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ipad game roundup

January 24th, 2016

A few iPad games I’ve played recently:

Alto’s Adventure

After hearing about this game on Apple podcast after Apple podcast, I figured I should try it; and I just don’t get the hype. (Or rather, I get that Apple podcast hosts don’t play games much.) It’s really quite lovely, in a subdued way; it’s a game that could be about virtuosity, but has only one control, admittedly with two variants. So your only choices are when to jump, and whether to try to backflip while jumping; this is not very exciting, though at its best it can be really rather soothing.

You Must Build A Boat

If you liked 10000000, you’ll like this. I did, and I basically did, but not quite enough to last out the final challenge.

Alphabear

Very well done, in a Spry Fox way, albeit with a bit more random reward microtransaction bait than I’d like. I played it happily a few times a day for maybe two months, until the rolls of the dice turned against me and I didn’t get any legendary bears for two weeks solid. Still, I enjoyed my time with it.

Lara Croft Go

A turn-based puzzle game, and quite well done. For a while, I thought it was a bit too straightforward, but I chalked that up partly to it having a well-done difficulty curve and partly to, well, there are only so many options that a turn-based puzzle game can give you. But then I got to the (free!) extra level, and it turns out that I was wrong about the difficulty.

poe and leia

January 18th, 2016

Before watching The Force Awakens, I’d heard that it had a lot of parallels with the original Star Wars; so I was looking out for parallels when the movie started. And, sure enough, they were right there: there’s this person who is being chased by the Empire (well, they’re not called the Empire, but they’re the Empire with the serial numbers filed off), who sticks plans in a droid, who gets captured, and, after a bit (sooner than in Star Wars), who gets rescued.

So: this Poe person is Leia? And BB-8 is R2D2, Rey is Luke, Finn is Han, Kylo Ren is Darth Vader, Han is Obi-Wan, Chewie is himself, the Millenium Falcon is itself, Jakku is Tatooine, etc. (And nobody is C3PO; poor guy.)

Of course, none of these new characters are carbon copies of their 70s analogues. So maybe I’m stretching, maybe the new characters are remixes of the original, with their own flavor added in? E.g. Poe acts like Leia at the start, but like Luke when he’s flying?

Which is reasonable enough, but I’ll suggest a different way to look at the movies: take that analogy seriously, and say that Poe is what Leia could have been in a different world. A world where this incredibly competent woman wasn’t boxed in by being a princess, a world where we didn’t have the Return of the Jedi ridiculousness two movies later of showing her as being bold enough to threaten Jabba the Hutt while breaking into his hideout to rescue her boyfriend, then where the movie lost its nerve and decided that, no, we really needed to see her in a bikini, but then it got a bit of courage back and at least let her strangle Jabba. A world, instead, where she could fight and kick ass with the best of them, where her leadership skills weren’t relegated to some sort of abstract planning that we didn’t have the material to conceptualize. A world that acknowledges that, yes, sexual tension is a thing between adults, and that the Leia analogue and the Han analogue are probably the best fit for each other, but everybody gets their own agency, we don’t have to lead into that with damsel rescuing tropes.

Don’t get me wrong: the original trilogy did a lot of things well with Leia’s character, and the Leia of those movies can certainly plausibly lead into the General Organa of the new movie. But still: we can do better. And I like Poe as a vision of what an important, attractive character who is slightly off the main focus of the plot could be.

game of thrones and life is strange

January 7th, 2016

I played through Game of Thrones and Life Is Strange at the same time this fall. I started both of them when about half the episodes were out, and played through one episode a week (alternating weeks between the two games), so I got a slightly compressed but still episodic experience out of them. If I’m remembering correctly, the last episode of each was the only time when I had to wait for episodes to come out, otherwise I played through each game on a biweekly cadence.

And I’m glad I made the pairing; on the one hand, I seem to be more temperamentally suited to the Telltale style, but on the other hand, I liked Life Is Strange a lot more.

 

The aspect of the Telltale style that I’m referring to is how it forces you to make choices: you have a limited amount of time, and you have to make your response by then or say nothing. Thinking about this more, there’s actually a split in my personality when it comes to decisions: if I’m playing a game where I’m, say, fighting with limited ammo, then I’ll save all the time, and sometimes even reload if things go less than optimally. Whereas I never take back narrative decisions in BioWare RPGs, and in fact I’ve never replayed one of their games, as much as I enjoy them: the way I played them is the way it really happened, so why would I want to try doing it differently?

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here, what it is that causes me to respond in a “never reconsider” way instead of an “everything is temporary” way: maybe it’s the narrative aspect and a belief in the sanctity of story, or maybe it’s just that I trust games to be accepting of a range of narrative choices in a way that I don’t trust them to be accepting of a range of combat choices. Whatever it is, Telltale games trigger it even more: I don’t have time to calculate possibilities, I have to react as I (or as my interpretation of my character) really feel at that moment.

Having said that, though: I’m happy enough to have played Game of Thrones, but I’m also happy to be done with it, and I doubt I’ll play the likely sequel. Maybe I’m a bit Telltaled out after two seasons of The Walking Dead; or maybe I’m a bit Game of Thronesed out after watching four seasons of the TV show (yes, I watch them a year late) and after finally reading the books this year.

And I do think that those are both playing into my feelings about the game, but also part of it is the game itself. Like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones takes place in a horrific world (though arguably one that is less pervasively so); but The Walking Dead focused on a few characters that it suffused with love and humanity, while this game has a large cast of characters that are frequently horrific themselves, and with their calculations primary in their mind. Which, actually, works well in the books and TV series (though I almost stopped watching the TV series after the first two episodes), but those are of a much broader scale, about the world as a whole, or at least the continent. This game, though, is focusing on one minor family; and while, in general, I prefer a much more human scale, part of the reason why I prefer that is because a human scale allows games to focus on, well, humanity.

 

Life Is Strange is the opposite in all these dimensions. On a mechanical sense, it not only allows you to think about your decisions as much as you’d like, it actively encourages you to experiment and rewind time until you’re comfortable not with your choice but with the outcome of your choice. Which I did a couple of times, but it wasn’t my style, so eventually I just stuck with my choices.

They also use the rewind time mechanic as a puzzle mechanic there; works well enough, my only issue there was, because I didn’t want to use the mechanic in narrative bits, I sometimes forgot I could use it in puzzle bits! But that’s on me, not on the game.

In terms of scale, Life Is Strange is the polar opposite of Game of Thrones, and I far prefer that. A teenage girl, a small town, her problems; and her amazing magical ability, but one special thing I can deal with! I got sucked in pretty well, the twists that started about halfway through drew me in much more than anything in Game of Thrones.

And then there’s the final episode. That one, I don’t know what to make of, but I’ll give them credit for going out on a bang and giving me something to think about. I’ve seen claims that the intended true ending is saving the town; that’s not the ending I chose, I haven’t even watched it on Youtube, so I don’t have an informed opinion on the matter. I will say, though, that halfway through the episode, Warren made a case that every time you rewind time, you make things worse; I wasn’t completely convinced by his argument, but I’m more convinced by that than I am by the idea that it’s supposed to be obvious that, if you intend to make a choice that will save the town, then the town actually will be saved!

So, based on Warren’s argument, it made at least as much sense to choose with my heart; and, after my dream sequence in the episode, there was absolutely no question where my heart led. The dream sequence showed you all of your fears, and they felt real as fears; but it also showed you how you and Chloe mattered to each other, and that felt real, period.

And that’s what can be so great about small-scale personal games, what grandiose games have a much harder time with. My life has nothing to do with saving the world; it has a lot to do with a few people who matter a lot to me, though. I’m a very different person than Max, than Chloe (especially than Chloe!), but that questioning and that feeling hits me very much indeed.

tai chi, attention, and pain

December 21st, 2015

I started taking Tai Chi lessons this fall, from Master Tony Wong, and it’s been a very interesting experience indeed. I’ve been getting more curious recently about small decisions, and about paying attention to my fundamental reactions to experiences; Tai Chi gives a lot of material to think about on both fronts.

Over the three months that I’ve been going to class so far, we’ve gone through the first 16 of the 75 movements of the Chen Tai Chi first form. Over and over again, I’d do a new movement dozens of times in the class on Tuesday, and when practicing at home on Saturday, I’d realize that I didn’t actually understand some aspect of that movement at all: there were so many possibilities that seemed plausible, and I’d try to figure out which one made the most sense. I’d come up with a guess, which would in turn feed into next Tuesday’s class, where I’d focus on the bit that I wasn’t sure about.

About halfway through the class, a coworker who was also a more advanced student of my teacher pointed me at a book that gives quite detailed explanations of the form as performed in our class; reading that book made me realize just why there was so much that I wasn’t sure about. Take the sixteenth movement, “Angled Body Fist” the one I’ve most recently learned (or at least been exposed to, I’m not very confident in it yet!); the book breaks that movement down into eight parts, of which the fourth is as follows:

The right elbow continues its arc past the right knee while the left hand continues toward the back of the head. Eyes watch the right hand. As the right hand passes the knee, it becomes a downward-pointing hook hand. Then, simultaneously:

  • The torso rises into a vertical position as the waist continues to turn right.
  • The right wrist leads in an upward arc to a position about forty-five degrees forward and right of the right shoulder. The right arm straightens some as this happens but remains slightly curved.
  • The left hand passes the left side of the head and continues past the face to push toward the inside of the right elbow. Eyes follow the left hand as it passes the face (see figure 5.48).

So yeah, there are a lot of small decisions to think about. Which also feeds into the other question I’d been thinking about: what’s my reaction? On those times when I was confused, could I find one of these which makes more sense? And, if so, is that actually the correct one? I got better at that as the class went on: e.g. paying attention to weight shifts, and to how having my weight on one foot allows me to turn the other foot. And our teacher would give more context to moves, helping us think about them in terms of interactions with a hypothetical opponent.

 

We do more in the class than just the first form, though: we do Silk Reeling Exercises, which systematically go through your joints, and Qigong Exercises, which are a set of meditation techniques. I’ve been finding the latter surprisingly interesting, especially Wu Ji: that’s a form of meditation where you stand with your eyes closed. In some sense, that’s just taking the question I mentioned above of what feels right to its extreme: what feels right when I’m not doing anything at all? (And, actually, this specific question of what feels right when standing is something I’ve wondered about before.)

But there’s another reason why I’m interested in Wu Ji: in claims that it helps you gather your energy in ways that lead to surprising consequences if you stick with it. Discussion of this (and other Qigong meditiations) turns to a discussion of qi, which makes me uncomfortable: it works within a paradigm that is quite foreign to me, and that part of me has a hard time taking seriously. For example, what am I to make of claims that, while doing standing meditation, I should have my tongue touch the roof of my mouth because doing so completes the circle between my front meridian and my rear meridian, allowing my qi to flow? And you’ll see claims that, if you do a couple hundred hours of Wu Ji meditation, you’ll start to really feel different; on the one hand, at least that’s an empirical claim that I can try to test without understanding the qi paradigm, but, on the other hand, that’s a lot of time to put in on faith.

But, nonetheless: I like mysticism, I do actually feel like I could benefit from learning how to stand better (even setting aside all questions of qi), and I also believe that meditation probably really does have good effects on mental clarity. So I have been doing Wu Ji outside of class: not every day, and not for all that long when I do it (eight or nine minutes at a time, currently), but on weekends sometimes I do it multiple times a day.

 

If I’d written this post a month and a half ago, that’s where it would have ended up: Tai Chi was giving me a lot to think about, it felt like I was getting more in touch with my body, and I was curious where Wu Ji would lead me. But then my leg started hurting.

This isn’t new; I don’t think I’ve blogged about it here, but I had pretty serious leg pain last year, caused by a herniated disc in my back. Eventually, with physical therapy and drugs, it got better, but it was not good for a while. And a few weeks after starting Tai Chi, I had a bit of a twinge; nothing outside of the range of my normal experiences, but enough to make me wonder. That went away, though, and in fact for a while it felt like my back was as solid as it had ever been recently, so I assumed that Tai Chi was helping.

But then the pain came back, with enough of a vengeance that I knew I had to deal with it seriously and quickly. My current theory for the explanation of the good period is that I got prescribed some steroids in an attempt to get rid of a persistent cough, and that that, as a side effect, calmed down my back. (But it’s only a theory, part of the lesson of this story is that I shouldn’t put too much stock in my theories!) I’m not even entirely sure why it got worse so quickly; maybe it was slowly getting worse and I passed a tipping point, maybe the fact that I started taking two Tai Chi classes a week stressed out my back too much, maybe the fact that we were doing sword work in the Saturday class stressed out my back. I’m fairly sure that Tai Chi is related, both because it’s the only major change and because it sometimes seemed worse the day after Tai Chi, but I guess I don’t even know that for sure? And I’m certainly curious if Wu Ji is related—I don’t think so, but it did get worse right after I started doing more Wu Ji.

The pain is getting better again now. I got another course of steroids, but I already have some evidence that that alone isn’t enough to last more than a month or so, so I don’t want to count on that as more than a short-term solution. I’m trying to be more judicious about what I do in Tai Chi; my current theory is that a couple of the Silk Reeling Exercises are stressing my back a bit much, so I skip those. And I’m toning down some of the more forceful movements, though I didn’t ever do most of them too hard—e.g. my stomps in the “pounding the pestle” moves have always been relatively minimal.

And I’m actually taking a month off from Tai Chi: there’s a break in the beginner’s course from mid-December to mid-January, and I’ve decided to skip the other class during that period as well. I timed that so that I could get an epidural in my back a week after the course stopped: my doctor had brought that up as an option last year, and while I didn’t take him up on that back then because it was doing well enough, right now I really want to get things under control. (One of my theories is that, if I can get the disc un-herniated, then certain actions will switch from harmfully squeezing the disc to helpfully strengthening muscles. But, of course, that theory could be wrong!)

That’s not the only thing I’m doing, though: in a (hopefully) helpful bit of random synchrony, one of the other participants in the Tai Chi course happened to bring a copy of Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back to class. I got a copy, and I’m finding it surprisingly interesting and convincing. Well, maybe not surprisingly, because I have a thing for this sort of thing; and, to make it complicated, now I have dueling paradigms / empirical claims trying to convince me. Should I tuck in my pelvis, as Wu Ji recommends, or not, as Gokhale recommends? Should I, when walking, land on the front of my feet, as the barefoot running people recommend, or barely on the back of my feet, as Gokhale recommends? We’ll see; at least not everything is dueling, some of the stuff Gokhale recommends boils down to traction, which the physical therapist I went to last summer recommends, and concrete guidance in how not to slouch sounds like a good idea.

 

The current plan is:

  • Get an epidural in my back. (Done!)
  • Skip Tai Chi for a month.
  • Work on Gokhale’s recommendations, especially about how to sit but probably also about how to walk.
  • Go back to Tai Chi in January, trying not to dial back too much but skipping some of the exercises that I’m dubious about.

If this goes well, then the epidural and rest will get my back non-inflamed, the Gokhale method will teach me how to look after my back in my day-to-day actions (and, given how much time I spend sitting down, it’s entirely possible that changes there will have a bigger impact than changes in a few hours of Tai Chi a week!), and Tai Chi will be pleasant and helpful on both a physical and a mental level. Whereas, if this goes badly, then I’ll be having another needle stuck into my spine…

dots and two dots

December 7th, 2015

Dots is a charmingly presented puzzle game. Like many puzzle games, the board is a square of objects that you want to make disappear; in this game, the objects are colored dots, and you make them disappear either by connecting same-colored dots via paths or by making a square of same-colored dots. In the former case, the game plays a series of tones as you make larger and larger chains, and then the dots in the chain disappear; in the latter case, it vibrates excessively and all dots of the given color disappear.

The main mode asks you to make as many dots to disappear in a minute; there’s also a mode that asks you to make as many dots disappear as you can in 30 moves. And there’s an infinite mode, and a multiplayer mode; also there are special moves you can purchase, either for real money or through currency earned through the normal course of the game.

Like I said, the presentation is charming: the colors, the sounds. The gameplay itself, however, is fine but not wonderful: making squares turns out to be the key, both because it removes the most dots at once and, because for the next move, there will be one fewer color on the board, making it easier to make squares a second time. And if you succeed a second time, then one color will be completely gone and one color will be almost gone, so the chance of making yet another square increases. So the result is that, even though the aesthetics are about wanting to make longer chains, the gameplay turns out to be about finding a way to make a first square and then hoping it cascades, and I didn’t find that particularly satisfying.

 

With Two Dots, the developers recognized this: the sequel took the same game mechanic, but focused you much more directly on learning how to make squares. They built the game out of levels, instead of reusing a single playing field; each level asks you to destroy specified numbers of dots of specified types within a specified move limit, which focuses you on learning how to play as efficiently as possible; and the different levels have different shapes and numbers of colors, grouped into worlds that typically add a special types of dots with unusual characteristics.

In other words, they found the best aspect of the gameplay of the original game and expanded on it; they also continued to focus on the aesthetics of the game, adding some rather lovely artwork. But they also made another change: they added an energy mechanic (five lives, each taking 20 minutes to refill) while increasing the pressure for you to spend money on consumables.

I’ve never actually played Candy Crush, but this matches the descriptions I’ve heard of that game. You can make lots of progress without paying a cent, but if you do that, you’ll periodically hit levels that take days to make it past. (At least assuming that you’re dipping into the game instead of returning to it every 20 minutes.)

There is actually a positive aspect of the energy mechanic: it focuses your learning. You’ll only have five chances at a given level before running out of energy, assuming you don’t successfully complete the level; this, combined with the lack of time pressure for individual moves, encourages you to think about your moves instead of just charging ahead. So I actually end up thinking and learning more than I would have without the energy pressure: if the energy pressure hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t bother me if I had to take twenty tries at a level, I’d just keep on clicking instead of thinking about ways to make it so I only had to take ten tries instead of twenty tries.

And I did happily play the game for a week or two, and I got more out of Two Dots than I did out of Dots. But, ultimately: I’m at the mercy of the game’s designers as to how difficult any given level is going to be, and I don’t particularly have faith that they make those choices for my enjoyment instead of in an attempt to maximize their revenue. I would be entirely happy to pay money for the game, or to unlock levels, or what have you, but paying unpredictable amounts of money at unpredictable times isn’t my thing. (And the game’s badgering me to connect to Facebook didn’t help, either.) And, as I said when discussing Dots, the mechanics aren’t the best; I liked what they did with those mechanics, enough to make it through a hundred levels, but I didn’t feel like I was learning any more by the time I stopped playing.

 

Interesting experience, though. And it is charmingly put together.

returning to okami

November 30th, 2015

What a game Okami is. I loved it when I first played it, though in recent years, I’d started to wonder: maybe that game went on a little long, maybe I was thinking about it through rose-colored memories? As it turns out: yeah, sure, the game does go on a little long, but wow what a game it is.

Mostly I love how humane a game this is. It’s a game where the key area unlock mechanic involves blooming cherry trees, where feeding animals is a key leveling up mechanic. But I also love the art in the game: it’s beautiful, it’s unusual, it’s integrated into the story and the mechanics. It’s got all the considerable Zelda-style goodness of construction as well, and I enjoy the Japanese tales that are woven throughout it.

 

Thinking about it more in the context of The Nature of Order: so many parts of the world in this game feel so alive. I’m used to this to some extent in towns in adventure games / RPGs, though even here I think Okami does a quite good job: e.g. your initial village is small, but it feels like a small village where everybody knows everybody else, everybody has relations and feelings with everybody else, the village has rhythms, traditions, and a past history, the village looks at you through the context of that past history.

But where Okami is more unusual is in how that feeling of life extends to the countryside and even the dungeons. The countryside doesn’t exist solely for travel and monster fighting: people live there and carry out their lives, and the plants and animals are a key part of the experience. (And one that also links back to the village experience, with the linkage of all the guardian saplings. There are monsters in the countryside, but they too are a part of the world: if you respect them, they won’t hurt you. (At least during the day: I guess part of respecting them is staying inside at night!)

The dungeons are mostly in the Zelda vein, but some of them do a good job connecting to the rest of the world (e.g. the water dragon or the Emperor), and the Moon Cave may be my favorite dungeon in any game. Again: monsters are people too, they’re part of the world, and the chef really does care about Orochi.

 

I’m still coming to terms with Dragon Age: Inqusition. I frequently give the game a hard time, and the above is really why: the large environments, as glorious as they can be, don’t have the same pervasive feeling of life as Okami‘s do. Too many ruins that are placed because the game’s designers seem to want you to run into structures every so often; too many fetch quests in an attempt to bring a connection where none is present; too many herbs to pick because, well, that one I can’t justify. (Though the flip side is that Okami has too many pots to smash.)

Having said that, it is a little odd to praise Okami‘s environments, given how tiny they are while still having less topographical texture than similar-sized chunks of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s environments! So I’m probably doing a combination of giving Okami a bit too much of a pass and being too hard on Dragon Age: Inquisition.

And of course what’s really going on is that there are aspects of Dragon Age: Inquisition that I love as much as many parts of Okami, and for much the same reason: the feeling of life and connectedness that can be there. (If I didn’t care about the game, I wouldn’t get so annoyed at it!) Your interactions with your companions are wonderful (and it’s not a coincidence that the DLC that focused on those relationships is by far the best piece of DLC for the game); your home bases are small enough to feel like, well, home, and while those home bases themselves don’t have quite the same feeling of connected history as your starting village in Okami, the game makes up for that by pulling in connections from previous games to form a foundation.

There are sparks of life elsewhere, too: sure, the Hinterlands is full of quests I don’t care about, but then you run into the family that raises horses and, well, they feel like a family made up of people with their own feelings, contexts, beliefs, and drives. And most of the time, when I read a document lying around in a building somewher, I skim it and hit the B button before it’s really entered into my brain, but every once in a while a piece of lore really resonates with me (Andraste’s Mabari, say), and I’ll never pass by an entry of Hard in Hightown.

 

Ultimately, though: given the choice between a smaller-scale game that manages to be suffused with life and connections versus a larger-scale, more polished game where the life and connections are less omnipresent, I’ll go for the former. Not that I’m against large-scale games or polish: if life is there as well, and if that life appears frequently enough, then I may end up falling in love with those games, too. But I suspect that a larger scale makes it hard to focus consistently on that feeling of life. (There’s a reason why Dragon Age II is my favorite game in that series.) And connected, free-form environments are always a double-edged sword; they give you more control as a player, which sets up the possibility of bringing more of your life into the game, but the flip side is that those environments also give more room to do activities that ultimately don’t nourish you. (So there’s also a reason why I in general prefer the Mass Effect series to Dragon Age.)

Also: if games are going to continue to have you do rote activities to rack up points, and if games want to do that in ways that nourish you instead of separating you, they could do a lot worse than having one of those rote activities involve a lovely and peaceful cutscene of you feeding animals…

spl-t

November 15th, 2015

I can’t think of another puzzle game like SPL-T: it’s deterministic, but it nonetheless has the “responding to random circumstances” feel of a game like Tetris or Drop 7.

That was especially the feel for the first week or so when I was playing the game, when I didn’t realize how the drops work. When you create a 2×2 (or 3×2) pattern of equally-shaped rectangles, they lock in place with a count; that count is the number of moves you’ve played so far, and when that count goes to zero, they disappear. The rectangles above them fall down; importantly (but not obviously when you’re first playing around with the game), locked rectangles have their count cut in half when they fall.

So, once you realize this, the basic parameters of your play are set: you’re going to want to start from the bottom of the screen and work up, so that, when something disappears, there will be stuff above it that gets closer to disappearing.

The game ends when you’ve got the entire screen locked up; there’s a score as well as a move count, but in practice I ignored the score, and I don’t really think it pulls its weight: you get different amounts of points for locking large rectangles compared to small ones, but it wasn’t a dimension I felt like optimizing along when playing, and just to survive I was going to spend most of my time diving the screen into as small squares as possible anyways.

 

So, basically, I thought of the screen as divided into four columns, each of which was 8 squares high, and I wanted to divide those squares into 2×2 blocks in a controlled fashion. I would mess up at that sometimes: in particular, every once in a while I would accidentally finish a square while not realizing that I’d already divided the adjacent half of a neighbor square, so I would make a 3×2 block instead of a 2×2 one, messing up the adjacent column for the rest of the game. So I spent a week or two trying to get better at avoiding mistakes like that.

Eventually I decided to think a little more about what was going on. I’d like to maintain a steady flow of 2×2 squares disappearing, so I’ll be creating new ones at the same rate as they’ll be disappearing. Which raises the question of how long it takes a square to disappear: if I create it on turn N, then it has to count down from N in zero, except that if it falls it gets cut in half. If it’s at height H and if I space out the numbers properly beneath it, then it will fall (H-1) times, so really I want to divide N by 2^(H-1); it takes 3 moves to finish a square, so I figure the right spacing between when I finish a block at height H-1 and one at height H is somewhere between 2^(H-1) and (2^(H-1))*3*4. (The 4 is the number of columns.)

I suspect that there’s something useful that you can do with this; the big problem is that drops really screw up your timing, because if you’re targeting a difference compared to the previous K*2^(H-1) and then there’s a drop beneath you, all of a sudden you’re targeting K^2*(H-2) and the number you’re comparing the difference with also drops in half. The first of those isn’t so bad (after all, I’m pretty vague what the correct number is for K, but I think anything between 1 and 12 is workable); but there’s a big difference between being in range of 200 and being in range of 100.

 

At any rate: that thinking helped a bit, but only a bit. Soon after I started taking the 4-column approach, I had a lucky game where I hit 450 splits; my high score is still only 485 splits. I get over 400 more often now than I did then, but it’s still quite rare; if I get less than 200 splits, I’ve actively screwed up, 200–300 means that I’ve done a bad job, but 300 400 is the normal range for me.

I’m glad I spent time with the game, and I still come back to it occasionally, hoping that I’ll find the magic timing that lets me reliably get past 400 and even reach the unknown reaches of 500. Maybe I should try a more horizontal strategy instead of focusing so much on the left two columns…

read my linkblog!

November 10th, 2015

A periodic reminder: this isn’t my only blog: I also have a linkblog, http://links.malvasiabianca.org. I cap posts there at four a day (unless I mess up), and most days there aren’t that many posts. Heck, probably most days I don’t post anything there, though I certainly post there more often than here!

And then there’s my gameplay notes blog, http://scenes.malvasiabianca.org, though that one is really not very interesting: just monthly Minecraft pictures and notes on my (bad!) Netrunner decks.

clapping music

November 9th, 2015

There’s a game out now that has you play through Steve Reich’s composition Clapping Music.

Pleasant to play through: it took me a couple of tries to figure out what they were asking for, but once I got the feel for it, I enjoyed the music, and I got a lot more out of the music than I would have just listening to it.

On hard difficulty, though, I usually couldn’t last very long. Which was educational as well: my rhythm is not as tight as I would like to think it is…

more on small business models

November 8th, 2015

Some items feeding into each other that I ran across last Friday:

 

StartUp episode #16: The Secret Formula

In the first season of StartUp, one of the possible routes that they considered taking is the traditional VC strategy of getting a large audience by making lots of stuff, trying to build a large and defensible business via network effects. I was glad to see that they didn’t take that route: these days I’m getting more interested in what it takes to do something really well rather than to do something at scale, and I’m getting less interested in VC growth strategies. (See also Signal v. Noise post suggesting reconsidering VC money.)

So I really enjoyed this episode, where they started off by talking about how their “secret sauce” is to put in a lot of very skilled work producing very well crafted podcast episodes, and then they gave a live example of how that works. They showed how they go from idea to raw footage to a better idea of where the story is to a revised script to better footage: I love this sort of concrete, worked-out example.

And I appreciate seeing an apparently successful small business, with some modest VC pressure, navigating the waters of growth.

 

Unwinnable: Content is the Opiate of the Masthead

I’ve been published in Unwinnable twice now: a reprint of parts of my post on the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter and a reprint of my post on games, prices, value, and uncertainty. I didn’t get paid for the former; I asked about payment for the latter, was told that their standard rate was $50, and I didn’t argue.

That $50 rate felt a little funny for a couple of reasons, though. One of those reasons is that the article was almost four thousand words long; $50 feels like a token payment, given that. (I won’t say that they’re 4000 great words, but I also didn’t get paid in the learning that comes from editing, either.) And the other is that an Unwinnable subscription is $96/year; so, even though I’ve been published twice this year, I’ll still be paying them money overall! I actually thought about asking to get payment via a free yearly subscription instead of via money, but I ended up not doing that.

That was just in the back of my mind, not anything that actively bothers me; my blog posts are in the public domain, after all, so Unwinnable would have been perfectly within their rights to publish them without even asking me! I have zero desire to try to be a freelance writer, and I have a good salary, so $50 versus $250 doesn’t seriously affect me, either one is a pleasant but small windfall.

Though, actually, I have been thinking recently about unsubscribing from Unwinnable. Again, the price isn’t so much the issue, though $100 / year (or the $8 that I see on my monthlycredit card statement) is enough to pass my financial “should I keep doing this?” threshold in a way that the $35 Kickstarter subscription price wasn’t. Rather, It’s the rhythm of the thing: I either need to find time to read Unwinnable every week or I need to fall behind, and I’m not thrilled with either idea. (I have enough magazines on my dining room table already…) Five out of Ten fits into my rhythms better, as does plain old reading a book. (Or at least I would like reading books to fit into my rhythm better; and in general reading longer-form work makes me feel better about myself.)

With that as prologue: this article. Seeing that $50 is the standard rate made me glad that I didn’t argue: I’m happy to be in the same boat as the other writers, even if I do blather on more. And seeing how on the edge of financial ruin Unwinnable is makes me feel a little guilty about considering unsubscribing, though not too guilty: I hope that I am following the article’s requests of not spending too much time on word factory sites, and of paying for the more substantial writing that I am trying to spend time on.

 

Exponent Episode 58: The Attention Market

If you only follow one of these links, this is the one to follow, even if it will take an hour or so to listen to: once it got going, it was repeatedly fascinating. The podcast hosts have been talking for a while about a concept of a publishing landscape where the middle ground gets squeezed out but where either very large sites or individuals with a focused audience can survive; this podcast was an important evolution of that thought.

The first part I thought was really interesting was when they talk about how writing is only a part, potentially a rather small part, of how small sites make money these days. In particular, they laid out a chain of interactions where somebody follows an interesting link to your site, then they start reading it more regularly, then they follow a podcast link, then they end up being a podcast regular. This gives two opportunities to make money off of (tasteful, targeted, native) focused advertising: posts in your feed / on your site (maybe one per week), and spots on your podcast episode (maybe three per episode). (Daring Fireball / The Talk Show is a canonical example of this strategy.)

The point here is that, for a small site, standard display advertising is extremely unlikely to make enough money to support you, because the rates are too low for your volume. Subscriptions are a possibility (it’s how Ben Thompson, one of the podcast hosts, makes most of his money), but having your content be free has huge advantages in building an audience. If you’re a really focused site, though, and if you’re in the right sort of market, then there will be people who want to advertise specifically to your readers / listeners: they won’t be the big companies, they’ll be the small companies who are heavily involved in your target market. So that gives you a way to get higher rates (and flat rates instead of per-page-view rates); apparently podcast ads are actually a pretty decent way to make money these days, though you need both reputation and audience volume to pull this off.

The other part of the episode that I thought was really interesting was their discussion bundling. We all find bundling annoying when we look at our cable subscriptions and see a hundred channels that we’ll never watch, but the hosts made a pretty compelling case that bundling is actually good for both the audience and the content producers.

If all content is unbundled, and if people are choosing everything that they’re paying for, then an awful lot of time people will end up deciding not to buy, leading to less money for the producers and fewer choices for the consumers: e.g. if I’m a baseball fan but only a casual basketball observer, then I’ll be happy to pay $10/month for baseball but I wouldn’t be willing to pay that for basketball (and I probably don’t even want to think hard about how much I’m willing to pay for basketball); this can play out in various ways, but one way where this can play out is that I won’t get to watch any basketball and the basketball teams won’t get any money from me. Whereas if they’re both bundled together for $13, then I’m probably happy with that price, I have more stuff to watch, and the content producers get more money overall from me and from my basketball fan / baseball casual alter ego.

And this in turn got them rethinking their suspicion about medium-scale businesses: maybe a medium scale group that’s made out of bundled focused smaller groups could be successful.

 

Those last two items, of course, raise the question of whether Exponent has lessons for making thoughtful games commentary a sustainable business. One option would be to broaden the revenue stream: don’t just focus on writing, add in podcasts and youtube channels as well, with the various audiences all feeding into each other and with native advertising in all of these places. (As Unwinnable is in fact doing with their Unreal Engine articles.)

The downside there is that you still need the audience size / devotion and you still need to be able to convince advertisers that it’s worth their time and money to focus on you.

The other potential route is bundling: maybe Unwinnable, Five out of Ten, The Arcade Review, etc. could get together and offer a joint subscription that would give people access to all of their magazines at either the current price for one or something a bit higher. Or maybe a cross-genre approach would work: Unwinnable could pair up with philosophically similar publications about sports or books or music, so people who are devoted to one of those but have some interest in reading about the others could combine together to build a bigger audience than the combined individual publication audiences would be.

Or, of course, combine both of those! Have some of your content (e.g. most of the long-form writing) behind a bundled paywall, but also have podcasts that anybody can listen to with its own native advertising!

I dunno; it’s a hard problem, and I’m glad it’s not my problem to solve. I’m still not convinced that there’s enough of an audience for regular high-quality games writing to make a business out of it; maybe a patronage model, with eventual dreams of a guaranteed minimum income, really is the way to go in that sphere.

attention, joy, connection, and life

November 5th, 2015

I reread The Nature of Order this summer and fall, and I’ve already talked about how the second volume, The Process of Creating Life, has a lot to teach me about to teach me about writing software.

The final volume, The Luminous Ground, is more fundamental, more basic, in a mystical way. It’s explicit about relations, about direct connections, about “the eternal self”:

This relatedness that occurs is something between you and the bit of blue in the painting. You do not, I think, experience the bit of blue as if it were your self. I believe rather, that you experience something stretching between yourself and the blue hill, something that seems to mobilize your self, stretch it out towards the bit of blue, connect with it. The thing which comes into play, is the something stretching between you as you stand there, and the bit of blue. That is the relationship I am referring to.

What happens? You look at the blue hill and something, stretching between you and the blue hill, then comes into existence. But it is a very important thing that comes into existence. It is not the mundane, everyday self, which is being mobilized. It is as if the eternal you, the eternal part of you, your eternal self, is somehow being mobilized—and has been mobilized—simply because you are looking at that bit of blue.

(p. 62)

So I asked again, “Where is your I, exactly, in this case, when you are looking at the red cushion?” Remarkably, then, he said to me, “It seems to go out toward the cushion. Somehow, for some reason, I feel my I exists beyond my body, it includes the cushion … or (he corrected himself), at least it goes out toward the cushion; when I look at the red cushion my I seems larger than before, and it tends to expand toward the cushion, includes it.”

(p. 64)

Since I read those sections, I’ve been looking around more, and noticing where my gaze expands. When I’m looking out the window at work, it often goes into the distance, at mountains and clouds. And part of that fits what I read in Alexander: my self really does move in that direction. But part of me wonders how much is just a trick of the circumstances: maybe if I were focusing on anything in the distance, I would naturally feel like I was moving that way? It’s not just that, though: the mountains and clouds really do have life that the buildings, streets, trees up close don’t.

 

A bit further on, getting at the core of his fifteen properties, he says:

I believe the following sentence expresses the kind of thing they might have carried, mentally, with them:

Whatever you make must be a being.

Stated at slightly greater length, it could be stated thus:

While you are making something you must always arrange things, or work things out, in such a way that all the elements you make are self-like beings, and the elements from which the elements are made are beings, and the spaces between these elements are beings, and the largest structures are beings, too. Thus your effort is directed toward the goal that everything, every portion of space, must be made a being.

Such a short rule could easily have been carried about consciously by a 14th-century craftsman as the secret of his art.

(p. 95)

I was reading this at while attending Agile Open California; the book and the conference both raised the question of what craftsmanship means to me, and what it would mean to take it seriously.

And then there’s this:

At first it may seem funny that I could write four volumes, nearly two thousand pages, and that it would all come down to this: that you must, and each person must please yourself, herself, himself fully. Then the structure of the environment will be a living structure, and everything will be all right.

But you may turn this funny-seeming statement around, and view it backwards. Imagine me saying something like this: The two thousand pages I have written about living structures are — I think — true. But they are to be understood in such a way that every line, every specific structural detail, can be rephrased to say: people will make living structure only when they truly please themselves. If there is any detail about the structure that is not clear, you should understand this fact clearly: What pleasing yourself truly IS, is the process in which we create living structure.

Our biggest problem in the world, the absence of living structure, the choked difficulty of finding true freedom, true art, all comes from this: that people do not know — emotionally — how to please themselves. In part, they are prevented by society. And in part, they are prevented by themselves, by their inner thought police.

Creating living structure is to be attained, in the end, by the greatest and most sublime process which can happen: that each person lives, works, exists, in such a fashion that they truly please themselves.

Then we may say, if we wish, that we are close to God.

(p. 299)

Listen to yourself, listen to what really makes you happy, and as part of that you’ll be part of something much bigger.

 

That last quote, about truly pleasing yourself, dovetails with another book I was reading at about the same time: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It sounds like a book about cleaning, organizing, and throwing away, and of course it is, but I really was not prepared for the approach that the author takes.

When I woke up, I knew immediately what that voice in my head had meant. Look more closely at what is there. I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep. Through this experience, I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.

(p. 41)

This is so similar to Alexander’s recommendation to look at items and designs, and to ask yourself: what is a model of your self, what pleases yourself, what causes a real connection. And the section “Appreciate your possessions and gain strong allies” begins with this:

One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongings. For example, I urge them to try saying, “Thank you for keeping me warm all day,” when they hang up their clothes after returning home. Or, when removing their accessories, I suggest they say, “Thank you for making me beautiful,” and when putting their bag in the closet, to say, “It’s thanks to you that I got so much work done today.” Express your appreciate to every item that supported you during the day. If you find this hard to do daily, then at least do it whenever you can.

I began to treat me belongings as if they were alive when I was a high scool student.

(pp. 168–169)

That paragraph continues, in a way that again has me connect Kondo with Alexander: taking completely seriously the notion that objects are alive, and that that matters.

 

So: I should pay attention to myself, to my reactions. (To, as Kondo says, what truly brings joy.) I should pay attention to other objects: what is my connection to them, but also what life inheres in them.

Paying attention to myself at a direct level is not something I’ve always been good at. I’ve been taking Tai Chi classes for a month and a half now, and that’s being very helpful and very interesting: I’m spending much more time paying attention to what my body is doing, and I think that’s also translating into paying attention to other parts of myself.

I need to figure myself out more; and I need to figure out the external facing aspects of myself. Interacting with the world, interacting with objects as craft, art, and life. And starting to take more seriously creating objects as craft, art, and life.

agile open california 2015

October 25th, 2015

I’ve gone to every Agile Open (Northern) California, and it’s absolutely my favorite conference. I’ve learned a lot there, I’ve had a lot of really interesting interactions there, it always gets me thinking. For a few years, the conference was therapy for me; fortunately, that wasn’t necessary this year.

I felt significantly more detached than usual this year, but that didn’t stop it from being great: two of the sessions that I went to were excellent, and just being there got me thinking about what I might want to do with my programming.

 

The first talk was by Josh Kerievsky; I forget the title, but basically, it was about what modern agile might look like. (Update: Here’s his post summarizing the talk.) One metaphor that he had at the start was “getting rid of training wheels” – when teaching his kid how to ride a bike at all, they didn’t use training wheels at all, they instead used a “push bike”, which (I believe) is basically a bike without pedals. So the point is that it teaches you about balance right at the start, whereas training wheels don’t help with balance but instead teach you something that is much easier (how to pedal). In that light, when rethinking agile, we shouldn’t necessary assume that traditional practices are good even as a stepping stone to better practices: maybe they’re simply going down a route that in retrospect isn’t so useful.

Here were his suggestions for what modern agile would focus on:

Outcome. Take Kathy Sierra as inspiration: make users awesome, make them badass.

Lean Startup. Rapidly and frugally validate or invalidate your ideas. Fail fast on your requirements.

Continuous Deployment. Amazon deploys code every 11 seconds on average; Intuit runs 300 experiments a day.

Blameless Culture. His example here was Etsy: a new employee took down the entire website, and ended up getting the “three-armed sweater” award.

Somewhere around here was an interlude: lean startup changed the definition of Done. Done doesn’t mean that code satisfies the acceptance criteria: done means that users are using the code and being badass.

Kanban. Work with windows of time instead of sprints. At the end of sprints, quality goes down in order to cram stuff in; also, sprints work against continuous deployment. Thin vertical slices certainly are valuable, but sprints are bad training wheels for that. (And note, when doing Kanban, you still have to make sure your slices are thin: if something sits around too long, that’s a bad sign.)

My memory was that this got some amount of pushback from one or two people in the audience. Which surprised me, but I also heard other people talk about this in other sessions, that some people really like their sprints and their estimates.

Evolutionary Design. An old principle but still good.

Cross-Functional Teams. Ditto.

Another interlude: in early days, all teams learned managerial and technical agility. Now it all starts with the management side (i.e. Scrum); this starts off fine but turns into a mess a few years later. So he thinks Scrum is a bad training wheel, you need balance. Also, programmers want to badass, to take pride in their work.

Mob Programming. Or pairing in general, not just on programming. His company has been experimenting with mob programming from 11am to 1pm every day; it helps deal with the big problem of knowledge silos. They like the results so far. (I asked him a bit about other types of pairing; I got the feeling that in general he thought that pairing was a good idea that hadn’t gotten the traction is should have.)

Minimize Estimates. Design your process to not depend on estimates: the secret to hitting a deadline isn’t estimates, it’s evolutionary design.

(Blameless) Retrospectives. Another oldie but goodie.

DevOps. Modern agile brings devops into the fold, not as a separate team.

Story Mapping and Personas. This helps inform the notion of what it means for a user to be badass.

Lean UX. One thing he noted here is that this goes against continuous deployment: you get a better user experience if the UI doesn’t change piecemeal.

 

That was an interesting list from a conceptual point of view, but also useful to me from a personal point of view. It’s gotten me thinking about what learning I want to get out of my current job; I’ve long since given up on the idea that my current job will teach me much new about agile, but actually there are two items on Josh’s list, Continuous Deployment and DevOps, that my current job has taught me and continues to teach me about. So, in retrospect, while my job isn’t teaching me much new about traditional agile, there are at least some aspects of a potential modern agile that it’s a very good place for me to learn about. (In fact, my current project is getting me in the thick of both Continuous Deployment and DevOps, which is great!)

 

The other talk that I thought was really interesting was by Matthew Carlson, on What Social Science Can Tell Us about Agile. Here are some slides; I think they’re world-readable? Part of it was going over the Crossing the Chasm ideas: early adopters, early majority, late majority, etc. And part was talking about pressures to conform (“isomorphic pressures”) that are always present, which he classified into three groups: mimetic pressures (imitating others), normative pressures (social conformity), and coercive pressures (do this or else).

And then he talked about decoupling: gaps between policy and implementation. The point is that you have that trio of pressures both on the side of the official policy and on the underlying context that the implementation takes place in; you need to conform to both, but that may be quite difficult, putting you in a double bind. So the upshot is: decoupling is a solution, not a problem: it’s a solution to the very real problems arising from conflict between the pressures of context and the pressures of change in policy.

He presented various results related to this; e.g. that late adopters typically get less benefit from adoption than early adopters, largely (I think) because of this decoupling.

 

And the conference was also a time where I could sit and think. I don’t want to talk too much right now about that, but maybe more will come out in that regard in future blog posts.

unpleasant web sites

September 19th, 2015

I’ve come slowly to the whole ad-blocker debate: all things being equal, I’m not an active fan of ads, but I accept them as a possible way for writers to get paid, and most of the time they’re not that bad. Sometimes, they do cross the line for me—I really don’t like the “around the web” style ads that promise to tell me about strange people living near me or miracle foods or celebrity plastic surgery mishaps—but I’m generally content to ignore ads that aren’t scraping the bottle of the barrel. So, while I read many articles through Instapaper (at least if I’m on my iPad) or through Feedly instead of clicking through to the website, and while I’ll turn on Safari’s Reader View for particularly cluttered pages, I also see a decent number of web pages on the publisher’s web site as the publisher presents them. (Actually, ads aren’t the main reason why I turn on Reader View: I’m most likely to turn it on because of content width and font choices that make it hard for me to scan the text.)

In fact, what’s been annoying me more this year on web sites isn’t ads: it’s stuff that websites inflict that are about the site itself instead of about external products. I distinctly remember following a link to a Jay Smooth video, and having the page be completely covered by an overlay that encouraged me to give them my e-mail, or something like that. It was one of those things that makes me wonder just what the thought process was behind that: I have zero relationship with this site, I’ve done absolutely nothing that would give them any reason to believe that I care about the site at all let alone would be willing to give them my contact e-mail, yet they think this request for my e-mail is so important (and likely enough to succeed) that they’re going to block the whole screen with it? I guess it got me to remember the site, which I probably wouldn’t have otherwise (it was fusion.net), but not in a good way: I seriously included sticking a fake DNS entry in /etc/hosts so that I wouldn’t accidentally visit that site again.

 

That’s where I was until this summer’s WWDC announced that iOS would support content blocking. And then I read articles analyzing the costs that ad requests impose: loading what should be a basic web page takes 11 seconds and loads 14 megabytes of data. That’s ridiculous, and it puts a completely different spin on something else that I’d been noticing, namely that my iPad was getting slow: sure, the machine is old, but it sounds like ad networks and their scripts are significantly increasing the amount of work that my iPad has to do.

Having something that’s not actively offensive be on the fringes of my vision is fine. Having ads start crowding out content is annoying; it pushes me towards to reading articles from random web sites through Instapaper, and I’ll also turn on Reader View to deal with this. But when websites start presenting me with bullshit overlays that I have to click through, popups that aren’t for ad purposes (which I’m actually relatively happy to accept, that’s a clear tradeoff that I understand) but that I read as a complete lack of thought about how the reader is approaching the site, then I get angry. And when I realize the hidden costs that ads are imposing on me (costs that potentially translate into me having to spend hundreds of dollars for a new machine and/or having a phone battery die in the middle of the day), then I start thinking a lot harder about ad blocking. This isn’t an open exchange of my attention for value that websites provide, this is software being run covertly on my computer for purposes I don’t agree with; blocking that seems no more wrong than browsers blocking popups, as they’ve done for years. (Marco Arment’s post from August seems right to me; also, he brigs up tracking behavior, which is another aspect of ads that I do not agree to accept.)

 

So I’m running Ghostery now. I don’t block everything that Ghostery allows me to block: I block Analytics, Beacons, and Privacy by default, and I leave Advertising and Widgets unblocked by default. But if I go to a web page and I see bottom-of-the-barrel “around the web” crap, then I’ll figure out where it’s coming from and block that. This probably doesn’t have as much an effect on load times as I’d like, but at least it’s something.

That’s on the Mac; my iPad is, unfortunately, old enough that content blockers won’t work on it, but I expect I’ll be running one on my phone as well soon enough. The iOS content blockers don’t yet seem like they’re as fine-grained as on the Mac (though I haven’t done a lot of research); if I have to take a scorched earth approach for a while, then that’s probably what I’ll do.

That still doesn’t fix those annoying overlays, though. Maybe I really should go the /etc/hosts blocking route for that….

ipad indecision

September 17th, 2015

My iPad has been slow this year: it’s the first retina iPad model, which is three and a half years old, so no surprise that it’s showing its age. So, before this year’s event, I was sure I’d be ordering a new iPad; I was hoping it would do something interesting with force touch (maybe to make typing feel more natural somehow?), and I was vaguely curious about the rumored large model.

But: no new regular-sized iPad, the large model exists but doesn’t have force touch, and it costs almost a thousand dollars. The pen sounds neat, but in practice I don’t see myself using it; and I’ve thought in the past that I’d use keyboards with iPads but they’ve never stuck with me (I don’t even bring them along on vacation any more), and it looks like the keyboard only works in landscape mode, which I heartily disapprove of.

Force touch (which I should now call 3D touch) does seem cool, and like something that will be a regular part of all their devices starting next year. Still, I’m not sure that I’ll miss it if I get an iPad without it. And, like I said, I had been thinking that I might prefer the larger iPad: most of the time, the regular one is the right size, but if I’m reading PDFs formatted for 8.5×11 paper, then the regular iPad is too small. Still, that’s a minority case: most books I read are significantly narrower than that, and in fact magazines that are the size of the large iPad generally print their text in two columns, which suggests that the large iPad would be too large for maximal reading comfort. And, of course, the large one is heavier, though no heavier than the original iPad model was, which was light enough for me.

I guess I’ll wait until the iPad Pro is released, and play with it in stores to see how I like it? If not, though, my best guess is that I’ll wait. Maybe I’ll get an iPad Air 2—they sounded like quite good machines last year, after all—but I kind of doubt it. And the main situation in which I notice my iPad being slow is when I’m looking at web pages; maybe content blockers will help with that? Also, I’m not completely convinced that Apple will stick with a fall release schedule for their iPads; if the Air 3 shows up in the spring (with 3d touch, and with the ability to support the pencil) then that’s probably what I would want.

 

This (combined with the fact that we just bought a Wii U, which cost more than I expected) is also getting me thinking about how much money I want to spend on this sort of thing: it’s not like I couldn’t afford to buy an iPad this year and another one a couple of years later. But I don’t want to get in the habit of doing that sort of purchase: right now, I’m in the part of the startup growth company salary cycle where salaries are higher and stock compensation is lower, and not only do I not want to get used to that phase of the salary cycle, we also have a kid who will be starting college soon. (And while we’re not planning to retire any time soon, we also need to be prepared when that happens!) So I should pick where I’m spending money, and default to sending raises and bonuses straight to savings instead of to gadget purchases.

Alternatively, if I am going to spend a thousand dollars on something this year, then a new guitar might be a better choice. A zippier iPad would be nice, but getting to experience a different sound while having a guitar that can change tunings on its own would have its own benefits, too…

infinite loop

September 15th, 2015

One of my coworkers introduced me to Infinite Loop, and it’s a pretty interesting game. At its core, it’s a puzzle game that would be completely at home among Nikoli’s or Conceptis’s puzzles, but it’s one that is much more at home on an electronic device than on pencil and paper. I was going to say that it wouldn’t work at all on pencil and paper, but I don’t think that’s quite true; still, a paper version would, I think, feel a little artificial, and certainly wouldn’t have the same fluid exploration.

The flip side, though, is that this implementation is geared a little too much towards exploration. There are, from my point of view, two problems with the implementations: the levels don’t, in general, have unique solutions; and the game doesn’t give you good enough tools to express the deductions you have made. So I’ll find myself looking at a position, coming to a complicated bit, and trying to figure out what to do next: setting up that situation is what can make puzzles great, but what actually happens is that I can’t easily tell which tiles I know are in the correct position and which tiles I’m not sure of, and I’m also not sure if there is a solution to deduce, or if I should just experiment and find one possible solution out of many. So the result is that that position turns into a bit of a let-down, instead of turning into a real accomplishment. (Not that I’m completely against puzzle games with multiple solutions, but if that’s the case, I like that to be more built into the game’s systems: e.g. I think Freecell is a great game, but it’s also a game that doesn’t pretend that you can deduce solutions, you have to approach it via feel.)

So yeah, Infinite Loop is designed like a Nikoli or Conceptis puzzle, but I’d like to see those companies’ take at an implementation: curate the levels (I think the levels in this version are randomly generated?), come up with ones that require a lot of thought, and give me a mechanism to keep track of that thought. Still, I don’t want to minimize this game: it’s quite pleasant to play, and the patterns the levels make can be really pretty.

ascension: dawn of champions

September 14th, 2015

I don’t have much to say about the latest Ascension expansion, Ascension: Dawn of Champions. The new mechanism never super grabbed me, and when I had spare moments, I was more likely to play Alphabear; I ended up not even giving the multiplayer a try. (Though, incidentally, Miranda and I have started playing the original Ascension together not infrequently.)

The thing I do like about the new mechanism is that it gives you a nudge (a shove, really) towards one of the factions: cards of one faction give you a potential bonus by leveling up a champion, and monsters have factions now. And there’s a potential mechanic of how much you focus on leveling up your champion (which you can even pay for) versus getting the best card on the board.

But I didn’t find that mechanic working out super well in practice: in particular, paying to advance my champion didn’t seem to pay off. And there’s a chaining mechanic where, sometimes, if the next card that comes off the deck is the right faction, you can acquire it for free: that’s a huge reward for something you have no control over, and I don’t think that helps the game.

returning to blast corps

September 10th, 2015

I had a lot of fun playing Rare games in the Nintendo 64 era, so I was really glad to have the Rare Replay anthology appear. Of course, a lot of Rare’s games are well-designed examples of genres that are now familiar to us; but there’s also Blast Corps.

I still haven’t seen anything like Blast Corps, it turns out. And I still like the core gameplay idea of smashing buildings to clear a path for an oncoming missile carrier, I still like smashing the rest of the buildings once the carrier has gone through, I still like exploring for secrets, I still like using a range of vehicles. Some vehicles I like more than others, and this time, with more games available to play than I had when I first played it, I stopped after going through the medium-difficulty levels, instead of continuing on in an attempt to master (or even get marginally competent at) Backlash. But even there, I’m glad Backlash is in the game, its presence makes the game richer.

So yeah, this game has aged just fine. I would be happy if I never had to hear the phrase “you’re just trying to impress me” again, and unfortunately the port freezes significantly more often than I’d like. (If you hold down the menu button for long enough then you’ll be able to get back to the Rare Replay menu, so at least you can quickly relaunch the game, but nonetheless, it can be infuriating.) But I’m very glad to have spent a few more evenings and weekends with it.

thinking about getting better at netrunner

September 8th, 2015

I play Netrunner at lunch several times a week, I go to a tournament once a month, and neither of those are stopping any time soon; it’s a fun and interesting game. And I like getting better at the game (or at least I would like to get better at it, it’s not clear that I am getting better, my tournament record in particular stays at winning half the time); though given that part of the fun in the game is exploring different possibilities, I’m not sure that I want to spend my tournaments piloting the best decks. But what I definitely would like to do is build the best decks I can around whatever themes I’m exploring at the time, and to pilot them as well as possible.

When I was in grad school, I played a fair amount of go: I played weekly at the Massachusetts Go Association, I played in their tournaments four times a year, I read a lot of books, I even went to the US Go Congress once and took lessons for a bit. I’m no expert at the game (I’m only around 1 kyu or so), but I’m a lot better than I was when I started grad school, and I learned a lot about how to think about the game. It’s probably a similar level of time investment as I’m putting into Netrunner; I should start thinking about how to get as much out of my Netrunner time.

The parallel only goes so far: go has millennia of history behind it, I’m not aware of even a single Netrunner book, let alone a bookshelf full of them! So I shouldn’t expect to benefit from the same level of analysis; still, there is some material on the web. Also, there are four of us who are taking the game somewhat seriously; what do we need to do to become a real community of practice, of learning?

 

Looking at this through a go book lens: beginners books teach you the mechanics of the game, they teach you some basic local patterns of stones (e.g. how to make life given shapes of different sizes), and they start giving you conceptual frameworks such as the order of play (corners then sides then center), sente (making moves that your opponent has to respond to), and aji (making moves that give rise to latent possibilities).

Reading that, I feel like I have that level of Netrunner experience; and, actually, it makes me wonder how many terms from the go vocabulary would help in Netrunner. Sente is certainly there, albeit perhaps not so much on the level of individual moves: there’s frequently a question of who is controlling the tempo, even if that sometimes plays out as more of a waiting game rather than a response to individual moves. And aji, too: e.g. the way the runner manages their programs so that they’ll be able to pull out the right icebreaker in response to a piece of unrezzed ice.

When it comes to the next level of go books, though, I don’t feel like I have the same level of Netrunner knowledge. Take the Elementary Go Series: the titles there are In the Beginning (theory for the opening game), 38 Basic Joseki (specific patterns of stones that are common in the opening), Tesuji (local patterns of stones that can show up anywhere on the board), Life and Death, Attack and Defense (general middle game theory), The Endgame, and Handicap Go.

It’s a stretch to try to translate these directly to Netrunner concepts, but still: the first two books seem to correspond pretty directly to deckbuilding: general principles for how to do it well, and specific known top decks. I’d actually been a little anti net-deck, but looking at that through the lens of joseki, that’s just silly: it’s not just that there are known good approaches if you want to win, but also that those standard approaches have something to teach you about how to play the game well, and even if you decide to build a weird deck, you have to be prepared for different approaches that your opponent might take, including standard decks. One of the ideas I liked from the most recent Terminal 7 episode was keeping around standard decks to practice against: I think I’d learn a lot from testing my decks against a range of standard decks (instead of whatever three decks my coworkers happen to be polishing at any given moment), and I also think I’d learn a lot from piloting those standard decks myself.

I don’t think there’s a real analogue to life and death in Netrunner. There probably isn’t a particularly clouse analogue to tesuji, either, because you don’t have the same chains of stones, but I suspect you can find similarities if you step back a bit: standard moves and responses to local events. And I’d certainly like to see a general analysis of, well, attack and defense: the more tools to think about the flow of the game, the better.

There’s nothing like go’s endgame in Netrunner: there’s no situation where you have that kind of lengthy sequence of precise calculation. Not that calculation isn’t important in Netrunner, calculation just plays out differently with cards, money, and hidden information than it does with a massive grid of stones. And, of course, no analogue to handicap go, either.

 

So: I’d like to learn more about deck construction, both in terms of general principles and specific decks, and I’d also like to learn more about actual play (principles, tradeoffs, etc.). That all sounds pretty abstract, but the nice thing about go books is how many worked-through examples they go through. That’s even the case in books like the above, but there are also tons of books out there consist entirely of going through go games; I do spend some amount of time watching Netrunner videos, but the level of analysis in the videos that I watch isn’t there, and they’re also almost entirely missing the context of the actual cards that are in players’ hands and that are lying in wait in the decks.

Also, when playing go with live human opponents, it’s not all that uncommon for us, after the game is over, to talk not just about what went wrong in general, but for us to actually go over the first few dozen moves of the game. (And if we were better, we’d probably go over the whole thing!) And if you actually take lessons with an expert, then they’ll not only play in didactically informative ways, but they’ll also easily be able to remember and review the game with you.

I was about to say that that wouldn’t work with Netrunner; but, actually, it would, and in fact more and more frequently at work we’re talking about key situations in the game, what choices we made and whether or not we thought they were good ideas. And we’re even talking about our opening hands more, what choices we made at the start and how they turned out. (Especially on the runner side, for whatever reason; we should probably be more open about just what those secret corp cards were!)

 

Deliberate practice is all the rage these days. And, if I were to propose some steps for deliberately improving at Netrunner, here’s some proposals:

  • Spend more time talking about games with coworkers. Talk about games we’ve finished; if there’s an odd number of us, have a third person pay attention to one or both sides. Heck, maybe even take notes.
  • Spend more time talking about deck construction. Talk about what seems to be working and what doesn’t when piloting the decks, when playing against the decks.
  • Try out a wider range of decks, including standard archetypes. Try out my own decks against a wider range of decks, including standard archetypes. Having some standard decks available would be very useful for this!
  • See what theory is out there. If we can’t find it, create it.
  • Watching videos if I have a spare half hour in an evening is probably not a bad idea; I’m not convinced that current videos are a particularly high-density way to learn compared to other options, but I’m also not convinced that higher-density options are out there.

What are people’s favorite online resources for improving at Netrunner?

games, prices, value, and uncertainty

September 1st, 2015

Earlier this summer, I talked about the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter; I wanted to expand on my approach to questions like that.

In general, the price of a game (or of any product!) will be somewhere between how much it costs to develop, produce, and sell the product, and how much value people get from the product. This isn’t an immutable rule, especially the lower bound: there are plenty of companies that try to sell something and then discover that people aren’t willing to pay what that product costs; but if a company makes a habit of that, they’ll go out of business. And there are certainly situations where people buy a game and then decide that, in retrospect, that wasn’t a good use of their money. Still, that range is a good place to start.

Diving down: one big determinant of which end of that range a product (not necessarily a game, any sort of product) sells for is how many other options buyers have to satisfy the relevant desire. If a product is a commodity, something with lots of options that are essentially identical (a gallon of milk, a box of nails), then different producers can’t compete on value: they’ll compete on price, so the price will go down. And, in fact the natural floor isn’t the overall cost to develop and produce the product: it’s just the cost to produce a copy of the product (the marginal cost of the product), ignoring the development cost. Once a company has figured out how to produce a given commodity, the development cost is a sunk cost: at that point, if competitor A is selling for their marginal cost plus $5, competitor B can steal sales by selling for their marginal cost plus $4, and doing so will be more profitable than stopping production of the product. (That example assumes that both companies have the same marginal cost, so if you can produce at a lower marginal cost than your competitors, then you can steal sales by undercutting your competitors without hurting your relative profitability: this drive towards marginal cost reduction makes commodity businesses brutal.) In contrast, if a product can’t be substituted easily, then people will be willing to pay as much for the product as the value they get out of it.

Returning to games: one of the huge changes in the game industry over the last 5–10 years has been the rise of digital distribution. And, with modern networks, the marginal cost of producing another copy of a game that will be distributed digitally is effectively zero. This means that, to the extent that games are commodities, their natural price is $0; this is potentially devastating for game companies, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening.

Games, however, aren’t always commodities: some are a lot more popular than others. The problem there is that it’s hard to tell in advance which games will be popular enough to be able to command enough of a price premium to be able to recoup their development cost. This is why large studios have an advantage (because they can take a portfolio approach to average out the risk), and why those studios prefer sequels to popular games (to reduce the expected variance); I suspect it’s also why, if we go back a decade, new games all cost about $60 even though they weren’t commodities, because that was one way that stores could amortize the risk of pricing games of unknown value. (And then, as the value of those games become known, games that are less valued by buyers have their sales price correspondingly reduced; the used game market isn’t hampered by this uncertainty, so prices float earlier there.)

At any rate, there’s nothing predetermined about the price of a product, at least in the non-commodity case. Sellers can find buyers for a product at a range of prices, but the higher the price, the fewer the buyers. Sellers generally want to maximize their profits: so they try to pick a price at which the number of buyers times the per-unit profit is highest.

 

To recap:

  1. Prices for products tend to fall in a range between its cost and value.
  2. In a commodity market, prices are at the bottom end of the range, approaching the marginal cost of production.
  3. While making a game, there’s quite a bit of uncertainty as to how much potential buyers will value that game.
  4. Different potential buyers will value the same game differently.

And that second point plays out very differently now than a decade ago. Digital distribution means that the marginal cost of production is $0 in most cases; and the explosion of cheap computing devices mean that the potential target audience has increased by a billion people or more, which in turn increases the number of companies competing for the space, increasing the commoditization of the market. This is a recipe for companies being unable to recoup their production costs, unless they can do something to address these factors; as a result, we’ve seen huge changes on the business side of game production (and of many other markets). So I want to talk about those new models through the lenses of the four points above.

 

Free to play games are a reflection of the zero marginal cost of production: so, unsurprisingly, free-to-play games are everywhere. (I’m fairly sure that a majority of game titles are free to play these days.) “Free to play” isn’t a business model, though, since it doesn’t explain how companies will survive in the face of that pricing choice.

Ad-supported games are one way to make money: in a commodity market, players may not pay for the value of games, but advertisers see game-players as (just barely) valuable enough to pay for. (As the saying goes: if you’re not paying for a product, then you are the product.) This is embracing games as a commodity; in particular, you’ll see flash portals and ad networks promoting this, sites for whom games really are a commodity.

Microtransactions start to segment the market: separate the players who see the game as a commodity from the players who value this specific game over other games competing for their time. For example, we have energy mechanics: people who are grazing the game will play until their meters run out and then move on to another game, whereas players who value their time with this specific game are willing to pay more. (I see this as bringing in dynamics from real-world activities in physical spaces into virtual games: movie theaters charge you money for using their space to watch a movie, video games charge you money for spending time in their virtual space.) But there are other common forms of microtransactions: e.g. paying to unlock different characters or skins for characters.

Downloadable Content segments the market in a similar way to microtransactions: people who care about this game in particular will buy DLC, whereas people who see the game as a commodity don’t. There are a couple of differences that make me break the two apart: for one thing, DLC doesn’t generally have a recurring cost in the same way that (many) microtransactions do, so the analogy to renting a physical space doesn’t hold. And, for another thing, DLC starts to address the uncertainty question as well: if a game gets no interest on launch, then the publisher won’t spend money developing DLC, whereas if it does get money on launch, then that’s a sign that the game will reward an investment of further development dollars, at which point we have DLC. This is, of course, not a new idea: it’s the same reasoning that led to sequels.

Social Games are has some similarities to an ad-based approach, but with a couple of differences. One is that it sets up mechanisms where your friends are playing the same game as you, which (if successful) gets the game out of the commodity space. And the second is the how the costs of the ads play out: if people aren’t willing to pay money for a product, maybe they’re willing to pay not only in their attention (the ad model) but also in their friends’ attention. One analogue for the former is online games, or indeed multiplayer games in general; one analogue for the latter is multi-level marketing.

Minimal Viable Products are a way to address the uncertainty question: start by releasing a version of the game that is playable and that people can conceivably enjoy, and then, if the game gets popular, devote more resources to it. A lot of Facebook games took this approach, but it hasn’t been particularly common in general; given the phenomenal success that Minecraft has had with this approach, however, I don’t know why it’s not more common.

Patreon puts the value question front and center. While Patreons typically have tiers with some limited rewards, in the ones that I’ve seen, the rewards are more along the lines of thank-you acknowledgements than a serious sales attempt. (The Critical Distance Patreon is a good example: while Jason is, of course, a very photogenic cat, and while I do genuinely enjoy the cat picture e-mail every month, the cat pictures aren’t really the reason why I’m giving Critical Distance $10 a month.) So it’s approaching the question of value and market segmentation in a way that actually ends up setting the market to the side: Patreons generally explicitly ask you to give based on the value you see in the works under consideration, ignoring market considerations.

Kickstarter, however, addresses all four points that I listed above. It asks you to pay for a game that isn’t going to be released for months or years: that alone takes the game out of the commodity space, because if all you needed was a game to fill your time, you’d pick a game that actually existed! The different reward tiers further segment the market: people pay more money depending on how much they value the game. And it addresses the uncertainty question on multiple levels: if people don’t show enough interest in the game to make it worth developing at all, then you learn that upfront without you or potential buyers having to put in too many resources, while stretch goals are a way for companies to decide whether to put out a minimal version of the game or to bulk up the staff to develop something larger.

So, to my mind, Kickstarter is the most promising of all of the above business models, because it has an answer to all of these questions: the ideas there give hope at helping games avoid commodity hell.

 

Business models, of course, have consequences. Which is fine: constraints can be valuable in an artistic process, and that applies for business model constraints just like any other constraints. And business model constraints aren’t anything new: the business model of selling $60 disks in stores led to a focus on previews (with effects on both game development and game criticism), it led to measurements of games’ values in terms of length, and most companies found it difficult to create evergreen games in that model, turning instead to annual or biannual sequels. But with new business models come new constraints which will play out in different ways.

To take one example, I don’t think game designers, in general, yet have a good answer for how to best meld game design concerns with microtransactions. (Though there are some successes: I’m not a League of Legends player, but it looks to me from the outside like Riot is doing a very good job.) Energy mechanics in particular are frequently cited as something that hurt game design; in general, I think that’s probably true, but I also think that a lot of game developers get their pacing wrong even in the absence of energy mechanics, and part of the reason why I loved Social City so much was related to the pacing suggested by those energy mechanics, so I’m not sure that example is clear cut. Still, microtransactions definitely impose constraints on game design, and there’s no a priori reason to believe that all choices of constraints lead to equally good game design outcomes.

And I’ve seen complaints about (many of) these new business models on ethical grounds. I don’t agree with most of those complaints, but as with game design outcomes, there’s also no reason to believe that all constraints will tend equally towards good ethical outcomes. Looking at the list above, I compared the “advertise to your friends” aspect of social games to multi-level marketing, and part of that analogy is that neither side is a good way to treat your friends. Also, with microtransactions it’s easier to present cost in a misleading way than it is with macrotransactions: I’m a lot less ethically comfortable with asking people to pay $1 for a random choice of one in five items than I am at asking people to pay $5 for five fixed items. (People’s brain wiring generally treats those as similar choices, but the math is in fact very different.) I don’t think this is a tragic ethical choice, any more than crane games or random capsule toy vending machines or collectible trading cards are horrible, but it’s not a great one, either. Hopefully players will continue to get more informed about this; also, compare Android: Netrunner to Magic for a good example of game design alternatives in this space.

 

With the above as (lengthy!) prologue, I want to return to the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter, explaining my response to the articles by Houghton, Poprocki, and Horvath. (Though, before I go into details, I’ll repeat: I basically agree with Houghton’s claims that the Kickstarter should have been more upfront about funding sources from the start; the Kickstarter fixed that two or three days later, so yay Houghton for helping make that happen.)

Both Houghton and Poprocki were vocal against corporations using Kickstarter as risk management: for example, Houghton said “In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case. It made that the case by making the public pass a test before it offered its own support, a test that it knew would cost the public hundreds and thousands.” In other words, they argued that it is wrong for corporations to use Kickstarter as a tool to tackle the uncertainty that I listed in my third point above, and Houghton at least seemed to believe that Sony had no need to do so, that it was a charade.

I have no idea to what extent Sony was committed to Shenmue 3 even without the Kickstarter. But I am very certain that the uncertainty question in general is a real one: in all the companies that I’ve worked at (in my game company time, in my times in other industries), the question of how to spend resources is huge and always present. Lots of projects are proposed for consideration, fewer of those projects get studied seriously (with prototypes, with focused market research), still fewer of those prototypes make it into serious production, not everything that makes it into production actually gets published, and, of those products that do get published, some get large development and marketing budgets and some get small ones.

Kickstarter can help decide whether to commit to a project; and, once you’ve committed to it, it can help you decide how much money to spend on it. The fact that Sony has a thirty-three billion dollar market cap in no way lowers the importance of this sort of decision to them: yes, nothing horrible will happen to them if they make the wrong choice with Shenmue 3, but if they don’t take a disciplined approach towards evaluating projects in general, then they absolutely can go out of business. In fact, Shenmue itself provides an excellent example of how this can happen: Sega was once one of two dominant console manufacturers, then they made some choices in the Dreamcast era that led to them not recouping their costs on multiple projects (including Shenmue). The result was that the Dreamcast was their last console and their game development business is a shadow of its former self.

This isn’t to say that the articles were completely against Kickstarter as risk management: all three articles were fine with Kickstarter being used to manage uncertainty, as long as it’s the right people using it that way, where “the right people” means individuals and small businesses. And maybe I’ve spent too much time employed by large businesses and by businesses that want to become large, but this isn’t an area where I have particular populist sympathies. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to see Kickstarters cropping up to fund weird projects; but when I went through my list of business model innovations above, Kickstarter was the one that seemed to me to be the most complete answer to forces that companies of all size are facing. So I don’t see why the world would be better to say that corporations shouldn’t have access to that answer: all things being equal, I like the little guy, but restricting Kickstarter just sounds to me like it takes a way a tool that would help corporations experiment with producing a wider range of goods. If corporations can’t manage uncertainty with something like Kickstarter, then they’ll manage uncertainty by making cookie-cutter games, and how is that better?

 

That’s the uncertainty side of the business model question, but there’s also the value side of the business model question. And all three articles were extremely uncomfortable with how the Kickstarter led to Shenmue fans showing with their wallets that they value the series. Houghton characterized the Kickstarter backings as “donations”; Poprocki took that train of thought still further and said that Sony should actually return the money to backers now that the game has been funded; and Horvath said that Sony is “strip mining” fans.

Recapping my analysis above: corporations prefer for their products not to be commodities; if a product isn’t a commodity, then its price will be in part be determined by its value; and different people will value the same product differently, which raises the possibility of corporations increasing profits via market segmentation. So: which part of this did the authors find so distasteful? Both Poprocki and Horvath focused on $60 as an expected price for games, so at the very least they seemed to not like market segmentation, though they were more silent on the commodity question. (To be sure, given that he runs Unwinnable, I can’t imagine that Horvath wants games to be commodities.)

A fondness for commodities is a reasonable enough stance: I’ve talked about why commoditization is bad for companies, but it’s great for people trying to buy stuff from companies without spending much money! Or at least it’s good in general: where it starts to go bad is where you care for value beyond what the commodity good provides, and where the non-commodity market doesn’t exist. And games feel to me like a market where that problem has the potential of happening: it is very much the case that not all games are created equal, and it’s also the case that there are lots of games that I care about that aren’t necessarily going to win overall market popularity contests. I’d like the market to provide those latter sorts of games to me, but the question is how.

So if market segmentation is the way that that the market figures out that I like specific games, and if that means that games I like turn out to be more expensive, then that could still be a good outcome for me. Also, going in a slightly different direction, some of my favorite games are evergreen; I’d like companies to have more incentive to develop more games like that, and if that means business models other than a one-time $60 purchase, then that could be a good tradeoff for me.

To sum: I don’t see anything particularly optimal about $60 for a game. Please, companies, segment me in the market! Make stuff I really like and charge me more for it! I like that more than a mass of undifferentiated games. I can think of three games that I’ve spent more than $1000 on, and a fourth where I’m pretty confident that I’ll reach that spending level. I’ve had (and continue to have!) wonderful experiences with all of those games, I have zero regrets about spending that money, I only wish there were more games that had given me as much.

 

I should be upfront, though: I have my own preconceptions when it comes to discussions around value in games supported by new business models. I’ve read too many articles written by people who not only dislike Farmville or Kim Kardashian: Hollywood but who treat people who value those games as either idiots or victims of a scam; I really dislike that sort of attitude, the idea that people who value a game that you personally don’t value are wrong. That attitude is harmful when talking about those games now, it was harmful in the console wars, and I’m sure anybody reading this article can think of other examples where that has hurt our culture. So I’m hypersensitive to that articles that talk about companies abusing fans of a specific game: how much are such articles criticizing the companies, and how much are they instead criticizing the fans?

When I read the three articles in question, I saw a lot of complaints about people pledging more than $60: Houghton wants to make that impossible by eliminating tiers over $50, Poprocki wants the money given back entirely. I’m more sympathetic to Horvath’s complaints about the externally-directed approach that Violet took—that feels off in the same way that the social game “spam your friends” mechanic feels off—but he also says that Violet was wrong to be happy about the Kickstarter. So the implication that I get from all three articles is: you’re wrong to value Shenmue enough to buy more than the game. You’re wrong to want Shenmue figures, you’re wrong to want a soundtrack, you’re wrong to want an art book, you’re wrong to want to play an early version of the game.

And I just don’t get it. How would our world be better if people didn’t have that sort of enthusiasm about their favorite works of art? And how is the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter bad for supporting that enthusiasm?

dragon age inquisition: the descent

August 31st, 2015

(I don’t normally worry about spoiler warnings, but, given how recently this DLC came out, I’ll give one here.)

I thought that the first piece of DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition, Jaws of Hakkon, was meh; but still, not every piece of DLC is going to advance the series. And, going through the first half of the next DLC, The Descent, I was enjoying the experience more: I’m not a big dungeon crawler fan, but it connected to themes we’d seen before with a promise of some interesting lore.

And then I hit the second half. You go beneath the Deep Roads, with the promise of a Titan below, but you’re not sure exactly where you are, how it will work out, or even what a Titan is. And what happens is: you get attacked by a group of people that you’ve never seen before.

This could have been a moment of reflection: we’re some place strange, we’re the invaders, let’s think about what we’re doing. Instead, it just turns into (or rather continues to be) a bloodbath: we’re constantly attacked by people trying to drive us out, we slaughter them, and move on.

What made me really angry about this was the vocalizations: over and over again, when meeting a new group of enemies in this section, your character would say something like “we don’t want to hurt you!”. This is manifestly not true: if we didn’t want to hurt the people who were there, then we would retreat, we’d find some way to defend, we’d find some way to talk to people, and if that didn’t work, we’d go back up to the Deep Roads. If I wanted to be generous, this is the game making a commentary about game violence, but I don’t believe that: that may have been something that the developers would have liked to do, but, if so, they absolutely didn’t carry that sort of commentary through with conviction.

 

Then we get to the bottom level, entering into a world of wonder, into a city that’s the body of the Titan. It’s glorious, and it raises so many really interesting questions: what is a Titan, how does the city work? But it doesn’t answer those questions: you hack your way through the level, you don’t talk to the Titan, you can’t even go into the buildings.

Which brings us to the final battle: after killing everybody who stands in your way, enemies who are presented as trying to defend the Titan from outsiders, you get to what seems to be the Titan’s heart. And then the game tells you to kill that heart.

I almost turned off the game right then; honestly, the only reason why I didn’t was that the DLC had been so lacking in moral thoughtfulness that I was fairly sure that the game would somehow turn the fight into a good thing. And, of course, I was correct in that: it turns out that destroying the Titan’s heart is the correct moral choice, because it wasn’t really the Titan’s heart, and it had gotten corrupted somehow, and it’s your White Man’s Burden (or, in this case, a dwarf NPC’s burden) to set things right by destroying the corruption and becoming an avatar of the Titan.

 

Fuck this DLC; and, in retrospect, fuck this game. There’s way too much playing things by the numbers: huge amounts of slashing your way through enemies (whom I can’t even characterize as enemies any more!), huge amounts of item gathering, a completely stereotypical “savior of the world” plot, a lack of editing and thoughtfulness in the experience that it’s trying to present. Yes, there’s more to the series than that, and even to this game; but, after this DLC, I can’t pretend that the parts of the series that I like are the core to the series and the rest is some sort of necessary reflex.