Digging Through The June 2019 Humble Bundle

What’s the Humble Bundle got for me this month?

First off, the good: Duskers is a game where you pilot robot drones to scavenge derelict spaceships that are now full of some kind of alien xenomorph thing. They’re clunky, slow, and so far as I’ve gotten, unarmed, so the game isn’t about shooting them, but rather about using motion sensors and remote door controls to trap them in harmless rooms while you pick the corpse clean and hopefully figure out why everyone got killed by xenomorphs.

911 Operator is a ton of fun for like two or three hours and is then repetitive and boring, constantly disappointing me with its traces of good gameplay but never quite having enough content to deliver a full experience. I like that you can import Google maps data from your own city to play anywhere (not only is Salt Lake City available, but even tinier towns like Provo and St. George, the latter known even in Utah as “the place that is between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas”).

The problem is, there’s a career mode that uses pre-fixed cities, but which interacts with those cities as unique cultural or geographic entities so non-existently that I don’t see why it’s not possible to play the career mode on city maps of your choice. The only difference between career mode and free mode that I can discern is that in career mode you are guaranteed to get each 911 call once with no repeats and in a specific order, which seems like something you could’ve done with any city, and would’ve been a great way to get each call while still personalizing it to wherever you happen to live. The calls are pretty well voice-acted (with a few exceptions) and often pretty compelling. Oh, also you change cities so quickly in career mode that the entire mini-game of accumulating money by responding to emergencies so you can buy new vehicles and hire new staff is basically meaningless, because you won’t have enough money to buy up even one new team.

Overall, 911 Operator is kinda fun but This Is The Police is the same thing, but better, and there’s two of those now. Probably only worth checking out if you really like TitP but have mined out those first two games or if you really like the idea of directing fire engines and ambulances in addition to cops. As it happens, I do really like that idea, so I had plenty of fun with it, but I can definitely recognize its flaws.

The big ticket item was Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. I don’t care about military shooters, like, at all, so I haven’t even redeemed it. I guess drop by my Discord (link up top) and let me know if you want a free copy, ’cause I don’t want mine. Likewise, Red Faction Guerilla Re-Mars-tered comes from the seventh generation console shooter school and I just don’t care about that genre. I appreciate the pun but I’m not going to bother playing.

Paratopic is an atmospheric horror game using early PS1 graphics. Imagine the first Silent Hill with worse art direction. I forgave that kind of thing in Resident Evil and Silent Hill because there was nothing better, but it’s 2019. If you can’t climb up to at least PS2 level graphics, you can’t do atmospheric horror.

Finally, Pool Panic is a game where you knock a cue ball around with the digital billiards gameplay you’ve probably encountered before, except the cue ball is a character and you have to navigate him around environments. The whole thing has a vaguely Rick and Morty-esque aesthetic, but I make no promises as to whether it will have Rick and Morty-esque ideas or humor. And that show’s aesthetic is actually pretty terrible.

The Humble Monthly is hit and miss. Usually each bundle will have at least one game that’s worth playing no matter who you are, but will also have some amount of junk. The monthly costs between $11 and $12 a month depending on how much you buy at once, and most entertainment turns out to be worth somewhere between $3-$4 per hour, so if you have even four hours of fun with any given Humble Monthly, you’re breaking even. For June, naturally if you care about either of the big games you’re set, but I think Duskers and 911 Operator together are probably worth it even if you don’t have my peculiar fascination for saving the city through the power of judicious resource management.

July’s headliner is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which is one of those “experience” games where whether or not you want to play it depends largely on whether or not you want a window into the mind of a schizophrenic Pict. I do think it’s neat how it uses our willingness to assume the existence of the supernatural in a historical setting to get us to blindly accept what turn out to be psychotic delusions.

I Wish Game Dev Tycoon Had More Competition

Being able to make a living off of my creative work is my driving motivation in life and has been for some three or four years now. Thus, naturally, I like games like Game Dev Tycoon, where I get to pretend for a bit that doing this is quick and easy. Unfortunately, Game Dev Tycoon specifically is kind of meh.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression. GDT is not shovelware. It starts you out somewhere ambiguously in the 80s (time is tracked as years since game start, not actual years, which allows the pace of events to be set faster or slower by a drop down) and takes you through to the near future, and demonstrates a pretty solid understanding and appreciation for video game history on the way, it’s updated itself to account for the release of the eight generation of consoles, including the fairly recent Nintendo Switch, and has speculative ninth generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft. And while the game isn’t super deep, it isn’t a SimCity 2013, either. If you sit around doing nothing, you will not end up with a studio that is lawless, flooded with sewage, and on fire, but somehow still turning a profit and steadily growing. You can go bankrupt if too many of your games flop, and in fact, early on two failed titles in a row will do the trick (an unrealistic amount of breathing room for a small studio, but being able to rebound from failed experiments by picking something reliable is unquestionably a better gameplay experience). There’s even fun little references that you might never even notice until they’re pointed out to you, like how your starting garage studio in 1984-ish has a DeLorean under a tarp on the far wall, a cheeky implication that you’ve used it to time travel back to the beginning of the post-crash era of video games.

But although your input matters at all and it can even take a bit of analysis to get the hang of how to train your staff once you become a larger company, for the most part, the gameplay of Game Dev Tycoon is in playing it safe and recreating what came before. Even very effective studio management from a very well trained team won’t save your game from a bizarre and unpopular genre/topic/audience combination. This is certainly realistic, but Game Dev Tycoon isn’t about realism, it’s about fantasy. That’s why even a very early studio can bounce back from a single flop, giving them time to learn from their mistake when most small studios couldn’t realistically survive a single failed game. Although it is possible to use on-the-ball time/staff-management to do quirky runs like “every game has the same target audience” or, God help you, “every game has the same topic,” doing so isn’t challenging, it’s boring.

Optimizing your staff and development is pretty straightforward after your first playthrough (and your first playthrough was probably a standard “let’s just make good games based on market trends” run), and after that, an intentional handicap to your review scores and sales just means it’s harder to stay on top of the tech curve which means you spend more time between unlocks. The game just isn’t dynamic enough for drastically changing your approach from one game to another to be worth it. There’s one optimal way to make each kind of game and, like, five types of game, so once you’ve got those optimized, you’re still shifting sliders around, but only because you can’t save presets. The only actual choice you’re making is whether the game is Action, Adventure, RPG, Strategy, Simulation, or Casual, each of which has an optimum balance of development time spent on graphics as opposed to sound as opposed to world design and etc. etc., and each of which has an optimal list of features. You can mix and match those genres, but each combination can also be optimized and only a few matches are viable. Action-Strategy doesn’t require a specific approach to work, it just automatically takes a bad genre crossover penalty.

The only thing that’s different from one playthrough of Game Dev Tycoon to another is which four topics you start with and what order you can unlock new ones in. Since each topic has an intuitive and optimal match-up to genre and target audience, only one variable is really changing here. Technically, the job applicants you get when seeking staff also vary, but the differences are too small to really make a difference. Ultimately, it’s very easy to get a few design-heavy devs, a few technology-heavy devs, and to train and assign them appropriately to different tasks during development to make high-rated games consistently, so you just do that, the same way, every time. You aren’t mastering a system. You’re learning a recipe.

Pewdiepie’s Tuber Simulator had a similar thing where different video topics were more or less popular at different times, but it also had a mechanic whereby you only have three video ideas to pick from, each on a different topic taken from a list of…I think eight? Maybe ten. The point is, you get a random selection of less than half of all topics to pick from, so sometimes you have to make do with something that you don’t have a whole lot of points in or which is pretty played out in the current market. When you’re playing Tuber Simulator, every time you go to make a new video, you have to make a decision, and you can’t do it completely on auto-pilot. Sometimes it’s obvious, and the topic you’re best at is also the thing that’s currently trending and it’s one of your three available selections, but sometimes you have to make a choice between something you’re good at and something that’s popular, and sometimes your gamer/horror ‘tuber has to make a cooking video because it’s the least bad idea they have today. Mechanics like that keep the game engaging, and Game Dev Tycoon could really benefit from them.

I Am On TVTropes Which Is Neat I Guess

I don’t really have any topics for a Tuesday article leaping out to grip me, but my post on why Vampire: the Last Night is terrible did get linked on TVTropes as an explanation of why that adventure is bad, so I now get a steady trickle of traffic from that link. That’s not like a watershed moment for the blog or anything, it’s still like two or three views a day and I usually get at least ten times that many even when I’m producing less and less popular content (like these Spider-Man and Philosophy reviews have been going), but I noticed it in my blog stats when I was double checking how much my schedule slip has maimed my view count this time, so hey, that’s neat.

Musing on the Sinister Six

I’ve been doing research into super villain team-ups lately. Like super hero team-ups, these fall into basically two categories: Teams like the X-Men or their evil counterparts in the Brotherhood of Mutants who are built from the ground up to be teams, and post-hoc team-ups of established heroes/villains like the Avengers or our heroes today, the Sinister Six. Creating a villain team isn’t that different from creating an ensemble cast of heroes, and the ensemble outlines I’ve already written about apply equally to them. What about Avengers-style villain team-ups?

I haven’t determined any general purpose rules for them yet, probably because so far I’ve only really examined the Sinister Six, but here’s what I’ve found about that particular line-up.

The original Sinister Six line-up consists of Doc Ock, Electro, Vulture, Sandman, Mysterio, and Kraven the Hunter. The middle four are in no particular order, but notably Doc Ock is almost always the leader of the Sinister Six and Kraven is only there because “Sinister Five” isn’t alliterative. Spidey has subsequently gotten much better villains to fill that spot. Hobgoblin and Rhino have filled the sixth spot in the past, and while Venom was only ever a part of Sandman’s Sinister Six assembled for revenge on Doc Ock, he’s also a good choice for the sixth spot. The 2018 video game put Mister Negative in there, and even though Mister Negative is a C-tier villain no one cares about, it still worked, because Kraven’s spot is a total wild card, so go ahead and shove your favorite underrated Spidey villain in there, it’s a free space.

Chameleon and Shocker have also been in the Sinister Six before, but they’ve got a bit of overlap with Electro and Mysterio, respectively, so you should probably avoid putting them in the same story unless you have a plan to draw attention to their differences. Also, Beetle makes appearances surprisingly often, despite the fact that you have never heard of him and don’t care, and Scorpion makes appearances surprisingly rarely, despite the fact that he’s no more averse to team-ups than most villains and is easily as recognizable as some of the roster-fillers like Mysterio and Vulture.

Into the Spider-Verse had a very different Sinister Six line-up. Kingpin is in charge, Doc Ock is his number two (she isn’t especially loyal and has her own motives, but that is true of most Sinister Six members – in their first appearance, their infighting led to them running a gauntlet on Spidey one by one because they refused to work directly with one another, and Spidey mocked them at the end for being defeated when they probably would’ve won if they’d just worked together). Green Goblin, who is normally too megalomaniacal to work with other villains in any capacity except as their undisputed master, and Scorpion, who is perfectly good Sinister Six fodder but doesn’t usually join for no reason I can think of, are both on the team. Prowler is normally an also-ran villain unworthy of a Sinister Six spot, but in Spider-Verse he stole the show as the stand-out villain of the bunch, and then also Tombstone was there. He is also normally an also-ran villain unworthy of a Sinister Six spot, and in Spider-Verse, he is still that. Nothing’s perfect, I guess.

The Spider-Verse version breaks a lot of Sinister Six rules, like “the Green Goblin never joins the Sinister Six” and “Doc Ock always leads the Sinister Six.” If you want to make your own Sinister Six story, do not do this. In Spider-Verse, the whole point is that Miles Morales’ dimension is similar, but different, to Peter B. Parker’s. His Scorpion has eight limbs (nine, counting the tail), his Green Goblin is a hulking brute instead of a lithe super soldier, his Doc Ock is a woman, and his Kingpin was bitten by a radioactive dump truck. You can swap out any member of the Sinister Six if it serves a purpose, and in Spider-Verse, there was a purpose to be served by the entire line-up being radically altered. Sandman’s Sinister Six had no Doc Ock at all because its purpose was for revenge on Doc Ock. Speaking of Sandman, he dances across the hero/villain line now and then, which means he might sometime be unavailable for his usually sacrosanct spot in the roster, and will have to be replaced (you could even get a good story out of Sandman confronting his former allies in the Sinister Six as a friend of Spider-Man).

This is a slapped together post about a half-complete research project I happened to be undertaking, so it’s not really going anywhere and has no conclusion except for this sentence explaining a lack of a conclusion. So. Uh. Have a sinister Tuesday.

The Optimal MMORPG Day/Night Cycle

The MMORPG genre is basically dead, on account of being crazy-expensive to produce upfront (though very cheap to keep running, despite lingering myths that it is still 1998 and server costs are a thing we have to care about, like, at all) and the audience having mostly moved on, first to MOBAs, then to arena shooters, and now to the whole survival of the fittest PUBG/Fortnite thing.

But hey, being current was never really this blog’s schtick, so let’s talk about the optimal day/night cycle for a genre that is almost impossible to produce new installments for. I guess maybe like ten or fifteen years from now advancing tech will allow indie MMORPGs to be a thing the way they’ve brought back Infinity Engine games and stuff.

The trick with an MMORPG day/night cycle is that 1) you want the average player to see both the day and the night of your cycle. If your day/night cycle is 1:1 with the real world, then sure, America always plays in the morning, Europe in the afternoon, and China at night, but so far as each individual player is concerned, you may as well have just made it a static time and called it a day.

But also 2) you want the average player to be able to spend a significant amount of their session in either day or night, so that you can have content occur in one or the other. If you have decent dawn and sunset times (and you should), then day and night occupy only about a third of your cycle each. If your cycle is one hour long, that means your day- or night-exclusive content is available only in twenty minute bursts, way too short for players to notice it’s night and go somewhere to do something about it. They have to track when in the hour your night cycle begins and head to the cemetery in advance to fight the vampires as soon as night falls (or whatever).

Even if your day/night cycle is purely cosmetic, having a very short day/night cycle means it’s much harder to have a sense of having an adventuring day. The average player’s session is probably going to be about 2-3 hours, which means that during one real life day of play, an hour-long cycle gives 2-3 days’ worth of adventuring. But since you probably don’t have sleep or thirst mechanics or anything (and those would probably not be a good idea), this all blurs together, resulting in the day/night cycle being practically unnoticeable. If you’re going to have a day/night cycle, size it to fit the average player’s session, so that it feels like their play session for the day is equal to one day in the life of their character.

To satisfy these requirements, four hours is about ideal. It still syncs up with a 24 hour clock (module the need for occasional leap seconds, if you really want to be precise). Most players will probably only see about half the cycle on any given day, but because the exact length of their play session and the exact time they stop and start will probably vary by an hour or so day by day, they will see all of the day/night cycle over the course of a week or so (whereas, with a 24-hour cycle, you might once every few months play the game at a very unusual time, but 99% of the time you’re probably playing in the afternoon and evenings every day except the days you don’t play at all).

Players are much less likely to see multiple days in one session, though, unless they’re really marathoning by playing for over four hours at a stretch, which is hardly typical (not that early MMOs didn’t try to incentivize people to play for such absurd lengths, for some dumb reason – even when subscription fees were ubiquitous, you get paid for consistency, not obsession, devs). This preserves the “one day of gameplay per day” thing that the 24-hour cycle attempts to achieve, but fails to, on account of players don’t play the game for like eight hours a day (except when they do, but Christ, don’t do that).

Finally, day/night content is around for a full hour and twenty minutes, which means that when night falls, someone can notice that night has fallen, spend twenty minutes extricating themselves from whatever they happened to be doing, go to the cemetery, and still probably have 50 minutes at least to fight the vampires before the sun comes up. Even content that happens strictly during dawn and dusk (40 minutes each under this system – 40 minutes of dawn followed by 80 minutes of day followed by 40 minutes of sunset followed by 80 minutes of night, total of 240 minutes, which is four hours) is reasonably accessible, if for some reason you ever do that, although I expect most MMOs will use dawn and/or dusk as extensions on day and night that apply to some, but not all, events. Like, some content is available at dusk and night but goes away at dawn, some content happens whenever it isn’t night, but probably nothing is only available only at dusk.

The day/night cycle even lines up reasonably well to an in-game calendar, if that is for some reason something you care about, in that one IRL day is six game days, which is roughly a week, and five IRL days is thirty game days, which is a month-ish, and every 61 IRL days (loosely, two months) is close to a game year. If you’re running a game whose scale benefits from the in-game timeline moving faster than the IRL timeline (and many settings do, especially the bog standard epic fantasy), then this calendar allows for easy conversion while still allowing for years to pass relatively quickly. A story arc released incrementally over the course of three years – not atypical in long-running MMOs – can happen over the span of an entire generation of in-game time, but it’s easy for players to remember 1 real day = 1 game week, 1 real work week = 1 game month, and 2 real months = 1 game year, and thus keep track of how time works in the game.

A Visit To A Bookstore

I visited a bookstore recently, while wandering the half-dead mall for twenty minutes waiting for a movie to start. It was the same location as a bookstore I had visited as a child and teenager some 10-15 years ago, but that bookstore had closed down, and a new one had since come to replace it. Apparently the interim owners didn’t even take down the shelves, because the shelves themselves were all in the exact same position as I remember, just the self-help books were in the old sci-fi/fantasy section I had always haunted, and sci-fi/fantasy was now closer to the middle rather than the back. I can’t even remember what books used to be in that section, which shows how much impression they left.

But the thing that really stood out to me wasn’t that the position of the shelves hadn’t changed. It was that the books hadn’t changed. Besides being on different shelves, it was basically the same selection as I remember, with an occasional smattering of “newer” titles that were all at least five years old. But mostly the Star Wars section was still stocked with Karen Traviss and Timothy Zahn and a few decrepit leftovers from the WEG roleplaying game, and the fantasy section still had a bunch of old books from the 60s-80s including – and bear in mind this is in a small town in hyper-conservative, “porn is a mental health crisis” Utah – several Gor books. The only thing that had changed is that now the Star Wars and Dragonlance books which had once had that new book stiffness and smell are now nearly as worn as the pastiches from 1978. Turns out once a book is one year old, it will – barring heavy use – remain in about the same condition for decades until it begins to fall apart completely. And also that this bookstore apparently deals exclusively in books from four or five years ago.

Maybe it’s specifically a used bookstore, and they just didn’t advertise that at all?

Kickstarters Are Still Hard

I was able to keep content up while running this latest Kickstarter, and I still plan to keep it going while fulfilling that Kickstarter, but naturally fulfillment of obligations people paid for takes priority over a thing I promised a non-specific audience I’d try to do for free. Getting all the backer content finished is taking a little longer than expected, so I’m prioritizing that in order to keep my deadlines. This might cause the blog to miss some posts over the next week or two, but hopefully won’t cause it to go completely fallow.

Heartbreaker Press Interviews Ed Greenwood

Recently I edited together an interview by Heartbreaker Press with Ed Greenwood. I didn’t really contribute any content to this, just edited out all the filler words and stuff, so this falls more into the category of “posting other people’s stuff because I have no ideas for a Friday article” than “recycling my content from elsewhere into the blog,” but it’s still a pretty good interview. I’d listen to it while playing video games if I hadn’t already heard it five times while removing all the silences.

The Failure of Game of Thrones

Let’s be topical for once and talk about why Game of Thrones is bad. Now, Game of Thrones has been bad for like four seasons now, and people have been uneasy about it for years. Almost nobody ever wanted to be the one to stand up and say that this show is going off the rails until right near the end, when it dawned on everyone that there wasn’t enough time left to turn this thing around, but people could’ve seen this coming years away, and many of them did. The showrunners didn’t just roll out of bed and decide to phone in the final few episodes. They’ve demonstrated an obsession with the cliffhanger and the twist to the detriment of character motivation since at least Jon’s death (in fairness, GRRM wrote that scene exactly as poorly, trying to have Jon’s death be sudden and shocking instead of letting the tension build properly). They’ve demonstrated a failure to pay attention to details in troop movement and logistics since at least when Dany showed up in Westeros. In terms of writing, once they ran out of material to adapt they always had exactly one thing going for them: They were good at baiting their audience into thinking this was all going somewhere. Like the writers of Lost, their only merit was their ability to make convincing promises. When the story was wrapping up, they had no ability to deliver.

You can even see what they were going for if you look closely. Drogon avenges Danaerys by destroying the Iron Throne, the obsession with which would’ve killed Dany in any scenario, rather than killing Jon, the guy who happened to do the deed in the specific course of events that actually happened. Drogon (somehow) recognizes that it is feudalism that killed Dany, that she succumbed to it when she tried to claim the Iron Throne, a goal that stands in direct contradiction to her nominal desire to “break the wheel,” and Jon was merely a tool in the hands of the system. If it wasn’t him, it would’ve been someone else. It’s a good metaphor, a really well shot scene, and would’ve been a fantastic ending if only the showrunners had bothered with writing the beginning and middle of that story. Tyrion’s explanations of Dany’s motivations after the fact make sense and could’ve been the basis of a season 8 that was actually good.

The problem is that all of this was kept completely hidden from us until after the scene for which it was vital context. In order to make Dany’s torching of King’s Landing maximally shocking, the writers shut us out of Dany’s head until after it was too late – both too late for the audience to predict what would happen next, and too late to make the scene work. And that former one didn’t even work out well, because once a show becomes sufficiently popular, the internet’s theorycrafters will have any team of writers so thoroughly outnumbered that your only options are either to favor one faction of theorists over another or else to provide an ending that’s so bad that people never entertained the notion, because fans of ongoing art generally agree that the ending is going to be good. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be fans.

The Problem With MMO Roleplay

Most MMORPGs will have a dedicated roleplay server. The idea of using an MMO as a backdrop for roleplaying appeals to me, but it has a serious problem that I don’t know how to easily solve: Who plays the NPCs? Like, obviously the computer runs the NPCs in the sense of having them attack players and stuff, but it’s pretty hard to have a roleplay conversation if you can’t talk to NPCs. It’s never long before you can feel the constraints of not being able to talk to plot-vital characters are felt.

I think probably the most fruitful direction for this kind of thing would be to ignore completely the role that the main plot casts you in. Most MMOs treat every player as though they are the chosen one. Obviously, you need to junk that in favor of the chosen four or eight or however many people are in your RP group, but I think that obvious step isn’t going far enough. If you’re going to not actually interact with any NPCs pretty much ever, then you need to be someone who wouldn’t be expected to. Let’s take Lord of the Rings Online as an example, although it makes you less chosen than most MMOs on account of Frodo and Aragorn are already a thing. In LotRO, your character is allegedly instrumental in fighting off all kinds of major servants of the Enemy all across Middle-Earth. You meet with Aragorn, Galadriel, Elrond, and a dozen other major names. Not only that, those people rely on you to accomplish vital tasks so they can do all their canon world saving shenanigans. But there’s nobody around to play the part of Aragorn or Elrond in RP conversations when you’re sitting around Rivendell.

Instead of being the tenth most important person in all of Middle-Earth right after the Fellowship, imagine you roleplay as just, like, regular hunters out of Bree or dwarven guards from the Blue Mountains or what-have-you. A fellowship of basically ordinary people who don’t interact directly with Aragorn or Elrond. You fight in the battles of the free people not because you are their savior but because you’re one of them. An army of dwarves showed up, and your dwarf buddy is one of them, and the non-dwarves are with him, and at no stage do any of the big names from the Hobbit personally thank you for your valor or anything. This reduces the party from protagonists to extras, but it also means that you can talk about the game as it really is: Pulling you along events that you cannot really control, rather than pretending that you’re on a first-name basis with Eomer and should be able to include him in the conversation whenever it would be prudent to do so. And with the group no longer at the heart of the plot, it liberates everyone to instead care mainly about the interpersonal relationships within the group, and how those relationships grow or wither over time as a result of the things that happen to the fellowship.