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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="656"]The Vanishing of Ethan Carter The Vanishing of Ethan Carter[/caption]

Over the holiday I have been watching Gamespot top-5 picks from their various editors. I enjoy knowing what they enjoyed, and I also want to see if my picks match their picks. In a few cases they do, but it is more likely I'll hear about great games of which I've never heard. This is how I found out about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. This indie game comes out of Poland from a studio named The Astronauts (click the logo above for the official website.) Wow, did they hit it out of the park!

The first thing I want to rave about are the graphics. They are stunningly beautiful. Awesome graphics are my gamer crack, and I will put up with so-so games providing they please the eye. Fortunately The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is far from so-so. It is absolutely enthralling. But right now I want to rave about the graphics. Down below is a gameplay video of my first session last week. But because of video compression, it really doesn't showcase the stunning beauty of the world The Astronauts have created. That's what screen caps are for, and here is my gallery straight off my system.

[gallery columns="5" size="medium" ids="4237,4238,4229,4233,4230,4231,4235,4236,4234,4232"]

Now, that's plenty enough for me to be mesmerized by this game, but it probably won't do for most gamers. They expect a game to deliver... well, a game. If gamers wanted gorgeous graphics they'd hang out on Deviant Art, not buy computer games. I almost wrote expensive computer games, but I picked up this title for under $12 on Steam last week. Score! But back to delivering a game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter definitely delivers on that point. Here's what The Astronauts say are the game features.

  • Explore and interact with the beautiful yet ominous world of Red Creek Valley, which was created with the use of revolutionary photogrammetry technology that allows for nearly photorealistic environments.

  • Communicate with the dead and see how they died in order to gather clues that help you piece together the truth behind Ethan’s disappearance — and the fate of his family.

  • Experience, in non-linear fashion, a story that combines the pleasures of pulp, private eye, and horror fiction, all of it inspired by writers such as Raymond Chandler, Algernon Blackwood, Stefan Grabinski, and H. P. Lovecraft.

  • Conduct the investigation on your own terms and at your own pace. The game contains no combat of any kind, and a few scary bits in the game are less about terror and more about clammy unease.

I can assure you all of the above is true. Give this game play video a view if you want to see for yourself. It's about a dozen minutes long, and you don't have to watch the whole thing to get the feel of the game. However, there is a bit of a spoiler at the very end that will help you get started as there is NO manual for this game. As it says at the start, they don't hold your hand.


Now for a bit of administrative narrative. I am going on vacation. I won't be back until the middle of January. There will probably be a couple of posts from where I am going, but they will not be about gaming. They will be of a more personal nature, pun intended. ;) You'll find out where I'm going when I post. Until then, enjoy The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, or which ever game is currently tickling your fancy.

Fly Careful

Sunday, December 28, 2014

So, You Hate Peter Jackson's The Hobbit

I just got back from watching The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies. Guess what. It didn't suck. In fact, as far as the acting goes, it was probably the best of the three Hobbit films. I suppose it might take three movies for some actors to catch their stride. That's not to say they all needed to get with it. Martin Freemen did an excellent job from beginning to end. As did Ian McKellan. And I thoroughly enjoyed Luke Evans as Bard. But I don't want to actually write too much about the movie other than you should see it. You won't regret spending the money on a good afternoon's entertainment as I just did.

...Unless you are a self-appointed Tolkien purest. You know, one of those people who believe everything John Ronald Reuel Tolkien ever wrote is canon and must be literally and faithfully copied and handed down from generation to generation as some sort of holy fantasy tome. As if J.R.R. Tolkien is so much better than other artists (writers, whatever,) that no other human being on Earth could EVER match what the father of high fantasy wrote. If you are one of those people, please do not waste your time or your money on Peter Jackson's movies. They will not satisfy you. No other high fantasy will. They just can't compare to the Middle Earth epic, blessed by the man himself - as if he was some ring wielding pontiff from whom all blessings flow - which you hold so near and dear to your heart. And as J.R.R. Tolkien is dead, you'll just have to be satisfied with beating your drum, pointing at his books and telling all who'll listen how great he was. (Yes, I'm making fun of the purists. Get over it.)

That done, I just want to know two things. And both of these come directly from things purists I've spoken with personally have said.

First, to those outraged that Peter Jackson took a single book and made it into three movies. Who the hell gave you the right to have such outrage? I'd ask, "who died and gave you the right," but we already know who died, and as far as I know he only gave two groups of people the rights: his heirs, and his publisher. And both sanctioned Peter Jackson's re-imagining of The Hobbit. No, this is not The Hobbit you read as a child and loved for all it's black and white, good versus evil, pre-World War II politics inspired 1 two-dimensional plot lines.  I'm also not saying the movie trilogy is better than that. What I am saying is it is a different interpretation, but not an invalid one. Certainly those who own the rights to the estate didn't feel it was an invalid vision of where J.R.R. Tolkien might have taken the story had he been alive to guide it. The Hobbit was published as a children's book. Unless you're going to make a cartoon movie replete with singing goblins (Rankin and Bass anyone?) you need to grow the story up.

The second thing I'd like to know, and this goes to those who've not even seen one of the movies but insist on running them down nonetheless, is what the hell do you know about it? A bunch of stuff that other Tolkien purists have said about the movies? Did they bother to go see it? Or is it simply that J.R.R. Tolkien in the original English is so sacred it's blasphemy to think any other interpretation should be allowed. I mean really, espousing an opinion on a movie you haven't even bothered to watch is like believing the Earth is only 6000 years old because that's what you're preacher tells you. Blindly following convictions is the realm of religion. If you really want to have this Tolkien versus Jackson discussion with me, at least watch the bloody movies you're going to run down. That's all I ask. Otherwise, kindly keep your opinion to yourself. You don't know what you're talking about.

Here's the unvarnished truth. The movie is enjoyable. At times it's even fun. It won't win any Oscars, but it will make lots of money. That's okay by me. Actors have to eat too. Now it's time for more unvarnished truth. The book The Hobbit is enjoyable. At times it's even fun. But The Hobbit is not a great book. Today it wouldn't win any prizes except perhaps as children's literature. Tolkien did not become the father of High Fantasy until 17 years after The Hobbit was published. That's when the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out. That's what made Tolkien a legend.

Peter Jackson treated those books properly. I'm willing to give him some leeway to reforge The Hobbit into a story that fits into the Lore of that trilogy far better than the book itself ever has. I've read The Hobbit many times, and I always wished for a better link to the Fellowship and all that transpired later. A link that was more than a Hobbit finding a magic ring in a cave by mostly accident. That was always pretty simplistic to me. I'm an adult now. I want a better tale, one that ties in with what's happening at the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth. Peter Jackson certainly does that. His vision of The Hobbit firmly makes that tale the beginning of the end of the third age of Middle Earth. As The Hobbit should be.



  1. What, you didn't know parts of The Hobbit were inspired by world politics in the mid 1930's? That Sauron was Hitler and Saruman was Mussolini? Really? Now Tolkien did say The Hobbit was, "not about anything but itself. (Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political.)" I believe him. But you don't really think he came up with all those characters out of thin air do you? All writers of fantasy have to pull from their real lives and experiences, because fantasy ISN'T REAL. I know, real shocker there. But I've read Tolkien's biography, actually two. You can't really understand the books until you understand the writer. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve Wrapup - Raptr Top 20 and Elite: Dangerous

It's Christmas Eve, and I just had a couple of things I wanted to push out before the festivities consume my attention.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="640"]Most Played PC Games November 2014 Most Played PC Games November 2014[/caption]

First out the gate, the Raptr's Most Played PC Games November 2014 Top 20. There are no real surprises here. However, I will point out Dragon Age: Inquisition (DA:I) is the highest debuting release since The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) in April. TESO debuted at position #5 in the April but was off the Top 20 list by August. I've read a lot more positive about DA:I than TESO, so I see it hanging out on the Top 20 list for at least as long as TESO if not longer. It really depends on how fast die-hard DA:I players can complete the game, and how soon DLC content for DA:I releases. If the DLC content is quickly released and as kick ass as the game itself, perhaps DA:I will become a regular contender for a spot on this list... like the other new addition this month - Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.

But really, the only two games on this list that are really, really doing well are League of Legends (LoL) and Word of Warcraft (WoW.) Even though LoL lost considerable play time, it still came out on top. The two games together account for one out of every four hours played by Raptr members. That's impressive.

One thing I find personally troubling is there are no games I currently play on this list. I don't know if that makes me avant-garde or simply out of touch. Perhaps it's neither. I don't really do first person shooters. I had enough of that RL thank you very much. I also have decided MOBAs are just too much rinse, lather, repeat to keep me interested long-term. I tried LoL. I generally enjoyed it, but how many times can you play a specific champion before it bores you to tears? I mean really, it's the same thing over, and over, and over. I don't get enough thrill out of pwning other players to be that entertained by it short or long-term. I tried switching between different champions for a change of pace, but that can really piss off those with whom you play. Teammates want someone they can count on, not a champion noob who can't get them to the victory screen. I don't blame them. If I had larger aspirations for my game play in LoL than just to have fun it might be different. But that makes it a job, not a hobby. I've got one of those already.


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The other thing I wanted to talk about is Elite: Dangerous (E:D.) I've got over 30 hours invested into the game and am still enjoying it immensely. I sorted out my controller issues over the weekend. It seems I had a corrupt custom file. I found some guidance on the Elite forums and deleted the appropriate files. They are automatically recreated and your custom settings are not lost. The new file functions much better. I've only one odd behavior left concerning the POV1 switch. I have to press ESC and then resume the game after undocking in order to reset my power levels. Until I press ESC, it seems POV1 is still locked in UI mode. It's odd, but I can live with it.

About all I've done in Elite: Dangerous over the 30 hours I've invested is trade. I've only been successfully interdicted once, and I got away with only 25% damage and no cargo lost. That was after I moved from my Sidewinder to a Hauler. I've upgraded the Hauler several times so it now handles 16 tons of cargo a run and has better power and thrusters. Those upgrades allowed me to just flat outrun the pirate who interdicted me. I also traded my basic scanner for a docking computer. Docking in E:D is not nearly as difficult as the Original Elite, but it can still be a time-consuming process. Whoever numbered the docking pads inside stations is a sadist. There seems to be no rhyme or reason in the number assignments, and I always find myself having to stop and look for the damn pad. I've even misidentified the pad and attempted landings. Once, shortly after becoming a pilot, I received a 4000 credit fine from the idiot docking bureaucrats for blocking the pad... damn mouth-breathers. With a docking computer, the ship just glides right in to the correct pad every time. It's definitely a credit maximizer if you're a trader.

And the last thing I'd like to say is...

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Nerdy Christmas by Deviantart artist knight0323 Nerdy Christmas by Deviantart artist knight0323[/caption]


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="313"]Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation[/caption]

Anyone who knows me even a little will probably say science is one of my passions. However, describing my belief in science as a passion misses the entire point, as if it's some silly hobby I dabble in on weekends. It's not a hobby. It's a way of looking at the world universe and making sense of what's seen and experienced every day by people like you and me. Science is a methodology for understanding what we observe with our own senses, and doing so in a way that allows others to repeat the steps required to reach that understanding. It isn't always easy, and sometimes it isn't 100% correct - at first, but it is totally satisfying to those who take the time to understand the process.

That's where people like Bill Nye come in. It has always been the case where common understanding and acceptance of scientifically proven facts  lags behind the discovery of those facts. Such is the case with the Theory of Evolution, where 150 years later there are still large sections of humanity who don't understand it so don't accept it. Bill Nye, and others, span that acceptance gap and nudge humanity towards understanding. It's important for these people to not only have a voice, but to make their case publicly and often. A world without people like Bill Nye in it is a world mired in the Dark Age.

That's why this book exists. It doesn't exist to entertain, though Bill Nye's performance on the audio book I listened too was very entertaining at times, though he could have dispensed with the boss jokes after the third one if not sooner. This book does not exist to convert the faithful. As much as it doesn't pain me to say this, this book isn't about the faithful, at least not directly. The faithful are simply the convenient and willing counterpoint to what Bill Nye has to say. It's a position the faithful willingly placed themselves in; the debate with creationist Ken Hamm being but one example, but a prominent one used many times in this book. Thus it should come as no surprise faith based beliefs figure prominently in this text, but not in a way the faithful will appreciate.

Fact is, they won't read this book. That's okay. This book isn't meant for them. It's meant for their children. Bill Nye makes no bones about that. He as much says so several times. His concern is simple. Every child deserves an equal opportunity when it comes to having a prosperous future, but not understanding the underpinnings of modern medicine places many children at a disadvantage. You can't become a doctor in the United States without passing medical school. You can't pass medical school without understanding and applying the principles of evolution. Because bacteria. Because viruses. Because cancer.

The fact is, all of our best drugs are developed through a deep understanding of evolutionary processes. We manipulate evolution all the time to get the results we want: better antibiotics, better vaccines, drought resistant corn, treatments for Multiple Sclerosis, potential cures for cancer, the list is ginormous. To design a custom-made poison for any living creature, bacteria and viruses included, or to develop treatments for genetic or bio-chemical ailments, or to even make better food, demands a keen understanding of why those things exist as they are and what drives their continued existence - oft-times to our detriment. This understanding is the Theory of Evolution.

Wait, wait - but there's more. Bill Nye goes to great lengths to refute every argument made against evolution as the undeniable fact of how life on this planet, and probably everywhere else, arose and continues to exist. He does not refute these arguments simply by saying they are wrong. He lays out the evidence proving the wrongness of those arguments. Evidence any person can see for themselves with just a little curiosity and willingness to learn. Take geology and the fossil record for instance. Where do you find Trilobite fossils? No, don't Google it silly. Think! What do you know about these ancient creatures that no longer exist? They were sea creatures is the first thing that pops up in my brain. So right there you can write off formations of igneous rocks. And guess what, there are no Trilobite fossils found in the Cascade mountain range of Oregon where I live. That may seem like a simple example, but it is nonetheless strong evidence of an undeniable fact based on an understanding of evolution. Trilobites were sea creatures and therefore you'll only find their remains in sedimentary ocean deposits. Evolution informs our insight. That's how academicians describe that thought process, and Bill Nye expounds upon that concept beautifully in this book.

That right there is the biggest strength of this book. Like my old favorite television series Connections with James Burke, Bill Nye showcases the undeniable evidence for evolution by connecting it through the last 150 years to the discoveries and sciences that owe their existence to the understanding of evolution. And he doesn't stop there. There were mysteries in the past, like how whales got to be sea creatures, that our understanding of evolution solved. There's a word for that creature now, Ambulocetus. It's transitional fossil shows how a land creature can adapt to life in a shallow sea, ultimately leading to what we see as whales today. There's a chain of discoveries and scientific breakthroughs that lead to understanding how whales came to exist, and Bill Nye expertly details that chain of evidence.

Perhaps the biggest problem most people have with the Theory of Evolution is this concept of speciation. This is why creationists made up the concept of microevolution and macroevolution. It's impossible to deny what they fallaciously call microevolution because MRSA. It's killing people every day. But there is no micro or macro, there is only evolution. You don't get to pick and choose. That is not how science works and Bill Nye is very clear on that point. For those unfamiliar with the term speciation, here is what Wikipedia tells us,

Speciation is the evolutionary process by which new biological species arise. The biologist Orator F. Cook was the first to coin the term 'speciation' for the splitting of lineages or "cladogenesis," as opposed to "anagenesis" or "phyletic evolution" occurring within lineages.

In every day terms, it's how ancient hominids eventually became Homo Sapiens - us. That's what really gets under the skin of those who want to believe the human species is more special than all the other species on the planet. No one wants to be a monkey's uncle is how the old joke goes. That's not only wrong in the sense monkeys aren't hominids, but also wrong in the fact speciation does happen, is happening, has happened in the last 60 years fully documented and confirmed. The example Bill Nye cites is the London underground mosquito, Culex pipiens f. molestus.  There are other examples of speciation documented since Darwin's time, but that particular discovery has a lot of genetic evidence backing it up - genetic evidence that has been reviewed many times over and found to be generally correct except for a few details yet to be ironed out as mankind's understanding of genomics expands. Oh yeah, genomics, a science that wouldn't even exist if not for a thorough understanding of the Theory of Evolution.

He also shows off the scientific chutzpah of evolution with the example of TiktaalikTiktaalik is a transitional fossil showing how fish adapted to life on land to become amphibians. But that is not the really awesome part of this story. The really awesome part is how the fossils of Tiktaalik were discovered. The fossils of Tiktaalik were discovered in northern Canada by Edward B. Daeschler of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Neil H. Shubin from the University of Chicago, and Harvard University Professor Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. They were able to find them because evolution informed their search. See how that works? If you are looking for a transitional form for fish into amphibian, where would be the most likely place that would occur? Our observations of real world ecosystems say swamp. So where do you find a preserved 400 million year old swamp. It turns out certain geological formations in northern Canada meet all the criteria of where you'd expect such a creature to have lived. These paleontologists went to northern Canada and found exactly the fossil for which they were looking. In other words, they predicted the fossil would exist in sedimentary rocks meeting specific criteria and they were right.

That folks is called scientific prediction, and it is the coup de grâce of the scientific method. See, it isn't enough to just observe and explain. Science must also predict, and that prediction must be accurate. If your theory cannot predict, then it is not science - or at least not good science. That is how we know when a theory is true. You cannot make an accurate prediction based on a lie. If you try the prediction always fails. Go ahead and try it yourself. Make a prediction based on something you know is untrue, like a particular bus stopping at a particular bus stop when you know it doesn't. Then wait to see if the bus in question shows up. Dress warmly and take something to eat please. You may be there a while. Bill Nye deftly illustrates the truth of evolution by pointing out it can be used to make predictions that are accurate. It already has done, many times over. This is just one that was especially gratifying to the scientific community. I'm with them there!

There is so much more in this book, laid out logically and methodically; delivered in words everyone can understand. As I think the only people who will read this book are those unopposed to the ideas encompassed by evolution, you likely won't learn anything epiphanic. However, it will help you order your thoughts, and separate the facts about evolution from the malarkey so often thrown into the realm of public discussion to sow misunderstanding and doubt. After reading this book, you will have a better appreciation for the breadth and scope of how the Theory of Evolution underpins so much of what we take for granted in not only modern medicine, but also the nature of the world around us. Pun intended. Overall I give this book the same grade as Neil deGrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandries which I reviewed in September: a solid B+ as a book, and a wholehearted A+ as an attempt to assist young people and the undecided to have an enriched and prosperous future. Give it a read. You won't regret the time spend on it. And one last thing. If you think accepting the fact evolution is means you have to give up God, think again. Nowhere in this book does Bill Nye ever say that. Quite the opposite in fact. Read it and find out what I mean. ;-)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Elite: Dangerous - Beautiful but Obfuscated

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This is Elite. It released in September 1984. I spent 3.5 hours last night playing it for umpteenth time. It was a great feeling to once more slide into the seat of a Sidewinder spacecraft and launch into space. It was like coming home after being gone for 30 years.

This is also Elite: Dangerous. In no way does it technically resemble the original Elite. It is far more beautiful for one thing, as the mosaic above proves. Yet given a three decade gap in the technology, the new game deftly captures the feel of the old game. When I first launched, there was no doubt I was playing Elite. It felt the same at a visceral level. I find that somewhat remarkable. Well done Frontier.

That said, it wasn't easy getting the hang of the new game. There is no good tutorial. They are all about fighting your ship or flying your ship. There isn't anything that really tells you how the UI, the program itself, works. I found my joy of flying an Internet spaceship dampened by the necessity of figuring out what buttons/keys/sliders controlled which aspect of the UI. For Elite: Dangerous, I purchased a Saitek x52 Pro HOTAS as an early pressie for myself. It makes flying the ship a wonderful experience, but it makes a hash of the UI. The left side panel is controlled by the POVs and buttons of the stick. The galactic and system maps are mouse driven. Nevertheless, some stick buttons are active and accidentally bumping one can send you anywhere. I find the same incongruity in Station Services. Most screens are mouse driven, but not all. Now, heap on this the fact the easiest way I've found to switch between UI screens is by using 1 through 4 on the keyboard, and there were times I found myself wishing I was an octopus with eight tentacles instead of only two hands. My desk layout is an arms width comprised of (left to right) throttle, keyboard, stick and mouse in that order. And I have to use them all! The lack of documentation for any of this leads to a level of obfuscation that is mind numbing.

Still, it is worth the effort. I can mitigate some of the obfuscation with a few reprogrammed HOTAS buttons and sliders. With any luck I can remove the keyboard from the equation. There are three modes on the X52 Pro and I haven't taken advantage of the other two yet. To do that I'll have to program the HOTAS directly though, and I'm not certain the controller interface will allow that. I've been struggling a bit between the naming convention in the game for buttons and things and what Saitek calls them. I've got a lot of reading to do. I'm sure if it's possible someone has done it. Reddit don't fail me now!

Elite: Dangerous is a fantastic experience, especially for those who played the original. Even if I had to continue with the present obfuscated learning curve, I would. I can see where younger gamers who never played the original wouldn't put up with such a system, and not like the fact space is vast and even at 400 times C it takes time to get from station to station, but the fact this new game still feels like the Elite I came to love means I'll live with it. It'll get better. I may even be Elite when it does.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Evolutionary Game Theory and It's Applicability to MMOs

In EVE Online we have a saying. EVE is real. Those three words cover a lot of territory. Exactly how much territory becomes apparent only to those who invest a great deal of their lives into playing the game. One thing I've always wondered though is exactly how real is EVE Online, or any other MMO for that matter. I know EVE Online best because I've played it for nearly seven years, and will use it as the example here, but I also know much of what's been going through my brain this past weekend applies to all Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) in one way or another.

Though MMOs are a virtual society, they are still an environment with limited resources creating rewards and consequences based on the actions we take to obtain these resources. And though our virtual selves do not reproduce in the classic sense, it is possible to bring your young into the game, nurture them, protect them and ensure they survive and prosper. That is the unspoken truth behind new bro sponsorship within EVE Online's largest corporations. The spoken reason may be to prevent awoxing, but that is not the only reason for such policies. They are at their most fundamental a form of reproduction, a way of ensuring the corporation is replenished and continues to exist. There are certainly some analogs here. But before I get into the specifics of what I've been thinking about, let's all get on the same sheet of music when it comes to evolution. Here is the classic definition of the concept.

Ev·o·lu·tionˌ (evəˈlo͞oSH(ə)n) - noun

  1. the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.
    "His interest in evolution."
    synonyms: Darwinism, natural selection

  2. the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.
    "The forms of written languages undergo constant evolution."
    synonyms: development, advancement, growth, rise, progress, expansion, unfolding

When it comes to MMOs, I am certain the second definition fits far better than the first. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to make a case for speciation within a virtual world. However I believe we are all familiar with how MMOs can change over time based on player base, population pressures to which EVE online as a single shard system is more susceptible than most MMOs, and changes within the game code, akin to environmental changes in Earth's ecosystems.

So here's what I've been thinking. You've probably guessed from the title a bit of what's been tickling my brain. Do the concepts of evolution apply to MMOs? Are the behaviors of players and the strategies they employ to succeed in EVE Online analogous to those used by real species to succeed and thrive on planet Earth?

I've been listening to the book Undeniable by Bill Nye, and one of the things he covers in the book is how Game Theory is being used now to help explain the evolutionary development of altruism and other complex behaviors listed below. The example he gives is vampire bats. If a bat returns to the cave unsuccessful after a night of hunting for blood, other bats will actually regurgitate some of the blood they acquired to feed the unsuccessful bat. Doesn't that behavior fly in the face of survival of the fittest? Wouldn't the better hunters keep the blood and thus ensure the survival of their genes? The short answer is no. The long answer is somewhat more complicated, and evolutionary biologists have been using game theory to explain why it may be a more advantageous to evolve altruistic instincts. You can get a summary of this concept at Wikipedia, or pick up Bill Nye's book and give it a read. Is is an excellent summary of why evolution is undeniable.

So the particular chapter on game theory applied to evolution finished, and that's when I thought, "Can it work in reverse?" Can evolutionary game theory explain behaviors I've seen in EVE Online and other MMOs? I looked back on all those things I saw and did while playing hour after hour of EVE Online. I began trying to categorize the behaviors I'd seen according to the game models used by evolutionary biologists to explain instinctual behavior. But I'm not going to give you some thesis paper on this. I'm not an evolutionary biologist. In other words no expert. But I do have questions, and it'd be far more interesting if other gamers share their experiences which may or may not support the premise I've laid out.

To do that end, let's use the following game models from the Wikipedia article to discuss behaviors we've seen in EVE Online or other MMOs that seem to follow the model. Here are the game models I've considered and the conditions by which resources are won.

Hawk Dove

  • If a Hawk meets a Dove he gets the full resource Value to himself

  • If a Hawk meets a Hawk – half the time he wins, half the time he loses…so his average outcome is then Value/2 minus Cost/2

  • If a Dove meets a Hawk he will back off and get nothing - 0

  • If a Dove meets a Dove both share the resource and get Value/2

In EVE Online, I see this manifesting itself most often in high-sec. Doves are called carebears by Hawks, and Hawks are called gankers by carebears. But that's a fairly superficial comparison. Specifically what I find intriguing about this admittedly not totally applicable model is the 80/20 ratio that naturally develops in the Dove/Hawk population. This is supported by the Hadza studies I've blogged about before. Does the same 80/20 population split exist in EVE Online? I think it does, but perhaps not at that specific equilibrium point. Still, I feel there is an equilibrium point between the two populations in EVE Online, and it is naturally maintained within the environment that is New Eden. Do you agree? What about other MMOs?

The War of Attrition

This model is used when a resource is not sharable as in the Hawk Dove model above. Here is the relevant summary from the Wikipedia article linked,

"If an unshareable resource is combined with a high cost of losing a contest (injury or possible death) both Hawk and Dove payoffs are then further diminished. A safer strategy of lower cost display, bluffing and waiting to win, then becomes viable – a Bluffer strategy. The game then becomes one of accumulating costs, either the costs of displaying or costs of prolonged unresolved engagement. It’s effectively an auction; the winner is the contestant who will swallow the greater cost while the loser gets, for all his pains, the same cost as the winner but NO resource."

Oh, I think I've seen this game played a couple of times in EVE Online. It's a prevalent tactic in wormholes when you don't have a large fleet backing you up and are unsure who else might be cloaked in system. I think another way to put this is waiting for the other guy to make his play first. And it doesn't just apply to individuals. It can apply to small fleets easily enough. There are many Pyrrhic victories that occur in Anoikis thanks to this game. I can't say I've seen it in other MMOs though. Is there anything similar to cloaked ships in other MMOs?

These two game model examples of course are only absolutely valid in individual versus individual situations. In that regard we can't say the premise is fulfilled as there is rational thought involved. Gamers decide on these tactics, they is not driven instinctually. You can't say it works the other way around in other words. But neither game takes social influences into consideration. As the linked article explains, social influences create four possible behaviors. These are given as cooperation, altruism, spite and selfishness. It is in this area of evolutionary game theory that I really start to wonder if it is possible for a game to slip from standard game theory into evolutionary game theory.

Specifically, read the section on Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) carefully. The article states plainly it is the most misunderstood portion of evolutionary game theory because it is very similar to Nash Equilibrium in standard Game Theory. Here are the applicable paragraphs from the evolutionary game theory page,

"Nash Equilibrium is a game equilibrium where it is not rational for any player to deviate from the present strategy they are executing. As discussed, in Evolutionary game Theory contestants are NOT behaving with rational choice, nor do they have the ability to totally alter their strategy, aside from executing a very limited “mixed strategy”. An ESS is instead a state of game dynamics where, in a very large (or infinite) population of competitors, another mutant strategy cannot successfully enter the population to disturb the existing dynamic (which in itself is population mix dependent). This leads to a situation where to be a successful strategy having an ESS, the strategy must be both effective against competitors when it is rare - to enter the previous competing population, and also successful when later in high proportion in the population - to “defend itself”.[31] This in turn necessarily means that the strategy needs to be successful when it contends with others exactly like itself.


  • An OPTIMAL strategy – an optimal strategy would maximize Fitness, and many ESS states are far below the maximum fitness achievable in a fitness landscape. (see Hawk Dove graph above as an example of this)

  • A singular solution – often several ESS conditions can exist in a competitive situation. A particular contest might stabilize into any one of these possibilities, but later a major perturbation in conditions can move the solution into one of the alternative ESS states.

  • Always present - It is also possible for there to be no ESS. An example evolutionary game with no ESS is the Rock-Scissors-Paper game found in a number of species (an example the side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana))

  • An unbeatable strategy - The ESS strategy is not necessarily an unbeatable strategy, it is only an uninvadable one."

The article in the sidebar discusses one possible ESS, the Assessor Strategy. Taking the Hawk Dove game above and adding an Assessor, the Assessor can act like either a Hawk or a Dove as the situation presents itself. Be exercising such a strategy, it creates a condition where it receives value in almost all situations. When facing a weaker opponent it's a Hawk, and when facing a Hawk it's a Dove. And when it's facing one of its own kind, they all benefit to large or small degrees. In the face of such a strategy, no other creature can force a change in resource allocation. In EVE Online, isn't this what we call the big blue donut?

What I mean is we have a situation that doesn't seem able to change. All sides wish it were different, but no side can effect a change in the status quo because doing so spells certain doom for them - at least that's their perception, rational or not. That alone shouts ESS to me - that seemingly unalterable deadlock where all challengers have been bested by a non-optimal yet highly successful strategy. There are no viable mutant strategies. Still, that may be nothing more than Nash Equilibrium played out on a huge multiplayer scale, but there is one more thing that seems to make it more inherent and less a rational strategy decision. The entire ecosystem of EVE Online has become so stagnant that god herself (see what I did there CCP Seagull? ;-) ) has decreed it must change. She is remaking the entire universe in the hopes that it will bring a new era of prosperity for all capsuleers. It's aimed squarely at ending this ESS like stalemate. It's just been assumed it is the current game mechanics that have led to this impasse, but what if the game mechanics are not the problem? What if there is something of a more evolutionary nature going on in EVE Online?

I know, that's a really difficult argument to make. After all, to be a true ESS there can be no rational choices made. Choices have to be made instinctually; according to a pre-programmed set of codes that force the behaviors in question. But isn't that something that happens in very large, especially militaristic, organizations - a propensity for acting according to preset rules? I also find myself wondering, if allowed enough freedom, can a large social structure work like a sort of DNA chain. Individuals perform certain roles, which are triggered by certain environmental conditions, which in return can trigger whole departments to act, and so on and so forth. The overall effect results in an outcome derived from many, many individual actions. How many of us have been involved in large projects that just seem to take on a life of their own? It's like DNA's individual genes expressing themselves after specific trigger events, creating proteins, thus leading to other biological mechanisms activating which may promulgate further reactions until the entire organism does something very complicated, like dive on another hawk. Yet at the very base of that system is a single stimuli induced reaction. A specific gene triggered by a specific stimuli - like it looked out on its world, saw a situation and made a decision. But it wasn't a rational decision. It was the only decision it could possibly make.

In our corporate DNA, decisions may be made rationally and independently, but they are often dictated to us as a role. If A happens, execute procedure B. Many things simply aren't our purview, so we ignore stimuli from that quarter. And for those that are our purview, we don't get a say in how we react, not really. We have a very limited set of actions. Repeat that a few dozen times through a couple of departments and the overall effect is very like the bio-chemistry driving the instincts of Hawks, Doves and Assessors. If that sort of corporate organization occurs in a game, say in an MMO, can Nash Equilibrium cross a threshold becoming something more organic; more accurately described as ESS - driven by the unfettered social dynamics of cooperation, altruism, spite and selfishness acted out according to institutionalized roles and indoctrinated codes of behavior? In the end, the final result is no single person's rational decision. It just happens: like B-R5RB. In our analogy, one gene reacted to one stimuli and we all know what the result was. Once the reaction began, it was as unstoppable as a Hawk's dive. Isn't that the very nature of instinct? That sort of dynamic is more biological than technological. It's fascinating to contemplate isn't it? What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What I (Re)Learned from TESO and AC:Unity

I want to start you off with three graphs. Two are directly related to this brief post and the other two are comparison points.

[gallery link="file" size="large" columns="2" ids="4155,4154,4153,4156"]

All three of these graphs show the same 5-year time scale. From this one over the half-decade view, all three game company trends look very similar. And they all show the same general slope over the five-year trend. What exactly does it look like you ask?

So what does it mean? Here's the straight up truth. The gaming industry (with notable exceptions!) isn't about creating great games that launch bug free or are even playable. Like every other public corporation on this planet it's about the stock price and the shareholder dividend. Unless you are a gamer that just happens to own premium stock in the company, you really don't matter in the overall scheme of things. You're just cattle being fed, and the feed could be ground up sheep carcasses for all the software giants are concerned. It's better to release a bug ridden trash heap of a game than delay a launch to fix it. And there are books full of excuses to do it like, "To get new games in the future the company has to make profit." Nowhere in their reasoning does making gamers love you come into their thought process. The only love they want is the love that contributes to those graphs, and it's a different sort of popularity altogether.

So what has this (re)taught me? This can be summed up in a short list of rules.

  1. Never pre-order a game from a publicly traded or venture capital supported company.

  2. If no reviews come out before launch because of a press embargo or lack of interest, do not pre-order the game.

  3. If you cannot play a full feature demo before you buy it, do not pre-order the game.

  4. If any of the above rules apply, to not rush out on release day and buy the game until you've read reviews talking about how awesome the game is.

In fact, you can skip all the above and live by one golden rule. Don't pre-order games. So you get some benies for handing out money for a product sight unseen and untested. Would you buy a car sight unseen just because the seller says it's a great car? Would you do that for a cellphone if there were not loads of favorable reviews on demo releases? Then why do it for a game published by a billion dollar company who cares more for stockholders than the gamers who buy their product?

It makes so much sense doesn't it? I know many of you out there are probably thinking, "Derp, Mabrick." So, should this be a hard and fast rule always? That seems like a hard call but really isn't if you just look at those four basic tests above. I've basically pre-purchased Star Citizen. But Roberts Space Industries isn't a billion dollar publicly traded juggernaut. And they have been more than transparent in their dealings with supporters and in allowing reviews of what they've done so far. It isn't the same thing as Zenimax ignoring alpha testers and enforcing non-disclosure clauses when they needed to hush things up. It isn't like Ubisoft slapping a 12-hour press embargo on everyone on launch day. Hell, Firaxis created a special 250 turn demo and practically paid reviewers to publish game play video. I am also going to pre-order Elite:Dangerous tomorrow, but there are game play videos going up on YouTube daily (if not hourly) and there have been many, many reviews extolling Frontier Development on what they've created. All sources say it's pretty much bug free and as advertised. So why not pre-purchase at this point? But if there were no videos and there were no reviews I would not pre-order. So as a general rule, it's great protection to have a general personal rule against pre-purchasing. It protects against total stink bombs like AC:Unity and those titles like TESO which don't live up to the hype. You never lose anything of true value by waiting, unlike if you pre-ordered AC:Unity and then could not play it.

So that's what TESO and AC:Unity have (re)taught me. I knew all this once upon a time, but in the age of the Internet and the ability for companies to full press advertise with trailers that sometimes take more technical wizardry than the games they peddle, as well as my crow like attraction to all things shiny - I evidently forgot. Fortunately I didn't get burned, but it was a very close thing with AC:Unity. And it was only because of one of the launch day glitches that my TESO account ended up being month-to-month rather than a six month lock-in. However, I did pre-purchase the Imperial Edition of TESO for extra bucks. But I mostly don't regret the extra $20... mostly. The only path to no regrets though is to wait. There is a certain satisfaction to delayed gratification, especially when it saves you a bundle of money.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Holidays, Farewells, Hope and the Future of Sci-Fi Online Gaming

It's the holiday season around the world whether it's about the solstice, ancient births, temple rededication or whatever. It's a time when we all get to do extra things, many of them revolving around the family. As I've got a family, I have plenty to do. But does that mean I'm going to take a break from blogging? The answer to that is yes... and no. It's probably more correct to state I am working under a different set of priorities for the next month. For example, this weekend I spent time helping my significant other help a neighbor move by removing a bedroom set from the neighbor's house to ours. We also acquiring a lovely Noble Fir and erected it in the living room. Next weekend I unfortunately  need to say farewell to Uncle Bob, aka the Rhinestone Logger (click the link!) ;-) ,who passed away last Monday. But it's not all bad news this holiday. Far from it! There is much for which to be thankful. My mother is still undergoing treatment, is not getting worse (though that is a relative term) and we are still hopeful. I even managed to play a couple of hours of Landmark and five hours of Kerbal Space Program this past weekend, but all the other things came first.

And so it will be with the blog I suspect. I'll still post throughout the holiday, but I'm not going to force myself to maintain a three post a week schedule as I normally do. If I've something to post, I'll post. And I know I'll have something to post. I just might not do it thrice weekly. Who knows, I may even sneak in extra posts. I really just don't know what my schedule will really be is all. It may be a lot more open than I foresee, or a lot less. Time will tell.

I should also cop to being in a bit of a gaming malaise at the moment. I expected this period of time to be filled with posts about how awesome Assassin's Creed: Unity for the PC is. But the bug ridden launch of the PC title really pulled me up short. In fact, I've a good bit of anger brewing over it. I feel like Ubisoft pushed a half-cooked bloody turkey in front of me and expected me to eat it. I find I really resent the company for what it did. I can't convince myself they didn't know how horribly broken the game was. The developers who poured their lives into that code, and I know they did, would have known it was not ready. I can't think of any programmer on the planet that would have felt it was ready to launch. This had to be a management decision, and management borked it. They published anyway. I have to think that, or believe the programmers really thought they had it right. If they really thought it was ready, they need to find a new profession. No, I am thoroughly convinced this was a management decision. Ubisoft had made commitments to companies like Nvidia and AMD to launch when they did, and management chose to honor those commitments rather than their commitment to the players of Assassin's Creed. That is why I have this simmering anger towards Ubisoft right now. I'm just glad I didn't drop $60 (or more) on the title as a pre-purchase.

That leaves $60 for a game I KNOW is ready and was created for the love of gaming, not corporate contracts. That game is Elite: Dangerous. It's almost here!!! Here's the really sad part in all this. I was willing to forego Elite: Dangerous in preference to Assassin's Creed: Unity. What was I thinking? I've been keeping tabs on Elite: Dangerous for a while even though I elected to put my money in another alpha support opportunity. I must say I'm very pleased with how Elite: Dangerous turned out. It really has retained the feel of the original Elite. But now it is damn gorgeous!

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Capital Ship Under Attack Capital Ship Under Attack[/caption]

When I first saw virtual stars graphically rendered just like the HELIOS pictures I've seen for years, I knew this was a game I had to play opening day. And that day is nearly upon us: December 16, 2014. But as I said, this isn't the game on which I spent my development support dollars.

The game I opted to support is Star Citizen. I saw it as the more ambitious project, with potential for some serious evolution in the Sci-Fi gaming genre. For all that Elite:Dangerous looks well done and captures the essence of the original Elite in spades, it is still a remake. It is not substantially different from Elite, only modernized. Star Citizen on the other hand is different, though not necessarily revolutionary. The difference that made me sit up and take notice is Star Citizen's concept of a crewed ship. In every Sci-Fi MMO I've played, the ship is treated as an object, not a destination. It's a game piece on a board. In EVE Online we had huge debates over whether the ships had only a capsuleer onboard or an entire crew of possibly thousands. People were quite passionate in their opinions on the matter, but that's all they had: opinions. I think the subject was mostly settled by comments from CCP and lore updates, but the fact there was even a debate shows a key shortcoming in the Sci-Fi genre. Ships are not like real ships. Games like Star Trek Online and now Star Wars the Old Republic try to address that issue, but they are not multi-player crewed. Even my long-lost favorite Star Wars Galaxies fell a little short though you could at least walk around in your yacht.

Star Citizen aims to make what you do inside a ship matter. If you don't man the dorsal turret, those guns won't fire. If there is no one to fly the onboard fighter, it'll stay right where it is. If you choose to fly it, you better have a damn good autopilot. The idea of multi-player taken to that level is worth supporting. There is a part of me that loves the thought it will take a crew to effectively fight the largest spaceships in Star Citizen, and multiboxing is not an option. Multiboxing took a lot of joy out of EVE Online for me (and others) and CCP has finally realized that fact. But that doesn't mean people won't still try to run entire gank fleets by themselves, or that CCP's initiative will do what they think it will. But having a ship requiring other real players to help fight with it might just be the salve for that pustule. There are lots of other people who evidently feel the same way. But to be certain, Star Citizen is a long ways from realizing the goal of multi-player ships. Doubt still exists on the Interweb whether they can actually pull it off. I've already made my bet on that score. ;-)

But Elite:Dangerous and Star Citizen have something more to bring to the Sci-Fi gaming genre and social gaming in general. Both Elite:Dangerous and Star Citizen are persistent universes, not traditional MMOs like EVE Online. It will be possible to play both alone or with others, and to cross that line and return. At least that is what both developers have said. There will be one universe for everyone, and even if you play alone you will have an effect on that universe. That is intriguing. In days gone by, in the early days of MMOs, it was PvP for everyone all the time. That lead to some distinctly anti-social behavior, and as MMOs are supposed to be a SOCIAL gaming experience, it left a bad taste in a lot of people's virtual mouths. So the PvP opt out was invented. You could elect not to participate in PvP, but there was a catch. You had to go to a completely different server and only play with like-minded people. The two worlds were separate and distinct, yet supposedly mirror copies of each other. That created a certain level of us and them mentality in gaming which has bred terms like carebear and acronyms like HTFU. But the separation of play styles was more a reality of computer power as it was an intent to divide the gaming community. Back then, MMOs had to use multiple servers, called shards, to distribute the load and present everyone an acceptable level of game play. It was only logical to make some shards PvP enabled and others not. It was an easy, and cheap, solution.

However, computer power has come a long way in the intervening decade and a half. Sharding is no longer necessary from a technical perspective, though it has been maintained as an easy separation of the two playing styles. But that's an artificiality that's always grated on me. One of the things that makes EVE Online stand out, HTFU and all, is it is a shardless universe where player actions matter. CCP's latest round of advertising stridently pushes this fact. And judging from the video hits on YouTube, which is at 1.5 million after only two weeks - twice as many as any other EVE Online promotion save a couple that sing very similar messages and have had years to amass hits - this tack is getting traction. And as I mentioned on someone else's blog who didn't play EVE Online, the video is a true enough representation of EVE Online play, though it is only one side of a complex situation.

So the question is, can you have both? Can you have an EVE Online experience of a single universe where player actions matter, but also have a standalone game experience if that's your preference? Can everyone contribute to a socially interconnected virtual universe regardless of play style preference? Could you be an explorer, salvager or builder contending only with mobs one day, and then decide to become a full on PvP pirate the next? Let me be clear that neither Frontier nor Roberts Space Industry have said this play-style switching of a single character will ultimately be part of their games - at least not from what I've read. There is a good deal of conjecture on my part here. But if there is a persistent universe where play style was irrelevant, what would prevent a player from playing PvE or PvP as the mood struck them? If you don't have the time or the patience or the mental endurance to face the setbacks PvP sometimes brings, could you slip into a more relaxed gameplay style if just for a night, while still contributing to the virtual universe to which you belong? To me that is the promise of the persistent universe MMO. It's a shift in the paradigm so to speak. The point where Massively Multiplayer Online comes to mean massively all players online. That would be a good place to play I'm thinking.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Still Puttering Around in Landmark; Pictures Included.

Landmark the Game has been under steady development all year. Since I joined the beta late last spring, the Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) team has added caves, liquid materials like water and ice, and PvP to the game. The PvP upgrade alone brought all sorts of new props; some dedicated to PvP like weapons and armor, and some usable elsewhere like the three new mover props: launchers (think catapult like people mover,) teleportation pads and magic platforms (think ferry deck moving through the air.) There has also been a lot of refinement in certain areas and significant graphics optimizations. The team has been really, really busy.

PvP in Landmark is opt in only. Players can create arenas on their claims and enable them for PvP by using a game table. I covered this in a more detail with this post. This is not something in which I am too interested. If I want arena combat I'll go play League of Legends to be honest, which I don't do. PvP in Landmark is more like the original Unreal Tournament where the players create the arenas. To be sure, there are some fascinating arenas players have built. I just don't find the rinse-lather-repeat of tournament PvP all that fun unless it's a friend's LAN party and you're all in the same room taunting each other for real. You know, LAN parties were a pain in the ass to set up, but they were hella more fun than playing other people through the Internet. But don't think PvP in Landmark isn't fun. Much (most?) of the system will be squarely in the hands of players. They create the arenas and it's their imagination that will make it fun. I've no doubt it'll be popular, and if you're into tournament style PvP it might be just the bit of relaxation you need. It's just not what I'm in to. :|

As an extension of the PvP system, SOE will be adding PvE in the near future. Be advised though, they have been saying "near future" since August so YMMV. They've had other dragons to slay, but I'm certain they have been working steadily at it. When it happens, and it will, this will add monsters to the game. The monsters will inhabit the islands and caverns of Landmark and will make getting those really good/rare materials difficult. As an aside on caverns, SOE has some really interesting plans for them. They will be placing ruins into some of the caverns. That's a dungeon folks; very cool. There is currently a Community Team-Up initiative where SOE has invited players to design said ruins. If you've not seen some of the creations really talented players (not me) have created in Landmark, you have really missed something special. The Halloween competition was AMAZING. You should checkout the Landmark Gallery to see the really cool stuff. But back to monsters, when introduced they will spell the end of totally uncontested wealth. Honestly, I am not looking forward to having to fight for things in Landmark. I would rather spend my time building. That means buying the material from other players or giving in and fighting the mobs. Fortunately you can build things with standard materials like stone, which shouldn't be guarded, but for those really cool props you'll have to earn the materials or spend station cash (or know someone willing to stake you.) I'll have to see how the implementation goes before I opine further on mobs.

As I mentioned, you can always just build things with stone. The process is the same if not the glitter. In fact, I added another structure to my claim on Saturday. I picked a hill with an interesting ridge line because I wanted to plant my Trailblazer Flag on one of its prominent points. My plan was to eventually erect a tall tower on that spot so my flag would be higher than the nearby tree. On Saturday I finally got around to doing just that. Here's the result (click an image to embiggen.)

[gallery type="rectangular" size="large" ids="4103,4108,4102,4109,4110,4111,4112,4107,4106,4105,4104,4113"]

Even though lots of players build them, I'm a bit proud of this tower. It's no easy task to build a round anything when voxels (the graphical construct with which you build things) are all square. They are also designed to react to each other at predefined points, namely the corners. That makes them stick to each other for lack of a better description. When you attempt to bend a series of stuck together voxels they go all wonky on you. And by wonky I mean anything but a smooth curve. But there is a method for creating the two voxel thick ring that makes up this tower. Once you create a single ring and save it as a template, you can stack many of them one atop another to create the tower. It took me five hours to create the template and build the tower. Besides taking four attempts to get the ring right, I ran out of stone twice and had to go mine more. Oops. ^^' But that is what is so fun about Landmark the Game to me. I'm not the best builder by any stretch, but I really like building things.

Now, I didn't figure out how to build a round thing out of square things on my own. I'm just not that good, nor do I wish to spend the time it takes to become that good. I've other games to play. ;-) But I know where to go to learn these things, and that's YouTube. And my go-to teacher for Landmark construction is Tenma whom I first discovered on the game's main website where SOE prominently features Landmark community members. Tenma's series of tutorials on Landmark construction is excellent. From beginner to advanced architect, he can give you insights and methodologies that would take you hours upon hours upon hours to figure out on your own. So if you're interested in becoming a better builder, subscribe to his channel or watch his Twitch streams. Throw a little coin his way if you find it useful. I know he'd really appreciate it, and he deserves it for all the hard work he's put into helping others realize their Landmark aspirations. Thanks Tenma! Keep up the good work.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Valley of Blades - Part Two

Yesterday was a lovely family gathering for me. I hope you too had such a nice day. As promised, here is second half of the mainline Elder Scrolls Online quest Valley of Blades. I hope you find it useful. I went out of my way to show how you shouldn't do some things. ;-)


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Valley of Blades - Part One

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States and there is food to prepare; Friday I will likely be in a food coma... only kidding. Gluttony isn't my style. However, family gatherings are and that's where I'll be. So for today and Friday's post you get the level 35 mainline quest Valley of Blades from The Elder Scrolls Online. Perhaps you'll glean some good ideas on how to run your character through this quest. Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!


Monday, November 24, 2014

Alik'r Saved, but what of Tamriel?

This past weekend saw me sink 14 more hours into The Elders Scrolls Online (TESO.) I completed the main quest line in Alik'r and saved the kingdom from the evil necromancers. After recovering all the Ansei Wards, I returned them to their rightful place in The Impervious Vault - now made even more impervious - we hope.

[caption id="attachment_4081" align="aligncenter" width="1400"]Returning the Ansei Wards Returning the Ansei Wards[/caption]

I will say it was an ego trip to have the three Ansei warriors kneel and pay homage to my greatness. It's really nice to be appreciated. It's even better to received a salute from every leader in the Alik'r Army.

[caption id="attachment_4082" align="aligncenter" width="1400"]Alik'r Salute Alik'r Salute[/caption]

Yes, I am great. So of course King Fahara'jad wanted me out of Alik'r as fast as possible. Hell, I could have become king I was so popular, except for being technically unclean because I'd killed the consecrated dead. However, because none of them were my ancestors I was given a pass on that dishonor. Still, it would not do for me to become an important person. It might undermine... Alik'r tradition. Yeah, that's it. Tradition. So King Fahara'jad had Gabrielle Benoit open a portal for me straight to the bridge leading into Evermore. I can't blame him. Heroes are better worshipped from afar.

So anyway, I had a lot of fun in the Alik'r desert. I love their heavy armor and I'd gladly kill the undead for them all day long. And the entire time I was having fun, I kept thinking about TESO as an MMO, and whether it would stand the test of time. There were several dungeons, the Lost City of Na-Totumba especially, where informal grouping saved my bacon. But most people were soloing, which obviously isn't good news from an MMO.

So I did some digging around trying to find some sort of number that would tell me if TESO is surviving or failing. I don't trust the Raptr numbers. Not one of my 14 hours this weekend was automatically recorded. It's a problem I noticed the other week completing Rivenspire. I thought it was transitory but it is not. And Bethesda is no help. They are as tight-lipped about numbers as Priests after confession. Many will point at that as being indicative, but really it's just business sense. Many MMOs don't publish numbers because then they are compared to World of Warcraft and labeled total fail. That sets a bad expectation in the minds of players, both present and future.

So again I had to turn to secondary indicators. What I came up with is Alexa numbers. For those unfamiliar with Alexa, it's a service run by Amazon that attempts to estimate web traffic. It's actually really damn accurate. The free Alexa page is rather long, so I had to take it in three chunks. I'll start at the top and go down.

[caption id="attachment_4084" align="aligncenter" width="660"]Alexa ESO How Popular Alexa ESO How Popular[/caption]

The first third is a traffic ranking. This portion also gives so general behavior numbers, like bounce rate. That's the percentage of traffic that gets to the page only to leave it on the very next click. It's roughly a broad measure of, "oops, didn't mean to go there." It's not very informative in most cases. The next two numbers are better. They rate how many clicks within the domain were made by the average user, not including bounces, and how much time they remained on the domain. Believe it or not, both 7.3 pageviews and 7 minutes 39 seconds on site are both pretty good numbers. But perhaps the most telling feature of this section is the graph of site rankings relative to other sites. You can clearly see the build up to game launch and then a slow decline as expectations were brought more into line with reality. Around August you can see that adjustment end, and a more normal in-production graph begin. That's the sinusoidal like up and down of interest as content cycles occur. There is an uptick each time the developer releases something new. What this shows me is that November really isn't month TESO died. If anything, it looks a lit like October.

[caption id="attachment_4085" align="aligncenter" width="660"]Alexa ESO Who Visits Alexa ESO Who Visits[/caption]

The next section of the Alexa page shows who the audience is for the web site. I don't see any surprises here. TESO players are overwhelmingly male. Derp. They play from home. Derp. And considering that most have at least some college, we can deduce TESO is in the appropriate demographic. The only fact that raised an eyebrow for me at all was Germany being the second largest audience by geography. Offenbar TESO ist sehr beliebt in Deutschland. Sehr gut! That said, it was only a matter of placement. The five countries listed are the five I'd expect to see listed for a subscription MMO. It ranks right up there with GDP and Internet accessibility. Hell, China would probably trump the whole list if Chinese gamers weren't behind the Great Firewall of China.

[caption id="attachment_4086" align="aligncenter" width="660"]Alexa ESO Where From Alexa ESO Where From[/caption]

The last third of the Alexa report shows where the traffic is coming from if that origin is a search engine or social media. Again, I see no huge surprises here. I look at this sort of thing all the time though, so perhaps you may. What I think is really shown here is that Search Visits percentage. And what draws my attention to it is how much lower it is than the bounce percentage. There's an 11.3 percent difference, which to me says one out of 10 visitors are arriving at the web site through a short cut of other web site link and then leaving. Is that the age page coming into play? I've no idea. I don't think it really says anything about the health of TESO; the Traffic Ranks graph did most of that. It's just a bit odd. Game-zines perhaps? There is a bit of an uptick in searches that lead to the domain, but it coincides with the latest expansion. The graph is fairly well established as hovering around the 20 percent mark.

So taken as a whole, I don't see a great redemption for TESO going on here. I also do not see its death. I do see people playing it when I am online and playing it myself. The world is not overwhelmed with players, mind you, but they all seem to be having fun. Only time will tell if it remains as it is, or goes free to play, or simply passes into Oblivion. Hehe, see what I did there? XD

Friday, November 21, 2014

To Dres and Back Again

Not long ago the incredibly brilliant Kerbal computer scientist Dr. McCarthy Kerman came to me with a proposal. "We need to map Jebediah Kerman's neural pathways into a completely self-contained artificial intelligence capsule with a bitchin' huge eye on top. All we need to do is send a mission to Dres for some additional information. Then we will be able to complete MechaJeb."

"Sounds fascinating," I said. "Why Dres?"

"There's just something about that dwarf planet..." was all he said as he gazed off into a distance that wasn't there in my less than spacious office in the administration building.

I halted that ominous gaze quickly with, "Sounds good. The eye's a nice touch. Start planning the mission right away. Finish the kerbisynchronous communication satellite upgrades first. Change the name to MechJeb. The other is too much like MechaHitler."

"Roger, " was all he said as he wheeled and practically raced out of my office.

"Like a kid in a candy shop," I muttered to myself.

It took nearly five years to complete the mission. But McCarthy was able to pull it off, and upgrade the communications satellites as well!

(Click on the first image and follow the whole story in the descriptions.)

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: The Martian

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="313"]The Martian by Andy Weir The Martian by Andy Weir[/caption]

The summary from,

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

If you read nothing else this year, you MUST read The Martian by Andy Weir. If you think of yourself as a hard-core science fiction fan, where the key word is science, this book will satisfy every geeky bone in your body. If you walked out of the movie Interstellar wondering where the real science was in that fantasy (except Gargantua, they did a really good job with that monstrous black hole,)  then this is the book for which you've been waiting. To say that Andy Weir gets it right is an understatement. It's been a very, very long time since I've read a book this scientifically correct. And what's even better, this book kept me on the edge of my seat just listening to it! Warning: the dialog in the book is very real. People use profanity when surprised, frightened, disappointed or emotionally overwrought - just like real people. I'd have to say the book's a PG-13 situation if you object to your children reading what they already hear every day in school from their peers. There is a more detailed review below the break.

The Martian begins on SOL 6 of the third manned mission to Mars in the not too distant future. The mission is in Acidalia Planitia, a broad, flat expanse of northern Mars where the craters are few and the rocks are small. NASA had prepared the site for a 30-day mission starting two years earlier when they had landed the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) there to start making fuel for the crew's return to their ship, Hermes, in orbit of Mars. But on SOL 6, a sand storm arises with winds far stronger than NASA has ever measured. When the wind speeds hit hurricane force, the order is given to abort the mission. At that wind speed the MAV, which is tall and pyramidal in shape, threatened to tip over. If the MAV was lost, the crew would have no way off Mars. So the crew tethers themselves together and begins the several hundred foot trek to the MAV.

While making their way through the blinding sandstorm, the wind rips the high-gain dish antenna they used to send communications to NASA away from its mount. It smashes into the receiving antenna, and array of dipoles, and breaks one of them off. The wind then launches the antenna section like a javelin through the thin Martian atmosphere now think with sand. The projectile hits astronaut Mark Watney, the crew's botanist and mechanical engineer, end on penetrating his Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suit and his lower abdomen only being stopped by his pelvis. His suit immediately loses all pressure. The rest of the crew sees this on their helmet readouts. Very shortly after that, Mark Watney's biotelemetry, which they can also see in their helmet displays, stops. He is dead. The mission commander makes the difficult decision to save five and they leave Mars to grieve for their lost comrade later.

However, Mark Watney did not die. The rod, as well as penetrating him, also penetrated his suit's bio-telemetry module rendering it non-functional. And while his suit did lose all pressure and thus oxygen, Mark Watney landed face down in the Martian sand. His blood mixed with the sand and instantly froze where it bubbled out of his suit. As he was on top of it, the water did not sublimate away. The seal was enough for the suit to deal with the pressure loss. It kept just enough oxygen in the suit for Watney to regain consciousness. He then used a repair kit that they all carried to seal the puncture, after he removed the antenna from his hip that is. Then he made it back to the habitation module, known as the HAB, which was designed to withstand winds much stronger than Mars could ever sustain, and which also had prescription painkillers, a needle and suture thread.

After Watney repaired himself, he took stock of his situation. He was stranded on Mars with no way to talk to NASA because the communications array was destroyed. There were three other backup systems, but they were all on the MAV - now in orbit. He had the HAB which would keep him alive for the immediate future, and could make oxygen out of the carbon dioxide in Mar's atmosphere. He had 24 days of rations for six people which gives him 144 SOLS of food. He had a similar amount of bagged water, and a water reclamation unit that could convert his urine to potable water. He wouldn't die right away, but the more distant future looked bleak. He had no way to get off Mars, and the next mission, Ares 4, wasn't scheduled to land for another two years though it's MAV was already on the surface making fuel for their return to orbit. Also, the Ares 4 mission site was at crater Schiaparelli some 3200 kilometers away. He has two rovers, but they weren't designed for such long trips. Being an astronaut, Watney keeps a log (in fact much of his story is first person through the logs,) if only for posterity's sake. His first entry is, "I am SO FUCKED."

That is how Andy Weir starts The Martian, though some of the details I just gave away don't come out for a few chapters. Andy Weir does a great job of building suspense by the fact that, in situations such as these, you almost never know everything. There is no omniscient narrator in this story spoiling it. It took months before NASA even realized Mark Watney was alive. The book only gets better from there. Though the story begins as an unlikely coincidence of happenstance and bad luck, it is nevertheless entirely plausible. Stranger things have certainly happened in real life, and you only have to lookup Apollo 13 on Wikipedia to know catastrophic yet unlikely things do happen. Space exploration is a dangerous business, and Andy Weir never lets you forget that reality the entire story. Still, you won't know the final outcome until you get there.

But not once does Andy Weir ask the reader to suspend their disbelief to make the story work. Not ever, and that is so refreshing I reveled in every single oh-shit Mars threw at Mark Watney. And it wasn't just a story about Mark Watney. It was also a story about NASA, the culture of NASA, and the astronauts who carry out man's exploration of space. The Martian is as much a story about the best (and worst) aspects of human nature as it is a story about surviving alone on Mars. It's full of characters you will love and some you may even despise, but they are all real. I know people just like them, and when you start comparing fictional characters to people you really know... well, that's the hallmark of a great book.

If you still don't believe me about how good The Martian is, then here's more proof for the pudding. Andy Weir self published this book on Amazon in 2012. It sold over 10,000 copies, which is good even for a book published via traditional publishers. Then he was called by a literary agent who basically said, "You need representation and you need it now!" That almost NEVER happens. It's as unlikely as being stranded on Mars during a freak sand storm... haha. :P The book was republished traditionally in 2014 by Crown Publishing. There is also a movie starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott coming in late 2015. That says a lot of good things about this book right there.

I'm telling you, if this book doesn't win the Nebula it's because the conservative branch of sci-fi authorship, who hate everything Amazon, dis Andy Weir for originally self-publishing the novel. But hell, he made 70% on more than 10,000 copies. Even the best of the old guard only gets 10% royalties, and most of them don't get movie contracts. And this book is an absolute gem. Hell, I'm going to buy a World Con ticket just so I can vote for it in the Hugos. Andy Weir deserves way more than that, but it's the least I can do after being so well entertained. This book gets an A+ grade.

PS: If you do decide to read this book, pull up Google Maps Mars and follow along. Any Weir really does get everything right. XD

Monday, November 17, 2014

Retrieving Ancient Stranded Probes

Nearly 83 years ago Kerbals first left their planet for the harsh unknowns of space. As the manager of their space program, I soon decided there was no need to risk Kerbals on dangerous missions to explore their solar system. This was, after all, only fact-finding in preparation for greater things. Automated probes could easily handle such missions, preserving the finest of Kerbaldom for more important missions like colonizing Duna, Eve or even Mun.

That decision saved lives. Early in the space program, before the nuances of orbital mechanics were completely understood, and due to a mathematician who confused Mun with Minmus, we left a probe stranded on Mun without enough fuel to escape its gravity well. It sat on the surface of Mun for 82 years; its science safely stored in state of the art mass core memory. Fortunately it was in a location that saw plenty of light from Kerbol to keep the primitive batteries charged.

Not long after that, we sent a probe to Minmus to conduct an orbit and return. Proper gravity calculations triple checked, we nevertheless discovered ground crews had forgotten to install parachutes on the first ever Minmus probe. They argued Minmus had no atmosphere so parachutes were unnecessary. There was plenty of egg all over everyone's face for that foobar. Mission Control parked the probe in a 400 kilometer orbit for nearly 82 years along with the science collected while in orbit of Minmus.

But those failures have gnawed on the Kerbals ever since. So over the weekend, we launched two recovery operations. As the stranded Mun mission had a parachute for reentry, all we need to do was get it into a Kerbin intercept trajectory. It had just enough fuel left to climb into a 15 kilometer orbit making a retrieval attempt possible. As the Minmus probe had no parachute, one would have to be provided for it. Actually, it ended up being four parachutes. And as neither probe had docking ports (they hadn't been invented when the probes were launched,) it was necessary to use the new asteroid Advanced Grabbing Unit to secure them. Here's the historical photo archive of the missions gathered from several space based and ground based systems. Click on the first picture to see them in order and read the full details of these historic missions.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Raptr Most Played PC Games: October 2014

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="640"]MOST PLAYED PC GAMES: OCTOBER 2014 MOST PLAYED PC GAMES: OCTOBER 2014[/caption]

Color me surprised. Nowhere on this list is there a Civilization game. It looks like Civilization: Beyond Earth (CivBE) simply robbed people from Civilization V (Civ5) and caused it to drop out of the top twenty. Last month I predicted CivBE would be able to break into the top twenty even though it only had a week of play time. And it even seemed like it would make it, as there were over 100k Steam members on the CivBE community. Nope. :/

So I went and had a look at the list just under half way through November. CivBE sits in the 24th position with 389,551 hours played over the month period starting mid-October. Civ5 is in 26th place with 361,137 hours played. Yeah, it seems like there's some Peter robbed to pay Paul going on. Well, that's how the cookie crumbles. It's still a fun game, though there is always room for improvement. We'll see if it makes the November list, or if the two Civilizations will be at war with each other from now on. That's kinda funny when you think about it.

There is something else that surprised me on this list. Star Wars: The Old Republic (SW:TOR) climbed three places to number twelve. They had their big update with player housing (Galactic Strongholds) and on December 9, 2014 will launch the next: Shadow of Revan. The pre-orders just keep rolling in according to Raptr. You know, I was thinking about trying SW:TOR out myself if TESO didn't get rid of the bots and glitches. They did as I reported last post. So I guess I'll stick with TESO for a while, at least until I get to level 50. I might even try PvP. :P Or, I could just give SW:TOR a try. Anyone got some advice for me on that decision? BTW, TESO is currently in 69th position on the 30 day Raptr listing. :(

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (ME:SoM) makes its debut on the top twenty. Don't expect it to stay there. It's already down to 43rd position on the to-date list. There just isn't enough game play in it, and once someone finishes that's pretty much it. You could go back and start over again, but I don't see enough variability in the game to make that very enticing. It's 40 hours of fun. That's it, and the game has already run its course with most players I think. BTW, in case you passed on ME:SoM because you wanted to wait for a sale, it's here. Steam is having a 25% off sale for ME:SoM right now until 10:00 AM PST tomorrow.

When I went to check on ME:SoM's current status I noticed something that made me smile a little. EVE Online has moved up to the 37th position. When I last looked at its position for the Raptr August 2014  post, it was in 40th position. It's not all good news though. The hours played is 30k lower than in the August numbers. However, there is a weekend difference between that report and this so EVE Online probably is right on course for a nice bump in the standings. It isn't huge, but I think it's a nice indication what CCP is doing to revitalize the game is working. I'm still thinking about the latest dev blogs (Thera, manual control, Rhea in general) and may have more to say about them next week. I haven't decided. Thinking about EVE Online still gets an anger response out of my care-bear psyche so we'll see. But in general, I think CCP is on the right track. EVE Online has been stagnant for years with declining player numbers. Anything to shake up the status quo can only help. :D

I'm pretty meh about the rest of the top twenty list. Free to play (F2P) and MOBA's are still the popular thing. One of these days I'd love to see a list of money earned and see how well this list corresponds to that list. I don't think that will ever happen. Not all game companies release those sorts of figures. More's the pity.

Next month I'm not making any predictions. I expected Assassin's Creed: Unity to vault onto the list, but with all the post launch problems with the game that's unlikely to happen. At this point I've but it on my wait for a Steam Sale list. I'm not going to pay $60 for a broken game. And it is broken, badly. More's the pity again. Other than that release, I don't see anything else on the horizon that could upset the current top ten on this list. There may be a bit of position jostling, but it really isn't going to change in November. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The State of Tamriel

[caption id="attachment_3973" align="aligncenter" width="1400"]Selfie - Loving Armor Dye Selfie - Loving Armor Dye[/caption]

Today I thought I'd be telling everyone about Assassin's Creed: Unity, but when I went to purchase it via Steam yesterday there was a big red thumbs down on the store page. I had to check that our first, of course. It seems the PC version of the game is having some issues. I don't know if this is a campaign by all those upset because the game specifications are so high, or if the PC version of the game is as poorly optimized and full of bugs as reported. Either way, I'm not going to drop that sort of money until I know for certain. I love Assassin's Creed, but that means I love to play Assassin's Creed. If it's not playable, what's the point? So for those PC gamers out there who haven't purchased yet, wait until the dust settles.

That said, let me fill you in on what The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) is like these days. Because I wanted to finish Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag before Unity released, and because Civilization: Beyond Earth, I hadn't played TESO since the middle of July. I was starting to ask myself if I should keep the subscription if I wasn't going to play it. So, since I took an extra long 5-day weekend (yes, I really took the day off last Friday ;) ,) I decided I'd finish Rivenspire and see what life in Tamriel was like these days. Eight levels later here's what I discovered.

My last gameplay post about the goings on in Rivenspire was on July 15th. I had just finished Sanguine Barrows, and thought I was about half way through Rivenspire events. I could not have been more wrong. Or perhaps it was just that the second half of things just took longer than the first half of things. No, that's not true, because I finished Rivenspire Saturday night. Maybe it was because I was working on my Explorer, Pathfinder and other achievements at the same time so it simply seemed like the second half took more time. I was taking every side trail and every secondary quest I came upon. Yeah, that's got to be it. No, that's not it either. Okay, here's the deal. I was having so much fun I don't really know what took so long. It may very well be that I'm living an entirely different life in-game so it merely seems like a lot of extra time.

The simple fact is I was having a blast running through public dungeons and pretty much killing everything in sight for fat loot. Sometimes I'd be alone, and sometimes I'd have an impromptu group of which I was a part. These groups were never formally made. It was just ad hoc groups of players in the same dungeon at the same time. Killing Osgrikh during Foul Deeps in the Deep in Obsidian Scar was especially satisfying. I'd tried solo killing the SOB twice and couldn't quite do it. I left and repaired armor damage then returned. On the third try, I had the assistance of a Battle Mage who was having more trouble with him than I was it looked like. Between the two of us we beat the jerk down handily. It's that sort of impromptu cooperation that I've come to love about TESO, and it happened every day over the past few days I've played.

But you know what hasn't happened? Bots, that's what. I didn't see a single bot all five days, and I put in over 24 hours game play in those five days. Hallelujah! There were no crafting bots. There were no bots waiting for bosses to spawn. In fact, one time I had to get up and do something around the house but didn't log out. Mabrick stood idle too long and the server logged me out automatically. Oops... but, HELL YEAH! There were times right after launch I couldn't even get close to bosses in order to finish a dungeon. I left several unfinished because of bots. So of course I went back to Glenumbra, Stros M'Kai and Betnikh and got the achievements for those places I couldn't get before because bots. It was a little odd being a 30+ level Templar and taking out Bad Man, but I did it anyway - after I let all the noobs do it first of course.

That's the other thing I didn't see any more - kill stealing. It used to be a fairly regular thing, but no one stole any kills from me all weekend. I think this is likely due to two reasons. One, without all the bots it isn't really necessary any more. Two, there were not as many "characters" online so the spawn rate is more appropriate: that was at least my experience. There were still plenty of characters, but there were not the insane number TESO had just after launch. Hell, if this is profitable and keeps the franchise going I'm all for the lower character population. It makes the world seem larger, and when you do run into another adventurer it's more likely to be a friendly greeting than a "piss off, this is our spawn."

So overall I am pleased to report The Elder Scrolls Online is actually very pleasant to play these days. I freed North Point, I killed Baron Montclair and I put Countess Tamrith on the throne. Baron Dorell just pisses me off. He's such a hard head. I decided he couldn't be king when he... wait, that'd be a spoiler. I shouldn't talk about it. XD But it's a damn shame about Count Ravenwatch... :twisted: