Acti-Blizz : When Bylines Matter

The quarterly earning reports are out, and so are the pitchforks!

The Activision arm (they should just rebrand to Call of Duty, since every shop works on this) made mint. Not anywhere close to Fortnite’s billion $$$ pumping machine, but certainly some good numbers. A 43% operating margin is impressive, given their size. Not to mention some big year-over-year (YoY) growth. All of this makes sense given that we’re in a pandemic… more people are playing games and devs are really milking that micro-transaction cow for all its worth. Battle Passes + extra bits = major cash and extremely low dev effort. Course it helps when you lay off 10% of your staff when pulling in the money. Capitalism at it’s finest, after all. Stock value is the ultimate measure.

The Blizzard portion is where stuff gets really weird. If you recall, Shadowlands was touted as ‘making it the fastest-selling PC game of all time industry-wide’, which was obviously derided as hyperbole, but still sold a ton of copies. You would think that with that extra push, overall player numbers (I know there’s more than WoW) would have increased, as they had with other Activision properties. Not so much.

That is not a good trend to have, and explains a fair chunk of the restructure within Blizzard over recent years. This is all of Blizzard, yet the only big items that would be considered ‘delivered’ in this time frame are the 3 items above.

  • Heroes of the Storm is on life support, most of the team cut
  • Overwatch hasn’t had anything, resources are allocated to Overwatch 2
  • Starcraft 2 is done
  • Diablo 3 has had nothing (Necromancer was in 2017). Immortal still isn’t out.
  • Warcraft 3 reforged was Jan 2020, which may explain the horizontal line rather than down trend
  • Hearthstone has gone all over the map, and now has a battle pass.

That Blizzard somehow lost 5m people during the pandemic has got to be worrying for them. And yet…their revenue increased 7%. That money could theoretically come from the various microtransactions, but more than likely it comes from their 3.7m copies of Shadowland sales offsetting the other lost revenue.

Spurious Conjecture Time!

Think of the glut of quality games available to take our time today, games that allow multiplayer options. The need for an ‘all the time’ game is all but gone because there’s always something else. And Blizzard’s penchant for taking ages to launch anything (pre-pandemic as well) is not aligned to today’s industry. That they deliver late, and with massive balance issues (Hearthstone is 10x worse than WoW on this) is not helping. They make attract an audience with a drop, but they are clearly unable to sustain that paying audience.

I’ve written more than enough on WoW’s woes, plenty of bloggers have. It has a massive bot problem, you need to filter through levels of garbage gold boosted runs to find most social groups, and the last refuge is guilds. Sure, multiboxing is now banable, but is that not like 10 years too late? Mechanically the game is too focused on directing people to a single way of playing, to the detriment of other parts. While that’s not my cup of tea, and clearly not that of others, it still brings in some dough.

The other franchises… Immortal won’t work in the West and there are dozens of similar games in the East. Seriously, look at any app store and search for “action rpg” and you’ll find dozens. Diablo 4 is at least 2 years out. Overwatch 2 lost Jeff and was already 2+ years out. Diablo2 will be an interesting bit…seems higher prospects that the Warfraft3 re-release. There’s nothing else in the pipe, at least nothing announced. Any WoW expansion is at least 18 months out, likely more due to COVID.

Should we mention that Overwatch reported an increase in user base by 10m in 2020, and that they were averaging 10m monthly players in Nov 2020. Overwatch has had numerous ‘free weekends’ and then in September actually gave the game away for free for a short while. I don’t know too many stores that celebrate having a high number of window watchers, but here we are.

That leaves very few places of potential income, aside from selling access rights in China for streaming Overwatch.

Do the Math

Bobby Kotick is an amazing CEO, on the measures by which industry measures CEOs. He consistently delivers increased revenue, decrease operational costs, and thereby increase overall profits. He’s not the worst person on the planet either. He’s not subject to any sexual harassment claims, keeps on message all the time, and agreed for a 50% pay cut. He does his job and is really good at it.

That society has issues with his approach to cost cutting while also recording record profits… well hey, maybe stop buying his products.

The boycott was super effective!

And that gets us to the math problem on the table, the one that EA has certainly taken a stab at. (EA is a separate topic, yet you have to admit that they do at least invest in new IP, to varying degrees of success). EA buys out other studios, sees if it can make them profitable, and if not, absorbs the assets and shuts down the studio. The math and trends – which reminder, is all that matters to stakeholders – show that the Blizzard arm has some serious issues at hand.

They’ve dropped piles of players during the pandemic, while nearly everyone else has had an uptick. They launched a full price game and still only had 7% increase in revenue (not profits) compared to launching nothing the year prior. They have an anemic pipeline for income for the foreseeable future.

Blizzard may be profitable, but that trend is certainly not increasing. It’s a bad time to be a Blizzard employee right now.

MH: Floors and Ceilings

Way back when we still used paper and rolled dice, people enjoyed mathing out character power. It was never realistic to roll 18s for a character in D&D, nor frankly was it much fun, but everyone picked skills/talents that they thought best suited their needs. Not too many rogues with 2hnd proficiency, right? Even then, the stats were a small part of the game, the actual choices you made in any situation bore more weight. Negotiate with the brigands, target the kobold spell caster, search a room for traps. Character choices mattered so much as to the odd of success in future choices (ogre rogues aren’t going to do much dodging).

Computer games are similar, and games from the 90s really started adding complexity to player skill. Early games were nearly pass/fail, you were either good enough to avoid every source of damage or you died. More recent games allowed you to take more hits, or actively dodge. Some allow regenerating HP. This particular concept is the floor, the lowest point of skill were progress is still possible. The lower the floor, the more people can succeed. And as gaming has gone forward, it’s arguable that the floor has continually gotten lower, to make it more accessible. (See the whole EQ vs. WoW argument).

In the aughts, there was a desire to return to the difficulty of the past games, sort of relive those days. You get games like Ninja Gaiden, where while it takes a lot to die, there’s also enough complexity present to absolutely excel at the game and unlock more things. There’s a point where the improved player skill doesn’t provide more benefit (either in the game proper, or in PvP) and that concept is the ceiling. The higher the ceiling, again, the more accessible it is as people fell challenged by the content.

Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter is an eastern game, and whether we admit it or not, eastern games have much higher floors and often higher ceilings. “But what about this example of a hard western game?” Yes there are some, but % of whole, western games aren’t built for challenge in that sense.

The early Monster Hunter games had an abnormally high floor, and a moderately high ceiling, compared to other games. They were relatively niche in that sense, not so much because of the content, but because of the mechanics. Great games, no doubt, but not something anyone could consider relaxing.

MH4/Generations is where you can sort of pinpoint the drive for a wider audience. Some systems were streamlined, some focus on multiplayer, easier content to start, and quite a high level of complexity near the end.

World dropped the floor into the sub-sub basement. Ridiculously accessible, with a ton of streamlined components to allow people to get into the game rather smoothly. The whole Low Rank portion acts as a sort of tutorial, with many quality of life options (food, temporary boosts, better drop rates, etc..) Yet they also continually increased the skill ceiling. Nergigante was a massive wall of death, until you learned his patterns and how to dive. When you did, you could clear him in 3 minutes. Imagine taking more than 50 minutes to kill 1 monster, then being able to kill 3 in less than 10.

Rise further streamlines the systems, dramatically reducing the complexity of food for starters. Riding monsters adds more damage to the equation, and the whole vertical aspect with wirebugs is a super defensive option to get outta dodge. There’s barely a use for a Farcaster in Rise, where it was practically mandatory in World. Heck, the optional quests give you more than enough armor orbs to max out every single piece of gear’s defensive value with piles to spare.

Power Progression

This is the part where MH really excels. The difficulty curve of monsters is very well balanced against the type of monsters you have access. Low rank monsters, the skills on gear matter much less than just plain armor values. Kill a monster, look at the numbers, if they are higher, then you’re good!

High Rank things start to change. Skills start to matter, and you are going to want to stack certain ones to suit your weapon. Bow skills with a Switch Axe are not useful. Quick Sheath 3 turns on god mode for Long Swords but is useless for everyone else. Sure, armor is still important for the odd hit, but the skills matter more. By the time you get to the last 2 monsters, you’ve got access to the best armor values and some really good skills. But wait, there’s more!

If I was to build the highest defense value for Long Sword, each piece would have 76 but the skills would only benefit a Charge Blade. That would likely be enough to get through the content, but it would include a ton of deaths and a long battle clock. The game would be “complete”, but not the actual experience.

Instead, if you focus on the skills on armor and how they interact, you can get a much better experience. A decent Long Sword build would get me:

  • Attack Boost 7 = +10 attack and 10% attack bonus
  • Quick sheath 3 = super fast Iai attacks
  • Speed Sharpening 3 = 1 stroke sharpening to stay in highest damage mode
  • Weakness Exploit 3 = +50% crit chance for weak points
  • Critical Boost 3 = +40% critical damage

On a weapon with good base critical chance (Nargacuga is 40%) I’m a walking blender. Attack goes from 50 to 150 per hit. With a few more tweaks, I can boost it further, but that’s the game’s long tail.

Player Skill

MH is built on the concept of monster attack patterns. It may seem somewhat random, but each monster has multiple signals to let you know what’s coming. Rajang can be walking death if you’re not sure what’s going on, but take him on a few times and he’ll go down real quick. Magnamalo, an enemy with some crazy AE attacks that seem to come from everywhere, has some very large tells in his attacks.

And the player themselves has some factor here, as each monster has a stun value, that increases as the fight goes on. Once you know those values, you can commit attacks that would normally put you in danger knowing full well the monster will be stunned instead. Attacking Teostra’s head is normally a bad idea, but if you know that 2 more hits will give you a stun, then do it. Those numbers naturally change as your gear increases (as you do more damage), so it’s really about keeping all these numbers in your head.

Combine both together and it looks like a veritable dance, with nary a movement to waste.

This is a near perfect run, with only 1 missed move.

Monster Hunter has somehow find the balance to not only continually lower the floor of a game, and therefore make it more accessible to the general population, but also managed to keep a very ceiling to keep even the super number crunchers busy for a long time to come. I’m not at all saying it’s perfect, but when these games come around, they are often recognized for their achievements. I was a bit on the fence when I bought a Switch just for this game, but wow, I am absolutely not regretting that one bit.

MH:Rise – Rampage Part 2 (A+ Rank)

I’ve had to give this mode a couple more tries, and my thoughts on the mode have changed a tad. Refresher, this is the tower defence mode added in Rise, where you add structures to a layout, and then face off waves of monsters. This culminates with an Apex monster that deals crazy levels of damage (scaled so that you should be in the best armor, fully upgraded, but no decorations).

First I should explain why Rampages are required. For most of the game, Rampages are quests that gate progress to a new HR. You need to go through them, but once at max level they are entirely optional… just like every other quest. The rewards from Rampages are simple, but also hidden:

  • Defender Tickets. These are used to apply Ramp-up bonuses to weapons (e.g. +8 attack), craft Rampage weapons (don’t), or use in melding for Talismans
  • Monster drops: You’ll get 12-16 monsters in any given Rampage, they can all drop items from their loot pool. Side note – since carting is not a penalty, you’re best getting 2 palicoes with Pilfer to maximize loot chances
  • Apex quest unlocks: If you successfully complete a HR Rampage, you can unlock the monster for a solo quest. Not all of them, just 3. Azuros is the one you really want.

Apex monsters don’t have any special drops – there’s no armor or weapons from them. And they hit like friggin’ freight trains… They don’t have much more HP than a regular HR monster, but they deal tremendous damage – so you need to play nearly perfectly to kill them. So why bother? Because Apex solo hunts can give 4-8 Lazurite Jewels.

Those jewels are used for all top-tier decorations. And you’re going to need a lot of them. They have a chance to drop 1 on an Elder dragon hunt. I killed Apex Azuros and got 8.

And all of this is predicated on successfully completing a Rampage which is infinitely easier with multiple people playing. So how to do it solo?

Pick the Right Rampage

Success on a rampage is tied to the sub-quests (and are the same if you are solo or 4 players…) These smaller tasks give you significant upgrades for the battle, and you need to complete a LOT of them to get S rank score at the end. Getting Wyvernfire Artillery at the first gate is a huge advantage. Getting it before the Apex monster shows up is a requirement. There are some easy sub-quests and hard ones. The best one is the task to add 15 or 20 installations. You can add, remove, and add again all before the first wave shows up. Big perk.

The bad ones, from worst to least:

  • Apply a blight. These come from monsters of palicoes. I’ve never gotten this one.
  • Collect drops. You need 12, which likely will never happen solo
  • Dragonator/Wyvernshot: You need to spam the kiln to refresh the cooldown, non-stop to get this one. Meh.
  • Inflict a status. This is harder than blights, unless you are in melee mode and have a weapon with a high status infliction rate
  • Repel monster with X: YOU need to get the last hit. Not likely with Bombs. Canon and Ballista are possible, but you need to do this before the Apex monster.

When picking the Rampage, make sure you have a good set of sub-quests to optimize your level gains.

Optimal Layout

This part comes with practice…but for nearly every battle the layout of your installations will follow the same patterns. For the auto-installations:

Ballista: Set this up in the middle of the zone, so that they can hit as many enemies at once as possible. You can usually fit 3 smack in the middle, the rest put them as close as possible.

Canon: Set up the 2 near the gate. They will focus exclusively on the gate crashers.

Wyvern Artillery: Put these on the ground, and AIM THEM to where you want them to shoot. Before the Apex, have them cross lines in the middle of the zone. For the Apex, have them point to where the Apex prepares their ultimate move (they will stop moving, and each Apex picks the same spot).

Villagers: I only use them for the Apex battle and at the last ground slot. Fugen deals massive AE damage, Iori applies blight (meh), Hinoa and Minoa deal minor AE damage (meh), Yomogi deals machine gun damage AND gives a Gong effect (!!!), and finally Utushi makes monsters rideable. The last one, use it when the Apex monster summons friends.

Manual Installations: I prefer to have canons near the front gate, and back, with Ballista in the middle. I rarely use Machine Gun, since it’s a late unlock.

Dragonantor/Wyvernshot: If you can line this up, it’s major damage. The cooldown means 1 per wave, if not realistically 1 for the entire run.

When to Enter Battle

When the counter signal is active your damage shoots up to crazy amounts. You should be in combat with monsters at this point, as you can make quick work of most enemies. Yomogi also gives this boost, so pay attention and take those monsters out.

Losing the Rampage

When the 2nd gate goes down, you lose. You will lose if the Apex monster is able to get 4 ultimate attacks off. The first one you should interrupt with Wyvernshot (for 8k damage). The second you’ll have set up Wyvernfire Artillery to point to where the monster was charging their attack the first time, and deal damage to stun them. The third, you’re going to want to use Yomogi if you can, the damage is substantial. Using manual installations is a flip of the coin, you need to deal a TON of damage in a short period of time, which is more related to the level of your base than much else.

If the monster is charging an ultimate while their friends are around, you may have time to summon Utushi which will make a nearby monster rideable. Any attack will break the monster’s concentration (not to mention insane damage to the monster).

As long as you can stop the ultimate attacks, you should be able to clear any rampage.

Again, Why?

Rampages are the quickest method to get materials to meld for talismans. It used to be the last boss, but the amount of drops has diminished a fair bit. That said, 2.0 has reduced the requirement for talismans as you can craft more decorations. The real benefit, to me, is that completing a Rampage unlocks a solo version of the apex monster.

Farming Apex Azuros solo quest will give you a minimum of 4 Lazurite Jewels (I’ve seen up to 8). All other quests have a 50% chance to give you 1. Mastery Touch decoration needs 8 Jewels. So 1-2 Apex Azuros quest vs. 8-16 Elder Dragon quests. That math is easy.

What’s Next

Rampage is an interesting idea, clearly balanced for multiplayer. It would be really neat if Apex monsters had their own armor variants, to make it worthwhile to run them multiple times. I do think there’s a fair chunk of potential here, in particular if the sub-quests were tweaked to better support solo play and therefore open a few more play options during a run. I do really like that the best gear is not from Rampages, as it’s quite hard to optimize a run like you would a normal hunt. I can get Rajang down in 7 minutes… best Rampage so far is 19. So for an optional mode, it does the job quite well.

FFX – 20 Years!

Things just sort of sneak up on you when you’re not paying attention. Cripes, I can still clearly remember getting FFX on my PS2 and sitting down for long stretches to get through it. I lent the disk to a friend who lost it, then went out and bought it again. Then I got it for PS4. Then for PC. The only thing that would compete with FFX in time played is WoW.

Final Fantasy is anything but nowdays. I’ve played every iteration, and for a plethora of reasons have enjoyed that series much more than others (Breath of Fire or Dragon Quest are top of mind). There’s just something about a vanilla cake with new icing that gets me going – because at the basic level, all FF games are the same. Plucky heroes, crazy villains, weird gods, end of the world, and some crystals thrown in. Often there are cycles too. The mechanics may change, but the pieces are all the same.

There are all sort of categorizations for FF games. 1-6 tend to be grouped together as they were pixel based and isometric. 7-8 went for a more steampunk 3d look. 9 is a standalone homage to everything that preceded it. 10 and 12 are iterations on 7-8. 13 was a weird one that tried to streamline a bunch and 15 is the only FF I cannot bring myself to play through. I’ve ranked them in the past, and 10 always end up on top of my list. Less because of what it does, but more about how it does it so seamlessly.

The World

Spira is infinitely more interesting to me than any other setting. This is a world that undergoes an apocalypse every generation, and has done so for 1,000 years. How does a society even bother rebuilding in such circumstances? A world built on a lie is how, and what a lie. A world where agency doesn’t exist, and reverence is the only path. There are breaking factions, those that want to change, those that want to find the really ancient. The ‘linear’ path of the pilgrimage explores distinct yet related environments, each more challenging that the last. The sense of exploration and mounting difficulty is perfectly analogous to the journey of the main characters building strength for the final battle.

Consider any other FF game, where enemies at the end are harder than those in the starting zones. Why? Why is the bird at the end, found in the wild, harder than before? Spira gives a reason for it.

The People

The FF archetypes are all here, and the whole Tidus/Yuna relationship is one we’ve seen time and time again. Except to the point we reach when we understand the sacrifice, and then again the final twist on Tidus’ true origin. Everyone understands what’s going on but Tidus, all the way until the final bits. It’s a solemn march to death, and they all do it willingly. Fine, the voice acting can be irritating, but each character does have an arc to go through and they are different at the end than at the start.

And Seymour as a villain is really quite well done. No one will beat Kefka, but still this guy is something else. Nearly a demi-god when you first encounter him, his history and unwavering belief in what’s right is impressive. It helps that his boss battles are quite difficult as well. But importantly, he’s in the story nearly every inch, and right up there with Arthas when it comes to crazy enough to be sane.

The Mechanics

We may not think much of it now, but the Sphere grid was revolutionary at the time. It took the concept of jobs but took away the need to grind skill improvements. How many games have emulated this model since? Gone are the days of linear growth.

It’s also the last time that we truly get to see turn based combat in all it’s complexity. The Yunalesca battle was a nightmare if you were not properly anticipating the next moves, but a relative cakewalk once you did. Managing turns, understanding status, and interrupts was how the end part of the Monster Arena worked. And in the international version of the game, you could not take down Dark Aeons if you did not master the combat system.

And who can forget Blitzball? The gimmicky, complicated, painful process of getting Waka’s ultimate attack? No card games, limited randomness, just a purely tactical game. Not to mention a foundational piece of culture in the game world… not some bolt on.

The Package

FF9 was an amazing bookend to the series’ beginnings. We still see Vivi after all these years for a reason. FFX could not have worked without FF9 preceding it. That palate cleanser allowed for some very interesting ideas to be attempted here with impressive results that have just been iterated upon since, to various degrees of success. Heck, it was so successful that it was the first game to get a proper sequel. A sequel that tried to merge previous game mechanics into the same setting, with varying results.

And forevermore, this song will be burned into my psyche. 20 years feels like yesterday. Time for another playthrough.

Blizz and Jeff

Or, as he was once called, Tigole Bitties.

Jeff Kaplan left Blizzard after nearly 20 years last week. I can still recall the Legacy of Steel message boards way back in my EQ raiding days. Fires of Heaven may have been the big one, but LoS was right up there. Where EQ lacked general direction (other than ding!), it’s the guilds that really made sense of it all. Jeff’s passion for that structure, with a distinct focus on purpose, logic, and testing, drew the eyes of Blizzard and he was pulled on as an early dev for WoW.

It’s hard for people who weren’t there to understand the impact WoW had when it launched. EQ was evercrack and opened a pandoras box. WoW took that opportunity and filtered out nearly all the bad stuff in EQ so that it was accessible to more people.

The high polish and balance we take for granted today absolutely did not exist in EQ. The structured logic of progression at max level did not exist. Storyline did not exist. Quests were barely present. Week long spawns were gone. Trains were gone. Instances were created to avoid guild rotations of raids, which also removed the need for camps. XP death penalties left (imagine losing a level in 2021).

Now, I’m not saying this is all Jeff but I am saying that the initial launch of WoW was like a night and day version of EQ and without a shadow of a doubt would not have existed had Blizzard not gone looking for those guild leaders coming over. Jeff eventually came to be the overall lead and his last touch on WoW was the Lead Game Designer for Wrath. There’s some interesting bits where this expansion was the peak of WoW.

He then moved to Titan, the mystery project. That went belly up and he delivered the only new IP for Blizzard in 20 years. Which, you know, is massively successful to boot. His honest videos on game development and overall lack of hubris was something to behold, as compared to other franchise leads.

And now he’s moved on. There’s a lot of people who have.

What is Left

Which gets me to the Ship of Theseus paradox (this put a smile on my face when it was posited in WandaVision).

It is supposed that the famous ship sailed by the hero Theseus in a great battle was kept in a harbor as a museum piece, and as the years went by some of the wooden parts began to rot and were replaced by new ones; then, after a century or so, every part had been replaced. The question then is whether the “restored” ship is still the same object as the original.

If it is, then suppose the removed pieces were stored in a warehouse, and after the century, technology was developed that cured their rot and enabled them to be reassembled into a ship. Is this “reconstructed” ship the original ship? If it is, then what about the restored ship in the harbor still being the original ship as well?

We’re a long ways out from the founding of our golden companies… BioWare and Blizzard have the same name but there’s no leadership left from back then. My heart wants to believe that the heart of the company is more than it’s leadership team, but my brain says from experience that is never the case. It’s non-sensical to think that the people working at Blizz today have the same passion and importantly, ability to deliver the quality of yesteryear.

It’s not so much a bad thing, but a sad thing. All good things must come to an end.

MH: Rise – April Update

Might as well show the video to start

There’s a lot of people fainting in this video…

Monster Hunter has an impressive track record when it comes to releasing content over time, with significant content every couple months. Right now, a month from launch, the game is running 1.12 (that’s a lot of smaller patches). It takes about 30 or so hours to clear out all the main quests, including the 2 ‘hidden’ monsters. The gameplay loop is a mix of farming for better gear, and then materials to pull talismans (necklaces) which have a rather large RNG factor. This is a flip from World, where you gambled on decorations and crafted talismans. The ‘optimal’ farm for materials is the final boss, who takes 10-15 minutes to clear.

So what does 2.0 bring?

  • Chameleos, a returning elder dragon from MH4 (and others)
  • Teostra, a returning elder dragon last seen in MHW
  • Kushala Daora, a returning elder dragon last seen in MHW
  • Apex Rathalos and Diablos, end monsters for high level rampages
  • Some Apex monsters will have regular quests (not sure how gear drops will change…)
  • More layered armor! (think transmog, which avoid us looking like clowns)
  • The return of Hunter Rank (HR)
  • The return of Event quests (time-based events with unique rewards)
  • Paid DLC customization (hair, voice, palico, palamute, cahoot, etc.)
  • 1 free character edit (you have infinite of this in 1.12)
  • Palico/Palamute level increase to 50
  • New decorations

The trifecta of Chamelos, Teostra, and Kushala should work like a rock, paper, scissors. Elder dragons in general should add a new level of challenge and change up the meta a bit from the current high affinity (crit) / raw damage dominance. Weakness Exploit + Bow are scaling to crazy degrees, so it would be nice to have more strength from elemental attacks.

I’m sure that there are some other bits added. Mitzutsune in the video has blue bubbles which explode, that’s not in game right now. Maybe it’s Apex related… and that itself is scarier than anything else. Apex in a Rampage can kill me in 2 normal hits. HR Ranks should unlock other challenges, namely arena and rampage difficulty tiers.

And most elders in MHW had 1 hit kills that required quick movement… and since Rise has super improved quick movement, it should be an interesting twist – always needing to have 1 bug ready will certainly change my battles.

There’s a PILE here, and another large 3.0 update at the end of May. Impressive.

Logical Growth

I am a proponent that everything is a skill. The more you practice at something, the better you get. That’s self-evident for tangible actions like cooking, throwing, or painting. The less tangible items are tougher, and one where people tend to put up their own barriers. ‘Only geniuses can do that’, ‘I’ll never be able to’. The world is already full of enough hurdles, not much sense in compounding that on yourself.

(Side note: I am not dismissing that people have different skill ceilings. I’ll never be a Crosby or Einstein in their specific domains.)

I find joy in coaching, be it hockey or work. I thought about becoming a teacher, but there are certain system rules that provide a large disincentive to male teachers… plus parents are horrible. Still, I enjoy the act of passing knowledge, yet more so in seeing someone else take that data set and then coming up with their own conclusions. I’ll use a specific hockey example, which probably won’t resonate with many.

Hockey is the luckiest professional sport. There’s a significant amount of randomness given that there are few stoppages in play, and the game itself is played in close quarters. The most successful hockey players certainly have an astounding level of talent, but the exceptional ones all excel with anticipation. Anticipation requires a high level of awareness of the players and the environment. If you were to take a snapshot of any given timeframe, there are high odds you could guess what should happen next. As a player generating a play, you want to have maximum options at hand to make it harder for the opponent to anticipate. So you have the puck, you lift your head, understand where everyone is, then take a specific patch that maximizes options. The first thing I teach young skaters is that you want to avoid the middle of the ice (there are too many people there), and avoid the boards (as you eliminate all movement options on that side). There’s a concept of a magic line between the faceoff dot and the hashmarks that is the best option. Walking kids through this line means off-ice visualization, drills at half speed, cones to direct traffic, and then positive feedback. When they get it, and I mean truly get it, every other part of their game changes. They start to see the game and their anticipation of the opponent starts to grow.

While the practice itself is for the tangible parts – stick handling, skating, agility – the real skill here is mental acuity. Rapidly taking in multiple variables and coming to reasonable conclusions.

Escape Rooms

I enjoy logic puzzles, always have. Virtual escape rooms were the best, and the reason Jayisgames exists. I’ve done a half dozen real-world escape rooms now, and the real joy here is not in successfully leaving the room but in the successful teamwork required to do so. Both my kids enjoy it as well, and it’s fascinating to see the brains of an 8 and 10 year old make their own conclusions.

My wife’s prior students launched their own platform to bring escape rooms to people’s homes, either physically or virtually. We’ve done a few with them, and did another this weekend at the same time our friend’s family (video chat). The virtual ones provide a lot of context that you need to filter through in order to get pieces of a hint, then you put those smaller pieces together to get something else.

We hit a few hurdles to make sure we were all going at the same pace. Some guiding bits to help kickstart the process but by and large they just easily captured all weird spaces. Things like the number of lights next to a window, or an out of place umbrella. My youngest, with the confidence of a 50 year old, just shoots ‘oh I know this, let’s do it this way’ and pow, perfect answer. The eldest gives a ‘oh, that clue was in the drawer, let’s go back’. It’s like they have ideas in balloons above their head, and at will, they just pull one down and use it to move forward.

Re-use

The kicker from this is that the balloons themselves never really go away. They just keep putting more and more up there, and keep pulling them down as they need them.

Can’t get headphones to work? Let’s go through the steps to re-pair and reset the bluetooth. The RC car is having issues, let’s take parts out and see what makes it go. Pull cord on the fan requires a bench, let’s tie a small cord to it. They want a desert, they pull out the recipe books and start going at it.

It’s absolutely fascinating to watch a brain develop on it’s own. Sure there are times where I need to step in, but I make an effort to explain what I’m doing, and importantly why. They take the information and then see if they can apply it to other similar problems. More often than not, it works.

I mean really.. have you ever asked a kid why they did something and they gave you a completely reasonable answer? A left field answer, but one that given the data makes perfect sense? Like a pair of shoes in the dishwasher cause they wanted them clean.

I am continually fascinated and impressed by the power of a child’s thought process. Everything is possible until it isn’t. A hell of a way to live a life.

Monster Hunter : Rise – Campaign Complete

Complete is such a weird word to use with MH games… let’s just say that I have successfully slain every monster the game currently has to offer. You never complete a MH game.

I’ve had a few posts on this game, and I won’t rehash all of it. Different from World, there are 2 different modes here – Village quests (which are all low rank – 1 to 3 star), and Hub quests (which are high – 4 to 7 star – and low rank). Each has normal quests, as well as rampages. As with other MH, you have to complete a set amount of quests in order to move to the next difficulty mode. That added difficulty adds more monster types, which unlock more weapons and armor options.

Again consistent with MH games, those unlocks are dramatically stronger than early gear, so there’s minimal gain to grind gear at low levels. A 100dmg weapon at 3* would become a 200dmg weapon at 7*. Armor goes from 30 defense per piece, up to 76. While on paper it’s about 2x as much, in reality it’s more like 4x because this also unlocks decorations and talismans that provide major bonuses (like +10% attack, or +30% crit chance). The incentive is almost entirely around progression through the quests, until you get to the last boss.à

I also won’t spoil the two new monsters that appear at the end of 6* and 7*. The former becomes part of the ‘regular’ rotation of monsters once defeated. The latter is more like Xeno from MH:W, but available at all times. I will say that’s a weird battle, as for every melee weapon, a good 90% of the damage in this fight comes from installations (dragonator, ballista, canon, machine gun). Ranged attackers have a massive advantage here in terms of continual damage output… but there is so much moving AE damage you’re going to way to Wirebug around and use the installations instead. The sheer amount of HP on this boss means you’re looking at 15m battles.

The gear/weapons from the final boss, like Xeno, are ok but you’re probably better off with other gear sets. Instead, you’re going to want to use these material to gamble for talismans.

(Sidenote for those taking on harder * quests. Take the time for Spiritbugs. +70hp/stamina, +13atk, and +30def is a LOT.)

What’s Next for Me

I’m currently running longsword, as the offensive and defensive options are just ridiculous. Bow is currently broken in terms of raw damage (the scaling is extremely high), so I’d expect some tuning on that front. I’ve got the sword I want, now it’s about gear, decorations, and a decent Weakness Exploit talisman. For the gear, it’s probably a half dozen kills per piece, maybe less with good RNG. Except for Anjanath pants… those require a Gem that has a 1-3% drop chance.

There’s that, and the 20 odd quests I need to complete. That’ll unlock some more Switch skills, and some food buffs. Quite a few are crazy hard, like taking out 3x level 7* monsters… those will have to wait a bit.

Even if I was to stop right now, I’ve got a solid 30 hours in here played. It’s a quality entry in the series, no doubt.

What’s Next for the Game

There’s apparently an April update due, with Chameleos, more Apex monsters for Rampage, the return of Hunter Ranks (HR), and apparently other monsters too. Should be interesting to see what that brings…

Love, Death & Robots Season 2

Not going to hide it, but Heavy Metal was one of my favorite magazines as a kid. Fine, hormones aside, there was no real competition in the comic sci-fi genre… the stories told within those pages were just pure imagination. I watched the movie from the 80s, it’s a decent anthology that culminates in a crazy final story that is worth watching for that alone. There was Heavy Metal 2000 that came out a lot later, but it wasn’t as good.

2 years ago we got Love, Death & Robots, about as close as we’re ever going to get to a Heavy Metal 3. It’s an impressive anthology, with some extremely poignant standouts. There’s no binding storyline, just some great individual stories. Zima Blue is the high watermark, no doubt. I really enjoyed Beyond the Aquila Rift too. Heck, there wasn’t a single entry I disliked, which is saying a lot about any anthology.

And here we are holding out breath for a sequel and sure enough the trailer dropped this weekend. We’re a month out (May 14) from another set of serious binge watching.

(Side note: This is a really good trailer. Compare to something like Shang-Chi and you really see how the intersect of music and editing really pays off.)

MH Rampages

Rise brings a new mode to the gameplay, and I’m still on the fence for it. Rampage is pretty much a different take on tower defence, what with installations, waves of enemies, and a large final boss at the end.

The mechanics are pretty straightforward. You have a big gate on one end, and you need to protect it from a pile of baddies. As each battle progresses, and you complete sidequests in that battle, you gain levels allowing to use better defensive structures. You get a layout, plenty of locations to build, and auto or manual structures. Monsters come in 4 types – gate crashers, melee, ranged, and then the apex bad guy. You can use ballista, canons, wyvernfire, bombs, and town NPCs as potential defences, each with their own strengths. Some require a whole lot more setup (wyvernfire is a laser tripwire, so positioning and aiming is key).

The thought process here is that you prioritize targets in order to protect the final gate, picking off enemies with the right tools, which will allow the final monster to show. I will say that it’s hard to fail the first part, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on. At least, at the initial levels.

The high rank Rampages though, that’s really a different bit. Quite a few have 3 waves, and the monsters within are quite a bit more difficult than the lower level ones. There’s a big difference in challenge between an Azuregos and a Mizutsune. Thankfully you’re given access to powerful tools, like the Dragonator, which deal tremendous damage to those bosses, if you can get them lined up.

Apex monsters, the final boss, are the equivalent of triple enraged monsters. Where a normal monster could take 1/4 of your HP with a hit, odds are an Apex will deal 80-90% per hit. tldr; you’re going to die if you go toe to toe and are not paying attention. Thankfully, there are no death limits… which gets me to the larger point with this mode.

Multiplayer

Multiplayer mode adds an HP multiplier to enemies to account for more players. This is offset by a standard 3 death limit across all players. Any 3 deaths and the mission fails. Rampage has no such penalty.

Manual defences allow for aiming, and since there are a dozen or so stations that can be used (replacing them before breaking saves a good 30s cooldown), so there’s a very high incentive to manually oversee everything. Clearly, more people make this process a LOT easier. Which effectively makes this mode designed for online play.

The rest of the game has a small weight towards multiplayer being better than solo. The max death count and collision detection make it so that you need to coordinate attacks for success. The gains are generally in terms of time spent, where battles are typically half the duration, less so in terms of overall success. Rampage though… I don’t think it’s possible to fail if you’re in multiplayer, while it’s certainly possible in solo mode.

Different Focus

All of my issues with Rampage mode are nitpicky items. It has a half dozen mandatory missions throughout the campaign, and the rewards within are generally within their own progress tree. It’s linked to the main game, but clearly quite optional. It’s also quite well balanced, and shows the overall design quality that Monster Hunter is known for. The environment has always been a key factor in taking town monsters, so it’s interesting to see this mode for all-in on the concept.

I personally find less enjoyment here, because you’re not really fighting the monsters, things are fighting them for you. It’s certainly an interesting mode… maybe it will grow on me.