What is it with the damsel getting mad at her rescuer?

| Monday, December 30, 2013
As the armies battle outside for control of the prison, the hero bursts into the cell where his love his held. She sees him enter and is, for a moment, filled with joy that he has returned to rescue him. Then she sees him. He's scarred and wearied, his mind and body burdened by the violence he has used to get here. He's not the man she knew. She storms out, disgusted by what he has become.

What a stupid woman, right? I mean, sure he did some bad things, but they were necessary and for her. She should be grateful!

He lets her go stay with her friends while he meets back with his war counsel. While she's off moping he continues the fight against their enemy. Is it vengeance? Justice? Is he doing it to protect her? Regardless, he's the one in the action. Of course in previous stories she was tough, and still plays the part, but now she's just a prisoner to be rescued, a ship to be protected in the final battle, and overall a burden with all her unreasonable emotions.

I might have my gendered pronouns backward in all that. The dark hero is Sarah Kerrigan while the damsel in distress in James Raynor. Of course there is nuance; it would be a terribly boring story otherwise. But there's the overall narrative: the gender-flipped but otherwise classic story of the stoic hero who does what needs to be done and the emotionally-torn damsel in need of saving.

Heart of the Swarm gameplay

Starting points: Everything I did was on normal difficulty. I only repeated a mission once when I realized that I'd missed a Xel'naga crystal while killing primal zerg. I played to see the story, not to hunt achievements or for speed.

Wings of Liberty seemed a lot harder. Some of those final missions against hybrids felt almost impossible, but I got through them, with some difficulty. Maybe that's because it was primarily a Terran game and then suddenly had strange new units thrown in at the end. Maybe I've gotten better since then, considering I've done some multiplayer since then and that's pretty good training for aggressive play and a good economy.

I did get a little nervous when trying to pop more scourge nests, possibly because I've never quite gotten used to dealing with creep tumors. And Odin (super-Thor unit from the first game) was a bit of a surprise. As a result, I didn't have any lurkers ready and entirely forgot about them. That was stupid and made things much harder, since I'd picked the type that was strong against heavily armored enemies. Don't use mutalisk spam to deal with Thors.

This isn't a criticism of Heart of the Swarm. If anything, normal mode in Wings of Liberty was perhaps too difficult. Normal shouldn't be a walk in the park, but the player should retain at least 99% of their hair during each mission. It should push you a bit, make you nervous, but should not overwhelm the player or make them want to cheat just to get past a mission. Heart of the Swarm made me nervous, made me step up my game a little, but never made me want to break any computer hardware.

The missions themselves were a mixed bag of mixed things in bags. There were some standard "build lots of big units and blow up everything". There were some of the indoor missions where you use Kerrigan and a few handfuls of units (these are the zerg, after all; even their sneaking groups are in the dozens). There were some odd one-time mechanics, such as the freezes, which were then strangely absent in the very next mission on the same planet. There were many fights that made me glad I'd raided in WoW; they were dances of keeping the important people moving and out of the bad stuff. From that perspective, the primal zerg were essentially a lot of trash followed by a few small raid boss fights. But maybe that's just the old saying, "when you need to nail something in, then everything looks like a hammer."

I enjoyed all of the missions. None felt like the same thing as the one before. Only once, when dealing with the scourge nests, did I feel as if the entire thing was just a gimmick dressed up like an RTS. Each mission had its own problem to solve, yet they weren't all quite the same, except for the common thread that tied them all together.

There was a common theme: Kerrigan at the front of the swarm leading a gigantic army. Wings of Liberty tempted me with all sorts of fancy things such as cloaking units and nuclear weapons. I guess that's the Terran way. The Zerg way was a whole lot of units. Maybe they were zerglings with an evolution mission to spawn three instead of only two, though I went with the hopping variant instead. Maybe it was my fleet of mutalisks or my not-as-vulnerable-to-missile-turrets army of hydralisks.

Whatever it was, I had a lot of it and I always had more of it coming. I didn't smash into my enemy once and then retreat. I'd smash into them and keep pushing. I don't know if it is more experience with the game or from playing zerg instead of Terrans, but I didn't care about causalities. If I took massive casualties but destroyed an important base, that was just fine. I had reserves. That was fun! It's all well and good to win with a superior strategy, but why not win with a superior economy?

It sounds silly, but I liked that the way I won was the way they'd win in the story: with a Zerg rush. Of course Kerrigan taught her brood mothers a bit of cunning, but ultimately the Zerg prevails through numbers and a complete disregard for casualties.

Unlimited equipment slots: A wizard did it

| Thursday, December 19, 2013
Oblivion had staff as weapons, so you could have a spell and a staff. Skyrim uses them as spells, so you can have a staff or a spell, or two staffs, despite the fact that the only guy who uses two staffs is Saruman. On the plus side, you could have two spells equipped, which allowed for more flexibility and creativity.

And then I realized that it was all nonsense. I can equip telekinesis. Therefore I can equip anything, and with training, everything. Who has not struggled through the mishmash of disconnected plots to reach the end of Knights of the Old Republic 2 to see Kreia fight with four lightsabers using only her mind? Why can we not do the same? But with swords? And if with swords, why not hold armor as well.

We already carry unreasonable large amounts of armor in our bags. Why not carry them with our minds? Layer them, one over the next, levitate ourselves so we can carry the boots. No longer will the mage be a glass cannon, but instead he will be a magical robot, surrounded by shining shells of levitated armor, with a whirling corona of swords. Bring on your pitiful warriors, let them bounce off my armored shell of invincibility. If one item breaks, I will tear replacements from the corpses of my foes and with every one that falls I grow bigger and stronger.

Bow before me, mortals, bow before your doom!



The Recovery: Unfinished Business: A Story

| Tuesday, December 17, 2013
In response to Rock, Paper, Shotgun:
The President wasn't happy about it. He didn't care how much everyone loved the guy, he wasn't going to allow Chris Hadfield, astronaut extraordinaire, and Canadian, to lead America's most important mission. Yet he remained calm. All he had left were calmness and two dogs suitable for kids with allergies, and any day now someone might leave a door open and they'd be gone.

With a string of profanity he threw it all away and threw open a door. The dogs would explore and so would he. And dammit, this mission was too important. Wasn't he always talking about international cooperation? What was that peace prize for if not for this?

President Obama; Chris Hadfield, astronaut extraordinaire; and SEAL Team Six boarded the ship. Fifty seconds later it launched. No one had their seat belts on, despite everyone taking turns yelling, "Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy fucking ride!"

Space isn't actually that bumpy. At least it wasn't usually.

Three missiles had already hit and shields were at 10%. They'd thought Valve Voyager was going for speed. It wasn't. They were outgunned and outrun. It was all over.

Then John Aaron's voice crackled over the radio. He calmly rattled off orders, everyone panicking except him and Chris Hadfield, astronaut extraordinaire. A few more switches flipped and shields were online.

Even better, Valve Voyager had slowed down to power its tractor beam. They were trying to trap the President!

But that was the plan all along. The hatch blew open and bullets flew. Valve agents were hopelessly outmatched. Their bunny hopping was useless. They couldn't see anything in first-person view. Defense Pattern Delta wasn't actually a thing, just a morale booster and an intimidating thing to yell.
"Hold your fire. Ganymede, Gabe?"
"Our own world to make, Mr. President. It could be anything!"
"You already had your own world. It was one of the best FPS experiences I've ever had. The characters were like actual people, the story was complex but understandable, the twists and turns and... dammit, you have unfinished business!"
"I have no idea what you're talking about!"
"No? Do the words 'Episode Three' mean anything to you?"
"Nice try."
"Okay okay, but we were to never speak of it again! It was forbidden. We made it, but it never got past the prototype stage. It's too dangerous!"
"Danger is my middle name."
"Isn't it Hussein?"
"Hand over the game. Now. Or I'll be playing a different FPS."

Gabe moved slowly, carefully, to the computer. With a few keyboard presses, no mouse, and far too much steam to make any sense at all, he copied the files to a flash drive.

The American ship, piloted by Chris Hadfield, astronaut extraordinaire, detached and turned toward the Sun.

"My fellow Americans, it is time to go home. Let me be clear, that does not mean that the Canadian astronaut extraordinaire is going to be stranded here as well. He gets to come home with us, but to Canada."

On the largest moon in the solar system two words were written on a whiteboard, barely visible in the distant sun: "Episode Four."

Weeks later, a man wheeled the flash drive down the hallway toward the President's computer. Men in suits watched, joined by one extra. Steam finished checking for already downloaded content, found it all, and began first time set up. There was a flash of green light.

No more crises in the sandbox

I like urgency in games. I like sandboxes or other non-linear games. I don't like them combined on a large scale. Full disclosure: I used the word sandbox because it sounds better than "No more crises in the non-linear game that also features structured quests" and I'm a paid lobbyist for a national sand and box chain. In related news, silica exposure is an imaginary problem, why do you think crabs don't get lung cancer?

Imagine that a cult is summoning a demon and that this demon is going to more or less destroy the world when it gets here. Certainly you're no going to jump right into saving the world; you are an exceptionally weak mage after all. But after a bit of practice you'd be out there investigating, turning in amulets, and finding bastard offspring. Oblivion is my reference point here, but the general notion is widely applicable in games that allow you to explore while using a crisis as a central plot point. The combination ends up being completely absurd.

The crisis isn't just rumor; it is often directly explained to you. In Oblivion it is what gets you released: the Emperor thinks you're the one who is going to save the world. The world could end tomorrow without your intervention. You opt to join a murder cult and hunt down old trinkets for the nobility. That never showed up in any training montage. Though I suppose it is a bit more directly applicable than painting fences or picking up coats.

Maybe Fallout 3 works better, at being ridiculous. Your father has ditched you and you've been kicked out of your formerly safe home. You set out to find him. But before you save your dad from potential death / reunite with your only family, you first do some things along the way. Some of these make sense: someone has information and wants something in return. There's not much you can do about that. A detour to slaughter a town of slavers or disarm an atomic bomb, that's just what anyone else would do, given the ability. Other things, don't make much sense. Do you leave your dad out there so you can find Future Coke for an addict? What about tackling a housing discrimination case? At some point I started to wonder if my character had an attachment to his father at all, or the reverse, given some of the dialog.

Far Cry 3 features a similar level of insanity. Your friends and one brother have been kidnapped, the other brother killed while you were escaping. Since you're just a jackass frat boy you're not a very good hero for a rescue mission, so logically you spend some time getting tattoos, which in this universe makes you more powerful, so it makes sense. Yet there comes a point when it becomes absurd; you're driving all over the first island for days, capturing pirate outposts, fixing radio towers, and going hunting, and doing nothing at all to rescue your friends or gather intelligence on your enemies. This would at least make some sense if it seemed as if it was the result of the player shaping events through decisions, trying to help the island as a whole before worrying about his friends. The delay is never addressed, and in fact doesn't seem to have happened.

That's one of the persistent oddities in open-world games: what you do in the sandbox stays in the sandbox, while sometimes your actions in the little time bubbles leak out into the sandbox, even undoing your progress or canceling out what you have done.

This is when a more personal (by which I mean selfish) story can come to the rescue, a story based only on the player. In Fallout: New Vegas you get shot in the head and that's about it as far as the main plot goes. You're not destined to save the world. You're just a guy who got shot in the head and probably wants a bit of revenge. Given the difficulty of travel, it's not as if the other guy is going to escape; he thinks you're dead anyway. In this scenario there is no rush at all, so why not go exploring? The world isn't going to wait for you and that's just fine, because as far as you know, you're completely irrelevant.

Or consider a game such as Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. You have amnesia and a quest to kill a man, and you don't know from whom. Given that beginning it is not surprising that you'd end up doing some wandering and searching for odd jobs. You're lost in a terribly dangerous place, so making yourself useful to nearby people with information and guns is sensible. Eventually you discover a big mystery and pursue that, but at no point is there a sense that if you're not acting toward goal A, then you're putting your life and the existence of the entire world at risk. Though, it turns out the entire world is at risk, and you might have made things a lot worse, or better, or who can really tell given the strangeness of events in the Zone.

Adding some sort of stagnation/stalemate can help as well. One of my favorite game series ever, Escape Velocity, featured all manner of ongoing wars. But they were stalemates and therefore we could expect them to keep going about as they are without our influence. It helps that in fictional universes outside of Civ IV there is no such thing as war weariness. If the war isn't changing one way or another and you're just another small-time shuttle pilot, why wouldn't you go out and see the galaxy?

We could also look at most MMOs in which something is busily trying to destroy the world, yet for some reason we're off picking apples. Surely the locals would be telling us to get out there and fight. The government would be throwing piles of gold at us to get us back out there. Imagine if General Patton had decided that fighting Rommel just wasn't that pressing and took a detour to go hiking in Peru? We'd have put him in an asylum, or at least threatened to turn the whole operation over to Montgomery, unless the Englishman was off learning the bagpipes as a way to scare rats away from grain silos (if that quest does not yet exist, it should).

I love non-linear games, games where I can choose what to do and when. But when the game is overshadowed by an imminent threat, well that tends to overshadow everything else. It turns side quests from fun distractions into absurd detours that no sane person would start. Yet insanity isn't really an option either, because the games never acknowledge that you were doing anything other than what they told you to do. Instead you're apparently some sort of transubstantialmultidimensionaltwoinone being who is simultaneously inspecting caves for bandits while also not doing so, at either the same time as, before, or after, saving the world.

Escort Quests and Cargo Quests

| Monday, December 16, 2013
Here's a organizational scheme to consider: escort quests and cargo quests.

Escort quests are what they sound like: you escort someone through some dangerous area. Sometimes they're just passing through. Other times they're doing something along the way. They might ask you to take the lead, though never as often as they should, or run out themselves. The main takeaway is that the thing or person being escorted could take the journey without you, but with far more risk to themselves. For example, someone gathering measurements of local deadly wildlife . You are a helper, not a mover.

Cargo quests are also what they sound like: you transport cargo through some area, which is potentially dangerous as well. This can be an item, or a person. This can be a kidnapping quest or a kid-carrying quest. The main takeaway is that the thing or person being escorted cannot take the journey without you, not because of risk, but because they cannot even move on their own. For example, any prisoner will at least start off as cargo. You are the mover, and quite possibly not a helper.

Since both quests can involve people, which do you think includes characters with greater autonomy?

Civilization IV vs. V

| Thursday, December 12, 2013
I tend to go back and forth with these games. I'll play one for a while, then the other. As I play one I see the relative flaws and remember why I was previously playing the other. It's a perpetual motion machine based on greener grass. What is it that makes me ping pong like this anyway? I mean, what's so different and so much so that I'd actually care.

Something that is different about which I don't care is workers. In IV they can cross rivers without movement cost, making them more flexible. In IV they use food, the same way settlers do, so it is tempting to delay them until city size is maxed (ignore this temptation; improved land is what helps your city grow).

Onward to the big things that make me prefer one game over the other, at least temporarily.

Vassals are better than puppets
Puppet cities don't make much sense. They're clearly part of your empire, giving you territorial control, gold, culture, and science. They have a happiness cost. They can be conquered by anyone at war with you without your enemy needing to be at war with another entity. These aren't puppets so much as poorly-managed normal cities.

While some measures were taken to reduce the habit, it's still easy to end up with an empire that is 90% puppet cities. These cities never revolt, under any circumstances. This looks absurd.

Contrast that with vassals, specifically those won through capitulation. A civilization recognizes that it is going to be wiped out, so it cedes some sovereignty to you in exchange for avoiding annihilation. You do not occupy their cities except those which you have actually conquered and kept. They are the closer thing to a puppet, being free to direct their internal affairs but following the foreign policy of their master. Under certain circumstances they can break free, sometimes with the result of war with their former masters. Puppets magically remain loyal to the very end and a civilization can even find itself with only puppets, clearly a ridiculous state of affairs.

For the player vassals also offer some advantages in terms of management. A vassal will defend itself with its own army. That makes them useful as buffers and distractions for the enemy. They will build their own infrastructure. A puppet city is entirely dependent on your army and workers. This means more distractions and more areas needing management. All they save relative to a annexed city is the production orders, but that comes at the cost of being unable to manage population; I'll trade some more micromanagement for the ability to avoid the AI-run city growing out of control. Though, I could use my workers to remove all food-producing improvements around the puppet, so then I've not saved any micromanagement after all.

Finally, I don't like having to keep playing after I've clearly won. Capitulation means that you can deal with a civilization and be done with it without needing to slog through every single city to make an empire of puppets. When you're the dominant power civilizations will tend to capitulate faster, so that again you don't need to slog through every single city to win. You can return captured cities to their civilizations rather than waste effort and resources to develop them to be useful to you.

On this one I have to give the clear advantage to IV.

Tactical combat is fun, but clearly cheating
I prefer the tactical combat of V. It's more interesting to me than smashing stacks into each other. However, it also feels like cheating. The AI is not very good at it. I can't say that the AI in IV is brilliant, but the stack nature means that there are limits to how much I can run circles around it. Economics are much more important in IV as well, since I am going to lose units; even with air superiority there is only so much I can do before I have to risk actual units. Nuclear weapons can eliminate causalities (on my side by making them 100% on the other), but they are automatically killed, so it's not entirely accurate to say that there are no losses.

Any time I've found myself facing multiple economically-superior opponents in IV I find myself longing for the tactical combat of V. It's a handy crutch for bad economic policy, or bad luck. Yet is that crutch a good thing?

I can't quite point to one being better than the other with combat. Combat in V is more fun, but in IV it is more balanced for the AI and makes economic decisions more important.

City States and Trade Routes
I like city states. They give us something to do to hurt other civilizations that aren't war. However, the AI isn't very aggressive about keeping them on their side, so these tend to screw up the diplomatic victory, which is terrible in both games, and the congress in general. The AI used to try harder to keep them but that changed at some point, I suspect because people got mad at perpetual coups and the AI's bottomless treasuries. City States also give us friends of last resort, meaning trading partners of last resort, and can act a bit like the vassals of IV in terms of acting as buffers and distractions.

Trade routes, though fairly recent, make it feel like a more complete game. They add more layers to diplomacy: losing a trading partner is to be avoided, as is having none at all. They offer some interesting choices: maximize gold, science, or spread of religion, or use them internally to boost production and growth.

Obviously this goes to V.

V gives the player something to do with it. Bribe city states, buy units, buy buildings, and so on. It is a currency that changes how you play depending on how much you have. However, buildings carry a non-trivial maintenance cost, making infrastructure a risky investment. IV instead allows you to trade gold for science or culture production, giving greater flexibility. You can sell off the buildings in V, but that is a ridiculous level of micromanagement for something that used to be a straightforward tradeoff.

This one is going to V. While the science-gold trade is a less-annoying mechanic, the general uselessness of gold in IV has bugged me. If players could generate a lot more with the rush function from universal suffrage, then gold would be worthwhile.

Interface and graphics
 I group these together because the usefulness of information depends on how it is displayed, which is in turn affected by how it can be displayed, meaning the graphical limitations.

The outdated maps (meaning that they don't update until you buy a map or send a unit to look) of IV tend to bug me. Expansion is hard to manage when it is not clear where the borders are. Keeping scouts out there is expensive with the supply cost and a general annoyance. It's harder to see civilization borders in general on the map, perhaps because of the graphical limits. On the other hand, V has a bad habit of not diplaying units or updating tiles to reflect roads and rail, so I'm frequently using f10 to get the hex display, which is ugly and a stupid thing to have to do.

On the other hand, IV has far superior production and happiness management. Being able to queue up multiple buildings is a great thing. Being able to queue up an endless run of a unit makes it easier to manage the logistical side of war. Not having three tiers of what are essentially just barracks means fewer hassles when gearing up for war. Of course needing to switch civics might sound like a hassle as well, but it makes more sense to have political changes to support war than to have, for thousands of years, been on a cultural war-footing.

The combat log in IV is pretty useful for figuring out what happened after dozens of battles scattered across the world. Even better, clicking on a note in it will center the screen on that location.

IV puts AI conversations at the start of the turn rather than the end. This means that if you misclick you can load the autosave and none of your decisions are lost. V places the AI conversations at the end, so you're stuck with either redoing an entire turn or saving the game at the end of every turn. Neither of those are good.

IV tends to look universally ugly regardless of the circumstances, partly due to the graphics quality and partly due to the mess of roads and rail. V is prettier and more nuanced. It shines and sparkles, but cities also burns, the pillaged landscapes are charred and smoking, and nuclear fallout adds a haunting glow. Fallout in IV just looks like any other ugly tile with a patch of ugly layered on top.

Perhaps I should not have combined these. Interface goes to IV, graphics to V.

IV loads a game in seconds, V can take several minutes. Given how much a misclick can screw things up in either game, but particularly in the tactical combat of V, loading a turn is a huge deal and not an uncommon occurrence. Turns in IV can take very little time, particularly if there are no enemy movements to watch, while they can drag on in V. The start times are much different between the two as well. The only performance issue that I see in IV is when calculating damage from nukes, and since those tend to come out near the end of the game, if ever, this is rarely an issue.

This one obviously goes to IV.

All things considered, there are parts that I like in both of them. Since it is the newer title, V is going to get more developer attention and will most likely continue to gain relative to IV; in its initial state IV was clearly the superior game. If V ran better, and perhaps with a newer computer I'd see significant gains, then I think it would become the superior game by a non-trivial margin. Until then, I think it is entirely a matter of personal preference.

One member online

| Wednesday, December 4, 2013
I logged on to an empty guild.
An empty glass is not half filled.
Many things to do,
No one to group.
Maybe in LFG you'll meet someone new
Yet they're only there for the rep
And any loot that you might get,
Will seem meaningless.
Walking alone among the crowd
Makes me wonder if I should just log out

A Timeless Problem

/w Want to group up for rep?
/1 lf rep group
raretimer huolon
RareCoordinator: hulon died 500 weeks ago
RareCoordinator: huolon died 5 minutes ago
rartimer hulon
when is huolon back?
raretimer Huolon
/w may I join your rep group?

The Timeless Isle is a nice place. It's sunny. The flight path isn't too far. It showers players and their alts with gear. I was glad Chromie sent me there, as it got my newly-90 rogue into LFR much more quickly than waiting on LFG queues as DPS. My DK will be geared up in no time at all with all the plate drops I've gotten.

I like the rare mechanic. Everyone who gets a hit gets a hit. The only problems are ones that I wouldn't directly attribute to Blizzard, though perhaps they could help with. First, it makes me very sad when a rare dies when I'm a second away. That is why I try to just get my hit in and then wait it out, particularly if there aren't many people attacking yet. Second, I get annoyed by rare timer spam. I'd prefer if the addons used a separate channel.

Then there are the rep mobs. First off, Kilnmasters are ridiculous. Get hit and you die. For hunters this is a trivial matter, maybe because of the reduced AoE damage to pets. I can solo them, but to do so requires either perfect rhythm back and forth or spinning it in circles. The former is hard to keep up for the entire fight while the latter means that I'm causing random instant death to anyone nearby. I hate it when people bring their kilnmasters near others for this exact reason.

The bigger problem is with grouping. Since the loot is so generous it makes no sense at all to try to hoard it by taking your own kills. Rep is the same whether soloing or in a group, so grouping means that you have that much higher chance of being tagged on a kill, plus a much faster kill rate. If someone in the group is a hunter, well then everything is wonderful.

Yet people don't group up. Every person who is there for rep should be in a five-man group. To do otherwise is just stupid. Every time I am there I try to form groups. Sometimes I succeed. If I see more people, I try to bring them in too. If I could get rep in a raid I'd do that, once the daily elite kill is done, of course. Though even then, I suspect it would be worth missing out on the quest in exchange for having a tag and five-second kill time on every mob in sight.

I wonder if there is another mainstream title that has a solution to this. Not automatic grouping, but something like what Blizzard already does with the rares.

In defense of big, bright exclamation points

| Monday, December 2, 2013
are you done yet? you don't look done. maybe you need to kill some more bears.

Let's ditch that weirdo and instead get into the world, yea! Let's go talk to this guy, see what's up with him. It is nice weather indeed. That's cool. It's like a world. In the real world no one has quest markers, you have to talk to them to get a job. How about this guy? Kids died in the war. That's sad. I wonder if I can visit his kids' graves and drop off flowers for him or something? No? I guess I am a complete stranger. That's realistic that he has nothing for me. Maybe this guy. How's it going? Need to me to shoot any bears? Yes? Great, I'll get right on that.

Yep, these bears are so dead and this world is so awesome. I mean, none of those weirdos with the shouting and then whispering and then shouting some more. Pretty great. I kill those bears, sir. Thanks for the firewood, I mean family heirloom.

Hi! I'm an adventurer in search of adventure. Do you have any for me? No? Okay. Hello over there. You don't talk, got it. You, fellow, how are you today? Winter is coming? Yes sir, it is. Hello ma'am, do you need any help with anything? Going to the well? I could carry some buckets for you? No, you have it covered? No one fell in?

*unsheathes sword*

LISTEN TO ME: I am not here to socialize with a bunch of scripted idiots. I am here to get excuses to kill stuff. Unless you are going to give me something in exchange for killing something else, I do not want to talk to you. I'd prefer to not even look in your direction. The next person who looks at me and doesn't have a quest to kill stuff or carry stuff past people who I get to kill will die.


Thank you, insane shouting man.

Pet battles, the solution to Cataclysm

I admit it, I like pet battles. I like them more than I like doing Mount Hyjal more than once. It turns out they give a decent bit of xp. It's not a fast way to level, but it's a non-Hyjal way to level.

I don't like the PvP, mind you. My pets don't seem to be very good yet, since while I have a good selection of pets, my level 25 selection is limited. Someday though, I may enjoy it. I have this notion that I'll be able to watch what I tend to face and adapt accordingly. A bit of vorfreude.

In the meantime, I've been fighting NPC battles. It's been a romp around the world. At fight I'd think of what pet I was lacking and fly out to get it. Then I got all efficiency-oriented. Optimization is, for me, a form of fun, particularly when I'm the one working out the method. I like puzzles.

I switched methods to instead going to a zone and identifying those pets that are at their highest level in that zone. Once I have one of each of those I move on to the next. This minimizes leveling, since that can be somewhat tedious if done for its own sake. If I happen to get a rare that isn't of the highest level I still capture it, since a rat in the hand is worth ten thousand poor qualities in the bush. As I move along I switch pets in and out to fit the zone, thereby pushing everyone upward a little bit each time.

I've learned that strong against and weak against aren't absolutes. Thorns might have lower damage against critters, but critters often do lots of small attacks, meaning lots of triggers. They are strong against mechanicals, but mechanicals often use single large attacks. Similarly, while fliers are strong against aquatics, their rapid, small attacks can be greatly reduced by a shell shield. A critter fighting something with a shell shield is a joke, with swarms entirely negated.

As with all things that involve moving around a lot, a druid is great to have, popping in and out of flight form in an instant to hop over enemies and hop to pets. I pick up herbs along the way, which give a whopping more than 100 experience each. Astounding, I know. But it all adds up. It all adds up to my druid being 81 and a quarter without yet recovering Frandral from the cave, though I did do everything up to that. A few instances might help too. I rather enjoy Blackrock Caverns.

Quote of the Day: Where's Waldo and the MMO

| Tuesday, November 19, 2013
I found this in a recent Slate column about using analysis to optimize the search for Waldo. With just a few word changes it would apply perfectly to MMOs.
If you’re foolish enough to pull out your tape measure and use my guide to Waldo-hunting you’ll not only subject yourself to confused stares—trust me—you’ll also be missing out on hundreds of clever visual jokes (the finish line of a race with runners approaching from both sides, an ark filled with two of every animal floating away from a zoo), which are as much a part of the Where’s Waldo experience as finding the man himself.

Great guilds are more important than great raids

Not too long ago, Doone made his list of the top five raids in WoW. I tried to make my own little list, but I was hindered by a few things. First, while I've seen and finished all but one pre-Cataclysm raid, I'd done many of those during the next expansion and therefore with a different experience. Naxx at 70 is not the same as Naxx at 60, and of course neither are like new Naxx at 80.

Why wasn't I in those raids? Because I wasn't in guilds that were doing them. In Cataclysm I was almost never in a guild and consequently did almost no raiding. Ditto for Pandaria. LFR was raiding in visuals only.

If asked about the greatest raid ever, of all time, I will answer Karazhan. Why? Well it certainly was a great raid. The bosses were varied. Some were made-up for the raid, but many were straight out of the stories we'd hastily clicked past to get our quest reward or the games that made Warcraft a title that could sell millions of copies of a game in a completely different genre. Kara introduced many innovations such as tokens that reduced the tendency to get completely screwed by the RNG; a small, accessible raid; and polite ghosts.

Yet, why don't I say Ulduar? That was a place with a nifty story, varied bosses, and all manner of neat new tricks such as getting to punch a tank. It was perfectly tied into Storm Peaks and if there is one thing I love it is when instances are tied to their locations. The short reason is that I was in a different guild. I still enjoyed their company and stuck with them for a while after, but it wasn't the guild that I ran Kara with. I ran Kara with my guild, founded by my friends and me, filled with people of a similar mindset. Ulduar was someone else's guild that I was let into. Though in retrospect, when I took another shot at playing again in Cataclysm they were the ones I ran with, even giving up playing my paladin (it was on another server, this wasn't one of those "I quit my main to get into a raiding guild" stories). Just writing that was enough to make me start looking for them again. This is a dark road. :)

Anyway, there's the general trend: While Ulduar was on par with Karazhan, even a little difference in guild attachment can dramatically tip the scales. There is another issue though: I never finished Ulduar. We were stuck so close to the end, and I think slowly getting there and I would have gladly fought it out. Then someone set up a circus in Icecrown and we were off for some of the most forgettable bosses since Molten Core. My WoW experience was downhill from there, struggling through ICC, with Ulduar still bugging me, all because Blizzard yanked guilds away.

That brings me to my happiest time in Cataclysm. It wasn't a long time, but for a few brief moments I was back raiding with them again. I wasn't on my paladin. I don't think Dragon Soul was all that great of a raid. But I was with friends. About a week and a half ago I went looking for them, eventually going with the straightforward method of resubbing. Sadly, many of them are inactive now (not gquit), but a few are around and maybe more will come back. In the meantime, some low-key MoP is fun.

But about my top five raids...
Molten Core
Gruul's Lair
Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj (20-man)
These are in no particular order. Nor do I suffer from the delusion that these are the Top Five Raids. They are only mine and are almost entirely due to my situation at the time.

Molten Core was my first raid. I have fond memories of fighting Garr, a fight which required many warlocks, and during which I demonstrated my creativity, figuring out, in a time before many guides were around, a better way to banish. Perhaps it was a small thing, but it was fun. While it was an amateurish raid design, it was also perfectly integrated into Blackrock Mountain, a place filled with instances and raids, all connected in one way or another, making it a prime destination for players 50-60. That made it a fun, or frustrating, place on a PvP server.

Karazhan was a hard-earned victory, fought through with my own guild of friends. It was there that my paladin went from alt to main, a position that would only be lost because of The Great Betrayal. There was such variety, such strange things to find.

Zul'Gurub was strange place. There are multiple optional bosses. One boss was different depending on the week, and somewhat difficult to summon, needing an alchemist and some odd ingredients. Another boss was fished up. Where MC was dull, ZG was bizarre and outlandish. Players could loot voodoo piles for a chance at voodoo dolls, needed for trinkets, a rare thing in those days, but they'd be mind-controlled for a while. The 'correct' response was to CC them, but why not kill them instead? In an era of 40-man raids, ZG only needed 20. Its loot was an unusual mix of purples and oddly-powerful blues, seemingly scattered at random. Even that long ago Blizzard was doing strange things with its raiding.

Gruul's Lair consisted of one incredibly hard pull and a somewhat pushover final boss. The Council was based on a good pull: get the mobs where they needed to be, attacking the right people, and things could go fairly smoothly. Screw it up and it's a horrible mess of everyone dying. The final boss, Gruul, was a fight about spreading out: he'd slowly turn players to stone, then shatter them, hurting those nearby, so spreading out 25 people just right was sometimes difficult. I'd recently joined a new guild, merging our fading one with another that needed a boost. They reluctantly let me tank Gruul, but called for a lot of misdirects, because "paladins have trouble with aggro." I proceeded to double everyone else, at a time when aggro wasn't a matter of sneezing with righteous fury on. That was a source of endless amusement for me. Even beside that, those were still days when paladin tanking was still in doubt, it wasn't that long ago that paladins were mostly just exceptionally mana-efficient healbots. Of course we were recognized as good trash and five-man tanks, with our mechanics perfectly suited to holding aggro on unlimited enemies, but handling just one was apparently in doubt. And, of course, I always pulled with my goblin rocket launcher, because if you're going to make a tank, why not do it in style?

If You Log On to an Alt

| Friday, November 15, 2013
If you log on to an alt he's going to want to run the new content.
Before he moves on he's going to want to have his professions up to date.
To get his professions up to date he'll need to farm some materials.
While he farms some materials he's going to want a zapthrottle mote extractor.
The mote extractor requires a delicate arcanite converter.
Since no one makes many of those anymore, he's going to need to fly to Winterspring.
When he can make the converter he'll see that he needs an arcanite bar.
To make an arcanite bar you need to log on to your alchemist alt...

Why does the Jade Forest anger me?

| Wednesday, November 13, 2013
I think I've finally narrowed down about half of my problems with Mists of Pandaria to one place: the Jade Forest. It's simply a stupid, terrible, awful place that sets up a negative vibe for everything else.

To begin: I do not like the hozen. I would have preferred that we killed all of them. Ditto for the fish people that the Alliance get stuck with. These are not new local allies. They are instead a collection of villages of idiots and are of debatable usefulness. Maybe things are better for the Alliance.

Jade. Everything's about jade. Jade this, jade that. The local pandaren don't seem to grow any food, despite eating constantly. They gather no resources beside jade and fresh flower petals. I've found no mentions of food caravans from the valley. The only useful export is its fighting pandas, who then go off to protect areas that are actually worth protecting. And, of course, lots of jade. There's a line between a theme and a total lack of creativity.

The Timeless Isle is not part of this, due to it being its own, not-terrible place. That's for another post.

Any zone will tend to get worn out when it is the only one available. Hellfire Peninsula wore out. Wrath of the Lich King had two zones to start with, which helped. Cataclysm had two, except one was underwater and therefore I hated it, so Mount Hyjal has gotten very old for me. Level 80 has turned into something of a parking lot for alts. And now there is the Jade Forest. Somehow it has worn out sooner than others. I blame the hozen.

In the run up to Mists of Pandaria many people complained that a "joke race", that is, the Pandaren, were being made into an entire expansion. They have not turned out to be a joke race. They've been given a history, a culture, and even some bits of nuance, such as the divide between the big brewers and the small wanderers. Even the Sha works well, as it can function the same as the classic "they went insane and now we have to kill them" procedure for generating bosses, yet it offers something closer to a reason. Granted, I am still a bit bothered by the notion of fighting the physical manifestations of things like anger and violence.

Instead it is the hozen who are the joke race. They're an absurd lot of stupid monkeys who talk like idiots. And that's all they are. They're central to the plot of the starting zone, heavily involved in the faction-based quests. It turns what could have been a great story of two invading forces struggling to survive, and if they're lucky, conquer, into a long-running joke. This is why I've concluded that the single biggest problem with Mists of Pandaria was that it was founded on a joke race, not the Pandaren, but the hozen. Though it might have helped if our introduction to the Pandaren didn't involve so much kung fu and jade.

Pandaria is a horrifying place

| Monday, November 11, 2013
The next expansion was revealed, which means that Mists of Pandaria is going to be shut down in a week. Or so I'm lead to believe by trade chat. In the meantime, let's look at how horrifying this expansion has been. Where does one even begin? First, by skipping over any gameplay complaints. I've done those a while ago.

We could look at the basic premise: Pandaria is a peaceful land with no major threats beside the highly-predictable mantid invasion, until foreigners showed up. Yep, everything is the fault of foreigners. They show up and ruin the natural balance of things with their imperialist conquest. At least we aren't pushing bloodthistle.

But look deeper and Pandaria is actually a terrible place.

The agriculture alone could be the end of their society. It is all based on a couple dozen plants, all of a single breed. Monoculture is bad enough in real life with just biological plagues, but they could fall victim to magic as well. The only plant with any variation seems to be grain, and even that may have only been variation in processing rather than different plants.

Note the land distribution as well. There are only a few landholders. Most have very small farms that they run with their families. A select few own vast farms and control access to the Tillers Union. They openly mock outsiders, attempting to bully them off their land. To work the land they have vast numbers of laborers, and thanks to the land distribution, they have little chance of rising economically. Thankfully for the landowners, those laborers are kept in check by the threat of the Sha. Any 'negative' emotions could destroy the world, so they'd better keep quiet.

There is little hope that economic or technological growth will help anyone either. There are no apparent means of mass production beside the breweries, which are needed because you can't drink the water. Technology doesn't get much attention, instead resources seem entirely devoted to preserving the past. Yet maybe that is necessary, because the Pandaren may be incapable of building much on their own. The great wall that protects them and the two faction hubs are both left over from the time of the Mogu. Almost everything else is wood. Those few stone structures that they have built are either short walls around towns, temples, or the giant jade serpent statue.

While there is some hint of past development in the agricultural sector, with better seeds having been created, the resulting surplus isn't getting them anywhere. Instead it goes to feeding armies of scribes, priests, and artists, none of which are known for their habit of developing anything new. The scribes repeat the past. The priests tell everyone to stay calm. The artists redo old themes in old materials.

The overall picture is a society that is completely stagnant. It does not build, invent, or innovate. If it is lucky, the appearance of outsiders will wake it up. If it is unlucky, it will be destroyed by the aggression, innovation, and economic power of the outside world.

Even More Immersion Breaking

| Friday, November 8, 2013
Blizzard support RPs outside of the game as well. This is ruining my out-of-game immersion.

Explorers are an elitist waste of money

I submit to you a theory: Explorers are an expensive, perpetually-unsatisfied group that are more profitable to ignore than to cater to their endless appetites for stuff that no one else cares about.

Explorers like to explore. It can be places or rules. In fact, I'd suggest that the key thing they seek to explore is not a place, but a rule. Consider a universe with instant teleportation to anywhere. In effect, everywhere is here, so therefore where is there to go? Nowhere. It is the rule set that makes it exploration. It is rules such as gravity that make it a meaningful experience to climb a mountain or look over a hill. In effect, the rules are the places.

Consider World of Warcraft before flying mounts. While it would seem that there were fewer places, there were, in fact, more. With the greater rule distance came more places to explore. To fly over on your mount is meaningless, but to figure out the oddities of terrain or the limits of tools such as flow fall or parachute cloaks, those meant something. The player had overcome an obstacle.

I'd add behavioral norms to this as well. We commonly move in certain patterns, moving from quest hub to quest hub along predictable routes. If, for some reason, we take a different route, then we may find something. The place itself may be nothing in particular, but breaking the rules on travel makes it seem like something more. Consider, for example, my delight at finding absolutely nothing in Icecrown. I found nothing hidden, in fact I went nowhere that I hadn't been before, but I used different rules.

Anyway, getting back to bashing explorers: places and rules are expensive. Most players want terrain that works smoothly. They don't want random holes in the ground that kill them. They want to have some clue to where they're going. It has to look pretty, or at least look like it is supposed to look the way it looks. Case in point: World of Wacraft looks like a weird cartoon, but it is supposed to look like that, but terrain textures should be consistent and not suddenly break halfway down the hill.

Rules are even more expensive. As cool as it must have been to discover it, it's probably better for raiding if throwing saronite bombs not rebuild the Lich King's platform (can you tell how long I've been out of the raiding scene?). Try doing bug testing and catching all that. You can't. Yet people will complain, and for good reason, if you don't.

Explorers make all of this harder. Other player types are more likely to leave these things alone. They see a wall and leave it at that. Only a weird person sees a wall and thinks, "I bet there's a way to walk straight up that." And then they go and do just that and someone's stuck figuring out how to fix it. That's the difficulty with explorers: they need rules to break. Maybe these are rules that you're supposed to break, such as wandering around on a ground mount, in which case they can be safely ignored as harmless lunatics. Maybe they're rules that you're not supposed to break, that crash servers or break encounters.

But let's get back to the places. It's not so bad just generating random terrain. Of course then explorers catch on and whine about it. So you give it the personal touch, creating places to find. But not be led to. Explorers hate if you act as if you expect them to find it, despite making it for them to find. Or you make it by accident and good luck producing those on a consistent basis without simultaneously destroying your game with low testing standards.

This is where the cost-effectiveness comes in.

Socializers can get by with a chat function. Or forgo that and have them use a third-party program so they can chat during your game that they pay for for no apparent reason. It's like printing money without the Secret Service hunting you down.

Killers are fine with a system that lets them kill each other. Some modicum of fairness may be needed. Or, sucker the achievers and socializers into being their prey and throw fairness out the window.

Achievers can be summed up with one concept: 0. Take anything in your game and count it. Stick a zero after it. You've just created content for an achiever.

Then there are the explorers. They need actual content. Maybe its a place that is hard to get to, or at least somewhere that people won't commonly go. It could have something novel about it. At the very least it needs to exist. Content is way more expensive than zeros, mindless slaughter, and talking.

But it gets worse. Achievers don't mind if everyone knows about something. They might even prefer it; they're trying to find things to achieve. Giving them a guide may even be something they want, so they can achieve more. Those explorers though, giving them anything more than a piece of paper and a pencil may be too much information. They want to wander blindly in the darkness and maybe stumble across something. The in-game guide that the achiever uses to more efficiently achieve is poisonous to the explorer, who, the more you tell them the less there is for them to explore. God forbid your game generate any sort of community that offers advice to anyone or else it's entirely out of your hands as a developer.

In this way explorers are elitist. They don't want the nice zeros and death that you made for everyone else. They want this expensive, customized content, just for them. And you can't really tell anyone about it, or else it won't be exploring anymore. They're basically virtual hipsters who are never happy unless they're talking about how they found something before it went all mainstream.

You might remember the statistics: only a few percent of players saw the original Naxx. The devs didn't like this much. No one was seeing their amazing work. Who sees the troll village? Few people. Not so many fly over it, and how much can they see from there anyway? People tend to tab out when flying anyway. I imagine just as many people saw Naxxramas floating in the sky, but that's hardly equal to fighting in it. Naxx was remade in an expansion and many more people saw it. I've heard that the troll village is also being tweaked, opened up, and so people will see it.
The unspoken implication, which I get to claim is there because I wrote it, is that it was better when people weren't seeing it, that it was better when getting there meant exploiting terrain glitches in Winterspring rather than following a quest line in Darkshore. For us explorers it was better. We had to figure out rules, and then break them, to be rewarded with something that has no apparent reason for its existence, except the remote chance that some explorer will break those rules and find it.

And then they got rid of the rules altogether with flying mounts. There are no hills if all dimensions are open to you. Alas, that was all back in another reality. I do miss it.

Are achievements the right tool for whatever it is they're supposed to do?

| Thursday, November 7, 2013
Guild Wars 2 uses achievements for a few things. They track the story of the moment. They act as a daily/monthly reward system. They shuffle us randomly around the map to go kill that one NPC type of which we've killed 497. They make Syl mad. Maybe they do other stuff as well, stuff that I am not awesome enough to know.

For all these things they do, I wonder, is this the best way to do it? I'm going to set aside whether the game should do this in the first place; that's for another day.

The story of the moment tracking is terrible. I don't know where I am in the story based on it. It gives no context to the story. It's just a check box and a number. This is a time when a quest system would function better.

The daily/monthly reward system works more effectively, perhaps because the thing to track is so much simpler. Achievement systems are well-suited to tracking numbers or basic actions. The WoW method of daily quests is more cumbersome, requiring travel to pick up the quest to do what you did yesterday and will do tomorrow.

The random shuffling of almost-complete kill achievements may be intended to promote exploration, though since it would send you to where you've already been it isn't adding anything new. Still, it does send you somewhere different, sometimes. The system isn't pretty, but it does work, at whatever it is supposed to do.

WoW has achievements too, but that's for another day, by which I mean that when I tried to write about it all my words turned into stupid.

Maybe the problem is that Explorer types don't like whatever it is that achievements are trying to do. But that's for an upcoming post titled "Explorers are an elitist waste of money."

NBI: When the muse stops

| Monday, November 4, 2013
The Newbie Blogger Initiative is over. Maybe that's some symbolism right there. There you are, writing high with your fellow initiates and people giving you topic ideas. Maybe you just started your blog and you've still got all that pent-up stuff to talk about. But it's running out, isn't it? The initiative ended and so did the initiative.

Uh oh.

For the record, I've been staring at this part of the post for a few minutes.
Don't Panic.

There is another pause here. What do I say?

Say something. You're going to work and presumably expecting to come home. Then what do you do? Play a game? Not play a game but wish you were? Which game? What will you do? There's a post. Too dull? Then ask why you want to play that particular game.

It doesn't have to be a new game. It could also be a retro game. It could also just be a game that you like. You know what I played a few weeks ago? Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the game that came out before Fallout 3, which came out before Fallout: New Vegas, which is not a new game.

But what could you possibly say that hasn't been said? See how it holds up over time. See how it compares to its successors. Maybe the game came out back when everyone was 10 years old and with a few years under your belt you realize that the plot of the game was ever so slightly totally racist. Maybe the social or political situation has changed and the game looks entirely different from the new context.

There may be nothing new under the sun, but that doesn't mean we've found it all, or remembered it. Remember that for the most part, great explorers didn't get there first or even second, rather, they got there first after someone forgot who actually had.

The Persuasive Power of a Soundtrack

| Thursday, October 31, 2013
A YouTube Channel
Loaded with music from Wrath
Resubbed a month

Haiku for all you
New Blogger Initiate
Almost end of month

Ice Cream Online

| Monday, October 28, 2013
Have you ever seen what happens when you offer a child a wide selection of ice creams and toppings? You can guess: they take them all. The result has every best flavor ever with all the best toppings and is utterly revolting. Even the kid can barely stand it once it melts. At first it is great having all these different flavors, until they blend together into cold sugary cream with a disorienting array of natural and artificial flavors.

Thus it is with the game. We want this and that and that and the end result is disgusting. What if such and such game added player housing? And organized raids in this other one? Ooh, horizontal progression! Stick each in and it will work, at first, until it melts into a disgusting mix of goo. There will still be some bits of separate flavors and people will eat those and say that they taste just fine. But most of it is now goo.

By itself just about any idea is fine in a game. Permanent death. No death. Sorta death. With player and guild housing.

Yet I like the idea of this mixing. It's so tempting. It could work! Just a little bit of mixing, adding some chocolate to the vanilla and making sure the strawberry stays on the other side so it doesn't mix with the chocolate. And some caramel over the top. Delicious, and it might even stay that way until I've eaten it all.

Maybe this can be considered a reply to Syl's, as usual, well-written post: NBI: Armchair Game Designer. Or how that other MMO keeps ruining my Gameplay Experience.

Mommy, where do heroes come from?

| Friday, October 25, 2013
Doone has the notion that we should publish our less-than-perfect posts, as a way to show new bloggers that we were all once semi-literate unshaven chimps. Apparently that is inspiring. So fine, here you go, here's a post that I was trying to make work, but just never quite clicked for me. It deserves to sit in purgatory among the hundred and a half others of its kind, but it has been shown a rare mercy. Some would be deleted, others beaten into shape, but this one just gets to go out and flaunt its less-than-perfectness. Shameful.

Until we get so far back that we're discussing the notion of time not existing, it's always the case that something had something before it and it came from somewhere due to something happening. In a general sense.

Or in particular, the characters we play came from somewhere. Between being born and the game starting there was something that happened that got them to be here, in a position that we care about what they do. Some games try to tell this back story, but usually they think they can do this by having you play it, at which point it is no longer the past and so we have to speculate a little further back.

A common trick is to just cheat a little bit. Make a generic character, indistinguishable from the nameless NPCs that you'll inevitably ignore or slaughter by the thousands. We're not going to ask for much detail because it is probably boring. There are no adventures to learn of, no prophecies that have been answered by your birth; you're just another bit of filler in the background. Conveniently, this is most people in real life, as outside of royal bloodlines none of us have any wonderful predestination.

Then make something happen to them which is them being neither ignored nor slaughtered. Maybe they're the sole survivor of some disaster. Or they're the random target of some human-shaped disaster. For this second one it's always popular to have a royal or some other beneficiary of inheritance pick on a nobody. The nobody can be you or it can be a family member or friend, thereby blessing you with the angry motivation needed to rise above your peers.

Now that that's over with, I suggest this: bury your shame. Bury it deep. Write it, write a lot of it, and then bury it away. Think of those awful posts as filters. Did you know that you can clean up water by filtering it through a swamp? Yep, turns out those disgusting slime creatures will pick up all manner of contaminants and heavy metals. That's why you shouldn't get rid of all the ugly swamps. But don't spend too much time in them either; let the dirty hippies deal with the mosquitoes. Let the draft folder be a way to filter out your half-assed ideas, stupid ideas, and inevitable wrongness, so that all anyone sees is pure, clean swamp water. I'm not good at analogies.

Don't hide the information that makes your game playable

| Thursday, October 24, 2013
I've previously complained about spell switching in Skyrim. As far as I could tell, and as far as the game told me, it required pausing. Cast, favorites (pause), select (still paused), close menu (action!), cast different spell.
Thankfully, switching spells pauses, so I can switch between the two, but pausing constantly, particularly in the middle of a fight, is lame.  Beside any sense of power, there is the fun, and constantly interrupting the fight is not fun.
Turns out I was wrong, and I'm surprised that I managed to be. In Oblivion there is a hotkey system, which I knew about. In the spell book, hold down 1-8 and click on a spell and it will be bound to that key. Sadly, you cannot actually cast with those keys, but you can at least quickly switch spells without needing to open the spell book constantly. Where was the tutorial popup? I'm certain I saw one about the favorites menu, but somehow, not about the best part about it.

Skyrim uses a similar system, but it appears that you need to add spells to your favorites list first. Then you can open that menu and click a number while mousing over to assign a number to it. Hitting the key then picks that spell. Spells are loaded left to right. The actual spell switching behavior is slightly more complex, not difficult or confusing, though attempting to explain it makes it appear so.

Without this information, casters are garbage. Fully effective, but not even remotely fun to play. With it, they're as seamless to play as any other class and now I'm having a great deal of fun. Of course I'm running into the problem that I wish I had more hot keys, but I've never not had that problem, in any game, except GW2, but that used nested hotkeys which is cheating, and I sometimes find them annoying (due to things like the abilities I use for kiting being spread across skill sets).

Maybe you're wondering now, why am I just now noticing this? Didn't Azuriel tell me this in the comment about a year and a half ago? Yes. Yet somehow it slipped in one eye and out the other. Maybe I just needed practice time, which came in the form of Oblivion because I was feeling nostalgic. Despite my remarkable ability to completely miss the helpful content of a comment that I'd even replied to, I believe that my point still stands: Don't hide the information that makes your game playable!

Free Money works well

| Monday, October 21, 2013
Earlier when I'd claimed that free money doesn't work so well. There is one factor that I'd overlooked: how much people care.

I could farm money spiders and dungeons endlessly for more and more gold. Therefore the gold sinks are ineffective; they only remove a finite amount of gold from a potentially infinite supply.

Would I farm money spiders endlessly? If I cared enough, yes. Maybe I really like having a fancy house or shiny armor. Or many houses. So I'll farm more.

However, another player, and I'm guessing most players, won't care as much about the virtual goodies. A basic house and transportation is 99% as useful as a half-dozen decorated homes and several dozen rare mounts. I think we can also assume that a player who is less interested in the extra stuff will be less interested in the game in general. The net result is that they'll buy less and farm less. The gold sinks and farming grow proportionally with their interest in the game.

We can therefore imagine that there is a balance between gold sinks and sources. If we can figure out how they grow relative to each other, then we can design them to grow proportionally. A player who is barely interested will farm little and spend little. A player who is extremely interested will farm a lot and spend a lot. For all reasonable amounts of time spent playing it is possible to achieve a balance between income and spending.

Of course there will always be some players who play a great deal more. They'll burn through gold sinks and amass mountains of gold. They'll break the system. They'll also be a minority. Perhaps a vocal one, given their level of investment, but they will inevitably break any system designed for reasonable amounts of play time, and therefore can be ignored, in a single-player game.

In my earlier post I suggested that a multi-player environment, and the resulting economy, would reduce the gold problem. Certainly the economy has some beneficial effect. However it also means that the typical players for whom the system works are exposed to the super-players who have broken it. While individual amounts of gold will usually match interest, in aggregate it can be ruined by players who have much more interest, and time, and therefore can flood the economy with gold. This ruins the balance and distorts the behavior of less interested players as well.

In summary, fixed gold sinks in a single-player game will work well for the vast majority of players. In a multi-player setting, those few players for whom it does not work will tend to break the system. Therefore multi-player games need something beside fixed sinks, perhaps even something stronger than transaction sinks.

Indirect Punishment

| Thursday, October 17, 2013
Between the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood it was obvious that he was on a dark path. Even if he did seem to be trying to save the world from the Mythic Dawn, who could say what sort of world he was saving, or why? Maybe he was only saving it so he could steal it himself, coin by coin.

His killing eventually took its toll. Shopkeepers were dead, their stores ransacked. Homes were plundered and their residents murdered. The streets grew quiet, devoid of souls.

If you asked him why, he'd laugh. "They annoyed me," he might answer. Whether for greed, revenge, or just amusement, he'd kill at will. The bounty wasn't even enough: he was rich and the armor sales offset most, if not all, of the cost. Somewhere was a very busy fence.

Yet, in time, he grew sad. He saw no one but his fence, everyone else was dead, and everything he had was stolen anyway.

It was not karma. There was no karma system. Infamy just made the guards rude. The game never said that he failed a quest. It never said he did anything wrong at all. By its rules he was doing just fine.

With his freedom to change the world, he had changed it for the worse. He had been punished for his crimes, not with a defeat screen, but with his own destroyed world.

His successor learned from his mistakes. He killed only those who were threats, or quests, rather than just annoyances. With one exception, because the Brotherhood isn't for angels. He stole, but did not wipe out entire stores. He kept up appearances. He bought houses and furnished them. To all outside observers he was a paragon of virtue. His world sparkled in a thoroughly non-vampiric manner, for those were dead too. He carried a potion to cure disease. The gods still weren't happy with him, too many murder quests and theft quests, but the gods are little more than an angry whisper at the chapel.

It's like his parents taught him: why slaughter the cow when you can steal the milk for free? The world agreed.

Time passes and yet it does not

| Monday, October 14, 2013
Time in games as a strange thing. While Einstein would agree with the notion that there isn't a universal, objective time, he would find that it is utterly impossible to do any clock coordination. Game time is dictated by plot, convenience, and drama.

Due to these tendencies, time flows in two general ways: Slow Flow and Explode.

Slow Flow is a mysterious phenomenon. During it, there is a quantitative passage of time. This can even be mapped to the outside world, passing at a constant, though different rate, so that one can create formulas which describe how many minutes pass in one world relative to another.

However, there is not a qualitative passage of time. Large-scale events simply do not occur. People can move, talk, and fight. These small actions will not add up to a whole, no matter how many. A million drops of water will not form a river.

This Slow Flow is a convenient phenomenon for the player. It gives them time to explore and learn, developing their skills as a player and as a character.

In contrast, Explode takes place at a pace sufficiently similar to the outside world as to be indistinguishable. Furthermore, during this passage of time, events can occur. Small actions can combine. Actions which would have no impact during Slow Flow are able to add up to dramatic changes in the world during Explode.

Surprisingly, these are complementary states. Because the Slow Flow can effectively suspend the passage of time, a player within it can therefore arrive at precisely the right time for Explode. Whether they wander for a few minutes or several years, they will always arrive at precisely the right time for major events to occur.

Another useful aspect of time is that these two states are physically separated. One cannot be in both at once, but the barriers between them are often predictable. This allows a player to choose when to move between states, though they may not always know where the transitions are. The result is that while the rules within Explode may be the same, the starting conditions can be altered from outside. A player in Slow Flow can store up items and gain new abilities, dramatically changing the potential outcomes within Explode.

This raises some interesting possibilities about our own universe. Physicists aren't quite sure about what happened early on, or if early on is even a relevant concept, since it seems that time itself didn't exist before. How can something happen if there is not even time? Perhaps what we need is a new perspective. While most Explode happens in a short span, sometimes lasting mere seconds, rarely more than an hour, our universe seems to have been around for much longer. Despite this difference in span, our universe fits the traits of a Explode: no apparent beginning, synchronized passage of time, meaningful outcomes. Clearly the so-called Big Bang was not a bang or even a rapid inflation. Instead, it was someone zoning into our universe from an indeterminate amount of time in Slow Flow.

If we could find that entrance and send someone outside, they'd be able to gather all needed materials and knowledge, with unlimited time at their disposal. However, there is the risk that upon, from our perspective, instantly returning, he will have lost all sense of perspective and just wander our universe stealing brooms.

After everything else, appearance is everything

| Friday, October 11, 2013
One of my greatest instance runs ever was back during Burning Crusade. I was headed to Shadow Labyrinth, tanking on my paladin. I don't recall the class of the healer, but I do remember the DPS: three warlocks. It was an extraordinarily pretty run. The warlocks would shoot out some seeds of corruption and my AoE tanking would trigger them, and then they'd trigger the next round, and the end result was that every pull was an explosion of shiny graphics.

I don't know how effective SoC was compared to other attacks. Maybe destruction with rain of fire or a cleaving, whirlwinding warrior would have done the job better. But would they have looked cooler? Would they have sounded cooler? No! When all the game mechanics have been nullified by gear and practice only one thing remains: looking awesome while you do it.

This is why transmog in WoW was so awesome. This is why my greatest dangerous temptation in GW2 is the many amazing-looking guns on the trading post. Better gear is nice to have, but cooler gear is a necessity. In fact, I blame this for my first time quitting GW2. I'd gotten a new back slot that replaced my purely cosmetic starting item. It was better, but it didn't look cool. I was nothing without my backpack filled with comically dangerously unstable jars of potions and explosives. When I tried GW2 again my first priority was to go to my bank and switch the items. Game saved.

So let us ask, why is Prayer of Mending the best spell ever, as Liore asserts? In fact, it is not. Seed of Corruption was, though PoM was pretty great. I wasn't a good healer, so I can't comment much on its effectiveness. But I can comment on it sounding cool. Hearing that ping ping ping and seeing it dart around like a crazed healing Tinkerbell was a delightful thing. It was the music to go with the flashing radiance of a raid's worth of spell effects. It said that things were working, at least to some extent. Someone, somewhere, had more health every time I heard that sound. It also meant they were taking damage, but I was rarely concerned with such things as people getting hurt. I was busy getting hurt even more, so having that reassuring ding sound meant that someone else was concerned and I loved them and their bells for that.

Downed vs. Dead, consider them in context

| Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The topic of GW2's universal rezzing came up. Of course someone has to claim that this convenient mechanic is, in fact, the death of challenge and the harbinger of the trivialization of all things. I disagree.

First off, being able to rez people out in the world is a bonus. The defeated player can feel as if someone cared enough to help. And they can refrain from being angry because they were a few steps from the next waypoint and all the ones nearby are contested. The helping player can feel like they helped someone, which is a pretty nice feeling. This mechanic is essentially a kitten-dispenser. Or puppies if you're allergic to cats. Or a Portuguese Water Puppy if you're allergic to dogs and live in the White House.

Second, this mechanic should be considered in the full context. The first bit of context is that I'm not considering the difference with underwater fighting because I hate underwater combat so much that I don't care about the balance. It can go burn in sodium.

A downed player can recover on their own, but the circumstances tend to be rather specific. An enemy must be very near death or they must not take any damage while they bandage themselves. The first is essentially a market-killer for the keyboard manufacturers, who have long relied on the destruction caused by mobs at 1% health. The second is unlikely when soloing and hardly a guarantee in groups.

Other players can help, but at a snail's pace and at the cost of being unable to move, dodge, attack, heal, or buff. Effectively a second player or more are temporarily made useless to bring back the currently useless player. Compare this to in-combat resurrection spells, such as in WoW where players can simply pop back up with something between no effort from other players and a single spell cast. Those do have lengthy cooldowns, but again, they are much quicker and less risky than GW2 recovery.

Then there is the big question: is it easier to be downed in GW2 or dead in another game? GW2 doesn't have a lot of get out of jail free cards such as invincibility bubbles or preventative damage absorbs. If you don't dodge, you take the damage. Dodging has a very short cooldown, but usually, so do the horribly damaging things you need to avoid. Dodging isn't a bonus; it's a requirement, so to consider it as such would be as absurd and claiming that healing in another game makes players invincible and immortal. In my experience it is a lot easier to get knocked into a downed state in GW2 than it is to die in WoW.

Taking into account the wider context, the downed state should be considered, not as equivalent to death in other games, but rather as an intermediate state with no clear parallels. Furthermore, because of the potential recovery, even the fallen state cannot be considered equivalent to death.

Instead of comparing individual mechanics and pretending that such comparisons are meaningful, the logical thing to do is to compare the chance of the group being defeated. At this point, all things are equal. There is no recovery and the instant-rez mechanics are nullified by the enemy resetting. Do groups fail more often or at a higher percentage of groups or attempts in GW2 than in other games?

Using this context does not mean that recovery mechanics are to be ignored. They could still be too easy or tough, but directly comparing individual pieces of group success or failure will only yield nonsense.

NBI: Where do you come up with all of those wonderful, creative, brilliant, amazing ideas?

| Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Alright, Syp, I'll play along. Future bloggers, here you go. Here's where you can get all the ideas you could ever need, and the cost.

Try to fall asleep.

There is a horrible time during which your brain is freed of all distractions, but being addicted to them, generates distractions for itself, in the form of an endless stream of new ideas, which it will not allow you to not think about. As you fall closer to sleep it frees up more and more creative and brilliant ideas, so that the closer you are to sleep, the harder it tries to keep you awake.

In the middle of the night, after a few hours of failing to fall asleep, you write the post(s). Schedule it for the next morning so as to not appear crazy. Do not attempt to edit these posts, as they are already perfect and your sleep-deprived brain could not understand them anyway.

Essentially, it is this Dilbert strip from eleven years ago.

I don't care what the code says, I want to kill him

| Monday, September 30, 2013
Every day, millions of people walk through virtual cities and commit no acts of violence. None at all. Outside the gates of the cities they engage in the wholesale slaughter of everything in sight. They may kill hundreds, even thousands of people and creatures in a single day. Yet inside the cities they're as gentle as a highly medicated lamb who is in no distress.

Is this plausible? Let us pause for a moment to remember the distinction between realism and plausibility. It is not realistic that these people can summon demons or effectively teleport by running really fast. However it is entirely plausible. Yet it is neither realistic nor plausible that these people are so peaceful.

These are not soldiers, trained and disciplined. Even if they were, it's not as if soldiers become peaceful lambs when they're on leave. Either way, these are all heavily-armed and powerful individuals with a habit of extreme violence. They've killed thousands for a 20% discount. Or we to believe that out of the millions of people there was not one who felt a twinge of violence?

One person was angry that a limited supply item was not in stock. One other was angry that the items were too expensive. How many have been annoyed when the auction house or trading post takes a large cut of the sale? Yet none of them were inclined to even try violence, their otherwise universal solution to all problems.

It is, of course, entirely plausible that they'd try and fail. We'd see them charging up a spell or taking a few shots, fail to kill their foe, and be subdued by a dozen guards and a hundred players. We'd see them shouting at a vendor, threatening force, and end up in jail for a little while. We never see this.

This brings me to Fallout 3. Violence is my primary means of fixing problems. It is not the only means, but I rather enjoy killing bad people. Thankfully, it is almost always available. While the game does use karma to measure my killing, it only passes judgement, rarely does it restrict.

A lady dressed up as an ant and attacked a town. I talked to her briefly to see if it was just a reality show or maybe a temporary fit of insanity brought on by a bad batch of Jet. Then I blew her head off. I hate ants. I hate people who cease being human even more.

I once tried a peaceful solution. Mostly. With some convincingly intimidating speech I drove out some bigots and thereby allowed some ghouls to move into a nice place. All seemed good. Maybe peace works after all. Later I returned to buy ammo, since it turned out to be a good source of sniper ammo, which is hard to find. All the humans were dead, even the nice ones, such as the badass adventurer who had a ghoul friend. It turns out there was an argument, so the ghoul leader killed them all. He claimed that he didn't need to answer to anyone, especially a "smoothskin", their derogatory term of non-ghoul humans. I blew his head off and ignored the supposed karma loss. As penance I slaughtered a town of slavers. And robbed the weapon store, not because I needed the money, but because it seemed like the right thing to do.

That town had quests in it, the slavers even gave me one. You might expect that that would make them considered essentially and unable to be killed. Thankfully, Fallout has a radical idea: you don't have to actually be able to do all the quests. If you want to fail a quest because the quest giver was a horrible person, feel free to shoot him.

Only the central story line is essential, probably because it is needed to unlock a few areas. Characters for that can't be killed. Well, most can't. Some can because the game thoughtfully gave them computers in which they can store the information I need.

I don't normally kill everyone in sight. I like having good karma. And I made that mistake in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, killing off rude shopkeepers. Then I had no one to sell my legitimately-acquired loot to. I did, of course, have a fence for my less-legitimately-acquired loot.

Yet even if I don't feel the inclination to kill Moira, even as she attempts to be doing the same to me with her mirelurk research, having the ability to do so makes the world feel much less like a game. Being able to make bad decisions, even if we recognize and avoid them, makes a world feel more realistic and more plausible. It is not plausible that characters created to commit violence are unable to do so.

Free money doesn't work so well

| Friday, September 27, 2013
Why is karma the most useless currency ever? Syp has several reasons, some personal to him, such as the fact that he isn't doing much crafting or legendaries. Yet the real problem isn't that the currency isn't used for buying a lot of stuff, but rather, because it is free money.

Most games don't give the AI an adaptive economy. Prices aren't based on supply or demand, but are instead based on what the devs thought would be balanced, so they end up either fixed or rising with the player's level. The usual result is that players become richer and richer, yet they will have fewer and fewer items to purchase. Maybe that first Greatstaff of Greatness drains their account, but after a few more money spiders they're ready to go again, with nothing left to buy.

In part this is due to the lack of costs. You don't need to buy many potions or boxes of ammunition to shoot spiders. In fact, if you did, you wouldn't go. Players aren't going to spend more on an adventure than they'd get from it unless there is some non-monetary reward. However even that case is similar to buying the Greatstaff of Greatness, a one-time cost that doesn't affect the overall trajectory. Y=X-10 has the exact same trend as Y=X. If costs were higher, but not quite higher than rewards, then it would slow the trend, not stop it.

I generally like having more money, whether virtual or real. It's a habit of sorts, to scavenge and not let perfectly good assault rifles go to waste just laying around on the trail of corpses. Or in real life I try not to throw away food.

Games reinforce this by making money rather tight early on, and often necessary. Your armor needs upgrading, your weapons are weak, and you're homeless. So you scrape and scrounge, learning to save every last bottle cap and credit. You develop the habit of calculating the value/weight ratio of everything, shuffling items in and out of inventory to maximize your haul, regretting every extra pound you carried into the dungeon.

Next thing you know you're rich, yet still in the habit of gaining wealth, despite it being of no use any more.

Adding in other players can help or even fix the problem. They want things too and are willing to pay for them. Developers can stick a tax on the transactions to gradually destroy excess currency. This does require that players have a reason to trade currency, meaning the addition of commodities (trade materials) or services (help with content). Having players also makes it easier to add sinks, because with one player a sink either works or doesn't, whereas with many players it only needs to work for some players, who will then attempt to draw currency to themselves.

Arguably karma fits into this, since it can be used to purchase items that can eventually be traded with players. However karma only goes one way, into gold or materials; players cannot trade to increase their karma. The karma sinks then need to be effective for every player, since there won't be any ability to use other individuals as sinks/magnets.

There's my quick fix: make karma tradeable on the trading post.

Buying a Bullshit-Ender in the Store

| Tuesday, September 24, 2013
This post is inspired by Rohan's post, Money is Not Time.

Bullshit is subjective.

Once upon a time a Binding of the Windseeker dropped. Being surrounded by friends who clearly harbored a secret hatred for me, they all insisted that I take it. I spent the next year struggling to put together half-competent pugs of MC, since said friends had thoroughly burned themselves out on MC or had quit.

Back in BC we only had ten extra levels, so soloing MC wasn't something you just did. You needed help. Yet the perception was that MC was old and therefore easy. The effect was rather like putting on a seat belt and deciding that it was therefore safe to drive straight into walls while completely sober; being drunk would actually help to relax and reduce the damage. We could still die, to trash, if people were careless enough, and they often were.

This all had the effect of creating one hell of a sense of entitlement. Surely after enduring all this bullshit I had earned my binding. I'd put in my time. I'd had some flow and fiero. Eventually I was a bit sick of it and torn between wanting the binding and the badass-looking sword and wanting to not have to herd cats through a land of lava and laser pointers.

I saw the appeal of a cash shop. Once I'd put in the time to feel the sense of ownership and reward, a bit of money wasn't going to ruin anything. Certainly just buying a second binding the moment the first dropped would have been rather lame. Yet after months of weekly runs, or more than weekly since they didn't always succeed and needed a second attempt, I was ready to trade some money for time. At that point the issue was not time, but frustration. I had already shown great willingness to burn time, and I still don't much mind grinds, regarding them as part of the genre.

Yet this was no mere matter of time. I got the first binding on my first ever run on a character that could use a binding. That was clearly not a time issue. Nor would the second one be a time issue. One year or a dozen, such a low drop rate cannot be dependably countered with time. I could only up the odds, never beat them. Ultimately it was out of my control and that's what made it bullshit.

I'd have gladly bought a bullshit-ender in the store. If anyone asked, I'd say that I got lucky on the first one and spent a year grinding for the next one. Those words. At that point I'd see no distinction between "getting lucky after a year of runs" and "not getting lucky after a year of runs and buying it in the shop" except for whatever the second binding cost. The mental earning would have already happened, but sometimes the RNG needs a few dollars to convince it of that.

But what if the second binding had been in the store from the moment I got the first? Might I have just bought it then, unearned, and consequently of less importance? There's the whole problem. For all my writing about how I'd played and struggled for the year to earn it, there is no way to track or prove that, so any cash shop can dispense ill-gotten gains. Maybe another player would feel that sense of earning in a month and would hate the implementation of a one-year/50 runs counter. Someone else would need two years and would be short-circuiting after the one-year purchase.

Leaving it up to us sounds insane. Surely you'd call someone crazy if they said that they were going to annoy themselves for no less than a year before using the cash shop. We'd tell them to just buy it and save the time. And then they would and not care in any way.

It's not the apocalypse that ruins the world forever

| Monday, September 23, 2013
We seem to take it for granted that after the apocalypse everything will be bad. Not just a little bad, or bad-but-recovering, but eternally bad. But is that actually a reasonable assumption? Humanity recovered from being killed down to a few thousand people. Earth has been repeated blown up, burned, and suffocated, the latter happening in multiple ways depending on what life was used to breathing at the time. To get sustained terribleness we don't need a one-off event, but instead a Sustained Terribleness Continuation Plan, or STCP, which is impossible to pronounce and redundant. What is the STCP? Us. People are the thing that keeps everything terrible after our initial effort.

Once upon a time a few technicians were given a task that they weren't trained for, using equipment that was poorly-designed, and as a result, Ukraine has a big ol' Zone of Exclusion around Chernobyl. A meltdown led to a steam explosion, which blasted a whole lot of radioactive mess all over the place. The disaster was of such a large scale that the USSR had to stop pretending that it hadn't happened, evacuating the shiny new city of Pripyat and leaving it all to nature. After some initial "all the trees died" problems, nature rebounded, since a lot of radiation is hardly as dangerous as humans.

Combining the story "Roadside Picnic" and the Zone of Exclusion yielded the strange game series STALKER. In it there are all manner of dangers. Some comes from the radiation scattered by the explosion and cleanup operations. Much more comes from the results of an experiment. I won't give it all away, but the general result was another explosion that twisted the laws of physics and created all manner of dangerous mutants. In fact, the bit of radiation and packs of stray dogs are the least of the worries.

People and their experiments are the big problem. To cover up the experiments, they created a fake religion, luring people in with promises of wealth, eternal life, or at least something better than living in an irradiated wasteland. They deliver on none of these, instead brainwashing them to shoot at anyone who tries to figure out what is happening. And then the hero shoots his way in, killing everyone, and possibly destabilizing the area even more, which makes the apocalyptic explosions a daily occurrence. The local apocalypse ruined the world, but we kept it ruined.

If you combine 50's nostalgia with 50's fear of dying in a nuclear war and thrown in an unhealthy dose of a timeless disregard for basic safety or environmental protection, then you get the world of Fallout. There was a nuclear war with China and now everything has been nuked except for Vegas. There are some mutants, mostly of the "radiation makes things bigger" variety, along with some people who turned into ghouls (zombies) from high doses of radiation. Some have human minds, some are feral. It's a bad world.

After so long much of the radiation would have dispersed. Animals and feral ghouls are susceptible to guns. The real dangers, the real problems, came from people. Some became raiders and drug dealers. Others joined the Enclave, which are effectively technologically advanced American Nazis who cannot merely isolate themselves to sustain their 'pure' form of humanity, but must also kill everyone else. That's right, while humanity is right back to the "few thousand people left" stage, these guys decide they need to weed out the undesirables. This becomes a plot point, surprisingly. New Vegas introduced Ceasar's Legion as a technology-hating slave army dedicated to conquering everything, which was also incapable of actually managing an economy or doing much of anything besides fighting. Raiders seem almost reasonable in comparison, since they sometimes recognize that if they kill everyone there won't be any more people to rob.

Worst of all were the vaults that the people designed. They all worked. Some worked to preserve human life, saving thousands of lives. Many more worked to drive them insane in new and creative ways. One was split down the middle to test paranoia. Another was designed to let in radiation, creating hundreds of ghouls. More than a hundred were built and less than two dozen were intended to just save people without subjecting them to extra torture.

I'd mentioned environmental protection and basic safety, so here goes. The background radiation, while an issue, would have fallen dramatically. Only a few locations are still heavily irradiated due to the bombs themselves. Many more are irradiated because of poor storage of nuclear waste. Leaky steel barrels dot the landscape, fallen out of trucks, dumped all over, contaminating the water and soil. In Fallout: New Vegas there is a little exhibit about these that uses absolutely no subtlety to show the exceptional lack of attention to, or regard, for safety.

The cars appear to run on nuclear power, and take barely more than a nudge to explode, often triggering chain reactions. One might even wonder if the bombs ever needed to fall, if a few car crashes might have done the trick. And of course players might find that these little nuclear bombs are handy improvised weapons, so it's not as if we're the sparkling heroes of humanity.

Certainly both of these worlds suffered from human-caused nuclear disasters, but it was their actions leading up to and in response to the disasters that created the long-term problems. Crises are momentary, but human nature and the resulting messes, are nearly-eternal.
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