Thursday, August 5, 2010

I'll play your 18 months

This is an article about risk and reward. The title of the post suggests I'm going to comment on the recent fiasco between CCP and its elected CSM representatives. We'll get there.

In any confrontation with the enemy, we have two options: we can take risks, or we can play it safe. Before we explain when we should take risks, I think it's a good idea to define what risk-taking is.

Playing without risk is choosing an action that will almost certainly succeed for some gain. It's unlikely to backfire on you. Playing it safe lets you slowly consolidate and improve or maintain your position. Doing nothing is a good example of playing it safe. If you're playing it safe, you're banking on your opponent doing something risky you can beat. If your opponent also plays safely, you need to be winning. If you're not winning and neither of you are taking risks, your opponent will eventually win.

On the other hand, playing risky is putting stuff on the line. You may not know for sure whether you're going to succeed, but if you do, the payoffs are pretty good. If the payoffs are bad, it isn't really a risky strategy. It's a stupid one. If you're going playing the wakeup game in a 2D fighter, you're playing a little risky. Your opponent could guess right and own you, gaining the advantage in a fight. Your opponent could also guess wrong and eat a big combo or a reset into another knockdown.

As you might have guessed, it's good to play it safe when you're winning. If you do nothing but play safe when you're ahead, your opponent has to play kind of risky. He might have to close within your attack distance, which is dangerous for him. He's opening himself up to losing, and most likely you can fend off his attack. As long as you don't lose your lead, you'll win.

On the other hand, it's a bad idea to take big risks when you're winning. Your opponent might be at really low life, but if you harass him recklessly he might defend strongly and counter your attack. If he gets the tempo advantage he might turn the match around! If you succeed you can seal the match right there, but is it worth evening the game up or getting into a losing situation just for that shot?

If you're behind, taking risks is not just a good idea, it's essential. If you're behind, you have to come back somehow. If nobody does anything you'll lose and you can't expect your opponent to throw the game away. You're going to have to go for that drop in the opponent's main base, or go for a risky 50/50 mixup or reversal. If you are behind, you have to play tricky. You cannot play a relaxed, cautious game. If you do, you'll lose.

What about the actual post title? What about EVE?

In order to explain this, I'm going to give the story of two non-EVE games.

Our first game is World of Warcraft. WoW is a big game. It's really popular and successful. Millions and millions of people play it! WoW has had pretty stable growth (or at least, it used to) over the years. When Blizzard releases expansions for WoW, they generally don't rock the boat. Although The Burning Crusade was kind of an exception (40 man raids gone!), for the most part, WoW expansions haven't changed much about the status quo. TBC was a risk, and fortunately it went well for Blizzard. WotLK was not a risk. It was polish on an already quality product. Cataclysm is also more polish. It isn't a dramatic game-changer.

Our second game is Star Wars Galaxies. SWG had a very ambitious beginning, and players were found not to really play the game in the way the developers had expected. SWG began bleeding subscribers - supposedly around 10,000 per month - and something had to be done. If a risk wasn't taken, SWG would fail. The developers issued in two changes, CU and NGE, to the game. NGE was a complete outrage, and most of the existing hardcore players quit the game as a result of this change. However, a small playerbase remained, and it stabilized. SWG slowly bounced back, and while it isn't a massive success, it is a reasonably successful business venture. It has a stable subscriber base now, and in the long term, SWG has survived due to the radical risks the developers took years ago.

Enter EVE Online. EVE has been incredibly stable and stalwart over its lifetime. It had a rough, indie start. Over time, EVE grew as players grew enamored with its truly open world and dynamic free market. Anything is possible in EVE, and you aren't bound by the will of the developer. You can make a living in EVE doing whatever you wish, whether it be running missions, killing pirates, or doing battle in a massive alliance.

EVE has been a very stable game. Every year, EVE reports overall subscriber increases from the previous year. Every year, EVE gets a little bit more successful.

For the last two expansions, CCP has not chosen to play it safe. In fact, CCP has continued to play at full tilt - completely ignoring the wishes of its playerbase. Both Dominion and Tyrannis have been dramatic, gameplay-altering expansions. The playerbase has echoed the sentiment countless times that content from previous expansions desperately needs attention, but CCP instead invests countless developer hours on an extremely risky tie-in console game (Dust 514) and a feature that has nothing to do with flying spaceships (avatar interaction).

In my opinion, Apocrypha was a lucky expansion. It had nothing to do with anything that currently existed in EVE, but players fortunately liked it. What if Apocrypha's wormhole system had been as annoying as Tyrannis' planetary interaction?

I'll end with this: If you've got the lead, work to maintain your lead, but don't try too hard to win flat-out. If you're behind, take risks to get in the lead and don't be too static.

I'm looking forward to World of Darkness, but I guess I'm a masochist.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

It takes two kinds

Someone asked me to write about gamer pride. This is a really awesome idea, so much props to that person. Ha!

Pride is universally a bad thing. If you're proud of your accomplishments, people who don't value those accomplishments kind of get demonized. This leads to elitism, and elitism is bad. I think I've written a lot of articles on elitism. I should probably add an elitism tag, heh. I think I have strong views on the subject or something.

I can't really further that issue much more than I already have though. Gamer pride, the idea that you're a gamer and you should be proud of that, is kind of a silly idea to me. Why should you be proud that you play video games? It seems like a very weird thing to be proud of. There are 12 million people in the world playing WoW. If you're going to be proud of something, it should be something awesome, like, I dunno, not paying 15$ a month to play your favorite game. Actually, if you play WoW or some other subscription game without paying the sub fee, I guess you can be sort of proud of that.

Yeah, I probably shouldn't be advocating gold selling, but at least it requires some actual accomplishment besides installing a game and paying for it. Also, there is always EVE where decent skill at the game lets you pay in-game cash for your sub time.

What this is article is really getting at though is that Tobold article where he mentioned how being a gamer is somehow shameful. I couldn't disagree more with this idea. I posted a comment saying how much I thought this idea itself was kind of shameful.

The first point is that people who do not play video games think that video games are an addictive, obsessive, self-destructive behavior. I think this is a completely valid belief to have.

In order to really talk about this properly I have to separate the term "gamer" into two groups, which of course is kind of elitist. The first group is people who play games for enjoyment. This includes people who use games as a medium for social interaction. It makes no divider between casual or hardcore. If I were to use popular labels for things, "casual hardcores" would typically not be in this group, but "hardcore casuals" would.

I think that anyone in that group would probably be a good target of that prejudice. Unless you are in a gaming-focused career, most likely being a gamer in this group is a bad thing. You enjoy games, you might even be a little obsessive about them or like them a lot, but if you are in this group, gaming has no real value. Other people (normal people?) watch TV, but you play video games. Video games aren't something you study or work at, because you use them as an escape or something to unwind.

When people say "gaming is self-destructive" they often refer to the extremely hardcore people in this group. These people game like it's their job, but it's because they're addicted to the escapism, the "fun" of gaming, and often the social aspects. It's a lot easier to make friends in a game than it is IRL, and thus gaming is an outlet for them. However, in the end, the game doesn't really benefit these people. It just provides instant gratification. Because anything that is enjoyable is addicting on at least some level, these people get really involved with their games and really take it to an extreme level of obsessive. These are the people that play games so much they forget to feed their babies.

Not everyone in that group is like that, obviously. The most insane hardcore people are, and that sort of mindset carries over so that the more casual people, who have healthy lives but also use games to unwind, carry that bad stigma. I'd say that these people have every right to be ashamed of being called a gamer.

I'm going to talk about the second group, though. The second group treat gaming as more of a hobby or a lifestyle. These people study games and learn from them. On the average, they play more games than the first group, because it's something they study and practice rather than merely play. However, actually playing the game isn't the only focus. These people watch other people play, read guides, write guides, and learn about the games they play.

If you are in this group, the idea of being ashamed because you are a gamer is absolutely ridiculous. Gaming is a positive experience for these people. Instead of surface "watching TV" satisfaction, these people learn and understand things that simply cannot be learned any other way (for most people, anyway). Gaming is a unique medium in that it has the ability to teach us things by involving us directly. For people in this second group, gaming is such a positive influence on their lives that being ashamed of it is sort of like being ashamed of the person who taught you how to read and write (for some of us, gaming played a big factor in that too!).

It's worth noting that many of the arguments presented by Tobold are valid, like wanting to keep your real name associated with other things, and I suppose those are reasonable. To me, as a person who has learned so many things due to the power of gaming, these seem awful. Almost any time I talk about a life lesson I learned from gaming, gaming gets credit.

I've got a solution, though. If you're in the first group, don't call yourself a gamer. Seriously. You are one of millions of people who play games just for the hell of it. If you're offended because you don't read guides and articles but you play WoW 13 hours a day, get over it. 13 hours a day of gaming hasn't made you a better person. If you haven't learned anything by being a gamer other than purples make you a better player, you should probably just play fewer video games.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Twitter is retarded

Someone secretly nagged me to write something. I've been almost at the cusp of writing something, but I didn't quite make it there each time. I couldn't quite consolidate my random thoughts into an article (yes, that is how random my thought process is).

Anyway, I hate Twitter. It's supposed to be a program where you subscribe to feeds that you want to read. I read almost all my Twitter feeds every day. They are typically stuff I want to read. Often they aren't (I'm probably going to unsubscribe to a few) but that's not a big deal. The signal to noise ratio is pretty good.

Some people subscribe to hundreds of feeds. I subscribe to like 20. How do you read five hundred twitter feeds? That's impossible, unless you're nonstop reading things on Twitter. I doubt most people do that.

The problem is that people treat Twitter like Facebook. Facebook is of course a similar can of worms, but when people reply to you on Facebook, you get notifications and can actually see the reply. In Twitter, that reply comes and goes SO FAST you are most likely just going to miss it. Ugh.

Now there are things you should do with Twitter. If you want maximum SEO, I have a dirty strategy. I'm going to be using it this Friday.

1: Go to the people you read, look at their followers and/or the people they follow. Follow a whole ton of them.

2: After your follower count spikes, unsub all of them. They'll never know and you'll get your tweets posted on a dozen or so new feeds. That means that any hyperlinks you post will pop up on their feeds.

3: If you never read your Twitter, don't unsub all of them. I actually read mine, but if you're using Twitter purely for SEO, just keep them. Anytime anyone else posts a relevant link that gets retweeted on your feed, it'll ramp up your SEO.

I really didn't want to do this, but sadly, this is the way of the internet. Optimal strategies are lame, but I guess that's the sacrifices we have to make.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Welcome to my Fantasy Zone

I've been playing Bayonetta lately. When I first played through the game, I had this annoyed feeling like I "didn't get it." I love every DMC game (note: the rumors of a game released between 1 and 3 is a myth) and I generally like most action games of the same type. Why wasn't Bayonetta giving me the same sort of satisfaction that I got from DMC?

After I beat the game, I went back to play it normally, and wow. There is an absolutely huge difference. Suddenly, the game is satisfying in magical ways. Bayonetta reminds me a lot of DMC1. Both plots are equally retarded - both games provide a lame, annoying plot as an excuse to beat up bad guys. Both games have a similar level of difficulty (harder than DMC4, easier than DMC3, way harder than God of War).

Most people who play DMC1 don't get it. They play through the entire game with Alastor, don't really get high style marks, and figure that spamming Air Raid is an exploit. Performing Million Stab is impossible to these kinds of people except on accident, and every boss is an exercise in frustration.

Bayonetta is a lot like that, except Bayonetta has infinite continues and more ways to get bonus items. Bayonetta is a lot easier to reach the end, although the enemies are overall similarly difficult. Eventually the novice player figures out the dreaded "PKP" and abuses it all the way to the end of the game, probably feeling like PKP is an exploit.

In DMC1, people who actually stuck with the game after it was over and played a couple more times through were rewarded with "the feeling," a sort of positive energy that is hard to explain with words. I think this "feeling" mostly begins in DMC1 after the player does a second playthrough on normal difficulty, unlocking all the hidden secrets. It's sometime around there that the player begins to experiment with Ifrit, begins finding new ways to use Dante's powers, and starts understanding the style gauge. The inevitable Hard playthrough comes sometime after that, and then DMD some time later. Often a novice player sees DMD and thinks that it's too hard, but the fondness remains, and later on he attempts playthroughs on Normal or Hard as a way of recapturing the magic.

On my unlocking run through Bayonetta, I found a certain level of satisfaction that comes from finally mastering all the little ways to use her moveset. Sure, PKP is still useful, but there are quite a few other good moves in her arsenal too. I realized that first runthrough of the game is sort of a trial, something you kind of have to grind through to gain understanding. Once you reach that certain level of understanding, it just clicks and subsequent playthroughs are exciting and fun (I'm not done unlocking stuff yet, haha).

I think this kind of game design is probably not so good. It relies on the player making a second "unlocking" run through the game, and more importantly, it relies on the player avoiding cheats (and there are a few in Bayonetta). One of my friends thought that it was okay to play through DMC3 with Super Dante, beating all the various difficulties. That won't help you achieve the same feeling.

The feeling I'm describing is really only attainable if there's a real, reasonable threat of failure. It happens at the exact point where you make a mistake, and you know exactly what and how you made that mistake. That level of understanding, where you know what you need to do and understand that you can do it, is what produces this feeling. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this "flow," and it's something I think is hard to explain in words.

Most normal people experience this feeling rarely. I look at my various family members and wonder if they ever enter this state. Real life is a terrible place for achieving such things. We have to express ourselves in some difficult creative way to do this. The most ideal way to do this for a normal person is via music, although art/drawing can also produce this state. Unfortunately, most people are simply not skilled enough at either of these things to produce more than brief moments of flow. Like DMC1, and really more like DMC3, most people don't get to the level of skill that makes any flow viable. They just get frustrated at the difficulty or complexity of music (or art) and give up.

No wonder Robot Unicorn is a flow-generating machine. It has two mechanics and a very simple way of avoiding failures. Actually avoiding failures is the difficult part, but it's so satisfying to dash through stars that there must be some insane magic involved. My only grievance with Robot Unicorn really is that it speeds up after 35000 points; at 35k, the game is fast enough that player input is entirely to blame for failure moment to moment, but "almost failures" rarely ruin you. At 50k, "almost failures" often cascade into "I couldn't do anything" and falling vertically onto a star with no dashes left. I'm sure the designers had no idea.

Basically, this article has no point, because really text regarding flow already explains it better than I can. I want to point out games that have no flow, though.

1: Most MMORPGs. Any grindfest will make it impossible to achieve flow. Flow during PvP is not an illusion, but once you get good enough at PvP, most MMORPGs become rock-paper-scissors and winning will mostly come from build choices. Actually, that happens most of the time anyway. Raiding bosses can achieve flow, because they are often patterns that are difficult to execute, but are beatable with the right gameplan. Most raid boss patterns are super easy to deal with, but they still can achieve flow until your skill reaches a certain level.

2: Competitive shooters. Oh boy is this some can of worms. You can achieve flow, but the abrupt start-stop nature of competitive shooters is bad for flow. Even worse is that you cannot really guess the opponent's actions and counter them - you can only make it harder for the opponent to succeed. Dying is also really bad for flow. I shouldn't say that these games have no flow, but they have very little.

3: RPGs. There is no flow if victory is determined by numbers. If you determine the victory, there is flow. If you determined the victory an hour ago, there is no flow.

If you're looking for intrinsic satisfaction, action games and action-oriented puzzle games produce flow in huge quantities.

Also, disrupting your opponent's flow in a fighting game (or in StarCraft) can defeat him outright. Once I get StarCraft 2, I'll talk about that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Science Fiction pisses me off

Science fiction is one of those genres where nobody ever seems to get it right. We play EVE or watch Star Wars or whatever and we don't think much of it, but goddamn I hate science fiction sometimes.

It's not that I don't like spaceships or laser swords. I really think those things are cool. It's just that there is always some colossal science blunder that makes sci-fi totally unbelievable. You guys never notice this stuff, or maybe you do, but don't think much of it. This stuff makes me ARGH though. I'm like "WHY DON'T YOU JUST USE BULLETS" and "WOULDN'T A COMPUTER MAKE THAT SO EASY?"

Transportation and communication don't generally bother me. It's usually done horribly wrong, but generally people don't put a lot of detail into it. For instance, in Macross, we never learn how "reflex" thrusters or space fold systems actually work. The technology is "magical" from the perspective of the characters, and isn't really that important for telling a romance. Also, it's pretty easy to use something like plasma thrusters and fusion reactors or solar sails for your impulse drive and some barely quantum theory transportation for your superluminal transport. Quantum theory is nice since we can't really understand it yet, so it makes as much sense as anything else.

Communications is similar, and besides, most people understand that we need "magic" communication to send messages at FTL speeds and thus make up some type of technology that's so far out of the range of real physics that nerds like me just shrug our shoulders and surmise that it could probably work. Once in a while you get stupid things like 40k and its "super fiber optics" (I shit you not) that can transmit signals at significantly faster than fiber optic speeds through a physical medium. Yeah, that only works if real life physics don't exist, and unfortunately, the writers of 40k seem to understand real things like the principles of bullet drop enough to make retarded ideas like self-propelled bullets to solve it.

So let's get into the real things that piss me off. Super fiber optics and gravity drives (making a black hole in front of you so you can fall into it is simply not a good idea) aside, transportation and communication do a good job of making up "magic" technologies that exist outside the realm of understood physics. However, other things don't.

Computers. Agh! I hate sci-fi computers. It's like when writers produce something that's sci-fi, there are 0 nerds involved. Computers are always screwed up in sci-fi, because people don't understand that computers aren't very good at some things, and are incredibly good at other things.

First, the Terminator. The idea of SkyNet is absolutely ridiculous. No matter how much processing power a computer might have, the computer's ability to be self-aware is just impossible. I guess it's not "no matter how much," but it's fairly clear that SkyNet is not that smart, because if it was, there would be no possible human resistance. There really isn't another option. If a computer can think abstractly, it could also think logically insanely better than anything ever possibly could. I'm not communicating this well, so I'll explain.

Computers suck at games. Take DarkSims from Perfect Dark. DarkSims cheat extremely badly - spawning automatically with high powered weapons and armor, where a player would have to hunt for them. DarkSims also aim perfectly and rarely miss (except when their weapon would miss through mechanical failure), often headshotting their opponent with ease. The fact that DarkSims are beatable is testament to how bad computers are at strategy. When a computer tackles a strategy problem, it has to consider all possible options and all possible responses to those options in order to accurately present a challenge. Obviously, computers in video games rely simply on following a basic algorithm and doing it as best they can. DarkSims can aim really well, so a human can rarely fight them straight-up. However, they can be baited into the simplest of traps, because they don't take enemy behavior into account.

Computers are simply not capable of strategy. Sometimes they can perform decently if they are put into a game like Chess. Chess is a very deep strategy game, but each board position might only have a few dozen possible moves (more as the game gets later, but still...). Chess computers are better than humans now, but they are not unbeatable - while Chess is still a solvable game, a computer's solving heuristic still cannot guarantee a 100% success rate against humans' abstract problem solving. This is in a game that is turn-based and has a small, finite number of decisions possible at each step.

Put a computer in a military situation where moving 13 feet before shooting is logically different than moving 12.9 feet before shooting and remember that the computer also has to make decisions in real-time, and add allies (even if they're other computers that can communicate) to the mix, and suddenly you've got a huge mess. People estimate that computers get a little better at chess every time they get twice the computing power. It's theoretically possible that computers could get smart enough to make tactical decisions, but I can only imagine the computing power needed for a computer to determine that a grenade has been thrown in its direction and the proper course of action is to run the hell away. I think terahertz aren't even in the ballpark.

Humans are incredible at strategic thinking compared to computers. We can make abstract guesses about what our opponent might do, then implement counters. We aren't perfect at this, especially compared to other humans who can predict our counters. However, being 50% or 80% effective at predicting a tactical situation is a lot better than 0%, which is about how good video game computers are right now at predicting player behavior, especially in real time.

As a side note, I'd like to point out how much I hate EVE for this reason. Combat in EVE takes away the single most important human factor - tactical positioning - and lets computers take charge. I think that no matter how advanced spaceships get, that we will be navigating them manually in combat, because little nuances of positioning can never be performed by a computer.

However, one thing computers are really good at is mechanical things. Humans suck at things like hitting the right keys when we're writing or executing combos or aiming at things. Humans are absolutely fail at things that improve with mechanical precision, while computers ROCK at it. We can train ourselves to be better but computers are perfect at it by default. Unless the task in question takes too much computing power to perform quickly, a computer will calculate and perform it flawlessly every time. It probably has to be told exactly what to do - for instance, a computer aiming a gun turret would have to be programmed how to lead targets based on the speed of the target and the velocity of the weapon's projectile - but once told, the computer will do that job flawlessly.

It's worth pointing out that aiming hitting a fast moving target with a comparatively slow unguided projectile is better done by humans, since erratic movement by the target will cause mechanical leading to always fail. However, the computer can still tell its human operator an ideal lead, giving the human information to better make critical predictions.

A good example is using artillery. Human operators might aim the gun in some improper way, or not account for some factor such as wind. A computer can make calculations so that, to the best of its ability, it will be able to put that artillery strike directly at the designated position.

Another good example is piloting from two destinations. A computer can automatically predict the optimal path using weather pattern data and such or in the case of ground vehicles, by using known roads. Actually, this is another good example - in Grand Theft Auto 4, our GPS will give our car the fastest route on the roads, which is nice - but our human ingenuity can think of alternate routes off the road or driving the wrong way on one-way streets.

Too often though, computers are retarded. I'm talking about Star Wars droids, where they have illogical emotions and fail at doing computer-optimized things. Also, at the end of Episode 4 when people are doing the bombing run, why are they using targeting computers if the computers can't hit the target? It should be common sense that if one fighter's targeting computer doesn't work, all of the fighters computers will probably be insufficient, and human ingenuity will be needed. I mean, in the end this makes sense, but when Luke is asked why his computer is off, it should be a no-brainer. If other people can't use the computer to hit the target (bad programming), a human is better off making the guesswork. 50% is better than 0%.

That was a loooong rant about computers. This isn't over yet though, I'm still pissed at sci-fi.

LASER GUNS. WHY?! No, I'm lying. Laser guns somewhat make sense, but in real life military scenarios they just don't. It's possible for a personal laser gun to someday in the future shoot a beam that could be dangerous or deadly. However, modern Kevlar vests are extremely effective against a beam weapon (of any type except particle beam). Modern kevlar is by its nature heat resistant, and this is really true of any ceramic or polymer armor. The armor will tend to heat and flake off, rather than applying heat to the rest of the armor. This limits a laser weapon's use against modern armor, and really I don't think that armor is going to become less effective against lasers or plasma guns in the future. Beam weapons are still probably decent against stuff made of metal, and probably really good against fleshy stuff like people. However, modern Chobham tank armor has ceramic plating that is extremely good at absorbing and dispersing heat so lasers wouldn't be very good against tanks.

Against aircraft, lasers have many advantages, since they travel at around the speed of light, nullifying an aircraft's speed advantage (especially with computers to aim!). The problem is that the development of laser weaponry is likely to cause aircraft manufacturers to develop anti-laser measures, including reflective or heat-resistant materials. This would counter stealth technology (which relies on absorbing radiation such as radar rather than deflecting it; a reflective stealth plane would not be very stealthy!) to a degree, but making a gun simply to shoot down stealth planes seems counterproductive.

Also, laser guns have a much more limited range than a typical projectile; rather than cut through the air, energy weapons disperse, or "bloom," losing coherency.

But the worst issue with rayguns such as lasers and plasma guns is that it simply takes too much electricity to make a powerful laser. The same amount of electricity used to make a laser that could melt metal could instead be used to throw a slug at very high velocities - and that slug would be devastatingly effective against any type of defense. Armor is simply worse at stopping projectiles, and until electromagnetic fields are created that repel metal bullets, no protective method will be better at stopping bullets than it will be at stopping ray guns. Even then, lead bullets with a brass jacket wouldn't be deflected by an electromagnetic field, as neither are ferrous metals. Also, neither are depleted uranium or tungsten.

On the same note, electricity is not very good for weapons in general. It takes a lot of electricity to throw a bullet out of a coil gun, and when you compare it to the energy in exploding propellant, electricity just isn't efficient. When we get to the point where capacitors can store electricity to fire a railgun in a vehicle-portable environment, that will be sort of scary, because that same amount of electricity can power a small city. Even still, if some super-tech is developed that makes energy mostly a non-issue, technology is always better throwing bullets with that energy than it is shooting death rays.

Don't believe me? Well, if we had a hypothetical long range death ray laser capable of zapping tanks, people could use that same amount of electricity to throw small particles at sublight speeds instead. The power of a few grams of energy flying at a tenth of the speed of light is absolutely incredible (nuclear weapon incredible). Granted, there's recoil issues obviously, but in terms of destructive power... yeah.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

StarCraft 2 and the future of eSports

I'm sitting here waiting for work. I'll be writing up the e3 post at Massively for Marvel Super Hero Squad Online in just a bit, but I was watching SC2 stuff and I thought I'd talk about this.

EDIT: I actually had to interrupt this post for work. Ha! I'm not even done with my normal weekly work yet. E3, you make life so busy. I wish every week was E3 ~

There are two major things that are important for eSports to succeed. I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Why isn't Street Fighter 4 a big eSport and StarCraft is? Surely Street Fighter is easier to follow than StarCraft, and honestly it is a more exciting game.

If I got comments I'd be worried about saying that, but it's pretty much true. That isn't a shot against StarCraft. SC has a lot of lulls in its gameplay. At the beginning of the match we are forced to watch people make workers, and it's not until a good two minutes into the game that the real strategy even begins. Even then, there are lulls when one player establishes control, then both players go to full-on macro because attacking is dangerous for the controlling player. In Street Fighter, these lulls occur but they are very short, often only a couple seconds long.

Still, StarCraft is by far the better eSport. This also isn't a shot against SF. It simply doesn't have the elements that make SC better to watch.

The first thing that makes a game a good eSport is commentary. Actually, this is true of any sport, not just eSports. Fighting games just aren't good for commentary. I'd love it if they were, but the big elements of gameplay happen in literally fractions of a second. You could have 3 or 4 big "plays" happen in the time it takes just to explain what the first play was.

Let's take an example. Player A baits a footsie with a low short. His opponent takes the bait and Player A hits his foot with a sweep. Explaining exactly what is going on and how this works to a layman is at least a 15-20 second process (probably much more than that if you want anyone to understand). Immediately afterward, Player A walks forward, does a dragon punch to Player B on wakeup, which Player B blocks. Player A focus cancels, dashes forward, and throws Player B, which Player B throw escapes. In the span of about 3-4 seconds, Player A and B have done so many mindgamey things that if I were to explain all of them, it would take me the entire rest of the match to explain just what went on. In that time, about 20 or 30 more interesting things have happened. This limits commentary a ton.

Only good players will understand a commentator who is talking about SF, because the commentator has to say things like "Okay, footsies going on here, little ground game, A whiffed short... OH ITS A BAIT, hits with the sweep, B is knocked down, A is gonna go for the ground mixup... DP focused, blocked, throw, B techs it, gonna reset the tempo there..." Even then, you'd have to talk really fast to get all of that out in time.

By comparison, StarCraft has a lot more time to do explaining things like invisible spider mines blowing up dragoons and omg Bisu needs more observers. Or whatever. Commentary makes a game accessible to a layman who has never played the game before, and definitely available to people who only sort of play the game, but never really played it on that kind of high level. Commentary is absolutely essential, and because of that, a sport or eSport need to be slow paced enough that a commentator can communicate what's going on to an average viewer.

The second thing that I think is very important for an eSport is expressive individualism. That probably makes no sense at all. Street Fighter at least succeeds on this point, or rather, SF2 and SF4 do and SF3 really doesn't (ha!).

Every time we watch an eSport, we should not see optimal play. This is why baseball sucks, why NASCAR sucks, and why football is awesome. In baseball, there is very, very little room for individualism, and it is almost entirely the pitcher who expresses it. In Street Fighter (4), games are very exciting because even in say a Ryu vs. Ryu mirror, or even a Zangief mirror, there are a ton of ways to play Ryu and Zangief in that matchup so we get to see not just the character elements but also the player's unique style of play.

Note: Zangief mirrors should theoretically be one-dimensional since Zangief is a more one-dimensional character, but because he has a number of little nuancey things he can do, the mirrors are generally fairly interesting, although not as interesting as say, Bison vs. Akuma matches which are crazy dynamic and have a lot of things going on.

Anyway, obviously StarCraft has this element too. There's a ton of difference between different games of Terran vs. Zerg play, and even between the way different players tackle those same matchups and same issues. That makes every match exciting and interesting, unless they are blowout matches (which are rarely interesting no matter what sport you're playing). Sometimes even those are interesting too.

One of the early criticisms of StarCraft 2 was that it might not have this element. I think we all know better by now. There's tons of ways to separate yourself from other players with just the way you micro units or move around the map, let alone how you plan and build things and whether you micro your battles heavily and all sorts of things. I think there's just as much room for expression as there is in Brood War, possibly more so because there is so much less focus on clicking your peons onto mineral patches and clicking rapidly on all of your gateways/barracks/whatevs. I'm sure haters will disagree with me there, haters gotta hate etc. Since I don't get any comments at all I'm probably not going to worry too much about commenters hating, but you never know I guess.

I guess if I had to pick a third thing, it would be a very very high barrier of entry for competition. One of the hallmarks of video games is that in general, anyone can become the next Daigo, or the next Flash. I think that sort of motivates us as gamers to excel. However, I think at some point we do realize just how much talent is involved. StarCraft is a lot better on this front than any competitive fighting game is, really - well, Guilty Gear and BlazBlue have really ridiculous hard combos and obvious wow execution stuff that if you're a layman you can go "wow these gamers are crazy good."

But I think that the barrier of execution for Guilty Gear even is much lower than it is for StarCraft. In GG you can learn some bread and butter combos, good mixups and pressure and master that, and you are mostly good. After you've learned the basic high damage stuff, learning the stuff that requires like mega high dexterity doesn't yield very much reward. Most Japanese casual fighting game players get to this level or higher, and most semi-serious American players do too. If you compare it to StarCraft though, most decent SC:BW players get to the 100-200 APM level, but unfortunately APM has linear growth for the most part; at many points of a match, having 300 or 400 or even higher APM will simply allow you to do vastly more things in a match compared to someone with 200. The same can't be said for SF; once your dexterity has reached a certain level, the game hard caps you. You can't extend an opportunity for damage beyond a certain point, and you can only react to an event at the perfect time or slower. I'll admit that there are certain things like 1f links that even pro SF players use tricks like double tapping to give them more chances to score them, because they require basically impossible mechanical precision. Still, that mechanical precision isn't obvious for a super novice at the game, but having ridiculous hand speed and crazy macro is really obvious in StarCraft. No one will watch a SC replay and go "Oh I could beat Jaedong, he doesn't do anything special." A lot of people say just that about videos of Daigo, Valle, or Justin Wong, because they can't see why throwing 50 fireballs or a dozen low fierces in a row is skillful play.

A lot of people are concerned about the future of eSports right now, with the KeSPA/Blizzard fiasco and the StarCraft 2 launch. I think these people are totally retarded, for the most part. Equally retarded are the people that think that KeSPA will continue broadcasting in violation of Blizzard's copyright.

ESports will continue to make money (at least in Korea) as long as there is a market for it. If people want to watch live matches of StarCraft or SC2, THERE WILL BE LEAGUES FOR IT. As an example, Valve decided to try and screw the CounterStrike competitive scene in Korea by forcing companies to play CS:Source. Korea responded by developing a knock-off of CS 1.6, Sudden Attack, and continued to market SA to Korean fans. Koreans didn't like CS:S, but they did like 1.6, and thus Sudden Attack was a big hit and makes a lot of advertising money to this day. If Korea wants to see more Brood War league play, then there will be leagues for it. Blizzard isn't stupid. They'll milk the Brood War cash cow for all that it is worth, pro teams will continue to play, and people will pay to advertise. Everyone will win, except for KeSPA who continues to fail to realize that if they just towed the line with Blizzard they'd continue to milk their cash cow.

On the other hand, if StarCraft 2 turns out to be the next big thing and everyone in Korea wants to see the pro scene move to SC2, guess what? Pro Brood War will die out, but SC2 teams will form (probably mostly the same sponsors) and pro gamers will get sponsored to play. We'll see SC2 leagues and money will be made for broadcasting companies, for Blizzard, and for the pro teams. KeSPA will probably get left in the dust, but at least from what I understand, only SK Telecom really has a ton to lose in the ordeal. Maybe their team will break up over this, but I think most companies like Samsung, CJ, KT, etc. will continue to sponsor teams and if SK Telecom decides to bitch out and not support Blizzard, the players will get picked up by teams that will.

It's a pretty simple algorithm. If people are willing to pay money to watch a game, it will get televised, sponsors will pay for advertising spots, sponsors will pay players to play on their pro teams, and players will get paid to play the game. The gaming public is the ones who will determine the fate of the pro scene. Blizzard has some say in how it's run, as does whoever they license (in this case, Gretech/CJ). If KeSPA doesn't want to play ball with Blizzard, they'll lose their piece of the pie. Games will continue to be played. Nothing of value will be lost for us; we'll still get to see pro players and pro leagues. The organizational fiasco going on right now is only a big deal for the big corporations.

And lastly, man is it nice to write without an editor. I can write in improper English, make typos, and dont afraid of anything. It is a little liberating. I love my bosses to death, don't get me wrong. They are awesome. However, it's just nice to write without having the editorial eyes. I really should do this more often.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


I'm sure you're all like "omg he never updates."

"Oh inb4 excuse post."

I got a job at Massively, writing their CO column, as well as pretty much whatever they'll let me write about. It's pretty awesome. All of my co-workers are extremely cool. All of them have different MMO tastes, which is awesome. I'm one of the two "hardcore" guys (the other is Brendan Drain, the EVE guy) and the only one who plays fighting games seriously.

In particular, Shawn is really an ideal leader for the team. He's a good mix of casual and hardcore, has a well-balanced and likable temperament, and has an even hand when dealing with everyone. He's pretty much the ideal gamer, haha.

You can read what I've been doing for the last couple weeks (before that I was applying/writing application/interviewing/paperwork stuff, and before that yes, I was slacking) over there.

Anyway, I've been playing a few games lately, mostly CO, some Torchlight (it's really good, but I can't say much about it that hasn't already been said in some other review of the game), and some Mount and Blade: Warband.

Warband is a medieval sandbox game where you play a random dude or dudette who runs around, gets a bunch of people to hang out with them, and goes and ruins peoples' days. Basically, you get your own mercenary group that kind of straddles an ongoing feud between six different kingdoms. You can do pretty much whatever you want, as far as the political things go. You can side with any of the kingdoms, you can start your own kingdom and land grab, or you can support someone else in overthrowing a kingdom. You can even marry into a kingdom.

You can't do much else besides kill dudes, though. There's a bit of roleplaying going on, but most of the game is hacking shit up. You can handle trade goods, and there's a -lot- of money to be made in that venture, but money is mainly for hiring more dudes to go mess with someone's day.

I'm going as RP as I can, which is kind of hard, because I'm trying deliberately not to topple kingdoms or start wars. I'm working on playing the field as a mercenary, and selling myself out to whoever has some cash. This means currying favor towards whichever country is cool with me at the moment, and maybe marrying into a family that is cool. My army is pretty badass, with guys so awesome I can barely afford them. Fortunately I have a number of named NPCs who are all varying degrees of badass for very cheap prices.

The main thing that immediately strikes me while playing Warband is that it is very similar to 'roguelike' hardcore sandbox games. My main experience with roguelikes is Elona, which is pretty easymode for a roguelike, but I've also screwed with Nethack a little.

Warband has the same sort of gameplay - you run around in a sandbox where everything is random, and a lot of whether or not you succeed is how much you've grinded on content beforehand. Also, you're at the mercy of the RNG quite a bit, although not as much as in a roguelike. Still, not getting the right quests or NPCs can make things a lot rougher on you and your fledgling army.

If you've played Nethack (or Elona), Warband has this unmistakable similarity, right down to the emphasis on grinding in the arena until you're level 4 (this is avoidable, btw).

I can't quite get my feelings out into words on it. If you've played a roguelike, the similarity is obvious, but it's hard to replicate the 'fun' of a roguelike into a post. Roguelikes aren't really fun because they are stupid hard and unforgiving, and the beginning of Warband is somewhat like that. It's pretty easy to get captured by bandits and strung around with no cash until you figure out what you're doing.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Robot Unicorns wut?

I could be writing about a lot of things, but instead I'm writing about random flash games.

This isn't just any flash game, though. It's got unicorns, rainbows, 80s synthpop and only 2 buttons.

It's Robot Unicorn Attack.

There's so much good about this game, that words don't do it justice. But damn it, I'm going to try.

A lot has been written about the flow state, and how to reach it. It's essential for competition of any kind. This game is literally all about the flow state - forget the rainbows and the unicorn and the exploding stars.

Let's start with the music. It's the most obvious thing, because occasionally when a lot of things are going on (typically as the game starts to move faster), the sound effects that are normally mellow and soothing start to break up the flow state a little because they inhibit your processing of the background music.

The music is "Always", by Erasure. It has a relaxing melody and calming lyrics about love. The song is typical of late 80s synthpop, even if it was released in 1994. The melody is practically manufactured to sound soothing, and it does an incredible job as a background song for Robot Unicorn.

It makes one think a little about music design. I'm sure that musicians want to produce a unique sound, and I know some people who insist that screaming death metal is the best thing since sliced bread, but ultimately I think we all know music that follows the rules and sounds more mainstream is what ultimately sells. In this case, I think we can see why - it induces an almost trancelike state!

The brightly colored visuals also help by making everything in the game obvious and appealing. Little things like the 5k dolphins that show up add to the visual immersion, and once the game really gets going, they stop showing up (or at least, they take a break between 35 and 70k). The rainbows following the dolphin or the little sparklies that occur when a star pops on screen, all of it is to get your attention without violating the flow state.

The rest of the game is all very smooth too. Two buttons is an amazing design, allowing people to enter the flow state easily without having to master complex controls. It greatly increases the game's accessibility, which is good.

Lots of little design things go into the game, like the strategic positioning of faeries to warn you of jumps or the sound cue of a star.

The slowly increasing game speed over time also makes sure that the game keeps you in flow state; a player of any skill will quickly reach the parts that are challenging and maintain the trance.

In short: play the game, it's awesome.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Nerd, meet Girlfriend (Part 2)

One of my fans suggested I write more, and that he'd read it when they woke up in the morning. He also said they really liked Nerd, Meet Girlfriend part 1 and it inspired him and his girlfriend to play more games together. Aww!

That being said, sometimes it's hard to get your significant other to play the games you actually like. You play EVE, and you're hardcore. You're a productive member of a 0.0 alliance, and you put around 30 hours a week playing (maybe that's too small an estimate for EVE players). You really wish your girlfriend would play EVE with you.

You're a competitive Street Fighter 4 player. Your boyfriend has an XBox 360 and plays random games. You enjoyed playing Halo 3 together (you suffered through Legendary, but made it somehow), but he can't really bring himself to play SF4 with you because you own him all the time and he doesn't understand why linking two crouching strongs into roundhouse is important. He follows the Ken flowchart and loses horribly, and doesn't have fun.

This post is for us. The hardcores, the players that play games to the fullest, to 100%. How the heck do we get our girlfriends (or boyfriends) to actually sit down in practice mode and learn combos? How do we get our significant other to understand that playing the market is actually fun, and doing endgame raids is awesome when everyone actually does what they are supposed to?

Honestly, I don't know the full answer to this. Some love interests just won't sit in practice mode and learn combos. Some love interests will never get what frame advantage is. Some significant others just don't understand why dealing more damage than the tank is important. No matter what we try, nothing will get these people to do what you want.

However, I can pose some situations from experience about fighting games, and go from there.

I've taught a fair number of total noobs how frame advantage works, in a way that makes sense. I've also taught a large number of unskilled fighting game players about guessing games so that they get that "a-ha!" moment when they do something, guess wrong, and understand that they guessed wrong. Honestly, I still beat these people consistently, but it is about 1000 times more fun to play with them because it goes from being a "spam optimal move" fest to being "I am pretty sure they will do this."

The first and most important thing that you need to have is a student, partner, whatever, who is actually willing to listen to what you are trying to show them. A girlfriend is actually fairly likely to listen to you. A boyfriend... might, although male ego will get in the way. If they don't actually want to try, you are screwed.

The next step is to explain the concepts in as basic a manner as you can. Completely avoid complex topics like parrying or combos. In a fighting game, explaining tempo is very hard, but you're going to have to be the one to do it. I use 'my turn, your turn' gameplay as a way of describing tempo, and use Soul Calibur as my teaching game of choice. Even if my eventual goal is to get people playing BlazBlue (Continuum Shift is out for consoles now, yay!), I need to teach tempo in a game where tempo is easy to understand, and Soul Calibur is easy to understand - it's easy to understand controlling space when we explain what each character's long ranged moves are, and it's easy to explain tempo in a game that often rewards blocking with free damage.

MMOs are in the same vein. Explaining mana efficiency is easy to understand. Explain that a healer should choose when to heal wisely in order to prepare for emergencies, because healing when you don't need to wastes mana for when something bad happens, like extra pulls or aggro on someone else. Explaining why fearing a mob is a bad idea (feel free to demonstrate why, it's one of those obvious things if you see it in action). Explain what DPS is (it's honestly not that hard, it's just the amount of damage you do, no need to complicate it with exact time frames).

If you dumb down the nuance things that you know Barney-style, it helps build a foundation that lets them understand things better. I've had girls (not SOs, but the point remains) who were not normally known for being exceptional gamers ask me why so-and-so did some stupid thing, because what so-and-so was doing didn't make sense, since I taught her to do it the smart way. It warmed my (black, evil) heart!

The closer you get to that 'a-ha!' moment, the better. But you are going to have to hold their hand most of the way. I was teaching a friend (guy) how to play Soul Calibur, and after learning about tempo, he just blocked all the time, even when it was safe for him to attack. I looked at him funny, like "why are you blocking, you should be attacking!" and he just gave me the deer in the headlights look. He eventually got to where he could occasionally fluke a good player, and when he went to play normal SC4 players, he tore them apart (warmed my black heart again). He looked at me like, "wow, these people don't even know when it's safe to attack, it's like beating up little kids."

All the stuff I said in Part 1 applies. You have to be patient, encouraging, and 100% positive throughout the learning process. Since we're probably teaching your boyfriend to do something that involves making him fail a lot (because hardcore players do hard things, and your boyfriend is not going to be able to just do them), you need to be extra encouraging. Sometimes taking him to an anime con so he can thrash all over the anime fans at Soul Calibur might be what he needs. Another good idea might be to have him watch you raid, so he can get an idea for what kind of mistakes other people make.

What about EVE?

Well, honestly I think you're screwed, because EVE really... isn't fun. I know I'm going to get hate mail or something because people insist EVE is fun, but it's not. EVE is an enjoyable experience (I hate to call it a game) for a lot of people. Some parts of EVE can be fun, maybe. But the most important part of EVE is the corporate drama, which really has little to do with the 'game' itself. It's something that you can't just inject yourself into. The game itself is about watching progress bars go up (or really down, in the case of enemy health bars). Sure, there is a fair bit of depth involved in making those progress bars go down, but it's not like most MMOs where every 1-3 seconds is a decision-making point. It's definitely not like a fighting game or shooter where every .1 seconds is a decision-making point. If you can get your girlfriend* to play EVE with you, it's because somehow you got her into your alliance and got her involved with the drama, and she likes it.

Either that, or she's an economics major.

Ultimately, this is a hard question to answer in a general way, but I can sum it up like this:

1: make sure they are actually interested in playing with you; if not, go back to Gears of War
2: start teaching them very basic concepts, starting from the first little things they do wrong
3: never get frustrated, use the word wrong, or be negative, ever - 100% positive all the time
4: be aware of the fact that they most likely will never be amazing
5: be prepared to give up, because honestly this is hard and you most likely failed #3

*kind of sexist, but I realize that the ratio of male to female in EVE is like 20:1 or something

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Gaming Journalism is Garbage

I read gaming websites a lot, and hype articles are getting to the point where they just aren't good for useful anymore. Yes, there are bad articles on all the time. I know this. But what pissed me off enough to write about it came from IGN, which considering how long they've been in the business, they really should know better.

Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if this article is taken down, although it's been up for over a week, so my guess is probably not. I got linked to it from somewhere else, as I don't actually read IGN, because I guess I figured everything they wrote was trash.

The article, in case you're too lazy to read it (I probably would be!) is about how JRPGs are fundamentally flawed, and the writers have their own special, magical ideas about how to fix them. Yes, you heard right - writers - that is to say that unlike most trashy gaming journalism articles, this one went through peer review. I can really only imagine what kind of peer review. Was it where they look at the other's brilliantly typed words and fawn over how witty they are? Did they even stop to think for 2 seconds about the PR disaster it might cause?

I think this is the stupidest piece of gaming journalism I've ever read. I'm no industry demographic genius or anything, but it doesn't take a lot of thought to know that bashing on a hardcore gaming genre is going to send the fanboys in droves and they aren't going to be happy.

Also, the next time I read somewhere that Deus Ex is a western RPG, I think I'm going to barf. Deus Ex is western awesome*, not an RPG.

The real worst part of the article is that it's mostly just preferences. It's funny when they claim #9 (grinding) when most modern JRPGs minimize mandatory grinding, and have since the PSX days. Some games (like Lost Odyssey) penalize grinding by adding diminishing returns to EXP awards. Sure, some games still do it, but the fact is that tons of people like grinding EXP for their characters. That's why asian MMOs are still popular over here.

Other things, like improving presentation and reducing cliches are already prevalent in JRPGs. Should we call out Dragon Age for having cliches, too? NO. What IGN calls a cliche is more accurately called an 'archetype', and there's a lot of room for flavor inside those archetypes. Female magic users, being an example they used, are perfectly fine things with plenty of variations. Loner swordsmen are too. So are drunken dwarven berserkers, or cops who are pissed off at the system and think they should pursue justice outside the law. It's about the quality and robustness of the writing.

For western RPGs, the average quality is usually higher just because there are fewer of them, and Bethseda and BioWare really can't do wrong. In Japan, there are a lot more RPGs released in general, because their market is different (they like grindy, stat-based games more than we do). If we compare the Japanese RPG market to the western shooter or action game market, you'll find that the average quality is probably closer (probably worse, in the case of the US action game market).

Sure, JRPGs are a smaller market share, but seriously - does IGN need to bash them for doing what they do? I don't see any reason why a gaming publication should go and genre bash. You don't see me bashing 3D fighters... yet.

Out of the 500-some odd comments on the topic right now, I think there was a 2chan invasion too. Wow, go JP players for being awesome.

*actually closer to a stealth action game