Odyssey – The Scale Batman!

I’ve have Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on my Steam wishlist for a while, and it recently went on a big sale with all the DLC.  I did play Origins, and found that world massive, busy, and bland.  I mean, there’s only so much you can do in a desert in terms of visuals, right?  In terms of potential though…jeebers that game was chocked full.

Odyssey, so far (level 20) is what happens when a company is in the refinement phase of a product.  The world is absolutely massive, and the NPC coding here is astounding.  Athens alone takes nearly 10 minutes to cross and every NPC is doing something. Greece is an island nation, so the ship play is more in line with AC:4, and there are plenty of ships abound.

What really takes the cake here is the amount of choice presented.  Sure, you have the traditional minimap icon-fest in all Ubisoft games, but the actual locations are much more thought out and purposeful.  Forts aren’t just there for plundering, but work into a larger political game to challenge local leaders, and then a battle for supremacy.  Crafting loot has been dramatically simplified, meaning that Alpha animal kills are as much for their material as they are for the large loot chests in their caves.  Speaking of caves, they now have much more vertical space to play in.   There are fewer tombs (yay!), which makes each new one an interesting adventure rather than the same old device.

And it’s good looking.  Good golly, there are some spots where you just completely stop what you’re doing to just stand still.  And you realize that every single bit of it was placed/built by someone.  The world building team here is simply amazing.

That said, there’s still an experience level factor here.  Anyone 2 levels from you is going to be very challenging.  5 levels and you will die in 1 hit.  The main quest line is not sufficient to keep you at the right level, so you’ll need to do other things.  At least the other things are fun and varied.

There’s the same lead choice as in ME, either male or female.  I took Kassandra, who looks like a cross-fit champ.  I’ve taken a look at the male alternatives in videos… I made the right choice for me.  Hats off to the devs to have the character’s names spoken aloud – no Commander Sheppard here.

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You can visit everything you see here

There’s a weird balance between meaningful and busywork. here that I did not find in Origins.  You can still take a 2 hour detour of things to do while on a main quest.  I’ve done it enough.  But the things you are doing in the middle of nowhere have an impact on the rest of the world (sidequests, engravings, mercs, cultists, nation power).  Maybe it’s the bird.

Let’s talk about that for a bit.  The Batman games have a fundamental problem – most people only play with the Detective Mode on.  That allows you to see bits of scenery and enemies based on purpose.  Grates you can enter, enemies with guns or stuns, and so on.  Seeing this with your regular eyes is all but impossible… just as it’d be damn hard to do in real life.  It’s cool and all, but it’s a crutch of game design.

AC games have had a similar, though temporary mode.  Still there now, but it’s practically useless in open spaces.  Origins gave you a scouting bird to sort of enhance that feature.  It was a neat gimmick, but not much past that since it was still open fields.  Here though, it’s vital for any large enemy base, since it’s mostly closed walls.  Identify all the enemies and targets, methodically make your way through.  Controls are a lot tighter now too.  It’s detective vision since everything is tagged, but you still see the real world.

Quests.  There are simply too many to track, and the menu to do so is straight out of the late 90s.  They are generally better than previous games, but if you do any exploration before picking them up, odds are the locations are empty by the time you go back.

Combat is much improved on Origins.  Same inventory system of gear, but now you have stats on each piece that tends towards ranged/melee/assassination damage.  With 8 pieces, you’re looking at ~100% more damage of a given type if you slot accordingly.  You need to do this if you want to 1-shot any enemy with a bow.  You should do this if you want to 1 shot enemies with assassination.  Melee is honestly an afterthought since the wide majority of damage will comes from a single assassination skill (Hero Strike).  I will say that kicking someone off a mountain, that doesn’t get old.  I find it more varied than previous entries, and depending on the enemy type, even 1v1 battles can end poorly.  Rather impressed, truth be told.

Overall, the game takes the foundation/re-build that Origins put out and improves on nearly every single aspect.  Looking objectively at what Ubisoft crammed into this game really makes you wonder how big their dev team is.  There’s a case to be said that there’s too much here, and the amount of time required to consume it all is probably on-par with MMOs.  As a distinct game, it’s insanely impressive.  As a gauge of game development, if the next game has the same delta improvements as between Origins/Odyssey, I truly struggle to imagine what that would include.

 

Virtual Worlds and Video Games

Bel made a comment on my Classic post, in that the feature set differences do a good job of delineating the difference between a virtual world (classic) and a video game (post Cata).  While on the surface I agreed, the reason why was what interested me more.

Clearly the first step is figuring out the definition for each.  So let’s invert that a bit.

Video games: something players can consume, alone or with groups, where the impacts of that play are limited to the players doing the consumption.  By that I mean that in the broad sense, only the people doing the act have any results from the actions – dungeons are instanced, mobs respawn, loot is shared, grouping is automated.  Not that it’s necessarily easier but that the social mesh doesn’t really exist.  This applies to pretty much every game out there.. with exceptions to the survival genre (e.g. ARK).

Virtual worlds: something that players co-exit with, with both consumption and production, such that the world shared between all players.  In that sense, players build/destroy the world in such a way that players that they don’t know are directly impacted by said actions.  The game is predicated on a healthy social fabric.  For a long time, this was only in the MMO space, since most of them were glorified chat boxes.  Ultima Online is the one that immediately comes to mind for me.  Also includes things like Second Life, the original EQ, and WoW Vanilla.

There’s a particular note that many early MMOs were virtual worlds – the golden age if you will.  Why that is the case I think has more to do with the type of player/dev rather than the type of game.  UO is a prime example of Garriott building a game that he wanted to play, and that was a crapshoot to make money.  EQ and WoW are similar, in that they were longshots by dedicated developers.  Given that internet access wasn’t all that popular in the late 90s early 00s, it bears to reason that people playing those games were of a similar cut.

When MMOs were proven to be popular, they attracted the eye of investors.  MMOs came up every other day, though often developed by people who were not as passionate, didn’t have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of early games, and focused on replication of popular games.  Quality was really poor (think of the game crash of ’83) and the bottom fell out.  MMOs need to maintain a LOT of players, for years, in order to keep running.  That takes either a hell of a head start, or a heck of a back account to float.

All that to say that virtual worlds still have a fan base.  But they are clearly not the only fish in the ocean, and competing for eyeballs means that they either double down on their model, or branch into video-game features.  Or that nostalgia is enough, since in 10+ years gamer tastes have changed.  There’s an entire book’s worth of comments on how society today is built for consumption rather than production… but I’ll leave that for later.  Suffice to say that many people today get their sense of belonging / value from Twitter/IG/Facebook/YouTube, and that they don’t need games to address that gap.

Not saying that we won’t see another mega-hit virtual world, but more so that it’s not going to be primarily a video game… and instead be pushed through social media-like structures.

The Long Game

A few recent posts from both Isey and Kaylriene got me thinking. in relation to long term development.

In the micro level, development focuses on the immediate.  You get the assets you need for the game you are building, and think about how they could potentially be reused within the same game.  Sure, you maintain a code library for potential use elsewhere, but its not the primary goal.  You spend money and you want to recoup that cost soon.

At the macro level, planning is on the annual basis and across multiple streams.  For someone like Ubisoft, they are thinking how Assassin’s Creed, Rainbow Six, Watch Dogs, For Honor, and Far Cry can help each other out.  The more overlap they have, the less it costs to develop each instance, and therefore the larger the profits.  I would think that most people can understand why this is important.

Where things get complicated is when a developer is willing to absorb and significant loss when they are looking at the potential of a future investment.  We’ve all seen news articles where a company will purposefully take a loss in order to offset some higher profits elsewhere.  While hard to understand why someone would NOT want that money, complex tax laws make it more efficient, and likely to cross multiple years.

In my work experience, I have dealt with a few vendors who were willing to take a loss on one contract in order to ensure higher profits on the next.  The scale of that loss is where things get interesting.  Sometimes it’s on purpose, other times it’s about minimizing loss.  Maybe there’s some really interesting IP/coding that comes from it that can be used in a future project, or resold.  If you look at Epic Games, they certainly appear to hold that model.

Which brings me to Anthem.  From the outside, and the various reports, it seems like the management team had a vision that came too late, and it’s been a scramble to get it working since.  It would be folly not to see this launch as a failure – in the micro sense.  Anthem did not reach its goals, and its roadmap is massively delayed.

However – it did help launch the Origin subscription service, there’s some online matchmaking code development that will certainly be reused, the lore IP is ripe for exploration, development of group-based dungeon instances is being refined, and they are on the hire for “loot based engineering”, which is clearly a long term investment.  None on their own will help Anthem recover, but as a whole they may.  Each on their own does have value for other development projects.

EA has a habit of shutting down games with short order if they don’t meet their objectives.  That this has not occurred yet would indicate that both EA and BW have some long term investment here at play.  That’s the good news – Anthem isn’t likely to go anywhere.  The bad (?) news is that the development moving forward has Anthem as a secondary goal, and is instead looking at how the pieces can be used elsewhere.  In really simple terms – Anthem is a beta test for BW’s asset development.

There’s some discussion to be had about how Blizzard is not doing this – aside from reusing art/lore assets in HotS/HS.  There’s certainly some network engineering shared between the various games, but systems don’t appear to have much overlap.  If Blizzard’s goal is to decrease development time (as per recent quarterly report), then it’s going to need to apply a much different approach to development than used in the past.  How that impacts the actual games… time will tell.

Classic Features

With the WoW Classic server coming up, I’ve been thinking more about Blizz’s method of iteration.  Credit where due, when Blizz decides a system isn’t good enough, they go to great lengths to remove it from the game (WoD housing is a prime example).  Most other games have an incremental approach, where systems are added over time.  This tends to cause a serious amount of bloat, as compared to Blizz’s more focused development.

That makes me think a fair bit about Classic.  I made a Rogue on day 1 (my main ’til MoP, and still at max level), and I did up to BWL before the cray-cray of organizing 40 people drove me to take a break.  Aside from the storyline (with minor retcons) and the general high level map, there’s not a whole lot from Classic that as survived.  Let’s take a look at some of the larger bits that simply don’t exist anymore.

  • Questing:  The largest change was in WotlK where phasing came by, but even in BC the idea that leveling through quests had taken hold.  Classic has very few quests to level with, and past level 30 it’s mostly grinding out in the wild or dungeon runs.
  • Leveling speed: I still have an old guide I wrote to optimize leveling in Classic. 5 days /played.  Today, you can level from 1-120 on 2 characters in the same time.
  • Weapon skill: To hit with a sword, you needed to swing a sword – a lot.  There were plenty of people who got great drops at 60 and simply couldn’t use them until they raised their skill in the wild.
  • Hit rating: Enemies dodged from everywhere, and riposted from the front (hit you back).  Dual wield penalties too.
  • Ranked skills: Hit every other level, go to a trainer, get a rank increase to do more damage/heal.  Down-ranking was the process of using a lower ranked skill as it was more mana efficient.
  • MP5: Mana users only regenerated mana after not casting spells for 5 seconds.  Chain pulls in dungeons were not possible, and in raids… well you had healing rotations where people just sat down until their mana came back.
  • Gold:  Getting 1 gold was a great event.  There were no daily quests, so 99% of the gold you received was from farming.  Repair costs ate most of what you had.  It felt very rewarding to have 100g.
  • Mounts: Mounts were not only slow, but they came at level 40 and cost nearly all of your gold to acquire.  There’s zero flying, and you automatically dismount in water.  (Side note: MoP’s Water Strider is/was popular for a darn good reason.)
  • Flight Points: You could only do 1 at a time, so AFK while travelling wasn’t an option.
  • Talents: Every level you got points to put into a talent tree.  Getting lower in the tree required unlocking earlier skills.  A very traditional model.  Thing is, there are many choices that are not just weak, but detrimental.  Making changes had an ever increasing cost in gold – making spec swaps very difficult.
  • Hunter pets: They were only good for DPS, and attack speed was king.  Nearly everyone had a cat for that reason.
  • Spec variety:  Nearly every class had only 1 viable spec until late into Vanilla (some waited til BC).
  • Guilds:  Tabards and guild chat.  Oh the days of DKP.
  • Soloing: Classes took forever to solo, and could only really handle one enemy at a time.  Healing outside of combat required food, and death was extremely common.
  • Grouping:   Meeting stones made groups, but didn’t summon anyone.  You need to travel there and find the entrance.
  • Dungeons:  BC had great dungeons.  Vanilla…less so.  Gnomeregan, Sunken Temple, Razorfen Downs/Kraul, Blackfathom, Mauradon were either very hard to get to, or a near maze to complete.  The good bit here is that there were 19 different dungeons, which account for ~20% of the entire game!
  • Raids: You needed to attune for a dungeon before getting access.  That was a crazy adventure!  Multiple steps, and often steps that could only be completed by 1 person at a time (imagine running a dungeon 40 times to attune an entire raid).
  • Crowd Control: You needed to sap/sheep/hex targets in order to progress with dungeons.  AE attacks were few and far between because of it. When’s the last time anyone has seen a sheep?
  • Whelps:  Leroy Jenkins was a thing because whelps were a thing.  In fact, being feared was usually a wipe in any dungeon.
  • Resistances: You couldn’t really complete MC without fire resist, or BWL without shadow.  AQ needed a ton of nature resist.  Resists don’t even exist anymore.
  • Item drops: Leveling item drops were not targeted but random across any 2 stats.  STR/SPI on a dagger?  Sure.  Made from some horribly useless bits but also one of the only ways to gear up while leveling.
  • Mods:  The big ones of the day were threat meters, titan panel, and map markers. DBM didn’t matter, since most fights were tank/spanks and all you had were raid checks.  It’s practically unheard of to play WoW today without mods, and even the base game has incorporated some into the basic UI.  (Classic will support a LOT more mods than original Vanilla.)

 

Not a single one of these systems is even remotely recognizable today.  Every one has been iterated and streamlined.  While a lot was changed in BC and WotlK, Cataclysm (9 years ago) really was the break point between the older model and the newer one.  In one way, you could say that we’re playing WoW 2+ today.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who want to see this older version, where the people connections were essential to enjoyment.  I’m just curious as to how large that audience is as compared to every other gaming option available today.

Gaming Accessibility

Hockey is expensive.  How’s that for a byline?

No, seriously.  I put both my kids in last week, and that’s $800 a head.  Then there’s the actual equipment which for little squirts is about $200 each.  Then there’s the year’s additional team expenses (tourneys, activities, etc…) that runs close to $2000 each – every year.  All for a season that lasts from October until Feb.  I won’t get into how much it costs for me to play hockey (or the beer following).

The return is worth it.  Hockey is a team-based sport, and everyone needs to work together for success.  My eldest was quite shy prior to her lacing up.  That went out the door pretty quick in the rink.  But yeah, expensive.

Gaming is another expensive endeavor, but significantly less so today.

First, you need a piece of tech to play (phone, tablet, PC/laptop, console/tv).  Prices here have gone down over time.

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Console prices are relatively stable.

I can buy a large flat screen TV for $100 today.  That sure as hell wasn’t an option when I was a kid.  And nearly everyone over 16 has a cell phone that can double as a gaming appliance.  Even PC prices today are rock-bottom compared to the 80s/90s.

Game prices themselves are crazy cheap.  The $60 price point is still the most common one… and one that’s been around for nearly 30 years.  That’s around $190 today.  And that’s for games with actual upfront fees and no Steam Summer Sales.  The F2P genre has made gaming even more accessible, since you can get ~75% of a game for $0.  Some are so generous with their models (Warframe, Path of Exile) that they float almost entirely on good will.

Connectivity to other people is built-in for a large swath of the population too.  Internet access is still growing – in Canada it’s 92% of the population that has access.  Cell reception is increasing (I could talk about 5G for a week), meaning people are gaming on the go with other people.  Cripes… I still remember LAN parties and paying for dial-up.

Now, this isn’t without some risk.  Gaming addiction is a real thing, and there’s always a risk of everyone becoming like those in Wall-E.  But as more people game, you get more types of people.  The ol’ neckbeard stereotype for gaming is becoming the exception.

And that’s not even taking into account the ability to watch people game, rather than game yourself, which has a near $0 cost itself.  I could watch amateur hockey for free, but I’d need to go to the rink to do it.

When the gateway has been smoothed out, it’s easy to see why gaming is so prolific. Curious to see where this path leads.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Was on sale, so I picked it up.  I had played the other two in the series reboot, and rather liked the spoke/hub model on discovery/tombs.  Storyline… the series has way more in common with Assassin Creed’s “nebulous bad guy” motif than much else.

SotTB (huh) seems to have taken a turn from the previous “world first” model to “story first”.  There’s 1 main hub, then a smattering of other smaller locations that are attached.  Pretty much everything is accessible from the first pass through, which I guess is an improvement.  I personally enjoyed the backtracking in the other games, as it provided a sense of player progression.  Here, the skills/items you get within 10 minutes are the same used all the way to the end.  Which is fine I guess – it works for Uncharted.

The storyline here is a fair bit darker, with Lara having to face her own internal demons.  She’s clearly obsessed with exploration to fill in a gap.  And while the whole world is at stake with an apocalypse (that she triggers), apparently there’s time to find stolen dice from a child.  I don’t quite get it.  I do think this is the best villain the series has had in a long time.  You get a much better appreciation for his motivations than expected.  His 2nd in command doesn’t get that treatment.

Combat has been dramatically reduced in volume.  Fact, you barely have any of it until the last 20 minutes.  This split means that combat is more difficult, because you’re never really prepared for it and forget some bits.  The madness arrow in particular is only shown in the final bit, yet acts like a “god weapon”.  I can still remember fights in the 2nd game where I would need to restart a half dozen times due to shielded enemies throwing grenades.  None of that here.  Fact, the last zone I just rushed through with the assault rifle on full blast and ignored all the other mechanics.

Bows are so done.  I still think they are an amazing weapon, but here they are neutered by everyone having a helmet and not being open to a single shot kill.  Instead, the shotgun is king… which really doesn’t have a Tomb Raider fell, right?  I miss the more strategic planning for combat.

The world is very linear, but the puzzles therein are really quite good.  The mirror tomb made me put down the controller to really think about it.  The galleon puzzle looked amazing.  They are real highlights.  The rewards for each are additional skill benefits, which while cool, you rarely notice it.  Swimming faster… ok.  That said, the world looks amazing.  The world designers should get some serious kudos!

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A) it does look this good and B) seems eerily swapable with Nathan Drake

The whole package comes out weaker than the previous two.  There are certainly higher highs here, but the lows bring it down.  Playing it again, I would drop the combat difficulty to super easy mode so that the focus can be instead placed on exploration/story.  If you can pick it up with all the DLC (tombs) attached, then that would be a really good deal.

Accepting Change

A long time ago I realized I was an agent of change.  In nearly everything I do, there has to be some form of change – and the status quo gets under my skin.

School was where it started to click.  I was able to get to the right answers, but my methods were quite a bit different than those taught.  I recall one math teacher who was sure I was cheating.  One of my programming teachers couldn’t figure out how the code was able to run, since it was nearly 30% shorter than the approved solution.  It’s kept through my career, where I seem to be drawn to complicated projects that focus on both tech and culture transformation.

Not to say I don’t like stability.  My daytime meals are really quite boring in that regard.  Simple, healthy, and all the macros I need.  Let’s me focus on things I find more important.  Like as if I’ve made the necessary changes and can move on.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that a few people in my social circle are going through what appears to be mid-life crises.  From my perspective (and lacking all the necessary context) it would appear that they just didn’t adapt to change over time, simply accepted that things were ok – up until the point they were not.  I mean, I get it.  Change is exhausting, and it never seems to end.  Figuring out what you can handle and what you can’t, that takes a lot of time.  But they do say that time waits for no person…

At a larger scale, I find it fascinating to see people’s resistance to change.  Like there are things that simply are not going to pass if we close our eyes enough.  Some quick thoughts.

  • Climate Change.  Ignore it if you want to, but it’s pretty damn clear that we have a problem.  Doing nothing is not an acceptable course of action.
  • Automation.  Who would say no to a machine that can work 10x as hard and never take a break?  Basic robots are here and going to stay.  We’re at the cusp of AI taking over more complicated analysis jobs.  Hell… day trading is almost entirely driven through algorithms.
  • GMOs.  We, as a planet, consume more than nature can provide on its own.  We hit the annual value last week.  GMOs provide higher yields, better nutrition, and require less chemicals.  This doesn’t negate the risk of single strains – see the Banana crisis for more.
  • Immigration.  This is a math exercise.  To keep an even amount of people in a country, you need to have just about 2.1 kids.  Right now, we’re about 1.7 in North America.  That gap has to be filled by immigration.  And that’s not even talking about the MASS of baby boomers who are retiring and turning into a net weight against social services (they pay into it less than they take out), meaning more people are needed to fill in the tax-paying ranks.
  • Vaccines.  Oy.  This isn’t hard.  There’s a reason people don’t have polio today.  Frankly, we’re a generation away from genetic modifications that can address birth defects.  The ethics of this… that’s a separate topic.

Each of these has an impact on people.  Some more than others.  Some appear simple, but are in reality quite complicated.  It’s natural for people to look for correlation in causation.  ex: Ms. McCarthy’s crusade against vaccines has led to more child deaths than should be reasonable.  We all but eliminated measles in North America up until a few years ago.

Adapting to change is hard.  If folks don’t understand their current value, it’s near sure they won’t understand their value after a change.  Natural reaction is to resist the change.  Ignoring that the change has these impacts makes for disenfranchised people, and can build a massive wave that seems to come from nowhere.  And when people are filled with this anger, they stop seeing clearly.  They stop wanting to talk about it, to perhaps tweak their ideas, to not see other people as enemies.  It’s a slippery slope.

And people who are in positions of power think they are in leadership positions.  They’ll stoke the emotional flames to stay in power or to try an attain more.  Why?  Because it’s the easiest thing to do.  And who doesn’t like easy?

There’s an old saying that goes:  If you meet an asshole during the day, you’re having a bad day.  If you meet nothing but assholes… you’re the asshole.

At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.  Change will never stop, no matter how much we wish it would.  And it’s certainly better to go through change with people than against them.  We’d all be better off trying to have some empathy for those undergoing change.  Can’t really succeed if we leave people behind.