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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Immersion - The Art of Suspending Disbelief

Before I started blogging, I tried my hand at writing science fiction. It was something I'd always wanted to do, and my significant other is a writer, so I decided why not. I won a contest that paid money, I got honorable mention (but not published) in a prestigious sci-fi anthology, and I even have a couple of manuscripts "gathering dust in a drawer." I've not given up on them, far from it. I just need to wait until New Horizons reaches Pluto so I can correct the details I've undoubtedly gotten wrong. :P

Why am I telling you all this? Not for the reason you think. When you write science fiction, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions before you get started. About the first one you should ask is, "Am I writing hard sci-fi, space opera, dystopia or what?" Personally, I love to read space opera (just finished Ancillary Justice!) but prefer to write hard sci-fi. That's why I have to wait for a space probe to get to its destination. In either sub-genre, you must, must, must nail the disbelief equation. What is that you now ask?

The disbelief equation is not a mathematically precise line of squiggles. It's the point in a science fiction story where you must get the reader to believe something that is patently not true. The entire story hinges on that disbelief. For example, let's take Star Wars, the first movie (that's #4 in the Lucas Decimal System.) Luke and companions have just blasted off from Mos Eisley on their way to Aldebaran. They are intercepted by an Imperial Star Destroyer, a shield is failing and they have to get away fast. Here's a nice YouTube clip to remind and entertain you. ;)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwevTdKL-tk]

Now to the point. This entire scene is one long exercise in getting the watcher to suspend disbelief. Everything up to the point where Han throws that lever and the stars streak across the screen is meant to get the watcher to say, "Yeah, that's right. That's how I'd do it." Let's do a count of the possible. High energy weapons: yep, we've made a few of them ourselves. High-tech armor: yep, we've dabbled in that too. Space ships: we've got that covered in spades. Hey, on a side note, did you all watch the unveiling of the SpaceX Dragon V2 capsule? Wow, is that thing a beauty! Deflector shields: yep, the Earth is surrounded by one so why not a ship? Computers to calculate the incredibly complex math of a hyperspace jump: check. All of those things, including the seat belts everyone puts on, are designed to get your head nodding. You've completely accepted they are on a spaceship fleeing storm troopers and worse. Then... BLAM, the Millennium Falcon jumps into Hyperspace, safe and sound. So where's the disbelief that needs suspended? Simple. It's the most basic sci-fi lie of all. You can't travel faster than the speed of light. Period. The laws of the universe prevent it, Einstein described it, and every experiment humans have managed to run since (and there are hundreds of them, believe me) has verified it. You cannot go faster than light in anything that has mass. But without that "jump to light speed" there is no story. They don't make it to Aldebaran, or what's left of it. There is no Death Star to capture them. There is no saving the Princess. End of story.

Of course, we could be wrong. Scientists discover realities of the universe previously thought impossible from time to time. Take for instance this week's announcement scientists had managed to transfer data with near 100% reliability between two quantum entangled particles. That, ladies and gentlemen, is faster than light communications. Those of you who've read Ender's Game know the significance of that accomplishment. It is now scientific fact (well, as soon as the results are replicated) people can exchange information across any distance practically instantaneously. So yeah, we may one day figure out how to get a body with mass to ignore the speed limit of our universe, but that isn't the case now. Now you need to get the reader nodding "yes" and then hit them with the impossible thing and hope they keep nodding. That's what it means to suspend disbelief. You get the reader to ignore the lie because everything else is right.

And that, in a nutshell, is what immersion is all about in computer gaming - at least for those of us who play for immersion's sake. And when that suspension of disbelief fails, when the writer misses the mark and the nods stop, the backlash is doubly negative. It starts with, "How dare you insult my intelligence in this fashion!" and only gets worse from there. You should read Grimmash's and Jester's comments from my last The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) post What to do About Bugs and Money. They both have major issues with the game and have stopped playing it. But let's be careful here. One of these commentators is talking about immersion and one is talking game mechanics. Can you tell which is which? It makes a huge difference as I'll detail below. It also raises the bar for getting a suspension if disbelief, though they aren't truly all that interested in it anyway.

For Grimmash, the real problem seems to be the mechanics of the game. He uses words like "loose" and "hides" to describe what are in essence interface issues. What he wants is more control of the game's mechanics. If I might interpret, I believe he was looking for something where real skills mattered more than story or subroutine. Where combat is decided by how well you apply your DPS, not just how quickly, or with how much panache. He wants the game to give him the ability to use his innate skills as a gamer to succeed. This is not immersion. It is achievement oriented. This is why FPS and MOBA games are so damn popular. TESO is neither of these, and sorry Grimmash, if that was your expectation perhaps you should have read some of those reviews. I don't think the developers ever said that was going to be the way of it. And because of your disappointment in what you were really seeking, it makes all the other shortcomings more irritating because they show how completely, and that's an important word, COMPLETELY incompetent Zenimax is. There is no way you're going to suspend disbelief for a game so fundamentally flawed.

Jester on the other hand, who prompted me to write this post, does come up with some concrete immersion breaking issues. Bots leaving piles of boss monsters in public dungeons is one of them. This has gotten better, but is still a difficult mechanic to swallow and suspend disbelief - especially when there are two or more of the same dead guy on the floor. But I don't actually see NPCs a region away saying, "“You were the one that [X]ed the [Y]!” when a zillion other people did too" as personally immersion breaking. And there I think you will find the nut of why so many people can call a game immersion breaking while so many others say it's great immersion. It's a subjective judgement. But while Jester says he's into immersion, and I don't doubt that, I believe that is not his major motivation for playing. I believe Jester is a social players as much as he is an immersion player. He seemed to be most aggrieved at the broken social system in TESO. If I may quote his quitting TESO post An MMO for Loners, "How the hell does a MMO that seems disdainful of the social element of gaming succeed?" Taking that as his major complaint, which I truly believe it is, he too falls into the opinion the game is fundamentally flawed in a non-immersion way, and therefore suspension of disbelief for immersion's sake is much harder to swallow. Again, if a player can't get what he really wants, there is no way he can accept his secondary motivation as good enough. That's too much like capitulation and accepting less for more. Am I wrong?

[caption id="attachment_2674" align="alignleft" width="520"]Motivations - Yee Motivations - Yee[/caption]

That's when I realized there was an unspoken conflict going on between MMO players. There are those who play the min-max game. Who want to be the most powerful of the powerful. They are driven more by achievement than by immersion and rely on social only as a means to an achievement. Does this remind anyone of EVE Online? It better. That's EVE Online in spades. Then there are those who play the social game. To a large degree, this is what I see WoW as having become. And it is HUGELY popular and it's the where game bling was invented. Then there are the immersion players. We are the ones who want to live Star Wars vicariously through Star Wars Galaxies, as it was meant to be, without a Jedi on every street corner.

None of these desires are wrong. After all, as Doctor Nick Yee pointed out with the Daedalus Project, there are many reasons why people play games. You can find them listed in this article on page five. I've snipped out the table he presents in the article and present it here. There is an entire blog post (or five) I could write about this table and how to interpret it, but Doctor Yee does a much better job and you really should read his work.

I am obviously deep into the immersion column. There is not one motivation in that column to which I can deny culpability in perpetrating for my own ends. What one has to understand I think, is that there are many motivations in those other two columns that actively defeat the immersion which motivates me. And what I want, well, to say it disappoints the others is putting it mildly. Most achievers find what I want totally boring. And those in the social column find it terribly unsatisfying.

To illustrate what I mean, here's how I play the game for the sake of immersion. Rule number one, accept it is a total fantasy and a computer generated one at that. It will not be perfect. Computers are great at doing the same thing over and over. They are not so good at creating original content. When I go into a dungeon and it has the same floor plan as the last dungeon I went into, I choose to believe that, just as in real life housing developments, the builder decided to use a small number of floor plans to minimize the overall cost of the development. That people got so angry about reused dungeon plans tells me many people stopped nodding at that point because they were looking for something else. There is nothing to achieve by running the same dungeon plan over and over. But I choose to interpret it a different way and keep nodding.

When I go into dungeons, I sneak. That's what you do - because they're dangerous places. :o When someone goes flying by my, I think, "Hey, there's my radar detector!" That's how I see people who speed on the interstate. I'm not mad at them because they're doing 100 MPH in a 70 MPH zone. They're just racing ahead to clear out all the cops so I can do 85 MPH without worrying about it. You see, dungeon delving is an exercise in exploration for me, not min-maxing or socializing with a group. So I sneak. I don't get all the kills, and I don't get all the lulz. And I don't care. That's not the reason I'm there. I've made a conscious decision to do it a different way, and to interpret what goes on around me in a different light. Those who don't are going to be disappointed much worse than I if things aren't perfect - like a pile of bots and bodies at the main boss. Would it surprise you to know I've been in every public dungeon from Stros M'kai to Stormhaven, but less than half of them are marked complete in my journal? That's because I skipped the boss. That's not the point of dungeon delving to me. I consider myself lucky to have gotten out alive in fact. ;-) For achievers and social players, that's probably a non-start attitude.

Let's talk about cities. Sometimes playing TESO for me is standing on a street corner playing a lute. The more public the corner, the better I like it. This is not a social endeavor at its roots, though it may impinge on that if someone joins me. Why a street corner? Well, I don't like to make crowded banks even more crowded. Besides, all the people there are doing one thing. That's boring. The marktplatz is where it's at for a people watcher like me, and people watching is a form of exploration. Did you ever think of it that way? As I play, I watch people, real people, go about their business, and imagine they are making bank runs, doing grocery shopping, looking for a special piece of jewelry for the misses, or just passing through on some important errand. It's not so hard to do, providing you keep a proper mindset. Sometimes it takes a great effort, like when that buffoon Breton, who has to jump around everywhere he goes, passes through. Or that gal who forgot to put on her dress that morning. I just have to advert my eyes at their rudeness and impropriety. I can only believe the Supernal Dreamers must have robbed them of their wits and made idiots of them.

And when an NPC in a far away place says, "There goes the one who saved High King Emeric," I choose to believe the only thing that can travel faster than the speed of light is gossip.

It takes a lot of work to scratch an immersion itch in MMOs. In some MMOs it takes more effort than in others. I played WoW for 18 months, and I never could quite get immersed fully into the environment. There were just too many other players jumping and running around naked for that to work. It was too social. LOTRO was much easier for me. There were far fewer players. I played that MMO for 24 months. I ended up leaving because after a while you run out of things to discover, the customization options stagnate and it all becomes old. And as I'm not achievement motivated, the monster play, etc., just didn't appeal to me. Before all that was Star Wars Galaxies. I lived in the wastes of Tatooine. There were places where the player housing was so thick it was immersion breaking. I didn't go to those places. It was a big world, and my speeder route from home to Mos Eisley was unoccupied. And the more people in Mos Eisley I saw, the better. It was, after all, a very crowded space port. What broke it for me finally was not just that they nerfed all my skills so all my months of hard work mattered not. I could still make things branded as, "Made by Mabrick," which is covered by the customization motivation in immersion. No, it was every third person in Mos Eisley being a Jedi. That's when my nodding stopped in Star Wars Galaxies. That's wasn't the way it was supposed to be, and I couldn't force myself to accept it: role-play full stop.

Have you noticed the recurring theme in those examples? To make sure you've gotten it right, here it is plainly. I make a conscious effort to interpret the game as I wish to see it. Immersion is an exercise of imagination. It isn't always easy. Unlike science fiction books and movies, online games are an evolving story. They change because of the real people running around inside them. In my sci-fi stories, I am mostly in control of the narrative and I shape the believable so the unbelievable is less shocking. MMO designers don't get that luxury. If I were to compare immersion in TESO to Skyrim, I'd be doing the developers of TESO a huge disservice. Skyrim is a closed story. The writers are in control of the believable and unbelievable, just like in a book or a movie. TESO is not so fortunate. And it is sometimes this incongruity between the writers being in control (story line quests) and not being in control (public dungeons) that makes TESO hard to swallow for many.

And that's the conundrum MMO designers find themselves facing. Think about every review for TESO you've read. Now categorize the reviewer in one of the three motivational columns outlined by Doctor Yee. Can you see the type of player who wrote the review based on their TESO complaints or complements? Now keep in mind that when a game fails on the primary motivation scale of the reviewer, their reviews of the other columns will be harsher. That's just human nature, and it explains the avalanche of negativity that landed on Zenimax.

Because these three columns are at odds in many instances, no developer can ever successfully write a game that appeals to all the elements within them. If they attempt it, they run the risk of appealing to no one. That's where the avalanche started. TESO is trying to be everything to everyone, and at some point failing in all three columns, and it's pissing everyone off. They then can find nothing good within the game. Zenimax needs to stop and concentrate on those things that will get them the largest player base, and accept they can't make all the players happy all the time. Pleasing a few is better than the shit-storm they're getting, and eventually the reviews will turn positive and the sun will shine on Tamriel once again.

I could write yet another post about what Zenimax needs to do IMO. I don't think I'm going to though. It's enough that I've said what I have, but for those who'll feel disappointed if I don't do some closure, here's where I think Zenimax will find their gold. Jester is correct, no MMO can succeed without appealing to the social aspect of the game.  That column is the glue that binds an MMO together. What Zenimax needs to decide is if they go strong social, or social spun into one of the other two columns. They can't to both columns. It doesn't work. To that end, Zenimax needs to fix the grouping system. They need to make the reality phasing less of an issue for those that want to play together, and they need to do it now. They should only fix those achievement elements that have a direct benefit to socialization, like status and to some degree competition. But they have to make the competition fair and equitable and that's not an easy thing to do. Or, they need to shore up the immersion side of the table. Customization and role-play fit best with the more social aspects of the game.

When Zenimax finishes doing all that, they'll have invented World of Warcraft. From there they can decide if that's all they want to be. If that does not satisfy them, they can become like EVE Online where achievement rules, or they can become like Star Wars Galaxies where immersion was the name of the game. They'll lose player base because of it, that's the nature of the table. But they'll gain distinction, and perhaps player loyalty. But for gods sake Zenimax, stop trying to do both. It's not a technological thing, it's a gamer motivation thing, and you are in danger of getting it wrong and not even understanding why. That's just my opinion mind you, but there you have it.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Relaxing with an Old Favorite - Part One

There are just some games that never get old. And The Ancient Gaming Noob's exploits in multi-player Civilization V gave me an itch I just had to scratch. And last Friday, with a long holiday weekend approaching, I decided to scratch. Also, I was heading to eastern Oregon where there is Internet, but it's cellular in nature and thus not terribly fast. And I was warned before leaving the LTE radio was out on the local tower there, so connection speeds would be even slower than normal. That ruled out any strictly online game.

But Civilization V via Steam supports saving games to the Steam Cloud. If you've never used it, it's an awesome feature. I was able to start a game on my home system and continue to play it on the laptop while away. When I returned to the game last night (Yea, I know, I said I'd be logging into TESO. But my unfinished game kept calling me...,) I just grabbed the save game off the cloud and got back to it.

[caption id="attachment_2650" align="alignleft" width="266"]Civ V May 2014 Civ V May 2014[/caption]

I've never tried multi-player mode, and I don't have the tight little group of friends TAGN has, so I just stuck with the tried and true single player mode. I didn't want to undertake anything terribly difficult. I was looking for relaxation more than achievement. I kept the difficulty on Chieftain level. But I did want a nice, long, detailed game. So I selected a marathon session on the largest map I could get and stuck eleven AIs on it. Then I went down the list of rulers I could play and picked one I'd never played. I ended up playing the British under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I.

As you can see, I've come a goodly way from the beginning of the game. I've put 20 hours into the game since last Saturday! My opponents are an odd mix of AIs I'd not played against much, with the exception of just a couple. The computer gave me the Shoshone,  Zulus,  Assyrians,  Chinese, Greeks, Americans, Japanese, Iroquois, Brazilians, Siamese and Egyptians. The only one of those overtly hostile were the Zulus. It was par for the course that they were on my northern border, along with the Shoshone.

I tend to play the long game in Civilization, that's literal and figurative. As soon as my capital gets to three population, I start producing settlers. I found as many cities as I possibly can, trying to create a defensible border. I plan ahead of time where I'll place each city so they are in mutually defensible locations. In this game, I was lucky that my southern border is a large desert with MOUNTAINS. :o I didn't need to worry about anyone settling there right away. I began by building a line of cities across a river running through the center of my continent well north of London, the capital. The south bank was lined in Jungle covered hills. It was a perfect line of defense. I pushed out York and Nottingham without much trouble. I then founded Hastings and Canterbury to complete the line and secure some inner territory for later cities (Coventry, Newcastle and Warwick.)

However, before I could get my defenses fully into place, Shaka decided I looked too juicy to let alone. He declared war and besieged Hastings and York with nearly two dozen warriors and archers. I responded by throwing everything I had at him. That consisted mainly of Archers at this stage of the game, but also my initial warrior. :D I managed to beat off the attack using my cities and archers in tandem to eliminate his strongest units. The one-two punch of a city barrage and a garrisoned archer is fairly potent. Even though Shaka outnumber me two to one, he took heavy losses and only managed to destroy Hastings, not capture it. The only unit I lost, other than the archer garrisoning Hastings, was my warrior. After Shaka razed Hastings, since I outnumbered the Zulu troops at this juncture, he withdrew.

I licked my wounds, resettled Hastings, and continued my planned eight city expansion. I made one concession to reality: I invested heavily in defense. Because of this, Shaka turned his attention to the Shoshone and Assyrians. That gave me time to solidify my territory and start ramping up production with an aim of scientific dominance. I was nearly the last empire to enter the medieval era. I was the first to reach the renaissance. I forewent building wonders and poured everything into defense (I actually started the Honor Social Policy, something I almost never do) and science. In the mean time, Shaka was busy conquering the Shoshone capital and making life difficult for the Assyrians. Soon my empire was thriving, and Shaka was my best buddy because I had more sugar than Brazil. Who knew Shaka had a sweet tooth? Here was the state of The Empire in 1450 AD, about ten hours into the game.

[caption id="attachment_2653" align="aligncenter" width="800"]British Empire in 1450 AD British Empire in 1450 AD[/caption]

I had a good laugh about the area of unclaimed territory just south of Nottingham. I took to referring to it as Sherwood Forest. :mrgreen: As you can see, The Empire is very healthy. My cities are well defended with English longbows, and I've discovered muskets long before anyone else. That is why I tend to play a very science oriented game. Once I am unassailable through superior firepower (not merely more firepower,) the options really open up. I can easily go commerce, culture or faith as a means to world domination. And should I so choose, I can also conquer. In some games I do a bit of all of them. For instance, sooner or later Shaka will take out the Shoshone and the Assyrians and will have no choice but to attack me. I would be prudent to attack him before that happens, at a time of my choosing, when my military far surpasses his technologically. I then have a choice to raze his cities or occupy them. Occupying cities brings its own issues. I'm also curious if I can return the Shoshone and Assyrian capitals back to them and thus make them beholding to me. Taking this route would probably eliminate any chance of a science victory, since one needs to maintain their lead to win such a victory, and I'd have to refocus on placating unhappy citizens. But if I did occupy the cities, I could then achieve a diplomatic victory. By getting the City States to align with me, I could drive my World Congress delegates through the roof. I've done it before. Then I just vote myself the winner. Those are the best wins of all!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

TESO: What To Do About Bugs and Money

Because of the holiday and work, last Thursday was the last time I've been able to play The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO.) The last three videos you've all seen were from that one two-hour session. That's not all that happened though. This was the day after the Craglorn mega-patch, and I also ran into a few glitches - bugs you could say. None of them stopped me from playing the game. They were barely even a nuisance to tell truth. In fact, one of them was damn funny.

So I made a video of it. I pulled it out of the session capture and did a voiceover on it. The voiceover is what Mabrick, the 23rd level Imperial Templar, thought about the situation. That I had these thoughts while stuck at the Wayshrine in Wayrest is besides the point. These sorts of things just come to me. It's part of the role-play I do for myself. (Warning, this video is "off-color." That means there is sexual innuendo in it. If "off-color" offends you, don't watch it.)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4rDz6VJDIU?rel=0]

This is how I choose to see bugs in a game. I make fun of them. I move on and try to ignore as many as I can. I certainly don't get offended by them. Bugs happen, and I really don't believe the developers like them any more than we do.

But there has been a lot of angst in the TESO community over the quality of the game. These bugs have led to fellow blogger Jester leaving the game. And make no mistake, he had good reasons for doing so. I think there will probably be more people leaving than staying, if I have to prognosticate. There are some basic issues with the game design I alluded to in this post. It has some people really unhappy with the mechanics of group play in the PvE zones, and that's perhaps the least of the issues with group play. Here's the tl;dr -  PvE group play is fundamentally broken in a way that Zenimax can't fix without killing most of The Elder Scrolls feel of the game. But leaving it the way it is really hinders groups of friends roaming the countryside for fun and profit. The only one's seemingly able to do that are the bots as outlined in this reddit thread.

Currently people who like to play with others, but not have to rely on them (thus the MMO for loners tag going around,) seem to be the only ones thoroughly enjoying the game. Unfortunately I am not convinced that will be enough to keep Bethesda and Zenimax management happy. It certainly won't be making them bank the way they want. It occurred to me over the holiday I play this game almost exactly as I play Skyrim. That's not a bad thing, nor is it wrong to play it this way. But I realized an important distinction between the two. I paid $40 for my copy of Skyrim months after it released. I paid double that for my Imperial Edition of TESO, and an additional $78 for six more months. I have paid FOUR times what I paid for Skyrim, and it isn't a better game, only more populated. That's staggering when you actually stop and think about it.

Looking at TESO from a purely financial outlook, I'm being quite dumb. There are other MMOs out there that have fewer bugs and might be just as fun. It's true! XD But they wouldn't be The Elder Scrolls, and that means something to me. I'm sentimental that way. I also play for immersion, and I get that in spades with TESO. It's the one thing I look forward too most. I truly enjoy meeting NPCs again, and having them "remember" who I am. Sadly real people are hardly ever that way. Some of that is my own damn fault for wanting to make it on my own - but that's me for you. I can't go changing now. ;-)

So where does that leave us? Is TESO hopelessly flawed? Actually, I don't think so. I believe these issues can all be resolved by the devs, and probably before my six month subscription is over. The real question is can Zenimax make the game worth the subscription fee? Right now, I have to say that it is not. I'd have to tell people to go play Skyrim  if they only want that Elder Scrolls feeling, because it will cost them a lot less money. I'd love to say there are things that make TESO better, but I can't. At least not as it is now.

That all said, I'll be logging into TESO tonight and not Skyrim. For me, the promise of TESO pulls me that way. Knowing most of those characters running around the countryside are real people makes a difference. If I get tired of quests, I can always just go play my lute on a street corner in Wayrest and watch the real people go by. That's a defining difference for me, and it keeps me coming back. What about you?

Monday, May 26, 2014

TESO: My Hardest Decision Yet

***Spoiler Alert***



My first quest in Rivenspire continues. With my assistance, Lieutenant Fairfax and his Shornhelm troops are holding their own against House Montclair's army. I have taken the medical supplies to his healer, Heloise Menoit. She was concerned about the Hinault family whose farm is ground zero for the current skirmish, so I've agreed to accompany her to check on them. As the fighting rages around us, we make our way through the dark to the farmhouse where the family has barricaded themselves against the dangers outside. But not all is as it seems on this foul night.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SMkrjoi_PE?rel=0]

Sunday, May 25, 2014

TESO: Going to Rivenspire

My work was done, and High King Emeric set me to a new task. He bade me travel to Rivenspire and see what I could do to sort out troubles there. After the last would be King of Rivenspire revolted, High King Emeric split the rule of Rivenspire among the three noble houses there. I kept my thoughts on that strategy to myself and agreed to see what I could do about things. So, my work in Stormhaven complete, I headed out the north gate of Wayrest on my way to Rivenspire. This is a bit of a spoiler, so you may not want to watch it if you don't want to know what happens.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tImVGijl4tg?rel=0&w=960&h=720]

Friday, May 23, 2014

TESO: Castle of Worms

*** Spoiler Alert***



I'd been hanging onto my next The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) main quest mission while I completed the main line quest in Stormhaven. With High King Emeric saved from the Night Terror, I proceeded to the Harborage to find out if the Prophet had made any progress in locating Sai Sahan. Was I surprised by who else was there: Abnur Tharn - though not in the flesh. That was the whole point. The mission turned out to be a lot different from the one I thought I'd be embarking on. It was difficult, and though battered and bruised in the end, I was victorious! For those who want to know what to expect, here's a video I made 1 . I didn't include everything in the quest. There is one surprise I specifically left out. :) But the entire boss fight is there, and unlike me, you should have a very good idea of what you'll face when you get there. Enjoy!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGGyreYcwcE]







  1. I used Open Broadcast Software's (OBS) save to file feature. For encoding I set the Quality Balance to 10, the highest setting, and set the Max Bitrate to 5000 kb/s. The buffer I set to match. The video resolution was my main monitor's maximum setting of 2560x1600. I did no resolution downscaling. All other OBS settings were done according to the guide on the OBS web site. As for TESO, I had every graphics setting maxed out. XD I recorded the entire play session. It was just over 2 hours long. The entire capture was less than four (4) gigabytes in an MP4 format. You can see some blurring due to the encoding, most noticeable to me when I first stepped onto the top of the tower. The fine twigs of the dead plants up there especially blur. However, the fight sequences are very watchable. TESO is a good candidate for video capture with compression. 



Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Streaming

I'm certain many of you have noticed a change in the types of articles I've been posting lately. I've been posting a lot of gameplay video. Some of them have been quite lengthy. The unofficial reason for this is my brother enjoys watching the videos. :D  <3  The official reason for this has to do with this post I put up on April 11, 2014. I'd been running some testing of Twitch.tv versus Google Live. The tl;dr of that post was I opted to go with Google Live rather than Twitch.tv. That was for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being Twitch.tv would not show more than the 300 most viewed channels in any of their apps - including their console apps. You can't even bring up a channel by typing its URL in directly. As I watch Twitch.tv almost exclusively on my Xbox, that is unacceptable. Until it changes, I won't be streaming via Twitch.tv (except to do more testing. ;-) )

This paragraph is a bit of a tangent, but it deserves mentioning at this point. News e-zines last weekend reported Google had agreed to buy Twitch.tv for one billion dollars. This is an unsubstantiated claim. Neither Google nor Twitch.tv will discuss it. People's heads are already imploding over this possibility. It seems Twitch.tv is some sort of sacred cow with many gamers. I'll go on record now and state I support this acquisition. I don't necessarily like it that Google will become even bigger, but they have the resources to take streaming to the next level. Twitch.tv does not. If they did, they wouldn't write an app that caps available channels at 300. They would also allow streaming at higher resolution than 720P. With most laptops now coming with a full HD screen, Twitch.tv's 720P limitation is showing its age. It's old, and there's not been much done by Twitch.tv about it.

Now back to your regularly scheduled post. That's why I've been running so many live streams lately. I've been exploring the full HD+ capabilities of YouTube Live. And I have good news and bad news about it. The good news is YouTube doesn't really care what resolution I stream. They happily accept my WQXGA (2560x1600) stream. It processes without a hitch, once I get the stream going. Now for the bad. The getting it going part is the real issue with YouTube live. It's almost painful. With Twitch.tv, it's relatively easy to click "stream" and go. There is only one stream key and you can easily hard code it into your streaming program. Each YouTube live session has a unique key. You have to set up the stream, update your software, and make certain everything synchronizes before you can "go live." It's a hassle, and not a small one.

But that hassle isn't the ugly of the situation. The ugly happens regardless of which service I use. In fact, the ugly really has nothing to do with either. The ugly is video compression. Without it, streaming just isn't possible. I've done quite a few videos in the past using FRAPS. FRAPS records without compression and captures gameplay with an unmatched fidelity. That's its claim to fame. It also gobbles gigabytes of hard drive space in seconds. A few minutes of FRAPS capture will eat 25 gigabytes of storage without hesitation. Storage has never been cheaper, but you just can't store an hour of gameplay capture using FRAPS. They don't make hard drives that large. Okay, they do make hard drive systems that large, but most of us can't afford them for our nerd caves. I have half a terabyte of storage I can dedicate to video capture. I was hoping that by streaming I could move all that storage requirement on to Google's shoulders.

But with only a 5GB uplink speed, I can only hit a bitrate of about 3000. To get the video out in real-time, compression is a necessity. In a fast action game like Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (AC4,) that can get really ugly, really fast. The video below is a prime example of what I'm talking about. The first TWELVE (12!) minutes is me futzing with the YouTube Live and Open Broadcast Software (OBS) settings. You can skip that unless yo need a good chuckle - or like staring at the asteroid Vesta. Venus is briefly there at the beginning too. :) Once the game session actually starts, you can see the effects of the video compression fairly quickly. When I'm stopped, the graphics are clear. When I'm moving or turning, things pixellate and blur terribly. This is not a frame rate issue. You can see my yellow FRAPS frame rate counter in the lower right corner. It pretty much stays in the high twenties. I've got OBS set to send at 30 frames a second, which is the most YouTube Live will accept. After many tests, including this test with Nvidia optimized graphics settings, I can only conclude that video compression is the big ugly. So take a look at the video to see the big ugly and then read the paragraphs below the video on what I've decided to do about it.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ij59zZTanzs?rel=0]

Thanks for sticking around this long. To start the, "what I'm going to do about it" paragraphs, let me say I am not happy with the quality of my streamed AC4 sessions. AC4 is a game really not suited for streaming, even though Twitch.tv is built into Ubisoft's Uplay client. Even with the 720P resolution drop, I still get blurred graphics when I move quickly. You can see it for yourself over on my Twitch.tv channel. Here is a link to the shorter section of the test broadcast I made this week. It won't be there forever (another strike against Twitch.tv) so I put it on YouTube as well. It was actually supposed to be one long broadcast, but AC4 locked up in the middle of a fight. That's the first time it's ever done that, but I digress.

So streaming AC4 is not really an option. I am currently testing the OSB save-to-file feature to see if I can get acceptable quality full-length gaming sessions recorded. Since the broadcast is going to disk, I can set the video quality to as high as it will go. My first hour-long test did show some blurring, but not nearly as much as the live stream. And the entire hour-long test consumed less than four gigabytes of disk space! For other games that have lower end video requirements (like EVE Online,) broadcasting a live session will work rather well. Some have a Twitch.tv client built-in, like EVE Online, but I'll use OBS thank you very not. EVE Online's Twitch.tv capability forces low resolution and doesn't get 16:10 aspect ratio at all. But long streamed play sessions will pose no real video quality issues.

For shorter videos like TESO: Defeating Galthis, I'll continue to use FRAPS, because you just can't beat the quality. It also makes video editing in programs like Adobe Premiere CC a pleasure. If I'm going to do a spoiler, I should at least give the viewer as good a picture as I can. XD

That's it so far. I will certainly continue to test and adjust and test some more. And since the time I spend testing is time I'm not thinking up blog posts, I'll keep posting the videos I make: good, bad and ugly. I also need to expand it to other games I play; see which ones stream well and which don't. I've only really tested AC4 and TESO. All my EVE Online videos were done using FRAPS. Oh, and I want to adjust various video settings to see if some settings promote the compression issues more than others. I suppose this will be my summer project. It'll be fun!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

TESO: To Pay or Not to Pay, That Is the Question

I may have slaughtered Hamlet for that title, but I wasn't the first one to come up with this question. I saw it yesterday on PC & Tech Authority, in an article titled Should I keep playing Elder Scrolls Online? Huh..., by David Hollingworth. This is about the most level-headed assessment about the state of The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) I've read to date. I don't normally expect to see opinion pieces come out of tech e-zines, but I tip my hat to this article. You really should read it if you have any interest at all in a neutral biased report on the game.

Mr. Hollingworth hits the nail on the head when he very accurately describes the biggest issue in the game - and it's not bots or gold sellers. Those are things that Zenimax can mitigate. The biggest issue with TESO is the phased reality mechanic. In TESO, completing a quest changes the area around you. It changes how NPCs "talk" to you. I just slew Galthis and saved High King Emeric. Now when I walk through Wayrest, people say, "You're the one who saved High King Emeric! Can I have your baby?" Okay, I made that last bit up. The point is, what I accomplish changes the world. That's awesome! Now for the down side. It only changes the world for me. For most of those around me, High King Emeric is still in mortal danger. Read Mr. Hollingworth's article to understand how that really kills group play. He's had far more experience at it than I, but I know everything he says is absolutely true.

And to be honest with myself, I don't think Zenimax can fix that problem. They would have to remove something of far greater value from the game IMO: the feeling that what I'm doing makes a difference. That is what all the Elder Scrolls games are all about. It's about making choices and having an effect on the world at large. If you remove that from TESO, you won't have The Elder Scrolls. You'll have World of Warcraft. But so long as the reality difference remains in TESO, formal grouping will remain nearly impossible. As you adventure with your friends, you will all experience slightly different realities that will eventually drive you apart. Mr. Hollingworth has first hand experience to back that view. He goes so far as to call TESO, "An MMO for loners."

He may have something there. I've as much admitted many times I prefer to rely on myself first. That makes me a loner in most instances. But does that mean playing with others is out of the question? Frack no. I play with others all the time. For example, when collecting the keys to get into Wayrest Castle to kill Galthis, I played with others. Galthis is an instance, but getting the keys are not. There were at least a half-dozen other players with the same objective. I arrived at one of the key guardians just in time to see one 21st level character die. I skidded to a stop. Then a 20th level character skidded to a stop beside me. Without a word exchanged, we both knew what needed to happen. I started a 1.5 second duration spell, and he did likewise. As I leveled the guardian with a Shield Assault, he kept me healed and launched DPS spells. It took us seconds to secure the key. It was not a formal grouping, but for those few seconds we were a group - actively supporting each other with a common goal.

I've done this  many, many times on my 22 levels. It became particularly useful in dungeons once GMs started clearing out the bots. I remember going through one, don't remember which one now, but I was running along with two lightly armored magic users. I tanked and they melted faces. We cleared the entire dungeon in about five minutes. We never said a word, but we were absolutely working together. I know they were because they held there casts until I'd completed my attack sequence: Solar Flare, Sun Fire, Shield Assault and Puncture. That way I had aggro and they had all the time in the world - more or less. This is also how Dark Anchors work a lot of times. A group of people gather, waiting for the anchor to fall. When it does, we all fight independently but we also keep track of each other. I heal when it's needed. I charge when it's not. Is it the most efficient way of doing an anchor? Probably not, but no one has died yet on the ones I've joined. Of course, we way over power them but that's a different issue.

Then there was taking out the Brood Queen. Man, she was one tough bug! Even at level 22 I couldn't take her and her eight drones down by myself. It was the last thing I had to do in Stormhaven, and I died three times in the trying. But I was determined to take the drones out one at a time if I had to. On my third assault, with the queen and four drones left, I was joined by another tank. I died again, but he fought on. Rather than resurrect at a Wayshrine, I resurrected on the spot just in time to save his life. Between the two of us, we finished off the drones and the Brood Queen. It was still a tough fight, but we did it. He saluted me when she fell, and I him. It was glorious.

So as you can see, there is grouping in TESO. But it is not the grouping Zenimax "promised." I'm not going to debate the reasons I put that word into quotes. We'll just say I don't interpret what Zenimax said they would provide in quite the same way some TESO players do. And with those bad feelings now firmly in place, the real question becomes will people play past the initial 35-day mark. I know I will. I signed up for six months. And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Of course you're more favorable to Zenimax since you're already committed." Silly troll, don't be ridiculous. I bought a lifetime membership to Lord of the Rings Online ,but when it ceased to be fun any more I stopped playing. I haven't been back since. Paying for my time in advance is just the way I roll. The only game I play when it's not fun to do so is EVE Online. And I kick myself for doing it.

I play games to have fun. The money is already spent. It's history. It makes no difference to me any more. I can afford more games. It's the fun that matters most. TESO is fun for me, as it is fun for Mr. Hollingworth, despite its short comings. It's fun because I understand, and enjoy, an "MMO for loners." There's nothing wrong with that, and I've no doubt there are plenty of people content to play TESO for all the good in it. To those who aren't, all I can say is move on. TESO isn't for you. And that's a decision many will have to make this week, if not last. It's been over 35 days, and the disgruntled are leaving in droves - or not. We don't know yet.

To Zenimax I say, understand this and embrace it. Whatever you do, don't kill The Elder Scroll affect to be just another MMO. You should consider marketing the current areas as non-group areas. Remove the group dungeons from them even. Just be certain new players understand the limitations of the initial zones. And when you roll out new zones, like Craglorn, dispense with the reality phasing. Keep everyone in that zone in the same reality. There are plenty of zones you can create in this fashion. You may even want to go back and create some non-phase shifted lower level zones just for low-level players who want to adventure together. Of course, all that will take time to implement. And the number of subscriptions bringing in cash will directly affect the length of implementation. Let's just hope Zenimax doesn't turn out to be poor Yorick.

Monday, May 19, 2014

TESO: Defeating Galthis

***Spoiler Alert***



In my last The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) post, I discovered the three Omens Vaermina had sent to disrupt the political balance in Stormhaven, and thus all of the Daggerfall Covenant, was basically an elaborate ruse. While I was busy pursuing Omens in the dreams of others, Vaermina was secretly working on undermining the very heart of the Daggerfall Covenant, High King Emeric. To him she had assigned the Night Terror 1 , her former consort Galthis, who is a monstrosity more feared in Oblivion than perhaps Vaermina herself. As I slew the last of the Omens, High King Emeric succumbed to the Night Terror and not even Abbot Durak could enter his nightmare. However, as you saw in the last video, Azura gave me the means to enter High King Emeric's dream. However defeating Galthis and rescuing King Emeric was something I'd have to figure out on my own. And, I got more than I bargained for. Here's how it went.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGdN7QLiU8E

 







  1. Once again the quest writers of TESO made me smile, if wryly. A night terror is an actual, horrifying episode that I've personally experienced. I'm one of the luck 1% of adults discussed here. When you are dreaming, the body places itself into a form of paralysis so you cannot move. That's either to keep yourself from injury, or perhaps an evolutionary adaptation to keep predators from knowing where you sleep. Either way, you can't move. This is usually not an issue. However, it is possible for a person to regain consciousness while this sleep paralysis is still in effect. And to make matters worse, the brain is in such a state of neural flux being in a weird state between wake and sleep, that the auditory centers of the brain are in a heightened state of arousal. It is inevitable that the brain, for lack of other stimulus, will amplify any noises heard, turning them into auditory hallucinations. They go something like this, "Why yes, that creaking you just heard was the loose board at the bottom of the stairwell as the axe murder started his ascent to hack your family and you into bloody chunks!" You easily convince yourself of your impending doom. You're mind goes into flight or fight mode, and you can do neither. You are paralyzed. No matter how much you try, you cannot move. You cannot yell to warn your family. You will watch in terror as the axe murder dismembers your family, and finally, mercifully, on you. That is a night terror. I do not recommend. Night terrors are one reason I do not do horror. But back to the crazy good quest writers,  when King Emeric expresses disappointment in not achieving the peace of death... that was perfect. That's exactly what it's like. A really bad night terror is no laughing matter. It's completely real to those who have them, so I can very much sympathize with King Emeric's disappointment. I'd feel the same way if my entire existence was one long night terror. 



Sunday, May 18, 2014

From the Caribbean to the Pacific in a Day

I haven't gamed much this weekend. The week brimmed with bad news and I just needed to get out of town for awhile. Friday night me and the better half had dinner with friends at The Flinn Steakhouse (New Orleans style) where we planned our escape over fried Okra, Red Beans and Rice, Jambalaya and Shrimp Creole (all excellent.) So instead of gaming this weekend, I did this.

[caption id="attachment_2589" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A Day at the Coast-247 A Day at the Coast-247[/caption]

It was a magnificent day. You can see the best of the pictures I took here if you're interested. We had lunch in Newport at the highly recommended Local Ocean (incredible!) While waiting about 20 minutes for a table, I had to chuckle upon seeing this ship moored to the dock (and yes, you can sail on her.)

[caption id="attachment_2593" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A Day at the Coast-4 A Day at the Coast-4[/caption]

It was funny because I'd woke up at 6 AM, failed to get back to sleep and spent an hour and a half playing Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag before I left. And I'll also say one should have more coffee before taking on frigates for the first time in AC4. Ouch. I streamed the session so you can see what I'm on about. It's long, but if you've nothing else to do you can always just put it on in the background and laugh as I sail under the guns 1 .

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78qWbLGvDCA]







  1. Note to self - don't do that. 



Friday, May 16, 2014

TESO Explodes into the Top Five on Raptr

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="640"]Raptr's Most Played Games - April 2014 Raptr's Most Played Games - April 2014[/caption]

Every month Raptr publishes their Most Played PC Games list. It's a summary of how many hours during the just past month the average Raptr member played games Raptr can track. This does not take into account all games, as some clients just don't allow Raptr to track them, but it tracks most of the really big ones. And yes, there are some questions of statistical representation, since only those gamers who've elected to create a Raptr account and be tracked are represented in the data.

However, Raptr is the only third-party/neutral tool in town that even comes close to appropriate statistical representation of how many hours gamers devote to their passion. And all in all, I believe it's probably a reasonable representation. There are no indications Raptr members are any different from all gamers in general. That's to say, they aren't all fifty year old losers living in their mom's basement who've  got no life other than skewing Raptr's numbers. If you can accept their sample population as representative, then the Raptr rankings become very interesting.

So this month sees The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) vault into the top five games played during the month. Before anyone starts complaining about this ranking, let's just say it's a given the result is from launch fever. The first month of any big game is almost always a very good showing. Take Titanfall for example. On its launch debut, it came in at number fourteen. It's off the list this month. The same could happen to TESO. Only time will tell.

What I find interesting about this ranking is that it's so high even after all the negative press TESO received throughout April. Sure, it was all wine and roses the first week, but things quickly deteriorated after reports of the duping glitch surfaced and proliferated. From that point on, I'd say negative articles outweighed positive ones by at least a two to one margin. With blood in the water, everyone is eager to see the big huge franchise fail. Why is that? No, don't answer. That question could be a blog post all its own. But can anyone really disagree with the assessment that TESO's press has been overwhelmingly negative?

Just today Kotaku Australia had the headline, "The Elder Scrolls Online Players Are Pissed About Bots." That's a bit much. I'm a TESO player, and though I'm concerned about Bots, I am not pissed about them. They are, unfortunately, as inevitable as rain here in the Pacific Northwest. But I've continued to play despite the Bots and the bad press. Evidently so have many other gamers. Even with "free" game time 1 , if the game were truly as awful and unplayable as the e-zines say, people would play some other game. Yet we kept coming back to TESO.

According to Raptr, the average TESO player racked up 45 in-game hours during April. I racked up 65 hours in TESO myself. Of course, I won't play that much this month. I only played 9 hours my first week in May. Launch fever is over. But assuming my play time drops to 40 hours total, that would put the average Raptr member at about 25 hours - providing the doom and gloom prophesies predicting high subscription loss after the first 35 days of "free" game time aren't fulfilled. We'll just have to wait and see on that, but I'll go on record and say that hasn't happened.

Certainly there will be some who drop the game. But in my experience, those are the players already looking for a reason to move on. No few of them are the same people writing all the negative articles I'll wager. But not everyone who plays TESO is unhappy with it. Going back to Raptr, when I look at the community page, I see 283,192 active members out of 412,170 total (68.7%.) Compare that to League of Legends, a very popular F2P game, at 862,843 and 2,401,613 respectively (35.9%.) Even if we compare TESO to the most popular theme-park MMO of all, World of Warcraft (WoW: 869,717 active of 1,625,533 total or 53.5%,) TESO has a long way to drop before you can really consider its subscriptions to be on the rocks. In fact, most mature big title games (Titanfall, AC4, SC2, etc.) seem to hover in the 35% to 40% range. If TESO follows suit, it'll end up with an active member count around 144,250 players on Raptr. That's better than many other games, and certainly not in any bottom percentile group, but wouldn't one expect the cousin of Skyrim (51.8%) to do better?

The only real question in my mind is, can Zenimax continue to support the game at the levels they've committed to if they don't have WoW level numbers? It's one thing to be Ubisoft with a standalone title like AC4, which I expect to set aside when finished. Or Microsoft with a FPS like Titanfall, which I'd expect to be roughly the same experience session after session; the only real variation being how well I did against all the other gamers. But TESO is an MMORPG, and MMORPG players have come to expect their world will expand as time progresses. The expectation for TESO is far different in the mind of those who play it than for non-MMORPG games. That understood, it is not the rocky first month of TESO that will spell its doom, but where the game is in terms of expansion after the first six to 12 months. With Craglorn coming "soon," I believe Zenimax understands this. But they've already put off console development. Was that a realization on their part they weren't going to get the subscriptions they'd hoped to get? I don't know, but I wouldn't bet against it.







  1. By "free" I mean the 30 days received for buying the game and the truly free 5 days awarded for server down time. 



Thursday, May 15, 2014

TESO: Defeating the Omen of Betrayal

***Spoiler Alert***



Last night I continued the main quest line in Stormhaven. I had one more Skyshard to locate, but I was fairly certain it was in the quest zone: the only area I hadn't explored. So I met Abbot Durak at Shinji's Scarp as requested when I saved the abbey. He directed me to assist General Godrun. The general wanted the ogre's incursion into Stormhaven stopped as quickly as possible so he could get on with a more urgent campaign. That was odd, but I did as he asked. Dodging rocks is fun. :D I collapsed the cavern the ogres were using to get into Stormhaven and informed the General. That's when he ordered his men to march on Wayrest! Fortunately Abbot Durak but him to sleep before the order could be relayed. The General was under the influence of the Omen of Betrayal. I proceeded into General Godrun's dream to combat that last Omen. Here's how the battle went. I only had to do it once. Immovable for the win! Then I found out it was all a ruse to hide Vaermina's true target.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5we-pI7_hg8?rel=0]

I'll let you all know how saving the king goes in my next The Elder Scrolls Online post. ;-)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Taking Care of New Citizens

Star Citizen will not be a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game. At least, it will not be a MMO in the way we think of them today, the way technology has forced MMOs to be in the past. In the past and up to today, MMOs run on a single shard, large or small. Everyone logged into that shard exists in the same shared reality. Their world is persistent, but only to them. Anyone not logged into a specific shard literally does not exist to any other shard. In order for anyone to interact with anyone else, they have to share a shard. It's a way of looking at shard architecture that's a bit antiquated. That is to say, it's over a few years old. But it was completely understandable given the level of technology when the MMO concept was developed. Here's what that architecture looks like in a simple graphic.

[caption id="attachment_2568" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Closed Shards Closed Shards[/caption]

But there is a different way of looking at how this infrastructure works. Instead of separate, self-contained environments, each shard could interconnect with one another and share all the information contained within each. With the advances over the past decade in processor architectures, cloud computing and virtualization, there is no need to keep barriers between all these realities. With today's technology, if Google and Amazon can disperse their server load over a network that spans the globe, so can a game company. It may even be a cooperative business endeavor. Here is what such an interconnected persistent universe looks like graphically.

 

[caption id="attachment_2569" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Open Shard Open Shard[/caption]

Now, in all likelihood the open shard architecture would evenly distribute players across groups. And that is precisely what Star Citizen does. Take that smallest perforated circle above, the 100-player circle, and imagine all the larger circles filled with the smaller 100-player perforated circles. I'd have done that above except it became totally unreadable. So keeping in mind that each of the larger circles are populated by 100-player circles of their own, what does that represent?

In Star Citizen, the 1500-player circle could be a main planet within a galactic region. The 1500-players are spread throughout that planet, both on the surface and in orbit. The Star Citizen system will allocate all those players to one of the 100-player circles within that larger group. As players move around and interact with other players, Star Citizen will dynamically transfer them from 100-player group to 100-player group. These groups, in actuality game instances, will form and dissipate according to the game play happening in that part of the persistent universe. This dynamic instancing will be done completely in the background, without the players knowing. They will be automatically shuffled and reshuffled second by second as the game progresses.

The concept is fracking brilliant IMO. It is all outlined here in a post made by Chris Roberts at the very beginning. He runs through a hypothetical player event, trading steel between New Pittsburg and Terra, to illustrate how the system will work as that hypothetical player takes care of business. And this is the point where I really started to pay attention. In fact, I had to read it twice to make certain I hadn't read it wrong. In essence, this system will run the same way whether the person is in effective solo player mode, or has thrown the gates wide open to MMO style play. Here's how Chris Roberts describes it (emphasis mine.)

"Once I’ve plotted my nav course I would then engage auto-pilot and head towards my first “way” point on the path to my destination (a jump point, an interim space feature, like an asteroid belt and so on). At this point I’ve been handed back to the Galaxy Server, which is determining whether I will encounter a hostile, someone that has tagged me as a POI, or a predetermined encounter on the way, or if I’m going to run across ongoing battle instance that is relevant to me (some members of the instance are aligned against or with me). These encounters could be with an NPC or a live player(s) and are sorted on skill level and also – which is important to all of you that like a more single player experience and don’t want to deal with griefers – based on your player versus player (PvP) preference. So if you’ve set your game settings to be low PvP and you’re in a relatively safe area, you’ll likely have an NPC (PvE) encounter as opposed to a PvP one. Of course your ranking and any reputation you earn won’t be the same with a PvE encounter versus a PvP. My hope for this dynamic is that it will allow people to first play Star Citizen in a safer more single player open world style, but as they grow in confidence and want to test their mettle against other real players they can take the training wheels off and get into battles with real players. There will also be areas of the universe that no matter what your PvP setting is, will be PvP. These will be systems that are on the fringes of the policed galaxy and will be notorious for pirate and other illegal activity. They will also be the most lucrative areas – if you can survive."



This, this, this, this, GODS DAMMIT this. Gamers love to test their metal against the best opponents possible. We all know no AI boss could ever be as cunning and dangerous as a real person. Sooner or later, almost all of us want to take the real human challenge on. But new bros want to do it when they are prepared, when they feel ready. By changing the paradigm of how MMOs can operate, Star Citizen can do that. By allowing solo play and multiplayer play to coexist side by side, dynamically instancing them into and out of the weave of the persistent shared universe, Star Citizen will provide the best of both worlds.

Is this as easy a thing to do as my simplistic graphics and short paragraphs portray it to be? Hell no. It is perhaps the most ambitious gaming architecture any company has ever attempted. Yet I am convinced Robert Space Industries can pull it off. And I'm not the only one. There are almost a half million people who've contributed nearly $44 million in the name of that vision. And in less than a month, we should see whether or not dynamic instancing within a persistent shared universe can really work. In order to match pilots in Arena Commander, the system will have to exercise the programming logic that will make dynamic instancing a reality.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

TESO: Still Searching for Skyshards

***Spoiler Alert***



I had a lot more success locating Skyshards last night than the night before. I was able to locate three and obtain Immovable under my heavy armor skills. I also had some pretty decent luck in dungeons. I did not see the bot problem I've seen on other nights. Perhaps it was because it was later at night (8 PM PDT) and bots have to get their eight hours of beauty rest. But it is just as likely Zenimax is currently got the upper hand in their bot war. Either way, have a look at the wonderfully empty dungeons where I was able to kill bosses without fighting my way through a crowd of bots. It was wonderful. Hell, at one point I even failed to identify the boss because there was no crowd standing around waiting to kill it. Derp to me! Anyway, the video is 70 minutes long. I could make them shorter, but I'm not Pew Die Pie, so what does it really matter? I'm nowhere near as funny as he is anyway. XD

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTo1KhGIAH0?rel=0]

Monday, May 12, 2014

TESO: Looking for Skyshards in Stormhaven

I had about 45 minutes to kill after my Mother's Day dinner with mom yesterday, so I decided I'd go looking from Skyshards in Stormhaven. Sure, it'd be a lot faster if I just looked up all the locations on the Internet, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun. ;-) I ran into one serious bug last night. You'll have to see it to believe it. It's the first time I've had it happen to me. It was annoying, but not catastrophic. Otherwise it was a nice relaxing jaunt around the Stormhaven countryside. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neezvX3ONig?rel=0]

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Kenway at it Again

For your Sunday enjoyment, those of you who may be non U.S. or don't have a mother... :o ... I give to you about 90 minutes of me being the bad ass pirate Edward Kenway in the early decades of the 18th century. It's a bit long, so feel free to jump around. However, be sure to see the ship fight where I pull my pistol, grab some unlucky Spaniard in a head lock and... well, you'll just have to watch it now. Won't you? :D Enjoy!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PL-JfKsc5x8&w=640&h=360]

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Star Citizen Ship Stats Updated

I got a notice from Roberts Space Industries (RSI) they've updated the ship statistics for Star Citizen. You can view all ship statistics here. Since I already own a Freelancer, I thought I'd head over there to give it a look. Here's the stats for the Freelancer as well as four other ships I'm interested in.

[caption id="attachment_2532" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Freelancer Stats Freelancer Stats[/caption]

It looks like they did indeed give the Freelancer some love. Previous possible weapons classes were 2,3 and 5 last time I looked. They are now 3, 4 and 5; seems the Freelancer got more teeth. I don't see any other revisions in the stats. I'm really going to have to buckle down and start learning what all the various modules do. The development team has enough of them detailed now to make that worthwhile. Then when they conduct a rebalance as they did here, I'll have a better idea of what it's done to the ships in which I'm interested.

One of the reasons I got the Freelancer was because it has its own jump engine. Most larger ships do. And that begs the question, why don't the Banu Merchantman and the RSI Orion come with jump engines? I suppose by the "none equipped" tag one can infer the captain can have a jump engine installed. I wonder how much that's going to cost, both in terms of UEC and upgrade slots? Yes, I definitely need to start studying all these modules.

There is one thing I'd love for RSI to do on the ship spec page. They need to clarify the sentence at the top. The one that states,

DISCLAIMER: These are our current specifications on paper. Some of this is likely to change during the 3D design and game balancing process over the next 24 months. Despite this, they should give a good indication of the relative features and abilities of the ships in the Star Citizen universe.



With everything else saying Star Citizen is on track for a first quarter 2015 release, seeing "over the next 24 months" is a little alarming. Now, I know that first quarter 2015 date is for Squadron 42 chapters. That's the single player version of Star Citizen. The persistent universe multi-player version won't be available until the second half of 2015 earliest, and that's beta not final launch. Final launch for the persistent universe isn't anticipated until 2016. The Star Citizen Wiki  tries to keep track of all the twists and turns the release schedule has. It's a bit tricky since we are dealing with a standalone as well as persistent universe type of game. You can read all the details on the anticipated release schedule, with supporting statements from RSI, here.

The last bit of good news, which rolled in as I typed this post, is that we can expect the roll out of the dog fight module beginning the end of this month! You can read the announcement here. Initially all supporters will be able to fly against the AI. They will stage supporters into the player versus player arena by Citizen Number. Those that contributed first get to play first. That's fair. Still, I can't wait!

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Strange Twist of the Space-Time Fabric

In a strange twist of the space-time fabric, theoretical physics and the universe of gaming have collided. The family van of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist who gave us the Feynman diagram, has been restored to it's original condition by Seamus Blackley, the inventor of the Xbox - which I own.

[gallery type="slideshow" ids="2526,2522,2523,2524"]

You can read all about it at Symmetry Magazine, a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication. The best paragraph, another strange confluence of gaming and physics, is the first paragraph.

“The game I play is a very interesting one,” says Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman in a low-resolution video posted to YouTube. “It’s imagination in a tight straitjacket.”


Now haven't we all felt that way a time or two? Thank you Seamus Blackley for saving this icon of geekdom.

New Bro Participation Stories are Anecdotal Fallacies

The Ancient Gaming Noob (TAGN) wrote a very nice piece yesterday about giving a new bro a tackling frigate and making him part of a CFC fleet. You should read it here if you haven't already. I am grateful for CFC taking this one day old new bro under their wing and teaching him the CFC way of life. It's great that he got to see all that really cool stuff on practically his very first day. You are a lucky capsuleer Jelly Knight. You certainly must know the right people.

You see, it's tough getting into Goonwaffe unless you have someone to vouch for you. Vouchers put their membership in that storied corporation on the line by promising you'll be good, but it's the fastest way into Goonwaffe. With out a voucher, you have to provide the required security deposit as outlined on goonfleet.net.[1] "Most applications will require some form of security deposit, as calculated by the risk of your account being a spy," the web site says. A one day old capsuleer equals a very high risk of being a spy. Anyone will agree with that. Your deposit must have been very high indeed. I am glad you were able to get that much ISK together after only a day. Of course, you could have been given a bye on the deposit. That would surely happen if they already knew you. But that brings into question whether you are actually a new player or not, doesn't it? Still, I could be wrong about all these requirements. The website with the recruitment information is a bit dated. It still talks about the Fountain War as if it is current news. Other than that though, I've no reason to believe Goonswarm recruiting policies have changed. Sorry TAGN, your story is heart warming, but in no way does it reflect the reality of what happens to most new players. Goonswarm takes care of their own very well, but that's as far as it goes. And they may be the largest player alliance in the game, but thay are far from a majority of players.

Following this post, SynCaine over on Hardcore Casual posted a piece extolling the EVE Online MMO model. He used the combat report from TAGN as evidence that CCP has broken the code on facilitating meaningful game play on day one of a capsuleer's life. He wrote,

"EVE does a good job here because the mechanics don’t punish the new player OR the group he joins when they bring him along. In fact, ‘bring him along’ is actually understating the situation, because he isn’t just allowed to come along and view what is happening, he is able to meaningfully contribute."



In general, I do not disagree with this statement. EVE Online does allow for it to happen. What I do question is how often it happens. How many happy circumstances must fall into place for a new bro to have the opportunity Jelly Knight had? When I started playing EVE Online over six years ago, I knew no one. I had zero chance of being the lucky new bro who got to see a Titan on his second day in EVE Online. That's what happens to the vast majority of new EVE Online players. Sure, EVE Online allows new bros to contribute on day one, but most times that contribution is in the form of being a target for some other more experienced player to blow up.

That, SynCaine, is why the MMO industry is not wholeheartedly adopting CCP's methodology. The very loose structure in EVE Online, fondly called sandbox, may allow for lucky capsuleers to have wonderful experiences under the guiding auspices of Goonfleet, but more often it allows for can flipping, ganking, scamming and the myriad of other woes that plague new players. It's a real stretch to hold up such a rare event as Jelly Knight's story and claim it's what EVE Online is really like for new players. Most new players just don't know the right people. Go look again at Jelly Knight's character information on TAGN's post. He wasn't even 24 hours old when he made it into Goonwaffe. Goonwaffe's own recruitment page says it'll take at least 24 hours to get a response back on applications. That just cements the fact Jelly Knight had a sponsor. He was fast tracked. Would Goonwaffe be willing to sponsor ALL new players so efficaciously? I thought not.

Actually, the argument TAGN and SynCaine (SynCaine more than TAGN) seem to be making is an anecdotal fallacy. You can read about logical fallacies here. Here's what an anecdotal fallacy is,

It's often much easier for people to believe someone's testimony as opposed to understanding complex data and variation across a continuum. Quantitative scientific measures are almost always more accurate than personal perceptions and experiences, but our inclination is to believe that which is tangible to us, and/or the word of someone we trust over a more 'abstract' statistical reality.



The problem is, CCP won't discuss the 'abstract' statistical reality. They haven't released specific subscription numbers for years; since it quit showing EVE Online in a glowing light. That aside, I think we all need to understand the Jelly Knight story is a good one to be sure, one I thoroughly enjoyed reading about, but is at best anecdotal and of little use in determining if the EVE Online sandbox model is truly revolutionary or not.  The model has many shortcomings to go with its strengths. One of those shortcomings is that it is very, very hard for the un-sponsored to make their way in New Eden. They often become solo players. Then many of them give up and go play something else.

This leads into a corollary concern. Many of us who are lone wolves by nature, who only really enjoy small group or solo activities, are concerned that we will be left behind in the new vision for EVE Online CCP espoused during Fanfest. Such a concern, if warranted, would impact new bros hardest I believe. TurAmarth over on A Carbon Based Life has an open letter to CCP about this issue. He asks,

“Does CCP plan on solo, casual and small gang gameplay having a place, IE being involved, in this new vision?”



Ripard Teg had an answer to this question when Tur asked him it on Jester's Trek. You can read what Ripard had to say about it on Tur's blog. The gist of Ripard's answer (IMO) is, "don't worry, they'll throw you a bone or two." What he literally said was,

"Players that are in corps and alliances stay subscribed more, play more, and generate more content for other players than solo players."



That 's a company line for sure. What is becoming obvious to me, is CCP is completely fixated on this large-group player generated content shtick. Their answer to the anecdotal fallacy noted above is to force the 'abstract' statistical reality to conform to the reality they want. That's a reality where all new players are immediately thrust into large player corporations regardless of what the person behind the account wants. That's not "evil" or "bad." I think the worst you could say about it is it's unrealistic, possibly even fallacious, to believe CCP can force players to play the way CCP wants. But in the same breath, I have to say it might not be that at all. I see another side to the coin.

I left a comment for Tur about Ripard's answer. It's a mini post in it's own right. If you're interested in it, you can read it there. There is one thing I would like to pull out of that comment though and expound upon. It's this comment left on my post "Back to Basics" from my friend in FA, part of the CFC. As you read it, ask yourself how many "solo" type characters he has, and how many big alliance characters.

"I have played and enjoy playing as part of a corp and an alliance. My alts however, have their own corp, and do just exactly what you’re talking about. The simple joy of killing rocks…I like it when an asteroid belt goes “poof” and space becomes empty with all those nice rocks in my cargo hold. :-)



Mabrick, you know the quiet little back corner of space where I hang out. A few friends of mine from earlier EVE days have joined me for a while to simply relax and recharge their batteries before returning to other pursuits. It’s a nice life….."



Now add to that comment the fact Ripard himself has admitted to having a small army of alts supporting his other EVE Online habits. I think we can all agree it's common for many serious large-group players to do this. And these toons are, I think, by and large "solo" type characters. They are certainly small group oriented as attested above, if for no other reason than players of large-group main characters don't want their alts' identities discovered. Realizing that makes me wonder how many of the "solo" players in New Eden are just alts of large-group players. It's certainly possible they are a majority of the solo type game play. That's the other side of the coin.

Regardless of this realization, it's still wrong-headed for CCP to think they can change anyone's game play preference. I know they'll never change mine. So what DO we make of all this large-group-player-created-content aspiration from CCP? Nothing. It isn't a real issue. We've all known for years how broken POS mechanics are. We've known how broken sov mechanics are. We've known how broken industry is. We've known it would take ripping the guts out of the current EVE Online code to fix all that. CCP's solution is to start ripping, and create a new type of game play, the very large-scale-group game play, while they're at it. They are only giving us what we've asked for - large group and small group players alike - while adding a new game play content. Is that so bad? They aren't making the game I like to play any worse, and are actually improving some aspects of it. I'm not really concerned about CCPs direction as far as that goes.

So yeah, I sort of switched subjects in mid-stream on y'all. Sorry. Let me stitch it back together a bit. I don't think CCP's large-group initiative is a problem in most aspects. I do think CCP needs to work harder at new bro integration into this game, and believing the large-group initiative will solve the issue isn't it. It will not solve the issue, and anecdotal stories are not evidence it will. Frankly, the only thing that will work is allowing new bros to find their way in New Eden without the threat other players pose to them. I know many disagree with that assessment, but it will work. I know it will work because that is precisely what the rest of the MMO developer community does. When you get past the EVE Online anecdotal new bro stories, it is easy to see it's not the MMO developer community who needs to learn a thing or two about new player retention. It's CCP.

 

[1] Edit 5/9/14 @ 12:10 PDT - Goonfleet.net is a scam. That's why I say it's dated. It's part of my point and a troll. If you are a goon, get over it. If you are not, don't submit anything to that web site.

[2] Edit 5/9/14 @ 13:00 PDT - Comments suspended on this post.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

TESO Console Delayed. Good Decision?

[caption id="attachment_2503" align="alignright" width="648"]No Console No Console[/caption]

This announcement about The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) today from Zenimax,

We know from the frequent questions we get that many of you are excited about playing ESO on the PS4 and Xbox One, and today we’d like to share an official update on the status of these releases. Read on for the latest information:



We've been grateful to our fans for the wonderful response to our recent launch of The Elder Scrolls Online for PC/Mac, but we know many of you are eagerly waiting to play the game on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.



We continue to work on the console versions of ESO, and game development has been progressing steadily, but we are still working to solve a series of unique problems specific to those platforms. Integrating our systems with each console manufacturer’s networks—which are both different from the PC/Mac system as well as different from each other—has been a challenging process. It has become clear that our planned June release of the console versions isn’t going to be possible. Though we have made great progress, we have concluded that we’ll need about six months to ensure we deliver the experience our fans expect and deserve.



We know that the news of an ESO console delay is as disappointing to many of you as it is to us. We want to do what we can to make it up to our fans who want to start playing now, so we have worked out the following arrangement with Sony and Microsoft:



Via a special offer, anyone who purchases and plays the PC/Mac version of The Elder Scrolls Online by the end of June will have the opportunity to transfer their character(s) to either console version when they are released. The offer will allow you to begin playing immediately on the PC/Mac, and then add the PS4 or Xbox One version and transfer the character(s) you have created and developed. And, you don’t have to pay full price for the game twice. For $20, eligible PC and Mac players will have the option to add a full, digital version of ESO on either the PS4 or the Xbox One with your character transfer(s), and another 30 days of included game time.



Whether you decide to take advantage of this offer or not, we promise to do everything we can to get the game released on both consoles as quickly as we can. We will keep everyone updated with additional details regarding character transfers, specific offer dates, when you can expect console beta to start, and of course, when ESO on consoles will launch.



Thank you for your patience and loyal support.



The first thing to occur to me as I read this was, "Why would anyone with a PC want to move the game to a console later?" I mean seriously, TESO on my laptop (let alone my gaming desktop) looks better than any console game I've ever seen. And yes, I am prejudiced in that regard. I gladly admit that I am a graphics snob. I run my graphics as high as I can set them. Gorgeous games should be gorgeous. That's half the enjoyment I get from playing games. It's like going on a vacation to a new and exotic country without full body scans. I'd rather lose a fight because my system was a split second slower than my opponent's, than willingly live with craptastic rendering. So I really can't see many people who would care about the $20 for a digital copy allowance for not getting TESO Console next month.

I see that particular "bone" as simply a justification for having to face reality. The reality is, there is enough wrong with PC TESO that console development would be an absolute waste of time. It would take resources away from the development team at a time when they are needed to fix all those annoying issues others are having with TESO. And with the level of dissatisfaction that's been gleefully fed by all the game-zines (makes for great traffic flow but really is a disservice,) Zenimax needs to spend every minute of developer time appearing as if they take the issues seriously. Making TESO "better" is the only thing they can afford at this point. That's the only way they are going to turn all the negative press around. It's a difficult proposition and they know it. First impressions are the ones that last longest.

Personally, I feel it is the correct decision. They are currently not losing any console business. It doesn't exist. And with the current negative atmosphere surrounding TESO, thinking they'll pull their fat out of the fire with a console launch would be the height of self-delusion. My more cynical side wonders if the 5-day award of free play time for so little actual server down time (I experienced none) was more an effort to delay the 30-day exodus than make amends. I certainly wouldn't bet against that possibility. That 5-day extension was as much a gift to Zenimax as it was to the players. It gives them more fixing time.

That begs a question. Where do they go from there? I expect to see more bequeaths from Zenimax before the 5-day period ends. They'll amount to little more than bribes, but it could work. For instance, what if they were to give every current player a horse? Would that convince some to stay? It wouldn't affect gameplay all that much. I find I use shrines more than my horse anyway. Still, I'm not certain anything short of more free game time will work. And if Zenimax goes that route, aren't they flirting with free-to-play (F2P,) at least for a while?

I could see where limited duration F2P might be tempting. It's also a dangerous precedent. Once regulations, and that's what a subscription agreement really is, are loosened, it's very difficult to tighten them again without upsetting people. Entitlement sets in when people become accustomed to getting something for nothing. That's the whole "outrage" behind every complaint when another seriously cool game fails to release on a F2P model. People want to believe it's all about the publishers being money-grubbing capitalists, and somehow that's wrong - even immoral. There's nothing wrong with it though. It's the way the world economy operates. Products have value because they cost money just as much as they have value because they are needed. Even something that is needed, once given for free, suffers devaluation. That's as bad a spiral as inflation... I'm getting off topic. Sorry.

The last thing I'd like to discuss is the new TESO console release date. It won't be until the Christmas shopping season. I have a concern in that too. It puts TESO Console in direct competition with every new console game, including Assassin's Creed V: Unity, that will release for the Christmas buying frenzy... I mean season. That's a title that's done very well on the console platform. I've not played Assassin's Creed on a console, but I have played it. Remember that graphics bias to which I admitted? Yeah, that's why I'd play Assassin's Creed V: Unity over TESO. Putting Console TESO up against a title like that is... well, not optimal for success. Let's leave it there shall we? Zenimax has a long, hard, uphill climb ahead of them. I wish them luck, because I really enjoy The Elder Scrolls Online.

 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Back to Basics

I spent around 18 months as part of a player run corporation and ultimately a largish alliance. I made myself available as a resource for others. I played the game the way CCP wants the game played. I helped make content. I participated in roams and bashes. I defended my home, no matter how badly. I helped take other's homes away from them. I was decidedly outside my comfort zone. Not because I can't do all those things, and even become expert at some of them. I prefer to make my own way in the universe. It's just the way I am. Even in RL I don't like relying on other people. During the times I am most honest with myself, when the night is so deep the disquiet of my own thoughts scream like a band saw ripping through my brain, I know it's because I feel others will always let me down. I've good reason to believe that way. I've long been the only person I was absolutely certain I could rely on. And if I fail, well then, I'd be the only one affected, now wouldn't I? Those feelings more than any other caused my hiatus from New Eden over the past several months. That time is over.

But I'm not going back to relying on other people, no matter how well-intentioned. And with the upcoming release of Kronos, the more rapid release schedule, and the unknowns that come with all the changes to industry in general, I find myself reluctant to get involved in any big industrial endeavors. So I am going to do two things. First, I am going back to basics. I fell in love with EVE Online while a lone wolf miner in Verge Vendor. I may not have played directly with other people, but I was always playing alongside other people. I'd watch what they did. I'd occasionally chat in local. I'd relax. That's something I haven't been able to do with EVE Online for a long time. I find I long for those stress free days of making ISK one asteroid at a time. So I'm going back to basics.

[gallery type="slideshow" link="file" ids="2494,2493,2492"]

The second thing I'm going to do I've already done. And because I value my lone wolf status, I'm just going to leave it there. Those who know me can probably guess. But what's the sense in that? You can always run a locator agent on me. It's not like I've left high-sec or anything. ;-)

Fly Careful