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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 sameĀ 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.

hearthstone

December 22nd, 2014

So: Hearthstone. Gameplay-wise, it seems like a stripped-down Magic; and while it’s probably unfair for me to compare the games to Netrunner, it looks like Hearthstone has a lot fewer options for how to approach the game. And it’s designed to make you spend money to get better cards; the first time I was playing against an opponent and I ran into a card that was exactly the same as one of the core cards except it did more stuff, I knew this really wasn’t the game for me.

I’ve heard people talk about how polished it is; on the one hand, it is, but on the other hand, it’s not a style of polish that I like, and in particular the voice acting grated on me. And the deck builder doesn’t work with the way I like to build decks (include lots of stuff and then throw out extras); I’m sure there are online deck builders, but the CCG aspect means that they won’t have the right set of cards for me.

Not that it doesn’t have virtues: I had some interesting games when I started holding onto more cards in my hand, and I’m sure there’s a lot more for me to learn. But it’s not my style, I’m not going to get hooked on it the way several of my friends are.

systems of survival

December 18th, 2014

I’d been feeling insufficiently empathetic recently, like there are a lot of people out there whose belief systems are alien to me; so I decided that it was time to reread Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival. It’s an interesting book: its thesis is that, while there are certain concepts that show up more or less across the board in lists of virtues (she doesn’t give an exhaustive list, but examples she gives are cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom), there are also some concepts that show up frequently but not at all universally, and that these other concepts cluster into two groups.

She labels the first cluster as the “Commercial Moral Syndrome”, though she says the precepts also show up in scientific work. Those virtues are:

  • 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

And she labels the second cluster as the “Guardian Moral Syndrome”:

  • 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

That second syndrome is, in many ways, foreign to me, and I wouldn’t associate the word “moral” with much of that. (Ostentation, obedience, hierarchy, and vengeance are not high on my list of virtues.) But that’s one of her points: not only are some moral virtues not universal, there are actually these big clumps of moral virtues that oppose each other. And her other point is that each of these clusters has its own natural space: if you’re trying to sell stuff or make stuff, then the first cluster is more likely to guide you successfully, whereas if you’re trying to protect or lead people, then the second cluster is a better fit.

And there are certain situations where I’ll slip into virtues from the second group without even thinking about it. I try to be loyal to my family and friends; or if a group that I feel like part of is threatened, I’ll at least fantasize about vengeance, and may well actually engage in it.

 

Certainly that second syndrome is relevant to two of the horrors that have flooded my timeline in the second half of this year: Gamergate and police killings. The most sympathetic part of Gamergate is people who feel that something important to them (traditional AAA games) is being threatened: so they want to guard that, in ways that include adhering to tradition, respecting hierarchy, taking vengeance, deceiving for the sake of the task, and so forth. And the less sympathetic part of Gamergate is misogynist assholes who also feel that something important to them (male dominance) is threatened; again, the same response. I’m sure that there are people involved in the movement who are coming from places that have no relation to any moral syndrome, and at any rate linking behavior with natural group protection reactions is not a defense of that behavior; but it’s one route into getting a picture of what’s going on that doesn’t start off with pure antagonism. (If that’s what you want; honestly, I don’t see any real reason not to be purely antagonistic towards Gamergate.)

And similarly for police killings. Again, the sympathetic picture: most policemen (I was going to use a gender neutral term there, but, well) have that job because they do want to be guardians of society, and they want that for noble reasons. And with that, they want obedience and discipline, they’ll exert prowess, they’ll show fortitude, they’ll show vengeance and deceive for the sake of the task. I’m hard pressed to say that any of those are inappropriate for police; even vengeance and deception have their place when going undercover to take down a criminal kingpin. But they all have their bad sides, too: humane, consistent obedience to laws is one thing, but obedience to police as police no matter what they do is something rather more sinister. And, of course, police killings have also shown a much worse version of guardian syndrome, namely guarding white supremacy: it’s fucked up, but fucked up in a way that’s consistent with the guardian moral syndrome.

 

All sympathies aside, both Gamergate and police killings are pretty messed up at their core: misogyny and white supremacy are terrible, with terrible direct consequences. And, unfortunately, my read of Jacobs’ book is that she’s helping shed light on why those problems are so deeply rooted, in the face of their immorality. And I do think that you can make a case that part of the reason why I label them as immoral is rooted in the universal virtues that Jacobs doesn’t spend much time on: e.g. probably some variant of “help people who have less power” would be on a list of generic moral virtues if she were to make one. (Though it isn’t on the list of examples that I copied from above, the closest there is probably mercy.)

But when you look at the two syndromes, neither of them does very well with that problem. The guardian moral syndrome is about guarding and leading a group; if you’re on the outside of the group, then that prowess and vengeance and deception will be used against you, largess will never be dispensed your way, and honor will be defined in a way such that you can’t satisfy it. And even if you’re in the group but are one of the people being guarded / led instead of the guardians / leaders, then your role is obedience, you’re supposed to look up when respecting the hierarchy, and the largess is dispensation that you should be grateful and even grovel for.

Of course, that’s what I would say as somebody more drawn to the commercial moral syndrome. And the commercial moral syndrome has nice things to say about problems of inequality: instead of the powerful imposing by force, you should have voluntary agreements, you should collaborate even with people outside of your group, you should be open to novelty.

But the baseline assumption of the commercial moral syndrome is that there is a level playing field: that we can come to meaningful voluntary agreements, that we can compete on a fair playing field, that we all have the capital to invest with. As a good liberal, I’d like those things to be the case; but that good liberal status, when combined with my social position, means that it’s very easy to be blind to the many many ways in which that level playing field doesn’t exist at all. And I don’t think the commercial moral syndrome gives a useful guide for how to get there: at best, it’s a picture of where I’d like us to be, but the syndrome doesn’t work to uncover differences between reality and that picture nor tell us a way to work to narrow those differences in the face of resistance. (And I suspect that narrowing those differences will require a large dose of guardian moral syndrome behavior; it took a war to make slavery illegal in the US, for example.) Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations did a great job of showing how easy it is for the commercial moral syndrome to ignore these problems, to actively work in favor of inequality.

 

Interesting book. And a crappy half-year, though the problems that it’s brought to the fore have been around for centuries, it unfortunately sometimes takes a lot for people like me to start noticing just how bad things are.

antichamber

December 4th, 2014

Our November VGHVI Symposium game was Antichamber. It’s a game that had been on my radar for years (I saw an early version of it under the name Hazard: The Journey of Life at GDC in 2010); I avoided it for platform reasons when it got released, but I was happy that Dan gave me a nudge to play it.

So I didn’t come into the game completely cold, but I also didn’t know too much about the game in advance. I remembered something about the geometric oddities of the game, but I didn’t really realize the prominence of the block puzzles in the game. And I seemed to remember something about the earnestness of the game (as in the original subtitle), but I didn’t expect the messages scattered all over the game, or the charming pictures that accompanied them.

 

Those messages ended up being what surprised me most about the game; Roger and I ended up spending a fair amount of time arguing about them. Because, no question: those messages are incredibly trite. Trite to the extent that the natural question isn’t why I found them interesting, the question is why I didn’t actively dislike them.

But yet I did like them. Part of that is because: I do have a soft spot for that sort of thing. I like to come back to simple rules and principles, and, honestly, a lot of what the game says speaks to me. My life this millennium has not been what I would have predicted in many ways (and, of course, has been what I would have predicted in many other ways); so yes, “Taking one path often means missing out on another”, “A path may not be right or wrong. It may just be different”, “Life has a way of pushing us in the right direction”. Though, as I quote those, there’s not even necessarily a coherent message: are we worried about a right direction or not? But that, too, is okay: life doesn’t always have to fit into a coherent narrative, especially while you’re in the middle of it.

Still: I would never want to read those messages by themselves, and while those pictures helped, they don’t help nearly enough. There are a few ways to present messages like that that I would accept: one would be to have them underlying a richer narrative, another might be to leave them stripped down while adding a little more poetry to them. But Antichamber takes a third route, one which is something that video games are particularly well suited to but rarely do: it presents the message in a context of genuine uncertainty.

 

Take “If you never stop trying, you will get there eventually” as an example. I said above that part of me likes the messages, but that’s actually one of the messages that I don’t particularly like: it really isn’t the case that trying is enough to make something work. At any rate, if an author wanted to present that message via a story, they’d probably have some plucky hero overcoming adversity; you’d know how it was going to turn out when you started reading it, though. Or in a video game, you’d perhaps have a particularly long stretch of enemies; you’d know you’d make it through them, you just don’t know how long it would take. (And you’d probably be bored the whole time.)

I encountered that in a different context in Antichamber, though. It was towards the start of the game; the main things that I’d learned by then are that I really do sometimes hit dead ends, and that the geometry doesn’t make sense. In particular, I’d run into a situation where I went down a hall, turned around, went back, and ended up somewhere other than where I started.

And then I encountered a circular passage, with the aforementioned message in front of it. I could go in either direction around that circle; I picked one direction, went around the circle, and I wasn’t surprised to find that, when I’d gone a full rotation, I wasn’t back at the entrance. Instead, the circle continued, with a different picture and message, saying “Some choices can leave us running around in circles.” So: am I supposed to be persistent, or am I just biting my tail? (Shades of the beginnings of Enchanter.) I went around another couple of times, and I just saw that same second message taunting me, so I decided to go back.

When I went back, I did make it back to the entrance (but the game was keeping track of the number of times I’d gone around, I had to go back the same number of revolutions.) I looked around the entrance just to see if anything had changed, but nothing obvious had; I went the other direction, and had a similar experience. I think I came back to the entrance one more time, but then I decided to just keep on going around the circle, and eventually I made it out. And, when I made it out, I was greeted with a message saying “Raw persistence may be the only option other than giving up entirely.”

There are a few things I like about this. One is that I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do, what the game was going to do: the ground rules were sufficiently unsettled that it could have been a dead end, it could have required some sort of backing and forthing, there could have been a secret passage on the wall (later on there are walls that you can only go through by backing through them!), it could have required me to go around the circle 20 times instead of however many (5?) it actually was, or one direction could have been endless while the other could have been finite. (Actually, I supposed I don’t even know that that last possibility isn’t the case – maybe I just got lucky!) The second is that, by throwing so many messages at me, the game avoided presenting “persistence always leads to success” as some glorious universal truth: like it said in this segment, sometimes you’re just running around in circles, and there’s a message elsewhere in the game that says “Some choices leave us running around a lot without really getting anywhere.” And if you put those two together, then it lets me get past the banality of this message and accept it on more positive terms: it really is true sometimes that I feel like I’m going through a plateau when trying to figure something out, that I don’t know if I’ll ever make it past or if I’m doing anything useful at all; and in many (but by no means all) of those situations, if I keep on pushing at things, then eventually I’ll have some sort of breakthrough.

 

Actually, that particular experience ended up being a pretty good mirror for my experience with the game. Because I’d frequently have situations where I really didn’t know what to do: I’d be pretty sure I couldn’t advance on most of the places I could reach, I’d have an idea of two or three places where it seemed conceivable that there was a puzzle I could pass if I thought about it enough, and I’d also suspect that I was wrong about a few of the places in the first category (i.e. that I actually could progress even though I was pretty sure I couldn’t), I just didn’t know which. So I’d spend time wandering around (and that wandering around is more/differently stressful in this game than in most other games, because of the difficulty of forming a mental or physical map), and eventually I’d find a way to progress.

I’d both progress on the puzzle and progress on a conceptual level, e.g. my understanding of maps in the game improved. But my understanding of it as a puzzle game also improved: in particular, it now feels to me like there are two sorts of puzzle games mixed into Antichamber, one involving messing with your understanding of space, and one about playing with blocks. (Combined with a third sort of meta puzzle game about your experiences!) And, as it turns out, I’m not completely sold on either of those puzzle games. The problem with the “messing with space” puzzle game is that there aren’t any real ground rules: there’s nothing in the system that means that the way to advance in one situation isn’t to go up and down a hallway five times, stop in the middle, face one wall and try to back through the other. That’s a contrived example which is much worse than anything the game did (or at least anything the game did that I actually figured out!), but the point is: I was at the mercy of the game designer a little more than I liked.

The block puzzle game was much more under control, though even there I was a little disturbed that I couldn’t reliably predict in what situations I’d create a chain disappearance of green blocks. But there I ran into a different problem: some of those block puzzles seemed to want a pretty long and potentially tedious sequence of actions, and some of those actions required excessively fiddly controls. I’m sure it’s mostly just an artifact of my gaming setup, but puzzles that involve tracing out sequences with the middle mouse button held down are not something I particularly enjoy: not being a PC gamer, I have a motley collection of mice around, and pressing down a scroll wheel while being asked to guide things ended up actually breaking the mouse I’d been using.

 

At any rate: I gave up eventually. I was most of the way to the end, I think I’d even unlocked the last color of blocks? But I didn’t feel like working on red block puzzles, I didn’t feel like trying to figure out more spacial puzzles, and I didn’t feel like looking things up in walkthroughs. So I took stock, decided that I’d enjoyed the experience I’d had so far but that it was time for that experience to come to an end.

Which is a pretty unusual reaction for me: I’m a fairly strict completist. But the thing about Antichamber is: I felt that the game supported me even in that choice! To quote a few more of the game’s messages: “Life isn’t about getting to the end”, “Live on your own watch, not on someone else’s”, and “If you don’t like where you’ve ended up, try doing something else”. Right then, following those messages felt like a better choice for me personally than following messages about persistence, and I appreciated the game for being open to that interpretation, for giving me several pleasant and instructive hours and then graciously letting me go.

freecell and addictive games

November 30th, 2014

FreeCell is, in its own way, one of the best games ever designed. I am not aware of any other puzzle game which does such a good job of balancing three factors:

  1. The game should be based on random seeds.
  2. Almost all random seeds should be solvable.
  3. The search for that solution should be rewardingly deep.

To expand on that third point: puzzle games are approachable via exhaustive search, so the fun comes in coming up with rules that let you prune that search while leaving enough scope for judgment that the pruning doesn’t become routine. In a lot of my favorite puzzle games, that judgment can be expressed in the form of theorems about the game: I love Slitherlink because I was still discovering new theorems about it after playing it for months. Nurikabe doesn’t lend itself to as many theorems as Slitherlink does, but both games have a real pleasure in the interplay between pattern matching to apply rules locally, using a more global judgment to figure out where to apply your rules to solve the game most quickly, and figuring out where to try an exhaustive search if your rules don’t suggest any obvious next move.

FreeCell is different, though: there aren’t really any theorems per se other than figuring out what size stacks you can move in the presence of a given number of open spaces. Instead, it all comes down to pure positional judgment: what sorts of moves are going to increase the organization of the game board in a way that actually helps solve the game. And this lends itself to all sorts of wonderful tensions: do you try to increase organization by moving as many cards as possible to the foundations? Do you try to increase organization by increasing the number of sequences that you have built up on the board? The former is the obvious strategy; the latter, in general, turns out to be better, but if you go too far in that direction then you can end up with sequences that are too big to ever move them, leading in turn to a search for ways in which to cleverly break them up to move them by components. Or then there’s the desire to maintain options: normally, you want to maintain as many options as possible, which leads to interesting consequences like not always playing a card to the foundation if that will leave your stacks uneven, but you can’t leave options open forever: eventually you’ll have to do something that reduces your options while increasing your organization, and hope that it turns out well. (And FreeCell is a game where an undo button is necessary, I think.)

In fact, this latter tension is present at the very beginning: you’ll almost immediately have to play a card up to a cell, which decreases your options, and you’ll rarely have four cells available to you again; so there’s this delicate balancing act where having two cells filled is generally fine, you’ll sometimes go for long stretches with three filled (and you’ll constantly be temporarily spiking up to all four being filled), but you’re playing with fire with three filled, and sometimes even keeping two filled for a long period of time is too much. Also, the organized cards are covering unorganized cards; and frequently, there’s a card you need down in that unorganized section, buried deeply enough that your organization is hurting you rather than helping you. So sometimes you’ll explore path after path, find them not quite working, push one of them to the limit, and then finally things will cascade out into happiness. Sometimes even that doesn’t seem to work, so you’ll have to fall back to a less common technique; I’m always pleased and surprised when I think I’m stuck and realize that I can cut deeply by playing down two of the suits at the expense of the other two suits.

And this is all in the context of a game that is based on a random seed, almost always solvable, but where a decent proportion of the time the random seeds still give you (or at least give me) interesting games and where the straightforward games go through quickly enough and pleasantly enough that you don’t mind. It’s an amazing balancing act.

 

Despite how much I enjoy and respect FreeCell, though: I don’t always feel good about myself when I’m playing it. There’s been some number of attacks against “addictive” games this year; many of those attacks feel to me like they’re coming from a polemical basis that is routed in a political position that I disagree with, but still: if some games really are addictive, then that on the face of it sounds like a bad thing.

So: what contributes to making a game addictive? Intermittent rewards are a classic technique: our brains are wired to respond to intermittent rewards even more strongly than reliable rewards, and games frequently use that to keep us playing in hopes that things will turn out better next time. (Or, alternatively: if we just got lucky, then that reminds us why we want to keep on playing as well!) Sometimes this is transparently manipulative, e.g. in the case of random loot drops, and I try to stay away from games like that; but any game with a random component is going to raise the possibility that the play experience will turn out more to your liking if the next roll of the virtual dice is different, and FreeCell’s random seeds are no exception to that.

Short play length is another thing that I find contributes to games that I find addictive. (Where I’m using “addictive” in a naive sense of “I pick them up and/or continue to play them even when part of me feels that that’s not what I should be doing right then”; I don’t pretend to know anything about any more formal notion of addiction.) If a game only takes 30 seconds or two minutes or even ten minutes to play, then it’s easy to pick up when I have a bit of free time, easy to keep on playing even after some lull in external activity has passed. (Or: easy to spend way too much time playing on the toilet.) Again, FreeCell qualifies: I think it’s a great game, but that doesn’t mean that I want it repeatedly worming its way into cracks in my day, let alone enlarging those cracks.

(And then there’s a special variant of that last one: games with multiple goals at overlapping time scales, some of which are short. Games that go all in on that are, mercifully, rare, but there’s a reason why I haven’t played a Civilization game for years, despite how good I think that series is.)

 

Still: a lot of the reason why I go through periodic FreeCell binges (or binges of other puzzle games) is because I do find them rewarding. And, also: there’s nothing wrong with playing through a game just for the pleasure of doing the right moves, even if I’m not learning much from doing so. A lot of this summer, I wasn’t in shape to do much of anything that required thought; I was quite glad to have the collective works of the fine folks at Conceptis to give me something to do. But the flip side is: longer form works are good, too, a lot of the time I get more out of reading a book than out of playing yet another puzzle in the same puzzle game. So I should listen to what my brain is telling me, I should try to figure out what will nourish me most at any given time.

widget!

November 18th, 2014

We’ve been without dogs for almost three years now; Yosha and Zippy were wonderful, but we wanted a bit of space. Not too much space, though: we knew that we’d be getting another dog or two in a few years, it was only a question of when. Last winter, we took advantage of of not having dogs in the house to remodel the kitchen, and this summer we remodeled one of the bathrooms; with that, the house was in good shape, so we figured the disruption was over and it was time to get another dog.

Another poodle, to be specific. Partly because they’re a breed that Liesl isn’t allergic to and partly because, well, poodles. Maybe we’d even get two poodles: having both Yosha and Zippy was great, though it was also fine that Zippy came along three years after Yosha.

My back troubles threw a bit of a wrench in the plans: getting a dog while I couldn’t even sit down without being in pain didn’t sound too smart. But after a couple of months of being free from pain, it seemed like time.

And we didn’t have any external commitments this past weekend, so towards the end of last week we started looking around. Rescue dogs were one possibility, but there were almost no poodles around in local shelters. We got Yosha and Zippy at a pet store, but, what with the bad rap that puppy mills have, pet stores are a lot less likely to carry dogs these days. So we searched a bit for breeders; poodle breeders, as it turns out, are not very good web site designers / SEO experts, but the American Kennel Club had a handy search page.

A couple of phone calls later, we were talking to a breeder named Oksana Fagenboym who had five puppies over in the east bay. They were standard sized poodles, which was larger than we were tentatively thinking, but we figured we might as well drive over to meet them on Saturday.

 

And her dogs were amazing. The grownup dog we met (their mother) was very nice, and all of the puppies were fabulous: energetic (but not over-the-top so), friendly, affectionate, great to be around. So, in short order, we decided that we’d made the right choice: based on what we were seeing, it was pretty clear that these were all great dogs, the only question was which one. (And one rather than two was the right number: we need to figure out how much space one standard poodle takes up before adding a second.) Honestly, that last choice was mostly at random, but we ended up with one lovely puppy.

widget

So we returned with a more populated car than we arrived in. We named him Widget, and he’s fabulous. Friendly, cuddly, but surprisingly mellow for a puppy and surprisingly well-adjusted for a poodle. (Admittedly, Yosha and Zippy were both distinctive in that last regard, so our standards may not be well calibrated.) He was a bit quiet and unsure while dealing with the transition, but he handled it remarkably well, and three days later he’s settled in great.

And it’s super nice at a primal level, too: having another warm, friendly body who’s there and who is glad you are there is very comforting indeed. I missed having poodles around, good to be restarting that, and I’m looking forward to learning more about Widget as he grows up.

We have many good years ahead of us.

is it time to upgrade consoles?

October 25th, 2014

When the new consoles came out, I had zero interest in getting one: I hadn’t been playing AAA games much, and nothing on the new consoles caught my eye at all. And that continued for quite a long time: until I started playing Tomb Raider a few weeks ago, I hadn’t played a newish console game since Papa & Yo in January 2013, and I hadn’t played a newish AAA console game since Dragon Age II in October 2012. (And of course what I like about both of those was how they stepped away from the standard AAA space!) It’s a year later, and I’d been pretty much in the same position: if you’d asked me a month ago, I would have had no idea when or if I’d get machines from this generation of console.

But a few things have made me change my stance recently. One is Tomb Raider: I’m glad I played it, and it’s reminding me what I like about console gaming. The second is Rocksmith 2014: it was announced for the Xbox One with DLC portability, so if I switch over to the Xbox One, I’ll be able to stop using the 360 except for special occasions. The third is Dragon Age: Inquisition: I’d assumed I’d play it on the 360 so I could import my save files, but they’re handling imports through the cross-platform Dragon Age Keep, so there’s no reason to stay on the same generation, as far as I can tell. (Actually, I’m a little annoyed at how they’re handling save games: if I’m reading the FAQ correctly, there’s no save file import into the keep, I’m supposed to remember my choices and enter them in by hand? Ugh.) Finally, Brendan’s post on Alien: Isolation has gotten me quite curious about that game, so that’s another game I’d just as soon play on the new generation.

So, basically: I’m assuming that I actually will play another AAA game soon, so I might as well do that on a new console so it will look spiffy? Right now, games I’m interested in are still being released on the older consoles, but at some point that will change, so I might as well upgrade now. But then when I started looking into that, I got a little less sure: I’d forgotten that the Xbox One was still $400, there’s the purchase paralysis from my not being sure if I want the Kinect version, and based on last generation I’ll certainly be able to get a console for cheaper if I wait a year and it might even be a smaller, better-designed version of the same console. And, also, while I don’t think I’ll particularly mind losing my progress in Rocksmith 2014, there are a few songs I like that I’ll have to unlock again; if I wait another year, maybe I can switch consoles at the same time as another Rocksmith comes out? (Or I might pause playing guitar at some time over the next year, too.) All of these make me think that maybe I should stick with the 360 for a while longer, waiting for things to shake out.

I dunno. I’ll probably end up getting an Xbox One when Dragon Age: Inquisition comes out; but I am annoyed at the save game thing, so if there isn’t save game portability and if Inquisition ends up feeling more like the first Dragon Age than the second one then I might just wait a while on that game. And if I do that, then I might as well wait for a price drop: there are enough interesting games out there on consoles I already have that I won’t be bored…

interviews and whiteboard coding

October 22nd, 2014

I talked with a friend of mine at Agile Open California a couple of weeks ago who was bemused by an interview he’d had recently: the company had asked him to do a programming exercise in advance, which he enjoyed and was looking forward to talking about with them during the in-person portion of the interview. But when he showed up, they didn’t talk about that exercise at all, his interviewers just threw whiteboard coding questions at him. Which didn’t impress him: why would they pass up an opportunity to discuss programming in more depth and in a more concrete way in favor of an exercise that is shallower and less representative of real programming work?

I’ve always been at companies that spend most of their interview time doing whiteboard coding; but I’ll have to agree, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I do spend some time asking behavioral questions, and some time asking questions about architectures of systems that people have been involved in; but the latter also feels artificial to me, because when I get an answer that I don’t find informative, I’m never sure if it’s because the person in question just isn’t good at explaining things or if they don’t really understand the pros and cons of the system in question in depth. Also, we want to let a good number of people talk to the candidate and to be respectful of the candidate’s time (both in person and at home); both of those lend themselves to relatively short questions. So I’ve found it too easy to end up with whiteboard coding, and if I’m not careful, with pretty simplistic whiteboard coding at that.

So yeah, I should try to be a more thoughtful interviewer. But I should also try to be a more thoughtful interviewee! Because: I’m in general quite good at whiteboard coding, and I also tend to think I’m a good programmer, but I’m not at all convinced that my programming strengths have much to do with my ability to do whiteboard coding. I think I’m a good programmer because I’m good at refactoring, good at testing, good at incremental development, good at getting at underlying structures in code; whereas I’m good at whiteboard coding because I had lots of practice with math contests teaching me to quickly come up with simple algorithm answers. I enjoy whiteboard coding fine on its own, and I also enjoy performing well on tasks, which means that I come out of interviews like that with a bit of a buzz; but I’m not at all convinced that companies which fill their interviews with questions like that are ones where I’d be happiest or where I’d learn the most.

So maybe the next time I’m looking for a job, I should pay closer attention to the kinds of questions I’m asked in interviews. Because if I don’t do that, I’ll end up selecting for companies that are, in turn, selecting for a very narrow profile. (“Top” schools in a conventional sense, thinks quickly on their feet in a sort of jousting fashion, has a startup pedigree.) And the fact that I happen to fit that profile well doesn’t mean that that’s the sort of job I should be looking for, whether for enjoyment reasons or for “stretching myself” reasons.

trying to make sense of the apple watch

October 19th, 2014

Apple showed off the Apple Watch last month; they were the first company to really figure out smartphones, they were the first company to really figure out tablets, so are they going to do the same with smart watches? And, if so, what does that mean? We’re obviously quite some distance away from knowing the answer to that, but still, I’m really curious what’s going on here.

The obvious part of the watch story is: it extends their range of screen sizes. Which makes sense on its own, but it’s particularly interesting right now after the iPhone size increase: even with an iPhone 6 I’m noticing that I use my iPad at home significantly less than I had been, and the iPhone 6 Plus is surely going to eat significantly into iPad Mini sales. But the 6 Plus is also too large to fit into most people’s pockets; and, as my daughter frequently reminds me, even the smaller phone models are too large to fit into the pockets of half the people on the planet. So there’s definitely room for a smaller screen that’s always accessible.

A smaller screen is only useful if you can do something with that smaller screen, though! Or, rather, with that smaller device: smart of Apple to think about how having something on your wrist enables a wider range of touch notifications. Still, there’s the question of what the job is to be done: I sure don’t know the answer there; when I think about how I use my phone, there’s very little there that I would want to do on a watch. And, watching the Apple event, I kind of think that they’re not sure either: there’s a ridiculous number of icons on the screen, and while some of the apps seemed cool, the presentation didn’t do a good job of telling a focused, compelling story around the watch. (See episode 17 of Exponent for more complaints about this, e.g. their alternate version of a product introduction 56 minutes into the podcast.)

What I’m not sure is to what extent having a clear job to be done matters. Or rather: I’m sure that it does matter, having a compelling story and vision is one of the reasons why Apple’s entries into product categories are so much more effective than other companies’ entries. And maybe the lack of a compelling story is part of the reason why the iPad has stagnated? But the flip side is: Apple’s iPhone event told a great story about being a great iPod, a great phone, and a great web browser, but that’s not where I spend most of my time on my iPhone these days, and in fact I almost never use those first two pieces of functionality. Instead, there are a handful of super compelling apps that I use, which the original iPhone didn’t even allow!

So maybe predicting the jobs to be done in advance isn’t what’s so important. What’s important instead is perhaps coming up with a few good interaction models, coming up with some examples of how to use those interaction models, and then watching what other people do with them? And the watch does have a couple of interesting interaction methods, I suspect Apple will do a good job of providing apps that show users and developers what’s possible with those interaction methods, and hopefully the app store will do the rest.

And opening up possibilities for third-party developers is something where 2014 Apple is on fire: this year’s WWDC was super exciting with the range of technologies introduced, with them bringing those technologies to both iOS and OSX whenever that made sense, with a significantly increased ease of communication both between applications and between devices, and a whole new programming language to build on. So tools are there for developers: and in particular tools for communication between different classes of devices are going to be very important for the Apple Watch, especially on early cell-less models. I have no idea what will blow me away on the watch the way Tweetie did on the iPhone, but I have a lot of confidence in both the developers and the tools.

 

But the announcement interests me more because of the context it puts the Apple Watch in: the announcement puts the Watch in a watch context and in a fashion context. A lot of the tech press coverage seemed bemused my the amount of time the presentation spent on the watchiness of the Watch, in particular on the astronomy-focused watch face. But I like the respect that shows for tradition: if you’re entering an arena whose roots go back thousands of years, then why not make a nod to that history? It’s a welcome counterweight to the Silicon Valley tech arrogance that thinks that we can march in anywhere and show people how to do things: let’s acknowledge that we’re working in a context, and that that context has value.

And the fashion context of the watch is even more interesting. Again, returning to Silicon Valley norms: we’ll look up our noses at conventional versions of fashion, you’ll do better in an interview if you’re wearing a scruffy t-shirt and jeans than if you’re wearing clothing that sends an overt signal that you spend time focusing on your choice of attire. (And pity the programmer who shows up at a job interview wearing a suit or wearing makeup and perfume.) This is, of course, fashion as well, and it has the potential to be a particularly oppressive one: not fashion as self-expression but fashion as insistence on avoidance of certain types of self-expression or signaling.

Apple’s been in an interesting position here. They clearly care a lot about the design of their objects in all senses: how it feels to use them, to look at them, to touch them, and yes, to be seen with them. The iPhone 4 was amazing to feel, I love the curves around the edges of the iPhone 6, the MacBook Air and recent MacBook Pros have been gloriously thin, and I still have fond memories of the second generation iPod Nano. But Apple’s small product line, their remarkable hegemony, and the desire to always buy the most recent version for purely technical reasons combine to mean that you don’t have a lot of choices compared to any healthy fashion environment.

They’ve taken some steps in that direction. Going back a bit, the original iMac came in a range of colors; they’ve generally stepped away from that in their computers (though I wouldn’t be surprised at all if color choices start reappearing), but they had a decent range of color options in their cheaper iPods, they added color choices last year to their cheaper iPhones, and they’ve started expanding the range of color options in their more expensive iPhones as well. And, moving beyond color, you’ve been able to purchase iPods in a lot of shapes and sizes over the years, again with more experimentation on the cheaper range of the line. I get the impression that Apple is now much more willing to produce a range of options for similar devices than they have been in the past; I’m not sure why, maybe it’s simply an issue of focusing on that sort of choice, maybe they’re now more confident in their ability to forecast demand, maybe they have short enough manufacturing cycles to be able to respond to unexpanded demand?

Still, there are limits to the amount of styling choice that Apple allows. Part of that comes down to the very nature of the iPhone: by its nature, one side of the device is going to be dominated by a big piece of glass. And the watch suffers from the same problem: the display is important, the display is also featureless. (At least if it’s turned off: both devices, when turned on, can be personalized much more than a traditional physical device!) But part of that is Apple’s opinionated nature.

Like I said, though, I think that aspect of Apple’s nature is changing: they’re not going all grab bag, but they’re producing a wider range of options. That certainly is the case with the watch: they’ve never launched a product line with that number of choices. Which works well with the nature of a watch: it’s out there on your body for you and other people to see (instead of being hidden in your pocket most of the time), and the strap is much more visible than the back of a phone is.

So: lots of choices, compared to the norm for Apple products. And not just choices of colors, which we’ve seen on a few different product lines of theirs, but the different straps differ substantially in materials, in design, even going down to the level of how the wristbands close.

And, of course, a range of prices as well. Nobody knows how much the Watch Edition models will cost; the smallest reasonable guesses I’ve heard put it at $1500-$2000 based just on the cost of the metal, but the guesses pegging it at $10,000 based on comparable models in the current luxury watch market seem just as well grounded to me. And, on the one hand, the idea of a $10,000 Apple Watch boggles my mind; but on the other hand, there’s a part of it that I like. I totally get where Marco Arment is coming from when he said on an Accidental Tech Podcast episode that he can’t imagine owning one or seeing any of his friends own one; but to me, that’s mostly a reflection of the insularity of the tech scene. We’re supposed to care about certain aspects of goods and not supposed to care about other aspects of goods, and that approved list of aspects comes from social norms, social norms that are very much influenced by gender and cultural norms, including valorization of stereotypical geek behavior. (Insert snarky comment about “meritocracy” here.)

 

Still: $10,000 sounds like a lot of dollars to me, too, especially for an item with such a short lifespan. I don’t actually expect the Edition models to be that expensive, but I’m also sure that the Edition models will be priced such that I’m extremely unlikely to get one. But I do wonder if there’s a way to soften that blow.

As I said above: one of the reason why Apple has such a limited range of designs is that there’s only one or two designs available for a given device at any given point in time. But, over time, designs can differ quite a bit more: look at all the different versions of the iPod Nano or iPod Shuffle, for example. So I still think the second generation iPod Nano or the iPhone 4 look great; unfortunately, that doesn’t translate into a range of currently viable options, because I wouldn’t want to buy a new phone with years-old technology.

With the watch, though, I think the story might be a little different: the fact that it has to fit on your wrist means that we won’t see iPod Nano / iPod Shuffle levels of form-factor experimentation, and it might even guard against the size bloat that we’ve seen on the phones. So I expect the primary functional differentiating factor over generations of watches to be the electronics inside, with perhaps the quality of the screen and sensors a secondary differentiating factor.

In a recent episode of the Talk Show, John Gruber and Ben Thompson talked about the possibility of having the watch be upgradable; I hadn’t even considered that idea before they brought it up, but it does seem doable. By far the fastest changing component will be the electronics: the CPU/GPU, the memory, the storage, the radios. (Plus the battery necessary to power all of that!) But the one constant in that realm is that those electronics will get smaller at least as quickly as they’ll improve in quality: is it really outlandish to consider the idea that the electronics might be modular enough to be able to fit the 2016 electronics, or even the 2020 electronics, into the 2015 watch chassis? It would be a significant design / engineering challenge, but if you start with that as a constraint, it should be doable. (Heck, for all I know that’s why the watch seems like it’s a little thicker than one expects a 2014/2015 Apple product to be.)

If the watches are upgradable, suddenly high prices make more sense. They make more sense from a value-for-the-price point of view, but they also emphasize the quality and fashion stories that the expensive models are telling. I imagine Apple will sell only a limited number of styles in any given year, but I also imagine that those styles will change significantly every two years or so, at least at the beginning. That means that there will be people who say “the Apple Watch 3 was the best-looking model” and who want to hold on to theirs for years or will be willing to spend quite a lot of money to buy a second-hand one once they’re no longer available. I doubt that that would be enough to convince me to buy an Edition watch (though who knows, I’d probably consider it the next time I’m at a startup that gets bought, the Rose Gold version and the Gold and Red versions of the watch are gorgeous), but upgradeability combined with the styling of the stainless steel and the Milanese loop would be enough to push me into buying the regular model over either buying the Sport model or not buying a watch at all.

 

I’m not at all sure that the watch is going to be upgradable: that would be quite a constraint for Apple to put themselves under, and maybe just having the bands work across generations (which I’m pretty sure will be the case) will be enough of a nod towards longevity, given that the bands are the most visible part of the devices’ style? But the Apple Watch does seem like it could be an interesting step from computers as functional, transient objects towards computers as objects that are integrated into the richness of our lives.

 

Some posts and podcasts on the Apple Watch that I’ve found interesting:

desert golfing

October 14th, 2014

I really don’t know what to make of Desert Golfing. I spent a while playing it, it has the sort of “one more level” feel that games based on micro levels lend themselves to. But the levels veered around so much: most are straightforward, a few require frustrating repetition, and there’s just not that much in the middle. Those ones in the middle weren’t absent, to be sure, and there was also a learning curve around minimizing the chances of bad outcomes, but still: not super rewarding.

And then there were surprises. The biggest of them, of course, is the permadeath levels coming out of a random number generator; but there was also the occasional level decorations that showed up, the gaps that started appearing, the bizarre leaderboard appearance.

I dunno. There’s something interesting there, and I’m happy enough to have played through 1945 holes. But it’s time to find something else (or return to an old friend) to fill in the gaps.