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MMOMalaise

It’s time for the semi-annual “done with MMOs” post!

Feelings transpire in cycles for me. Sometimes I’ll want to play game type X, and sometimes I want nothing to do with game type X, and the reasons behind each state are, quite frankly, a black box to me.

Usually when I claim to have sworn off a game type, I’ll ascribe it to of one of two reasons:

  1. I have become bored with the games of that type that I have access to at the moment
  2. I see no new games of that type on the horizon that I am interested in

The “good thing” I’ve come to understand about past malaise has been that I know deep down that at some point I’ll get nostalgic, or that the swell on social media will overwhelm me and cause me to turn around and return, and in all honesty I both welcome that and look forward to those times; I would only consider the nail to be in the coffin if I could pinpoint something very specific about a game type as the reason why I stopped playing in the first place.

Right now, that nail is “ultra-grind”, which is something I consider to be above and beyond the idea of “standard grind”. Here’s the thing: RPGs are games where you move around a lot, make decisions, solve puzzles, fight enemies, and these activities simulating a learning curve for your character. This is represented (traditionally) as “experience points” which you use to make your character(s) better by raising stats, selecting skills and abilities, earning money and improving gear. The main impetus for this is so that you can get more experience by visiting increasingly difficult areas that your piles of experience-earning improve your chances of surviving. These days, everything is an RPG because, I don’t know…it’s meant to foster a sense of investment in your character, the story, and the world at large?

I tried Blade and Soul recently, and while I’m extremely tepid on the Eastern aesthetic (mechanics, presentation, and philosophy of design), it wasn’t until I looked at the way characters progressed, considered what I’d need to do in order to progress, and understood that as an MMO, this would need to happen for another several dozen levels that I snapped. I couldn’t do this any more. The go-here, talk to this person, perform this task, receive the reward cycle made my eyes glaze over so fast I thought I got smacked with cataracts. It wasn’t just BnS‘s exploitative Eastern gameplay that shut me down, it was the idea that underpins pretty much every single MMO on the market today: the whole soup-to-nuts process of building the character by repeating the same tasks over and over, assigning points, dealing with progression trees, upgrading gear, hunting for achievements. The ultra-grind: when every task you are asked to engage in is seen as a grind.

Maybe I’ve just reached the RPG saturation point in general and am unfairly taking it out on MMOs. I’ve always considered RPGs to be my “go-to genre” in the gaming sphere because of the progressive opportunities. I’ve played so many MMOs over the years, so many RPGs stretching back to the early 80’s, that it’s entirely possible I’ve finally just gotten tired of moving numbers around, calculating the cost/benefit ratio of assignments, and the lengthy periods where I’m doing nothing but running from point A to point B in order to do the things that the game was designed to allow me to do. The ultra-grind isn’t just limited to one game, but is acknowledging that we’re being asked to do the exact same thing over several games over the course of decades. Since I’ve been neck-deep in RPGs during that time, it’s the genre and the mechanics that lend themselves to this feeling that I’ve done all of this so many times that I might be finally done with it in the traditional RPG sense.

While I’ve been contemplating my position on RPGs and MMOs in particular, I’ve been gravitating towards quicker games, or games where I’m allowed to really forge my own path. I’ve gone back to Elite: Dangerous in part because I still love it, but also because it doesn’t ask me to do anything other than what I want, when I want. It’s limited in scope to free-trading, taking missions, exploring, mining, or hunting, but there’s not a “!” in sight as my sole and best way of progressing. There’s no attributes to assign, and progress is entirely a factor of one’s own decisions, not a factor of how much time you spend in the game. I’ve also been darting in and out of Mechwarrior Online, a lobby shooter which allows me to mix and match my death machine according to the way the wind blows (and the size of my in-game wallet), jump into a quick match, and receive that visceral thrill of seeing my beam weapons carve into an enemy mech (or more likely the side of a hill in my case). The next big game I’m looking forward to is The Division, a post-apocalyptic modern day semi-narrative shooter in the Destiny vein. The idea of being able to just go out and ramble around and get paid for it appeals to me as much now as it did when I was regularly playing Destiny. Hell, I’ve even been considering returning to racing games on the console because a race is a race and I can participate as many times or as few times as I like. Drop in, drop out, move on.

My current taste seems to be trending more towards the instant gratification compared to the long-haul that RPGs require. I don’t know where that comes from, but maybe it’s not a case of being unnaturally attracted to these other styles of gameplay as much as it is simply feeling “done” with the long-tail investment being asked of me in RPGs. Like I said, I suspect it might just be that I’ve been playing RPGs for so long that I’ve finally reached a point where I need to move on to something else. I suspect that, like most cases in the past, this will be temporary, although temporary is just a way of saying “not forever”, and is not an indication of how “temporary” temporary will be.

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Mechs of the Inner’s Fear

MechWarrior-Online-Catapult-3

At the urging of a friend, I had reinstalled Mechwarrior Online a few weeks ago. This friend has been a long time player (after I had introduced him to the game, oddly enough), was in a formal clan, and was really good at the game. I, on the other hand, could only drive any mech using what’s commonly called the “Derp Method”, shoot at nearby rocks and towers because I wasn’t familiar with the mounting of my weapons, and can never align my feet and my torso correctly. But when I was able to shadow my friend in matches, I had a great time because I never felt the full pressure inherent in going it alone into a queue of all random people.

As with all games, I fell away from MWO mostly because my friend was playing at weird hours which proved to be incompatible with my schedule, and because I couldn’t get any other friends to suit up and bother. I could have just played random matches, or even gone as far as looking into finding a clan that would be willing to pick up a greenhorn for casual gameplay.

I don’t know what I expected this time around, especially since in hind-sight I haven’t actually been able to play with my friend who urged me to reinstall the game again. I have been impressed that the game had been updated in exciting ways — the mech bay is actually functional and informative now! — and even though I have spent some time dicking around in the bay and in the open training maps with the mechs I own, I never actually played a match until this weekend. This bothers me greatly.

There is a whole host of interconnected reasons why, and at the center is my fear of being a disappointment to the group. Letting people down is something that everyone has to deal with at various points in their lives (it’s gonna happen, folks), and on the surface video games shouldn’t be a way by which a person measures his or her self-worth, but for many it is. Not me, that’s not what I’m getting at, although playing games can have an affect on how you feel about yourself whether you go in wanting it to or not. Instead, there’s always those people who are quick to blame others for their team not doing well, or who want everyone to line up behind them because they want things to be done a very specific way. I’m absolutely OK with following someone who’s got a plan or more experience, but only if they’re doing it for the team and not just their own personal glory; I’m not playing to be a tool for massaging someone’s ego. Even if I feel like I’m letting someone down — the other silent team members, or even the loudmouth jackass who has no reservations about telling me or a blanket everyone that they suck — I would rather not put myself into that kind of position. It’s not just that I want to avoid someone being an asshole; I just want to avoid being singled out and told something that I’m probably already well aware of. Trust me: if I feel that I am to blame for personal or team failure, I’ll be the first to admit it, but I won’t take it when I’m doing everything to the best of my ability and just can’t seem to reach that winner’s circle in spite of it. That is the epitome of kicking someone when they’re down.

Playing multiplayer games is the best source for potentially being reamed out by some Junior Napoleon who is keen on telling everyone how they should be playing and what they’re doing wrong. Sometimes, they’re right. I mean, chances of them being right are pretty high because maybe they play this game a lot and are the kind of person who ingests all the numbers and strategies and has their finger on the pulse of the product. Usually it’s the delivery that puts me off. Suggesting to me that I try another tactic, or letting me know about a method that ends up helping me — and the team — is awesome. I learn something and hopefully the team ends up winning (or at least doesn’t get crushed). On the flip side is the knowledgeable player who yells, insults, is sarcastic and belittling, and doesn’t actually help anyone be a better player. They might know more than I do, and might have valid points, but their delivery sucks so bad that I purposefully want to play badly as an act of defiance. No one should be subjected to another person’s rage because they’re not playing the way someone else wants them to play. No matter how good you are, in random matchmaking you’re going to get people who are more skilled, and people who are less skilled. It’s a fact. Railing against statistical inevitability just makes you look like an asshole, and congratulations! makes someone else feel bad, and possibly not wanting to play any more. Mission accomplished, I guess?

I played four matches this weekend, winning only one of them, but I had a good time. It wasn’t stress-free, as I was always expecting someone in each match to start firing off more then just a large laser or LRM battery. There was only one act of dickery, when a team member let everyone know someone was heading for our base — as they should! — and someone else responded with a pointless “so what?”. That made me sad, because that was the proof of the pudding: the game mode was irrelevant to that player, who seemingly only cared about his personal goals and to hell with the team. Had we lost that round, I wonder how that person would have reacted.

Even though I had a marginally good time, I am still always hesitant to jump into the random queue. Constant good-to-great matches (even when we lose) do not seem to build up to a comfortable level of confidence when one rude jerk can negate it all with a single directed or blanket insult to me or the team. I doubt anyone is purposefully playing half-assed, although admittedly not everyone is playing full-assed; some of us are still learning, or are still figuring out a strategy for our mechs, or aren’t running the loadouts that the community has min/maxed as the “required” build for that frame. Different people want to get different things from their game time — asshats included — which means that not everyone is going to be playing for the same reasons, or in the same way. Keeping our eyes on the prize for the game mode, playing to the best of our ability, and sometimes taking a back seat and letting someone else lead is the best approach, but you’ll never get the same performance out of people by being a dick to them as you would if you were actually as helpful in tone as might be your intention. I don’t want to be driven from this game (again) by people who put winning over being a decent human being, and I hope that I’m not expecting more than the Internet can provide in saying that.

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The Budget VR

The No-Name Brand VR Box 2.0

After the announcement of the Oculus’s release date, I really got to thinking about VR. I assumed that the Oculus device would be big bucks, and I knew I didn’t have the machine specs to drive it anyway so my options at this point would be pretty limited. Like pretty much anything tech, there’s going to be items representing the high end, and there’ll be items representing cheap knock-offs that are designed to trick uneducated grandparents into buying them for their grand-kids at Christmas. Still, even if the kids end up getting an “ePad” under the tree next year, the ePad should be able to do something, right? Without the cash or the rig to run the Oculus, I figured that I’d have to start at the bottom, but not so much at the bottom that I’d be soured on the entire concept. I just needed to get a VR device that did something, even if it didn’t do everything that the Oculus did, or the way that the Oculus does it.

Slide-out tray for the smartphone

I’ve already written about the path I took to my budget VR solution, and yesterday my package was delivered. Behold! The [Insert Whatever Name You Want Here Because It Doesn’t Actually Have an Official Brand] VR Box! It looks like what we’ve come to expect from a VR headset: oblong in shape, it has three straps with a plastic stability panel at the back to wrap around your head to keep the padded visor squished against your face. Unlike the Oculus, though, it has a tray that slides out from the side and into which you squeeze your cellphone. Slide the tray back into the visor, and you’re in business.

Stand Alone Complex

When I took the headset out of the box, my daughter was in the kitchen with me and because she’s My Daughter she was excited to try it out as well. I downloaded a Google Cardboard app from the Play store — a roller-coaster simulator — and slid the phone into the tray.

I have to say, the effect was pretty decent. The graphics themselves weren’t stellar, and I didn’t get motion sick or feel freaked out by the sensation of being on a roller-coaster, but I could look around, up, and down thanks to gyroscope tracking, and there was at least some sense of 3D. I also downloaded a “tour of the solar system” which took full advantage of the motion sensors to let me examine Our Celestial Neighborhood as if I were Unicron pondering which planet to eat next. Because these are smartphone apps, neither was going to provide Crysis (or whatever the benchmark is for 2016) level visuals, so the expectations were tempered from the get go, and it was pretty acceptable based on what it was.

The downside to the slide-in tray design is that I have no control over the phone itself. Some of these cut-rate visors come with a Bluetooth remote that allows you to control a pointer on the screen, but this version doesn’t. The roller-coaster and solar system apps allowed me to use the motion of my head to move the pointer to the desired menu items where pausing on an option for a few seconds made the selection, and while the official Google Cardboard app had a ribbon menu that allowed me to select an option by moving my head, I couldn’t pause on it to make a selection. Bad form, Goog! Several Google Cardboard models features a button that can make selections, and I found it weird that this upscale molded plastic job doesn’t feature something similar.

Ghost Hacking

Trinus Android application

Of course, the real reason I bought the thing was to try using Trinus, the client-server setup that allows us to stream PC visuals to the phone.

Lenses have independent focal and interpupilary distance sliders on top.

My first stop was — of course — Elite Dangerous, because it has Oculus and stereoscopic support right out the box. Trinus is very picky about how the apps it streams are played. In order to get the app to work with the game, I had to reduce the resolution of the game and run it windowed. That right there threw some of the visuals out of whack, so the stereoscopic view made the text very hard to read when coupled with the “barrel view” that I was receiving on the phone. Trinus also has a setting called Fake3D which supposedly turns a non-stereoscopic app into a dual-paneled VR marvel and is supposed to be used with apps that don’t have their own 3D mode. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get either the natural or Fake 3D modes to work with any kind of reliability. In the end, I had to play Elite Dangerous in an acceptable-aspect window and use Trinus’ lens calibration features to get the screen to flatten out and cover the viewport. At that point, things worked pretty well, except the head tracking was set incorrectly and was giving me a minor head wobble when I moved. Setting up gyroscopic tracking is a whole other can of worms I didn’t want to get into until I got the visuals working, but it seems fairly robust if you’re willing to jump through a lot of open source hoops and run some additional ancillary software. Visually, things were a bit darker than normal for a space sim, and this caused me to almost smash into another ship on my way into a station because he blended in with the background. I am certain that I could get this to work with the proper (read: a lot more) time to dedicate to A) learning the jargon being thrown around on forums regarding VR setups, and B) some tweaking of the game itself.

Trinus PC application, simple mode

Next, I tried Mechwarrior Online, which doesn’t have native 3D quite yet. The option is there, but disabled and currently unsupported (or so I read). This would be a great game to use with VR, and after some lens calibration, I got it working quite nicely, although again, not with actual 3D. Some of the finer aspects of the screen were a bit fuzzy, but this is streaming visuals to a cell phone over WiFi so I can’t really complain. There was some conflict between the number keys used to fire weapons and the calibration options of the head tracking which made every shot fired kick me to the right or the left, but nothing that a serious investigative session couldn’t fix.

Overall Impression

For $30 and about two hours of just playing around mostly to get the visuals acceptable enough to be able to read text, use menus, and not make myself vomit, I feel that the No-Name Brand VR Box 2.0 was a worthwhile investment. I don’t see myself using the VR Box for Cardboard smartphone apps, partly because they suck, and partly because I don’t have a way of controlling the phone while it’s installed in the visor. I could use it as a cool way to view photos taken using the camera’s funky 360 degree image feature, but that’s really only cool once before it becomes a PITA to take pictures that way.

I still want to work on mastering the Trinus application because I think I’m missing some key understanding of how to configure it to work best with applications. A game like Distance would be amazing with this setup, and I still want to try other apps like Guild Wars 2 and maybe some Call of Duty: Black Ops III streaming from the Xbox One. The caveat is that none of the apps I used were displaying in what I’d be comfortable calling 3D. At best, I felt like I was viewing a movie screen from about 2/3 of the way up the theater, which was pretty cool in it’s own right, but there has to be something I’m not understanding about VR and Trinus that I need to grasp in order to get the stereoscopic view working.

The biggest problem with VR is going to be brand independent, though: accessing physical controls. If playing with a joystick or a gamepad (or the custom controllers that work with the Oculus and Vive), then the controls are always going to be centralized and within reach. When you have to resort to using the keyboard, however, you’re going to have a very bad time. I had to place my fingers on WASD and my other hand on the mouse with the understanding that I could not move my hands away from those positions, but in MWO, for example, I also needed to recenter my torso (C and F keys), target an enemy (R), and fire weapons (1,2,3, etc). At one point I had to power up my ‘mech (P), and once I moved my left hand, I was totally discombobulated to the point where I had to peek out from under the visor to see where my fingers needed to be. Going forward, my plan is to fall back to the Razor Nostromo for my key clicking, because it presents a limited set of keys in a specific and easy-to-reach configuration.

Panel slides open for augmented reality camera use

The VR Box 2.0 can be a bit unwieldy on the face. When I needed to look out from underneath, I couldn’t rest it on my head like a pair of sunglasses because it’s too heavy to stay put. The foam is comfy, but after a while you understand that it’s not really foam, but rather some kind of plastic material that feels funny when you eventually peel it from your face. One of the best features that I didn’t expect from a cut-rate visor was that the lenses adjust independent of one another, so you can change the focal and interpupilary distance of each lens for the best focus and convergence. The 2.0 version of the VR Box has a cool feature that I’m not sure I’ll ever get to use: the front panel slides open to let you use your phone’s camera (assuming the phone’s camera is situated at one end of the phone’s body and it’s inserted into the visor properly) for augmented reality applications. Bring on Pokemon GO!

If you have an Android or iPhone (there are some limited stereoscopic apps for WinPho, but not official Cardboard because of Google’s political stance on Windows Phone), $30 for the VR Box 2.0 is a fair price for a nice distraction. Coupled with the Trinus, you might have some luck streaming PC games direct to your face for a while, but it won’t be a go-to setup for hardcore gaming even though Trinus performed like a champ in terms of framerate and even acceptable visuals. I managed to play with the setup for about two hours, but not two consecutive hours because I started to get a headache from having two lenses magnifying the LED screen so close to my face. I don’t know if watching a full length movie is a good idea with this thing on, or playing a marathon of World of Warcraft, but if you want to try out pseudo-3D, or to get the feeling that you’re playing on a 90″ TV, then this is a pretty good way to try out VR on a budget.

 

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The Road to VR

My legal team has informed me that I am obligated to use this image when discussing VR.

My legal team has informed me that I am obligated to use this image when discussing VR.

I know I’m harping on this subject, but it seems that this week has seen the confluence of some very interesting, exciting, and disappointing movement in the VR landscape, and since I’d been talking about it earlier in the week, I’d be failing my duties as someone who throws words at the screen if I didn’t keep up with developments and thoughts on the matter.

800 Pound Gorilla

I have to start by talking about the Oculus. It released for pre-order yesterday (Jan 6, 2016), which is an event that the technology world seemed to be waiting for and also not waiting for. I think every technophile wanted the Oculus to finally release an official commercial version, but on the other hand, expectations seem to be tempered by a “chicken and egg” belief that now is not really the time for VR because there’s no content for it (because there’s no commercially available VR to make development of software worthwhile). It’s been a curiosity while in development, and has been a great gadget to marvel over for those who’ve tried it, but it’s always seemed like a point on the horizon that never gets any closer. Having it finally approach was an event mixing excitement and relief that the wait was finally over.

The missing link was the price. Would Oculus be priced at a point that would open the floodgates to commercial VR? Or would this be a niche product that only those who are already sold on the promise of VR would pony up for? It was announced that the device would cost $599. That includes the goggles, sensor for head tracking, an Xbox One controller, and two games that showcase what VR could do. $599 in and of itself is really not a bad price for something like the Oculus, considering that the XB1 controller alone is a good $60 or so, and maybe another $40 for the two games included. But what really kills the deal is the requirements for the PC that’s needed to run it: a high end video card, semi-cutting edge processor, and top-of-the-line ports. My six year old Alienware is still able to run pretty much every game out there without breaking a sweat, but I don’t come anywhere near any of those requirements. A lot of people seem to be in the same boat. I don’t know of anyone who has claimed to have upgraded his or her PC this year according to proposed Oculus specs, meaning that folks who have an upgrade opportunity in their future will either upgrade using the requirements as a guideline, or will push off aiming for those specs until the next, next PC they buy or build.

False Starts and Unforgiving Natures

Folks I’ve heard talk about the Oculus, or VR in general, have apparently already waved off the VR experience as a whole. I think some people still consider it to be a gimmick, some people don’t expect anything better than the lame attempts we had in the 90’s, and some folks just can’t or won’t bother using stupid looking and heavy VR goggles that interfere with what’s supposed to be a pleasant, relaxing hobby.

The Oculus was, if I remember correctly, the first of the latest generation of VR setups, and the benefit (or curse) of being the first of an exotic batch is that it becomes the leader, the poster-child, and the avatar for the success or failure of the genre as a whole. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who nailed the coffin shut when they heard the outrageous specs and expensive price tag of the Oculus and declared (to themselves, or more than likely to the rest of the Internet) that VR was officially dead because while there was now a production model on the way, it would be so out of reach of the masses to make it almost like it never existed at all. I’m sure a lot of people had dreams that the Oculus would run on their rig, and would be reasonably priced in order to sell millions and make VR a reality. The actual reality is that it puts VR out of the reach of pretty much anyone who wasn’t chomping at the bit to get one, and that can be extremely disheartening to feel let down like that. Folks around here have very long memories and are adept at carrying grudges for the sake of carrying grudges. I expect a lot of people are just going to slink away and be content with monitors and TV sets for the foreseeable future.

Momentum of the Also-Rans

The silver lining of this is that now that the Oculus has been “released”, it serves as the benchmark for what comes next, both in terms of technical performance and public perception. For example, I don’t have any illusions that my ghetto VR project is going to outpace the Oculus in any category; my hope is that it’s “good enough” to whet my appetite for future technology now that I know the Oculus isn’t going to fill that role any time soon. Other offerings such as the HTC Vive — which based on what I’ve been seeing has become the new superstar people are pinning their hopes on — still have time to position themselves in relation to the Oculus, and I’m certain they’re doing that right now by studying the reactions to the price and the specs and how people feel about them. Since people have pretty much shrugged with a mix of disdain and sadness post-Wednesday, that means that anyone can swoop in a save the day with the proper mix of tech and price. I think VR is something people want, if for no other reason than it fills the latent role of the latest cool technology gadget that everyone’s talking about, so while the Oculus’ release situation may have put the damper on people’s enthusiasm for the technology, I believe that up-and-coming competitors can use this lull to position themselves as the technology that people have been waiting for.

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Being a Better Blogging Citizen in 2016

GoodCitizenshipAwardI have a confession: I don’t read blogs. I have a clarification: I don’t read that many blogs. I have a few that I read, but most of them seem to be updated As The Spirit Moves The Authors, which can be anywhere from daily to bi-annually, so I’m more or less beholden to finding out that something was posted via social media. With so few blogs on my plate, using a feed reader is a bit overkill, and with the general update schedule among the blogs I do read, opening the feed reader to see if there’s new content would be like opening the pantry door when hungry, over and over, and finding that there’s nothing magically appearing between checks. We’ve all done it.

In 2016, I want to fix this by reading more community blogs. Even the occasional blog. I prefer more generalist blogs, which seem to be fewer and far between amidst a vast and unending sea of World of Warcraft-focused blogs (which I have no interest in). Generalist blogs usually provide a wider array of games over time, and even touch on technology and non-gaming topics that I feel help me learn more about the person behind the keyboard. Obviously, I am biased in wanting to get out of a blog what I put into a blog.

If you’ve got any suggestions on blogs I should follow, let me know, because I want to be a better blogging citizen in 2016! And if you’re looking for other blogs to read, here’s part of my personal (very) short list.

Dragonchasers – Pete has been blogging here for quite some time, and as a former tech writer, he’s really good at crafting an insightful, well-written, and thorough post on gaming and technology.

MMOQuests – Stargrace has many years experience both as a gamer and as a community manager, and as a self-described “gaming nomad”, she covers a whole lot of genres and experiences.

Of Course I’ll Play It – Dusty works in the gaming industry and many of his more recent posts have been focusing on what it’s like to create your own game at home. He also covers his ongoing experiences with MMOs and other genres.

Tales of the Aggronaut – Belghast posts every friggin day, which means you’re going to get a massive grab-bag of topics, both game related and personally insightful.

There are some others which update even more infrequently which (sorry to say) I remember exist only when their authors Tweet about them, so their omission isn’t intentional; As stated, I don’t have a feed reader set up to catalog all of these blogs, although if I start to get suggestions, I’ll certainly do that.

 

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The All-Seeing Eyes

The other day I alluded to a kind of project that I wanted to work on, and since I pulled the trigger on the last bit last night, I figured I might as well craft a preamble today.

Elite_phone

I don’t remember where I saw it, but there was a post on some forum somewhere recently that was talking about Elite Dangerous VR using a Google Cardboard implementation. I’ve been looking forward to some kind of VR system for Elite, and like many have been pinning my hopes on the Oculus (pre-orders this week!). Elite has long-standing support for the Oculus…but my wallet does not.

This forum post that I stumbled upon talked about how someone had rigged up his Google Cardboard implementation to handle VR with Elite through a desktop server/phone client called Trinus VR. The server runs on the PC, and the client runs on an Android or iOS smartphone. Using tethering (or wifi for those of us on carriers that make us pay for tethering), the video is streamed to the smartphone and converted to stereoscopic display for use with Cardboard or some other kind of smartphone-enabled headset.

I downloaded the Trinus packages and switched Elite to use stereoscopic 3D, and was able to get the double-barreled view on my Galaxy S6. I was part way there! But I needed the head-mount, so I had to investigate the options.

viewmaster

Viewmaster VR

Obviously, there was the official Google Cardboard option. This is basically a folded pizza box with two lenses that magnify the output of the smartphone. You can get them cheap, but not locally, and it would have cost me more to ship it than the price of the cardboard itself. While discussing this on Twitter, the community manager of Cardboard jumped in an suggested the new Viewmaster, which is a modern take on an old stereoscopic concept. The original Viewmaster used a round disk ringed with photographic slides. The new Viewmaster works like Cardboard in that it allows you to sandwich your smartphone in front of two lenses. It’s inexpensive (~$30), but has no head strap and I wasn’t interested in rigging one up. Last night I went to Best Buy and tried out the Samsung Gear VR, their Galaxy S6-only VR setup, and I was pretty impressed. However, this thing is expensive compared to the Cardboard and Viewmaster (at $99), and they were out of stock.

VRBox2_point_0So somewhere in between all of these options is a whole ocean filled with more attractive but potentially shoddier and differently-branded headsets that seem to coalesce under the banner “VR Box”. For anywhere between $20 and $50, you can get something that looks like a production-model Oculus, but behaves like a Cardboard: you slip your phone into a tray that slides into the headset, adjust the lenses for spacing and distance, and then strap the thing to your head for (supposedly) a VR experience. After checking out some videos last night with friends, I opted for an apparently non-branded “VR Box 2.0” model. This should arrive at my house on January 7th or thereabouts. I was holding off on buying one of these as a last ditch option mainly because the quality could totally be hit or miss. Not only could there be issues with the way the phone sits in the tray, but getting the lenses adjusted, if they adjust correctly at all, might be impossible. And then there’s the issue of using the device with glasses. The GearVR worked well with glasses, and since the VR Box looks a lot like the GearVR, I’m hoping that the mask will fit well enough.

That’s about all I can say at this point. I know that the Trinus setup is going to be complex; I believe it has support for the phone’s gyroscope that can be used for head tracking (the TrackIR works great, but suffers from ambient light issues), and while it advertises itself as allowing stereoscopic VR for almost any game, getting it to work properly on a case by case basis might be an intense experience. I’m a bit worried about the goggles as well since while the Cardboard concept is barely one step above the old school Viewmaster, there’s still plenty of room to screw up that simple implementation in a rush to capitalize on the emergence of VR.

At any rate, I’ll be sure to write up the process once I receive the headset and take it for a spin. I’ll also document the Trinus settings I used should I be able to get it working in case anyone else is interested in trying this out for themselves.

 

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Last Haul of 2015

So despite my nay-saying regarding the lackluster appeal of Steam sales, I managed to pick up several titles, one via Origin, and two on the Xbox One. Some of them where of interest to me, and some were just “huh…that looks nice” because when I have money in my wallet, it hates to sit idle.

UnderRail

I am a fan of Spiderweb Software’s output, which may seem strange to say since UnderRail is not a Spiderweb product. It’s very much like games such as Avadon or GeneForge in that it’s a massive RPG world with a whole lot of reading. For some that’s a reason to steer clear, but for me it sounds pretty damn appealing.

Distance

Distance is a stylized racing game currently in early development. You get to drive a car straight out of Automan (+1000 points if you don’t need to Google that reference) along some harrowing tracks that twist and turn in ways that Nature never intended. Right now it’s missing multiplayer, and the controls are really wonky, but once it’s finished it should be a great game to play against others.

Star Ruler 2

For some unknown reason, this Steam Sale made me nostalgic for 4x games. I had bought Distant Worlds Universe and Galactic Civilizations III, but returned both because neither was really doing it for me. Star Ruler 2 was the only one that made the cut. I haven’t put a lot of time into it, so I can’t say if it was a worthwhile purchase or not. But hey, what’s one more log on the fire, right?

Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1

HDNRB1, as I like to call it, was an impulse buy because I know some folks played entries in this series on the consoles and had kind things to say about it. I think it was $5. The community seems to like it as well, even though it’s said that this is a direct console port with direct console port visuals. It’s humor and self-irreverence seems to get particularly high marks.

Empire TV

Again with the impulse buys. At first I was drawn to this because it looked like SimTower, which I love. Instead of being a slum-lord, you get to run a TV station, which involves buying ads and movies, setting up a schedule aiming for specific demographics, and even scripting your own dramas. The sheer number of options was overwhelming, and that’s what made me decide to give it a shot.

Shelter 2

Shelter and Shelter 2 have been on my radar for some time now. In both, you play as an animal who has to lead her family through Nature. In the second entry, you start off as a lynx who gives birth to four kittens (?). You have to hunt for them, teach them to hunt on their own, and keep predators at bay. It’s not easy, and many descriptions say that losing a kitten is more heartbreaking than not. I am not looking forward to that, because I know it’s going to happen.

Rebel Galaxy

Another space-sim-ish game, this one having been on many people’s fun-time list for a while. It reminds me of Starpoint Gemini 2, which is a good thing. The soundtrack is, of course, a fan favorite, and lends itself to the atmosphere. I’ve not gotten to far, seeing as how I have had many games to test and possibly return in a small time frame.

Euro Truck Simulator 2

What the…? I was watching a LP on Twitch, and the premise made me think fondly of Elite Dangerous, but without the potential for explosive destruction. You pick a job ferrying goods from point A to point B across various European countries, and then make it happen in semi-real time. You drive along highways and back-roads, and commanding an 18 wheeler is no small task. I’m looking forward to customizing the controls, and getting the TrackIR to work with it for that authentic simulated “sitting on your ass for several hours a day” experience (my grandfather was a truck driver, so I guess there’s some genetic interest here).

Origin: Star Wars Battlefront

Got it on a good discount for PC. It’s fun. Maddening, but fun.  Matches weren’t throwing themselves at me, and I’ve only won one match out of the several I’ve played, so I have to go in assuming I’d lose in order to get the minimal amount of expected amount of enjoyment out of the procedure.

XB1: Titanfall

I own Titanfall on the PC, and I really enjoyed it until the aimbots showed up and ruined everyone’s fun. It was only $5 on the XB1, and several folks were talking about on Le Plus, so I wistfully figured that maybe at some point we’d all posse up to play some rounds. I did the tutorial to re-acquaint myself with the process, but haven’t gotten much further than that.

XB1: LEGO Dimensions

My “toys that work with video games” cycle is now complete. I got it on a decent discount this holiday season, and we got my daughter the Portal 2 and Doctor Who playsets to go with it. It’s a LEGO game, all right. The constant need to switch characters between three different locations on the portal is kind of a pain in the ass, though, when it’s just one person playing. I’ve only played mostly as Batman in the Wizard of Oz main story thus far.

Bonus Round: Lord of the Rings Online

Some games I keep going back to, and some I swear off forever. LotRO was one of the latter, except that I saw some people in my circles going back to Middle Earth for a spell so I figured I might give it the benefit of the doubt. I was thoroughly confused when I logged in with my main character (level 30 ranger, sitting atop Weathertop where I left her after the last “WeatherStock” festival so many years ago”). So I created a Champion and started back *sigh* in Archet. For the 9,207th time. I guess I’ve been away for long enough that while I remembered a lot of the quests, I didn’t mind that much that I was doing them again again. I don’t plan on getting into crafting and all that, since I doubt I’ll be spending much more time here. I’m not currently playing with anyone, so that’ll kill my interest quickly once I decide I’ve had enough. Plus, I’ve got a whole set of new Steam games to concern myself with.

Bonus Bonus Round: MechWarrior Online

I have a friend who is really into MWO, and I would really like to be, but I don’t know that I can commit the time and brainpower needed to compete with the player base in this game. I’ve been carried through a few matches, and have gotten some advice in the past, but on my own I don’t have a lot of confidence to play this game. My friend insisted I try again, so I reinstalled and found that Piranha has been hard at work shoring up the game, at least on the initial impression. The whole of the management experience has enjoyed an overhaul, making the mech bay actually useful. The tutorials are also finally functional, allowing you to do more than just run around and take pot-shots at stationary mechs (although you can still do that). Sadly, it’s still missing a co-op-versus-bots mode, so I can’t recommend it to those who are “playing with assholes” averse, unless you can find some willing mechwarriors who can help you learn the ropes.

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