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An Analysis of Levelcapped

Stats as of Feb 2016

Stats as of Feb 2016

In my last post, I talked about getting a feel for how the site is doing based on the amount of engagement that people might see on the site. This is a kind of pseudo-metric as it’s not going to tell the whole story about how much traffic the site is getting, so in this post I wanted to talk specifically about how Levelcapped.com is doing, and maybe a bit about some ideas for the future.

What WordPress Says

The graph above is WordPress’ intrinsic analytics display. It’s on everyone’s WP admin dashboard, and on some level one would consider this to be the best way to get a valid snapshot of the traffic on one’s site.

The stats are collated on WordPress.com, I assume, because there are values represented in the info above that’s not present in the site today. That “Best ever” value? That was for a post from 2012 which is no longer in the database thanks to the Great Purges of 2014 and 2015. I looked it up, and that post was one I’d written when City of Heroes was shutting down. I had apparently been eloquent enough for the CoH booster community to pass it around, and it helped LC.com get some decent number of eyeballs.

In more recent statistics, you can see that I get between 30 and 40 visitors on the days when I post — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Weekends slack off and that’s to be expected. The views peak when I make my patented “Double-Day Posts”, usually gaming related in the morning and Unity development related in the afternoon. I don’t suspect that those are entirely different crowds, though, so the numbers are potentially misleading, but a view is a view!

Since I see this every day, this has been my metric that I’m interested in improving. 30-40 visitors is “just OK” because before the Great Purge of 2015, I was getting well above 100 visitors when I posted on my tri-weekly schedule. Even that number is small change for some sites out there, but it’s a serious dip in my own personal performance which we’ll talk about at the end of the post.

What Google Says

I also subscribe to Google Analytics because while WP’s stats are nice to have, an impartial third party with way more stats than I’ll ever need is always nice to have.

LandingPages

This tiny image shows the most popular landing pages for LC.com according to Google, and since it’s the least specific in what Google offers, let’s start here.

The homepage is the most popular according to this graph. After that we have a smattering of posts starting with my recent Firefall post, and then slinking through my not-really-gaming-related posts in which I admit that I’m a crappy blogging citizen, lament my current MMO attitude, and then poll the community about their blog subject preferences. We segue into a discussion on budget VR, pass through some specific game posts, and finally end with yesterday’s post about my comment system.

How People Get Here

I currently advertise posts on Twitter and Google Plus because those are the networks where I hang out. I don’t usually advertise to Facebook because the gamers that I follow there I follow elsewhere, and everyone else isn’t interested in my gaming lifestyle.

Top10TwitterValue

Obviously people head straight for specific posts because it’s the links to those posts that are advertised, but the viewership is not represented here in published order. My treatise on being a better blogging citizen sits at the top because the sum of the tracked factors make it so. People also apparently enjoyed my budget VR experiment, Firefall and The Division posts, and my dumping on MMOs. But the numbers there are pretty weak. Four sessions for the top five posts? A max of eight pageviews for my “Unwelcome Mat” post, but an overall average of five on my top ten posts. It takes about a minute to read most of my posts, apparently, which when viewed through a a writing-to-reading ratio, is absolutely horrible.

Top10GooglePlus

Visitor numbers from Google Plus are better, which is what I suspected because Plus is where most of my discussions happen, and where most of my posts are shared by other people. Here you can see actual groupings of posts: outside of the Firefall post, my more personal posts got the most traction, followed by the two VR posts, and then my D&D posts.

While the numbers are better via Google Plus, they’re still really, really low. The Firefall post got eight sessions, and while pageviews are elevated over those from Twitter, most of them are still under ten. People did tend to spend more time on posts if they’re coming in from Google Plus, though, so if I had to cater to either Plus or Twitter, Plus would get the nod — as it has with my integration of the Plus comment system.

And Now, The Depressing Part

Check out these two graphs for January 27th, 2016.

WP_Jan27
GA_Jan27

The first graph shows the stats from WP’s analytics which reports that I had 44 views across two posts that day. I doesn’t say which post got which percent of views, but that’s academic at this point. The second graph is from GA, which shows that I had 72 sessions that day. Although they use different terminology (views vs sessions), I am equating them here because WP doesn’t break down the views between the two posts published, and I suspect sessions encompasses the total time spent on a site by an individually identified user.

SamaraVisitors

Click to embiggen

 

Check this out. It shows visitors by network provider. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are kind of weird. 1 and 3 are from a telecom provider in Samara, Russia, and number 2 is just “we’re not telling you”. Those three providers have an overwhelming amount of *cough* users *cough* coming to my site, have the highest bounce rate, and also the highest average session duration. If I weren’t totally suspicious, I’d think I was popular in Russia and wherever [Not Set] is considered to be a decent name for a teleco.

Instead, I suspect that my site — like so many out there — is being pinged by bots from the country formerly known as the U.S.S.R. That in itself is off-putting, but the fact that they occupy the top three slots for traffic means that they’re padding my stats while no doubt not actually reading anything because, you know…bots. This means my stats are way lower than are indicated on the GA graph. Boooooooooooo :(

My best visitors are potential WP hackers from the near side of the Urals.

Samara

Don’t let the fact that their region is shaped like a heart fool you.

My Own Analysis

I’m not pouring over these numbers and lining them up in Excel and drawing charts or anything. What both WP and GA tell me is that I get a handful of visitors three times a week, that most of them (59%) are loyal, returning visitors, and that G+ provides the best source of traffic. Also, lonely Russian bots want to meet me.

Here’s a mega-graph of GA’s “sessions” from January 2013 through January 2016.

GA_Jan2013-Jan2016

Check out that decline long about January 2015. That was the most recent Great Purge, and after that I didn’t just spring back to my average session count of about 500-600. Things look pretty weak on that tail end. So what changed?

December 2014 was the last Great Purge, and my return in January of 2015 marked my decision to stop crafting positive posts about the community, and I think that decision really changed the tone of the blog. In the preceding years, people seemed to appreciate my positive approach to gaming. I was really preachy back then, and I really didn’t have the kind of reach that could affect change for the better, but many who did read my posts apparently liked them enough to RT them, leave comments, and even mention me in posts of their own. I even had conversations with people who told me that they admired those posts, and that I was a positive influence on their own outlook.

At some point, though, my outlook changed. There didn’t seem to be any end to the depths that the community would go in strangling itself. Having lived in the era when being a geek was actually difficult and not as celebrated as it is these days, I was saddened to see that the only lesson the community took away from it’s heritage was that being an asshole to others was how the popular kids got ahead. My tiny corner of the Internet didn’t seem to be doing any good, and I questioned the purpose of even bothering, which is why I tried several times to take down the site and get out of the blogging business.

Like they say about the mafia, you might try to leave but you keep getting drawn back in, and I guess my need to write posts overwhelmed my desire to distance myself from the toxic environment of the wider community. I rebuilt my social network lists and restarted the blog, but I haven’t since written the kinds of posts that made people think well of me. Now I’m sometimes finding it difficult to write some days, while other days find me writing more posts than I can possibly release in 24 hours.

What this tells me is that whatever I’m doing is not really resonating with people these days, which might be part flakiness on my part thanks to the Purges, part abandonment of a positive tone, and part being all over the place in what I write about. I’m a grab bag on a schedule of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday where my topics fluctuate so often that no demographic can count on me to provide consistent coverage on the topic that might have drawn them to my site. Maybe it’s that blogs are finally passe and I’m clinging to a dead medium without even really knowing it. I’m not discounting that people also might not like me personally, might hate my writing style, my long posts, think I suck at writing in general, or were told by their astrologer to avoid anyone born in January. I’d like to find out from those people what they feel that I could do better, though, because while I can’t just make up news the way some “video game journalists” do, I can do my best to be a better person for you, dearest reader. Except the being born in January part.

A Wild Idea Approaches

In the previous post, my esteemed Internet colleague Sir Dusty of Of Course I’ll Play It offered a laundry list of advice for potentially increasing my traffic here. One of his suggestions stuck with me, though, and that was to use this site as a kind of “hub” for the sum of any endeavors I might undertake.  As you may or may not be aware, I have/used to have a YouTube video series that I un-creatively called “In The Car” because, well, it was filmed on my phone while I was driving to and from work. This video blog featured me talking about a subject for 15 to 20 minutes, and that was it. I got points for the creative setting, but I’m not sure my topics were really all that worthwhile. However, due to the fact that my state enacted a “hand free driving” law last year which put our police force on super-alert for people doing distracting technological things while driving, I was forced to suspend the series.

But I like the idea of producing stuff for the community, even though I’m struggling with my place in it. I’d like to continue with “In The Car”, but don’t like the idea of getting a ticket for it. I am trying to stream more often, on a regular schedule, and games that people might enjoy watching (i.e. not Elite Dangerous). What I might do is find a way to create a short video blog at home, a la “In The Car”, but with a better production value. I’ve got a HD video camera, a green screen, and a video editing suite, so maybe I can find some time to throw together a test and see how it comes out. Maybe it’ll be so absolutely horrible that I’ll bury it in 20 feet of concrete, like this picture of me from high school.

Me_HS01

Actually, I should bury that in 20 feet of concrete…

So, if you’ve reached this point, congratulations! You have impressive stamina! Now, if you could summon just a bit more, leave a comment below on your thoughts on blogging, this blog, my graphs, or even the travesty that was my hair when I was younger.

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Putting the Dragon in Dungeons and Dragons

Dragon

Adventure Co were well on their way to storm the castle on the backs of their hijacked wyverns.

The giant’s floating giant castle was still visible in the gloom, enough for the party to see that there were three ogres standing atop the rearmost tower. Although there was a massive ballista on the tower with the ogres, they only waved the party down to the landing zone in the courtyard below without incident.

Well into dusk, the courtyard was deserted. The wyverns were fastened to a nearby hitching post, and the party scouted the grounds for…something. The purpose, several months in, had kind of gotten lost somewhere along the way.

The entire castle was designed, well, for giants. The doors were over 20 feet tall, and each door handle was a good 10 feet from the ground. The first door that the party encountered required the ranger to boost the thief on his shoulders so she could manage the latch. Much to the party’s disappointment, they chose the door that lead to the ogre’s barracks. The stench was enough to curl hair, so the party moved on in search of their own resting place. It had been some time since they had enjoyed a good long rest, and since the last battle at the barn in Parnast had drained them of most of their spells, a long rest was needed.

The next morning, they awoke to a bustling courtyard. Humans and kobold servants were scurrying around while a cohort of ogres were practicing their javelin throwing skills nearby. As the players attempted to gain access to a stairwell that descended into the depths of the frozen castle, they were stopped by an ogre who demanded to know who they were.

Panic ensued. The party tried name-dropping, although no one could remember any names to drop. The orge was becoming agitated, demanding that the party show proof that they were supposed to be there (ogres aren’t that smart, but they are sticklers for protocol, apparently). It wasn’t until the last minute that the ranger remembered that he had taken a cult insignia from a corpse back in Parnast. Showing this to the ogre seemed to calm him down, and he went back to joining his cohort playing lawn darts.

Of all the options they could have chosen, the party chose the frozen stairwell that lead deeper into the bowels of the floating iceberg. This lead to a series of cavernous hallways of blue ice, and embedded in the ice were horrible things: dead chickens, humans and ogres, and a rough cut of the next Michael Bay movie. Chilling!

Of course the party knew something was up. Why would an ice-castle, owned by a giant and commandeered by a dragon cult, have a basement full of meaty ice-cubes?

Around the bend, the party found out why: a massive cavern stocked to the ceiling with more gold, silver, and jewels than they had ever seen before in their lives

And a white dragon.

The party attempted to retreat through the maze of corridors, but the dragon was aware of their presence and tracked them through the caverns demanding food…or accusing them of wanting to steal Tiamat’s tribute.

The chase resulted in the dragon wrapping itself around the spiral staircase, preventing the party from escaping. But they had a plan! The bard cast Major Image behind the dragon, and set this illusion to taunt the creature so that it would free up the stairs. Since white dragons aren’t known for their “brain savvy”, it took the bait and chased the illusion back towards the treasure cavern, allowing the party to escape up the stairs to the courtyard.

It wasn’t long before the dragon discovered that his snack was just a projection, though, and a powerful roar shook the castle.

+   +   +

As this is the last chapter in the module, and essentially the stronghold of the dragon cult, this ice castle is the most dangerous scenario in the whole shebang. But like other chapters, if the party plays things one way, they could end the chapter in under 10 minutes.

However, this was not to be because they re-focused on their goal: stopping the treasure from reaching its destination. How they were going to do that, they weren’t sure, but they went straight for the guts of the castle probably thinking that the engine to this whole floating giant castle thing was internal to the structure. I’m guessing.

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You Can’t Please Them All

PleasingThePeople

I’ve been thinking a lot about the performance of Levelcapped.com and of course myself as a long-time blogger. As one would expect, readership is one reason why we blog in public and not simply write in personal journals; we as thinking, social creatures want to share our thoughts with other people, and to have other people share their thoughts with us. Keeping those musings in a discreet, public space, advertising those posts, and having people stop by to read and comment on them is a big part of what we want to get out of blogging.

There’ve been several occasions where I’ve written about how I feel about the amount of traffic I get here, which is not all that much, despite pimping posts on whatever social networks I’m connected to. I see other people who write posts on the exact same topics that I write about but who get more traction, and just scratch my head. What am I doing wrong here, people? Is it my “voice”? My attitude? My grammer? Subject matter? Maybe it’s because people stop by and for all intents and purposes, the blog just looks like people don’t visit, because although my stats say that people are stopping by in small amounts, the part that’s visible to other viewers — the comments — is very spartan.

I asked some folks on Le Plus whether they prefered to comment on blogs or through other venues where posts were advertised, and most people seemed very reluctant to work with a blog’s comment system. I was kind of taken aback by this because blogs pre-date all of our social networks and I’d think that folks would be conditioned to believe that commenting with the post was “the thing to do”.

From a content creator’s standpoint, the best case scenario is the retention and consolidation of a discussion where it’s relevant, and where it’s easy to refer back to the source for both the author who’s expected to participate in the conversation, for day-one viewers, and also for viewers who find the posts days or weeks later. Discussion stems not just from the source, but also from the volume of participation. 10 comments on 10 social networks is nice (aside from the difficulty of trying to keep up as the author of the conversation starter), but 10 comments on one post might snowball to 20 or 30 or more comments when everyone can see everyone else’s posts, and comment on other people’s comments as well.

From a selfish point of view, I want people to read my blog, and I want new visitors to see that the blog has traction in the community. I feel that it matters to visitors, even if they don’t end up commenting because there are times when some posts don’t generate a burning need to comment, but a single comment in conjunction with a post can “prime the pump” so to speak. Commenting shows engagement, and I want my posts to be seen as engaging and the best way to do that is to have the post and the comments in the same place, negating how people arrive at the site.

Everyone who participated in the discussion on discussions seems to have some issue with at least one kind of discussion vehicle, so it’s apparently impossible to please everyone in this age of so many choices and personal preferences. Some folks don’t like commenting on blogs. Some folks on Twitter don’t like commenting on G+. A lot of people wouldn’t comment on a gaming blog that uses their Facebook profile.

Basically, I’m in a bind, caught between several camps who refuse a common method used to put the discussion where it can actually do the most good both for me as a content producer, and for the community engagement among readers, so I’ve had to make a decision that I feel will help the blog while hopefully still allowing people to maintain some of their preferred methods of engagement. I’ll say that it’s definitely not ideal by any stretch, and it still won’t drive people to start commenting on my posts if they weren’t before, but it’s the only thing I can do short of not advertising my posts where people can see them in an effort to force them into the bottleneck of on-site commenting (which would just flat out piss some people off for good).

  1. I added a Twitter widget to the sidebar. Of course, this will only show my Tweets and re-Tweets, so it’ll be up to me to surface any conversations so they can appear here.
  2. I’ve added a G+ comment plugin so that G+ comments show up on each post. I get most (read: pretty much all) of what comments I do get via Plus, so echoing them on the blog shows that yes, Virginia, there is engagment somewhere. So even if people don’t want to use that vehicle, they can see what other people are saying.
  3. Since I know people can be violently opposed to G+, I’ve left the original blog commenting system turned on as well, although format wise it’s kicked down below the G+ widget. I can’t do anything about that/don’t have the time/the WordPress chops to make it look any better, but on the off chance someone decides that he or she wants to leave a comment but doesn’t want to converse via Twitter or G+, the sold standby is ready and available.

I could blow the doors off the whole scenario and just load up with every comment system under the sun — Livefyre, Disqus, Facebook, etc — but everyone I talked to seemed to have options they prefer, options they’d consider, and options that would drive them off the grid if they were asked to use them. I’m limiting the options to those that I personally use, the ones that seem to actually generate conversation, and those which seem to get the most traction.

Again, none of this is ideal, but hopefully it’ll help people to participate more, and will show people that this site isn’t entirely a ghost-town.

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Breathing Life Into The Merchant Class

For those who are following the Pathing Saga, I managed to suss out a solution to my “dead-end” woes by reversing the pathfinding attempt should the first pass yield a dead-end from origin to destination. The reason behind the dead-end situation is that while all gates now connect to at least two sectors, some gates are closer to the destination than those that participate in a more valid route, and because we shut down routes that were determined to be “inefficient”, we can’t backtrack or even move away from the destination in order to get back on track. Reversing the process — calculating from destination to origin — helps solve that in tests because the dead-end sector doesn’t even play a part. Should there be a new dead-end scenario, well…we’ll lie and say there’s no pathing possible.

Now that the route calculation is in a form that I can build upon, I have to re-imagine my NPCs as actual interstellar citizens. If you recall (or don’t want to read back-posts to find out), the current NPC implementation is pretty minimal. A merchant will be instantiated at a random jump gate, ID and fly to a random station in the sector, spend some time there to pretend it’s engaging in Commerce, and will then fly towards a random exit gate and “jump” out of sight. For the player, this looks all above-board, like NPCs are doing similar things to what they’re doing, when in reality the NPC is just aimlessly driving around in tight pattern, appearing and disappearing to make things look like they’re Doing Commerce.

One of the aspects of the game that needs attention is making the commodity market move on it’s own. If the player can ID a static route between two stations which allows him to buy at one and sell at another without having to move around to find better deals, then it’s a failure of purpose. We can avoid this by simulating the moving of goods through “other means”, and one way of doing that is by employing the NPC merchants to actually buy and sell goods to get them out from under the player and alter the stability of trade routes to some degree.

Here’s the framework of a new merchant NPC plan that I roughed out on paper:

  • Right now, merchants are instantiated from prefabs in a sector where the player is. That’ll be altered according to the following plans.
  • I need a new data object which represents everything about a merchant. This data object will be used to record an NPC “personality” in the Master Data Store so I can create “named NPCs” that the player will (hopefully) run into here and there to provide some kind of familiarity over the course of play. Yes, I will name them after people I know, with their permission.
  • Some of the more important properties of this data object that will help in the simulation would be the current route, the current sector, the origin and destination stations, a simulation timer, wallet, and current cargo inventory.
  • The NPCs would be loaded from the MDS (new game) or from the state file (save game) and put into the merchant pool. This will be what we’ll reference when we need to simulate NPC activity.
  • Every simulation tick, we’ll check on NPCs to see what they’re doing right now, and what they need to do next:
    • If they’re docked at a station, they need to calculate a destination sector and station based on the goods they have purchased (probably the lowest cost SELL that they can afford and/or fit in their holds). Then they’ll undock and move to the next sector and wait for the next tick.
    • If they are “in space”, they’ll move to the next sector in their route.
    • If they are “in space” and their next sector is their destination sector, they’ll dock at the destination station, sell their goods, buy new goods, and wait for the next tick in order to undock.
    • If it’s determined during the sim update that their current sector is the same sector that holds the player (via global CurrentSector property used to track the player), then we need to slow things down and instantiate a merchant for visibility
      • The NPC data object will have a reference to a model which will be stored in state so we have uniformity throughout the rest of the game.
      • The model will be instantiated and the relevant data copied from the data object to the appropriate component properties (mostly ship info, but also data object ID for refer-back to the global data store)
      • Where the model is instantiated will depend on what the NPC is planning to do next:
        • If they need to leave a station, they’ll appear outside their current station. They’ll then move to the jumpgate which leads to the next sector in their route. Jumpgate mechanics will handle the Destroy() and will put the NPC back into “sim mode”.
        • If they are passing through a sector to the next sector, they will appear at whatever jumpgate leads to their previous sector. They’ll then move to the jumpgate that leads to their next sector. Again, gate mechanics will handle putting them back into background sim mode.
        • If they need to dock at a station in that sector, they will appear at a gate leading to their previous sector, and will move to the station. Once inside the station, they’ll sell and buy as normal via the sim, and will wait for the next tick. If the player is still there, they’ll appear and move. If the player has left, they’ll undock in background sim mode and restart their rounds.
        • In the cases where the NPC is buying and selling, none of the activities happen on the prefab; they’ll still happen in the simulation layer (wallet amount, cargo inventory, etc). The prefab instance will have no info on aside from a pointer back to the global data object, and any info we need to use to present a visual to the player (model ID, name, portrait, or whatever).

The sim of all NPCs will be handled by the NPCController which is currently in charge of setting up NPC pools and spawning the instances in a sector. It currently only runs these processes in the active sector, and doesn’t do anything for any other sectors in the known database. I’ll be adding in the simulation process so that the simulation runs through the data and does what it determines it needs to, checks for the need to instantiate, and handles the instantiation using the current logic in the NPCController for merchant NPCs.

Phew.

So I guess I need to answer the question “why bother”? This seems like a lot of work for something that the player won’t see, and which could probably be modeled easier by randomly instantiating NPCs here and there, and just redistributing commodities via a background process.

The main goal is to allow players to ID NPCs by name. I want there to be some kind of investment in the universe, and when things become familiar, we tend to feel some kind of kinship or ownership of those familiar elements. Even if there’s no direct interaction with the NPCs, seeing the same named ship may provide impetus for the player to, say, defend the NPC from a pirate attack, whereas with a generic new NPC the player might just pass by…or attack the NPC themselves.

Another reason is because I want there to be a level of logic and realism involving what are the player’s “main competition”. If NPCs could teleport between stations, buying and selling, then they could quickly outstrip the player and potentially unbalance the economics by clearing the shelves or meeting commodity quotas before the player has a chance to reach those stations. Since the player is governed by time and relative distance, this puts the player at a severe disadvantage. Simulating the time it takes for a ship to move across several sectors, dock, buy and sell, and undock gives the player some padding to “get ahead” of NPCs. It also allows the player to follow an NPC. With the instantiation plan, a player should be able to tail a merchant to a gate, jump through, and see that NPC on the other side (with some creative license re: timings). They should be able to follow the NPC to their destination, and then see the NPC leave and start a new route. Would a player do this? Maybe they would, just to see if they could, but they could also decide that they want to scan an NPC that crosses their path, and might decide to engage in piracy of their own. In that case, having cargo matters, and knowing when we should and shouldn’t instantiate a specific NPC in the player’s sector also matters. Going a bit further, if the player could open comms with an NPC, maybe the NPC could offer the player an escort job (if the cargo is worth enough) as an ad hoc mission. None of these could happen in a pleasing manner using the current per-sector instantiation method I have in place right now.

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The Division Beta on Xbox One

Thanks to my somewhat recent action-y shooter kick, Tom Clancy’s The Division was pretty much square in my sights. Although it’s been kicking around development Hell for some time, the release date of March 2016 pinned it down well enough for me to start taking a look at it with a more serious eye, and what I saw I liked, and what I liked caused me to pre-order for the XB1*. I chose the XB1 because my previous experiment with a semi-static group in Destiny on the XB1 lead me to believe that The Division** could serve in much the same way. The jury has actually gone to recess on that one as of late, but at least my pre-order has allowed me instant access to this past weekend’s beta test.

You take on the roll of a member of the eponymous “Division”, which is some kind of rapid-deployment yet covert (it’s a Tom Clancy property, after all) emergency response team. There are always going to be medical and managerial personnel who pop out of the woodwork in these extreme crisis situations, but what we don’t really think about are those who will be charged with restoring order. Since the military are always portrayed as inept or heavy-handed, and since the “every man for himself” crowd of “preppers” are about as useful to humanity as toilet paper in a hailstorm, it’s up to The Division to do what’s needed to remind people that we didn’t spent thousands of years marching towards a more civilized society just to cowardly piss it away when the shit hits the fan. Speaking of shit hitting the fan, this disaster took the form of a smallpox plague transmitted via paper money exchanging hands on Black Friday of some unspecified (i.e. “the near future”) year. As people became sick en masse and society started to break down in New York City, everything goes to hell.

I’ve heard The Division being talked about in terms of DestinyDefiance, and even Gears of War, all of which I consider to be complimentary, but none of which provide a complete “ah ha!” shorthand to how The Division plays. Like GoW, you get that third-person over-the-shoulder point of view, with no options for first person. You get three weapons: a primary and secondary, and a sidearm. You have both gear — which provides stats for DPS, armor, and health — and appearance items — which play absolutely no part in your stats. Also like GoW, there’s a cover system which works wonderfully: almost any flat surface can serve as cover which you can sneak around or vault over should you need to, and aiming the reticle at another flat surface and holding down the “A” button will allow  you to roady-run to that alternate location so you never have to wide-expose yourself to incoming fire.

So with that overview, let’s talk about specifics in paragraph form so I can make sure I get everything mentioned that I think needs to be mentioned.

New York City – Patient Zero

Screenshot-Original (3)

Dem mean streets.

If the visuals for The Division do not make you say “whoa…” at least once, you should probably seek medical attention because you’re minutes away from death. I don’t really know how accurate the representation of NYC is that we’re dealing with (probably somewhere between “spot on” and “not even close”), but regardless of the name on the borough, this is one hell of a world design. Apocalyptic trash is so en vogue right now, what with The Walking Dead and such, and The Division can easily hold it’s own in that regard. You can tell where in the city the emergency response was started, and where it started to peter out as you spiral away from your base of operation. Mounds of trash are everywhere and abandoned vehicles abound, but there’s also a level of “gotcha” that would accompanied a rapid onset plague, which is something you don’t see in service of “let’s trash this place to convey the level of seriousness” we usually get from post-apoc media. A lot of regular life is still kind of intact, with cars lined up neatly on either side of a street, Christmas lights strung up and still working, and even apartments that you can wander through which show that not everyone is a rampaging looter, dead, or gone.

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You wanted a “war on Christmas”? Well, you got it, pal.

Half the fun of the game is just ignoring the map objectives to wander the city streets marveling at the level of detail that Massive has put into the game. There are day and night cycles, and they’re subtle; I didn’t realize the sun was setting until the zone got really dusky at one point, which brought the dynamics home. Because we’re talking about some time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there’s snow on the ground, and occasional snow falling along a spectrum of “flurries” to “holy shit when did we end up on Mt Everest?!” Seriously: at one point my party wandered into a snow squall that blotted out visibility to the point where I almost lost sight of my team members for a few seconds, even though they were a few paces ahead of me. That’s going to be a vignette that I’ll be bringing up for years to come.

One interesting diversion from the usual post-apoc settings is that this is not an Escape from New York scenario here. There are civilians still wandering the streets looking for food and medicine, and you’ll run into aid workers and soldiers in various areas trying to get a handle on things. I think the “absolute and utter anarchy” scenario we usually get in post-apoc media is a bit over the top, so it’s a welcome change from the usual presentation to see that the world didn’t just shrug and bug out to leave the city to it’s own collapse.

Urban Survivialism

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Massive amount of detail in the environment around every corner.

As a member of the Division, you’re job is to…well, respond to situations around the city. You’re not powerful enough to cordon off entire blocks, so you’re more of a Special Forces soldier who is called upon to rescue hostages, assist aid workers, and do the kinds of things one to four skilled soldiers would be asked to do in an RPG context. Yes, that involves fetch quests, and you had better believe that those quests will almost always involve shooting people.

In the Beta, there’s a few missions you can do. There’s the main mission, which is to set  up your base. This leads you to your first major firefight, complete with named boss, outside the Post Office. There’s a really excellent side mission which involves Echo Recorders, which we’ll talk about in a bit. There’s one-off point missions which can be found on your holographic map. Finally, there’s random encounters that just spring up here and there. And the Dark Zone, which we won’t talk about because I didn’t do it except to complete the mission that wanted me to go there just so it could tell me where I could find it.

When shooting from the hip, you get a circular reticle that for me was sometimes hard to find on the screen. Like most shooters, I tend to spend most of my shootin’ time zoomed in, and depending on the weapon and the mod you have attached, can vary from steel-sight zoom to a multi-level zoom.

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I should be able to find parking at the mall this season.

A lot has been made of the “bullet sponge” nature of the game, and initially I didn’t see it, but after playing for some time, especially doing the main mission on Hard mode, I have to agree. Taking a military issue AR to a thug wearing a hoodie, and having to empty an entire clip into him to get him to stop shooting back becomes very painful in a real-world sense after a short amount of time. Crank an instance up to Hard mode, and suddenly it’s a multi-clip take-down. Add in a named boss, and you’d better make sure all three weapons are stocked up on ammo, or you’ll be trying to melee these jerks into submission.

Overall, though, it’s quick to get the hang of. I failed the first main mission attempt (Madison Square Garden) when I tried it solo. I then went in twice more with two friends and it was a lot easier. I went through three times with other friends on Hard mode, and thanks to the discovery of some…shall we say creative positioning that negated their ability to use grenades against us, we were able to complete the mission without too much of a sweat. It just took noticeably longer than running it on standard, thanks to the increased soak of the enemies.

Again, there’s three weapons, and you also get a host of grenade options that you can switch to on the fly. In addition, you’ll unlock two slots for special abilities. In the beta, these were limited to actions like being able to ping the surrounding area for enemies, launching a sticky grenade that can be manually detonated, a riot shield, and a group/directed remote heal for you and your team members. You can switch these on the fly as well, meaning you really don’t need to create an alt to experience a specific build (at least according to what was available in beta).

Building an HQ

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The Postal Service: Now a branch of the US Military.

One of the late-discovered features for me concerns your base of operations and how you’ll be setting it up. Now, this isn’t Fallout 4 level base building. Instead, you’ll be going out to rescue named NPCs to stock the tank with, and will then bring back resources that you can spend in one of three wings — medical, technical, and military — to upgrade their offerings. In the beta, you could only rescue a doctor from the Garden, and could only upgrade two medical zones in the HQ. Doing so unlocks different facilities in the building, and also unlocks new abilities or mods you can equip. You gain wing resources just by doing point of interest missions, completing main story or side missions, or by ransacking buildings that provide those resources. For example, a thinly veiled Apple Store analogue provided tech resources that could be used to upgrade the tech wing (had it been unlocked).

The HQ is also where you can resupply for free, and where you can buy and sell goods. As a friend put it, “even though their world has collapsed, people are still trying to make a buck off you”. You can sell excess gear to vendors in the HQ, and each wing (I assume) has their own specialized vendors that you’ll end up unlocking. You get the weapons, armor, and mod vendors in the entrance way for free, so I expect the other unlockable areas to provide more rarefied materials.

One thing that wasn’t in the beta was crafting, although you could mark inventory items as trash and deconstruct them for parts.

The HQ is not a social area. As stated in the media, when you and your party enter the HQ, you’ll split up and go into your own instances, but will rejoin one another once you all return to the street.

Mission Dossier

As stated, there’s a main mission, a side mission, point of interest missions, and random encounters. There’s also items to locate around the city like cell phones and laptops, and other achievement-bait that will invariably end up in an online guide the day after launch.

The main mission starts with you landing at a command post on the Hudson River. From there you’ll be sent to establish your HQ, which you’ll need to run to, but not before you run into your first big firefight. After the requisite base tutorial, you’ll be sent into Madison Square Garden (which is conveniently right across the street) to rescue a doctor to help run the medical wing of the HQ. That’s about as far as you get in the beta for “official story”.

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Some pixelated dust-people just want to watch the world burn.

The side mission was more interesting. You’re asked by a wounded team member to locate her sister, if she’s still around, and bring her back to the Hudson camp. You start out right outside the Hudson camp, so it’s easy to blow past it chasing the main mission to the other side of town. Outside of the camp you’ll find an echo, which is how The Division presents the back-story to you. Activating the echo displays pixel-dust “memories” of events in that immediate area. Here, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a refugee-like registration process, and find the sister sitting nearby playing her guitar. By examining different aspects of this echo, you’ll be directed to the woman’s apartment after overhearing that she wanted to return there to retrieve something. You’ll need to complete this first step to find out where the second step takes place, and once you get there you’ll find yourself searching the inside of an apartment building for the woman. I really liked this mechanic because it added a bit of investigation into the otherwise “run and gun” nature of most of the missions, and it brought me into an interior location that wasn’t a two room shop front.

Most of the point of interest missions will be “defend the aid workers” or “retrieve the files” kind of things, and are one-and-done affairs. Although it was just the beta which should be expected to be content-lite, the concern I have is that because these kinds of missions were limited to one-shots, once the story has been complete and the point of interest missions have been completed…what then?

You and Your Persona

Screenshot-Original (11)All information in the game is holographic, which has a term that I can’t remember at this time. You always have a floating HUD next to your character which lists your health, your ammo, grenades, and health packs, and your equipped abilities. All other menus are floating to the right of your character (or the left if you switch to southpaw mode), and the main map lays itself all over the floor like a five year old’s LEGO collection. This all bothered me at first, because it was a radical departure from a lot of other menu systems, but over time it’s grown on me once I learned to read it properly.

Your gear is an appearance-less set of goods that promote or demote your three stats of DPS, health, and skill power, and the values of each are shown on a new piece of gear in relation to what you’ve currently got equipped. If something is better, it’ll have an up-arrow for that stat; if it’s worse, then it’s a down-arrow. The magnitude of the arrows shown tells you if it’s a “meh” upgrade, or a “hell yes!” upgrade.

If you help out civilians in need, you’ll usually get appearance item drops. These are clothing that that you can switch into and which is independent of your gear. You get this from day one, so helping civilians has become kind of like Pokemon when they drop appearance items: gotta claim them (appearance items) all.

Weapons and eventually abilities can be modded. For weapons, there’s five slots: skin, scope, magazine, grip, and suppressor. Some of these come in different sizes, so a large scope won’t fit on a weapon which calls for a small scope, and won’t even be available for use when looking at that weapon’s mods.

And for those of you who like pointing out things of this ilk, your character doesn’t speak during cut-scenes. I was kind of disappointed by this because I feel like this is the kind of scenario that would benefit from some give-and-take conversations.

What Needs Work

I’m not going to address any of the bugs because A) I didn’t personally run into any showstopping bugs myself, and B) there’s time between now and the March launch for them to tackle them, so pointing them out would be pedantic at this time.

The most obvious thing that needs explaining, and hopefully not a wholesale reworking, is that potential lack of content. This is where alignments to Destiny fall down. One of the selling points of Destiny was the open world that you could drop into and experience beacon missions or participate in region events. Hopefully The Division will have dynamic world events, or at the very least beacon-like missions that you can pick up here and there. I’m really hoping that this isn’t just Call of Duty writ large, and that once the main content is complete the only left to do is farm the Dark Zone in anticipation of the first wave of DLC. In all honesty, I didn’t tackle the DZ this weekend, although to it’s credit I’ve heard both surprising (people actually working together and not always against one another) and typical (people not working together and ganking anyone and everyone they see). I’m sure I’ll end up in there someday, but it wasn’t on my agenda for this weekend.

The one real kicker is that, also unlike Destiny, the world is not shared with other players. The only way to see other people in the city is to group with them, or to visit the social hubs (the Hudson camp is the only PvE social area, and the Dark Zone is…well…social, but not social, if you get my meaning). On one hand this works into the atmosphere exceedingly well. The city and everything in it are yours and yours alone, for better or worse. There’ll be no xXDarkKnite76Xx dry-humping you as you’re examining your map, which to me is a blessing. But it also starts to feel kind of lonely and could lead to frustration if you run into a mission you can’t do on your own. Thankfully, instanced missions DO have a group finder menu, but open world stuff is you alone, or you and people from your friends list.

Final Thoughts

Screenshot-Original (7)I think The Division was worth the wait. I’m not a die hard shooter aficionado like some folks, but the shooting aspect felt good to me after some trial and error. The “physical” presence of being in a to-scale simulacrum of NYC is just mind-blowing, and it didn’t get old. I think being a modern game set in a model of a real place (that I have actually visited for once) makes more of an impact than the historically modeled locales that we saw in Assassin’s Creed or the gonzo paradise settings for FarCry. Also, being a modern day setting acting under the assertion that this could maybe be a real thing, maybe? while avoiding the usual balls-out, hammer-to-the-head “look at how apocalyptic we can make this!!” presentation gives the feeling of just enough hope on top of a heap of hopelessness that allows you feel like your actions aren’t all in vain. You’re not fighting against something; you’re fighting for it.

The gameplay has been really solid, so I think this is one part advertising, one part “sorry for delaying for so long, pre-orderers!”, and one part final bug hunt. That the main missions are essentially “dungeons” that can be soloed with varying degrees of success based on your familiarity and skill level, or taken on in a group, is both fun and frustrating. If you’re having trouble and can’t or won’t find a group, you’ll be S.O.L. because you won’t progress. So persistence or just jumping into a PUG or waiting until you get some friends online is going to be key. It’s just sad that you won’t just bump into folks and organically complete the content in the course of your normal gameplay.

Screenshot-Original (3)The base building feature is cool, and it’s nice that it’s actually required and not an optional thing, but isn’t designed in a way that maximizes tedium. It’s tied to the main missions, which creates a dynamic of both active (mission) and passive (collecting resources for base building) activities that tie together nicely.

My main and therefore up-front concern is longevity for primarily PvE players like myself. The season pass has already been announced, and each of the four installments have been talked about at some length so we know that there’ll be additional for-pay content that will keep us out of the Dark Zone. However, there’s no official word (that I know of) that states how the game will deal with the expendable content of main missions and point of interest missions. If we can complete all of that and are left with nothing but achievement hunting, the Dark Zone, and random encounters, then I can see myself shelving the game between the point I complete the PvE content and when the first DLC arrives.

However, after discussing this on Twitter last night, @Sigtric talked about it less in terms of a shooter, and more in terms of an MMO. What we saw in beta was a slice of the complete game, and there was a decent amount of content there, but I suspect that there’s going to be content left out of the beta that will show up in this area come launch time. Add to that additional real-estate in the areas we weren’t allowed into, and that adds up to more content. If we think about it in MMO terms, the main instance missions are dungeons, and the point of interest missions are your traditional MMO quests. In that case, there’s equity: once you complete the quest, you can’t go back and do it again…once it’s done, it’s done. So that makes me feel a lot better about it, thinking of it less in terms of Destiny and it’s perpetual walkabout mode, and more in terms of games I’m intimately familiar with.

Screenshot-Original (8)But I am exceedingly pleased with the beta experience of The Division. It’s been a long time coming, but I think the wait has been worth it. It’s a fun shooter with a lot of great mechanics, and although the longevity of the base game is currently up in the air, I’m very excited for it’s launch in March.

 

* A friend said he might get it for both XB1 and PC because we have friends who might like the game but who don’t have consoles. I like the game well enough that I also will probably do this.

** It’s technically called Tom Clancy’s The Division, but let’s face it: the percentage of people these days who know about Tom Clancy beyond the kinds of video games that carry his name are probably a lot smaller than what warrants appending his name to anything in the future. No offense, Mr. Clancy. Please don’t haunt me.

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