Skill Ceilings

Checkers is much easier than chess.  There are only 4 basic rules in the game.  A child can play, and even the best checkers players can get there without much effort.  Chess has different rules depending on the piece, but still only has about 10 total rules to the game.  It takes 2-3 games for most kids to learn the fundamentals.  The best chess players require thousands of hours of practice, and a very high level of intelligence to execute.  The current world champion can recall games from 15 years ago (which he did not play), on a move-by-move basis from a simple picture.  It’s insane.

Games with long-tails (forever-games I guess), in particular those popular in the e-sports fields, have approachable entry points and very high skill ceilings.  MOBA’s, shooters, battle royales… they are all have relatively basic rule sets but add complexity and options as players develop.  It’s quite impressive, and the skill level is often translatable so that even people with limited understanding of the game can appreciate what is occurring.

MMOs today have a much higher skill ceiling than 15 years ago, when zerging was an acceptable tactic.  Dungeon bosses today are more complex than raid bosses from 10 years ago.  The difference here is that MMOs have a skill floor that is continually raised with both fixes and increased player statistics.  Imagine playing chess and after every 10 turns you got a new piece to play on your board.

Monster Hunter World has a high skill ceiling, though it does a really bad job of showing it.  Often times players feel like luck plays a larger role than skill.  Due to the structure of the game (30+ minute solo battles), it’s hard to experiment with new tactics.  The training area is good to explore damage options, fine.  The real challenge is connecting attacks, while avoiding getting hit, which is really hard to practice effectively.  Some monsters can kill you in 1 or 2 hits, with no real feedback to see why.  It would be neat to have a death camera to figure that part out…

When it comes to specific weapons, they all have relatively simple button presses to get things started.  Then some combos.  Then some movements that can chain into combos. Then damage types.  Then wounding.  Then slinger attacks.  Then….it just goes on.  Where it may have taken me dozens of attempts to take on a basic Nergigante because the game didn’t explain diving made you invulnerable, I can also find videos of people taking him down in less than a minute.  I know part of the challenge is moving like this person, but I am also aware that their stats are such that they can reliably stun/attack and keep their patterns working.

I really like the Charge Blade.  It’s a high risk/reward weapon.  When it works, it’s glorious.  When it doesn’t, you get chain stunned and die in frustration.  When you finally learn about Guard Points, the weapon completely changes into an offensive powerhouse.  Instead of slowly moving around, you can deflect almost any attack and chain into massive damage.  Battles against ultra fast attackers become a game of daring them to attack you, instead of waiting until they stop moving.  Heck, here’s a video of players killing a monster with blocking alone.

There are plenty of little nuances like this that have a dramatic impact on the game, and it’s more noticeable once you get a decent way into Dauntless as to how integral it is to the enjoyment of the game.  I’m not saying Dauntless has a low ceiling (time trials prove otherwise) but it’s noticeably lower than MHW.  In fact, I’d argue that the skill floor is the biggest difference between the two games, where Dauntless is much lower.  You can reach the end-point of Dauntless with button mashing due to the LFG mechanism.

I really like games where I’m continually making mistakes and learning from them.  Games where I’ve perfected, or come as close as I care to, tend to be put back on the shelf.  Still amazing games (God of War notably), but time to move on.  When there’s always something new to learn, or perfect… then there’s your forever game.

Monster Hunter: Iceborne

I have the base game on PS4 and PC, though quite a few more hours on the PC version.  Figured I’d wait for the PC expansion, which hit last week.  A few random thoughts on this while I make my way through the main quest.

  • This is an expansion and not DLC, in the sense that you need to complete the main quest before even stepping foot in this world.  That’s a solid 40 hours before this has value.
  • The new snow map is solid.  The various nooks all have tons of interactive bits.  The stamina draining cold effect is easily offset if you’re paying attention.  The waist high snow really slows things down, but can be offset as well.
  • New monsters have interesting mechanics that build on previous ones.  Very strong emphasis on status effects now (sleep, poison, paralysis, fire, cold, bleed).  If you gear up properly, then you can immunize yourself and make the fight a billion times easier.
  • As a general rule, most monsters have one (or more) moves that require a smart counter.  You can’t just go HAM and hope to win.  This makes combat painful until you learn the tells, then oh-so-rewarding.
  • General enemy speed appears to have increased a tad.  Or at least the new ones.  Barioth feels like a snow tiger on drugs.
  • Every weapon got a tweak, and the majority of tweaks focus on added mobility.  The Charge Blade (my favorite) got some crazy tweaks for Axe mode that make it both familiar and refreshing to try out.
  • The Clutch Claw allows you to climb the target while in combat, for some limited effects.  If you can climb their head, point them in the right way, and have a full Slinger, you can knock them into a wall for great damage and a stun.  Hitting any part causes it to be wounded, increasing overall damage.
  • Fights are still quite long.  My average first-encounter fight is somewhere near 25 minutes, with no ability to pause.
  • The difference in defense levels between HR (base game) and MR (Iceborne) is very high.  I was in the 70s before, and basic MR gear is 114.  I’m now using 140.  It means that the skills on the gear matters not…so you’re focused almost entirely on decorations.
  • Decorations seem to drop after every mission.  These are random, and can be slotted into gear for various effects.  This expansion wouldn’t work at all without them.
  • There are numerous QoL changes applied throughout.  The new town hub is a dramatic improvement in terms of layout/interface.  There are more cooking options.  Changing gear is easier.  Palico hunt interface is in town.  Your new quarters can be super customised.
  • Palico gadgets are improved.  Vigorwasp (healing) in particular has a major boost with 1 free revive per mission.
  • Mantles / equipment all have a 1 rank upgrade which increases their duration (from 60 to 120) with the same cooldown.  Matters less for some pieces, but a big boost for the Boosters and Bandit Mantle.
  • Upgrading Charms is pretty much required now.  A fully upgraded Charm can grant full immunity, freeing up all the gear decorations.
  • Monster health scaling is better for 2 players.  Same for 3/4 players as in MHW.

 

  • I still have a gripe when it comes to item drops/farming and the inability to search for them.  You need the wiki open.
  • With a focus on status ailments, some fights feel impossible without immunity and then practically trivial once you have it.
  • Fishing does not appear to have been touched.  Boo.
  • Lots of customisation options (looks) it still feels limited since many things are thematic.  I mean, there are a dozen metal-based armor sets.
  • Grouping in this game is still obtuse.  You can only find people through the SOS mechanic, and there’s limited chat ability when not in a group.  It could be so, so much better.

 

There’s an essential question of Dauntless vs. MHW that remains.  MHW is the more complete game, in every sense BUT the group/social mechanics.  Dauntless is a real pick-up and play game, with battles only lasting 10 minutes at most.  There’s a very long grind near the end due to the system mechanics forcing a broad approach (you need to master everything).  MHW instead has a laser focus, with optional things to help out.  Sure, some fights may be easier with a Bow vs Dual Blades, but that’s a personal choice.  You can certainly complete the game with a single weapon type.

More thoughts on this after I complete the main quest in Iceborne.  So far though, it’s more MHW, which is an amazing thing.

Small and Meaningful

Every morning at work, I look at my coffee cup with the words:

There’s no such thing as quality time.  There’s just time.

The point here is that people often wait for events, or put a lot of effort into a thing, while ignoring everything else around them.  It can be seen as a lack of appreciation for the simple things, but it’s often more related to an effort/reward mindset.    I’ll give some examples.

A successful relationship is not at all defined by the number of times you go out for dinner, or how expensive it is.  It’s defined by doing the dishes, telling them you care on a regular basis, actually wanting to spend time with them.  I can’t think of any marriage that ended in divorce because they didn’t get a new car, or take a trip.  Nearly all were chipped away over the years because they didn’t appreciate the small things.

My greatest memories with my dad have nothing to do with trips to the cottage as a kid (which was still amazing mind you), it was spending entire days at the rink, either skating or helping out other people.  My kids smile way more when we’re doing Legos, a puzzle, or a board game.

My best MMO memories are from EQ, farming experience with a friend in OoT til the wee hours, talking about life.  I did every raid for the first 2 expansions, yet this is what sticks most with me.

Even the best games today are not about the large payoffs, but the ridiculous refinement of the seemingly mundane.  Horizon’s best moments are outside of dungeons and bosses, and simply related to taking down a T-Rex that can shoot lazers.  The Last of Us excels at the quiet moments.

 

As I’m looking forward into 2020 and the messages I want to share with my family, the general theme is going to be on appreciating all the moments, not just the “big” ones.  That 2 minute chat in the car ride, telling my daughters that I think they’re beautiful every day, helping my wife without her needing to ask.   Even the smallest of gestures can make a mountain of difference.

What Remains of Edith Finch

In the ever expanding catalog of games I’ve had the chance to play, few ever come across as art without feeling artsy.   It takes a special kind of blend to present game mechanics wrapped up in such a fashion that it plays more like a movie.  Shadow of the Colossus has been at the top of that list for a long time.  What Remains of Edith Finch is pretty darn close to that level.

Presented as an anthology of short gaming segments relating to the Finch family, and the possible curse that has caused all family members to pass away, you play the teen Edith looking for the root cause to all the story.  The actual Finch house is something to behold, as it’s not presented as a set piece but feels like it’s an actual house.  All the various bits and bobs look like they belong to someone, and were placed for a specific reason.

edithfinch-1280-1493245671809

As you progress through each short story, you get to understand that individual person and a very stylized telling of their passing.  There are some simple enough game mechanics to be had, but the point here is more about the interpretation of the story and how the game mechanics reflect the state of mind of the person in question.

Personally, when I finished most segments, I needed to take a breather in order to collect my thoughts.  I needed to digest the person, the message, the medium, and how it all fit into the larger picture.  I’d scour their room for some additional personal tidbits.  I’d imagine how the rest of the family felt at the loss, and how it motivated them in their stories.  The point here isn’t so much how they died (everyone dies eventually) but how their lives were beforehand, and the trickle effect unto others.

The game is only a couple hours to go through, and you will only get out of it what you want to.  My wife took a stride through the game after I did, and you could see the wheels turning when it was all over.  Highly recommended.

Rise of Skywalker

I’m a fair bit conflicted about this movie.  The Last Jedi had some major plot holes and infuriating character developments, but it was generally consistent on its message – the past does not dictate your future.  Rise of Skywalker pulls a massive 180, and instead says that your past entirely defines your future.  Aside from Luke being a Force Ghost, you can pretty much ignore the entirety of The Last Jedi… every “major” development is ignored/retconned.

*Spoiler inbound*

Rose Tico

I’ll be the first to say that the Finn/Rose arc in TLJ was weak.  Rogue One did the whole “shades of grey” thing a lot better.  But to have her have a minute of screen time, and the Finn relationship entirely ignored, is plain absurd.

Finn’s Secret

There are 2 major plot beats that focus on Finn having a secret to tell.  Never gets a chance, never comes back into the conversation.  He’s also made general, by another general (Poe) who stays general himself.

Holdo Manoeuver

The big plot hole of TLJ, where a lightspeed ship can destroy another, is called a one-in-a-million chance.  Which either makes Holdo a force weilder (since Luke used the force to destroy death star 1), or the luckiest person alive.

If you’re watching the end of ROS, over the moon of Endor, you see another First Order ship destroyed by the Holdo manoeuver.  Least it sure looks like it.

Spaceships

A big plot point is that to destroy a nav beacon (exposed to the elements) you need to attack on the ground.  While a really neat set piece, it’s beyond dumb when you consider all the aerial acrobatics in episodes 1-8.  Two shots and this thing is down… next.  Also dumb that the enemy would leave this entirely out in the open.

Final Order Resources

A planet that no one can get to.  Hidden for at least 30 years.  Has the resources to build a modern fleet, with ships that each have a planet destroying weapon onboard.  Must have some amazing clone facilities on this planet to staff these ships…a plot point the First Order deals with by kidnapping people from planets.

The Magic Trick / Deux Ex Machina

Apparently Rey and Kylo can teleport things with their mind across planets.  Which looks frikkin’ cool, granted.  But the whole dyad in the force gimmick reeks of plot device to make things look cool.

What I mean here is that Star Wars succeeded because it was small people in a large world, trying to find their place in it all.  In these last 3, we have superhuman people that are able to conjure miracles, which dramatically lowers any sense of risk.

Ben’s Redemption

It had to happen, and the trigger for it is ok.  He apparently loses the ability to talk from that point forward.  From the start, the sequel trilogy had him set up as the ultimate bad guy who would redeem himself.  Which he does, but the really bad guy cheapens it.

Knights of Ren

Silent monks to walk slow, carry a big stick, have no force powers, no guns, no lightsabers.  With the buildup around these folks… major disappointment.

Palpatine

He makes for an intimidating bad guy, I’ll grant that.  But there’s no explanation of how he survived, this new dark magic where all the Sith live in one emperor, how he can summon lightning to disable an armada.  How he somehow let his kids (?!) become good (?!) people and take away his grandchild.  How pretty much everything about Rey is because she’s his grandkid.

Also, Snoke was apparently a hand puppet.  True story.

The Good Bits

The photography is well done, as are the set pieces.  The lightsaber battle over a raging sea is impressive.  The escape from the capital ship even more so.  Music is still top notch and gets you into the space.  Zori Bliss is a neat addition that adds some larger impact to the ongoing events.  Exegol is straight out of Knights of the Old Republic and it looks amazing.

TLDR;

The movie feels like pandering, and a general lack of understanding of the issues with TLJ.  Rogue One was an amazing movie, set in the same world, constrained by the plot and timeframe.  It still did an amazing job at character building and consistency.

I’d go into a tangent about how George Lucas’ success is almost entirely due to an amazing editor (his ex-wife), and how the lack of editing here is apparent… but this post is long enough.

ROS is an ok movie.    Could have used another 6 months to a year in the bacta tank.

 

 

Control

When a game reaches multiple top 10 lists, my eyes tend to shift over.  When said game blends X-files, Lost, Fringe, Twilight Zone, Metroid, and Zombies… I’m doubly in.

Built in a New Weird setting, you play as Jesse who’s trying to find her brother within a secret government organization.  As you finally get through the front doors, you realize everything is going sideways, with a small war underway.

Cue the various exploration bits, and additional powers.  You have a weapon that can transform to other styles (full auto, sniper, shotgun, grenade launcher, handgun).  Powers are relatively simple.  Dodge and shield for defense.  Seize to convert low-health enemies.  Levitation to explore a pile of areas and make combat go full 3D.  And Launch – which is the bread and butter skill that picks up almost anything to throw it at targets.    The variety of items that can be thrown, and the distance… it makes for some extremely satisfying combat.

Enemies generally look the same, humanoids.  They are quite a bit different though.  Some are basic grunts, others launch grenades, some fly, some explode on death, some stealth and then shoot you at close range.  Then you have various elite enemies, and some exceptional boss fights.

Which does bring me to likely the largest hurdle for many gamers… this thing is hard.  Not to the level of Dark Souls… but enough that I died a solid 50 times before the end.  Sometimes it’s just bad luck and you end up between two grenades.  Sometimes you miss an important jump.  Most of them were the boss fights, in particular the last one and the few optional fights.  Levitation, dodging, launching, shooting.  It feels like pure chaos, but then you look back and go “holy shit”.

In fact, there’s one sequence near the tail end where Jesse says “that was awesome” and I cannot recall any game sequence that actually felt that awesome to get through.

There’s some RPG-ish elements here.  You get skill points to increase various powers/health/energy.  You get mod to modify yourself (better throws, less energy per use, more health, etc..) and your weapons (accuracy, rate of fire, ammo return, etc..)  There’s a huge amount of RNG here, and a massive difference between rank 1 and 5 items.  If you like min-maxing, there are some options here.

All of that stuff works, and generally works well.  But you’ve seen that before.  The extra bits here are the lore/setting.  There are dozens of lore items to pick up and read, listen to, or watch.  Some of it is absurd, like a rubber duck that teleports on it’s own, or a traffic light that teleports users when it’s red.  Some is freaky, like mold that takes like candy and transforms people.  There are various hidden puzzles too, like one where you cheat on a roulette table.  Piles of side quests that add extra flavor and bring you to the weirdest of places.  An extra dimension phone line.  The amount of effort and quality world building here is stunning.  You want to explore every nook and cranny.

And I want more Ahti.

Long story short, yeah, Control is one of the best games I’ve played this year.  That was awesome.

Looking Back at 2019

Still quite a few days left, but since the holidays are just around the corner, I’d be surprised if much else pops up.  Or that I properly digest it in time.

Macro

2019 at the macro level has been a new level of insanity.  Society seems to be going off the deep end, with the simple idea of respecting another person considered taboo.  Social media is a ridiculous enabler of the worst facets of humanity.  And when our global leaders focus on lying, ridiculing, insulting and just plain being poor role models… we’re not going to go far.  It’s depressing.

And that’s inclusive of the “woke culture” of finding fault with everything from behind a keyboard.  It’s a sad day when someone’s personal value is measured in the number of re-tweets they get.  Just focusing on problems instead of working on solutions doesn’t help anyone.  And “cancelling” is not a solution.

On the flipside, it’s making me much more conscious of my behaviour and the one I want my kids to emulate.  It’s a very strong driver for the extra volunteering load I’ve taken on.  We can all do better.

Micro

My year’s been solid.  Love my wife more and more every day.  Kids are growing up to be people I want to spend time with, and so far want to spend time with me.  Our social circles are all undergoing major mid-life crises (which I guess is normal at this age), making for some serious wake up calls.  I still have a lot of friends who are having trouble coming to terms with the fact that they are adults.  Both my wife and I are making extra time to support as many people as we can fit.  It’s impressive what a small gesture can mean to someone.  Sometimes just a 5 minute phone call can turn around a person’s day.

Career wise things have been going along at a breakneck pace.  There are days where I wish I was still a code monkey, but on the whole I am enjoying what I do.  Some day I’ll explain it, but for now let’s just say that it’s high enough to have global impact, yet direct enough that I can talk to the amazing people doing the work.  And I’ve entered a career development program that will both open new opportunities, and help me grow as a leader.  Lots (and lots) of work to get here.  I’m glad I can recognise it, and the support along the way.

Summer at the cottage was great this year, but went by a tad too fast.  Next year I’ll take some more time off and spend more with the fam.  There’s something special in seeing your kid’s face light up when you’re out on the water, or around the fire.  Something like that can make my week.

I blogged more than I thought I would, which is good.

Games

If I was to look at 2019, it would be the year of less is more.  The best games this year were able to focus on key aspects and deliver amazing experiences.  It didn’t take 40 hours to get through a slog of repetitive content.  Most were in the 8-16 hour range.

  • I started the year with a buch of indies.  Celeste, Frostpunk, Return of the Obra Dinn, Dead Cells.
  • I picked up Outer Wilds in the late spring and was amazed at what was presented (my personal GotY winner).
  • Bloodstained scratched that Castlevania itch, but didn’t really go beyond.
  • Outer Worlds showed everyone what can be done with a clear vision and a smaller set of resources – I’m looking forward to more adventures in that setting.
  • Jedi Fallen Order is an actually good Star Wars game from EA, and no loot boxes.  Call me pleasantly surprised.
  • I bit back into SWTOR to see what content I’ve missed over the years.  I do like what’s presented, and I’m going back with a Republic Shadow to compare both ends.  Won’t sugar coat it… it’s rough.  But that just means the game has progressed.
  • Lots of Dauntless, which has been a pleasant surprise.  Their official launch was in the fall, and their release structure should be applauded.  There’s tons of content here, it’s entirely cross-platform (Switch too!), and bite sized enough to make Monster Hunter look like paint drying.  Oh, their F2P model is impressive to boot.
  • Warframe has been an on/off thing for a while now.  It still has one of the craziest on-ramps I’ve ever seen, next only to EvE.  The depth here is stupifying.  Like if you went to a buffet, and found out there were 30 other buffets all linked together.  There are times where it feels like staring into the Abyss.

 

Overall

In terms of things that directly impact me, it’s been a really good year.  One of my best.  A year of reducing the complexities and at the same time spreading out to help more people.  I prefer to spend my energy on people who are positive, or are making attempts to be.  I try to let the negativity just slide off, and it makes for more enjoyable days.

As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I guess I’m just more appreciative.  Thanks for reading.