Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Ready Player One

This post contains spoilers for Ready Player One.

Ready Player One is an interesting novel. It's been described as "Willy Wonka meets The Matrix". For a novel which focuses on our nerd/gaming subculture, I had a surprising number of philosophical issues with it.

It's set in a near future quasi-dystopia, where Earth is ruined. However a genius, Halliday, created a virtual reality system which everyone uses. When Halliday died, he leaves his fortune and control of the virtual world as a treasure hunt. Halliday was fixated on the 1980s, so all the clues revolve around popular United States culture from that time period.

It's essentially a Grail Quest story, as the hero, Wade Watts, faces successive trials in his quest for the treasure. The villain is the standard over-the-top evil corporation.

Part of my antipathy is that I don't have much respect for 1980s popular culture. It's decent enough, I suppose, but the idea of a generation committing it to memory is rather horrifying to me.

Ernest Cline is obviously liberal, and this has an odd habit of bleeding through in unexpected ways. For example, though most of the book is online using avatars, when the good guys meet up, it turns out they meet all the standard diversity checkmarks. Although it did amuse me that you could tell this written before 2015, as there are no transgender characters, the current cause du jour.  Especially as it would be really easy to fit one in, what with the difference between avatar and person.

The attitude towards government and corporations is weird. Corporations are so powerful that slavery or indentured servitude has come back. However, government is powerful enough that medical privacy laws are absolutely inviolate. Perhaps it was just the necessary positions needed for the plot, but I found it jarring.

The tech in the story is also odd. It often feels more like magic than anything else. It features avatar perma-death, which is unusual. Personally, I think Cline over-values cleverness and discounts brute force, which makes the tech feel a bit off to me. Simple brute force is very powerful when the computer is fast enough.

All this is pretty minor, and more amusing than anything else. The real problem, though, is that Cline misses the point of Grail Quest stories, and it ends up making Wade's quest feel arbitrary and hollow.

In a traditional Grail Quest, the hero's virtues are tested by the trials. Virtues like kindness, resolve, and courage. The quest in this book does not test any of those. Certainly Wade displays some of those characteristics during his adventure. Especially in the middle section, when he finally does something worthy of being a hero. But this feels kind of coincidental to the trials, and not required. If you look at Willy Wonka, for example, Charlie wins because he is a good kid, and resists the temptations of the trials.

Instead, the trials pretty much test Wade's knowledge of 1980s trivia and ability to play videogames. I was really hoping that the final trial would require Wade breaking with Halliday's obsessions, demonstrating independence of thought, the student surpassing the master. Instead it was yet another videogame.

Even the deus ex machina aren't quite right. There are two points in the story where Wade is saved or successful because of arbitrary objects in his possession. The first he just mentions that he bought it a few months ago when it comes time to use it, and the second he got because he decided to get the max score in a random video game he finds while searching for a clue. Now, Grail quests have deus ex machina objects, but they're sort of earned. For example, the hero will save a fox from a trap early in the story, but later when the hero is captured by bandits, the fox will reappear and chew through the ropes binding him. The hero's virtue leads to an unexpected payoff. But Wade demonstrates no virtue in getting these objects which save him.

Since the trials evolve entirely around trivia and videogame skill, it is very arbitrary as to how fast each side solves clues. There's no reason that the evil company takes so long to solve the last clue, while the heroes remember it from an old song almost instantly, other than the plot demands it.

Ultimately though, Ready Player One says that Wade Watts was worthy of being the Philosopher God-King of the virtual universe because he could recite Monty Python and the Holy Grail by heart, and play a perfect game of Pac-Man. You'll forgive me if I don't think that is enough.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Play Diary #8

World of Warcraft

Heroic Desolate Host and Heroic Mistress fell to us this week. It was kind of funny, because the raid leads were so sure that Heroic Mistress would be a pushover, but we kept wiping on her. It's just one of those fights that you can screw up in many small ways. But once you learn it and get used to it, it should be fairly straightforward.

I also finished my Demon Hunter's class mount. It was a pretty good quest line.

It's somewhat interesting that WoW made the same mistake that SWTOR did. By splitting up the content by class, there's lots to do for an alt, but for a single character the content looks sparse. If you compare 7.1 to 7.2, the 7.1 content (Suramar City insurrection) feels so much meatier, even though there's probably the same amount of content in Broken Isles, just spread among the different classes.

Final Fantasy XIV

I hit max level with my Red Mage. I've started doing roulettes and gearing up. So far the wait isn't too bad. All the groups have been wall-to-wall pulls. Red Mage AoE is a little boring, but whatever. Boss fights are still fun. It's kind of interesting to see all the mechanics I ignored when tanking.

I'm debating if I should start leveling another class, or just gear this one up fully. I doubt I'll do EX primals or Omega Savage, but I could go through Omega Normal. I've never actually finished the older 8-man raids, either.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

High Skill Gameplay Versus Low Skill Gameplay

Another day, another forum/reddit post about the state of max level gameplay in FFXIV, this time focusing on healers. My current theory on why FFXIV is experiencing unhappiness is because the "high skill gameplay" does not match "low skill gameplay".

To see what I mean, let's look at WoW. In WoW a mythic healer plays much like a normal healer, only better. They both cast the same spells, but the mythic healer gets in more casts and triages better. The mythic healer probably makes better use of cooldowns. The normal healer's goal is to slowly refine her gameplay to match the mythic healer.

In contrast, in FFXIV, high skill gameplay and low skill gameplay is very different. If you're in a low skill group, you want to have the tank in tank stance and focus on threat moves. The healer heals more than she damages.

In contrast, high skill gameplay often has the tank in DPS stance, and using DPS stats. The healers are often dealing damage as well, with one estimate of a healer casting 3 damage spells for every healing spell.

I think a game has trouble when you're in the middle, when you're not sure if you should be using the low skill or high skill tactics.  You go low skill when the rest of the group is high skill, and they get upset for you wasting their time. You go high skill when the rest of the group is low skill, and you end up wiping.

In contrast, in WoW, how you should play is fairly straightforward. You tank, heal or dps to the best of your abilities. You don't need to significantly adjust how you play.

Another game which has issues with the low skill/high skill dichotomy is Overwatch. Certain heroes are much stronger and weaker at different levels of the game. Widowmaker and other snipers become a lot better when people can aim. Meanwhile, Torb and Bastion are much more potent against low skill players who have trouble dealing with them. But the "meta" is defined by the high skill players, and that can cause issues in low skill gameplay.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

WoW Analyzer

I came across an excellent site for analyzing your performance: WoW Analyzer.

It's super easy to use and really slick.  You just link a Warcraft Logs parse, and it gives you a genuine breakdown of things you can improve upon.

For example, apparently I double Holy Shock a lot when Divine Purpose procs, causing me to waste Infusion of Light procs. I really should go Holy Shock - Flash of Light - Holy Shock. That was genuinely useful information, provided in an excellent format.

Suggestions for one of my Desolate Host wipes

Seriously, this site is an amazing example of web app design!

The only problem is that not all specs are supported. It's mainly healer specs right now. Hopefully it will be able to attract more contributors and support more specs.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Play Diary #7

Final Fantasy XIV

The latest seasonal event, Moonfire Faire, has started. It was short and sweet, and really just an excuse for everyone to congregate on a beach in swimwear.

I figured out how to hide my weapons so I could make a cosmetic gear set. I've been playing for years, and never realized the button next to Hide Hat hid your weapons! For some reason, I thought it was just sheath/unsheath weapons.

Otherwise, my Red Mage is up to level 67. The end is almost in sight. One interesting aspect of playing DPS is that commendations are treasured because they're rare. Especially if you manage to get multiple commendations in a single instance.

World of Warcraft

We got our second kill on H-Mistress, and then got our first kill on H-Sisters. Then we wiped a fair bit on H-Desolate Host. We don't have the transition to the last phase quite right yet.

Hopefully we will get it this week. However, I think the summer vacation bug will hit in August, and we'll be treading water until September. That's normal though, and hopefully we won't regress.


Still chugging along. The difficulty is beginning to ramp up. I've won all my matches up to this point, but I think my first loss will come soon. Apparently the game continues on even if you lose a match, just like a regular sports game. It will be interesting to see how that is handled.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

An Accidental Game of Competitive Lucioball

 Overwatch's latest event, the Summer Games, started today. I don't play Overwatch a lot, but I logged in today while eating dinner to open the free lootbox. (Sadly, I didn't get anything interesting.) After that, I started clicking around to see the new skins and other elements.

I accidentally clicked on Competitive Lucioball in the Arcade, and Overwatch managed to sign me for a match within seconds! Normally matchmaking takes up to a minute, so I'm not sure if Blizz has made major improvements with the matchmaker or if I was just lucky (unlucky?).

I hurriedly tried to figure out how to play Lucio, praying that I at least would not score any own goals. Luckily my teammates were able to carry me, and we actually won!

I'm kind of surprised Blizzard made a competitive version of Lucioball. It is kind of fun, and it is a level playing field. At the very least, no one can complain about your choice of character. Still, it's pretty unusual to get a competitive ladder for an event side-game which won't be around for very long.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Pyre: First Impressions

I've started Supergiant's latest game, Pyre. So far, it's really good.

It's sort of a text-based RPG combined with ritual battle system called the Rites. As you go through the story, you recruit different teammates and make simple choices that determines how you progress.

One interesting thing is that it's not fully voice-acted, but each character makes some sounds in a made-up language whenever they speak. It's a really neat way of adding a voice and tone, without having to actually record every line.

 The Rites system is a mix of sport and combat. It's a little bit like a fantasy variant of basketball. There are 3 players on a team, but only one player can be active at a time, though you can quickly switch from player to player. There is a an orb on the playfield, and the objective is to take the orb to the enemies pyre. Each player has an aura around them which they use for defense, or to cast at an enemy player. The player with the orb has no aura.

Characters have different characteristics. Some are slow, some are fast. Some have large auras, some score more points when they capture the orb.

The battlefield is also on the mental plane, so character's have stats like Hope. All in all, it's quite a neat system.

I'm not sure how far in I am, but the story is very good so far. All in all, I recommend Pyre.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Dungeon Meta in WoW versus FFXIV

In the comments to the previous post on FFXIV's dungeon meta, Shintar asks:
Sounds a lot like the way it's been in WoW for years (or at least it was still that way last time I played). Or do you think this is different?
First, I really don't remember exactly what WoW meta was when anymore, so I'm just going to compare FFXIV to the current meta.

In WoW, speed runs usually aim to skip trash, rather than engage. When you're skipping packs, you generally don't drag mobs along, because you don't want to accidentally engage. In FFXIV, trash is unskippable, for the most part.

WoW also has more trash than FFXIV. But the WoW trash generally has less health but hits harder. Also a WoW group has 3 dps instead of 2. Basically instead of a few large pulls, WoW tends toward many smaller pulls.

As well, packs in FFXIV have a lot of space between them, which I think makes the stop-and-start nature of gameplay more obvious. I think this lends itself to a good WoW group going through the dungeon at a steady pace. Not quite pulling multiple packs, but chaining from pack to pack quicker.

Another possibility is that WoW seems to be segregating the player base by ability this expansion. More geared and advanced players are funneled into more difficult content like Mythic+, while people generally only run the lower dungeons when they're undergeared, or just want an easy run.

FFXIV takes opposite tack, and often encourages better players to go back and play with newer players. A lot of the time this is good, but it does mean that "edge" tactics come to dominate, and start being applied in places they shouldn't be.

Now, that I think about it, this last possibility is probably the same as as older WoW expansions, when experienced players ran heroics for badges. That was a "go go go" meta as well. So ultimately, maybe encouraging veterans to play with new players is a bad idea.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Diablo 3 Seasonal Necromancer Complete

I finished Chapter IV of the Seasonal journey with my Necromancer in Diablo 3 today, and got the complete Rathma set for her. This is the point I stop in D3. I don't really care for farming perfect items and Greater Rifts. I really like Seasons because they give a directed path that you can follow, and several points where you can stop and still feel satisfied with what you've completed.

The Necromancer is an interesting class. It has three possible resources: essence, corpses, and health, which you can combine in different ways. For example, I use Devour to gain essence from corpses, and took a passive that generates health globes when corpses are used. I then use a Legendary that gives me Essence from consuming health globes. I got another Legendary which causes my golem to drop a corpse every second, further feeding that loop. Add a Siphon Blood rune which automatically pulls in all health globes when you attack. Finally, all that essence gets channeled into summoning Mage Skeletons.

Some ability runes also change some costs from Essence to a percentage of Health, which you then supplement with abilities to get health back. More than most characters, the Necromancer feels like it's designed for you to set up these Rube Goldberg-esque chains converting one resource into another, feeding your damage.

It was pretty enjoyable, and I think the D3 team did a good job in setting up several possible play styles.

I'm not sure what the future of Diablo 3 is like, but these packs which introduce a new class are an interesting way to go. For example, adding a Druid shape-shifting class would be great.

Friday, August 04, 2017

FFXIV's Unfortunate Dungeon Meta

I've complained a few times that I don't like the way the dungeon "meta" in FFXIV has turned out. Here's a good Reddit thread discussing the issue.

Basically, many players expect the tank to pull "wall-to-wall". Basically run through all the mobs from the start to a gate, where they are all then AoE'd down.  It's the most efficient method of clearing a dungeon, but it also requires the players in the group to be geared and on point. Essentially it's the most fragile method.

As an aside, I've noticed the North American players in almost all games will gravitate towards the most efficient and most fragile method, which require the highest level of personal performance. Even in WoW raids. Apparently, Japanese gamers don't do this, and tend towards more fool-proof strategies even if they take more work.

There's a lot of tanks and healers in that thread who are unhappy about the meta. Perhaps a backlash will develop, and it will become okay to pull single-packs at a time. But I doubt it. Doing that would add 5 to 10 minutes to the clear time, and that is clearly a deal-breaker to impatient players.

Personally, I've just given up on tanking, and am leveling a Red Mage damage dealer. This way it doesn't really matter to me. If the tank pulls "wall-to-wall", I'll use AoE. If she pulls a single pack at a time, then I'll use a regular rotation.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Richest Person in the World Inflection Point

This is a non-gaming post.

There are several libertarian-ish economists on the internet who argue against focusing on inequality. One common argument I've seen is that it is better to be a poor person (in America) in 2017, than to be the richest man a century or two ago. That poor people today have a better life than oil barons like J.D. Rockefeller. Thus rather than focus on relative inequality, we should pursue rising standards for everybody, even if it increases inequality.

As far as arguments go, it's not a bad one, especially if we focus on non-status, or more material elements. But that's not what I want to discuss today. Let's just take that argument as a given, and put ourselves in the same mindset as these economists.

So then we have the following sequence of logic:

  1. The richest person in 1870 had a worse standard of living than a poor person in 2017.
  2. The richest person in 2017 has a better standard of living than a poor person in 2017.
  3. Therefore, in some year between 1870 and 2017, the richest person in the world had a standard of living roughly equal to a poor person in 2017.
What year do you think that was? What's the point in time where you would choose to be the richest man in the world rather than a poor person in 2017? What is the missing invention or innovation which makes all the difference?

I think the best candidate is 1955, when Jonas Salk invents the polio vaccine. I think that removes the last major scourge of childhood illnesses (which strike rich and poor alike). After that point, I think the richest person in the world can approximate most innovations that a poor person in 2017 has access to, or can live without those innovations. As awesome as computer games are, I don't think they make up for millions of dollars.

What's your candidate for this inflection point?

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

FFXIV: Stormblood

Last month, FFXIV released its latest expansion, Stormblood. Early access and the first week or so had several problems, with blocked instance servers and massive queues that kept people from progressing. But eventually everything calmed down.

The main story in Stormblood is about the attempt to liberate Ala Mhigo and Doma from the Garlean Empire. It's quite a good story with lots of interesting turns and new characters. The sidequests are particularly good this time around, particularly in the Azim Steppes, filling out the new cultures introduced.

The main villain, Zenos, is a little boring. He's the bored, overpowered type who's just looking for a challenge. He serves his purpose, but the two sub-villains, Yotsuyu and Fordola, are much more interesting characters.

On the whole, I think the Heavensward story was slightly better, but I'm a fan of high fantasy stories about knights and dragons. Stormblood is a bit more political war fantasy with two human sides fighting each other.

Stormblood also introduced some simple new quest types, including one where you play a merchant at a stall helping customers. It was an interesting and unusual quest.

The dungeons are pretty standard fare, though quite well done. There's even one boss fight which doesn't have any combat at all.

Stormblood also added swimming and underwater areas. Unlike other implementations, underwater areas are entirely non-combat. Personally, I like this implementation, as I find fighting underwater to be a huge hassle in most games, especially as melee.

Finally, Stormblood adds the Red Mage and Samurai classes. They're both interesting. Red Mage wields a rapier. She alternates between Black magic and White magic, then jumps into melee, executes a combo, and flips back out. It's very stylish. Samurai, meanwhile, is pretty much what you'd expect. It's an understated melee swordsman, executing combos and building up to a very powerful strike.

General mechanics-wise, there was some streamlining, mostly in how cross-class skills are handled. Each role now has a pool of common skills available to all classes in that role. You no longer need to level up a second class to unlock your job.  If you're looking for significant changes to FFXIV's mechanics, you'll be disappointed.

All in all, Stormblood is a great expansion for FFXIV. It doesn't do anything radical, but focuses on FFXIV's main strength, the story. It also adds two interesting new classes and some polish to other areas of the game.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Repeatable Stateful Solo Content

One of the more interesting experiments Blizzard is conducting in Legion are pieces of repeatable stateful solo content. Repeatable stateful content is interesting because previous runs impact future runs. The best examples are boardgames like Risk Legacy.

So far, Blizzard has included two such pieces of content: the Withered Training scenario in Suramar, and the Deaths of Chromie scenario.

In the Withered Training scenario, you start off with some Withered elves and explore a dungeon. You come across chests, and have to "spend" some of your Withered to retrieve them. However, these chests unlock new types of Withered in your next run. Chests can only be retrieved once, and then don't appear in future runs. So fully completing the Withered Training requires several plays. Each run you may go to a different area and collect the chests there.

In Deaths of Chromie, the limiting factor is time. But after you complete areas, you unlock shortcuts that allow you to make your next run faster. There's also reputation, making the scenario as you do more and more of it.

I think these are really interesting pieces of content. Repeatable content is always good, but the stateful part makes it more interesting. The hard part, I think, would be coming up with a reason the content is repeatable and stateful. The Withered scenario is an artificial training scenario, and Chromie involves time travel. Time loops like Groundhog Day are classic repeatable content.

Perhaps a large dungeon with many floors might work. You could do things like unlock shortcuts, or perhaps killing a boss gnoll causes all the gnolls to flee and be replaced by spiders.

I wonder if you could do something with repeatable stateful group content. The problem here is reconciling state. If someone who's done the scenario 100 times groups with someone who's done it 5 times, who's history is used? You could do like raids, I suppose, and simply default to the group leader.

In any case, these scenarios have been a neat part of Legion, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Blizzard expands on them in the next expansion.