End of Summer

With younger kids, the summer is primarily bookended with school. This week, the kids are going back for their next year. That comes with a slew of other activities and a tonal shift for all the family activities. Looking back though, it’s been quite an interesting one.

First the elephant. This was the most “normal” summer we’ve had since 2019. COVID is absolutely still a thing, and plenty of friends have been hit, but the impacts are a fraction of prior. We’ll hit another big wave with schools opening, but with luck, we should finally be in the endemic phase. Huge impact – people are joyous to be out and about.

As a Canadian, particular one in my neck of the woods, we often talk about the weather. There are few locations on the globe that truly have 4 seasons – with a typical 60C swing between, up to 80C if it’s really bonkers. This summer was oddly calm, with a stable sunny stretch without too much to harp about. We only had a week of heatwave, and aside from the last week, next to no rain. A spectacular summer in that regard.

I found some “balance” in the working from home and driving around this year. Past years I’ve tried to work remotely, and that didn’t really work out. I’ve come to terms that I need a separation between work and personal. Working from a cottage is borderline depressive when everyone else is having fun but you. Finding a dedicated working space though, I’ll be seeing if I can sort something like that out in the future.

Summer financials were wild. Gas hit insane price points (more than double for a while) which was crazy to absorb. I had a rather expensive repair that came out of nowhere to manage. We’re through it and things are getting closer to normal, but holy heck.

I did skip playing hockey for most of the summer. I picked it up a couple weeks back, and thankfully no heart attacks. It’s fascinating how ingrained that activity is in my mental health. The past say, 5 years or so, I’ve tried to find as many activities as possible to help with mental health. That’s worked out well enough I suppose, in that not having 1 activity doesn’t cause a cascade effect. There are certainly preferences in those activities, but there’s enough there I never feel lost.

The amount of prep anxiety for start of the fall isn’t all that strong this year. There are certainly things to take care of, Back to School shopping isn’t just magic, but it’s also not things that take 50 hours to do. The kids are getting older, and we’ve spent a lot of time teaching them planning skills, that it’s quite easy for them to build a clear list of things to do. And then they do many things on that list themselves, and can live the rewards of those actions. I think that’s one of the larger joys in parenting… seeing your kids grow in autonomy, while still being kids. Hard to explain, one of those “if you know, you know” I suppose.

A long-weekend to go, and that will be the real transition to the Fall. Fingers crossed we can stay in “normal” for as long as possible.

Fool Me Once

I removed all my Blizzard-specific feeds a while ago, there are sanity limits. When Immortal came out, it was all but impossible to not hear about the F2P / lootbox shenanigans. Clearly there are people willing to dump oodles of money, and Blizz is doing a fine job of sucking up every last possible penny. They are doing a great job competing with EA’s FUT system.

The shadow of Immortal casts a long way, and Diablo 4 (the actual game the “fans” wanted) is having to make due with that. The real money action house (RMAH) that launched with Diablo 3 was meant to deal with the less-than-honorable 3rd party sellers, but ended up being a massive blight on the game’s fundamental incentives. A lot of the responsibility of those decisions is rightfully put at Jay Wilson’s feet (that’s the job of a game director), and Reaper of Souls’ removal of all those bits is ample evidence the “meta” of Diablo 3 needed a full re-work. Overwatch 2 is pure F2P, and is coming with what appears to be insanely large cost structures for cosmetics (the price of a full priced game).

AAA studios are all trying to milk every dollar out of a game, while gamers are trying to find value for that dollar. It’s competing priorities. The Season Pass is a staple of the F2P genre now, where it combines the drive of FOMO with the incentives of small payments. It’s inversely driven though, as you’re paying to have FOMO… instead of getting to the end of the track and then purchasing all the additional items…

Diablo 4 therefore has a hell of a mountain to climb. The need to generate mountains of cash, an industry model that is more effective than drug dealers, and a rabid fanbase that has both expectations and has been ignored for large stretches.

The quarterly update is an attempt at this. It will have a season pass, but only for cosmetics. It’s very clear that it doesn’t want to have any “power” that can be purchased, which is quite fascinating to me. First, that there’s somehow going to be enough cosmetic content to support this mindset (WoW is a good example of challenges with cosmetic design). Diablo 3 seasons have cosmetic rewards, but they are extremely minimal… not sure how that turns into an actual generator of funding.

Second, everyone has their own opinion of what “power” means. Buying a gem directly is certainly power. Buying something that increases your odds of getting a gem… that’s convenience and the core model of Immortal. I am quite curious as to how this particular system works out, both at launch and long term. People expected a dumpster fire with Immortal. Diablo 4 is where the ARPG crowd has been holding their breath. I have very low expectations here, so it should be quite hard to disappoint.

Return to Bloodstained

If ever there was a bloodline for the metroidvania genre, this one would be a pureblood. Koji Igarashi is the person credited for building the genre, and his indie game really pushes that to the next level.

This is one of like 3 games I have every backed on Kickstarter. Iga building a metroidvania was about as sure a bet as the sun coming up. It had some bumps in development and was delayed a tad. The visuals in particular were overhauled. I like to point this fact out as much as possible, because the changes are spectacular.

The storyline itself is pure Iga, where there’s only one “true” ending, and multiple fake endings along the way. You likely don’t know they are failures until you see the credits, and then dig through the lore to see how to go further (the first Gebel fight is a perfect example of this). The good news is that you’re never locked into a failed state – Blasphemous has a key point where you can lock yourself out of the true ending, and the auto-save feature means you can’t revert.

The mechanics are all about throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it sticks.

  • You need to take down bosses to unlock skills to unlock more of the game
  • Unlocking the endings requires specific skills to be used at specific times
  • Multiple optional bosses
  • A less-than-clear crafting process for equipment
  • An even-less-than-clear crafting process for food, that gives a 1 time stat boost
  • Dozens of weapon types, with attack moves
  • Dozens of “shards” which provide active or passive magic effects. Said shards can be upgraded by crafting and collecting more of the same type.
  • A manual save system, where you lose progress on death since the last save (which is ultra painful when farming shards)
  • A bunch of side quests
  • An actual leveling system based on experience points.
  • Multiple hidden areas and items
  • Bosses that can be killed without you taking damage, while at the same time being able to wipe the floor with you. This particular one is a staple of the genre, and taken to the next level with the “Souls” series.

To me, one of the defining features of the genre is both how obtuse and important the relationships between the systems are. If you play through without paying attention, you’re going to have a very hard time. If you read the lore and stats, and do as many side activities as possible, you’ll get way more enjoyment out of it.

Think about that for a minute. A game where the subsystems actually matter and are not simply separate activities? It’s a heck of a balancing act to run from a development perspective, as all the variable can be applied to different degrees based on how much the player has “done”.

I’d say I’m about halfway through the core storyline now, which in this genre means closer to 20% of the actual game. I’m finding myself smiling at the various bits and bobs throughout. That the boss AI is both punishing and rewarding. The joy of collecting a new shard, or the relief of finding a new save point when inches from death. Death here is not a frustration, just a chuckle and another attempt. It’s just plain fun, and given all the *waves hands at everything*, we can all use some of that.

Blasphemous Replay

I need me some metroidvania. There’s some hidden joy in the genre, where progress rewards progress. It’s an interesting genre, that only recently (say 5 years or so) has really come into it’s own. The defining feature today is that the game is 2D. If you think about it, the Link/Zelda series are a type of metroidvania, where character ability defines access to content (BotW excepted). Metroidvania eventually bleeded into the rogue-like genre, where progress is a mix of abilities & player skill (think Dead Cells or Hades).

What’s most impressive about the genre is how prolific it’s become. Metroidvanias don’t need a AAA studio development, they can deliver absolutely stunning content with a “small” team. I’d even argue that the smaller teams allow for greater innovation and risk taking, in order to differentiate from the others in the genre.

I’ve talked about Metroid Dread, where the game has high spots, but the experimentation with EMMI doesn’t really work for me. My kids have given it a shot, and they both hit the quit wall of EMMI, which is a real shame. Hollow Knight, by comparison, is astoundingly more difficult, yet the gradual increase of said difficulty comes across many hours of gameplay (honestly, if you’ve finished this game with the true ending, hats off).

Blasphemous is a strange one. On the one hand, it has all the pure essence of the genre. 2D, tough combat, game changing abilities, hidden secrets, alternative endings. On the other, it has a rather obtuse quest system and punishing health/death mechanic that fits a souls-like game. Understanding the mechanics of the game drastically change the player’s ability to succeed.

My first playthrough was close to 40 hours. If it tracked the number of deaths, it would be obscene. Heck, the first boss (well, I thought it was the first) took me 20 tries before realizing I could slide through it and the i-frames that came with. It took me another 20 hours to figure out how the dodge-attack worked properly. It was an eye opening experience of gameplay discovery, as much as it was content discovery.

A really fascinating part of the game is that actual ability increments are optional. Walking on clouds, stabbing roots, avoiding fall damage or poison… all require you to go out of your way to find them. You could, if you wanted to, complete the game with zero upgrades. You’d even be able to do get the “good” or “true” ending this way. I can’t imagine clearing Isidora this way, but it’s certainly feasible.

I had some time to fill in recent weeks and the Switch is awesome for pick up and play. I gave the game another go (3rd run) and this time it felt like a completely different game. An understanding of the mechanics, what abilities should be prioritized, and general patterns made a huge difference. I had some slowdowns in trying to go a quicker/harder route at the start, and some bad luck with Isidora, otherwise it was an incredibly smooth run. It was right up there with Hades in terms of enjoyment of the controlled chaos.

It helps that Blasphemous has had multiple content updates since launch, some quality of life, others being significant (boss rush, a “true” ending, a set of new bosses, NG+). Looking back after the credits, there’s a larger appreciation on what a small studio can deliver with today’s tools. And it’s giving me an itch for more of the genre…

MHR: Sunbreak – Content Patch 1

We’re short of 2 months since the launch of Sunbreak and the first major content patch is out. And it adds a lot, but summed into the following bits.

  • New monster variants (and their equipment)
    • Seething Bazelgeuse
    • Silver Rathalos
    • Gold Rathian
    • Lucent Nargacuga
  • Anomaly Investigations
  • Qurious Crafting

New Monsters

These are MR6 level challenges, so they come with a lot of HP and a lot of damage. Continuing the Sunbreak theme, all these monsters attack at crazy speeds, with long chains of attacks. Openings exist, but the camera angle and blast effects reward planning to a greater degree. It feels like the monsters have twice the HP of their normal counterparts.

The armor drops from these guys are elder-level, I do expect the meta to change a bit here, which is a good thing.

Anomaly Investigations

Anomaly Quests are still there, where you target a specific monster. Investigations are randomly generated and the list of available investigations increases as your Anomaly rank increases. A rank 11 monster can still show up in the rank 30 battles, it just has increased stats. Higher rank also has harder monsters show up.

The randomness is interesting. Where Quests are 1 monster at a time, Investigations can have multiple monsters, including Apex monsters for some reason. Apex Azuros was the stuff of nightmares in the base game, I can’t imagine encountering him with MR stats. The RNG aspect, and the fact you have like 20 Investigations to choose from at a time, mean you can avoid these very painful ones for a more “optimized” route.

Investigations give anomaly rewards (for rank 10 crafting) and other material to help with Qurious Crafting – or for talisman melding. There are now 3 ranks to track, HR, MR, and AR.

Qurious Crafting

Continuing the trend of additional customization, Qurious Crafting allows for additional modifications to weapons and armor. Using the AI drops, you “unlock” the ability to customize. Each item has a number of “slots” (you can increase this, to a given amount), and then add from a set of stats that take up a given number of slots.

For example, a longsword starts with 4 slots, and can go to 6. You can mix and match additional boosts, like +10 attack for 2 slots, or 5% affinity for 2. More rampage gem slots too. You can change them around if you want, for no cost, as long as they are unlocked. This is very similar to the Buddy skill customization system, just that there’s a material cost to unlock the bits.

Where talismans have a HUGE RNG factor, Qurious Crafting allows for targeted improvements. There’s a cost here, and frankly a substantial one if you are swapping between gear sets (HBG elemental pierce comes to mind). The net effect is that this system is the long-tail carrot to keep people playing.

To me, the game appears “feature complete” now, where any additional content patch is going to be just that, content and not systems. New monsters, subspecies (e.g. elemental versions), and powered-up versions (e.g. permanent enraged). Even quests too, for some interesting layered armor.

It’s going to take a while for the meta to reset, as the various Qurious Crafting unlocks will need to be tabulated. It’s crazy the amount of content here…

The Last God

I was on a family weekend getaway and my sister had this book on hand. It had an interesting pitch, and I borrowed it for a solid read.

One of the more interesting bits here is that this series was developed with PnP in mind, so the tail end has an annex on how to apply D20/DnD rules to the setting. Given the amount of world building in many graphical novels today, it felt like a smart move. Most writers are going to spend a fair amount of time on the lore anyhow, and this allows a more practical view on the various character power levels and history.

The Last God falls into the fantastical horror genre, with a big layer of flawed legends and the gradual uncovering of the truth. The plot itself isn’t terribly innovative, and you can see most of the twists and turns throughout. There are character archetypes, the corrupt leader, the rebellious wife, the pure newbie, and so on. This isn’t a critique per se, it’s sort of like how there are many simple Lego pieces and depending on how you put them together, you get different results. There are many graphic novels that apply this mind set.

The results here are quite good, primarily enabled by the fundamental lore than gives a platform for these characters. The main character here is the setting. The gods themselves and their lasting impacts on the world are fascinating. The impacts of prophecy and the desire to escape one’s fate are cool. The cost of magic, at scale, is even more interesting. The ending feels like an ending.

The largest issue I have is the poor print quality. This was clearly digital art that was then transferred to paper, and the quality loss is significant. I’m ok with poor print quality in an actual comic that’s produced in large quantities. A hard cover book should do better. If you happen to have a 10in+ tablet, you’re better off getting a digital copy.

If you see it on sale, I’d say pick it up.

The Sandman – Netflix

“Unfilmable” is thrown around a fair chunk, in particular for written media that isn’t action-focused, or dialogue-driven. Cerebral material can be a true challenge to translate. Dune(1984) vs Dune (2021) is a good example of how different approaches can lead to vastly different results. With a good team, almost anything can be filmed now-days.

The Sandman is an older comic from the late 80s to mid 90s, covering 75 issues. Neil Gaiman is one of those authors where I just seem to click, and this series can be seen as foundational work to pretty much everything that he made since. Prose-driven, with anthropomorphic representations of states of mind, with a strong application of fantasy horror. I read a few of the comics when I was younger, and they were just enthralling because they were so different. This is when Infinity War was the big deal! Long-form comics are making a resurgence now, yet the stage was set back with The Sandman.

Netflix has recently launched their series on the first two storylines from the comics (of at least 12 main storylines, depending on your view). It is thick and slow, just like the comics. Some scenes are just disturbing in their construct (ep. 5 in particular) where humanity is laid bare. The protagonist is not exactly endearing, as he naturally lacks humanity, making for some interesting moral/ethical points of view. Empathy isn’t the point here, it’s the pure logical construct behind pure purpose, and then the means to achieve it.

The writing is solid, the art design fantastical, and the actors representing the Endless all do an admirable job. Boyd Holbrook is a standout, but not for the right reasons. He plays the same type of character here as he has in other media. It feels like a mis-cast as his character is by far the most nuanced and beyond the actor’s range – we need to sympathize and it just doesn’t work. It is important to note that the British/American divide is clear as day in this series, a staple of Gaiman’s work. It’s anti-bombastic and intellectual…

I enjoyed it, and I think it strikes the best possible balance of translating the comics to video format. I’d be more than interested in seeing more. Now, knowing Netflix, I am expecting a note about this series being cancelled sometime next week.

Reading Fatigue

Brought on By Belghast’s comment on Blaugust.

Back in the before-times, I worked downtown. If there wasn’t snow, then there was a festival. Ribfest was one of them, and while the prices were eye-popping, the food was amazing. We’d head out and pick up a copious amount of delight, and the first day was always the best. We’d head out every day, try to hit every stall. By the last day, you’d be just overstuffed on ribs, and while it was still enjoyable, it was also a bit of a chore to get another set in the belly. And that was less than a week.

Reading is a bit like that. I really enjoy reading, truly. A fair chunk of my work relates to reading things, quickly parsing it for valued information and taking action, then reading the next thing in line. By the end of the day my mind is fatigued and I can just use a nice break. When I used to take time off work (the before-times), I’d read through 4-5 books in a week. There’s certainly a hunger there and the muscle needs exercise.

Reading blogs is a tough bit. There’s some absolutely amazing stuff out there, but it’s not consistent. A writer may have 1 glorious post a month and then some OK bits for the rest (this is normal). I use Feedly to sort through my rather substantial list of blogs, allowing me quick access and a list of previously read content. In the spring, I’d have a dozen+ articles to read through per day, and I’d honestly struggle to get through that many. Commenting is its own challenge, given that not all blogging platforms are integrated, and there isn’t often things to add to a discussion.

Blaugust compounds that 10-fold. It’s a buffet of content, but in a different context. Folks like Wilhelm have no true need for feedback during this month, but someone who is new to the community can certainly use it. With that context, commenting has an increased value, just like when you meet a new person and shake their hand (we still do that, right?). I’m horrendous for this by the way, only able to make it work in bursts. Summer in igloo-land is just so special, and time is a finite resource, making August a very internally focused month. I should still make more effort, as a few minutes from me (or you) can make a really large impact on someone trying to find their voice.

So I guess I have my own challenge to surmount in Blaugust. Let’s see how that goes…

The Marvel Issue

Comics, at their core, are serials. They are chapters of a larger story. In the golden and silver age, these chapters were usually self-contained within a given series (e.g. Fantastic 4 storyline was only in Fantastic 4 comics). This made it harder for new series to launch, as cross-overs were harder to coordinate. In the 80s this started to change, and there were large cross-over events, like the infinity saga. To understand all the bits and bobs, you needed to buy multiple comics series in a given month. Since these events were contained, it felt special.

Then the 90s, and the quest for more money. Cross-over events continued and came with an overall increase in sales. So what would any greedy person do? Make more cross-over events! Marvel was notorious for this, where it seemed impossible to read a Marvel comic without having to buy 4 other issues. And then they came up with the idea of special covers for the comics, meaning collectors had to buy 4 or more copies of the exact same issue to get all the covers.

This has multiple impacts.

  • Cross-over storylines were getting near impossible to follow, more like a giant conspiracy theory to track.
  • The storylines lacked focus/closure because the “good content” was being spread across 4+ issues a month.
  • Some of the links in storylines were made after publication. You’d pick up a comic and be confused as it referenced something that happened in a different series
  • Market saturation generated a “bubble” effect, where people bough comics for their resale value rather than their story. This made supply a challenge, and people couldn’t follow the story if their local store couldn’t stock shelves.
  • All bubbles pop. The market crashed and Marvel took the biggest hit (Atari vibes here).

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is following this same pattern, and doubling down on it.

The original Iron Man and Avengers had a clear linear structure and you knew that something else was coming. To watch a sequel, it was good to watch the first one (e.g. Iron Man 2 was better if you watched Iron Man). This all came to a head with the Avengers saga with it having links, but not dependencies, on the other films in the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Dr Strange, Thor). Fine enough.

What happened next is the what I like to call the Disney effect, or as we know it, the quest for more money. Disney+ launched and with it the next phase of the MCU. Every piece of content released since then is directly tied to the Infinity Saga, either interstitially, or as a consequence. Wanda Vision was an amazing series (with a horrid ending), but it is also mandatory viewing to make any sense of the recent Doctor Strange film (Spider-Man 3 is more than useful too). What we have in this phase is non-stop cross over events, where superheroes in one series are impacting another.

We’re in the storyline fatigue phase, where you need a Disney+ subscription to watch an 8 hour film (cut into 8 pieces) whose sole purpose is to prologue another film, which is a prologue for yet another film. For a Disney+ series, you can stop it, go and see what’s needed first, and then get back to it. A movie though, the experience is diminished because you’re confused. When the last Infinity film came out, Wanda was good and intelligent. Why is she “crazy” in Dr Strange? What actually happened in No Way Home aside from setting up the multiverse (and a confusing link to Venom)?

There’s market saturation, similar to the “dystopian teen sci-fi” crazy of the mid 00’s. MCU is making some really poor decisions if they want this to somehow be sustainable, repeating the same mistakes Marvel made in the 90s. Hopefully they can return to independent storylines, and keep the cross-over events as special occasions.

Blaugust – Late to the Party

More info on Belghast’s site

Every year I tell myself I’ll give it a go, then I realize that it’s smack in the middle of my summer vacation plans and I do not have the ability to schedule that much for my blog. Hence why you’re seeing this NOW and not at the start of August. On a given year, I average 3 posts a week. That’s ~150 per year, and certainly more effort than a tweet. I came to the conclusion long ago that blogging is a form of mental therapy for me, so the measure of success here is less volume and more general health.

Blaugust has been around for a while now, and it’s always a pleasure to find new folks in the community. Those who are “new” to blogging often find it a struggle to find a system that works for them, and the mentors/themes of Blaugust really help folks along. While the goal is certainly a post a day, that’s a serious achievement. If you’re not on the discord server, you’re missing out.

One tip that’s less for the bloggers and more for the readers (from Bel):

Mingle with the participants of Blaugust 2022. Get out and see the blogs, read the posts, and comment frequently! These folks represent a social structure that you can lean on for advice in the coming years. I deeply value the ties I have made with other bloggers and started this process as an attempt to cement those and build new ones.

Even if you are not a blogger, the comments are always appreciated and more often than not, act as further inspiration for content.

Looking forward to it!