Tobold's Blog
Saturday, October 25, 2014
 
Slopebrowed weaseldicks

I am not a native English speaker. And apart from the time spent on the internet or watching TV in English, I don't live in an English-speaking environment. Thus my vocabulary might not always be very current, especially regarding colloquial language. So I was quite happy to much expand my vocabulary by reading this very well written post by Chris Kluwe. I didn't even know words like "slopebrowed weaseldicks" existed. Recommended!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
 
Death threats are not a good idea

This week the gaming news are full of yet another death threat story. Only this time it was a man who received the threat, Gabe Newell. And the threat wasn't made anonymously, but by a game developer unhappy with a technical flaw on the Steam page of his recently released game. Now Gabe could have called the police, as death threats are illegal in many jurisdictions, being a form of coercion. Instead he pulled out the ban hammer and kicked the game in question from Steam. The dev quit and I'd guess his career is finished. But apart from being a funny story about human stupidity, I think this is an opportunity to discuss the frequent use of death threats in gaming, especially on Twitter.

Death threats are illegal, especially so if what is threatened is a mass killing, like a plane bombing or a school massacre. So why did gamers divert John Smedley's plane with a bomb threat, and prevent Anita Sarkeesian to speak at a school by threatening a massacre? Don't they know that is both illegal and unethical? The answer is probably that they think their grievances justify unethical behavior and they don't think anything can happen to them because they made those threats anonymously.

Many people think they have a constitutional right to anonymous free speech. Guess what? Death threats aren't covered by that! If the so-called speech is criminal in itself, the first amendment doesn't protect it. No judge would consider a threat to bomb a plane or to massacre poeople to be "free speech". Which means that the only protection somebody who makes such a threat online has is technical in nature. The person making the threat counts on law enforcement not being technically able to find out who is behind that Twitter sock puppet account.

There are only two possibilities in this case: Either they are right, or they are wrong. If they are wrong, and law enforcement can trace such death threats back, some people will get a nasty surprise when the police rings at their door. What worries me is what happens if they are right. As I said, anonymous death threats are not a right anybody has. So if too many of those happen on Twitter and law enforcement gets frustrated, everybody's right to anonymity on Twitter might get threatened. Under pressure from law enforcement, Twitter might well be forced to change the rules, either openly demanding verified accounts or secretly adding better IP tracing. And if that happens we will have the idiots who made death threats about gaming issues to thank for.

Saturday, October 18, 2014
 
Does McDonald's make the best hamburgers?

Azuriel argues that things contain a mythical factor called "quality", that reviews should somehow reflect that mythical quality, and that consumers are all idiots because they rarely choose the best thing available. I believe that consumers are quite rational, and that they make choices on a highly complicated multi-factor analysis. Thus McDonald's isn't more popular than other burger joints because they make better hamburgers. It is that in the needs of the consumer the quality of the hamburger plays just a small role. As long as the hamburger is sufficiently good, and not more unhealthy than other burgers, consumers don't put quality of the hamburger on top of their list of criteria. I personally like Burger King more than McDonald's. But as there are no Burger Kings in Belgium, guess where I end up going! I'm not driving to a neighboring country just because the burgers are better! McDonald's is the most popular because they got the MIX of factors that consumers care about right, with location, price, parking, cleanliness, children playing areas, and so on. For many goods consumers care a lot more about price than about quality.

If we want to rank burger chains, we need to look what people care about when choosing a burger chain. If we want to rank books, we need to look what people care about when choosing a book. If we want to rank video games, we need to look what people care about when choosing a book. It is as simple as that. If, as Azuriel pointed out, more people like 50 Shades of Grey than Nineteen Eighty-Four, that doesn't mean that people buying books are stupid and unable to recognize the more culturally relevant book. It means that cultural relevance isn't very high up on their list of criteria of choice. If you buy a book for entertainment, for reading on the beach, the Da Vinci Code or 50 Shades of Grey *are* better than Nineteen Eighty-Four or Ulysses.

In the case of books ranking books by cultural relevance and education value still makes some sort of sense. I was born before computer games even existed, and my childhood was filled with books. A whole lot of my education comes from books. If you put all books on the same list just by sales numbers, you get a mix of books that sell because they are entertaining and books that sell because they have cultural value. So looking at those two factors separately would be a good idea.

I doubt the same is true for video games. Yes, there are cultural / artsy video "games". But they aren't a huge cultural influence. Very, very few people choose their games based on cultural qualities. Video games are nearly exclusively chosen for their entertainment qualities. Games like Mountain or Dear Esther are more curiosities which sell because they are so very different from the usual fare (and cheap). I doubt you can get to the same degree of education by playing video games than you can get by reading books. The overwhelming reason why people buy video games is for fun, for entertainment. And that is why I think video game reviews should look mostly at that entertainment value factor. The "best" game is the most entertaining, most fun game. And what I want from reading a review is that it tells me how likely it is that I will have fun when playing the game, and not regret the purchase.

Friday, October 17, 2014
 
Still undecided about ArcheAge

I am generally interested in MMORPGs which have a strong virtual world element, where I can have my own property with actual activities, and where there is a player-run economy with crafting. Given that ArcheAge has all this, that people repeatedly tell me that at least at the start I could be safe from ganking, and that it is possible to try the game for free, I should be all over this. But then the kind of people who tell me that PvP isn't so bad in ArcheAge are the same kind of people who think that Darkfail is a game perfectly suitable for carebears like me. And in my newsreader I constantly see posts of people quitting ArcheAge.

Apparently ArcheAge has a huge hacking problem, which ruins the player economy. Hackers control the available land through cheats, and drive up the prices of everything by flooding the economy with illegally obtained gold. And while people can't gank you if you stay in safe places, they can very well grief you with other methods, like pushing a cart onto your farm and thereby preventing you from planting. If there is really no way to burn down somebody else's cart on your land, what do you do? I also hear a lot about the toxic community. Some people say it is because it is a PvP sandbox game, others say that it is because it is a Free2Play game. I really don't care. I simply don't want to play with assholes all day, regardless of their motivation.

So with all this negativity about ArcheAge, I haven't had the motivation yet to download the game and try it out. Hell is other people, and I don't have much of a desire to enter that particular sort of hell just to test out whether I like some game mechanics.

Thursday, October 16, 2014
 
Cured?

Sometimes MMORPGs in general, or specific popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are described as being "addictive". So I was wondering whether I have been miraculously cured: I'm reading about the big changes to WoW with patch 6.0 this week in preparation for the next expansion, and I feel no desire whatsoever to resubscribe or buy that expansion.

If the miracle cure explanation isn't the good one, then the alternative explanation I have is that I expect WoW 6.0+ to be not fundamentally different from all the previous versions of World of Warcraft. Sure, there will be some new content. But most of that new content is based on already very familiar modes of gameplay: New quests in new zones, new dungeons, and so on. Some minor additions like housing don't turn this into a radically new game. A WoW expansion is always mostly "more of the same", with some tweaks.

Of course that depends on how far you zoom out your view, or how closely you look. You could say that there are a lot of "WoW-like" games out there which have the same leveling by questing, with some dungeons mixed in sort of gameplay. If one finds other games not worth playing because they are too similar to WoW, then surely a WoW expansion, which is even more like WoW, isn't worth playing either. Unless of course one thinks one has to play one of the bunch, in which case WoW isn't the worst possible choice. Nevertheless some people might prefer for example Guild Wars 2, either for gameplay reasons, or simply because they don't have to buy a new expansion and pay $15 per month to play that.

What about you? Does patch 6.0 and the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion tempt you to resubscribe to World of Warcraft? Or maybe you never left? Or have you been "cured"?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
 
Just a link

As I have nothing to add which isn't already said in Belghast's excellent post about the experience of a PvE player in a PvP game like ArchAge, I'm just posting a link to that article.

 
On the relevancy of video game reviews

The news this week was that Destiny has 3.2 million players on average every day on the servers, a month after release. That information clashes somewhat with Destiny's bad Metacritic score of 76, which doesn't suggest that the game would still be fun to play after a month. Which leads to the interesting question in how far a review score answers the question "Is this a fun game to play?".

The trope for movie reviews is that nobody wants to see the critically acclaimed movies, while the box office hits get bad reviews. That isn't 100% true, but Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the highest grossing films of this year, shares Destiny's middling Metacritic score of 76, although it scores much better on Rotten Tomatoes. So there is some truth in saying that at least some movie critics review films to answer the question whether watching that movie would make you a better person, instead of asking whether watching that movie would be a fun night out.

Metacritic scores for video games *used to be* more relevant for seeing whether a game would be fun to play, and thus worth buying. Game developers often have contracts that include bonuses based on Metacritic scores, because game companies think that those scores result in sales. I wonder what the bonus for the marketing people is based on. I could very well imagine a situation where Bungie / Activision Blizzard is paying a bonus to the marketing people of Destiny based on the great sales, but not to the game developers, based on the mediocre Metacritic score. And that wouldn't be just.

I do not believe that those scores are much influenced by either marketing money nor by social justice concerns of left-wing video game journalists. Grand Theft Auto 5 has a Metacritic score of 97, while The Sims 4 has one of 70, so violence and sexism obviously isn't a criterion for the score. But with The Sims 4 topping some PC game sales charts, and Destiny obviously being very popular as well, there is an obvious disagreement between reviewers and actual players about whether these games are good or not. The reviewers might claim that the players have been duped by extensive marketing into buying those games, but then why are millions of people still playing Destiny every day? As famous video game critic Abraham Lincoln remarked, you cannot fool all the people all the time.

My personal theory is that video game reviews get increasingly irrelevant because the video game critics have been playing games for too long. They don't answer the question "is this game fun to play?" any more, but are doing a far too complicated comparison of the new game with all the best features of all the games that came before. That is a comparison that no game can withstand, and one that isn't actually all that relevant. Even *if* you played The Sims 3 and find that The Sims 4 has less features, you might still want to buy and play The Sims 4, because you are sick and tired of The Sims 3 which you have been playing for the last 5 years. And even if the MMO elements of Destiny don't compare well with the best MMO games out there, you probably won't mind if you mostly played shooters before and those MMO elements are new and exciting to you. Not to mention that part of the audience for video games is much younger than the reviewers, and simply hasn't played all those previous games for that reason.

To me there is something inherently wrong in a headline like Destiny Is A Bad Game, But I Can't Stop Playing It. It is indicative of the reviewer's gut feeling being disconnected from his brain. And the review readers are probably more interested in the gut feeling than in the brainy intellectual analysis. They just want to know whether if they spend $60 on a game, they will have fun for many hours, or whether they will quickly regret that purchase. When reviews don't answer that question any more, they become irrelevant.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014
 
The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 4

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune killed a dragon in return for the druid Bredel advising them on how to reverse their transformation into svirfneblin. So this session started with them being led by Bredel to the entrance of the Underdark which had recently opened in the area. The entrance was one day's march south of Bredel's home. So to find the underground source of the spring they knew they had to walk the same distance back north in the Underdark, probably taking longer due to winding tunnels. They also knew that the Underdark had an upper region (the shallows) and a lower region (the deeps), and that a source reaching the surface was more likely to be found in the shallows. Thus they could navigate generally northwards, generally upwards at any tunnel branch.

While as svirfneblin everybody had darkvision, that vision requires at least some dim light to work. But they had their adventuring gear, including a lantern with several flasks of oil, and an eternal torch. They also had iron rations, and they were able to find some edible mushrooms. Still it was a long trek through winding, dark tunnels. And while previously they had benefited from the druids create campsite ritual, that didn't work underground and they had a less comfortable night after their first day in the Underdark.

On their second day the Favorites of Selune entered a cave and came close to a giant mushroom, which poisoned the rogue (who was ahead of the group). And then troglodytes who were hidden behind the stalagmites and rocks attacked with javelins. That combat was quite interesting, because the mushroom poisoned a 7x7 square area in the middle of the cave every round, which the combatants tried to avoid. The group druid used that cleverly with a spell that pulled enemies towards him, so that they ended up in the poison zone. The warrior, presumably tired from slaying dragons, exchanged ineffective blows with one troglodyte savage.

I especially liked the design of the troglodyte deepscourge (ranged caster type), who had a ray attack which did very little damage, but weakened enemies if they already were in the troglodyte savages stinking aura. And he had a recharging area attack which also weakened "non-reptile creatures", so he could fire it into melee and not affect his allies. As I had used the wrong stats for the dragon, the troglodytes also hit a lot harder than the dragon, and the fight was more interesting. The cleric cast a lot of daily spells and kept everybody alive, plus he set the mushroom on fire with a column of fire spell. As the mushroom wasn't a creature, I didn't give it a saving throw to extinguish the fire, and so it slowly burned down. And the group killed the troglodytes one after another.

Resting after the fight, the Favorites of Selune are found by a patrol of *real* svirfneblin. They wore tabards with strange symbols, which a nature / arcane check revealed to be crystallographic structures: A Fluorite was leading half a dozen Gypsum. With three chemists in the room the players quickly figured out that the svirfneblin had military ranks named after Mohs scale of mineral hardness, so this was a sort of sergeant leading a group of privates first class. The svirfneblin spoke common, but always referred to svirfneblin in the first person plural. So the sergeant asked them "What are we doing here? Why aren’t we wearing our tabards?". But the sorceress quickly came up with an idea and said that they had been on a secret mission for the Diamond to the surface, "in disguise", with a rather high roll on his bluff check. So the sergeant believed them and led them to the cave where the svirfneblin lived.

The cave, or rather network of caves, was lighted by luminescent mushrooms. They were handed from one rank to the next, until they stood before the king of the svirfneblin, Diamond Quirrit. The king was wise enough to see that not only he hadn't sent any secret missions out, but also that while the adventurers looked like svirfneblin, they didn't behave right. Nevertheless he was quite friendly, and when the adventurers revealed that they had been transformed into svirfneblin and were looking for the source of a magical spring to turn them back, he offered his help. He drew them a map to the spring, but warned them that recently a strange beholder, all deformed, had moved into the cave with the spring and subjugated the local troglodytes. The players immediately realized that this was the beholder they had let go from Gardmore Abbey.

With the troglodyte fight and the svirfneblin roleplaying encounter the players had gained enough xp to reach level 10. So we stopped at this point and leveled up.

 
What do you think of hybrid business models?

Carbine announced that they are "rethinking" the business model of Wildstar. Most people interpret that as switching to some sort of Free2Play model. Theoretically a MMORPG could switch to a "buy-once-play-forever" business model like Guild Wars 2; but such a "conversion" basically would just mean dropping the monthly fee. That would sure be popular, but it is hard to imagine that the added income from people who only waited for the subscription to disappear before buying the game would make up for the loss of revenue. So some sort of Free2Play is more likely.

Now several games which have made such a switch went for a hybrid model: The game goes free, but free players suffer from certain restrictions, for example on inventory space or number of characters. There is still an optional subscription, and if you buy that, the restrictions don't apply to you. Such a subscription might also include a certain amount of a special currency usable to buy items in the real money item shop.

I was wondering what people are thinking about this hybrid model. Is it the best of two worlds, giving the players who prefer a subscription game all the options of a subscription model, while giving the players who prefer Free2Play all the options of a Free2Play model? Or is it a bad compromise that makes nobody really happy?

Monday, October 13, 2014
 
Winning a culture war

I consider myself a neutral observer in the culture war commonly known under the name Gamergate. I believe that both sides use lies, propaganda, and other means of interaction that I personally find unacceptable. But anybody looking from the outside at any war is wondering who is "winning". In a culture war it is usually two rather small groups who are fighting for the attention and positive opinion of the mainstream, and this one isn't any different. It doesn't matter very much how much the culture warriors on each side agree with each other, because there is usually a lot of self-delusion going on within such groups. It matters more how the people who aren't in either group see the culture war.

The Boston Globe is a newspaper founded in 1872. Due to the lack of video games in 1872 it would be hard to accuse the Boston Globe to be a video game publication. One could say that it is leaning slightly left-ward, but in general it would be very much considered a mainstream newspaper rather than "communist" or "SJW". So if I read articles like this one in the Boston Globe, I believe that this is what the main-stream press sees and thinks.

Now I have no opinion on how it came to pass that the police is investigating death threats made against female video game developer Brianna Wu. I'm sure that some people believe those threats were fabricated, or that at least making such threats against outspoken women in gaming "isn't what Gamergate is about". But I do know how this looks. Gamergate might not *be* a movement whose whole purpose it is to discourage women in gaming, but it sure *looks* like one in the mainstream press.

We can all agree that only talking about the persecution of women in gaming is an extremely one-sided and narrow view of this culture war. But the problem is that the other side isn't represented in mainstream media. There is no article on Fox News about Gamergate, explaining the problems of video game journalism ethics or about pushing left-wing agendas in video games. The "harassment of women" theme is present in every single mainstream reporting of Gamergate, even in those that defend the movement.

Some people actually believe that this unbalanced presentation of the issue is due to a huge world-wide conspiracy. If find that extremely unlikely. There are tons of mainstream newspapers that have a conservative view of the world. Why would those be controllable by a conspiracy of "social justice warriors"? So somewhere something in the strategy of Gamergate isn't working. If you want to win "hearts and minds", you can't win if your opponent gets all the good press in mainstream news outlets, while the people defending your side do so on Twitter, YouTube, and niche blogs where the message is only seen by the people who already agree with it.

I believe that the Gamergate movement needs to think very carefully what their message should be and how they could get it into the mainstream. Sorry, "I feel insulted by left-wing misrepresentation of gamers", while very true and understandable, isn't going to get you an article in a mainstream newspaper. What is Gamergate really about, and how can you formulate a mission statement that isn't easily dismissed as a first-world problem of privileged, misogynistic, white males? If you don't have a response to that, it will be impossible to win this culture war. 

 
Combat controls

I watched Totalbiscuit's uncorrupted Shadow of Mordor YouTube video in order to find out whether I would like to play that game. The answer was: No. And the reason for that was the part where Totalbiscuit described the combat system as being the same as in the Batman: Arkham series. I played only one Batman: Arkham game, and the reason I stopped half-way through was because I hated the combat system.

Then I noticed the coincidence that there is another Lord of the Rings game I am not playing because of the combat system: Lord of the Rings Online. And that in spite of having paid for a lifetime subscription. So I was thinking what is was that made certain combat systems unpalatable to me. And I think the answer is how much the combat system feels as if I was in immediate control.

For Lord of the Rings Online the problem is that the combat system queues your key-presses and executes them some time later when the previous actions have been completed. This skill queue leads to combat not feeling very responsive. Sure, the character will do what you ordered him to do, but not at the moment where you press the button.

For Batman: Arkham the problem is similar, but somewhat different: You press a button, Batman does something immediately, but it isn't necessarily what you wanted him to do, or what you thought that button press would do. Batman frequently overperforms, making rather complicated moves in response to rather simple commands. That all looks very elegant and sophisticated (and combat *looks* great in a Shadow of Mordor gameplay video), but the player holding the controller isn't necessarily feeling all that much in control. You pressed a button because you wanted to hit the guy to your left, but the character decided that it would be better to hit the guy on your right and does that instead. Even if that was probably the better move, you feel that your role in controlling the character isn't all that important. Just mashing buttons also results in an elegant combat.

I think hand-to-hand combat in video games is somewhat problematic. Whether it is fists or knives, for cinematic reasons the hero character is fighting half a dozen villains at the same time, which is not very realistic. Shooters work better, because a single man with a gun looks less improbable if he kills half a dozen villains, using distance and cover to his advantage. That allows a shooter game to give perfect control to the player, letting him aim and see the immediate result of his shots. The game simulating hand-to-hand combat can't leave the player in perfect control, because he'd be overwhelmed if the fight was simulated realistically.

I'm still planning to give the Assassin's Creed series a second chance (didn't like the first one all that much). While it also suffers to some degree from that hand-to-hand combat system, AC has the advantage of combat not being the default option for every enemy you meet. But otherwise I am somewhat wary of those hand-to-hand combat action adventure games.

Saturday, October 11, 2014
 
There is no such thing as cooperative multiplayer survival

Between Kickstarter projects, Steam Greenlight and Early Access, and more traditionally financed games there is now a large abundance of different games. So one might be excused to think that if there are so many games, they should cover all sorts of flavors and preferences. But curiously that doesn't happen. Certain features only ever appear together, although it would be perfectly feasible to separate them.

One example is multiplayer survival games. They are all set up in a way that players have very little advantage in working together, but are rewarded with the other player's gear if they kill them. Survival multiplayer games exist exclusively as PvP games, with a rules system where cooperative PvE is not really an option. Instead these games often have options which allow players to torture each other. And death caused by other players is extremely common as long as you play anywhere where other players are near.

Fortunately for us as a species our caveman ancestors were a lot more cooperative than that. If they had behaved like modern survival game players, we would long have gone extinct. In real life death is a lot more serious than in a video game, and killing more often has consequences, as the killed person's relatives or tribe tend to go after the killer. Multiplayer survival games fail to simulate these aspects, and so for all their claims of realism end up being extremely different from the real world, because the incentives are so different.

Which makes me wonder why among all those survival games there isn't even one with a rule set that encourages cooperative multiplayer survival. Either by turning PvP off, or by balancing the advantages and disadvantages of killing somebody much more realistically, with a strong chance of you being killed permanently if you kill another player. And such a game should have better tools for cooperation, where working together as some form of tribe is only way to survive the harsh environment.

Torturing and killing other people in an environment where your very survival is threatened by other factors is not a realistic or natural behavior. So why aren't there any games that don't do that?

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