Category Archives: Commentary

Still No Man’s Sky

Right as my interest in My Time at Portia was ending – sadly, before the end of the game proper – I started hearing about a major update to No Man’s Sky. Called Origins, this particular update seemed mainly focused on reseeding the universe with new planets with more extreme terrain/plant/animal possibilities. Having missed the past couple of other major updates, I decided to go ahead and jump back in with a fresh character.

Some 40-odd hours later, I have hit that same existential wall the last time around.

Almost all of the particulars of the game have been improved. Base-building restrictions have been lifted across the board. The once-ubiquitous Sentinels are now just policing fun on certain planets. The UI has been improved… to an extent. The various avenues to raise cash have been widened. The Nexus has been made into a multiplayer hub of sorts, and its vendors allow you to bypass quest-restricted tech if you wish.

And yet… it’s still missing something. And it might be something dumb like “challenge.”

Some games are not meant to be challenging. No one is going to play My Time at Portia while looking for a Dark Souls experience. In this regard, No Man’s Sky is very obviously tilted towards a chill, Explorer player-type. Sentinels are robots that used to patrol every planet and turn aggressive when you started mining resources in front of them. As mentioned, they no longer exist in every world. For the vast majority of your gameplay, the weather is going to be your biggest foe – one defeated by pressing two buttons every few minutes, consuming resources you can buy in bulk at nearly every space station. 

Which, again, fine. Whatever. It’s a chill, exploring game. 

But things get a little crazy once you start flying around in space. At some point, your ship will be scanned by hostile pirates, who will disable your ability to escape and start trying to blow you up. While you can again survive just about anything by recharging your shields with elements purchased by the thousands, you can also equip your ship with missiles, laser beams, a space shotgun, and all manners of similar things. Regardless, this is decidedly a less chill, exploring experience.

After a while, the dissonance in the game between space combat and terrestrial combat became too great for me. See, your Multi-Tool can also receive a number of upgrades to add a shotgun, laser cannon, a grenade launcher, and so on. But when would you ever use it? Attacking Sentinels is periodically required to progress the storyline, and bigger and meaner ones do end up showing up. But under all other normal circumstances, there is no challenge whatsoever once you are on a planet. 

Where are the pirates or mercenaries on the ground? Where are all the hostile wildlife? You will see the same half-dozen varieties of hostile plants on every planet across the entire universe. But nothing in the way of meaningful challenge. About the closest you get is “the Swarm,” which puts up a decent fight when you try stealing their eggs. Facing them on every planet would be silly, but that kind of thing might justify having anything more than the same unupgraded rifle you build from a quest 50 hours prior.

Again, No Man’s Sky doesn’t have to head that direction.

The problem for me though is the existential crisis that hits mid-game, in which you question what it’s all for. In my fresh save, my character has 45 million Units and a B-class ship with about 28 slots. The normal drive would be to search for an A-class or S-class ship to buy, and then upgrading those further while simultaneously upgrading my own suit and Multi-Tool. There are several mechanics in the game now that allow you to pursue those goals in measured (read: grind) fashion.

But… why? I mean, sure, “why do anything in a videogame?” In No Man’s Sky though, progression is basically bag space. Can you equip weapon mods that increase damage or clip size? Yes. Do they have 5 rarities and slightly randomized number ranges? Also yes. Does any of it matter at all? Absolutely not. You can go 50+ hours without shooting a damn thing, even accidentally. Oh, unless you’re flying through space, in which case we’re actually playing X-Wing sometimes.

I think the devs might eventually get there. Last time I played, all the alien NPCs stood or sat in the same spot, never moving. Now they move around and make the space stations feel, well, actually populated. Slap some helmets on them and give them guns and maybe shoot me planetside on occasion and we’re in business. Or ramp up the aggressiveness of hostile fauna on some of the planets. Think ARK. At least on some planets, anyway.

I’m not looking for challenge challenge, at least not in No Man’s Sky. Actually, I would love a 3D Terraria/Starbound experience if I’m being real. That might not have been what everyone signed up for in this game though. Perhaps add another game mode? But it should be Game Design 101 that if you add a Chekhov Shotgun, you should craft encounters in which a shotgun is necessary.

Morhaime’s Shade Blots Out the Sun

Mike Morhaime, the cofounder of Blizzard who stepped away in 2018, recently announced that he would be starting a new game company called Dreamhaven. It will act as a parent company to two sub-companies, filled with ex-Blizzard developers.

In the interview with VentureBeat, this line shot out like an arrow:

“We’re almost trying to create a haven for creators who want an environment that is development friendly, values product, and player experience over short-term financial pressures,” Morhaime said.

That garnered a literal LOL from me. Because, you know, the implication.

Supposedly the two sub-companies are developing a game apiece, but there are no details as of yet, not even what genre they are eyeing. Given how most of them are ex-Hearthstone developers, I would assume at least one of them will be a card game.

Microsoft Buys Bethesda, the World

File this under Holy Shit, Batman:

Today is a special day, as we welcome some of the most accomplished studios in the games industry to Xbox. We are thrilled to announce Microsoft has entered into an agreement to acquire ZeniMax Media, parent company of Bethesda Softworks.

As one of the largest, most critically acclaimed, privately held game developers and publishers in the world, Bethesda is an incredibly talented group of 2,300 people worldwide who make up some of the most accomplished creative studios in our industry across Bethesda Softworks, Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, ZeniMax Online Studios, Arkane, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Alpha Dog, and Roundhouse Studios. These are the teams responsible for franchises like The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Wolfenstein, DOOM, Dishonored, Prey, Quake, Starfield and many more.

https://news.xbox.com/en-us/2020/09/21/welcoming-bethesda-to-the-xbox-family/?ocid=Parterships_soc_omc_xbo_fb_Video_buy_9.21.1

As it says, Microsoft is buying ZeniMax and all its subsidiaries, of which Bethesda is a part. Among other things, this means that Starfield, Elder Scrolls 6, Fallout 5, etc, will be coming to Game Pass on Day 1. That link also indicates the deal was for $7.5 billion. Which is like… 3.5 Minecrafts.

Another amusing detail is that Bethesda and Obsidian are going to be under the same roof again. Perhaps there could be another New Vegas-esque collaboration? Obsidian are good storytellers when they don’t have to build worlds from scratch. When they do, we get garbage like Outer Worlds.

What else could this mean? Well… since Microsoft is going all-in with the Game Pass, there’s a remote chance that Bethesda-specific subscriptions get rolled into Game Pass itself. For example, Fallout 76 has the Fallout 1st subscription and then there’s Elder Scrolls Online’s sub. Like I mentioned yesterday, Game Pass doesn’t include everything, like DLCs and such. That said, EA Play’s subscription is getting rolled into Game Pass for no extra charge. So who knows?

Overall, I am extremely excited. I feel the same way currently as I did way back in the day, when the first few Steam sales started. I hated that Valve was forcing me to download Steam just to play Half-Life 2 and otherwise jump through a lot of hoops. Then once the sales started, it all clicked that this was the future. Well, the future is happening again. And now instead a future heralding the sale of horse armor, we get a timeline where you can play AAA games on Day 1 for $4.99 $9.99/month.

PC Game Pass Price Doubles

I just received an email from Microsoft that the Game Pass is coming out of “beta” and will be increasing in price from $4.99 to… $9.99. This price increase makes it… still cheaper than the $12 legacy Humble Choice subscription, of which I have paused for the past five months in a row. It’s more expensive than EA Play ($4.99) but still cheaper than EA Play Pro ($14.99).

Will I continue to subscribe to Game Pass? Absolutely.

Looking at my account history, I have given Microsoft $60.96 over the last eight months. The two biggest games I played were Outer Worlds and Metro: Exodus, but there were a slew of “smaller” titles like Carrion, Into the Breach, Children of Morta, Nowhere Prophet, Forager, and Undermine. I’m looking forward to playing Spiritfarer, going through Halo: the Master Chief Collection, Astroneer, Grounded (I may wait until it’s out of Early Access though), Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Frostpunk, and possibly Disgaea 4.

The above isn’t taking into account the games on the service that I already own elsewhere. Fallout 76, My Time at Portia, ARK, Dead Cells, Dishonored 2, Don’t Starve, Final Fantasy 15, Hollow Knight, No Man’s Sky, Slay the Spire, Stellaris, Subnautica, The Long Dark. Shit, I just realized how many crafting/survival games I could have gotten for (relative) free. Oh well.

I don’t know why I continue to shill for this service, other than perhaps to reassure myself that this is actually a thing that exists in this world. I have long railed on the concept of Consumer Surplus and how gaming companies have systematically been extracting every last ounce via DLC, Season Passes, Loot Boxes and so on. This trend towards a Netflix model for gaming has been the one bright spot this decade, it seems, eclipsing even the Humble Bundle model before it.

Will it solve all our (gaming) ills? No. Stellaris is on Game Pass but just as the base game – it still has $100+ worth of DLCs in typical Paradox fashion. Same with ARK. But there is a natural tension surrounding extra purchases for “rented” games such that I can see perhaps a higher-tier subscription beginning to include DLC. Or maybe Microsoft will be dicks and force you to purchase the game years after launch for near MSRP to get continued use out of already-purchased DLC.

Nevertheless, companies will need to make the base game worth experiencing if they hope to grab gamers’ attention without leaning on the Sunk Cost/dissonance of ownership. Not every game is going to be on Game Pass, but I absolutely believe that there will be more of these subscription options from other companies, the same way that Netflix is no longer the only, ahem, game in town.

How to Lose Friends and Mismanage People

The r/ClashRoyale subreddit was going through a revolt over the “Clan Wars 2” update, and the Community Manager was, uh, not managing well. In one of the early threads that highlighted the fact that small clans are stuck facing the same large clans for five weeks in a row, Drew said:

to play devils advocate here (i know the sub won’t like this opinion) but shouldn’t the solution here lie with the clan themselves?

if you have an inactive clan maybe the clan needs a shake up and more active members?

just asking some hard questions that i would like some opinions on!

Do you even need context to understand how monumentally stupid this was to say?

Context makes it worse. The old Clan War design made it so that the people who did Collection Battles were the ones that needed to do attacks on War Day. The system was opt-in and every clan you were competing with had the same number of attacks. The new design just gives everyone in the clan four attacks per day and matches you against clans of varying population. This leads to situations where you can be in a 20-person clan with the highest-skilled players in the world who win every battle, and still lose every race for five weeks in a row to a 41-person clan filled with people who AFK lose every battle (losses still award some progress).

So while Drew tried to back-peddle with the “just playing Devil’s Advocate!” card, it’s hard to read the Clan Wars change as anything other than what it appears to be: a concerted effort to destroy small clans in favor of zerg clans. Drew all but confirming that with his “question” did not help anything.

Know what it reminded me of? Guild Leveling in WoW. Remember that? If not, here’s a post from six years ago when Blizzard finally removed the “feature” that was the death knell of my own tight-knit guild. Like this Clash Royale update, it essentially penalized smaller guilds and rewarded large ones, as if that is something that ever needs additional encouragement. “Everyone can earn rewards… eventually! Just choose between getting them immediately, or hanging with your friends while knowing everyone is paying an objective, tangible price for being together.”

Don’t worry though, Drew has the easy solution: get a better bigger clan!

To be entirely fair, Drew released a new Reddit post titled “Quick Update from the Dev Team” on the subject as I was typing this out. It’s not a roadmap, but he does highlight just about every complaint from the community that Supercell received in the past week, e.g. since the update, along with some potential fixes. The relevant section:

SMALL CLANS NOT BEING CONSIDERED IN MATCHMAKING

WHY IS IT BAD? (COMMUNITY FEEDBACK)

  • Small Clans can’t finish the race
  • Small Clans getting outmatched by bigger Clans
  • Small Clans matched against maxed Clans
  • Small Clans not getting rewards so can’t level
  • Not fair/equal footingvDamages close knit small Clans/family & friend Clans/IRL Clans

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • Introduce “small Clan Wars”?
  • Have smaller rewards but also smaller Fame thresholds
  • Matchmake based on Clan Size
  • Introduce new Clan creation stats (10/25/50 member clans with different rewards and leaderboards) and make separate system & leaderboard for them (like boom beach task forces)
  • Give extra War Deck resets for players (like extra attacks in Clan Wars 1)

Hmm… yep, that’s a pretty accurate assessment of how terrible the update has been.

None of this is particularly relevant to me anymore, as I left my clan and uninstalled Clash Royale already. Do I miss it? Eh… not really. As with most things in life, holes get filled in with random crap if you let it. I find myself on Reddit more, or lowering the bar even further for random trashy manga via Tachiyomi. It’s not as though I got any extra time in the day after I left WoW either.

Nevertheless, I do find it infinitely amusing (and annoying) about how Time is a Flat Circle when it comes to developers making the same sort of mistakes, over and over, forever. When the forums are in revolt, don’t play Devil’s Advocate. Maybe never play Devil’s Advocate at all. Don’t go out of your way to reward big zerg guilds, as they almost always have an advantage already. And when you inevitably lurch away from an immensely dumb design decision, take a look around the table and see if there wasn’t anyone who was warning you about how dumb the idea was at the time.

If there wasn’t someone there at the table, well, maybe you need to add a few more chairs, eh?

Clashed Out

I’m real done with Clash Royale.

My trajectory was set for a while now. I have been playing near-daily for over four years now, after all. While there have been a lot of new cards developed in that time, systemic issues made them functionally useless – when you are playing in the top leagues, you need max-level cards to succeed, and all new cards start at level 1. Still, Supercell managed to make a few intelligent changes along the way that kept things moving. For example, nowadays new cards are “boosted” to your King Level for a month, meaning I can actually use them straight away.

The problem is that Supercell hyped up the “Clan Wars 2” changes that were aimed at breathing new life into the clan part of clashing. And the delivery wasn’t just flat, it actively destroyed what existed and replaced it with some real shit.

Odds are none of you play Clash Royale or particularly care either way, but hang with me a second.

The old system had a two-day cadence. On Day 1, your clan had a rotating set of three “collection” battles. For the most part, these battles were way different from normal battles: you had options like Draft (build a deck), Classic Deck (get a random pre-built deck), Sudden Death, and so on. The important bit is that these game modes are quite fun AND don’t require max-level cards. Win or lose, your clan gets X amount of random cards that they will later use for the actual clan battle. On Day 2, your clan all has to use the same cards that were collected to build the best deck they can, and fight other people under similar limitations (but different cards). Your card levels matter here, and sometimes the card selection forced you into a deck archetype you aren’t comfortable with.

The new system? You need to build four decks using your own cards, and none of the cards can overlap. Then you participate in a “River Race” in which you… use those four decks playing 1v1 battles. Just like you were playing ladder, aside from being stuck with sub-par decks due to the no-overlap limitation. Each deck has a 12-24 hour cooldown. There is technically a wrinkle insofar as you can instead attack enemy ships directly, which results in a weird PvE-ish situation, and can cause said enemy clan to be forced to repair their ship instead of doing attacks and acquiring more Fame (which determines how fast your boat goes).

My clan completed the race within 2-3 days and netted 1st place. There doesn’t appear to be any particular reason to keep playing the River Race after that. Maybe you can still get some gold or something?

Regardless, this update took the one interesting part of the game – the unique game modes – and jettisoned them away. There still is a rotating game mode that can be fun, but it only changes a few times a week and there are some stinkers in the rotation. Everything else is basically just 1v1 ladder. Well, it’s ladder for the first game, and then you are stuck with whatever shit decks you can throw together with your remaining cards as you face three Hog Cycle decks in a row. I’m better off than most insofar as I have mostly max-level cards… but I hate ladder. It’s the same shit meta month after month, and all I’m doing is just grinding gold to upgrade cards I don’t actually use.

Enough.

The funny thing is… some people will say this is a success. After all, I have given Supercell $100 or so and I have gotten untold hours of entertainment over four years. From a mobile game! And yet I could not possibly be more burned out, worn down, disgusted. Well, I could, and have been, with other games like MMOs. But I haven’t played MMOs in a while precisely because of this level of burnout, and I don’t like experiencing it from a mobile game too.

That’s my own damn fault, of course. I could have been wasting (more of) my time on Reddit or whatever instead of still playing a game I was growing to dislike on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I suppose that is the price we pay for seeking games to worm into our daily routines: they leave holes when you eventually root them out.

Who Buys Games Anymore, part 72342

Carrion came out a few days ago, and I was intrigued after reading a review. Basically, it’s a “reverse horror” game where you control the writhing mass of teeth and tentacles as you eat your way out of a research facility. Probably not groundbreaking, but seems like a fun little game to pass the time. Was it worth $20 though? Maybe I’ll just add that to my Steam wishlist and call it a day.

Oh… or I can apparently play it right now on Xbox Game Pass.

I honestly can’t even. How does this business model work? I have the following games installed and ready to be played at a moment’s notice:

  • Halo: Master Chief Collection
  • Carrion
  • Gris
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps
  • Astroneer
  • Frostpunk
  • Forager
  • Neon Abyss

Those are mostly indie-esque games, but they could be Dishonored 2, FF15, the Gears series, etc.

There apparently was an Xbox or Microsoft or whatever event a week ago, where they demoed a few of the upcoming games. I hadn’t been paying attention at all, until I started hearing people talk about STALKER 2. I enjoyed all three games of that series, jank and all, so hearing that there was a, erm, “sequel” coming out was great news. Bottom text, though? “Coming to Xbox Game Pass on Day 1.”

Also? State of Decay 3. Xbox Game Pass on Day 1.

Also? Destiny 2 and all (?) its expansions coming to Game Pass in September.

I’m paying like $5/month for this shit. How? The “catch” of course is that games rotate in and out all the time. I own none of these games. There really isn’t any modding supp… oh wait, there is. What? 

The last time I used this title was a year ago, when I waffled on whether I wanted to buy Forager. Guess what’s on the Game Pass now? That’s right.

It’s kind of an open question on how much I would be willing to pay Game Pass, if it were not actually only $5. People still pay $15/month to play Battle for Azeroth for some reason, so that’s probably the floor. $30/month? I’m halfway to completing a $20 game that just came out, so maybe. Especially if it was a scenario in which I could sample/beat a lot of high-profile games all in a row. 

Microsoft is not sponsoring this blog, I swear. But at these prices and with these games, they don’t need to.  

Generic Elements Got to Go

Is there anything more boring than Fire/Ice/Lightning/Earth damage?

I had been playing Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, and it’s a pretty boilerplate Final Fantasy Tactics clone. Which is fine! But what I am getting immensely tired of is how all these RPGs just copy/paste generic Elemental damage into their games. It’s a tad egregious in Fell Seal because the Wizard class actually unlocks different elements as you move down the class tree, as if Thunder 1 did anything different than the Fire 1 you unlocked earlier. It’s literally the same damage. No frills, no multiplier, no nothing. Sure, you will be sad when you face lava zombies or whatever, but there is nothing else special about any of it.

Contrast that with Divinity: Original Sin 2. Fire spells can… light things on fire. Ignite oil slicks, explode poison clouds, inflict targets with a damage over time effect. Ice spells can slow/freeze enemies, create slippery ice on the ground, and so on. You will still have a bad day when your Pyro-centric character encounters lava zombies, but at least that’s a thematic choice that has consequences beyond the different colored numbers. It’s tough fighting indoors with a Pyro, for example.

The other frustrating aspect in copy/paste elements games is that there is a hidden “best choice.” In Fell Seal, all the different elemental weapons I have access to are the same price in the shop. But, on average, how many fire-themed enemies am I going to face versus something else? It’s not even as though I have a particular idea of what’s coming up. “Next stop is big desert theme area… let’s not pick Fire weapons.” That would be lame, but at least it’s something. Nope, just all blind choices.

It’s awful, it’s lazy, and it’s a “choice” that developers keep putting into games that actively reduces the meaningful options a player has. Go bold with your elements or go home.

Steam Link

What a rollercoaster ride of emotion.

Way back in the day, I purchased a physical Steam Link. This was a little black rectangle that allowed you to stream Steam from your PC to your TV. The purchase was made after I attended a few game nights with friends, and the hilarity that ensued from the Jackbox games. The setup over there was a laptop plugged into the TV; having no laptop myself, this seemed like a good workaround. I promptly never actually used it and Valve stopped making them.

Cue last week when I discovered that there’s a Steam Link App on the Google Play store. It pretty much does exactly what it sounds like: stream any Steam game from your PC to your phone. You may be wondering who in the world that sort of thing is for. Me. It’s for me. Or anyone stuck watching their progeny running around in quarantine while pretending to be working from home. Can’t use the physical Steam Link because that means the little guy can see a screen, and apparently kids are ruined forever if they witness more than 30 minutes of pixels a day.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time though, you know that I never do things the easy way.

The app is fine but you need a controller. Your options for native support are a Steam controller (discontinued), PS4/Xbone controllers (don’t have either console), or some nVidia garbage that is literally $200. When I looked at PS4/Xbone controllers, they started at $65 and went up from there. That’s… normal? Jesus. Actual prices during this pandemic are much higher, especially on Amazon.

So I decided to purchase just a generic bluetooth Android controller. The $35 kind that expands outward and turns your phone into a Switch-like device. While the controller “worked,” it was not recognized by Steam Link. So you have to download their China app – it’s always fun scrolling through items on Amazon and see “competitors” all say you need use the same app – which basically throws an overlay over your screen to make touch controls work with the controller. That got the job done… aside from the fact that you have to look at your touch controls all the time. Yuck.

So here I am now, returning the junk, and looking to see if spending $65 + $10 (for phone mount) is worth being able to play Fell Seal in the living room on my phone. Do I have other options?

I did look into Moonlight, which is another app that interfaces with your nVidia graphics card for streaming purposes. After spending an hour of the precious, “I could actually be playing videogames on my computer” time, I abandoned the effort when it didn’t work even after a driver update.

Currently, I am in a holding pattern. I do already have a PS3 controller (for the PS3 I never play) and an Xbox 360 controller I bought specifically for PC games that necessitate it. I have heard some people have success with simply pairing the Xbox controller to their PC (instead of the phone), and then basically bringing the controller and phone to the living room, assuming a decent bluetooth signal. Or maybe I will try getting one of those 8bitendo controllers that might be recognized by Steam Link. Or maybe I’ll just break down and spend an extra $30+ for a legit controller that will have no other use than however long this situation persists.

Or maybe I will just get by like I have up to this point, subsisting mainly on Reddit and playing with my child.

It’s a rough life, I know.

Endgame Loops

Fallout 76 recently received the biggest content update since launch: Wastelanders. The headlining feature? Actual NPCs. More quests, more weapons, more bugs, two new factions to grind reputation for, and so on and so forth.

If only I could get around to actually doing anything.

The problem is that I am psychologically trapped in an endgame loop. My character is loaded with a decent amount of legendary weapons and gear, but they aren’t that great. This means I have a high incentive to jump around the map and visit various other players’ camps, as they have the ability to sell their own unneeded legendaries. I’m also interested in switching to a Bloodied gear set.

Purchasing things requires Caps. Each day, vendors collectively have 1400 Caps to give you in exchange for selling things. While you can just kill mobs and sell the guns that drop, the most efficient way is to farm Plastic, Glass, and Rubber (x3) to craft helmets that sell for 28 Caps apiece (depending on Charisma). Fifty (50) helmets will net you the Caps cap, but the true number is closer to 25-30 given the Super Duper perk card, which can grant you bonus crafts.

As mentioned, Wastelanders also introduced two factions with reputation daily quests. Enough said.

So, that’s the loop. Load into world, scout the map for possibly well-stocked player vending machines. Farm material to craft helmets to sell for vendors to finance the purchase of player goods, and pay for the Fast Travel fees. Complete reputation dailies. Additionally, jump into lucrative world events when they pop nearby. Fight the Scorchbeast Queen (last boss) if she’s available, and end up using 1000+ rounds of ammo, which you either need to purchase (Caps) or craft (farm junk). 

If there’s some time left over in your play session (spoiler: there’s not), maybe tackle one or two of the actual, new main story quests.

More likely, you do some of your required chores and run out of time, repeat cycle for a few days, then actually have a solid amount of hours to play but you’re so bored with the game that you can’t bring yourself to do the non-boring stuff. Stop playing for a couple of days, get interested in doing stuff, and then get sucked right back into the loop because you’re level 100+ and the high-level mobs you encounter during regular story missions make you wish you had better weapons… etc, etc, etc. It’s a vicious psychological trap.

So I suppose I am playing an MMO these days, eh?