Thursday, July 2, 2020

Trackmania First Impressions

The newest in the Trackmania series launched today. My first impressions?

It's a mild disaster.

I'll talk about the particulars in a bit. But I want to broach something broader.

For months, every time I launch a new title I feel like I'm being served a lukewarm meal with the chef's hair generously sprinkled throughout. And the waiter is surly. And where was the bread that I ordered?

If you read this blog it's probably easy to assume that I just hate video games. Or at least that I'm an overly negative person in all aspects of my life, but I really don't think that's true. I'm certainly not accentuating the negative for clicks. I'm just tired of every game being a compromise of developer effort and business model.

So I'm sorry for the rampant negativity. There's enough to be negative of in the world right now and you probably don't need anymore. But, I'm pretty disappointed at how badly the latest releases have panned out, and I feel the need to explain myself.

To start with, Trackmania is a racing game franchise. It separates itself with an addictive, arcadey racing style that concentrates on repeating individual levels until you get the lowest track time possible. You do not physically race against other players, you only see their "ghost"; either in real time on a live server or a recorded version of their best lap time. Imagine a game like Super Meat Boy, where you attempt a difficult stage, die, respawn immediately, and continue trying again and again until you get it right. That's Trackmania, except as a racer instead of a platformer.


The franchise has been coming out since 2003. I've been playing it about that long. I love both the feel of racing in a video game and the drive to improve incrementally improve myself on a difficult, but doable challenge. Needless to say, Trackmania is right in my wheelhouse.

So I'm quite disappointed when I pay my $10 "subscription-but-not-a-subscription" fee and find the whole thing extremely lacking.

Trackmania's "Not-Subscription" Tiers
Somehow, it's a subscription game. Except Ubisoft has been very, very particular in not calling it a subscription game. To quote directly from their representative:
Actually it's not a subscription model but an access to the game for a limited time. You pay for having access to the game for one period and that's it. When the time is over, you have to buy the game again for the time that you want to access it again.
This isn't a joke. This is something a grown adult wrote on the Internet for other people to see. You know an explanation is good when it starts with the word "Actually".

So we're not off to a good start. When you're already bullshitting every human on earth before your game is released, it doesn't exactly bode well for the critical thinking that went into the making of the game either.

At this point, I probably should have just noped out. But all I really wanted was a "level pack". Like back in the day, where you bought a game, and then occasionally the developers or a third party would throw a bunch of new levels or tracks onto a disk (or disc), charge you a nominal fee, and you got a bunch of extra content. That's all I wanted.

I didn't even get that.

The game launches with about 50 tracks, plus drip feeds us one more a day and maybe an extra 20 or so every month. That is not a lot of content. They're obviously counting on the community to make the rest of it, but considering there's more player-made content in the Trackmania franchise currently than any human could possibly play right now, it's not that appealing of a prospect. I wanted to see what professionals could do.

Even the content moderation for this game is top-notch!

But even the tools for players to make their own tracks is underwhelming. What did developer Nadeo spend their time on? Ice physics apparently. A handful of gimmicky "power-ups" or "power-downs" and ice physics.
 Nobody, in the whole history of video gaming, as ever wanted to play an ice level. Ice levels exist for one reason only: for unimaginative developers to add another bullet point to their list of "features". That's it. This is a theme I talk about again and again on this blog: "features" in video games that exist purely for the benefit of the developer that no player wants.

I'm very tired. Nearly all the time.

This is the least-featured game in Trackmania history. They've removed terra-forming in the editor. There is no developer content, and what little there is available is being dripped-fed as part of the subscription model. Customizing your car, which doesn't even currently work right now, is hidden behind yet another pay-wall: $30 a year to be precise. The UI is an amateurish mess. They've removed the first-person camera angle for "simplicity's sake", as if human-beings don't live their entire lives from a first-person perspective and would somehow be confused by it.

At least with the Command & Conquer Remaster there was visible effort from the developers. The graphics, sound, cinematics, and netplay were all upgraded. None of these things matter of course, because the gameplay is too archaic and buggy to enjoy. But it's certainly not inconceivable that someone with enough nostalgia or self-hatred could actually finish that game, and be appreciative of the work that did go into it.

But Trackmania is a literal step back in every sense. Every feature, every graphical detail, even the business model, are worse than Trackmania products that already exist. The only purpose of this game is to generate revenue for developer Nadeo and the publisher Ubisoft. The only possible benefit for the player base itself is that user content will be made here instead in one of the other games. But that's not a feature, it's a haranguing.

For $10 a year, or god forbid even more, Ubisoft wants a cut. It's unclear what they are providing in exchange for that $10 a year. In defensible just how little Nadeo has done here. It's been four years since the last Trackmania game. What could they have possibly been working on in the mean time?

Oh and did I mention that the game currently has a bug. A teensey-winsey little bug.

It doesn't save progress.

It doesn't save your track times. It doesn't save your medals. It doesn't save your progress or unlocks.

In a racing game that is fundamentally about high scores, Nadeo released a game that doesn't keep track of your high scores.

The developer swears that it's just a synchronization bug. Your progress is being saved somewhere in the ephemeral cloud and will be brought back at the right time.

Let me correct that. A developer, on an unverified Twitter account, that I had to sort through an unofficial Trackmania Discord server to find, says that's the case. He says it will be fixed in the morning. He has corrected himself and no says it will be corrected in the afternoon. It is now currently 7:00PM for the developer on the second day of this game's launch. There is no official word from Nadeo or Ubisoft on why the most basic feature this game could possibly have is not currently present. There isn't even an acknowledgement of it. No review of the game currently acknowledges it. Downloading the game puts a large disclaimer on your screen saying that you can't refund the game.

Video gaming in 2020.

Note: Literally 3 minutes after I posted this blog, Nadeo pushed an update that seems to fix some of the synchronization issues I complained about here. Except, of course, it didn't fix it at all. The game continues to be unplayably broken.

Monday, June 29, 2020

(Very Imprecisely) Command & Conquer

I am desperately someone who needs to get their eight hours of sleep in.

I can do a sleepless night every once in a while. Maybe two days in a row with only six hours. But anything more and I'm a zombie, simply bouncing from one stimuli to another until I eventually crash on the closest horizontal surface.

Sleep has eluded me this week. No particular reason. Sometimes it's an overly vivid dream that wakes me up and keeps me from falling back asleep. Other mornings, it's the sun, the great enemy, that overcomes our shade's defenses and launches it's dazzling assault into my eyeballs. Occasionally, it's our corgi, who finds the exact geometric shape necessary to take up as much of the mattress as possible.

So my ability to game has been compromised as my ability to form a coherent thought has gradually slipped away day by day. It doesn't help that most of my gaming has been of the hard as nails variety. Namely, the recent Command & Conquer remaster.

The game opens with a cinematic showing the computer inside the game itself, which is used as a conceit for the UI, as getting a graphical and audio upgrade. Apparently, the GDI and Nod Forces in game were using a Sound Blaster Pro in their computers: good choice.

The level of graphical spit shine is everywhere. In the UI, in the gameplay, and in the upscaled cinematics. C&C was an excessively ugly game, understandably so as it was pushing the infancy of the RTS genre and the use of live action FMV in just 1995. 

 I had played bits and pieces of the original back when it was newish. The original PC version was available at our local library, hidden amongst the edutainment and productivity software. I also recall having rented it for the PS1 at the local Blockbuster and hating having to control an RTS with a controller. Somethings never change. I had played more of the game in the mid to late 2000s. I own the complete collection of C&C games from a physical box I bought back in college and whose product keys curiously worked in the Origin gaming platform.

The game had become largely incompatible with modern versions of Windows, and the poor AI pathfinding and just straight up buggy micro control eventually made the game unplayable to me. So I was understandably excited with the release of the Remaster which came paired with a measly $20 price tag and some glowing reviews.

The problem, of course, is that while the graphics have been gussied up, the developers didn't bother actually fixing any of the gameplay.

The AI's hare-brained pathfinding remains as is. Moving units from one place to another is a roll of the dice on how and if they will actually get there. Attacking is also incredibly imprecise. Focus-fire is a thing, and usually works, but general orders to attack or defend an area functionally don't work. As often as your units attempt to kill something, they will just as often not do anything at all, or actually kill themselves. Friendly fire is a thing in this series, and your grenadiers don't particularly differentiate between enemy forces and your own. If your own units and are somewhat near an enemy the grenadier wants to attack, a virtually certainty consider the poor pathfinding, then all of it's getting blown up.

It ends up making the graphical upgrades somewhat pointless. Most people are going to play this package for an hour or two and bounce off it. EA is going to see a huge number of Steam Refunds here, the crust shows itself early and often. There's very little control here, as a commander you're mostly reduced to flailing your arms to command the dumbest soldiers on alternate earth. It's a bit like playing the first Street Fighter game, the genre as we understand it is too primitive here to enjoy. It's just not a fun time. Online play is going to dry up immediately, whose going to play this once the novelty wears off?

There is mod support. Perhaps the player base will fix what the developers neglected to.

It's perfectly understandable that the development team kept a hands-off approach. The graphical and netplay updates were probably more than enough for a small team to handle. And EA never marketed this as an overhaul, just a graphics upgrade.

But it would have been nice for the first big RTS game to have gotten a proper re-release. Lord knows the RTS genre could have used it. But considering how underwhelming the reception for both the good Starcraft re-release and the not-so good Warcraft III re-release got, it's not surprising that EA didn't commit a lot here.

Maybe now that I've gotten a decent nights sleep I'll throw myself back into C&C's grinder of a campaign. Or I maybe I use my newfound energy on something a bit less archaic.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Guess Who's Knack? Knack Again.

In a nice change of pace, my real life world seems to be doing quite well while it's my digital world that's feeling a bit sluggish.

I knocked out two difficult and physically painful goals this week. First, I finished hiking the local trail. 21 miles from one town to the other with no breaks. I finished it in about 6 hours and 45 minutes. That's a pace of about 3 miles per hour. Both the pace and the length would be respectable by experienced hikers, although my load was probably a bit less and I only did it for one day.

Nonetheless, I preserved through the sore feet, bad equipment, and the chafing. Oh the chafing. Also the ticks. Minnesota has a lot of them, I pulled probably 10+ in all off my shoes, socks, and legs. And that's with enough bug spray to make even an World War 1 commander nervous.

But that was not quite as painful as my other major accomplishment this week: beating Knack. Knack was a PS4 launch title and served as the butt of many jokes this console generation. I wanted to see if the jokes were embellishment and found a used copy for cheap from the local game store (pre-pandemic).

The jokes were not embellished.

Imagine if you were playing Street Fighter, but the collision hit boxes were off. Not by a lot, but by enough that even a casual player would wonder why punching the other dude in the head didn't result in anything happening. Imagine if the animation 'homed' in on the other player. Again, not by a lot. But enough that you execute your super-duper-hyper combo and still hit your opponent even though they clearly jumped over it.

Now imagine if the controls were just suggestions. You execute the 'Dragon Punch', except sometimes it just comes out as a normal punch. Or maybe it careens your character off-screen. Maybe it just doesn't do anything.

Even if all this stuff is only a little bit off, nobody would play that fighting game. It either has to work perfectly or it doesn't work at all. It's not like a racing game where you can flub some of the collision detection, or the cars can be a bit floaty. Everything would still be fun.

Knack wasn't that far off of being a good game. But if you want to make a hard-as-nails action platformer with one hit kills you really need to nail everything. There really isn't any graceful way for the game design to 'decay' here.

Combine that with the game's interminable length, lack of variety in both attacks and enemies, sterile graphics and music, frustratingly bad story, and graphical slowdown and you've got a game that deserves every joke made about it.

Knack does have a sequel. The trail I walked does have an additional 29 miles to it. But my body is not currently ready for more of either.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

It's Certainly Been a Week

I have admittedly not played a lot of video games recently. Some stuff here and there:
  • Minecraft Dungeons: It's baby Diablo. Except Diablo eventually gets a bit boring, but Minecraft Dungeons gets boring immediately.
  • StepMania: In 'normal' Dance Dance Revolution games, the difficulty scale goes from 1-10. With fan mods that scale goes much, much higher. But as a mortal man with a dance pad that likes to slip around my carpet as I play, a scale of 1-10 seems just fine to me. I've gotten to the point where I can beat a song on a difficulty of 6 on the first try, but I tend to fail at 7. It's time to pick a song and learn it, as finishing a 7 is my new goal.
  • Knack: Yes, the PS4 launch title that everyone uses as a punching bag. It's actually kind of a Dark Souls-light, at least on Hard difficulty. The animations are maybe not as tight as they should be, which leads to some frustrating deaths when I get hit by an enemy attack that doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. But dying only pushes you back a couple of minutes to an automatic checkpoint. I'm only on the 4th world of 12 but I really don't hate this game. Maybe it isn't what people wanted as a launch title but on it's own it seems perfectly fine to me.
But the weather and the news cycle has changed, one for the better and one for the worse, and video games are just not a priority for me at the moment.

The weather has been clear, sunny, and not too warm. My energies are feeling a bit pent up from having to stay inside because of the Minnesota winter followed by an Earth plague. There's a trail just outside of my town that goes on for about 50 miles. I have a long-term goal to walk this trail one day. With proper conditioning, and some good equipment, this can theoretically be done in two days. But these legs of mine have sat for about 6 months so it's time to get them off the couch and into the game.

The first outing ended up only being two miles. I decided to take Herbert the EverDog on my journey. She's a trooper, but unfortunately, her tiny Corgi legs aren't really built for distance. We just about made it to the first mile marker when she needed her first break.

We just about made it back to the trailhead when Mrs. Everwake rescued us with the EverCar. She took a big nap after that. The dog that is.

The second day I did about 7 miles. I could have done more but I didn't think to pass a lunch and it turns out hiking eats up a lot of calories. I did manage to go at about 2.75 miles per hour, which is a perfectly good pace, assuming I can actually keep that up for an entire day. I'm eager to get back on the trail. There's a small town about 20 miles into the trail that I would like to make it to next.

I could post more pictures but oddly enough they all pretty much look the same.

But that project has to wait at the moment because one of my basement walls is curving in a way that I find most unsettling.

We've lived in our new house for less than a year and during the winter the basement wall has begun bulging a fair amount. It wouldn't be super noticeable if I didn't have a tall bookcase up against the wall. It's not super uncommon for foundations to move around where we live, my wife, who happens to be an academic in these sorts of things, says the soil is just like that.

It's also causing problems around the house, some of the main floors are uneven, the driveway now slopes down towards the house (channeling water the wrong way) and the garage floor has giant cracks in it.

So the first of three contractors comes today to give us an estimate on the damage. Hopefully, it's only a couple thousand dollars which is a hit we can afford to take. But foundation problems are the most expensive of any house repair problems so it's not unheard of for the final price tag to be in the tens of thousands.

The joys of homeownership.

Hopefully this is just me overreacting and the problem really isn't a problem. Me and the wife have rented for most of our ten years together so it's tough to get a baseline for this stuff. And Google searching the problem leads to a bunch of SEO-optimized crap that doesn't actually help at all, so we are at the whims of the advice of contractors who are here to make a buck off of us. Not a situation I'm loving.

I've written and rewritten a couple of paragraphs on the protests surrounding police brutality in my country about a dozen times. If you're not interested in anymore discussion on this, now would be the time to close the tab. As someone who worked in the public-sphere, particularly in one of the major cities that's seeing protests right now, I can only say that this is the inevitable happenings of what has been wrought.

From my own perspective, police misbehavior is systematic because large swaths of our country view it as an essential feature. I think this Twitter thread from one Minneapolis' councilmen is a quick view into why this is such a difficult problem to solve.

My own, summarized view, is:
  • Civilian control over the police is not great in our cities. Police forces in many cities act autonomously and are very successful, and motivated, to reject any control over their power.
  • They do this through a variety of methods: strong police unions, withholding policing from neighborhoods and council districts that displease them, and aligning their budgets and training through the federal government or even private resources instead of local or state sources.
  • This is all very much by design and coordinated on a nationwide scale. Republicans have long failed to win mayor and council seats in large cities. Instead, conservative groups have made a concerted effort to win favor of policing groups, local judges, prosecuting offices, and influential bureaucrats through any means that isn't actual voting. The justice system in most areas have been effectively captured by a will that doesn't overlap with the cities it represents.
So this situation is going to get worse before it ever gets better because one side is essentially trying to remove a well-entrenched, well-funded, and well-motivated enemy. The other side will defend themselves with a religious zeal because they view "law and order" and "patriotism"  as their exclusive domains, and any criticism of that is a direct attack on them as people. With the demographic shifts in the USA, the Republican Party is forced to resort to more and more desperate power grabs to maintain influence as their ability to win elections becomes diminished. Both sides are scared, and both sides are flailing. And that means it's only going to get messier.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

My Complaints about Blogger, the Shire, Cereal, and My Inability to Phase Through a Graphics Card

For now, I want to return the blog back to a journal style site. I know I'm whiplashing the blog around but I'm stuck at home and bored. And when I'm bored I tinker with things that are working perfectly fine.

At least a blog is a lot less expensive to replace if I can't manage to get it back together again.

Blogger Forcing the New Design, and Why I Want My Own Website

The march of progress continues on unstoppable. For a Google product, that means tinkering and overhauling it while stripping away features and eschewing your current audience in favor of one that probably doesn't exist.

Blogger is no exception to this.

The now inevitable Blogger Redesign is just a "mobile-friendly" version of the site. I think it looks ugly and it makes the dashboard less dense with information. I shouldn't have to scroll through this much to find information I need on a large monitor.

Blogger will allow use of the "old" site for now, but Google kills off actual viable products all the time, there's no chance that a now niche product is going to keep two different versions of the same site.

But I've had problems with Blogger for while longer than this recent development. Recently I found they removed the ability to create pages independent of the blog with their own custom URLs. I don't really use social media and I'm tepid about using flaky cloud services to share things like photos. Recently, I tried sharing a page of my dog's birthday party with my family and it turned out to be way more difficult than it needed to be. The URL to that page is still a mess. I want to do more things like that. Also, things like margins and resizing photos are just a little bit funky. Thus the change.

I haven't been posting this week because I've been working on a new design for this site. I'll probably end up using WordPress for the actual blogging software and something like Digital Ocean for the hosting, but I want the actual HTML and CSS to be by my own hand. I want to create pages outside of this specific blog, but are still tied to this same domain.  This was always the plan way, way back in the day when I started this blog. I obviously have some free time on my hands nowadays, so better late than never.

Blogger is making it difficult to share this dog's smile. Unacceptable.
To borrow a phrase from a once great game developer: The redesign will be out soonTM.

Chex Quest HD

Back in the days of my youth, access to cheap or free games was limited. Every release that made it's way into my grubby hands was a nectar from the Gods. So desperate were these times that one was often forced to terrible acts to obtain gaming goodness.

One of those acts, I am ashamed to say, required the purchase of some god-awful cereal.

Seriously, who eats Chex? Just tear up an Amazon box and pour milk on it. Same thing. Probably the same nutritional profile too.

Anyhow, for those not in the know, Chex Quest was a 1996 promotional game included in boxes of Chex. It was a first person shooter based on the Doom engine. Unlike Doom, it was a family-friendly affair. One does not shoot aliens, they teleport them back to their home dimension.

It was relatively short, but it only cost the price of a box of cereal back in the 1990s. Which was probably like a quarter. I don't remember, I was 8 at the time and wasn't doing a ton of grocery shopping.

Skip to today and the recently released Chex Quest HD. It includes all five original levels, plus some local multiplayer action, and additional characters to play as if you purchase bags of Chex Mix with the corresponding codes. Or just copy the codes from the Internet because I'm not making a convenience store run in the middle of a pandemic for character codes in a multiplayer mode that no one will play in a week. In fact, here are the bloody things:

Fred Chexter - D2af3W
Wheatney Chexworth - D3bg4E
Dr. O'Ryen - D4cj6R
Shane 'The Dread' McBread - D7Gy2u
NACL96 - D5eK9T
P.R.E.T.Z.L. - D6ft1S

Put the code into the prompt on the menu screen.

Does it hold up? The gameplay actually does. For a free, kid-friendly game this would actually be kinda perfect for an hour or two of play.

What lets it down is the terrible performance of the game. Moment to moment gameplay is somewhat choppy and everything feels like its in slow motion. I have this problem even on the lowest graphical settings on the lowest resolution. For the record, I have a RTX 2080 paired with a i7-8700K. I can run Battlefield V at 4K resolution with 60fps. Chex Quest is not optimized well and it makes gameplay distracting. It runs on Unreal Engine 4, we know the engine can do much better than this.

So hopefully they update it with some improvements. It won't matter to me. It takes about 1.5 hours to finish the game and there's no real reason to go back. No Steam Achievements. Apparently each character gets a different ending scene. But I'm going to be honest with you. I don't go deep catalog into Chex Mix Universe.

Installing New M.2 Drive
An M.2 drive is just a fancy hard drive. It combines the speed of a standard solid state drive with the ease of installing a stick of RAM. Find the M.2 slot on your motherboard, unscrew the screw sitting nearby, slide the drive in, and then screw the whole thing. In and out, should be a 2 minute process.

That's the theory of course. And a theory I mistakenly believed in when I bought this thing.

The reality is that the screw needed for the drive was sandwiched in, almost perfectly, in between the fan for my CPU cooler and my graphics card. In order to get to this screw, I had to unscrew and unseat my graphics card, and then disassemble part of the fan. It's not that big of a deal, but it is certainly more than I bargained for.

The culprit here is my motherboard: the MSI Z390-A Pro. It's a large motherboard with room to have put this M.2 drive anywhere it pleased. Sandwiching everything together like they did was asking for trouble, and trouble I received.

My next computer is going to be the size of a small car. Not because I'll need the space to fit all my components, but so that I'll have the space needed to upgrade and maintain my computer without needing to take up a second hobby as a contortionist.

Lord of the Rings Online 
The Shire killed me. I was excited for it. After doing the relatively uninspired Dwarf and Elf starting zones, I though I had saved the best for last. I like Hobbits. I like the Shire. I liked seeing the Shire. But all those running around quests? Delivering pies and mail on foot? LOTRO's version of the Shire is crap. Looks nice, plays like a shopping cart with uranium blocks for wheels.

Ironically, the day I write this I read two different posts in my RSS feed showing love for LOTRO's Shire: Syp and Eliot Lefebvre at MassivelyOP. But both writers of these posts openly credit nostalgia. I do not posses such a thing. The only character I played back in 2007 was a Human leveling in Bree-land.

I did finish the Shire. Every quest in the zone on my Hobbit Burglar. I have every starting experience finished now, at least of the four races that launched with the game. With that done, it was time to return to my Human Champion in the Forsaken Inn. But when I got there I had to read through and accept about 15-20 quests. That's too much reading even for a Tolkien game. My sub ran out the same day so I'm going to let LOTRO cool by the fire for a hot minute. Play some other stuff, and then jump back into it later. Or maybe not, I finished up the base game for Everquest II and haven't been in a huge hurry to get back to that one either. But my moods are cyclical. Anything can happen.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

I Weigh in on Coin Weight in Pantheon

A current trend in MMO blogging got fired up by Belghast stating something obvious about 'coin weight' in Pantheon. That something obvious is that it's bad and trying to replicate a bit of nostalgia that some people wished they had but actually don't.

Syp and Telwyn both weighed in as well.

'Coin weight', for the record, is an extension of inventory weight. Inventory weight is when your character can only carry a certain amount of 'stuff' before you get penalized with either slow or stopped walking speed, removal of fast travel features, or a combination of both.'Coin weight' means that the very currency you carry around contributes to that overall weight as well.

Nobody heard the announcement that coin weight was going to be a feature in Pantheon and jumped out of their seat fist pumping. Some are hopeful that it's a sign the developers take player immersion seriously.

I see people typing that it will add 'realism' to the game. A more articulate argument is that it adds a 'grounding effect' to the game that helps immerse you into the fantasy by still adhering to some realities of our world. 'Realism' doesn't make sense as an argument. Dealing with cumbersome monetary systems has been a problem for as long monetary systems have existed. We didn't invent banks because we just really enjoy terrible customer service. Human beings do what we can to not have to carry a bunch of shit around with us all the time. That's like 20% of human history. If your game includes coin weight, but no other system for trying to avoid it, then you are not being 'realistic'.

Some are arguing that coin weight has intrinsic value because it forces players to make decisions on what to carry with them. Decisions are of course what make video games fun, so more decisions equals more fun. And perhaps sometimes it is fun. Deciding what I'm going to bring with me on a small hike is fun in small doses. Researching and putting together a pack for a long camping trip is certainly fun for some people.

But does anyone get excited packing their bags for a work trip? Is it more likely we create lists and buy packing cubes to make the process as quick and painless as possible? The first time we have to making a decision on what to bring on a play session through Pantheon that mechanic might feel pretty good, for some people. 100 days into the game? Probably not. When it inevitably ends up eating an entire play session forcing you to run back and forth doing inventory management? When you log in after a short break and are forced to deal with your inventory for the first hour? When you have to stop your dungeon run for a minute because you can't remember which crafting mat was marginally more useful than the other one?

On day one, inventory management in Pantheon is going to range from neat to awful. On day 100 it's going to range from whatever to awful. At some point in the game's life, it's going to range from awful to awful and then the game developers are going to get rid of it. (Everquest says 'hi'.)

Coin weight doesn't exist because it's a killer feature for the players. It exists for the benefits of the developers.

Like all art, video games oscillate between creators who make something to please an audience and creators who make something to please themselves. Most work, particularly if it employs more than one creator and would like to make a bit of money, sits somewhere in between these two ideals.

A good arts scene would hopefully be robust enough to support creator-focused games and audience-focused games. And the video games industry is robust enough. But that's often cold comfort when you're staring at a gameplay 'feature' in the present that pretty clearly exists to make someone money, or to make their life easier, and that someone isn't you.

Coin weight exists to fulfill the whims of the creators. I'm not saying it's evil or stupid or greedy or misguided. It just is. And at some point it will not. The original creators will lose their enthusiasm or move on to other projects and will be replaced with someone else. And that someone else will likely not care for coin weight, because the number of people who think that it's a good idea is already low.

Pantheon will not escape the fact that other games have experimented with this feature and eventually discarded it. It will not escape the fact that most players will not want this versus those that do. Coin weight is not an effective game mechanic for creating interesting decisions, it's needlessly complicated compared to other inventory systems in a hobby where players overwhelmingly want their UI to be clear and simple, it's not effective for increasing immersion for very long among even the most hardcore players, and it's certainly not 'realistic'. It will eventually be removed or rendered a non-factor.

But it did create a bit of pre-launch buzz. Which was most likely it's true purpose.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Animal Crossing: The Hero We Need, But Not Right Now

Turns out Animal Crossing wasn't as much fun as I had hoped it would be. I do rather suspect it has less to do with the game itself and more to do with my current mood.

I played a tremendous amount of Animal Crossing: New Leaf (the 3DS predecessor to the current game). And while many things in my life has changed, the world of Animal Crossing has not. And that's probably some of the problem. I've a large amount of the Animal Crossing gameplay loop within the past several years. And it really is the same. The items, the villagers, the mechanics are just ported forward to the Switch version. Nintendo really is concentrating on shipping a minimally viable product at launch and the filling the actual extra features with free or paid DLC nowadays.

The new stuff at launch is worthy of a shoulder shrug. Slightly more viable multiplayer? Terraforming? Endlessly repeatable quests for a different but similar currency? I'm sure this a boon to first time or super dedicated players. But my GameCube copy of the original still works and things just haven't moved enough for me.

But there are other things happening here as well. If you haven't noticed we are in a bit of a pandemic. I've now been stuck in my house and immediate surroundings for about two months now and even this introvert is starting to spinning his wheels. Animal Crossing is mostly about nurturing and organizing your ... house and immediate surroundings. I've had quite enough of that already. Thanks.

It makes sense why I've fallen for Lord of the Rings Online so hard, a game that I bounced off of completely when it first came out in 2007. Back in 2007 I could actually leave my house and do interesting things. In fact I was in college on my own for the first time. That's exactly what I was doing with my free time.

To riff of the famous Clerks 2 skit about Lord of the Rings (NSFW), it's mostly a story about people walking. My ass would love to leave the shire right now.

And the shire I kinda what I have. I live in a small town, in a rural area where the closest major city is several hours away and currently closed because it resides in a different country than me.  There is evil rumored throughout the land but none of it has really hit us, and many in my town don't think it's a threat at all.

My house is a cozy little hobbit hole with a fireplace and plenty of supplies. I rather want to order a sign, 'No Admittance Except on Party Business', to keep my version of the Sackville-Bagginses out.

But I'm not a hobbit, I am, at last check, a man. And as such I require more adventure and whimsy than a hobbit. Cozy and familiar have been not only my last two months, but several months preceding thanks to the Minnesota winter.

I log in to Animal Crossing and do my chores. And then I log off and do my real chores. Having to decide my outfit for the day is laborious enough to do just once. Picking weeds and general lawn care is something I don't need a duplicate of either.

Wrong game at the wrong time. But maybe in 13 years I'll be in the mood for Animal Crossing as well.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Saturday - New Blog Format Same As the (Not Really) Old Format

This is post #101 of this blog. And that means it's time for a shakeup. This blog and I have been together for about nine months. And like most of my relationships, things have gotten stale and we're only sticking together because of the impending pregnancy.

(For my mother, who reads this blog, I'd like to clarify: that was a joke.)

So it's time to mix things up a bit. Add a bit of spice. I think this is the part where me and the blog go to a key party? But I think in the blogosphere that just means guestposting on other people's blogs, and that feels like some SEO bullshit that I'm not feeling.

So I'm heading in a different direction.

Themed days! It's like drink specials at bars except we can't go to those anymore. If you're a dedicated reader to this blog (and of course you are), you've already been thrown into this mad and very innovative experiment. The last three posts have already been published in this format.

I've pulled a tricky one on you. No apologies or refunds offered.

The schedule is like so:
  • Monday - MMO Talk
  • Tuesday - Cooking
  • Wednesday - Books/Reading
  • Thursday - Retro Video Gaming
  • Friday - Computer Hardware 
  • Saturday - Wildcard
  • Sunday - Editorial
The schedule will change. Because change, adjustments, and risk-taking are an important part of the creative process. But it's mostly because I'm lazy and rarely stick with things, unless I've gotten them pregnant, because I am a man of honor (and I've had my passport revoked so I can't flee the country).

The schedule will change because I don't know what some of these topics mean, particularly the weekend ones. Wildcard is like this post. Probably a bit meta. Probably some mild cursing. It's mostly a day to word vomit a topic that won't leave my head. It's like therapy. For me. You're the unwitting therapist. Sorry about that, I forgot my wallet in the car, I'll cover that copay next week.

Editorial is going to be the blog posts that I enjoy writing best, but usually don't set aside the time to do properly. Stuff like the rant on RNG in games I had last week. I don't like that post. I think there is a real good post in there somewhere. A post that explains my thoughts better and has little more substance to it than RNG = dumb. We're going to see if sticking those kinds of posts to one day a week helps it happen.

And if this gimmick doesn't end up improving the blog, or my mood, then I'll pitch it and go back to writing whatever and whenever. But I'm starting my own personal Blaugust Blapril Blay using this format and we'll see how it goes.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Computer Hardware Friday - I'm an Idiot

I think I've marketed towards myself.

Judging from the hellscape that is both my living room and Animal Crossing house, I'm not much an interior decorator. I like clean and well-designed rooms. They make me happy and more productive. I'm just gloriously incapable of creating those rooms myself.

Instead, I just move things. Often to nowhere in particular. Just someplace new.

The doldrums of the pandemic have firmly set in. Spring has finally arrived, for real this time, to our Minnesota home. It's a perfect time to lace up the boots and enjoy the great outdoors.

Except I'm very obviously not going to do that. There are bugs and sunburn out there.

Instead, I've moved my PC to the living room with it's large windows that let me simulate being outside without actually having to put pants on. And it's worked, at least for now, my mood has improved and I'm feeling more productive. I even got a little fancy, and put that expensive gaming computer up on the desk, with the glass side facing me so I can see all the little internals and inexplicable RGB lighting.

I also see an empty M.2 slot on the motherboard. That graphics card also says RTX 2080 right on it. Wouldn't it look better if it said RTX 2080Ti? I'm only using 2 of my 4 RAM slots. I have literally no need for more RAM. But do you think those empty slots get lonely at night? What about that drive bay? You could fit like 6 hard disk drives in that bad boy. Or solid state drives? You don't even technically have to mount them. Just duct tape them in there wherever. No. What a man really needs in life is a 1600 watt power supply. My whole town should know by the lights dimming that Everwake has sat down to play some Minesweeper.

I have marketed towards myself. Where I see slots and space I see opportunity, and my wallet cries out for relief.

"You've been spending so much less money since the pandemic started. You owe it to yourself. Remember that one time you had to uninstall a game? That's just so inconvenient. The only answer is an 8TB hard drive. Look, it's $10 off!"

My usual response to these situations is to close the browser tab. In 24 hours, if I still really want it, I'll go back and buy it. If I go back earlier or later it doesn't count. It's got to be within the 20-28 hour timeframe.

It mostly works.

What usually ends up happening is that I spend a month or so obsessing over something before finally breaking down and getting it. Right now that obsession is a new hard drive. Having the extra space would actually be genuinely useful. The external drives I use for non-gaming storage are slow and one recently failed on me. Screenshots for this blog, ROMs for N64 and PS1 games, and billions of pictures of my dog are taking up more space than I expected. Also, my SSD on this computer is only 250GB. That used to be just fine. Space for Windows, an MMO, and 1-3 games. But now even non-MMOs are taking up 100+ GB of space having more fast storage on hand would certainly be useful.

So what are my options? I keep a 'multi-reddit' that combines several subreddits that collate discounts on games and gaming hardware. At this point I have a pretty good handle on the pricing trends for most things. Storage is about the same as it always is. A little more expensive because of the pandemic perhaps. So there's no real deals to be had right now, and I don't expect there will be anytime soon.

For a fast drive, I want to take the easy route and just plug a M.2 drive in. My eye is on the 1 terabyte Western Digital SN550. The problem is that link is a third-party seller at $20 over MSRP. The drives are sold out most places right now and I'll have to pay premium, and possibly forgo a warranty.

Traditional hard disk drives are better. The prices are about the same and there actually in stock. The bit of friction is that I've never actually installed a HDD in this particular case before. It has a drive bay that I've never seen before. I think it's just a tool less set up, but I'm not 100% on which connectors need to go where to power the thing. I'll figure it out.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Thursday Retro Gaming Post: Where's my Ducking Money?

Somewhere along the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean sits a treasure of immeasurable worth. Well not immeasurable. Actually it's quite measurable. It's about $80 or so. I also don't know if it's along the Atlantic right now or not. It might still be in the clutches of Britannia, or sitting in a warehouse more domestically.

Either way, it's a Raspberry Pi 4 - Model B and a host of accessories that complete any look. It is destined to become my new emulator machine of choice. The prime HDMI port in my game room awaits, relieved of it's duty of carrying the signal of the Steam Link.

(Which, for the record, is a really nice piece of tech, but I really just don't use it that much. It lives on with the bedroom TV now.)

If you are unfamiliar, a Raspberry Pi is a small, credit card sized computer that's cheap and easily customizable. There's a million different uses for it, I use them for gaming because I lack imagination and drive. Anyhow, those with imagination and drive have developed a suite of software that can turn our little buddy into the ultimate retro gaming machine, complete with compatibility for just about every emulator and game from ~2000 to earlier. It has a very handsome UI that's pretty close to what you'd see on the Mini Consoles that have come to fashion of late like the NES Classic.

It's also exceedingly easy to set up and very well documented. Which again, is useful since I lack imagination and drive.

I bought a Raspberry Pi 4 instead of reusing my original Pi or Pi 2 for the extra features. The performance upgrade lets the 4 play PS1 and N64 games without breaking a sweat. It also has built-in WiFi, which keeps shuttling about with SD cards from one device to another at a minimum.

Of course the darn thing has to actually be delivered for any of this to happen. I'm not thick enough to actually rage against a delivery infrastructure dealing with a pandemic. But I'm allowed to sit here and be disappointed. Maybe even whine a bit.

In the mean time my actual retro game playing has been more or less put on hold. (Does Lord of the Rings Online count as retro? It released in 2007 and that's firmly the Xbox 360/Wii/PlayStation 3 era of gaming. I'm not ready for that to be called retro yet. My heart can't take it.)

I have, however, been loading up on podcasts for my marathon walks during this pandemic. Retronauts has been an enjoyable listen, although many of the episodes I want to listen to are behind a Patreon paywall.

I dislike Patreon, not because I don't want to pay creators, I very much do, but because the subscription model doesn't make sense to my brain. I want to pay for a thing and then receive a thing. (Ignore the 15+ years of MMO subscriptions I've been paying at this point.) I guess I'll break down, pay for a month at a premium tier of their service, download all the podcasts, and have effectively done the same thing. But I don't know how that plays nice with my podcast app, so I'll probably be shifting files from my computer to my phone for the first time in years. Gross.

Anyways, I like Retronauts. It's like a book club but for games I've actually played. Which is in contrast to the earning of my English degree, which was a book club for books I avoided reading. It's nicer this time, now that Class Participation isn't 15% of my grade.

The Dreamcast Junkyard Podcast is also on my rotation. It's admittedly a bit more uneven. It's also full of British cultural references that I'm too Yankee Doodle to understand. But it's a pleasant listen and they love the Dreamcast the same way I do: as the fucked up but still somehow favorite child of all my consoles. Sorry PlayStation 2, you may have went to law school and and had your 2.5 children, but the Dreamcast can live in my basement until he's ready to move out. He just needs a bit more time. And money for another doll. I mean action figure. Isn't he so precious?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Wednesday Book Post: Lord of the Rings Offline

Standing Stone Games has generously offered the content of both Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online for free during the pandemic. I opted to take that offer in the case of LotRO. (D&DO is a neat game that I thought translates the D&D experience to an MMO format better than I really thought it possible, but it's not really the kind of MMO I prefer.)

Abbreviated stints aside, the last time I played LotRO in earnest was back at it's launch in 2007. I think I was buying every AAA MMO that was coming out then. I remember my poor budget laptops during college groaning under both the strain of their graphical fidelity and gigabit heft. Either way, LotRO was competing for my limited gaming budget with every other MMO, most notably World of Warcraft in it's prime. So it's not a real surprise that I didn't play much after the initial free month.

This time I've resolved to do a bit better now that I have the free-time of a college student and the computing prowess of a salaried adult. Also, MMOs don't really come out anymore. So that alleviates the competition bit of it.

The game is slow. Sometimes pleasingly so. Sometimes less so. A slower gameplay loop is fine, maybe even ideal for the long play sessions I want. But some of these quests, the Bingo Boffin episodic quests are literally just riding around the shire doing menial chores. I have a tough time believing the grown adult who designed that quest line isn't a bit embarrassed about the whole thing. 

On a positive note, I'm rereading the trilogy as I play along. It's amazing how it makes both the game and the books less dense. I hate, hate, hate when books info dump a bunch of proper nouns on me. It's why avoided science fiction and fantasy for much of my life. Tolkien arguably started that nonsense, so I should hold more of a grudge. But I plowed through the original trilogy initially because it was genuinely good (and out of a sense of obligation to an influential work). But I felt my enjoyment of the hobbits and company were limited because I lack the kleptomaniac joy of looting names and places that don't really exist. An author does their best to recreate the Book of Genesis and my eyes glaze over.

But it's better with both the book and the MMO at hand, especially the geography. Instead of quickly reading past a smattering of tweedish village names, I can close my eyes and visualize the in-game maps to see exactly where they are. That makes them more concrete in my mind. The names as well. We have a million, trillion hobbit names that become a bit more manageable when I've at least spent some time running their pies or murdering the local wild life for them in game.

It all feels much, much more real to me. More immersive. I get the superior storytelling of the books, plus the comfortable interaction of the MMO. It makes me wish we had more like that. Obviously the popular bit is to turn printed works into movies and TV shows. Which is fine and dandy enough (the wife and I are enjoying the Good Omens series currently). But what I want are video game adaptations that add to the source material.

I mean they exist, obviously, but not quite in the same way LotRO does it. I mean, Ubisoft publishes another Tom Clancy game every half hour, but those are only vaguely related to their source material. I can't play through the plot of The Hunt for Red October in any meaningful fashion. Rainbow Six is both a good book and a good game franchise, but they don't really have anything to offer one another other than the name.

Telltale has adapted the Walking Dead in a similar manner. But adventure games and visual novels don't really scratch that game playing itch for me. They tingle the reading part of my brain. (Also, I've found every incarnation of the Walking Dead to be laboriously boring.)

Video game adaptations used to come out all the time back in the 80s-2000s. But they were by the rule, crap, and rarely had the care put to them that LotRO does. Granted, maybe most media just doesn't deserve the care the Tolkien gets, but I don't think that's quite fair.

One thing I do wish for was a reading guide along with the game. The LotRO story line doesn't place you in Frodo Baggins entourage, but has you running adjacent errands that occasionally intersect with important lore characters. At first I thought the naming scheme to the game's epic quest coincided with the book's chapters. The game labels them Volume I, Book 1, Chapter 8 for example. But neither the volume, the book, or the chapter actually seems to correspond with the books themselves. Certainly an easier conceit for the game designers, but it hurts me in my overly-controlling aspects of my brain.

Perhaps I'll make my own guide. I have nothing but free time at the moment. I'm currently level 24 and have finished 99% of all the quests in Bree-land. I'll grind out the last of the slayer deeds in this area and then I have to make some decisions. Which zone do I take my Human Champion to next? Or, do I roll a Hobbit/Dwarf/Elf and see the story line of the other starter zones. The Shire quests in particular are tugging at me. Should I simply do those quests on my main? Can I actually do most of those quests on my human main? If I do roll alts to handle the unique leveling zones, what do I do with them? Are there enough leveling zones throughout the rest of the game to support leveling multiple characters without repeating content? Lots of decisions, but again, I have nothing but time.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Motivation vs. Priorities

Up to this point, I have ignored the suggested prompts for all of Blapril. Today I'm going to indulge on this week's theme of keeping up motivation because a writer writing about motivation is the craft's most common self-wank and I'm not about to miss out on that.

And because finding one's motivation is such a common topic, nothing I'm going to say here is profound. I have nothing to say that every sentient being on Earth hasn't heard a million times before. But it's helpful for me to think about this stuff a lot. Maybe if I write it down I can make it stick a little longer than it usually does. Maybe if I write it down it'll help someone else too.

I don't think the concept of motivation by itself is all that useful. I think it's more helpful to think of either priorities or prospective priorities. Priorities are the things we actually do in our life. Motivation is required for the things we would like to become priorities but currently aren't.

Priorities aren't things you need to put on your to-do list. If your kid falls off the swing and comes up a bloody mess, do you need to check your calendar before running to help them? I'm guessing probably not. That's what a priority looks like. It doesn't necessarily have to be the routine things we do everyday, but also the things we would stop at nothing in order to accomplish when the opportunity arises. But either way, priorities are the things we actually do. Not the stuff we want to do.

The issue is that our priorities are often not what we want them to be. We want to read more every week, but really we just keep playing World of Warcraft. Leveling your Warlock is actually the priority whether we like it or not.

If I want to be a great writer one day, then I probably need to wake up at the crack of dawn and type into this machine for about 4-6 hours every day. If I don't do that then I don't get to be a writer. Those are basically the rules.

Yes it's all arguing semantics. You have a different definition of priority. That's fine. We both have a concept of things that are important to us, and the things we want to be important to us. Call them whatever you want. I call them priorities.

And semantics is the everything in this game. I'm sure there are tons of writers who write more or less, do it at different times of day, on different brands of computers, etc. And what is a writer anyway? Do they write books? Articles? Blogs? Copy? Both the priority, the actual execution of the priority, and the motivation are up for debate. But they have to be something, and they have to be concrete, or they probably aren't going to get done.

But it's your priority and motivation. You'll have to decide what is what. And that makes things even more complicated. But if it's really a priority, you'll figure out all the details anyway. If you drop a prospective priority because you couldn't figure out how to define your goals, or how to fit it into your schedule then it wasn't a priority.

What's motivation's role in all this? Do you want to be the person who reads a book every week? Why? The why is the motivation. Either you have a good answer to 'Why?' or you don't. I don't think there is a whole lot of good advice that can be given on motivation. It's too personal. If you fail your quest it's because you:
  • lost sight of your answer to the 'Why?' question, 
  • you found out that your answer just wasn't very good at all.
  • something changed in your life and consequently changed your priorities and motivations.
And all that's fine.

Motivations that weren't that strong in the first place tell us we are meant to be someone else. That someone else can still be a perfectly good person. There are a lot of wonderful things in this world to achieve and do, and nobody can experience them all.

Lots of times we find out our motivations weren't very strong because we simply didn't know enough when we wanted to make something a priority. It means we're learning and moving forward with our lives.

And finally, life changes people. If you have a newborn, it can't be a priority to go out with your friends 3 times a week. This literally cannot be considered a 'failure', it's just means were reacting to the realities of life.

A lot of the Blapril posts about motivation right now are about how you shouldn't feel bad because you didn't blog enough posts or ended up taking a hiatus from writing. And you shouldn't feel bad. At this moment in time, maybe blogging every single day wasn't actually a priority. Maybe blogging everyday isn't actually a good goal. Or maybe, in the middle of a once in a generation global fucking pandemic, your priorities were elsewhere.

I make priorities and motivations concrete concepts because it helps takes the mystical 'what-you-should-be-doing' out of the equation. I don't have a goal, I have a priority. And I don't have declarations of intent, I have a motivation. And if I fail it's because that's how life is at that moment of time, and not because I'm a total piece of shit.

It feels rotten to not have your priorities match up with your prospective priorities. But if you're a human being of any ambition then that's going to be the case no matter how wildly successful you are. You will always want more self-improvement. You will always want to write checks that your skills and energy can't cash. You will always want to be better at something, or less bad at something, or learning a new skill all together. And if you fail at making something a priority, then just try it again. Or try it from a new motivation. Or drop it all together and use what you learned to focus on the next thing. Your priorities and prospective priorities will never be in sync. So why beat yourself up about it?

Again, I know I haven't written anything profound here. And my life would probably be a lot better if I took what I wrote to heart more often. But when I'm actively using this idea of priorities versus motivation I find that I'm happier and more productive. Maybe something in all of this rambling will be useful to someone else too.

Monday, April 27, 2020

X-COM: Chimera Squad and Fake Difficulty - A Game That Finally Does It Right

I don't have a tremendous amount of Dungeons & Dragons experience. I've played one long campaign of 3.5 edition and am currently playing through a 5th edition campaign.

One thing that quickly stood out to me between these two games is the amount of meaningful decision making 5th edition allows players versus 3.5. My biggest complain with 3.5 is that I would move my character, roll the dice, get a low number, frown at the dice, and then announce "And now my turn is over". This was always followed up with the DM or another player remarking how "you should roll better". At first I assumed we were all joking in jest at the absurdity of rolling dice to see if we could have fun that turn. Then I realized, they actually meant it. There were honest to god people in the world who didn't know the difference between playing poorly and rolling poorly.

In the last ten years, I've come to learn that this is a widespread phenomenon.

With 5th edition I've encountered this situation exactly once. And on a fighter no less, which historically has been a fairly brainless class to play. At only level 3, I have a wide variety of attacks, support, utility, and even just flavor options I can do in the middle of a battle. If I roll low on my attack dice, I can use a maneuver and try to boost that up. But I can only do that so many times, and at the cost of other options, and thus, is a meaningful and interesting decision.

I'm to understand that this move from relying on random dice rolls to actual player agency was a main driving point behind development of the 5th edition. Thank the Gods. It got to a point I was  half-dreading when D&D night rolled around, because it was mostly going to be 3 hours of rolling dice and bickering about the rules. Now it's a puzzle to solve every turn (in addition to bickering about the rules).

I picked up X-COM Chimera for $10 on a lark. I'm glad I did. It's the 5th edition version of X-COM.

Someone usually pitches a fit when I say it, but the original 1990s X-COM games, and even the 2012 remake, were really just dice rolling simulators in the guise of strategy games. I'm not pretending that there weren't meaningful decisions being made, but the lack of knowable information combined with the heavy randomness meant that player agency was never as important as the games put on. X-COM was always played best as a "here's a chaotic, potentially unwinnable situation, make the best out of it" rather than "here's an actual video game meant to be played by human beings, you can use your wits and learning to win".

Increasing the difficulty always made this worse rather than better. In the early 1990s games, the AI was rarely "smarter", the game just punished you more for mistakes, whether those mistakes were avoidable or not.

I'm playing Chimera Squad on Normal and it's so much better in this regard. Now, mistakes, or just getting unlucky does mean you are irreversibly screwed. It just puts you into the "stuff went wrong, and now there's chaos, use your wits and learning to find a way out of it" mode. It's the actual fulfillment of what the original games would have been in more capable hands. The extra 20 years of game design progress shows. The reviews I've read online want to complain about normal being "too easy" when they really mean it's not "needlessly punishing". The more difficult modes exist for these people, who I presume have reservoirs of free time they happily throw at an experience designed to make them frustrated.

I play video games for many reasons. To be challenged? Very much so. To be frustrated? No. And I think there is a lot of people who let that difference get away from them I think those people tend to be the ones who play games the most and tend to be the most vocal. So we develop this idea that a needlessly punishing video game is the normal instead of recognizing it as the filler that it is. I remember when Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls each came out and you can see large swathes of the Internet realize what an actual challenging game looks like. It took nearly 40 years, but we are finally moving on from the fake difficulty of quarter eating arcade machines to games designed to challenge and entertain actual human beings.

A challenging, potentially unwinnable game can be fine. Video games are art. They should be allowed to encompass a large variety of the human experience. But leaving behind the "radical, this game is going to kick your ass" ethos of the 80s and 90s is a good thing. Frustration simulators are being relegated back to the niche where they belong, instead of being secretly crammed into every release.

Despite our best efforts, video games are evolving as a medium.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Why do eSports streams contain so little gameplay?

This morning I decided to change up the old morning routine and have a bit of eSports on in the background. I click on a Counter Strike: GO stream, and it's three people without chemistry talking to each other about parrots. I click on a Dota 2 stream and it's two guys talking about girls in dresses. I click on an Age of Empires 2(!) esports stream and it's one guy talking to chat about Bud Light. I click on yet another CS:GO stream and it's on a 5 minute ad break.

Why do eSports streams contain so little eSports?

This is explicitly why I stopped watching several years ago. Every ten minutes of gameplay would soon be broken up by 20 minutes of commercials or talking heads. American Football gets the reputation for being 20 seconds of action followed by 40 seconds of standing around, but even that is superior to the equivalent of a half-time show after every match.

The only streams that seem to defy this are fighting game streams, and most fighting game enthusiasts say they belong to the FGC (Fighting Game Community) and not eSports. I think that's a smart decision.

I guess the difference is that most viewers are perhaps not channel surfing like I am. They have their game, they know when the events happen, and they'll stick around to watch no matter what. I guess at that point having as much padding as you can so you can show more ads makes sense. But I have to think this puts a major cap on how big eSports can conceivably get. If you're just shutting out casual observers completely you will always be a niche product.

And I'd rather eSports not just stay niche. I like sports, I like eSports. I like to watch both. But sports have recently had a reckoning on how much filler they could fit into their shows. The National Football League banned commercials after kickoffs. Major League Baseball drastically cut down on the length of commercial breaks between innings. Even the big boys know their is a limit to a viewer's patience.

But eSports hasn't learned that lesson yet. I suspect because the producers of major eSports leagues are failed executives in real sports leagues. So they jam the product full of ads and 'analysis'. But I don't like ads, particularly when I pay for an ad free experience, and I don't like talk shows, which is primarily what eSports events have become.

And so I plead to the Internet Gods: "Please let video game streams be about people playing videos games. Thank you."

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Minecraft RTX and Ray Tracing

Either Microsoft hands beta invites out like candy or I'm on somebody's good side, because I find myself getting email after email inviting me to this beta or that. Except for the one Microsoft beta that I actually want to be on, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. I'm never happy.

Today's invite was for the Halo 2 beta on Steam. That's not very exciting as I was planning on playing it anyways. Might as well keep that one in the back burner until it's actually released.

About a week ago I got notice that I could start playing the Minecraft RTX beta. My qualifications are the ownership of an RTX 2080 and my ability to navigate the labyrinth that is the Xbox Insider software program.

I'm a poor Minecraft player. I lack creativity, patience, and am a graphics snob. Not a good combination. But the trailer NVIDIA put out for the RTX beta did look good.

RTX for the record is NVIDIA's take on ray-tracing, a fancy graphical upgrade I'm not convinced anyone actually understands. But it supposedly does some very smart things with how a computer renders a game to your monitor. And all this cleverness allows game developers do some beautiful things with the lighting.

Despite being a major selling point for NVIDIA's high-end graphics cards, less than 10 games actually take advantage of it any major way. But the games that I have played that do take advantage? They are drop dead gorgeous. Battlefield 5 and Anthem genuinely feel on another level from other games I play on this machine. I don't know if that's RTX or just having access to sky-high production values. I put 30 hours into Anthem, which is just not a very good video game, because the graphics were just so damn pleasing to look at.

Like I said, I'm a graphics snob.

So what does ray tracing do for poor, homely old Minecraft? Here's a somewhat unfair comparison to start with.

Vanilla Minecraft:

Minecraft RTX:

Obviously, some of that's superior level design. The top is my work and the bottom is whatever professional NVIDIA contracted to. But you can see both the changes in the lighting and in the textures.

I'm not sure if screenshots do it justice, it might be worth finding a YouTube video or Twitch stream of it. Just tweaking the lighting in a game doesn't seem like it does much. Even from a screenshot  there isn't huge differences. But in motion it really is impressive. Both the PS5 and the new Xbox will be using ray-tracing so I'm quite excited to see the technology gain some momentum.

The downside to these improved graphics is the major performance hit. My rig plays normal Minecraft in the hundreds of FPS. With RTX it's about 30fps. The difference is noticeable while playing and if I have to choose between ray-tracing and 60fps I think I would lean towards ray tracing.

Sorry that this picture is dark. I tried to use the Xbox Game Bar to take screenshots and it's just awful.
So that's ray-tracing in a nutshell, interesting and full of potential, but currently not much to write home about. Like HDR, it's not really one specific technology but a handful of different technologies that all fall under one umbrella. And like HDR, hardware and software developers are going to take advantage of ray tracing to various degrees. I hope the new batch of consoles will make the premium those of us with RTX cards spent worth it.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Animal Crossing: Earth Day, Dreamcast: Year One,

I've only done a bit of gaming the past two days. I've ironically been more social than ever during this pandemic. Now all of my "normie" friends are forced to communicate through voice chat, web calls, and discord servers. They are in my world now.

The "Earth Day" event in Animal Crossing turned out to be a bust. It's literally one very small mini-quest a day which earns you additional Nook Miles, a currency I was already swimming in. There's an NPC that sells bushes. I can now craft shrubs. I'm not sure how one really "crafts" shrubs, but I'm a blogger, not a gardener.

The weather has been great this week. In the real world I mean. The weather is always great in Animal Crossing. Which is actually a problem, because I need rainy days to fish up some of the rarer fish. I've never been happy.

Dreamcast: Year One
Back in the halcyon days of 2019, when I could leave the house for a coffee without relieving someone's grandma of her ability to breathe, a little book about the launch year of the Sega Dreamcast was Kickstarted successfully.

(I didn't Kickstart the book, I bought it normally like a normal person after the normal process of waiting for them to (normally) print the things and then sell them for a guaranteed price, you know, like normal. I may not be great with money, but I don't spend it on things that don't actually exist yet. I know lots of people who did Kickstart things like books, board games, and video games and are all perfectly happy with the process. But I've never seen any sense in it. I like to exchange my currency for goods and services, not the promise thereof. Maybe I just lack enough risk tolerance in my portfolio. My entire retirement fund is gold bars buried in my backyard.)

Anyhow, the book arrived from the far flung reaches that is the England, which I was pleased to find still exists in these days. The book arrived a bit scuffed though. They managed to find an envelope that fit the book perfectly. But like a well-fed woman in an evening gown, a perfect fit is not always a perfect fit. I'm a little bit disappointed, I did pay extra for a physical copy instead of the eBook so it would look nice upon my shelf. The spine is in decent enough shape so perhaps it's fine.

I spent ten minutes looking for a joke about judging a book for it's cover. I have remembered that I have never once been funny. Shame that.

My expectations were a bit out of wack for what it was. I was expecting something a bit more comprehensive. A real deep dive into a console that's come to represents both the end of an era (an end of Sega hardware and an end of arcade-focused gameplay,) and the beginning of a new one (online focused gaming). But the book is a little more pedestrian than that. And for $5 (for the eBook) that's really what I should have been thinking.

So with expectations realigned what do we have here? About 23 pages covering the development and launch of the Dreamcast, 38 pages of interviews with gaming media and the then President of Sega America Bernie Stolar, and then about 30 pages of quick blurbs about some of the games that came out that first year.

At the end of the day, I think I would have rather had one full-sized book about any of these topics. But I do mostly like what is here. The intro to the production and launch of the Dreamcast is a story I've read many times, but this was the first publication I know of that focused on the European side of the story. I do hope the author (or someone) will take up the mantle and give it the full book-treatment it deserves.

The interviews are probably the best stuff here. Bernie Stolar has given a number of interviews at this point, so there's not too much new here. His tenure at Sega (at Sony before that) didn't end amicably and he's usually happy to share his thoughts on those matters. The other interviews are mostly gaming magazine writers from the era. These were fine, but the interviews naturally end up about life in the gaming magazine industry, which isn't really what I came here for. The last interview is with the proprietor of the Dreamcast Junkyard, which is a great blog you should binge read if you have any interest in the Dreamcast at all.

The quick blurbs about each game are easily the most disappointing in this book. Only about 20 games get mentioned, and most are about two paragraphs each, which isn't enough to say anything at all. Some of the blurbs are written by the Kickstarter backers. I hate this idea. It's probably great for fundraising but doesn't add anything.

I'm not sure if I'll get Dreamcast: Year Two. I like the idea, but didn't care for the execution. Maybe I'll find myself more satiated with a cheap digital edition. But I really do hope the author decides to go in a more robust direction. There's a lot to say about the Dreamcast, and I'd love to hear it.