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the shenmue 3 kickstarter

June 19th, 2015

I’ve been surprised at how much negative reaction to the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter has appeared in my twitter feed. Maybe not so much in the quantity of the reaction as the tone: it seems like the Kickstarter is a flashpoint in a culture war, while I don’t really understand why there has to be a war at all, or why this Kickstarter specifically has become a flashpoint.

 

The first article I saw referenced on the subject was David Houghton on Games Radar. And the first half or so of the article actually seems pretty good to me: I didn’t watch the E3 press conferences, so while I’m completely unsurprised to learn that the game is getting major Sony funding and that the Kickstarter is there to gauge interest and/or to be an ad for the game, it sounds like the initial announcement wasn’t up-front about those aspects of the Kickstarter. So yay, by all means get that out into the open.

But then we have this part of the article:

Here’s where I start having a real problem with the way this has been run. Because however I spin it (and believe me, I’ve spun it like a tumble drier), I keep coming back to the same bottom line. Individual members of the public have paid up to ten thousand dollars of their own money for a game they were led to believe had no other funding options. A game they were led to believe needed that money in order to happen. And that’s not okay.

In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case. It made that the case by making the public pass a test before it offered its own support, a test that it knew would cost the public hundreds and thousands.

(Emphasis in the original.) And I just don’t get it. In particular, I don’t understand the sentence “In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case.” Of course it’s true that there are other funding models possible for the game: doubtless, in a many-worlds version of the universe, there are universes where Sony decides to pay for it out of pocket, universes where a collection of fans somehow scrape together money to buy the IP, universes where Warren Buffett is a huge Shenmue fan and decides to pay for it himself! But paying for the game without external commitment isn’t the decision Sony made, it’s not the decision Sega made, it’s not the decision any company has decided to make in the 16 years since Shenmue came out and cost Sega a lot of money, it’s not the decision any company has decided to make in the 14 years since Shenmue 2 came out and failed to revitalize the series’s finances.

Game companies have dozens, hundreds, thousands of options for games they might make. They can’t make them all, so they need a way to choose. And I just don’t see how it’s helpful to the analysis to paint Shenmue 3 of all games as a game that Sony was right to consider making but wrong to not leap into with both feet. A world where Sony makes every game that they imagine is a world where Sony goes out of business; a world where Sony only makes games that they’re convinced will be big hits is a world where games from large publishers are even blander than they are now! I don’t think that Houghton is telling us that any world other than one of those two worlds is an immoral one, but I also am having a hard time teasing anything other possibility out of those paragraphs.

 

Later on, he says:

More infuriating is the fact that there was an obvious, easy, inoffensive way to handle all of this. By limiting donation tiers to a single, flat, $50 rate, Shenmue 3’s Kickstarter could have been turned into an elaborate pre-order system, the same level of player commitment shown without anyone being extravagantly out of pocket, and the backer rewards becoming an extra special pre-order bonus, with added goodwill.

“Infuriating” is an interesting word: like I said, this seems to be a culture war, and I’m not sure why. Setting that aside, though, I don’t see why Houghton’s proposal is an improvement over the actual Kickstarter. Assuming the game actually does getting published, then I’m getting a copy for $29; I like spending $29 more than spending the $50 Houghton wants me to spend! But some people like physical copies of games; if they want to spend $60, then great. And, honestly, the toy capsules, the soundtrack, the art book all sound cool to me; I’m not choosing to spend my money on them in this instance, but I’ve bought art books and soundtracks and figurines for games or movies in the past, I’m sure I will in the future, and I don’t see what’s wrong with those as options for people who want them. And then there are the $10,000 rewards, I’ll talk about those further down.

The concluding paragraph lays out his position most clearly:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Kickstarter is for developers with no other funding options. Shenmue 3 has had other options ever since Sony first started to think about it (as it transpires, in 2013), and whatever the platform-holder is now going to pay into the project, it can probably afford it somewhat more comfortably than some of the rest of us can our donations.

That first sentence makes it clear where he’s coming from: Kickstarter is supposed to fit a specific place in a culture war, and people who think otherwise are wrong. Then he conflates having options with Sony deciding to commit to paying for those options. (So I guess the world he wants is a world where big publishers fund every game they seriously evaluate funding? Good luck with that one) And then the weasel words: “probably”, “some of the rest of us”. That’s so vague as to be impossible to falsify; I’ll just say that it’s also the case that some of the rest of us can afford to take a $29 flyer on a Kickstarter more easily than Sony can take a fifty-million dollar (or whatever your favorite estimate is) flyer on funding a game, and that, having seen what happened to Sega in the aftermath of the Dreamcast, it strikes me as ahistorical to present this game of all games as risk free.

 

The next article that I saw making the rounds was Matt Poprocki in Playboy. It started from where Houghton’s article left off, and then continued:

The barrier between consumer and corporations is dwindling. Maybe there isn’t one at all anymore. This is not capitalism—it’s a twisted and disfigured form of commerce, and it worked, and it will work again, when the next company tries it.

Of course it’s capitalism, and this shows the barrier between consumer and corporation as clearly as any example I can point to! I’m backing the Kickstarter; my risk is limited to getting nothing from spending $29, my upside is limited to getting an actual game. (Or maybe my risk is getting a game that I spend hours on and that turns out to be awful, and my upside is getting a game that I spend hours on and turns out to be wonderful.) Whereas Sony’s upside is potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and their potential downside is at the very least in the tens of millions of dollars and possibly in the hundreds as well. Sony and I play completely different roles in this scenario, and theirs is the capitalist side of it.

Now that the goal has been surpassed and Sony can rest assured that its investment in Shenmue 3 is justified, shouldn’t they stop asking for money? Shouldn’t they give that money back?

First: no, they can’t rest assured of that at all. The risk profile for the game is different now than it was before the Kickstarter, but there is absolutely still significant risk, there is still a potential downside of tens of millions of dollars. And, second: no, of course they shouldn’t give that money back! They have no reason to; and if I wanted Sony to give me my $29 back once the Kickstarter made its goal, then I wouldn’t have pledged the $29 in the first place! Poprocki apparently believes that I’m wrong to feel that way; I think Poprocki is being paternalistic.

They can just throw out classic game names to see what sticks. Actraiser, Battletoads, Streets of Rage; they would all be funded and set individual records, probably. If they fail, there’s no harm—the money stays in would-be backers’ bank accounts if the goal isn’t reached. Meanwhile, the truly independent developer whose Kickstarter isn’t backed by Sony or Microsoft or whatever huge marketing machine gets no attention, and innovation dies in the wood chipper of the triple-A blockbuster sequel machine.

And here’s where the culture war comes out. Like Houghton, Poprocki has firm opinions about the proper uses of Kickstarter; the rest of us are wrong.

 

I also saw retweets of a bunch of tweets from Stu Horvath on the topic; he then put his thoughts together in an article in issue 49 of Unwinnable Weekly. I said above that I thought that Poprocki was being paternalistic, but Poprocki had nothing on Horvath: Horvath says, “Think of me as the person trying to shake you awake”, to which my first reaction is that the word “sheeple” must have been deleted from an earlier draft of his article.

And boy howdy is this a culture war for Horvath. Later, he lays that out even more explicitly:

It is a kind of religiosity. Talking to Violet, I felt like we were living in a time of prophecy, that any deviation from orthodoxy might derail the Third Coming of Shenmue. It didn’t matter that maybe people were getting conned into paying upwards of $10,000 to pre-order a game that would eventually cost, at most, $60 retail.

He accuses other people of treating this as a matter of religion: but he’s the prophet who is trying to shake us awake. And that last sentence is, to my mind, a glorious combination of paternalism and factual incorrectness. He says “upwards of $10,000″, but in fact $10,000 is the highest tier, so I have no idea who is supposed to be paying more than that; and there is a cap of 23 people who have access to tiers more than $500. Right now, the game has 42,402 backers; of those backers, 24,895 are paying at the $29 tier.

So yeah, let’s assume that game will cost $60 at retail; that means that approximately 60% of the backers are choosing to get the game at half-price, and while about 30% of the backers are paying more than $60, those backers are getting stuff beyond just the game. Maybe I’m a bad person because I bought an Okami art book or a Katamari Damacy soundtrack, maybe the people I see on twitter who buy figurines for their favorite anime are horribly misguided, but I don’t see why; and I don’t see why I should treat people making similar choices about Shenmue as victims of a con that need to be shaken awake.

All three articles seem particularly disturbed by the $10,000 reward tier. (Though at least the other two articles don’t hallucinate higher tiers!) And of course there’s no way in hell that I’m going to spend $10,000 for the rewards at that level. But, seriously: there are 42,204 people who have signed up for that Kickstarter. Four of those people have decided that spending $10,000 was a reasonable choice for them. We’re not talking the 1% here: we’re talking the .01%, one out of every 10,000 people who backed the Kickstarter. I doubt that the income distribution of Shenmue Kickstarter backers mirrors the income distribution of the US as a whole, but if you’re in the top .01% of US income, then you’re making 27 million dollars a year; and if I were making that kind of money, then, honestly, maybe I would be totally happy to spend one-two-thousandth of my annual income on Ryo’s jacket! Really, the percentage of people affected is so small that we’re talking about lala land.

And I’d also like to know where the financial dividing line is beyond which Horvath will decree that people are getting conned. Was I getting conned by spending money to go to GDC? Was my family getting conned by the money we spent on our last family vacation? Are we getting conned by the tuition prices that we’ll spend to send Miranda to college? (Actually, I can answer that third one myself: yes.) Please, tell me the appropriate level, so I can make sure not to slide into religious orthodoxy!

 

In a less hyperbolic portion of the article, Horvath says what he wants Kickstarter to be, and it’s similar to what the other two authors want:

It is a free market, of course, and Kickstarter has a vested interest in lucrative, headline-generating campaigns. The Kickstarter I prefer, though, is the one before the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, a place for creators to fund projects that would otherwise be impossible in conventional markets. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the Double Fine campaign, but it started us down a long road that inevitably leads to campaigns like Zach Braff’s movie (which later got Hollywood financing) and Shenmue III.

He could just as easily have said: the Kickstarter he prefers is the Kickstarter that got Unwinnable Weekly funded. And I like that Kickstarter too – all eye-rolling at this article aside, I’m really glad that I backed Unwinnable Weekly! But small-project Kickstarter is still around: just to make sure, I looked again at my list of backed projects, and there’s a whole mixture of stuff there, with weird one-off stuff next to established small publishers next to, well, Shenmue. Maybe there’s some sort of apocalypse coming where all the small and medium stuff will disappear, but I don’t see evidence for that. And as to “religiosity”, “prophecy”, and warnings about “deviation from orthodoxy”: yes, I do see that, but where I see that is in an article that talks about “something terrible happening”, “getting exponentially worse”, that “will destroy the industry”.

tweaks i’d like in rocksmith 2017

May 27th, 2015

I’ve been playing Rocksmith 2014 ever since it came out a year and a half ago, and I was playing its predecessor for a year before that; so obviously I like the game and the series a lot, and I imagine that I’ll still be playing it two and a half years from now. Or rather, I imagine that I’ll be playing some Rocksmith game a two and a half years from now; but, upgrading cycles being what they are, quite possibly it’ll be a new version of the game.

So here’s what I’d like in a hypothetical new version. I’m staying away from big ideas: Session Mode is great, but it’s far outside of the scope of what I would have been able to think about based on what I saw in the original Rocksmith, and I’m sure a hypothetical Rocksmith 2017 will have similar advances I can’t begin to dream of. Also, just to be clear: my baseline is that I think Rocksmith 2014 is extremely well done. So, for every aspect of the game I complain about, assume there are nine other aspects that I like just as much.

Some context on where I’m coming from: I like having the game throw random songs at me, and I like having a few songs that I’m actively working on; I’m happy to have the game give guidance in both of those areas. (I probably spend about 2/3 of my time in the former mode, and 1/3 of my time in the latter.) I have no interest in games as an attempt to make learning fun, though I’m willing to consider the virtues of games as teaching tools for other reasons. And my background is in classical music; so I’m most comfortable (and I most enjoy) playing songs as originally written, though I do appreciate support in improvisation, and I’m also more interested in the sound of the instrument and of my playing than in pedals.

 

With that in mind, my requests:

  • Let me give more granular ratings to songs, including a “never randomly show me this song” rating

Rock Band 3 got this right: you could rate a song with 1-5 stars, unrated songs showed up randomly with the same frequency as 3-star songs, and 1-star songs never show up randomly. It’s just as easy to use as Rocksmith‘s favorites mechanic, but it gives you a lot better random setlists. And, seriously: there are songs I never want to see in either Nonstop Mode or in at the top of Recommended sorting in Learn a Song.

  • Let me favorite/rate a song on the launch screen for the song

I’m much more likely to want to rate a song right after I’ve played it: but, in the modes that throw songs at me unpredictably (Nonstop Mode, Learn a Song Recommended), that’s the one place where I can’t rate a song. They’re not even doing anything with the Y button on the “done with a song” screen, so just let me use the Y button there! (Hmm, it’s been long enough that I’ve played Nonstop Mode, mostly because of tuning issues, that I can’t remember if you actually see that “done with a song” screen; but, if not I’m sure they can find a place to let me rate a song after finishing it.)

  • Don’t make me change tunings so frequently

I’m not arguing against alternate tunings: in fact, there’s tons of E flat DLC that I really like, to the point that I almost actively seek out E flat DLC. What I don’t like is changing tuning all the time: two songs in E, one in drop D, one more in E, two in E flat, three in E, etc. So once Nonstop Mode puts me in a tuning, I’d like to be able to stay in that tuning for a while; and I’d be totally happy with that meaning that two-thirds of my Nonstop Mode sessions were in E, a quarter were in E flat, a twelfth were in drop D, and that tuning was in place for all the songs in that session. (Or maybe ask me to change tunings every five songs, or something.) But, in practice, I’ve almost completely stopped playing Nonstop Mode, even though it’s the mode in the game that I’m arguably most temperamentally suited for, because I end up skipping songs that aren’t in E, and skipping all those songs makes the mode feel a lot less random.

This suggestion would, of course, make less sense in a context of on-disc content, because there aren’t enough songs in alternate tunings (except probably drop D) to fill up a Nonstop Mode session. But I’m not the only person out there with two discs of songs plus triple digits of DLC; and I imagine that there are people who feel the same way about drop D DLC that I do about E flat.

  • Non-440 tunings are super annoying

Like I said: I don’t like changing tunings between songs; but if a song isn’t tuned to a 440 A, then I’ll always have to change tunings every time I play it, because there won’t be two songs that both have that tuning. (Well, maybe not once I have thousands of songs, but we’re not there yet!) So those non-440 A songs are super annoying. Also, because of issues I have with the in-game tuner (see below), I have a hard time getting these songs in tune even when I am playing them: I prefer to use an external tuner to get my tuning right, and I can’t tell my tuner to set A to 447. (Or can I? Actually, looking at the back of the tuner I have, there are buttons to allow that! I should start using them…)

My understanding is that the developers realize this and have technology for bringing those songs into tune; some artists are willing to let them do that, and some art. And I’ll reluctantly agree that it’s better not to refuse to include those songs. But if there were something the developers could do to nudge artists to include their songs in normalized tunings, I’d really appreciate it.

I don’t have any great ideas for how to accomplish that goal, but here are a few.

  1. Give an option to include the same song in both normalized and non-normalized tunings: purists can play the latter, lazy people can play the former. Maybe there would be some artists who would be willing to include a normalized version as an option as long as the non-normalized version was available?
  2. Come up with metrics to give an idea of how much less songs in non-440 tunings are bought, and are played once they’ve been bought, to make clear what the artists would be giving up in terms of making their songs accessible by insisting on the original tuning. Hard to do, of course, because every song is unique, but maybe give stats by comparing stats for songs by the same artist: I’m sure I’m not the only person who plays the Jimi Hendrix pack songs in weird tunings a lot less than the songs in standard tunings. (Maybe break it down into E with 440 A / other tuning with 440 A / non-440 A, to isolate the effect of “non-E tuning”, which the game really can’t/shouldn’t do anything about, from the effect of “non-440 A tuning”.)
  3. Don’t include non-normalized songs that have a non-440 A on disc. (Or, if they adopt my first suggestion: don’t include the non-normalized version unless they can also include a normalized version.) There are only so many songs they can include on disc; they’ve made the right decision in not including songs that require a capo, and this feels like a similar decision to me.

 

  • The tuner doesn’t work as well as I’d like

I’m really not sure what’s going on here, and it’s possible that I’ve got bad hardware, but here’s my experience: the tuning for the bottom three strings is dependable, though sometimes I want D to be a bit sharper than the game wants. The tuning that the game gives me for G is super flat, though: I probably want it to be ten cents higher than the game wants. (Which is particularly problematic because the fine tuning mode for the game will tell me I’m out of tune if I’m more than ten cents off, and because the displayed tuning fluctuates; though once I’ve made it past the fine tuning stage, though, the game is fine with me tuning the string the way I want.) I want B to be a little sharper than the game tells me, but not as much as the G. And for the high E, I think the game’s tuning is basically fine; the issue there is that if I strum, the displayed tuning will jump up and down by about ten cents, and it barely displays a tuning for long enough on that string for fine tuning mode to give me a thumbs-up. (I realize that the high E string just doesn’t sustain as long, but I can hear it for a lot longer than fine tuning mode can.)

Note that this isn’t my ear preferring non-equal temperaments: the G string sounds out of tune if I use the game’s tuner and then play a practice track, and an external tuner that I have agrees with me that the game tunes G (and, to a lesser extent, B) too low. My current hypothesis is that the cable is slightly off (though the same cable worked fine with the original Rocksmith); I’m used to its quirks enough now (and can use the external tuner as a backup) that I haven’t spent the money to experiment with that.

  • I would happily pay money for a new model of the cable that let the game work better

I don’t have any specific complaints here about the cable, other than potentially the tuning issue above; but given the progress of technology, I imagine that the developers could make pitch / technique detection even better with an improved cable. Not that I actually want the game to count it as a note failure if I, say, don’t palm mute a string or don’t use enough vibrato! So maybe just improved pitch detection, including faster detection / feedback about whether I’m hitting bends and slides. At any rate, I would be totally happy to spend another $30 on a better cable, I’m not at all wedded to using the same cable I’ve been using since 2012.

  • Better handling of song arrangements

On the whole, I think that it’s good that Rocksmith 2014 lets you decide whether you prefer to play rhythm or lead; but, as somebody who generally follows the lead guitar track, on those few songs where Rocksmith chose a different arrangement than the primary lead guitar arrangement than Rocksmith 2014 has for a song, I always prefer Rocksmith‘s choice. Which is fine, that doesn’t mean the arrangement shouldn’t default to the arrangement that the lead guitarist is playing on the actual track, but if there’s another arrangement that I personally prefer, let me flag it that way! (And also don’t insist that I play a more boring arrangement so I can get past the song in the Recommended list.)

Just as importantly: make it easy for me to switch between different arrangements for a song. When I find a song that I’m interested in, I often want to dive into it: so let me explore all the different lead / rhythm (and even bass) arrangements for that song from the same screen, instead of having to switch modes and then find the song again.

And, finally: if a song only has a rhythm part or only has a lead part, then let me play it even if I’m in the wrong mode. It turns out that there are a few songs I bought for the original game that don’t have lead parts: now they’re just mocking me at the end of my Learn a Song list, and if I want to play them, I’ll have to note down the names of the songs and then switch modes.

All complaints aside, I do appreciate having distinct lead / rhythm paths: I spent a couple of months recently exploring the rhythm side, and I’m glad I did. I just wish the boundary were more porous.

  • Pick goals that fit my play/learning style better

The game really thinks I should spend a lot of time on basic lessons and on the guitar games; maybe I would benefit more from that, but I’m generally not at all interested. So what that means in practice is that, the first time I play a song, I’ll clear all three “Rocksmith recommends” items; then I’ll get three new ones, and I’ll clear one that’s about improving my numbers (longer streak / higher mastery), one that’s about doing a section in riff repeater, and I’ll just let the third one sit there indefinitely.

Basically: I don’t want to be told to do a 101-level lesson that I’ve already gotten 100% on: I assure you, I’m not going to get much out of going over the Sustains 101 lesson again. I don’t want to be told do do a random guitarcade game. And I definitely do not want to be told to do score attack at any difficulty less than Hard: if there’s a section or two of the song that I haven’t gotten to purple (the solo, say), then that requires me to play stripped down versions of sections that I’m very solid on, and that’s just boring.

I like the top-level goals more: I particularly appreciated the encouragement to go through Session Mode and to play around with tones. But mostly I focus on the goal that asks me to play one specific songs: and, most of the time, it’ll quickly get to where it requests a song that I don’t want to play (usually because of tuning reasons), and then it will stay stuck on that request. (On the Xbox One version, it even stays stuck when I press the console off button: the game just treats that as a pause.)

Honestly, this one really isn’t that big a deal: I can just ignore the recommendations. The main issue there is that, if you don’t do recommended items, then it takes a lot longer to unlock stuff: in fact, there are still songs on disc that I haven’t unlocked.

  • Master Mode tweaks

The way Master Mode works in Rocksmith 2014 is clearly better than Master Mode in its predecessor: before, I felt like I was being dropped into the deep end. Having said that, there’s one aspect of its predecessor that I do miss in the 2014 version: after playing through a song in Master Mode, you got to watch a replay of yourself but with the notes visible, so you could see what you missed. That was a great learning tool, and I’d like a way to get it back in Rocksmith 2014 for songs that I am working on mastering as a whole.

I’m not 100% sure how that would work in practice, admittedly. I think the only way you can actually force the game into Master Mode for an entire song is in Score Attack; I don’t like Score Attack, but I can deal with the distraction level as long as I turn down the sound effects, and maybe being able to review the song after a playthrough would fit okay thematically in that mode?

The other way in which Master Mode is a bit off is how it handles similar but not identical sections: being in Master Mode (at least once the notes have disappeared completely) makes it harder to learn the differences between those sections, which can be frustrating. I went through a phase in More Than a Feeling where I didn’t know the notes for one variant of the harmonics but did for the others, so I’d completely mess up in that section, then the game would realize that I’d need to see more notes, then it would show me notes for sections I already knew, and then the notes would disappear again right when I got to the section in which I didn’t know the notes to play!

  • Notation tweaks

The notation is quite good in general, but there are two changes I would make. The first is pitch bends: I would have a consistent story on whether the high part of the bent track means the string should be bent or unbent, whereas its actual meaning shifts depending on which string you’re playing. (Which, in practice, means that my expectations are trained by the top three strings, because that’s a significant majority of the bends, and I have to remind myself to behave differently on the bottom three strings.) Maybe the game’s notation makes sense on the notation on the fretboard on the bottom of the strings, but that’s rarely where my eyes are.

The other is palm mutes versus frethand mutes: despite the similar names, those seem to me quite different techniques both physically and aurally, but the game’s notation is almost identical. I wish the game used, say, an o instead of an x to notate one of them, instead of making me remember which width of x is which.

Also, sometimes the orange string looks pretty red to me, especially when it’s asking me to play an open string. (And no, I’m not color-blind.) Maybe this is just a gold dress / blue dress thing, though.

  • Riff Repeater tweaks

Riff Repeater mode is very good, but it’s still not quite in-depth enough for me. If I’m playing a tricky passage on the piano, I’ll stare at a single measure, try out a few different fingerings, and then play them over and over again until I get something that works. But Riff Repeater doesn’t let me do that: it doesn’t let me freeze a section of notes to just look at it, and it doesn’t let me go down to a single-measure granularity.

In fact, sometimes the granularity goes way too far in the other direction: I don’t understand why the game doesn’t let you select each phrase in a song independently, why it sometimes (not often, and admittedly less often in newer songs than older ones) forces you to group phrases for review. E.g. in Anna Molly, there’s one section of the song that’s far harder than any other part of the song, and Riff Repeater forces me to play four phrases in a row, when each of those phrases is more than hard enough to deserve individual study.

Also, I prefer to put Riff Repeater in “no errors” mode, but I generally find phrases difficult to pass if they involve lots of bends. Some of that’s on me, surely, but some of that is, I think, on the cable not quickly picking up on pitch changes, so it takes a while to decide that a bent note (or a slide) is accurate. Maybe they’ll need a new cable to fix that, but it seems like making the mode be more forgiving would help?

  • Remember my skill level across iterations of the game

I expected it to be annoying to have to start all over again when I switched from the 360 version to the Xbox One version of Rocksmith 2014, but actually it wasn’t so bad, and I even kind of appreciated having my play counts reset. But having the game dumb down the difficulty level for the first couple dozen songs was pretty annoying, so please at least remember my basic skill level. (And probably remember my level on individual phrases of songs, if that’s not too hard to accomplish.)

  • Less lag in the UI

The Xbox One version spends a pretty long time going through downloaded content every time you launch it, and during that process it mostly refuses to let you play songs even if the songs are ones that are on disc or otherwise validated. So please speed up the validation and make it non-blocking.

Also, even when I’ve made it past that initial validation, if I jump between songs (e.g. from the start to the end of a list in Learn a Song), it takes the game a while to load something, and it won’t let me start playing a song while waiting. From a user perspective, it looks like the game is loading the album art for the songs on the part of the list that’s on screen (and, in particular, the album art all shows up right when it lets me go into the song); if that’s where the delay is coming from, then that’s a very bad reason to delay loading the song. (I’m not actually convinced that that’s where the delay is coming from, though, it’s conceivable that it’s waiting on something more important.)

 

Seriously, though, all whining aside: it’s a great game: I’m only complaining because I spent so much time with the game: if I hadn’t spent as many hundreds of hours with the series, I wouldn’t have these little issues to talk about.

patronage

May 10th, 2015

In Episode 34 of the Exponent podcast, Ben Thompson talked about the process of starting his blog and turning it into a substantial business. (The discussion starts around 18 minutes in.) It’s an interesting counterpoint to all of the recent discussions of how to turn video game criticism blogging into a business: so many people have started patreons, and there are a fair number of magazines trying to make a go at games criticism.

Ben’s major point is: it’s great to do what you love and are good at, but if you want to make a business, it’s extremely important to check your hypothesis that there’s a market out there willing to pay money for what you’re selling, and to modify your plan accordingly. This is not a model that most game criticism patreons seem to be following (though there are exceptions); in fact, the word “selling” doesn’t even apply to any of the game criticism website patreons that I’m aware of (though it does apply to several of the magazines), because the works produced under the patreon are available for free! (Thompson, in contrast, writes one freely available post and four paywalled posts a week; he also has a members-only discussion forums.) Instead, it’s people who want to write about games, who are generally quite good at writing about games, and who seem to be setting up the patreon as a tip jar in hopes that a bit of windfall profits will come out of that.

 

Nothing wrong with tip jars, of course; I would be interested in seeing somebody really make a go at making a business out of games criticism, but I certainly don’t have any great ideas for how a business would come out of a games criticism website. And my understanding is that, when placed next to freelance income, the amounts involved can make a difference. A patronage model has interesting overtones, of course, but so does a capitalist model.

What this actually reminds me of as much as anything is academia. Colleges are a sort of patronage model writ large: find people who are good about thinking about some subject, let them spend time thinking about it, and hope that something good will come to society as a whole. It’s not as simple as that, of course: professors teach, which puts some sort of floor on the value that society will receive from professors; peer review and tenure give some measure of quality check; and grants can either give more texture to the patronage or introduce more capitalism into the model, for better or for worse. But still, ultimately: at its best, academia finds people who have an interesting way of thinking about a subject, and hopes something good will come out of them following their interests beyond what the marketplace would be willing to pay for.

 

So: games criticism patreons are a broadening of academia? In part, maybe. But I do wish we could broaden this further: I don’t believe that academia does a great job of picking winners, and I also don’t believe that patreon does. Really, I just wish that we had a guaranteed minimum income: aside from the other problems that that would help with, it would give a little more space for situations like this. There are lots of people out there good at lots of different things, and who could get even better with more breathing room to try out ideas; capitalism is one way to help figure out where value will come from, but I’d like to see a wider range of experiments out there.

shoes

April 26th, 2015

About six years ago, my feet started hurting, enough that I went to see a doctor. He didn’t find anything particularly wrong with me, so he suggested some inserts for me to use; my memory is that that generally fixed things, but it also got me a little more actively curious about shoes and walking. Barefoot running was starting to show up in the news (e.g. Daniel Lieberman’s lab; also, I read Born to Run in 2010, here’s a position paper by that book’s author); that’s the sort of thing that appeals to me temperamentally from a conceptual point of view, so I figured I’d give minimal shoes a try.

I first started off with Invisible Shoes; they’re now called Xero Shoes, and they seem more usable now, but at the time they were super fiddly, making you tie string in strange loops around your feet every time you put them on. So, while I basically liked the sole, I didn’t like actually dealing with the shoes. Nike had introduced their Nike Free lines; I tried one of those and the sole was significantly thicker than what I was looking for and the shoes themselves were narrow, so I gave up on those pretty quickly.

But then I ran across Soft Star’s RunAmoc shoes, and those looked much more promising. Unlike the Invisible Shoes, they’re structured like normal shoes, just in a loose way that gives your toes room to wiggle around; and the soles were just as thin as the Invisible Shoes’s soles. So I tried them out, and they worked great! (At least once I switched to the 5mm soles: I liked the feel of the 2mm soles, but they wore out within a month.)

I’ve been using RunAmocs for about four years now; unfortunately, from my point of view they’ve gotten worse. For whatever reason, the company changed their sizing chart on two separate occasions; and the second time they changed their sizing chart, none of the new sizes really fit. Basically, even when I went large enough that my toes were kind of swimming in the front half of the shoe, the shoes still pressed down enough from above on my right foot that my toes felt like they wanted to start curling under; after maybe three weeks, the leather stretched enough that I had enough room, which could be okay, except for the other problem with those shoes: they start wearing noticeably thin (even with the 5mm soles) after 3-4 months, and have holes appear in them soon after that. So that meant that I was replacing them three times a year, and each pair didn’t feel right for about a quarter of that time. (Also, they cost $115 each; paying $350/year for shoes is more than I’d normally like to spend.)

 

Still, I really did like those shoes most of the time. But then something else happened: I’d had a couple of brief back pain flareups, but last summer back pain showed up and, instead of going away, got a lot worse. I really wasn’t sure what had caused the pain: the shoes were one possibility, but actually I generally felt better when I was walking, sitting down was more of an issue. (When the pain was at its worst, I was unable to drive for several weeks, and in fact there were some days when just being a passenger in a car was excruciating.) I went to doctors and physical therapists; after a few months, it got better. (Yay steriods.)

This winter, I felt fine: but then, a month and a half ago, my back started hurting again. It wasn’t bad yet, but I really really didn’t want a repeat of the summer. And my current pair of RunAmocs was starting to wear thin: normally I wouldn’t replace them when they’re at that stage, but it seemed possible that my back was reacting to that. I switched to some old running shoes that I had lying around, and my back got better; maybe it was just a coincidence, but I didn’t want to take that chance. (And I also didn’t want to buy new RunAmocs every three months instead of every four months: that’s expensive, and it would mean that they didn’t fit a full third of the time!)

So I went shoe shopping again, this time to regular stores; I ended up with a “Nike FS Lite Run 2″, and my back hasn’t been giving me any problems. I’m not in love with the shoes, but they’re okay (in particular, they’re not as crazy thin as the Nikes I’d tried in the previous iteration); and they’re also noticeably cheaper than the RunAmocs, so I can experiment quite a bit and still come out ahead financially.

 

I’m still not sure what to make of all of this. The basic reasoning behind the barefoot running folks still seems plausible enough to me; and I haven’t had foot or leg problems, just back problems, and for all I know those might have as much to do with the amount and way that I sit as with walking. (For what it’s worth, by the way, I generally walk 5-6 miles a day.) Also, I go barefoot (well, sock foot) all the time at home and much of the time at work; I don’t see any signs that that’s causing problems.

If I had to guess, what may be going on is that I spend most of my time walking on sidewalks, and concrete is a lot harder than most things people walk on in nature; given that, needing a bit of padding isn’t unreasonable? Or maybe the differential wear pattern on the RunAmocs when they’re wearing thin is encouraging my foot to do something unnatural, and that I’d actually do better if I really were walking barefoot? Or maybe this barefoot stuff is overblown: super padded running shoes are a late twentieth-century invention, but shoes themselves go back millennia.

I don’t know; I’m just happy that my back doesn’t hurt now. Maybe I’ll experiment with Xero Shoes this summer: the Z-Trek sandals don’t have the fiddly lacing (and they also seem to have introduced models with cords that don’t constantly need to be retried); and if their longevity claims are at all, the soles won’t wear out nearly as quickly as the RunAmocs have.

blogging about my netrunner decks

April 21st, 2015

I’ve been enjoying one of my Netrunner decks recently, and I figured it would help me take notes about what’s working in my decks and what isn’t. So I’m reviving my gaming scenes blog for something other than Minecraft pictures: I’ll add decks there as they change or evolve, and I’ll also backfill a couple of recent decks.

Here’s the first post, about my Valencia deck.

apple os software quality

April 20th, 2015

At the beginning of the year, there was a spate of posts about Apple’s OS software quality not being as good as people would like. I didn’t chime in at the time, but: this has been annoying me for the last couple of years. And what adds to the weirdness is that the list of bugs I encounter is pretty different from the list of bugs I’ve seen in other people’s posts; this makes me suspect that the reason why there were so many complaints wasn’t that there were a few big bugs, it’s that bugs were all over the place. (Of course, I’m avoiding upgrading my work laptop to Yosemite exactly to avoid one of the bugs other people have reported in Yosemite, though this post about an intentional Apple backdoor that’s not getting fixed in Mavericks makes me think that I probably should upgrade anyways.)

 

My list of bugs:

  • Mavericks made two of my computers unusable

I understand that newer operating systems will sometimes use more resources, and that that can be a reasonable tradeoff. Given that Apple controls both the hardware and software, though, I assume they can give good guidance on whether a new OS will work with an older computer; their guidance was that Mavericks would improve performance on old hardware, because they started automatically compressing data stored memory.

This was dramatically not the case for me: my home laptop and my work desktop machine both because essentially unusable after Mavericks. Yes, they were old (the home laptop was a plastic Macbook that I’d been thinking I would replace soon anyways), but still: if I’d been in a situation where I depended on those computers and couldn’t afford to upgrade, I would have been screwed. Judging from the sounds of the machine, disk usage skyrocketed as the machine ground to a halt; I’m not sure if it was swapping or what, but the outcome was not good. We replaced the hard drive on my work machine with an SSD, and it became a quite usable machine after that; the home laptop was old enough that replacing it was the right choice, but that event has made me extremely leery about updating the OS on old machines no matter what Apple says.

  • Clocks don’t reliably stay in sync

On some machines, ntp works great. On other machines, though, the time is several seconds off. I have those machines synced to multiple time servers, so it’s not one weird time server (though that was an issue in the past: it had been the case that Apple’s time server couldn’t keep up with demand!): the time servers all agree, but my machine ignores them. This is software that has worked reliably for me for a quarter decade now, but Apple has managed to break it.

  • Launchd StartCalendarInterval

OSX still supports cron, but they tell you to use launchd instead, with its StartCalendarInterval functionality. And, actually, it works better for me than cron: I have my work desktop machine set up to build the current state of our code base at 7:30am every morning for me so I have a fresh build when I get into work, which depends on having access to my ssh key in memory. If I invoke it using cron then the permissions, don’t work properly, but launchd works great.

Or at least it worked great in Mavericks: in Yosemite, it’s completely broken. Many days, the job doesn’t launch at all, and if it does launch, it doesn’t launch at the specified time: this makes it worse than useless, because it means that it might decide to launch when I’m touching the code! I googled, and unlike other issues I’m talking about here, this one isn’t sporadic: it apparently works for nobody.

Fortunately, I came up with a workaround: I removed StartCalendarInterval from the config file, and then I created a cron job that does launchd start at the time I want. But still: there’s a real test problem here.

  • Bluetooth in Mavericks

In Mavericks, my bluetooth keyboard and trackpad would periodically stop connecting to the computer: I’d have to turn them off and on again to get them to work. And these are Apple products, it’s not some third party difference of opinion on how to interpret a spec somewhere: the keyboards and trackpads that shipped with two different iMacs stopped working reliably.

Fortunately, they fixed that one in Yosemite, so I only had to deal with it for a year.

  • Asking for my password

My work iMac has started at times (I think mostly after a reboot) asking me for my iCloud password, with zero context. The fact that it’s lost authentication is bad enough, but what makes this a lot worse is that I’m being asked to just type a very important password into a popup that magically appears, with absolutely no reason given to believe that I’m not being phished. (Hell, for all I know I am: I don’t think that’s the case, but I don’t have a good reason to believe it’s not the case.) So setting aside the bug that leads to the password being forgotten: the existence of this dialog at all is a horrible security practice.

  • That install notification

This one isn’t a bug, it’s just a bizarre UX decision: the notification that pops up when the computer would like to inform you that there’s an update available to a piece of software. The options are to go ahead with the install or to prompt you later, but what is missing is the actual option that I want every single time: SHOW ME WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE PROMPTING ME TO UPDATE. If I wanted my software magically updated without me being given an opportunity to look at the release notes first to decide, then there’s a perfectly good system preference for that (or at least I assume it’s perfectly good, but who knows); the fact that I haven’t enabled that preference should strongly suggest to the computer that I don’t want any of the options that it’s prompting me with.

  • Buttons stopping working on my new phone

When I got my iPhone 6, sometimes buttons would just stop working. (And I think this is an iOS 8 thing rather than an iPhone 6 thing, because Miranda ran into some similar issues on her 5C.) The most common one was that the pause/volume controls on the earbuds would stop working, but sometimes there were more serious issues: the screen would stop registering entirely on some situations, and at least onceeven the power button stopped working normally.

In all situations, rebooting the phone fixed it. Which, fortunately, was always possible: even when the power button or screen wasn’t behaving normally, if I held down the power button long enough, the phone would do a hard shutdown. So the very lowest emergency layer was working, but something a layer or two up for that wasn’t.

Fortunately, I haven’t seen this for a while, so I think it’s been fixed in a point release.

  • Safari hanging on iOS

But point release give as well as take away: ever since upgrading to iOS 8.2 (and remaining in iOS 8.3), Safari on my phone has occasionally decided to take minutes to load. This one’s a weird one: it kind of seems like what triggers it is the first POST after starting Safari since it’s been evicted from memory, but I’m really not sure. At any rate, the symptoms are: Safari doesn’t just stop loading the current page, it becomes unresponsive more generally, with not only internal controls (e.g. switching tabs) not working but with the home button even taking several seconds to respond. (I didn’t know apps could cause that!) If I exit the app (but don’t force quit it) and then re-enter the app, it will stay hung and then be evicted again by the OS after a bit. (And then if I launch it another time, that tab will be empty, showing my bookmarks.)

If I’m patient enough, the page in question will load; it just takes multiple minutes. And once I’ve waited it out once, it’ll be fine for a while.

  • DNS not working

Frequently, after waking up my home iMac, network connections won’t work; poking around, DNS is broken. Except that it’s not completely broken, because if you use traditional Unix commands to do DNS resolution (e.g. host), they’ll work fine. It’s apparently caused by something called discoveryd, and seems to be related to a recent spate of phantom machine name collisions; in a pinch, stopping/starting the service using launchctl fixes it, if I don’t feel like waiting a couple of minutes for it to fix itself.

 

Frustrating; and, like I said, if I hadn’t been in a position to replace one of those computers, then the first of these would have been a good deal more than frustrating. I gather that Apple is replacing a fair amount of core functionality in order to improve power management, which is presumably why decades-old functionality has stopped working reliably; that’s a great goal, but their testing seems to me like it’s not keeping up with the rate of change.

Some of the Apple tech commentary has said: OSX release were better when they weren’t so frequent, they should slow down. My take, predictably, is the opposite: the way to improve quality isn’t to have an even longer time period between when a bug is written and when it’s released, it’s to firm up your testing so you can reliably release even more frequently, shrinking scope if necessary. (Ubuntu releases every 6 months, with constant updates of individual components, on a much wider range of hardware than Apple has to deal with, and I’ve never seen problems like this there.) Having said that, I’m not confident that my standard testing approach would have caught most of these problems: aside from the StartCalendarInterval problem, the others feel plausibly like Heisenbugs. Then again, they’ve got enough people using pre-release versions of their software that they should be pretty well equipped to detect Heisenbugs.

amazon and pull systems

April 9th, 2015

Nine years ago, I was thinking about how Amazon Prime enables a more lean approach towards purchasing: if you that you can get whatever you want in two days, then you don’t have to buy things until you need them. For example, I can take a kanban approach towards book buying: if I don’t read more than one book a day, then I can order my next book whenever I’m down to two unread books. It certainly made a big difference in my book purchasing habits: the stacks on top of my bookshelf are a lot shorter than they used to be. (And are mostly made up of gifts…)

So it’s interesting to see Amazon taking a slightly different approach to pull systems with Amazon Dash. They’ve been pushing subscriptions for regular purchases (toilet paper, detergent, etc.) for a while, but I have no idea how frequently we need to buy detergent, and I’m not particularly confident that that interval is fixed. Basically, all the standard arguments against push systems apply: it makes a lot more sense to treat buying detergent as a pull system, to stick it on the grocery list when we’re running low.

But, I’ll have to say: pushing a button and having it show up magically is even easier than picking it up at the grocery store. Only marginally so, of course, so I’m not about to get an Amazon Dash button: I don’t want a single-purpose device lying around, and I don’t want to have brand advertising lying around my house. But still, it feels like there’s something there, and with the right context (RFID + Apple Watch, or something), this could turn into something.

rocksmith audio

April 6th, 2015

One of the problems people have with Rocksmith is the audio delay, but it hadn’t been too bad for me in the past: I’m not sure if I’m less sensitive to audio delay than other people, or if my receiver has a little less audio latency than some people’s AV setup? When I switched over to the Xbox One version of the game, though, the delay did start to bother me: I’m not sure if that console has higher latency than the 360 or if I was getting more sensitive, but at any rate: time to do something about that.

Which I was a little reluctant to do: the game recommends using an optical audio cable to plug into your receiver, but I wasn’t convinced that that wouldn’t worsen the experience for other games on the system. (My understanding is that HDMI supports higher quality audio than optical audio, and lowering the audio latency without lowering the video latency could make other games fall out of sync.) But then I noticed that the game’s Xbox One FAQ links to an affordable Toslink converter from Monoprice, which nicely sidesteps that issue.

So I got that converter, along with appropriate cables to let me plug in some earphones, and wow: it really was time for me to improve my Rocksmith audio setup. The latency has either completely or almost completely disappeared, which significantly reduces my annoyance: but what turns out to make as much of a difference is the position of the audio. Before, the audio was coming out of speakers on the wall, which meant that the closest sound to me was my guitar acting as an acoustic instrument. Whereas once I started listening through earphones, the closest sound to me became my guitar acting as an electronic guitar, with the unprocessed sound fading into the background, frequently inaudible.

And that gave me a more realistic idea of how I sound as an electric guitar player in ways that directly affect how I play. Most concretely, I’d been using too much force when plucking strings: now that I’m no longer listening to the sound coming directly from the string, I realize that I can get better results by barely touching the string. (I knew that intellectually before, but I feel it a lot more viscerally now.)

Having said that, there have been problems with the new setup. For one thing, the Toslink converter I’m using doesn’t have a volume control, so I have zero control as to whether I like how loud the music is. When I originally tried it, I used some iPhone earbuds I had lying around, and actually the volume level was pretty much just right for me (maybe a touch loud, but only a touch). Once I’d decided this was the way I wanted to go, I upgraded to better headphones (Sennheiser HD 558’s, for you headphone buffs), and while the sound quality and comfort are much better than with the earbuds, the sound is a tiny bit quieter than I would like, so I might end up getting a separate amp.

And the other is the cables I’m using to string all of this together. When I was experimenting to make sure I liked using the optical audio at all, sometimes the audio cut out; I’m not sure if it was the coax cable or the coax to 3.5mm cable or the female/female 3.5mm converter, but at any rate, when I upgraded the headphones, I replaced those parts with a single cable that could do all three roles. Which seemed fine, but a week later, something started going wrong again; I don’t know if it’s the new cable or if it’s in the cable for the new headphones (which is replaceable, fortunately) or in the 1/4 inch to 3.5mm converter (and there’s even one audio artifact that makes me worried that it’s the headphones themselves), but whatever it is, I’m not impressed, and I’m not looking forward to the tedium of troubleshooting to figure out what I need to replace.

But I’ll get past both of those issues; and it’s already making a real difference in the quality of my learning.

returning to ico

April 4th, 2015

I really enjoyed Dragon Age: Inquisition, but it was a bit of a mess. That mess was, however, not specific to that game: it’s entirely typical for a AAA game to throw in a kitchen sink of gameplay mechanisms.

Some AAA games manage to escape that pitfall: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are particularly good examples. Or at least the versions of those games in my memories are; but I hadn’t played them in close to a decade! So: time to go through them again. And, having gone through the first one: Ico is very far indeed from a kitchen sink.

 

On an emotional level, I see Ico having two basic Strong Centers that permeate the game. I’ll label one as “separation”, with connection, loneliness, and fear as Echoes. And I’ll label the other as “mystery”, with exploration, wonder, understanding, and, again, fear as Echoes. And on a mechanical level, I see three basic types of actions: traversing the castle, solving puzzles in a specific portion of the castle, and combat with the monsters that appear.

Three basic types of mechanics sounds pretty small, but actually, that size isn’t unusual. Comparing this to the last two AAA games I played: you could say that Tomb Raider has the exact same basic triad of mechanics as Ico does, and you could say that Dragon Age: Inquisition has traversal, combat, and conversation as its three core mechanics. I’m not sure that’s entirely right: those two games both have collections of actions around capability increases (leveling up, inventory) that might be strong enough to call out as a fourth mechanic; in the Dragon Age case, you could even say that leveling up and crafting/inventory are two different top-level mechanical concepts. Still, at a top-level classification of mechanics, Ico‘s conceptual space seems pretty normal.

What is much less normal, however, is how little the tree expands when you drill down into these mechanics, both in terms of breadth and depth. If we consider terrain traversal in Dragon Age: there’s traversing the abstract map, there’s wandering around a region, there are distinct physical areas (towns, distinct chunks of terrain) within those regions, there are smaller portions of those areas (individual buildings within towns, hills within outdoor sections, etc.), there are dungeons to explore, there are landmarks, ocularia, etc. to discover and check off your list, there are herbs and ores to gather every few steps; in Ico, however, you’re moving from room to room and you’re moving around within rooms. (And I suppose the rooms themselves are grouped into sections, so let’s say that there are there levels of traversal.) For combat, the difference is even more stark: the list of layers of combat choices in Dragon Age would be even longer than the layers of terrain traversal, whereas it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that combat in Ico consists of repeatedly whacking your enemies with a stick.

Some of this is a difference in Levels of Scale that is proportional to the difference in length and scope of the different games. Dragon Age takes ten times as long to finish as Ico, and that difference of magnitude in duration is justified by a similar difference of magnitude in the scope of the plot; given that, for the games to feel balanced, Dragon Age needs to have more levels of a given mechanic than Ico does. But some of that difference in magnitude is because Dragon Age tries to appeal to a wide range of tastes: if you want to focus on the broad plot, you’ll traverse the game (including its physical spaces) in one way, if you want to focus on people and relationships, you’ll traverse the game in a different way, and similarly if your focus is on combat or on collecting. Or, for that matter, if your focus is on checking off boxes that the game sticks in your face, or if your focus is on the experiencing the terrain on its own terms instead of in instrumental terms. These aren’t different levels of scale, these are mechanics on the same level of scale that I read as an active choice to appeal weakly to a wide range of possible players instead of appealing strongly to a narrower range.

 

So: we have a vertical difference explained by having Layers of Scale appropriately applied in games of different scope. And we have a horizontal difference explained by Ico being more prescriptive in how it expects you to enjoy the game than Dragon Age. But that’s not all that’s going on here: the scale of combat is a vertical difference that is not explained by the difference in scope, combat in Ico is remarkably undeveloped even given the short length of the game.

Unlike so many other games, Ico isn’t treating combat as an unquestioned inclusion, as a means to its own end. If we analyze Ico as a game about separation and about mystery, then yes, combat does fit into the game: both of those centers link to fear, and enemies reify that fear. But Ico makes the decision to link the enemies most strongly with separation: the danger that the enemies bring (excluding the very end of the game) isn’t that they’ll kill you, it’s that they’ll separate you from Yorda. A hypothetical rich combat system that the player could learn to master would work at narrative cross-purposes to that reification of fear of separation: it would turn the focus onto the player and mastery and away from the focus on fear of separation. Contrast this with combat in Tomb Raider and in Dragon Age: Inquisition: the former game is a game about Lara coming into her own, and the latter game is about your inquisitor turning from a nobody into the leader of an army that can defeat demons and a world-threatening enemy; while I think combat in both games was a little bit overemphasized, it’s absolutely the case that development of the player’s combat skills fits into those games’ narrative themes in a way that it doesn’t in Ico.

I am on an anti-combat kick these days, however, and for the first part of this playthrough, I thought that the combat was a little long and tedious, that the game would have worked as well with much less of it. Now, though, I’m not nearly as sure of that: I acquired the mace in this playthrough, and once I had the mace, the battles were so fast that they had very little impact. So, based on that, I underestimated the power that was contained in the length of the initial battles: I’m not sure that the length of the battles was judged quite right, but maybe it was, and at the very least the length was a lot closer to being right than my original hypothesis was.

 

The other two mechanics, terrain traversal and puzzle solving, are much more developed than combat. Terrain traversal serves as a means to display the mystery of the castle: mystery turns to exploration turns to wonder. (And yes, turns to fear as enemies appear.) You and Yorda have to traverse the castle together, lest separation becomes a danger; and part of the mystery of the castle is its age, its beginning to fall to ruin: that highlights another form of separation, between yourself and the unknown people who built the castle. Returning to you and Yorda traversing the castle together: that connection is reified by your holding hands; but that in turn is animated in an asymmetric way, leading me to read the player at times as an excited child wanting to drag somebody older around, somebody who would be just as happy to take things a little bit more slowly. And that shows yet another, subtler, form of separation, namely one of age and knowledge: Yorda is older than you, knows more about the context of the castle than you do, knows more about the context of the struggles than you do, and will be affected differently by failure than you will.

The terrain traversal has Layers of Scale: the castle is divided into large sections, those sections are divided into rooms, and within each room, there’s a fair bit to traverse and examine. That examination turns into puzzles, which gives the game a form of Alternating Repetition (move, puzzle, move, puzzle); the puzzles reify one aspect of the mystery of the castle, and are designed with separation/reconnection as a key mechanic.

Those puzzles, from a traversal point of view, do provide a hint of The Void: they jerk you out of motion and force you to stop, look, and think. (Though puzzles frequently do fit into traversal: Non-Separateness, you could say, or Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.) But the puzzles are really more of a change in focus than they are a manifestation of The Void: your mind is active while grappling with them, your fingers are frequently active, and at times you’ll be frustrated, none of which I associate with The Void.

A better example of The Void, and an example which is one of my favorite mechanics in any game, are the couches. On a mechanical level, the couches are simply save spots, but they’re so much more. They divide sections of the games from each other, with each section being named in the save file. They highlight the importance of connection, because you can’t even use them unless Yorda is right there with you. They give down time and a space for contemplation for you as the character: you can sit there with Yorda, maybe just relaxing, maybe looking around at the castle, maybe thinking, maybe enjoying sitting there with somebody next to you. And they give down time and a space for contemplation for you as the player: as a boundary between sections, you’re told that you’ve accomplished something and should get ready to gather up your strength for what comes next, and as a save spot, you’re given explicit permission to take all the rest you need before continuing. I can’t think of another piece of furniture in any game that manages to accomplish quite so much.

 

Which makes it all the more powerful when the couches go away. For the last quarter of the game, you’re alone: and the game has reinforced the importance of connection between you and Yorda enough that her absence alone has a real impact, on the narrative of the game, the emotions of the game, and the mechanics of the game. (No more puzzles about helping her traverse a large gap, for example.) That would have been enough on its own, but the linkage of “no Yorda means no couches means no save spots” is what gave that part of the game such a visceral impact for me: I kept on wondering how much longer I’d be groping through the environments alone, how much I’d have to bear up, whether I’d have to stop and replay whole sections because I would have to do something outside of game that would prevent me from finishing that part of the game.

Normally, when games don’t let you save, I get quite annoyed at them: I see that as an active lack of respect for my time by the game. But I don’t feel that way about Ico at all: the game only does that once, it does a good job of signaling that something unusual has happened and places a save spot right before that, it does that for a clear narrative goal, there aren’t long-term failure states within that section, that narrative goal has a real emotional impact, and, ultimately, it only takes an hour and a half, maybe two hours to make it through that section of the game. (So it doesn’t require you to devote more unbroken time to the game than a movie would, it fits within the context of normal human lives.) Symmetry within games, in the form of Alternating Repetition, is all well and good, but you need to break that symmetry occasionally, to throw in a bit of Roughness: that’s what we have here.

 

Quite a game: I had a lot of respect for Ico going into this playthrough, and I have significantly more respect for it at the end.

ascension: realms unraveled

March 25th, 2015

Ascension: Realms Unraveled showed up hot on the heels of the previous expansion, and, like its predecessor, it turned out to be surprisingly fun to play. I actually was not sure about it at the start: for one thing, the art style changed dramatically, to the extent that it wasn’t even immediately obvious what class of card something was. And, for another thing, they basically took every mechanic they’d previously had except for the energy/shard mechanic and applied them all everywhere. In particular, the prior mechanic of certain lifebound heroes having special effects if you played multiple lifebound heroes in the same turn got generalized: now all classes had cards that behaved like that, which meant that focusing on classes (with all the randomness that comes from combining classes with the small number of cards available for purchase) became super important.

And, honestly, I’m really not sure that was a great idea: I think I preferred having that as a special lifebound mechanic over having it show up everywhere. So I’m hoping they step back from that in their next expansion; but trying it out once wasn’t a bad idea. It meant that some decks would cascade into overwhelming victories (which was helped by the fact that a few individual cards were overpowered); but I ended up generally basically enjoying games even when I was on the losing side of those situations, and I played a surprising number of games where both sides seemed to be building up very powerful decks.

the rock band 4 announcement

March 15th, 2015

So: Harmonix announced Rock Band 4. I had mixed feelings when I filled out the survey: on the one hand, I claimed that pro instruments were most important to me, because that is after all how I spent most of my time in Rock Band 3, but, on the other hand: “pro instruments” probably really means “pro guitar”, and Rocksmith has done a much better job teaching you how to play guitar than Rock Band 3 did. And that’s not a coincidence, not just a consequence of the initial bet that each game made on whether or not playing on a real guitar would work: the choices that Rock Band 3 made in that area fit into the game’s design heritage, which could be hard to break away from.

That mean that, when Harmonix announced that Rock Band 4 wouldn’t support pro guitar, I was actually relieved: I can’t imagine them doing that well without effectively making two different games in one, without spending as much time on pro guitar as on the rest of the game; and, well, I’m not sure what benefit that would bring me given that I have Rocksmith. I am a little sad that they decided to drop keys, because pro keys was my favorite instrument in Rock Band 3, and it didn’t have the same mismatch as pro guitar; but I accept that I’m in a pretty small minority in preferring pro keys over other instruments, and with keys there was always the issue that lots of songs in the library didn’t have a keyboard part at all.

And, when it comes down to it: these days the part of Rock Band that I like the most these days is singing. I wasn’t seriously worried that they would drop harmonies, and, indeed, they won’t be. I really like singing with Liesl, or with Liesl and Miranda, or even by myself; so yay, I’ll be able to continue doing that.

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing about the instruments: will I bring over my instruments from the 360 (assuming they get that to work), or buy new ones? Given licensing problems and the existence of The Beatles: Rock Band, part of me wants to keep an escape hatch to make it easy to switch back to Rock Band 3; but the truth is that I don’t play that game very often at all these days, and so in practice it’s probably not worth worrying about? Though the flip side is that one of our fake guitars is a little dodgy; maybe I’ll end up buying another fake guitar and another mic, which would leave it easy enough to play on either system if necessary? Heck, I could even get a new drum kit: my current set of fake drums is a Rock Band 1 era Ion model, and while it’s clearly better than the original Rock Band drum kit, the Rock Band 2 model was a big improvement, and it could be fun having cymbals to play around with.

Who knows; I’m looking forward to playing the new game, and to seeing what the team thinks is important to focus on with this iteration.

hoplite

February 24th, 2015

Hoplite pushed my buttons in an interesting way. It’s a roguelike, which is a genre that I respect in the abstract but I don’t play much of; but it’s a roguelike with small levels, with no hidden information within a level, with only four types of enemies, and where your build options, while somewhat random, come from a small enough pool to let you repeat the core of your build experiments fairly reliably. So there’s enough predictability to give you control over your outcomes, but there’s enough randomness to knock you out of a groove.

This makes Hoplite really interesting from a learning point of view, and the game’s achievements really help that. The achievements ask you to play in different ways, and each achievement unlocks a new ability that can show up in the tree. So you start with a small pool of abilities available to you, the game encourages you to learn what you can do with them, and then once you’ve shown that you can do something with those abilities, it gives you another one to explore. (On which note: Darius Kazemi has some great advice on how to learn while playing the game.)

I spent a couple of months playing it; I hit a few plateaus, banging my head against them, but once I made it past them I felt like I’d really learned something, that I could see possibilities I couldn’t before. And I’m pretty sure there would be several more plateaus to overcome if I stuck with the game: I’m used to focusing on reading when playing go, and Hoplite gives me a feeling that it supports that sort of calculation. If I didn’t have a couple other games I’m hooked on long term, I’d probably still be playing this one.

unsolicited advice

February 10th, 2015

  • If you have your Twitter client configured to use a third-party link shortener, get rid of that configuration: if I see a link in your tweet, I want to have an idea about where the link might lead before clicking on it. And if you are using a third party link shortener that directs to a third party wrapper around the target page, get rid of that configuration and then say a hundred Hail Marys as penance.
  • If you don’t get advertising revenue from your blog, configure the RSS feed to include full text and pictures. Yes, I’ll sometimes go to your site, but generally I’d rather just read what you’ve written in my feed reader. Partly because of laziness, partly to avoid network/rendering delays, but partly because feed readers format blogs in a more readable way than most blogs layouts/stylesheets do. (On which note: attractive layout that doesn’t interfere with readability is the main reason why I will bother to go to your site.)
  • Speaking of which, if you have a blog (or whatever word you want to refer to something RSS-accessible), subscribe to it in a feed reader, so you can see what it looks like in that environment.
  • And if you do regularly publish content somewhere, do please make an RSS feed accessible and easily discoverable. Yes, RSS isn’t trendy these days, but it still works great.
  • If I’m reading your web page and I reach the bottom of what’s visible on screen and hit space/page-down, I should be able to continue reading: I shouldn’t need to manually scroll to avoid missing lines of text. In fact, just stop using those trendy navigation bars that are fixed to the top of the screen, even if they’re thin enough to not interfere with scrolling: they’re all about you and your brand, they’re never useful for the reader.

Yours in grumpiness.

dragon age inqusition: stepping back

February 9th, 2015

Preamble

So: after that grab bag of impressions of Dragon Age: Inquisition, what do I think about the game as a whole?

One question is: what do I wish the game was? Given the importance of relationships and romances in the game, “a dating sim” is a not outlandish answer. I don’t think it’s my answer, though: while I like the romances, I like the non-romantic relationships, and I like watching the relationships between other characters, and the words “dating sim” don’t convey that to me. Having said that, it’s a genre that I’m not very familiar with, so I could be totally off on that one; probably I should give that genre a try?

But I’m also partly resistant to that answer: in particular, I like the situated nature of the Dragon Age games. I’m not thrilled with the way Dragon Age: Inquisition uses environments as a whole, but its repeated use of environments (Skyhold in particular) and of cultural forces has real power, in this game as it did in Dragon Age II. (But perhaps less so in Dragon Age: Origins?) Again with the same caveat that, for all I know, dating sims are similarly situated; and, actually, both the relationship aspect and the situated aspect remind me a lot of Persona 3.

Writing the above makes me think that I’d like to see a whole slew of Dragon Age games, experimenting with these ideas in different contexts at different scales. They’d all have relationships, they’d all take place in Thedas and be centered around a home, but otherwise, they could do whatever. A Fire Emblem-ish tactics game; a game where you’re managing a tavern; a game where you’re mayor of a city; a game where you’re a private investigator; a game where you’re with a traveling minstrel troupe. But I digress…

 

Another question that I had when playing the game: given my dislike for busywork in Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s environments, do I just want Dragon Age to be Mass Effect? That game has the relationships, it has the home base (two of them, in fact), it has the story missions (both main plot and companions), and it has a lot less of the wandering around. And, honestly, I probably do like Mass Effect more than Dragon Age as a series, though I’m not sure what all plays into that.

But I do think Dragon Age brings something good and different, even setting aside issues of fantasy versus science fiction or how the worlds are built. Mass Effect is perhaps a little too focused on plot missions that you can only see once, at the expense of terrain that you can explore? I don’t want to say that that’s bad, just that being able to repeatedly poke your nose around areas has its virtues as well.

 

Last month, I talked about games in the context of Systems of Survival. And Dragon Age: Inquisition fits squarely within that framework’s Guardian Moral Syndrome. There are, of course, problems that come with using that syndrome: you get to decide the fate of the world, who lives, who dies, who has power. But Dragon Age (both this game and the series as a whole) is relatively thoughtful about those issues: there’s constant doubt about what the right path is, constant surfacing of the political conflict underlying moral choices, of the inside and outside views of group membership. You see this in how the mage / templar conflict is treated, how the different races are treated, how even within a single race you have different groups that disagree in their core values, in the foregrounding of both the rich and the downtrodden. The games do a great job of, on the one hand, making you choose an in-group in order to set up Guardian Moral Syndrome behavior while, on the other hand, making you aware of the other possible choices and the other possible in-groups.

 

Alexander’s Properties

But really, I think the analytical framework that is most likely to help me tease out what I’m unsure about in the game is The Nature of Order. So, yet again, let’s go through the properties:

Levels of Scale

Tons of this, obviously. There’s the whole Dragon Age universe, there’s the three games, there’s this game, there’s the Haven part of the game versus the Skyhold part of the game, there are the story missions, there are the companion missions, there are the major environments, there are the sections of those environments, there are the missions within those environments, there are buildings, there are levels of dungeons, there are individual battles, there are sections within those battles (e.g. rift interactions in a rift battle, fights with monsters), there are conversations, there’s picking yet another goddamn elfroot, etc.

So, if you want scale, you’ve got scale. Dragon Age as a whole does particularly well at this because of how well elaborated the setting is and because the companion interactions give you an extra dimension. And, compared to other games in the series Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s regional environments provide an extra level of scale.

Strong Centers

Again: so much, where do we start? On a physical level: pick a map (and there are a few different levels of maps!), pick a symbol on that map, and it’s probably a center. And it’s not just symbols on the map, it’s regions, it’s the hills you walk past, ponds you walk around, and so forth.

Actually, that example of hills raises a couple of questions. For example, what do I feel about jumping? On the one hand, the whole sliding down hills thing was sort of silly. But, on the other hand, seeing a hill, wanting to get to the top of it, and having to figure out the correct way up does, in its own way strengthen the hill as a center. So I guess, on the balance, I like the jumping: it forces you to pay attention to the environment? The other question is the way certain features are marked as places where you can plant your flag. I like the idea there, how it attempts to expand those locations beyond a geographic context, and into a historical context. But the thing is: labeling something as a strong center doesn’t make it one! (There’s a similar problem with locations invoked in fetch quests and with locations shown in the drawings that you find.)

To look at this another way: I’ve been exploring the same Minecraft world once a month with the VGHVI folks once a month for four years. That world is randomly generated, yet it still contains strong centers that immediately draw me in as I’m wandering around. Dragon Age: Inquisition has crafted environments instead of random ones; those environments also contain strong centers, but I wish the game would follow Minecraft‘s lead and not nudge me so strongly to notice them.

Setting the maps aside, there are lots of other examples of strong centers in the game. The world’s social structure, the characters; I love how the game constantly returns to both of those. You get to think about religion, about race, about mages versus templars, about class structures, about the nations in the world: these are not infodump lore entries (you have those as well, they just don’t work as strong centers!), they are instead fleshed out areas of focus. As to your companions, you learn about them by talking with them, by working with them, by watching them from the side as they interact with each other, by hearing snippets of the past. Strong centers indeed: Dragon Age does much better with these sorts of centers than with geographic ones.

Boundaries

Quoting from The Phenomenon of Life (pp. 158–159):

The purpose of the boundary which surrounds a center is two-fold. First, it focuses attention on the center and thus helps to produce the center. It does this by forming the field of force which creates and intensifies the center which is bounded. Second, it unites the center which is being bounded with the world beyond the boundary. For this to happen, the boundary must at the same time be distinct from the center being bounded, must keep this center distinct and separate from the world beyond it, and yet also have the capacity of uniting that center with the world beyond the boundary. Then the boundary both unites and separates. In both ways, the center that is bounded becomes more intense.

Boundaries do the complex work of surrounding, enclosing, separating, and connecting in various different geometric ways, but one vital feature is necessary in order to make the boundary work in any of these ways: the boundary needs to be of the same order of magnitude as the center which is being bounded.

This gets at why Skyhold and Haven are my favorite places in Dragon Age: Inquisition, why the Normandy and the Citadel are my favorite places in Mass Effect. They serve as a boundary space between the major missions / regions to explore (though, unlike Alexander’s physical examples, one or two spaces serve as a boundary to all of the other missions / regions), and they are very thick boundaries indeed. Other games may have a home base, but it’s usually something much smaller: in these games, the boundary space really is the same order of magnitude as the missions / regions it surrounds. (Not necessary the same order of magnitude in physical space, though they’re pretty big, but the same order of magnitude conceptually / temporally: a typical evening play session might have me spending two hours off adventuring and then half an hour kicking around Skyhold dropping by all the locations to talk to people.)

Maybe this even points at why I like Scout Harding: when you first go to a new region, you’re not dropped into the excitement. Instead, you’re in your camp, and you spend a minute chatting with Harding to learn about what you’re going to face, and then a few more minutes wandering around before you really get into the action. Actually, the whole open world aspect of this game makes the boundaries potentially quite large indeed, but that comes more under the quality of Not-Separateness.

Alternating Repetition

All the standard RPG alternating repetitions here (mission, explore, mission, explore; away, home/shop, away, home/shop; fight, move, fight, move; etc.), but with a few extra twists. For one, the thick Boundary that is your home gives a quite different tenor to the home/away repetition than I’m used to. And the companion quests add complexity to the rhythm of missions: rather than the sort of dungeon / town alternation (with travel in between as a boundary) that you see in a lot of RPGs, there’s a dance between major plot missions, major regional missions, and companion missions.

Positive Space

Or maybe I should be linking the aforementioned sources of richness to Positive Space. Quoting again (The Phenomenon of Life, p. 173):

What I call Positive Space occurs when every bit of space swells outward, is substantial in itself, is never the leftover from an adjacent shape. We may see it like ripening corn, each kernel swelling until it meets the others, each one having its own positive shape caused by its growth as a cell from the inside.

This is Thedas’s history being made manifest not as a backdrop, not just in your decisions, but even in simple interactions. This is your companions not just being people to fill out your ability roster when fighting but people whom you grow to care about, and who then grow further to have their interactions with each other approach their interactions with you in importance, even to you! (And who end up muscling out the primary plot in importance as well.)

This property also shows itself in the regions: rather than being corridors for transit or a simple overworld map, they’re more fleshed out physically than even the major mission environments. The crafting system is an attempt at this, too: take the item progression that’s a backdrop to your leveling up and your enemies’ increase in strength (and that’s a sink to moderate resource acquisition), and turn it into something more active. That works less well for me: not enough creativity enabled by the game and shown by the game, either from an aesthetic point of view or from a systems manipulation point of view. But it’s something: if the game had gone all-in on that, then it could have been more powerful.

Good Shape

This one, honestly, I have a hard time thinking much about even for physical / geometric objects; for more conceptual situations, I have no idea where to start.

Local Symmetries

The mages versus the templars? The binary choices that BioWare likes? The different combat choices that come from class distinctions, specialization within classes? I’m not sure; I feel like there’s something to be seen here, I just can’t quite tease it out.

Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

This is a big part of what I like about Dragon Age Inquisition‘s large regions: they blend countryside with city, they blend missions with exploration such that you’re not always sure which you’re doing at any given time. Not that you have to choose: you can do both at the same time! (Though sometimes that not having to choose weakens the corresponding centers, a bit: if you’re wandering around in a fog, not really paying attention to your surroundings but vaguely looking for the next cookie, then that ambiguity turns into blandness.)

Heck, the whole Inquisition itself is an example of this. Are you focused on healing the sky? Are you the next evolution of the Chantry? Are you a government in formation?

Contrast

RPG plots have a habit of being rather black and white: that’s contrast, though a form of contrast that I don’t enjoy so much. For me, maybe the most interesting examples of this property in the Dragon Age games are the companions: Cassandra and Varric; Sera and, well, almost anybody; Isabela and Aveline. Having said that, I’m not sure that the companions are great examples of what Alexander has in mind: he says that “the most important contrasts do not merely show variety of form (high-low, soft-hard, rough-smooth, and so on) but represent true opposites, which essentially annihilate each other when they are superimposed” (p. 200), and Cassandra and Varric are most interesting because they don’t annihilate each other, because of the way their tension evolves. I dunno; Alexander then says “The difference between opposites gives birth to something“, and that part fits, at least.

Gradients

There are the various difficulty progressions (e.g. of monsters), though that doesn’t really come out in my experience much in practice outside of the extremes (giants and dragons). Maybe the various sizes of missions are a better example? I’m not sure.

Roughness

At first I was going to say: this is a AAA game, hence there isn’t enough roughness. But the ruined nature of Skyhold is at least standing up for roughness, and it isn’t the only such space.

I wonder if the way important parts of the world’s history and context are only hinted at (e.g. in the very end of the game!) are part of this? That sort of seed of bigger ideas seems like an important part of a living structure, and this property seems like a plausible one to attach to that based on the name, but Alexander’s discussion doesn’t really fit with that (and actually it doesn’t even really fit with my Skyhold example, either): his examples are more about stuff that is hand-drawn with warts rather than built with a machined precision and repetition. So maybe a better example is the layouts of, say, large building environments: each one is generally coherent and roughly symmetric but not at all exactly so? Or the way companion quests are differently sized to tell the story that they want to tell?

Echoes

At first I thought this was the BioWare thing of having people refer to past events in the game. But, reading Alexander, he has something different in mind: centers of comparable strength that refer to each other. So another example might be the protagonists from the three games in the series, but even that’s not right: his echoes are parts that make up a coherent whole, so I should look for examples that are more closely tied. The companions? I’m not sure.

The Void

It’s there in The Hissing Wastes. And sadly lacking in so many other places in the game. Dragon Age is a AAA game, so I wouldn’t expect anything else, but still: can I please have more real down time, even contemplation?

Simplicity and Inner Calm

Similar. Though, actually, I think more of the landscapes manage this: a lot of them are built on a structure of hills, valleys, fields, bodies of water that provide a coherent and solid underpinning.

Not-Separateness

Maybe this is a better example of the strengths of the regional environments than Deep Interlock and Ambiguity: at their best, the buildings in those environments just feel like they fit right into the environment. Though there are also plenty of examples where you come across a building that’s too big to fit into the surrounding scenery and that isn’t linked to other buildings to explain it. At any rate, all things considered I think the game does a pretty good job of this one in its environments; and on a more conceptual level, the personal interactions fit into this as well, with people’s lives interweaving with each other, with the tasks at hand, with the Inquisition as a whole.

 

Adding It Up

That’s all the properties: having gone through them, here’s where I come down. There are an usual number of unusually Strong Centers in Dragon Age: Inquisition: as per Positive Space, centers are allowed to expand to an unusual extent, making themselves known in unexpected places. Furthermore, we have Boundaries, we have Deep Interlock and Ambiguity: that framing to allow us to appreciate those centers, giving space to drink them in and see them from different angles.

But there are a lot of centers, period. Which is a good thing, see Levels of Scale, but it’s less good if the centers aren’t strong. The herbs, the fetch quests, the item crafting: the are not strong centers, but they act like they want to be. I wish the game had made different choices there: take the time to strengthen them, or shrink them down further until they’re appropriate in size to their lack of strength, or get rid of them entirely. (See Mass Effect 2‘s take on inventory, for example.)

And certainly some shrinking of centers would be welcome. Even setting aside my pet peeve about games that want to save the world, the game is too busy. If pacing suggests space, then embrace that space, embrace The Void.

As to the Mass Effect versus Dragon Age comparison: the most interesting difference is Dragon Age‘s being physically situated. And Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s regions increase the power of that difference, which is all to the game’s credit; it also increases the possibilities of Deep Interlock and Ambiguity and of Not-Separateness.

I’ll be curious to see how spaces play out in future games in the series, especially if paired with restraint.

dragon age inquisition: miscellaneous thoughts

February 8th, 2015

Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s glorious, but it’s also a bit of a mess, in a AAA-ey way. Which means that I have no idea how to talk about the game in a coherent manner! So, in absence of that, a randomly ordered list of topics:

The Scale of Its Story

In Dragon Age II, you started out small, gradually worked your way up, and eventually saved a city. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a big step back in terms of restraint: sure, you start off under suspicion of murder and threat of death, but before you have time to breathe you’re the anointed hero in charge of an organization who is saving the world from an existential threat. (And reshaping the religion and social structure of the world, and acting as a power above nations, to boot.)

There are a few things that I like that come out of the increased scope, though. One is that the increased scope of your group’s charter means that there’s room for an extra level of advisors: people whom you can talk to whom you’re not adventuring with, people who are very competent but with a completely different skill set from your own. (Yay Josephine.) Another is that it lets the game raise questions of what religion means, what truth means, what history means, what social groupings mean. And a third is that the increased scope means that missions can occasionally take on a different tone as they approach a different level of the scope. (The Winter Palace mission in particular.)

But, still: the game could have raised any of those issues with a much smaller scale of story.

Relationships

BioWare just keeps on getting better at this. I like the romance arc I followed, but I like much more the way that this series keeps on presenting your companions as people in their own right, and people who have lives and interactions with each other that don’t focus on you. (Though they do show a slightly unhealthy amount of hero worship…)

Even the companions that I don’t like made the story richer for me. Blackwell’s remarks towards my inquisitor whenever she left a conversation left a strange tone in my mouth; at first, I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into that, but then I hit his quest, and well, there are aspects to his character that I’m not used to in a companion. (And when I heard other people reporting that, if you take even one step down the romance path with him, other people start suddenly treating you as a couple, I thought: yeah, those responses I saw really were warning signs about interpersonal dynamics.) Vivienne certainly wasn’t my favorite person, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot to read there about privilege and social roles; Dorian was my favorite person, but if he’d been just slightly different then my attitude would have been a lot less positive, and I’m really impressed at the writers for playing with that tension. And I clearly did not spend enough time with the Iron Bull.

Sometimes, I felt like there was a bit of whiplash between the direct interpersonal scale of the relationships and the save-the-world scale of the plot. But, in retrospect, that was just me being weird: biographies of world-famous people still spend time on those people’s interpersonal relationships, and rightly so, world-famous people are still people!

The Environments

I was quite impressed by the Hinterlands when I first saw them: so much terrain to explore (I’m curious what tooling they developed to support building that), and quests every place I stuck my nose into. Though I’d also seen some tweets, including ones by the game’s developers, saying: don’t spend too much time in the Hinterlands at the start, you’ll enjoy the game more if you move on. (The game actually recommends appropriate experience levels for embarking on the major plot missions, if you pay attention at the war table.) I took that advice, and I’m glad that I did: but the fact that that advice needed to be given is a warning sign.

Exactly what it’s a warning sign of, though, is not entirely obvious to me. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if the first non-Haven region had been a bit smaller, so that, even if you’d treated it in a completionist fashion, you still wouldn’t feel like you’d completely gorged yourself before moving on. But even that doesn’t feel like the right solution to me: the Hinterlands (and most other regions) didn’t feel nourishing enough, and the plot balance between the story missions and the regional quests felt off. Comparing it to the last AAA game I played, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the way Tomb Raider handled these issues, but Tomb Raider‘s plot was vigorous enough to make me feel like I was missing out if I wasn’t steadily moving forward, and then when it left me with breathing room, it left enough breathing room to let me enjoy the environments and enjoy being an explorer in them. (And, to be fair: Dragon Age: Inquisition left me with space to wander around all I wanted before the final battle, too, and, like Tomb Raider, you can wander around after the main plot concludes.)

Diving down a bit, though: as I said, the regions in Dragon Age didn’t feel nourishing enough. I enjoyed moving around them as physical spaces, and some of the missions and villages added to the richness of both the settings and the overall plot. But the game wasn’t confident in either of those aspects of those spaces to let them stand on their own, to really emphasize them: you’re constantly bombarded with much less meaningful activities. The fetch quests and looting of houses / camps / corpses are bad enough; the herb / ore gathering, though, really drove me up the wall.

There is one big counterexample to this, though: the Hissing Wastes. I really like Janine Hawkins’ take on the region: it’s lovely, it’s rewarding, and those are exactly because the region is confident enough to stand on its own beauty without bombarding you with constant activities or gold stars. It felt like Minecraft or Shadow of the Colossus, games where I’d spend dozens of minutes at a stretch just enjoying the travel through the environment.

The other unfortunate aspect of the fetch quests and the item collecting is their conflict between their scope and your role as leader as the Inquisition. Closing rifts makes sense: it’s a small-scale task, but you’re the only person who can do it. Gather elfroot, though? Returning a ring you found to its owner? The Inquisition does have scouts; surely you could hand that ring to one of them and be done? The picture that’s being painted here is: you’re a leader who is completely incapable of delegating or maintaining perspective, you must work directly on any task that passes through your line of sight. Or, in other words: you’re incompetent as a leader. Which is, admittedly, no surprise: you were elevated to that task without any sign that you had aptitude for it, let alone experience and training! But that’s not the story the game is telling.

(And yes, I know you can ask people to gather herbs for you from the War Table. That doesn’t take away from the constant interruptions that the herbs provide during missions, and having one of your three direct subordinates being charged with supervising the gathering of six elfroots and then needing to be told what to do 15 minutes later is a piss-poor implementation of delegation as well.)

Contrast all of this with the item collecting in Tomb Raider: the items in that game were much less frequent, you were playing one of the youngest members of a group of shipwrecked refugees, and you’re an archaeologist, with actual skill and interest in that task! Even in that game, the item gathering was distracting, but it was much less so, somewhat more rewarding to carry out, and it tried to make sense.

Skyhold

That’s the regular environments. Skyhold (and Haven before it) is a completely different matter, though: friendly, cozy environments that are still large enough to surprise you, that are comforting to return to, that are soothing to wander around, that let you feel grounded and loved. One of my favorite aspects of Dragon Age II was how familiar you become with the city; Skyhold provides that same benefit (albeit in a slightly smaller scope), and makes it more personal.

Gathering, Crafting, and Inventory

I’ve already complained about the gathering of herbs and ores, how that constantly interfered with just enjoying the experience of being in the environments. But the thing is: I didn’t like how they were used, either! Herbs were used to level up potions, which is fine: it provided an alternative system through which you could increase your powers, and at any given time I had to choose which potions I was able to level up. But they were also used to brew those potions, which meant that you couldn’t (or at least I couldn’t) feel free to experiment with them. Maybe it would have been interesting to try out different combinations of potions in different tough situations; but would I really want to do that if it meant that I’d have to go out and spend time gathering herbs in order to refill my supply? Fortunately, I found a merchant who was able to sell me infinite numbers of the ingredients for my healing potions at a good price, so I could stock up on those and not have to worry about it; but still. (Hmm, in fact: the herbs would probably have worked just fine if the regular herbs had only been available through merchants and the only herbs you could actually gather were the rare herbs.)

The ore, on the other hand, fed into item crafting. (Well, item crafting plus those annoying requisition missions: ah yes, people are spending too much time gathering ore, so let’s insert an economy sink that drains that excess ore and replaces it with a currency (power) that quickly inflates so much as to be meaningless!) And, I’ll be honest: I have no way of judging how well item crafting works. Crafting is something that I actually can enjoy if it’s either mandatory or purely ornamental; here, though, it’s optional and (the cute names aside) functional. And it interacts badly with my loss-averse psychology as a game player: any given upgrade will only be useful for a few hours of play time, so if you could have done okay in those hours without the upgrade, then the upgrade was pure waste, which meant that I’ll never do it. Maybe the crafting worked better for other people, though, I’m really just not the target audience.

Of course, herbs and ores aren’t the only things you’re gathering: you find various other bits when looting corpses or chests, the most prominent of which are weapons and armor. All I have to say about that is: I have no idea why the game thinks that me being halfway through a dungeon, opening a chest, realizing that my inventory is full, and trying to figure out what to throw away will somehow add to my enjoyment of the game.

The Plot Missions

I enjoyed all of them; some of them were great. And here, unlike the environments, the game seemed to me to be much more confident of what it was doing. Combat was frequently a sideshow, missions frequently focused on something beyond directly stopping the bad guy, the final boss fight was quite restrained by RPG standards. The experiences of these missions were crafted with purpose; they fit squarely within a role-playing game context without acting hamstrung by those conventions.

What Do I Feel about the Game as a Whole?

So what does that all add up to? I think the most relevant answer is: almost 2000 words. So this one is going to be a two-parter.

framed

February 1st, 2015

For people who aren’t familiar with it, Framed is a puzzle game where each screen is a page of a comic, with a character running through the panels in that page in sequence. And you can rearrange the panels: so, instead of running straight into a guard, you can move a panel with a ladder in it before the panel with the guard in it, and then you climb up the ladder and, when you reach the guard panel, tiptoe over the guard.

Neat idea, nice art, pleasant game, doesn’t outstay its welcome. I don’t really have anything substantial to say about it, but I do recommend it.

868-hack

January 25th, 2015

I’d been impressed by (and am still impressed by) Hoplite, and one of the things I like about it is that it’s a roguelike where you have a relatively large amount of control over your build. And I’d been hearing about 868-HACK for a while, so I figured I’d give that game a try as well, hoping that it might have some of the same charms.

It may well for some people; it didn’t particularly grab me. But I can’t say that I gave it a fair shot, either.

ascension: darkness unleashed

January 6th, 2015

Ascension: Darkness Unleashed has the same energy mechanic as the prior iteration; on that, it layers a second kind of energy (“dark energy shards”) that let you banish cards in your discard pile (and occasionally trigger other card-specific effects), and a transformation mechanic whereby many cards permanently become more powerful if you’ve acquired a specified amount of energy in a turn before playing them. Which you’d think would make the game more unbalanced, but actually I had a lot more fun with this version: Steve and I played a ton of games with it, and while they were frequently wild ones, they often ended up pleasantly wild on both sides. I guess what was going on was that the dark energy banishment and the transforming cards both ended up accelerating the speed of improvement of your deck, which meant that you got to the fun stuff faster but that both sides ended up enjoying it?

Anyways: good expansion. And it’s great to see the expansions coming so quickly now that the licensing situation has gotten settled.

tomb raider

January 4th, 2015

I’d never played a Tomb Raider game before the 2013 iteration of the series; that playthrough was also the first time I’d played a newish AAA game in something like two years, so I’d gotten a bit unused to that sort of polished spectacle. And, I will say: it was a very well-done polished spectacle, I’m quite glad to have played the game. I enjoyed much of the mechanics, I enjoyed much of the plot, it’s probably the most conventionally gorgeous game I’ve played, and even the parts I didn’t like so much were fine to go through on autopilot.

Still, it’s a AAA game, which means that it’s not as coherent that it could be, that it contains a slightly ungainly mixture of elements, perhaps to increase the number of people the game might appeal to. You could make a case that this is a game driven by combat, driven by exploration, or driven by plot; those elements weren’t exactly deployed at cross purposes, but they weren’t all pointing in the same direction, either.

 

The game certainly spent a lot of time on combat: I think the game would probably be better named “Bow Hunter” than “Tomb Raider”. Or rather, I used the bow a lot; but for people who like combat, there are four different weapons to choose from, each of which can be upgraded to have a few different firing modes. And, actually, “Hunter” isn’t the right word, either: while your bow is introduced with a scene of you hunting a deer, the vast majority of your weapon uses will be against humans.

And, honestly, for a lot of the game that annoyed me. I didn’t mind the combat mechanically, but it’s just not my sort of thing: I set the difficulty to easy, mowed through waves of enemies and didn’t think twice about it. But from a thematic point of view, the manner and quantity of violence didn’t seem to fit in the game. At the start of the game, it seemed to me that the game wanted me to feel like Lara was vulnerable (albeit in a very capable way), having to use all of her skills, ingenuity, and perseverance to survive. So, from that point of view, using a makeshift bow to kill a deer fits: but having the animal hunting be a one-off didn’t fit nearly as well. And feeling like any stranger could kill you fits; but that feeling goes away when you meet (and subsequently dispatch) wave after wave of enemies.

About halfway through the game, though, my feeling about the combat shifted. I realized that enemies had started referring to Lara as “The Outsider”, and used that term with fear. Lara had morphed from somebody who was barely managing to survive to somebody who had taken control of the situation, an avenging angel who wasn’t going to let anything stop her from rescuing Sam and getting off of that island. And, from that point of view, the combat fit in a lot better: of course she can take on a dozen enemies at once and emerge victorious.

Having said that: still way too much fighting, still way too little respect for human life. I’d like to see a game that manages that better, and in fact there are a few examples: Another World is one model, The Walking Dead another, Shadow of the Colossus a third. Controlling violence seems to be hard for AAA games to do; and there is a very real question of whether it’s worth investing time in real combat mechanics with a cap on the body count. (The Walking Dead says no, Another World and Shadow of the Colossus say yes.) It feels to me like constraining the body count would be quite difficult to do within what I imagine the structure of the AAA development process to be (but what do I know!); it also feels to me potentially worthwhile, with individual deaths turning into Strong Centers from a narrative point of view.

 

The game’s title isn’t “Bow Hunter”, however: it’s “Tomb Raider”. I don’t know what previous games in the series were like, but I will say: not a lot of raiding tombs here. But there was a lot of exploring and navigating environments in general.

And in some ways that felt to me like the best of AAA development coming forth. Big, beautiful environments that the studio had clearly invested a lot of time into, combined with extremely legible affordances for how you can maneuver in and manipulate that environment. I can imagine an alternate version of this game (or of me!) where the exploration felt a little too focus-group tested, a little too pat, but for me it was great: I enjoyed getting around the environments.

I’m somewhat less thrilled with the purpose of my getting around the environments, though. It’s a rare game that is willing to have the navigation of a complex 3-D world be its own reward, so there have to be goodies strewn about. So: collectibles, and lots of them. I’d be going through a portion of the world, and the narrative would be telling me that I should be frantically trying to save Sam, but the map would tell me that I should be trying to figure out how to reach a GPS cache hidden over in the corner somewhere.

Which certainly isn’t a problem unique to this game: right now I’m in the middle of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which has the same problem and is handling it worse. Still, as with the copious gunfights, it’s a problem.

But, as with the copious gunfights, I became more at peace with the problem towards the end of the game. I came to a situation where I felt like it was reasonable to take a breather from the main plot rush, and just explore: Lara is, after all, an archaeologist, and archaeology is the reason for the trip in the first place. So I went back to the previous environments to poke around them, finishing off my collecting.

(Side note on two things the game did right: I couldn’t go back to all previous environments, because some really only made sense as set pieces. The game wasn’t shy about inserting those set piece locations where they made sense, but it also didn’t put collectibles in them, so I didn’t have to worry about missing anything. And the second thing that the game did right, though it wasn’t obvious to me until I reached the end, is: once you’ve finished the main plot, you can still go back and explore the island to your heart’s content. That makes no sense narratively, but I don’t care, it’s clearly the right choice, one I wish more games would make.)

And those were some of my favorite moments in the game, favorite in a completely different way from the plot-driven moments. I was wandering around these lovely environments, lovely both visually and from an exploratory point of view. It was nighttime, lending a wistful atmosphere without me actually feeling lonely: instead, it felt like Lara was in her element in a completely different way from the kick-ass Lara that I’d spent most of the time with, and I liked that Lara as well. And actually the single biggest jump scare I got was during this wandering: I heard some whistling, and I realized that, for whatever reason, there actually were a few enemies left in that environment, unlike all the other ones I’d just been re-exploring.

So in that context the exploring felt great, even though it was still driven by collectibles. If I wanted to pull out some Alexandrian concepts that might make sense here: there’s Alternating Repetition between plot-driven action and plot-free exploration, with the exploration serving as a Boundary to the plot that’s thick enough to be Positive Space and a Strong Center in its own right. Or rather, that’s what I’d like it to be: the real issue that I had was that the plot was pervasive enough that, for much of the time, even though I was alternating between exploring and progressing the plot, I felt like I was actively undermining the plot by behaving that way. So I would have liked there to be more space for freedom from plot; or, alternatively, integrating the exploration better into the plot instead of having it be isolated collectibles. (I.e. more Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.)

Like, say, have more tombs, and work them into the plot. The tombs in this game were pretty odd: they were fun, but they were also short and optional. I’m not sure what went into that decision: maybe the shortness was to make sure people could solve them, or maybe the shortness was because they required one-off mechanics that needed individual crafting in a way that scattering artifacts across a level doesn’t? And maybe the optional nature is intended to make them feel like a real discovery instead of an inevitability, or maybe that’s because the game designers didn’t trust players to solve puzzles in the same way that they trust players to mow down dozens of enemies.

Still: I enjoyed the exploration, and I enjoyed the choice of elements both because of how they combined and how legible they were. And ziplines are cool.

 

And then there’s the plot, which I though was well done, in a way that is atypical for AAA video games. I liked Lara, I think they did a good job of presenting her as supercompetent but still needing to learn what that means, how to express that. (And both sides of that work really well in an action video game context: you want to be able to kick ass, but you also want to kick more ass as the game proceeds.) I liked the Lara/Sam arc: it was charming, it kept the plot moving, it made me uncomfortable that I was spending time poking around environments instead of rushing to save Sam. And I liked the interactions with the other crew members! (The crew member diaries made this one of the few games where narrative collectables really added something for me.)

I wasn’t a big fan of the enemies, admittedly. Not that the main enemy was badly done, I just didn’t think he was actively well done, and I had a hard time making sense of how the presence of his group (and other past groups) on the island would work in a practical sense. Also related to that was the game not being sure how far it wanted to push the horror aspect: it included a fair amount of horror aspects at the start, enough that Liesl quickly decided she didn’t want to watch the game, which I think was a little bit of a shame: that ended up not really being what the game was about, and I think she would have enjoyed watching most of the game? Or, alternatively, I can imagine the game going deeper into its horror side: trading combat off for horror would have made a lot of sense to me, it’s just not what they did. And I suppose was never going to go all-in on horror, given the desire to have Lara turn into an avenging angel as the game goes on. So, from that point of view, horror right at the start does kind of make sense?

There were a lot of impalements in the game: one right at the start, and they showed up regularly in quick time failure scenes. My first reaction was that this was cheap, inappropriate sexualization, but now I’m not so sure: maybe it’s a smart commentary on gendered violence? Ashelia had a really good post on how the game portrays violence against women; it affected her strongly and, ultimately, positively. Given her reading, I’m inclined to think that this is actually an actively good part of the game, details of the impalements and screams aside.

But I think what I liked most about the plot was the way it focused on small-scale individual interactions. There’s no saving the world from ultimate evil here: there’s a handful of people trying to survive being stranded on an island. With, admittedly, a psychopath heading up a small army, and with a remarkably competent heroine, but still: no overblown JRPG / Zelda plot, and also not the Metroid model of a smaller-scale problem being navigated by somebody effectively completely independent. The relationships are present, they matter, they’re just at a personal level.

 

I’m really glad I chose this as my first AAA game in a few years; many thanks to those of you on Twitter who encouraged me to play it. It showed off the way in which AAA games are a mess, but it kept that mess under control; and its polish also showed off the virtues of AAA games, and the game had real virtues entirely independent of the size of its studio.

morality play

December 28th, 2014

Single-player narrative games frequently put you on the side of somebody actively fighting for justice: I’m in the middle of Dragon Age: Inquisition right now, for example, and that game has the all-too-familiar RPG plot of a chosen one saving the world. This means means that, of Jane Jacobs’ two moral syndromes from Systems of Survival, Guardian Moral Syndrome is the correct fit, with the following list of characteristics:

  • Shun trading
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Adhere to tradition
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Make rich use of leisure
  • Be ostentatious
  • Dispense largess
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor

Going in order: “Shun trading” is actually not a great fit for RPGs, they have shopkeepers all over the plase. But the flip side is: Dragon Age is entirely typical in that item management / shopping is one of the least satisfying aspects of the game and that it’s entirely possible to do fine just grabbing the items you find as you travel and selling the ones that don’t have the biggest numbers.

“Exert prowess”: yes, you show off your powers as frequently and as capably as possible. “Be obedient and disciplined”: you’re in charge of a party, they simply do not have the choice to not do what you say, and you as the player have to color within the tight lines that the game designer gave you.

“Adhere to tradition” and “Respect hierarchy” also fall within that last vein: it’s always clear who is giving the orders, and the rigid class system of RPGs is a manifestation of the power and enforcement of traditions. Of course, in general, hierarchy goes up as well as down; but games work around that by putting the player’s avatar of being uniquely positioned to save the world, hence answerable to nobody in the hierarchy. And adherence to tradition shows up in games at a meta level as well: the way different games in a series remix the same elements over and over again.

“Be loyal” and “Take vengeance” are two sides of the same coin: they show up most strongly in BioWare companion quests, but in RPGs more broadly you know who is on your team and who isn’t, and you’ll do whatever your friends say, including righting wrongs that they’ve claimed against them. (Or in single player narrative games: I could just as easily use Tomb Raider as my example for Guardian Moral Syndrome.)

“Deceive for the sake of the task”: the hero is unconstrained by common rules. Not just the mass slaughter that you engage in, not just the subterfuge necessary to sneak into enemy fortresses, but the constant looting of noncombatants’ houses. You’re saving the world, what does it matter if you have to break a few rules along the way?

“Make rich use of leisure”, “Be ostentatious”: I suppose the former is the minigames and the sidequests that are purely for sport, while the latter is decorative armor, arranging your castle, spending money on items that have no in-game benefit? And “dispense largess” shows up every time you’re doing a fetch quest, or deciding who comes out on top in a plot choice.

“Be exclusive”: you are the chosen one, and only the most select of people are allowed to accompany you. “Show fortitude”: that’s all the trials the game throws at you. “Be fatalistic”: did I mention that you are the chosen one? And that this is all part of an inevitable grand sweep of history?

“Treasure honor”: that’s the ground assumption that underpins all of this. You are all that is good and honorable; anybody who disagrees with that is an enemy who must be stopped.

 

But, of course, we have another moral syndrome to consider, the Commercial Moral Syndrome:

  • Shun force
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Be honest
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Compete
  • Respect contracts
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Be efficient
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Be optimistic

The natural place in games for this syndrome is in systems-based games, frequently multiplayer, frequently board games rather than video games. “Shun force”, “Come to voluntary agreements”, “Be honest”: we’re all playing by the same rules. “Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens” and “Respect contracts” show up in the temporary alliances that multiplayer games lend themselves to, while “Compete” reminds us that, yes, we’re trying to win the game.

“Use initiative and enterprise”, “Be open to inventiveness and novelty”: we’re constantly trying out different strategies. “Be efficient” (and perhaps “Promote comfort and convenience”): those strategies aren’t just for the sake of making us happy, they’re because they’re the best way to accomplish our goals, elegantly advancing our position in as many ways as possible.

“Dissent for the sake of the task”: this is the engine of the way a healthy meta is constantly shifting. “Invest for productive purposes” is every time you spend your in-game currency on improvements instead of armies. (Or, at a meta level, it’s every hour you spend going over other players’ games, practicing life-and-death problems, trying to get the different achievements in Hoplite not for the sake of an achievement or even for the sake of an unlocked power-up but for what it teaches you about the space of play.) “Be industrious”, “be thrifty”: every piece you place on the board has to be put to good use. And finally, “Be optimistic”: always throw yourself back into the game, treating losses as learning experiences that will help you in your future matches.

 

Two tweets from the last few months: @metasynthie talking about how gaters see themselves as the player character fighting NPCs, and @m_kopas talking about how games don’t teach you how to read systems, they teach you how to willingly participate in them. Guardian Moral Syndrome games in particular fall into this latter pit over and over again: they do an excellent job of teaching you how to be a good guardian while so rarely taking a step back and even asking whether what you’re fighting for is right, let alone whether the ends justify the means.

I’m writing this at the end of an awful year, a year most recently characterized by the New York Police Department saying that they are at war, at war with both the elected leadership of the city and with the people who live in that city. Maybe their discouragement of guardian moral reflection makes games the perfect medium to express this moment in time.