Tag Archives: Rambling Detected

The Company isn’t bad, it’s just Staffed that Way

I have mentioned in the past that I occasionally have to remind myself that various game companies and studios are not, in fact, my friends. It isn’t that they like me or dislike me, it is that they are not people and are incapable of anything of the sort.

Yet I think that many gamers, myself included, struggle with this because of our emotional investment in the games we play.  I have no problem understanding that the utility company doesn’t care about me… to say it only sees me as an account number probably oversells our relationship… but video game studios, whose decisions have such an impact on my leisure pursuits, the line is harder to draw.

This is all the more a problem because developers and community reps and studio heads are often out there interacting with the community, which helps personify the company.  CCP is the most problematic for me because they, as a team, are out there in the community and they host live fan events, so I interact with the team online regularly and have met many of them, from Hilmar on down, in person.

Other studios get out there as well.  If you’re deep into EQ or EQII you probably know who Holly Longdale was at Daybreak.  If you’re into WoW you probably have opinions about Ion Hazzikostas and how he compares to, say, Greg Street.  There are lots of names out there from various studios that personify the companies and the games.

In the end though, those are individuals.  They may represent the company to you in some way, but they are not the company.  The company is just a name, an idea, a construct of our imagination, a consensual illusion that we all share that binds a select group of people together, and no amount of vision statements or employee handbooks can make it feel for you in any way.

Saying you hate Activision is like saying you hate the color blue if you think too hard about it.

And yet… and yet… even though they are not people and cannot care, a corporation is made up of people, dozens, hundreds, thousands of people, each with their own life, story, likes, fears, motivations, and emotions.  To paraphrase a famous movie quote, “Corporations are people!”

As a collection of people, corporations tend to develop a culture.  I’ve worked at companies with a strong central culture and at companies where every group or team or office has their own distinct flavor.  And culture, once it sets in, can be as difficult as crabgrass to be rid of.

Culture tends to be set by the leadership of the group, and once the group buys in it tends to be self-reinforcing.  Changing it requires constant affirmative effort.  The CEO or some VP saying they want to change the culture of a company is an exercise in futility.  Unless there are policies and rule back it up, and unless those policies and rules are enforced as expected, any statement about changing a company’s culture is just window dressing.  The CEO may aspire to it, but without effort it is nothing more than that.

Which finally, 500 words into this ramble, brings me around to Blizzard.

Lots of problems there, mostly culture related.  If the CEO and senior management say it is okay to harass and discriminate, if they visibly engage in that sort of behavior, that sets the tone for the company, the defines what is acceptable, no matter what HR’s employee handbook says.  HR, in the end, reports to senior management and they either get on board with the culture, as they did at Blizzard, or they get the axe next time a record setting financial report leads to layoffs.

Eventually the State of California showed up due to employee complaints about the culture.  But the state is interested in the corporate entity known as Blizzard.  That is who they will sanction, unless an employee files criminal charges against an individual.  Otherwise they will just make the company pay, and the company isn’t a person, can’t care, doesn’t set or define culture.  Likely the state will also require all employees to take some sort of mandatory training about how to behave in the work place.  But that sort of training has been mandatory in California for more than 20 years for anybody in a supervisory role in a company over a specific size.  I know, I had to take that training when I was in management.  You can see how well it worked at Blizzard.  If the ideas within that sort of training aren’t part of the culture, the training won’t stick.

Blizzard has stated that they are going to fix the culture.  They have, admittedly, fired some people.  Many were fired way too late, but at least they were let go, from J. Allen Brack on down.

Unfortunately, the line seems to be drawn somewhere below executive management.

Bobby Kotick has vowed to fix the company, but he is clearly part of the problem.  He has known about the allegations, helped in covering them up, and has been problematic on his own.

In theory, when you’re the boss, everything is supposed to be your fault.  In practice, at Blizzard… and in a lot of other companies… leadership doesn’t confer responsibility, it shields you from responsibility.  This all happened on Bobby’s watch with Bobby’s full knowledge.

Blizzard is a large company, and part of an even larger organization.  There are without a doubt many good people working there.  But so long as the company has Bobby Kotick as its head the company won’t change.  Making the executive suite immune from any culture change, when culture flows from leadership and the examples it sets, is doomed to fail.

Watching Dune 1984

The new Dune movie landed this weekend and my wife and I are both considering seeing it in the theater.  We’re not James Bond worked up about it, like we were for No Time to Die, but going to the theater was still in contention.

Dune from another era

And, of course, we decided we might like to do a bit of build-up for it, so we decided to watch the first attempt at a Dune movie, the David Lynch film from 1984, which we happened to have on DVD right there on our shelf in the family room.

Two things right off the bat.

First, I have/had very strong positive memories of that version of Dune.  It had actors I liked, an extremely strong visual style, and I had read the book not too soon before it came out… though later, in digging through my memories, I might have read the book after it came out.  It is kind of a blur.

Second, I am not sure if I have watched the movie since I saw it in the theater when it came out.  Yes, we have the DVD, but who among us hasn’t bought a DVD then never watched it.  I know I considered it back when the SciFi channel, now SyFy, made their own mini-series… which I also only vaguely remember and which wasn’t available anywhere to watch or we might have given it a go as well… but I think I bought the DVD from the CompUSA that used to be down the street from us when they were fail cascading, whenever that was.  They went hard into DVDs one month, then were getting rid of them the next.

So, with that I booted up the PlayStation 3 once more, inserted the DVD, and off we went.

And… wow, that movie is a mess.

I mean, it is still visually stunning, and my having seen it in the theater back when it was new meant that those visuals left a lasting impression on me.  It was, and remains, unique in that regard.

Also the fact that I had not read the book before I saw the movie, something I am prone to at times, no doubt helped me some.  It is often easier to let the visuals wash over you as the dialog tries to keep up and not have to worry about whether or not it is actually getting the story right.  The movie version of a book is a work that has to stand on its own, should stand on its own, and while you can compare the translation from one medium to another and debate as to whether or not the essence of the story was captured, they will always different experiences.

Still, I am a bit surprised how positive my impression of the movie was going into this view was.   Sure, the visuals had a lasting impression and there is the whole passage of time to account for.

It suffers from what many movie adaptations stumble over, which is the need to condense a 400+ page science fiction novel… and one that eschews many of the easy tropes of the genre… into a movie experience that needs to be well under three hours from coming attractions to the end of the credits.

In order to catch viewers up the first hour of the movie is filled with exposition.  And when characters aren’t just filling us in by telling somebody else something they likely already knew in more detail than would be required in a conversation between anybody besides complete strangers, we’re hearing their thoughts, once again running through details that probably wouldn’t bear consideration if they were really part of the universe in which they are projected.  It would be rather like a fish being constantly concerned about the fact that it lives in water and going over all the details of that existence for the first 20 minutes or so of Finding Nemo.

Though, to be fair, the book does the same damn thing.  You can pick up a copy and find that the film grabbed the internal monologues almost verbatim from what Frank Herbert wrote.  The movie even tries to play the whole thing as being a history to explain the fact that it isn’t being seen through any one person’s eyes, once again, as the book does, though it doesn’t give you a lot to hang onto in that regard.  (I was ruined by a high school lit teacher and now my brain demands to know who is telling any story, whose perspective I am viewing, something that the entire Dune series, and the Brian Herbert prequels especially, are not very concerned with.)

Anyway, once you get past the “tell the story by voice overs of people’s thoughts” section of the movie… which I am sure I didn’t mind back in 1984 because I didn’t mind them in the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner either… the film hits one of the other problems of the translation to another media, the fact that it has spent a huge chunk of its run time setting up the story such that it doesn’t have a lot to waste on the middle of the tale and the build up for the finale.  And so we enter the “greatest hits” potion of the show, which even includes a montage of scenes meant to convey the rise of the Fremen under the leadership of Paul and how they are disrupting the flow of the spice.  You could splice in film clips of the French resistance or Russian partisans and they would fit.

And then everything comes to a head and everybody is on Arrakis including the emperor, who we at one point see sitting at a four seat periscope viewer device that I swear was a left over prop from the 1966 Batman film, spiffed up a bit and spray painted gold, and there is a little girl with a strange voice who later is Zelda in Orange is the New Black, and Kyle MacLachlan fights Sting, and then the emperor’s daughter is telling us about what happened and we’re in the credits and the whole thing is over.

A bit of a wild ride, though in hindsight I think my biggest problem with the whole thing was the plan from the book itself.  Was putting House Atreides on Arrakis to replace House Harkonnen only to have the Harkonnen’s come back almost immediately really the best plan they could come up with?  Seems a bit dodgy.

Overall, it is very much a piece of its time.  It is stylistically unique in a David Lynch sort of way… Patrick Stewart charging into battle shouting and carrying a pug cradled in his arm springs to mind… with a very talented cast tasked to carry too much story in too little time.  Our DVD is the original theatrical release, though there are other cuts available, some of which have David Lynch’s name removed as director by his request.  I am not sure the different cuts make a difference.  I doubt this is like Brazil, where the studio cut has a dramatically different ending from the Terry Gilliam cut.

I am a bit torn as to whether it is better to watch the movie having read the book and have it not translate into what your mind’s eye pictured, or whether it is best to go in blind and let its bizarre nature overwhelm.

Basically, it probably isn’t as bad as you’ve been told nor as good as you might remember.

And with that groundwork in place we’re keen to the new Dune.  I am already aware, in part through the wailing I have seen online, that it is a two part series and that  we’re only getting the first part now.  The marketing has been very low key on that, which reminds me a bit of the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings animated film that hit theaters back in 1978, which omitted the fact that it was only part of the story. (Excellent review of that fiasco here.)  If you’re not up front about the fact that people are not getting the full story they will be angry.

Be more like Mel Brooks with History of the World: Part I.  You can then get to the second part whenever.

Addendum: There are a bunch of re-reviews of this version of Dune out there, but my wife just pointed me to this one over at Ars Technica that might be the best ever.

Immersion in the Blocks of Minecraft

This one should be fun.  I am back on the immersion hobby horse and I am going to dive into Minecraft next… survival mode… which I am sure is going to be a breaking point for somebody because… well… the game looks like this:

fountain time

Villagers congregate at the town center in a world made up of one meter cubes

That was kind of a random screen shot I had to hand, but there are plenty more on this site and the web in general, that will illustrate that nobody in their right mind is going to be fooled into thinking that is the real world or anything like it.

And yet… and yet… I have experience various physiological reactions to the game that indicates that my brain can indeed be fooled into reacting to a world made up of unconvincing one meter cubes.  That, for me, is the purest form of immersion.  My body taking the input from my eyes and reacting cannot be faked.

So when I feel a tinge of acrophobia when I unwittingly walk up to the edge of a high cliff and realize how far up I am or when I am digging around in the roof of the nether and find myself in a thin portion and break through to find myself many meters above a lake of lava and just shy of stepping into this air, that means my brain is somehow convinced at a base level that this might be real, even if at higher level my brain knows this is all just images rendered on a screen and isn’t a threat at all.

But what gets my brain there?

I am going to skip ahead a bit on this one and, rather than meandering through a half a dozen tales… most of which I have probably written about here already in any case if you’re interested… and jump straight on what has become the through line for this series, which is a sense of place.  I think that is what helps convince my brain that it should flutter up my guts a bit when I loom over a cliff.

Now, “sense of place” is its own can of worms.  I’m in my fourth post and I am going to spin that in a fourth way.  With LOTRO is was the familiarity of Middle-earth.  With EverQuest it was the sense of worldliness and danger.  With EVE Online it was the overlay of player events on locations in the game that gave then meaning and history… and danger.

So what is it with Minecraft?

Well, it certainly has worldliness going for it.  There is all the world you could care to find and more over the next hill or across the next ocean.  Procedural generation for the win.

And, naturally, there is a sense of danger at night, where the world presses back against you.  You don’t get it all your own way and eventually some creeper is going to slip in and you’ll just hear that dreaded “hissssss” sound before it blows up and wrecks something you’re been working on… or kills you.

But I think more than either of those, there is the mutability of the world, the fact that you can make it your own, shape it as you will… if you have the time and patience… to be what you want.  You can build a house, a castle, or an Italian city.

The work of Skronk and Enaldi

The fact that you have changed the world, created something within it, transforms it and gives it a sense of place that the bare wilderness lacked.  And the effort of gathering the resources and building something grand or complex only ads to that.

In that was Minecraft is different from LOTRO or EQ.  Those worlds are essentially immutable.  You must take them as they are and find the place that they offer.

And EVE Online, where you can own space, build structures, influence resources, and fight wars over territory, even that only lets you build essentially temporary little sand castles in the vastness of space.  I live in Delve now, and the system of 1DQ1-A, the capital of the Imperium, shows the influence and power of that coalition, with Keepstars and Fortizars strewn about a grid as a show of power.

But we haven’t always lived there and we won’t always live there.  The tides of diplomacy and war have washed over Delve many times, scouring clean any sign of past residents.  And someday we too will no doubt decline and be washed away.  So goes the history of New Eden.

So Minecraft has a more permanent state of change.  I mean sure, somebody can come by and undo what you have done.  Creepers can blow up your stuff.  But it takes a lot of time and even in destruction the land remains changed.  Your impact remains even in ruins or a hole in the ground.

But Minecraft has its downside as well.  Having built castles, fortified towns, thrown up towers, build water spanning bridges, and laid down many kilometers of minecart track to create a transportation network both in the nether and on the main world, in the end I always end up feeling a bit empty at the end of a project.  The joy and the purpose is in the creation, but when you build a huge structure you quickly find yourself with not much left to do when it is done.

You have changed the face of the world, but then what?  There just isn’t a lot to “do” in Minecraft once you’ve built all your structures, explored as far as you care to, made your way through the nether and the end.

I have often felt pride in what I have built and, at the same time, a sense of emptiness in being done.  You only need one room and a bed and a bit of storage, so I’ll have a multi-story castle and all my stuff in one room off the main door.  It feels like there should be more.  Mojang has tried to address that a bit.  We have the ravagers now wandering the world.  But that becomes more of a maintenance routine after a while.

And then there is the world itself.  While there is a variety of biomes and no two places are exactly the same, there remains a tiring sameness in the world all the same.  There are only so many types of trees and hills and mountains all have similar essential elements.

Finally, there is the day/night cycle, which gives you the sense of danger in the world, but also becomes quite oppressive over time.  When you’re working on a big project, especially a rail project where you are moving along the world, leveling terrain, digging tunnels, laying track, and carrying supplies forward from your most recent base, the daytime starts to feel very short.

You get up and start working and soon that big square sun is past its zenith and you have to start planning what you’re going to do when night comes.  Do you roll on back down to your last camp?  Do you start working on a new camp?  Do you dig a quick hole in the side of a hill and set up a bed and carry on?

It really cuts both ways.  I wouldn’t want to do away with the night cycle.  It is part of the game pushing back on you which makes your accomplishments fulfilling.  But even with the night quickly over when you hit your bed, I still find the day too short to the point that it hinders getting things done.

Pro immersion:

  • Feeling of place within the world
  • A wide world to explore with many biomes
  • New things being added regularly
  • Ability to change the world, to leave your mark
  • Able to share your creation with friends in a shared world
  • A sense of danger, or the world pushing back against your efforts
  • The fulfillment of effort in creation

Immersion breaking:

  • A world of sameness until you’ve made your mark
  • New things usually don’t apply to areas already generated
  • Few real “game like” things to do
  • Having created feels less fulfilling than it should
  • Lack of a sense of purpose
  • Resource management can become a grind
  • The world pushes back in a very “samey” way
  • The oppression of the day/night cycle

And some of those latter are not unique to Minecraft.  There isn’t a lot you can “do” with towns or towers or encampments in LOTRO or EQ.  But there is also a game with a story and advancement and other activity built into the mix.  I can admire the Bree or the run down Forsaken Inn out in the Lone Lands or Hobbiton, but I also have a series of tasks to take care of, levels to gain, monsters to slay who drop loot and coin and which earn me status and what not.

If I went and created Bree in Minecraft I’d just have a town where not much was happening.  It would be neat to look at, but once I was done it wouldn’t be useful for much and I’d go on to work on something else.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on Minecraft, which reflect the way I have chosen to play it.  I prefer survival mode and haven’t done anything with mods.  I just explore and build and farm and mine in the randomly generated world and look for meaning.

So four posts and four variations on a feeling or sense of place.  I suppose, ideally, this series would end with me finding the ideal mix of ingredients when it comes to that.  I think that will be a long journey though as no such destination is anywhere on my map so far.

The immersion series so far:

Maui Driving Adventures

My daughter complained to me a few years back that she had never been to Disneyland.

This was not true.  I pointed out pictures hanging on the wall the proved we had been not just to Disneyland, but to Disney World AND on a Disney cruise.  She pointed out that she was 3 and 4 years old in those pictures, making that was long enough ago to not count.

I had to fall back on my usual defense, which is Hawaii.  She had been to Hawaii more times before she was 8 than most people will go in their entire lives.  We have family there, including my mother, so we tend to fly there for vacations.  This tends to defuse my daughter a bit, but she is still a bit surly when her friends talk about the magic kingdom.

Maui is the usual destination for us.  Again, family.  I’ve been going there since the late 70s and my wife and I for our whole relationship, so the island is both pleasant and familiar.  So it was a natural choice for our first trip in what seemed like the post-COVID era.  When we booked back in June it seemed like we were done with that.

Then came the delta variant and by the time we were ready to fly earlier this month the governor of Hawaii was asking tourists to stay home again.  We were “visiting family” so didn’t have any problems on that front, though the state was also requiring vaccine cards and health statements and a visual check before letting anybody in.

We even found the pre-check queue at the airport before we got on our flight, which got us a “cleared” wristband to get through inspection on arrival.  Getting into Hawaii was like getting into a club, you needed a wristband to bypass the line or something.

We also had a rental car lined up.  We ended up doing that at the last minute because, back in June, rental cars were in short supply and thus very expensive… like the cost of our lodgings expensive.   The rental car companies stopped buying them because nobody was traveling, which also impacted the used car market because rental car companies break even on rentals and make their profits selling the cars when they’re done, which is a huge supply flow in the car market that suddenly dried up and now finding a used car is a bit of a chore.  Also, when people went back to traveling in May and June when the CDC prematurely said everything was good demand for rental cars drove prices through the roof.

We debated going without.  There have been trips where we have rented a car, driven it to the hotel, stayed a week, then driven it back to the airport without a trip in between.   We also looked into some other options, including one service where you rent a car from a local ala AirBnB for a day or two, which we would have needed to visit my mom who live up country, far from the shore where we were staying.

Then the delta variant put a crimp in the travel plans of many and demand dropped, bringing prices down as well.  A week before our flight the price of a car was still a bit pricey, but about a third of what it had been in June.  We reserved a compact from Sixt, which was new on the island since we last visited, so we thought we would give them a try.

After some rather poorly targeted attempts at an upsell… how about a Mercedes for more than double what you’re paying, or a convertible Mustang for triple… we were handed a slip to take to the lot that would get us a Kia Optima.  It was a bit of a beater.  The pre-listed damage sheet was a page long… but at least they gave us that because I’ve had Avis/Budget come after me for damages they signed off on… and the car had 30K miles on it, which is old for a rental, but it seemed to otherwise be passable.  Only later did I find that the Optima was considered an upgrade and that Sixt slipped in a daily upgrade charge on the invoice.  All rental car companies are horrible.

I was a bit confused at first.  The guy in the dispatch shack handed me what looked like a fob, the whole keyless proximity thing becoming more common.

It sure looks like a fob

However, when I went to look for the start button I noticed the usual steering column key receptacle.  But where was the key?  Examining the fob, I found that the little silver button on it would extend the key out like a switchblade.

The key extended

It was about a day that I was asked to stop saying, “I will cut you!” every time I flicked the key out of its recess.

The car also made some strange sounds on the highway.  If you remember the pod racing scenes from The Phantom Menace, the sound that Sebulba’s pod racer made… that was what this car sounded like.  Not obnoxiously, but reliably.

Anyway, to get to the heart of the tale after rambling up to this point, being on the island for seven nights without much of an itinerary beyond “hanging out” and visiting my mom, we decided to take a drive.

We have driven around two of the other islands, Oahu and the big island of Hawaii, both of which you can easily manage in a day with a few stops along the way.  The big island has the best roads and goes from dry badlands around Kona to rain forests around Hilo to the volcano and then the vineyards as you come back around again.  Oahu is a lot more crowded, it being the main tourist destination.  Two thirds of the way around is semi-rural and then other third is huge hotels, a naval base, and airport, and all the traffic that goes with it.

But we had never driven around Maui.

There is a reason for that.  Technically there is a stretch of east Maui where rental cars are not allowed.  Maui is smaller than the big island… duh… and larger than Oahu, but is much less developed than either.

I tend to think of Maui as an eight laying on its side, with the west end of the island being the small, upper loop, and the east side being the larger, lower loop.

Maui main highways – greatly simplified.

Kahului, where the airport is (code: OGG) is the middle of the two loops.  That is also where the harbor is… everything has to go to Honolulu first, get unloaded from the big container ships, then stacked on a barge and sailed over to Maui… the Costco and most of the main non-tourist large businesses.  It is as much of a city as the island has.

We generally stay in Kaanapali, which is past Lahaina there on the map.  It is very touristy, has decent beaches, and it a great spot to watch whales in February, when we usually go.  We have also stayed in Kihei, which is more condo rental focused.  It has better beaches than Lahaina, but the condos aren’t as pretty.  You get a couple of streets back from the beach and it feels like any apartment dense part of the country.

Further down from Kihei is Wailea and Makena where the rich people live.  Oprah has a place down there.

We had drive all of those places many times.

We had also driven the road to Hana, which I have marked in orange.  It beautiful and windy and will make children throw up. (Google “road to Hana”)  I went with my family when I was young and have no desire to make the trip again.  My wife and daughter went with my cousin about ten years back, while my aunt and I sat by the pool and read.  Our daughter threw up on the way down, as I predicted.

The red stretch on the map is dirt and gravel roads and your rental car agreement explicitly warns you that you are not allowed to drive there.

So we had been on all the roads I have marked in black and each down the orange road to Hana individually.  But we realized that we had never been all the way around the back side of the west end of Maui, the yellow stretch on the map.  So that was where we headed.  We got on Highway 30 and headed north and around the tip of the island.

It is very pretty up there.  The resorts end past Kapalua and as you round the northern tip there are bays there are excellent for snorkeling.  It is one of those places where you can see all the fish on those charts they sell about the island.  The road there is narrow and winds along the coast, but is still two lanes wide, well maintained, with a freshly painted double yellow line down the middle.  As you go further the turns become more sharp, and you are advised to honk your horn when going around some of the blind turns, but it is otherwise a solid road.

And then, as you come around the tip of the island and start heading down the back side you come to a large sign that says, “END OF STATE HIGHWAY” and it is like a zone line in a poorly joined MMORPG.  Right up to the sign is this well maintained all weather two land road, and then at the sign it suddenly changes.  You can see that a stripe had been painted down the middle at some point, but it has faded away.  The road is crumbling at the edges and has more than its share of cracks and divots.

But it is still a two land road, if a less well maintained one.  So we carried on.

This put us on the north coast of the island, which faces the open ocean.  This is where the waves and the wind happen.  Between Kahuliu and Haiku on the road that ends goes to Hana you will see lots of windsurfers on the open water.  The airport is there for a reason; the wind blows strong and continuously, making landings a bit of a “seat belts required” part of many flights.  The big waves are also along that stretch with Paia being about the center of that zone.

This is not a place of nice sandy beaches like the sheltered side of the island.  This is cliffs and volcanic rock and the power of the ocean beating against the shore.  We stopped a couple of times to take pictures.

We kept on going and after a while the road started to get a little more ragged and little more narrow.  Not a lot of people live out there and those that do tend to be outdoorsy types.  We came around a bend to be surprised by a pack of riders on ATVs roaring up the road, a pickup tailing behind.

Then the occasional signs start warning you that the road is narrow and windy ahead.  The road has to follow the coast, which has many inlets and so my nice yellow line on the map hardly represents the actual route.  Still, we were fine until a sign announced that we would be facing a single lane road ahead.

This might have been a good time to turn around, except that the road was already down to one and a half lanes between a cliff on the right side of the car and a drop off into the roiling ocean on the left, which meant turning around might be a bit dicey.  So we carried on.

The signs were very serious about the whole “one lane” business.  I became very conscious of wide spots in the road where two vehicles could pass.  As we went into each inlet we could look across the gap to see if a car was coming the other way so as to be prepared for the dance of who gets to back up when we meet.

I had to back up a number of times, nearly a quarter of a mile at one point, in order to get to a point where the car coming the other way could get around us.

Gone was any pretense of a line painted down the middle of the road.  Instead there was… now and then… a white line painted at each shoulder of the road, defining the space in which you had to stay to keep moving forward safely.  I wouldn’t want to try this whole thing at night.

We also started to see signs asking people not to honk when coming around blind corners.  Apparently tourist take those signs on the state highway very seriously and the locals have gotten sick of all the horns going off.

So I asked my wife if she had gotten a picture of one of those signs, then looked over and discovered that she was not having a good time.  I had been very focused on the road, it being the sort of drive that really requires full attention to everything going on, but had been feeling okay about things because I could see a full sized Jeep Wrangle about a half a mild ahead of us.  That thing was a good couple of feet wider than our Kia and, while it had the whole four wheel drive thing going for it, I was pretty convinced that being narrow and nimble and sounding like a pod racer was the more advantageous configuration.

My wife was a little more focused on the edge of the road and the deep blue see way down the cliff below us, so she was a bit more into gripping the arm rest and not really about taking pictures with her phone.  This caused her to make what I will call a couple of declarations against interest along the way.

We’ve been together for about 25 years at this point and, being an old married couple, bicker about stupid little things, like where things go in the cupboards or refrigerator as well as each other’s skill as a driver.  She likes to kibitz and will grab onto the arm rest when going into turn at anything over 15 mph, while I am prone to mutterings of “Oh God” and have a habit of just closing my eyes and letting my body go limp when I am sure we’re on the verge of disaster.

It is a wonder we get in the car with each other some days.  And neither of us will back down from our positions.

But here, in our rental car, going “whomp whomp whomp” down a one lane road between a mountain side and a cliff in a rural area with no cell phone reception facing locals coming the other way in full size pickup trucks barreling along with no fear, she conceded that she might not always be the best passenger and that I am a good driver.

This pair of admissions caused me to laugh out loud, which was probably the wrong thing to do, but it broke the tension of the drive.  I had been kind of quiet, focused on the road, and she had been just gripping the arm rest, but with that we felt a little better.  I started talking about my strategy for getting through this, spotting outlets, while she kept and eye out for cars and trucks coming towards us, and we both focused our scorn on this horrible one lane road.

This was a classic vacation situation for us.  We have a long tradition of going off on a lark and getting in over our heads.  Often it involves a seemingly easy hike in places like Lake Tahoe or Muir Woods or up Diamond Head on Oahu, where we get too far in to back out and realize we’re out of our depth.  I spent a good portion of time lying to her on a trail up a mountain in Marin, telling her it was downhill after the next turn, only to have her get there and see that we still had more climbing to do.

But we always managed to get through it together and then we go some place and have several drinks and curse our naivety and how sore we’ll be in the morning and swear we’ll be smarter next time.

So after a couple of moments of false hope, where the road seemed to be widening for good, only to narrow down to one lane for another few miles, and a few too many minivans coming the other way for comfort, we hit the start of the state highway again, with the road once again well paved and wide enough for two lanes with a solid double yellow line painted down the middle.

And that was our big adventure for this trip.  We contented ourselves by sitting on the beach or next to the pool for most of the rest of the time before we headed home.

35 Years of Connected Computers

I realized the other day that at some point 35 years ago, during the latter half of the summer of 1986, Potshot… or Skronk or Fergorin or whatever names I’ve used to identify him on the blog over the years… sold me a modem.

I think it was in August, but honestly it could have been July or September.  It was a cash deal and no receipts were kept.  It was an Apple 1200 bps modem and I took it home, then went over to the used computer store that was close by… because used computers were a business then… and bought a Super Serial Card for my Apple //e so I could hook the modem up to it.

Apple and Zoom modem pictures gleaned from the internet, the latter being me second modem

At that point I had to do something with it.  I dialed up a BBS or two with some primitive terminal emulation software, then I started looking at online services, landing on GEnie.

There I ended up playing Stellar Emperor almost right away.  Somebody there told me to go buy the Apple ][ terminal emulator that CompuServe sold which was light, emulated well, and had ten macro keys, which would become all important in playing Stellar Emperor and Stellar Warrior. (I did a recap of my 80s online gaming a while back.)

I also never had to go sit in the computer lab in college anymore.  They had a dial up number I could log in through.  I still had to walk across campus to pick up my printouts for projects, usually from SPSS, a software package I am continually surprised to find still exists.  It is almost as old as I am.

I’ve told those tales before here.  I’ve even charted out timelines for various things, including platforms and connectivity.  I’ve written a lot down on the blog over the last 15 years.

Game Platforms

I should probably update that one a bit.  I can add iPhone to it, and a Nintendo Switch.  But mostly it has been Windows PC gaming since Y2K.

Connectivity

That one I really need to update.  I think it was about 2015 that we swapped over to Comcast for a cable modem connection.  That runs at 100 MBits.

100 megabits per second.  One hundred million bits per second.  That is a long way from 1,200 bits per second back in 1986.  I would need more than 80,000 little Apple modems humming along in parallel to even come close to my throughput today.  1986 me would be impressed.

Hell, 2006 me would be impressed.  We’ve come a long way.

Back in 1986 I was kind of an oddball, demographically speaking.  I mean, just having a personal computer was still kind of odd, though growing increasingly common.  But having one that connected to other computers, that was really not a thing for many people.

For a long time the idea of a computer being connected to other computers was kind of niche.  One of the jobs I had there were several Apple ][s hooked up to a central Corvus drive that would share accounting data and output reports.  And the stuff in the lab at school was all wired up, but for most people a computer was a stand alone unit.  If you wanted to send somebody data you printed it out or saved it to a floppy disk.

In 1991, when I was working for a company that specialized in hard drives I got a call from a guy who had moved from there to a data recovery firm asking me about modems.  I was the recognized “modem expert” largely because I ran a BBS at the time, which made me the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.  He had a client down in LA who really needed the data from a drive they had recovered and wanted to know how long it would take to send to him via modem.  They had a 2,400 bps modem handy to transfer the 40mb of data.

I told him it would be quicker to drive down to LA and hand him the drive in person.  I didn’t even get into the complexity of queuing up however many files and sending the one by one and then sorting through them at the far end.  He was discouraged, but understood when I did the math.  It was kind of a surprise that the client at the far end had a modem, even in 1991.

Modems didn’t really become a thing to have until 1994 or so when the World Wide Web suddenly hove into view for many people.  I moved from the hard drive company to a modem manufacturer… again based on the fact that I ran a BBS so knew something about modems… where our big selling point was that you could send a fax from your Apple PowerBook.  Hard copies were still a thing.  Remember faxing lunch orders into a restaurant or getting fax spam ads?  No?  You’re kind of young, aren’t you?

But with the web, the internet became a thing for everybody.  The rush to get online began and here in Silicon Valley there was a good year to 18 months when on a typical weeknight you could lift up the handset on your home phone and not be sure you would get a dial tone.  The phone company, built on the idea that most people make a few five minute calls, was suddenly faced with a bunch of people who would dial up to their ISP when they got home from work and leave their connection pinned up until they went to bed.   Checking your email was kind of a big deal.

There was an transition point from where a computer went from being a stand alone device, to being something that could connect to an online service, to a device whose whole existence revolves around connectivity.

Back in the 80s and 90s having a computer online meant you could be some sort of cyber ninja computer hacker.  Now having a computer not connected has a special mystic.  We have a special term for it even, an “air gapped” computer.

I mean think about how much you do every day that required connectivity.  My job, which has been work from home for 18 months now, pretty much required online connectivity all the time for the last 20 years.  The network being down meant no work was getting done.  And now I am at home and that connection is work, commerce, and entertainment.  I have a 10 channel package from Comcast for my cable TV service because they want so badly to demonstrate that people are not cord cutting.

So far this year we have watched live TV on January 6th and during the Olympics.

Meanwhile, “always on” internet is essential.  All my many screens, and screens have proliferated in the last decade, seem to now demand some sort of internet access.  I remember back in the day when my daughter and I got our Nintendo DS Lites.  Internet connectivity was kind of a rare thing.  Setting up Nintendo WiFi for Pokemon was a pain.  I think only Mario Kart really worked well with it.

Now if I pick up the Switch Lite somewhere out of WiFi range is starts acting like a junkie in withdraw.

And I suspect the trend will continue in that direction.  I’ve resisted wifi enabled appliances and stuff, given their legendary security vulnerabilities, but I am sure some day they will become mandatory.

Immersion in the Nebulae of New Eden

Back to the immersion track again and this time I am going to change things up completely, leaving behind the fantasy realms of Middle-Earth and Norrath for outer space.  It is time to take a crack at EVE Online.  That is, after all, where this tear about immersion started a while back.

This should be easy, right?   CCP even ran an ad campaign around the “I was there” idea, which seemed to me to be a clear suggestion that immersion was a thing.

Of course, that was made for the Incarna expansion a decade back and ends with the player in the ship hangar of the captain’s quarters, a feature gone from the game for about four years at this point.  It was not a high point for the game and the relations between CCP and the players.  But it was trying to get at something about the game.  Was it accurate though?

EVE Online has a lot of things going for it when it comes to immersion.  It is a futuristic dystopian space empire game, which means not only can the game get away with a lot, but things that might seem immersion breaking in a fantasy MMORPG like Lord of the Rings Online are perfectly acceptable in EVE.  There are no naming conventions to break, no cultural references that you can make that aren’t ancient history in New Eden, things like in game chat channels and voice comms are totally appropriate to the setting.

And the game even enforces a bit more reality that your average MMO.  In the future currency is all electronic… it is mostly that way today… so a cash balance at your finger tips that is measured in the millions or billions of ISK is totally within the scope of what one should expect.  But the magic storage back doesn’t exist.  You can’t store something in your hangar in Jita then run over and pick it up again in Amarr.  You can’t even use the magic mail service that exists in WoW and EQ and so many other titles to insta-ship things to yourself or others.

Which isn’t to say there are not delivery services in New Eden.  They’re just run by other players.  Contracts, scams, industrial enterprises, spies, piracy, it is all there.  I even think the space flight aspect is probably more realistic to what we ought to expect that your typical dogfight in space simulator.  Do we think people will fly ships by the seat of their pants or do we thing computers will do the calculations and take the ship where you want to go?  I think entering a command to warp to a particular destination is probably more likely.

So here is the odd twist, at least for those of who read my posts about the game.  If I am writing about some big battle where thousands clashed and ships were exploding left and right… that even probably involved very little, if any, immersion for me.  Or maybe it is a different sort of “in the zone,” I am not sure.

But generally with those fights when were on voice comms with hundreds of people in a fleet and you’re getting instructions over your headset and trying to follow broadcasts and keeping an eye on your position and you overview, it can be a lot of work, a lot of switching around and not focusing on one thing, and getting focused on something is an easy gateway to immersion.

Add in time dilation and the UI not responding and having the outstanding commands window up and having the FC change their mind based on intel coming in on a channel that he can hear but you cannot…. it is probably very warfare realistic… but it not something that where I get that “I was there” feeling.  It feels very much like a video game.  An amazing, complex, video game with thousands of people involved, but still a video game.

One of the problems with EVE Online is that I spend a lot of time playing the game while tabbed out in some other window.  I am looking at Jabber channels or something in Discord or one of the many web sites with game information like DOTLAN or zKillboard… or maybe just looking up something that was mentioned on voice comms or linked in fleet chat.

Which is, like so much, is perfectly in sync with the technology age of the game.  Of course we would have access to all sorts of data… and data overload can be a thing.  If you have the wrong overview setting or mis-heard a command because something else was going on of the FC is too excited and only keyed up his mic half way into what he was telling us… but that is all very realistic too.

What isn’t, however, is the UI itself.  The game has gotten better over the years, doing things has become smoother, but having to fumble around with that user interface that is suppose to represent the state of the art technology thousands of years in the future doesn’t quite sell it.

Okay, so where do I find immersion in the game?

I can get there in big fleet fights, but usually only if I am flying logi, the repair ships that accompany a fleet into battle.  I can get into the zone in that role, and it is one of the reasons I spend as much time as I have over the years doing so, because your part of the battle is fairly small.  You need to stay on your anchor and keep an eye on broadcasts, locking up and repairing ships as they call for help.  This is often facilitated in a fight by a spy in the opposing fleet who will communicate the enemy’s next target.  Somebody in command will call out the name of the next target and tell them to broadcast for reps and we’ll all lock them up so they will have repairs already on them as hostile damage begins to land.  When things are going well it can be an assembly line of reps, one ship after another until suddenly the broadcasts stop if the fight has gone your way… or until the logi ships start dying off too quickly and you can no longer hold and then your side is probably on the losing end.

That is certainly a thing.  And even in smaller fleets, especially Reavers fleets, I can get in the zone flying a combat ship rather than logi.  Having an FC you know and trust and knowing what you need to be doing can get you there.

But for the most part immersion is kind of a solo thing for me in New Eden.

While most of my posts about big fights don’t involve immersion, almost every post I have made about doing some minor task… usually flying a ship through hostile space on my own… has involved some immersion moment.  Especially when I jump through a gate in low sec or null sec space and find hostiles on the other side.  I was reminded of that last week when I lost a Purifier to a gate camp.  I came through and saw them on the overview, that they had the gate bubbled, and my heart rate went up noticeably as my body responded to that sensory input with an little jolt of adrenaline.

A physiological  reaction to something that happens in game is pretty much proof of immersion in my book.

Anyway, looking back at what I have written so far I have been meandering.  That is often my style.  But I don’t need this to be 10K words, so I am going to try to pull immersion in New Eden into better focus by comparing it with my past two posts, which were about LOTRO and EQ in order to tease out what elements of the game help me find immersion and what works against it.  What do they titles have in common for me?

For LOTRO I listed out:

  • Familiar lore
  • Good adaptation of the lore to the game
  • Feeling of place within the game
  • Mechanics are familiar but not identical to other fantasy MMORPGs
  • Familiarity with the game
  • Well done landscape that feels like Middle-earth

And for EQ I said:

  • Feeling of place within the game
  • A connected world that required travel
  • A feeling of different places in that world
  • A simply huge world at this point
  • A freshness that has somehow remained with me
  • Night/light really changing the feel of the game
  • A sense of danger in the world
  • Mercenaries if you can’t find a group now

Lore comes up right away for LOTRO.  Without Tolkien’s works behind it LOTRO is just a poorly implemented fantasy MMORPG.  Lore is key to the experience for me.

Not so with EQ and not so with EVE Online as well.  The lore of New Eden just doesn’t do much in the game for me.  It isn’t compelling for me and is, in some cases, a bit annoying.

For example, the idea that ships in New Eden have crews is dumb, an artifact of somebody slipping a mention of crews into the old game wiki.  Nothing in the game supports the idea of crews and much argues against the idea.  Even those who love the idea of crews gladly toss aside the complexities involved with their pet theory.  Where do they come from?  Are they impressed into service?  Are they slaves?  Who willingly gets on a ship with an immortal capsuleer who will be reborn if the ship blows up?  Are planetary conditions so bad that people are willing to die?  This is a plot hole worse than where they go to hire henchmen in James Bond movies.

I am a proponent of the lone capsuleer theory.  The game takes places thousands of years in the future where technology has made capsuleers immortal gods of the space lanes.  Am I supposed to believe we have the technology for that and faster than light travel, but somehow my missile bays need somebody standing around loading them by hand?  I think not.  Besides which, how do my skills and implants and boosters affect ship systems unless it is me running everything.  I am alone on the ship, I am a part of it and it is an extension of my body.  This is the lore hill I will die on.

Sorry, got a little carried away there.  Let’s just say that the lore is a split decision for me on a good day.

I am going to skip down on the LOTRO list to familiarity with the game, which is kind of a draw for me in EVEEVE is a game of continual learning, so familiarity means that you have a foundation from which to work.  But there is so much to know.  The wise quickly learn their limitations and fools like me rush in and get schooled.  There are 65 regions in known space in the game and after 15 years of playing I still run across region names I cannot place on the map in the MER… and if I’m listing them out from the MER that means a bunch of people live there.  So kind of a wash on familiarity, but that was why I wanted to get it out of the way and move on to the big one.

Then there is a sense of place.  I said in the last post that this felt like an item that could be a through line on all of these posts, and this one will support that idea.

EVE Online very much has a sense of place.  Not in the way that Middle-Earth in LOTRO or Norrath in EQ do.  Not really.  I mean, space in New Eden is as beautiful and varied as the landscapes in LOTRO, and the size of EQ is only matched by the size of EVE Online, something enhanced by the lack of instant travel and automated post box deliveries I mentioned above.  It feels like a place because it takes time to move through it.

But New Eden doesn’t have a lot of personal touches, places that are special because the devs designed them that way.  There are a few monuments scattered about space.  But a lot of the places that are special are because the players made them so.

My personal map of New Eden and the places I’ve been

Jita, the main trade hub of New Eden is an accident of design.  The Caldari Navy Assembly Plant at Jita planet 4 moon 4 was once the first mission hub for new Caldari players back when rolling up Caldari gave you an initial skill advantage for PvP.  So lots of new players are coming back from missions and selling their stuff and suddenly it because the place to sell.  Jita 4-4 is your space mall.

The graveyard in Molea was a player driven effort.  CCP has since made it a thing they shepherd, but it went for more than a decade of being a place made special by the players.  Other monuments in the game are there to remember things that players did.  There are plenty of systems made famous for events, like B-R5RB or M2-XFE, where titanic battles were fought.

And then there are the places that mean something to us individually.  Two years back I wrote a post about my homes in New Eden.  Anybody who has played the game for any length of time likely has a system or two or a station that they feel like they lived out of, that has memories for them.

The funny thing is that while space if pretty, it is also kind of generic.  It doesn’t change much as you travel through a region.  One system can look very much like another.  They only become special because of the things we experience.  It is our stories over layered on top of New Eden which makes one system memorable and another just another pair of gates on the way to some place.  New Eden has a sense of place because we make place there special.

And that leads me into another item which isn’t on either of my other two lists, and that is the player stories.

Every MMORPG has player stories.  I write here about the tale of the instance group and my time in other games, essentially retelling the stories of my time spent.  But those tales are often in the context of the lore and the larger tales of the game itself.  I wrote about Hellfire Ramparts yesterday not because we did something unique, but because we ran a piece of content.  Our experience was our own, but it was parallel to what many thousands of others have experienced.

EVE Online, being a good sandbox, lets players have stories that are not on the same rails that everybody else has experienced.  It can be small, personal events.  If you have decided to move to a new region in high sec, just finding a new home, hauling your stuff, and getting to know the new neighborhood is a story.  A lot of stories depend on interaction with other people.  There is a lot of PvP in New Eden.  Ships blow up.  Players pop up where you don’t expect them… or sometimes they land exactly where you do expect them.  It is a difficult game to find the fun in at times because the fun isn’t always dispensed in bite sized increments.  And the scripted stuff, missions and events and the like, are often a bit tedious after the first run or two.  PvE is content that can be mastered and, thus, made routine.  But player stories about them doing their own thing, that is what makes the game.

People often complain about sovereign null sec.  It is boring.  It is too safe.  Wormholes are more lucrative and low sec has better small gang fights.  I’ve heard it all over and over and have been called names because of where I live.  F1 monkey is always a favorite.  Gevlon said I was a slave, like I somehow couldn’t log off.

But here is the thing.  Out there in null sec I am a part of a much larger story.  We just saw a 13 month war that had 120K in game characters attack a group of less than 40K in a campaign that swept through a dozen regions and laid waste to at least half of them.  It was a struggle the size of which just doesn’t happen in other games, driven by politics, deals, grudges, and a desire for fame and a place in the history of New Eden.  Andrew Groen has written two large books on the history of the null sec empires in EVE Online, and there is certainly material enough for a third.

Even if we assume the character to player ratio is something around 5 to 1 (I make this call knowing that the current ratio in Goonswarm Federation is 4.2 to 1) that is still a lot of people involved.  That is maybe 30K real life individuals involved in a virtual space war that carried on around the clock for over a year and spawned host of narratives, intrigue, and propaganda that spilled out into the real world.

I had to come up with a new term just to try and find some way to capture the feeling of being involved in such an event.  I will call it “Meta Immersion,” the feeling of belonging to something that isn’t real yet becomes a real part of your life.  This is a special aspect of New Eden that just doesn’t happen at scale in other games that I have played.  Empires rise and fall, alliances are made and broken, leaders become famous for a season and maybe infamous come the next, it is all quite a big deal when you dig into it.

Okay, I am getting all breathless about story here, I know, and I am already three thousand words into this post.  Maybe it is time to try and sum up to some bullet points.  So let’s see…

Pro Immersion

  • Sense of place
  • No fast travel options makes the size of the game more tangible
  • Scales up to “meta immersion”
  • A vast canvas for story, from the smallest to those with a cast of thousands
  • Lore that is compatible with player stories
  • A company that sometimes cares a lot about player stories
  • A lot of good complexity
  • Most meaningful trade skills in any game ever
  • Unique mechanics
  • Skill and knowledge focused versus gear focused game play
  • A sense of danger in the world

Against Immersion

  • A UI that really struggles to tell you what you need to know (remembers everything, tells you nothing)
  • Most info you need is outside of the game (tabbing out breaks immersion)
  • A lot of bad complexity (try managing a corporation)
  • No other game prepares you to play this one
  • CCP can’t quite grasp its own game or the implications of some of its actions
  • CCP goes through bouts of “you’re playing wrong” and breaks things
  • Other players on voice coms (and in the forums and on /r/eve)
  • Loss is very much part of the game, which is a tough hurdle for many people

That last one is a hurdle for so many people.  I still hate losing a ship.  If there is one thing that MUDs then MMORPGs have taught us as players is that gear is sacred.  I remember back in TorilMUD where a first offense for doing something considered cheating (which included a bunch of things that would be normal in WoW today) got you the choice of losing half your levels or all of your gear.  That was no choice at all.  With gear getting back your levels is no problem, but without gear a level cap character was useless.

In EVE Online ships are not like that.  Aside from a few very special items, ships are expendable, more like ammo than gear.  I’ve lost 334 ships in 15 years, which is a small number really.  That is almost twice a month.  If you lost your gear in WoW that often you’d quit.  But in New Eden you just go to Jita and buy a new ship.  There is enough competition that the market is usually good at finding the lowest acceptable price for producers and most anything can be had for ISK.

Anyway, I have rambled enough about EVE Online for now.  There are probably half a dozen things I meant to write that I forgot and no doubt a couple I went on at length about that could have been cut back.  But this is an exploration via writing on a blog where everything is a first draft.

So that is three games down.  Where should I go next?

The series so far:

Immersion in Middle-Earth

I set myself an ambitious goal.  I was all up in arms about immersion once again and, having had that blinding flash of the obvious association between immersion and enjoyment of certain titles, figures I could explore some past titles to see if that could pinpoint what makes for an immersive experience for me.

The danger here is that what is immersive can easily be confused with things I just like… and thus things that prevent or break immersion must be things I simply don’t like… and so the whole thing might just devolve into things I have praised or groused about in the past.

And “confused” probably draws too dark of a line between likes and immersion.  They are at a minimum fellow travelers.  But I know I can find cases where things I do not always enjoy and up in the mix of immersion as well.  The rather nebulous concept of “grind” fits in there.  Grinding mobs for a quest or just for xp can be bad… except when it is not.  Sometimes it is just what you need, and easy repetitive task that lets you fall into the rhythm of the game and your character.

Anyway, with all that and more in mind I thought I might take a stab at what I consider up front to be an easier title with which to pin down my immersion factors.

And the winner is Lord of the Rings Online.

Straight out of the gate the lore of the game is something I had been immersed in for nearly 30 years before it launched.  I was Book of Lost Tales and other bits and pieces published by Christopher Tolkien deep into it.  I used to knock out The Hobbit on a Sunday afternoon if I had nothing else going on and would re-read the main trilogy every two or three years.

So I was already sold on the idea… though that can be a hazard if the company doesn’t deliver.  But Turbine did deliver.  LOTRO might not be the most unique or well built MMORPG, but it looked and felt like Third Age Middle-earth to me.  The landscape, the buildings, even the stars at night are all amazing.

As well, the integration of the player into the story was done very well.  That was something I was worried about before playing the game.  One of my early posts on the blog, less than two weeks after I started, was a bit of fretting about how Turbine would handle LOTRO and lore.

But parallel path of the player through the tale, where you are handling important side tasks and occasionally crossing paths with the fellowship, is done with such care that it has never caused me much concern.

Knowing the lore and being predisposed to go along with it helped me get in the zone with the game.  There were certainly problems, especially early on.  The usual problems of running back and forth too much or perhaps spending too much time on the bear/boar/wolf circuit were pain points.  And the UI itself, with odd and sometimes indecipherable icons for skills and attacks… again, I have a post about some of that… were among my gripes.  But at least you got a lot of bag space up front, so inventory management wasn’t an immediate struggle.

Even the kind of goofy take on crafting, where you pick a vocation that gets you a basket of three trade skills plus the related harvesting was at least a slightly different take on things, though it could become something of an unpleasant grind on its own after not too long into the game.

So I found fun and interest and immersion to some degree on our first pass through, and immersion seemed to grown as I returned to LOTRO various times over the years.  I have mentioned before that having knowledge of the game when you come back to start from scratch helps things along and makes me feel more the champion of the free peoples.

To this end there are a string of zones that I enjoy running through again and again.  The starter zones not so much… I’m not really a fan of the Shire, quaint though it be… but once I am headed towards Bree I am very much engaged in the game and the story and the tale of my character.  Bree and the Old Forest and Midgewater Marshes and the Lone Lands and Evendim are my happy path, where I fall under the spell of the game, where I can feel myself get lost in the experience.

Things taper off a bit for me in the Trollshaws and in the Misty Mountains, and I have never been much on either Forochel or Angmar, the former being weighed down by so much running back and forth while the latter is just a bit too grim for my tastes.  But I still can carry on and find the zone through those and on into Moria.

And then somewhere, between Moria and Mirkwood my immersion fades and the game feels like a labor, the story doesn’t capture me and all the quests become like a weight dragging me down.

Mirkwood might explain it.  It is a dark and uninspired area into which you get thrown.  I’ve been through Moria well enough a few times now, but Mirkwood is truly an impenetrable forest in my way.

So I roll up any number of characters and get to level 40 and can be quite pleased.  I can push on and still enjoy myself.  But there is a limit beyond which there is no joy, no immersion, just grind.

It is tempting to blame Siege of Mirkwood, it being a blameworthy expansion, but even Mines of Moria, the epic underground adventure, begins to wear on me.  There is a temptation in me to revert to my “no good expansions” stance.  It is handy to reach for the idea that the initial crafted experience, the base world of any MMORPG, is a solid experience and only besmirched by trying to tack on a sequel.

I’ve played that tune any number of times, and it does have a ring of truth to it at times, especially with titles like Rift.  Changes in philosophy, new features piled on the game, attempts to be both true to the game and yet provide a new experience… to both player and developer, the latter who may chafe even more that the former at having to do the same old thing over and over again… must necessarily dilute from the original focus.

Expect, of course, I can find exceptions to the rule.  For every Storm Legion departure from the core tenets of a title there is a Ruins of Kunark that is a much needed seasoning that enhances an already delicious meal.

But as much as I might like to blame the torpor of Mirkwood and the darkness of Moria, I’ve boosted some characters past those locations.  I have tried my shot at Rohan a couple of times as well and failed, and I am told that Riders of Rohan was not a bad experience.

And here is where I risk sounding as though I am simply going to blame the failure of immersion on a feature I have complained about in the past.  Yes, I am going to lay this on legendary items.

I know, I know, the elevator speech for legendary items is pretty awesome.  I know I went in as a true believer when it came time.  You pick up a weapon that will grow with you, the potential of which you will unlock as you adventure with it.

That is truly the stuff of legends.  Arthur and Excalibur.  Aragorn and Anduril.  Even Bilbo and Sting are pairings many of us wished to emulate in our D&D campaigns or online adventures.  Strider doesn’t hand off his family sword to the nearest shop keeper the moment he finds something a bit shinier or with a slightly better stat.  No, he and the weapon are one and they fight together.

Unfortunately, Turbine screwed that idea up pretty badly and then proceeded to double down on it repeatedly… since late 2008.  Seriously, that is when Mines of Moria launched and as a feature it has just gotten worse and worse.

Let’s start with the basic problem, the immersion killed for me, which is that your legendary item is a needy baby constantly crying for attention.  At times it feels like you can’t get through half a dozen mobs before an alert pops up that it has leveled up and you have new points to apply.   And then there is the need to go back to camp to reforge it, which doesn’t happen as often, but still comes about way more frequently than it ought to.

And then, add on top of the constant nag that is your legendary, you then end up abandoning it down the road for the inevitable upgrade from a new expansion or update.  We are Aragorn abandoning Anduril every ten levels rather than every other level.

I used to think that maybe the whole thing was just a bad idea, that we shouldn’t level up weapons, that it is a flawed mechanic that should be avoided.  Then Blizzard did the legendary weapon thing with the Legion expansion and it was freaking brilliant.  And they even had a bunch of the same things I hated with LOTRO legendaries, like having to go back to town to upgrade it, but somehow made it work.  It was great.  Legion might be the last great WoW expansion.

And Blizzard had the good sense to not try to drag that on into the next expansion.  I mean, I was sad to leave Ashbringer behind and I missed the skills it enabled and the looks you could unlock with it, but it was probably for the best. (I’d seriously consider a WoW Legion Classic server I guess, just to do that again.)

So there it is.  Legendary items.

I mean sure, there are other things.  The monetization can pull me out of the game.  Having a “buy your way through this with some mithril coins!” mechanic does not jibe well with immersion.  But the mithril coin thing doesn’t show up constantly when I am out in the field questing.

I can get through escorting Sara Oakheart and running up and down the lengths of Forochel and people with crappy non-RP names and avoid a good chunk of the monetization by playing on the Legedary servers.  But even when I boosted past Mirkwood into Rohan the first thing in my face was the freaking legendary weapon and the need to do whatever.

There are literally a lot of things that people complain about when it comes to LOTRO that I can overlook like the stiff character models, the indecipherable iconography, the skirmishes, the dull housing, and how grindy crafting becomes as you move forward in levels.  But legendary items… that just kills it for me.

And I am not the only one complaining about them.  I remained amazed that first Turbine and then SSG not only kept rolling on with a system like that for more than a dozen years, but have only now conceded that maybe they ought to look into giving it a rework.

Anyway, after that reconnaissance by text of LOTRO, what are the take aways?  What makes for good immersion and what fails me on that front?

Immersion pluses

  • Familiar lore
  • Good adaptation of the lore to the game
  • Feeling of place within the game
  • Mechanics are familiar but not identical to other fantasy MMORPGs
  • Familiarity with the game
  • Well done landscape that feels like Middle-earth

Immersion minuses

  • Legendary items (primary)
  • Monetization (somewhat avoidable)
  • Poor content mid-game (Mirkwood)
  • Poor iconography
  • Lack of large monitor support (my 34″ monitor specifically)

In the end, LOTRO remains a game I have been happy enough to go back and play multiple times… at least the original content.  It is a game where I have often found immersion, traveling through the game, both as confidently as a ranger and as lost as a neophyte, depending on where I am.  (I don’t get lot in the Old Forest anymore.)

So this post was a bit of a gimme.  I already had strong feelings about what draws me to the game and what has pushed me away.  With this post I have set something of a baseline.  The question is, where do I go next?  Do I pick another fantasy title and compare immersion points, or do I try another direction and see if a very different game shares points of intersection?

The Fraternity Alliance Update and the Direction of the War

…but this tireless swarm of maniacal bees is somewhat unexpected

-Noraus, Fraternity Alliance Meeting (translated)

In the week 54 war summary I mentioned that there was a big war related announcement expected for this Saturday, July 24th.  Earlier this week Fraternity had an alliance meeting to prepare its members for this announcement, as well as bringing up a couple of additional topics.

Fraternity is a primarily Chinese alliance and so a transcript was posted to Reddit initially in Chinese with a brief summary.  Translation from Chinese to English is problematic both due to the lack of exactly parallel idioms and the jargon laden nature of the New Eden, and the Google Translate attempt to bridge the gap is hilarious. (The quote at the top becomes “The tireless raging bee colony is indeed beyond everyone’s expectations” via Google.)

There have since been a few translations.  I am going by this one that appeared on Pastebin.

Fraternity is also the third largest sov null alliance in the game when it comes to membership and the largest when it comes to total systems held in New Eden.  So what they are up to matters to the rest of New Eden.

The Top 5 Sov Null Alliances

The meeting started with a summing up of the current situation, recognizing that the Imperium has held out for more than 90 days in the 1DQ1-A constellation and shows no sign of breaking.  The Mittani is said to have cultivated a group of diehard loyalists.

This is what happens when you declare a war of extermination.  If you say there are no terms save destruction, there is no reason to for us to give up.

So the failure to break us is because of maniacal bees and game mechanics, the latter being TEST’s favorite “why PAPI hasn’t won yet” hobby horse.

Faced with the stalemate, Noraus says that there are two paths forward.  They either have to go all out to destroy the Imperium regardless of the costs or they have to somehow break up the blue donut that is PAPI to foster null sec content while maintaining the containment of the Imperium in Delve.

The goal is to end the war in 60 days.  The announcement about which path they will take comes on the 24th.

I want to say that, to actually end the war, they have to go with the former.  They have to go all out and attack the Imperium and evict us from 1DQ.  There is no undisputed victory without that.  Fail that and the Imperium will never let anybody forget that all of null sec blued up and couldn’t take us down.

So it has to be an all out attack, right?  Why bother if it isn’t going to be an immediate all hands onslaught?  Nothing else wins the war in 60 days.  They have to be going on the offensive.

Maybe?  Maybe not.  Winning the war and ending the war in 60 days could be two different paths completely.

PAPI has been reluctant to commit to a big fight since the battles at M2-XFE more than six months ago.  They have been careful, using their numbers to squeeze us down to the last constellation in Delve, since which their progress has been stymied.

O-EIMK Constellation – The situation since mid April

Given this hesitance and the regular reference to game mechanics and servers favoring the Imperium, it is kind of a hard sell that PAPI has suddenly decided to go all-in on taking 1DQ.  Certainly this past weekend they demonstrated levels of torpor in the face of Imperium actions we had not previously seen as we ran around their staging system setting timers, then sent in a salvage fleet uncontested to clean up the battlefield.

And Fraternity itself has reportedly withdrawn its capital fleet from T5ZI already.  Not that they could not return, but that says something about their level of commitment to taking 1DQ.  Then again, Fraternity has used the war to expand its holdings and enrich itself in the northeast of null sec, so their level of commitment seems very much related to their own interests.

But breaking up PAPI in any serious way means disaster for TEST and some of its Legacy allies.  If Pandemic Horde leaves, PAPI’s conquest is over and the Imperium will retake Delve.

Perhaps this means a reduced PAPI with some of the alliances leaving the war.  I suspect FI.RE in the southeast and Fraternity will pull out along with some of the smaller alliances that were tagging along.  But PAPI has to keep a critical mass of player… Legacy and PanFam… to have any hope of keeping Goons from rolling back into their old holdings.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out on Saturday that the big announcement is that PAPI will no longer be however many alliances they have left in the war.

Adding to that is the next item on the agenda for the Fraternity meeting, the TTC.

The Tranquility Trading Tower, the trade hub located in Perimeter, one jump over from Jita, controlled by the Tranquility Trading Consortium which is run by TEST, Pandemic Horde, and the Imperium.

The continued existence of the TTC, which sends trillions of ISK to the three partners over the course of a year, in the midst of a war where one of the partners joined the other to exterminate the third has raise questions.  There were one or two threads a week about it on Reddit for quite a stretch.  There was a point when Snuffed Out threatened that Keepstar, after destroying the low sec TTC Keepstar, where it looked like we might be at war in Delve and fighting shoulder to shoulder with TEST and PH in high sec in order to preserve the status quo in Perimeter.

The existence of the TTC has been used to suggest that the war is fake, but it is really a matter that all three partners know that one of them could make the situation untenable and they would all rather collect the ISK than fight the war in high sec.

Fraternity is not happy with the TTC because they feel they deserve a cut.  Their move from the drone regions into Vale of the Silent and Geminate was in part motivated by a desire to set up a competing marketplace under cover of their own forces.

So they have set up a Keepstar in Oijanen, which is in The Forge region, so checking region-wide market orders from Jita will show items listed there as well as those listed in Perimeter.

While there is a skill limit on setting up sell orders remotely (Marketing V lets you do so region-wide) buying is available region-wide by default, and for things like PLEX or Skill Injectors, which can be dealt with remotely (and which make up much of the Perimeter trade), means that Fraternity will be setup to compete with the TTC.  Their Keepstar being two jumps into low sec is mitigated somewhat by it being one gate from null sec and one of their home regions, so it can be defended.

What does all of that mean?

I’ve said a number of times over the past year that Fraternity has used the war to expand its own power while its allies were committed to attacking the Imperium.  The MER shows them amassing wealth every month and the sovereignty map has shown their expansion.  Now Fraternity is set to assail the golden goose of the TTC, pitting them against TEST and Pandemic Horde.

I think, at a minimum, it means that Fraternity will be stepping back from the war… stepping back more so, since their level of commitment had be fairly low.  Maybe if there is a last big offensive they will contribute some, but they have been hanging around the exit for a while now.

Barring any sudden PAPI military victory, the question becomes what happens when the third largest null sec alliance assails the combined income stream of the first, second, and fourth largest null sec alliances?  Does ISK trump war?  Do TEST and PH stick with the Imperium as a partner or do they kick Goons and maybe invite Fraternity into the agreement to keep a cartel going?

There is no possible peace with PAPI in T5ZI.  There is absolutely no peace with TEST in Delve.    There is likely no peace with TEST anywhere close to the Imperium.  Can the warring factions find a compromise?  Can the war end in 60 days?  Is Fraternity going to be the big winner of World War Bee?  Does the war conclude with Fraternity becoming what PAPI alleged the Imperium was threatening to become?

We’ll have to wait and see what gets announced on Saturday.

(The final topic in the meeting was related to the reserve bank keys that will go live next Tuesday.  As rumors suggested, they are nationalizing the output from a couple of regions for the alliance and encouraging their members to go steal from other people.)

Down the Rabbit Hole of Immersion

This could be the first of a multiple post thread on the topic… or it might all end right here.  I am not sure yet.

Last week I wrote about immersion from my usual point of view, which was trying to pin down what it is while trying not to become the pedant that cannot see that it can be different things to different people, that getting there and getting pulled out of that state are very much things that vary from person to person.

In reflecting for a while on things I found immersive, games and moments in time from those games, I came to the not all that startling in hindsight conclusion that there is very much a pattern of immersion when it comes to games I have enjoyed, played for long stretches, or for which I feel a great deal of nostalgia.

More of a “that makes sense” discovery than a “eureka!” moment, and yet I feel that there is, perhaps, a “eureka!” to be found if only I could approach this from the right angle.  It feels like if only I could somehow parse through the games that I liked because I achieved some tipping point level of immersion in them that I might find a pattern, some common thread… or maybe several parallel threads… that links those games together.  If immersion is truly a key aspect that dictates how much I like a particular video game, then discovering what factors lead to immersion might not only explain my video game preferences, but help me find games more likely to get to that immersion point.  To figure that out I need more data.

But how do you even go about compiling data for what is, at its heart, a very subjective and often transitory experience?

My initial thought is to simply list out all of the games that I have really enjoyed, that series of special titles that rise up above the rest, and explore, one by one, what worked for me within each.  Call that “The Immersion Files” and we are probably talking about a minimum of 50 posts exploring various titles through the years.

That can’t be enough though.  I have to at least spend some time with titles that, for whatever reason, did not hit the nebulous and indefinable immersion threshold, but perhaps should of due to their similarity with titles that did.

Why, for example, did EverQuest II and Lord of the Rings Online cross into immersion territory, but Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 never did?  That comes close to trying to say why World of Warcraft succeeded and Warhammer Online failed when somebody like Richard Bartle says that they are, with enough distance, pretty much the same game; an exploration guaranteed to make somebody angry!

Not that such would stop me.  I’ve already had people shout “willing suspension of disbelief” at me like it was an answer on that front, I can handle that.  Plus, I would be exploring my own likes, which need not feel obligatory to anybody else.

Also, any such exploration depends on my own recollection, and memory is notoriously faulty in most people.  If I go through all the possible titles I am going to have to dig way back.  Literally the first really immersive video game title that comes to my mind was from the mid 1970s, somewhere between Pong and the Atari 2600, when a friends dad brought us into the office while he was watching us one weekend and let us play Star Trek on the mini computer in accounting.

Star Trek in vt52 emulation

The source code for a variation of that in BASIC is all of 425 lines long.  We were so into that game we had to be dragged away and we went on to create a board game version of it so we could play it independent of the accounting department.

But this very early title brings up some important… to me at least… questions about the relative nature of immersion.

First, how much has what triggers immersion changed for me in almost 50 years?  I found this very deep at the time, but I was also 10 years old.  I suspect I wouldn’t find the same level of immersion in it today.

Second, how much does the state of technology at the moment affect immersion?  A 425 line BASIC program was pretty spiffy back then, but today it hardly makes the cut.  I was playing much better Star Trek games in the 80s and 90s, and even those games seem somewhat primitive by today’s standards.  I don’t need AAA photo realistic titles to find immersion… I can find it in un-modded Minecraft for Pete’s sake… but it seems likely that my experience since that game would make it less likely to hold my attention.

And third, how much does the associated theme and/or IP affect immersion?  While I practically need rose-tinted binoculars to see that far back in time, I do know that part of the appeal was that my friend and I were very big fans of Star Trek and this gave us an opportunity, simplistic though it was even at the time, to sit in the captain’s chair and fight Klingons.

This is not a throw away idea, either.  I suspect, could I fully explore my subconscious, that I would find that part of the reason I found, and continue to find, LOTRO compelling and immersive is its association with the books I read not too many years after my friend and I were playing our board game version of Star Trek.

Does my love of EverQuest at launch stem from it being a great game at the time or from the fact that it was very much a translation of TorilMUD, so I came in with some familiarity of what was going on?  I would argue that it was more of the former, but the latter was not absent.

How much impact does familiarity have?

Then there is playing with others.  That is always a big draw for me.  I am pretty sure I put up with WoW at first, which I didn’t like all that much at launch, because friends jumped over to play.  What impact does that have?  Does it improve the chances of immersion?

And given all that, how do I explain Star Trek Online?  I was into and familiar with the IP, wanted to play, and was there on day one with friends… and yet it never grabbed me.  Was it lack of immersion?  Was it just not a game made of of elements that appealed to me?  Or were expectations that the stars would align on such a combination of factors so high that disappointment was inevitable?  Does hype, anticipation, and high expectation impact the possibility of immersion?

Then, let me pile on top of all of that the “me” factor of how I felt, thought, and reacted to the world at various times over the last half of a century.  Leaving aside the tech aspect, there was a time when I would play NetHack all night long… I had the source code and would throw in my own tidbits at times just to see if would run into them… and then there was a time when I would no longer find that interesting.

Did I change?  Did something better come along?  Did I just wear out the possibilities of the game?  I suspect it was all of those combined and probably a couple other items as well, but there was a point when immersion was possible, and then that passed.

So is it even worthwhile exploring why Tank was immersive and Pong was not?  Why the Atari 2600 games Air Sea Battle and Pac Man were dull but Adventure and River Raid would keep me up past my bed time?  Why I played so much Wizardry and Ultima III?  Why WoW Classic is immersive now, and much more so than retail WoW, while early WoW wasn’t terribly immersive for me back in the day until around Wrath of the Lich King? How far back does the exploration of immersion remain valid?  What applies to me today?  Does TorilMUDEverQuestWoWLOTROValheim?  Where do the answers to this lie?

Perhaps the study of a single title that has both immersive and non-immersive aspects for me?  We shall see if I get to that.

On Immersion

Yesterday somebody triggered me on one of my most/least favorite hobby horse discussions, that of immersion.  Sometimes I think I have grown enough over the years to not get wrapped up in online arguments about such things, but apparently immersion is not on that list yet.

This time the immersion argument brewed up as one of the objections to CCP’s pop-up advertisement in EVE Online that comes when you lose a ship, encouraging the player to buy some PLEX so they can purchase a replacement ship.  This has led some anger… erm, some additional anger, because there is always anger… in the community.

Use your credit card to finance your revenge!

This led to any number of reactions, including the dead idea of returning to a subscription model, as well as any number or arguments about why this pop-up pushes the line in way that past monetization of the game has not.  Immersion features in some of those arguments as the pop-up comes during combat when you lose a ship, which puts it in a new category for some.

Sending players to the out of game website cash shop to spend real world money crosses an immersion line for some.

Enter Pollyanna, done explaining that the PCU drop is normal and nothing to worry about, who followed up to argue that immersion is a strictly definable thing, the same for everybody, and that this pop-up does not break immersion because PLEX exists, pop-ups exist, and links that take you out of game exist.

And there you have me triggered and engaging in a fruitless online argument.  I mean, they’re almost all fruitless, but I live in hope as 1 in 100 or so actually end up with some mutual understanding.  Not this time.

It probably took me a bit too long to figure out that Pollyanna didn’t give two fetid dingoes kidneys about immersion, that they were just there to defend CCP with religious fervor.  So I packed that up, muted the whole thread… thank you for that feature Twitter… and decided to write again about immersion.

The main problem is defining what immersion is, or if it is even a thing at all.  I add that last bit because I have had people argue that immersion is literally impossible, though those arguments often seem to assign an unrealistic definition to it.

So let me dispense with the “there is no immersion” side of the argument by saying that it isn’t an absolute belief that the game is real and you’re a part of it.  If that is the definition to which you are wedded, then there is no immersion.  But I am going to say that I both believe immersion is a thing and that I have never once literally believed I was in New Eden or Azeroth or Norrath or any other video game location.

Immersion is more like a release of the real world, the entering of something like a hypnotic focus on the game and its mechanics, becoming briefly one with the game, reacting at some level like the game is real even if you simultaneously know at a more logical part of your brain that you are simply playing a game.

Examples of this from my own personal experience include the rush of elation on defeating a difficult boss, the sudden boost in heart rate when you jump through a gate and find a camp on the other side, or the real knot in your stomach as you reach a cliff and see how high up you are.  These are all physiological reactions that indicate that some part of your brain believes what your doing in a video game is real.  That is immersion.

And, seriously, if you say you have never experienced anything like that I am going to have to ask why you even play video games.  That is the runner’s high, the payoff, the rare moment that makes the effort worth it.

Sometimes immersion is more subtle.  There can be what I have heard called a “competence high,” where you’re just doing very well at something like a simple match 3 game, where the moves are all coming to you and the game is totally going your way that qualifies to my mind.  Inventory management can even be like that.

The thing is that immersion isn’t a constant or reliable.  Sometimes you go through a gate and there is a camp on the other side and it is just another thing in the game.  Not every high place makes you feel a bit of acrophobia.  Not every boss fight, even difficult ones, give you a rush.

I have, in the past, likened being immersed to falling asleep.  I cannot explain how either happens.  There is just generally a point in time where sleep or immersion is not a thing, and then it is.

And things that break immersion can be as capricious as things that wake you up from sleep.  Some things are always going to do it.  The alarm clock is always going to wake you up, the game client crashing is going to break immersion.  Generally speaking, things that take you out of the moment are going to break immersion, and that pop-up could very well be such a thing for some people.

Now, you can certainly ask whether the people who are making the immersion argument really mean it or are just throwing that out there.  It is fair to question them.  Have they even seen the pop up?  (I haven’t) Were they in a state of immersion when the it came up?  Has immersion even been something they have mentioned as important in the past?

But if your counter to the immersion argument is that we all know what PLEX is in our logical brain, that the game has a pop up when log in, or that something like EVE Academy has a link that takes you outside of the game, so this pop up could not possible break your immersion, then I am going to suggest that you don’t know what immersion is or that you are arguing in bad faith because defending CCP is more important that whatever may or may not be immersion breaking to other people.  You certainly don’t get to arbitrarily define what immersion is and dictate what does and does not break it.

Anyway, thank you for listening to my TED Talk and/or my thousand word sub-tweet!

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