Spring Energy

Where GoT didn’t ever have a winter that came, here in igloo-ville, winter came early and left late.  Spring is a solid 2 weeks late, and there are areas that are still experiencing record-breaking floods.  I am extremely sensitive to the weather, and my energy levels pretty much plummeted for a near month.  That has a a trickle down effect on nearly every aspect of my life… and my usual coping mechanisms aren’t sufficient.  And the cycle continues…

This past weekend was supposed to have a 90% chance of rain the entire time.  Took a chance, went to the cottage, and it turns out it was a nice time pretty much the whole weekend.  Whole bunch of various projects are lined up, and it was good to just be outside in shorts, with a pint in hand.  Had some friends over, indulged a tad too much, and felt a form of alive on the last day.

Was a good kick in the shins.  Time to get back on track.

Dauntless

The game launched on consoles and the Epic store yesterday.  The typical launch day woes apply, where servers are taking a beating (and have been for a couple weeks now).  There’s an account linking guide, which will provide cross play for everyone regardless of platform.  (The social/gaming interconnections here are a real contrast to MHW.)

I still think Dauntless is worth a shot.  There’s no need to pay a cent, everything is pretty much there for players.  If you want cosmetics, then you can use a Hunt Pass (as with all other monthly “get points to unlock” systems).  The system is structured on completing 4 weekly tasks, and most of them can be completed in 15 hunts.

The last big patch did a lot of good things to the game.  It will take a lot of hunts to get to the end of the game (shrowd/reza), and a near surreal amount of grinding specific subsets.  I will say that the grind truly forces the mindset that you need to prepare for an enemy rather than just zerg through it.

If there was a downside, it would be the maps where you perform the hunts.  They are just large arenas, with minimal interactions.  More often than not, you spend 2 minutes running around trying to find the target.  Meh.

With an investment of $0, there’s a WHOLE pile of fun to be had.

Misc Gaming

I am seeing a lot of posts about WoW classic.  It will be a meta experience for me.  I am very curious to see who sticks around in that space past a month.  I clearly remember Vanilla, I wrote a fair chunk of guides on it too. (How is that even still up?!)  I know what the investment requirements are, and even more so what the returns are.  Happy for those who enjoy that niche – but we all need to admit that it’s a niche.

Diablo 3 started season 17.  Weird theme, where you actively want to avoid sets.  Ever since 2.0 launched the game has been about sets.  And season 16 was the RRoG season – an even LARGER focus on sets.  I usually get some class to 70 and paragon 100 every other season.  Think I’ll give this a shot.

Path of Exile has a new expansion in about 2 weeks.  Good.  The last season (Synthesis) wasn’t any fun.  Betrayal was ok, and I really enjoyed Delve.  PoE is really different than D3, since you never really hit max level.  Well, I guess you can, but it would take something close to 200 hours.

Also, Lego Star Wars (1-6) has aged well.  Kids are enjoying it, and I’m still getting a kick of collecting bits.  Guess we never really grow up.

Plot vs Character

Writing is hard.  No other way to put it.  There are hundreds of thousands of writers…and they follow a bell curve of talent like any other group.  When one of them stands out, it’s fairly obvious because of the sheer amount of material with which to compare.  And writing is one of those things that people do for 2 reasons – cathartic and exposure.  I do it for the former, I have no illusions that I am some grand auteur.  But I’ve met (we all have) many a writer who thought they were the next Stephen King…

And even the best writers have off days.  Back to Mr. King.  His “best” writing period was when he was on more drugs than a rock band.   His magnum opus series of the Dark Tower took a rather significant nosedive in quality once he got clean.  I’m not saying he should not have gotten clean, but you can draw a pretty clear line in terms of quality output. Bradbury wrote 5x as much that was drivel compared to noticeable.  Asimov was all over the map, and in later years admitted he was writing more for the paycheck than the story (which is crazy if you look at all the things he did).

Then you have writers who just can’t complete their work.  Robert Jordan passed away.  GRR Martin has writers block.  TV shows / movies swap writers over the years.  Point being, initial quality is not reflective of future quality – simply higher odds.

Character vs Plot

Arguably the best writers are those that write characters first, and the plot second.  They avoid tropes, and require some forethought to resolving situations as they are restricted.  I mean if you’re talking about a woman in the 20th century, they are not all of a sudden going to find a jetpack and escape a pack of wild gorillas.  Sometimes, these writers get painted into a corner.  The plot says that they need to be in a certain spot, but the writer knows that it’s going to take some logical steps to get there.  And we end up with extra chapters/books rather than a shortcut.

Plot writers are all about story and need the people in it to make wildly differing decisions to make the story move forward in interesting ways.  Dan Brown is a perfect example.  He writes great adventures, edge of your seat.  His characters are super heroes, who suffer from continual mental lapses, and the text is full of contradictory information.  In many cases, the writing is so poor that solutions become present without the reader being able to make any logical connections.

Game of Thrones

Books first.  I’ve read them and they are primarily character driven.  They make consistent decisions based on circumstances, and the fact that main line characters die is evidence that sometimes the plot takes precedence.  It’s not perfect, but it’s damn good to read though.  The important part of the books is that while set in a fantasy setting, the story is fundamentally about the character interactions.  The Red Wedding is a much more important event as compared to the Red Witch’s powers.

The TV series followed the books, with some artistic liberties.  Those liberties were a bit over the top in some cases (the crypt scene in particular).  Still, it generally followed the book story line.  Then the books stopped and the show continued on its own path.  While there were high spots, there were quite a few low ones.  All of a sudden characters could travel at the speed of light.  They’d miraculously survive insurmountable odds multiple times.  They’d charge into certain death when a more advantageous option was present.

But people still with it, because of the potential of greatness.  These last few episodes though… they are pushed almost entirely by plot.  A “threat” since the opening act of the first episode is dealt with in a single episode.  A hugely strategic advantage (dragon) would not be used on a kamikaze run.  When an entire army is exhausted, you don’t walk them hundreds of miles against a waiting foe.   You don’t pair up an asexual character with their entirely platonic friend… over a drinking game no less.

Writing endings is notoriously difficult.  In life, there are not clear ends and even less so when you are tracking dozens of character threads.  Lost did an amazing job at proving that point.  Sopranos was the exact opposite, since it focused every bit on the family and there wasn’t final closure, simply life moving on.  Breaking Bad is another good example of a solid writing due to narrow characters.

So while GoT certainly has spectacle attached, the odds of it finding footing in 2 more episodes are pretty darn small.   Too many spinning plates, not enough time to address them.

EA Financials: Nothing to See Here

In news that shouldn’t surprise many, EA’s quarterly results were slightly lower than last year.  Recall that this Q included:

  • Launch of BF5’s Battle Royale mode.  Which made waves due to its mediocrity.
  • Launch of Apex Legends.  Which broke all sorts of initial records, partly due to EA paying streamers to promote it.
    • There’s a content “drought” that makes for a moral quandary regarding development “crunch”.  Fornite is like friggin’ crack with it’s non-stop updates – a digital FOMO if ever I’ve seen one.
    • This doesn’t dismiss the quality of Apex Legends, simply re-enforces that groupthink is what makes these games popular.
  • Launch of Anthem.  Solid box sales.  A dumpster fire since then.
    • Related, the patch on Monday removed Elysian Caches (cosmetic rewards) but also removed some boss loot from Heart of Rage.  I truly feel bad for their community managers.

And to the surprise of no one, EA wants to port Apex Legends to mobile and get it in China.  Mobile, I get.  That’s a stupidly massive money pot.  PUBG and Fortnite are both making chunks of change there (and cross-platform I might add).

Breaking into China though… unless EA has pictures of someone in compromising positions, that’s not going to happen.  PUBG just got reskinned to have no blood and have people stand back up and wave when they are killed.  The draw of money though, that is a true test of morals.  Just look at Google.

Big Picture

The real question here after having seen EA and Acti-Blizz come to the table, is how are big publishers going to tackle the growing tide of developer resentment.  Rome fell because of internal problems, not because of some other power.  Epic, Rockstar, Bioware… all have made the rounds for internal drama. The “dream job” of working for a publisher doesn’t seem all that attractive anymore. Why deal with the demands of a big publisher when the entry fee to game development is so low?

We’re still going to have blockbusters like God of War, or Link/Zelda but looking at the gaming landscape… indies are rocking it fierce.  Dead Cells, Celeste, Obra Dinn, No Man’s Sky, Life is Strange, Florence, Into the Breach…all worthy of attention.

The big devs will have to do with mediocrity and internal resentment.  People who aren’t invested in a company eventually do just enough not to get fired.  As that population grows within a company, it gets harder and harder to fix.

No easy answers.  It would be foolish to assume that leadership has any idea that this is a problem (aside from the PR lip service).  That would require them to actually talk to their developers instead of their board of investors.

Heaven’s Vault

Lesser known fact, I studied ancient history in university (it’s utterly amazing how much we depend on 1 person – Cicero – for the majority of our Roman history).  Lesser, lesser known fact, when I was around 10, I went to a science fair with school and took an optional Latin class.  I am utterly fascinated by history, and how the mundane becomes extra ordinary.  I made a choice that I would stick with IT engineering, rather than ancient history – simply for the quality of life.  Ain’t a whole lot of ancient history in Canada!

That pre-amble complete, I’ve had a related fascination with puzzle games.  There’s a mystery to them that require examination of clues, extrapolation, hypothesis, and sometimes just some wild guesses that prove futile.  At some point, you get a key piece complete and a large part of the puzzle becomes clear.  And I mean puzzles with some context – not just an escape the room type thing.  Myst really hit a nerve for me.  Return of the Obra Dinn is an excellent example as well.

Lo and behold a game comes around that mixes puzzles with archaeology – Heaven’s Vault.  You play Aliya, a historian that’s exploring her nebula in search of a specific person.  That sets off a grand adventure that blends sci-fi and history to a great effect.  All of it predicated on you finding various things that have inscriptions on them.  Inscriptions in a dead language that you spend the entirety of the game deciphering.  Thankfully there is a logic to this language – the object itself is related to the text.  So a sword may be inscribed with something like “may blades cut down foes” or some such.

Collecting these clues serves two purposes.  One is to discover new areas, which are accessed from a ship that travels “rivers in space”.  The second is to discover history of the nebula, and the various fates over time.

Heaven's Vault_20190411093649

This is a simple text

As you progress, your available vocabulary expands, and texts become slightly easier to decode.  Conversely, as you progress, you need to learn new words and new contexts for those words.  This is most evident when it comes to verbs, their tense, and the adverbs that help describe a situation.  The good news is that the sentence structure follows the English language, in the typical adjective-noun-verb-adverb structure.    In that sense, you’re always in a framework you understand and you know that only specific pieces can ever fit in a given slot.  Effectively, you will deduce the proper meaning rather than outright guess – at least the majority of the time.

The art/sound is excellent.  There’s a painterly style used, and a slow methodical approach to exploration.  This isn’t a game where you are running full speed.  You are presented with large locations, and the darkest corners hide something of value.  It’s very atmospheric.

It bears note that this game would be nothing if the story/lore didn’t stand up.  I heartily applaud the writers.  To build a story that is non-sequential (you can to places in pretty much any order), and dripping with rich lore is a spectacular achievement.  To put said story in a game, and have the player empathize and relate to the characters is at another level.  And to provide meaningful choices that impact the story’s development is wonderful.  If games are truly to be seen as an art form, the level of respect given to stories is important to recognize.

The game aspects are the weakest part.  Controls are movement with keyboard and clicks with a mouse.  The language/timeline inventory keeps getting updates (miles better now), but the lack of a search/glossary makes it tough sometimes.  There are a few puzzles where you feel so close, yet the game decides you are not close enough and moves on.  Thankfully after you complete the game you can try again, and each playthrough has a randomized set of artifacts to find.  The story beats are the same, but you can make different choices and take different paths.  And while the map is quite large, there are mechanical shortcuts to speed up the process when visiting known locations.

The devs have a neat top 10 questions for those that think they have completed the game.  I want to explore a few more bits before I give it a go.

Long story short (hah!) this is a Game of the Year candidate.

Blizz Dev Pipelines

Acti-Blizz quarterly reports are out and there’s a relatively minor drop (7%).  Sure, there’s a larger drop since last quarter… but Q4 is always overly strong due to the sales in Nov/Dec.

There are two interesting bits here:

  • One pillar is about mobile growth, specifically expanding franchises to the mobile space
  • The focus on existing IP, rather than new IP

Mobile

The first point is interesting as it involves everything in Acti-Blizz… still sitting on the sidelines watching Epic & EA beat each other silly with bags of money in the Battle Royale genre.  Most feedback I’ve seen on BF5’s version of BR is that it’s not very good (aside from the fact that BF launched in a beta state on par with Anthem in the fall).

Still, I don’t think this means that we’re going to see mobile ports of games (e.g. cross-play) but more things like Diablo Immortal, targeted at a specific audience, and different mechanics.  It’s hard to argue with SuperData numbers that show mobile is blowing console/PC numbers out of the water.  Thar be gold in them hills!

Great for investors.  Great for people who like mobile.  Great for pet collectors in WoW (seriously, that’s a friggin’ bucket o’ cash that Blizz is just leaving on the table).  But I don’t see Overwatch or WoW, in the traditional sense, going to mobile.  HotS… that may work.  Starcraft would not… and would alienate the base crowd more than Diablo Immortal.  Not exactly a pile of options here.

New IP

While again generic, this makes me wonder what exactly is going on over at Blizz.  Lots of job cuts in non-dev work, lots of investment in developers.  It’s not a linear relationship to # of devs / time to deliver.  Larger teams typically require longer dev cycles since you’re herding cats – and the project manager has to be an ace to get things out on time.

I will infer that Blizzard is doubling down on their existing IP – Overwatch, WoW, Diablo, Starcraft, as well as their meta IP – Hearthstone & Heroes of the Storm.

  • Overwatch – It is fighting for eyeball space against Fortnite/Apex.  More heroes helps, as do new maps.  But each one takes time to balance properly.
  • WoW – They need a mobile pet battle simulator STAT!  Aside from that, I’d expect expansion news at Blizzcon.  BfA, while having serious positive progress since launch, is tainted with exceptionally poor initial reception.  Classic servers won’t have much effect past a single quarter, and the Warcraft 3 remake isn’t much more than a niche.
  • Diablo – Diablo Immortal should have already launched, curious as to the wait.  Guessing it’s related to the monetization model.  Diablo 4 should be announced this year.  I am extra curious on this.
  • Starcraft – Starcraft 4?  I doubt it.  The RTS genre is all but dead outside of Korea.
  • Heartstone – The continued expansions every 6 months.
  • HotS – The red-headed step child.  It’s certainly serviceable, but in terms of “accessible F2P games”… there are much better options.  Maybe a mobile tweak can get some eastern sales.

Way Forward

All of this is conjecture.  Blizz is keeping things extremely close to the chest, and aside from some niche products (Warcraft 3 and Classic) there’s only 1 known product on their roadmap – Diablo Immortal.  And that sucker needs to be golden / perfect to keep eyeballs past a months’ time.  Hundreds of mobile looters have tried… nearly all have failed.

Can’t Complain

This is water week in my part of the woods.  Second time in 3 years that we get a 100 year flood… and most places haven’t recovered from the last one.  National Emergency (means the army is around) and the city declared a “climate emergency”, for what that’s worth.

The sort of good news out of this is that there are few if any poor people living in coastal areas here.  They all own their homes.  One person died due to a road washout, but otherwise no serious injuries.  The worst part is that people are going to lose all their stuff.  It’s a lot of stuff, and it’s worth money, but they are alive.  It will take time to rebuild, but at least that opportunity is present and there are systems in place to provide some assistance.  (I am grossly summarizing the complexities of this aid.)

So when my gutters, porch, driveway all gave way to rain… I knew I was in for a big bill.  It wasn’t related to flooding, just incessant rain and less than ideal drainage.  Then my furnace decided to stop working.  And for some reason this year, I owed a very large amount in taxes.  Within the span of 5 days, all of a sudden I have this massive bill.

I am appreciative that even though this is a large and unplanned expense, I still have the means to take care of it.  More so, appreciative that many people in my area have it much worse.

Won’t lie, it does make my brain itch and sleep this week has been rather difficult.  But I really can’t complain…I’m not in distress and sometimes life just gives you a set of bad rolls.  I know I’ve had my fair share of both 1s and 20s.  The cruise during March break was a 20.  This is a 1.

As long as the family is happy and healthy, it all works out in the end.

Lag, The True Death

Project 1999 sure is fun to read about.  Then I get nightmares of going LD in the middle of a dungeon and losing a level.

Lag, or latency, is what happens when it takes longer than expected to connect from your machine to another online component.  Most people see this when they stream some video and the quality drops.  Gamers see this as either completely losing the connection, things showing up on screen instantly, or the player “rubber banding” from one location to another.

Death in games is often simply a punishment, rather than a learning opportunity.  In the early gaming days, you pretty much needed to memorize the map layouts and creature spawns to avoid it (Battletoads anyone?)  Randomness became the next hotness (a holdover from pen and paper games).  Events that simply killed you and it was a crapshoot if you got through or not.  The good news was that most of these games were finite – rarely taking more than a couple hours from start to end.

The concept of long term play and permanency was a long time coming into mainstream.  Ultima Online wasn’t the first one, but it was a turning point.  The game was relatively quick in terms of responsive actions to survive.  Posses of player killers (PK) would run around and take out other players in a few seconds… so learning to get out of there quickly was vital.  Dying meant you lost all the stuff on you… and often the keys to your house.  Lag was everywhere on dial up modems… and it was a rough slog.

This doesn’t dismiss the advent of online FPS (or even RTS) games, where lag was certainly a big factor.  Most of these were quick games, and little to no interaction with the next game played.  Sure, a bad connection was likely as not to cause a LD or rage quit, and often pushed people to create local server hostings to avoid large ping times.  For people in NA, this was workable.  For places like Australia… that was (is?) a damn nightmare.

EverQuest’s concept of loss on death was more than a loss of time, you could end up losing abilities as well.  And if I were to add up all the deaths I had in that game, over 90% of the ones I had outside of raids were things that were related to either lag or poor gameplay code (trains?).  Running through Lower Guk, then getting a lag spike… you’d be training half the zone.  Interestingly, it’s the reason I picked a Necromancer in that game – the ability to fake death was a instrumental in survival.

For better or worse, that model died when WoW came about.  Death there was about losing time (to travel) and some gold.  Gold was much more meaningful for vanilla/TBC, so it wasn’t just a small slap on the wrist.  Still, much more digestible.  Yet the combat mechanics became more complex, and more demanding on a good ping.  The Heigan Dance (in v1.11) has way more to do with ping than memorization.  As more and more games came out, they focused on long telegraphs that caused major damage.  As much as I loved Wildstar, it was utterly unforgiving in that regard.

Playing some more Dauntless, I do get the odd lag spike.  The game isn’t twitchy by any means, but it is half about avoiding damage by dodging.  Missing that timing queue by a 0.5s-1s can make or break a fight.

League of Legends has this issue as well, where decent (not top tier) players are limited by their reaction time.  Enough of an issue that Riot helped design a new networking layer that reduced the number of network hops and maintained decent ping times.  It took years of effort.

Network priority management, quality of service (QoS), and gosh forbid net neutrality come into play here.  Most large roads have either carpool lanes, bus lanes, collector lanes, or some combination that splits up traffic into groups.  One set of lanes usually goes much faster than the other, even though they are going the same distance.  Works the same in networks.

Really leaves three options.

Make bigger roads.  Gig internet is becoming more prevalent, but there are still more locations around the globe with crappy connections than not.  This is a physical and monetary limitation.  And frankly, in my near 20 years experience in IT, every time the road gets bigger, it fills up in a week anyhow.

Make more efficient roads.  By better managing the traffic, you can get more done in less space.  Of course, you need to manage the structure of everything, and pray that there are no anomalies.  YouTube broke this 10 years ago, and Netflix broke it again 5 years ago.  It’s a battle of attrition.

Make smarter cars.  If companies can make smarter cars that know how to best use the roads with less space, everyone wins.  Compression, optimization, buffering, and a dozen other techniques can be used to dramatically reduce the overall footprint of network traffic.  This is the hardest one because it takes terribly smart people to manage, and requires everyone using the road to do it.

As we all get more interconnected, and the need to transfer larger amounts of data in less time increases, lag is going to be the deal breaker for breakthroughs.  Lots of progres all around us, but still no silver bullet.  Until then, I’ll continue to grumble when I get rubber banded into an incoming fireball.