Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Women In Computer Science

This NPR story, When Women Stopped Coding, has been making the rounds in tech circles.  Its main thrust can be summed up with the following graph:

The given explanation by NPR is cultural. As they see it, computers started being marketed towards boys, driving the girls out. This is the pretty standard explanation whenever someone discusses the disparity between the sexes in computer science.

However, the data they use for the graph is essentially "percent of a percent". As you know, I loathe this type of data. So I went to see what the raw data from the National Science Foundation says:

In my view, the raw data tells a different, and perhaps more interesting, story.

Essentially, the story of computer science for both men and women is that there were two bubbles. One around the year 1980, and the other around the year 2000.[1] Which maps to what happened historically. Although women are always less represented, both curves follow somewhat similar shapes. The major difference though, is what happens around the peak of the bubble.

First, in the two or three years right before the peak, a lot more men jump into the program than women. More women enroll, but there are even more men who look to join in. Women seem a little less inclined to flock to the newly "hot" programs.

Second, and more importantly, the bust right after the peak absolutely devastates female participation in computer science. The first time, in the 1980s, female degrees drop to less than half of their high point, while male enrollment only falls by 30%. The second time is even more destructive for women. All the gains from the boom are wiped out, and female participation falls back to the steady steady before the boom. Male participation drops, but again, it doesn't drop all the way back down.

My interpretation of the data is that less women participate in computer science not because of cultural reasons, but because of economic ones. My hypothesis would be that more women avoid industries that are perceived to be "unstable", or have significant economic downturns, even if the industry is lucrative during boom times.

To be fair, that's a reasonably sensible position. I was in university when the last tech bubble burst, and it was a terrible time to hunt for work. I can only imagine what a high school student is thinking when they see the obliteration of large tech companies like Nortel on the news.

[1] You choose your program roughly four years before you get your degree.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Proactive vs Reactive Stories

This post contains entirely predictable spoilers for the Sith Warrior and Sith Inquisitor stories in The Old Republic.

In both the Sith Inquisitor and Sith Warrior stories in TOR, there comes a point where your master betrays you. You survive the betrayal and ultimately defeat your master. This seems like a very traditional part of being Sith.

Except that's not quite how the Sith tradition goes. The apprentice is the one who betrays her master, not the other way around.

In the class stories, the betrayal is flipped. This is because the game cannot force the player to take action, to betray her master first. If you're playing Light Side, you might choose to be loyal. If the master forces you to take an unpalatable action, you might do it anyways if you are Dark Side.

Well, obviously the game could just not give you a choice. At point X, you betray your master, and that's that. But most players would be greatly unhappy with that.

Can a story-based game push the player into taking proactive actions? Or is the player always reacting?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Republic Makeb Thoughts

It's almost time for a new expansion in The Old Republic, so I've finally finished the Makeb story line on a Republic character. I completed it on my Jedi Knight (Sentinel).

The new GSI buff stations that boost your gear level make Makeb much easier. I once accidentally logged out in the middle of a mission far away from a station, and when I logged back in I did not have the buff. The rest of the mission was much harder. I had to switch from a dps companion to a healing companion to finish it.

It's pretty clear that the Republic story line should be done first. It comes earlier, and a lot of the mysteries are cleared up when you go through the Empire story line. The Republic story is also a lot more straightforward than the Imperial story, being a regular rescue mission. Albeit a rescue mission for an entire planet.

The only hard fight was the final battle, and that was mainly because I kept getting one-shot right at the start of the fight. Once I figured out that I had to start the attack from a different location, it went smoothly. Of course, this probably more due to the GSI buff than any skill on my part.

I would rate the Republic story lower than the Imperial story. The Imperial story was a bit stronger, the NPCs (especially Katha Niar) were more interesting, and the conclusion was stronger. Plus Darth Marr is just awesome.

I think the villains for both stories were a bit weak. For one thing, they didn't really have any personal contact with your character until the very end.

Overall, Makeb was an "okay" story. Nothing really amazing, but nothing really wrong either.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

FFXIV Expansion Announced

FFXIV announced it's new expansion, Heavensward, today.

I really like how FFXIV embraces its killer mechanic, class changing on the same character, in its trailers. Apparently that warrior started as an archer in 1.0, then switched to warrior at the end of 1.0 and start of 2.0, and now is going for dragoon.

Dollar for dollar, I think FFXIV is the best value in the MMO market today (at least for themeparks). Every 3-4 months they drop a substantial content patch.

In fact, there's one patch (2.4) scheduled for the next few weeks, and maybe even another patch (2.5) before the expansion. 2.4 has a new raid instance, multiple new dungeons, and even a new class and job (Thief and Ninja). And most importantly, more Inspector Hildebrand!

Although, this patch did produce a lot of teasing for dragoons (melee dps lancer type class, the elite warriors of Ishgard in the lore, and with a reputation for dying in fights):
Why hasn't Ishgard won the war against the dragons?  
It's because all those dragoons spend 1000 years wiping. Don't worry guys, we'll kill the dragons for you. 
{Raise}{Do you need it?}

Friday, October 17, 2014

Abilities Per GCD in FFXIV

The discussion in the previous post brought to mind how FFXIV handles abilities and GCDs, which is slightly different from the norm.

GCDs in FFXIV are longer than other games, 2.5s instead of the standard 1-1.5 seconds. However, FFXIV expects every class to hit a button each GCD in their main rotation.

For classes with instant attacks, like melee classes, this usually means that the actual attack takes up a slice of that GCD, and gives the player a small amount of time to move their character. This is important, because melee characters need to move between the back and flank of the target during the rotation.

However, classes in FFXIV also have a set of off-GCD abilities. Because of the way animations work, you can effectively use one off-GCD ability per GCD.

So each GCD can have a max of two abilities. You're guaranteed to press at least one, the main rotation ability, but only some GCDs will have the second ability used.

You could model this with two GCDs (though I suppose they technically aren't "global" anymore). Some abilities trigger GCD 1, others trigger GCD 2. There are no empty GCDs in track 1, but there are some in track 2.

I think this method is pretty good. You get into the rhythm of your main rotation, each ability coming 2.5s after the last. But there's lots of empty space to throw in cooldowns and specials. As well, you can't trigger all your cooldowns at once, but have to space them out. The biggest downside is that classes can seem very slow at early levels, where you only have track 1 abilities.

On the whole though, I do like FFXIV's approach to GCDs. I especially like the longer GCDs. It slows the game down a bit, makes it a touch more forgiving. I have never been a fan of the way Haste speeds up the game by messing with the GCD.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Player-sexual" NPCs

At the New York Cantina Event, Bioware announced that the romance arcs in the upcoming Shadows of Revan expansion will be "player-sexual". Bioware defines this as: "if you are a player no matter your gender you can romance [the non-player character]."

I disapprove of this.

Oh, I don't care if the NPC is gay or straight. If Bioware wants to include a gay NPC, that's fine by me. If the romance is heterosexual, that's fine as well.

What I object to is defining the NPC's characteristics in terms of the player. An NPC's characterization should exist independently of the PC. Otherwise, the NPC feels less like an actual character, and more like a reflection of the PC, a mere object to fulfill the player's fantasy.

As a silly example, imagine if at the beginning of the game, you were asked "What is your favorite ice cream?"  Later, you meet the love interest in the game and she goes, "My favorite ice cream is [player's favorite]." That's rather odd and narcissistic. The character should have her own opinions on ice cream.

There's a really good example of this in the Imperial Agent story line. Watcher Two is one of the main supporting characters. She is can be romanced, but only if you are playing a human male. If you're playing an alien, you get shot down. It's part of her character that--as awesome as Watcher Two is--she's an Imperial to the core, and still bound by the prejudices of her culture.

It's okay for an NPC to change in reaction to the actions taken by the player. But the change should be a reaction, driven by the existing independent personality.

Of course, we know why Bioware is choosing this path. It cuts down on the number of characters and permutations required, while still allowing everyone a romance option. But I think it makes for weaker characterization, and leads to a lesser and overly player-centric story.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Abilities Per GCD

How often should a player be hitting a button? Should the player be pressing a button every global cooldown (GCD), or is it better that some GCDs are left empty?

I've been watching forums for a while now, and it seems that the trend is for people to demand that every GCD has to be filled. But that leads to a problem with certain archetypes.

Consider 10 GCDs. Let's say that each class is designed to deal 1000 damage after 10 GCDs. If every GCD is filled, then each button press contributes an average of 100 damage.

But say you want a class that does big hits. With an ability that does 400 damage.  That means the remaining 9 buttons only do 66 damage. So you're spending button presses on many weak abilities just so you can have that one big hitter.

There are ways around this of course. For example, the small ability could boost the large ability, so a portion of that 400 damage is really attributable to the small ability.

But overall, it seems easier to design a class that doesn't use every GCD, or has abilities that cost multiple GCDs (casters, usually). If you only used 5 abilities in that 10 GCD window, your heavy hitter could do 400 damage, and the other four still do 150 damage, which is more than a class that fills each GCD.

Then the problem with empty GCDs is that filling them with anything becomes a viable means of increasing damage. The usual route is to throw in AoE abilities, like Retribution paladins did with Consecration.

SWTOR provides all classes with a very weak filler ability that does not cost resources (or even grants resources), giving the player a button to press when they have nothing better to do. I'm still not sure it's better than just having the player wait for the extra GCD.

Ultimately though, is a class with empty GCDs a viable playstyle anymore?