Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
DVD player region free hack

I am part of a minority on the internet in that I am against pirating content. I do believe that content creators need to eat too, so I prefer buying my films and TV series on DVD or paying for them via Netflix rather than downloading them somewhere for free. But while I recognize the right of authors to get paid, I do not recognize the right of media companies to price gouge and charge me extra or deny me access based on where I live. I don't see why I should throw away the DVDs I bought when I was in the USA and pay for them a second time if I want to watch them again in Europe.

I am currently in the process of refurbishing my den. I threw out a 20-year old sofa and bought a comfy recliner chair. And then I decided to disconnect my Playstation 3, which I never use for gaming any more, and connect a new Blueray / DVD player to the den TV instead. But as I have a number of region 1 DVDs, I knew I needed a region-free DVD. The last time I asked for one in a shop they told me that they didn't sell those, but that was just a mix of the official party line and pure ignorance. DVD players you buy in Europe are by factory default set to play only region 2 DVDs. But many of them can easily be hacked to become region free by typing in a few numbers into the remote.

So I found the right website with information about DVD player hacks, and went to the store armed with my smartphone. I looked at the various models of DVD players on display and checked them against the DVD hack database until I found one that was easily modified. That worked very well, and back home a few touches of the remote later the new player is now able to play all my DVDs, regardless where I bought them.

In a previous thread a reader commented that circumventing regional restrictions is technically smuggling. And smuggling has always been a weird crime insofar as it often is outlawed, but the average person doesn't consider it to be immoral. It isn't as if you aren't paying for your goods, you just don't pay additional tolls and refuse to abide additional regional restrictions. In a world of globalization, free trade, and the internet, I can see a future in which regional restrictions will slowly disappear. Netflix is already working on providing a global service in the near future. And if the makers of DVD players really believed in the necessity of region codes, they wouldn't have built over 7000 different models of Blueray / DVD players that can easily be made region-free.

Sunday, May 22, 2016
Circular economy

Playing Free2Play mobile games I used to get pestered frequently by various games asking me to give them money. "Pay now, and get energy to play some more! Pay now, and get in-game resources!", the typical monetization schemes for "free" games, some very much in your face, others far more discreet. One learns to ignore them and play those games for really free, or if they are blocking your progress too much without payment, you just uninstall the game. But I've noticed that there is some development: More and more frequently games don't ask me for money, but instead offer the same energy or resources in exchange of me watching some advertisement. Watch a short video for some *other* mobile game, and get the same sort of reward you used to have to pay for, albeit usually in smaller portions.

Of course I understand what is going on here: The devs of game A get some of the advertising budget of game B for every player they can persuade to watch the advertising video of that game. It is another form of micro-payment, but this time really, really micro, and just demanding time from the player instead of money. Or in advertising speech, "eyeballs".

In 2015 in the US a whopping $30 billion was spent on mobile advertising, and that is expected to grow to $42 billion in 2016. That'll pay for a whole lot of micro-payments for Free2Play games. But I'm questioning the wisdom of this, because I see two fundamental problems here: The first is diminishing returns, the more you are asked to watch advertising, the less impact that advertising has. The game can't control if you are actually watching, or whether you basically trade 30 seconds of time looking elsewhere for your free energy or resources.

The second problem is that this business model is in danger of becoming circular: Game A gives you free stuff in exchange for watching a video advertising game B, while game B gives you free stuff in exchange for watching a video advertising game A. The overall effect is that neither game A nor game B is making any money, because people watch adverts instead of paying anything.

There are now over half a million games on the Apple app store alone, and a similar number (of often the same games) on Google Play, with about 200 games getting added every single day. That makes the 6,000+ games on Steam look like a meager offer. But as much gaming, and especially mobile gaming, has become main stream, there are natural limits to growth, both in the time people have available to play and in the amount of money they are willing to spend on games. A few people have gotten very rich selling mobile games, but a much larger number of people has gotten nowhere and lots of game studios have had to shut down. The richer game companies giving their advertising budget to the poorer game companies serves to spread the wealth around a bit more, but it isn't creating any more wealth.

I'm sure this trend of getting stuff for watching adverts will continue for some while, but at some point advertisers will realize they aren't getting enough bang for their bucks, and mobile games will turn to the next big idea in monetization.

Thursday, May 19, 2016
Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 05

In the previous session the constables of the RHC battled evil spirits on the top of Cauldron Hill. Before that fight they had shared a vision with the skyseer that had warned them of an imminent arson attack on the factory of the skyseer's nephew, Heward Sechim. So now they descended from Cauldron Hill, in order to prevent that arson.

On their way down they had to pass by the manor of Mayor Macbannin, which they found unusually animated given that it was 2 am: The mayor was standing in pyjamas and bathrobe in his courtyard, discussion with a patrol of 6 soldiers, led by a Lieutenant Dale. An army post in the city had seen the bright lights of the magnesium grenade on top of Cauldron Hill (which had started the combat) and had come to investigate. The mayor explained that he had failed to notify the military that there would be somebody on top of the hill, and hadn't expected the bright light. The constables commandeered the patrol of soldiers to come with them to the factory (something they can do due to their prestige rating with Risur), while sending Nevard the skyseer back by carriage to his henge.

Arriving at the factory they found 2 dragonborn with 4 human minions setting up flammable liquids around the factory and the roof, which they had brought with a cart. Shouting "Stop! Police!" the constables started combat. The paladin marked the dragonborn pyromancer on the roof, which had important consequences. Instead of casting his wall of fire to include the cart with the flammable liquids (as foreseen in the tactics section of that encounter), the pyromancer was forced to include the paladin in his spell area, so he cast it across the street, dividing the group in two. The flamboyant and the sorceress of the group had advanced along the street to get line of sight into the alley around the corner of the factory to attack the dragonborn warrior and the minions there. Now they found themselves separated from the rest of the group by a wall of fire, and being attacked by that dragonborn warrior.

But the group pressed ahead, some moving through the wall of fire in spite of the damage received, some going around via the roof of the factory. The invoker cast a spell that pulled the dragonborn pyromancer off the roof, resulting in serious fall damage. Being just hired for the arson, the dragonborn brothers decided that it wasn't in their interest to fight to the death against a group that wasn't easy to dissuade. Leaving their minions behind they fled the scene in the third round of combat. The group had lost only some of the allied soldiers (also just minions), and easily managed to extinguish the factory fire caused by the wall of fire because the cart hadn't exploded.

The group got in a few hours of sleep before their daily status meeting at the RHC headquarters at 8 am. Their boss, Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft, wasn't very hopeful that their help to the skyseer would result in viable information about the eco-terrorist Gale and her network. So while they were waiting on that, Delft told them to investigate other clues. They had previously found an invoice about 2450 gold worth of potions and alchemical materials, signed "D.W.", and the inspector wanted to know about who was supplying the terrorists. He suggested that Nilasa's accomplices, recently caught in a raid and currently in jail, might provide some information. The group sensed that the inspector was more a believer in solid police footwork than heroic actions, and decided to do that next.

Having finished the section of the adventure dealing with Cauldron Hill and the aftermath, the group gained level 3. So we ended the session there.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Gamist vs. Worldist

I've always been very much interested in game design. Most of the time I experience game design from the point of view of the consumer, the player. But some of the important game design questions from the developer's point of view do pop up when I am the dungeon master (DM) in a pen & paper roleplaying campaign. And maybe the most fundamental one of them is the question of whether to be gamist or worldist in your design.

Gamist design considers the game to be first and foremost a game. It doesn't matter what the numbers represent, but it is important that the game achieves a state of "flow", where every single encounter is perfectly balanced to be neither too easy, nor too hard.

Worldist design considers that everything in the game represents something in the game world, and that it is most important that this world is believable. There need to be interesting decisions which result in real consequences.

Most games are a mix of the two. Some people deplore that the gamist design philosophy is on the rise in video game design, leading to games in which you always win, always progress, and never experience setbacks. But there is also a backlash of extreme worldist game design, with unforgiving sandbox gameplay with very little flow. Neither gamist nor worldist game design is wrong, the eternal quest is to find the good balance between the two of them.

In terms of a DM of a pen & paper roleplaying game, some of the choices are inherent in the system you play. For example 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is very gamist, and a character or monster can be at the same time frozen and on fire, poison gas affects some monsters who obviously don't breathe, and you can strangle a gelatinous cube. But there are still gamist vs. worldist design decisions to make in the way that you run an adventure.

The gamist view of a D&D adventure is that the story is a thinly veiled excuse for players to go to a dungeon or similar place and have a series of perfectly balanced tactical combat encounters. Some DMs go so far as to fudge dice rolls when things go wrong, so as never to kill player characters. The worldist view is that the DM represents a fantasy world which has to be believable and logical, and there have to be consequences to the decisions of the players.

On the one side Sid Meier once said that a good game is a series of interesting decisions. On the other side in order for interesting decisions to exist, there needs to be visible difference in outcome between the consequences of each decision. Which means that if the players make a "bad" decision, logically the outcome has to be bad as well.

A typical problem here is if the players know about a location where a large number of monsters reside. They could decide to approach that location carefully and try to find smaller groups of monsters to attack, or they could go with what one of my old groups called "Plan A" and just do a frontal attack. It is inherent to the system design of D&D that fighting a number of smaller groups is easier than fighting all of those monsters at once. So in a worldist design the players have a choice between several easy fights or one big and hard fight. A gamist design would want to avoid that situation, because the philosophy is to only have balanced fights. To some degree dungeons are inherently gamists, because outside a few rare occasions the monsters in a dungeon never cooperate and are usually encountered small group by small group, with nobody ever raising an alarm. But once you play an adventure outside a dungeon setting, more worldist consideration tend to appear.

Personally I am principally opposed to fudging dice and guaranteeing a good outcome of any encounter regardless of player decisions. For me decisions need to matter, or they aren't fun. But I would try to keep the encounters in a certain range: A good decision might lead to an easy encounter, but which still isn't trivial; the bad decision would lead to a hard encounter, without that being an automatic total party kill or frustrating.

The main problem is how to signal that to players who are gamist in their personal expectations. The people going always for Plan A, frontal assault, are those who had the experience of gamist design in which Plan A still leads to a balanced encounter which the players would win without too much trouble. So why come up with a complicated plan if you expect equally balanced encounters regardless of what you do? On the other hand if every decision has too serious consequences, the game stalls into an endless discussion because players don't dare to make a move in fear of that being the wrong move. How does one keep the game going without making decisions either terrifying nor inconsequential? 

Friday, May 06, 2016
Tabletop game companion apps

A reader wrote me in response to my previous post and asked me to look at another area of overlap between video games and board games: The board games companion apps that are more and more available these days. Board Game Geek has a long list. These companion apps are supposed to be running on a tablet next to your board game on the table, fulfilling various functions like scoring, rolling dice or other things.

Fantasy Flight Games has even announced a companion app for Descent which replaces the "Overlord" aka DM of that game. That means you need one less player available, and it changes the nature of the game from antagonistic (one player vs. the other players) to cooperative (all players vs. the computer).

Roleplaying games without a "Dungeon Master" or "Game Master" have become quite popular. As my previous journal entry from my D&D campaign showed, even the most well-meaning DM can sometimes come into conflict with his players, because the perception of where the line between dangerous and unfair is varies from player to player. If you don't create danger as the DM you fail in your job to create an interesting heroic story, but if you push it too far your players can get frustrated and angry. The same can happen with players getting angry about random events in a DM-less game, but at least the anger isn't directed against one of the people around the table.

Companion apps that replace a DM open some new doors to DM-less games, with an app replacing the DM. Of course that has many of the same limitations as playing a computer RPG, that is your actions are limited to what the rules say you can do, and you can't have a human DM giving you a creative response to your creative idea that goes beyond rolling dice and the information on your character sheet. As an interactive storytelling game, DM-less games are less suited. But if your interest is mostly in the cooperative tactical game of exploring dungeons and killing monsters for loot, a DM-less game with or without a companion app can be a good solution.

Note that even for pen & paper roleplaying games *with* a DM there are companion apps and other software to help the DM, for example with keeping score or managing monsters and characters. You could even build yourself a table with a touch screen embedded for digital maps! Or install a projector on your ceiling for the same effect.

In short, just because you prefer to play with friends around a table rather than playing a videogame online or solo doesn't mean you can't use the power of computers for some help and added effects.

Thursday, May 05, 2016
The gamification of board games

This being 2016 I am actually wondering if I can assume that everybody in my audience has played board games, because one could well imagine a teenager having grown up with video games instead of board games. Anyway the last years have seen a large number of board games transformed into video games, especially on tablets, as the touch screen controls tend to work great for the simulation of a board game. There have also been a number of video games that are purely digital, but pretend to simulate a card game or board game that doesn't exist in physical form. This mixing of two different worlds, tabletop games and video games, has led to some interesting mixes of game design elements as well.

A typical board game is designed to be played by a number of players sitting around a table for a limited time, a few hours at most. At the end of the game, the components go back into the box, and the next time the game is played it is set up to the initial state. There is no persistence or effect of the previous game on the next. There are no rewards for playing or winning, other than the intrinsic fun of playing itself.

The video game simulations of board games are naturally faster than the originals, because the computer takes care of things like shuffling cards, setting up pieces, and stowing them away after use. And frequently you can play them solo against the AI, which makes the game even faster, because it takes out all the bantering between players. Playing alone also means you can play more frequently and possibly for longer than if you have to gather friends around a table. All this leads to a problem: The intrinsic fun of playing has naturally diminishing returns, and while for the physical board game it might take you quite a while before you play it a dozen times with friends, the video game simulation solo form you can play a dozen times in a day or a weekend.

Video games are designed differently than board games. They are inherently longer, a 10-hour board game would be considered nearly impossibly long, while a 10-hour video game is considered somewhat short. Most video games don't constantly start over in the same state again, but offer either a long story to go through, or some persistent character progress making your character for the next game somewhat better than he was in the first game.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, board game version, has some persistence, although that is more an inheritance of pen & paper roleplaying games than of video games: At the end of the game you keep the deck that you modified through playing, and you potentially also get persistent rewards in the form of more skills, powers, or cards. There is also a long story, with the base set already having 8 scenarios, and you can buy adventure decks to draw that out into a campaign of 33 scenarios without having to reset.

In Pathfinder Adventures, the video game adaptation, there are currently only 13 of those 33 scenarios available (although buying the $25 bundle gives you access to all 33 once they come out). Having played this extensively over the last week, I have played through those 13 scenarios with different groups and group sizes (I recommend 4). It took me some time at the start to realize that this is better played like a board game, including voluntarily resetting and starting over with new characters instead of switching characters in and out of an existing group. But even with resets the fun doesn't last forever. And the developers are aware of that, and added a different play mode which works more like a video game: Quest mode.

In quest mode you play through random scenarios, earning experience points, which then give you levels, which then give you added skills, powers, or cards. Unfortunately I didn't get to test that out yet, because in the release version there is a serious bug which makes quest mode unplayable, and I need to wait for the first patch to fix that. But I found the concept of further gamification of the base board game towards a video game quite interesting. It is something I have observed before: For example in the Civilization series of games, when you start a new game that new game doesn't remember any progress from the previous game; in the newer Thea: The Awakening, which is a somewhat similar 4X game, your success in the game levels up your god, which can then be used in a stronger form in the next game, and unlocks new gods. So there are some interesting game design concepts to explore at the frontier between board games and video games.

Monday, May 02, 2016
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

When you play a classic board game like Risk or Monopoly, each player starts out exactly the same. The first game I played back in 1983 that didn't work like that was Talisman, where you made a choice of character at the start and it made a difference whether you chose the warrior or the wizard or whatever. It is from there that I went and discovered pen & paper roleplaying games, so I consider it an important step in my gaming evolution.

30 years later, in 2013, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game was published. If people weren't already surrounded by so many computer roleplaying games, this would be the perfect introduction to the world of tabletop roleplaying games. Of course it doesn't have the free interactive storytelling of a pen & paper RPG, but it has pretty much everything else: Players with different character classes forming an adventuring group to fight fantasy villains cooperatively with swords & sorcery. There are different scenarios and the DM is replaced by setting up decks of cards according to the scenario and then shuffling those decks to not be too predictable. That way you can even play solo against the scenario. And it is possible to level up your heroes and keep playing them in a campaign. So in many ways the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is closer to Dungeons & Dragons than for example World of Warcraft is.

I am currently playing the computer version of the game, called Pathfinder Adventures. At least for solo play that is better than the card version, because it takes less table space, and you don't need to shuffle decks all the time. The computer keeps track of everything for you. And as a replacement for the card version, the computer game is actually quite good, even if it has some bugs and is really complicated for a game running on a tablet.

One thing it took me quite a while to figure out was how many characters I was supposed to put into my group. A typical scenario gives you 30 turns to complete, but each character uses up one turn every time you play, so with larger groups you get less turns per player. As in the free version of the computer game you start having access to only 2 characters, playing a group of 2 appears to be the obvious choice. And you notice that if you add more players, you get more locations to complete in each scenario, so it appears that the game becomes harder: 1 player needs to beat 3 locations (30 cards), with 2 players its 4 locations (40 cards), and so on until 6 players with 8 locations and 80 cards. So playing a group of 4 to 6 characters means having only 30 turns to explore 60 to 80 cards, and that appears very difficult.

However each location has either the main villain or a henchman among the 10 cards, and if you beat them you can close that location without having to play the remaining cards there. So on average you only need 5.5 explorations per location, which for 4 players gives you 33 explorations in 6 locations. As some cards allow you to explore more than once per turn, that is quite doable. And it turns out that if you spread out your characters, you can win the game even earlier: When you find the main villain, you can "temporarily close" locations where one of the characters is. So if you have at least 2 locations already permanently closed and your characters are distributed to cover all the remaining locations, you can win way before the 30 turns.

So after some playtesting it turns out that playing a group of 4 is actually easier than playing a group of 2. The reason for that is that in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game your deck is also your hit points. If you play a card that is discarded (as opposed to one that is "recharged", going back into your deck), your diminishing your character's health. Playing with only 2 characters means that every character gets 15 turns, and needs to be very conservative with his cards to not run out of cards and die. With 4 characters, each character only gets 8 turns maximum, so there is a lot more flexibility and less chance to run out of cards.

I bought the $25 bundle for the computer game, which gives me all the characters and all the adventures. That is cheap compared to buying the same content in card form, which would be over $200, but of course is expensive for a tablet game. You can play the computer game for free and earn gold with which to unlock the adventures and characters. But as I said, playing with 2 characters is maybe not optimal, so it would take some grinding with the starting thief and cleric combo to earn gold to unlock more characters. Paying at least $5 to get the gold to buy a tank and a mage is probably the better option.

I would very much recommend the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game as an introduction to pen & paper roleplaying. Depending on the circumstances you might prefer the card version to play with friends, or the computer version for solo play (or if you want to try the game for free or cheap). However this comes with the caveat that while Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has less rules than the Pathfinder RPG or Dungeons & Dragons, there are still a lot of rules. The computer version takes care of many of those rules and thus is good for learning the game, but it remains relatively complex and complicated compared to other games you might have running on your tablet.

Saturday, April 30, 2016
Cloud saves

If you ever had a hard disk crash on your PC, you will be familiar with the concept of having lost your saved games of offline games. You can reinstall the game, but you'd have to start over from the start. The one advantage of many games being online these days, even single-player games, is that there are now frequently "cloud saves", so whatever happens to your computer, your game progress remains safe.

With mobile games you get all sorts of situations here. I've seen some which were so persistently cloud saving your game that it was downright impossible to start over. Others have cloud saves optional, sometimes outsourced to services like Facebook. When using such a device-independent service for cloud saves, you can even have the same game installed on different platforms and share the progress between them.

I'm still playing Pathfinder Adventures, because the underlying card game is so good, even if the computer implementation isn't all that great. And after having created some characters appear multiple times in my list and having bugs that prevent me from playing the quest mode, I thought that maybe I could fix some things by reinstalling the game. And that gave me some surprises as to the cloud save mechanics of the game:

Pathfinder Adventures uses the GameCenter on iOS, and the corresponding service GooglePlayGames on Android. But as these services are platform-specific, there is absolutely no exchange of information between platforms. I bought the adventure/character bundle on iOS, but on Android I don't get access to that, and play for free (which, by the way, isn't working so bad if you don't want to buy all the content for $25). So I assumed that my game progress was saved in the GameCenter when I reinstalled. But curiously only my purchases were! After reinstallation I still had access to the adventures and characters I bought, all my gold, and all the cards from treasure chests that I bought with gold. But all my played characters were reset to their initial level and characteristics, with their initial cards. All the cards, feats, and story progress I had earned was gone.

Overall not a catastrophe, because I wasn't too far into the game yet. But as a method of cloud saving it sure is peculiar. Yes, it's good that my purchases were preserved, but I would really have liked my game progress to be cloud saved as well.

Thursday, April 28, 2016
Pathfinder Adventure

Every cloud has a silver lining. So while my arm is hurting and temporarily useless after surgery, I do have paid sick leave and can either watch Netflix or play games with one hand. And today one of the games I have been waiting for was finally released: Pathfinder Adventures, available both on iOS and Android. This is the computer version of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game from Paizo, which had very good reviews. So how did the computer version work out?

Unfortunately, up to now, not so well. There are quite a number of bugs, some of them serious, like me unable to do the quest mode on my iPad. And that in spite of a long beta. Some bugs are not reproducible and weird, like skill checks that you roll the exact number for sometimes failing (which the rules say they shouldn't).

In spite of the bugs, I still like playing this. However I was familiar with the card game and the rules of it. The tutorial isn't really doing a good job of teaching the game, so somebody not familiar might well end up with several open questions. And the game's help system isn't always a big help, and has some bugs too. So right now I can only recommend Pathfinder Adventures to fans of the original who are willing to overlook the bugs in order to not having to shuffle so many stacks of cards.

P.S. There are three other games I'm currently playing on my iPad which I would rather recommend: Magic Duels, Gems of War, and Galactic Keep. I only discovered the latter recently, and it has a very old school pen & paper roleplaying feel to it, which I like a lot.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Artificial intelligence and real emotion

The graphics card in my PC has more computing power than the mainframe that controlled the first moon landing. The latest games have such evolved graphics capabilities that faces become realistic enough to not cause an uncanny valley effect. We are close to virtual reality graphics becoming mainstream. A huge percentage of the development budget of games over the last 30 years has been attributed to better and better graphics, and the result is showing.

On the other hand my PC doesn't have an "AI card". The science of AI has evolved, with computers now being able to beat human grand masters at highly complex games like chess or go, or master much less formal tasks like answering Jeopardy questions. But the artificial intelligence in most computer games hasn't evolved much at all. Computer opponents frequently are mentioned in video games reviews for their extreme stupidity in cases where that stupidity is so obvious that it breaks immersion. After 15 years of development of AI in the Total War series of games, the AI hasn't become better at playing that game. Video game advertising will frequently mention graphics, but almost never AI. It doesn't appear as if AI development is a major part of the development budget of any new game.

Instead developers are increasingly relying on other players to provide intelligence. It appears to be far cheaper to make your game PvP than to create a half decent AI. Why bother creating NPCs which behave believably in a MMORPG, if you can develop a MOBA instead where the NPCs are by design extremely stupid, and any opponent intelligence is provided by another player? Any game which ran into trouble during development is released as PvP only, because apparently the graphics was all the team worked on for the major part of the development process, and slapping on an AI at the end was considered optional.

The problem of that is that the PvP is only inherently attractive to a part of the player base, the "killers" of the Bartle test classification. A lot of players would rather either interact peacefully with others, or interact with a virtual world powered by artificial intelligence. If you consider other players as a cheap replacement of artificial intelligence, you risk getting more than you bargained for: Players not only come with intelligence and believable behavior, they also come with real emotions. And in  a conflict-based environment those emotions can run high and become rather unpleasant. The above mentioned MOBA games are frequently mentioned for having "toxic communities". In order to contain the toxicity, game developers then try to limit communication between players, which further drives away social player.

I am currently enjoying Magic Duels very much, because it has a decent AI and I don't need to play against other players. On the one side that allows me to avoid typical interactions with angry opponents, like people playing deliberately slow to annoy you. On the other side I do not need to be careful not to hurt the feelings of my opponent, for example I can throw games when in spite of a mulligan I still haven't got enough mana or get mana swamped. And I don't get the feeling that, compared for example with Hearthstone's human opponents, I am really missing out on much if I play an AI instead of a human. You really don't need all that much of an AI before playing against that AI becomes better than the sum of the advantages and disadvantages of playing against a human. How often do people make friends with their opponents in a PvP game?

When the internet and online gaming was young, many people believed in huge opportunities for friendly online social interaction through games. We believed we would get virtual worlds which we would inhabit online, build communities, and find friends. Today "multiplayer online PvP" is often a crutch for game companies too cheap to develop a decent artificial intelligence, and the internet is full of horror stories of online social interactions gone wrong. If a friend is somebody who helps you move your furniture, and a true friend is somebody who helps you move the body, how many friends that qualify did we really make? Didn't we just cheapen the word "friend" by sticking it to any online acquaintance that wasn't horrible to play a game with?

I do believe that today the "online multiplayer" feature drives away at least as many potential customers of a game as it attracts. Time to start working on artificial intelligence instead. We can still hope for great virtual worlds to live in, but there better be a lot of AI-controlled NPCs to interact with to make that a pleasant experience.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016
WoW Legion launches August 30th

Blizzard announced that their next expansion for World of Warcraft, Legion, will launch on August 30th. Which is a) a bit less than 2 years since the last expansion, and b) faster than I expected. Not that this really changes anything. World of Warcraft is still following the universal MMORPG subscription curve described by Raph Koster, with each expansion bringing a spike of returning subscribers, followed by relatively fast drop back to the original curve. Providing an endless stream of material for sensationalist WoW-haters who each time write a "WoW lost millions of subscribers again". If you sum those up, you'll realize that WoW lost 20+ million subscribers over the years, which is more than it had at any point. It's a bit like Time reporting national debts without mentioning national assets.

As I made an impulse buy during my last period of playing WoW and pre-purchased Legion, I will most certainly play this expansion at least for a while. And as I bought a bunch of WoW tokens before they doubled in price, everything I need is already paid for. Having said that, I don't expect much from Legion. I have grown increasingly impatient with the lack of innovation in MMORPGs. Every expansion, even every new game, feels like more of the same, minor variations of a theme I've grown too familiar with. So I'll play a character or two to the new level cap, and then that's it.

I don't think I'll like Legion as much as I like Warlords of Draenor, mainly because of the loss of my garrison. I know very well that different players want different things from player housing: Functionality, decoration, or social aspects for example. Personally I am very much in the functional camp, so losing the more functional garrisons to get the more social class order halls for me is a distinctive loss. And who are they kidding with a story line which makes every single player the leader of their class order? If you have any actual social interaction it should become rather obvious that only the NPCs will pretend that you are a leader, and that pretense will run very thin very soon.

I do expect Blizzard to provide polished work, because they always do. And as every game feels the same and I really don't want to play MMORPGs all year long any more, two or so months of Legion will suffice for my annual MMORPG quota this year.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Once upon a time in the late 70's, teenage Tobold decided that he wanted to learn how to type. That was an unconventional idea at the time, as typing was a skill needed only by secretaries, and "keyboards" were musical instruments. Kudos to my parents to supporting any of my efforts to learn something, and so I learned how to type blind, using all ten fingers, and at a good speed (albeit below that of professional typists). That turned out to be an immensely useful skill in my life, as these days typists are nearly extinct and everybody in a company types his own stuff on a computer.

All that to say that blogging for me is very much an activity that uses both hands. And so is most of my gaming: Many PC games have me using the mouse with my right hand, while the left is controlling for example character movement with WASD. On a console I use a gamepad, which very much needs both hands. The problem with that is that I'll have surgery next week that will temporarily rob me of the use of one hand. So how will I game?

Apart from dirty jokes ("Best one-handed game? Bayonetta!"), advice on how to play games with just one hand isn't all that common on the internet, as it is a problem that affects only few people. But looking at my Steam library and thinking of the games I've played, there are some trends I observe. First of all, action games nearly universally require two hands. Whether it is shooters or action adventures like Shadows over Mordor or racing games or MMORPGs, pretty much anything fast and real-time needs two hands. The chance to find a game that can be played with one hand goes up a lot as soon as you move towards turn-based games: Strategy or tactical games like Civilization or XCOM, point-and-click adventures, as well as board-game simulations or card games usually all need just one hand on the mouse.

As far as platforms go, consoles are nearly useless for the one-handed gamer. On the other side of the spectrum tablets are excellent if you don't have the use of both hands. Many games apparently are designed with the idea that you hold the tablet in one hand and play with the other. So if you manage to balance the tablet on your knees, you only need one hand. PCs are somewhere in the middle: Some games can be controlled with just the mouse, others need mouse and keyboard but not necessarily simultaneously. That is a bit more complicated, but still feasible. Only when the game demands both mouse and keyboard at the same time am I out of luck.

As I mentioned above, I type with both hands and find "eagle finger" typing with one hand tedious. Between that, surgery, the after-surgery pain, and the drugs against the pain, I probably won't be blogging much in the coming months.


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