Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nerd, meet Girlfriend (Part 1)

Or boyfriend, as the case may be. There is a fairly large faction of girl gamers out there, and they can potentially benefit from this too.

This is not a guide on how to get a significant other. I have a lot to say on the issue of mate selection, but honestly it is disagreeable to most people. This is instead a guide on how to share gaming with the focus of your affections in a way that is most suited to their needs.

This is divided into two parts. The first part is how to get a SO to enjoy playing games with you. The second is on how to get a SO who is already a gamer to play a particular game of which you enjoy. I couldn't do this any other way. There's a lot to say on the subject and not much of it is similar.

The first thing you have to realize when trying to get your love interest to play games with you is that the goal should be to show them how enjoyable games can be. Anything less noble than that is pretty sure to fail. By that, I mean that you should not try to get your girlfriend to play EVE with you if she is a non-gamer. Most 'hardcore' gaming genres are simply too daunting for a novice gamer. If you are hardcore into BlazBlue but your boyfriend isn't, no amount of explaining the joys you have playing competitively with your friends is going to help.

(I might know some of this from experience, so trust me)

The first thing you need to do is find something relatively easy to play (not too difficult of a control scheme, not too much mental trickery) and that strikes his or her interest. If possible, try for a co-op game.

A good, if unlikely example, is Gears of War 2. It is fairly easy to play and has a lot of easy fun. It is highly violent and gory though, so if your significant other is not into that (a surprising number of girls don't mind it) you may have to pick a different game.

Super Mario Galaxy has an interesting co-op mode, but it doesn't really do the job in the long term. It is better for girlfriends (who don't mind doing things if they think they are helping) than it is for boyfriends.

Although it's competitive, Smash can be a good game for this if you are not very good at the game. If you know what a short hop is, do not use Smash's competitive modes. Cooperative modes, like Brawl's Subspace Emissary (yeah, I know SSE is not very fun, but your boyfriend doesn't know that and he will enjoy beating up robots) are okay. Be careful though if you go from cooperative to competitive modes - and in all cases with Smash, make sure to turn items on (disabling some, especially BS stuff is okay) and have some CPU bots to beat up on. Your girlfriend won't know the difference if 1-hit kill items are turned off, but the added randomness really helps make things more fun.

Supposedly, Fable 2 is pretty awesome. It's even neater because both of you can play on your own time, and Fable is really good at letting people enjoy doing absolutely nothing (by that, I mean doing odd jobs, buying property, doing repeatable side quests, and managing your 8 or 9 different families). For maximum effect, make sure that you don't use too many overpowered magic skills (so they can do something) and play the game on their save file. Just don't be surprised if your girlfriend has a spouse in every town along with nicknames the next time you play. Don't get jealous of Pooky. She can't please your girlfriend the way you can. I hope.

Probably the most obvious example is MMORPGs. Couples have been making duo characters since the EQ1 and UO days. If both people get into it and make alts in case they want to solo or play when their SO isn't around, it can be a very workable arrangement. I highly recommend games that are solo or duo friendly. World of Warcraft is a good example, EVE is not. Aion is a good example, FFXI is not. Do some research (you're the gamer, right?) and find a game that will work out for the both of you. Of all of these, I'd have to suggest Dragonica Online for its ease of play, fun mechanics, and obvious benefits to a 2-person party (and even more benefits for a couple!)

I highly do not recommend anything competitive. Soul Calibur and Smash are pretty much the only competitive games you can use, but even then it's a bad idea. You do not want to get into a situation where you are winning all the time and your boyfriend is getting owned. That is not fun, and it will sour their opinion to games pretty rapidly.

Cooperative games work so well because they mirror a relationship. Even playing ODST with your girlfriend can be fun for her, because she can shoot guys and save your bacon (okay, they weren't dangerous to you, but don't let her know that). Doing things as a team helps cement the fact that you work well together and do great things together, greater than what either of you could do on your own.

While you're playing though, you need to provide positive feedback. 100% of the time, you need to let them know how they helped, how they saved your butt from being owned by 3000 of those dudes coming in behind you with that sweet grenade and so on. If you fail, never blame them. Blame yourself, or even the game if you have to. For instance, when playing Gears with a buddy of mine, we got to a part where we had to play much better than normal, because a mistake in positioning would get one of us killed by mortar fire. Occasionally I would screw up, and I'd blame myself for being in the wrong spot. Sometimes he would screw up, and I'd blame the game for putting in those BS mortars. You can mock your buddies for screwing up in a game, but never do it to your boyfriend.

Especially don't do it to a boyfriend. This is where gender matters a little. Men have much more fragile egos than women. Girls naturally like to help people succeed, so if you get upset and blame something on them, they are actually much more likely to try and do better next time than a guy will. Guys will get frustrated because they like to be good at things, and challenging them about it even if it's constructive, will make them feel kind of crappy. Girls get upset at that sort of thing too (again, I know this from experience) but they have a way higher tolerance factor than guys.

Coaching should be done with caution. Girls, again, are much easier to coach than guys. Boyfriends don't like to be told how to do things. While girls will generally lack the motor skills that boys develop just by growing up, a girl is more apt to accept advice and suggestions, such as "move the analog stick more lightly and your aim will move slower." Try to phrase coaching in as positive a light as possible. "Use this skill when they're stunned, because you'll have more time to cast it." For guys, uh... just be careful. Boyfriends hate being told what to do.

In a lot of cases, particularly with guys, you just won't be able to get them to sit down and have fun. The hard part is actually having them sit down and play.

Working strategies include:
*playing the game by yourself, and asking them if they want to join in.
*if you are female, giving vague sexual connotation to games ("I get so excited when...")
*offering trades may help, eg. you do this with me, I do this with you (don't do something you wouldn't actually do though) - just make sure the game is actually fun
*if they are female, a lot of things will work - if you suggest that they can help you have fun, most decent girlfriends will at least entertain the idea of playing with you

Another key component of a game is that it has to be fun for 1 hour. Sometimes you're not going to be able to do a long involved instance run. Whatever game you choose, you need to be able to put in just a little time and have fun doing it. Long time in the game will be the norm more often than not - your boyfriend is going to come over, watch you playing InFamous, and ask to play WoW with your druid, and you'll end up playing for hours. But make sure that if you only have a little time, that it's fun too. Nothing sucks more than having to drop out of an instance team and let the team down because of IRL stuff (protip: sending your boyfriend naughty whispers is a good way to end a gaming session early).

At the end of a play session, make sure that you let them know that you had fun. THIS IS VITAL. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever tell them that playing with them wasn't fun. EVER. If it wasn't, try a different game or turn down the difficulty setting, but for the love of god don't tell them it wasn't fun. This is another reason why you should not play competitive games. If you get together with your girlfriend and play TF2, you will most likely not do very well if your girlfriend is a non-gamer. Most likely you will die a lot and it will not be fun. Cooperative games let you beat the crap out of computer-controlled opponents, avoid griefing by random other people, and generally just have a fun time. As strange as it sounds to competitive gamers, a co-op campaign is more guaranteed fun than a multiplayer deathmatch.

One of the cool things about doing cooperative games is that many of them have competitive elements, and if your SO starts number crunching how much +attack power their next gear set will have, maybe they'll be more likely to learn how to do 32 hit Litchi relaunches.

(No, I am not sure if Litchi has a 32 hit tsubame relaunch, or if she hits for more. I know she hits you a lot of times and it is frustrating. ~.~)

So, in short:
1 - find a fun, easy to play cooperative game
2 - find some way to get them to sit down and play with you
3 - be encouraging in everything you say
4 - follow through - make sure they know you had fun
5 - ???
6 - Profit!

I have part 2 drafted up, more or less. This one is a little short, because I cut some content out of it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Alderaan is a peaceful planet

So I never update, which sucks. Blame me, because I have stuff to write about, and have for a while. Sorry, I suck. I'll do better!

Bang bang goes burst damage. It's the 'least imba' of the big four game breaking tactics. The reason for this should be fairly obvious. Most game designers are aware of how much damage things in their game do, and they know how much durability (measured in both damage resistance, avoidance, and actual health) their characters have. It's only in 'combo fighters' like Marvel vs. Capcom or BlazBlue where the amount of damage a character can do isn't clearly known when the game launches. It's pretty easy for a dev team to put character health high enough that burst damage is impractical, or at least less useful.

In fact, overpowered burst damage really only takes place when the harder to balance entities like hard control and mobility aren't super dominant factors. In some games, burst damage is the only balancing factor when these elements are overpowered. For instance, in Guild Wars, hard control is kept heavily in check, and is often a merely circumstantial advantage. Mobility advantages in GW are valuable, but one takes an opportunity cost for selecting skills that add to mobility. Burst damage, especially when your entire team focuses burst skills all on a single target, remain as the primary overpowered strategy.

Burst damage is large amounts of damage dealt all in as short a timeframe as possible. Compared to high sustained damage over time, burst damage deals generally less damage over time but much more over a smaller time interval. The idea behind burst damage is to take the enemy by surprise and bypass their ability to use normally effective healing or protective skills to save their teammate. By comparison, sustained damage seeks to overwhelm healers by dealing enough damage to the enemy that it cannot all be effectively countered.

The secondary advantage of a spike is that it quickly removes a single foe from the battle, skewing the field position in favor of the attackers. Since most games allow a player at any amount of health the same fighting capability as a player at full health, taking an opponent out of the battle quickly leaves less time they can support allies or attack your team.

Burst damage is often coupled by other tactics. For instance, hard or soft control is often used to keep the enemy from trying to escape or protect themselves, or perhaps used against healer foes so that the target can't be protected. Inside the small window of a hard control, burst damage is particularly effective, since it can take even a small moment of advantage and turn it into a kill.

It is also fairly easy to disrupt a spike in the same way. By applying a hard or soft control to one or more attackers, the amount of incoming damage can be spread over a longer period of time or negated altogether, leaving more time or less damage that needs to be healed or prevented. This factor is one of the hidden balancers of burst damage.

Another strong balancing factor for burst damage is the need for a condensed team. Oftentimes a team must put several strong attackers together in order to deal enough damage to defeat a single foe quickly. In an objective-based game, it may be problematic to concentrate your team enough to deal an effective spike. If objectives are spaced far apart, a burst team might be able to take down one foe at a single objective quickly and likely take that single objective. However, if they give up the opportunity to capture other objectives on the map, a split team will control more of the map than a concentrated burst team. And unlike a pressure team that relies on sustained damage over time, the burst team is all or nothing - a spike tends to use up a lot of resources for the attacking characters, and if the damage is insufficient, it tends to put the attackers in an unfavorable situation.

How do you exploit burst damage? Well, that answer is pretty simple. Group as many high single target damage characters as you can together and have them all target the same foe. Sometimes spike teams need a catalyst too - Guild Wars is particularly fond of spikes that require one or more status effects to be in place on the enemy.

Preventing spikes is dependent on the game. Some games, like Guild Wars, have protective skills that limit the amount of damage a foe can take in a single hit. Most other games have a much harder time. You must predict the ally most likely to get hit by a spike (often the healer) and apply preventative measures, such as protective buffs, regeneration/heal over time buffs, and similar effects that will soften the blow a little. Each player will have to be ready to act if they see a spike go into effect. For instance, if the enemy all begins to hit one target with movement debuffs or hard controls, it's a clue that a spike is coming. If possible, that character should attempt to escape or otherwise hamper the spike. If it isn't possible, allies should be ready to move and interrupt the spike enough that the target survives.

Another less obvious prediction for a spike is buff removal. If one of your allies starts getting hit by skills that remove their buffs, it is highly likely that the enemy is trying to remove protections in order to open up a big truckload of pain. In general, if the enemy uses weakening effects and doesn't spread them all over your team in order to slow you down, they are probably trying to prep a spike on someone.

Defending against a spike is extremely difficult, and much harder than pulling one off. If you expect the enemy team to employ them, everyone has to be fully awake and ready to stop it.

If you can't survive a spike and you know it, the next best thing you can do is to counter by dealing heavy damage to the enemy. If your team is a sustained damage team, you may still be able to get a lot of damage in and put one or more foes in a bad state or perhaps even kill them. This is particularly useful in games like Perfect World where the healers are also powerful damage dealers - their healers may be focusing on spiking, leaving your team the possibility of unloading powerful attacks on their team as well.

In both the offensive spiking and defensive spiking scenario, one thing remains a big help. Voice communication allows a burst damage team to all coordinate attacks at the same time. Likewise, it also allows a target to notify teammates quickly that they are being targeted. Most spikes have some sort of lead-in, such as debuffs, hard controls, etc. If the victim can announce that they are hit by a debuff ahead of time, they may be able to get it removed or just have preventative buffs applied in advance.

Of course, if you're playing MvC2 and one of your characters is getting rocked by an infinite, there's not much you can do. The biggest thing you can do in a fighter if the enemy is performing an infinite is to make them do the infinite 100% perfectly and break out if they do not. If you are aware of any point in their combo where they can attempt a reset, be doubly aware when it comes around and attempt to block it. When you are getting hit by a huge combo, you just have to get hit, but your enemy has to focus and do it perfectly. If you can drain his mental energy by forcing him to concentrate more on the infinite, you will have some measure of advantage when the match goes to round 2 (or whatever). And if he slips up, you get a shot at turning things around. Most infinite combos deal really low damage, so the best thing you can do is to not panic or throw away the controller.

But really, this article is about burst damage in a MMO or even in a 'unrealistic shooter' like Halo where characters can take lots of bullets. In a fighter, if you know your opponent can do huge damage if they hit you, your best solution is to deny them opportunities to go on offense, either by controlling space (zoning them out) or controlling tempo (keeping pressure on them).

To be fair though, offensive pressure on a burst damage team in a MMO can really disrupt their ability to attack you. If you harass them with soft controls, hard controls, and other annoyances, it can be really hard for them to set up a 1-2-3 kill even if you are not focused on defending it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Survivor: Samoa prelim evaluation

I like Survivor. It's a competition rooted mostly in social maneuvering, with twists and turns that make things interesting without necessarily creating unfair advantages for the players. Because the game is simultaneously cooperative and competitive, it creates a very difficult to analyze game where no 'false' drama has to be introduced - the game itself is deep enough that they don't need to incorporate BS drama and judges into the game.

This season is going to be on Samoa, which is all sorts of awesome. Samoa has a rich culture and heritage, full of tribal dances, tattoos, and all sorts of other cool stuff. The Samoan people are really open and communal, and I've had the luck to talk with people of Samoan descent about their history and culture. This makes this particular season pretty immersive to me. Also, Samoa is a really gorgeous place. This tends to be the case for most seasons of Survivor, but the "tropical island" appearance of Samoa really feels 'right' for the series.

If I wanted to look at videos of Samoan topology though, I'd be watching the Discovery Channel or something (okay, I watch that too). Instead, I'm here to watch a really good Survivor season, and this one has a few really big competitors I'm looking forward to seeing.

This season, most of the women are fairly uninteresting as strategic competition. The big female power I see comes from the Elizabeth. She's Korean-American, has graduated from three Ivy League universities and is a practicing lawyer. She radiates success, and that's very telling for how she will do in Survivor. Her legal experience, as well as her self-proclaimed "social butterfly" nature, will make her a dangerous competitor in the game. She is also fairly self-realized, understanding that she can be opinionated and that she needs to "be assertive without being blunt." I think she'll be a power player.

The next woman I find interesting is an older lady named Shannon, who calls herself "Shambo." She's a former US Marine (automatic cool points) and is a highly successful sales rep. I'm not sure how effective she will be in the game, but her tomboyish exterior will cause a lot of interesting interactions between the other players. If she sticks around to actually start playing the game, she could be interesting to watch.

Unfortunately, there's no other really cool female players. Generally the female players in Survivor tend to be uninteresting (at least strategically) because the producers tend to pick boring hot chicks instead of quick-thinking strategically minded women. Fortunately, we have a lot of character in a few of the other ladies, particularly Yasmin and Monica.

One girl I'm not looking forward to seeing is Kelly. In her pregame interviews, she expressed interest in flirting with cute guys as one of her major motivations. I do not approve, Kelly. Please do us all a favor and get some annoying guy voted off along with you.

This season has some of the coolest guys in a season thus far. I mean this in different ways than most people, but it has two of the biggest, dangerous Survivor villains ever to grace a show. The other guys (Ben and Erik in particular) I could care less about.

The first guy I'll talk about is a pretty cool guy. He's smart, successful in life, and most importantly, he understands Survivor really well. His name is Jaison, a pretty big, good looking black guy. He's the guy I'm rooting for to win. Jaison understands Survivor extremely well, including understanding the intricacies of human interaction and how to decieve and trick people. The best part is that he has a certain demeanor - he has this sort of honest, nice guy persona that will get him far in the game. His strategy will win him the game. His interview is really awesome. His main trouble will be being so much of a nice guy that people will see him as a threat.

Part of the reason I like Jaison so much is that his attitudes and strategy are a lot like mine, so it's like seeing how I would do if I was transplanted there.

Next up is John, who is a rocket scientist (really!) and supposedly one of the smartest people ever to appear on Survivor. Smarter than Ken or Stephen? I have no idea. Anyway, smart guys (and girls) are always cool to see on the show, so it's nice to see geniuses like John (and Liz and Jaison) this season. I don't think John will do exceptionally well. I think he will drop pre-merge without much in the way of allies. Probably. I still like smart guys.

Next on the list is Dave, who I think is also a really smart guy. He falls into the same sort of self-realized boat as Liz. In many ways, he's a white guy version of her (with less credentials). He realizes he's opinionated and that he can say things that will offend people, but it seems less likely that he will control himself like Jaison or Liz will. I think his success will depend mostly on the specific people he befriends. If he can get in relatively close to a nice guy or girl and can lay low, he's got some potential.

I had to watch a number of videos to get a good feel for Mick. He's a poser. Jeff thinks John is a poser, but Mick is a far bigger one. He thinks he's a player and a nice guy all at the same time, and in my initial opinion of him I felt that that he had a good 'player' attitude while keeping an invisible, likable guy opinion at camp. However, a closer look makes me think that he really isn't able to play on the same level as the smart people. He's a pretty snake-like guy and I think he'll be disliked.

The main guy I'm looking forward to seeing is Russell H. This guy is a MONSTER. A BEAST. He will change the way Survivor will be played forever. He's the owner of an oil company, and he comes off as a total pompous jerk in his interviews. He is a total pompous jerk, and I can't say I'm rooting for him to win (although this will probably change depending on how things turn out). Russel stated one thing that I've been talking about since I first started theorizing about merge strategy - that he wanted to sandbag his team so that he went to the merge with a smaller number of people on his team.


No, seriously. In Survivor, it is highly disadvantageous to go into a tribal merge with a 7/3 "advantage." It is still a big disadvantage to go in with a 6/4 numbers advantage. I'm sure that Survivor fans will disagree with me. I'm sure that even after Russell ends up taking second place that Survivor fans will disagree with me and say that he got there totally on luck.

For the uninformed, the early parts of Survivor consists of two (or sometimes more) tribes that compete against each other in various challenges. The losers of an immunity challenge must select one of their team members to remove from the game. After a certain period, typically when there are roughly 10 people remaining, the two tribes merge to become a single tribe. After this point, immunity is granted to the person who wins the challenge and all ten people determine which person to vote out from among the people who did not win.

Common logic determines that a larger tribe post-merge will dominate the smaller tribe by superior numbers. However, this is never the case in practice, because the larger tribe always splinters. This is not due to some random lucky chance. It's because people are trying to win.

A tribe with smaller numbers has had to attend Tribal Council (the vote-off process) more times, and thus has more experience with that part of the game. This means that they know how to manipulate people better (generally) and predict how others might vote.

A tribe with larger numbers also builds cliques, better known as "alliances." In any tribe of 5 or more people, alliances of 2-4 people will emerge. The weaker of these alliances will tend to flock to the other smaller tribe (likely one alliance), in order to increase their chances of winning. In many cases, these 'swing vote' players end up winning (such as Bob in Gabon, or Amanda in Fans vs. Favorites) or coming in 2nd or 3rd, so this strategy is well-founded. It makes no sense to keep people around if they are banded together in a tight group. If you are an alliance of 2 people and there is another alliance in your tribe of 4 people, you are extremely likely to go with the group that will put you in 3rd or 4th position rather than 5th or 6th.

Russell H understands this, so even if he doesn't play the social game as well, he will be awesome to watch. He had better make an understanding alliance (of 3) early on, though - or else he'll be in some deep water. After that, all he has to do is find the 'swing voters' and he will likely ride the current all the way to the final 4 people. I do not want Russell H to win because of his character (he's a jerk!) but I do want him to do well as a proof of concept that his strategy is sound. The problem is that he's a jerk, and it may get him screwed before he ever gets a chance to implement it.

There's another guy named Russell S, he's a cool guy but is not as strategically interesting.

Anyway, those are the people that I think are going to make the big waves this season.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Champions Online

A boring, non-witty post title.

This is my thoughts and feelings behind Cryptic Studios' new MMORPG, Champions Online. It's a modern day superhero MMO set in the Champions universe (it's a niche pen and paper game). It shares a lot of stylistic similarities with City of Heroes/Villains, but that's bound to happen since Cryptic was also the development team behind CoX. Honestly, CO bears similarity to a World of Warcraft/City of Heroes hybrid, which is good and bad (mostly good, imo).

Visually, CO looks and feels a bit dated right out of the gate. While the models are shiny and fairly detailed, the particle effects and animations seem clunky. I'm not sure who does the animations, but they just don't have the same crispness or flow as characters in even dated games like Guild Wars. This isn't to say they look awful, but overall the game looks kinda average. It's still crisper and better looking than WoW is, but that's not really saying much - WoW is kind of an old game.

The (visual) character customization is good, and has a wide variety of character options. However, there were a lot of bugs in the character editor the last time I saw play at the end of beta that made creating a character and costume rather awkward. If you compare it to City of Heroes, there are simply not as many options. CoX has a lot of costume pieces to make a very unique character and build, and CO has many fewer. Compared to many other games (most?) CO still has a very large number of options. Compared to their competition, they're a little low, so I can't really see it as a major selling point.

Still on the visual front, I do not understand why a game made in 2009 can't have hair and clothing physics. Remember the 90s? It was okay for Lara Croft to have a solid block of plastic hair back then. Now there are numerous F2P MMOs that have real hair and clothing physics. A game released in 2009 in box that costs 50$ and has a 15$/mo subscription fee really has no excuse.

It's worth noting that Redefining Nerds doesn't usually talk about visuals in place of gameplay, but because CO's major selling point is visuals, I feel it important to point out how it stacks up. Overall, I think it's acceptable if you are into the other facets of the game too.

Gameplay is my area of expertise though and CO falls sort of short.

The first and biggest issue I have is the reduction/elimination of the support role. Defensive support, eg. buffs and healing, are reduced to maintained beams of healing that apply heals over time, instead of strategic healing bursts and pre-emptive damage prevention. All burst healing is self-targeted and all damage reduction buffs are self only. This takes virtually all the skill out of playing a support character, and forces a support player to focus on doing one thing, instead of multitasking to protect their team effectively.

In general, CO is very solo-focused. Everyone can 'tank' with a few stray power selections for survivability, and everyone deals at least decent damage due to the way the super-stat system works. The result is that even though there are dozens and dozens of powers in the game, every character falls into one of a very small number of categories:

1: awful
2: generic melee brawler
3: generic ranged blaster
4: God

Regarding #1 and #4 is my next point. The balance of the game is really awful. Even with a wide variety of powers, many of them are like Mortal Kombat characters - mostly the same, except a few are clearly better. Some powers are 'outside the box', and these range from mostly useless (gadget mines) to absurdly good. This huge disparity even between individual powers means that it's easy to end up making a character that does the exact same thing as someone else's character, only much worse at it. Combined with a complex statistic system which rewards minmaxing, and the average player is likely to produce a character statistically inferior in every way to an experienced one.

This leads me to my next point - you can only change the most recent ten changes to your character. You can't change anything before that, so if you get to level 20 or so and find that something you picked early in the game isn't what you wanted, there's no choice but to reroll your character from scratch.

Perhaps the worst of all of it is that there are a number of powers and abilities that are must-have. Even worse is that they form a core group of abilities that supplement other powerful abilities that are not 'essential' but are in the same power tree, making them available sooner. This means that in essence, that you can make "God," a build that can literally handle any problem and deal with any situation.

During the end of beta event where numerous boss Destroids spawned which required large teams to kill, we ran "God" in solo, and easily defeated the enemies without breaking a sweat. In PvP, the God build was able to defend itself against the most dangerous forms of PvP offense (knockback infinites) and completely ignore all other forms of PvP offense, all while delivering its own knockback infinites and huge spike damage.

On that note, PvP is really broken. Currently the metagame revolves around hitting the enemy into the corner with an endless knockback loop then laying down some pets or persistent damaging power (one of which has a pulsing knockback effect) so that the opponent can't escape. All other offensive forms, such as team spikes or landing a hold into a damage chain can be easily prevented by being aware and using teleport, which can escape any situation other than a knockback infinite.

Unfortunately for CO, there is also nothing to really challenge that build. There is virtually 0 endgame content for level 40 characters. This is the same problem that plagues City of Heroes right now (except that's an issue of 'worthwhile' endgame content). Most games have a decidedly endgame focus which is probably bad, but having nothing other than PvP to sate a high level character's appetite is just a mistake.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that at the end of open beta, CO was full of bugs. There were dozens of unfinished missions, incorrect help text for powers (or no text at all!), and numerous costume bugs. While I'm sure these will eventually get fixed, they were so low priority on Cryptic's list compared to hyping the game and selling lifetime subscriptions.

Overall I don't feel like CO was a game ready for launch. It does have a decent amount of potential, but honestly unless Cryptic hires some better developers to balance the powers, CO is going to be another totally imbalanced MMO with no insight into how to fix it.

That's assuming they fix the bugs, of course.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I'm a Moral-what?

This article was going to be about a lot of things. Some people suggested I write 'burst damage' next, others suggested I write about the D&D game I inadvertently 'ruined', and other suggestions were made to talk about this season's Survivor cast.

Then, Valve did something cool.


This is kind of a big deal, for a number of reasons. To understand what the significance of this is, you have to understand how their item system works. When playing TF2, you can unlock items either by killing players, getting achievements (some of which are really innovative), and also at the end of a round. Of these, the achievement method is the most guaranteed (you get a specific reward for getting a certain number of achievements) while the others are random.

The idle programs in question log you onto random servers, and you idle - until you're kicked, then the program finds a new server and logs you in. Since you have a chance at getting items at the end of a round, there's a chance you'll get items periodically while you do nothing.

This is obvious cheating. Valve took a stand, and removed all items from anyone who abused third-party programs to get items. They gave a bonus item to everyone else, as if to say "Thanks for not cheating!"

I have a complicated stance on this, though. Valve's response was roughly correct. They did not have an existing rule in place, but this behavior was not in line with what they thought was correct gameplay. They did a lot of data mining to identify patterns with these idle programs, and eventually found a way to use those patterns to find the majority of these 'idlers.' I have no problem with Valve's actions.

The issue I have is with the idlers. My personal code of ethics in competition states that you should do everything within your ability to win. This means exploiting bugs or rules loopholes, and in a way, idling qualifies. However, it also does not really qualify. Idlers aren't competing for anything, they just want more items. Still, they should be allowed to exploit any hole in the rules that may exist - it is up to the designer to make rules (or better yet, patches) that fix these loopholes.

The issue with idling is moral - if you join a server and idle, you are hurting whatever team you are on. Even if you eventually get kicked, the team you get stuck on is down a player, and the server gets full, when there is a player that isn't contributing when others are waiting to get in.

What about 'idle servers'? There are servers built for idlers (you don't even need a program), so they can farm items. Is this okay? I feel that it is okay. I'm not sure what Valve's stance on this is, but since these people are not hurting anyone, that it is okay for them to exploit a rules loophole to farm items.

Idlers who lost most of their stuff for using 3rd party programs are up in arms right now. They make up a tiny portion of the TF2 population (4.5% is still a lot, though - thousands of people) but they speak like they are the majority. They claim that since there was no rule, they could not be punished! Well, morally speaking, screwing over your team is pretty lame.

I think that the only thing Valve could have done is implement the rule sooner - it really wouldn't have stopped the idlers (take a look at duping in Diablo II for instance), and they could have done their mass item removal afterward.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore

In competitive gaming, there's a shared thread between 'dominant' tactics and builds. In games where players can select a wide variety of options, patterns emerge between what is the best and most dominant strategies. There are 4 main characteristics I'd like to go over today, and talk indepth about one of them.

1: Hard control, and barring that, control effects in general. All of these threads have similarities in that they restrict or reduce your opponent's options. Hard control is the ability to completely remove your opponent's ability to move or fight back, typically through stun, knockdown, or similar effects. Other control effects include reducing your opponent's options by restricting their movement or ability choices, or reducing the power of these options (damage or accuracy reduction, etc.) I'll be focusing on this one today.

2: Persistent entities. MMO players generally refer to them as pets. This can include traps and area denial tools, lingering projectiles or delayed effect projectiles (eg. Gier in Arcana Heart) and similar tools. Pets allow a player to restrict the opponent further. At its simplest, a ranged character with a melee pet can force the opponent to keep moving to escape the melee pet while able to function at his ideal range. Pets can often do debilitating things or just deal threatening damage, controlling where and how your opponent moves, which is very powerful. Some pets can even perform defensive functions, which lowers the amount of concentration a pet master has to spend on staying alive. Even if developers do their best to balance pet classes, they tend to become more powerful just because having a seperate, persistent entity changes gameplay.

3: Spike or burst damage. This is the act of depleting an opponent's life rapidly, without allowing them much time to defend themselves. Large amounts of burst reduce the value of healing, because healers must react in a small window and heal large amounts of life immediately in order to be effective at all. Once an enemy is dead, further healing isn't useful. This also takes a person out of the battle before they really have a chance to fight back or defend themselves with any type of active defense. A typical spike might take as few as 2-3 seconds, or as many as ten, depending on the game. In fighting games, this typically refers to characters that can deal lots of damage or win the fight off a single opening. Burst damage needs to be balanced by the ease in dealing it - if it's too easy to set up a burst/get an opening, it tends to be overpowered.

4: Mobility (and stealth, by extension). In Guild Wars, skills that increase your movement by only 20% for brief periods are treated as gold. This is because mobility is so critical in competition. Characters with extremely fast movement can dictate the pace of a match, while slower characters must take their opportunities to attack within the windows that the faster characters give them. A melee fighter who is not allowed to get into melee range due to a lack of speed never gets to fight at all, and a ranged character fighting another ranged character who has the flexibility of speed can pick and choose his moment to strike and his opponent must react. This is really huge for competition. Stealth, teleportation, and other means of controlling the distance in the fight are an extension of this because they do the same thing - manipulate the distance at which the battle is fought and dictate the pace of the battle. A stealthed opponent can control when a battle starts, just like a faster opponent can.

Today I'm only going to talk about control, because each of these topics is really huge.

Control is the most frustrating thing to fight against. In a fighting game where characters use fast recovering moves to leave you on the defensive, you can be made to feel helpless. In a MMORPG when you are permanently stunlocked, feared, or held you are literally helpless with no way to escape. Although perma stun builds can be an element of bad game design, they can also lead to more gameplay depth (WoW). The cost of frustration on a player unfamiliar with perma stun is jarring, though.

Quite simply, getting locked down permanently isn't fun. It doesn't matter what game you're playing - if it's EVE and your ship is getting jammed, warp scrambled and webbed, your ship can do nothing except drive at a slug's pace in most cases. Even burst damage is more fun than that - at least when you're bursted down, you're dead and then you've lost and you can go do something else or try again, or respawn if it's that sort of game. When you spend 10 or more seconds staring at your screen or holding block, it's like you have basically lost but the game is forcing you to witness your death for the next minute. People call these tactics lame or 'cheap', and rightfully so - they aren't fun at all. Even when there are counters, if a novice doesn't know or doesn't have the counter, the match becomes unfun.

Guild Wars takes the hardline approach by making hard control impossible for long periods. Interrupts happen instantly, so it takes one person's constant effort to completely lock an enemy down. Knockdowns are very hard to 'chain', so repeated knockdowns are generally uncommon. Instead, light control is sprinkled throughout a game that is built far more on mobility and burst damage, and surprisingly, active defense is pretty viable (and actually essential).

I think that FPS games luck out since in most cases (barring a few weird exceptions like the Sandman in TF2) hard control or control at all is pretty much not present. Symmetry in FPS games (where each player or team has the same options) also makes the other elements a non-factor, since every player has access to more or less the same options. Also, even if there were control elements like stun in an FPS, knockdown or stun would quickly lead to a death, rather than the 10 second lingering (or more) that most MMORPGs tend to have.

Fighting games treat hard controls completely differently. Typically, a hard control is a combo starter, since the opponent typically can't block. Sometimes (most Mortal Kombat games) this leads to infinites, but in most cases, a hard control is landed, which results in a combo, which either puts the players back in a neutral state, or leaves one player at an advantage. Knockdowns can be seen as a form of hard control though, and once knocked down, a player's options are few, allowing the attacker a large degree of flexibility without necessarily granting the attacker any free hits.

Even soft control is kind of meh. Soft controls reduce your ability to fight back, or can simply remove one option available to you. If one takes a control like Guild Wars' blind, it can still be heavily crippling to someone who depends entirely on non-magic combat. In MMOs where high-end builds tend to be specialized for one type of strategy, crippling that one strategy with a soft control is almost the same as getting pegged by a hard control.

Stacked soft controls can be worse than hard control - in the EVE Alliance Tournament 6, people used sensor dampeners to reduce the enemy's locking range rather than ECM to jam their locks outright. Stacked sensor dampeners led to enemies literally being unable to lock at any respectable distance, forcing players into knife-fight distances if they wanted to attack at all. In City of Heroes, stacked accuracy debuffs can give a foe 5-10% accuracy even with buffs to overcome it, which effectively keeps an opponent from fighting back.

The same reasoning behind controls doesn't apply to the reverse. Buffs that affect the same variables as debuffs tend to be very tightly controlled, often placing caps, stacking penalties or just outright lack of stacking at all in order to restrict people from turning teammates into gods. Debuffs and controls on the other hand tend to be very loosely controlled.

What does this all mean? Well, it means that controls are always something we need to look out for. Whether it's infinite stun/knockdown combos or range floor debuffs, our builds need to include ways to counter or otherwise weather the storm of control. If the game is too focused on control and debuff to the point where it makes matches a matter of who lands the first stun, maybe the game isn't worth playing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No, Really Really, Morality is Not Subjective

No, I don't think this time is going to be a preachy moral article. It's about morals, sort of, though.

In roleplaying games, alignment, or 'percieved alignment' for those games without alignment rules, is sort of a big thing. Some games just gloss over the topic (returnergames) while others, most notably D&D, make it a big, game-altering deal to be of a particular alignment. This article is about the more hard systems of good and evil, and how ridiculous some GMs can be.

Good and evil in the type of D&D way are pretty poorly defined, and even though more recent books have more clearly explained each alignment, players and GMs continue to misinterpret such principles as 'lawful good.'

The first thing to think about in any morality situation is intent. The intent of a person is 99.9% of what determines whether an act is good or evil.

A character who accidentally does just about anything, without being aware of the consequences of the action, is not performing an evil act. A character who accidentally causes the death of someone is not performing an evil act. How many paladins have you heard fall because of unintentional consequences of their otherwise noble decisions? The answer: A lot.

The intent of the action determines pretty much everything behind it. If the paladin happens to put his sword in the closet, unaware that a pixie is hiding out in there, and inadvertently hacks off one of her wings, he is not going to fall. He might fall if he was mean about it afterwards, depending on the whims of the GM, but if he was like, "zomg im sorry :(" that should be enough to say, the paladin isn't performing an evil act.

If a character does something that is evil that they do not realize is evil, it is still (probably) not an evil act. For instance, a heroic character is deceived by an illusion into thinking that a town of innocent people are actually treacherous monsters that are threatening the town. If he kills the people (deceived by illusion) it would probably not be considered an evil act. There's a situation like this in Baldur's Gate 2, where the players and a group of paladins are hit by illusions, and both groups think the other group is a bunch of hostile monsters. When you win, you find out that the enemies are paladins, and you go and find the guy responsible (a red dragon, which you can choose whether or not to pwn its face). This is not an evil act - unless the players were to be like, "oh, well I would have killed them anyway." This changes the intent from killing hostile, life threatening monsters to killing a group of benevolent do-gooders. Intending to kill good guys is almost always an evil thing.

So looking further at intent, we get into the morally grey. What if two countries are economically dependent on a particular resource, and there isn't enough of it to go around, and so they go to war over controlling the resource (after negotiations prove impossible). The individual combatants in the war are almost assuredly not performing evil acts. The politicians might be, depending on how critical the resource is.

Using a more fantasy example, say a village is struck with a terrible disease, and the only way to cure it is to make medicine from the roots of a really ancient tree. At the same time, there are druids who guard the tree and the forest and wildlife that would die if the tree were dug up. Inevitably there's going to be blood there, and it's a pretty morally grey decision as to who is in the right. Neither side is doing evil, even if we may side with one group or the other.

Back on the subject of things that would cause a paladin to fall or that would be considered vaguely evil, is actions that are obviously stupid. If a hero knows that what he is doing could result in harming innocents if he screws it up, then yeah, that is probably evil or would cause a paladin to fall. There's a little bit of grey area here too, but not a whole lot. If the paladin is climbing a tree to retrieve a magical arrow he fired, and there's a chance that the branch could fall and if someone was walking under it they could get hurt, the paladin is probably not doing anything evil, even if the branch does break and someone gets hurt. If we escalate a bit, say a hero is fighting a monster on some dangerous terrain. If the hero moves to safer ground and continues the fight there, it might endanger innocent lives (due to fireball explosions or whatever). This hero is totally doing something that would make a paladin fall, especially there are consequences. Again, if the hero doesn't know that innocent people are around when he makes the tactically superior decision to relocate, then he is obviously not doing something evil, though.

Lastly, good intentions are not 100%. If a crazy person believes that a village is actually shapeshifted demons (because he's told, whatever) without doing any investigation, and rolls out and starts murdering people, that's evil, period. Obviously if he finds out they are demons, and they are a threat, then he is totally justified in cutting them down.

On that last point, though - slaying demons is not always a good act. Demons that are harmless, or that seem to not want to mess with people, are not 'free xp'. Slaying a sleeping red dragon who has no history of terrorizing humans is an evil act, even if red dragons are traditionally evil.

That's really something that is overlooked a lot in fantasy - killing is not something one should just take lightly. It's one thing to fight in self defense, and it's one thing to protect people from evil creatures. It's not okay to go hunting for orcs or goblins or whatever.

Segway time ... loading ... loading ...

Lawful good is a pretty misunderstood alignment (right up there with neutral evil and true neutral). Lawful good does not mean a character is a pacifist or an idiot. It means that they hold a (good) ideal or belief, and maybe follow a good religion and live in a nation with good laws.

A lawful good character (even a paladin) does not have to be 100% honest at all times. It's morally wrong to lie, and it might even be morally wrong to decieve people. However, if it serves the greater good, not telling the bad guy that your kingdom plans on invading next week is completely understandable. When the rogue lies like a politician to save your party, it is not against a lawful good character's alignment to shut their mouth, shrug their shoulders, and be unresponsive. It is against their alignment to lie, but in the situation where it could lead to the safety of an entire kingdom, it is probably okay if a paladin makes a suggestion that the rogue "is a pretty honest guy" or "couldn't make this kind of thing up."

Evil is even less understood. Believe me, I know. The best way to sum up evil characters is, they are like players. Ha.

Seriously though, evil characters simply want what they want. Most evil characters are not chaotic evil and do not do evil things just for the sake of doing evil. Most (neutral) evil characters want power, money, or prestige. They will steal or murder people to get at what they want, but that doesn't mean they always will. Evil isn't dumb either, and the bad guys most likely aren't going to kill the good guy king and steal his daughter and run off to the castle to wait for a good guy to show up - unless the bad guy was strong enough to handle the entire king's army when they attack his castle in retribution.

When I make an evil character, I give them goals, motivations, and reasons for doing things. Then, because they are evil, they use evil means to get at those goals.

Evil means isn't the only option to an evil character. If it's easier to get at something they want by doing good deeds, an evil character is totally capable of doing good things. Evil isn't like good - it's the absence of morals, not the presence of them. That means most evil characters have no qualms about doing 'good' things if it gets them what they want.

There can be evil characters devoted to being evil, such as lawful evil religious zealots or chaotic evil morons. These characters are pretty cool and wacky, but rarely do they feel dangerous like an evil character who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Fortunately, most lawful evil characters aren't so devoted to doing evil that they won't do 'good' things.

To sum it all up:

Being a good guy is about wanting to do the right thing, as much as possible.
Being a bad guy is about getting what you want.

Selfish motives are always evil, and selfless motives are always good.

Keep that in mind, guys!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You Deserve a Pat on the Back

Man, it's been forever. Sorry -.-

So I've been thinking about design and how it relates to good games. I've also been thinking on a very important concept:

What do you deserve when you play a game? This is entirely different depending on whether you are a novice, intermediate, or expert player. It's hard to juggle all of these things together, of course.

A novice player deserves a fun learning experience and easy to use game mechanics. I think this is very important. If novices don't grow in a game, they will put it down. For developers, that means a lot especially if their game has a subscription fee. For a community, it means the community has lost another hopeful contributor.

As experts, we sort of take the new player experience for granted. We almost always scoff at the tutorials for games once we've played through them our 2nd - 50th time through the game. Amusingly, many people who dislike the tutorial the most are the people who still haven't learned everything in it, but I digress.

I think the bare minimum for a game is that it has a fairly long (20-ish hours) and enjoyable campaign/story mode that should also serve as a tutorial for high level game concepts. There are very few examples of this. Of the examples that do exist, ALL of them are for single player games (Devil May Cry 4 is a pretty decent example even if the actual tutorial in the game is mediocre - the gameplay itself is a fairly excellent teacher of gameplay concepts). There are some good multiplayer game tutorials, such as Virtua Fighter 4/5's tutorial mode. However, these are strung together like boring lessons and aren't woven into an engaging campaign or story mode.

In fact, engaging multiplayer campaign/story modes are highly boring for the most part, and many (like WarCraft/StarCraft) actually teach you the wrong things. A decent example of a fun designed story mode might be Soul Calibur 3, and a decent example of a story mode that could have been fun is definitely Super Smash Brothers Brawl. When compared to these story modes, games like BlazBlue or Soul Calibur 4 or Street Fighter (any) just don't hold up.

Soul Calibur 2's adventure mode (called Weapon Master) was somewhat interesting as a tutorial, since it often forced you to defeat your enemy in different ways, including ring outs, juggle combos, and so on. Unfortunately, it didn't really go far enough and the result is that players didn't really learn optimal combos or setups for their character. Still, as far as multiplayer games go, it's pretty much all we've got.

You could call the entire level 1 to max level gameplay in a MMORPG the campaign/story mode, but the reality is that in most cases, players are forced into 'real gameplay' decisions long before they hit max level. In WoW for instance, the tutorial period is rightfully levels 1-10, and at level 10 they can head into WSG or the Arena and PvP for their first time, and go into their first instance shortly after that. In City of Heroes, there really is no endgame content and the 'tutorial mission' ends at level 2 (and without teaching the player much).

An ideal tutorial teaches players about as many pertinent gameplay elements as possible. Also, the gameplay needs to be structured that the mechanics are transparent and easy to grasp.

Although I've talked about simple vs. complex a million times, I'd like to illustrate why so many people play Soul Calibur. The game is easy to pick up. It is not a very good intermediate player's game, but at the beginner level it's easy to understand. Moving the stick in a direction makes you move in that direction, and it has three attack buttons and a guard button. Most of the moves a beginner would do are easy, direction + button affairs, or possibly direction + two buttons. Even at the expert level, the experts are doing these same moves, which helps transparency. Beginners don't often feel like they've been destroyed by experts, which is a big help for a good learning experience.

An intermediate player deserves an intuitive process in learning high level gameplay and positive feedback. Obviously, also, a game needs to be fun at this level.

The intermediate level is where the novice starts learning strategies and such, and the intermediate player usually thrashes novice players like rag dolls because the intermediate player can usually figure out something that beats a majority of low level button mashing. In order for the intermediate player to not get bored though, they've got to keep growing in their skills. They also need good competition, which means that in the case of online games and MMOs, intermediate players need good matchmaking.

Soul Calibur is absolutely horrid about teaching high level concepts to intermediate players. Frame traps, just frame timings on silly things (just ukemi?! what?) and extremely strict combo timing makes it hard to bridge the gap between beginner and expert. Nowhere in the tutorial does it show examples of "my turn, your turn" gameplay, mid-low-throw mixup, safe wakeups and other similar high level elements. This means that intermediate SC players often stay there and never become experts. Amusingly, this is possibly for the better, since most expert SC players claim that their game is less fun.

Other games vary. StarCraft is even harder, as is chess. In general, most competitive games are not really built for intermediate players. This means, as a new player, it's often hard to make the jump from intermediate to expert. This is why, in general, competitive communities tend to have a dearth of new expert players.

Expert players deserve a game with a wealth of viable options and lots of depth. Fun isn't as important anymore, as deep gameplay will generally create 'fun' for experts even if the core mechanics aren't all that fun.

For a look at 'wealth of viable options' I think Arcana Heart (and sequels) is probably one of the best examples to look at, with a reasonably sized cast and a lot of different magic spells to choose from. I think that the design is somewhat accidental, and the game itself is a little too hard.

I'd be a bit biased in this, but currently I think BlazBlue is one of the latest and best games to explore competitive depth. It's an expert's game to be sure, but it isn't really an intermediate or beginner's game even though it has a number of features to make it easier on those players.

The learning curve for most games is very strange, and not really representative of anything in real life.

I'm not sure how short hop is intuitive at all, Smash players.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain

Swift like the wind, silent as the forest, fierce like the fire and immovable like the mountain. That's what you must be like!

Takeda Shingen said it, quoting Sun Tzu. And that's what we're gonna talk about today!

In competition there are certain ways tempo can go. I talked about it already so if you haven't read that article, that's a good place to finish. This article is more like the beginner lesson compared to that article, which is more advanced. It's a concept I've known about for ages, but at the same time never really put it into words.

The flow of time in a match can go back and forth, and typically starts pretty neutral. Some players are really good at fighting at different times. I'm really good at neutral play. Most good players are good on attack. It's pretty rare to find people who are defense experts, because it's a situation that is universally bad to be in. Being at disadvantage sucks - when most people play 'defensively' they are actually fighting in a neutral state and keeping the other player from going on offense.

Attacking is the most novice state to be in. Most people naturally attack constantly because attacking is the way to victory. It depends on the game of course, but unless you're playing a RTS the natural inclination is to attack. In an RTS, the natural inclination is to tech.

Attacking is a good place to be if you are actually on offense. If you can actually get offensive momentum, your opponent's options will be limited. It is hard to attack when your enemy has attacks in your face. All of your energy needs to be spent minimizing loss and getting out of a bad situation. As the attacker, you can dictate the pace of the match so it's important that you know some key things.

First, you have to know how to create opportunities for damage. You're fighting against someone who wants to get out of trouble so the first thing you need to know is how to bypass defense and cause some pain. Your end goal is causing damage that will hopefully lead to a win. If your opponent can defend all of your attack then you just wasted an opportunity.

Next, you need to know the gaps. No offense is foolproof. There's always a way to beat you. Make sure you know how. If your opponent has some tricky defense maneuver you need to know when they can use it - and how to beat it. That way when a gap opens up, you can punish them for trying to escape and continue your offense.

Lastly, you need to know how to milk an opportunity. If you start a fire in their base you gotta know how to keep it burning. If you get a few zerglings into their base you gotta know how to use surround to kill their workers as they flee. If you land a standing jab you gotta know how to follow up for maximum hurt.

But most important is that you have to know when to go on offense at all. And that brings us to what I do best - fight at a neutral state.

Neutral situations are tricky. There is no hard and fast rule for them because in many games they end abruptly with someone getting an advantage. Most importantly, both players have many options available to them. This is very tricky because you never know whether your opponent is going to play safely or aggressively.

A neutral state is generally characterized by neither player being in "effective" threatening range. In a FPS that might be where both teams haven't made contact yet, or aren't sure where the other team is. In a fighting game it's typically a matter of distance, where either player is just outside the range where most of their fast, hard to predict moves can hit. In RTS it's when both armies aren't engaging.

At this distance, the best option for an aggressive player is to safely test the water and try to get your opponent to make a mistake. If you can find a gap in their defense, move in and take it. However, trying to attack predictably will get you countered.

One thing that advanced players try to do is stick attacks out just outside of range. This way, if the opponent moves in just a little bit or makes an attack of their own, your attack will hit theirs. In StarCraft, this is typically the start of a "contain" offense - using threatening attacks from a strong defensible position to limit the enemy from attacking.

If the opponent is using this tactic against you, you can wait for them to stick out a slow attack before you move in. If you do this though, make sure you move in using the fastest method possible. This typically means rushing in with a dash, instant air dash, or an attack that moves you forward. If you move in too slowly (eg. jumping in or walking) the opponent will usually have a LOT of time to hit you while you close in. Even if you do this as fast as possible, you may get countered if you are too predictable. Be very careful!

A defensive player like me can also space themselves out and use hard to defeat moves at long range in order to create an unapproachable wall. This is a good strategy if used right. If you happen to put the opponent on the defense by blocking your attack or getting hit, move in and go on offense - don't throw away an advantage when your opponent is on the defensive already!

As I mentioned in The Book of Nothing not attacking at all can be very powerful at these times. Nothing is best when neither player has an advantage and not too good otherwise. If they attack at you, and you're doing nothing, you can react quickly and defeat it.

One thing I didn't mention in that article is that there are certain times when an attack is MOST likely. If your opponent is just recovering from an attack he is most likely to come back to hit you as soon as he can. If your opponent has just defended he is most likely to lash out at you. Learn to predict what your opponent will do and your battle will become incredibly easy.

On defense is troubling. When your opponent is attacking and has the advantage it is tough to find a way out.

First is to find the gaps in the offense. I mentioned this for the attacker - if you don't know how to get out, an offense can seem unbreakable. Find the gaps and learn how you can fight out.

Once you know that - it's a guessing game. Sometimes you can use a gap to counter your opponent and go on offense, which is great. Sometimes you can't and you just need to escape. Countering your opponent can give great rewards, but almost always you're at risk if you fail.

On the other hand, escaping might also be risky so don't jump the gun either way. Take an opportunity if you have it... but beware, a smart attacker might read you and try to counter. Take the next step, and expect the counter.

And the next step is to expect him not to counter - then you can just escape.

It's a mindgame!

Hopefully that helped. This took me days to write, guys. Seriously.

MMO Hub - Elitism article

Just as a heads up, I wrote an article on MMOhub.org and it's up already. I have a 3-part series already emailed to them, so stay tuned for that. Leave comments?

I'll probably write some more stuff this month for them but I have no idea what their publishing schedule is going to be. They output a pretty impressive amount of content every month though.

Also, as a side note today I'm going to be doing a little bit of housekeeping on my previous articles, mainly adding outside links and stuff. I might have a new article today hopefully.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Really. Winning Isn't Everything.

A suggestion was made to me to write an article on how to lose. I kind of suggested that I'd already written articles about that, but I went and looked over them and there wasn't a whole lot about not being a sore loser and turning losses into learning experiences.

I sort of take that attitude for granted. Generally I kind of take it as a given that when you play in competition, you take losses for what they were, look at your mistakes and improve. Clearly that's a problem because most people don't have that same view. Like most things here, I feel like what I'm about to say is obvious, but maybe it's just because I've had the view for so long.

Losing affects all of us. Not winning at all is frustrating. I've said before that teaching people involves positive feedback, but losing is negative feedback. The problem with that is that having losses are extremely common in the early stages of playing a game, and only after you improve a lot are you able to come back and start actually winning.

When I lose frequently I tend to get lethargic and lose interest, since it is hard to develop skills based on negative feedback. We work much better in a world of positive feedback. We like to be rewarded for doing good things, not punished for failing to do them.

Unfortunately this means that when we lose in competition, it upsets us. We aren't able to think clearly and often blame other things for our losses. We really can blame just about anything for losing. I've seen people blame stress the day before, their lack of food, the opponent playing 'cheesy', or any number of other things. Some of these factors might have contributed but all of them put the blame out of your hands and none of them provide useful feedback for improvement.

The first thing we should do to prevent losses from being an issue is to avoid external factors that would hamper us from winning in the first place. If we can't blame being hungry, tired or drunk we are more likely to look at the specific match factors that caused us to lose.

Even if we are hungry or tired or got beat by cheap moves, we need to analyze this. What moves did they use? Why did I lose to them? Was I being predictable? What was going on in my head when I did this or that or that? Where did I make mistakes, and what happened?

You absolutely need to do this whether you win or lose. It's just way harder when you lose.

Emotionally, losing is very damaging to us. Negative feedback puts us on the defensive very quickly and upsets us. Losing feels like a personal attack. Even if there's some handshakes and good sportsmanship by the enemy, it's hard not to feel bad.

Don't feel bad when you lose. If you lose, it means you had the opportunity to learn so soak up as much info as you can. If you just get hurt over losing, you're not going to be able to learn from your mistakes.

Don't feel bad when people give you criticism on your play. If they say "oh you should mix up your attacks more" or "you're being too predictable" then you should take that to heart. Not all advice is right of course, but you should at least take suggestions to heart.

The bottom line is that we should always play to learn, win or lose. Don't get down when you lose. If you can, talk to the person who beat you and ask them for help in bettering your game.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gaming is Too Hard, I'll Watch Instead

So a looong hiatus from writing here I have made. The reason is partly because I'm in the process of writing articles now for MMOhub.org but it's also largely due to writer's block. I was given a few ideas that I had no idea how to implement well. This idea came to me in a dream last night. Either way, the MMO Hub writing thing will hopefully be awesome. I really like their site presentation and they are pretty cool people to work with.

Today, I'll be talking about gameplay videos. BlazBlue is out (sort of) and I've been watching match videos to get a feel for the game. I don't own it yet, but I've played the arcade version a little bit. It's fun and interesting, but I can't really make a judgment on it until I've played it at the intermediate level at least.

Gameplay videos are our way of learning to play a game without actually playing it. Sometimes the videos are really useful tutorials that show us exactly what we need to do in a game. Other times, the videos are artistic exhibitions that don't really show practical things, but instead demonstrate the limits of what you can do in a game.

I won't be talking much about artistic videos, though.

When we watch videos with the intent of learning things, we need to be aware of what it is we're actually trying to pick up. Tutorial videos are pretty simple to figure out, unless they are in a language we don't know. Even then, it's pretty easy to guess what people are doing and why they are doing it. A tutorial isn't as good as someone there to explain how to do things, but really, it's the next best thing.

Match footage is going to be the real focus of this article. When we watch a competition match we aren't always sure of what we are going to learn from it. We can watch matches of particular characters or matchups, or just big videos of good players (such as tournament finals and so on). These teach us different things depending on what we are looking for.

When we go to watch matches, we generally have something we want to learn from them. If we're having trouble in a particular situation, we might watch matches to see others replicate that situation.

A good example to use might be StarCraft (surprise!) because a lot of the time, the matches have commentary and that helps us better understand what's going on and the decisions we need to make in that game. The commentary isn't always right, but it helps show us noobs (or you pros!) what is going on at least.

StarCraft matches are unique because there are only 3 races, but the map selection means that each matchup on each map must be handled in a different way. Add the commentary to the mix and we can see a lot of ways to play your particular race on any given map.

In addition to seeing strategies, you can see little nuance tricks and strategies. In fighting games, this type of learning is somewhat essential if you are not a training mode god who can figure out combos easily. Even if you are, learning combos and tricks from pros expedites your learning. Even better is that you can see what pros use that is practical, that might not be what you'd learn from a guide or FAQ.

Nuance is very important. If you see that you can do a particular trick such as instant blocking/parrying a particular attack and then get some free damage, that's valuable knowledge. If in StarCraft you see how to sneak a worker through a building or mineral patch using mining mode, that's great info that you can use in future matches.

Nitpicky details are the things we learn best from videos. We don't really learn strategies well, even with commentary. It's difficult for us to see "why are they not doing anything" even if the opponent leaves themself open just a little later, or if they don't fight back against a powerful rush and end up losing. We can't put ourself in the mind of the player and ask why, which is the important part of learning strategy.

The point I'm trying to make here is that you need to try as best you can to ask yourself why people chose to do something instead of something else. Sometime these decisions are obvious and other times they are not. The important thing is that we put our critical thinking skills to the test and learn as much as we can.

The last type of video are artsy videos. Most of these are promotional videos to hype a product, but there are also combo videos, freestyle dance videos (for DDR) and other similar videos that have nothing to do with 'real gameplay' for a game. Some of these are useful even still.

Combo videos and similar types of videos that show intricate, detailed gameplay are the best. While I include highlight reel videos in this grouping, highlights are generally not as 'artsy' as combo videos tend to be. We can learn a lot about a game's mechanics by watching people do combos, because the combo mechanics reveal a lot about what each character is capable of doing. That's pretty useful information.

Anyway, this is a whole lot nicer than reading Seth Killian's article on video watching, but I am going to make the same point that he did:

When you watch a video, think about what the person is doing, and why - and you'll get the most out of it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

We Desire a False Salvation

This is an overly scientific, but highly useful post for everyone whether or not you are a nerd. If you are a totally non-nerdy person this post carries a lot of weight. Nerds may know some of this just on instinct, but a lot of nerdy people find this concept hard to understand due to our high emphasis on personal achievements.

Hopefully this makes up for no post on Sunday.

This post is about being happier and worrying less. Most of us want to be happier, and we work towards things that make us happy. The unfortunate and obvious thing I'm going to tell everyone is that most of this effort is wasted because most of the things we want don't make us happy.

Admittedly there are things that do. Most notably, healthy relationships and a better diet help make us happy. When I say better diet I generally mean a high fiber/good quality meals where you still eat a good amount of food. Healthy relationships means good friendships and romantic relationships that are actually beneficial. If you constantly argue with your SO or fight with your friends, those are not healthy relationships. Most friendships are pretty healthy though. People in good romantic relationships pretty much totally get a pass on happiness.

Almost everything else in life doesn't make us happy. When we lust for a better job, more money, better cars or a better house, what we don't realize is that those things don't make us happy. In general, those things tend to make us less happy. The reasoning behind this is that when we want lots of things, not having them tends to make us less satisfied with what we already have. While we may eventually get more money or a shiny car, it doesn't typically satisfy us and we want more. This creates a sort of unhappy downward spiral that is hard to avoid.

The scientific community has made some discoveries in the past. Most notably a dude named Dan Gilbert (I'll link to his book eventually >.<) did some research on people in bad situations and how happy they were. His findings were pretty noteworthy. He found that people in bad situations tended to be about as happy on the average as people in very good situations. Normally finding no correlation is not a big deal, but having no correlation between having fast cars and happiness is a big deal. Finding no correlation between being crippled by a car accident and unhappiness is also a big deal.

There's some other research and it is pretty nerdy stuff about brain activity and things like that, but honestly it's no more 'proof' than the things we can easily observe. Our brains quickly respond to negative situations with chemicals that 'numb the pain' so to speak. This is why when people go through difficult life experiences, they often think that it was for the better.

I'm going to steal more research and mention things like people who 'almost made it big.' There are a number of people who could have become rich - become co-owners in Microsoft, played music for a number of popular bands, or patented the telephone, but didn't. A surprising number of these people (most that I heard) claim that they are more happy now than they would have been had they 'made it big.' While we can probably dispute that they may have enjoyed being successful more than they think, these people don't regret the choices they've made. That's quite surprising, really.

I can go into some personal experience here. The first mention is that I've met a few millionaires in my time. All of the ones I knew personally were unhappy. One wealthy family I know is perpetually unhappy and at odds with their non-rich family members. Every time I see them interacting with others, it's in an angry and condescending way. I knew another millionaire personally, and their story is much too sad to tell.

On the other hand, I know this guy who almost made it big. It's me! I was a pretty wealthy guy at one point in my life, almost pushing a million dollars. I ended up going through a lot of legal trouble due to some poor business decisions and got my money sued out of me. Eventually I settled but I really didn't have much money left to keep going. Still, I'm really happy I went through the experience overall, and I wouldn't change that I did (may have changed a few decisions I made, but oh well).

Elaborating more on that, I'm a pretty happy person - probably way happier than the average person is. I smile all the time. I have a very happy life. I have troubles like anyone else, but in spite of these things, I enjoy my time spent living.

I know other people that are not very well-off. I have a friend who was crippled in a skateboarding accident (paralyzed from waist down). He is an extremely happy guy. I don't feel sorry for him at all because I feel that'd be doing him a disservice. He's not in any sort of misery. I'm happy that he's able to live his life to the fullest.

So the secret is to get in bad life situations to become happy? Nah, not really.

The secret is to not stress over stuff in life. It's that stress that makes us unhappy. The little things in life aren't that big, even if by little I mean missing out on the chance to make billions of dollars. I own a disturbing number of business strategy books, and all the good ones suggest that you can't be successful without balancing your life. You need to invest time with friends, family, and just casual pleasure (like video games!) or you'll burn out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Screw the Rules, I Have Good Design

This is a super nerdy article totally focused on making games. I've been irritated lately by things that follow this mold, so it's only natural that I mention it. If you're not a super nerd planning on making your own game someday, you can probably skip this. It has some value for GMing though, since a lot of GMs make house rules.

One of the thing that annoys me in game design is when people insist on making things a certain way because they need to conform to existing, previous design decisions.

I don't quite think I can explain this very well, so I'll use an example to illustrate.

Waaaay back in the 90s there was this popular fighting game called Mortal Kombat. A lot of you guys have probably heard of it! The characters in MK were very similar. They all had the same normal moves with the same hitboxes, and they all had the same number of special moves. One characters had an exception (Johnny Cage's groin punch). This game was really, really not that fun design. Most of it was about playing the best character (probably Sub-Zero; Scorpion had an anti-projectile teleport though, making it not so clear-cut) who had slightly better versions of the same watered-down moves.

Mortal Kombat never really strayed from this design much. Characters continued to have very similar basic attacks and fairly similar special moves. Although different characters became the best, it was still clearly in favor of characters that had broken gameplay elements or slightly better versions of the same boring special moves.

By contrast, around the same time, there was Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition (CE for short). CE was an older, more busted/abusive version of SF compared to the newer versions of the game (HF, Super SF2, ST, and HDR) but it was much more refined than Street Fighter 2. The moves in CE were very different from each other. Ken's low medium kick was vastly different than Sagat's in both reach, power, and utility. Projectiles in the game fired at varying speeds, recovered at different times, and had very different amounts of hit stun and damage. Special moves had radically different properties as a whole - Bison's torpedo (psycho crusher) behaved much differently than Honda's torpedo (sumo headbutt) despite being similar moves.

SF2 would definitely be the harder game to balance. It's had a lot of iterations whereas each Mortal Kombat game, with the exception of 3, has had only one (3 had a version called Ultimate Mortal Kombat, with a lot of new characters and the same basic gameplay). While MK was never really ever balanced at all (MK vs. DC sure isn't) it would have taken the developers much more effort. Why didn't they?

The problem really is rules. Moves in the old MK universe (not sure if this is entirely true but I suspect it still is) follow a certain design guideline. Moves deal x amount of damage if they're a certain kind of hit, and put you in a certain type of stun. Moves that knock you up or down or launch you around all launch you in a certain way. Rather than fine-tune these values, the MK designers set up a bunch of guidelines for how they'd make abilities, and just sat down and made a bunch of skills and threw them into the game. This is from what I have seen still the case even in the more recent MK games, although there's a lot more types of attack now so there is more diversity.

This isn't really for fighting game design though. It's far more of a pen and paper or MMORPG type of design. D&D 4th suffers from it a little bit, and Returners FFRPG has a lot of it there. These systems are good uses of rules to create lots of cool things, but Returners in particular is kind of bad about having not enough flexibility (particularly in the equipment area).

There's another type of design that totally throws rules out the window. In fact, this is pretty much the entire design behind SF2CE and most SF games in general. This design says, design a lot of broken stuff, make your characters really unique, and hand the broken stuff out, a few to each character. This is also the method WoW uses, notably. After you've totally thrown your game on its head you can then adjust things.

Most games use this method, and it is also bad. The main reason it is bad is that you can very easily create metagame shifts - if you give some class something you don't think is that bad and it then becomes overpowered, many people will switch to playing that class and abusing the tactic you gave them. Even worse, when you fix the imbalance (nerf it!) people get pissed.

The only way this design strategy is even sort of good is if your players can easily adjust to changes. A good example of doing this is Guild Wars. When skills get changed, GW players can easily change out their skills for different ones and there are numerous quality build options for any given class in both PvE and PvP.

A bad example of this is World of Warcraft. Classes are forced to take skills (or be less effective) so nerfing them is generally bad stuff. For instance, if one were to nerf a rogue's crippling poison so that it was less effective, the rogue could not change that ability out. While there is some ability to change talents, any change to a class can resonate strongly. Also, talent changes cost the player valuable gold and are quite expensive, especially for lower level players who are more likely to make mistakes.

A really bad example of this is Ragnarok Online. In RO, if you mess up your character's build with an errant misclick, it costs you real money to fix. Prior to the introduction of the cash shop, which lets you spend real money for things in the game, you could not fix these errors at all. One misclick meant you'd need to delete your character and make a new one. If the developers ever change the way the game is played by altering skills or adding new equipment that forces you to re-stat your character, you have to pay real money to fix the problem or delete your character.

The moral of this story is really to never play RO.

So there's a third way to design, and it involves rules but only sort of. It's way harder to start but way easier to balance. That method is using a design skeleton. It's a made-up-ish term and I feel sort of nerdy using it. Oh well.

What I mean by design skeleton is that you take a base character and give him some things he can do no matter what. This stuff should be common to everyone - some classes or characters might not have these traits in favor of powerful other tricks but the basic character skeleton is shared by all characters as a default.

To illustrate this somewhat I'm going to bring up a game that no one actually played, Tabula Rasa. In TR every character could use a ranged weapon with a certain base amount of skill, so everyone could defend themselves. They could also melee with their ranged weapon too. These abilities were NOT sub-standard. I made a support character (healer type) and I had a significant number of weapon switches, including shotguns and rifles. I did not even use my class specific weapon and instead relied on basic guns as backup to my class powers.

Even better in my opinion is that every class in that game had some access to self heals in the form of repair kits and modules to repair damaged armor. The healer classes were way better at it and could do many things like area effect repairs and large single target repairs, but everyone could recover from lots of damage if they took cover and used repair kits.

This did not exclude my healer class or the combat classes. My friends played assault classes, and I was able to greatly aid them with my repair packs and 'magic' spells, which were better than the assault characters' repairs and magic, and let them focus on shooting things with their assault class guns. Still, there were times when my repair kits weren't needed and my mana was low, and I happily pulled out my rifle or shotgun and did some blasty.

This design is absolutely awesome. I especially liked the fact that assault characters could aid themselves if I couldn't get to them, either due to reloading (med/armor/shield packs took a long time to reload, so if you ran out of uses in the pack you'd have to wait a few seconds) or because I wasn't close enough. The main failings of TR was a bad beta filled with bugs (which led to bad PR), and characters that weren't unique enough. The end game classes were really sexy, though.

With a game design like TR's where baseline characters are able to function, you have more wiggle room for broken design elements. I would take it one step further, though.

Another really good example of design skeleton is hidden in World of Warcraft. That element is the "PvP trinket." Once per couple of minutes, any character can use this trinket to get out of a control effect for free, and it protects them from control effects for a very brief period. Every character has equal access to this trinket for very minimal effort. I know it's one of the cheapest items to buy with honor points, although I got mine for getting ranking (which was also very easy).

This trinket lets people break free of chain fears or stuns for a moment and gives them a chance to turn a battle around. It doesn't give them a complete pass, since it lasts only a few moments and has a long cooldown. This means you've got to use it intelligently, but it means that if you fight against a complete stun lockdown or fear/charm chain, you've got a few seconds to break free and stop them from keeping the lockdown going. This means you've always got a shot in a fight - a rogue can't ambush you from behind and stun you forever with no way to fight back until you die (It's worth noting that rogues in particular are kind of good at re-stunning you immediately after it runs out, but warlocks can have a hard time dealing with the trinket).

Other good examples include universal mobility options. These options need to have counters, but things like dashes, flying, multiple jumps, or whatever are pretty good at forcing the fight to go in different directions. A player should always have the avenue of escape if it's a fight they can't win. On the flip side, these options should not be entirely uncounterable. A good example might be a stamina meter so that dashes cannot be used to just flee forever. Another good example might be snares/movement slow that some characters can employ to keep others from fleeing.

Within this design structure you do need to look at all the pieces though and design counters around them. For instance, if you have absolute methods of escape such as teleportation, you need to design a counter to that, such as a class that can lay down anti-teleport fields or has a debuff that cancels teleporting skills. To that end, you also need to be able to counter those elements, so the anti-teleport field needs to be small enough to be escapable, or needs to be able to be destroyed. The teleport debuff should be able to be removed by friendly players, and so on. This creates strategy elements that enhance the game, rather than subtract from it.

Another important thing within the design skeleton is giving people abilities which obsolete elements of the design skeleton. If you give everyone a dash for escaping, some characters might get a better dash ability or a flight or double jump. These characters probably won't use their dash very much in favor of using their other skills. Another better example is the repair kits one, where normal characters can use repair kits to heal themselves, but healers can do a much better job on both other characters and themselves. These things are perfectly normal and natural elements, and should be encouraged.

If you make characters decent without needing special powers, you'll find people that will experiment a lot more with those special powers. This is good, fun, and enhances your game. And when you make changes, people won't feel as much like their character is useless, because even without their special powers at 100%, characters can still contribute.

This does not preclude the use of easy 're-skill' options that let players fix their characters. Always, always let players fix their mistakes.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Game Reviewers Suck

This post was conceived on Friday, for the record.

Game reviewers are notoriously bad. I'm referring to any game reviewer. They just don't get games.

It kind of makes sense, because if a game reviewer had enough sense to know what made a good game, they might be making their own. That's what Sirlin did, right?

Most game reviewers aren't literary geniuses. Am I wrong for suggesting that the literary merit of a video game be judged by people with backgrounds in literary analysis? It sounds common sense to me.

I'm not really serious on that point, honestly. I don't think you should have a lit degree to be able to judge a game's plot. However, people judge stories by the quality of the actual story itself, often making points towards originality. However, in most cases I would argue that the value of a story is in the method it takes to get to the individual plot points. In general I think this is really glazed over by game reviewers.

Case in point: Mass Effect was a really awesome game. Most people who read this site either haven't played the game (go!) or probably liked it. The story in Mass Effect, most people would agree, is pretty awesome. I wouldn't say that it's original though. It had a fairly stereotypical space opera plot, but the devil was in the details, in the actual storytelling. I feel like no game reviewer ever gets this right.

Gameplay is the single most important part of a game for me. It's also never elaborated on by game reviewers. Occasionally game reviewers get little snippets of why a game should feel right. Typically they say things like how Halo 1 'just felt right' and such. They don't say things like the slower gameplay make things easier to pick up on, or weapons have the right killpower without feeling too strong, grenades had the right arc, right blast radius, etc. Never does a game reviewer get nitpicky with a game, and when they do it's to complain about something like "throwing fireballs in SF over and over is so easy and people do it all the time on XBL."

Just recently I had a friend who played the new Bionic Commando. I've never played this game before. He said to me that the game felt really satisfying. He then went on in great detail about how the bionic arm physics worked, and what you could do with the arm. He brought up sample scenarios of things you could do with the arm to illustrate what awesome things you could do in the game.

When I read a review of Devil May Cry 3 a long time ago, none of the awesome things Dante could do, such as midair leaping off enemies, wall running, air dashing, midair combos, teleporting, and so on were even addressed. When I actually talked with friends I explained all of these things and they asked how you could do it, and I explained to them. I explained also that the game was too damn hard for mortals and most people would not be able to play it, but because of the stuff I said about the game, people wanted to play it anyway. Heh.

Music and sound effects are a mixed bag. A lot of game reviewers don't have the slightest clue about how to talk about them. Generally, sound effects should produce a psychological effect when they're heard, like the noise when you fire a gun should be satisfying, the sound when you jump should make you feel a certain way, and so on. Most reviewers are like "sound effects did the job, k" and move along. I feel this is generally worse than bringing it up at all.

Lastly is the 'fun' categories. Generally people totally wipe out at this because fun is highly subjective. I see fun categories pretty much all the time but they are pretty much useless. Some of us like matching colored jewels together, others enjoy reading huge walls of dialogue, and others like fighting through crowds of bad guys with chopsticks. What's fun for you? Ultimately this is the category which determines a purchase or a rental, but it is too subjective.

Fun can be distilled though, if we run it through a peer review process. A lot of game magazines do a sort of mediocre effort at this. If we want a solid review of what makes a game fun, a majority of a game publication's staff should play the game, and give briefly what makes the game exciting, and the game's flaws. Instead, we have one guy that writes a huge biased article with maybe one other person's opinion on the matter.

I think the biggest troublemaker in the game reviewing world is Yahtzee. He pretty much provides no useful information in any of his reviews. I just watched a couple of reviews of his, and they're pretty much of no value in purchasing games. They're interesting as entertainment value, sure (especially if you've already played the game) but are pretty much useless as an actual review tool. He addresses annoying, superficial points that often don't matter or are totally overblown, and tangents on things that have nothing to do with games.

But hey, he's more popular than me, so what do I know?