Posts by Scopique

The Sky Is Falling

Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in General

The sky is falling. Again. For, like, the third time this week, probably. Want proof? Here you go .

It seems that single player games are, once again, doomed. This makes, what? Seven? Eight times that single player was declared dead? According to the article above, EA has single-handedly decided by fiat that the decades-long ascension of single player games must come to an end, and has brought swift justice to the delight of the beleaguered multiplayer game segment and it’s underserved fans by shitcanning a studio working on a single, linear, single player game. Oh, to have the kind of power to re-route an entire industry on such a whim!

OK, look. I’m 43 years old, and for a while there I was kind of happy that games were getting better in terms of visual fidelity. Then the whole 8-bit revolution happened, and we’re now awash with the kinds of visuals I had hoped were left behind for good in 1992. Remember Diablo, Blizzard’s AHDH clickfest whose sole mechanic was to see how fast you can get loot to spew across your screen in the shortest amount of time? That’s credited with helping to put the nail in the coffin of computer RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, but which doesn’t help explain the sudden and incontrovertible success of Divinity: Original Sin II.

The video game industry hasn’t been around for that long, but even the most myopic of us can see that it runs in cycles, like fashion, music, and (sadly) politics. Nothing is ever truly “dead” when it can be repurposed in a few years for a whole new generation who wishes they were participating in the heyday of a particular style. Believe me, I wish side-scrollers would DIAF, but here we are, and people are apparently enjoying them, so who am I to judge?

As massive as they are, EA is not the games industry, and a single game is not any kind of lynchpin. EA has a lot of latitude to make bold moves that would sink smaller companies, and although they seem to be as risk-averse as any other, they’re not above making changes that benefit themselves. If they believe that the most self-serving move they can make is to ape their cousin Activision’s success with Destiny, why wouldn’t they? They have the power, the knowledge, and the maneuvering room fueled by many different sub-studios to be able to do that. But let’s not forget when the games industry flocked to mobile and console and PC gamers bit their nails at the thought that we’d be getting no more Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed games (oh the humanity!). How’d that work out for us?

Big ticket AAA single player games take money, and if EA’s closing of Visceral and the repurposing of their single player Star Wars game is viewed as a vote of no confidence in that direction, then we have a few options as a community.

1. Bitch and moan about the future of the games industry like it’s totally not the 9th time the industry has been declared to be headed for a fiery demise.
2. Realize that other seismic shifts that have occurred throughout the (relatively few) years that have basically left us with…a continuingly functional games industry which produces all kinds of games we enjoy in all kinds of formats and all kinds of genres, including resurgence in roleplaying, single player, strategy, and — yes — obnoxious 8-bit side-scrollers.

The interesting thing about the games industry, unlike, say, the pharmaceutical industry or the auto industry, is that every vacuum left in the wake of a decision is an opportunity for someone else to fill the void. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and the Uncharted series are not cheap to make, so I’ve been told. As sexy as both of those are, visually, would people be willing to accept something just as good story wise and gameplay wise if it were at a lower fidelity and made for a lesser budget? Do we NOW decide which games are worth our time strictly by accounting methods? Do we care that HZD was pretty while we ignore the writing, the gameplay, and the ramifications of the experience? Just as Larian and Paradox have stepped in to fill the shoes of other giants in their genres, so will other companies do the same for genres that larger companies vacate as they use their wealth to chase the safe-bet-of-the-hour. If it comes to pass that companies like EA, Activision, and their wards opt to spend their money chasing phantoms of each other’s successes, it’s not going to close the door on other studios. Far from it; it’ll take the corporateness out of the decision making and inject new blood into those genres.

I really don’t see this as a problem. Sure, we are loosing what sounds like would have been a really cool single player Star Wars game. I’d have loved to have had a “Force Uncharted” game. Like, really loved it. But lots of games are canceled or don’t pan out, and we still manage to find new games to get all hyped about. We spend our money where we think it matters, and if we decide that microtransactions in multiplayer games aren’t that place, then we save our pennies and give them to the smaller studios who ARE making the games we want to play. EA doesn’t speak for the consumer; they can only make what they think will sell, and it’s up to us to tell them whether they made the right decision or not.

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For Your Consideration – Power VTT

Posted by on Oct 16, 2017 in Software, Tabletop and Board

I’ve been following the progress of another virtual tabletop app, this one called Power VTT, and wanted to bring it to the attention of those for whom these things have merit.

I haven’t actually tried the app in earnest, so I can’t provide a review; even if I owned it I couldn’t review it in full because I’m not playing nor am I running anything at this time. But from the looks of things, it’s shaping up to be a decent entry in the increasing pool of VTTs solutions for your remote RPG needs. It can be downloaded as a desktop app, or used through a compatible web browser for on-the-go access.

First and foremost, PVTT’s strongest suit seems to be its map builder functionality. Using a provided set of 200 assets, with more available in packs through their marketplace, a GM can construct a custom map to suit the needs of the adventure at hand. Map making is something that a lot of VTT’s aim for because it’s probably one of the most crucial tools for a GM when not dealing with pre-published materials, or when the GM doesn’t have or doesn’t want to deal with other tools such as Campaign Cartographer or Fractal Mapper. However, not all VTTs excel in this arena, as they tend to focus more on the sharing of assets, real-time gameplay, and sometimes ruleset integrations. Focusing on the map making aspect first seems to give PVTT a leg-up on other tools, but is a far more “sellable” tool than “yet another online tabletop”. Even if you have another preferred VTT, PVTT allows you to export your maps for use in those other applications, which is a nice community-centric option.

Should you be looking for a way to play with your group, PVTT can apparently handle that as well as a work in progress. It comes with an implementation of the D&D 5E character sheet, although the application does not yet have 5E rules automation. However, it looks like 5E is the only supported character sheet at the moment. Still, well-oiled teams can find ways to play with a combo of online and offline, and PVTT allows for live sharing of maps, token movement, and even real-time weather effects and FoW/LoS dynamic lighting, something you don’t yet find in many other VTTs.

As far as cost is concerned, it looks like everyone can register and use the map editor for free, as well as create and manage characters. It has a 25MB storage limit, however, which probably applies more to the maps you create than anything else. At this tier, you cannot host games online (though not sure if you can participate in other hosted games). After that, the PVTT is offered as a service, starting at $2.99 a month, or pre-paid for a year starting at $29.99. It looks like the major difference between the paid tiers is the number of concurrent online games you can host (up from zero), and the amount of online space you are granted to store your materials.

Right now, I think the price of free for the map editor and 200 basic assets is a great reason to take a look at PVTT. While the dynamic weather and LoS tools are cool and unique, the bare-bones character sheet (for a single system) and lack of rules automation currently puts online features one step above a whiteboard. While that may sound like a slight, I believe this project is a one- or two-man development effort, which should make the whole project seem that much more impressive for everything it does offer. However, I’m personally put off by the subtle marketing digs at other VTTs; I find the map editor and asset market, as well as the LoS and weather tools, to be powerful enough to differentiate this project from others, and punching up as a sales tactic cheapens the impact of the feature set.

Power VTT is going to be launching a Kickstarter soon no doubt so the developer(s) can focus on pushing ahead with the features that are on their to-do list. Already, though, it seems that the tool might be great for creating maps for whatever online tool you use, and I’ll be looking at generating some for testing purposes in the near future. I’m not quite sold on the subscription model for what’s beyond the map editor currently, but the team seems dedicated to making a tool that can fill in a niche between online only and high-end power-VTTs that I think a lot of people might be interested in.

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Player.me Create; Sammy HMD; LAN Party

Posted by on Oct 12, 2017 in Hardware, Software

Player.me Create

So, Player.me is a thing that exists. It’s another social posting place for gamers, like Anook and…eh…probably others. Whenever we (the Combat Wombat We) hear about these things we tend to sign up if for nothing else than to reserve our names, although we do tend to give the services a once-over to evaluate if the service has any benefit for us. We’re a flighty group, always looking for a Service of Best Fit, and at one point Player.me was a contender. We opted not to park there mainly because of…let’s call them “differences of attitude” with the kinds of clients the service was attracting.

Recently, though, there were rumblings from streaming powerhouse SplitMedia Labs, makers of XSplit streaming software, about Player.me. Turns out SML acquired the service and had an ace up its sleeve: the service was creating an online stream overlay creator, creatively called Create. Using entirely web-based tools, streamers can upload images, videos, and audio to create the sexy overlays that all the serious streamers use. Because Player.me is service agnostic, it can pull data from Twitch, Mixer, and possibly others now and over time. And because Player.me is now owned by SML, there’s a hint of XSplit integration in the way PME Create can help manage your video feeds from XSplit. Once the overlay has been created, you add it as a source in your streaming app (XSplit or OBS) as a web source, and away you go!

The Wombats have been working with Create since yesterday, and we’ve discovered a lot of features beyond what’s available in the tutorial, so I might do a stream this afternoon to talk about the service. I’ll probably re-create my XSplit-based overlay in Create, just so we can test how the service works and what it can do for us.

Sammy HMD

The event that no one has been waiting for: I pulled the trigger on the Samsung Odyssey head mounted display this morning. So far it’s the best spec’d HMD on the market, despite not being on the market until November 6th (planned, at least, barring unforeseen Samsung-specific debacles), so I pumped up the shipping to Superman Delivery, because…

LAN Party

Yes, we’re hosting another LAN Party, LANronomicon 2017, on November 11th. After the last event I swore I wouldn’t host another. I don’t mind doing the work of cleaning the house, washing the floors, and so on; that stuff doesn’t get done enough in my house, to be honest, and this is a great excuse. I’m not sure why I didn’t want to host another event because I enjoy them and the company. Maybe it’s because we also drink a lot and at my age, that’s not as satisfying as it used to be, but it doesn’t stop me from doing it.

I hope to have the HMD in time for the party, but knowing how these things work I wouldn’t be surprised if the delivery was delayed, or if the “shipping date” is when they optimistically start but isn’t when they get around to boxing and shipping mine.

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On Blade Runner 2049

Posted by on Oct 10, 2017 in Editorial, Other Geeks

On Blade Runner 2049

I cannot write about this movie. There’s no way I can explain to you, the reader, how I feel about it. I can explain the plot (which I won’t do), and I can talk about how faithful it was to the 1982 prequel, and I can talk about the “quirks” of the almost 3-hour film, but there is absolutely no way I can provide the most important part of the film in words: the atmosphere.

Without spoilers, 2049 takes place 20 years after Blade Runner, and while word on the street is that you need not have seen the 1982 original, the narrative is far more coherent if you have since a good chunk of the plot focuses on the fate of Deckard and Rachel and the consequences of their flight. 2049 is still primarily concerned with replicants, the genetically engineered labor force pioneered by the Tyrell Corporation and later adopted by the Wallace Corporation. After off-screen events that saw an even greater animosity aimed at replicants, Wallace convinced the population that his Nexus 8 line would solve the problems of Tyrell’s Nexus 6, but the undercurrent of distrust still remains — hence the continued need for the “blade runners”, special law enforcement branch that is tasked with “retiring” replicants who act up. Ryan Gossling plays “K”, a blade runner and himself a replicant who is only respected — not necessarily liked — by his superior officer.

The story is important and hasn’t been given away in any of the marketing materials, but at the end of the day, the plot felt less important the more one considers it. The original Blade Runner was all about the nature of being human. In 2049 they attempt to up that ante by making the question of the nature of humanity far more overt by throwing out questions about the “soul”, Biblical references, and more subtle cues that can be read about here (with spoilers). When the ramifications of Deckard and Rachel’s flight are made apparent early on in the film, it’s meant to be the focal point for the audience as much as it is for the characters within the film, but in writing this post, I think there’s a more important message beyond “what is human”?

The atmosphere of the Blade Runner movies is what I call “classic cyberpunk” (as opposed to the “nouveau cyberpunk” that tries to cut the dystopia with something more palatable, like Shadowrun‘s inclusion of high-fantasy). In these settings, humanity has worked itself into a species and civilization dead-end. Corporations rule from afar simply by convincing the population that they can’t live without their products. The pursuit of shareholder equity leads to the exploitation of natural resources to keep up with the manufacturing demand necessary to supply an increasing population first with creature comforts and later — when resources begin to dwindle — with basic necessities. Overpopulation causes growth both up and out: massive blocks of semi-highrises sprawling well beyond current urban borders offering the bare minimum of living space. There are fewer national borders as people move around the world towards inflection points of greater opportunity, which is an act that only serves to overburden systems that are already struggling to keep up. In between all of this, technology slides in not just as something to take minds off the oppressive situations of daily life, but as a last-ditch effort to give a dying species some last measure of solace as they decay alongside the world around them.

This is where the deeper message came from. In the Blade Runner films, replicants were designed as slaves we could feel good about. They weren’t considered human and could be tailored to the jobs that needed doing both on Earth and in the off-world colonies. The question the first movie asked was whether or not the experiences and memories served as the basis for emotions, and whether the ability to feel those emotions made replicants more human — or more human than human. 2049 takes that a step further, and that forms the crux of the actual plot of the movie (which I can’t explain for obvious reasons), along with questions about free will and the relationship between creator and created.

Still, what I came away with this morning after some reflection isn’t that these movies are about “what is human”, but rather “what does being human mean”? In the Blade Runner universe, humanity has brought Earth to the brink of destruction through wars and exploitation, stripping it bare to feed the corporate engines of consumerism — a fear that was much greater in 1982 when it was a possible future that’s no less scary in 2017 when it’s our actual present. Humanity has created colonies on other planets — 9, according to Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace — but it’s not enough for him. He believes that humanity should expand throughout the universe on the backs of replicant labor, and his all-consuming quest is to find a way to increase replicant production in order to realize that goal. He envisions trillions of replicants, which is what should demand a pause: wouldn’t that equal or even exceed the number of actual humans? And if subserviant replicants achieve superior numbers over their human masters, what could that mean for natural humans?

Blade Runner and 2049 movies prefer replicants to humans. Humans have destroyed Earth, which is obvious in every single establishing shot in both movies. In 2049 we see K flying back to Los Angeles: a continuous plateau of low-rise apartments cut with narrow thoroughfares that lead to the central district of corporate high-rise buildings. Those who inhabit these skyscrapers are the only ones who can see the sky, although there’s not much to see as the constant haze of acid rain clouds is everpresent. There is no good reason to live in Los Angeles, yet millions apparently do and are content to continue to live their lives in the neon canyons of the buildings that have been built up around them. This is humanity’s legacy. It’s what humanity has done to and for itself. Replicants, however, are genetically superior to humans. They are newborns in the epochal scale. Although they are initially used only as disposable resources — mirroring the general philosophy of practically everything in the Blade Runner universe — they express that “more human than human” tendency to position themselves as the inheritors of the humanity that actual humans put aside in their desire to exploit and expand.

We could call these movies “cautionary tales” of the consequence of human greed, but that’s doing these films a grave disservice. These movies are meant to be experienced, not just watched and absorbed and dissected for the first low-hanging-fruit moral that we can extract. Both Blade Runner movies are art house films, and while that sounds pretentious I believe it to be true. Each scene is relevant both to the plot and to maintaining a cohesion of cyberpunk oppression so that we never feel like there’s going to be salvation for anyone at the end of the line. The replicants have the best chance of extracting themselves from the decline of Earth, but humanity has already proven that its decisions and values make them unworthy of being saved. It’s a sad realization as a human who can’t transcend to become a replicant and adds to the layer of inevitable dread that these movies provide.

I both can and cannot recommend Blade Runner 2049. If you liked the first one, you will love this one. If you hated the first, you will despise the second. If you cannot sit for three hours filled with scenes of silence, long establishing camera angles, and (after having read this far) whiffs of director Denis Villeneuve’s French-level pretentiousness, you will be miserable. 2049 has a lot going for it, though, if you are open to it. It’s a beautiful movie even when it’s presenting the direst predictions. Although it’s difficult to consider how no dialog makes a performance, everyone involved on-screen did a fantastic job (even traditionally manic Jared Leto). Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a message movie or a blockbuster movie, but it is a thinking movie and more importantly, a feeling movie that affects the audience at various emotional levels when we open ourselves to it.

 

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To EVE or Not To EVE

Posted by on Oct 9, 2017 in EVE Online

To EVE or Not To EVE

EVE Online is a game I should love, but I hate it, and I love hating it, but I also hate that I love to hate it. We have a complex relationship, EVE Online and I. I was in the beta, played for a year or so after launch, before people started getting wise to the meta-game, but I played it “wrong”. My skills were all over the place, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make money. After a long absence, my friends and I made a concerted effort to jump in together, and we finally got our act together enough to earn some decent pocket change, but we were eventually run out of town by the kind of asshattery that EVE is so good at promoting. I had vowed that after that, there would be no reason to return again; I had played my fill, knew what it was about, and it certainly wasn’t about anything that I agreed with.

Of course, “never say never” is not just an adage, but a way of life. The 2017 EVE Fanfest happened/is happening as of the time of this writing, and there have been a few announcements of worth. One is that there’ll be an EVE-themed mobile game that sounds a lot like Ingress, although without the location services. The other is a whole suite of updates that focus on PvE, the part of the game that the hardcore EVE players probably wish didn’t exist (I can’t imagine how they’re taking this announcement right now).

Among the bevy of changes is the introduction of increased pirate activity in high-security space. Pirates in EVE had always been used as one of the primary PvE targets in missions, and sometimes as irritations for miners who just wanted to strip rocks in peace. Now, however, pirates are getting a shot in the arm. They’ll be opening forward operating bases in high-sec, and they’ll be attacking faction mining operations. Pirates will now actively harass players with negative pirate-faction standing, which should help fulfill CCP’s desire to make pirates behave more like real players.

EVE has a lot of stuff to do for those who want to do it, but a lot of that stuff is engineering degree-level complex, with a lot of little UI numbers and icons that help to make everything seem way more complex than it should be. Thing is, I like that. I like the feeling of coming to grips with the systems that are unnecessarily complicated because it feels like what doing these activities in a sci-fi setting should feel like. But at this point, if you miss a release and the accompanying explanation on how to use the new system, you’re behind the 8-ball. Missing one results in a scramble to catch up; missing several is like going to college if you decide to take that route. Honestly, I have no idea where or if there’s a resource out there that explains everything up to now, because my furthest progressed character can Do Stuff, but I’m no longer sure how.

I’m considering signing up for a month to see this new Lifeblood expansion which is due out at the end of October, and that might be enough time to reacquaint myself with the depths of the game. Unfortunately, I’m running solo, which in EVE is very much like a “tourist” status: yes, I can see the sights, but I won’t be able to get any of the true EVE experiences that I would in a group. I don’t think that EVE will ever be my “forever MMO”, but I think I like to return on occasion just to see what I’m missing, and also to remind myself why I’m missing it.

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