Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Okay, Who's Using the TARDIS Again?

I kid you not.

No more than a few minutes after I posted a brief "go have fun with Battle for Azeroth!" post, THIS shows up in my INBOX:

Even down to the Redbeard part.

It keeps going and going, but you get the point.

When did Blizz start reading PC?

A Gamer's Wish

It kind of goes without saying that this is kind of a big day for WoW players.

I just wanted to wish them best of luck in playing Battle for Azeroth, because the whole point of playing is having fun.

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Gamer's (Other) Pastime

I've been doing some tinkering over the past week or so on my system, because that's what a computer nerd does I suppose. The reason for these little tweaks were patches to my Radeon RX 470 graphics card that fixed the performance issues I saw after the last Windows 10 Creators Update.* I figured that if those patches did the trick, maybe this six year old PC can still pull its own weight for a few more years without needing major upgrades.
Apparently somebody is a Corsair fan.
From pocket-lint.com.

The system is what was in 2012 a top tier i7-3770 system, although with a slower hard drive, a mid-tier graphics card, and a good 1080 resolution screen. Don't get me wrong, it's light years faster than the old 2007-era 32-bit Intel Core Duo (running Vista, no less) that it replaced, but I realized that eventually the i7-3770 would be eclipsed by faster CPUs with better surrounding architecture. Honestly, I didn't think it would take this long, but I'd argue that's the state of PC development these days. Unlike my experiences at the turn of the Century where the brand new AMD Athlons were top of the line for a scant 6-8 months and totally eclipsed after 2-3 years, the i7-3770 based system has only recently been knocked off of the "recommended" specs for PC games.**
Even PC cases have come a long way
from when I started building machines.
From Gamers Nexus.

Obviously the machine still functions perfectly fine for non-gamer activites, although my wife complains a bit about the loading performance when I start it up***, so if I had to perform major component upgrades I'd be very likely to keep this system as primarily her system and just build a new one for myself instead.

However, what really caught my eye were my experiences playing games that you'd think would have major issues stressing the system but actually don't.

I figured that newer MMOs, such as ArcheAge, Wildstar, and ESO, or regular games such as the aforementioned Rise of the Tomb Raider or Mass Effect: Andromeda, would have issues with the old PC. Much to my surprise, however, none of those games --after accommodating the increased loading times-- stressed the PC much at all. A good part of that is, I believe, due to my insistence on sticking with 1080 resolution rather than trying to run on 4K; without the 4K performance sync to push the RX 470 to its limits, my PC has an easier time of it than it ordinarily would have.**** But I also think that the biggest difference between the newer and older games is the architecture behind the games.

Nope, no problems here. Go figure.
From origin.com.

Take LOTRO, for instance. At 11 years old, it is a fairly ancient MMO by today's standards, and you'd think that a top end PC whose guts are 8 years old (but a 2 year old graphics card) would be able to run this at max settings without an issue. However, the lag when you enter into graphics heavy zones with lots of toons, such as Bree, LOTRO struggles on my PC. I pulled up the Windows Resource Monitor and ran LOTRO with it in the background for a little while, just to see what the results were, and I discovered that while LOTRO wasn't stressing my CPU much (about 15-20%, so it was active on one core most likely) or the GPU, it was hitting the hard drive and network quite a bit. Some network activity is to be expected, it's an MMO after all, but the amount of activity suggested that LOTRO was busy getting data from the network servers and then either transferring it to my disk or memory. Even if it was placing the data straight into memory (and the GPU), LOTRO was referencing data on the disk to an extent that wasn't necessarily the case in other MMOs. Back in 2007, Turbine likely decided to utilize their own version of memory swap to get around the 32-bit memory limitations, and in the age of 64-bit PCs this isn't necessary. However, the old architecture remains, and you only notice it when your PC bottlenecks.

In SWTOR, released in 2012, a similar issue is the case as well. The Windows Resource Monitor showed that my GPU was pegged when I ran about Alderaan --the locale that has caused the worst performance issues outside of an Ops run for me*****-- and CPU was at 25% (likely an entire core). The thing is, the RX 470 was sitting at 1 GB of memory utilization when it had 4 GB to play with, so it was being artificially constrained. It's only when I pulled back on quite a bit of the graphics resolution that the GPU was no longer pegged, but the CPU was in a near constant state of activity. This suggests that a CPU upgrade would help a bit, but with only one core being utilized, there's only so much that motherboard/CPU upgrade can do.****** Again, SWTOR is an older game that needs to be rearchitected to spread resources around to take advantage of newer PCs' capabilities.

I was about to mention that the older machines run on DirectX9, but I don't think that's as much of an issue as at first glance. Age of Conan runs perfectly fine in either DirectX9 or DirectX10, and switching between 9 and 10 in LOTRO doesn't have an impact. And I do play GW2, which runs in DX9, and the only issues I have are loading. Once the zone or locale is loaded into memory, everything plays fine.

***

So what does all this mean? Basically it means to stop worrying and just relax. There's only so much you can do without doing a complete rebuild, so fretting over whether an 8 year old PC can handle games at highest resolution without hiccups is a bit of a fool's errand.

That doesn't mean that a guy can't dream or tweak (or whatever). It does mean that I'm likely going to have to build a PC of my own, because the Old Battleaxe isn't going to give up the ghost anytime soon, and I can't see my wife saying "Yeah, we need to upgrade the PC" either.

If anything, getting faster internet speeds is what she'd want, and in a few years that'll take care of itself with the mini-Reds all off to university. (And that will cause it's own problems.....)





*And here I thought the performance issues were long term degradation of the system. Oh well.

**Rise of the Tomb Raider had the i7-3770k as the "Recommended" setup in 2016, and I can't imagine that in 2018 that's still the case. The specs are TBA at this time, however.

***Replacing the old had drive there with a SSD or a hybrid would help out a lot, but I'm not so sure I want to do that if it means a ton of work breaking the old hard drive into a SSD for the OS and traditional hard drive for games and other applications.

****If I'd go with a 4K monitor, I'd want one big enough to really appreciate the 4K difference, such as 32" or larger. But I'm not about to blow that sort of money on a system at this time, because priorities.

*****Yes, I've been in Ops runs before, almost totally during special events. Don't look at me like that!

******I kind of expected there to be disk activity like LOTRO has, but that wasn't the case. My old Barracuda was doing a good enough job of keeping up with the system, although I did notice that when Chrome was on in the background but only when SWTOR was running I saw disk activity while I was running at around 9/12 GB of RAM. Once I killed Chrome, however, the disk activity vanished. As another test, I killed SWTOR instead of Chrome, and still the disk activity went away. Therefore, the two combined must have led to some disk swap activity.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Blindsided

Last week I did something that I thought I would likely regret later: I downloaded The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) and created a character. I'd bought the game back during the big Steam midyear sale, and I really wanted to know whether the 90 GB download size was going to be worth it.

When I start a game, I don't dip my toe into the water gently. I jump into the deep end of the pool.* I was a bit concerned that after my experience with Stardew Valley, where I played the game constantly as much as I could, I was going to have a hard time pulling myself away from ESO. When you add in the "Oooo, shiny!" aspect to the game, not to mention that it was GenCon weekend and I had Twitch cast to our television, I was being bombarded with gamer stuff.

I feared overload.

Well, I didn't get gamer overload, but I found that ESO is a pretty interesting game.

I'd bought the game --which included Morrowind-- so that meant that a new player starts in Morrowind itself. I had no real preconceived notions about starting zones and whatnot, so I kind of shrugged and went with it.

As I expected, the initial questline sucked me in, but I noticed that there were hardly any side quests, so I was a bit confused. Then I made it to my first decent sized questing city, Balmora.**

There were several size quests, including a main questline that kind of dominated my time in the city, but what I didn't expect was that a small side quest, The Memory Stone, would suck up all of my attention.

And all the feels.

***

For older WoW players, there's the questline in Wrath about Crusader Bridenbrad, who had come down with the plague and had gone off into isolation to not be a danger to anyone else. Try as you might, whatever you try to help cure Crusader Bridenbrad of the plague doesn't work. In the end, the Crusader dies, but the Naaru intervene so that after Bridenbrad can be brought into the Light.

Knowing that the questline was made to honor Brad Bridenbecker, brother of Blizzard VP Robert Bridenbecker, who died from cancer in 2007 makes the questline all the more moving.

Well, ESO has their own moving questline in The Memory Stone.

From gamecritics.com.

It seems such a simple request, really: go take a "Memory Stone" to absorb an old Dark Elf's memories so he can pass them on to his estranged children. But the thing is, those memories pack a hefty emotional punch. And then the ending...

It's the sort of questline that will resonate the most to parents attempting to reach out to their adult children, trying to get them to understand how things turned out the way they did. In life, we don't get to have the do-over or a "roll a new character" that we do with games. You handle life on the fly, adjusting to whatever is happening, and some of those choices made at the time can seem cruel or callous later. But that's life: we frequently make the best of the situation we're in.

The Memory Stone hit me like someone had dropped a ton of bricks on my head. I'm not ashamed to say that I teared up at the end, because it's a parent thing. No, it's a life thing, and people who go through life will understand why such a small side quest had such an outsized impact on me.





*See: WoW, Stardew Valley, SWTOR, etc.

**Not to be confused with Balmorra from SWTOR. And yes, for the purist you go through a very small village and then head straight to the capital, THEN out to Balmora.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

WoW Intersects with D&D. Film At Eleven.

As a promotion for WoW's Battle for Azeroth, the website The Nerdist is having a Celebrity D&D livestream event tomorrow, featuring Brooklyn 99 actor Terry Crews.
Yeah, this guy. From Wikipedia.

Alas, the only video promo that I've found is on Facebook so far, but it does look like it could be fun.


EtA: And heeeereeee we go!

Terry Crews Joined us to Battle for Azeroth on our Newest CelebriD&D

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

And Lo, the Gamers Descended Upon the Midwest

It's that time of year again....


GenCon Indy is back, and for those of us (like me this year, alas) who can't make it to the 51st edition of the gaming convention, you can still watch via some livestreams.

BoardGameGeek (boardgamegeek.com) and sister sites RPGGeek (rpggeek.com) and VideoGameGeek (videogamegeek.com) will be having all sorts of activity on their sites, as well as livestreaming at the Twitch Site BoardGameGeekTV (www.twitch.tv/boardgamegeektv). Here's a link to their tentative broadcast schedule.

If you want to watch some of the other goings on, such as the opening ceremonies and whatnot, there's GenCon's own Twitch pages at officialgencon (https://www.twitch.tv/officialgencon) and genconstudio https://www.twitch.tv/genconstudio). For the schedule, here's a link to GenCon's Live Streaming Stage page.

The geek site founded by Felicia Day, Geek and Sundry, is going to GenCon as well. Among the events they'll be hosting will be a Critical Role Live session on Friday, which will also be livestreamed on Geek and Sundry's Twitch page (www.twitch.tv/geekandsundry).

I'm just glad that I do work from home most days, so I can have GenCon coverage in the background while I'm working away and not have to worry about getting a visit from the network team complaining about me sucking up the bandwidth at the office.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

History Repeats Itself, Part Whatever

The latest kerfuffle to shake up the MMO world while I've been away was the firing of two GW2 employees after getting in a Twitter spat with a GW2 streamer.*

It's a bit more complicated than that, as Reddit, bots, and ArenaNet upper management got involved. Having the specter of the Gamergate Squad raising hell didn't exactly help, either. The net result, however, is very clear: upper management of ArenaNet sided with the customers and fired Jessica Price and Peter Fries within a day or two of the kerfuffle.

Given the crap that keeps showing up in my YouTube "suggested feed", you'd think that people are ready to start shooting over this incident. This is Gamergate all over again, with one side harassing and threatening Price and Fries (and yelling about how GW2's narrative sucked anyway) while the other side is yelling about how terrible ArenaNet behaved in throwing the employees under the bus after having said that they'd be supportive when Price was hired. It's gotten to the point where you can find out which side a website is on just by reading the titles of the articles and not have to refer to the content**.

I'll be up front in that I felt that Price and Fries were thrown under the bus by ArenaNet, because I've seen this sort of thing happen in the larger "non-gamer" world, so that saddens but doesn't shock me. However, I also feel that ArenaNet's behavior --specifically President Mike O'Brien-- shows just how much the gaming world is completely dependent upon streamers/bloggers/vloggers/etc for their business plan.

***

In the early 90's, I worked at Radio Shack, and one of the first things I learned while working there was that the dictum "the customer is always right" was a lie. The customer was not always right, and frequently the customer didn't know anything at all about what they wanted to do***. There were also plenty of times when somebody brought in an item as a "return", showing obvious signs of hard use and/or breakage, and when we refused the return the customer complained through corporate until a regional director told us to eat the return.

I mention that story because ArenaNet's behavior is entirely predicated on trying to keep as many people happy as possible because they can't afford to piss off one of the influencers in gaming space and wrecking their business plan.

Influencers, or rather influencer marketing, is the type of marketing that focuses on getting a few targeted customers --the influencers-- to rave about your product. Think of the influence that PewDiePie has by virtue of his 64 million subscribers to his YouTube account, and you can see why game companies would want to court PewDiePie for his (hopefully good) opinion of a game they're developing. If you can get an influencer to promote your game, you're getting what amounts to free advertising. If an influencer pans your game, that's bad press you can't afford to have.

In theory, this gives a company that free press and it builds goodwill between the company and the buying public. However, it also makes a company far more subservient to the whims of those influencers because of the outsized influence they have in many markets, gaming included. The ultimate influencer is, of course, Oprah Winfrey, who could turn a book hardly anybody was reading into a best seller just by a good word on her part.****

Remember how I mentioned that the customer is not always right? In this case, Deroir, the GW2 streamer and influencer, should have known better than to try to explain to a developer how to do her job. He may have thought he was having a discussion with give and take, but the tone came out as condescending to somebody who actually works in the industry. It would be like me trying to tell a brewer how to brew beer: I love beer, I know quite a bit about the brewing process, and I homebrewed beer for about 8 years. But that doesn't give me the level of expertise to go to brewmasters and contradict them when they talk about brewing beer.

And this doesn't even cover the mansplaining aspect of Deroir's response to Price's tweets.

At the same time, ArenaNet operated completely out of fear: fear that they'd upset one of their big influencers, that there was an EA level public relations disaster brewing, and that their business plan of utilizing influencers was about to blow up. So they threw Price and Fries --who came to Price's defense-- overboard.

To ArenaNet, the influencers were more important than their employees.

As for Price and Fries, they had to have thought in the back of their heads that this might be the end result of getting into a social media spat. I know I tend to keep just about all of my work related activities under wraps, and I tend to avoid dealing with social media --particularly Twitter-- as much as possible. Video game devs, however, are caught in a Catch-22: they're supposed to engage the wider community to engender "goodwill" and "interest"***** in the games they help to create, but frequently those sort of interactions can be insulting, sexist, and plain ol' mean. And you're supposed to grin and bear it. When you finally haul off and say what you really think --like what Price thought she would be allowed to say-- you're then called to the carpet for it.

***

Deroir and the cohort who joined in on the attacks on Price and Fries celebrated their victory, but I fear that in the long run they may have just changed gaming culture permanently. If you are a developer, why would you stick your neck out to interact with an influencer or the gaming community at large when you know that your company will never stick up for you in a dispute? If you are a gaming company, why would you want to risk the double edged sword of using influencer marketing if such a marketing strategy is so easily poisoned?

I'm sure that the Gamergate crowd is thinking that they can force game companies to return video games to being strictly a "boy's club", but my belief is that it will have a completely different effect. Game companies will become more shut in, letting a few carefully chosen PR or Project Manager personnel repeat talking points instead. While game companies can't stop streamers from streaming, they can keep their distance, which would be akin to giving streamers more of a cold shoulder than what they've come to expect.

I also believe the Blizzard portion of Activision Blizzard will remain the exception rather than the rule in keeping the doors wide open to their fans. The WoW fans are a notoriously fickle bunch --after all, I am one so I know something about that-- but they are also loyal to a fault.

The net result for this entire incident is that everybody lost. Even if you think your side won, that victory militarized the other side, and guaranteed the next fight will be even more vicious.

Alas, nobody is going to take the high road any more.





*To be honest, it all blew up right before I began travelling, but I wanted to wait and watch before deciding to comment. The last thing I needed was to start commenting while everything was hitting the fan.

**Or worse, the comment section.

***Once a guy came in looking to buy some new speakers to hook up to his stereo. After a few questions, I quickly discovered that the "stereo" in question was a cheap single unit that didn't even have any way to plug in external speakers. I told him that the speakers wouldn't work because he needed a way to hook them up to his stereo. The guy went away, and some hours later when I was off the clock he came back in and asked a coworker of mine if he could buy the speakers. "Sure," he said, happily ringing them up for a sale. The next morning at 10:05 AM the guy brought the speakers back saying he couldn't figure out how to use them. My coworker got the sale, and the return was on my numbers for the week, not his.

****I saw this in action when she promoted Graeter's, a (then) local chain of ice cream stores, on her television show. Graeter's was one of those gems that only the locals know about, and the quickest way to start an argument around town was to ask someone "Who do you like more, Graeter's or Aglamesis?" Well, the day Oprah promoted Graeter's on her show, our family went to our closest Graeter's for some ice cream. The staff at the store were absolutely bewildered because they were getting phone calls from far away as California to have Graeter's shipped to them, and when one of the customers in line mentioned they'd seen Oprah giving away pints of Graeter's on her show, everything made sense.

*****Did anybody have those two words in their buzzword bingo sheets? I hope somebody was able to yell "Bingo!" inappropriately while at work or something...

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What Happened to July?

Well, college visits happened.

Lots and lots of college visits.

But they're all finished now. 

I didn't think I'd be happy to get back to a regular work schedule, but after driving across multiple states, visiting multiple universities, and hearing a similar spiel from multiple admissions counselors/deans, yeah, I'm ready to get back to the grind.

However, gaming didn't simply stop while I was away from the blog. In fact, I started playing a non-MMO that if you'd have told me about a year ago I'd be playing, I'd think you were absolutely crazy: Stardew Valley.

I decided to buy the game on the gigantic mid-Summer Steam sale mainly based on the story behind the development of the game in Blood, Sweat, and Pixels*. If I bought a game I was going to play it (eventually), so I fired it up sometime in mid-July and tried it out for what I thought would be a couple of hours.

I'm presently now into Year Four of my first character, am married, and now have a kid.

"A couple of hours" my ass.

It is a strangely addictive game, where the storyline isn't exactly deep by any stretch, but due to the nature of the saves (it appears to only be able to save when you go to sleep each night) it can lure you into working "just another day" without realizing you're committing to an extra 10-30 minutes playing.

The nostalgia element is very strong as well, because even though I never played an NES or SNES or Nintendo 64, I recognize the design that Eric Barone was striving for. The gameplay was the most important part of the design, because any part of the game where there would have been a choice of gameplay vs. realism the design went for gameplay instead. Farming Simulator 2018 this isn't, and the game is actually better for it. It's kind of weird seeing a chick grow to an adult chicken over the course of a week of "game time", and especially weird going from "I'm pregnant" to "the kid is born" in almost as short a time.** Still, it works within the game because the entire design compresses the time into a manageable size of 28 day seasons; any longer and the attraction the game holds will fade, and any shorter and the game loses a sense of space.

Stardew Valley's not without its bugs. I occasionally click on a character that I can talk to and nothing pops up, and a couple of conversations --especially for those NPCs whom I've maxed out the "affection" meter-- seem to be missing some parts. That being said, as a game designed and implemented by one person, it's a tremendous achievement.

Stardew Valley is one of those games that I wish I'd have created. I don't get that feeling often, because I know how hard it is to code something as deceptively simple as a text only RPG game, but the siren call of Stardew Valley is that strong.

Eric Barone has created a helluva game, and he should rightly be praised for this achievement. But that leaves me with one question for Eric: When are Clint and Emily going to get together?





*Geez, I seem to be plugging that book a lot lately.

**I kind of have some experience in this area, given the three mini-Reds.

Monday, July 9, 2018

A Brief Wave While Driving By

Between work, unexpected "renovations", and college visits, I have been playing some games.

Posting, not so much.

However, I wanted to drop in and say that Blizzard is now a contributing sponsor of Gen Con, and they'll be setting up a dedicated Hearthstone area in the Indy Convention Center. If there's any doubt that Gen Con Indy has re-established itself as one of the premier gaming conventions, Blizz' appearance leaves little doubt.*

Alas, I won't be able to attend Gen Con this year, and at the rate badges are selling it looks like the Gen Con Indy will be a sellout. But still, this is some cheery news for a Monday.




*I do wonder whether Blizz is looking at eventually doing more than just running Hearthstone, because I'm sure there's plenty of interest in seeing something from Blizzard east of the Rocky Mountains, and Gen Con Indy still has room to grow.

Friday, June 29, 2018

What Might Have Been

I've been watching Mini-Red #2 play Xenoblade Chronicles X on the Wii U, and all I can think of is that this should have been a better selling title than it was.

As a friend of mine described it, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a single player version of an MMO, and I can't dispute that analysis. There are players out there that you can team up with if you keep your eyes open, but the game revolves around your toon and a configurable squad of up to four other NPCs. The graphics and gameplay itself are pretty much modern MMO standards, and my son vouches for the storyline so far.*
Yes, the entire game is as beautiful as this.
From time.com's review of the game.

The world is vast, too, and the polish is closer to Blizzard standards than anything else.

But.... The US version came out many months after the Japanese version came out, and rumors of the demise of the Wii U + speculation on the Switch helped kill the game.

It's a shame, really, because if there was one Nintendo game that was built for an endless supply of MMO style expansions, Xenoblade Chronicles X is it.




*The music reminds me of anime in that it's not traditional video game orchestral music but a blend of rock and pop, closer to K-Pop than regular rock.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Blizz Presents: A Short Data Structures Seminar

I'm coming a bit late to the story --okay, 11 days late-- but I read with great interest the work that Blizz is putting into WoW Classic.

Coming from an IT background, I particularly found the file table formats a good example of what Blizz will need to do to get WoW Classic working properly.

The way Blizz placed items into file tables has changed over the years, from a fixed length format like so:

Spell ID   Name   Effect One   Effect Two
01         AAA    Damage       Apply Aura
02         BBB    Damage       Nothing

to something more dynamic, like this:

Spell ID   Name
01         AAA
02         BBB


ID   Spell ID   Effect
01   01         Damage
02   01         Apply Aura
03   02         Damage


This removes artificial constraints put on the system by the data design, and allowed Blizz to be more dynamic and expansive in what individual items/spells/whatever could do. The kicker here is that Vanilla WoW used the old data structure while somewhere over the past decade plus WoW transformed into using the latter data structure.

Blizz believes they can keep the latter data structure in place and simply utilize the old data, but after they convert the old structure into the current one. From a personal perspective, I think it's the smartest way going forward, since it fixes artificial limitations and allows WoW Classic to utilize the current game engine but deliver the Vanilla experience. Additionally, Blizz won't have to build an entirely new team just to handle the old data structures and the old engine, but just have a subteam off of the main infrastructure groups that make sure that any changes don't break the "converted" environment of WoW Classic.

From an HR perspective, they keep the personnel costs down while they still remain committed to the additional work, and keep a stable interface in place for dev teams.

As anyone in IT can tell you, keeping the back end craziness down means more time spent actually developing the game. In my own experience, that last 1.5 years at the software shop was spent constantly fighting to get a stable development platform, which was constantly breaking when people would make a tweak here or there. When we had a stable platform, the programming teams could actually make significant progress, but frequently we had outages where people were breaking code without realizing that their "tweaks" were causing huge downstream ripples, and those ripples had to be constantly beaten into submission.*

Blizz is trying to minimize ripples in an ancient (by gaming standards) environment by utilizing a stable platform and just converting the data to something usable, but that conversion is the critical part. My first thought was you could build a Perl or Java script to convert the data into the format you need, but I'm sure that Blizz' example is one of the easiest parts of the data conversion process. My experience running QA on data set translation code for CAD/CAM tells me that the WoW Classic team will get a conversion done, but then need someone to sift through and manually check all. of. the. freaking. data.

Yes, by hand.

That is NOT going to be a fun task, but someone will have to do it. And I don't envy that person's task.

Still, I'm heartened by the work that Blizz' WoW Classic team has put into the game, especially since they're likely in major crunch time leading up to the next WoW expac.

One thing I do expect is that by the next BlizzCon, they'll likely have some in-game footage of how things are progressing with WoW Classic, and given Blizz' history, I expect them to remain silent on any release date until they get closer to something resembling an late stage Alpha. But it is happening, no doubt of that.




*Bioware has had major issues like that with the development of both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda with the Frostbyte engine. Frostbyte wasn't built for what Bioware wanted to do with it, so they had to create their own interface with Frostbyte. The problem was that the Frostbyte team was constantly breaking the interface whenever they would make changes to the engine. Yeah, I've been there, Bioware. SO been there.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Decorating and Re-Decorating

LOTRO has this method of "upkeep" that forces people and guilds who own houses to login periodically and pay for the privilege of keeping your house, in much the same way that you have to pay property tax to keep your own house. The idea is to keep people from buying a house and then taking up the space after they stop playing the game. ArcheAge has a similar methodology on upkeep, in which it is explicitly described as taxes.*

However, those two housing systems are set up in either a separate group instance (LOTRO) or in the open world (ArcheAge), not in an individual instance. Other MMOs, such as SWTOR or Rift or Wildstar, are completely different, existing in an individual instance and therefore doesn't require a recurring fee to maintain the privilege of keeping your housing.
I could handle this. That'd make a helluva
side area to hang in. From rebrn.com.

But you know all that, right? (Or at least have some passing familiarity with it, anyway?)

Well, I began wondering about MMO housing while I was trying to find out where a leak was coming from in the bathroom in our house**. Specifically, I was wondering why MMO housing doesn't incorporate repairs and maintenance into the ownership of an MMO house (and/or dimensional space). Sure, there's the "monetary approximation" of taxes, but nothing that says "hey, this broke, we need to fix it", or "this needs repainting". Before you say "well, that's just too much of The Sims or something akin to Stardew Valley to incorporate into an MMO", incorporating problems in a living space has appeared in RPG video games before: Baldur's Gate II, to be precise.

Back in BG2, Bioware adhered to the traditional D&D rite of passage that once you reached (roughly) 10th level, a PC had the ability to obtain a stronghold of some sort and attract followers. Fighters would get a fortress/castle, Clerics would get a temple or church, Thieves would start a Thieves' Guild, etc. BG2 took that and ran with it, adding in extra quests that led to you handling some of the issues of your stronghold, and protecting it from attack***.

If that sounds a little like the PvP guild fortress area of Age of Conan at max level, that's because it is. But what it most sounds like is WoW's Garrisons from Warlords of Draenor.

But I do have to wonder why MMOs tend to shy away from more complex maintenance and whatnot surrounding your housing when they've frequently developed crafting to an insane degree. Look at people who play WoW just for the auction house, or ArcheAge for its complex crafting/farming system, and you can't tell me that there isn't a subset of people out there who wouldn't get invested in maintaining/developing their own housing system far beyond what is already available.

I figure that if someone could be so dedicated as to get the Insane in the Membrane WoW achievement, there is likely a subset of people who would be very happy if WoW's Garrisons weren't consigned to the dustbin of past expacs, but expanded upon and kept up to date.

And while I drop into my own housing in SWTOR and LOTRO (for instance) just to chill from time to time, it would be nice if there were actually things to do in there outside of move furniture and artwork around.

I have to admit that there are times when
it feels like I'm doing this when hanging around
in MMO housing. From pinterest.





*ArcheAge also has a much more complex housing build system as opposed to a lot of other MMOs. First, you have to have a Patron account (something that doesn't require you to pay money for, but paying some dollars is frequently the easiest way to do it), then you have to get blueprints, then find a plot, then get the materials, then.... You get the idea.

**The porcelain lined bowl had rusted through at the drain. This means I have to replace the bowl, but since the bowl is integrated into the rest of the vanity, I have to replace the entire damn vanity. Yay me.

***I was a fighter in BG2, so that was what happened to my character. Not sure if that's the case for other classes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

As If I Didn't Have Enough to Do

I have several blog posts in various states of completion, and you'd think that I'd just finish them off to get them posted. After all, none of them are time/date dependent, and it would be nice to get some of these posts just done and posted.

But as you can guess, the answer to that is "Oh no, I couldn't possibly do that. I had to go write something else instead."

***

The truth is, I've not had that much time for writing. Well, I can find the time to write but I also want to sleep. I thought that this summer would have afforded me more time for gaming and writing, but I've been instead spending my time plotting and figuring out work schedules and college trips, cleaning and fixing things around the house, and just trying to hang in there from month to month.*

A sword? A blaster? a lightsaber?
No, THIS is my current weapon of choice:
the Ryobi Brushless Motor Impact Driver.
It replaced a 21 year old drill that was barely
hanging on. From ryobitools.com.


But in a bizarre set of circumstances, I've taken some of my spare dollars** and bought games on Steam, in spite of my a) lack of time to play games, and b) my current slew of games that ought to be completed. Because "shiny", I suppose.

I have noticed that the main system is finally showing its age (6 years old) after the latest Windows 10 update in that graphics are taking longer to switch on screen in spite of the 1+ year old RX470 graphics card. I'm sure the old Intel i7 Ivy Bridge + 6 year old hard drive has something to do with that. The games I've bought, however, can easily still fit within my system parameters for the "recommended" settings, as they tend to be (at newest) a few years old.

Because I don't have enough MMOs to play
with, I picked up ESO on a Steam sale.
From elderscrollsonline.com
One thing that I've noted is that there really are very few SF or Space Fantasy MMOs out there. There's SWTOR, EVE Online, Star Trek Online, and Wildstar, and maybe Destiny/Destiny 2 if you squint hard enough and claim it's an MMO, but far and away the MMO genre of choice is Epic Fantasy or its cousin, Sword and Sorcery.

So naturally, to balance out picking up ESO, I decided to download the game that I never said I'd be interested in, ever, and fire it up just to look at: EVE Online.

I haven't actually done anything with EVE yet, simply because I've been trying to figure out the backstory for each racial option, but one thing did raise my eyebrows quite a bit: your body is "grown" as a clone in a similar manner as that found in Brave New World*** and your toon has interface holes in the back where you plug into your ship. I have to admit that this is a bit of a new twist on why you pilot your ship around without seeing your toon --see Star Trek Online for a different example-- and one that frankly gave me an uncomfortable feeling up and down my spine.
EVE Combat suit concept art by Andrei Cristea.
If you look at the back, you'll see the neural
connections that allow you to plug into your ship.
I'd have picked a bare back pic, but most of
those are of dead bodies in space.
In a way, the fact that your body is grown and then let loose to go and be a space merchant (or whatnot) without much of anything in the way of normal human familial contact is about the most radical piece of social engineering seen this side of Sparta. If there wasn't a more perfect worker drone prototype created to promote the corporate mastery of the bourgeois, I've not found it yet.****

Beyond that, I've not done anything else with EVE --or ESO, or any of the other games, for that matter-- simply because I know that I won't have much time to play at once, so I've been sticking to games that don't require a huge chunk of time investment at once (such as running an instance or dungeon), and that I can stop at the drop of a hat.

So here's to Summer, the (supposed) slow period of the calendar year!




*I also thought I wouldn't be called on quite so much to be a personal taxi given that school is out of the summer, but it seems that things have actually gotten worse in that regard. Silly me.

**No Gen Con this year again --due to school timing-- so any money saved for that has been freed up for a few games here and there.

***I wonder if Aldous Huxley gets a nod in the EVE wiki somewhere.

****Oh, I could have so much fun with this, utilizing Marxist language I've not used since a few university classes.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Quick Request

Last week, when the new EU privacy law went live, this little note began appearing on my Blogger Dashboard:

European Union laws require you to give European Union visitors information about cookies used and data collected on your blog. In many cases, these laws also require you to obtain consent. 

As a courtesy, we have added a notice on your blog to explain Google's use of certain Blogger and Google cookies, including use of Google Analytics and AdSense cookies, and other data collected by Google. 

You are responsible for confirming this notice actually works for your blog, and that it displays. If you employ other cookies, for example by adding third party features, this notice may not work for you. If you include functionality from other providers there may be extra information collected from your users. 

So, I'm responsible for making sure the notice works on my blog, but I can't see it myself. Can someone from the EU check to see if that notice is appearing?

Oh, and it seems that Blogger is no longer supporting OpenID, likely due to the requirements surrounding the EU privacy act. I don't think anybody used it here, but if you did and wondered what happened, now you know.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Clothes Make The Man

Several years ago, Mini-Red #2 was given a book on how to draw superheroes by Stan Lee* as a Christmas present by one of his sisters. As far as art books go, it's not that detailed about the mechanics of drawing, but it provides a short background into where superhero stories came from and the basics about creating a superhero and the surrounding cast.
Kudos to Stan and the ghost writers for
putting this promo shot of
Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland
from The Adventures of Robin Hood
in the book. (from Pinterest.)

I don't have much in the way of artistic talent, but I still found the design and technique fascinating to read. What also caught my attention was that, in his own 'grumpy old man' way, Stan was trying to make comics more inclusive.

Part of the design for superheroes is that they look like more idealized versions of ourselves. Not us personally, but people in general. They look fitter, more muscular, more attractive, more everything compared to most people not named David Beckham.** While Stan pays lip service to all sorts of body types for superheroes (giving a nod to the obscure Great Lakes Avenger Big Bertha), he does focus on the fit and muscular for his examples of superheroes, allies, and villains.
Big Bertha, Deadpool, and Squirrel Girl.
Really. (From backissuebin.wordpress.com.)

While perusing the book, I kept thinking of how players are portrayed in MMOs, and how much they fit the specific ideal for superheroes.
Now, where have I seen this before?
(From The Nerdist.)

Oh yes. From here.
(From MMO-Champion.)

Or here.

Considering the extremes of the male human in WoW and TERA as a muscular bodybuilder and the numerous examples of female Elves/Humans/etc.***, it seems that the superhero standard is the MMO standard for body image. When you come across the chunky male body image in SWTOR, the Hobbit images in LOTRO, the female Dwarf in WoW, it comes across as a breath of fresh air in the cookie cutter environment. But what I find interesting is that even the "non-muscular" male standard found in MMOs, such as the male Blood Elf in WoW and the male Elf in TERA also reference another comic standard, the Japanese Manga standard, instead.
I believe the term I'm looking for
is Bishonen. (From Anime News Network.)
And, for comparison, my old WoW main,
Quintalan, without all the Pally armor.

So in a way, the comic standard has become the MMO standard.

***

What does this mean to MMO designs? Not too much, because game artists/designers were obviously influenced by the comics they read both as kids and adults. And really, the oversexed outfits found in MMO designs are found in comics****, pro wrestling, RPG books, and anime to just name a few. And video game design has a long history of oversexed characters, so there's that tide that you swim against as well.
Long before there was Lara Croft, there was Leisure 
Suit Larry in The Land of the Lounge Lizards. And yes,
for the record, I did play the first Leisure Suit
Larry while I was in college. (from the wikia.)

But on the flip side, denying characters any sort of sex appeal in the name of fairness or reality also seems like a waste of time, because people are sexual beings, and divorcing ourselves from this reality is making a mistake.
Where would Bioware be without romance in
their RPGs? Well, they do have plenty of good
story in their games, but story is only one of their pillars.
The other two are gameplay and romance.
(From powerupgaming.co.uk.)

I think the best way of approaching character design and creation is to acknowledge and work on several things:


  • People will want to play characters with all types of physical options*****, and enable those options. This is not a difficult thing to create, as we see various body styles in SWTOR and other MMOs. Just because you prefer to look at one style doesn't mean that others will too.
  • People will congregate in an MMO for funny business --it's a collection of people, for pete's sake-- and that means that a Goldshire is going to inevitably appear.
    Yep, that's the Goldshire Inn. (From imgur.)
    People will go clubbing or will go off to fool around and want their characters to dress the part. At the same time, don't go out of your way to provide only clothing/gear options for the Goldshire set, but allow for more practical clothing/gear design. In this respect, Neverwinter has great practical gear designs that actually look like you'd take into a dungeon. Even with WoW you can use underclothing to make some of the more eyebrow raising designs look (somewhat) more practical. And SWTOR does a lot of good work in this regard, creating some practical and stylish designs while allowing the "don't I look hot??" set to wear cosmetic clothing more suited to Jabba's Throne Room.

  • Have the NPCs actually look the part, wearing clothing you'd expect them to wear, rather than some hot and sexy little number that you'd expect in a brothel. (Unless you're in a brothel, of course.) This is where GW2 still bugs me the most, because most "villagers" wouldn't be wearing their best outfits while working in a bakery or bringing in farm goods to market. Having your villagers change clothing depending on the situation --whether for a dance or working out in the fields-- makes far more sense than anything else. If Origin Systems with their Ultima V game could figure out how to handle NPCs working vs. not working back in the 80s, surely MMOs can figure this out.
    An, Ultima V, my old friend. (From lparchive.)

  • Finally, clothes/outfits are also a measure of social status. If your toon is wearing crappy looking gear or clothes, NPCs should react to that. Sure, that means having NPCs who are quite shallow, but clothing does engender reactions even among supposedly "advanced" and "mature" people today.





*What I found most interesting about the book, Stan Lee's How to Draw Superheroes, is that it's published not by Marvel, but by Dynamite, another comic book publisher. Stan and the ghost writers actually did a good job of spreading around lots of different examples of superhero design, covering DC, Marvel, Dynamite (naturally), and even Zenescope.

**Or The Rock. Or Serena Williams. Or any one of a number of incredibly attractive and physically fit people.

***It's a pretty rare MMO --or any video game at all these days-- where you find a woman not sporting a pretty decently sized chest. Even SWTOR, which gives female body shapes ranging from muscular and large to curvy to short to a medium-normal type, has the C-cup minimum chest size for female toons. And while a C-cup is being polite about it, there are plenty of MMOs where chest size goes up from there (such as Age of Conan, TERA, Black Desert Online, and others). Aion is one of the few MMOs out there that acknowledge that women with smaller chest sizes actually exist.

****Do I really need to post examples? There's plenty of them out there, from Sue Storm's "cut out" Fantastic Four uniform, to Power Girl's "boob window", to just about the entire Zenescope lineup. As an aside, I really have mixed emotions about Zenescope. They've gone full into the 90s era comics oversexed female design, but at the same time their stories are well written with strong female as well as male characters. I sometimes got the feeling that Zenescope designed their characters to get their foot in the door with the comic community, but I also truly feel that their 90's era over the top designs (and promos) aren't needed, as the stories stand well on their own. (This is also how I feel about the video game Bayonetta, but that's a topic for another post.)

*****My most recent SWTOR character, a male Trooper using the heavyset body design, has gotten more comments by far by other players than any of my other characters. Just goes to show what stands out to other people.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

RIP TotalBiscuit

I was finishing up another post when I came across this announcement on the net:

James "TotalBiscuit" Bain Passes Away

Even though I was vaguely aware of his fight with cancer, this still took me by surprise.

His original posts on SWTOR were a big part of the reason why I decided to give the game a chance a few months in, and I'm glad I did.

Such as this post.


He'll be missed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Wandering Around the MMO-verse

Ah, what to unpack after the past month....

Well, there's Neverwinter heading to Ravenloft, and there's WoW's Battle for Azeroth inching closer to release. LOTRO had their 11th Anniversary livestream on April 25th, and SWTOR dropped game update 5.9 last month as well. Funcom finally released Conan Exiles, and at the same time finished up their Saga of Zath server event.* Rift has continued to expand their Rift Prime offering with a new PTS server, and Star Trek Online is inching closer to their June expac release "Victory is Life", which is their homage to Deep Space Nine.**

But closer to home, I've been splitting my playing time between SWTOR (yet another Trooper) and Guild Wars 2.

Yes, GW2.
Still a bit silly wearing all of these party
type outfits, but compared to TERA's I can
handle this.

I've been making a push to explore more of the world, and also try to complete the personal storyline. It's been interesting, seeing an MMO with as many people active in the field as GW2 currently has, as I'd grown accustomed to not seeing much of anybody in the low-mid level zones in just about all MMOs I play.*** However, the neverending series of events seem to keep people engaged in the game to an extent that you don't see in other MMOs. The fact that GW2 seems to have the low level toon adjustment better behaved than in other MMOs (such as SWTOR) has an impact here too. In SWTOR, once your gear gets overleveled enough, you become harder to kill even after adjustments on low level zones. In GW2, I actually have to keep an eye on my health because I've come close to dying numerous times in low level zones I've been examining.

One thing that does seem to be the case on MMOs that adjust your level to match the zone, however, is that those low level zone visits seem to encourage some bad habits, rotation-wise. I've discovered that going from a low level zone back to a zone that matches my current level I have a more frequent history of dying than if I'd have just stuck with a current zone, because I can get away with fewer combos on those low level zones but I absolutely need them on the high level ones.

The one thing that I've discovered about GW2 that allows them to keep costs down is that it is only the main storyline that requires voice acting. It's not unusual to do this; Age of Conan had done it for years, and WoW only put a lot of effort into voice acting in the cutscenes and parts of the raids/instances, but GW2's elegance is making the interactions look involved without utilizing the cinematic camera like SWTOR does.
At its core, the interactions are kind of
bland, but they reduce development cost and
are still very effective at communicating
emotion without the cinematic lens.
I personally prefer SWTOR's cinematic camera for all quest and story interactions, but I also recognize that is not cheap at all. And if there's one area that Bioware is likely to skimp on to keep the game going, it's on the cinematic camera like they did for KOTET and KOTFE.

The one thing that still makes me shake my head about GW2 --aside from the pristine clothing people wear-- is the Norns themselves.

I understand the basic concept of the Norns, as there's a long history in Nordic tradition of the race of giants as well as in F&SF literature (Robert E. Howard's Conan stories) and RPGs (the AD&D classic module series "Against the Giants" as another example). But come on. As food becomes scarce and conditions in the frozen areas of the world get harsh, our physical growth is actually stunted due to lack of food. That makes the concept of the Norns all the more difficult to swallow.**** I wonder whether the Norns were merely created to satisfy a desire to play a giant, in much the same way you see games such as TERA or ArcheAge where you find the equivalent of succubi/incubi playable races to satisfy that specific desire.*****

But that notwithstanding, I'm actually enjoying GW2 in a way I hadn't expected to when I started playing the game several years ago. I don't mind the group events much at all, because there's no guild or specific grouping requirements for the events. I know, imagine enjoying group activities in a Massively Multiplayer Online game. [Insert sarcasm here] But the thing is, the MMO environment can be pretty toxic, or in the case of guilds, come with drama or other requirements that I may or may not have the time for. The GW2 group events, like the rifts from RIFT, make it easy to feel like you're part of a positive online community without excessive commitment.

Believe me, I can handle that.





*No, I didn't participate in the Saga of Zath server. It took me forever to reach the point where I am at Atzel's domain, so I didn't exactly relish starting over.

**I watched the first four seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but didn't watch DS9, Voyager, or the others. Something about not having a television during several of those years had something to do with that....

***It may have been several years, but even after the "don't call them mergers" WoW server merges I didn't see hardly anybody in the field once you got out of the intro and first low level zones.

****I remember watching a science series years and years ago that talked about climate change and its effect on humanity, and in one scene the presenter (I want to think it was James Burke) stood in the location of the last known written record of the Nordic settlements in Greenland, which was the remains of a church in which a wedding had taken place. The presenter had taken pains to mention at how the climate change had drastically reduced the food available for the settlements and how consequently the people living there were barely more than 4 feet tall, as was evidenced by the graves archaeologists had discovered.

*****I could say that this crosses into fetish territory, but I'm hesitant to say so. Just because someone plays a specific race doesn't mean that they fetishize that race. But I also can't deny that it happens, either, in much the same way that people fetishize the Sindorei, Kaldorei, and Draenei in WoW. (Many years ago, I once tried searching on some of the back story on Jaina and Thrall and typed in "Jaina and Thrall WoW" into Google. THAT was a big mistake, as there were things there --even with safesearch on-- that you can't unsee.)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Neverwinter Goes for the Big One

Yes, I exist.

I've been busy as hell, however, trying to keep up with work and handling stuff with getting kids to and from school. (Which includes getting the oldest mini-Red back from her first year at university.)

However, I did see that the MMO Neverwinter is going to a place that's beloved (if that's truly the word) by D&D fans:


Oh. My. From Arcgames.com.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Thursday Quickie

I was going to write something else, but I came across this Team Fortress 2 vs. Overwatch video posted by The Winglet: 


Well done!


Friday, April 20, 2018

What is this place, Goldshire?

I was playing SWTOR the other day on a new Trooper* and landed in Nar Shadda to catch the beginning of a long conversation in Gen Chat. It started talking about who is the best companion, then (naturally) morphed into which companion is the "most shaggable". Someone brought up Corso, and how his inability to see that women don't need anybody to be a white knight** kept them from wanting to follow the Corso romance to completion.

At that time I was entering the cantina just off the Promenade and discovered several toons RPing at the bar, so I kind of lost track of the Gen Chat conversation while I watched the spoken word RP going on for a few minutes.***

Once I left for the Nitko Sector, however, I discovered the Gen Chat had taken yet another turn, into group therapy.

One player was asking for advice about asking out a coworker, and several other players were providing advice. The advice ranged from being positive to being direct to providing pick up lines. A female toon was providing tips about flirting****, and then others were chiming in on what works and what doesn't.

In the 8+ years I've been playing MMOs, I've seen some conversations that go into potentially sensitive territory, but this was the first one in a while where I started to wonder just how explicit people were going to go.

And then they went there, talking about how if you flirt well enough, you can have sex on a first date.

I'm not exactly a noob in either MMOs or life, but I was starting to get uncomfortable at seeing this in Gen Chat.

It was then that the flirting commenced.

A female and male toon in the conversation started flirting in Gen Chat about "playing the flute." You know, how good she was at it, how he liked people who could play it well, and she said she was so good she didn't need encouraging. And so on, and so forth.

Yes, in Gen Chat.

"Get a room," I thought as I worked my way to my meeting with The Mountain.

***

The last time I saw flirting or other activity like this in public in an MMO***** it was when somebody asked Azshandra to go topless in the Isle of Conquest so he could fool around. If the two players were merely saying it in regular chat or whispering it --not posting in Gen Chat-- I don't think I'd have cared. But come on, Gen Chat is planet wide.

Even Romeo knew to not be quite so obvious in public.
From sutori.com.
I'm not even thinking about kids, here, because SWTOR definitely has some PG/PG-13 moments, but just that it was so public and so freaking obvious that my eyes were rolling so hard that they practically rolled into the back of my head.

My guess is that the two people were so caught up in the moment that they simply didn't notice or care where they were.

That brings up the obvious question: why doesn't this happen more often?

I honestly don't have an answer for that one. Of course, in SWTOR you've got built-in romances with your companions that helps to alleviate the "let's get online and have some virtual sex" angle, but other MMOs tend to have this sort of thing happen in seclusion rather than in a very public setting.

Soul once told me a story of when he was on his Rogue back in BC days, creeping along in Ashenvale, and he came across two players hidden in a corner who were obviously engaging in some virtual shenanigans. He was relaying the blow by blow (as it were) to his guildies when one of the participants managed to see him while hidden in the shadows. Discovered, he bailed out.

So, based on that story and my own experiences, I know that this sort of things still goes on in MMOs. And maybe I'm just not online enough to see this happen in public more often, but maybe I am also getting old in that I'm simply not comfortable with this idea.

You tell 'em, Murtaugh. From Lethal Weapon.




*Yeah, another new toon. Yeah, I'm a bit of an altoholic.

**That's one way of putting it. I believe the words "fucking stupid" or a baseline equivalent were also used in the chat session.

***It was actually very well done, which is why it caught my eye.

****I'm quite aware of the "assume every player on the internet is male" rule, but for the sake of simplicity I'm sticking with the gender they were presenting.

*****I think I asked myself the question "Is Goldshire still as... well... active as it used to be?" and checked that out before I unsubbed from WoW in 2014, but at the time it looked like Goldshire was not the legendary place it once was.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Conan Exiles gets a Release Date

After a long time coming, the Funcom game Conan Exiles officially releases on May 8th.



I'm kind of torn here, because I still play Age of Conan and I see the promise a game like this holds. Still, Age of Conan also taught me how the tantalizing vision of Tortage was not what the rest of AoC became, a WoW clone that fell short of the story and execution found on that intro zone. There was also the major problem of AoC perpetually having lag when hitting buttons, even on NA dedicated servers. When a game is dependent upon combining attacks into finishing moves as AoC was, perpetual lag was damning.

I feel that this is Funcom's last chance at creating a Conan game, and if it doesn't succeed they'll lose the license. Even if it does succeed, AoC will likely not survive.

But still, best of luck to Conan Exiles. I'll wait a bit on the fence before jumping in to let the bugs and the crowd thin out a bit.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Somebody Out Maneuvered Vanilla

While the MMO community has been watching for further developments in the WoW Vanilla initiative, Trion has actually gone ahead and implemented their own version of "Vanilla RIFT".

Called RIFT Prime, it was implemented a month or more ago and is for subscribers only. The idea behind it is to provide more of an original RIFT experience, but with some newer amenities (portions of the cash shop) still around. RIFT Prime is starting out without expansions, and will slowly add them over time to simulate the progression of the original MMO.

From my perspective, this is a grand idea for these two MMOs. RIFT and WoW are two games that would be well served treading down this path as they have a player base who pines for the original environment, although in WoW's case I could make an argument that they could have servers that stop at AQ40, the end of BC, and the end of Wrath, and people would be fine with that. In LOTRO's case it might be worthwhile to see something like this happen, but I'm not so sure that it is in as dire need of a reboot like the Vanilla WoW project would be, and an original SWTOR would be actually counterproductive given that SWTOR really found its legs about 1-2 years into its run.

The ironic thing is that Funcom is doing something similar with Age of Conan in that they've created a brand new server for people to play on, but it's only temporary and mainly done for rewards.

But still, kudos to Trion for making a bold move.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Enough to Give You Flashbacks

I spent this past week sick. As in, "I should have been in bed but work wouldn't let me" sort of sick.*

While that didn't exactly help me with keeping up with the blog (as well as playing games), I did have time to finish up a book on the video game industry. For people who read Kotaku, the name Jason Schreier should sound familiar, and his book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a look behind the development of several video games. While none of the games featured were MMOs, several of the games were those developed by game companies that do develop MMOs, such as Bioware and Blizzard.

And if I thought that his article on the disaster behind Mass Effect: Andromeda gave me flashbacks, this entire book was akin to reliving a five year stretch of my life.
This pic popped up when I searched Google for
"generic software developer working photo".
In my experience, these people can't be
actually coding at that time because they're
all smiling. (From thebalance.com.)

Video game developers are a breed apart of most other software developers. While I used to hear stories of the earlier days of Microsoft when upper level managers would roam the hallways, complaining that too many people had gotten married or had families for Microsoft to keep their edge, video game developers pretty much lived for writing code 24x7. A coworker of mine was once on the dev staff for Betrayal at Krondor, and the stories he told of the insane hours worked made for good lunch discussion.**

And the stories that Jason told in his novel really hit home for me, such as:

  • The doomed Star Wars 1313, the game that was going to restore LucasArts to its former glory but was destroyed by micromanagement from the top (George Lucas) and the sale of LucasFilm to Disney. This reminded me of my company's attempt to capitalize on the rush to get everything on the web by creating a "web based midrange CAD program"***; which was great in theory but was about 10+ years away in terms of bandwidth and raw computing power. All his initiative did was suck up resources when they were much better spent getting the last major release of our CAD software bug free (it wasn't, and the product when shipped was a disaster). There was even a last ditch effort by a sympathetic EA executive to try and save the LucasArts team and 1313 by arranging a 1313 presentation to another of their studios, but that ended in defeat when the head of the studio was only interested in acquiring the talent and not the product. And that reminded me of when my company was finally acquired, and I could only watch from afar as friends I'd known for years were let go in the massive bloodletting at was once a proud development and engineering house.
  • The redemption of Dragon Age: Inquisition, after the poorly received and hastily thrown together release of Dragon Age 2 (which was originally intended by Bioware to be called Dragon Age: Exodus, but EA forced them to say "2"). The original sequel to Dragon Age: Origins was meant to be Inquisition, but because SWTOR was slipping in the release schedule the corporate parent EA wanted to release another Bioware game instead, and so the dev team had to rush in and create what became DA2. The failures behind DA2 really weighed on every aspect of the work on Inquisition, as Bioware wanted to prove that they were more than just a Mass Effect studio with some other games of lesser quality. As a side effect of both DA2 and ME3, Bioware also had to handle corporate pushback as to whether they should really do the ME3 extended ending. Bioware wanted to get it right, but corporate looked at it as essentially feeding the trolls.
  • The lonely development process of Stardew Valley, where Eric Barone labored for years to get what he felt was a "good enough" product for release, to the point of nearly working himself to death. Even when he released Stardew Valley, he had no idea whether the public would think his labor of love to be any good. That crippling self-doubt plagues a lot of creative types; I see it from software developers to musicians to actors to painters, and yes, I've seen it in the perfectionism of the mini-Reds when they practice their instruments.
  • The eventual trainwreck behind Destiny, and the real reason behind why Peter Dinklage sounded like he mailed it in during the voice acting. (Not Quite A Spoiler Alert: it wasn't his fault.) As well as Activision/Blizzard's corporate handled the Diablo 3 fiasco (another chapter), it didn't handle Destiny's problems quite so well.
  • The soul crushing doubts that drove the Witcher III development, and whether the game would be good enough to meet the standards of Western RPG developers/fans, not to mention whether there would actually be enough content in the game to not have long stretches of simply "not doing anything".
I could go on and on, but the entire book is filled with stories about many games we video game players know, and yet don't truly know because we've not peeled back the curtain to what lies behind the game.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels provided me with a bit of catharsis. I used to work in the software industry, so I know what it was like to be in their shoes. At the same time, I realize that is the sort of work that is by far a young person's game, because I'm more interested in trying to keep my work hours down to reasonable levels. I have become the "married guy with kids" that so upset Microsoft's old management, and as a consequence I want to step back from the intensity (and insanity) behind software development and enjoy more of the fruits of their labor.

But it has also increased the respect I have for the devs who make these games. I already had a lot of respect for their work having lived it, but you'd have to take my old job and crank it up to eleven to get what crunch**** is like for them.

So I'll raise a glass to Jason for a very well written book, and another glass to the devs who put together these games.





*We do have "sick days", but there were too many deadlines that were suddenly foisted on us this past week to take time off.

**He also used to tell us "you don't know how good you have it here, as we'd be sleeping on cots to finish the release."

***The midrange CAD/CAM/CAE market was above the level of Autodesk. Software in that range is what is used by major corporations to design products, such as CATIA or Pro/Engineer or Unigraphics. These are the software packages that auto companies use to design cars and electronics firms use to design televisions.

****Another dev term. We used to simply call it "hell", as in "we've got another hell week ahead if we want to lower the amount of bugs to acceptable levels."