Mandatory Buffet

The only benefit to consumers for a buffet is the sheer variety of options for a fixed cost. The quality is rarely that of a focused restaurant. The benefit to the restaurant is that they have a much larger client base and a rather consistent income stream because of it. The expense management aspect is similar to other restaurants (people make different choices), yet there can be massive spikes with no corresponding income spike. You should be able to identify trends and accommodate, but the launch is going to be rough – or if you get a sports team show up. Consumers generally sour on buffets if there is not enough food, or if the quality dips beyond a certain level (e.g. it’s cold).

Why is this relevant? Most games offer a buffet type approach. Assassin’s Creed is a perfect example of this, you have dozens of possible activities. MMOs also have this, in that you can craft, hunt, dungeon, raid, or other. The difference is in the structure of the buffet in that things are an option or not.

MMO players have differing goals. Some like the social part, some the achievements, some discovery, some the competition. Most games have a gate that prevents access to a given function, either player level or player power. Some are soft gates (you can try something while underpowered but it will be very hard) or they are hard gates (you simply cannot access the feature).

In WoW, there are both. The hard gates are usually related to levels (90% of the game is locked at max level), or to a quest. The quests are notable in WoW, as most items are time gated. Even if you have all the pre-requisites done, you still have to wait for that gate to be accessible (covenant storylines, twisting corridors). The soft gates are power related, or ilevel. You need a certain level to do dungeons, another for raiding, and so on. If you want to access the full buffet, then you need to increase your power level or renown level.

To increase renown, you need to do your covenant quests. These require you to do a set of activities (you don’t get to choose which):

  • collect souls from the maw (weekly)
  • collect 1000 anima (weekly) – anima comes from WQ + dungeons
  • complete some combination world quests (daily)
  • complete a specific dungeon (uncommon daily)
  • complete a PvP event

If you want to increase your power level, you need to:

  • complete the odd WQ that has a reward
  • complete the covenant story (through renown + dungeons) and boost your item level
  • complete relevant dungeons and get a drop
  • complete raids and get a drop
  • complete PvP and raise your rank
  • open the weekly vault, which stems from completing mythic+ dungeons, raids, and/or PvP
  • complete the weekly open world boss and get a drop
  • complete 2+ Torghast runs to get ash for legendary upgrades

Assuming you’re a fresh 60, that’s a big buffet! Nearly all of it is right at your door when you start too. You’re going to try as many pieces as you can, then develop a taste for one or two. Then you realize you’ll need…

  • to do WQ for the weekly anima quest
  • to run the Maw once a week for the souls quest
  • to do WQ for renown increases
  • to run Torghast multiple times (at least twice) to get soul ash for your legendary
  • to PvP for renown and vault rewards
  • to raid for vault rewards
  • to run M+ dungeons for vault rewards

“Need” may be a harsh word, you don’t need to do any of it. You can ignore all the systems if you want, and just do the content you enjoy. The game will hamper that enjoyment if you don’t engage in more systems, but that’s entirely up to you. That loot is so incredibly sparse, if ever you do see something drop, you’re going to jump on it and forcibly try any avenue to get that artificial number to increase.

The cynic in me see this design approach as on par with mobile games and their focus on engagement. Or, as we’ve all seen reported, Monthly Average Users (MAU). The game is purposefully designed to tunnel you into ALL activities, whether you enjoy it or not. If you don’t enjoy content and (feel the) need to do it, then that is not a positive feedback loop. If that content is not working properly (e.g. Beastwarrens bugs, placeholders in Torghast, anima rewards that don’t scale, broken mission tables, broken WQ gimmicks, etc…) and you need to do it, then ugh.

In the individual mechanism space, on the whole, Shadowlands improves on BfA. You never have a reversion of power. The borrowed power mechanic doesn’t scale to absolutely stupid levels. You’re never looking at triple RNG (-forging). But as I’ve mentioned before, I can’t see how the game could have gotten worse than BfA. It reminds me of an Eddie Murphy joke.

Shadowlands feels like this.

Covenants

Or, as I like to call them, Class Halls 2.0.

There’s been a lot of talk about Covenants, as they are the main feature of Shadowlands – driving the majority of the story, providing a reward structure, and a “borrowed power” mechanic. Picking one is easy. Changing one means you’re losing ~2 weeks of time gated content.

I’ve got Kyrian and Venthyr storylines running. They are interesting and varied, taking place across multiple zones. I won’t go into a pile of details, due to spoilers. I would be surprised if anyone picked a Covenant due to the story (maybe for aesthetics though, which is another topic). They are time gated, and catch up mechanics are present. They do not, as of yet, appear to intersect.

The reward structure is very similar in both. You get a travel hub to speed up zone travel, which is great, cause zone travel is horrendous. Side note – crappy travel means I harvest a ton of herbs/ore without really trying. Somewhere around 200k in profit in 3 weeks. You get access to a very odd mission table structure that is completely unbalanced. Venthyr/Kyrian are running at half the power of the other two factions, and the UI is so bad that it’s frankly not worth trying unless you use something like Venture Plan. Another item is a sort of temporary event generator that you’ll likely do once and never again – primarily due to the horrendous travel time and lack of rewards. Finally, each faction gets their own unique side activity. Venthyr throw parties, Kyrian have a very interesting battle arena, gated through grinding components. It’s a cool concept, meant to emphasize world exploration. Maybe at some point I’ll do more of it.

A small pit stop on identifying people in a covenant. It seems a lost opportunity that people within a covenant would not want to work together, or identify other people in their covenant. Tabards at the minimum. Player power, not so much, cause that would sway guild/player choice. Yet there are certainly some opportunities here… like more Stygia if you group in the Maw. Even the Horde / Alliance differentiator is completely absent here.

The borrowed power though, that’s where things go a bit sideways. There are lateral choices for some classes, and outright bad choices for others. DH can swap between Kyrian and Venthyr, but Necrolords are an insanely bad choice. Icy-Veins has a pretty good summary of how people have selected their covenants. The “pretty” factions lead, which further pushes the Elf/Blood Elf value. Necrolords are 16% of the total, which given both their ability and unique activity… yeah.

What’s interesting to me is the breakdown on a class basis. For multi-spec classes, this can get a bit muddy as people have a preference. That Druids pick Night Fae first, in all specs, and like 9:1… that’s a problem. Same with Paladins and Monks for Kyrian. The “pure DPS” classes you’d expect somewhat flat choices, though it’s more like no one wants to be a Necrolord Mage.

Is it hard to balance skills across all the class/spec variations? Heck ya. Is it OK to have preferences, sure. Less OK is when one option is superior to all others. This falls back into the argument of paragon/renegade, where is everyone makes the same choice, there really isn’t a choice to be made. It’s also a challenge from a design perspective, as you can’t really change the powers too much, as people will then math it out and show that a new bad choice is present and want compensation to change. It’s a very interesting spot they’ve painted themselves into.

In a general sense, I think Convenants work. They provide thematic tools to expand on the player experience. Covenant abilities could have used more time in the oven, but the issue at hand is related to reducing the penalty from swapping between choices (which will get worse as more renown ranks are unlocked). Combat Tables should just be removed from the game at this point, right up there with Archeology.

Overall it sort of works. This is a bit like falling upwards from BfA though. They are better than garrisons in that they are not instanced, and don’t pump out insane raid level rewards. But they are worse in story telling as compared to class halls. When “it’s ok” is seen an improvement, expectations are out of whack.

The Maw

Leveling and Torghast so far have a thumbs up. They have their quirks, but all told, positives. Now for the Maw.

I clearly remember the Timeless Isle in MoP, targeted as a daily activity to hunt down rares and frankly, gear the crap out of any alt you may have had. It was an interesting zone, and really quite innovative at the time. Each expansion has brought their own version to bear since then, with varying levels of success. Legion is still a high water mark for me. Nazjatar I have a crazy dislike due to zone design, and Mechagon seems like it could have used the space better. The less we talk about Tanaan, the better. None of them allowed for flying at the start, but all of them allowed mounting.

The biggest point about all of these is that they came after the main expansion, and were mechanically bound to catch-up mechanics and new storylines.

The Maw is this weird space where it takes a lot of pieces of those zones and puts them at the start of an expansion. It has plenty of rares and it’s own faction. Travel is improved over time. It has an interesting (-ish) time gate mechanic so that you can’t just grind it for hours. On the surface, it’s an interesting proposition.

The challenge is in WoW’s risk vs reward mindset, caked in through nearly 15 years of training. The rewards from the Maw are

  • Faction & currency to improve travel (which is character bound)
  • Faction & currency to improve RNG in Torghast (which is account bound)
  • Faction and currency to randomly improve a low level conduit (character bound)
  • Faction and currency to add a gem slot to a legendary (character bound)
  • A weekly i183 gear drop chance
  • A potential mount (3 days out of 14), but from a quest broken since launch
  • Access to 2 more “hard mode” zones in the Maw

You can optimize and get ~1500 faction a day. 42,000 total to max, so you’re looking at a month of daily play to get there (weekly quests are there too).

Jailer Levels

As a time gating mechanic, this sort of makes sense. Level 1 is meaningless. Level 2 is easy to manage, if you’re not in an massive AE battle (e.g. Jailer event). Level 3 is a new level of annoyance, spawning an NPC that keeps you in battle for the entire map. Level 4 can’t be avoided, you just get scooped up and need to kill the target before they kill you, and survive the fall damage. Level 5 is just like level 3, but if they touch you, you die.

It’s entirely possible to run around with level 5, it is not possible to enter combat and survive at level 5. Completing both daily quests will get you to level 2. Hunt rares to go higher.

Early Experience

As a fresh 60, you’re dropped into the Maw to run some basic quests. Horrendously undergeared, and a map that makes little sense, it’s not a good first run. You’ll see some rares, and promptly get wiped out. Most players are going to have a rough time at the 150-ish gear level. That the mobs are so tightly spaced, you’re going to aggro tons of stuff just getting around. And thematically, the zone is supposed to be punishing, right?

I should mention it’s the first open world zone in which you cannot mount, and the game does nothing to explain why that is, or how to change it. If you’re a DK, be ready for a bad time.

Finally, its near impossible to navigate the Maw without an add-on. HandyNotes is practically required,

The Mid Game

Frankly, the only reason to even bother with the Maw is if you like Torghast. Aside from a potential renown quest from your faction, there are zero reasons to go into the Maw. There are no transmogs, the achievements are gated behind harder content, there are no gear drops.

This is further examined as you open up the other areas in the Maw and see that there’s no one there. All the players are in the “starter” area of the map.

The End Game

Is a month end game? I dunno. Is 1 gem slot worth a month’s faction grind? By the time you find value in the Maw rewards, you’ve so dramatically overleveled the zone that you’ll be killing everything in there in 5 GCD. And after you’ve done it once, it’s a near guarantee you’ll never want to see that zone again.

Overall

The Maw feels like an undercooked mechanic. It’s nowhere near as bad as the Isles in BfA, and that’s primarily because it can be done solo. But that’s also the Achilles heel here, if you don’t like Torghast, then there’s no reason to go in the Maw aside from the random renown quest. Every other system in the game offers a better reward for your time, even just walking around.

Credit to Blizz here in that no alts are required (or even suggested) to do the Maw. There’s zero in here for them, aside from a potential weekly quest for renown. It does make you question why they would have designed an ENTIRE zone that no one wants to go through. I have to hold out some hope that there are long terms plans for the Maw. The concepts here are well worth exploring.

Torghast Thoughts

Hades is my game of the year. Dead Cells has a few dozen hours. My mobile device always has some sort of incremental installed. I really like the concept of growth over time, and that there are ceilings where you need to restart. The “pure” rogues are frankly more like Mario Bros on the NES, where each playthrough is independent of the next, aside from experience. Todays’ versions take that concept, then add RNG to a given run (skills/weapons/spawned enemies), yet maintain a set of rules (e.g. the map has X drops, Y set of enemies). The most popular ones provide tiers of progress within their structure. As much as they are pauses in a given run, they often give rewards for the meta gameplay. In other words, while a full run gives 100% resources, a partial run gives you something.

With that foundation of expectations, my thoughts on Torghast are a mixed bag. First, the not so good.

There are a lot of anima powers. They are average to good, though there are quite a few that drop that are outright bad. Some are bugged. Some have horrible descriptions of what they do. Some are actually built to destroy a run (e.g. can’t move). While I’m game that experience tells you which powers are better than others, there are limits. A good rogue-like will define a run quickly through choice… and it’s rare that by the end of floor 1 you have a defined build in mind.

Ravenous Anima Cells allow you to convert an enemy into a power. You need a wiki entry to see which are actually useful (or just try on the dozens of enemies), which is a giant waste of anima. Some wings are useless, others are amazing. The concept here is great. The implementation… not so much.

Some of the tuning is really weird. Using this week…Mort’regar is full of very large fights with enemies that are hidden. Skoldus Hall has an enemy that continually casts AE attacks that debuff players if they get touched – like 10% per stack and that stick around if you die. So either you kill the bugger (and use their power to cleanse yourself) or your run is pretty much over. Bosses are all over the place, where you may find floor 5 a cakewalk, then the 6th floor boss hits you for 25% a shot. (Credit to Blizz for the downtuning on Dec 17th for pretty much everything.) The RNG on floor design is also a bit iffy. You can have a straight corridor that lasts 2 minutes, or you can have a maze that takes 20 minutes.

The reward structure is only based on completion, which is surreal. There is no content in the game where you can do something for an hour and get nothing for it. (Group content still has drops, whether you can use it or not is different.) The meta buffs, which impact future runs, have NOTHING to do with Torghast. You get those through faction gains in the Maw.

Torghast should be account based, not character based. Full stop. Time gating on content here is dumb, since if you’ve done it on one character, then you know what’s coming. There’s zero benefit here except stalling the ALT enjoyment process. The meta boosts are account based, the floor rewards are meta. But accessing the quests or twisting corridors? Nope.

There are no rewards for exploration except more currency. Seems a wasted opportunity.

Now for the good.

The variety in builds is nice to see. There are some crazy OP options for nearly everyone, but they require amazing RNG. Some only shine if you stack them, or if you combo them with others. Or, you could end up with a run where you just end up with +HP. It rewards adaptation.

The skill floor is at a decent spot. It may not be communicated, and it’s certainly RNG heavy, but players need to use most of their skill set to survive (e.g. interrupts / stuns). It could use a couple “long cast” options where it’s near certain death, especially at the floor bosses. If we can’t get the proving grounds, then this is the next best place for it.

The NPCs you meet are useful. Very useful. To the point where you don’t want them to leave, and only complete their quest after clearing the entire floor. It makes the other rewards (chests) seem “meh”. Which, again, the RNG fun of it all.

The enemy variety is nice. You have melee, ranged, AE, DoTs… the whole mix. You need to prioritize targets, stun a few, and pull away to AE. It can get painful, especially where multiple enemies can fear and throw you to the edge where a small step kills you. (The chain bridges have horrible clipping…)

The rare elites are really nice changes of pace, and about half of them have interesting anima powers. They feel like a much better expression of risk/reward than anything else in all of Torghast.

The diminishing returns of Torghast are also good to see. 375 ash for layer 4, and only 195 more if you get to layer 8.

Summary

Rohan said it best, Torghast is effectively a Rextroy simulator. What kind of crazy can you come up with and make it work. It is not a measure of player skill, and barely one of item level. What you go in with has only a small impact on your ability to succeed. Sure, rocking 210 gear is going to be a boost, but you can still clear most of it at 155.

There are still some weird questions here, as to the long term purpose of Torghast. In particular why it doesn’t have it’s own mechanics and why it is gated behind 7 weeks of time gates to get someone else into the twisting corridors. Still, it’s a solid alternative to the go-go-go of M+. With a few more tweaks, this could be a transmog / collection dream come true.

Shadowlands Leveling

WoW has already undergone enough squishing that I sort of expect it in every other expansion. I’ve talked at length on the insane power curve problems that Blizz has self-inflicted, and this continues in SL. The squish does nothing to fix that problem, it just makes sure that their servers don’t blow up dividing by zero.

The Early Game

Squishing levels though, that’s different. After BFA’s attrocious power “wave” approach to leveling and gearing (where everyone got weaker, then stronger, then weaker, and again…), SL had a goal of resetting the leveling power curve. Levels themselves were meaningless, aside than an artificial gate on content. With the squish to 50, it makes the dings a tad more meaningful. After having gone through it, it could have had even another 20 levels shaved and no one would really have noticed. There were really only a dozen times where I stopped and re-ordered my play style – some basic rotational skills and then the 6 talents.

Speed-wise it was admittedly a lot faster than prior. There’s still a “hell level” section in the 30s (which was the 70s prior) where it feels like molasses, but the overall process is MUCH more enjoyable. The fun part here is that the entire leveling experience can be contained to a single expansion. War mode is a nice bonus, but as always, you need to turn it off for the real content (50-60).

I find it somewhat hilarious that WoD is the defacto leveling zone. The bonus objectives are reasonable (more so than SL), the double hearthstone makes a big difference, the treasures are a big boost, and most of the zones are decent while on the ground. Having WoD flying is a huge boost to time, and the garrison is almost entirely ignored. I still don’t have a positive memory of the WoD leveling experience, story-wise. Mechanically though, it is hard to argue the efficiencies. If Legion didn’t have class halls, it would be the fastest by far. Pandaria is my next favourite way to go, but you miss out on a lot of “bonus xp” stuff.

So the 1-50 stuff goes by pretty fast. The Azeroth Auto-pilot speeds it up further (I usually put that on for the 2nd alt and beyond). My last attempt was a Druid, which is like turbo mode for leveling. Herbalism/Mining is still a wild XP boost while leveling. And the way that the game dumps tons of gold into the bag isn’t hurtful (WoD is extremely generous). I had no issues getting 30 slot bags and all flying unlocked at 50… with a lot left over.

Chromie Time deserves a thought. This makes it so that the entire game scales to 1-50. If you don’t do this, then you’re going to max out a zone’s level. With no in-game explanation. This option is only available if you already have a level 50 character… so the whole refer-a-friend thing doesn’t work here. Why does this even exist as a choice and not be the default?

Overall, a significant improvement. But…

The class trial does a better job of getting you ready to play the game than anything 1-50. The content from 1-50 (aside from pet battles) is completely irrelevant, and in no way resembles the gameplay in SL, at or before 60. The amount of opportunities available here to ease new players into whatever it is Blizz has in store for them is absent. I know, I know, who hasn’t played WoW that would be interested at all? Enough for it to be worth it. Exile’s Reach is a good attempt, but it should end with the player ready for that expansion’s content. And for the love of all that’s covered with cheese, why oh why can’t Blizz find a way to make the proving grounds part of the leveling experience?

Shadowlands Content

I did both the campaign and the threads of fate. Or rather, the tutorial and then expert mode. The world design is still something to celebrate, and there are plenty of times where I just stopped to appreciate it all. The characters, the arcs, the arts… just really well done. The flow of the story is decent too, so much that you don’t really notice the travel time between the points. I’m sure everyone comes out with a favourite by the end, and the trial of the covenant abilities is solid. Blizz’ dependency on every fantasy trope in the book generally works, especially considering that they have access to every single Warcraft character they’ve killed (where’s Arthas?), making for some interesting interactions. It also allows access to every other world in the Warcraft universe… By the time you’re done the campaign you have a good idea of what’s going on, what skills you’d like, and which team you’d like to pledge for. In terms of “consistent” story, this is really top notch.

The threads of fate opens up after your first campaign, allowing you to level as you want. Each zone has a bar that fills up based on your activities, then you move to the other zones. The advantage here is that each zone gives you 1 renown level, the only catchup mechanic in game currently. The disadvantage is that you need to find the content to complete. Quests are great, as are rares (if they are up), yet you need to travel A LOT to find them. Bonus objectives are so very, very painful to complete, and with pitiful rewards. Harvest 20 of anything and you’ll get more experience. Travel itself is also unpleasant, since the quests are not typically chained. It is neither faster, nor more rewarding than the campaign. The real benefit is if you want to chain run dungeons and get renown. Well, not completely true. There are some hidden gem quests that you will really only see in this mode. A shame really.

I will point out that people will truly appreciate zone design if they take the threads of fate path. Revendreth has a dense and vertical design, almost claustrophobic. Andrenweald has a branch/leaf design (you’re in a hub, then in a field, then in a hub). Bastion is large open plains. And Maldraxxus… well, it’s there alright.

Another post will go into the experience from 60 and beyond. What I will say is that when you do hit 60, the deluge of new systems-with-no-explanation comes at you fierce. This is the expansion with the least amount of training wheels I’ve yet to see. It gives you all of this, no explanation of why or even if it’s important.

Overall

This is WoW at it’s most streamlined. It has never been faster to level. Nearly every ding has some meaning (big or small). There are no bells and whistles, systems just come at you full speed. The 1-50 portion highlights how meaningless it actually is. The 50-60 campaign/thread of fate is a great choice for leveling, with two truly distinct paths. It’s arguably a better single player RPG than most AAA games out there. Hats off to the art/world design teams.

Paragon / Renegade “Choice”

With the the upcoming Mass Effect remaster coming (March?), it brings back to mind an interesting stat that 92% of people played the Paragon line of game. I think it somewhat obvious, but if 92% of people do something, then it’s not really a choice. Or at best, it’s an un-interesting choice.

I think this is a general problem with RPGs, in that the “evil” path is actually more like “hard mode”. In many cases, the Paragon choice keeps all options on the table AND rewards you. Like taking out a group of bandits terrorizing a village. Side with the village and you get the bandit loot and more village quests. Side with the bandits, and you get the scraps of the village and nothing else from the bandits. It’s not so much bad design, as years of training.

Look at any list of best RPGs. Do any of them provide a viable evil path? The only one I can think of is New Vegas. Even Divinity 2’s “bad choices” have bad outcomes. Every time you take an evil decision, you reduce your rewards, or add some sort of difficulty marker to the game. Maybe townsfolk all attack on sight. Maybe you can only walk around during the night. Whatever it is, you’re making a trade from safety to unknowns.

Which, if reality is any comparison, is a fair view on the choice. Or rather, we hope it to be. (It would be great if bad choices came with costs to powerful people, huh?). Yet this only works in a world of absolutes, of binary cause and effect. The world is more complex than this, and only a few games accurately reflect they natural grey of reality. Stealing bread is bad. Stealing bread to feed a starving kid, not so bad. Stealing bread from a millionaire who’s hoarding bread in order to feed a starving kid, that’s good. The context matters.

Short tangent here, but this is what really gets under my skin when looking at WoW. It does a really poor job at building grey characters. In nearly 15 years, it has two. Illidan and Saurfang. There were other attempts, I can grant that. But they ended up as pure good or pure evil (what they did to Garrosh still irks me). At no point would anyone ever argue that the Alliance was the bad guys and the Horde the good guys. That ~75% of the player base is Horde is a different topic I can get into.

Back to main topic. The concept of good/bad choices is inherently flawed if the game reflects normal life. It works in Star Wars, because that world is entirely focused on the dichotomy of the world (at least until the Mandalorian came about). Lucas, in all his wisdom, posited that to achieve full power you have to commit to one side or the other. There’s very little grey, and in turn, that makes everyone the bad guy. How many times do we see the “good” Jedi make insanely poor decisions because of their rules?

Instead the games where we find the most attachment are the ones that live in the grey. Where hard choices are present, where it’s often the lesser of two evils. Outer Worlds has tons of these quests, where the choices are really not obvious at first glance. Energy stolen by rebels who don’t want to live under company oppression? Someone is gonna die, no matter what you do. Ghost of Tsushima starts with the obvious good/bad choices, but as you progress you realize that these choices get harder and harder to make. The sacrifices you have to make to combat an opponent with no morals.

Tyranny is a game which is great because it explores the complexity of implementing order after the bad guys win. With few exceptions, there are no lawful good choices to make, and a couple chaotic evil ones as well. Since there are no “good guys”, everything is pretty much the lesser of two evils. And the impacts of those decisions have long term consequences. Areas become hostile, entire quest lines are changed, and your final list of options to close the story are changed. There’s no obvious answer to any of them, as they are more ethical than power based. How do you see the world going? That’s way more important than saving the puppies.

I’d be remiss to not mention Red Dead Redemption 2. You’re a crook from the start, but focused more on survival than anything else. There are no decisions to be made here, as they are all scripted, but the story does an excellent job of showing the snowball effect of bad decisions and not accepting the consequences. That final bank shootout seems really black and white, but the context leading up to that situation is really the juicy bit.

As more games come along, our palettes are also expecting more nuanced and complex storytelling. Not to say that grade school storytelling doesn’t have value…. there’s plenty of room for that. It’s more than the potential for great storytelling is at an all-time high, and if a dev wants to put a feather in their cap on that thread then they have a much higher bar to reach. I for one, greatly appreciate it!

The World’s Watching

I had something else scheduled for today, but given yesterday’s insanity, that is pushed.

There’s a psychology term that is sometimes thrown about, a monkeysphere. This is the outer limit on the number of people with whom you can empathize as individuals. Outside that number, it’s not that you don’t care about them, it’s just really hard to get there.

Like if your 8yr old kid was making sweaters for a company, you would take issue. But if that kid is halfway around the world, then that sweater is a great bargain! It’s not like there’s a tag on that thing that says “hey, this is made by child labour”. People are just ignorant of something unless its in their backyard – it’s work to care.

When your monkeysphere is made up of similar people to yourself (e.g. an echo chamber) then those outside that sphere are hard to relate towards. Sometimes that builds resentment. There’s an infamous clip of two very rich people guessing the price of common grocery items. Where some people have trouble putting food on the table, others have trouble keeping track of their millions. There’s no way for someone like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk to have any concept of this. Both of them are not self-made, both of them took hundreds of thousands of dollars from their parents to “build their dreams”. Same goes for someone in the rural parts of Georgia… they have next to nothing in common from someone in urban California.

I’m not excluded. I can’t relate to being a visibility minority because I’m not. As a white male, I’ve been given every opportunity to succeed, regardless of my low-income housing beginnings. I try to be conscious of that bias and work entirely on merit, but cripes there are days where it’s not easy.

Yesterday appears to be a day where one group disenfranchised from society were supported by the highest office in the US to march. The world got to watch the supposed beacon of democracy fail on its basic elements. I for one was not at all surprised by the events, it’s been pretty clear that this was a logical step in the process. And not the last one either. On the one hand, I’m happy it happened because this releases some pressure and forces people to look in the mirror. On the other, it’s an interesting quirk that had these people not been white, we may not have seen barriers opened by the police or selfies being taken. Again, another look in the mirror for the US.

The wife and I watched with a lot of interest. It appeared that some decorum had been found in the senate, with only 1 person with greater aspirations continuing to press a dead point (dead in the sense that its entirely outside of their power to manage, as was made clear). The house though, wow. That’s clearly a group that despises each other. The whole thing looks like an episode of Jerry Springer. That’s the leadership team.

I do get that some people are going to say “they don’t represent me”. As a group they may not, but the person you voted for does. That’s the whole point. Maybe it’s the lesser of two evils? I’m sure everyone has their own justification, but again that whole mirror thing.

As we continue to watch from the outside, the question is what’s next for the US? Or maybe, who’s next given that the best of us can’t make it work. Shitty start to the year, that’s for sure.

We Can Be Heroes

Robert Rodriguez is like the kitschy version of Quentin Tarantino. He makes movies he wants to see, and if others are along for the ride, all the better.

Spy Kids was a solid movie. The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl is also quite good, though at the time suffered from some rather horrendous 3D effects. It’s a weird cult film now I guess.

We Can Be Heroes is his new film, a sort of stand-alone sequel to Sharkboy and Lavagirl. And I’m going to actually write that it’s a good movie, better than Wonder Woman!

Movies are complex beasts. The story, actors, music, shots and post-production are all super important. Editing, lighting, sound and a couple dozen more factors bring those main points to another level. Did you know that the direction an actor runs in a scene conveys intent? I geek out a bit too much on the director of photography in films, that’s a hell of an art.

WCBH looks like a kids movie, and a B one at that. It’s 2020, almost anyone can make some solid computer effects, so anything that looks like childish is done so with purpose (especially when you realize 80% of the film is on a green screen). The shots all make sense, and if you watch it a second time (cause with kids, who doesn’t?) you can see the subtleties in the shots that lead to the reveal at the end.

The actors are kids, and the film takes that over the top. What it does smartly in that regard is that each kid focuses on a specific characteristic, and then exaggerates it. Some are seen as weakness, but by the end everyone has a positive impact from their powers. Even the power of slow motion. They just do a great job of never taking themselves too seriously.

The soundtrack is delivered by a supporting character. I don’t know if this is insanity or brilliance, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen it work like this.

The story is the real highlight. It follows the traditional line for any band of misfits that needs to come together to succeed. The villains do a great job hamming it all up, and the punch of the film doesn’t feel like a cheat. Why? Because the story makes sense! Because the characters act according to their drivers, rather than the plot. There are no logic holes here. It’s delivered tightly, and every scene has some purpose to the larger story.

WCBH feels like the type of film that occurs when you take a comic book and transfer the spirit to film, rather than just the scenes. It’s the antithesis to Snyder’s films. And on many fronts (story, music, editing), it beats Wonder Woman.

I realize that this seems like comparing a hamburger to a steak. Your tastes dramatically impact the enjoyment. At the same time, I would think most people would better enjoy an amazing hamburger than a crappy steak.

And in a damn kids movie!

Pixar’s Soul

We picked up Disney+ so my wife could binge Mandalorian (with me being around too!). Soul recently released and my kids wanted to watch it. Review-ish herein – and you know, spoilers.

First off, this is not a kids movie. Not even remotely close. If you took Inside Out and made it more adult, you’d end up with this. The levels of depth on what it means to be alive are the deepest I’ve ever seen in an animated film. The concept of the “Great Before” is something adults will have trouble fully grasping. Self-determination theory is not a simple matter.

Second, it’s pretty clear that there are two voices behind this film, and that they do not align. The “traditional” Pixar stuff is here, tear jerkers, body swaps, realizations, sacrifices and whatnot. But there’s another important story here, one of being Black. The movie as marketed as the second story being the important one, but it really feels more like window dressing than purpose. Jamie Foxx plays his character for what seems like 20 minutes of the film, then he’s never in his body again.

I am rarely one to advocate for casting choices, actors can be actors and whatnot. In this case, the casting of Tina Fey, in this specific role, is a problem. She does a great job at it, that’s not the issue. It’s that the foundation of the film is that an experienced black person is replaced by an inexperienced white woman, and she succeeds in everything he did not. Casting almost anyone of color in that role (there are many), would have made a big difference in the overall tone of the film. There’s an irony that if this were a colorblind society, this wouldn’t even be something to discuss. Thinking about it more, there are high odds that in the dubbed versions of this film that the casting itself gets sorted out.

It’s a good movie all the same.

2021 Predictions

I really need to learn to make simple headlines… a whole lot easier to find them later!

2020 was a real crapshoot when it comes to predictions. The only one I consider that held true is that cross-play is the expectation for multiplayer games (Destiny is getting it in 2021). Now, I’m not saying Marvel Avengers tanked because it didn’t support cross-play, but I am saying that it’s a massive factor when the foundation of end-game activity is group-making.

For 2021, I do expect a lot of stuff from 2020 simply shifts to the right. I don’t see much happening until after March, otherwise

  • High speed internet moves further towards commodity (like running water) than a luxury. This will mean more competition and more municipal offerings.
  • Netflix will lose subscribers to alternative services, who don’t end up cancelling series on cliffhangers.
  • The break-up of Ant/Alibaba will spread to other large IT companies, with Alphabet/Facebook the next global targets
  • There will be no repeal of section 230, and no further progress of holding liability to internet falsehoods. The general lack of a spotlight on a mediocre boy-child peddling conspiracy theories will be put into a corner, where it will fester and grow.
    • Section 230 is the bit of US law that protects IT companies from being sued from what their posters put up. The only alternative to 230 is to have the Blizzard RealID (remember that?) on the majority of the internet. The companies would validate your real identity, and hold you liable for posting. What this means is that if THEY get sued, YOU get sued. And by proxy, would mean that only people that CAN get sued have access to the service. E.g. Twitter would no longer be global, and the user base would drop by ~90%. The only winners here are the lawyers.
  • 2021 will be the death of the western movie going experience, which was already struggling before the pandemic. Does mean that global filmmaking will come into a larger being.
  • Related, 2021 is the year of affordable 4K and smaller audio equipment, allowing for a cinema-like experience at home.
  • This is not the year of 5G, because there’s no incentive for it to be deployed anymore. 5G’s major benefits are in the mesh network, allowing for high speed connections while travelling. Everyone’s home network is 5G already, just that your provider doesn’t give you the speed needed.
  • Life will get back to normal in time for the new school year. The summer months will be a massive vaccine push to the masses, and in some places, you’re going to get “a card” to prove you’re vaccinated. Cue the outrage.
  • The dumpster fire in the US does not go quietly into that good night. “Whatabout-ism” becomes a default policy.

Games are a different beast. Large dev shops are learning to work effectively remotely, though the serendipity aspects of development are going to be harder to figure out.

  • Diablo Immortal will launch, make the news for a month or so, then go away.
  • Blizzcon will focus on Overwatch 2, and give a target date for Diablo 4 (2022). WoW will have a Classic BC launch this summer. Pathfinder in retail will come out in the first major patch.
  • Blizzard implements a “social score” system for Acti-Blizz games. It works similar to ranked matchmaking, so that similar scored people play together. Player PvP ranking would take precedence.
  • The Fall of 2021 will be the major launch window for most big-budget games (God of War, Horizon, FarCry, Hogwarts)
  • Sony will continue to dominate the first party exclusives domain for the foreseeable future. Bethesda won’t release anything until 2022 at the earliest.
  • An updated Nintendo Switch will be announced in the spring, or at least a console that plays Switch games. Long shot – but Nintendo finds a way to make game streaming work for the masses.
  • The PC equipment shortage continues until the summer, due primarily to supply chain disruptions from the pandemic. This will leave consoles as the available and importantly, cheaper alternative.
  • Star Citizen won’t launch.
  • BioWare gets a new lead after the launch of the Mass Effect remaster, then they are rebranded. Anthem NEXT is confirmed vapourware.
  • Crystal Dyamics pulls a Hail Mary and launches a working expansion of content for Marvel Avengers that rewards group play.
  • Everquest (1&2) each launch a new expansion, while LOTRO goes into permanent maintenance mode.
  • Monster Hunter Rise will sell a ton and see a related spike of Switch sales. (MH:World is still in the top of Steam charts.)
  • The New World will launch. And it will close in 2021, joining the other Amazon game studio projects.
  • 2021 will continue the trend of indie/small devs creating some knockouts that make you question why AAA studios can’t do the same.
  • Ubisoft will the first company to support a developers union, if only to protect itself from the chain of lawsuits of harassment from nearly every person in a leadership position.
  • 2021 won’t be the year of VR, driven primarily from Occulus’ insistence of a Facebook account.

Relatively safe bets all around, with the union entry the real longshot. It’s going to be an interesting year.