Repurposing Tech

Posted by on May 17, 2017 in General

As I have stated many times, I am an occasional streamer. I like to think that I’m only one regular schedule away from being even moderately popular, but I am also a realist: I know that I am not anyone’s demographic based on the games that I play and…you know…that I’m a middle-aged guy — not young enough to have my finger on the pulse of the stream viewing public, not old enough to be a novelty, and not enough cleavage to get people to turn in no matter what I play.

Yet I am inappropriately attracted to the new Elgato Streamdeck.

Licking this image does nothing. I’ve tried.

A few years ago there was a product called the Optimus Maximus (which I just found out had actually been produced!) which was a keyboard where every key was a tiny LCD screen. This seems like a stupidly logical product not just for gamers but for all kinds of professionals. The idea was that you could design a custom keyboard, replacing the staid lettering with icons that might have more at-a-glance meaning for whatever you were getting up to with your input. For folks who use Photoshop or other keyboard-intensive apps (I’m glaring at you, Blender), such functionality would be a godsend. It was apparently too costly or too technologically steep to mass produce so the product and its spawn were discontinued, but the technology caught on somewhat, most prominently in the Razer Star Wars: The Old Republic-branded gaming keyboard which sported 10 programmable function LCD keys and one big LCD trackpad. Still, this was a bespoke product, and while I’m sure some folks bought them, this specific device also seems to have been discontinued.

Elgato makes products for streamers. They are known for their capture cards, which are dedicated hardware that allows users to offload some of the heavy lifting usually reserved for the CPU when broadcasting. They also make breakout boxes that allow for the connection of consoles for streaming to services that integrated solutions might not support.

It seems that Elgato does have their fingers on the pulse of what streamers need, and one thing that streamers apparently need is more control over their productions. Apps like OBS and XSplit have a lot of features, but they either require the user-slash-streamer to move focus from the game to the app to trigger, to use a mobile device companion app, or require keyboard hotkeys to be recognized by the app which, when playing a game, especially those which have a whole lot of keyboard commands, is easier said than done.

The Streamdeck seeks to alleviate these issues. It ties directly into popular streaming apps to allow for direct actions through its 16 programmable LCD keys so that the operator can trigger whatever bell and/or whistle he or she feels needs to be shoved into the viewers face at any given time. This is where my well-crafted prose regarding the act of streaming is going to trail off into a mumble because that level of need is way beyond what I’m interested in when it comes to the Streamdeck.

I’m talking about this disaster area:

You might be an old-school sim gamer if this makes you drool instead of vomit.

That’s the keyboard layout for Star Citizen. If you squint you’ll notice that there’s not just a set of commands for most keys, but that each assigned key has a shift state as well. Flying a starship ain’t easy, folks, and although I have a lot of buttons on my HOTAS, there’s simply not enough easily accessible buttons to accommodate the full range of actions I’ll need to perform in order to keep my ass alive in the cold depths of space. Sure, I could use the keyboard, but the older I get the less bandwidth I have for remembering which four-finger configuration triggers ECM, and which triggers the eject sequence.

Is it possible for a product designed to play obnoxious sounds and display irritating graphics on a live stream on command to execute at least some of these keyboard functions in Star Citizen? Supposedly, yes. See, from what I can gather, the Streamdeck isn’t much more than a really expensive “speed pad”, which has existed for many years under the names of Belkin Nostromo (now the Razer Orbweaver/Tartarus) and the Logitech G13. These products are little more than a small keyboard seated upon an ergonomic hand rest (although the G13 sports an LCD display of sorts), but it’s the programmable software that does the real work. Each key can be programmed to relay a normal key value, a key combo, activate an application or intrinsic command (in supported apps), or even a series of commands. I frequently use my Nostromo for games like The Secret World to allow me to move using the thumb stick and execute my attacks with the action keys. It allows me to place my hand in the comfortable position so I don’t have to wave around looking for the right key in the right situation.

So why the Streamdeck if I have a pile of speed pads already? Those keys, man! When talking about complex games like Star Citizen, it’s easier to pick an icon from a lineup or to find an acronym on a key that matches the acronym displayed in the game so there’s no need to remember which key combo has been assigned to which key doing what. While a regular speed pad would do just as well…those LCD keys for crying out loud!

The proof will be in the pudding, so they say. I should be getting a Streamdeck…(checks watch)…tomorrow, so I’m hoping that my understanding and expectations aren’t totally off base in regards to the functionality of this thing. Of course, I can also use it for streaming, but…who would know?

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No Country For Old Streamers

Posted by on Mar 29, 2017 in Editorial, General

No Country For Old Streamers

I am an intermittent streamer. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hold firm to the belief that the secret to streaming success is to maintain a schedule. It’s the same kind of advice that established bloggers have been giving to neophytes for years, and it stands to reason that in the absence of pantomiming or cleavage, being where people expect to find you when they expect to find you is a way to get your foot in the door. I can’t commit to the same time one the same days, being that I work and then have family duties and expectations to adhere to. By the time I do get online, it’s about 8 PM EDT, and I might end up playing with folks I need to communicate with but who are, shall we say, “publicity-averse”?

I suspect that even if I were to have the same levels of free time now that I had in my youth (ah, how I long for those days!), I’d still get stopped at the streaming-border because every sense I get is that the streaming lifestyle isn’t so much about making community connections as it is about growing a brand.

There was a whole Polygon article that talks about the steamroller momentum of streaming, where the underlying argument in that article is that streaming is lucrative. Here I am, just some dude who wants to be a part of a movement that he enjoys and wants to do it up like the big boys and girls do with fancy overlays and graphics and stuff, but every single service I’ve investigated puts an enormous emphasis on monetization of the stream. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for people who just want to put their gameplay out there with a little support for being fancy and let it fly on its own.

I find this rather disheartening, and now I’m going to link to Belghast’s post where he rants about the term “content creator” being shorthand for “streamers”. I agree with his irritation, the same way I am annoyed that “video games” is shorthand for just “console gaming” and says nothing about PC games, handheld, or mobile/tablet games. All things being equal, I believe that people would stream their games just for the hell of it, but once someone smells dollar signs, out comes the marketeering to create an industry. People like this sling terms that sound impressive — content creators — to give these unsavvy business-gamers a sense that they could be more than they are, and that they’re special like that racist kid on YouTube but without the racism and they could keep playing video games for a few close friends…or they could secure mucho eyeballs in exchange for signing up with StreamPhansNetwork.com and actually make a living doing it. Even these self-service options go to show that success in the streaming space is to be measured in donations.

I know, I know…I follow a lot of people who stream religiously, and they are Excellent People who stream because they like it and because they can. They and others in their position would probably admit to not forcefully turning away the odd $5 that someone wanted to send as a way to show their appreciation, but at the end of the day they are streaming because they want to get that community fuzzy out of it. I’m not saying that streaming for streaming’s sake can’t be done. I’m saying that we’re seeing a lot of scaffolding being erected around streaming that’s pushing the practice towards monetization as the reason why anyone would stream in the first place. It reminds me a lot of the Internet of Yore: when it was something that people had really high-minded hopes for, but once business got involved it turned into the proverbial market-in-the-temple. I’d like to see streaming for streaming’s sake gain more of a foothold before it turns into a way to shut people out who just want to touch base with their community.

Addendum: As a perennial streaming noob, I always feel like I’m approaching the act as someone who knows nothing of the activity. Seeing so many options to “monetize” my stream makes it seem that if I’m not trying to “build a brand” then I must be doing it wrong. To me, this sends the wrong signal to would-be streamers that doing it for the sake of doing it is just wasting time.

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What To Do With This Space?

Posted by on Jan 30, 2017 in General

If you’re a regular, semi-regular, or drive-by reader of Levelcapped.com, thank you! And you might be wondering, now that you’re here, where the posts went. I’ve pretty much only been posting the occasional D&D session recaps as of late, leaving the site devoid of my usual award-winning insight and in-depth analysis on subjects that 9 out of 10 gamers refuse to acknowledge. What gives?

TBH, my word-tank has been needling close to “E” for some time. I’ve been spending less time gaming than I ever have been in the past. What gaming I have been doing has been — wait for it — spent with a mere handful of titles. Currently, I’m playing a metric shit-ton of The Elder Scrolls Online, and very little else. I have been spending more time reading, and even spend more time in the same room with family than ever before (please, keep the audible gasping to a minimum so as not to spook the animals).

I’m not entirely sure why the shift of focus, but as you might imagine I’ve not a lot of subject matter to write about. I suspect that Olde Age is catching up with me, despite my insistence on acting as childish as possible. I’m finding that for me, a lot of the “piss and vinegar” that usually makes up the impetus among gaming blogosphere has lost its vinegar, so the desire to opine about stuff like I care has pretty much gone out the window. 

Mind you, I do still care about you since you’re my people and our kinship will never fade. It’s who we are. It’s just that the consistent yin and yang of snark and indignation that usually trails in the wake of announcements, developer blogs, and the drama of the week just doesn’t seem worth commenting on any longer. At some point, the shock of missed deadlines, under-delivery on over-promises, and community infighting becomes boilerplate and loses its need to be singled out and amplified for scrutiny. I used to want to champion a better community, but these days I’m content to sit back and let whatever happens, happen simply because its time for the community to sink or swim according to its own merits. 

I’ve been keeping council at Imzy when I do bother to find something to write about. I find that a more generalized platform allows me to spend less time writing stuff and more time communicating. That’s always been a shortcoming of long-form blogging for me; I was never sure my efforts were being consumed because I tended to measure my interactions against other bloggers and always found participation here lacking. At Imzy, we’ve gotten a nice, comfortable group of folks who have switched over and who use the platform as one of their primary social outlets, and it’s been more satisfying than blogging has been for me in a long, long time

And now for the title reference: I have no idea what to do with Levelcapped.com at this point. I have a few email addresses attached to the domain, so I need to maintain ownership for the time being. I do plan on weaning myself off those addresses, however, in the event that I can’t figure out how to use this domain for something. One option that I’m entertaining is to convert it from a gaming blog to a development blog. This, of course, depends on my ability to stick with my current game development efforts so I  don’t simply trade one themed ghost-town for another. Of course, I won’t know if that’s viable until it either is or it isn’t. I might opt to set it up for that just in case. More to follow on that, I suppose. 

Still, I’m kicking around on Twitter, and sometimes on Facebook, and of course on Imzy. I still get the urge to stream from time to time but realize that it always ends up as more of an effort than I get in benefits so I usually shrug and move on. But thank you, dear reader, for stopping by today and in the days gone by, for plowing through my word walls and to those of you who have taken the time to leave comments. I appreciate your participation on whatever level you’ve been able and willing to provide.

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Battle Royale

Posted by on Dec 16, 2016 in General

Battle Royale

The party had just gotten through teaching some forest spiders the meaning of NOPE when they happened upon an idyllic waterfall suspiciously out of place on the edge of the spider’s domain. The raven, their guide to wherever the dragon and its rider were supposedly camped out. landed on an old tree by the edge of the waterfall’s pool. This was apparently the end of the road. 

The pool itself was less that idyllic; there was a green cast to it, and a rolling green haze clung to the surface. As the party investigated, a green dragon exploded out from behind the waterfall and unleashed its poisonous breath, catching a few of the party members in its Cone of Death(tm) before wheeling around and plunging through the waterfall again. 

Following the dragon, the party found themselves in a cavern system that opened into a rather large amphitheater. The dragon was here, clinging to the ceiling and awaiting the party’s entrance. As the group descended into the cavern, other enemies joined the battle: cultists from the north, elves from the south, and ettins from the west. 

The dragon managed to score another hit with its breath weapon while the party tried to thin the heard while also wounding the dragon. The warlock polymorphed into a Tyrannosaurus rex (yes, seriously) and managed to bite a cultist in half. The ettins and the cultists were dealt with, and when sufficiently wounded, the dragon gathered up a cultist who appeared to be the dragon rider and the two plunged into a deep green pool that occupied the back-end of the cavern. With no sense of carrying on the fight, the elves laid down their weapons and surrendered. 

Turns out the elves were collected from various villages as insurance that none of their surviving kin would warn others of their cult’s presence. The party extracted whatever information they could from the elves about the rest of the cavern and allowed them to leave. 

A quick search of most of the caves revealed that the place was now deserted, with it’s occupants either dead, fled, or escaped. A hasty investigation of a finely appointed room earned the ranger an acid trap in the face, while the barbarian managed to dodge a point dart trap by smashing the lock of a chest in the room. 

A secret door behind a tapestry lead to a small prayer room where the party discovered a journal written in elvish. Beyond that, another door was found in the opposite wall, behind which could be heard a low rumbling and a low volume conversation in elvish. 

+   +   +

Pardon the basic rundown; this was a two session event that happened over three weeks, so the original engagement is kind of fuzzy. 

Galin the elf offered his raven to the party to lead them to the lair of the green dragon and its rider that he had been meeting with. Along the way the party was granted a blessing from a druid in the woods, which the warlock refused. This blessing made the members immune to the dragon’s frightful presence but also covered up their presence from the dragons spies in the wood. Because the warlock did not accept the blessing, the party was exposed to prying eyes, and the dragon was lying in wait just behind the waterfall curtain. 

The module wanted a lot of death to be thrown at the party, but I cut it down for two reasons: first, I didn’t think that so many enemies would result in any kind of fair fight, and second, I didn’t want to have to deal with (no kidding), something like 20-25 NPCs on the combat tracker. As it stood, this event took two sessions, and we’d probably still be in the middle of it had we kept the compliment that the module suggested. 

Some interesting elements from last night’s session, though:

  1. The warlock turning into a T.rex turned out to be a fun party trick, especially when he chomped a cultist in half. 
  2. The bard was advocating that the party get out of the cavern throughout the encounter, and was hanging back for most of the event. At one point she handed her crossbow to the monk, but to return it, he tossed it across the cavern to her. I asked her to roll a DEX saving through, and wouldn’t you know it…she rolled a 1, immediately after we joked “wouldn’t it be hilarious if she fumbled the catch?” As a result, the crossbox fell short of the catch, bounced, and discharged a bolt that hit the ranger. This was the second time the bard had hit the ranger with a projectile.
  3. The barbarian, in full-on rage mode, was scaring the elven prisoners. The warlock, still in T. rex mode, slapped him with his tail and flung him into a wall but then quickly opted to drop the dino-mode and return to his normal tiefling self. Not content to let this slide, the barbarian attempted to tackle the warlock but missed, ending up face-first in the brackish pool of water. 
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On Atlas Reactor

Posted by on Dec 5, 2016 in Atlas Reactor, Featured, General

On Atlas Reactor

I played a stupid amount of Atlas Reactor this weekend. For a game that I once dismissed as a gimmicky esports wannabe, I think I can safely say that it’s my current go-to game. 

Atlas Reactor is a “synchronous” multiplayer arena-based 5v5 PvP game. In today’s atmosphere of fast-paced competitive action games like Overwatch or League of LegendsAtlas Reactor is more of a philosophical treatise punctuated by a spastic burst of flailing around, followed by some intense reflection. 

See, you have a roster of “freelancers” to choose from. Selections follow the standard “free to try” model which rotates every cycle, are available for individual purchase, or can be purchased in bulk. Each freelancer has four standard abilities, one ultimate ability, and three one-shot-per-match abilities. There’s also modifiers that can be unlocked and applied to each primary ability for customization. 

firepower-zukiGameplay is broken into four phases of activity: Prep, Dash, Blast, and Move. Prep phase handles certain buffs, as well as laying down traps if you have them. Dash handles certain abilities that allow for quick, short movement or teleportation. Blast is the main action phase and handles most attacking. Move is…movement. You can choose one main ability that triggers during prep or blast or dash phase; you don’t get one prep, one dash, and one blast choice so you’re forced to pick what you think is best for the round. There are some free actions for certain freelancers which can be added to one of those rounds, and there are three one-use-per-match free abilities that can be used which include self-buffs and healing. 

You have 15 seconds to make your decision, which is where the strategy comes into play. You have to choose a course of action based not on what you see, but what you anticipate. For example, throwing down a trap during the Prep phase (which happens first) will assume certain circumstances before those circumstances play out (i.e. anticipating that someone will move through the trapped area). In another example, choosing an ability that triggers during the Blast phase — like a melee or ranged attack — would end up hitting dead space if the target picked an ability that triggered during the Dash phase and moved them to another place on the map. You have to be quick, assess the situation, make assumptions, and make a choice before the round timer runs out, or else you forfeit your actions that round. Once everyone has locked in their choices, the action plays out according to some kind of internal initiative (which can be augmented by certain abilities), so not only do you have to consider phase, but you also have to consider the possibility that a target might die or take an action that will negate your action before your choice is triggered.

When I first looked at Atlas Reactor, I was overwhelmed by the GOGOGO of decision making. My spirit animal is the noble sloth, which means I rarely do anything quickly, so 15 seconds to get my actions locked in invoked panic. I put it on the “not for me” shelf until recently when a bunch of people in my timelines started talking about it. Most of us aren’t of the competitive stripe, but Atlas Reactor has an ace up its sleeve for people like us: progression versus bots. 

Unlike most other PvP-centric games, Atlas Reactor‘s vs bots mode is a fully realized option for progression. You can join up with friends (and get an XP boost!), strangers (and get an XP boost by deploying “GG” tokens), or AI team members to take on AI bots on the other side. You can tweak the difficulty of the enemy from one to four (maybe five?) stars, with more stars ramping up the difficulty. Then you pick your freelancer and go to town. You can even complete daily activities and “season” goals in vs bots mode once you reach certain account levels. 

This is a godsend for people like me for a few reasons. First, I’m not competitive. I don’t appreciate people who pin their egos on a video game screaming at me to “git gud” by their standards. I play to enjoy myself, which vs bots mode allows me to do. Second, it allows me to do something I don’t normally do: obsess over the performance of my character. Normally I’m only concerned with “bigger numbers replacing smaller numbers” in games, but this time I need to know what my freelancer can do and when the best time is to do it. Because there are only a few seconds to make a decision — which might include an action, a free action, and a movement, all in a very specific order which has bearing on other decisions, both mine and those of my enemies and team members — I can’t spend time hovering over the abilities in the match to read and decide. Thankfully, having only a handful of abilities means that I don’t have to memorize tables of stats and results, and vs bots mode allows me to take a new freelancer for a spin, relatively consequence-free. It also allows me to work on “git gud”, although against AI and not against superior players which doesn’t always translate 1:1, but that’s OK. Being able to earn XP is the best perk, though, since there are daily missions to unlock, and season tasks. Over the weekend I made it to level 5, unlocked both daily missions and season missions, and even accidentally joined a public vs bots group which was actually a pleasant experience. 

Atlas Reactor is free to play with rotating freelancers each cycle. If you’re interested in trying it out, you can sign up and download the game through Trion’s Glyph front-end. 

 

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Rollercoaster of Love — Planet Coaster

Posted by on Nov 15, 2016 in General

As much as I like MMOs, and RPGs, I really love sim games. There’s no pressure to perform, they allow for creative expression (most of the time), and there’s a real sense of satisfaction that pure progression-based games can’t possibly offer. On the downside, it’s easy to be willing to get lost in a sim, meaning that anything less than 30 minutes spent in the game is going to hardly be worthwhile. 

I was pleased to see Planet Coaster arrive on the scene. I’d never played a Rollercoaster Tycoon game to a point where I’d say I was a fan, but A) building stuff, and B) it’s made by Frontier, creators of Elite Dangerous, so now that their catalog is book-ended in such a bizarre manner, I can sleep easy. 

As with Tycoon games, you have to build and maintain a theme park. That means you get to build rollercoasters, but also bathrooms. I bought the Thrillseeker Edition which included beta access (although the game launches this week) and tried a few modes this weekend. There’s a campaign mode which has you taking over established parks and trying to hit milestones, and there’s also a sandbox mode where you’re given unlimited money and a wide open, empty space to build a park. 

Naturally, I gravitated towards the latter, because who wants a second-hand park?

BEHOLD! My…eh…entrance!

2016-11-13-21_46_40-greenshot

There’re no rides, but we’ll still charge you admission!

And that’s really as far as I got before I realized that I have no idea how to build a theme park. I’m not a theme park kind of guy. I don’t like rollercoasters, and I rarely ride any rides in general. However, the cool thing is that my entrance is a fully customized building made from walls and windows and roof tiles and decorations. There are a few pre-made buildings included for things like refreshment stands, rides, and even full-blown coasters, but there’s really nothing like the feeling of constructing your own, sitting back, and saying “meh, it’s just OK”, especially when you look through the Steam Workshop at some of the things other people are building. But take heart! You can totally download those things and make your park as awesome on the screen as it is in your head. 

At $44.99 (for the Thrillseeker edition with beta access) or $40.95 for the base edition (which will increase to the $44.99 price when it launches), you can’t really go wrong. The amount of options inherent in being able to build vast swaths of your own park — buildings, terrain sculpting and landscaping, and of course the rollercoasters — makes it a pure steal at that price point, so if you like sim games and want to move beyond neighborhoods, then Planet Coaster is a no-brainer.

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