Russian Doll

The setup for this Netflix series is pretty simple.  Nadia keeps dying at various points, then restarting from her most recent birthday party.  The Groundhod Day mechanic has been used mainly in sci-fi (ARQ was solid) but here we have more of a black comedy.  Well, given Natasha Lyonne’s past issues, perhaps this is more of a twisted biography.

Nadia is not a sympathetic character in the hero sense.  She’s a messed up addict, with some pretty freaky friends, and generally wants to be left alone.  She has a mouth that makes sailors blush.  She’s not even an anti-hero, since her drives are nearly entirely self-preservation.  But, and this part is what makes the series, she’s human and makes reasonable decisions.  I mentioned this in the previous post about Dragon Prince season 2, how there was no growth, and only the plot made the story move.  That is not the case here. Really solid.

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This picture starts every new life

Nadia certainly has a loner persona, and that this only effects her makes it all the more odd.  What’s really interesting is that if you pay attention, you start noticing details.  Those details become much more explicit as the story progresses.  More than that, and it’s spoiler territory.  Let’s just say that as much as it’s binge-worthy, you still need to pay attention.

I’d be remiss to not talk about the soundtrack.  It’s a crazy eclectic mix of genres – Beethoven, Cults, John Maus – add just the right amount of mood to the scenes.

Interesting side note is that Amy Poehler is involved as a series co-creator.  You can see the influences in the absurdist in-your-face dry humor.  Natasha Lyonne’s sarcastic wit is in every scene, and her drive to explore every relationship, multiple times, is refreshing.  Greta Lee in particular…she’s the Ned Ryerson and her delivery of the same line, multiple times, doesn’t ever seen to get under the skin.

There are plenty of things to watch on Netflix, most of them mediocre.  It’s nice to be able to find something that really does a great job all around.  Solid recommendation.  Just not with the kids.

Dragon Prince – Season 2

I rather liked the first season.  The second season was supposed to get into the lore a bit more.  It sort of did that, but I find it lost track of pretty much everything else because of it.

When season 1 ended, the egg had hatched, the baby dragon king came about with an attachment to Ezran, Callum lost the ability to cast magic, Rayla gained her arm back, Viren killed the king and sent his daughter & son to capture the princes.  That was a solid set up.

When season 2 ends we still have a baby dragon, Callum regained the ability to cast magic, you learn a bit about the queen, Viren goes off the deep end because people see through his lies… and that’s it.

I could write a long summary, but if the series is of any interest all you need to do is watch episode 9.  Absolutely nothing that happens before that provides any payoff or value.  In particular the Claudia/Soren combo who make decisions based entirely on the plot rather than like actual people.  It’s mind boggling to have a series with zero consequences.  In fact, when there are consequences, the plot somehow manages to find a way to erase them.  A mile away.

There are plenty of good series on Netflix.  This is not one of them.  DC Titans is pretty good.  Next up, Russian Doll.

 

Games as a Service – People Power

With the recent release (and success) of Apex Legends, there’s a firm footing for “games as a service” as a monetary model.  In particular where that model is not based on buying vertical power (e.g. FIFA) but instead meant on selling horizontal flavor (e.g. cosmetics).  I should add that this model only applies if you’re dramatically exceeding expectations. If you still manage to break the previous year’s profits, yet below expectations, expect people to get fired.

I would say this is the flavor of the month, but it’s really hard to argue the sheer market penetration these games are now seeing.  UO was a “huge success”, followed by EQ, then completely dwarfed by WoW.  We went nearly 10 years trying to find a WoW killer (which, as expected, ended up being WoW itself).  Fortnite makes more money in a day than WoW makes in a month (purely on subs – the game services are a whole other bag).

But similar to MMORPGs, today’s games are all competing for the same eyeballs.   And there’s only so much time in a day to be spent, and people follow the shiny.  Fortnite is on season 7 – after 1 year.  WoW in contrast is entering season 2 since the launch of BfA in August.  If there isn’t new content, new material, then sales go away and people get saturated with what’s present, moving to the next thing.

From all that I can see, Apex Legends isn’t bringing new gamers to the table, simply pulling folks from Fortnite/PUBG, and the curious few wondering what all the hubbub is about.  What this means is that it’s pulling money from a limited pool.  This is a problem if a company is directly competing against itself – but these 3 games are from different groups.  Mind you, it will take a month or two for them all to get a similar ping system.

Which brings me to Anthem.  While in terms of direct competition it’s closely linked to Warframe, Destiny 2, and Division 2.  (Quick side bar – the demo for Division 2 is getting nothing but positive press.  It would appear they learned a ton of lessons and are applying them.  Too bad Bungie didn’t do that with Destiny 2.)  If we look at “games as a service” competition then Anthem is competing with the big ones (in relative size):

  • Fortnite
  • PUBG
  • BLOPS4
  • Apex Legends
  • Rainbow 6 Siege
  • Overwatch
  • Destiny 2
  • Warframe
  • For Honor
  • Sea of Thieves
  • Monster Hunter World

Many of which have little to no barrier of entry.  Warframe and MHW are quite insane in terms of what they give for “free”.  Twitch streams are not the only metrics, but damn.

Again, this isn’t to say that Anthem won’t have success, but tempered with reality here.  It’s not like there are 6m people sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting to play only this game.  And if they do manage to get 6m eyeballs on this in the first quarter, what kind of insane release schedule is needed to keep those eyeballs?  We’re in perfect storm territory here.

And then what happens for the “next big thing”?  You have to believe that all the big companies are licking their lips looking at the insane income from this model.  But this isn’t luck, this is a huge level of effort.  There were dozens of MOBAs, only 3 left.  There are Battle Royale modes everywhere, but only 3 that really count today.  WoW’s only true competition has been FF14 – and it needed a complete rebuild to do so.

It’s really something to watch all this develop, and in such a small timeframe.  Practically impossible to keep up with the news, let alone the developers trying to play guessing game on what will or will not work.  I don’t see how this is sustainable in a glut of online games.

Fingers crossed that BioWare has the magic sauce.

Dark Clouds at Acti-Blizz

If rumors are true, then today/tomorrow will see some significant cuts at Activision-Blizzard.

The consumer in me is happy that the company is taking a hit.  That is market capitalism at work, where the consumer demand determines the health of a large company.

The human in me is upset that people are going to lose their jobs through no fault of their own.  In larger companies, the cuts are rarely in the correct places (decision makers) and instead point to the lowest level possible.  Well, perhaps a bit less in this case, since both CFOs were fired.  Bobby Kotick is still going to get his $30m+ this year, rather than taking a pay cut.  There are some good people who are going to lose their job, and I hope that they land on their feet quickly.

The gamer in me is mixed.  On one hand, this doesn’t mean that Acti-Blizz is going to actually start making games with gamers in mind – in fact I would argue the opposite.  The whole Destiny 2 roadmap since launch is textbook “how not to make a sequel”.  BfA isn’t doing too hot either – but at least you can buy a literal flying pig.

We’ve lost the battle on MTX.  Outrage for horse armor has been replaced with joy on the Carleton dance.  Most people are ok with cosmetics in the store, it’s simply the price point that is debate point.  I do not believe we’ve lost the battle on lootboxes, rather that this battle is just getting started.  Specifically on the lootboxes that are pure RNG on rewards.  With both Fortnite, PUBG, and now Apex Legends hitting like a meteor in the market, it will be very interesting to see what games currently in the dev pipe end up delivering.

Maybe this will be a wake up call to the industry in general that they need to find a different path.  That the sheer glut of gaming options means people can spend their time/money on quality rather than quantity.  Counting on the horde of locusts to buy a reskin of last year’s game… pretty sure that model is going the way of the dodo.

Best of luck to those impacted by the layoffs.

 

 

Content Expectations

The more bits I get from the Anthem devs, the more I am both fascinated and curious.  I don’t think my expectations for a AAA game are high for 2019, but maybe I’m in the wrong.  For a multiplayer launch, I would expect:

  • Social tools
  • Player customization (non-power related)
  • Solid mechanics (with numerical balance over time)
  • A dual path for progress
    • Learning the game/story/mechanics (e.g. leveling)
    • Repeatable and engaging content (e.g. end game)
  • Build / role diversity
  • Game stability

I realize that this is quite generic, and that there are multiple ways to achieve this.

Social

Destiny has an alliance mechanic, which provides some weekly benefits.  Off your friend’s list, the top 5 provide give a score that gives extra coins at the end of the week.  Those with no friends, there’s a catch-all bucket for the randoms you play with.  That’s neat and actually better than most other games.

There are no guilds at launch, which seems like a really odd choice.

The social hub should be there, which is good.  The game really feels empty, in particular Freeplay mode where the world can fit 100+ javelins and you’re only ever 4 at max.

There’s matchmaking for everything, so that’s a serious plus.  Not being able to see other people’s loadouts beforehand is going to make the top-end content a pain to manage, pretty much forcing pre-made groups.  Will be interesting.

Customization

Javelin-wise, Anthem has this nailed.  The outlines of Javelins make them recognizable, but the attachments, colors, textures, vinyls – all of it really does add a sense of individuals.

There are no gun customizations that I can see.  Maybe the legendary drops will look a bit different.

Mechanics

I think flight works really well, adding a 3d portion to most combat.  I am extremely hopeful that the devs never add another swimming section to the game.

I think the gunplay is average at best.  It is very loose, and makes weak-spot based combat ineffective.  I also can’t seem to find a realistic difference between all the gun types.  Pick the rifle with the largest magazine.  (‘Cept the heavy weapons for colossus).

The abilities are really quite awesome.  Primers and triggers make for some interesting combos.  I like that there’s a requirement to work together, and that some targets must be flanked.

Bosses have interesting mechanics, though there’s a tad more focus on bullet sponge than deserves to be present.

I like that combat is built for offense, since there are very few defensive options present.  There’s no cover, shields are barely enough to get outta dodge, and you need to actively pay attention to succeed.

Leveling

Not sure how this will work.  From what was presented, the core storyline has more potential than delivery.  There’s just something off about Tarsis, and the way the people move/talk.

Missions do not appear to be repeatable, which seems a terrible waste of resources.  Warframe really did an amazing job on this front.

End Game

From what I understand, there are only 3 strongholds (dungeons) at launch.  We saw one in the demo (Tyrant), and that one takes about 30 minutes to clear.  What was there was enjoyable, but certainly not enough to keep attention for more than a week.

There are weekly/daily quests through contracts.  Haven’t seen how that works, so no comments.

Freeplay has random events.  The spawn rate in the demo was very low, and it looked like we could access 25% of the map.  I don’t understand how that will work at release.  3x the map and the same amount of players?

There are also game generated events, like shaper storms.  Demo spawned a large titan, which was neat to see but a bullet sponge.  Curious.

BioWare has stated plenty of times they have big plans for end game.  There’s a general lack of detail on this.  I haven’t seen any content release plans after launch, so maybe I’m just in the dark on this.

Build Diversity

In the demo, there was a lot of this.  Each javelin plays much differently than another.  Abilities make a huge difference in playstyles.  It’s a lot of fun to experiment.  There are QoL things here to provide more info on builds and options (to avoid having to reference a wiki), but that’s more than manageable.

Again on guns.  There’s not much here – they feel more like stat sticks.  That’s mid-game though, so perhaps end game has a reason to pick a 4-burst rifle vs a high ammo version.

Stability

I am not getting my hopes up for this.  Great that those issues came to light before launch.  Bad that those issues were so pervasive before launch, from a publisher (EA) that makes a living on on-line games with the Frostbyte engine.  Feels a bit like the ice cream machine always being broken at McDonalds.

There are some rather significant PC optimizations required for people to play this game.  I’ve generally been able to play any game at high or ultra, without much issue. For this, I’m running 95% CPU and peaking over 90s in temperature.

 

For now, it’s mostly conjecture until launch.  There’s a lot in the game now, a lot more than should be coming by launch, and ??? after launch.  I’m sure that next week we’ll get a view at the service roadmap, if not the week following.  It’ll be hard to get people who are on the fence to commit if what’s there now is all there is for the next few months.

Given EA’s recent report on a bad quarter, and pointing to Apex & Anthem as the next thing, it’s important to note that Anthem’s business model is nearly entirely built on box sales.  And EA wants to sell 6m of those.  Dollars to donuts, Anthem doesn’t hit that number.  Horizon: Zero Dawn sold 7m total.  God of War was 5m in a month.  Combined with Origin Access essentially giving you the game for $20 for a month’s access…the math here just isn’t going to work.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine game, but it is far from blockbuster.  This entire paragraph was an unpleasant typing experience.

Gift for the Family

Personal on this one.  My wife and I are celebrating our 10 yr anniversary in March.  We’ve been talking about a bunch of different things to do, which are all complicated by the fact that a) it’s during March break and b) we can’t realistically leave our kids behind for a week without some serious planning / support.

We’ve been fortunate enough to take the kids on quite a few trips over the years, including two down south.  We also took a couple trips on a cruise (just the two of us) and I personally enjoyed that experience more than an all-inclusive.  Thinking was to see if we could find a cruise that was more family-friendly – and that generally means Royal Carribean.

Also motivating – we’re both on the edge of burnout through work.  The winter holidays were good to refresh, but we are clearly in need of the “no need to make big decisions” for a while.

We ended up booking a trip on Harmony of the Seas.  That’s around 5,500 passengers at double occupancy.  And has full time kid activities if the wife and I want to do something else for a bit.  Oh, and an ice rink.  Ridiculous.

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I was in the ship to the far right, and I thought that was immense.  HotS is the 2nd most right.

I am utterly fascinated by the logistics of running a floating city, with people talking different languages, and a very high standard of cleanliness and service.  Just the linen service takes an army.  If you ever have the chance to watch a documentary on how these things run, you should really take the time.

There is one port in particular – Labadee, Haiti – that is entirely self-served by the ship. Over the course of 2 hours, enough food/drinks are pulled off the ship to shore in order to support an 8 hour day at the beach.  Amazing coordination.

I won’t hide the fact that this is entirely a luxury, and one that we are lucky enough to afford.  Every time we bring our kids out on something, we make it a point to have them recognize this fact.  Entitlement is a concern for both my wife and I.  My kids experienced more by the age of 4 than I did until I was in my 20s.

It’s good to have things to look forward to.  Makes driving through feet of snow and ice a bit more bearable.  I’ll see what kind of photo collage I can put together when I get back.

Anthem – Post Weekend

A few additional thoughts since the the previous post mid-weekend.  The same general thinking applies, but perhaps a few more bits and bops.

Technically I did see the Shaper Storm on Sunday in-game.  Sadly, the game server crashed 3 times before I could do something about it.

Optimization

This is the Frostbite engine, which EA has mandated all games use.   Not quite getting why they haven’t figured how to optimize it though.

My CPU runs in the high 90%, GPU is similar, and temps are crazy.  Only thing that has any effect is enabling vsync.  Detail has no impact.

The load times on PC are just too long.  Considering that there are no environmental effects (aside from water), I’m not quite getting what is actually going on here.  I have my fingers crossed that this is better at launch – in particular when you end a mission and do not have to go back to Tarsis in order to see 2 load screens for the mission map.

The controls are meant for consoles.  The menus are a clear example.  Flight/swim are actually manageable with a controller.  When you pick up items, the screen displays a D-pad icon.  I can live with most of that.  ‘Cept the flight/swim controls.  Feels a bit like Blizz and “do you guys not have controllers?!”  I’m guessing XBOX/PS4 players are going to have the best experience for some time.

Server stability was a serious issue this weekend.  Saturday/Sunday, I was never able to complete a single mission due to server crashes. The forums seem to have a similar issue.  A game cannot find a successful launch with this type of issue (or the infinite load, which seems fixed now).

On the flipside, the game is ridiculously good looking.  I’m looking forward to more enemy types, but the ones there now are impressively detailed.  Near everything is extremely fluid, and combat is predicated on always be moving.  That part works exceptionally well – arguably better than WarFrame due to the open areas and focus on vertical.

Numbers

I do expect some tweaking to a lot of numbers before launch.  This weekend had a bit too much bullet sponge for my tastes.  I realize that is a terribly hard thing to balance.  Even with max level gear (19 power), it was only a marginal improvement in damage.  Maybe this was a bug fix from the VIP weekend, or an actual purposed tweak.

The flipside is that combos dominate the damage department.  To the point where it makes more sense to take self-combo skills (e.g. frost and fire) even if they are not terribly practical or numerically sound on their own.  It will be a challenge for BioWare to manage the meta at top levels if this combo bonus sticks as is.  Let’s put it another way, I find that group clearing goes significantly faster if I stick next to another player and solely place an ice build, as everyone and their mom seems to combo off ice.  Instead of playing like a mage, I end up playing an enchanter.

Betas (and make no mistake this is a beta, not a demo) are a really poor way to judge metas.  I mentioned that exact point in a previous build.  Quite curious as to how that ends up a few weeks after launch.

Time

I really do think there’s a lot of potential here, and I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt at launch.  It is miles beyond recent online dumpster fires (*cough* F076 *cough*), but clearly there are some bits that need work.  If server stability can be sorted out (and I am sure BioWare hasn’t slept since last weekend), then there’s more than enough here to keep people busy until level 30.

What happens after that…I don’t think any game has actually ever figured that out near to launch.  Destiny took multiple expansions, Warframe took a few years, Divison was nearly 2 years.  I’m not holding my breath.  Get me to max level, and then we’ll take another look.