Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Same as it Ever Was

I've not had a big enough chunk of free time to pull off an instance run (SWTOR or LOTRO) in ages, but this past week I actually had a few hours to myself without having to go anywhere or do anything*, so the siren song of running a SWTOR instance proved too irresistible.

Rather than learning a new (for me) instance, I figured that I ought to ease back into instance running with some of the original SWTOR instances: Hammer Station, Athiss, and Mandalorian Raiders. Why those three? Well, they are my favorites of the original instances (with the possible exception of False Emperor), and they are also the three I'm most familiar with. Even with the leveling adjustment put in place, I figured that these three instances ought to be the Azjol-Nerub of SWTOR**: once you learn them, it's a fairly quick and painless run.

Unless, of course, you're dealing with an all DPS group.

(Guess what groups I got?)

Now, to be fair, the Hammer Station run was pretty straightforward with a standard Tank/Healer/DPS/DPS group configuration, and we pretty much blitzed through the entire instance. Not exactly at the same level as a classic Azjol-Nerub run, but we finished in about 15-20 minutes, and that included me getting stuck on the other side of the meteorite cannon while everybody else took out some more trash before the final boss.

***

But Mandalorian Raiders came next, and the run consisted of all DPS.

My prior experiences in the "Fun With Mandos" instance with an all DPS group meant that the toughest boss to take out was the Houndmaster, the first boss, and this group proved that in spades. The Houndmaster hits too hard for a standard DPS to handle without utilizing Tanking abilities or having a Healer in tow, and to compound the problem we had people attempting to down the Houndmaster instead of the hounds first. After the third wipe, somebody asked in chat "Why can't we down this guy?"

"We don't have a healer," the Jedi Sentinel tanking the Houndmaster replied.

The Jedi Sage we had in our group wrote something incoherent in group chat, and then said "I'll do it, but remember to move in the right direction. Got it?"

"Of course."

This time we managed to down the boss properly, with the Sage's healing supplemented by the healing stations around the boss fight.

After that, the Mandalorian Raiders instance proceeded much quicker, with the only hiccup being the Sentinel who thought it a good idea to jump onto the downward descending platform in the section leading to the final boss. As you can guess, he finally caught up to the platform in time to die due to falling damage.

"Rez me!' he cried.

"I'm trying, but I can't select you," I replied. "How the hell did you manage that one?"

"I'm talented. Hee hee hee."

I grumbled something as the Sage rezzed him.

***

Athiss was a different beast entirely.

I knew I was in for an interesting time when we kept having people reject the instance before we finally got a full group.*** Then while a few of us jumped down into the ruins and healed up, a Jedi Sentinel sliced the elevator...

And jumped down anyway.

"Hoo boy," I thought. "I hope that was just an accident."

But by the time we got to the first boss, I could see clearly that it wasn't an accident. That same Sentinel pulled one too many mobs for a pure DPS to tank, and we wiped on the trash. Then we nearly wiped on that first boss, even though that's actually kind of hard to do with four DPS burning down that boss quickly.

But things seemed to settle down a bit when we plowed through the next several rounds of trash, until we got to the Beast of Vodal Kresh. There, we wiped repeatedly on that boss because a) people weren't using the healing stations (twice), b) people (including myself once) got knocked off into the level below and the trash below aggroed****, and c) nobody could hold aggro well enough against Ye Olde Beast.

Sometime after the fourth wipe the other Jedi Sentinel who'd been acting as the tank --all the while spewing invective in group chat-- ragequit. I took that as my cue to leave as well, since it had become obvious that this particular group simply wasn't going to get past the Beast of Vodal Kresh.

I then decided to hang around my starship for a while and relax, letting some 30 minutes pass by reading the codex and checking on college basketball scores.# I figured that 1/2 hour was time enough for me to not run into any of those three players again, and queued up for Athiss once more.

And I got an all DPS group. Again.

This time, however, the run went without incident. I'd not call it smooth, as Prophet of Vodal Kresh took a lot longer to kill off than I prefer,## but nobody died and nobody complained in group chat. It had been a long time since an instance ending in silence

***

After those instances, I decided that I'm not going to venture into any of the post-Vanilla instances for a while. First, I need to get up to speed on a rotation for my Shadow, as I constantly felt a bit slow compared to everybody else##, and second, I think I'd need to study the instances before simply being dropped into them. The instance running crowd is as I remembered it: with few exceptions, people are of the GO-GO-GO variety. One scolded me for not skipping the dialogue sections, but I wanted to tell that person that SWTOR is great because of the dialog, not in spite of it. If people do that to me on a new (to me) instance, there's likely to be some pissed off group members. In my WoW days, delays were frequently given as a reason for a votekick --which I'd often reject unless it was someone who went AFK for no good reason-- and I don't feel like reliving those days again.





*This included house chores such as laundry or dishes or cooking. I'm still not sure how I managed to get this free time this week, but hey, I'll take it.

**That ought to take old WoW players back to the good old days of Wrath of the Lich King. By the time Wrath came to an end, a random pug could pull off an A-Z run in about 10-12 minutes flat. Sure, being overgeared for the instance helped, but once you knew the fights it was a rare occasion to see a wipe in A-Z. Even Utgarde Keep couldn't match that one.

***Of all DPS, naturally.

****In my defense I knew about the knockback quite well, but I was speeding to a healing station that was still open when I got knocked down.

#My alma mater won, so I was happy.

##One player decided to start hitting the balls of fire rather than the Prophet, which meant one less DPS on the Prophet.

###I'm sure lag has something to do with it, as I was playing on a European server.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

EVE Online Adds to F2P

I've said before that I'm not that likely to play EVE Online, but I do keep an ear to the ground whenever major updates happen. And this week's particular update has expanded the capability of F2P players within EVE.

Battlecruisers and battleships, the mainstays of the large fleets, are now available to F2P players. While that by itself is impressive, in order to not cripple a F2P player by giving them a ship without the skills to operate it effectively CCP has expanded the skillset of F2P players as well.

It all adds up to a big expansion of F2P players' capabilities within EVE Online.

It's a great win for F2P players, but I have to wonder as to the reasoning behind the move. Maybe they CCP has data that shows that they get a high rate of F2P to subscription movement, and by adding capabilities to F2P CCP hopes to entice more people to subscribe. Or maybe they're looking at simply shoring up the number of people logging into EVE on a given day. But if nothing else, these changes do make the F2P option for EVE more appealing.

I guess we'll see how this shakes out in the months to come.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

That White Noise Can Get Pretty Loud at Times

One interesting item about vanishing for a couple of weeks is that I've had a chance to look at what the blog's stats look like with the blog in a steady state.

And I'll let it be said now that the number of real reads --or those that I consider actual, live people reading content-- runs around 25-75 people per average blog entry. Sure, there's the occasional spike of interest if someone from a far more populous site links to a post*, but given that I've never tried to promote the blog in any real way**, a steady readership of 25-75 isn't too bad.

The bot traffic, however, can be almost bizarre at times.
It has to be due to all of those Walking Bombs
in Gnomeregan. Those things used to give
me nightmares. From WoW-Wiki.

As of this moment, PC has had about 945 pageviews this past seven days, and almost all of them were bot or spam related. Quite a few of them are search bots that go through every single page on PC, but there are quite a few bizarre sources in the list.

I'm not going to post them here, per se, because I don't want to somehow summon more of them via speaking their name like Voldemort, but when you see pageviews coming from places such as Dermatology Times, you know that something weird is going on. I've actually clicked on a few that looked at first blush like legitimate blogs with Wordpress or Blogger URLs, but then you find out that those blogs (if they ever existed) had long since been taken over by hackers.

Then there are the ones, that while they are legitimate sites, you don't typically expect to show up in a referral list for Parallel Context. Such as the UK website for Elle. Or an Intel software website. Or a blog about the Great American Songbook.

***

Once in a while, an old post catches new life and shows up in the weekly stats. The Two Sides of a Coin series --about the similarities between Blood Elves and Draenei-- that I did back in 2011 periodically makes an appearance, as does the 2010 post about how I was mistaken for a female player during a run of Magister's Terrace in I Think I Misplaced my Ovaries. And Soul's 2010 post about How to Effectively Tank the Lich King was a favorite long after Cataclysm dropped.***

But for the post part, PC never developed into a hot blog that people had to read to keep up with their latest MMO fix. And I'm fine with that, because MMOs aren't the "it" thing right now anyway.

So if you don't mind me, I'll hang around with my friends, the bots, and open a beer while waiting for SWTOR to load. I think I need to get an Athiss run before I go to bed.

This place never gets old. Neither does
WoW's Halls of Lightning.
From swtor-wikia.com.





*The single greatest spike in readership for an individual post came from a link from WoW Insider, back when a) they existed as WoW Insider, and b) when they used to highlight interesting posts from the blogosphere. Both of those days are long past. Even then, the spike was about 1300 users in December 2011 for Part 2 of my Two Sides to a Coin series. I've a cousin who wrote for a site that deals with eSports and console games, and they frequently get that many visitors per hour.

**As I've mentioned way too many times on PC to count, I've never signed up for Twitter, and I don't promote the blog via Facebook or Google+. I've likened this as my way of shouting into the wind without much worry about causing a hurricane a half a world away.

***It once showed up on the front page of Google search results for "tanking the Lich King". Soul was very proud of that.


EtA: Corrected a couple of grammatical errors.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I Blame the Holidays

Well, the US Thanksgiving season has come and gone, and with that a visit from the oldest Mini-Red for 9 days.* I provided the transportation, as her university is 130 mi/209 km away, and as is the grand American tradition for college students returning home for holidays, she brought her laundry along.

And her laptop. And a desire to get back into playing LOTRO and SWTOR.

She tried playing in some spare time while she was away, but she discovered that the dorm's network is really bad because it's simply overwhelmed with connections.** When she needs a stable connection for her classwork, she retreats to the music building to work; but she doesn't goof off when she's there.

Not that I consider MMOs goofing off per se, since I do write about them, but I understand and admire her dedication to her classwork. When I was in college *mumbledy mumble* years ago, I played the original Bards Tale, Ultima IV and V, the original Sim City/Sim Earth, and various Infocom games in my spare time. Not to mention games designed for the VAX system, such as Angband or Star Trader, or our Saturday afternoon D&D game.

Still, her ability to login to SWTOR at home (after it updated, naturally) was a nice bonus to her visit. We didn't team up for anything, but she spent a lot of time puttering around an old Assassin of hers, and reacquainting herself with the game.

Perhaps it was her class selection that provided me with inspiration, but I started playing an old Jedi Shadow that I'd created on The Red Eclipse but allowed to languish once I got to Coruscant. She was one of two toons I had that I was forced to make a name change --I think I got really lucky-- and I made a minimal tweak and logged into a zone surrounded by Black Sun thugs.

I'd forgotten how much fun having a Trandoshian around as a companion can be.

Due to this toon being in a rest area for a couple of years as well as the XP bonus that was going on, I was outleveling planets a chapter away. That felt really odd, but on the flip side I wasn't getting gear for my actual level from questing, so between that and the artificial level suppression it kept my toon in line (sort of).

But I think that this time I'm going to keep Qyzen around as my companion, since a) I've never followed his story all the way through, and b) companions aren't limited in their role anymore. (I didn't need a tank when playing as a Shadow, I needed a healer. And now Qyzen can do that too.)

Still, it felt good to kick off the rust and go questing in SWTOR and get a Hammer Station random instance in. Now, over the Mini-Reds' Winter Break, I'm looking forward to getting back into some MMO playing I've not done in months.





*So if you're wondering where the blog vanished to, now you know.

**Being a geek, I noted a network connector in her common room and brought up a relatively inexpensive hub for her to use, because I knew that cinder block walls and WiFi don't mix well. Even then, the network connection is poor, simply due to the overwhelming use. The night before I picked her up, most of her fellow students had already left for home, and the network finally became usable. (Surprise!)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Adios, Marvel Heroes

If there was an MMO that I'd played over the past several years that was going to be the first to shut down, odds are good that I'd not have guessed it was Marvel Heroes.

Gazillion released the game as a steaming hot mess, but they diligently cleaned it up and made it a bright spot in the MMO world, particularly that they were at an intersection point between all of the Marvel characters, including Squirrel Girl, the new Ms. Marvel, Luke Cage, and all of the big properties (Avengers and X-Men and Fantastic Four).

But apparently things were not good in Gazillion land. You can read about the accusations of sexual misconduct, missed updates and events, and other items here over at Massively OP's article.

The game shuts down on December 31st.

But knowing Disney, they likely have a new software developer of choice. (I've read that Square Enix is likely it, but you never know with Disney.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Small Worlds

I was on SWTOR the other day, playing around with a new Jedi Shadow, when I finished up Taris and returned to the ship. There I had my latest conversation with Qyzen, and I was reminded once again about how intertwined the characters in the SWTOR universe are.

You might remember the conversation, about Qyzen and his rancor trophy. You might even remember how important the trophy meant to Qyzen. But do you remember who he worked with back then?

Qyzen mentioned it in passing, almost an offhand remark: Braden.

As in, Braden the NPC at the beginning of the Bounty Hunter story.

The more I play SWTOR, the more I'm surprised by the entanglements that the PCs, the primary NPCs, and their companions have. I realize this is by design, but Bioware didn't have to do this. They could just as easily had 8 class stories that were completely disconnected from the others, but these little intersections serve a larger purpose: that everything the PCs do is connected with each other. They are, to borrow a term from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, ta'veren.

***

But I had another case of Deja Vu when my wife and I watched an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary about Ric Flair the other day.*

No, really.

I suppose you'd never guess by my writing that in my teen years in the 80s I followed professional wrestling.** While I realize that some people had their older siblings or their friends get them interested in the (so-called) "soap opera for guys", my father was the one who introduced me to pro wrestling. When he was a boy in the 50s and early 60s, he used to ride bikes with his friends to the Cincinnati Gardens to watch wrestling there***, and he developed a love for the sport. Even though he and I would mainly talk about college basketball, I hadn't realized that he'd kept up with pro wrestling all through the years until I was cleaning up his old Mac after he passed away and discovered the WWE link at the top of his favorites.

Watching the documentary, titled "Nature Boy", was a chance to get back in touch with my youth. I'd not followed wrestling since my time at college, and the over the top drama and plotlines couldn't help but make me chuckle.****

Yes, pro wrestling certainly earns its moniker of being a "soap opera for guys". The obnoxious boasting from the wrestlers, the choreographed moves, and the so-called drama of the production was something you simply couldn't take seriously. However, as I watched the documentary from a vantage point of almost 30 years removed from following the sport, I realized just how much the pro wrestling world had impacted the design of some of these newer MMOs.

For example, here's a pic from TERA Online:

Complete with championship belt.

And now contrast it with a few classic pro wrestling stills:

The Nature Boy himself, Ric Flair.
"Wooooooooo!!" indeed.
From villains.wiki.

Randy "Macho Man" Savage on the left
and Hulk Hogan on the right. If this doesn't
scream "protect the princess, boys!"
I don't know what does. From reddit, but a
version of this is on wikipedia.org.

But a larger influence is found from the world of women's pro wrestling.

Yes, that is a thing.

When I was in college, there was GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, that hoped to capitalize on the popularity of the WWF and WCW, but was frequently relegated to Midnight on Saturday nights. But the WWE has spent a while now promoting women's wrestling, which includes Ric Flair's daughter, Charlotte:
Her dad used to enter the ring wearing
a cape/robe of his own. (From wwe.com)

And a couple of other pics:
From wwe.com.

From lethalwow.com. (No, not a World of Warcraft
site. Just sayin'.)

Now, the reason why I point to pro wrestling versus Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is that the MMA clothing is strictly practical in nature, whereas the influence of pro wrestling's undeniably sexed up outfits can be seen in ArcheAge:


My short lived Warborn. Alas that ArcheAge
has a two character limit for non-subs.

And in TERA Online:

My Castanic. What is it about "devil" characters
that people find so appealing? I suppose you could
even throw Draenei into that mix, even though
they never were corrupted.

It feels... odd... looking at pro wrestling and seeing MMOs instead. In its own way, the plotlines in pro wrestling is analogous to these newer MMOs, where story isn't quite as important as bashing people, looking good, and preening like an alpha. But I shouldn't be surprised, because pro wrestling is pop culture, and MMOs do reflect pop culture. Sure, other MMOs may not reflect it as obviously as WoW does with its quirky names and questlines, but pop culture does extend a long shadow over MMOs (and video games in general).

We may think we're playing games that are immune to or isolated from what we consider to be the larger world, but we're not. The larger world does provide at least a subconscious influence on our smaller gaming worlds, and we should pay attention to that influence. MMOs and other games (video and otherwise) reflect their times.

Even if those times include eyebrow raising wrestling outfits.





*To be perfectly honest, my wife set the DVR to record it, not me. I wasn't so sure whether I wanted to watch it, but I figured "oh hell, why not."

**More World Championship Wrestling than what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation (now called World Wrestling Entertainment, after a lawsuit from the World Wildlife Fund forced a name change). As one person in the documentary put it, the WCW was for more blue collar people who loved to watch wrestling, and the WWF was geared toward kids and teens.They operated in two completely different circles.

***As well as watch the NBA team the Cincinnati Royals, whose most famous player was Oscar Roberston. Oscar, known as The Big O, was one of the greatest players of his generation and one of the all time greats of basketball. Given that The Big O's career overlapped that of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, "Doctor J" Julius Erving, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, that's saying quite a bit. The Cincinnati Royals moved to Kansas City in 1971 and were renamed the Kings, and in 1985 they moved to their current location in Sacramento. For the rest of his days, my father was mad at the Royals management who basically sold off the team's best players and then used the plummeting attendance as an excuse to move.

****Okay, I guess I ought to confess one other item: during my Sophomore year at college, I got hooked on the NBC daytime soap opera Days of our Lives. (I blame my roommate at the time, who was hooked on it before me.) So, for several months I would take my lunchtime break and pull up a chair by a television set around campus to watch Days. After about 5 months' worth of shows, however, I just threw up my hands and said that the plot was way too over the top for me to find remotely enjoyable. Still, it does give me an appreciation of how much work and acting skill to keep the show going every week out of the year.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Few Minor Changes

I know, the blog looks out of date.

If that wasn't obvious before now, a short glance at the redesign that Navimie did for The Daily Frostwolf - Druid Edition shows just how ancient that this circa 2009 design is.*
There goes Navi, raising the bar for the rest of us.
(Just teasing, Navi. This is really a great redesign!)

However, I have added one item on the sidebar that I wanted to highlight: The YouTube Channels list.

Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't yet have the ability to provide the latest entry in a YouTube channel,** but I can provide the channel link itself. And while the list is small, I really want to highlight the list because I enjoy seeing the content from all of the entries.

Sure, Geek and Sundry is the only major channel present at the time of this post, but some of my fellow blogger friends have channels that need more visibility. Given that I'm not a big fan of streaming or posting my own videos, I really admire my friends for their efforts and their professionalism in their work.

***

That does bring up for me a topic that has been simmering in the background for quite a while: the evolution of how gamers share their love of gaming.***

When Souldat and I started PC back in 2009, blogging was one of the primary methods of communicating about MMOs. There were YouTube channels/videos by fans, of course, but beyond blogging and podcasting there were more commercial websites (such as Kotaku or Polygon) and software company forums. But while blogging as a primary source of gamer activity has declined, streaming and other more modern forms of social media have taken over.

Another way of looking at this is how we obtain PC games these days. The last game I had on a physical disk that didn't require me to have an online presence to either login or obtain updates (or even the game itself, even though I'd bought a copy) was Civilization IV Complete, circa 2010 or 2011. All of my other games I've purchased I had to be online to download via either the company site or a service such as Steam, or to even use the game (such as Diablo 3 or the most recent Sim City). What happened over this time? Bandwidth happened, to the tune of a big expansion of both the download speeds as well as upload speeds. That bandwidth not only makes software downloads more practical but also makes personal streaming (uploads) more practical.

However, bandwidth wasn't the only technical hurdle, it's also about the computing and graphics power a computer has. Given the leaps and bounds that processors, motherboards, and even storage has made over the past 8 years, the capacity of computers to not only handle a game and a livestream but also maintain both for a minimal drop in framerate is pretty amazing. When I started playing WoW, it was on what was then a middle of the road 32-bit Intel Core Duo that ran Vista. I could play WoW with mediocre graphics****, but playing WoW and connecting to Vent proved a bit of a stretch. I ended up pressing my work laptop into service with Vent while I played WoW on the main machine.

And automated backups.... Oh boy, would they tank your machine.*****

But within five years Intel and AMD were putting out processors that could handle all of that, plus run Chrome with a full load of tabs and extensions as well as MS Office in the background, and not blink an eye.#

Software has taken advantage of the increased power as well, with gaming/streaming built into operating systems such as Win 10 as well as other software packages.
When THAT showed up in Win 10, you know
that streaming while gaming had gone mainstream.

Finally, the rise of eSports, popularity of Netflix and Hulu, and a new generation of gamers thinking nothing of sharing and competing while streaming --a tacit acceptance of voyeurism, I suppose-- has pushed streaming completely into the mainstream.

I can check Facebook during the week and watch a FB livestream of the devs from Standing Stone playing LOTRO. Hell, just about all MMO development houses have their own regular livestreams to handle all sorts of activities from connecting with players to showing off upcoming patches.
They're everywhere. Here, on GW2's loading screen.
I guess that's another question to ask prospective
employees: "How do you feel about putting yourself
on Twitch and livestream you playing a game for hours?"

This is an entirely new environment from when I started playing WoW, and if you'd have asked me how long it would take to get to this point I'd have said --especially after the economic meltdown in 2008-- likely 2020 at minimum.

Yet here we are.

***

In all of this video oriented and immediate gratification (read: Twitter) material, blogs like this one still have a part to play. For starters, they don't take up network bandwidth at work, where employers tend to frown on a single employee hogging a lot of the bandwidth to watch whatever is on Twitch. They are also quieter and less visually distracting, unless you have a ton of GIFs on your site like some mid 90s website designs. Finally, blogs allow a blogger to take their time to put together a post.## Sure, you can write an entire vlog entry and then stand in front of a camera and recite that, but if you're like me you're constantly going back and editing even after the point when you thought you were done. And yes, I see the editing that goes on with vlogs, and it drives me bananas. Vlogging simply doesn't mesh well with my thought processes.

Neither do my thoughts mesh well with Twitter.

Who knew that Munch captured my brain on Twitter so well?
From Mentalfloss.com.

I have an unfortunate tendency to shoot my mouth off when I get agitated or otherwise emotional###, and an app such as Twitter or Snapchat is a disaster waiting to happen. So for those denizens of Twitter who can keep themselves under control at all times, more power to ya.

And while I realize that blogging isn't quite as immediate as Twitter, it is far quicker --and more relevant-- than print magazines. The nature of print means that the news is already out of date by the time it makes it to a monthly print magazine, so print magazines have not only expanded into digital formats but also focused on longer feature pieces that don't strictly fall into the news arena.

And while it's not the same for everyone, blogging feeds my addition to writing without demanding too much from me. One of these days I'd love to sit down and finish a novel --NaNoWriMo or not-- but while my chaotic life isn't helping me out at the moment I can blog.

***

Relevance or not, I still need to look into more of a major design revamp of PC.

I think the basic design orientation, having a main section for articles with side areas for other information, works fairly well. However, I think it can be done better, and in an easier to read format than what it presently is.

And yes, I need to replace the Cataclysm-era graphics with something a bit more reflective of the times. That's actually a sticking point for me, because I'd love to have newer graphics without relying upon the gif format to cycle through images like what Rades does with Orcish Army Knife. There's something appealing with what Ravanel Griffon does in Ravalation, where a different header graphic shows up every time you select a link, but I'll have to think about whether I really want to implement that. (And what graphics to choose, naturally.)
After all, what else will I do with all of these
ArcheAge screenshots?
Anyway, I think I need to solicit some ideas for improvements to the blog. (Sorry, deleting the blog won't happen.) What do you, the reader, want to see in a blog design?




*If internet years is akin to dog years, the design is 56 years old. Hell, it's older than me!

**In the officially supported widgets, at least.

***I started writing a blog post on this at least twice, only to shelve it for later. I guess later means now.

****I eventually had to replace the graphics card due to the Abominations in the Undercity proving too much to handle for our machine.

*****I discovered that much to my chagrin when I was interviewed on the Twisted Nether Blogcast. I had no idea that the automated backup that kicked in after midnight was wreaking havoc to my connection until I listened to the podcast afterward. Fimlys, Hydra, if you're reading this I'm still sorry about that.

#The popularity of smartphones --and their social media and streaming capabilities-- shouldn't be overlooked either. Sure, you don't play WoW on an Android tablet, but people livestream all the time now.

##For example, I've worked on this particular post over the course of about 10 days. I've tightened things up a bit, added some graphics, and rewrote significant portions of the body. While I try to post once a week and about 6 times a month, sometimes I have to slow down to make things just the way I like them. This also means letting other posts go ahead of posts like these.

###I used to avoid going to my oldest's track and field meets when she was in middle school precisely because I didn't want to be "that parent" in the stands. I ran track for three years in high school --yes, I know, you'd never guess it now-- and I didn't want to be the parent who tried to usurp the coaches' authority or simply be obnoxious throughout the meet. Even now, watching the high school (American) football team lose week in and week out --hey, I go to watch my kids in the marching band play at halftime-- it is really hard on me to not go bananas and bitch about all the things the kids are doing wrong. I can handle that they're physically outclassed, but not using proper technique drives me nuts.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

No Need for Coffee Today

This is what I get for focusing too much on work* during the big announcement yesterday:


Yep, that's right. Vanilla WoW is officially returning with officially sanctioned Blizzard servers.

Apparently this dropped during the Blizzcon keynote address, and for people like me who miss the pre-Cataclysm WoW, this was the announcement of the day. 

No details, which isn't a surprise, but the fact that there was an announcement** is a big thing. Blizz has finally committed to resurrecting the old Vanilla environment.

***

Aside from the announcement itself, the most interesting part was how some of the major internet outlets reported on the announcement. You can get a glimpse of that from the titles:





To say that people didn't see this coming --and even Steven Messner of PC Gaming admitted it as much when he sat down beforehand to interview Blizz' J. Allen Brack-- is a bit of an understatement.

I know I didn't.

No more than a few weeks ago, I'd commented on Shintar's Priest with a Cause that I don't buy the explanation that Blizzard doesn't have the source code. There may be technical challenges, but any decent development house keeps their source code around for versioning purposes.

But now, things are looking up.

***

The cynic in me says "Blizz must be hurting for money to bring this back", but I'm not so sure. Bobby Kotick aside, I really do believe that the Blizz people want to do this sort of thing for the fans. If it makes them money, so much the better. But still, it must be cautioned that modern MMOs are not what we're getting with Vanilla WoW. Vanilla WoW is still very much a quirky translation of the pencil and paper RPG genre into a computer screen, with items such as ammo for ranged weapons and weapon proficiency leveling coming back. If you play Old School D&D and other Old School inspired games, that might not be an issue, but for people raised on the action MMO or newer pencil and paper RPGs this might be a bit of a shock. Kind of like switching from Dragon Age: Inquisition or Witcher 3 to Baldur's Gate.

But if you're like me, I'm down with this.***

Like Shintar said, I might have to start giving Blizzard some of my money again.





*In my defense that's what I'm supposed to do while I'm at work, but like the first and second rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tourney --Men's and Women's-- I typically keep an eye out for what's going on. For some reason I thought that the big item of the day was going to be the next WoW expac and I figured I could read about that later.

**As opposed to Titan, which was never officially announced.

***Other Old School MMOs, such as D&D Online or LOTRO, ought to be cheering this move by Blizzard. As more new fans are exposed to the original Vanilla WoW, they will likely be checking out other old MMOs.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Engagement and Immersion for all to Hear

There was another recent newspaper article about video game voice actors, this time in the Washington Post. It talks quite a bit about the difficulty in voice acting for video games, which are frequently more demanding than for animated shows for television and movies.

For me, one paragraph stood out: “They keep saying, ‘Games are different,’ ” said J.B. Blanc, a well-known voice actor and director who has worked with Burch several times. “But that’s no longer true. Because games want to be movies, and movies want to be games. These are basically 100-hour-long movies.”

When you add on all the takes, retakes, and variables in potentially different outcomes from a player made decision, the sheer volume of hours spend performing voice work is pretty immense.

But the result of a well performed voice role is pretty much instant immersion.

***

Some gamers really identify certain voices with specific roles, often to the point where some actors simply are the role they play.

A prime example of this is Jennifer Hale, known in MMO circles as the voice of the SWTOR female trooper, Jennifer has had a lot of prime voice roles in video games. But Jennifer is likely best known as the voice of Fem Shep, the female Shepard PC in the Mass Effect Trilogy. Okay, it's not much of a stretch to admit that to a lot of gamers Jennifer is Fem Shep, as this Sneaky Zebra video celebrates:



And not to be outdone, here's the dramatic reading by Male Shep Mark Meer:



But on the flip side of that is that a game can be ruined by poor voice acting.

The first Destiny had its share of problems, but Peter Dinklage's lack of inspired performance as Ghost was --while not the largest problem-- certainly amplified due to it being an issue with a speaking role. When you get called out in a Smosh Games Honest Trailer, that's not a good place to be in:



Still, that such an accomplished actor had difficulty in a voice acting role underscores the importance of getting the role right.

***

If there's one advance in MMOs over the last 5-7 years that has pushed the genre forward, I'd have to say it's the fully acted questing cutscenes. Yes, it makes MMOs more expensive to develop, but after having had expanded voice roles in SWTOR and other new MMOs these past few years, it's kind of hard to go back and pick up an MMOs that doesn't have it.

Working my way through ArcheAge, I had to take a break for a while and go back to SWTOR just to hear voices in quest cutscenes again. Sure, the graphics of ArcheAge are fantastic, but I miss the voice actors that bring a world alive. And I understand that ArcheAge is tapping into a JRPG tradition in its quest cutscene presentation, but it just doesn't feel the same without that vocal immersion that I've grown accustomed to.*

Going forward, however, I'm not certain whether a new MMO will even bother to try to fully voice act the game. Even though voice actors aren't paid a lot for their efforts, fully voice acting an MMO can balloon the game's development cost. The payment model for MMOs going forward --very few will brave the subscription only model and instead rely upon F2P + cash shops for funding-- doesn't help a lot either. This is a shame, because the one MMO I do subscribe to is SWTOR, and a large reason why is the immersion that voice acting provides.





*Even a game that is 10 years old, such as The Witcher, has quest cutscenes with voice acting. Of course, Bioware had been doing that for much longer --KOTOR, anyone?-- but even ignoring Bioware's output the concept of voice acting in video games is much older than SWTOR itself. And while Age of Conan had voice acting for the main questline's quests, SWTOR was the first MMO to fully integrate voice acting with the game. Unfortunately, the lack of WoW level success for SWTOR meant that the the most recent expacs have entered into this hybrid area; it's better than Age of Conan, but still it's a step back.

Friday, October 27, 2017

And I Thought I was in a Long Running Campaign

Seriously.

There's a group out there that's been playing D&D since 1982. That in and of itself is a bit unusual, but I know of other groups with quite a bit of longevity.

But the same campaign, since 1982? Nope. This group is very much a rarity.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Free Expacs from SWTOR

Yeah, I figured that'd catch your attention.

In celebration of the release of the original KOTOR on XBox One, they're offering the first two expacs for SWTOR, Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Shadow of Revan, for free to people who never purchased them yet.

The offer goes through November 6th, and you need to login to the SWTOR website and redeem the code "REVANRETURNS" to obtain the expacs.

Also, they've got a KOTOR inspired swoop available using the code "KOTORSPEEDER" for the same length of time.

Here's the news post highlighting these little goodies.

It goes without saying that I've been making sure that the mini-Reds know about this, even the oldest, so that they don't let this opportunity pass them by.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Monday Security Blahs

Normally I don't post about these sort of things, but this little alert that crossed my laptop early today was enough for me to make an exception:

'All wifi networks' are vulnerable to hacking, security expert discovers

Yes, I realize that not everybody agrees with The Guardian's political slant, but they to a fairly good job of explaining why people should be concerned without trying to translate the actual methodology behind how the team accomplished cracking the encryption.

The long and the short of it is that if you use the WPA2 encryption for WiFi, which used to be the safest of the widely available WiFi encryption methods, your data stream is now vulnerable. And the biggest problem is that there is no widely available replacement for WPA2, as was the case when the WEP encryption was cracked.

So the best I can tell you right now is to use a wired connection as much as possible when conducting online purchasing/transactions, and keep an eye open for updates to your router's firmware. I'm sure that we'll be seeing something fairly soon from both networking companies and your online device's manufacturers.


EtA: Microsoft released a security update on October 10th that protects Windows 10 devices from this hack. CNet covered this in a post.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Time Marches On

I was wondering what to write about for this Friday, and contemplating something silly like "how high can you jump from a cliff on LOTRO before you die from the fall", but then I saw this come through the interwebs today:

AOL Instant Messenger Will Be Discontinued

Wow.

For some reason, I didn't see this coming. I'm not surprised, per se, but I am kind of sad about that.

My D&D group started playing on AIM back around 2001, when AIM was (roughly) at its height. I knew about AIM --anybody involved in tech knew about it-- but I really had no reason to use it until that point.* We spent about a decade on AIM, killing virtual baddies and working our way through two major adventure lines, until some of the changes AIM made on things such as saving our transcripts and whatnot forced us away and eventually landing us on Google.**

But for that decade I had AIM fired up alongside my work IM.

I'll miss AIM purely for the nostalgia, because I'd not logged into AIM in about 5 years.

But to balance out the sadness, here's Avenged Sevenfold performing a cover of one of my favorite songs:







*I was far more fond of Usenet back in those days, before it got overrun by trolls and spam, and the people who made Usenet great migrated to more gated discussion forums to keep the discussions on topic. You used to be able to find some of my posts on FAQs for groups such as rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan (yes, I was a Wheel of Time fan back through A Crown of Swords), but a lot of those have gone away as Usenet has declined and The Wheel of Time finally (!) was completed.

**A few of us have argued that we should use some of the sites such as Roll 20 for our platform of choice, but our DM is infamously a computer luddite and refuses to migrate off of a regular IM platform into something more modern.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Not Quite a Guild

The MMO site MassivelyOP had a post by Justin "Syp" Olivetti* about an organization called Permateam whose goal is to reduce the toxic nature of random PvP matches in games such as Overwatch and League of Legends.

Before I could write a post that said "Yeah, good luck with that," I hit pause and let the article and my perusal of the Permateam website percolate in my head for a few days. And I have to admit, it has as good a chance at dealing with the player toxicity found in online PvP matches than anything else.

Permateam is somewhere in that hazy area that is not quite a guild and not quite a fansite. The idea is that you fill out info on what roles you like to play, when you like to play, and what games you play, and Permateam helps you out in selecting players to play Overwatch and League with from their own database. The entire point is that players who sign up with Permateam want to avoid the drama and toxicity by reducing the potential pool of players to the Permateam player lists. Sure, it's not perfect, and people can still be asshats, but how that is dealt with is kind of hazy right now.

Like I said, it's a lot broader in scope than your average guild, but still has a lot of common ground with an MMO player running battlegrounds and arenas with your guildies.

What I find most interesting are the comments, some of which have me scratching my head.

Some people seem to truly believe that if you don't allow purely random match selection, you're not truly opening yourself to the ability to meet people online and you're self selecting a group of players. But for me, I don't see it like that. If a game's toxic player base is so bad that you derive no enjoyment from the game itself, then why play the game at all? Isn't the toxic player base engaging in its own version of self selection, only in a more obnoxious manner?

I realize that some people think this encourages elitism, but I don't believe that what is there now is any different. The current environment in Overwatch or League or DOTA 2 is an elitist environment, because if a player thinks you're not playing well enough they hurl invective and abuse at you until you quit. If you join a guild or join Permateam to get away from the asshats and play with people who are friendly, it's a win-win for everybody; the original asshats get to group the old fashioned way without Permateam directly impacting their fun, the Permateam players get to play with people who share similar gaming values, and the game admins have less stress all the way around.

Do I think that Permateam will last? I believe that the jury is still out on Permateam, because well meaning organizations like this require dedication and support and active interest to keep going. There are plenty of MMO guilds out there that have fallen apart due to personality clashes and general disinterest. If Permateam is to succeed, the players and the management have to keep up their interest in the service.

Best of luck, Permateam. I hope you know what you're doing.





*Yes, the Syp of the BioBreak blog and of the Battle Bards podcast.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

On the Endangered Species List: The Story in MMOs

As I'm well into my third (and kind of poking around my fourth) MMO for my "Fun With" series, I've noticed something about some of these Asian MMOs that I've not noticed in the WoW branch of MMOs: that story is much less important than other factors.

True, I'll grant that ArcheAge is more story rich than TERA, but the more I've played the more I get the feeling that the story is father down the priority list than what you'd find in most of the WoW branch's MMOs. For ArcheAge, story is below PvP, Crafting, and graphics* in terms of importance, while for WoW, the story is likely only below the Orcs vs. Humans dictum. I could even make the argument that Orcs vs. Humans is the foundation of the WoW story and that a argument could be made that WoW's true #1 is raiding, but even then the story is a higher priority in WoW and its branch of MMOs than in ArcheAge, TERA, and (now that I think about it), Aion.**

As much as the post-Cataclysm story discontinuity drove me nuts, I can't deny that without a story WoW would have been closer to a MOBA than anything resembling its current incarnation.

Now, all this being said, I readily acknowledge that there are going to be Fantasy/Science Fiction tropes --that are primarily Western in nature-- that don't apply to Asian MMOs. (And vice versa.) This also impacts the development process, what parts of a game to put priority on, and how the story unfolds. So it's likely that I'm missing some parts of the story and overall thrust of some of these Asian MMOs that would be more apparent were I not so steeped in the Western SF&F tropes.

What is bothersome to me --and to others who prefer the story to be the primary focus of a game-- it seems that game companies in general are moving away from the story and more toward multiplayer competition. Remember how Mass Effect: Andromeda announced it won't be updating single player, and only multiplayer going forward? I used to think that maybe it was more due to the ME team needing to take a step back and refocus on what makes Bioware games tick and devote resources to making that happen, but now I'm not so sure. The more I've played the Asian MMOs and gone back and reviewed the rise of the MOBA and Overwatch, the more I think game companies are starting to abandon the story in favor of (cheaper to develop) multiplayer games where it's "Story? What story? I just want to kill things!" as the focus.

Even Blizzard had begun doing this with WoW by dumping major story points into novels that are then reflected in game; if you want to catch up with the story, you have to read all the novels.*** That has historically given me the impression that it was done as a cost saving measure, so Blizz wouldn't have to spend development dollars for something they'd pay an author to write. But at least Blizz still puts focus on the story, because without the story they'd be another Splatoon.

While I get that for some people, the story in an MMO is best left to the players --such as in EVE Online-- I'm not like that. For me, a story provides a framework for everything else that happens in an MMO, and while you can get away with a generic Fantasy or Science Fiction MMO as a pure sandbox, MMOs based on name properties would have a hard time pulling that off. If you've got a name such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars, you expect a game to have a WoW or Star Wars feel to it, and while you can stick a Wookie in a bar, that doesn't make a game "Star Wars" anymore than having some Orcs fight some Humans and call it WoW.****

***

Perhaps these things come and go in cycles, where story becomes more or less important based on what becomes the new hotness. Computer RPGs had an early golden age with Infocom text games, the early Ultima series, and the AD&D games developed by SSI, but there was a long period in the 90s where RPGs nearly vanished from the scene. It was 1998's Baldur's Gate that revived the RPG as a genre, so maybe we've hit a period where except for a few titles --such as Zelda and Horizon: Zero Dawn-- there's just not a lot of interest from the major software companies to fund new story driven games.

But I sure hope more of them get made, because while companies may not be interested in such games, the public certainly does.




*Yes, including boob physics. The nature of the boob physics in ArcheAge is that while breasts can move that way, because cloth and leather armor operate in-game as if they're attached to the frame of the toon, the breast movement is more akin to a naked person wearing body paint than a person wearing cloth or leather armor. In WoW, this "attached to the frame" aspect of toons is very obvious if your toon is wearing a tabard; in ArcheAge it is less obvious until you see a female toon move. Like TERA, the ArcheAge devs' implementation of boob physics is less about realism and still more about titillation.

**I suspect that Black Desert Online is in the same vein. Not so sure about Vindictus, however.

***It must be said, however, Blizzard still would have a ton of story in each WoW expac.

****Some boardgame designers forget that when trying to design games based on named properties. For me, Pillars of the Earth, based on the novel by Ken Follett, is a prime example. When you take out too much theme --or try to wrap a theme around a mathematical exercise-- you end up with a result that looks nothing like the source material.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Why I Likely Won't Play EVE, Part Whatever

I was originally thinking of writing something a bit more lighthearted for Friday, but I came across this little post in Kotaku from Wednesday:


A game that prides itself on its no-holds barred/Machiavellian environment* in a space economy is the only place I'd expect to see something like this. Sure, it makes for fascinating reading, but I know I couldn't handle this sort of shenanigans. It'd be like watching real work intrude on my gaming fun.**

Oh, and the spreadsheet aspect of EVE isn't something that I'm enamored of, either. Sure, I'm good at spreadsheets, and I use them even outside of work, but it's not something I like to do but rather something I have to do. Like keep track of college data so we can drill down on what universities mini-Red #2 should be focusing on when we go to the college fairs.*** Or working out the cost details on house projects. But if you want to be good at EVE, you need to run spreadsheets. LOTS of spreadsheets. And that doesn't spark my interests.

Still, more power to those who love to play. It's the difference between respecting somebody who is good at the old Avalon Hill boardgame Diplomacy and actually playing it: the people who are best at both may not necessarily be the people you want to hang around with in real life.




*With the major exception of out of game threats of violence being met with a perma-ban.

**The main reason why I won't read A Song of Fire and Ice and other, gritty SF/F novels is because if I want to read about gritty realism and how characters must suffer and die, I'll go turn on the news.

***Seriously. There's not enough time at those things to cover every university that is there, so you have to focus on the ones you're most interested in. Add to that the complexity of finding universities that have majors that you're interested in --English or Chemistry is easy, finding a university with a Music program that has an Oboist, not so much-- and you've got the makings of a pretty challenging environment.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Well, That was Unexpected

I've been working on Archage for my next review, but midway through my playing of the game they had a server merge. So, there's that little surprise.

And then I discovered that unlike some other games that are F2P where you can create a maximum of 2 toons per server, Archeage gives you a maximum of 2 toons period.

So, my little side exploration into one of the other race options meant that I accidentally locked up all of my toons for the game, so I had to delete that other toon in order to free up the space.

But....

When you delete a toon in Archeage, you have to wait 5 days (or so) for it to clear. I'm not sure if that was due to the impending server merge, but the toon was on a server not affected by the merge so I think this is a regular thing with Archeage.

All in all, Archeage really really REALLY wants your money and has no qualms about really restricting things in odd ways. For all of those people who complain about SWTOR and it's restrictions, at least you're not restricted in toons the way Archeage is.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Mashup Made in Geek Heaven

It's pretty much gone mainstream these days, but Settlers of Catan (now called just Catan) started out was an import here in the US. It was one of the original Eurogames that made it to our shores in the mid 90s* and began the boardgame revolution that we see today.

And Season Seven of the television adaptation of George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice, HBO's Game of Thrones, just ended.

So what do I find when flipping through the big Con book from Gen Con? This:

The oldest mini-Red freaked out
when I texted her this.
Its a shared venture between Fantasy Flight Games (which holds the Game of Thrones license) and Catan Games. Here's the info on FFG's website.

Let the geeking out commence.





*Our copy dates from roughly 1996.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Time for the Lottery Drawing

Things have changed a bit in 30 years, but dorm life apparently isn't one of them.

Sure, there's wifi (and network access in general), newer washing machines, smartphones*, and air conditioning**, but the dorms are filled with students, and students haven't exactly changed much over the years.

Our oldest mini-Red is now at university, living in a dorm with three other women. I've heard the common complaints ("classes are overwhelming at times") and emergency requests that comes with life from someone in music/band ("I need my flip folder sent to me so that I'm ready by Saturday's game"), but I've also heard items that are closer to a modern sensibility ("wifi sucks" and "I need to get this program loaded but the instructions for installing it are all screwed up").
"Hey Lazlo! Wanna see a demonstration of gravity?"
The dorm wasn't too far off this, but with a LOT
more cinder block and a lot less graffiti.
From Real Genius (1985) and getyarn.io.
By comparison, when I attended college you couldn't connect to the university owned network from your dorm or rented house until my junior year. And even then, you needed a modem to handle the dial-up connection.*** The internet? Ha! Good luck with that, because it was the province of only the professors and a few lucky students who could use the net for research purposes. (Remember, the web itself was about 7-8 years away.) The concept of using a word processor to write up a paper was still pretty alien, as very few students had computers that could even handle a word processor. I was lucky that my Freshman roommate had a Commodore 64 and a printer, but until I reached my Junior year I frequently relied upon my old Smith Corona electronic typewriter to write my reports.****
We still have my wife's old Smith Corona around.
I haven't seen mine in decades. From ebay.com.

The Commodore 64 --and, to a lesser extent, the Apple IIe-- were what my fellow students frequently had if they had any computer or game console at all in their dorms. The NES was still a rare find on campus as most students couldn't afford to have one in their dorm --you more often found a hand-me-down Atari 2600 than an NES-- so the C64 was also the primary games machine for a lot of students.*****
There are times when I really do miss this
machine. Considering they were built like
tanks, I suppose I could find one
if I really wanted it. From Pinterest.

While I have very fond memories of my roommate's C64 --it introduced me to Ultima IV and Infocom games such as Planetfall-- the gaming landscape today is a wee bit different than thirty years ago. Among other things, tech's integration with society has had a huge impact on the public's perception of gamers. The very concept of being a gamer has much more acceptance today than it did in the 1980s, when "gamer" as a slang or descriptive term really didn't exist.

What we call gamers today were basically lumped into generic bucket of "nerd" activities. Played D&D? Nerd. Played video games? Nerd. Owned an actual game console? Nerd. Was into science? Nerd. Was into computer science? Nerd. Watched cartoons? Nerd. Read comics? Nerd. Was into science fiction and fantasy? Nerd.
Life is hell when the Alpha Betas are in charge
of the frat council. From Revenge of the Nerds (1984).
From giphy.
Sure, those activities are still nerdy, but the term "nerd" was much more pejorative back then. Today, video games are big business. So are boardgames and pencil-and-paper RPGs. The list of top grossing movies dating back to (roughly) 2000 has been an 80's nerd's paradise. Hell, even MTV, that purveyor of hipster teen/twentysomething coolness, has had SF/F shows on their lineup.

All this has translated into today, where having a dorm roommate who plays video games or D&D isn't so out of the ordinary.

***

When I arrived at my dorm my freshman year, I walked past the hallways of people carrying boxes into their own rooms. Some had begun putting up posters of rock bands, hot bikini babes, and odes to greed.
Yeah, like this. This and the posters of Budweiser
swimsuit models pretty much scream '80s.
From Yahoo.

I walked into my dorm room, and there were a few boxes set neatly to one side. A signed photo of Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, sat on the two person desk next to a pair of prom photos. My roommate came through the doorway carrying a milk crate of stuff that had a copy of Dragon magazine on top, and I grinned. I was with another member of my tribe.******

This cover, actually. I remember the Mystic
College article very well. From rpg.net.

Fast forward to the other week when the oldest mini-Red was getting settled into her dorm, she put up a few posters --Rogue One among them-- and her roommate began talking about the copy of Smash Up that the mini-Red had tossed onto her bed. Thirty minutes later they were discussing D&D 5e and maybe getting a campaign together.

I wore a silly grin for the next five minutes.

As I later texted my brother-in-law, "Sometimes, you just win the roommate lottery."




*The dorm that the oldest mini-Red lives in was built in the 50s/60s and had places for telephones hung on the wall. But --surprise surprise-- those phones are now gone. If your kid doesn't have a cell at this point then they can't call anybody without a laptop or tablet using Skype. Of course, some teenagers might read this and think "Who CALLS anybody anymore?" I guess I'm getting old...

**One of the universities we visited during the selection process was my and my wife's alma mater. During the group tour it came out that yes, we were alumni, and one of my fellow parents asked me what I thought of the dorms that they were presenting. "I'm amazed that they have air conditioning," I replied. "All of the main dorms didn't have A/C when I was here."

"What do you remember the most?"

"The smell. Imagine 40-50 guys on one floor, with no A/C, and the smell of sweat and dirty clothes. It got really fragrant at times."

***My housemates and I my senior year pooled our money and splurged on a second phone line so we wouldn't tie up the main phone by connecting to the university.

****Remember Wordstar? It was a competitor to Wordperfect at the time, and it's software could fit onto one 5.25" floppy disk with enough space for your papers. That meant if I had access to a PC around campus, I could pop in the floppy, start Wordstar, and work on a paper. It did have one major flaw in that if you got too eager and began to pull the floppy before it completely stopped spinning, your data file would get corrupted. I sadly discovered this the night before my final in my Advanced Lab class, where I lost 3 lab reports at 11 PM. The data was there, but unrecoverable. I had to rewrite those 3 reports --each report 20-25 pages long-- plus the one that was unwritten by 8 AM. I still don't know how I managed to write about 80 pages in one night, but I was so hyped up on coffee, adrenaline, and sheer terror that after I turned in all the papers I simply couldn't get myself to calm down and sleep for another 4 hours.

*****The NES back in 1987 ran typically from $100-150, with the deluxe set $179. In 2017 dollars, that's $220-330 for the commonly found versions of the NES and $400 for the deluxe set (courtesy of the inflation calculator at saving.org). These numbers are pretty much in line with what a new PS4/XBox One/Switch costs in 2017.

******You can buy those milk crates --even though they don't hold milk anymore-- at all of the discount stores such as Target and Walmart. Another nod to things that never change.

And for the record, yes, we did have some non-geeky posters on the wall too. Like the obligatory 6 foot tall poster of Samantha Fox. Yes, THAT poster. And yes, when my parents visited my dorm room later that year, I thought my mom was going to have a heart attack. (They never even noticed the D&D stuff tucked in a corner.)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Years in the Bunker

In case you hadn't noticed, Ophelie of Bossy Pally is back posting after an extended hiatus. She's been focusing on single player games these days, and she's been working her way through the Mass Effect series.

Her most recent post was about single player versus multiplayer games, their profitability, and the potential future of Mass Effect titles. While I think that ME will make a return after the bones of the system (the Frostbite engine in particular) are fleshed out enough to accommodate the RPG that Bioware wants to create, the lure of cashing in on ME style multiplayer might pull the game in a direction that fans of Bioware RPGs might not like.*

That said, a link to this article by Kotaku author Jason Schreier really caught my eye. It was a detailed article on the development process for ME:A, and everything that went wrong in development. (TL;DR: a LOT went wrong.) Schreier even mentions in the article that it was amazing that ME:A actually shipped at all, given all of the issues with the development process.

But for me, reading the article felt like deja vu.

***

As I alluded to in a previous post about the potential issues of new software releases, I worked for several years in a software development house. Those five years were some of the best years of my life, when I worked hard for bosses that both pushed me beyond what I thought my limits were and yet respected my effort and output. I made some friendships that are still going strong today, and the skills I learned during my years in the barrel (so to speak) still serve me well today.

But those five years were also among the most stressful I ever experienced.

When you're on the inside of a development house there is an occasional tendency to get consumed with the work that's right in front of your face. Teams who work together day in and day out develop the feeling that their (piece of the) project is the most important part and frequently miss warning signs. But if you can break out of that silo, you can also see a train wreck coming a mile away. Sometimes it's salespeople who overpromise to critical customers without asking in advance "can we do this?"; sometimes it's the defection of critical personnel that a company had relied upon for years as a hero to fix the emergencies at the last second; other times it might be the promotion of people who prove to be incompetent at managing a development team; and then there's the occasional directive from the top to change direction in a project. Sometimes you might just get three or even all four.

I've been in good releases and bad releases, but the one that still haunts me is the last release I was involved in, which was a real shitshow.

This particular release was a perfect storm of overcommitments to customers, loss of senior staff to higher paying jobs**, an inflexible deadline set by said commitments, and major stability issues with the development environment. In spite of all of the (new) development staff we had, there were personnel shortages during the entire release cycle as the company had underestimated the new devs' capabilities.*** I was our team's representative on the weekly release meeting, and every week there were major complaints from all of the QA teams about the quality and stability of the product. We felt that the product needed at least 2 months to straighten out all the bugs, but we were informed by upper management that was simply not possible.

Things were so bad that they had to create a tiger team dedicated to simply having a workable daily environment for devs to code with, because every other day it seemed like some new code change would crash the entire system. I got drafted into that team for a couple of months, and I lost a lot of sleep because my pager (remember them?) would go off multiple times a night letting me know that a build had failed and we needed to find what code change broke the system.

In the end, you can kind of guess what happened: the product shipped, it was incredibly buggy, and the company took a lot of flak for it. A year and a half later, the company was gutted of "overpriced personnel" and sold to a competitor.****

So yeah, I know what it's like to be in Bioware's shoes with the result of the ME:A release.

***

The thing is, the development cycle didn't have to be that way.

Blizzard is practically alone in not announcing a release date until it feels that the software is ready to go. But that's because while Blizzard has given themselves a ton of goodwill from the gaming community over the years, they have also their reputation as a producer of good and stable games at stake. Of course, they have had their share of release fiascos lately --such as Diablo III and Overwatch-- so they're not immune to problems either. But I do believe these issues also stem from the pressure that Activision is placing on Blizzard to release on a regular schedule, in much the same way that ME:A would have benefited from an extra year of work rather than release on a date set long in advance (whether internally by the staff or externally by the suits).

The ME:A release disaster was another perfect storm of staffing, management, focus, new tech, and time. And the Bioware Montreal office paid the ultimate price by being shut down and absorbed into EA Motive. But this disaster should be used by Bioware to focus on the weak points and improve them, not to go and hide. Shelving the (single player) Mass Effect franchise would be the wrong solution to the problems of ME:A.

Now, if only the suits would let Bioware work out the solutions...





*Think of it this way: Blizz was known for the Diablo, Warcraft, and Starcraft franchises. Now, along comes Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, and Overwatch. The money that Blizz gets out of the latter three have muscled aside the original three, and so guess where the development dollars go? While WoW still pumps out content but it is no longer the star of Blizzard's lineup, and that means that WoW will take a back seat to content for the new titles, which are correspondingly cheaper to develop and maintain. (Such as a lack of story content to the level that WoW/Diablo/Starcraft have.)

**This was the late 90s, when the original dot com bubble was inflating rapidly. I knew several of these people very well, and almost all of them cited the desire to a) make more money and b) feel appreciated. While this may sound at odds with my statement as to how I was respected, you have to realize that these people had been taken for granted by management that they'd be around to clean up everyone's messes. They'd been around for a decade or longer, and they'd realized that the internet revolution was passing them by, so they jumped ship.

***The new devs also had an alarming lack of discipline. If they were assigned to work on boolean logic issues, we'd frequently find them deep within the mathematical algorithms instead, claiming that they wanted to see where the bug led them. We had to explain numerous times that it's not your job to worry about the algorithms, we have an entire math team to handle that. Hand the bug off to them and let them deal with it. Curiosity is one thing, but when you've got 10 bugs to work on and you need to get them fixed in 3 days you don't have the luxury of drilling down past the code you know.

****By then I'd already left the company, as everybody could see that the CEO was going to cash in by selling us and getting his golden parachute.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fifty is Nifty

Hard to believe a little wargamer get together has evolved into this:

From Geekdad.com. And yes, I've been there, just
not on a Thursday right before the opening.
Or this:

From icv2.com. I was in there... somewhere.

But Gen Con turns 50 this year, and the geeks have descended upon Indianapolis.

If you were, like me, hoping to go to Gen Con 50 and you don't have a ticket, you're out of luck. All of the tickets for Gen Con 50 sold out this week, and the tickets for Thursday (the first day) and Sunday (Family Fun Day) sold out well in advance.

I'm reduced to watching livestreams from places such as Boardgame Geek's twitch.tv stream, but I don't mind. I'm just happy that my clan has showed up to game in numbers not seen before at Gen Con.

If you want to see the BGG twitch.tv livestream, here you go:

Watch live video from BoardGameGeekTV on www.twitch.tv