Rant: High-Fidelity Nonsense

Poor communication is not a substitute for depth. If an idea cannot be adequately communicated such that it can be understood without ambiguity, it’s either not a good idea or it’s not being expressed well. In a similar vein, not telling half of a story and implying that there’s ever so much more to be told, but not paying that off is BAD STORYTELLING.

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It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between “telling half a story” and “leaving details to the imagination”. Star Wars is an incredible example of the latter– it presents a complete story in a setting, but there are details that hint at a larger universe but aren’t laid out explicitly. These details are entirely unrelated to the story, but they enrich the setting and leave room for the imagination to play, without compromising the storytelling.

A great example of the former is a game I recently finished: Cradle. It presents an incredibly compelling world, and a mystery of identity. What is this world? Who are you? What’s going on here? It’s presented as a compelling mystery, with you collecting scraps in order to put it all together. It builds and builds, answering questions with new questions and hinting at ever larger pieces of an overall story. Then, it ends, paying off none of its questions and only leaving more unanswered ones in its wake. The best you can hope for is to piece together some semblance of a story or an ending from bits and pieces, until you’re satisfied that whatever you came up with is acceptable. Essentially, you can write the rest of the story for yourself, doing the creator’s work, to complete the job left unfinished.

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This kind of writing tends to attract a cult following, that will describe it as “genius” because it is incomprehensible, and “intelligent” because it “forces the audience to think”. The hardest part of a story to write, especially one that’s a mystery, is the ending. Skipping that part robs the audience of the payoff the rest of the story is trying to set up. It’s the difference between a sudden plot twist that makes perfect sense in retrospect and a breakout of deus ex machina, where suddenly things change or get resolved out of nowhere. If the culprit in the mystery is some random character that doesn’t appear in the story until the “big reveal”, it’s a pretty lame mystery. If the last part of the mystery is “I know exactly who did it! I’ll tell you when we get there,” and then you roll credits, that’s also a pretty lame mystery.

Hiding something from the reader until the very end is hard to do. It’s not easy to set up all of the little hints and details that don’t quite form a complete picture until the end, but it’s vital to selling any kind of big reveal, and you actually have to let on what the big reveal ACTUALLY IS, or you’re just being a poor storyteller. If you don’t know what the reveal is, and build up to… something… without a clear idea of what you’re building to, you can’t simply never say what the build-up is for and take credit for some kind of hidden depth.

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Ambiguity is a powerful tool in storytelling, and leaving certain parts to the imagination is vital, but these things can’t compromise the actual narrative. It should be clear that whatever actually happened, whatever events and decisions led up to the big finish, are actually explainable. Sudden changes or resolutions with no build-up are, frankly, nonsense. If a giant, hollow framework has been built up around a payoff that never comes, that’s just high-fidelity nonsense. Rendering lavish detail on something with no substance doesn’t magically give it substance.

It frustrates me to see this kind of writing, because it’s blatantly disrespectful of both the audience and their time. It often seems to be very good up until the point where it abruptly stops being coherent, at which point it hopes that the audience is invested enough to gin up the rest of the storytelling from whole cloth, or piece together what scraps are available into something resembling a finished product. That isn’t cleverness, or depth, or hidden genius.

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One of the best storytelling reveals I’ve seen is in the original Bioshock, where tiny, easily missed details are laced throughout the entire narrative leading up to the big reveal. One of the worst is in There Came an Echo, where suddenly, out of left field, everything you thought you knew turns out to be wrong. The former is good because in a second playthrough, you can catch all of the little things that hinted at the reveal. The latter is bad because the reveal has no buildup, no hints, no suggestion of its existence until suddenly it happens. Similarly, a great mystery that builds and builds until the final narrative closure is Gone Home, which tells a complete story without letting on what actually happened until the very end. A terrible mystery is Cradle, which hints at a complete story and lays a lot of compelling groundwork and then never pays off, providing little more than vague hints of what MIGHT have happened, maybe.

To writers: it’s better to have your audience figure out your ending before it comes than it is to ensure they can’t possibly figure it out, up to and after when it actually comes. Finish your damn stories, don’t make your readers do it.

Opportunity Cost

I’ve had a number of conversations recently about selecting gameplay options in games. Character builds, unit selection, upgrades, anything that provides you tools or options or effectiveness (read: not cosmetic stuff). These things usually have a cost associated with them, and occasionally dependencies, and then an overall effect or suite of options in-game for you to then use.

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From chatting with people, I’ve discovered that a lot of people look at the cost to effectiveness comparison alone. Essentially, it’s an “I put points/resources in, get results out” evaluation. If that exchange looks good, then great! We’ll take this option and move forward. What ultimately results from this kind of selection process is a fairly haphazard end result. Most people will take this a step further and ask whether the choice they’re making fits into an overall plan before making the selection. Does this talent mesh with the other talents I’ve taken? Does this unit work well with the other units I’ve chosen, or offer me options I wouldn’t have with my currently-chosen selection? Having an overall strategy is good, and refines the selection process quite a bit. It’s also where most people seem to stop in their evaluation.

There’s a step further that I like to take when making selections. Evaluating options based on the choices you’ve already made is strong, but can be stronger if you take into account the choices you HAVEN’T made. An option might provide you with tools and effectiveness at a fair price, but still not be the best, or even a terribly good choice. It comes down to what you’re giving up by making that choice. To use Fallout 4 as an example, the Ninja and Mister Sandman perks both cost a point and provide similar benefits– raising your sneak attack damage. Assuming you’re good at getting sneak attacks, both appear to be good options. However, it’s notable that Mister Sandman requires that you be using silenced weapons, whereas Ninja does not. Assuming you can’t take both, you’re cutting out the possibility of having your laser weapons benefit (which can’t be silenced) if you choose the Mister Sandman perk. Ninja, however, allows the use of all weapons. Choosing Mister Sandman has the opportunity cost of not benefiting your laser weapons– not necessarily noticable if you opt out of using laser weapons entirely, but it does provide a limitation, or at least makes you less than optimal if you do choose to use a laser weapon.

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To use a different example, in Infinity, most factions have a “basic” Heavy Infantry, a sturdy unit in a suit of power armor who can take more damage than a basic unit, has good stats (and usually equipment) and costs in the 40ish point range. At the same time, the game has basic line infantry, who tend to have very basic weapons and low stats and cost in the 10 point range. A question that is generally worth asking when picking one or the other is “what is more valuable to me, a 40-point powerhouse or four 10-point basic units?” This is going to depend on what else is in the force– a strong 40-point unit is good at being a spearhead but only contributes one action to the pool every turn, whereas four basic units can’t fill the spearhead role but provide four actions to the pool every turn. If you need more actions, or if you need a strong spearhead, it can make a big difference. Given the point costs involved, if you’re taking a 40-point basic heavy infantry unit, you’re probably not also taking a 60- or 70-point elite heavy infantry unit, which may be significantly more powerful or flexible. Many Infinity players tend to opt out of taking the “basic” heavy infantry, and instead either make room for the more expensive elites or downgrade to cheaper, more plentiful units. Despite being fairly priced for its benefits, the “basic” heavy infantry unit represents too high of an opportunity cost to make the cut; it’s not better than four basic units, whereas the 70-point elite *is* better than its equivalent value in basic units.

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This kind of evaluation often seems to strike a nerve with game communities. As a friend of mine put it, many people seem to view game design as a kind of mysterious black magic, and assume that everything is “meant” to be as it is. Having done it, I don’t view it as any sort of unknown quantity, and have no problem evaluating things at, essentially, a high-tier design level. Factoring opportunity cost into a choice can be, at some level, a design critique– as a player, I’m saying that even though this choice LOOKS reasonable, it actually isn’t due to a flaw or oversight in the game’s high-level design. Something that appears to be a valid choice turns out not to be if you zoom out to a broader view. Sometimes a choice is simply outclassed by a similar choice that offers the same benefits. Sometimes a choice fills a role or solves a problem that didn’t need solving, or is redundant with other options that offer more flexibility.

The critique of this sort of thought process is often an accusation of “gaming the system”, or excessively optimizing, or powergaming. In miniatures games, an epithet thrown around is that a certain kind of play is a “Win At All Costs” (WAAC) sort of player, who is willing to make any sort of sacrifice in order to win the game, whether that means having an interesting force on the table to play, providing their opponent with a fun game, or expressing originality in their gameplay. Often, this kind of optimization is closely linked to “netdecking” or “netlisting”, where a (usually top tier) player has determined the “best” selection of options and the community tends to believe that deviating too much from that established selection is simply a bad choice, and thus many people make those specific selections and no others.

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I tend to feel like making these kind of opportunity cost evaluations is not only important to a game, but keeps it healthy. I don’t much care for Warhammer 40k, because it lacks even a remote semblance of balance between choices– some factions are simply better than others, and within factions some unit choices are flatly superior in every way to others. The community (and, indeed, the game’s designers) sharply criticize strategic evaluation as a “WAAC” behavior, which is considered “overly competitive” or “toxic”. As a result, the game balance is very poor. It’s one of the reasons I like Infinity, because there are very, very few units in the game that don’t hold up to a high-level opportunity cost evaluation; nearly every choice in the game can be a valid one in the right circumstances, and while not every list is created equal, almost every unit has a place in a list somewhere. Not only is nothing so bad it can’t be played on the table effectively, very few things are bad enough not to be the *best* choice in a list somewhere.

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This kind of evaluation leads to better game design, too. Years of WoW’s talent trees revealed that many talents were simply never the best choice, in any build, and what appeared to be a plethora of options was actually just a series of traps to catch those not optimizing properly, and the gap between an optimized build and a non-optimal one was very wide. While the removal of talent trees from WoW was met with criticism (because it offered “fewer choices”), it improved the overall quality of the game because while there were numerically fewer overall choices, there were a larger number of meaningful choices with multiple valid options.

A lot of the gap between a good player and an excellent player is their willingness to zoom out and take a bigger, more comprehensive look at their options. Despite sounding a lot like a hyper-optimization-focused player in Infinity, I play an extremely wide selection of the units in the game, and by doing that kind of high-level evaluation, I’ve found ways to make unbeloved pieces not simply playable, but shine, often in unexpected ways.

Cultural Divides

Coming off of the high of watching Working!! all the way through, I went looking for other, similar shows and wound up watching the entirety of Servant x Service this weekend with Kodra. I came away from that show feeling pretty weird about it.

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On the one hand, Servant x Service is often genuinely funny and has some characters I really like. On the other, it’s very much a product of a much more misogynist culture with very different views on acceptable behavior. It makes me think about cultural imperialism more than a little bit, because it’s easy to sit from my position and decry another society’s culture for things that I find objectionable, but it’s a lot harder to turn that lens inward and consider the things that I do that would be objectionable for other societies. It feels hypocritical for me to sit back and say “this is a problem” and dismiss content as “bad” when not doing the same thing with, say, The Avengers, yet to some extent those feelings are still there. It makes me try to really evaluate how I feel subjectively vs what I believe objectively.

For all that I grit my teeth at some of the things in Servant x Service, it’s easy for me to imagine someone looking at a standard American show that I love (like, say, Firefly) and being bothered that it’s a show essentially about a bunch of criminals with no families, no sense of societal obligation, and a starkly different moral compass. To flatly say that something like Firefly is “better” than something like Servant x Service on some moral ground isn’t something I’m comfortable with, because I’m not speaking from a position where I can say the cultural norms that created one are objectively superior to the other.

It’s a big part of why I’ve tried to experience a really wide variety of content from different places. I’ve railed against the idea of dismissing something (or giving it a pass) simply because of one negative (or one positive) trait it has, and I worry that we dismiss a lot of content just because it’s “weird” or otherwise not congruent with what we consider ‘normal’. There’s a wealth of interesting experiences that are hard to get without leaving the bounds of native English content, and while many of them do some problematic things that unsettle me (like the rampant sexual harassment in Servant x Service), I can’t in good conscience say that there aren’t equally problematic things in even the best of native English content.

I’m kind of going round and round in my head, because half of me is still bothered by the show, and the other half seeks to better understand the show’s context rather than imposing my own on it.

The Burden of Convenience

I had an extended discussion yesterday about data analytics for websites and retailers. The subject was the idea that companies are collecting data about their customers, then selling/trading it and using it for things like targeted advertisements and shopping experiences tailored to a customer’s personal profile.

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This is something that’s a hot button for quite a few people. The word “creepy” is thrown around a lot, as is “invasion of privacy”, which I think is understandable but I also feel can be a somewhat hypocritical concern. My immediate thought was that people have restaurants and shops where they’re a regular– where the staff knows them by name, knows their favorite meal/size/tastes, and gives them an extremely personal, tailored experience. This is considered GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE, and it’s the kind of thing that gets a place repeat business and good reviews. The process by which this happens isn’t far removed from, say, Target collecting user data from customers who use credit cards to pay. Frequently, those establishments have a profile at a terminal in the back that they’re pulling up so they can ask you how you like your new shoes from last time, or if you want “the usual”.

It’s interesting to me, because it begs the question of what’s different about the restaurant where you’re a regular and Target, that you shop at a bunch. Why is it good customer service when your server knows your name but creepy and privacy-invading when it’s Target? When your favorite bartender moves to a new bar and you start frequenting that one, your information is shared with that new bar; how is that different from your profile being shared? There’s no opt-in there, you didn’t choose to have your information shared, but you’d (likely) be happy to get the same kind of personalized treatment at the new bar as you enjoyed at the old one, but many people are much less cheerful about seeing Facebook advertise their recent Amazon browsing.

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My take is that the difference is tact. If your favorite restaurant were to loudly announce you as you walked in (“our FAVORED CUSTOMER!”), and make indelicate personal comments like “we see you’ve ordered the double-fried monte cristo with extra bacon and jelly the last nine times you’ve been here, would you like the number of a cardiologist?”, you’d probably stop going. Not because you object to the data being collected necessarily, but because it’s being used ineffectually and unsubtly. It’s too transparent that if you browse something on Amazon and don’t buy it, you see the exact same thing on Facebook later, heedless of whatever reason you may have had for not purchasing it.

I think the real problem is that the use of data analytics isn’t good enough. It’s a blunt instrument, lacking both the finesse and the tact of what we consider the more “personal touch”. It doesn’t help us to see the same Amazon listing that we already browsed, but it might to show us similar, cheaper products, or ones with higher ratings, or ones with more features. It’s not helpful for Target to hit you with advertisements for size XXXXL briefs, but it would be helpful for it to send you ads for laundry detergent or toilet at about the time you usually run out.

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Data-driven marketing frustrates us because it doesn’t feel like an effective use of our data– it’s just that this is a few steps removed from an individually bothersome incident. It’s not that data analytics are necessarily creepy, it’s that when they’re used badly creepy situations can occur. Like your favorite diner recommending you a cardiologist, whether or not they’re accurate in their assessment it’s them using the information they have about you poorly.

A comment I’ve heard is about “control” and “opting in”. Putting aside that we already cheerfully hand massive amounts of data to social media platforms, it’s not terribly difficult to keep a big retailer from collecting data on you– simply don’t give out your e-mail address and pay for your purchases in cash. I suspect, however, that the convenience of a card is too overwhelming for a majority of people. Here’s the thing with a card– paying for something with a card is trading on your reputation to make purchases. It’s essentially a voucher that says “such and such financial institution thinks that I am a reliable enough person that I will pay my debt to you for these things I am taking from your store”. You can’t trade on your reputation, though, without some tie to yourself, without giving up some amount of personal data. Companies have used that personal data — data provided through lines of credit — for their own ends for centuries, this is nothing new. There’s a cost to the convenience of using a card to pay for things, and it’s not generally in the price you pay for goods.

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A lot of this is also that I feel like Pandora’s Box is already open– even if we overwhelmingly decide that data analytics-driven marketing is creepy and unacceptable, it’s not like corporations worldwide are going to suddenly go “oh, yeah, I guess we shouldn’t do that”; they’ll just get better at being subtle. This is already happening. For one company, analyzing customer clickthrough data revealed that customers were less likely to look at one of a series of advertisements if all of them were accurate to their customer profile than if one or two of them were blatantly miscategorized. Having three or four home decor and sleepwear items and then something wildly incongruous like a motorcycle repair kit got more hits than if the repair kit were absent. It makes the marketing feel less personal, like it just HAPPENED to stumble on some things you liked.

I’d much rather see this sort of advertising become more subtle and tactful rather than simply try to fool people into thinking it’s not as good as it actually is.

Genre Definition

I recently came across a massive flowchart for anime recommendations. I’d copy it in this post, but it’s enormous. It sparked a conversation with Kodra about what genres things actually fit into, and got me thinking about what having a genre even means at this point.

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Kodra looked over the chart and found it odd that Kino’s Journey, a show we watched recently, was classified under “slice of life” and not “adventure”. It’s a show about a girl on a motorcycle traveling from country to country through a fictional (read: allegorical) world, learning about the lives of the locals and occasionally getting involved with local events (but mostly trying to remain a neutral observer).

Kodra’s take (though he can correct me if I’m misrepresenting it) was that the whole road trip, fraught with danger and sometimes open conflict, was an adventure, and that the show was therefore an adventure for showcasing adventurous things. I disagreed– my take was that it’s a show about seeing the everyday lives of various people through the lens of someone whose day-to-day is travel, rather than staying in one place. There’s no beginning or end to the story, no overriding goal to accomplish, no Big Bad to defeat, just a continuing story of a somewhat unusual everyday life.

That having been said, I also have to ask myself the question– would someone coming off of a string of more “standard” slice-of-life shows enjoy Kino’s Journey? Is that even a genre that makes sense? A lot of police procedurals and medical dramas fall quite neatly into the “slice of life” category, but is someone going to like Grey’s Anatomy or CSI just because they liked The Wire or The Big Bang Theory? On the other side, something like How I Met Your Mother is framed like an adventure, but is a lot closer to other slice-of-life shows than something like, say, LOST.

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The same thing applies to games as well. Dishonored is a stealth game, unless you don’t want to play it that way. Wolfenstein: The New Order is an action shooter, but you can play it like a stealth game if you want. Borderlands is a shooter but has a lot of MMO stylings and is, realistically, best when played with friends rather than solo. I don’t know where you even start to classify something like Gone Home or Cibele, outside of the wide arc of “interactive fiction”.

On Steam, games are less and less classified by genre and more classified with tags, which vary pretty widely. Dishonored has the following tags on steam: “Stealth”, “Steampunk”, “Action”, “First-Person”, “Assassin”, “Atmospheric”, “Singleplayer”, “Adventure”, “Story-Rich”, “Multiple Endings”, “Dark”, “Dystopian”, “Magic”, “FPS”, “RPG”, “Replay Value”, “Fantasy”, “Open-World”, “Shooter”, and “Sci-fi”, which are arranged by most popular tags by the community. Some of these tags are pretty redundant, but they paint a reasonable picture of what to expect, without trying to shove the game into a single genre.

We can look at Gone Home, one of those games that defies simple genre categorization. Steam has it tagged thusly: “Walking Simulator”, “Short”, “Indie”, “Exploration”, “Atmospheric”, “First-Person”, “Story-Rich”, “Female Protagonist”, “Adventure”, “Singleplayer”, “Great Soundtrack”, “Interactive Fiction”, “1990s”, “Mystery”, “Romance”, “Point & Click”, “Narration”, “Realistic”, “Relaxing”, “Simulation”. I’m not sure I would call Gone Home a simulation of much of anything, and the tag “walking simulator” seems a bit tongue-in-cheek to me, but the overall theme of the tags paints a good picture of the game.

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I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but it was definitely during my lifetime (I’m going to say late-90s/early-00s) that entertainment media started mixing genres more significantly than before. You can see it in the weird evolutions of niche, speciality TV stations– when MTV stopped just playing music and The Fantasy Channel blended with Sci-Fi (anyone remember The Fantasy Channel?), all the way up to now, where shows like Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and Agents of SHIELD started appearing on be primetime channels, instead of being relegated to tiny budgets on niche networks.

It’s been a really neat thing to follow, but our classification of media hasn’t really kept up. We don’t have a lot of unifying language to talk about the media we like, and I suspect that’s why you get a lot of outrage about particular shows. Someone expects to watch Jessica Jones and get a similar experience to Daredevil (because they’re both comic book properties through the same network), and is surprised (sometimes unpleasantly) to find that they’re very different shows, and they feel like they’ve been misled.

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People got up in arms about Destiny because they felt like it should have has deeper MMO mechanics, or a larger focus on story, or have more intricately balanced multiplayer like Halo. There wasn’t the right language to classify the game properly, so it’s a lot easier to be disappointed. We as viewers and players have developed more specific, more rarefied tastes while the language used to describe our media has become less and less accurate, making it hard to figure out if we’ll enjoy something new.

It’s an interesting problem, and I’m not sure where the onus of solving it lies. Does it lie with critics and journalism? Can their major contribution to the state of the industry be developing and delivering a unified language for describing media? Does it lie with marketing? Should marketing be defining their games, with the most successful games dictating what language means for everyone else? Does it lie with players, and the new surge of community tagging and sorting?

Kodra and I have run into issues trying to sort through Crunchyroll and other platforms to find media we like– there’s so much and it’s so poorly described and categorized (if at all) that it’s hard to know what’s worthwhile, especially if it takes a few installments for something to really get going. Mostly we sort by looking for recommendations, though finding recommendations we trust is hard. At this point, of all the people we know, we’re probably some of the most versed and up-to-date on anime, making it easy for us to recommend things but much more difficult to find stuff ourselves.

Tournaments for Charity

Over the weekend I ran an Infinity tournament, the “AD Food Drop” event held locally. A lot of minis games do various charity tournaments and other events right around Thanksgiving, and this year Infinity is no exception. It’s a neat thing, I think, and there are a variety of formats that the events take.

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One of the more popular event types is the canned food drive tournament, which is what we did this past weekend. The concept is fairly straightforward– it’s structured like a normal tournament except that you can donate cans for various bonuses or cheats. You can donate cans to bring units in your army lists that you otherwise couldn’t, or gain an advantage of some kind, or reroll your dice (and, in some cases, make your opponent reroll theirs).

It’s a format I like because it’s really obvious from the get-go that the person who donates the most cans is probably going to win, or at least have a good shot at it, but the whole point is that it’s a food drive, and donating more food gets you better results. It takes some of the seriousness out of the tournament in general, which I think is sometimes a good thing. There’s no implication of fairness, and everyone knows that up front.

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It’s not just minis games, either– a lot of competitive tabletop games do this kind of event, and they tend to be pretty well-recieved. In a lot of cases, they upset the usual balance of tournaments (which I think is a good thing) and get people to play a bit more casually than they otherwise might (also a good thing). It’s hard to get mad at anyone for “cheating”, because they’re paying for the cheats in donations, and you can get a pretty good amount of charity from even a small tournament.

One of the other charity events at least among minis players is a fully painted army raffle. A wide variety of people (from professionals to hobbyists) will contribute painted miniatures to a single, unified army, which is then raffled off and the proceeds donated to charity. I’ve never personally contributed a miniature, but I’ve had a number of friends who have and the end result is always impressive. The armies are generally painted with an orange theme, as a world hunger awareness nod.

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I always like these community events, and it was a great time being able to run the weekend’s tournament, both because I like the cause and also because it allowed the usual tournament organizer (who, truth be told, also set up and arranged this event) to actually play in an event rather than simply overseeing it.

The experienced reinforced to me how much I like Infinity and its community. There was another tournament running simultaneously with ours, and I had the opportunity to keep an eye on it while things were ticking over smoothly with Infinity. It didn’t escape my notice that the players at the other tournament were rather more aggressive and there were frequent calls for a judge to mediate some disagreement or another. Over the entire day of games during the Infinity tournament, I was called over to answer a question or mediate a disagreement maybe… three or four times, total?

It was a good time, and I liked having the opportunity to play a bit more active of a role in the community outside of simply being a player. I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to do ALL the time, but once in a while is nice.

Well-Executed Nonsense

I lost an entire day this weekend to Rocket League. If you’re not familiar, it’s soccer-like, only you’re driving around in ridiculous cars with rocket boosters. It’s a completely nonsense premise that sounds like the kind of idea a bunch of kids would come up with– “oh man, what if we played soccer but IN CARS but also WITH EXPLOSIONS and the cars COULD FLY?! WOULDN’T THAT BE AWESOME?”

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The game defies a no-caps explanation. It gleefully sets up a fantastically arcade-y soccer match between teams of unlikely vehicles, and within a few minutes, the premise melts away and what you have is a very compelling team game with really intuitive controls and a tight, polished physics engine. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, but it *is* extremely fun; it’s the pure, simple fun of Mariokart in a more streamlined package.

It scales surprisingly well to the number of players you have, from 1v1 to 4v4. I played mainly with Kodra, Eliyon, and Ash, but as our group grew and shrank, it was easy to go from 3v3 to 4v4. We played against the AI, since none of us had played the game before, but the AI gave us a bunch of fun matches. Games last about five to seven minutes, so it’s easy to hop in for a game or two.

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It’s also a surprisingly DEEP game. Controls are fairly simple, but the combination of the physics engine and the… liberties the game takes with the laws of physics let you set up some really awesome shots and saves if you’ve got the presence of mind and controller finesse to pull them off. There aren’t different types of handling for different cars, either– every car simply handles more or less identically, turning tightly, accelerating quickly, and having a frankly silly top speed. Without the constraints of a race, there’s no reason for differing levels of imperfection in a car, so Rocket League does away with all of that entirely. All of the car customization is entirely cosmetic, and pretty hilarious. Eliyon won a mariachi hat in our first game and wore it for pretty much the rest of the day. This is a gigantic hat that just goes on the roof of your car. Why? It doesn’t matter!

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The best review of Rocket League I’ve heard is “I don’t like driving games or sports games at all, but I like Rocket League.” It pretty much says everything, and the fact that it’s a game where you drive cars around that Ash has fun playing also says a lot (haha I’m just kidding Ash). Seriously, though, it’s a really fun game and worth your time. It is to soccer what mariokart is to racing, which is a title I used to give to Super Mario Strikers, but frankly Rocket League does the same kind of thing better.

Rocket League also became an e-sport in record time and has a ton of youtube and twitch videos. Watching really, really good players is pretty exciting, because they pull off insane stunts. Definitely worth a look. If you like fun and like mariokart, give Rocket League a look.

PvP and Accessibility

I’ve been dabbling in PvP games recently– Battlefront a few weekends back, FFXIV’s Lords of Verminion, a bit of Starcraft. I even jumped back into Tribes to check it out, since I remember loving that game.

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Of these, one has decent matchmaking, and one is too young to have enough data for good matchmaking. It’s an interesting problem with PvP design in general– for the vast majority of people, it’s only really fun if the sides are even, and otherwise it’s miserable. Furthermore, the speed at which players quit if they’re losing is a lot faster than if they’re bored of winning, so you quickly get into impenetrable situations where any sense of stratified play is eliminated. There’s no space for new players to learn how to play the game, and advanced players benefit from stomping new players.

At the same time, a lot of PvP games (especially MMOs) try to blur the line between levels of player skill, making each match a crapshoot as to whether it will be a close, fun match or a total blowout. It tends to make PvP feel more random and less “balanced”, which doesn’t satisfy PvP players, and it frustrates players who dabble in the gametype because it feels punitive and random compared to the rest of the game.

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As a recent example for me, I’ve noticed that the Lords of Verminion metagame has, broadly, three tiers of players. There are the low tier players, who are trying new strategies and testing out minions against players (because the AI, even at its hardest, isn’t that challenging outside of some of the pre-scripted challenges), who tend to lose most of their games against other players (owing at least partly to a lack of rare minions). There are the mid-tier players, who are what I was running into a few days ago, who supplant skill with rare and overly powerful minions. Then there are the high-tier players, who are using no more than three or four different minions (a couple of which are rare), all generally with the same special ability, but are adept at using it and reacting to the other player’s moves. They tend to beat the mid-tier players who just use rare minions, because they’re better at the game and know which rare minions are the best and which more common minions can beat them. Unfortunately, I’m paired with all of the different tiers of players essentially at random, and the lower-tier players tend to stop playing after two or three matches. They tend to be the best and most even games for me, because I also lack rare minions, though I can occasionally beat a mid-tier player, though high tier players are both better than I am and have better minions. As a result, after a scant handful of games the only players remaining on the field for me are the ones I’m at a stark minion disadvantage against.

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In a similar vein, Starcraft divides its players up by “leagues”, from bronze all the way up to platinum, diamond, and master. Every game you play adjusts your overall ranking, so that you’re more or less always being paired with players of your skill level. Starcraft’s downside is that even the very lowest tiers of play require knowledge of the game that’s hard to get without exposing yourself to other players. Other players, especially in PvP games, tend to be abrasive and combative– League of Legends is a prime example of a game that’s been fighting this for years with mixed results. Even in the usually surprisingly positive FFXIV community, I had a person (who was the top-ranked player in my server’s tournament last I checked) tell me to “just quit, you’re not good” in our match. It’s a bad environment to learn in, and worse if you have both opponents AND teammates to interfere (again: see League).

Solutions to this are interesting. In the MMO space, the number of players who actually actively participate in PvP is vanishingly small in most games– depending on the game it sits anywhere from as low as 2% to as high as 35%, but it’s always a minority of players. It’s a relatively inexpensive source of content, which is why you see it as much as you do, but supporting teaching systems (which would be significantly more expensive) are vanishingly rare.

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Here’s the thing that frustrates me. PvP is fun. Probably a majority of my readership just read that and winced, or outright said to the screen “no, it’s not!”, but I assure you it is. Mariokart is a fun game. Smash Bros is a fun game. Lots of board and card games are fun, and they’re PvP. Bar Trivia is PvP. It’s possible to have fun in PvP in a video game, and I’d be honestly surprised to run into someone who’s played games for a long time who hasn’t had fun with PvP somewhere in there. It’s just that when you’re playing Mariokart with friends on the couch, you’re (probably) not dicks to each other, and you can make adjustments for slight skill differences to make it fun for everyone. No one wins if someone just slams everyone else and smack talks about it, and if someone does that, they’re probably not getting invited to the next game night.

Despite this, PvP in online games continues to be inaccessible for all but the most devoted. It’s something I think about a lot, because I think there’s a niche for a game that teaches PvP skills in a friendly, accessible way without being frustrating or leaving a huge skill gap between players who have just played the campaign and some “vs AI” matches and players who have played against other players. There’s got to be a way to pull it off.

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In the meantime, though, I’d also like to see games lean on more serious PvE on a wider variety of levels for its challenge. Diablo 3 does this rather well, and while that game isn’t my cup of tea I think it’s a good example of a game with basically no PvP that’s still compelling over long periods. I’ve talked before about wanting an MMO with a legitimately scary world, too.

Trying New Things

I have a constant urge to experience new things. It’s what I imagine wanderlust is like for other people, except for me it’s not necessarily places, it can be all kinds of things. For most of this year, it’s been food. One of the closest food stores to me is a Japanese grocery, and over the course of the year I’ve been shifting my diet as a result of what I can find there. The change has been interesting for me.

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Whereas I used to eat a lot of bread and meat, I’m now eating more rice and fish– mainly because that’s what’s inexpensive and readily available. I already ate with very few condiments, so it’s been pretty easy to transition and be extremely selective about what I season my food with. It’s simplified my meals considerably, and as a side effect I’m eating a lot more healthfully than I have before. In order to get the exciting flavors I like in my food, I’ve had to start trying different things– rice seasonings, various types of chilis, and new types of sauces. One of the best I’ve found is dried garlic in chili oil, which I use on a variety of things but mostly eggs– it makes for amazing scrambled eggs.

Today I picked up a package of umeboshi– pickled plums. I’d had a bite of one some time ago, and it was intensely sour cut with honey sweetness; one of the only foods I’ve had where honey doesn’t make for a cloyingly sweet flavor. It was a balance between extremes, and I wanted to try to find my own. I’d been told that the kind I was looking for were “sweet umeboshi”, but I have no idea how to differentiate those. After looking over the shelf in the grocery store, I confidently selected a package at random to bring home. I got an approving nod from a fellow shopper, which made me a bit concerned.

These were, as it turns out, not the sweet kind. It’s pretty much an intense hit of saltiness and sourness, with a sweet, fruity aftertaste. The flavor was, at first, almost overwhelming, and pretty unlike almost anything else I’ve tried before. It took me a solid ten minutes to work up the nerve to eat more than a bite or two, and finally just finish the whole thing. I did manage to finish it, and a little while later I suddenly understood why they’re so popular.

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After the intense shock of salty and sour, what’s left is the faint taste of plum– slightly sweet, slightly tangy, very mild. It’s a very pleasant aftertaste, like plum wine without as much sweetness or alcohol. It’s a sensation that manages to be both similar to and unlike eating an actual plum, and I’m ultimately really glad I experienced it. I’ll be prepared for it next time I eat one of these, knowing that the real experience is in the complex aftertaste, not the initial salty/sour shock.

I’m so used to food that centers its experience on the consumption step– where the highlight of the experience is when the bite is actually on your tongue. The only place where that really diverges for me are mixed drinks, where the appealing part isn’t necessarily the flavor of the drink, but the aftertaste, or the aroma, or the texture. Umeboshi fits into this interesting space where I appreciate the flavor AFTER I’ve eaten it, but not during. It’s possible that will change, but it’s a flavor I couldn’t have imagined myself enjoying even just a year ago.

It reminds me of why I like to experience new things, try new sensations, and understand new concepts. Understanding that this salty, sour pickled plum is widely enjoyed made me want to try it, and approaching it with an open mind gave me the chance to have an entire new world of food open up to me– there are a bunch of things that I’m interested in trying now. I think it’s easy to have an experience that doesn’t fit in neatly with what I’m used to, and simply dismiss it as “weird” without a second thought. It’s an automatic response that I consciously try to fight.

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Part of this is that I believe that people are fundamentally pretty much the same everywhere. Things are often just arranged differently. There isn’t some magic cultural trait that prevents me from understanding and enjoying the flavors of other places, and there’s a lot out there that can surprise me, still.

I think it ties in nicely to games– when I was younger and hadn’t experienced a ton of games, relatively mainstream, relatively popular games could still surprise me and make a big impact. As I’ve gotten older and have expanded my gaming palate, it takes ever more high-quality, original games to get my attention. However, if I start delving into genres I’ve never touched, or thought I didn’t like, I can often find new experiences that are familiar enough to be compelling but different enough to be new and exciting. The best part is, for a lot of those genres have their own outstanding, top-notch games to try.

The first taste might not seem interesting or palatable, but there’s a reason so many people like a given thing. I find it fun to try to find out why, find that spark that gets people excited.

Equating Rarity With Power

So, I’m done with Lords of Verminion, after less than a week. It’s an interesting game with some crippling pitfalls. I’ll probably still play around with the AI and replay some of the more interesting puzzle challenge battles, but it suffers from a severe problem when playing against other players.

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The rarest minions are, by far, the best, with very few exceptions. If it’s a rare drop from a dungeon or from treasure maps, it’s an absolute killer. Essentially, if it sold for several million gil prior to the patch, it’s now a top-tier minion (again, with very few exceptions). Possibly you’re reading this and saying “well, yeah, of course the rarest ones are the best, that’s how it works in other games, like Magic”.

Unfortunately, one of the things that Lords of Verminion does that’s interesting is also the problem with this. There’s nothing stopping you from running an entire field full of a single, rare minion. I’ll use Nutkin as an example, because it’s basically caused the end of every match I’ve lost. It’s a Critter-type minion, with outrageous stats, for 30 points (the highest possible point cost, out of 240). In theory, it’s balanced by the fact that you have relatively few of them. However, a single Nutkin can win against 4-6 other minions, regardless of type. I’ve watched two Nutkin (60 points) rip apart 6 Bombs (also 60 points) despite the Bombs having a type advantage and using Bomb abilities, without the Nutkin using anything. One Nutkin was low, the other was full.

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Seeing this in a couple of games, I figured perhaps throwing other big minions against the Nutkin would work. Clockwork Twintania is another monster-type, which is presumably strong against Nutkin, and is 25 points. Three Nutkin beat four Twintania, handily, despite Twintania’s defense boost. Nutkin are also fast, either 3 or 4 stars, so they can move all over the map relatively easily.

In a game ostensibly about exploiting type weaknesses, this is a problem. It means that the rare minions determine the match, and because there’s no limiter on how many of these powerful rare minions are on the field, if they can win out even against type there’s no real way to fight them. In theory, swarms should be able to win out against smaller groups of powerful minions, but a powerful enough minion with just enough in a group will kill swarms faster than they can do damage.

The idea, I suppose, is to drive players to seek out the rare minions in order to compete, but mostly it seems to have a cooling effect on the playing field. Three times this weekend I showed up to play and saw a group of about 10-15 people all at the consoles. Within a handful of matches, it had boiled down to myself and one other person, throwing out rare minions and generally using the same strategy every time. Varying my own strategy accomplished basically nothing. Watching groups of players evaporate against what appears to be an unbeatable strategy (or one that’s being enabled just through access to already rare and hotly desired minions) is disheartening– it’s telling to me that on our entire server, fewer than twenty people are signed up for the tournament, and at least four of them are using Nutkin spam.

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Other games have pursued a similar tack– several prepainted miniatures games put random figures in the box, and many card games have explicitly “rare” cards, which are often (albiet not always) straight up better than the more common ones. The “right” answer, in all of these cases, is to not bother with the usual delivery system and simply buy the models/cards you want straight up, then use those to win against people who didn’t do that.

I don’t much care for relying on random luck to acquire something crucial that you need to keep playing the game. It makes me feel very strongly that the game doesn’t respect either my time or my money, whichever is being used to generate more rolls on the random table. I understand that a lot of people keep rolling because that rare thing is an exciting surprise– for me it’s simply the thing I already knew I needed, so every roll that doesn’t come up with the thing I need was a waste of time/money.

I’ve noticed that the design of important things in games has shifted to agree with me, as well. Token and currency systems are the norm, removing the random bad luck of drop rates from the equation. Sometimes there are still random luck rolls, but they’re often for secondary sources, and much easier. FFXIV has currency for its “main” upgrades, but also supplies random secondary loot drops. It’s a good system, because you’re not relying on a lucky drop.

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A lot of this is that my appreciation for random loot was burned away from me in my time helping run LNR. Random loot meant everyone was always unhappy– people who didn’t complete their set from the previous dungeon were annoyed when we moved on, people who badly needed a particular upgrade were frustrated when it never dropped, entire class teams would grumble when yet another week went by without any loot for them, and everyone sighed when the same item dropped yet again, when no one needed it.

What bothers me especially about Lords of Verminion is that it could have been a good excuse to break out those common minions that no one really used. It’s a simple game, but in theory a deceptively deep one, it just falls apart when it can be easily reduced to “spam this one powerful minion”. Players will always try to find the easiest possible way to win, and LoV does very little to force the issue.

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As a result, pubstomping with a single, out-of-band minion is the norm, and it’s easy to watch it drive players away from the game. It’s a pity, because it’s a really neat game with a lot of cool ideas, it just falls apart when it comes to rare minions. The matches I play that aren’t ruined by rare drop minions are FANTASTIC, and almost fun enough for me to deal with the matches where I lose simply because I didn’t feel like shelling out 7mil for a minipet. However, those players leave after losing repeatedly to rare minions, and there’s no incentive for the rare-minion player to give up their advantage.

Instead, the winning move is not to play, and the forlorn tournament board registers 17 players on the entire server who have opted in. We stand around, hoping that this next match won’t be dictated by rares. It’s sapped the fun out of the game more or less instantly.