Tag Archives: Meandering

No More Toys for Us

I remember the coming of the big Toys R Us store in Sunnyvale, over on El Camino Real near Mathilda Avenue.  It was, in a somewhat conservative time, a brash statement of color.

Something akin to what it looked like back in the day – Pic swiped from the internet

And, more importantly to me at the time, if was full of toys.

More recently they transformed the building into the bland beige store front style so common on strip malls across the country.  But for a while it stood out.  And it was haunted.

Of course, as a kid, it was a big deal even without the alleged ghost. (There is a post on Snopes about the haunting, a recurring story here in the valley, which had to get mentioned one last time when the location was set to close.)  But toy stores seemed to be a thing back then.  We not only had Toys R Us expanding into the valley, we also had a local chain, Kiddie World, with a couple of equally sizable locations, and later another big store… King Something’s Kingdom of Toys I think… it was over off of Interstate 880 with a big wooden soldier on the front of the building … along with smaller local retailers and the mall toy stores that eventually all became KB Toys.  And then there were the pseudo-toy stores, the hobby shops and the like, which grew in importance to me as time moved along.

I suppose it is in the nature of being a child, know where all the toy stores are and which retailer has a decent toy department and which does not.  I recall being disappointed with the one at Sears back in the day.

But even before the internet began to thin the heard of brick and mortar toy stores things were changing.  Silicon Valley was growing.  The population has more than doubled since that Toys R Us location opened.  Population pressures and a level of land scarcity (exacerbated by zoning laws favoring single family detached dwellings, leading the valley to be called a gang of suburbs in search of a city) began pushing up real estate prices, something reflected in retail rental costs, which killed off a lot of the small, independent toy stores.

Time, change, and competition send others packed.  That big toy store off 880 whose name eludes me was gone by the end of the 80s.  By the mid-90s Kiddie World, shrunk to a single location not too far down the road from the haunted Toys R Us, was trying to make its way by focusing on patio furniture and backyard play sets before it closed down.  And, as I mentioned, KB Toys scooped up the mall toy stores… at least before land value made having as many malls as we did economically nonviable.  And then even it fell over, as did the famous FAO Schwartz.

But Toys R Us seemed to be able to hang on and even thrive, scooping up fallen rivals and opening up Babies R Us in the late 90s, the go-to store for new parents.  Gift cards to Babies R Us were very welcome at baby showers and the like.  And in the age of Amazon the chain was able to strike a deal with wrecker of the status quo, even if Amazon reneged on the deal.

The chain was around for my daughter to grow up with.  Trips there were fun for the both of us.  There is something about being able to see and touch toys in person, to get their measure in reality, that surpasses any online purchasing experience.  The web is for buying, but stores are for browsing.  And Pokemon events.  Toys R Us used to host Pokemon download events, and my daughter and I attended more than a few of those.

However the internet kept pressure on the company while retail competitors like Target and WalMart.  Then they screwed up a couple of season of buying and were soon in deep trouble, needing to borrow more money for 2017 holiday season, a time of year which generates the lion’s share of their revenue.  That did not pay off and, having not turned a profit since 2013, the company was in serious trouble.

And so it goes.  Today, Friday, June 29, 2018, the last Toys R Us in the US is closing down.  It has been reported that their overseas subsidiaries will follow suit and the company will effectively disappear.  There is a farewell notice on their web site.

Farewell from Toys R Us

I am, at least theoretically, well past the need for a toy store, though I have persisted pretty well on the “don’t ever grow up” front.  As well as can be expected.

My daughter too is past toy stores for now, but she was sad as well when she heard the news.  She remembers going there when she was younger.  It was a memorable experience, a rite of childhood, being able to go to a big toy store.  And she has picked up some of my sense of nostalgia as she has realized that childhood doesn’t last forever.  The only constant in life is change.

And so one more facet of my life, of my daughter’s life, of the life of the valley, passes into memory.

Good-bye Geoffrey!

It will be a while… I hope… until grand kids are a concern.  I wonder what will fill the gap for them?  What will replace the toy store experience?  Or will video and virtual be all they know?

Do You Wear the Mask or does the Mask Wear You?

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be

-Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

Just be the ball, be the ball, be the ball. You’re not being the ball Danny.

-Ty Webb, Caddyshack

One of the problematic aspects of talking about video games is how differently two people can perceive and interact with them.  This goes double in writing, where the reader can inject tone and choose to define words in a way the author did not intend.  I’m sure we’ve all run into somebody online who defines a word in a very specific way and then pedantically defends that definition against all evidence or logic.

Take “immersion” for example.  There is a ticklish concept that I have concluded means something different to everybody.  I have had people in the comments here argue that immersion is literally not possible in a video game, or that certain things, from pop-culture references to graphic detail, prevent or break immersion universally, or that you’re not really immersed unless you’re role playing and literally believe that is your reality.

But it isn’t so easy, so black and white.

I find immersion in a video game totally possible and quite independent of a lot of things that might break it for other people.  It certainly has nothing to do with role playing in my case.  But I couldn’t tell you how I get there any more than I could say how I go to sleep.  One moment I am not there and then I slip across some invisible barrier and arrive.  And, as with sleep, I don’t even know I am there until the spell has been broken.

Or so it goes for me.  It is a fairly rare experience for me and, as with sleep, has become less likely and more fleeting as I have grown older.  But I know when I have been there.

Anyway, this all comes to mind because of an article The Mittani posted over at INN, The Masks of Cyber-Purgatory.  I saw several people praising it on Twitter and went to read it myself.

My reactions were… mixed.  There are truths in the post, but also things I found at odds with my own personal voyage through New Eden over the last decade.  For example I can’t recall hearing anybody saying that the only way to win EVE Online is to quit often enough to make that a point of universal agreement.  I’m pretty sure if it were as universal as all that people would be responding to posts on /r/eve with, “Look forward to you winning the game!”  And the whole “slave name” thing was just bizarre.  Never heard that before, would scoff at it if I had.

Perhaps that is a sign that New Eden is less purgatory and more full-on Dante’s Inferno, where each of us ends up stratified in our of circle of the alleged hell that is internet spaceships.  Because clearly The Mittani and I are in different spheres.

But I could have told you that before this article.

And then there is the whole concept of masks, the adopted identities that we use in the game.  I get that, and then again I don’t.  Or, rather, I see it, have seen it, will no doubt see it again in other people, but it isn’t me.

Among my many personal issues is a sense of detachment from things, including video games.  I almost always see the game itself and its workings, they are almost always in my thoughts and calculations.  And, as I have said in the past, when I make and play a character in a video game, I am almost always playing myself.  There is no mask, there is just me.  Me playing a video game.

Or at least me in the constructs of the video game in question.  I’m pretty sure real me would get shiv’d by the first kobold he met in Norrath or Azeroth and would never climb into that pod in New Eden.  And, up to this point at least, I have never take part in a murder for hire scheme to kill ten or a dozen strangers for a few pieces of gold.

So I never don a mask because I am never “in” the game, any game, enough for my character or avatar to be anything apart from myself in any deep sense.

Is it cosplay or just me wearing a jacket?

Going back to immersion, for me it is passing into a brief state where I don’t see the mechanics, where I am not looking at the map or planning how best to fulfill this latest task, but am in the moment in the game, doing what I am doing without it being a part of a plan or a goal.

But there are masks and there are masks.

What I think of me on my side of the screen is only universally applicable if I am playing a single player game.

Out in the world of multiplayer games… or out in the world dealing with other people in general… what goes on inside your head is invisible.  It is how others see you and their own filters and biases that turn you into what they think you are.  You can wear any mask you want, or no mask at all, and somebody else will put a mask of their choosing over that all the same and claim that this is the real you.

I am brimming with examples of this, in video games, in reactions to things I write here, and of course, in real life.

I used to sit across the way from a guy who used to get really angry at email that came from HR about company policies.

Something like that would pop up in both of our email inboxes simultaneously.  I would look at it, try to figure if it had any impact on me, and generally get back to what I was doing without spending too much time on it.

On the other hand, I could hear him getting angry, spouting expletives, and generally fuming about the email.  And, of course, he would have to call over to me for the inevitable, “Can you believe this?” routine.

He would ask if I saw the email that just came in and I would acknowledge that I had, adding the “what are you going to do?” shrug to show my indifference.  But he would have to make sure I could see his point, reading from the email in question using tone and inflection to give it the worst possible spin he could.  As he framed it, this was the most unreasonable, insulting thing they had done yet… today at least.  And I could not talk him down off of that cliff.

Of course, I saw myself as in possession of the facts and had the email in question read in a neutral tone in my head.  But that was just my own spin on it, the parameters put upon the whole thing by my own perception.  While I’d like to say I was more likely to be right, or at least closer to reality, than my co-worker, I couldn’t really prove it any more than he could.

We all put masks on other people through our perceptions, biased by the filters and experiences that are genuinely our own alone.  We all like to think we’re in possession of the truth.  I know I imagine myself being reasonable by simply not getting excited or indignant about things that seem like matters of interpretation.  But even that point of view could be wrong.

And I am prone to put my own spin on things, to apply masks to others even when I know I might be yielding to my own personal bias.  Even in humor… or especially in humor… playing to that puts a mask on somebody else.

As an EVE Online illustration… also, I made this and wanted to share it

All of which doesn’t roll up to a nice tidy point and set of suggested behaviors I suppose.  I started out here with a point to make, but as I drove along down the path, I seemed as unlikely to be in a position to give guidance as anybody else.  I apply masks, or labels, or whatever metaphor you care to choose, on others as much as anyone.  That I tend towards what I think is a charitable view of others doesn’t make them any more accurate than my co-worker who would work himself into a lather about email messages from HQ.

Anyway, this many words in this late in the evening and I am committed to this post.  So I suppose the only thing to say is to be mindful of both the masks you wear, as nobody can see the inner you, as well as the masks you apply to other people, because you sure as hell can’t see the inner reality of others.

Meaningful Progression in New Eden PvE

On Saturday I was a guest on Matterall’s Talking in Stations show about the Lifeblood expansion and PvE.

The look at Lifeblood was largely a review of what was part of the expansion announcement last Friday and comparing that with what we knew already from past statements from Fanfest along with a bit of speculation.  Also noted was the fact that October is already Winter in Iceland, so Lifeblood is, indeed, the Winter expansion.

Then we moved on to the PvE discussion which was picked up and driven by Seamus Donahue of EVE university and quickly turned into an EVE University PvE 101 lecture covering the breadth of PvE options in New Eden.

Certainly a guided exploration of the What to Do in EVE Online chart has value.  I didn’t know each box in an much detail before the show as I did after, so I came away more informed.  However, that was not the discussion I prepared for and, as such, I had little to add to that presentation aside from some details about escalations and cosmic anomalies.

Once the exploration of the chart had subsided the show moved on to some discussion of the Alliance Tournament, its popularity, and whether or not the teams really represent alliances or specific sub-groups within alliances.  I had nothing to add on this front as the Alliance Tournament doesn’t hold much meaning for me, so the audience was spared having to listen to my voice any further.

After the show wrapped up and people wandered off, Noizy from The Nosy Gamer, who was also on the show, myself, and Matterall hung out in the Discord channel for a bit to chat a bit about the philosophy, reality, and problems CCP has with PvE in EVE Online, the discussion Noizy and I had prepared for.  Matterall actually recorded some of that and it may at some point become a subsidiary show.  But, as I pointed out in our discussion, I try not to let things go to waste and notes for the show could also be notes for blog posts.

However, rather than jumping straight into a sprawling screed about the failings of both PvE in New Eden and CCP’s assumptions about how PvE players will approach a game like EVE Online, I want to focus on one specific aspect of PvE, progression.

While I am in a null sec alliance now, I spent the first five or so years of my time with the game doing various PvE things in high sec.  I did them in the traditional MMO way, solo.  And even since my move to null sec at the end of 2011 I have spent time exploring various aspects of PvE.  See yesterday’s post for an example.

Anyway, after that long preamble, let’s talk about progression.

Progression is, to my mind, a vitally important “hook” that keeps people playing various MMORPGs.  You can find progression in various forms, from the loved/loathed levels that are the staple of so much of the fantasy genre, to raiding progression, to faction and standings, to your PvP battleground scores or arena standings.

Progression is a thing that keeps a lot of people going, and EVE Online has its own sandbox forms of progression.  It is something that people pick up on… if they get through the tutorial and pick up on anything at all… pretty quickly.

You might remember this chart from Fanfest 2014. (Seen in this video.)

New Player Trajectory

Back before the Alpha clone option, when you had to figure out if you wanted to subscribe to EVE Online by the end of your 14-21 day free trial, half of those who actually opted to subscribe cancelled their subscription before it reached the end of its first cycle.

At the other end, ten percent of those who subscribed found a group and went off to play in New Eden in the ways that CCP expects people to do.  They found or formed groups and went off to help build or blow up castles/content in the sandbox.

In between those two, are the people who came to EVE Online and played it like they would expect to play any other MMORPG.  40% of those who opted to subscribe, myself included back in the day, hit the end of what passed for a tutorial, followed the bread crumbs to the first mission agent, and started running missions.

Missions do provide some of what quests do in other games.  As with WoW, which I will use as the baseline for this discussion, there is a financial reward.  Sometimes you get a module or an implant as a reward.  Not as often as you get a gear upgrade in WoW, but once in a while.  You also get loyalty points, which can be traded in for equipment, so maybe that makes up for not getting gear as mission rewards.

And there is even progression of a sort.  Every time you finish a mission you gain standing with the agent, which increases your future mission rewards, as well as standing with the agent’s corporation.  The latter will, over time, open up access to higher quality agents as well as higher level missions.

Eventually, however, that progression ends.  Once the solo missioneer has unlocked level 4 missions, progression is about over.  They can unlock higher quality agents for a while longer, but eventually you’re done.  Level 5 missions, which run in low sec (read: danger zone!) and are supposed to require groups to finish, are not a viable route.

Continuing to raise standings by running more level 4 missions has some minor benefit, in that you get a small boost with the empire as well, which raises standings for all of the associated corps of that empire.  I’ve done enough missions with various Amarr corporations that if I want to start in with a new one I go straight to level 3 missions.  And standing used to have other uses, like being able to deploy jump clones in empire stations and being able to put up a POS in empire space, but that has all fallen by the wayside of the years.  So progression is pretty much done.

Compare this to WoW.  While every quest gives you some immediate reward, that is almost a minor aspect of most quests.  More important is the progression.  With each quest you gain some experience that helps you level up.  You also gain some standing with a given faction with most quests that helps you unlock rewards later on.

In addition to that, each quest unlocks the next quest.  And, while I may revile the destruction of the old world with the Cataclysm expansion, the quest system that resulted where each zone has a story and each quest advances that story means that there is a sense of coherence with the progression as you move through zones.  My nostalgia fights with the improvement that brought to some zones.  And the zones add up to stories in expansions and so on.

Now, of course, WoW has it’s own problems with progression ending.  When arriving at the last quest in the expansion we have seen a lot of people unsubscribe and go off to other things until the next expansion arrives.  And hand tooling a series of quests requires a lot of work and tend to be one-offs, so it costs to do that.  And then there is the eternal gear grind and upgrades and what not.  It is an imperfect system.

But this progression is popular enough that WoW’s subscriber base at the post-Draenor low ebb was still an order of magnitude larger than EVE Online‘s peak a few years back.

So the question seems to be should CCP devote some time to that 40% of players who show up looking for an internet spaceship progression journey?

CCP has remained steadfast in believing that progression in New Eden means going from PvE to PvP of sorts, though they do have paths to group PvE via incursions and higher risk PvE that exists outside of high sec space.  Should CCP throw the solo PvE players a bone?  Is that compatible with the sandbox?

CCP knows they have a problem here, and they have tried a few things.  We have the various empire epic mission arcs.  Though, like many things in the game, those remain hidden gems rather than obvious destinations.  And the recent events based on the event framework of The Agency have given people little bites of progression.

But it doesn’t seem like enough.  Furthermore, if you looked at the Lifeblood updates (Noizy goes through what we know point by point) you’ll see in the mix an attempt to turn The Agency framework into a multi-player event focus, no doubt based on data indicating that people who join up with other players end up sticking with the game.

However, as some players will never progress to PvP or null sec or faction warfare, some players will never progress past a solo focused experience.  So going towards a group focused version of The Agency will leave people behind.

I remain mixed on the whole idea myself.  I see a great benefit to extending and enhancing the solo capsuleer experience, giving them meaningful progression that will guide them to exploring the game more fully without the expectation that they will graduate to some other aspect of the game.  A few will.  More will likely stay in the comfort zone.

On the flip side I am concerned about making a path that might funnel people away from the sandbox nature of the game and I cannot personally visualize a form of progression that would both fit within the nature of the game and that would both provide the sort of fulfilling guided experience that would keep the solo mission runner demographic engaged AND not end up as disposable or empty in the long term as the typical WoW expansion quest/story chain.

So I come to the end of this with many questions and no answers, just a feeling that there could be something CCP could do.  Somewhere between sandbox heresy and doing nothing at all there ought to be an answer.  I’ve been down this path before.  But New Eden is a place that benefits from more players, even players who just live there but keep to themselves.

EVE Vegas – Like Finds Like and Other Things

Back from EVE Vegas and I am still tired.  And, since it was Halloween on Monday I flew back home just in time for more things going on.  No rest for the weary.  I heard that CCP chose the weekend because they thought it would be a good date for a party, but I am not sure anybody has problems finding a party on Halloween.  But I was there.

Various bits of EVE Vegas

Various bits of EVE Vegas 2016

Lots of interesting things were announced or talked about during the event.  My favorite tidbit of data involved how many citadels there were in New Eden.  The count, as of the art presentation (which also gave us the new explosions video) on Sunday, was:

  • Astrahus – 6,690 with 90 more coming online
  • Fortizar – 747 with another 30 in progress
  • Keepstar – 14 in space

That is a lot of citadels deployed in New Eden.

They didn’t say how many Keepstars were being deployed, but one went up in our own staging system last night.

Goons have a Keepstar

Goons have a Keepstar

Its deployment probably went unnoticed because our staging system has citadels the way Jita has station.

Anyway, lots of stuff at EVE Vegas that people are writing about.  You can find summaries over at The Nosy Gamer and at NevilleSmit.com (post 1, post 2, and post 3)

I have some thoughts of my own rattling around my head, especially about the bright future of ship skins in New Eden, but I am tired and there are kids outside looking for candy so I am going to save that for another day.

Instead I want to look at some minor bit of EVE Vegas that I find interesting, which is who I spent time talking with at the event.  The list, in no particular order:

There are probably a couple missing from that list, but since I generally can’t even remember what I had for breakfast by the time lunch rolls around most days, the fault is mine not yours.

Mark726 and I at the Chateau party

Mark726 and I at the Chateau party

So yes, there is a pretty clear pattern there.  That list is mostly people in EVE Online fan media whose work I had listened to or read before Vegas and who were, in most cases, at least somewhat aware of me and my blog.  (This blog, and not EVE Online Pictures, my official fan site blog, which nobody knows exists.)

Myself, Neville Smit, and Nosy (Note the unintentionally on point sign in the lower left)

Myself, Neville Smit, and Nosy (Note the unintentionally on point sign in the lower left)

And just to sort of round that theme out, I know Gabby through Twitter (she was literally the first person I spoke to at EVE Vegas last year) while Debes used to comment frequently on EVE posts here (until I went to null sec), so they really fit the pattern as well.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t talk to anybody else.  I spoke for just a bit with Robby Kasparic, who contributes to Imperium News and is in Reavers, and meant to get back to chat with him some more but never quite managed it.  For example, I also met DBRB, who is exceptionally pleasant in person, Lady Scarlet, and The Mittani at various points during the event.  But those were all in passing moments and as like as not I was forgotten pretty quickly.

Out of 800+ people at the event, that really wasn’t a lot of people.  I spoke to two CCP people during the whole thing; CCP Logibro, to give him a TNT pin to add to the collection he had on his badge lanyard, and CCP Guard, because I was on his team for the trivia quiz. (Hint: Always be on Mark726’s team for such events.  His team won while ours came in last with 9 points out of 40, though CCP Guard knew the answers when it came to questions about events in 2003.)

And part of that is because of me.  Manic Velocity gave a talk title “Scaling the Social Cliff of EVE Online” where he spoke about how it can be a problem for an introvert like himself to come to events like EVE Vegas and actually talk to strangers, which I would have loudly agreed with if I wasn’t too introverted for that.  It is nearly impossible for me to walk up to a group of strangers already talking and join in.  I’ll look away and walk past and hate me for being me while I look for somebody I know.

But another part is in my motivation in going to Vegas, which isn’t primarily to party or gamble or drink exotic alcoholic milkshakes, though I may indulge in that sort of thing.

Holsteins - That is a slice of pumpkin pie on the left milkshake

Holsteins – That is a slice of pumpkin pie on the left milkshake

And I certainly went to the Chateau party.

The DJ was pretty spot on picking music for the EVE Vegas crowd

The DJ was pretty spot on picking music for the EVE Vegas crowd

But I think my prime motivation in going to EVE Vegas was to talk about EVE Online with other players, and doubly so in the face of announcements that CCP puts out at these event.  And actually talking about the game, its people, and various related issues from running a stream to what makes a news site “work” for readers is difficult to do with more than a few people.  Even at the blogger lunch that Marcus Scarus threw together, where there was not a huge crowd, we broke into smaller groups at times to talk about different topics.

So talking to a lot of people wasn’t necessarily a key objective.  Talking to some of the “right” people was, and I think things turned out pretty well with the list of people above.  Thanks for spending time talking with me.

Also, a special shout out to Dirk MacGirk because conversation is enhanced when somebody hands you an awesome T-shirt.

The Open Comms Show T-Shirt, graphics by Rixx Javix

The Open Comms Show T-Shirt, graphics by Rixx Javix

So now to figure out how to get to Vegas again next year.

Also, in closing, there is one more odd aspect to all of this, which is what do you call people?  And how do you introduce yourself?  We all have our real name, our in-game name, and sometimes a different name under which we blog or stream.

When I met The Mittani we ran into him at the Cosmopolitan.  He introduced himself as “Alex” so I returned with, “John,” both our real life names.  But he came our way because I was standing with Noizy, whom he has met in the past, and started talking to him.  However, I still don’t know what Noizy’s real life name is and only vaguely recall his in-game name.  There isn’t any great message in all of that, just a glimpse at the oddity of our various identities.

Finally, I was told several times that there was one other person from TNT, my alliance, who attended EVE Vegas.  However, this always came up when I arrived and he had just left, so I never actually met him.  Ah well, maybe next year.

The Last Good Day

There’s no way of knowing that your last good day is “Your Last Good Day.”  At the time, it is just another good day.

-Hazel Grace Lancaster, The Fault in Our Stars

Yes, I am going to take a quote from a movie based on a book about teens with cancer and try and apply it to video games.  I will take it as read that this makes me a horrible person and probably guilty of cultural appropriation or some other first world thought crime.  I even have a graphic just to seal the deal on my horrible nature.

Serious business...

Serious business…

Anyway, my daughter, who had read the book, insisted that the whole family go see the movie back when it was in the theater despite the fact that she knows that my wife will cry at anything sad or emotional on screen.  And tears were indeed shed as this sad and emotionally manipulative film ran on before us.

But what stuck with me, aside from the abuse of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and how much seeing this movie made watching Divergent difficult/amusing/distracting (Augustus is her brother! It is Luke and Leia all over again!), was the whole concept of there being a “last good day,” a high point in any endeavor, after which things are never quite that good again.

So, yeah, of course this applies to video games.

Well, at least to MMORPGs.  So maybe I can change that graphic.

A more general statement

A more general statement

I suppose I could make it more specific, or a version for each MMO I might play, but I think that is sufficient.  If you are dying to have one of your own, I made a background template, you just have to provide the text.  You’re on your own for the font.  I used one called “eraser dust” I found on the internet.

Anyway, that is all off the subject at hand, which is that of a last good day in an MMORPG.

There are MMOs where I can identify that last good day.  In Warhammer Online it was probably that one great keep battle we had before things went south for our group as the game emptied out.

In Rift it was no doubt some date not too long before the first expansion came out.  Everything was good, I played a character from each of the four base roles up to level cap, and then Storm Legion hit and changed the nature of the game for me.

For EverQuest it was likely to initial stages of the Fippy Darkpaw server, when Skronk and I were playing, the game was active with lots of low level players, and the whole thing felt… if not as good as day one back in 1999, then a reasonable facsimile of that time.  Certainly there was less crashing.

But those are all games I stopped playing.  Even EverQuest, for which I bubble with nostalgia, hasn’t really been a destination for me since Fippy Darkpaw.

And, in having stopped, I can pick out the high point.  I can find that theoretical last good day… or week… or era… or event.  But that might change if I would… or, in some cases, could… go back and pick up the game again.  Probably not, but there is a non-zero chance of good days ahead.

This all came to mind because of a more current game.  Not EVE Online.  I made that graphic at the top for Rixx Javix a while back.  No, this all came about due to the the Legion expansion for World of Warcraft getting a ship date.

WoW Legion coming to a server near you

Just in case your forgot that since yesterday

August 30, 2016 and the whole thing goes live, while at some date a couple weeks in advance of that there will be the pre-expansion patch that will have the warm-ups for the whole thing.

I am coming up on a year of not having been subscribed to WoW.  I have a two copies of the expansion pre-ordered for my daughter and I via Amazon.  But now that there is a date set and a timeline out before me.  I won’t be resubscribing today or tomorrow or next week, but at some point over the course of that timeline, between now and August 30th, there is a date at which I probably should subscribe and get back in the game and start getting warmed up to fight the Legion.

But the announcement of the date also made me question whether or not I really want to go back.  I do not feel a lot of enthusiasm for the expansion.  In large part that lack of enthusiasm is due to how Warlords of Draenor played out for me.  It wasn’t horrible, but it was dissatisfying, and garrisons carry the lions share of the burden on that front.  Dungeons were mediocre, mostly in how sparse they were, and the story line was mostly just okay, but garrisons were the anchor.

Garrisons failed to be the right thing for me on all fronts.  They were not optional, you had to do some garrison stuff if you wanted to play through the expansion.  And they were not housing, or at least did not have any aspect of housing that I wanted.  There was no way you could make the garrison really your own.  Meanwhile, they did exactly what Tom Chilton told us housing would do, back when he was saying they would never do housing, it took people out of the world and hid them away.

In my view, garrisons were basically the worst possible set of features, doing what Blizz said housing would do without any of the beneficial “sticky” features of housing that make people feel like they have a spot in the game that is uniquely their own.  I guess if I were to make a prediction now that Tom Chilton is saying that Blizz will never do a vanilla server, I might guess that they will end up doing some sort of special rules server that will satisfy neither fans of vanilla nor more recent lapsed players, at which point Tom can say, “I told you so.”

That is all my view of the expansion.  So when I think back in search of a “last good day,” which at this point I am likely conflating with a peak of enjoyment as opposed to saying every day thereafter was “bad,” I have to go back to Mists of Pandaria to find a real happy time… which is odd because I was pretty dismissive of MoP when it was announced and didn’t buy the expansion until nearly a year after it went live.  Meanwhile, Warlords of Draenor, with orcs as the bad guys yet again, that I was up for.

So perhaps missed or misplaced expectations were the real problem?

Nah, garrisons just sucked.

Anyway, as the quote at the top says, you can never know if that last good day is happening as it happens.  You can only identifying it in comparison to the days that come later.  The question is whether or not there is a peak of enjoyment waiting for me in WoW Legion or if I have simply had that last good day already.  I guess I have a few months to consider that, but I am feeling doubtful right now.

GuildWars 2 and What Free Really Means

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

Me and Bobby McGee, most famously sung by Janis Joplin

ArenaNet seems to be hitting some sour notes with its installed base.  First there was the announcement that anybody who purchased the upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion for GuildWars 2 would get the base game for free.  At least there was that free character slot goodwill gesture when people were unhappy.

GW2HeartOfThornsLogo

But then there was the second hit of the one-two punch, an announcement that the base game would be free in and of itself.  Thanks to everybody who forked over $59.99 or more at launch, but now we’re just giving it away.

Strange times in the Buy To Play corner of the MMORPG market I guess.  Certainly ANet never felt the need to give away the original Guild Wars base game back in the day.

But that was then and this is now.

Here I suppose we see an interesting intersection of the realities of the current market.

The problem of expansions… at least the problem with multiple expansions… is an old one at this point in time.  EverQuest, EverQuest II, and World of Warcraft have all had to address the “too many damn expansions” problem as the games progressed, which ended up with all of them giving away some content for free.

In Norrath the plan after a while was that buying the latest expansion would roll up all the previous ones as part of the price.  There was an interim period of roll-up packages with names like EverQuest Platinum and EverQuest Titanium, but eventually that became too cumbersome.  EverQuest II went straight to the “all previous expansions” route with Echoes of Faydwer if I recall right.

eqplatadPeople who bought every expansion at launch still paid a lot more money, but it simplified the task for those just jumping in, or those returning to the game, in getting all the right software on their drive.  There was an era when you had to buy all these in box form from your local retailer.

In Azeroth, Blizzard’s plan has been to stack expansions at the other end of things, giving you a range of expansions with the base game while leaving the latest and greatest for sale separately.  Again, those who waited long enough got stuff others paid full retail price for.

So giving away some content for free that was previously available only at a monetary cost has been established as something of an industry practice, or at least a reflection of industry reality.  Not everybody has doe this.  I think Turbine has held the line for Lord of the Rings Online, where you have to buy each of the expansions individually and in the correct order.  But part of their F2P plan is to sell content, so giving some away would seem counter-productive I suppose… though that is probably why their insta-level option is limited to level 50, as beyond that requires expansions.

But I haven’t heard of anybody making the base game free upon launching an expansion nor doing a bundle deal, base + expansion with just the first expansion.

Expansions for free, sure thing. EVE Online has been doing that for more than a decade.  It was also a thing in Lineage II and a few more games.  Content keeps people subscribed.

So giving away the base game after building your business on B2P is new. Yes, there are some restrictions that come with free, many of which sound somewhat familiar to those who watch the F2P side of the MMO market, as laid out on this chart, though others, like things locked until level 30, are interesting.  You can ask how free is free with that, especially when you can still buy into that sort of odd middle group of players, like myself, who bought the base game at one point but who likely won’t buy expansion.  And where are they left in the grand scheme of things?

I suppose they could have decided that they aren’t going to sell many more copies of the base game without letting people play first.  After all, they’ve cut the price and then discounted even that by as much as 75% at times to get every last interested customer to buy in.  So maybe that cupboard is bare, but they see potential in the now somewhat standard F2P “free with annoying restrictions” model.

Of course, the base game has also lost value over time.

If you bought the box on day one, just about three years back, at full retail price you were looking forward to a couple years worth of special events as part of the deal.  All of that, save maybe the Super Adventure Box, is in the past now, never to return.  If you joined the game today, you would not get to experience any of that.  Perhaps it is too much to ask that people buy a game where much of the content is done.

Or maybe ANet just doesn’t want anything standing in the way of selling their new box.

If only that were sole issue stirring up GW2 players.  Where is that theory in which developers should listen to the customers who paid the most money now?

On to 64-Bit Gaming

A long tale that is vaguely related to video games and recent news that has been sitting half finished in my drafts folder for over 18 months.

What were you doing in 1997?

One of the tasks I had at work during that year was “WinLogo certification” for our software.  That was the term used at the time for going through the process of getting Microsoft to declare you compatible with their operating system.

Anybody could, of course, claim that they were  Windows 95 compatible.  But to get the official Microsoft Windows compatible logo on your software, Microsoft had to affirm that your software was indeed up to spec.

win95_designI think it says something that in searching for that logo the best one I could come up with was in .gif format… is there anything in that format these days that isn’t also animated?  I feel cheated that the logo isn’t moving.  Also, I feel old.

I was installing Windows 95, which was the style at the time

I was installing Windows 95, which was the style at the time

Moving on.

For logo you had to go through a Microsoft approved testing lab.  The closest one to us was down in Los Angeles because the Microsoft position has nearly always been, “Screw Silicon Valley.”

Getting that logo on our product was my job for a couple months, and it was kind of a big deal for the company.  We made most of our money through OEM agreements with computer manufacturers like HP, Dell, Compaq, Micron and a few other, and for them to keep their Windows logo (and be able to sell the Windows OS) they had to make sure that all of the crap shovelware fine software they included on your new computer was also Win logo certified.  So that was dropped in my lap, which was kind of odd.  I was the new guy, so I understood getting the crap assignment.  But given how much of our income was riding on it, I am not sure that “stick it to the new guy” was the optimum strategy for success.

In the end I did succeed, so I guess their trust was well founded.  And I actually enjoyed the whole thing in a perverse way sort of way.  It involved a lot of minutia and making sure everything was “just so.”  And while I have forgotten most of the arcana involved with the process over the years… I moved to enterprise level software on Windows shortly thereafter, and enterprise doesn’t really care about that sort of thing, then eventually to Linux based enterprise level software, which double-double doesn’t care about that stuff… two things stand out in my mind fourteen years later.

First, I had to fly down to LAX, rent a car, and drive out to the certifying lab because could not figure out how to run our installer.  And, seriously, it wasn’t hard.  It was in freaking InstallShield.  And we had sent them a computer all setup with the right hardware.  All they had to do was put the CD-ROM in the drive.  I don’t know how they managed to mess that up.

Anyway, I had to travel about a thousand miles round trip in a day to pretty much press “Next,” “Next,” “Next,” and “OK.”  Not the biggest travel fiasco I ever had… there was that one trip down to New Mexico with another company to figure out why we were having so many hardware defects only to find out that the guy soldering on the power connector was Red/Green colorblind… but it certainly wasn’t the most efficient method.  And it worked, so blunt force method for the win I guess.

Second was the 32-bit requirement for the certification.  In order to get that Win logo approval, your application had to be 32-bit.  No 16-bit executables or DLLs or whatever were allowed.

Which seemed kind of silly at the time, since Windows 95 would run 16-bit software just fine.  There was a ton of 16-bit software laying around, left over from the Windows 3.1 days.  Hell, Microsoft was installing some 16-bit code with the Windows 95 operating system.  And it shouldn’t have been an issue because our software was all 32-bit already.

Unfortunately, the version of InstallShield we were using was not.

Here is how the software check worked.  The lab would run a program that would scan and catalog everything on the hard drive.  Then you would run your installer.  After that, they would run their scan again, it would identify all changes to the system and list out all of the components installed.  They gave you the software so you could run it yourself in preparation for the certification.  I ran it many times.

And every time I ran it, it came back with several items highlighted in red because they contained 16-bit code.

I was quickly able to identify the offending DLLs as being part of InstallShield.  And, since there was a process for getting an exemption for 16-bit code under certain circumstances, it was deemed a better use of the company’s time to have me get the exemption than to upgrade our version of InstallShield.  Given the number of hoops we had to jump through in order to get through each computer manufacturer’s OEM process and that the installer had to support both Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 95, both of which included a number of special OEM requirements, and had to do so in seven languages (I could install Windows NT 4.0 in Japanese without a hitch… eventually) I could see the point.

Of course, that didn’t make the exception process any easier.  One of the rules of any sort of exception procedure seems to be to say “No” to any first request on the theory that it will weed out those looking for an easy exit and then only those with a real need will move forward.  So on we went with that process, with Microsoft making it extremely frustrating to complete, with them responding with rejections that seemed to indicate that they had not bothered to actually read our submission.  As I recall, one of the acceptable reasons for an exception was third party DLLs that were not used during run time.  We would point out that it was just the uninstall that had a couple of 16-bit DLLs and that our software was all 32-bit.

This was made all the more frustrating by the fact that Windows 95, by necessity, had to run 16-bit software.  There was a huge library of software available and Microsoft was not at all keen to piss off its installed base… and maybe save IBM from itself on the OS/2 front along the way… by turning its back on that foundation.  So it wasn’t as though we were shipping something that didn’t work.  Our software did not even violate the rules, it was just the installer… an installer that almost no customer would ever use because our software came pre-installed.

Eventually we hit some sort of persistence threshold and were granted our logo certification.  By that point I had moved on to another company, but I was friends with the person who took over for me so got to hear the ongoing tale of getting Microsoft to grant us our exemption.

And then, for at least the next decade, actually being a 32-bit application was not all that meaningful.  I went on playing the original, 16-bit version of Civilization II for a long time on Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 2000 Professional, and then on Windows XP.  16 bit applications were supported, and remain so, on Microsoft’s 32-bit operating systems… at least to the extent that they support anything.  A lot of apps have been broken by changes and updates over the years, 16 and 32-bit alike.

16-bit apps didn’t lose support until Microsoft got to 64-bit operating systems.  But almost nobody went there initially.  It wasn’t even practical until Windows Vista… which had its own serious problems and which was effectively rejected by the marketplace… and didn’t really start becoming a popular choice until Windows 7 came along about five years back.

By which time the market had probably weaned itself off of 16-bit applications.  Even I had to finally give up the 16-bit version of Civilization II and go with the 32-bit version, the Civilization II Gold Edition, that could at least be patched to work with Windows 7 64-bit.

That is basically the inertia of the market.  Getting millions of people to upgrade both their computer and get onto a 64-bit operating system took a while, and the groundwork for that started way back with Windows 95 and the push to get developers onto 32-bit apps.  What I was doing in 1997 was part of the many steps to get to the point where companies could make these sorts of system requirement announcements:

It is almost a requirement to have a 64-bit client to play in the big leagues these day.  The bleeding edge gamers all have 64-bit systems and lots of memory and get kind of antsy if you don’t support their hardware to its fullest extent.

But it was a bit of a surprise to find somebody actually dropping support for their 32-bit client.  Daybreak just announced that 32-bit support is on its way out for PlanetSide 2.

We wanted to let you know that with the next Game Update (tentatively scheduled for next week), PlanetSide 2 will no longer support the use of the 32-bit Operating System client. We do note, based on our internal metrics, that a very small group of folks are still using this client. We hope this doesn’t prove too inconvenient to anyone impacted, and we appreciate your understanding.

That is actually a big step and I would be interested to know how big “a very small group of folks” really is.  And I wonder if we’ll hear anything else like that at E3 this week. (Topical!)

I suppose by the time most mainstream software finally becomes 64-bit only we’ll be about ready for 128-bit operating systems.