Spring Energy

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

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

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

Dauntless

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

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

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

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

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

Misc Gaming

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

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

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

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

EA Financials: Nothing to See Here

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

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

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

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

Big Picture

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

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

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

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

Heaven’s Vault

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

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

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

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

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This is a simple text

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blizz Dev Pipelines

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

There are two interesting bits here:

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

Mobile

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

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

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

New IP

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

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

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

Way Forward

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

Lag, The True Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really leaves three options.

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

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

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

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

More Dauntless

Now for some good news.

We’re on the other side of 48 hours of downtime to apply a major patch in Dauntless.  OB 0.7.1 (rolls off the tongue).  I was really looking forward to the new systems, mastery in particular.

The good news is that all the changes appear to have taken place, and the new behemoth hunting order is dramatically improved.  The less good news is that anyone that had a high level character prior to the patch likely experienced a significant downgrade in their gear.  In practical terms, it means that new players are going to be just fine.

Mastery

This replaced an odd reputation system.  Instead, you have multi-tiered achievements called Mastery.  One that’s player level (Slayer), one that’s for the enemies (Behemoth), and one for Weapons.  Slayer is more of a meta, and goes up while the other ones go up, and a bit when you kill Behemoths.

Behemoths are trickier.  You need to kill them, naturally.  You also need to break lots of parts, kill them while wearing their equipment, deal damage, avoid damage, and similar related activities.  Most of this is quite doable without a lot of focus.  One card to fill per Behemoth.  The reward tiers are not in game… but on the wiki.

Weapons are the long game.  There’s 1 card per class of weapons (5 of them), then 1 more card per specific weapon (e.g. Inferno Hammer).  The class cards are really generic – mostly just about dealing damage, the weapon’s special attack, or elemental damage.  Elemental bits are going to be less fun… since there are 5 elemental attacks and 8 tiers of damage (starts at 50,000, adds 10x each tier…).  Rewards here include alternative special attacks, and a higher power level per item.

Specific weapon cards… really simple.  Craft them, upgrade them, use them.

The whole system provides wide horizontal growth.

Behemoth Power Rankings

Same amount of Behemoths, just finally triaged into logical groupings.  There are more training wheels at the start, which is quite appreciated.  Instead of just throwing you to the wolves, you now get to learn about resistances, wounds, stagger, dodging, and a few other items that make life a lot easier.

The graduation from one tier to another is gated by your own power level.  That appears to be at 275 and 350, which is related to the gear levels you can craft/equip.  In practical terms you need to hunt enough pieces at a lower tier in order to have a chance for a higher tier.  Now, this existed prior but the overlap between two tiers was much wider (meaning you needed to farm less).  From what I can tell now, having 350 power against Behemoths with 425-500 power is just a walking disaster.  Mathematically, the best you can upgrade to seems to be around 400 (in the middle tier), which provides next to no overlap.  You’d need to be “carried” through at least 5 battles at the top before being able to get to the needed power level.  In practical terms, this means there’s a rather big wall of challenge going from middle to top tier content.

I really think I’m missing something here.

Bugs

There are a few.

  • Items that were +10 before are now +5/6.  Refunded items to get them upgraded again are coming.
  • Items perks have been moved around.  I need to craft 4 new pieces to get back the perks I had before.  I don’t think this is a bug exactly, but it is very noticeable.
  • Items cells (cells are like gems, each has a perk) for items have changed.  My Hammer with  Power/Technique slots is now Power/Power.

Again, all these things only impact existing players.  New players wouldn’t notice any of this.

Hunts

With the changes to Mastery and the Power levels, this has had a larger impact on getting into hunts.  There are still options to target a specific monster, but now there’s only a single generic type of patrol, with a few sub-categories.  This directly impacts lower level hunts, as they are the only target for specific crafting items, making queues super fast.

This also impacts higher level hunts, since there’s only “Heroic Patrols”, again for crafting materials.  People will always be queueing for this generic queue, which in turn feeds those players as backups to specific Heroic hunts.

Long story short, these changes are going to significantly reduce Hunt queue times, for all Behemoths.

Overall

I wouldn’t even call it a day in, just a few hours testing out some parts.  What’s there so far is really making the game ready for prime time.  There’s more to do, more clarity to new players as to how the various systems work, and better queue management.  The core systems all appear to be in good shape (with likely a few balance tweaks here and there).

Looking at their published roadmap, that’s a lot of things delivered in this patch.  The console launch in the summer will hit a wide swath of others.  Next “feature” would be preset loadouts, which given the sheer amount of gear options is more than just QoL at this point.

Color me impressed.

Damned If You Do

I will start with a link to Twitch, of a particular section of the Anthem live stream.

For those not understanding what’s going on, the new Stronghold (dungeon) comes with 2 chests and a final boss.  Chests are where most people think good gear should come from.  In this particular case, the loot is 4 epics (100% useless for anyone who’s been level 30 for over an hour), and some materials to craft items.  In particular, 2 Masterwork Embers.  My math is probably wrong on this, but I recall it taking 20 of those embers to craft 1 item.  Long story short, the chest may as well have been empty.  This is the #1 issue players have with Anthem, extremely poor loot (many issues, but this is the big one).

And frankly, you’re allowed some bad luck rolls.  And it sucks when it happens on a livestream where you’re trying to show progress.  It sucks even more when you can read body language… and the 3 of them go into awkward silence (the only silence in the stream), realizing what’s going on.

For the full stream – including the chat that is spammed with the word “loot”- find that here.  In the entire stream, 3 MW dropped.  ‘nough said.

Delays

BioWare also put up a post explaining that they are going to concentrate on fixing the game rather than deploying their roadmap.  Math-wise, that’s 1 of 14 items that is delivered.

Again, this makes sense.  Anthem has some foundational issues that simply will not get addressed through more content additions.  It makes little sense to build on shifting sands.  That they are going to deploy a test server makes tons of sense.  Even this recent patch (1.1.0) is chocked full of bugs that are easily reproducible.  Intermittent bugs… fine.  100% reproduceable, every single patch… I’ve personally demoted people for this.

The general tone here is that the devs over-promised and drastically under-delivered.  It takes no responsibility for the game, or the culture.  It provides no timeframes for the next update, and the biggest feature – Cataclysms – no one knows at all what it means.  It’s one of those “we’re late, we know, but we have no idea when the next stuff will be ready”.  Which is fine when you’re in dev-mode.  It’s the opposite of OK for managing a live service.

Forest for the Trees

I’ve managed a particular service where it was more or less on fire for 6 months.  My team was spending an insane amount of overtime to get things semi-stable, trying to get some of the users in a better state, dealing with vendors and suppliers.  It was coming from all directions.

My job was to take the beating, give updates, and to give as much a space / tools for my team to do their job.  Won’t lie, I made my management team’s lives difficult, but it was a thousand times less difficult than if the clients were able to get to them.  We got out of it, bruises and all.

The good news is that the team was able to focus on the problem instead of the noise around the problem.  The so-so news is that the team grew closer together through some interesting conflicts from the stress.  The bad news is that it nearly broke me to get through that.  The largest lesson learned was that honesty/transparency was the best path forward, along with regular updates.

When I look at Anthem, I see a similar situation.  The fire has been going on for many months, but the job of being “the face” didn’t really exist until 10 weeks ago.  There was a ~2 week honeymoon phase, where there was some good faith.  That’s long gone.  Players rarely care about the large scale view, they care about themselves.  And there’s a serious gap in BioWare as to how to manage that expectation.

There are some clear examples on how and how not to manage a community.  I can only guess as to why BioWare is insistent on repeating the mistakes others have made.

I do hope that the development team can take some pride in what they have accomplished in the short time frame available to them.  I also hope that BioWare has an internal plan on how to address the various issues (or at the least has identified them), so that the dev team can track progress moving forward.  And move forward in a healthy way.

This is an ultra crappy situation to be in.  Entirely self-inflicted, but still crappy.