Getting Ready for Summer

In igloo-ville, summer lasts about 48 hours.  Might be less by the looks of this year.  Still expecting snow this weekend.  This winter feels a lot longer, and cabin fever is certainly setting in.

School won’t be ending until the end of June, so there’s still a lot of Spring activities underway.  Need to get new bikes for the kids.  Swimming lessons.  Pick up hockey for my eldest.  Yard work (backyard rink still has a pile of snow).  Birthday parties (everyone seems to be born in the Spring around here).  Swapping of winter clothes for less-winter clothes.

Heading into year 3 of owning a cottage, I have developed a massive itch for getting out of the house.  We had a system last year for prep/readiness and it worked fairly well.  We also found out what does work and does not work, as well as what we need to replace.  Like a home, a cottage is a pile of work and money.  It does feel worth it, when you have a fire going at sunset, on the waterfront, beverage in hand.

We need some patio swings & chairs for the fire pit.  A different setup to store the canoe.  I’ve been looking for a fishing kayak for a while.  There’s a garden we’ll be prepping.  Then a weeping tile trench to dig.  The dock needs some sturdier footings.  A new outdoor sink (and associated plumbing lines).  Some fishing equipment replacement.  A new cord of wood.  And none of that has anything to do with actually opening the cottage in the first place.

It’s nothing but lists!

And the kids are happy to just play in the puddles.  I just happen to like really big puddles I guess.

Open World and Levels

I’m playing some Assassin’s Creed: Origins now.  There’s a lot of good here, which shows that not releasing a game every year is a good path.  It looks amazing, is a massive (MASSIVE!) seamless world, and has some pretty solid mechanics.  I am a huge Egyptian-antiquity fan, and this scratches a good itch.  There are many liberties taken, but overall it does a decent job humazing the time period – specifically the Ptolemic.

Even the tedium is entertaining – hunting various animals, finding treasure, and aligning stars – it all works pretty well.  There’s one nitpick and it’s the trend to apply levels to open world games, as a gating mechanism.

Open Worlds

In this case, I will define an open world as one where most/all of the activities are available at most parts of the game.  You can choose what to do, when you want to.  Ubisoft and Bethesda are the main leads in that front. Legend of Zelda is a great recent example, where the mechanics are open at the start and it’s how you leverage those mechanics to progress.

Story Unlocks

Progress in some open world games is predicated on specific points of the story being complete before moving on.  Nearly all traditional games operate on this concept, where killing a boss opens up the next part of the game.  Traditional Zelda games are like this, where you need say the hookshot in order to progress.  The game grows somewhat organically and it’s the mechanics that modify over time allowing you to go forward.  Some games only have a small handful of these gates (Horizon) to keep the story fresh, while others use the gates to ensure you’re ready for the next challenge (Monster Hunter).

The point here is that you never really feel like you’re held back or hitting a wall, as there’s a logical progression to the game.

Level Unlocks

Progress here is limited to your level.  You can see the area or task, but the underlying numbers prevent you from participating.  You could be level 10 but the enemies are level 20 and kill you in 1 hit.  Many RPGs use this model (FF games with open maps), and plenty of MMOs put “zones” at specific level ranges.  You can access the area, you just can’t do anything once there.

This model can work if the core story/game progress aligns with levels assignment.  What I mean is that if you follow the breadcrumbs of the story line, you can continually progress through levels.  You never feel handicapped level-wise, while participating in the story.  The tail end of Ni No Kuni 2 does a poor job on this front, and there’s a need to grind/side quests to progress in the last 10%.

AC:O does a worse job, since after the first zone, all main-story progress is predicated on you completing ~50% of the nearby side quests to continue.  I don’t know what the level cap is, but after around level 8, this becomes apparent.  The good news is that the side quests/tasks are generally fun.  The bad side is that you’re forced to “explore for ?” to find more of said side activities.  It doesn’t feel natural because they are so far off the main path.  For example, the 2nd zone has you moving North on the main quest.  Half the side quests are actually East/South.  And if you head too far East into the next zone, you get 1 shot.  Ehhh.

Forward

I can see the challenge around providing side tasks in a game that’s level related, to make certain they provide some benefit.  I thought that the solution was already clear – scaling numbers based on your own level.  We all learned that lesson between Oblivion and Skyrim.  That was 7 years ago.

I am truly struggling to see why that model was not applied here, if only because Ubisoft wasn’t able to get the concept of open-world and levels to jive in their operating model.  But the solution exists, so I am in no way worried that this gets addressed in the next iteration.

 

Facebook and Ethics

Zuckerberg’s face is all of the media right now.  Quite a few items remarking on his poor social abilities.  He’s clearly on the autism spectrum and if I recall it’s more in-line with Asperger’s.

That generally means that the switch inside the head doesn’t register non-vocal feedback, and that the social skills never truly develop.  Socially inept.  We’ve all met people where social cues just go right by.  This is more evident in high school and college settings, where everyone is showing tremendous social growth, while others seem stalled.  As adults, the social aspects are usually screened out during the hiring process.  Or in.  Or the individual has learned some tricks to manage that lack of skill.

Or, they deploy a data harvesting tool with the guise of connection building, and become a billionaire.

Privacy

I work in IT.  Specifically at the intersection of consumer functions and security/privacy controls.  I know more than I should, or at least some days I’d prefer to know less.  First point – if you’re online you are giving up privacy.  Full stop.  Either you pay to control it (part of it at least, or the appearance of control), or you do it for free and give up that control.

There’s a reason it’s so easy to DOX someone.

The internet may be temporary – sites come and go – but it’s all archived somewhere.  It is both permanent and impermanent at the same time, making it really quite hard for people to navigate.  What people were doing 10 years ago is still being used to screen new hires.  That is not going away anytime soon.

Ethics

Ethics are a social construct.  We don’t eat dogs in North America, rarely eat horse.  In other parts of the world it’s a regular meal.  Ethically we have issues with that, while other do not.  That’s at the national level.  Even at the community level this changes.  Find two churches and you’ll find two different sets of ethics.

Now throw in someone who has no ability to understand the social implications of ethics.  They are not un-ethical in the sense that they purposefully go against ethical norms, but more so in that they just don’t understand the nuances of ethics.

For better or worse, this also means that they are immune from international ethics.  Say in one country, it’s entirely acceptable to scrape all user related data to make a giant database of behavior (China).  In another, the company must disclose all private data to the users (Germany).  A company working in both areas has to find the right balance, let alone their corporate policies to manage their service.  That Facebook said it would apply GDPR is a good step.  Considering that they fought it tooth and nail, is more like a thief admitting guilt after caught, but it’s still some progress.

I will say that for all the faults, the EU seems to take this more seriously than most other countries.  Canada would be wise to integrate those policies, as we tend to align the same way.  I mean that in the context of post-national ethics.  We’re all humans before we’re nationals after all, much more alike than dissimilar.

Silicon Valley

Generally run by people with poor social skills focused more on the what can we do, rather than why should we do it.  There’s a really good reason why so many harassment issues have come out of the woodwork in these companies.  A psychopath is someone who lacks empathy – they are not not just serial killers.  A lack of social skills is right in line with that behavior.

Many people are driven by power/money, and once bitten by that bug, it’s hard to go back.  People get blinded by their own agenda that they lose sight of the impacts of their decisions.  Uber simply didn’t care that there were existing markets, they just dropped down illegal cabs, paid a few fines and disrupted an entire market.  There’s only a small difference between that and WalMart moving into a small town, closing all the mom and pop shops, milking the town dry, then closing their shop down for good.

And we let them.  Because it’s practical.  Or it’s cheaper.  We’ll sell our souls to the devil without a blink of an eye.  Most times, we won’t even realize we’re doing it.  Or we think it doesn’t affect us.

Some Progress

The conceptual idea of adding more connections is certainly good.  It’s the foundation of the internet after all.  We are too soon into that space as compared to other social advances, for a web of ethics to have developed.  By breaking down the geographical barriers, we have exposed the sensitive nerves of ethic boundaries.  It’s much easier to ignore dog eating in China if you don’t ever hear about it.  Much harder to do when it’s on the newsfeeds, websites, and social media.

We’re growing.  We’ve taken a long swim in the infinite ocean and lost our footing at times.  The “go local” movement is meant to ensure we have both a foot inside our real space and the virtual one, and a better appreciation for both worlds.  There’s still a lot of work to do.  I’ll be spending my time educating myself and my family on the risk/reward facets of internet use.  Paying more attention to the terms of use, changing permissions on my devices, removing myself from some tools.  Still being involved, but under my terms.

And if it costs me more, or takes more time.  So be it.

Repetition is Key

Getting better at something means that you need to be doing that thing, multiple times, until it becomes second nature.  Repetition of an activity means you naturally get better at said activity.  This applies to absolutely everything we do.  In some cases, people conflate the thought/research of doing something vs actually doing something.

Simulators are a good example of this.  Many games have simulators that artificially optimize gameplay & statistics in order to provide a ranking of options.  On paper, a DK is better at DPS than a Rogue (example).  Sure, if the entire environment is controlled.  That assumes that the lag is the same, that no movement is required, that they take no damage, that the procs are perfect, and that the player’s timing is perfect.  Let’s even go a step further, where all the variables except the player are the same – the output is absolutely going to be different.  The player skill is one of the ultimate factors.

Sports are also a prime example.  Hitting balls in a batting cage has only a little to do with actually hitting a real-life pitch.  Hitting a hundred shots on the driving range only goes so far on the actual course.  The real-world variables take time for the body to adjust and compensate.

Hockey

This one hits a bit more for me as my eldest daughter is playing hockey as a first year player.  The season is over now and there’s some analysis that always comes from it.  My kid barely knew how to skate to start the season, and the strides forward were significant, but they were despite the actual season.  There were 18 kids on the squad, meaning that in a 50 minute session, she would be on the actual ice for about 7 minutes.  Practices were better, but the coach:player ratio was large, meaning a lack of directed feedback.

I am glad I built a backyard rink.  It gave dozens of hours of skating practice – more time than she had for the entire “team” season.

The good news is that the kids are young, so these things don’t really click with them. The bad news, for the sport at least, is that the kids are not as excited or involved as they could be, and the parents have a hell of a time justifying the cost for the time spent on ice vs pretty much any other activity.

Swimming

Another example I can use my kids for.  They’ve been taking swimming lessons for a few years now.  30 minute sessions, every week.  The last 2 seasons have been just the 2 kids, rather than 6 – again, a lack of actual swimming doesn’t make them progress.

We are lucky in that we can afford travel, luckier still that the travel includes pools.  Cuba, one weekend in a hotel, and another week in Florida gave about 4 hours a day of pool time in 4 months.  That’s about 60 hours of swimming.  That is more time in the pool in 4 months than all the time in swimming classes combined.

Games

One of my gripes with PvP games is the lack of practice due to either mechanics or power curves.  Aimbots and 1-shot-kills mean that you have a very low amount of actual combat gameplay.  Large maps where you spend 3/4 of the time walking around an empty zone is worse when combined with low combat times.  You could spend 20 minutes doing nothing but walking, then get sniped.  Not my definition of fun.

Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the tactical aspects of the game at elite levels.  But the path to get to the elite level is littered with rookie corpses.  And that’s aside from the abhorrent cultures within the games themselves.  Toxicity breeds more of itself and I’d rather avoid it altogether.

And let’s avoid the paint-chip-eating tutorials that most games implement.

Future Think

My gut tells me that the next gap to be bridged in competitive games is exactly that “starter to ok” mode.  The gap between starter & top tier is a massive gulf of negative junk.  A focus on the core mechanics that allow someone to get better, combined with a social atmosphere that helps with growth is the next logical step.  Guess is that the former will be required before the latter… unless someone really decides to tighten their belt and start having serious repercussions on behavior (positive/negative).

Ni No Kuni 2 – Part 3

Well, it so happened I was closer to the end than previously thought.  The last bit further shaped my opinion.

Final Acts

The story ends well enough, and with typical JRPG flair.  Spoiler here, but you’re on another plane of existence for the final fight.  There are some logic lapses within the main villain, and the final twist is a bit less fun than I had hoped. Still, as compared to other RPGs, there’s a better story to hand your hat upon.

Oh, I would be remiss to mention Roland’s dream return to his world and the scene with the kid.  That was messed up.

I will say that Evan is no Oliver (main character from the first game). I never felt any agency or connection.  His story line just didn’t work for me.  All the other supporting characters seemed to be painted with a wider brush.

All dem der Options

I’ve mentioned a few times now that NNK let’s you do many activities.  Regular combat, skirmishes, quests, crafting, dimensional doors (mini dungeons), tainted monsters, and kingdom building.

Truthfully, not a single of of those things matters except for the main quest line.  There are a half dozen mandatory skirmishes, that have little bearing on your level and more to do with the ability to understand rock/paper/scissors.  I used the starter Higgildies and that went by just fine (healing is great).  I never needed to craft since all my gear from loot was at least 1 tier better than available.  I would have had to grind my Kingdom for a few more days to get a chance at something better.  Dimensional doors provide an optional kingdom character… after 9 dungeons.  Tainted monsters give a decent loot item and good exp.

And that’s really all that matters for the main quest line.  Core experience.  When I reached the start of the penultimate act, I was within level range (every enemy had a white name).  The last 2 bosses in that act then jumped over me by 12 levels and I needed to get very creative.

The final act itself was 15+ levels above me to start.  Getting experience through normal means (regular battles) is useless. Tainted enemies are the way to go.  The last string of boss fights, I was dramatically underleveled and was 2-3 shot multiple tries.  Good thing I had dozens and dozens of healing items that I had not used once in the entire playthrough.

That final challenge was what I would consider “normal mode” for pretty much any other game.  I needed to pay attention, dive smartly to avoid damage, focus my attacks at a given time.  It was a ton of fun, even if I did die a few times in the attempts.

Next Up

I am putting NNK2 on the shelf.  The remainder of the content is busy work in my eyes, and would provide no real benefit.  I can’t see what’s after the final boss in terms of challenges, and my power level is about as high as it can go without boosting my character levels.

It is really a rare event that I end up putting an RPG on the shelf after the final battle – Mass Effect series aside.  There always seems to be something to do afterwards – be it a battle coliseum, extra hard bosses, or deep dive dungeon.  Maybe I just missed it.

Still, it’s a fun game with a good story.  Little on the low challenge side (until the last bit) and there’s some busy work to be had, that’s entirely optional.

Ni No Kuni 2 – Part 2

I think I’m most of the way through now.  The game is based on uniting 5 kingdoms, and I’m on the last one now.  Then there’s the final boss, as per RPG custom.  My thoughts on the game have changed a bit since.

JRPG

I prefer this model to the western one – specifically in relation to the tropes that are used.  Guess it’s just since I’ve seen so much of it.  Always seems more imaginative than something set in the D&D universe.  NNK2 has the fantasy setting, but the core storyline doesn’t really work in a JRPG setting.  There are no set backs here, no loss beyond the first 5 minutes of story.  The 5 kingdoms are supposed to be tragic… but the lack of character development (you only see them as bad, until they are not) makes it jarring.

Kingdom Builder

Neat in concept, as it passively boosts all activities.  Tedious in practice, since you are not only time gated, but also power gated as well.  You need 25/50/100 citizens to upgrade.  Or a citizen with a specific attribute (that you have no way of pro-actively finding) to get a specific boost.  Getting to 50 citizens was not possible until after the 4th kingdom, and 100 will not be possible until after the 5th.  Why?  The boosts are negligible as compared to simply leveling in the world and acquiring loot drops.  They either help with side quests, or allow for more Higgildy boosts (which are also optional).

Side Quests

There are 3 types.  Deliver a specific item that’s either a common or rare drop.  Kill a tainted monster.  Win this skirmish.  The last 2 are fun and active.  Tainted monsters are always a blast to take down, mini boss attacks and all.

The delivery quests I could do without.  Having to sail the seas to find a random spot and hope it’s the right fish (assuming I know that’s where it can be) is insanely tedious.  And this rare delivery feels like half of the side quests.  That it further gates the Kingdom Builder aspect is even less fun.

Power Curve

Levels dominate everything.  It feels like there’s a bell curve that says anything 5+ above you is going to squash you.  When you reach that level, assuming your gear is the same (likely, as there are only 6 tiers of gear) you will then feel like a god.  For no statistical reason other than level.  Which is sort of ok, given the JRPG numbers.  Still feels odd in 2018.

Active Combat

I like this part.  Blocking, dodging, timing special attacks for knockdowns.  The bosses are all fun to take on.  Teammate AI isn’t ultra-dumb either.  Understanding enemy tells is really important, especially if there’s a level gap.  For 90% of all battles, it’s a “press Y” affair for heavy attack combos.  Sometimes it changes, like the Kingsmaker battles.  Broadleaf in particular was more like God of War than NNK.

The real fun is taking on a red-level tainted monster.  The tough ones can take you out in 3-4 hits, making for a great challenge.  I don’t mind restarting these battles a dozen times, since the feeling of victory is all the sweeter.

Current Taste

I’m still enjoying the game, just that the good and the bad are taking larger swings in either direction.  I find myself spend more time swapping between activities, rather than focusing on one.  That seems to be the underlying purpose.. that running a kingdom means doing a ton of things at once, good and bad.

My biggest thorn is the kingdom builder aspect.  Perhaps I’m burned out on WoW’s garrisons, or all the other time-gated junk we see around us.  I’d much rather be able to progress my kingdom based on in-game activities/achievements, rather than an artificial clock.  The rest would likely click into place just fine.

Less Boxes

In interesting news, a few weeks ago EA noted that they would be removing all “power” related items from their lockboxes and going for 100% cosmetics instead.  I don’t quite get how that matters now, or in relation to their abysmal PR team, but it certainly have weight in the overall industry.

Monolith recently announced a step further recently, where all loot boxes are going away.  For reasons.  Reasons that sound good (removes the experience) but also makes you wonder at the fundamentals behind the decision.

For those unawares, SoM has two modes.  The story mode that has you follow an absurd lore-breaking story to a large (and stupid) climax.  The combat power-curve is gradual, and just normal un-focused gameplay is enough to get you through.  Once complete, the “non-stop siege mode”, or more like “perpetual fortress grind mode” is what’s left.  You need to build up your realm with (epic) orcs who have a diverse skill set.  Ad-infinitum.  Acquiring these orcs is either through gameplay or through loot boxes.  They were certainly not required to keep moving forward in the rankings, but they did save a lot of time.

And truthfully, by skipping the “grind” you did lose out on the experience of developing your own tactics.  Understanding how to infiltrate an enemy base without getting squashed by god-like orcs is 99% of the fun of SoM.  Turning on invincible mode defeats that purpose.

Looking Back

I will recall Diablo3 and the real-money auction house (RMAH) debacle that Jay Wilson brought about.  At no point did reason, human psychology, or actual metrics even come into play.  It was launched, made a crap ton of money (I made money on this too), and then managed to burn out the core player base until Jay was shown the door.  Blizzard has tried (and succeeded) at finding the most efficient ways to have games part with their money, but this was a mis-step that thankfully was rectified.

Forward

MMOs and eastern-games aside, this does bode well for the trend against boxes.  It doesn’t solve the financial issues that developers face on a regular basis, and it’s got to be hard to give up the money-cow these suckers provide.  Finding alternative ways to get people to give up their money, without having the government pass laws to prevent you, should be the next frontier.  Should be quite interesting to see how EA manages to find the next big idea to exploit, and get bad press.  Or maybe that’s the cynic in me.