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Is There Value In Armchair Design?

Remember the debate over whether or not games were art? Did you care? I did, if only because as an art form, games could gain legitimacy in the eyes of some naysayers. But art is a dangerous minefield of detractors and adorers. Within the consumer ecosystem, we all adore gaming, or else we’d be off doing something else. Within the consumer ecosystem, though, we’re also detractors.

Consumers only see the tip of the iceberg, which in this case is the finished product. Even better is that most consumers don’t have any clue as to where icebergs come from. Some people who want to talk about icebergs frame their discussions in terms of them making ice-cubes in their freezer, or worse, about how their fridge makes ice-cubes and dispenses them through the door. This isn’t a slam against armchair designers, though. I’ve engaged in it myself over the years and although the Internet is built upon it, this isn’t a case of “everyone is wrong who isn’t me”.

Does all of this uneducated, inexperienced speculation have any value to the industry itself? If you’ve talked with any game developer about his or her job, you’ll quickly understand that it’s not an industry that suffers moderately-intelligent people. I remember when I visited the MetaPlace offices I was utterly flabbergasted by the things the staff were telling us. 98.2% of it went right over my head when talking about server architecture and the game engine itself. Watching Raph Koster whip up a particle system while we were standing there made me realize that while game development wasn’t rocket science, it’s nowhere near as commonplace as a lot of armchair designers believe it to be. Still, I do think that the spouting-off that happens across forums, in chat windows, and on blogs (hi there!) does have value; maybe not at the level that the consumer believes it does, but it can be more than just an intellectual-wannabe exercise.

It shows people care

No one will get worked up about something that they consider disposable. This is usually the kind of argument that the most unhinged ranters will adopt as a way of explaining away their rude behavior, but there is truth in there.

If people didn’t care, they’d slink away to a project they do care about. If people stick around and talk about what they like and what they don’t, then it means that they’re interested in sticking around because…

It can provide crowd-sourced insight

Like I said, game developers are smart people, but even smart people can have tunnel vision. Although I’m not privy to the exact science of game design, you can be sure that it’s rarely a case of committee. Someone, somewhere has an idea, ropes in others to bounce ideas off of, funding gets got, and it’s off to the races. Still, that’s a small number of people trying to create something that appeals to (hopefully) millions of people, all of whom have different likes and dislikes on the fringes of the core of this idea that appeals to them.

When consumers talk back to designers and developers, that’s a massive focus group offering advice for free. Better yet, a focus group that’s telling you how you can get them to pay you.

Of course, this is from the armchair side. From the design and development side, things look much different. I am a developer, though not a game developer, and I’ve had end-users talk about how an app should or shouldn’t work that well exceeds their expertise in the matter (usually limited to providing business need and the rules to support it).

I pay your salary, so you owe me

The Internet calls this “entitlement”, and it’s way too prevalent for anyone’s good. It’s not just a younger demographic raised on the “trophy for participation” that many people complain about. Many elder gamers who remember the days when EA and Activision pumped out cartridges for the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 feel a sense of entitlement for their support of the companies from the days when they weren’t the multi-billion dollar enterprises they are now. Just look at the recent news about Konami ditching everything but mobile and you’ll see that entitlement knows no bounds.

Give me what I want or I walk

Talking a big talk means walking a big walk, and no one in this space is a stranger to the “vote with your wallet” movement. Every game that’s released probably (statistically speaking, here) has at least one person who tries to go all Sparticus on the games industry by issuing a “call to arms” for consumers to boycott the product in order to “send a message” to the “greedy corporations”. Sometimes this works: SimCity eventually got it’s offline mode, despite EA/Maxis’ claims that it couldn’t be done, but most of the time the financial summons falls on deaf ears, as a much larger majority of people really want to play the next Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty game than those who think design decisions are worth starting a crusade over.

Believing in the community a bit too much, because it sounds like a great idea

Here’s when design meets the armchair in what both probably believe will be the ultimate kumbaya moment of Zen: taking feedback from the community seriously during the design and development phase in order to create the ultimate crowd-pleasing ur-product.

Focus groups exist for a reason: best test the waters ahead of time before money and manpower is committed. And if you consider focus groups to be too small for your tastes, why not get continuous feedback from the legions of people you want to appeal to? If people are going to be giving their opinions unsolicited anyway, why not harness that and turn it to good rather than locking them out and making them feel like they’re shouting in the darkness.

Letting the community believe that they are the fifth Beatle can’t possibly be sane, not just from the Homer-esque potential such a decision will ultimately lead to, but it gives armchair designers the OK to ratchet up the force of their engagement.

On the other hand, not dismissing or ignoring the consumer lets them know that someone is taking them seriously, even if their pet feature doesn’t make the cut, and that can go a long way towards defusing potential animosity further down the line.

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Automation in Tradewars 2002

Automation in Tradewars 2002

Last night I wanted to sit down and try to see what automation offers the Tradewars 2002 experience. As an old-school player, this was an abhorrent thought, as the enjoyment of TW2002 depends on the decisions that are made on which sector you’ll be moving to, keeping notes about where stations are and what they sell, and self-mapping the universe. Also, as a long time MMO player, I’m not a fan of min/maxing or racing to the end game, so I wasn’t too keen on the idea of helper apps that strip away the convention of the game in some kind of headlong rush to financial success. But I figured since this was a personal server, seeing what these apps were about wouldn’t be so horrible, just so I can say that I did.

The first thing I needed to do was to get TWXProxy running. This is an app that sits between your telnet client and the server stream. Rather than connect your client direct to the server, you connect TWXProxy to the server, and then connect your client to TWXProxy (hence…proxy). This app collects data from the stream and makes it available to you from the telnet console, things like last known station resources and a kind of textual map of the known universe. I had to set the listening port to something other than 23, and then set up a new PuTTY profile to connect to Localhost on that custom port to get it to connect.

Next up was SWATH. This is a custom telnet client that features a sidebar on the left of the window that you can use to track info like current sector, the number of turns you have left, your cash, what’s in your holds, and you ship stats. It has a toolbar across the top to allow access to common functions, and a macro toolbar along the right side for custom commands. I set up SWATH to connect to TWXProxy, creating a kind of “super group” of automation and information.

The primary use of both TWXProxy and SWATH is for script-automating “tedious” tasks — the basic TW2002 game, in other words. I wasn’t sure what kind of scripts TWXProxy came with, but SWATH’s evaluation version comes with a few. I opted to check out the “trade pair” script, which allows you to automatically buy specific goods in specific quantites from a specific station and sell at a different one.

Using TWXProxy’s last known station report, I found a station that had a 100% saturation of Equipment. That meant they were full up and would take lower payments in order to get rid of their excess. My home station was buying and was lacking in Equipment, so I could get a good price there. I had twelve cargo holds and set up the trade pair to buy twelve Equipment from the original port, and to sell twelve units at my home port.

The script takes care of everything: the haggling for the lowest price, the buying of the goods, the movement to the next system, the haggling for the highest price, and the selling of the goods. It then heads back to the origin and starts over again.

SWATH’s eval mode only allows for limited script use, so I quickly ran out of time, but I had already increased my net worth from 1300 credits to 33000 credits in under five minutes. That would have taken several days to do by hand, and all of it would have been tedious.

Is this cheating? Online games specifically ban macros like these because by and large they are considered to be hacks. Obviously, the TW2002 community doesn’t care, as I think it’s kind of expected that people are using these. So much of this game is really just busy-work: moving between sectors, porting and trading, manual note-taking and mapping; rinse and repeat. Back in the day, I would say that this was part of the allure. You had a kind of tactical decision to make: keep to the local safe road and slow profit, or venture forth in search of a far-flung and more lucrative trade route.

After my run, I headed to the Starport and banked 10k of those credits, bought more holds and more fighters (the Ferrengi are particularly aggressive in this game for some reason). Thing is, even at 33k credits, I didn’t have enough to upgrade my ship. It was about all I could do to afford the eight extra holds and the 50 new fighters, and still have some cash on hand to continue trading with. 33k is not a lot of cash in TW2002.

Thinking about it now, though, the trade pair script works until it’s no longer lucrative to maintain that route. You will deplete the stock of the origin station, and will eventually saturate the buyer port, and that that point those two stations are basically useless as a pair until they replenish their stock (which is based on the server settings). At that point, you’ll need to find another trade pair. And then another. And then another. If you’re playing on a server with a lot of other people, all (or most) of whom are using these kinds of scripts, then you’ll be fighting one another for complimentary trade pairs, and possibly helping to unbalance the commodity market in the process.

So while scripting takes the tedium out of the old school method of playing, I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing. The game was designed to self-correct gregarious trade by forcing players to move about while stations restock. That encourages exploration. While on a higher level this also encourages “rotation” between trade pairs, having more people in the game could interrupt that rotation, adding chaos to the best laid plans.

Because this is a low population server (very low…currently me and one other player), I’m not super concerned about the ramifications of this kind of behavior. Even if all six concurrent player slots are active at once (although there’s room for 200 total players), I don’t think we’ll have any “famine” conditions. Right now it’s PvE, and the players are getting their asses kicked. Building up cash, upgrading, and fighting back against the AI is actually the core conceit of any modern MMO anyway.

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Hoard of the Dragon Queen – Fantasy Grounds Style

Hoard of the Dragon Queen – Fantasy Grounds Style

Awwww yissss…Smiteworks announced earlier in the week that the D&D 5E module Hoard of the Dragon Queen was available for download for Fantasy Grounds. Of course I bought it immediately.

Since we’re running this module on Thursday nights, I figured that I could use the hyperlinked FG version as a reference. I had already set up a custom shell module for our gameplay, and had created some sideboard content there for the player’s boat trip to Baldur’s Gate.

The module itself is accessed from the Library > Modules screen, where it becomes available to load up like any Story element in FG. It also has all of the creatures, encounters, tables, all of the maps, and even tokens cribbed from the printed module. It even has some custom maps created by FG diety Zeus to fill in some places where WotC didn’t provide em.

Sadly, this is going to be a bastardized affair, as we’ve started the game with Roll20.net, and I think people have gotten used to it. I can at least move between the story more efficiently using the FG hyperlinked version, which should help speed things along during gameplay.

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Tradewars Rides Again

Tradewars Rides Again

I’ve always been forthcoming about my love of Tradewars, the BBS game that finds you buying low, selling high, and saving up enough cash to make a planet of your very own. I played TW proper on a dial-up connection to a local BBS that I can’t even remember, and it was those experiences that stuck with me though the decades and lead me to want to create my own space-sim-trading game.

I guess I didn’t need to, since Elite: Dangerous showed up. So did Starpoint Gemini 2, and in the future, Star Citizen (Trivia! John Pritchett, who helped create the original Tradewars, now works for Cloud Imperium and works on Star Citizen. What a small universe!). There was nothing terribly exciting about TW, with it’s ASCII UI and freakishly colored terminal commands, but it really must have left an impression, because I have set up a server on Azure, downloaded the TW2002 server, and have the game running.

But it’s not the same…at least, it’s not the same mentality. Yes, the game is pretty much the same, and is still being maintained by Pritchett. I think there’s even updates in there that weren’t there the last time I played, but the community that plays it suffers from Modern RPGitis. Now there’s a culture of scripts and automation and custom telnet clients that you can use that’ll map your universe into a handy visual display, and keep your stats (money, cargo, fighters, etc) on a sideboard. Tradewars has become a Big Deal in some ways.

I was reviewing it for some friends the other night, and when I showed them one of these fancy automated telnet clients, one of my friends commented that it kind of took the fun and purpose away from the game itself. I don’t disagree. TW might have been about getting rich (and dying trying) and powerful, but I don’t remember this whole script scene being a thing. Maybe it was, and in the relatively disconnected culture of the BBS days I was just never aware of it.

I’m not going to say that this discovery has tarnished my memories of the old school days of playing TW, but I am glad I got to experience it before the min/maxers got a hold of it.

For information on how you can join the Tradewars server, check out TW2002 info page at http://www.levelcapped.com/tradewars-2002/

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State of Being As A Mechanic

State of Being As A Mechanic

Monday I talked about the desire to regain the feeling of gaming in days gone by, but there’s one element that’s a lot harder to talk about because it’s totally intangible and totally dependent upon the individual, and that’s our own personal state of being when we are enjoying ourselves.

I guess the best way to nail it is to talk about our “feng shui of gaming”. I’m not sure that anyone aside from millionaires who have the resources to craft their own living space has the option to create their ideal entertainment area. The rest of us have to do the best we can with what we have, and with whom we have to live with.

Currently, my PC is in the finished basement. We have a side of the basement that’s just large enough for our three computer desks to fit. The PS4 is on the TV on the other side of the basement. When we bought the house, the previous owners had their computers set up in the same area, so it probably got stuck in our heads that we’d do the same. It works well as a designated space: it’s cool in the summer and can be warm in the winter, and it’s two floors away from people who might be sleeping late at night.

But there are issues. For one, it can be a bit claustrophobic. The PC area has room to move around in, but with three desks — two with hutches — and a set of shelves filled with books, there’s certainly a sense of confinement going on there. For another, there’s only one window in the basement, and it’s at the end of a hallway. Under some circumstances that’s ideal: I can make it really dark down there so that the monitor or TV is the only focused light in the room. In other circumstances, it just adds to the cave-like feeling. Then there’s the ergonomics. My couch isn’t really all that comfy for me (with chronic neck-and-back-muscle pains), and I’ve gone through dozens of computer chairs over the years trying to find one that I can sit in for a long period of time.

These things matter more than I think people realize. Maybe a lot of people get it as-close-to-right as they can by choosing the right room in their house or apartment from the start, or spend a lot of time measuring the distance from TV to couch for the optimal view, or maybe people just have limited options and brute-force their enjoyment of environment. Back when I lived in my first apartment after college, my PC had it’s own room (a spare bedroom) with a large window. After I was engaged and lived with my fiance, our one PC also lived in the spare bedroom, but had to share the room with an actual bed. In both cases, having the light from the window — and the ability to open it for some fresh air — was important. It helped me to relax when the weather was nice, and allowed me to look outside and be glad I was nice and warm inside when it wasn’t. Again, intangible elements when it comes to what we normally think of as relevant to enjoying our entertainment, but when I think about those halcyon days when I was really able to stick with one game and enjoy it, those kinds of details factor prominently into my memories and even color my current feelings about my setups. I’ve thought about maybe moving my PC to our never-used spare bedroom, even though it’s on the other side of my daughter’s room, and across the hall from my own bedroom. That would limit many options like audio and “everyone gather ’round the PC to watch a cool video” that happens when friends come over, but would provide a different mental state for me during the lion’s share of time I’m on the computer.

I wonder how much of an effect our environmental choices have on our enjoyment of what we do. We may not think of it, may not have previous set-ups to compare it to, or maybe one set-up is just as good as another as far as most people are concerned, but since we’re products of our environment, shouldn’t we put some thought into the environments that we inhabit and how they affect our experiences?

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