Category Archives: Commentary

Good Guy Best Buy

[Blaugust Day 21]

Just like with Amazon, Best Buy decided to look out for me by dissuading my GTX 970 purchase.

The amusing thing is I finally felt ready to pull the trigger, after all my prior dithering. The final push? Best Buy had the Zotac GTX 970 version up for $329.99 with a price match guarantee… and Amazon had the same exact model for $309.99. Sweet. So I’m going to price match the $309.99 and then whip out my trap card 10% off coupon. I balked previously at graphics cards that barely moved on price, but getting one at $279 is another matter entirely. Plus, the free game code included this time around is Metal Gear Solid V, which is actually something I want to play. So, technically, I’d be getting the video card for less than $250.

When I tried calling Best Buy yesterday, there was simply a recording that stated “due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to take calls at this time.” Uhh… okay. So I tried once again tonight. And, as I should have expected, the answer was “No.” Or more specifically, they weren’t going to do both.

Technically, I could still realize some measure of savings by using the 10% coupon: about $13 or so off the Amazon price. But here’s the thing:

Apparently made to order.

Apparently made to order.

There is no in-store pickup options available and the order takes 6-10 days to process. And it apparently takes tiny children an additional two weeks to hand craft the video card before it arrives at my door. Seriously, 25 days from order to arrival? The scenario is especially ridiculous if all I was doing was looking for the price match, considering this is the competition:

Amazon just makes the tiny child pull 16 hour shifts.

Amazon just makes the tiny children pull 16 hour shifts.

That little Prime symbol means it will be in my hands in two days. Two days. I could order a video card drunk and have it arrive while I’m still hung-over, depending on the bender I went on.¹ The days in which you could just price match Amazon are ancient history, myths spun in the abandoned break rooms of Circuit City and Blockbuster. Shipping and handling? GTFO. It’s 2015, people – if the UPS guy isn’t ringing my doorbell before I even click the purchase confirmation button, you’re doing it wrong.

Jokes aside, the sad thing is that Best Buy might end up having the last laugh on this one. The Amazon listing doesn’t mention the Metal Gear Solid V promotion, and the Nvidia fine print mentions that it’s only applicable through authorized sellers. Waiting an extra three weeks to save $13 is one thing, but waiting extra for ~$63 is another. Plus, it’s not exactly as though I need the card right now anyway. Hmm.

So… yeah. There’s another glimpse into the madness that is my method.

¹ Always express your crippling alcoholism² responsibly.

² This is a joke.

Portable Steam Machine

[Blaugust Day 15]

Remember when I was complaining about the Vita yesterday, and how I was never play though old games again anyway? I was about to add on a throwaway line to the end of the post about how the first company to make a portal Steam machine would make a lot of cash.

Well, turns out there’s one scheduled for a late 2016 release:

Smach, the company touting the portable Steam OS device, says the handheld will ship out during the fourth quarter of 2016. That $299 price (€299 in Europe) is apparently the device’s pre-sale price only. We’ve reached out to the company for more details on pricing.

The Smach Zero — the Steamboy project’s new name — claims to be “the first handheld console to play Steam games on the go.” The device will play “more than 1,000 games” from Steam’s library on day one, with a hardware spec that will balance performance and cost.

Best part? MicroSD card slot. The rest of the specs are in the article.

To an extent, I almost wish for lower specs and not higher. I don’t want something capable of playing GTA IV on the go – I want something capable of playing the million and a half indie games cluttering up my Steam page. If I could boot this thing up during my lunch break at work, perhaps I would find the time to start playing games like To the Moon, The Walking Dead, and the Legend of Grimrock. The lower the specs, the less expensive the machine, the longer the battery life, and so on.

Incidentally, here is another article about the same handheld, this time with benchmarks:

  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) on Low and 1280×720: 16 FPS
  • World of Warcraft (2005) on Medium and 1024×768: 43 FPS
  • Diablo III (2012) on Low and 1024×768: 38 FPS
  • Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) on Low and 1024×768: 16.5 FPS

Technically those benchmarks are for the Radeon 8400E (or Nvidia GT 740M), which is the equivalent graphics card that this thing has. So, yeah, Skyrim is right out, and Diablo 3 isn’t looking too hot either.

That said, do you know what would play just fine? Civilization 5. And Total War: Shogun 2 (although you’d need at least a 64gb microSD card). And a whole host of other similar titles whose only question marks would be whether they’d be able to run in SteamOS in the first place. Details, details.

So what do you guys think? Would a portable Steam player excite you in any way?

Pillars of Eternity is Exhausting

[Blaugust Day 13]

As you might have noticed in the sidebar, I am finally getting around to playing Pillars of Eternity. The problem I am encountering though, is finding the motivation to play it for any particular length of time.

This is not an indictment of the gameplay or overall quality of the game necessarily. I loved the Baldur’s Gate series back in the day, and a return to isometric graphics is just fine by me. I’d say the most annoying thing I’ve encountered so far are all the useless Kickstarter NPCs which you can “talk” to but have nothing to do with anything. I have been trained by generations of RPGs to put a high importance on named NPCs, which makes these particular NPCs worse than useless. Luckily, I’ve finally recognized that these NPCs have a special colored nameplate and thus I can safely avoid being disappointed.

No, the primary problem is how… efficient I play games these days. If you present me with an isometric RPG map with a fog of war and a Tab key that highlights all the clickable objects, I am going to start at the edges and clear out the map 100%. I honestly don’t even feel like it’s a choice to do so – it’s a compulsion. What if there is a party member in that little patch of darkness? Or something to loot? Or some mobs I can kill? I’m not a completionist by any means, nor do I particularly care for achievements, but I just can’t seem to help myself here.

The end result is that I clear an entire map, face every possible encounter therein, and then head to a new one. And upon seeing that big square piece of darkness laying before me… I balk. “This is about as good a stopping point as any.” So I stop. Even if I’ve only been playing for 20 minutes.

As I mentioned, this compulsion seems unique to this type of game.

In my estimation there are a few likely causes that feed on one another. The first is basic min-maxing: there doesn’t appear to be respawns, so every missed encounter necessarily leads to a weaker party. No doubt there is more than enough mobs available to hit the level cap eventually, but I want to be more powerful now. The second is the fog of war mechanic itself, which is a pretty self-explanatory OCD itch to scratch. The third is actually related to the first, in that gold (or copper in this case) is a limited resource in a world without respawns, thus the majority of your gear will be found. Or missed, if one does not scour every inch of every map.

Breaking this habit will be tough, especially considering I did not even realize it was a habit until I starting playing Pillars of Eternity. Well, I knew beforehand that I dislike certain pattern-based puzzles simply because I can’t bring myself not to complete them in a ruthlessly logical (e.g. brute-force) way. If you show me something like the Minecraft crafting grid, I will start with one stick in the upper-left square, and continue moving that stick through every possible combination before adding two sticks, and so on. It’s like guessing luggage combinations by starting with 001 and working my way up.

Anyone else play games this way? And if so… how did you get yourself to stop?

WoW Down to 5.6 Million Subs

[Blaugust Day 5]

Holy shit. WoW is down 1.5 million subs in three months.

Decade boomerang.

Decade boomerang.

As the graph from MMO-Champion indicates, the last time WoW had 5.6 million subs was back in December 2005. While there are quite a few people out there saying the expansion spike into Warlords “shouldn’t count” due to hype trains and such, it bears repeating that WoW had 10 million subscriptions six months ago. Four point four million subscriptions is a fucking genre’s worth of tourists.

Assuming you can still call the 1.5 million people who left between months 3 and 6 “tourists.”

For the record, Cataclysm dropped from 12 million at its height down to 9.1 million at the end, a 24% loss. Mists started at 10 million, and ended around 7.4 million, a 26% loss. Even if we completely disregard Warlords’ spike in subs for no reason, going from 7.4 million to 5.6 million is a – drumroll please – 24% loss. And the year is only half over. And the final raid has already been released more than a month ago.

When Blizzard said they wanted to speed up expansion cycles, I didn’t think they meant cramming in two years’ worth of losses into half a year.

I went ahead and listened to the conference call myself, but the MMO-Champ summary is pretty much spot on. The only thing I wanted to mention was how early on in the call they pointed to Hearthstone specifically as being one of the largest drivers of revenue in Q2. Which, of course it is, everyone knows that. Additionally, at some point during the call Blizzard admitted that Hearthstone, Diablo 3, and Heroes of the Storm combined made up the majority of Blizzard revenue in Q2. As in, at least 50% + 1. Who would have saw that coming 3-4 years ago?

Some questions remain. While I have no doubt WoW Tokens are included in revenue stream, whether they count as subscriptions in of themselves is a question mark. Sure, a redeemed one should count as a one-month subscription just like a game card. But what about my eight Tokens sitting on an inactive account? Am I “subscribed?” This remains to be seen.

In any case, if this upcoming expansion announcement isn’t literally the best thing in the world, I think we can expect to see some more timely exits from Blizzard staff and players alike in the coming months.

More GTX 970 Musings

[Blaugust Day 2]

Having recently moved across town, I received the standard Post Office confirmation of address forwarding, complete with an envelope stuffed with coupons. One said coupon was for 10% off a single item at Best Buy. This prompted me to start looking at graphics cards again.

Spoiler alert: graphics cards are still stupidly expensive.

Or maybe not. Maybe they have always been around $300 for the upper bound of reasonableness. All that I know is that I’ve been staring at the GTX 970 series for months and the prices never seem to budge. It’s not even a matter of whether I could afford the card, it’s the principle of refusing to voluntarily pay MSRP for anything. That and the fact that I don’t need an upgraded graphics card to play any of the hundreds of games still sitting unused in my Steam library.

But… well, I’d kinda like to play GTA5 and Witcher 3, you know? My present rig is about four years old now, so in the scheme of things perhaps an upgrade is overdue. About the only modification I’ve done over the years is replacing the boot SSD after it died a few months ago.

Still, without a price drop, I don’t know if I’m going to do it. I’m not a #PCMasterRace powergamer that needs everything on Ultra; I just want to play relevant games at 60 FPS and 1080p. And honestly, it’s even harder to justify a card upgrade for just two games. I mean, the rest of my library will look better too, but… yeah. I dunno.

Investment Window

It’s been a few months since I stopped playing WoW, but the entire time I was I was psychoanalyzing the merits of purchasing the crafted gear to boost my characters further. That dilemma reminds me of a similar problem I have with many F2P games, or any game selling convenience items. Specifically: when, if ever, do you invest more money into the game?

I have mentioned it several times, but I am currently “playing” Clash of Clans. “Playing” gets the scare quotes because the actual amount of time I spend interacting with the UI versus waiting for bars to fill up has steadily decreased for months now. Indeed, I am solidly in the design trap that is Town Hall level 8, wherein you are losing more resources to raids than you could ever hope to replace with either raids of your own or passive resource gains. Being in a raiding clan might offset it some, but realistically, some actual cash exchanging hands will be necessary to progress further.

Of course, having played the game for so long, I have zero desire to do so.

All of us have been there before: you finally get annoyed or bored enough to throw money at a problem, only to stop playing the game entirely a few days later. Even if spending that money did improve your play experience, it was too late to make much of an accumulated impact. Had you dropped cash at the very beginning though? Then you could have gotten months of utility out of that purchase, and otherwise generating a return on fun.

The problem I have though, is actually timing the investment window correctly. In the case of CoC, no time actually felt “correct” because it was just a game I was playing as a diversion; I had no idea that I would still be playing it months later. In fact, that’s most games. Reminds me of those RPGs with the “+5% XP” talents you can select early on. While a dubious investment in the long-term (the talent is useless at max level), you can recognize that if you were going to take such a talent, you need to take it sooner rather than later.

While my dithering ends up resulting in more money in my pocket, it also in some cases results in a diminished experience. For example, not outfitting my alts with the crafted weapons in WoW. Did I save gold by not crafting them? Sure. I also lost gold by not crafting and selling them. I suppose having 8+ months of WoW Tokens makes this a bit moot in a practical sense, but old AH habits die hard.

So how about yourselves? How do you choose a time to make an optional purpose?

Moving and Ownership

All this week I have been in the process of packing up my apartment in preparation for a move in meatspace. It is just a move across town, and there isn’t too much stuff, but the process always feels exhausting. Packing up the essentials feels really easy, but then you get to all the miscellaneous stuff that you hardly ever use, but would likely miss if it were discarded. For example, how many of your pots and pans do you use on a weekly basis? Do I really need a colander, much less two of them?

What really struck me though was when I packed up my PlayStation 2. Both the system and the games didn’t take up all that much space, but I pretty much turned on the system once in the last year, during an abortive attempt to play FFXII. I kept the system around because at some point console designers decided backwards compatibility wasn’t a priority, and why get rid of it if I still have all my classic PS1 gems?

It was at that point that I realized that I didn’t really need these things anymore. In fact, why I had physical media of any type was a hold-over from what feels like ages ago. I am pretty sure that all the PS1 games I own are also on the PlayStation Network, or even on Steam. All the games and systems and movies I own could easily fit on the external HD the size of my hand. I should be finished packing by putting on a backpack, minus that behemoth of a PC I use.

At the same time… it’s hard. First, you have to fight against the feeling of conservation. Why throw anything away? It’s something that still has use, still has value, albeit diminished by the passage of time. Second, there are all the what-if scenarios and general optimism. Maybe I’ll suddenly find myself on a retro-gaming kick, yeah? Playing old games in 640×480 resolution blown up on my wall via 100″ projector screen… that’s the life. And what if I suddenly drop everything and go teach English in Japan? Surely I’ll want to pack… err… uh.

The interesting thing to me about this whole experience is my evolving concept of ownership. Back in the day, I fought hard against “all-digital media” and the notion that nobody ever really owned anything, they just licensed it. I was there jeering at Microsoft along with everyone else during the Xbone E3 reveal. The curbing or removal of the secondary game market was an existential threat in my mind.

Now? In the middle of packing up my life, I feel I’d be better off owning less. I’m not going to play Kagero: Deception 2 again. Or any of the Tenchu games. Even if I felt like I had the time and inclination, it’s tough going back to anything less than 720p at this point. The game discs might have retained some value – I certainly made a few hundred dollars selling my SNES classics a few years ago – but is that value worth the time and eBay headaches? When I finish a Steam game, I delete it and then set the Category to “Finished,” which I keep minimized. I don’t think I have ever gone back and played any Finished games.

Games are largely experiences and experiences only. Some have replay value, sure, and others (like MMOs) can keep you entertained and experiencing them for weeks/months/years to come. The vast majority though? One and done. The more time passes, the more I feel these accumulation of games are no different than old newspapers; the hoarding of which is something less deserving of a nostalgic nod and more of a questioning eyebrow.

I’m going to lug around my box of historical gaming debris this time around – there’s no sense to unpack what I’ve already packed – but the odds are good that this will be the last trip they make in my possession, one way or another. And I am becoming increasingly okay with that.


I don’t know if you’ve been following the new ground the developers of Rust have been breaking, but it’s both interesting and hilarious. The short version is that instead of customizing your character, all of your character’s physical attributes are randomly assigned and permanently tied to your Steam ID. This includes race, penis size, and now gender.

As you might imagine, some corners of the internet are melting down.

There are multiple layers of this design which are fascinating to me. The first is the sheer amount of free PR this generates. I mean, when was the last time you actually heard news about Rust that wasn’t about the size, color, and/or existence of the male sexual organ? Last thing I remember reading was from what feels like years ago, when Rust removed zombies… and people were crafting C4 to break into peoples’ shacks? It’s still a crafting survival game, right? I wouldn’t know.

Philosophically, the intended inability to choose your avatar’s features is also interesting. The money quote from the devs is this one:

To clear up some confusion, when we it does go live you won’t get a choice of whether you’re female or male. We’re not “taking the choice away” from you. You never had a choice. A man’s voice coming out of a woman’s body is no more weird than an 8 year-old boy’s voice coming out of a man’s body.

Some of the criticism is coming from people who don’t want to feel restricted in their character creation, or people who want their avatar to look like them (for RP purposes or otherwise). But in a sense… is this any different from, say, Witcher 3 or any other game with fixed player assets? As the dev mentioned, you never actually had a choice at character creation, so nothing is being taken away. Is it about historical gametype precedent? Or about the fact that the devs could have added customization options but have clearly decided not to?

In any case, I like the cut of this dev team’s jib. They are doing bold things that could go horribly wrong, which is the heart of soul of R&D. Plus, listen to this bit:

“We wanted to lock people to an identity so they could be possibly recognized for their misdeeds, just from their avatar,” he explained. “The idea being that eventually we’d take away player names, and emergent stuff could happen like mistaking someone for a friend, impersonations, etc.”

That sort of “reputation” is asinine in a multi-server scenario IMO, but good for them for going for it. And removing character names altogether? That’s a pretty brilliant social experiment.

I’m not invested in the outcome of Rust, but damned if I don’t feel a tiny bit compelled to see what kind of character gets rolled for me. Not going to lie: if I end up getting stuck as generic white dude #476, I’ll be pretty disappointed.

This Peeve of Mine: Blind Choices

It is amazing how many games you can work through when you aren’t playing an MMO. For example, I cleared through Metro: Last Light, StarCraft 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper, Wolfenstein: the New Order, and am currently plowing through This War of Mine. All in the last two weeks. Granted, many of those all had completion times below ten hours, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising, but nevermind.

While I am not entirely done with This War of Mine yet, I did want to talk about it a bit. Specifically, about how the game has one of my least favorite “features”: blind choices. Or maybe “blind choices” is not entirely the correct term, but rather (unintentional?) obfuscation.

I first complained about blind choices nearly four year ago:

Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforeseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforeseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The game I was referring to at the time was the original Witcher, when the game asked me which quest reward I wanted to choose. While the game didn’t hide the the rewards themselves, the relative utility of each choice was very much in question. A book about vampires, your own hut, or the Wreath of immortelles? I chose the latter because italics, and it allowed me to easily bypass a long, involved quest.

Despite having chose the one with the most overall utility, I did not feel particularly clever because the choice itself had no real meaning. Do we praise the stopped clock for being right twice a day? Avoiding a designer trap only highlights the fact that the designers included a designer trap in their game in the first place, which automatically lowers my view of the overall design. It’s a cheap gimmick – one that is overcome only with knowledge that a player obtains after the choice is made. “Giving players the choice to fail” really just means the designers were unable to give players two or more good (or bad) options to choose between.

This concept get a bit murky when it comes to the roguelike genre though. Many roguelikes specifically include things like colored potions that have randomized effects on each playthrough. Sometimes you can minimize the mayhem such potions can cause, by being at full health and in a safe place before sampling the rainbow of colors you have collected. Such testing technically involves risk assessment and valuing the odds, which are pretty high-brow player skills. I was fine with The Bind of Isaac’s random pill effects, for example, largely because everything else about that game was so random it almost didn’t matter. When you could find out early which pills did what though? It sets you way ahead of the curve.

This War of Mine is more or less a roguelike. While the loot you can scavenge is random, it is also random which “scenario” you might encounter when going to a new location. This is generally fine. Roguelikes need randomness to maintain replayability in what otherwise would be short playthroughs. What I found less fine was when I realized that you didn’t need a lockpick to open locked doors, you simply needed a crowbar. That “makes sense” in a sort of logical way, but not always in a game logic way, especially not in a game that also features vegetables that grow to maturity in four days under a heat lamp.

Should the crowbar’s in-game description mention it opens locked doors? I would say yes. There is still a meaningful choice between crafting a lockpick over a crowbar (specifically the amount of noise it generates) when you know the full depth of information about the two. At the same time… well, Minecraft certainly doesn’t give you all the information you might need for a successful¹ run. I haven’t played it in a while, but the last time I did, I knew there was no way I would have ever guessed the correct configuration of materials necessary to craft a bow or shears.

Examining my discomfort in more detail, I suppose it comes down to wasting resources when outside knowledge is readily available. I had no problem playing Don’t Starve for hours and hours despite dying and losing all progress to the most mundane of causes. Murder Bees are serious business, after all. But chasing down the mats to build a blowgun and darts in what ended up being a nigh-useless tool? That pisses me off. I will happily fail in service to muscle memory, even if I lose progress along the way. I will not, however, be so keen to fail because I didn’t read the Wiki first.

There is a distinction between the two that I can feel, even if I cannot enunciate it clearly.

¹ With what constitutes success in Minecraft being left undefined.

Games as Services

If you have forgotten, Scrolls is that one card game from Mojang that no one ever played. And after July 2016, no one else ever will.

I actually had a Beta review up of Scrolls nearly two years ago, and that more or less marked the last time I spent any serious amount of time with it. I did pick it up again for a hot minute last year (I think), but the structural problems I already talked about were still present, so I stopped again. Probably because of Hearthstone. But, the CCG genre is not a genre one can go in half-assed anyway- it is strictly full-ass or bust.

While Scrolls getting an expiration date is not even remotely similar of an impact as an MMO shutting down, it is example #1765783 of the dangers of Games as Services. This is a game that I paid $20 for (two years ago, admittedly) that I will not be allowed to play in another year. Do you know what I played last month? Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines, an RPG that came out in 2004. And while it certainly costs money to keep an MMO server running each month, Scrolls had a perfectly fine single-player experience against the AI. Hell, I’m not even sure what the cost of running Scrolls matchmaking software would even be. Surely not that much?

Alas, it is not meant to be. While we can question whether it was Microsoft swinging the ax or normal market forces, the fact remains that the ax was always there. A veritable Sword of Damocles hanging over every game-turned-service, not threatening mere removal, but extinction. Will there even be a museum where these games could be played in the future? Or will these orphaned blog posts be all that exists, a Google search result that becomes less relevant with each passing year?

Nothing is permanent. But clearly some things are more impermanent than others.


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