Thursday, March 26, 2015

[WoW] Reconciling Casual Raid Progress Over Absolute vs. Relative Time

So our raid finally got back together after a couple weeks off. We had only planned on one week off, since two of our 3 potential tanks were on vacation, but between losing a tank and a healer, leaving us with one short of each role at the last second, we had to take two instead.

It was a good run. The ilvl boost helped, but frankly, folks were executing quite well despite the time off. We downed 4 bosses in record time for us, and managed to two-shot Flamebender despite wiping to her 7 or 8 times 3 weeks prior, which brings us to 5/10N progression. In a few pulls we got Kromog down to 13%, so next week I'm confident we'll nail him to the floor, too.

Only 5/10N, and the raid's been open for 7 weeks. Feels kind of slow. Except if you consider we only raid 3 hours a week, and we didn't actually start in on BRF until we downed Imperator, which means we've been raiding a total of about 10 hours (3 full sessions, one one-hour session). So less time than many guilds play in a single week, and we've dealt with 3 resets. When viewed under that lens, I think we're actually doing pretty damn well.

Steve Chick of UNconstant and I had a small chat on Twitter about this very subject, how in a game like WoW progress is often measured in real time passed rather than relative time. Probably a lot to do with how it's difficult to measure how long a person or set of people spent on a single boss. You could measure by number of wipes, I suppose, and some folks do. But actual time from the server first opening with that content is the easiest to measure and only verifiable metric.

But it does behoove me to remind myself that absolute time is a terrible way to measure progression when you aren't gunning for world firsts. And sure, as long as you're having fun, that's the important part. However, as Murf put it, sometimes entertainment is more than just "fun". There's a satisfaction in nailing these bosses as a group, and that's, well, satisfying. I fully expect we'll continue to make progress apace and we'll get Blackhand down before the next patch hits and makes the content less relevant.
#WoW, #Raiding

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

[WoW] I'm Only Happy When It Raids

I've basically stopped logging into WoW excepting for our weekly raid night on Wednesdays, and even that we've had some issues. We lost one healer early on, another healer is effectively out due to real life issues, and tonight just before our raid was to start, we cancelled because one of our tanks decided to stop subscribing (and only told us two hours before the raid itself).

It makes me a bit sad because I still think WoW's a good game overall, but after 10 years of playing, and 6 years in our current guild, I feel like I'm ready for something else. Except that I love raiding with our guild group. Raiding in WoW still gives me an immense amount of pleasure, and the guild group is a lot of fun, even if we don't progress anywhere near the speed other guilds do. And since we're short handed and folks have been on vacation, we've had two weeks off in a row. That means in a 3 week period I'll have logged in once between raids just to ensure my characters don't get gkicked for inactivity.

I still enjoy the theorycrafting aspect, so I doubt I'll stop writing about WoW, and I do want to keep raiding, but the rest of the content has lost a lot of its luster to me. I've run the existing 5-mans to death; questing was fun the first couple times through the content, but I don't want to do it again; pet battles, I'd rather play Pok√©mon; collecting things holds no sway with me, be they mounts, pets, or whatever; garrisons are a fun concept, but similar to the iOS games of the same sort, I eventually just peter off and stop bothering. They did give me a lot of enjoyment for a good 2 months though, so that says something. 

MMOs are strange. Unlike nearly every other game genre, they have to keep players engaged for an extremely long amount of time. Compare that to FPS games, single-player RPGs, or puzzle games--they're all built around the initial sales, and if the game manages to have some sort of long tail, it's a bonus. But if someone said Blizzard built StarCraft with the intention to keep players engaged for 10 years, I'd laugh at them. It was a fortuitous accident.

So the idea that a single game--even one with as immense scope as an MMORPG like WoW, Guild Wars, and so on--needs to maintain a profitable player-base for a decade is still a newish concept. We're still seeing companies trying to figure out this games-as-a-service model (GaaS, if you will, a subset of SaaS). Some moving to F2P, some pumping out content like crazy, and everything in between.

But for myself, a player who has been entertained for a decade, my tastes have (seemingly) gotten narrower as I've aged and played the game, to the point where only a single aspect of WoW still drives me, or so it seems. And I guess as long as I'm okay paying a subscription fee to access that specific content, it's not that big a deal, but I admit my time has been drawn largely by FFXIV as of late. 

It's another blog post incoming, but they've managed to produce an amazing amount of content in a shorter time than Blizzard with WoW, and I admit, I've been finding the story and questing content a lot more engaging than WoW's. The question for me though will be whether once I hit max level, will the raiding content--the stuff I really love--be sufficient to draw my interest long-term? But having something fresh, highly polished, and a slightly different take than WoW in front of me makes me question whether my tastes have actually gotten narrower, or if WoW is finally aging beyond the point of fun for me.

RIFT, TERA, GW2, and SWTOR never caught my attention the way FFXIV has, so there's a je ne sais quoi about FFXIV. Or is it simply the fact that FFXIV is just more content that I've yet to consume, and I'll end up feeling similarly once I finish a lot of the current content? I've no idea, but at this point my plan is to continue raiding with my guild in WoW, and probably play FFXIV as my primary MMO otherwise. #WoW, #Raiding

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

[Cities: Skylines] Come On In! The Traffic's Fine! A Case Study in Pictures

Simulations are an interesting genre, because if the reviewer is bad at it and don't understand why they're bad at it, they're going to be frustrated and write something like, "the whole traffic mess is a disappointment." Granted, games in general have that issue, but simulations are all about how well you understand the system and can build within that understanding, so it's pretty paramount to an enjoyable experience.

Traffic in city builders is always a bit of a mixed blessing. Cities in real life live and die based on their traffic. If you can't get to where you need to go, you won't go. Looking at Seattle--where I live--if you want to get across Lake Washington to the Eastside with any sort of expediency, there's a couple of 2-3 chunks of the day that you should try to avoid. It literally inflates the commute 3 to 6 times what it could be, taking over 2 hours in some cases where it would take 20 minutes without traffic. King County is spending $4.47 Billion to try and fix the issue.

Traffic is difficult to get correct. Traffic engineers have university degrees to help them with these issues. They have decades of history to fall back on in terms of what works, and what doesn't, and computer simulations to help test out theories before implementing them. So to come into a city builder like Cities: Skylines without this background means you're playing at a disadvantage. But to me that's the fun: trying to figure out.

And it's impossible to ignore traffic. If your traffic is backed up, fire fighters, police, ambulances, hearses, buses, and cargo trucks can't perform their jobs effectively. So, traffic's an important, inescapable component of city builder simulations.

My first attempt at building a city ended early because I wanted to take the lessons I had learned (especially about traffic and building effective corridors) to a new city. The image above is the start of said new city. Two chunks of suburbia surrounding the wasteland of garbage dumps and industry. Not pretty, but it is effective. A clear hierarchy of roads exist: highways to get from borough to borough, avenues to get to the heart or ends of each section, and finally smaller roads to disseminate local traffic to their locations. It works extremely well. Despite my highways looking ugly as hell because I was still learning the tools, they're quite effective.

Speaking of tools, I find the elevated road building tool to be an excellent way to go about it. Their logic for connecting up paths is quite robust. I found it really easy to build off/on ramps and even just small bridges over train tracks. Just PgUp to go up a level, and PgDn to bring it back down to earth. You can build your ramps however you like, as long as there are places for the pillars to go.

Picturesque view of my forest industry bridges
Of course, just because you can build something doesn't mean you should. Space efficiency versus traffic efficiency is an incredibly interesting question. A good example of this is the Elevated Roundabout. Someone made a really nice looking highway intersection that is extremely space efficient for distributing traffic. However, because all traffic in all directions is sharing the same ramp, it's really bad when there's a lot of traffic.

Quite pretty, and extremely space efficient.
However, in practice if you have high traffic in both directions, it buckles and backs up pretty severely.
Some of the uglier intersections are massive, but extremely efficient at traffic distribution. Basically, it feels like a lot of traffic is a space vs. efficiency balance.

And it's not like you're limited to roads for traffic. Pedestrian paths in a city core are actually very handy. Pedestrians do use them, and it can reduce inner-city traffic immensely. The Grid Block is a fun little prefab for setting that up, and since the pathways are elevated, the pedestrian traffic is mostly separated from vehicle traffic.

The pathways do take up a fair bit of space.
But pedestrians do make use of them, quite a bit if your city has a compact layout.

Traffic Case Study (in Pictures)

When I started building my super dense city center, with handy-dandy pedestrian walkways, I knew since it was on its own I'd have to deal with a large amount of highway traffic, both incoming and outgoing. What I failed to do was understand just how much there would be, and when everything fell flat on its face because I didn't handle that traffic, there were dead bodies and fires everywhere. Literally.

The above is an image of the interchange to my dense city center. Horrendous. Traffic backed up to the highway, traffic backed up inside the core, too. Everything was concentrated in that one section. Sure, there was a back door if sims took the off-ramp on the wrong side of the highway and then follow the industrial roads back to the city, but not a lot of them opted to do so. Possibly a failing in the AI, but not insurmountable. Clearly that Elevated Roundabout just was not working. But maybe there was a way to distribute traffic a little bit better.

Watching the traffic, it became clear that the intersections at the on/off ramps were hurting flow. I'd watch traffic start, then stop, then start. But what if I could make the flow less jittery? By removing these intersections and turning the streets leading to and from the on/off ramps to one-way, I alleviated a fair amount of traffic. The line-up to get into the city was less strained, but I did end up moving a lot of traffic to the central core. I needed to get some traffic away from that intersection entirely. We needed another intersection.

So I built an on/off ramp further up stream, but not in all directions. Only very specific flows. This had the benefit of relieving pressure on the roundabout. Indeed, it's practically pristine, but still in use. But despite using the same one-way street pattern at the ramps, we still had an immense amount of traffic on the two-way street running parallel. Folks were using that two-way street to get to the core and the exit ramp, so rather than make it two-way, I made it and further streets surrounding the ramps one-way.

Traffic is still mildly snarled, but that reduced gridlock immensely, at the expense of my core intersections (again). I haven't taken this further, but I bet if I can use one-way streets to minimize or remove left-hand turns across traffic, I could reduce gridlock even more. Also, my off-ramp requires traffic to make a hard-right turn to get on to the highway, which slows down exiting traffic quite a bit. If I could make the off-ramp a merge lane where they can actually accelerate on to the highway, I could reduce traffic yet again.

Traffic is Fine

Yeah, there's a couple cases where the AI algorithms for traffic come up a bit short. A longcut nearby might not be taken as often as you'd expect given traffic conditions at the nearby exits. Basically, the AI is a bit too short-sighted as far as search patterns for alternate routes goes, but then again, perhaps that's not far off the reality of actual populace behaviour. I'm not quite sure. But overall, I've found traffic to be quite manageable with some planning and just... watching the traffic. Take a couple minutes, watch where your sims are going, and see if you can expedite their route.

Also, mass transit. Seriously. Buses and Metro are fantastic at reducing overall traffic, and if you build your routes for busy areas, you actually make money off fares. A lot of money. My income quintupled from $3k a week to $15k a week once I added a bunch of transit. Which helped make me more money to continue improving roads.

The game's been a blast so far, nothing revolutionary, but a solid entry in city building games and a fine replacement for the most recent Sim City game. #CitiesSkylines, #Traffic

Thursday, March 12, 2015

[Indie/EonAltar] Gender Diversity in our Workplace

Eon Altar is gearing up with a lot of social media updates. We've posted some art work over the past couple weeks, our studio has a blog post on what we've been up to for the past year--which isn't that much more info than I had mentioned in the Beyond Bossfights podcast I participated in a few months ago, just a different perspective--and now we have a staff photo up:

Click to embiggen.
The first thing folks noticed was all the photos on the tablets being held. No, those aren't the images of fallen developers; that's us remote folk. My photo is the second one from the upper left, as a remote contractor on the team.

The second thing folks noticed was, to quote someone on Facebook, "you work in a sausage fest... Hire more girls!" For those keeping track we have two lady employees: one of our QA, and our Lead Developer (the tablet to the left of mine).

So, on the bright side, one of the most influential and highest positions you can have outside of the management hierarchy is filled by a woman--and to be fair, we only have 3 developers, and of those three, one's a lady and one's gay (me), so we're doing all right on the diversity count there--but we are short on non-males overall.

One of our co-founders and creative director had this to say about it on Facebook:
Ed Douglas: 
When we did our Flying Helmet Games team photo this week one this [sic] was more obvious than ever. There sure are a lot of dudes at this studio! This is in no way intentional or premeditated, it's just the way it's happened. We have a few women on the team, including our brilliant Lead Programmer. We had quite a few more during our last round of production, but due to our hiatus we couldn't keep that team together. I like to think we're a welcoming and inclusive studio but the truth of the matter is that more guys than gals are applying for the jobs. I hope the reason is that all the women out there already have fantastic jobs, but I'm more inclined to believe that somewhere upstream, more women than men are being discouraged from joining the games and entertainment technology industries. 
There are so many groups working to change this, and I want to help too. If there's anyone out there who is interested in joining the games industry, and for whatever reason has been discouraged; "Find a real career," "Games are for kids," "Aren't videogames are for boys?" please reach out, talk to us, come visit the studio, let us help you learn about why this is one of the coolest industries out there with incredible growth potential and the need for new ideas and fresh perspectives! 
Please share this if this sounds like it speaks to anyone in your lives, message me or reach out on the Flying Helmet Games Facebook site. And of course, let me know what you think, and tell me what you're doing too and what else there is we can do to help change this for the better together!
Mind you, we're a small company, and one that hasn't been able to offer up much in the way of immediate monetary compensation given we haven't shipped anything yet, and that's not to say there might not be unconscious biases at play here, either. But I'm willing to take Ed at face value that folks just aren't applying. When I was involved in hiring our junior programmer, I can say that the candidates were pretty well entirely male.

This isn't a post to pat ourselves on the back on how diversity conscious we are. Far from it. I'm making this post to make a point: we have a disparity in the industry that's being felt all the way down to the indie developers, and we need to fix that.

Our lady employees are among our most skilled employees (and we have a lot of very skilled people at our studio), they kick ass and take names nearly every day, and the fact that we could be losing more employees like that before they even make it to our door is disheartening. At Microsoft, some of my smartest and most effective colleagues were women. As an industry, we're doing ourselves a disservice by not reaching out and welcoming more women, or in some cases even being actively hostile against women with misogynistic practices, comments, or the like.

While gaming in general is doing a pretty awful job of treating women as equal human beings as the past few months can attest to, the industry has been and is still complicit. This must stop. We're only hurting our own industry in the long term by perpetuating this gender imbalance.

I'll close with this quote from Nathan Vella from a speech at GDC 2015:
So let's all fight back...with the best way we know how: through our games, and through our teams, and through our collaborations
#IndieDev, #EonAltar, #Diversity

Friday, March 6, 2015

Community Chains - The Liebster

I hate chain letters. You know the ones, where Bill Gates will give everyone $50 who forwards this email because he's testing mail, or the other ones that tell a funny story and then if you don't forward it to a bajillion people you will die, alone and unhappy. On the other hand, I actually do like the chain memes where you answer a few questions, then nominate a few others to pass it on. The Liebster has the added bonus that the questions change with each step, so not only do you get the cool benefit of seeing someone answer a few questions to learn more about them, but what questions they ask tells you a little, too.

Clockwork of Out of Beta nominated me, so without further ado, I do:

1. What was your very first MMO character and why did you choose that race/class?

My very first MMO character would have been an Human Adventurer in The Realm Online. I had never played an MMO before (and to be fair, it was one of the first graphical MUDs around), and the idea of being a Jack-of-all-Trades appealed to me. I started playing during its Beta, and it didn't have any other races, so not much choice there.

2. What is your favorite role in MMOs and why? Doesn't have to necessarily be a typical part of the trinity.

Strategist. The one giving out the orders and dissecting encounters. Just like Shiro in Log Horizon! I love figuring out the puzzle behind encounters, and being able to direct a raid to success is extremely rewarding to me. Might be why I enjoy There Came an Echo so much.

My actual in-game role is largely immaterial to me, though I tend to gravitate towards healers/support. But I've DPS'd, tanked, whatever the raid needs generally.

3. What is the origin of your blogging name or gaming handle?

Talarian was the name of an elf character I made in High School for a D&D game. Kinda just stuck. It sounded elf-y, was relatively unique as far as handles go online at the time (which would have been circa 1999ish).

Years later I found out it was also the name of a race in Star Trek, The Next Generation. Rest assured, my choice had nothing to do with Star Trek. That was just a neat coincidence.

Endar, a Talarian from The Next Generation.

4. Do you have a game that you like the idea/setting of but don't or won't play?

The Elder Scrolls series. Now, to be fair, I've played a couple hours of pretty well all of them, but at the end of the day they just don't hold my attention. I like the concept of open world games, and of using skills is how you increase your ability with those skills, but in practice I find I'm way too scatterbrained to make any sort of headway in them. I get lost on these, "Oh, that's shiny!" moments that end up taking me a bajillion miles from where I'm supposed to be and then I get bored because I sudden;y have no concrete goals.

5. What was your most exciting/memorable moment in gaming?

I'm going to cheat here, because I can't pick just one. I have two.

First was the summer of 1991. I was 8 years old, and was playing Super Mario 3. I had recently had surgery that precluded me from going to summer camp, so I was stuck at home playing video games (the horror! Hah!). I had never been able to beat Super Mario 3 before, but over the week I managed to play it until I did, and I was so proud of myself. Then I had infinite P-Wings because that's what you get for beating the game, and that got boring in about 3 levels.

The second is pretty typical, but Aeris' death in Final Fantasy VII hit me pretty hard at the time. While I had been playing RPGs for years, FFVII was one of the first in 3D, and that moment you see Sephiroth put his sword through Aeris, who was still smiling, was gut-wrenching. While folks may say that the sprites of old conveyed a lot of emotion--and to be fair, they could--it wasn't the same as seeing the full rendered video of Aeris' death. That moment wasn't just about a beloved character; it was also about how games could convey emotion, story, gravitas. Basically, that moment was when my adolescent mind really thought about games as art rather than just entertainment.

6. Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?

7. If you could turn into one animal (and back) at will,what animal?

Some sort of bird. Preferably one capable of migratory flight with a large wingspan. Then I could fly everywhere instead of walking.

8. You must add one thing to gaming culture but also remove one thing what are the things? Can be a custom, behavior, etc.

I'd remove berating team mates in a toxic way when they're not up to your standards of play. Yeah, sure, you want to win, and sure, sometimes people aren't as good as you or they make mistakes. But frankly, the more time you spend typing insults, the less likely you're going to be able to contribute meaningfully, and you'll rattle your team mates into play even worse. It doesn't make logical sense, and it's really shitty behaviour. You can offer suggestions for improving play, or find someone else to play with, without being an asshole.

I'd add to gaming culture a more critical eye towards games as art. Gaming culture is already moving in that direction, but movies, books, and music all thrive because there are people who want more, who can look at something and say, "This isn't good enough, it could be better in this respect." At best today we have people who are polarized: this game is the best, or this game is the worst. The amount of actual thoughtful feedback is small in comparison, and unlike other media formats, isn't elevated in the discourse above the rabble. Instead it just gets shouted down.

9. If you had to quit writing/blogging tomorrow what would you do in its place?

Probably get off my ass and actually work on a game by myself. Or just game more.

10. If you could have one pet/mount from a game what would it be?

Probably one of the dragon mounts from WoW. Again, flight, and also, having a companion who's capable of rational thought and speech would be cool. Granted, they'd probably be less of a pet and more of a friend, but hey, that's cool.


So, my turn to come up with some questions and nominations. The questions are:

1. What is your favourite game mechanic?
2. Is there a character did you think would be cool when announced or first encountered, but in practice turned out terrible? Who? Why?
3. If your entire life turned out to be a simulation or part of a video game, would it change your outlook on life? How?
4. What is your favourite colour?
5. If you were an astronaut and going to space for 6 months, what personal item would you bring with you?
6. Which of the Seven Deadly Sins is your favourite?
7. Is there a moment in your life where you felt you were finally "in the future"? What precipitated it?
8. Cliffhangers, good technique, or annoying technique? Why?
9. Has there been a game mechanic that enraged you or felt supremely unfair? What was it and why?
10. Tortoise, or the Hare?

And my nominees are Balkoth, Rohan, Scree, Prinnie Powah, and Alternative Chat.

That was fun! #LiebsterAward, #Liebster, #Community

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Maxis Closing; Was SimCity a Product of Misplaced Enthusiasm, or an Evil Overlord?

So part of Maxis has been shuttered--note that Maxis still actually has studios in Redwood Shores, Salt Lake City, and Helsinki, so it's not like it's the end-end for the studio, but the Emeryville studio was responsible for the most recent SimCity game, and with it likely goes future SimCity games unless EA decides to revive the series in a decade or two.

But what was the deal with SimCity, anyhow? A lot of folks on Twitter, Facebook, and comment threads on articles are blaming EA for the end of the studio. In the strictest, technical way they're correct. EA owns Maxis, EA shuts down Maxis. But was EA the Evil Corporate Overlord™ truly behind the failures of SimCity? Don't get me wrong, EA does plenty of things that irk me greatly, but I think we owe the legacy that is the SimCity series to really look at what's happened over the years.

Firstly, according to Wikipedia, Maxis was not in good shape and had shopped around to be acquired in 1996-97, so Maxis as a company may have likely not existed without EA today. And once acquired, unlike Origin Systems and Westwood Studios, the absorption of Maxis took longer. EA allowed Maxis to complete SimCity 3000 on its own time, and then they created The Sims, which was a pretty big gamble for the time; it was quite unique. These don't seem to be the actions of an Evil Corporate Overlord™. At least not to start.

Fast forward to SimCity 2013. Cloud computing for city simulation and cooperative play. Huge features that were being touted by Maxis and EA, but the backlash on release was immense. Those features were online-only, and with no offline version, server scaling issues made the game unplayable for weeks. Maxis had to turn off Cheetah speed, modify their server architecture, and eventually, over a year later, finally implemented offline play. They also had to make city sizes quite small or they'd hit performance problems. What went wrong?

Clearly, the unplayable nature of the game when servers were under extreme load pissed people off. It's not like there wasn't precedent, either. Nearly every online-only game suffers services issues at launch due to demand (and bugs!). Diablo III's issues were still fresh in the gaming populace's collective mind, too. Then there's the nature of military personnel, or folks in rural areas with poor Internet access, or sometimes your Internet just goes down.

But why? Why make the game online only?

Perhaps some marketing department or the CEO said, hey, people like online stuff, so make it online. Except servers cost money and Maxis sold the game as a one-time payment product, so having to maintain servers for 3 years doesn't seem cost effective.

Rather, perhaps someone in development decided that wouldn't it be cool if we could leverage cloud computing for more complex simulations? Maxis has always been about simulation, and making more complex simulations would be great! Better yet, it wouldn't matter how slow someone's computer was if it's not doing the heavy lifting!

And someone else may have suggested how cool would it be if we could have our cities interact with other players' cities (not unlike SimCity 4 I might add), or even have cooperative works that everyone can pitch in for?

As a recent Kotaku article pointed out, developers tend to be a pretty enthusiastic bunch:
I always found it irritating when press releases or developers overused the word "exciting." We're really excited for this upcoming partnership! We're excited to show you this new feature! Surely, I thought, this is all manufactured passion; these guys make games all day, every day. How "exciting" can it be to show journalists a new section of the game, or talk to them about the story, or share a new trailer? 
As it turns out, creating stuff actually is exciting. Being able to share the fruits of your labor with people honestly gets your blood pumping.
So if we use that as the basis of why SimCity missed the mark so big at launch, rather than assuming the malice of evil overlords hoping for them to fail (which makes no sense, at all), or the incompetence of doofus overlords who just don't get it, the narrative changes significantly, but is still more than plausible.

Cloud computing requires always online connectivity. If you're offline, you can't leverage the cloud. And similarly for having players being able to have their cities interact. They have to be stored somewhere, and have a central server they can all connect to, so there's that cloud computing thing again. But maybe it'll be fine, most gamers have decent Internet connections, right? Or they will in 3 or 4 years, because it's 2009 today when they're planning this game (or whenever they started planning it. I would bet large sums of money SimCity 2013 took more than a couple years to develop).

I used to work at Microsoft as a software developer in the Office division. Sometimes, we made pretty boneheaded decisions in retrospect. This can often be chalked up to what we sometimes called the Redmond Bubble, or the Redmond Reality Distortion Field. Stephen Toulouse, the former head of Xbox Live Enforcement, expands on this idea in his blog post that I linked (it's a really good read, seriously, read it), but the gist of it is as follows:
The field that influences Microsoft employees and product designers to make wildly incorrect assumptions on the use of technology, computers and devices by the world. The field is caused by the fact that Microsoft employees tend to be far more affluent and have free access to technology than the general population. Generated by Microsoft employees, the field is centered in Redmond but can manifest itself weakly in any area where a significant number of employees gather, such as remote campuses or subsidiaries.
It's reasonable to assume that large companies like EA suffer a similar problem. So while Maxis was busy planning super awesome features that they liked and required tech they readily had at hand, the general populace was basically, "Uh, da fuq, mate?" Add to that technical issues around city size (I bet computational requirements go up exponentially as you add city space), because they assumed they'd have full cloud computing resources behind the simulation, and you end up with a mediocre product limited by a bunch of features that a lot of people didn't want because they just wanted to make their mega-city, just like in the SimCity games of old.

So it's possible that some bone-headed exec said, "Make it online only!", but I think it's just as likely--if not more likely--that a few devs had some ideas that would work in a world of ubiquitous Internet, but we're just not there as a society. My vote is honestly misplaced enthusiasm. It's hard to hold back when you have all these cool things you can do, and it's easy to forget not everyone has the same access to tech, or uses technology in a different way than your company does.

It doesn't absolve either EA or Maxis of their goof-ups around SimCity 2013; closing the studio is clear evidence of that. But I don't think this is the normal case of "Big Company Acquires Smaller Company; Big Company guts Smaller Company."

There were some very talented folks at Maxis, and I hope they find work elsewhere, either within EA or outside of it. #Maxis, #GameDesign, #SimCity

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The WoW Token

Blizzard recently announced their own version of EVE's PLEX, except that it looks very different aside from the fact someone paid for a chunk of game time and sold it in game. This isn't surprising, given they mentioned it months earlier, but I was mildly surprised at the restrictions. However, I think the restrictions are a good thing.

The way the token works is as follows:
  1. Player A pays for a WoW Token, representing 30 days of game time
  2. Player A posts the token on a special version of the Auction House. Note this is the only action you can take with the token. It cannot be traded nor destroyed
    • When listed, the price of the token is set by Blizzard
    • You are guaranteed to get that amount once your token sells, regardless as to what it sells for
  3. Player B purchases a token on the special version of the Auction House
    • When purchased, the price of the token is based on supply and demand
  4. Player B gets 30 days of game time
    • The token is soulbound. There is no reselling it
Relatively simple. The actual processes of selling and buying are basically independent of each other. Blizzard also mentions that tokens sold are a queue: first in, first out

The picture above is basically how it works according to Blizzard's FAQ. So you won't necessarily get the money immediately. It depends on how many tokens are ahead of you in line, and how many people are buying. But you're guaranteed the listing price, so it's pretty low risk to the seller. It's just a question of time.

This arrangement is to induce a supply/demand elasticity that allows the player base to influence the price to something the market can bear, so Blizzard isn't constantly having to futz with the price, but does so in a way that as mentioned, makes it a very secure transaction for the seller. You'll get the gold you're promised. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

Interestingly, if demand plummets, Blizzard would technically be injecting gold into the game. On the other hand, if demand spikes, Blizzard would be pulling gold out of the economy. Over a long period of time, ideally that would balance out, and this really would only have the effect of transferring gold from the folks who have liquid assets to the folks who have real-life liquid assets (or at least, those who're willing to spend money on the token).

Because there's no reselling, the token can't become an alternate currency the way PLEX works in EVE. There's also no risk of losing it. If your account gets hacked, they can't just hand off that token to someone else. On the other hand, if your account gets hacked, well, you've got bigger short-term problems anyhow. You can't destroy it by accident, either, according to the FAQ.

Now, there can be a minor amount of market speculation, in that you can choose not to post a token you just bought in hopes of getting a better price when the market spikes, but depending on how big a rolling window Blizzard implements for their supply/demand algorithm, that may be a moot point long-term.

As implemented, this is Blizzard clearly putting gold sellers in their cross-hairs. 

So How Much Will a Token Cost?

Elvine, a prominent gold-making community member, mentions that the going rate for gold on gold-selling sites is about $0.70 per 1,000g (I'm assuming USD). Blizzard stated not to assume that the price of the token will be the same as a raw purchase of 30 days game time.

So if we assume that it's about $20 for a WoW Token, to match gold sellers, each Token would go for about 28k gold. On the other hand, this is a secure method of obtaining gold that doesn't come with the risk of a hacked or banned account, and people are willing to pay a minor premium for ease, security, and legitimacy (also see: the music industry).

On the other other hand, gold sellers have the bonus of instant gratification. Selling a token could take time--we don't know how long it'll take to run through a queue of tokens. So it's not quite as good as those services. Faster, but less secure.

So here's the rub, would $20 for 28,000g be worth it for me? Nope. I have about 300k on hand. I find it pretty easy to net 28k in a day of AH work if I'm so inclined. However, buying a month of time for 28k? Yeah, I might do that. Or, most likely, for myself, I'll just ignore the whole system and keep paying my subscription.

What're Some of the Potential Side Effects?

As mentioned above, Blizzard wouldn't really be introducing or removing gold from the economy long term, just redistributing it based on different criteria than gold normally gets distributed in-game.

However, the system is regional. Meaning that on a local scale, economies would potentially lose/gain gold. If one server had a glut of folks selling tokens, and another server had a glut of folks buying tokens, in theory that would cause a transfer of systemic wealth from server to server. Given the population sizes, though, I doubt this is meaningful in practice. Since it's all one big queue, I bet this will average out over time.

That being said, 28k on a small server is probably worth a lot more than 28k on a big server, so perhaps I'm wrong and we'll see more token sellers from smaller servers and more buyers from bigger servers. This would cause inflation on the smaller servers, as there'd be an influx of gold, and deflation on the bigger servers. Frankly, though, the inflation effect, if it were to occur, would be bigger than the deflation effect due to sheer population differentials. But it would potentially normalize gold across all servers long-term

This could be mitigated by making the tokens regional, but the prices based on server. You'd have to contend with server transfer gold maximums, so you couldn't just transfer a character and buy a massive number of tokens, at least not easily. And since they're purchased to sell with real money, that cost is fixed regardless of server, so even transferring to another server with a bunch of tokens doesn't help you. You may as well make a level 1 character on the server you'd transfer to and sell them directly there, but you'd again have to deal with server transfer gold maximums to get it back to where you'd want to spend it. But making the prices vary per-server definitely makes the system a bit more opaque to the average user. Since Blizzard is already making both ends of the transaction largely independent, this isn't outside reason, however.

Another question is how this differs from previous experiments, like the Guardian Cub, or the Diablo RMAH. The Guardian Cub was an actual tradeable item, but had the issue that once you had learned one, you didn't really need any more, so it's not really comparable to something like game time. Limited audience, basically. The Diablo RMAH, however, broke the core loot loop (well, the whole AH did period), and gold was so easy to come by in Diablo that you didn't really need to spend real money to get those items.

Given how likely it is Blizzard will sell tokens for more than 30 days normally goes for in subscription fees, Blizzard will make more money than normal off game time, assuming this takes off. It's a clever way to moderately increase subscription costs without actually increasing it across the board. It allows folks to continue playing even if they can't afford it in real life, as long as they take the time to earn some dough in-game (which frankly isn't terribly hard if you put a little time and research into it).

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. Short of some sort of market spike that I can take advantage of, I doubt I'll be participating in it myself, but it's definitely fascinating. #WorldOfWarcraft, #GameDesign, #WoWToken

Monday, March 2, 2015

[Indie] There Came an Echo - Review

Iridium Studios is an indie game company that made the most excellent game Sequence. Sequence was a rhythm-RPG hybrid, and I played the heck out of it. Great gameplay, interesting story and characters, and awesome aesthetic. So when I heard they had release another game, I bought it sight-unseen.

There Came an Echo is billed as a voice-controlled squad-based strategy game, and it delivers on that premise pretty well. You play the part of Sam, someone who's overseeing the squad in combat, using an isometric view that you can control to get a feel for the battlefield. Then, using actual voice commands (i.e.: talking into your microphone), you give your squad commands in real time.

Voice Control

Commands are relatively simple. Among the commands you can give your squad members are: move to a location (predetermined nodes with labels like Delta 6); switch what weapon they're using; focus fire on a specific enemy; retreat; hold your fire; and so on.

You can also tell them instructions to carry out on your mark. For example, I might say, "Miranda, move to Alpha Two on my Mark. Corrin, Grace, move to Alpha Three on my Mark. Mark." And then bam, Miranda, Corrin, and Grace all move to the locations specified and if there are people to attack in range, they'll do so. You can even set up multiple marks to perform in succession. You can also give commands to "everyone" or "everybody", or "everybody but <name>" and they'll do the right thing.

Below is a 3-minute video from a stream I did of the game going through a couple encounters. You can hear me setting up marks, changing weapons, moving my squad to flank targets, recharging their energy, and so on.

When it all works, it's amazing. It feels really natural and actually quite empowering. The level of immersion it provides is pretty awesome. However, that 5% of the time it doesn't work? Frustrating. A couple of the characters' names don't seem to get picked up very well (Syll, and a 5th character you get down the line that I can't say without spoiling the game), so I often find myself repeating the commands in a more stern tone of voice naturally, and that actually makes the voice recognition worse.

It seems to work best with a moderate, almost conversational tone of voice, which when you're panicking because your team won't listen, good luck keeping calm. On the other hand, losing a fight isn't a big deal--the game will go back to the last autosave point, and they're quite frequent. That kind of mitigation certainly alleviated some of the frustration.

Overall, the experience with the voice control tech was quite positive. Having to repeat the occasional command wasn't that big of an immersion breaker, and frankly I was generally too into the game to really notice it unless it got really bad.


For a squad-based strategy game, the strategy was generally rudimentary, but the building blocks were there for something a lot more interesting. I played on the default difficulty (moderate), and there was a difficulty higher, and one lower.

You end up getting a total of four different weapon types to distribute amongst your four squadmates on top of the pistol each of them has, but you only get two of each type, so you can't just stack your favourite weapon and call it a day. The special weapons also take energy (whereas the pistol does not). That same energy is used for your shields, so if it runs out, you're toast.

So choices: use energy to take out enemies faster in hopes of spending less energy overall, or not. The trick here is the game takes a long-haul view of things. You only have a total of 3 bars of energy for most missions, so once it's gone, it's gone. It's not like Halo where it'll recharge if you're out of combat long enough, which frankly I found refreshing. I miss the long game of planning. Do I bring all of my forces? Or do I leave out one of them because she's low on energy. Do I use the special weapons? Or do I stick to pistols?

On the battlefield itself, you generally have a few set locations to move to, meaning you're relatively limited in those decisions. You usually want to keep yourself in cover, and try to flank enemies to get behind their cover. Relatively standard cover-shooter concepts overall.

Despite the relatively simplicity, I found I personally didn't need much more complexity. Given you don't have a lot of time to be handing out instructions verbally as the game progresses in real time, any more complexity might muddy the gameplay.


The music is top notch. Ronald Jenkees and Great Big Circles are the composers and they're absolutely fantastic. Music is matched up with the scenes and levels in a way that puts emphasis on the right things at the right time. During my two playthroughs of the game, I could not stop gushing over it. Seriously, amazing.

I think Bravely Default is the last soundtrack I had this much praise for. But where Bravely Default is high energy, easy to listen to actively and focus entirely on it, There Came an Echo is a lot more ambient, laid back, background. I can easily put the soundtrack on while I'm doing something else and find myself grooving, but I don't know that I'd spend time really getting into the music and forgetting everything else the way I can for some of Bravely Default's tracks. But in the context of There Came an Echo? It fits perfectly.

The story itself is relatively high-minded. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, similar to Sequence, they address some extremely interesting sci-fi concepts like (sorta) cloning, morality, encryption, freedom of information. Things that honestly might not be sci-fi in the next fifty years. Really good stuff there.

The characters, on the other hand, come off as flat. The only character who shows any growth at all is the first of your squad mates. The rest are quite static. Oh, they're entertaining enough--I rather enjoyed some of the banter--but the game is definitely plot-driven rather than character-driven.

It's a bit of a shame, really, because they managed to snag some pretty high-profile voice-actors: Wil Wheaton, Ashly Burch, Laura Bailey, and Yuri Lowenthal, to name a few (Bonus: Tell Corrin to "Shut Up, Wesley!" in-game. Seriously, it's great). But the characters are definitely not the focus of the narrative.

A special shout-out, though, to one of the characters being gay (and Asian, and religious). It comes up in conversation naturally, where one character asks the other if he has any family waiting for him, and he casually mentions his boyfriend. And it's no big deal; the first character just wonders if he misses his boyfriend, and then the conversation moves on. No fuss, no muss, the kind of casual footnote one would expect to come up in conversation. I was quite appreciative of that moment.

The art style fits the game quite well, and while you can tell the game is low-budget by the character animations and the fidelity of the art, it honestly doesn't really detract from the experience in my opinion. They've done a great job understanding their limitations as a studio and still shipping an excellent-looking game.

Was it worth it?


Okay, it's a bit short. About 3 hours of gameplay, and that's including a lot of very heavy story moments, so less actual gameplay. A total of 10 missions. I honestly wished it were about twice as long. I played through the game twice, though, and still had fun on my second playthrough (especially given some of the earlier pieces of the story foreshadow the end and it all makes sense).

But the game was a blast, it didn't overstay its welcome at all. I think it's a successful use of voice control that we haven't really seen before (note: I said "successful"). If you're particularly hardcore about your strategy games, however, you may want to crank up the difficulty to Hard.

Music was great, story was good, gameplay was fun, and the tech is cool. Portal felt like a steal at $20 despite being a 3 hour game. There Came an Echo feels just right at $15.
#IndieDev, #ThereCameAnEcho, #FirstImpression