System Shock 2: That 90s Feeling

System Shock 2 (hereafter SS2) is a game I’ve heard about a lot, but up to this point didn’t have much of an interest to play. I mean, I immensely enjoyed Bioshock and all, but I have found by experience that “spiritual successors” tend to make their source material difficult to play. Which makes total sense, considering a game is a spiritual successor if it emulates and expands upon all the good things about the prior title while discarding the rest.

Plus, you know, 1999 was a long time ago. There is a whole swath of games that are more or less forever unplayable by me simply because I can’t get over the terrible (by today’s standards) graphics. Watching the intro to SS2 did not inspire much confidence:

I'm trying to remember a time when this looked amazing.

I’m trying to remember a time when this looked amazing.

Luckily for everyone, there is a wide selection of mods out there that more or less brings the game to at least 2004.

I was actually somewhat impressed.

I was actually somewhat impressed.

At this point, I am roughly 10 or so hours into the game and I must admit that SS2 still has value to give. For example: it’s pretty damn scary, but not in the way you might be used to. FEAR has some great moments, Silent Hill definitely gets the horror angle correct, and Resident Evil does “crash through the window” better than most. None of those really capture the unique (as far as I know) dread that is hearing the “whisk” sound of a spaceship door opening behind you. In fact, I find myself developing somewhat of a complex with these doors, as evidenced by nearly jumping out of my chair from the sound of one door – that I had just activated – closing behind me.

Aside from the evil doors, I want to spend a moment and praise the overall sound design of the game in general. For the most part, you can hear nearly every enemy before you actually see them. Which, now that I think about it, is not as common a gaming trope as it should be. What this allows SS2 to do is make the various types of enemies resistant or vulnerable to specific weapons without the player feeling cheated. If you hear a robot walking around nearby and aren’t switching to your energy weapons in anticipation, it’s your own damn fault.

Another thing I can appreciate about SS2’s design is the overall upgrade mechanic. Your character has like four tabs worth of various stats and abilities you can upgrade/purchase with Cybernetic Modules. While you do receive some periodically as “quest” rewards, the vast majority of Cybernetic Modules are stuck in desks, on dead bodies, and sometimes hidden in plain sight on the floor. Combined with a traditional (the de facto back then) non-regenerating health system and the necessity to collect currency for ammo/hacking/etc purposes, Cybernetic Modules provide an immense incentive to explore every inch of the ship. Contrast this with, say, Bioshock Infinite which has painstakingly-designed nooks and crannies without any reason at all to search them.

As an aside, I can understand why some games might not go that route. If you hide a bunch of upgrade currency throughout your game, you are then faced with a dilemma: either that upgrade currency is necessary to realistically defeat the final boss, or it isn’t. If it is necessary, you are forcing everybody to comb your game for supplies, including the people who find that sort of thing tedious. If all the upgrades aren’t necessary, the people who enjoy looting all the things are “rewarded” with trivial encounters for the rest of the game. It is much easier to control your game’s pacing by directly tying upgrades to specific plot points, so no one is ahead or behind. That does make your game more boring and empty however. Hence, dilemma.

In any case, I am likely closing in on the System Shock 2 endgame and should be done in the next day or two. While I do not consider it to be as groundbreaking as something like the original Deus Ex, it is at least in the same parking lot as the ballpark. If you picked it up as part of one of any number of bundles in the last two years, go ahead and spend the 20 minutes or so it takes to set up all the mods and give it a whirl. Part Deus Ex, part Half-Life, and extremely atmospheric.

On Randomness, Again

A little over a year ago, I talked about randomness in Hearthstone. Since that time, the amount of RNG cards has only increased. In fact, the Goblin vs Gnomes expansion added a full 24 cards with the word “random” on it, some of which have gone on to be staple cards in many decks:

The one of the left is an auto-include in every deck.

The one of the left is an auto-include in every deck.

At the time of the article, I mentioned that Blizzard’s stance on RNG was possibly at a turning point given how Hearthstone’s nascent e-Sports scene was starting to take off, much to the surprise of Blizzard itself. As we well know today however, Blizzard has stuck with their RNGuns and doubled-down on wild board swings.

And… I think I can appreciate what they’re doing.

The downsides to randomness are rather apparent to most people, insofar as you can go from winning to losing by virtue of a coin-flip. Watching Pro Players losing tournaments on the back of a 1% chance (or even less) of bad luck makes the game look like amateur hour sometimes.

On the flip side (har har), an element of randomness allows one to stage surprising comebacks. Top-decking just the right card to win a game has always been a staple of even the highest levels of the Magic: the Gathering professional scene. Since Hearthstone has less than half as many cards as Magic (and no land cards to gum up the works), Hearthstone arguably needs the extra randomness just to be less deterministic. Nobody likes playing unwinnable matches.

The real upside to Hearthstone’s randomness though? The stories.

If you were the other guy playing this match, you would probably be justifiably upset about how utterly screwed you got from that Piloted Shredder outcome. Or would you be justified? As I mentioned before, randomness is just another consideration that skilled players need to account for in their strategies. Getting Lorewalker Cho out of a Piloted Shredder as Oil Rogue is bad, but there was always a 1.5% chance of it happening in every game; if you don’t want to sometimes lose to the randomness of your own card, take it out of your deck. About 70% of the time, Piloted Shredder summons a better-than-expected minion, which is why so many people run it.

But as I was saying, that match went from “just another video demonstrating a deck” to “high-class entertainment” in my eyes. You can see the gears whirling in the streamer’s head as soon as Cho hit the board; it was unexpected, and the unexpected is much more fun for the viewers at home. Even if I were playing that game though, I think I’d be alright with it. Nobody really cares that you won yet another game as Oil Rogue or whatever is Flavor of the Week. Winning in spite of Cho? That would be epic. And even though the other rogue loss due to Cho, he/she now has the option to mentally blame bad luck instead of being outplayed. That attitude can prevent new players from improving of course, but it can also prevent new players from simply giving up in the face of veterans.

The next Hearthstone Adventure set, Blackrock Mountain, is due to be released sometimes in April. We haven’t seen nearly all the cards yet, but we already know about a reverse-Shredder card called Hungry Dragon, which summons a random 1-mana minion for your opponent. So at this point, I believe it safe to say that randomness is here to stay. Time will tell if Hearthstone in general does the same.

(I give it a 92% chance.)

Winning for Losing

Way back before I got distracted with Crowfall news, Rohan had an interesting few posts exploring the challenges of structured PvP vs transient PvP. Namely, how do you solve the “3rd/4th faction” problem of people migrating to the winning side in structured PvP? The clear answer involves incentives to stay on the losing/outnumbered side, but the implementation is tricky.

Or is it?

I consider one of the gold standards of loss incentives to be Titanfall’s Extraction phase. At the end of each match – be it CTF, Death Match, etc – there is a no-respawn phase in which the losing team tries to make it to a waiting drop ship. If all losing members make it, the entire team receives a significant bonus (less than a win, but not by much). The winning team will of course try and kill the stragglers, but they can also destroy the drop ship and get bonus points. While it is still possible to queue into a complete blowout match in which the other team practically insta-kills the drop ship, most battles end with the drop ship taking off. Not only do the extra points for an Extraction soften the blow of losing perhaps a close match, the psychological reward for “escaping” is immense.

You lost, but you didn’t lose. And, yes, there is a difference.

This might seem weird to say, but I actually enjoy hopeless defenses in many games. Whenever I play used to play PlanetSide 2, for example, I looked for the bases under attack by near-overwhelming odds. From my perspective, such bases present A) easy opportunity for kills in the chaos, B) no expectation for success, C) small chance for epic comeback. Being spawn-camped by tank spam is miserable, but anything less can be great low-pressure fun.

The same sentiment existed even in WoW PvP for me. Being farmed at the Graveyard in WSG is enough to make one ragequit. Dial it back a few notches though, and I found it immensely entertaining simply being annoying, e.g. by tanking DPS as a healer, taking potshots and then forcing someone to chase me for two minutes, and so on. My team might lose, but I still won. Some of my favorite PvP memories was on my Rogue, when I ran around Sapping everyone into diminishing returns and watching their futile attempts at unstealthing me.

All of the above examples (except for PS2) are from transient PvP rather than structured PvP. Still, I think you can achieve a similar incentive structure using the same principals. For example, if a certain team is way behind or outnumbered, start giving them an alternative currency (call it Honor or whatever), or even a bonus to the normal PvP currency. In this way, winning becomes much less of a zero-sum game, and offers an “out” for those players who would, strictly speaking, be better off defecting to the winning side. Plus it would attract goofballs such as myself to hopeless defenses, thereby making the match more entertaining for everyone involved.

Impression: Kingdom Rush

So… anyone got mobile strategy(-ish) game recommendations? I’m on a bit of a kick here.

I am currently playing Kingdom Rush and finding it rather fantastic. Tower Defense is one of those genres that seems sort of shallow on the face of it – and perhaps even is in the scheme of things – but I’m liking how it’s presented here in Kingdom Rush. You have the standard lanes, tower placement, and varied enemies with their rock-paper-scissors attributes. Even the implementation of a somewhat controllable hero and magic powers seems almost standard these days.

The very attractively stylized graphics doesn't hurt either.

I could go AFK for the next two waves, honestly.

The thing that strikes me though is that the lanes in KR are wide. In other words, the enemies marching down the road and the resulting battles feel a bit more organic, as your soldiers might engage near the edge of the lane and allow a few enemies on the far end slip past. There is a granularity there, a sense that slight tweaks to troop or hero placement will result in better outcomes. Tower choice is such a huge change that there are clearly better options given the enemies you face (high magic defense vs high armor defense). Moving your troops just slightly to the left of the corner though? The result might be better just 5% of the time, but that 5% chance gives you the opportunity to demonstrate mastery over the game mechanics.

Of course, just like with most other Tower Defense games I have played, discovering OP combinations of towers usually results in me going through the motions for the rest of the game’s duration. I am definitely at that stage with Kingdom Rush right now, although it has lasted longer than other, similar games like Bloons.

So, yeah. I’m also playing Clash of Clans (near max TH7 base) at the moment. I have enjoyed the aforementioned Bloons TD 5, iBomber Defense, and the Anomaly series. I recently picked up Ironclad Tactics from the latest Humble Bundle but haven’t played it yet. Heard good things about Card Crawl too, and might actually pick it up if I can mentally prepare myself for playing on my tiny iPod Touch screen. Speaking of iPods, that reminds me of Hero Academy… another good one from back in the day. And presently perhaps? It’s been a while.

Give me your best strategy, Tower Defense, and/or card game games. Apps. Whatever.

Performance Enhancing F2P

As I was browsing reddit a few days ago, I found my way into a thread talking about how you can play the Star Citizen alpha for free until March 15th (or March 20th depending on the code used). This is a game that I am somewhat interested in playing, but not 22gb of files interested. Makes you wonder about what the final download size is going to end up being. The Secret World is already over 40gb and making me think deleting it would be better than keeping it around in the off-chance I feel like… Googling the answers to ridiculous in-game riddles.

In any case, I continued reading the various comments to try and glean where Star Citizen was in development. As it turns out, they’re still in the “sell $2700+ ship packages in the store like it ain’t no thing” stage.

A bargain at twice the price.

A bargain at twice the price.

The Completionist Package is actually much more expensive at $15,000, although for some reason the $2700 tier galls me a bit more than the other. I think it’s because at some point the amounts are too ridiculous to contemplate, but these smaller ones are more “reasonable.” Could you even build a gaming PC that cost $15,000 without spending money on the equivalent of Monster Cables?

Once the game officially launches, the idea is that the cash shop for ships is going to close; thereafter, the only things sold for real dollars will be customization options… and a “small” amount of in-game currency, with a daily cap. The amount is supposed to be “miniscule” and the equivalent to whatever it costs to refuel and rearm a ship. Whether that amount will just cover a normal ship maintenance cost or one of the $200+ ships you can outright purchase right now, is anyone’s guess.

What is not anyone’s guess are the fascinating arguments being made that such purchases aren’t P2W:

There is insurance on the ships, if you bought the ship early you are granted free insurance.

Insurance will be cheap though, so if you lose your ship without insurance you kinda have to blame yourself. You won’t get a huge advantage with free insurance.

And what’s the problem with buying ingame cash? If I only have 6 hours/week to play the game I should be able to spend cash so I won’t get left behind by the players sitting 6 hours/day.

This bolded sentiment simply boggles my mind. I don’t even know where to start.

Perhaps I could start with an analogy: performance enhancing drugs in sports. If you only had six hours/week to train for a competition whereas your opponent trained six hours/day, I think everyone would still say that that is fair; if you wanted to legitimately compete with this person, you would put in the necessary hours to do so. I don’t think there is anyone here that would say you should just pop some steroids so you “don’t get left behind” by the person who is clearly more committed to playing the game than you. But suppose you do believe it’s fair, and everyone should have freedom to take whatever drugs give them an edge. In such a scenario, what happens to your advantage when the 6 hours/day person just, you know, takes performance enhancing drugs themselves? You end up where you started, except now everyone with even a modicum of desire to win is taking drugs.

Meanwhile, the people selling steroids are making bank.

The other problem I have with the bolded sentiment is what it says about time spent playing the game. If you are paying dollars to skip content, that implies the content being skipped is the unfun, grindy parts of the game. Which means all the players you are bribing your way past are stuck doing content they probably don’t find fun either. Which means that the game designers have a dilemma: they can either make the unfun, grindy parts more fun for everyone (and lose money), or they can do nothing and make more money. Or, you know, make that payslope even steeper.

This is not even my final form.

This is not even my final form.

Is that a little too tinfoil hat thinking? Maybe. Maybe there are good, legitimate reasons why my Air Defense tower in Clash of Clans takes six real-world days to upgrade. Whatever those reasons are, they can’t be too important though, as I can buy my way past the timer. As I’ve mentioned before, these sort of cash shop designs immediately throws every designer action under suspicion.

The final problem I have with the bolded sentiment is difficult to put into words. It’s like, when did we start expecting to have better outcomes than other people who play a game more than us? I would agree that a design in which no one can catch up to Day One veterans is bad, but I feel like there is a crazy expectation that skill should triumph over time-spent and yet the game still have character progression somehow. How would that work, exactly? And when did it become unfair for someone else to spend six/hours a day playing a game? And then fair for you to bring resources completely outside of game (i.e. cash) to make things even?

Sometimes I feel like we’re all just lost in the woods here.

Correction

I officially change my book answer on Wednesday to the Discworld series. Eternal apologies to Terry Pratchett (RIP) for not remembering how much I miss Rincewind, Two-flower, Luggage, Granny, Nanny, Magrat and Agnes, Vetinari, Vimes, Carrot, Angua, Colon, Nobby, Littlebottom, and Moist. And Death, Susan, Death of Rats, and… all the rest. The stories starring Vimes are probably the most famous for being “the good ones,” but I enjoyed the subtlety of the Granny series as well.

Actually, they were all really enjoyable.

God damn.

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

Liebsteri Fatali

So apparently there’s this Liebster thing going around, and since I’m still kinda wiped out from traveling, let’s dive right in.

1. What was your very first MMO character and why did you choose that race?

Blood Elf warlock in WoW named Izuko. When I first decided to get into WoW, I had to decide early on whether to buy just the base game or the game plus Burning Crusade expansion. Since I went with the latter, I also knew that companies have a tendency to make expansion races/classes overpowered, which meant I needed to roll either Blood Elf or Draenei. While I clearly ended up sticking with Azuriel the Draenei paladin overall, Eversong Woods was perhaps the best possible starting zone for anyone new to MMOs.

Useless personal trivia: I quit playing Izuko after my leveling guild fell apart while I was in the mid-40s in Hinterlands. I was ready to quit WoW entirely at that point – old-school Hinterlands was awful at the best of times – but felt like that I wouldn’t get my money’s worth if I didn’t at least roll a Draenei. So I did. And here I am, blogging about going to PAX East with my former WoW guildmates, whom I’ve only ever met in person once before, at GenCon. Then again, I’ve probably talked to them over Vent for more hours over the past six years than any of my IRL friends.

2. Would you rather have a tiny elephant as a pet, or a tiny kangaroo?

Neither. I enjoy other peoples’ pets and have owned some in the past myself, but having to literally manage their shit has lost all appeal. If I had to pick though: tiny elephant, no question.

3. Do you overuse any figures of speech in your writing or speaking?

So… yeah. About that. For the most part, I write like I speak, including adding what probably amounts to superfluous commas all over the damn place. I have also noticed that an embarrassing number of sentences are bisected by “but,” but I’m not sure what I can really do about it. And the “so” thing.

4. You can snap your fingers and visit any city in the world. Where are you?

It’s a bit pretentious, but… Kyoto. Been there both times I traveled to Japan and plan on including it on any future Japanese itinerary.

5. What was your first (real life) pet? Who is your favorite pet?

I believe it was a gecko, which soon got lost in the grass when I tried to “walk” it. My favorite pet was probably my dog, Bo (we had a cat/dog pair named Rocky and Bullwinkle). Bo was one of those pets that spanned multiple Ages, from elementary to college.

He’s been dead for a while now, thanks for asking.

6. You’re on a desert island and only have one album, one movie, and one book. What are they?

The album question is a bit tough, as I have zero loyalty to specific artists, only good songs. Based on number of top-rated songs on my iTunes account, it looks like Auidoslave’s debut album and/or the soundtrack to Her would win overall. Hmm, apparently Fort Minor’s Rising Tied is also up there. On an island though, I’d probably need to relax, for which the Her soundtrack is most conducive.

In terms of being able to rewatch/reread something over and over, I have to go with Fifth Element and… uh… the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Because who reads one book over and over?

7. Why did you start a blog?

I was pretty active on the WoW forums back in TBC and Wrath. Over time, I realized that the same (discredited) arguments were being trotted out again and again, so I figured that I could save myself time by copy/pasting a well-sourced post rather than spamming the same text. Additionally, things on the forums had tendency to go “poof,” so I also wanted some way to preserve Blue posts and the like. It was a pretty poorly thought-out plan, I admit.

Later on, I found that I played WoW for the AH shenanigans, so it made sense to make Player Vs Auction House. This was followed later on by the realization that, no, I did like arguing with strangers over the internet more after all. And still do, to this very day.

8. What’s your favorite video game soundtrack?

I’m changing this question to favorite video game composer. In which case, Yasunori Mitsuda, hands down. Being forced to choose between the Chronos and Xenogears soundtracks is simply cruel. Although have you listened to Xenogears Creid? Hmm… now that I think about it, I’ll go with Xenogears straight-up.

9. Which writers have been the most influential in your own writing?

I’m not entirely sure how influenced I am in writing style, but I am quite often in utter awe over Jerry Holkins’ (of Penny Arcade) poetic prose. Something something Dickwolves, I know. But seriously, read this shit:

It must be said, though, that they have a different kind of cold than I have in my town.  Brenna wanted to take a walk before she had to fly out one year after the show, and I said no, that was a terrible idea, because people were freezing in place where they stood out there and being loaded onto trucks like cordwood, bundled for quick sale, to those for whom freshness was paramount.

Somehow we ended up on the walk anyhow, because whatever, who cares, and we hadn’t gotten three blocks before we turned back.  I would like to say that this was a choice we made, turning back, but we were turned back because your cold is of a fundamentally different sort.  We went back because we could not go forward.  It wasn’t a land habitable by people.  Their cold is the great Leviathan, which marks the edge of the map.

That was just a recent example in my spartan, verbal shrine to well-crafted sentences.

10. What is your favorite virtual hat in any game?

T6/Veng Glad paladin helm in WoW. I’m a sucker for halos, especially since I usually turn helms off.

___________________

And that’s it.

While I answered the questions, this was a half-assed commitment, so I’m breaking the chain.

PAX Day Three: Final

And thus PAX came to an end.

The more charitable conclusion is that I simply came during an off year. Or perhaps an off PAX. But what I truly want to say is that the show sucked. At least to this particular non-con going groupie. And I’m thinking that the allure of cons are getting diminished by the same forces that generated a niche market in making physical boxes for all-digital games.

The Twitch booth out on the show floor was extremely hard to miss. After a few minutes, the irony of my having spent a considerable amount of money to fly into the Boston snowpocalypse just to come to PAX and watch a Twitch stream in person was too much to bear. The same principle held for Overwatch and the new expansions to GW2 and FF14 – why stand in line for 2+ hours to play these particular games that will either be released or in public beta in a number of months? Maybe it made sense back in the days when we got our gaming news from magazines (remember those?), but not today.

I mean, they had a bunch of booths for iPad games for god’s sake.

Luckily, I came because of friends. PAX definitely had a better setup for free-playing various games than GenCon. But that was about the long and short of it. If I could do things over again, I probably would have bought a PS4 and just took a 5-day staycation.

PAX Day Two: Lined

Went to two major panels on Saturday, one after the other. First was FF15 and the second was Pillars of Eternity.

In regards to FF15, I actually haven’t been following the already-released information close enough to tell what was breaking news. The panelists mainly drove home the “road trip” and “Buddies” aspect of the game. Which, if I’m honest, probably wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if I were not hearing their passion in person.

There was a moment while watching the gameplay that I asked myself “is this a Final Fantasy game at all?” I never really played 12 or the 13 series, so I’m not sure if there’s a huge precedent for the sort of Action RPG gameplay I watched on-screen – especially the bit where he hook-shotted up a telephone tower to wait for his MP to regen. The panelists did sort of address this subtly as they mentioned the kind of themes common throughout the series, such as the hero never being alone.

It’s not that seeing the party run down a highway avoiding traffic or that the lack of an ATB gauge is throwing me off; FF7 and 8 had a number of similar high-tech elements, and they are amongst my favorites. Honestly, it could just be that the last Final Fantasy game I completed was FFX-2. This series went from being the single most important thing in my gaming life – I jumped on the original Playstation precisely because I was following Squaresoft – to something I pick up on Steam sales, like everything else. And so “Final Fantasy” to me is/was a game that defines a particular gaming epoch, or it isn’t one at all.

Baggage aside, the game looks great, the road trip thing could be interesting, party banter is always welcome, and the remixed music was pure nostalgia.

The Pillars of Eternity panel was pretty much the devs just playing the game for about twenty minutes. Which certainly isn’t the worst kind of panel, and there wasn’t much they needed to sell for me to be onboard in the first place. They even had an Oprah moment with the whole “check under your chair for a prize.” Everyone got a free upgrade to the Champion edition, assuming you purchase the base game, and a few got upgrades to the highest tier.

While Pillars is a guaranteed purchase by me at some price-point, the pause-based tactical combat really hit home how much I prefer the FFT or other Tactics game type. It’s fun queuing up that initial volley of attacks in these sort of CRPGs, but things quickly end up coming down to micromanaging one or two characters, at best, and hoping that a third character is actually going to finish their attack animation and drink a potion before they die. The devs mentioned that there wasn’t going to be anything much in the way of AI, so you are kinda left with the worst of both worlds.

One day to go.

PAX Day One: That’s A Lot of People

I wouldn’t say this was the most amount of people I’ve been around, even at a convention, but still:

image

We're going to need a bigger boat.

Place was packed, in other words. To be expected.

I didn’t actually stand in any lines, as while playing the new GW2 expansion sounds somewhat fun, waiting two hours to do so does not. The line for Overwatch was… well:

image

This is the end...

image

... okay, maybe not the end.

I missed a chance to meet some of the Wildstar devs at a local bar, but I’m not too tore up about it. We’ll see if any similar opportunities present themselves.