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The Internet is Forever… Wrong

For the time being, I continue to play and enjoy Stellaris. After spending some 40+ hours in my first sort of easy-mode tutorial, I decided to start a new Ironman game on medium difficulty with a custom-made race in a Large galaxy.

One thing I have learned since starting this journey though, is that Paradox actually updates the game a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I came in at the tail-end of a big overhaul of the game mechanics via 2.0. Some of the changes have been controversial, but since I never saw the original way the game was played, I don’t have any strong feelings about them.

Well, other than the fact that it’s near impossible to actually divine any currently-correct information about Stellaris on the internet.

Which Traditions are the best to take first? Are there any must-have Ascension perks? What’s the general idea with custom ships? How fast is too fast when it comes to expanding your empire? These are all questions that were solved and optimized at some point in the past, but have quickly turned into historical canards. For example, about half of the old forum posts I’ve combed through have referenced Food like it was a big deal. And it was… until Food was made an empire-wide resource, allowing you to dedicate entire worlds to mining or energy with ease while farming elsewhere.

Like most games these days, there is a Stellaris Wiki out there, but it suffers from the same issue as all game Wikis – 99% of it is simple, in-game information with zero analysis. Yeah, Option X gives me 5% more Y. But is extra Y even useful considering you can get Z instead? Sometimes it is flat out wrong. For example, there are some “Prophet’s Retreat” utopia-esque planets out there that are guarded by otherwise end-game Fallen Empires, who get really mad if you try to colonize the planet. But could I build a Habitat (e.g. colony space station) orbiting the Prophet’s Retreat without angering the Fallen Empire? According to the wiki:

[Habitats] cannot be built on habitable planets, asteroids, moons or planets with an anomaly.

I gambled with 10,000 minerals and several in-game years and it turns out you absolutely can build a habitat in orbit around the Prophet’s Retreat world without angering the Fallen Empire protecting it. So that wiki entry is either flat wrong, or incredibly misleading (perhaps the author meant anomalies would block all attempts?).

I am also beginning to understand that a lot of the Stellaris community is perfectly fine with inefficient/bad options for purely role-playing purposes. Which is fine, whatever, you do you. It’s one thing to pick an option because you want that to embody your virtual empire, and something else entirely when you pick an option that sounds good but is really just a newbie trap.

Stellaris is by no means the only game that suffers such (unintentional) misinformation. But the whole situation does give me pause. The internet is forever… but that also means it will accumulate more and more shit over time, in a perfectly entropic metaphor kind of way. Search Engine Optimization can force the cream of useful information to float to the top of Google results, but that is reliant on an engaged audience still producing currently-useful information. Over time, there will be less and less engagement, and the actual answers will be lost in a soup of nonproductive energy.

…well then, as a fan of Sisyphus, let’s get this rock rollin’: as of the date of this post, in Stellaris 2.0, you can create a habitat around a Fallen Empire-protected, habitable planet with no issues.

Good RNG, Bad RNG

I feel kinda bad for having sung the praises for Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl mode right as they released perhaps the worst iteration of it possible. This past week’s Brawl is “Encounter at the Crossroads,” and follows the (intentional?) pattern of every other week’s Brawl giving you a deck to play with. Instead of being filled with Webspinners, your deck is filled with completely random garbage cards, and up to three Legendaries. It ends up being 15 Neutral cards and 15 Class cards, for the record, and they are completely random – Mad Scientists in decks without Secrets, cards that trigger off of dragons without a single dragon in the deck, and so on.

My utter disgust with this week’s Brawl got me thinking: what’s the big deal? There is RNG everywhere, so why hate this kind? What’s so worse about this RNG as compared to the Webspinner Brawl or the spell one the week before?

I think my biggest problem is that this was Blind, Lingering RNG. Last week, you didn’t know what kind of creature you would summon… other than that it’d be an X mana cost one, it would come before the spell resolved, and you knew what was in the rest of your deck. You knew how much removal you were packing, you knew what synergies existed, you kinda knew what to expect from your opponent.

With a Crossroads deck, you know nothing Jon Snow. You didn’t even know whether to mulligan your shitty opening hand; if you threw anything back, chances are you’d get something even worse.

Spoiler alert: I lost this game.

Spoiler alert: I lost this game.

One of the benefits to RNG is the very thing that people often complain about: RNG can determine games. Yes, there will be games that you lose to coin flips. Yes, it feels awful when you’re winning to suddenly fall behind through no fault of your own.

At the same time… randomness can make things interesting. Randomness can challenge you, present you with scenarios you’ve never encountered before, and allow you to overcome defeat through judicious use of probability. Do you play around that 10% chance that the Piloted Shredder pops out something that destroys your strategy, or do you play it safe? That sort of thing is (or can be) an interesting decision, and different people have different thresholds of comfort when it comes to percentages.

I mean, imagine the opposite case with no RNG. Losing from your opening hand. Or at least your only hope being that your opponent has as bad a hand as you do. It feels bad, man.

This is what this Brawl has felt like all weekend long – inevitable lingering losses. I played in the neighborhood of twenty games to complete my dailies, and I was never blessed with those same insane, on-curve openings that I would routinely experience the sharp end of. In most of the games, I would have been better off conceding in the first two turns. Could you imagine someone feeling the same in the Spell-Minion or Webspinner Brawl? Don’t get me wrong, you could get way screwed out of nowhere in those Brawls. But that’s the thing: it’s immediate. It’s more fun, even on the receiving end. At least in comparison to being behind, with nothing good to play this turn, and knowing you have a 99% chance of drawing into even more garbage the next turn.

There’s RNG and then there’s RNG. This is the latter, it sucks, and I hope Blizzard never does it again.

There Can Be Only One

With an odd sense of inevitability, I beat Don’t Starve’s Adventure Mode Sunday night.

This is what they call "overkill."

This is what they call “overkill.”

In one sense, my victory was all but assured the moment I zoned into the first world as WX-78. As I may have mentioned, each of the various alternate characters have different pros and cons. The default Wilson has no negative qualities, and has the benefit of growing a beard; if left unshaven, the beard acts as insulation against the cold, while shaved beard hair can be used to craft a Meat Effigy (placeable respawn structure). Wickerbottom has higher penalties for eating spoiled food and can’t sleep, in exchange for the highest Sanity pool, the ability to craft spell books, and can use a lower-level research structure to build higher-tier items. Meanwhile, WX-78 has the lowest starting stats and takes damage in the rain, but can eat spoiled food with no penalty and can eat gears to regain health/hunger/sanity while also increasing said stats by 20 each (to a certain maximum).

With the exception A Cold Reception – where it rains constantly – victory was more or less assured with WX-78 due to the gear bonus alone. While the locations of the Things you are hunting are random, the set pieces in which they are located are all the same. Thus, you know there will always be at least four mechanical enemies at the “exit” to a given world and they will drop two gears each. Gears stack up to 40 in a single inventory slot, do no spoil, and as mentioned earlier they provide a huge boost to all three meters.

In fact, it turns out that I wasted a significant amount of time cooking food throughout most of the worlds given that one gear snack would have been enough to sustain me for an entire day – I waltzed into the final world with 40 gears and left 4 days later. Compare that to my best Wilson run, where I was constantly in dire need of sustenance in a world where plants don’t grow and rabbits need to be dug out of the ground. Indeed, my death in that last level was due to stopping to dig up mushrooms to boost my health/sanity, which was completely unnecessary with WX-78’s gears.

Do I feel satisfied? Well… more or less. I definitely feel like a switch has been flipped off in my mind, allowing me to move on (for real this time). The difference in implicit difficulty sort of made it feel like I had godmode on, although I suppose I should not discount the fact that I had 50+ hours of experience and knew what to expect going in. Another part of it though? I think that I expected to have beaten it that last time with Wilson. The roguelike aspect of having to redo the whole thing generated more hours /played, but not necessarily more enjoyment.

Just shy of 60 hours.

Just shy of 60 hours.

In any case, there is actually more to do. The most recent update fleshed out the Cave system even more, which acts as its own mini-Adventure mode insofar as dying in a cave simply respawns you outside the entrance. I could also seek to, you know, actually survive in Survival Mode – the farthest I got was about day 40. Or… I could move on.

I’m going to try the latter and see if it sticks this time.

The 4th Faction

One of the perennial hot topics on the PlanetSide 2 Reddit forums are concerns over the “4th Faction” and how to handle the issues that arise from it. So, let’s go ahead and talk about this issue.

Broadly defined, players of the 4th Faction in PlanetSide 2 are the people who have no particular loyalty to any one of the game’s three factions, and instead choose whichever side has the highest chance of winning. Some definitions of the 4th Faction term specifically reference the players who switch to an alt character in the final moments of an Alert, in order to get a higher Cert award. Other definitions include “spy” characters who will switch factions mid-battle to sabotage the efforts of their opponents via friendly fire. Still other definitions are so broad to encompass anyone who has an alt of another faction, even if that alt is on another server entirely.

So, already you can see that there is a serious problem with defining what a 4th Factioneer consists of, let alone how to tackle the issue (assuming one exists). And yet, by far, the most popular response is somewhat rudimentary: nuke it from orbit logging onto one Faction automatically locks your other Faction characters for 12 (or more) hours.

Apparently this was how the situation was handled in the original PlanetSide, and some feel it would work in this game too. Others are a bit more charitable and suggest the faction-lock should only trigger if you leave the warp gate. After all, SOE gives free daily Certs to each character you log onto, so a log-on trigger would prevent you from claiming these Certs. Others think a 3 minute timer would be sufficient. Still others believe you shouldn’t be able to roll different-faction alts altogether, or at least on the same server. Nevermind if SOE merged your server, or you are Australian and only have a single server on the correct side of the Pacific Ocean.

If I have not been overt enough with my tone, allow me to be explicit: the 4th Faction is a problem that cannot be solved. It can be mitigated somewhat with better incentives, but all of the proposals I have seen (including faction-locking) thus far have been terrible design.

Let us all face reality here: nobody likes to lose. But the more salient point is that you cannot force someone to stick around to lose. At any moment a player can simply log off, hit Alt-F4, or unplug his/her computer from the wall. While games like EVE/Darfall can have your character remain attackable for X amount of time even after a ragequit, the point is that that player has already given up. Although I have not played League of Legends, I have heard about their anti-quitting penalties. Which, again, doesn’t really solve the problem of “motivating” a player to not have (mentally) conceded an obvious loss.

Basically all games.

#FundamentalTruth

Many of the 4th Faction sob stories revolve around the curious population effect once an Alert starts winding down. Teams will be an even 33%/33%/33% for the first 1.5 hours, but in the final act the numbers start reading 50%/30%/20% or similar. “Those traitors are switching!” the forum warriors cry. Except… that’s not how it works. Each faction has a population cap per continent. You cannot go from, say, a 333 person split to 500/300/200, because 333 is the limit for your faction. While it is certainly possible for someone to switch to their winning-faction alt in the final moments, it’s only possible because there were empty seats.

And even if it were impossible to switch (via faction-locking), what difference does it make? The entire premise of the argument is that the person in question is on the losing side. The point at which they decided to switch characters is the point at which they gave up. They still would have given up if they could not switch. Switching characters at that point is indistinguishable from them simply logging off altogether or simply being AFK at the Warp Gate.

The fantasy that being “forced” to stay on your character will create the opportunity for a come-from-behind victory is exactly that: a fantasy. It might happen when the stars align and the angels sing, but it will never be due to random players banding together, but rather the concerted effort of Outfits – players who would not be switching to their alts anyway.

What are some solutions? Like I said before, we cannot “solve” the issue, but we can mitigate it. Here is an easy one: stop making Alerts grant 30, 40, 50 Certs for simply being online at the 00:01 second mark. Sometimes I will be online at 11pm and a 2-hour Alert will pop up, which means I can only really play part of it. While the Alert will grant a blanket 20% XP increase for everyone for the duration, why is it that I can play 99% of it and then lose the bonus Certs by having to go to sleep? The current design is dumb at both ends of the spectrum, and actually encourages people to switch characters (since they get the full reward whether they played 2 hours or 2 seconds).

Perhaps it would be too resource-intensive to track individual participation in an Alert. In which case, here is another solution: a steady trickle of rewards. Instead of 20% bonus XP throughout and 10,000 XP at the very end, how about 20% bonus XP and +50 XP every 5 minutes you are logged on? Or, hell, to reward the more “loyal” players, make the reward ramp up the longer you stay logged onto that character during the Alert. Something like +25 XP every 5 minutes, which doubles every half hour – if you stay for the entire Alert, towards the end you would be getting +200 XP every 5 minutes plus whatever you earn on the field. Change the final reward to something like 50% more XP/Resource generation for the next X hours, to incentivize winning (if necessary).

Will this solve server/faction imbalances? Sadly, no. If you are not VS on Matterson, you are probably getting farmed; other servers have similar scenarios with different faction names. You cannot force someone to pick the losing team. Not only that, but anyone who complains about the imbalance already implicitly gives voice to desire that sustains it. “It sucks being TR on Matterson.” Yes, I’m sure it does. Just like it sucks being outnumbered anywhere else. Stick with the miserable situation long enough, and it would be perfectly rational to quit or transfer… which is exactly what 4th Factioneers (proactively) do.

Am I 4th Factioning? By some definitions, yes. I created a character of each faction, on three different servers that I researched ahead of time to be the home of large Outfits. After server merges, my NC alt was moved to Matterson (home of my VS main). I basically stick with VS until I get the desire to use the Phoenix (camera-guided rocket launcher) or the desire to ruin people’s days with the Striker (OP and annoying lock-on rocket launcher). Indeed, for the longest time I started to think I would just give up on VS altogether, considering that the Lasher/Lancer was not nearly fun enough to justify the faction. Then, well, the ZOE happened. ¹

But here’s the thing. I find it completely ridiculous to buy into the whole “faction pride” angle when you are presented with fairly unique, faction-specific experiences. You are, in a sense, voluntarily avoiding the other two-thirds of the game. Granted, the empire-specifics weapons other than the rocket launchers are really just minor variations, so maybe not an entire two-thirds. My point still stands: the loyalty is largely arbitrary self-flagellation.

While even-fights and faction parity is a perfectly understandable, legitimate desire, so is the desire to not experience demoralizing losses or be stuck on dead-end servers/factions. And even in a perfectly balanced scenario, you are still going to lose two out of three games. Ergo, the best thing we can do is give consolation prizes to the losing side and hope there are a perfectly symmetrical amount of stubborn underdog-fans for, well, ever.

¹ And it’s getting nerfed, of course.