Saturday, September 24, 2016

Glory to Youtube!

Normally I use the fifth and final blog post of each month to show some video game related artwork, screenshots or animated GIFs.  However, I'm going to make an exception this time and talk about Youtube a bit instead.  Don't worry!  I'll still put up the normal end of the month stuff.  I'm just putting it off until the start of next month.  Anyway...on to the reason for this blog post!

Youtube has had a long running string of bad ideas in recent years.  An automated copyright ID system (that is open for abuse), Youtube Red (a paid service that limited sharing of videos internationally), and an ad-friendly policy (that allowed advertisers to influence the kind of content found on Youtube).  Which brings us to Youtube's newest blunder their "heroes" program.  In a nutshell it allows people to volunteer their time to moderate Youtube.  People who prove useful to the website will have increased privileges such as the ability to mass flag videos and remove undesirable comments.  Another way to gain advancement is by "sharing information" know...a small part of me almost gets at a board meeting somebody in a suit stood up and said "I know how we can solve our cesspool of a comment system for free!"  Apparently, none of these highly paid, "brilliant" people had ever heard of the term political officer.  Youtube isn't asking for "heroes," they're asking for "commissars."

Actually, I take that back.  Commissars at least got paid for what they did.  Youtube is too cheap to even offer a salary which is pretty insulting considering how much money Google rakes in every year.  So, there's really only three types of people who are going to go for this kind of thing.
  1. People who have an sociopolitical agenda they want to foist upon others
  2. People hoping to abuse the system for their own amusement/entertainment
  3. People who are actually being paid to do a job
Since we've already established there's no money in it for these "heroes" the vast majority of volunteers are coming from the first two categories.  Sure there might people a handful of folks who really are idealists willing volunteer their free time toward the task of trying to make the internet free of trolls and bigots, but they are few and far between...and lets face it, I doubt many of them would last long, or worse yet some might even eventually turn into villains.

Now, I know some readers have made it this far and are wondering what the heck any of this has to do with video games.  Well...nothing directly, but tangentially quite a bit.  Even if you're not a fan of LPers or even video reviews of games there are people on Youtube who do quality work when it comes to the craft and industry.  Guys like Jim Sterling, Errant Signal or Noah Caldwell-Gervais are just a few examples. Yes, I know there's a ton of garbage on Youtube. Guess what? Regular old TV Broadcasting (in the USA at least) is just as bad...if not worse...and has way more obnoxious advertising to boot.

The joke here is that Youtube had a very obvious solution to their problem. Give individual channels the tools to moderate themselves. is a great example of how moderated communities can work. Instead of just banning users or deleting comments mods can do stuff like issue warnings, remove individuals from particular threads, or even suspend an account's posting privileges for a certain number of days based on the type of infraction. Sure, it isn't a perfect solution. There's a danger of some rogue channel trying carve out their own little den of hate-speech or whatever on Youtube, but an appeals process (again like they have on and law courts in real life) should address that potential hazard.

Sadly, that idea was too simple of a solution for the "geniuses" at Youtube.  So instead we have this "heroes" program instead.  You know what really bothers me most about it?  The tagline at the end of their promo video that says "...Because all heroes deserve a little glory."  Glory?  Glory to these fools?  Nay!  Glory to Astortzka, I say.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sunken Tresure

"Space pirates!  Brutal! Merciless!  Coming to a theater near you...rated R."

- Wak, Explorers (1985)

Obscure movie quotes aside, I think it's kind of funny how little these cannon fodder enemies of video games have in common with their nautical forebearers.  Off the top of my head, Space Run, Master of Orion, Stardrive, Stellaris, Infinite Space, and most recently Halcyon 6 are just a few examples of video games that all have space pirates integrated into the experience...and yet they feel so comically shallow they might as well not be there at all.

You see...historically actual pirates (not the kind you find on torrent sites) were really only in it for the money.  Just like any other profit deal, it's all about maximizing the return on investment.  Ships and the mercenaries that crew them cost money so there needs to be a lot of easy-to-get plunder out there along with a bunch of capable and unscrupulous individuals looking for short-term employment.  In the case of Caribbean piracy, it got as big as it did in large part due to the support of various Continental powers.  Often referred to as "privateers," these men (and even a few women) existed through sponsorship from powerful nations trying to disrupt the colonial trade routes of rivals without diverting valuable military assets away from places closer to home.

Of course all the games I've mentioned earlier have none of this.  There are no pirate-friendly nations, nor is there any way to turn pirates into privateers.  To me, it really doesn't make sense.  Where are the pirates supposed to sell their stolen goods if there are no friendly ports?  Some games float the idea of a pirate base, but this doesn't make sense either unless there is some kind of thriving black market...which brings me to another big problem, logistics.

Transporting commodities from one place to another during the age of sail wasn't easy.  Move that kind of situation to space and you amplify the difficulties a thousandfold.  Even if you want to hand wave most of the problems with science fiction gadgetry there's still the question of the value of the cargo.  In the Americas it was largely gold and silver, while in the Far East silk and spice were what made piracy economically viable.  However, in Stellaris, Master of Orion and Stardrive (three games that emphasize economics) the net financial losses from pirate raids typically doesn't come anywhere near the value of the ships used, let alone the maintenance costs involved.  Then there are risks to consider...which brings me to the biggest question of space piracy, motivation.

Any pirate captain that doesn't turn a profit doesn't stay captain for long.  Surprising as it might sound piracy is, was, and has always been a democratic enterprise with the elected leader being the person who gets the best results (i.e. lots of booty for the least amount of effort).  In the case of video games though that almost never rings true.  Space pirates are suicidally aggressive and seem to have more in common with petty dictatorships than cunning profiteers.  I get the reasoning here.  Game developers want to give players an easy challenge early on so they throw a few mook units at the player to squash without consequences or repercussions.  It can be useful as a combat tutorial, but once the player has got the basics down space pirates become a nuisance at best, and at worst a wasted opportunity for a more satisfying game.

In a sci-fi setting a game developer can do pretty much whatever they want, which is why I don't understand the desire to take an interesting concept and whittle it down to a bland stereotype.  Come on game developers inject some life and color into this trope!  At the very least it will deepen and enrich the gaming as a whole.     

Friday, September 16, 2016

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Overpriced and Underbaked

As wide as the sea, as deep as a puddle.
It seems like every year there are some new trends in the industry.  Giant Bomb usually dedicates a "please stop!" segment to the worst of them in their end-of-the-year deliberations.  Whether it be QTEs, Fee-to-Pay, or Bullshots, reviled industry practices have become an annual thing.  I'm not sure what the guys over at Giant Bomb will nominate for the category this year, but if I where to choose something it would be the one-two punch of overpriced and underbaked.

It started in earnest this year with titles like Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, XCOM 2, and Firewatch, continued to build with Slain and House of the Dying Sun, before culminating in No Man's Sky.  Before I get into that game in particular though lets go back to the first half of that two part problem I just mentioned.  There definitely appears to be a recent pricing strategy going on that basically boils down to figuring out how much people are willing to pay for a particular game at launch and then adding an additional 30 percent to the price tag.  I want to say this is merely video game publishers padding things out for the inevitable deep-cut discounts, but truth be told traditional Steam and GoG sales have been duds as of late.  The exceptions being DOOM 4 and the recent Survival Humble Bundle.  Other than that though it's mostly been a paltry 20 percent off poorly reviewed flotsam.

Slippy?  Is that you?
Now, normally I don't put much stock in review scores, especially with the constant tug-o-war that plagues aggregated websites.  For some reason there's a subset of people out there that really want to make games look better or worse than they actually are.  I don't get the motivation for doing that.  On the other hand, I do sympathize when the comment section is filled with numerous players having technical issues.  Particularly when they're stuff like frame rate dips, crashes to desktop, hardlocks, glitches, bugs, and generally poor performance.  Of course there are the inevitable apologists and that one guy who insists the game runs fine for him, but these sorts of issues really boil down to a simple case of the game needing more fine tuning and polish.  Eventually these kind of things usually do get sorted out, take XCOM 2 for example.  Three months after it's release it finally ran the way you'd expect.  Similarly the AI in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak ceased to be brain dead after a couple of post-launch patches.  Another great example is Slain, which had garbage controls that took so much time and effort to fix that the developer re-branded it Slain: Back from Hell, to signify the overhaul.  Sadly, this isn't always the case.  House of the Dying Sun still doesn't have any of the sandbox rouge-like elements that were hinted at during it's pre-early access development.  Worse still Batman: Arkham Knight looks like it will never really receive the attention it needs to be played on most PCs.

The golden poo of this trend has to be No Man's Sky, a full-priced title that, when played, comes across as an early access indie product hamstrung by numerous technical issues.  Put simply it's a game that should have come out around Christmas for about one-third the asking price.  Sure a lot of people would have been disappointed anyway, but at least then the fault would lie squarely on Sean Murray (a.k.a. Peter Molyneux 2.0) and not on Sony (who should have known better).

Friday, September 2, 2016

Tales of Orion

When it comes to Master of Orion, fans usually have a tale or two to tell. I am no exception, but unlike many players my fondest memories come from the original rather than the sequel. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun with Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares. I could tell you the story of how the entire race of Meklar simply vanished without a trace from the face of the galaxy (ships, colonies and everything they ever built). Or I could you about Loknar, the Last Orion’s glorious suicidal assault on the Antares homeworld.  However, those are stories I’d like to save for another day. Instead, I want to recount my one-and-only childhood playthrough of Master of Orion 1 on the largest galaxy size.

I was the Silicoids.  Why?  Because they rock!  Puns aside, my homeworld was in the top left corner of the star map and from there our race colonized world after world. Whether it was a lush paradise or toxic wasteland made no difference, Silicoids are miniature walking volcanoes that eat rock and shrug off doses of radiation that would be lethal to any other intelligent species. The only thing that slowed our advance was a shortage of numbers, silicon-based life forms don’t reproduce as fast as carbon-based ones. Eventually, over half-a-century after the completion of the first colony ship I bumped into the first of four other races – the Sakkra. They were far more numerous than us, but lacked technological advancements we had achieved thanks to a research base established decades ago on the artifact world designated "Cloud City II" (don’t ask what happened to the first one). As fate would have it the leader of the Sakkra was an erratic expansionist, which could only mean one thing – war!

Needless to say our technological edge made the conflict a foregone conclusion. From the captured fortress world of "Thrax," the Silicoids assembled grand fleets under the protection of an extensive planetary missile system. Slowly, but steadily the Sakkra’s four-to-one numerical superiority was reduced, and their empire whittled down until only their homeworld remained. Rather than purge the Sakkra menace from the galaxy, the Silicoids attempted to stage a xeno revolution, a foreign coup d’etat. The subterfuge was successful in so far that the Sakkra leader was killed and replaced…by a xenophobic militarist. In hindsight it would have been unrealistic to expect anything different, but the outcome was predictably xenocide…sorry Sakkra, you have no place among us.

Wiping out an entire species of intelligent life might sound like a bad thing, but as it turned out the Sakkra had already made enemies of the Humans long before they ever made contact with us. This new race of evolved apes were honorable so relations with them went smoothly for a time, but a diplomatic blunder on our part nearly lead to large-scale violence which was only barely avoided thanks to recompense in the form of several non-weapon based pieces of technology. These gifts of knowledge the Silicoids gave freely to the humans, but they were not the only ones to acquire them. A third race, the Darloks, stole our technology through espionage. There is only one way to deal with a race of deceptive liars – war!

The Silicoid/Darlok conflict was not as one-sided as the previous one against the then extinct Sakkra. In fact it lasted almost an entire century, and even with the reluctant aid of human warships many Siliciod lives were lost. In part this was due to the relatively equal footing of each side in terms of technology and industrial capacity.  More importantly the Darlok inner worlds were enveloped in a vast nebula. Thematically appropriate to be sure, but it made spaceship travel in that region a slow and arduous process. It was, for lack of a better term, “space trench warfare.” Acts of Darlok sabotage wreaked havoc on Silicoid logistics and if it weren’t for the discovery of a secret wormhole the conflict might have ended in a stalemate. As luck would have it though that naturally occurring warp-gate drew a line halfway across the entire star map, allowing rapid transportation of Silicoid war materials to the front where the Darloks were overwhelmed through raw attrition.

Having eliminated this third and final threat, a hard won peace settled over the galaxy. In the wake of so much destruction an emphasis was placed on the colonization of many of the barren worlds left over at the end of hostilities. The Humans snatched up a few choice locals while the Silicoids colonized with impunity. It was at this time the fourth and final race made their existence known. They were the Alkari and, for reasons which still remain a mystery, had never bothered to explore beyond the confines of their homeworld…at least until then. No longer content to simple roost, this race of avian creatures finally spread their wings and sent out dozens of scout ships (one to each star within range). It was a sudden burst of spacecraft, that expanded out like a great ripple by turns, the flight of the Alkari had begun. Not long after, the galactic counsel was held and I (the leader of the Silicoids) was elected the inheritor of Orion…

…and with that my tale ends…or as the robo-news anchor says, “…and that’s the way it is.”