzard. When Cataclysm launched, it got a lot of nice reviews. I distinctly remember one review saying that the only real drawback to Cata was that you had to subscribe and have the previous expacs. But now, looking back on it from a 5+ year distance, Cataclysm was the expac that began the slow descent of WoW.**** It broke the story continuity, it had several meh major content patches that didn't excite the base, and the changes to the guts of WoW disappointed many who complained that WoW was being "dumbed down." Blizzard's reputation was such that it took a long time to admit that Blizzard could still lay an egg.

***

So what to do about Trion, and these reviews in general?

In this case I believe it is best to separate the game from the development house, and examine the game on its own terms. I can't control what Trion does and how the community reacts, but I can report on what I find in the game. If the game feels empty, I'll report that. If the community is toxic, I'll report that. And if I find bugs and crashes in what ought to be basic stuff, I'll report that too.

But I shouldn't let dev companies off the hook for their product, either. So another series, examining the dev houses behind the games, would be a good idea.

As for my statement about Rift being a survivor, I still stand by that statement. A six year old game still getting expac releases is not a small feat. I work in an industry that considers three year old equipment "ancient" and "in need of replacement", so anything that lasts six years is an impressive achievement.

Shintar, however, is also right in that Trion Worlds made some bad decisions that will likely jeopardize Rift's ability to be around another six years, which is a shame because the game right now is pretty darn good.

The review of the game still stands, but a study of the dev house... That still needs to happen.




*Back in 1988, it was their review of the Suzuki Samurai that exposed the rollover problem of the Samurai during certain avoidance maneuvers, and their "not acceptable" rating of the car helped kill the Samurai in the NA market.

**I know that minivans are not well liked, but I like them. They work and they get the job done. When our old minivan died last year, I missed it.

***Think of the reaction to the buggy Mass Effect: Andromeda or Assassin's Creed Unity (or Syndicate).

****To borrow a Boromir quote in Fellowship of the Ring, "WoW wanes, you say. But WoW stands, and even at the end of its strength it is still very strong." WoW still likely has more regular players than the #2-#10 MMOs put together. MOBAs, on the other hand, are a completely different thing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Fun With MMOs: Rift Revisited

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
--Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Back in late 2010, WoW released Cataclysm. There was a lot of initial enthusiasm for the expac and the number of subs to WoW swelled to their highest point at that time of 12 million. However, by March 2011 the number had fallen back to 11.4 million and some of the playerbase had become restless. There were the usual gripes of "nothing to do" on reaching max level as well as the "instances are too hard" refrain, but there were also complaints from some traditionalists who missed the talent trees and a lot of quirks that Blizzard had eliminated in their desire to make WoW fresh and exciting.

Into that atmosphere came the software company Trion Worlds with their new MMO Rift.
This is one of five copies around the house, courtesy of Gen Con 2011's
goodie bag. Yes, even the youngest mini-Red got a goodie bag, which
inclued a mini-deck for Magic: the Gathering,  a.k.a. a free sample of crack.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Fun with MMOs: The Reviews' Guiding Principles

If I'm going to actually review some new(ish) MMOs*, I'm going to provide some parameters for both the effort itself and what I'm evaluating. What I don't want to do is just play for a few minutes and give the game an evaluation, because that's not so much an evaluation as taking a look at a trailer for the game.

That said, what I will review will be different than what other people review. Some reviewers focus on gameplay, sound, graphics, story, endgame, and polish, but I don't want to be constrained to that. I want to focus on the sense of immersion and whether there are things in the game that break it.

Here's a short example of breaking immersion from a non-video game aspect: the story in the film National Treasure. Yes, I'm aware National Treasure is a fun action movie --and it plays out like an RPG campaign, to be honest-- but I'm also a history buff.** When I first watched that movie I was glad I was at home, because I could then get up and go into the kitchen and silently rage at all of the misrepresentations of history before rejoining my wife. Fun movie, yes, but boy did it break my sense of immersion.

You got that right, Sean. Fun fact: Sean Bean's character
doesn't die in National Treasure, which is a pretty rare thing.
From quickmeme.

How do I intend to do all of this? Well, here's my process:

  • Create a toon for each faction represented in the MMO.
  • If there's only one faction, I'll still create two toons, one male and one female.
  • During the creation process, I'll take a look at all of the options to see where the limiting factors are. I'm thinking in terms of agency here, as I want people to not be restricted to playing a very specific type of player. I'm not using this as an excuse to push any sort of prudishness or moral/political viewpoint, I just want there to be options for people to play the way they want to play.
  • To properly evaluate gameplay and story, I'll play through the intro zone and the first low level zone to get a good feel for the game. Preferably, if the game has one or more capital cities, I want to at least reach that city before I end my evaluation, but I want to avoid the issue of Age of Conan where the intro zone --Tortage-- was fantastic but the low level zone (right after arriving at the capital city) was just so-so. My initial review of AoC was that it was a really good game, until it became a huge grind once you got past Tortage.
  • How other players interact, how global chat operates, and how other players present themselves will factor into my evaluation of immersion. I'm not going to get on a RP server if I can help it, but I will definitely stick to PvE as much as I can. I'm no longer a world PvPer, and I don't want that to factor into my evaluation.
  • I'll also keep an eye on how NPC's behave, look, and interact with the players. Clues as to what sort of game the developers want to present can be found in those details, as what developers present in game may be different than when they talk about the game.
Curse you, Steam, for making it too easy to find all of these games!
I realize that not everybody is going to find these reviews valuable, particularly given that some of these MMOs have been around for several years. Chasing the new hotness is pretty much always in vogue, and I'm definitely not doing that nor examining the most popular aspects of MMOs. My viewpoint is decidedly non-raid and non-world PvP, which puts me at odds with a significant portion of the MMO community; people who want to see those aspects in an MMO aren't going to get much of anything out of my reviews.

But that's fine with me. I'm not trying to keep up with the latest MMO out there, so when I get to it, I get to it. And I'm not likely to be the only person who comes into an MMO late, so taking a gander at an MMO that has had time to mature isn't a bad thing at all. And really, people who read this blog are well aware of my lack of time/desire to go raiding, so there's no real surprises.

So let's do this. First up, an MMO that I examined six years ago and found a lot to like, but I didn't want to leave the confines of WoW to explore something new.





*For my purposes if not for anybody else's. As the youngest mini-Red pointed out to me, her sister is quite capable of making the decision of whether or not to play on her own. "True," I said, "but if someone asks me for my opinion, I want to give an informed one, not one driven by the internet." She was fine with that response.

**I minored in History in college. No, it didn't have anything to do with my major (Physics), but I enjoyed the subject enough that I took a lot of my electives in History (and Philosophy) just because.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

How Do I Get Roped into These Things?

The oldest mini-Red came to me not too long ago and mentioned that one of her friends had suggested that they play an MMO together.*

"Oh?" I'm not so uptight that I want to control what she's playing, but I was curious why she asked.

"Yeah, I haven't heard the game before. I think it's TERA."

My brain let out a little scream.

"Have you heard of it?"

"Um, yeah, I have. It's well known for how the female toons run."

You know, like this:



And yes, I did show her this video, which looks like something Piers Anthony would have dreamed up.**

"Oh."

"Yeah, outside of that and that the female toon garb tends to be really skimpy, I don't know much else about it."

"Well...." she began, mulling things over. "It is F2P. Maybe I should at least check it out to see what I think."

I scratched my beard as a sinking feeling settled into my stomach. "I guess I should check the game out too as well. Due diligence and all that."

Which is how I arrived at this point in time: I've spent the better part of the past several days on Steam, downloading 3 newer MMOs (and one old one that I tried back in beta, RIFT), and steeling myself for what I might find. I'm not prudish by any means, but I do know that games that are Asian or have a heavy Asian influence (Aion, for example) have a completely different viewpoint on how female toons should look, dress, and act. The subservient "sex toy" vibe that some female toons exude in these games gets on my nerves, particularly when the toon should be a Type A badass.

Compared to my normal (and previous) standbys of LOTRO, SWTOR, STO, and WoW, these games are likely to have gear that should never see a battlefield.

Yeah, like this.
(This meme can be found all over the net.)
And don't think for a second that because I enjoy the Hyborian Age of the Conan stories that I also think that Conan or his female contemporaries in Age of Conan get off the hook. But the one thing that AoC does do right is that it is internally consistent: both male and female toons show a ton of skin, and their toon reactions are anything but subservient in manner and attitude. I know that I'm likely to find in these new MMOs a distinct difference in attitude and presentation between male and female toons, and that is going to annoy me.

At least there's some internal consistency in Cimmeria.
(From Demotivational posters, found all over the net.)

So why go ahead and examine them when I "know" I won't like them?

Because "knowing" is not the same as really understanding. If I'm going to explain my likes and dislikes of a game, I'd better have firsthand knowledge of that game. And if I'm going to give my kids advice on a game, I'd better not be making judgement calls solely on secondhand data. Reviewers will have a bias --just as I will-- but I'll be able to understand that bias and explain myself far better after having examined the games first.

So I'll be off trying some of these games that I've read about only on Syl's and Rohan's blogs, as well as other places.





*Yes, it's a male friend. No, I'm not quite so worried about them hitting it off in game or something, as they already hang out. If they were a year closer in age, I'd think they were an item, but that two year age difference is a bit of a brake on any potential relationship. There's a big difference between, say, 27 and 29 versus 17 and 19. Still, given my extensive observations of teenage boys --fatherhood, you know-- he's quite mature.

**His Xanth series started out somewhat tame, but then they eventually veered into weirdness and overall creepiness with a heavy dose of "panties!" in descriptions.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Big Tent

I've occasionally harped on how representation matters, but I was reminded of that when I was cruising through YouTube last week.

YouTube surfing is like free association: you find something interesting, watch that, and you're pointed in the direction of other potentially interesting videos. Either that, or you end up being distracted by whatever is on the sidebar.*

But one of my "recommendations" was a blast from the past:


I remember vividly the first time I watched this cinematic trailer for SWTOR, because of the reaction of the mini-Reds.

Sure, all three loved it, but when we reached the 2:37 mark, the reactions among the girls changed from "wow!" and "cool!" to stunned amazement.

"I want to be her!"

"I want to play her!"

Representation is not a matter of trying to sideline people who are in the majority, but a way of telling the sidelined "Hey, you're welcome here, have a seat at the table."

It's akin to what happened when an old university friend and his family stopped by for the weekend a few years ago. Their two kids, a girl and boy, had recently discovered Star Wars,** so when they stopped by I was ready. I motioned over the younger kid and pulled out one of the mini-Reds' toy lightsabers. "You know what this is?" I asked.

He nodded wordlessly.

"Go ahead and push the button."

The lightsaber sprang to life, light and sound and everything.

His eyes were as big as saucers.

A second lightsaber found its way into the hands of his older sister, who knew exactly what to do. And for the rest of the afternoon, there were lightsaber battles and young padawans in awesome Jedi poses.

The last I checked, both kids were confirmed Star Wars fans, "For life!" one of them told me last year.

There is no reason why geekdom and the gaming industry can't say "Hey, there's a seat at the table for you, no matter who you are." There's absolutely no reason to feel threatened by making the tent bigger, because we all win when we open our arms wide in welcome.




*Probably both.

**Their dad helped a wee bit.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

When a Gamble Doesn't Pay Off

"You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around, you're only second best."
--Lancey Howard, The Cincinnati Kid


If it isn't obvious, I have a low opinion of gold farmers.

Gold farming, particularly the large operations, are a source of account hacking and MMO economy manipulation. They are by no means the sole source of either, but they are far from an innocent bunch. By using real money to purchase in in-game source of currency, the gold farmers encourage the "pay to win" mentality in what is at times a very obnoxious form of hard sell. There was a time in late-Wrath through all of Cataclysm where you couldn't walk through an Alliance or Horde city and not run into a bunch of bots in formation spelling out the name of a gold farmer website.* And even today, at least a few times a week I get spam mail in SWTOR from gold/credit farmers, which I find quite hilarious given that it is so easy to spend a day and accumulate enough credits to buy most items in the auction house.

I've occasionally wondered why gold farmers do what they do. Sure, the short answer is "money", but there's plenty of other ways to make a living than dealing in the MMO version of Bitcoin. Well, Cracked magazine's website has a post up about a gold farmer leaving the gold farming business behind.**

(I should also note that Massively OP also picked up on the article and posted a referring article on their website.)

The article itself is worth reading, if for no other reason than that it confirms my opinion that Blizzard's attempts to combat gold farmers using the WoW tokens was a shot across the bow of the WoW gold farming industry. It also deals with the nature of MMO/WoW/video game addiction, and that addiction is very much a real thing.

Oh, and the real gold mine (pardon the pun) is pairing this article with one from a year ago, about how a small time gold farming operation looks from the inside.

My single biggest takeaway is that small time/independent gold farming operations remind me of small time professional gamblers. I don't mean the people who are on television at Texas Hold 'em poker tournaments, but the people who gamble at casinos, racetracks, and online for a living. Sure, someone may strike it rich at any time, but those times are very rare. You may even have a better shot at making it as a pro athlete than as a small time gambler or gold farmer, but that dream of making it big is a siren song.





*No, I'm not going to provide a pic of it. Why give the site(s) free advertising?

**I remember when Cracked was Mad Magazine's wackier cousin. When did Cracked actually start putting up some serious stuff in addition to the humor? I know that they were already serious when Robin Williams passed away and they had a couple of really good articles about the intersection of comedy and depression.

Monday, June 19, 2017

An Oldie but Goodie

Courtesy of the LOTRO forums comes this little graphic from Yosoff:

If novels followed MMO logic. Just sayin'...

Yes, I am amused.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Raising a Pint in Salute

While longevity in a blog is one thing, longevity in a podcast is quite another.

The time it takes to publish a blog post is pretty minimal compared to the effort it takes to pull together a podcast. From a technical aspect alone, there's the design, the equipment/software, and the editing to create a polished finished product. While you can run both on a minimal budget, the hours spent working on a blog pale to those spent on a podcast.*

Therefore, I wanted to take some time to salute two podcasts that reached significant milestones: The Twisted Nether Blogcast and the Battle Bards podcast.

***

You may be cool, but not Blog Azeroth cool.
Twisted Nether is a live blogcast that has just reached its 9th anniversary. Fimlys, Hydra, and Zabine run the WoW focused show --which is the face of Blog Azeroth-- and are frequently joined by bloggers across the WoW-verse. (Full disclosure: I was a guest on Episode 166, recorded live on April 28, 2012. Back then it was just Fimlys and Hydra running the show, and I'm very glad I got to know them through TN.) TN encourages listeners to join the live blogcast and comment in the live comment section, and while the recording time is frequently at odd hours for Eastern North America, I heartily recommend listening in on a live blogcast.

Through TN I've met several fellow bloggers who have since become friends, including Ancient from Tome of the Ancient. If you're curious about WoW comings and goings, I heartily recommend Twisted Nether for an entertaining look at WoW from people who love it so much that they run a live show in the late hours Sunday nights (EST).

However, I did learn one thing about a live blogcast: don't make a quip that can be construed as being awkward. In my case, it was the final question round, and I made a quip about not having heard these questions before. If you've heard Twisted Nether, you've heard the questions, so it wasn't so much as amusing as awkward, and I should have known better than to try to say that. Still, Fim and Hydra were fantastic hosts, and even though I no longer play WoW, if I'd the chance to go back on just to talk with them, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

***
Something about that lute reminds me of
the LOTRO Minstrel class. Just sayin'.

Battle Bards is an MMO podcast created by three people who truly love MMO music, and will be dropping their 100th episode shortly (if it hasn't dropped already. EtA: Here it is!!!).

While the music might be a minor aspect to MMOs in general, the thrill of that first loading screen with the stirring soundtrack blaring through the speakers is a fond memory to even the most hardened MMO gamer. To that end, the team of Syp, Stef, and Syl --the Battle Bards-- scour the MMO world for the interesting and unusual as well as comparing themes among various MMOs.

I've been a long time listener to Battle Bards, in no small part because a) I'm a music lover and b) my long time blogger friend Syl is a host. While I agree or disagree with the Bards' selections, I do find something interesting each episode. However, looking back at the podcasts, I believe that Battle Bards really hit their stride on their fourth episode, the interview with LOTRO composer Chance Thomas. Chance was an engaging guest, and the Bards performed a great job in exploring the music of LOTRO and the process Chance works through when composing a piece. At that point, the podcast became more than just a discussion about favorite pieces and began hitting on the nuts and bolts of the music itself.

The Battle Bards demonstrate in spades that all you need is a love of the music to explore the amazing world of MMO soundtracks.





*By comparison, the livestreaming of a game takes less effort. Once the software and equipment are configured, all you have to do is bring your creative self and play away. Once a livestream graduates into a vlog, however, editing begins to assert itself.



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Way Late News Announcements...

...film at 11.

Seriously, I've been a wee bit busy and haven't had the chance to mention this, but Chance Thomas is returning to score the LOTRO soundtrack for Mordor.

Considering I really liked his previous work for LOTRO, I'm happy to see this.

Here's the link to the livestream interview and announcement:


Friday, May 26, 2017

Speaking of Anniversaries...

...Age of Conan is 9 this year.

Yes, the MMO that garnered more discussion about it's M rating --and the accompanying violence and nudity-- than anything about Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age setting is about to hit double digits in age next year.

I, like a lot of players, got the 9th Anniversary e-mail which included the goodies of an instant L80 for all accounts that were in good standing prior to the event's start, and I figured "why not?" My Barbarian was still mired in the mid-50s, and the grind that I'd need to do in order to get simply to L60 seemed daunting enough that the lure of having a max level toon was simply too much to pass up.

This time, I decided I'd try something a bit closer to a more traditional MMO class, the Conqueror melee DPS class. I also decided to balance the masculinity of my traditional Cimmerian Barbarian with a female Cimmerian Conqueror.

It was during the character creation that I became reacquainted with one of Age of Conan's more eyebrow raising aspects: bust adjustment.

The fact that AoC has that isn't necessarily the issue here, since Aion has it as well, but that AoC felt the need to go in the direction of what I'd call the voluptuous model of female toon design. While AoC's female design allows you to adjust the body to go from practically emaciated to heavily muscled, the bustline pretty much starts at a "C" cup and goes all the way to "you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me".

Because apparently that's how Cimmerians roll.

Cimmerians are not easily amused.*


The oldest mini-Red stopped by right after character creation --and, thankfully, after I'd put the gear on the newly minted toon after zoning in-- to check out the scenery.

"At least the gear covers her up," she said with a critical eye. "I was thinking that there'd be almost nothing there."

I snorted. "That's because I'm wearing heavy armor. There'd be a lot less there if I was playing a Necromancer or a Barbarian."

"Still, it could be worse."

Then another new L80 toon ran by, gearless.

"Oh."

"Yeah," I said. "Like that. You can make all of the gear disappear in vanity armor." I demonstrated by removing leg armor and a few other pieces in the vanity armor tab. "You can always tell the oversexed teenage boys by the lack of armor the female toons wear."

"Absolutely. Why do you play it, then?"

"Because I really liked the Conan short stories and I enjoy the world that Robert E. Howard created, warts and all. And in spite of the obvious oversexed nature of the women, the MMO does allow female toons and NPCs to be powerful people. Plus, the scenery is amazing."

I headed out to Connall's Valley for a view from the waterfall atop the village.

Like what I remembered, the new graphics card handled the scenery at max levels with aplomb. I still shake my head as to why LOTRO has issues when SWTOR and AoC don't, but that's something I can't control.

Far below is a Cimmerian village.

AoC was as beautiful as I remembered when I played it more regularly.

"Wow," the oldest mini-Red whispered.

"Yeah. The scenery is pretty amazing."

"Why'd you stop playing it so much?"

"It was getting too grindy. You know how it is grinding deeds in LOTRO? That's a walk in the park compared to AoC's grinding for levels. And on top of it, the respawn rate is so quick that you have to spend so much time fighting through an area just to need to fight back when you're done."

"That sounds like you have to group up to get even basic things done."

"That's about right. And when you play late at night, your grouping options aren't necessarily the greatest." I scratched my beard, considering. "Still, I might have to give it more of a go now with this toon, since she's already at max level."

My oldest patted me on the shoulder. "Good luck, Dad."




*What, you expected me to post Larethe as she was when she first zoned in? Sorry, but no. While I'm quite aware that over in Europe toplessness isn't considered as big a deal as over in the States, I'm still not planning on crossing that line.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The End of one Road, but another Road is Just Beginning

This past weekend brought several big events, only one of which was MMO related.

First, mini-Red #3 graduated from middle school and will be joining her brother at high school this fall. To put this in perspective, she had just entered 1st Grade at elementary school when Souldat and I started PC back in the Fall of 2009, so the majority of her life I've been blogging about MMOs.*

She still has that same tank-like attitude of "come at me, bro!" that she's displayed in gaming, and her drive is for perfection in whatever she tackles, whether it is gaming or playing percussion. I've occasionally thought about letting the rest of her companions in the Drumline know what they're getting with her, but then I smile and shrug and say to myself "Nah, let them find out for themselves."

Second, mini-Red #1 has graduated from high school and will be attending university in the fall. As you may have surmised by reading the blog, she is going to major in Music Performance. I know she's got at least four years of college ahead of her and then potentially graduate school, so only the first part of her educational journey is complete. But still, she's persevered in the face of adversity and I'm really proud of her (and her sister). She's had plenty of mentors along the way, and they've helped her at critical junctures in her education, and I'll always be grateful for their work. I can freely acknowledge that I don't have any real experience with dealing with someone so obsessed with music and making a difference in people's lives, so their assistance was invaluable.**

Finally, mini-Red #1 finally finished the LOTRO Shadows of Angmar Epic Questline, several years after she began playing LOTRO. She was stuck for the longest time on an instance in Angmar, where it's an escort quest that the NPC she was escorting kept dying because (as a Hunter) she couldn't pull either DPS down the enemies or at least pull aggro quickly enough. Pairing up with her brother, she was finally able to get over that hump and keep going on the Epic Questline. She already knew what to expect, because a (now banned) player on our server started blabbing to people randomly about spoilers in the story, but even then the instances after that point still brought out the feels. She also wasn't thrilled that the final boss fights took well over 15 minutes each to win, but win she did and that was that.

In a way, mini-Red #1's success in overcoming obstacles in real life mirrored her eventual in-game success, and I don't think it strictly an accident that both finished at roughly the same time.

I just certainly hope that her university experience is better than what people experience in Moria...





*She's even breached the topic of "when can I start dating?" with us, which freaks me out even more than the mere fact that she's going to be attending high school this fall.

**But in taking after my own heart, she (as well as the other mini-Reds) have developed a love of studying history. I can now talk about historical topics with them and they can hold their own in the discussions. I guess were's multi-talented geeks....

EtA: Added a word to correct a funky sounding sentence.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Late Thursday Humor

It's still before midnight, so it counts.

Anyway, Dorkly occasionally strikes comedy gold with RPG/gamer memes.

And without further ado, 20 Out-of-Context D&D Quotes That Accurately Represent The Game

Like this:


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Is Someone up for a Story?

I've been thinking a bit about the rise of livestreaming video games, from the Let's Play videos to the "Teens Play" series to the rise of Twitch.TV. Not that great a surprise, given that people will watch others play video games in much the same way we used to crowd around someone playing Gauntlet or Galaga at the video arcade back in the 80s and marvel at their (lack of) skill.

That said, geek icon Wil Wheaton has been producing his own version of Let's Play for boardgames and RPGs for a few years now. The series, called Tabletop, presents Wil playing games he finds enjoyable with several friends/acquaintances. It gives people a chance to check a game out and see if they're interested in playing it in a lighthearted manner.*

Wil's most recent episode of Tabletop explores a pencil and paper RPG that I've recommended in the past for people who want to stick their toe into the RPG hobby but without being overwhelmed by numbers and tables: FATE Core.

FATE Core uses what is known as the Fudge system to handle random events in the game: four regular six sided dice with two minuses (-), two plusses (+), and two blanks. Minuses and plusses cancel each other out, so you could potentially end up with -4 to +4 as your range. No fuss, no muss. FATE also emphasizes story over mechanics, so the GM works with the players to tell a great story.

Well, enough ado about FATE Core, here's the episode:



Oh, and did I mention that Felicia Day plays with Wil?




*Plus that table he uses, from Geek Chic, is simply amazing. If I had the money AND the room.....

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Happy Anniversary, LOTRO!

It feels kind of weird wishing LOTRO a happy 10th anniversary, since it feels only yesterday that I was wishing the same for WoW.*

The mini-Reds love the Anniversary events and are always pestering me to get more involved, so this time I took a break from grinding deeds and ran across the length and breadth of Middle-earth in the gigantic scavenger hunt that the devs put together for this special occasion.

And crack some skulls.

Being L81 but only up to the Rise of Isengard and the Great River expacs and quest packs, I was kind of shut out of completing most of the scavenger hunt events, but I still crept along as best I could without aggroing too many enemies. Unfortunately for me, I discovered that even neutral animals out in the wild would come from miles around to chase after me if the level difference was high enough, and when I poked my nose out of the Rangers of Ithilien's hideout, I was looking at the scenery only about 10 feet from the opening to discover a deer zipping at me from points unknown.

At least my toon can outrun a deer down a twisting passage if given enough of a head start.

After that little surprise, I decided that asking for a port to some of these locations was not a good idea, because I'd be a smudge on the ground quicker than you can say "WTF??!!!"**

Nice view. Of course, Frodo was a bit distracted
when he was at Amon Hen.

But that didn't stop me from making it to Amon Hen and then attempting to skirt across the length and breadth of Rohan. (And collecting all of the stable locations.)

Not exactly the length and breadth of Rohan,
as it's the Great River, but I found this really cool.

Still, for long time players this was a trip down memory lane that they'll not soon forget. And even though I started up an account shortly after LOTRO went F2P, I didn't really start playing seriously until long after, about 3 years ago.

If there's one thing that I wish about the 10th Anniversary event, it's that it would last an extra week. I'm not that into collecting stuff from the event as far as gear and fashion is concerned, but for some reason the firework event has been very soothing to me, much more so than in years past.

No, this is not an archive screen capture.
I just like fireworks.

Maybe I'm getting old, but... /shrug

I can live with that.





*I blame kids for my amnesia.

**I have had that dubious experience with roving threats. Once when I was shuttling back and forth from Annuminas as part of the endgame for Shadows of Angmar, I parked my toon in what seemed to be a pretty secluded area, free from enemies, while I went to go grab a beer. I came back a minute later to find that I'd been killed, with a roving threat gloating nearby.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

The End of a Kickstarter

The other day, Anita Sarkeesian dropped her last video in the Tropes vs. Women series. Entitled The Lady Sidekick, she explores how female sidekicks are primarily in place to reinforce traditional attitudes or provide an ego boost for the (male) protagonist, rather than as fully formed characters who don't necessarily need male protection.


It's hard to believe that there was a time before Anita's Kickstarter back in 2012, because it feels like we've aged so much since then. It was a relatively simple idea: a short series of five 10 minute videos exploring stereotypical tropes concerning women in video games. But thanks to the visibility garnered by haters, her Kickstarter blew up the gamer corner of the internet. The series then expanded well beyond its originally intended scope into two full seasons worth of videos, along with bonus content, and generated a lot of discussion on both video games and gamers themselves.*

The funny thing is, the more the Gamergate crowd tried to silence Anita and others, the more positive interest they received. Anita would have never landed on the Colbert Report were it not for the haters, and her videos received far more interest and views as well.



Do I agree with everything Anita presented? No. But really, agreement on all items presented is not the point. She made me think, and by doing so she forced me to confront things I'd simply accepted as "the way things are".

So here's a toast to Anita Sarkeesian. I wish her well.





*It may be only April, but I think that might be the understatement of the year.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why I Love MMOs, Part Whatever

Last night, World Chat discussion on LOTRO drifted around from "are goblins orcs?" and "Was George RR Martin inspired by Turin's relentlessly grim tale?"* to "When is the Beren and Luthien standalone novel to be released?"

Inspired by the latter, one of the players recited a shorter version of the Tale of Beren and Luthien in World Chat. Took the player over an hour, but it was worth it.

At one point someone made a snarky comment about the endeavor, but I channeled Animal House and replied "Forget it, he's rolling."

The book is released June 1st, 2017.
From Wikipedia.


The part about Sauron turning into a werewolf inspired a short lived "So Sauron was a Furry?" discussion, however....





*I said that he was partly inspired, but he also took heavy inspiration from Shakespeare and Medieval history. "The Children of Hurin is what you get if you let GRRM write Tolkien," was my response.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Memories....

..like the corners of my mind.*

Everybody does anniversaries differently, and LOTRO is no exception.

Justin Olivetti --you know, Syp from Bio Break-- over at MassivelyOP has an article on the anniversary plans that Standing Stone Games is planning for LOTRO's 10th anniversary, pointing back to the Standing Stone Games announcement.

I hope you're ready for a scavenger hunt...




*There. That intro from The Way We Were should give you a great earworm for the rest of the day. ;-)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Brave New World I Suppose

I've noticed a recent uptick in traffic to PC from anonymizeme.pro. Normally I'd not worry to much about it, but this uptick almost exactly matches the passing of the new US law to block online privacy regulation.

If you've not heard about it before now, the long and the short of it is that back in October the Federal Communications Commission presented rules prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) from selling your online browsing data to third parties: companies wanting to sell you stuff, private investigators, anyone at all. Congress decided that was "executive overreach" and passed the bill above to elimination such privacy regulations, with the side effect of letting ISPs sell your data to whomever they feel like it.

Normally if this were a problem with one ISP, you could simply replace them with another ISP. The issue here is that in the US a huge number of people have only one real ISP to use --their cable company-- because local towns and cities often have non-compete agreements with one cable company in exchange for that company providing local access programming.* So, if your local ISP decides to sell your online browsing data, you don't have an alternative available to jump to.

To fix this issue, some people have set up their own virtual private networks (VPNs) and others are using anonymizing services such as anonymizeme.pro. So while some people look at browsing records from anonymizeme and think "okay, who's doing something shady?", I look at it as merely a sign of the times.

And naturally, late night television has been using this new law as cannon fodder:



And....





*That's something that has almost completely disappeared from local cable, but that hasn't kept the cable companies from using their local monopolies to keep competition out.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In Praise of the Code Jockey



I don't talk about my work at all on this blog for obvious reasons*, but at one time in the (now distant) past I worked for a software development house. Sorry, the software involved was CAD/CAM/CAE --the design software companies use to create new products-- so it's not like I worked for Microprose or something.

While I wasn't a Dev myself, I worked on the Software QA end of things. I was one of the people who designed and built the testcases, maintained and expanded our own testing software, and helped debugging the thorny problems by quickly zeroing in on which software code change was the likely culprit. It was tough work, particularly for a guy who came from a science background who puttered around coding in his spare time, but it taught me a lot about how to code, how to design software, and how to handle group dynamics**.

There were projects I was assigned to that pushed me to the limit --physically and mentally-- and I will be forever grateful to my wife for tolerating me during those insane hours. But no matter how hard or long I worked, the Devs worked even harder. When I was pulling 80 hour work weeks, they were hitting 90. I would frequently get to work at 4 AM so I could make progress without having people drop by, and there would always be about 3-5 Devs in the building, coding away.***

You'd think that the hours and demands would keep me from wanting to make the jump from QA to Developer, but you'd be wrong. I looked up to those people, because I admired their coding skill and their drive. They were creative, they were fun, and yet they were serious about getting the work finished. It irked them when we had to release the software when they knew there were bugs in the system, but the decision was never theirs.****

So you can imagine the smile on my face when I read Ravanel Griffon's post at Ravalation about Developer Appreciation Week.

***

The idea is a simple one --to acknowledge the devs in the game industry-- and give them a big thumbs up. Give a shout out to the dev team (or teams) that you admire the most and why you like them. Basically, make them feel welcome.

And believe me, I can do that.

When I criticize a game, I make a clear distinction between the game and the dev staff itself. The dev staff almost never control the release schedule, they're on a tight timeline, and they're chronically underpaid for the amount of hours they put in. I knew a guy who used to work for a dev team that put together Betrayal at Krondor, and I heard stories about how they had to do it for the love of coding and designing games, as the money was definitely not the same for the game devs as it was for other software developers. They have to work with tradeoffs and limitations of the hardware, they recognize that people will find weaknesses that they never envisioned, and that meeting expectations is often a fool's errand.

We gamers don't exactly help our cause either, as we are frequently cranky, overly nitpicky, and demanding of a standard that nobody could ever hope to achieve. And if the devs ever do catch lightning in a bottle, they set themselves up for an impossible standard that gamers will try to force them to meet.

But here's a shout out to all the devs out there, trying their best to make gaming fun and meaningful.

***

Oh, you wanted some specific dev team?

Well, I think I'd have to go with giving some love to the original SWTOR development team. You know, the ones who had to deal with he inflated expectations that accompany the Bioware name, the KOTOR brand, the Star Wars Galaxies loyalists, the amount of money EA spent on development, and EA's own promotion that SWTOR was going to be a WoW killer. With a expectations like that, nothing less than WoW-like numbers and subscriptions would mean success.

And as we know, SWTOR did not reach those numbers.

Was that the fault of the devs? No. They made an MMO that was essentially "WoW in space", but with specific class stories with light or dark side endings. The technical challenges of the MMO genre meant that SWTOR couldn't expand the Star Wars universe and provide persistent changes based on your choices (such as with other Bioware titles such as KOTOR, Mass Effect, or Dragon Age) without massive use of phasing like WoW used. The devs felt that in SWTOR the journey and the ability to play around in the Star Wars universe was the important part of the MMO*****, while the semi-transient MMO community believes "the game begins at max level."

In spite of all of those expectations and challenges and misreading of tea leaves, the original SWTOR devs produced a very solid MMO that continues to hold its own over the years. I still love the classic game (L1-50), and based on how the mini-Reds have reacted to the class stories, those stories still hold up well several years on.

SWTOR had to change in order to survive with a steady stream of updates, end game content, and switching to F2P to stem the bleeding. To compare with another heavily hyped AAA title, I'm actually surprised that Wildstar is still around because I thought they'd waited too long to convert to F2P. SWTOR has not only survived but gotten mentions on the E3 presentations from EA, and it would have been all for naught if those first devs hadn't decided to change the game rather than simply circle the wagons.

So here's to the original SWTOR dev team, who hoped to catch lightning in a bottle but ended up having to change the game's entire focus to survive. It was no small task, but they met the challenge and left us a legacy.






*I mean, really. I've no idea why some people natter on about their jobs on blogs, because you're just simply begging for trouble. When I was hired at all of my jobs, one of the requirements for the gig was to sign non-disclosure agreements, and I've seen people fired from their jobs for what I'd term innocent discussions on social media. So why risk it?

**Also known as "how to run meetings and keep from going nuts when people don't listen to you."

***There was once an April Fools Day prank played on the entire development staff where every time you opened a new window on the SGI workstations from 3 AM through Noon the machine would play a little jingle and make a weird laugh. The first person to discover it loved to come in at 2 AM to work on his graphics coding when nobody else was around, and so he opened a new window at around 3 AM and he nearly fainted. I heard later that for a few short moments he thought his workstation was possessed.

****I and several other QA people were also on the release team, and we frequently argued for more time to fix the bugs, because we could see the impending train wreck a bad release would make. The release manager would also agree, but we were overruled by senior management who had their own agendas.

*****My evidence for that is the MMO itself. WoW is designed to get you to max level as quickly as possible, Wildstar went totally old school and recreated the attunement quests to even begin to raid, and LOTRO is designed to immerse yourself in Middle-earth. If the journey wasn't as important to SWTOR, we wouldn't have had 8 separate class stories and plenty of group quests per planet.

Friday, March 31, 2017

You Have Died of Dysentery

Back in prehistory when I attended high school, the computer room was filled with Tandy TRS-80 Model III computers.* Given that most families did not have computers at home, the computer room was frequently open an extra 1.5 hours after school so students could work on programming in BASIC (or, in the advanced classes, FORTRAN and COBOL).**

But for me, that meant goofing around on the few game programs that the school had.

Far and away, my favorite game was Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio. It was a predecessor to Sid Meier's Civilization, and it gave the players a chance to rule an Italian city-state with a few basic options. You can even play it now for free on the Internet Archive.

I was fascinated with the game, and as it was programmed in BASIC I asked for and received a printout of the source code.*** I had this grand idea that I'd convert the program to TI-BASIC so I could play it at home, but I never got around to finishing up the conversion. Still, the concept of having a printout of a complete computer game never failed to fascinate me.

Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I came across this article a few weeks ago about the history of the classic computer game Oregon Trail and how, for a few years, there was exactly one printout of the source code in existence.

I've never played Oregon Trail, as it was released a bit too late in the 80s for me to play it with the same zest I developed for the Ultima series, but I knew of people who were almost religious in their devotion for the game.

And here, in classic 70s/80s computer fashion, there was a period when the original incarnation of The Oregon Trail could have easily been lost forever.






*My high school was the first in our area to require a computer programming class for graduation. Given that it was an unlikely case a family did have a home computer (it was likely a Commodore 64, TI-99 4/A, or an Atari 400 or 800), this was a big deal.

**My hatred of the COBOL programming language dates from my experiences with it in high school. Why anybody thought COBOL was a good idea is beyond me.

***I believe I still have that code somewhere in the basement, along with the TI-99 4/A computer that I used growing up.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

On Releases and Glitches

I've been watching the launch of Mass Effect Andromeda with more than a passing bit of interest, even though a) I'm not even finished with the first Mass Effect game, much less the entire trilogy, and b) I don't really have the money to drop on a new game.*

Still, the armchair quarterback in me has been following along with the hype and inevitable problems at the game's launch.

You know the old adage "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me"? This definitely applies to software releases these days. Even the supposed gold standards of software development and release, Blizzard and Apple, have had their share of software launch bugs.

This makes me wonder why someone would even bother buying the game at launch, much less pre-ordering, when you know that bugs will frequently be the reward of playing the game first. Another way of putting it is "Why pay to be a beta tester?"

Sure, you may get extra goodies such as an extra in-game item or the soundtrack**, but is it truly worth the headache of dealing with a game that is frequently in need of major patches to even make it enjoyable?***

***

In the case of Mass Effect Andromeda, there are bugs, and there are features.

The bugs are the obvious items: system crashes, graphical glitches, selections that don't work, etc. You know, the usual stuff.

But features, those are design decisions that may seem like bugs but aren't.

There are animation glitches in Andromeda, no doubt, but the overall look and feel of the animation is not a bug or a glitch. That was a design decision.

I'm reminded of the behind the scenes extras in the DVD release of The Incredibles. In the video article, they were talking to Pixar developers and engineers about the technical leaps they had to make for The Incredibles to work. As it was Pixar's first animated movie with an almost exclusively human cast****, they had to expand their technical capabilities to get certain aspects of animating humans right. At one point during production, one of the engineers had to go to John Lasseter (the head of Pixar) and tell him that "at the moment, hair is still pretty much theoretical." The concept of having hair move properly when animating a human --whether that hair is dry or wet or in a convoluted design-- confounded the developers for a long while.

And in the work surrounding Mass Effect Andromeda, the scale of the game meant that Bioware likely had to determine what priorities the developers worked on, and what aspects of development they were going to use an off-the-shelf or generic solution for.

This isn't exactly a newsflash to people who have worked in software development; in my time at a software shop we handed translation from our software's format to other formatting standards --akin to converting from JPG to PNG and back-- to a third party. The trick was to integrate the third party's software into our existing package seamlessly, and that was not as simple a task as you might think. The number of bugs that resulted from that integration was... pretty large at times. A lot of times it had nothing to do with the third party software at all, but with coding in a completely unconnected part of the software.*****

What does all this have to do with the facial and character animation? My speculation is that part of the Andromeda animation wasn't a high enough priority to deal with as an internal project, and so Bioware used an off the shelf product to handle the animations. And the issues with the facial and character animation could be due to a) integration with the main software, b) the third party software needing tweaks to work better with the overall product, or c) the third party software is being asked to handle something that might be beyond its current capability.

Or maybe a combination of all three.

But this isn't just my speculation, here's an Animstate Roundtable which included professional animators discussing this very issue, pointed out by an article from PCGamesN and Gamasutra. The entire roundtable is interesting, but this part I found resonated with me the most:

"Simon: Before I speculate on what the cause of these animation issues are, I think it’s important for people to understand some of the numbers behind a game like this. I don’t have exact figures from ME:A, but we do know that Mass Effect 3 had over 40,000 lines of dialogue and Dragon Age had about 60,000. If we split the difference at 50,000 and conservatively estimate that each line averages out to about three seconds, that puts us at around 41 and a half hours of dialogue. That’s about 21 feature films worth of just talking. Most of the major animated feature films have a team of about 70+ animators working for two or more years to complete just one movie. A game like Mass Effect might have somewhere between five and ten focused on more than 20X the content in the same amount of time. To add to that, we need to also factor in localizing (translating) the game into at least 4-5 additional languages.

Now, it’s just not possible to keyframe that amount of content to any acceptable level of quality, so teams looking at that much scope try to find procedural solutions. I know in the past they’ve used an off the shelf solution called FaceFX, which analyzes the audio tracks and creates animation based on the waveforms, projection, etc. At a base level, it can read as a very robotic performance and I suspect that is what we’re seeing in some of the footage. You can work with the audio and the procedural tools to polish the performances in various ways of course, but when you’re staring down thousands of minutes of performance to clean up, your definition of “shippable” is a sliding bar that moves relative to team capacity and your content lock date. If it were my team and project, I would try to gather metrics on which scenes were the most watched based on playtest and use whatever polish time I had with those as a priority, letting the lesser seen ones go with a default pass." --From Animstate.com ROUND TABLE – MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA

***

Back to the original thought behind this post, why bother buying a game at launch if you know there's glitches and/or features that need to be cleaned up? Part of that is, I suppose, faith in the development house to get the job done right. Or if not done right initially, then to fix the problems quickly. Reputable development houses don't just sit on problems, they fix them.

And another part of this is the reality behind software development. It is much more complex than, say, building a fence or even a car, and constant tweaks in response to unforeseen problems is pretty much par for the course.

And finally, there's also the recognition that very few software development houses announce a release when they feel it's ready --okay, it's Blizzard-- and that when a release date is presented to the public there becomes an enormous amount of pressure to meet that date. The company doesn't want to lose face to its investors, the investors are constantly asking each quarter "What have you done for me lately?", and the development staff doesn't want to disappoint the fans. For my money, Blizzard does it the right way, but even they aren't immune to the occasional bad release.

From my perspective, I have absolutely no need to rush in and buy something the moment it is released, so I'm content to wait. I did that once, when I bought the original AMD Athlon system back in 1999, and six months later I could have paid about $600 less for the same system. I learned my lesson that time, and I've not wavered from it.






*Yes, I'm quite aware that you don't need to have played the original ME trilogy to have played Andromeda, but it provides a good buffer to rushing out and buying the game from the get go. Besides, immersing yourself into the world of Mass Effect prior to playing Andromeda isn't necessarily a bad thing, even without the Geth or Reapers.

**Okay, I can understand the soundtrack enticement.

***I'm not a fan of the Assassin's Creed series, but the bugs of Assassin's Creed Unity are infamous among gamers.

****I kind of count the robot as a minor character.

*****Okay, I'm going to get a little technical here, but in C and C++, memory allocation is a huge thing. If you don't do it right, or you go beyond your allocated memory, you could end up overwriting whatever else is in memory. It's very powerful, but it is also dangerous. If you don't clean up your memory allocations, you end up with what are called "memory leaks". And eventually that will kill your performance and potentially cause crashes of software or the computer/server. The greater the complexity of the software, the harder it is to find these memory leaks by yourself and you have to rely upon --you guessed it-- third party software that shakes memory leaks out. But the fun doesn't stop there, because something might be working perfectly fine in its "leaky" state, and once you fix it the function/code stops working right. And then you have to go find out why that's the case, and maybe you find even more memory problems underneath it.

Java has this problem too, and that's why a lot of Java implementations --especially early ones-- have so many memory problems.