Archive for March, 2010

I still remember the spirited debate I had here with Jormundgard about Science as Religion.  I’ve been rifling around for ways to properly restart that conversation, but my mental inertia fizzled, the train of my thought changing to different tracks.  Despite that, I still peer out the windows, longingly gazing upon the mountains of that far country and the discoveries to be made upon their sides, amongst their foothills and valleys, and the vistas upon their peaks.

And I remember that conversation was begun talking about climate change and skepticism, sparked by talk of the Climategate Emails.  It was with this rolling about in my head that I read this interview with James Lovelock.  Here’s, for my money, the choicest quote:

What I like about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think: “Crumbs, have I made a mistake here?” If you don’t have that continuously, you really are up the creek.

I’m relatively certain that this feeling is shared amongst all scientists, amateur and professional.  Indeed, on the grounds of the Church of Reason, amidst the cathedrals of the university, I’m certain it’s felt they are all skeptics and critics, for isn’t that fundamental to science?  The asking of questions?  Isn’t that the nature of Reason?

It is not, however.  Consider that the Logos as pursued by the disciples of Socrates (Plato and his student, Aristotle) moved along two paths: Dialectic and Logic.  Dialectic is the pursuit of knowledge through discourse, along the lines of questions and answers.  It is the very essence of skepticism; Logic, though, is not.  Aristotelian Logic, rather, is the exploration of existing axioms to produce theorems, the development and exploration of hierarchies, the refinement of models.  To be a skeptic is to question the assertions of a model, which is not the purpose of analytic logic.  Analytic logic is strictly concerned with the development of the model itself, not with its truth (or applicability or whatever).

That isn’t to say analysis is bad or unable to ascertain truth, but rather that it cannot question itself because it assumes its own accuracy.  Consider a standard logical formulation:

  1. p: Axiom 1
  2. p->q: Axiom 2
  3. q: from 1 & 2

We haven’t honestly said anything here beyond “given 1 and 2, 3”.  We haven’t demonstrated 1 and 2, so we haven’t demonstrated 3.  For any more complex demonstration, the set of assumptions grows, and over all the cloud hangs that the particular system of logic itself is an assumption.  A model of truth, not truth itself, the wall we touch in the dark and assume indicates a building is there.

Most science proceeds in the direction of examining and explaining the results of a series of assumptions.  Realize that measurements are taken assuming certain contexts hold true; it is very rare a measurement in such circumstance can contradict the assumptions behind its importance.  Scientists trod well-worn paths, waggling their beards too and fro as they look for changes to the grass lining their roads, or stopping to set a loose cobble firm.  They are not given to striking out perpendicular to the given path, as the important bit is the destination at the paths end: they already know where they are going.  They might stop to make the passage easier for those who follow, but new trails are not blazed by people who know where they are going.

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In terms of pure enjoyment, this game delivers.  While in general, Starcraft 2 is a fun, adrenaline-filled game, it’s rare that it deviates from certain scripted paths.  Matchups progress like iron veins across a mountain, deviating along a few, set branches; they are beautiful in their ways, but not given to terrific variance.  However, sometimes those veins suddenly crystallize under geological pressure in unexpected ways.  The fractal geometry thus engendered is a wonder to behold.

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APB Beta for Europe

While I’m depressed this beta event isn’t open in the US, for you Europeans, Fileplanet seems to be doing some sort of beta event with APB.  The link is to the front page, and it was the first link on the page when I looked.  Check it out!

I planned to talk about my APB impressions from PAX East at some point soon.  The take away was: I want to fucking play.  You lucky bastards across the Pond can on April 4th.

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PAX East: Highlights

I’m back!

PAX East was a blast, though I admit I’m not a fan of Boston (drivers there are batshit insane).

First up, the Wil Wheaton Keynote.  Yeah, he totally knocked it out of the park.  I’m embedding all 6 parts below because it’s worth watching (and H/T to the youtube poster, thanks for this!).

Second, the concerts were rad.  The Protomen were loud, solid rock, Anamanaguchi delivered chip tunes and the surprise announcement that they’re doing the Scott Pilgrim Video Game soundtrack (they also had sprites apparently from the game in their accompanying video.  Paul Robertson‘s sprite work continues to blow me away).  Sadly, I had to wander off for Metroid Metal and MC Frontalot, but I have no doubt they rocked the house.

Saturday’s concert was the big one for me, anyway.  While I was psyched for the Video Game Orchestra performance, I really wasn’t prepared at all for how awesome it was.  Their chamber group (standard strings + clarinet, sax, flute/piccolo) was great and expected.  The rock band on top of it was not.  So I was stunned to hear the single greatest metal rendition of Castlevania’s well-known “Vampire Killer” ever delivered by a group calling itself an “orchestra”.

Paul and Storm followed this up, and if you’ve seen them in the past, it was precisely the same.  Yes, even the jokes.  The standard pirate “Arrrrgh”s were all there.  Fortunately, they’re actually pretty good at responding to the crowd, and half the show was an improv routine, brilliantly delivering a keyed up crowd to a brilliant Jonathan Coulton.  His rendition of Mr. Fancy Pants and use of his newly dubbed “Distractitron” has improved over the years, and Saturday night’s performance was by far the best I’d ever heard from him.  Yet even that was overshadowed by what followed: he dragged Metroid Metal on-stage to perform with him.

Jonathan Coulton needs a band.

Look, I know: his solo performance works fantastically for small groups, with whom he can somewhat intimately interact, set up jokes with, whatever.  His show in 2007 at PAX was awesome precisely because he was able to interact on a personal level with many of us there (all 1000+).  But when you’re talking about 3000+ people, as were at last years PAX, that whole dimension fades.  Heck, he knows it; his whole style has changed, with his talk between songs reducing dramatically in duration in favor of larger, crowd-pleasing showmanship.  In 2008 this was rick-rolling the crowd and having Felicia Day sing Still Alive.  In 2009, it was bringing on Paul and Storm (which is usual for his standard touring) and the ukulele girl.  This year, though, he brought on Metroid Metal and formed a band.  This band managed to take the standard, solo acoustic guitar sound Coulton is known for and made it into a fully realized musical experience.

He’d damn well better do it again.

Anyway, I’ll talk about specifics in other posts.  Here’s Wil Wheaton.

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I’m going to be leaving for Boston and PAX East tomorrow, and I’ll be without a real way to update.  I expect this will kill my total monthly views and ruin all of your expectations of cogent commentary on random stuff.  I’ll be back next week though!

Before I left things to simmer, I thought I’d mention some news that interested me.  FIrst, WoW patch 3.3.3 hit, with balance changes, the new BG/Random PvP system going into place.

Next, Nintendo announced a new portable system, the successor to the DS and DSi (and DS XL), the 3DS.  Kotaku says that Nikkei, a Japanese Newspaper (and respectable source, they claim), reports that the 3DS will include “a 3-D joystick and a force feedback mechanism”.  However, the big main feature (and reason for the name) is it will allow games to be “enjoyed with 3D effects without the need for any special glasses”.

Sadly, I guess we’ll have to wait for E3 to hear hardware specs and the nature of this 3D tech.

And that’s it!  PAX time!

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Scott Jennings maintains a weekly column on MMORPG.com.  This week’s discussed the argument which has flared up between traditional game makers and facebook game makers.

A lot goes into this discussion, particularly given the extreme vagueness of the terms surrounding it.  It touches on a lot of nerves and a lot of fears, and is a debate rife with ignorance on all sides.  It’s also a debate we’ve had before.  Seriously.  This exact same discussion, countless times.  Sure, a few facets alter, but the form of the debate remains.

This post is going to be a little rambling, particularly as I let my feet find a direction, so bear with me here.  Nothing about Scott’s article actually put me off, except the strange fanaticism inherent to the various people he quotes.  Games are games, people; it’s a category which is quite broad and medium-independent.  A DVD game is no less a game than Modern Warfare 2, at least in fitting the definition of game (please, God, don’t ask me what that definition is because frankly the word has gotten thrown around so much you’ll just need to use your rough intuition about it.  It feels like it’s hit become one of those cultural things which you just know when you see it).  SO we’re not seeing facebook games consume all the other games out there.  We also really won’t see metric based games (whatever the fuck that means) take over everything.  Metrics are a convenient way to assess the impact of choices made, although let’s keep in mind that you’d better damn well know why your metrics are important, or you’re exercising about the same intelligence in your choices as a monkey pushing buttons for cocaine.  You will never replicate your success if you don’t understand why it’s successful, and as the success of games are a reflection of the personalities of the consumers by the myriad contexts presented by the game and surrounding the game, well, understanding metrics precisely will be nigh impossible.

You would think that, of all the people who would have a vested interest in building metrics-based games, the slot machine people would have figured this out.  They have had decades of time to observe the impact of various types of game, reward, colors, and every other type of metric.  Despite this, they still flail around in the dark.  Happily, I think, the human mind is a tad more subtle than that, and for all the easy money to be made by coaxing humans to pay to have bright lights and sounds played at them, the various developers of slots are mostly given to making something and then throwing it out there to see if it sticks.  They are often quite wrong, and there exist innovations in slot machine games which simply didn’t appear from metrics.  Someone simply said “Hey, let’s <put more lines in the game, have it pay out less but more often, add bonus games, etc>”.  I promise you, they did not know before trying it if it would work, despite all the metrics they have been able to collect.

These facebook and casual games are like that.  Look, of course Zynga didn’t spend much money on Farmville, even leaving aside accusations of straight ripping off other games wholesale.  They didn’t have to compete with anyone.  When Farmville entered the market, what competition they had was as penniless as they were.  All they had to do was throw more of whatever their few competitors had out there, and they would win.  At that point, the network effect took over.  But Zynga didn’t know the extent of the success they’ve had, and translating that to other things is going to be hard.  And, I guarantee you, will only get harder as more players enter the arena.

Understand that business capital investors, like all other financial investors, are momentum chasers.  All of them.  You show them a line trending upwards at the rate facebook game revenue generation has, and they would be damned fools not to throw a couple million at the chance to have their share.  That’s momentum chasing.  Just like every other sort of momentum chasing, you see the Law of Diminishing Returns rear it’s ugly (to the investor) head.  The larger the momentum behind something, the higher it goes.  The higher it goes, the more friction presses against it, until it crests.  Its energy has run dry; the cost of adding more energy to the wave has now exceeded the profit being gained from taking part, and the winners start cashing out while the losers fall apart.  Eventually, the wave settles down, and we find ourselves at something approaching a new (temporary) equilibrium.

Facebook games won’t grow to take in more revenue than AAA games for a simple reason.  Right now, they’re benefitting from user growth.  Eventually, they’ll hit a saturation point wherein they’ve reached everyone they’re going to, at which point, in order to grow, they need to coax more revenue out of their customers.  Consumers though, prefer to get better shit if they pay more.  It’s at this point that the big-money shops will come into their own, because they’ll benefit from the very simple fact that they have the capital to make better shit than anyone else.  Yep, Modern Warfare 2 took more money than God to make…and made more money than any other such game, ever.  It wouldn’t have if it hadn’t cost so much, I promise you.

Our age is one of preternaturally fast social networks; information reaches the fingertips of a great many people very rapidly, and is fed back into the internet machine even more rapidly.  That means that new takeup growth is explosive and unprecedented, and gets faster for every new “thing”, particularly when we’re talking internet-sized software.  The flipside of that coin is that saturation and falloff is also hit more rapidly than you can imagine.  That whole “15 minutes of fame” thing is shrinking rapidly.  You may hit the limelight of more people faster now, but they’ll move on to the next thing even faster.  Heck, that’s perhaps what’s most impressive about Blizzard games like Starcraft and WoW: they refuse to move out of the limelight.  By contrast, A new, improved Farmville will be released and will rapidly depopulate that game.  I submit that the single biggest factor will be more money, better invested.

In the midst of all these discussions has been an awful lot of prognostication about what the future will look like.  I don’t trust any of it.  Futurists always get this shit wrong, not because they’re dumb (they’re usually not) but because they’re incapable of seeing the sheer human factor in the future (the human future).  Does no one ever realize that humans have always changed rapidly?  At the very least we have generational shifts, and that shit happens every 20 years.  Have you witnessed simple fashion trends?  Would it have occured to you 20 years ago, in your wildest dreams, that college-aged people would be ripping around to bring back a bastardization of 80s fashion?  And where are my rocket cars?  The well-linked speech given by Jesse Schell at DICE involves him talking about the advent of games built into real life, based on the ever growing trend towards authenticity…right after he notes that this is a new trend which was simply on no one’s radar even 20 years ago.  Why should it remain for another 20 years?

What I do agree with is that technology diverges.  Just when you think everything is coming together, it flies apart.  Take web standards: for years, developers and users decried the wildly divergent browser processing between Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, and Firefox gained a lot of market share simply for adhering better to web standards (and thus being the “good guy”).  Today, HTML 5 looms…10 years down the road.  However, despite the long wait for a real, official standard for HTML5, new browsers have hit market and need a way to differentiate themselves beyond simple standards-compliance.  So, they leapt on HTML5 (among other things).  We now find that “standards-compliant” browsers have varying degrees of support for various portions of an unofficial standard, and what things they support in common, they may support differently (because the draft standard isn’t clear on the matter yet).  Thus, from a time of convergence, we see technology diverging.

We’re not satisfied with what we have.  Eventually, once we get what we’ve got down “good enough”, we go find some other new thing.  We make a flat mess of it, and proceed to fix it, learning all the way.  And everyone has their own idea of how to fix it, so we go tussling about trying to find that.  What happens out of this?  Not convergence.  See, convergence suggests there exists a “right way”, when there doesn’t.  The final test for technology is “good enough”, and “good enough” is arrived at in different ways for different uses.  Facebook is a convergence, sure, but I’m loathe to bet on its permanence.

What I think we’re seeing, instead, is a divergence in game design technologies that will eventually lead to a variety of game platforms.  This whole “social gaming” thing is creeping right back into mainstream games because it improves games: it’s fun.  And all that hardcore gameplay everyone is so afraid will disappear?  It’s gonna creep right back into facebook games.  We are going to see bigger, better plugins for browsers, both in-browser and browser launched.  Games will continue to be games.

Technology is a cost reduction.  That’s it; when a new technology is introduced, it reduces the cost of performing some action.  What we’re seeing, I think, is not an introduction of new gaming types or much major core game design, but a reduction in cost of playing a game.  Before, in order to waste time playing a game, an exorbitant amount of money had to be spent.  You needed to buy the game, buy the system to play it on, hook it up to everything, etc.  Farmville, by contrast, requires you to have flash (which you will), log into facebook, and play on a browser.  IT set the damn machine up for you (because you’re probably playing at work), and facebook is free to sign up for…and you get to do all that other facebook crap, to boot.  Technology has gone and beaten down the barrier to entry for a SNES level game down to squat.  If you want, you can give them some money to get a hold of some stuff that you think is neat, but the cost to you, over time, is pretty insignificant.  Or you can go through their “lead generation” crap.  Low cost individually, and they skim off the long tail.

As desktop computing power grows while prices drop (and computer ubiquity grows), more and more people will have ready access to a computer that can play cooler and cooler stuff.  Cost of entry will be nil.  Consider that World of Warcraft runs on a netbook (I’ve seen this with my own, shocked eyes), and costs less than your water bill monthly, aside from the occassional “installation” purchase.  We’re approaching the point where it’d be viable to just run WoW out of a browser.  People would pay for that, because there’s no barrier to entry.  Just open up your browser, run the little plugin, and boom: WoW.

At the same time, development costs are declining.  I know, I know, budgets have skyrocketed, but the output for those budgets has also grown.  The game technology of yesteryear simply couldn’t SUPPORT $100 million budgets.  What would you do with all that money?  Software tools and development boxes weren’t capable of producing the content we can now.  The end technology can support the content produced with all that money…and it can also support less intensively developed work.

XNA is actually a brilliant example of this, as is the iPhone AppStore.  The tools, the distribution technology, they have all improved to the point where it is once again viable for a single person or small team to develop a game and sell it to people.  There was a period of time where that was a laughable concept.

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I wish I had more to say on WoW.  I’ve mostly been on a holding pattern with regards to the game while we wait on more information about Cataclysm.  As far as the current game goes, my suspicion that the 25-man version of the Lich King would hold out longer than a week has proven to be even more true than I thought.  Apparently I gave DPS value increases too much credit and the relative difficulty too little credit.  We only just recently saw the US first kill of 10-man Heroic LK, so I suspect we may be waiting for a couple increments of the zone buff before we finally see the hardest (truest?) Lich King drop.  It’ll likely depend on the rapidity of gear gains by top guilds and sheer dogged practice.

As far as Cataclysm goes, we saw the big rundown on Masteries last week, which told us nothing new (if you’ve been paying attention).  Now, one concerning thing about masteries is that they’re a poor deal for hybrids.  Consider the sample priest masteries they gave: Discipline might receive improved healing, improved mana regen, and improved damage absorption from shields, while Holy might receive improved healing, improved mana regen, and a HoT on healing spells.  So, what about shadow priests?  None of those bonuses could possibly compare to the bonuses they would get in the shadow tree, so unless the utility in other trees is just awesome, shadow priests would dump all their points into shadow.

Ghostcrawler had an answer for this: we’ll only give you bonuses for your primary tree, and we’ll cap that.  Fair enough, that makes passive bonuses easy enough to calculate for any spec.  If I had to guess, I’d say they’d make 50-51 (GC  suggests 55, you should probably listen to him and not me) points the ‘cap’, leaving you other points to distribute willy-nilly elsewhere.  This does solve the issue of hybrids, and makes the calculation of passive bonuses by spec relatively simple.  From the above example, All holy priests would have a +x% healing bonus (let’s say 1% per talent point) and a +y% increased mana regeneration (let’s say 1% again here).  Using our theoretical numbers, holy (and disc) priests would, at max level, receive a 50% healing and mana regen bonus.  On top of this, they’d receive a  HoT effect healing for z% of a spell’s total healing over 6 seconds (I’m gonna dump this at .5%, so they’ll cap at 25% here).  However, z is also increased by mastery rating on armor, so really their healing spells apply a HoT effect that heals for z + mastery/rating coefficient % over 6 seconds.  This simplifies theorycrafting immensely, because we can just apply these blanket bonuses to a spec, and get into the meat of the more interesting talents.  Keep in mind the above translates into basically a 75% improvement in healing, plus gains from talents.  If you think that’s high, well, it could be.  However, if talents increase healing effects by an aggregate of say 75%, along with adding some non-quantifiable utility, that comes out to a 150% to 300% bonus in healing from talents.

300%…wow, you say!  That’s way too much.  Now, go clear your talents and wail on a training dummy for a while.  I suspect you’ll discover talents are quite a multiplier on your efficacy.  While Blizzard does claim to aim for ~1% increased efficacy from a talent point spent, we know this is actually a minimum, and mostly applies to the non-special talents.  Things like Titan’s Grip, Mortal Strike, Starfall, Mind Flay, etc. add a great deal more than 1% to your overall damage.  Tree of Life is a much higher healing gain than 1%, and so on.  Perhaps not a 300% increase, but that was a multiplicative combination of passives and talents (admittedly, I feel this is the likely case, based on how blizzard’s system is set up).  Anyway, while I bet the total bonus is lower, I bet it’s not that much lower.  Talents increase your efficacy an awful lot.

In the meantime, 3.3.3 has been chugging along on the PTR.  The feature list and balance changes look solidified, so we’ll probably see it Live in the next couple weeks.  Blizzard has verified that the gnomes and trolls will get racial homes, alongside big world events for us to take part in, and that this will happen after 3.9 (though I can’t find where Bouboille sees that).

And that’s it!

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