Why I’ll Never Buy Mirror’s Edge

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Games

I just recently looked at the Steam Store and noticed that Mirror’s Edge is on sale at 75% off. That puts the total price for this game at $5. I was seriously considering making the purchase, but I vaguely recalled that Mirror’s Edge had some kind of questionable DRM that made me pretty wary of buying it.

Well, I took a look on the Steam page to see what kind of DRM Mirror’s Edge has, and if I’d be able to pick it up. I’d like to play the game after all. I want to give the developers my money. So what does Steam say?

INTERNET CONNECTION, ONLINE AUTHENTICATION AND ACCEPTANCE OF END USER LICENSE AGREEMENT REQUIRED TO PLAY. TO ACCESS ONLINE FEATURES, YOU MUST REGISTER ONLINE. ONLY ONE REGISTRATION IS AVAILABLE PER GAME. EA ONLINE TERMS & CONDITIONS AND FEATURE UPDATES CAN BE FOUND AT www.ea.com. YOU MUST BE 13+ TO REGISTER WITH EA ONLINE.

This kind of thing is really sad. I want to buy the game. It’s only $5. I’d snatch this thing up in an instant, but online authentication with only one activation per game? Why even keep up the pretense that you’re buying the game. This is merely just a rental. And I don’t really want to rent the game to have my copy revoked at the publisher’s leisure.

Good job guys, you lost yourself yet another sale.

Masterplan

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Games, Tabletop, Technology

Sorry for the extended posting hiatus here, things have been busier than expected on the work front.

I’ve been meaning to write for about the past several weeks about a program that I recently discovered. The program is called Masterplan, and it’s a tool for Dungeon Masters of D&D games. There’s a lot of software out there on the internet designed for DMs, and I’ve tried a number of them.

But do I really need software to plan out my plot? No.

As a DM what I need is software that I can use to plan out a plot, create encounters, skill challenges, build maps, write descriptions, store information about NPCs, create treasure, and so on. The jump from doing one thing well to doing all the things DMs need to take into account is quite big and so there are very few programs that ever make the grade. Masterplan is the first piece of software that really seems to integrate well with my workflow as a DM to prepare for gaming sessions.

What’s so great about Masterplan? The key for me is the plot flowchart.

Masterplan Plot Flowchart

Inside Masterplan you can create a flowchart of events that happen in a plot. Whether it’s a scene change, a combat encounter, a skill challenge, what have you, you can enter it here as a plot point. The coolest bit is you aren’t forced into linear plot arrangements. If you want to, you can plan out what happens if the PCs take route B rather than route A, or ingratiate themselves with NPC Z instead of NPC Y.

For each plot point you can add a description, both notes to yourself as the DM and read-aloud text to be shared with the players. You can add a map for significant area features, a combat encounter, a skill challenge, treasure to be found in the area. And all of this is relatively straightforward to do and accomplish, requiring no especially deep knowledge of the program or the 4th Edition game session.

Since beginning use of Masterplan my D&D prep sessions went from, “I don’t know if I can keep committing this amount of time every week,” to about two hours total. Last week I spent roughly an hour writing up descriptions and dialogue notes for NPCs, then spent an hour in Masterplan developing the combat encounter my players would face. The encounter building itself is simple, I selected the monsters I wanted from a list of monsters I’ve imported into Masterplan and dragged them into the list of monsters for that area. For one monster I added a template, which automatically modified the creature in the predetermined ways. For another I increased the level slightly, which caused Masterplan to automatically update the monster’s experience value and defenses (unfortunately Masterplan doesn’t seem to automatically update the monsters’ attacks when levelling them up, or at least not consistently with all monsters).

I then exported the information about that plot point, printed it up, and had a nice little packet of information ready for the week’s game session.

Firefox 4

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Technology

I recently upgraded to Firefox 4 and noticed a number of annoying issues.

  • The page refresh button has moved from over on the left hand side of the browser (where it accompanied the Forward and Back buttons) to the right hand side of the URL bar.
  • Links that I hover over now have a “pop up” effect displaying where the link will go to, instead of displaying in a bar at the bottom of the window.
  • I no longer seem to have a status bar at the bottom of my window that shows the progress of the page loading and other miscellaneous utilities.

I’m not really hugely upset, but I think it’s absurd that the Mozilla / Firefox developers keep feeling the need to push UI changes with no sensible reason behind them. Guess what guys? Over 125 million people use Firefox. It’s unbelievable to me that they will just sit down and decide to change things up for what amounts to “It looks cooler” reasons. We’re used to the UI looking a certain way, it’s fine if you want to provide new options. Heck, I’d be okay even if those new options were enabled by default, so long as users like myself upgrading from earlier versions of Firefox didn’t have our browsing experience disrupted by pointless changes.

Fortunately, moving the page refresh button was a simple matter. However I’m forced to install an add-on called Status-4-Ever to get the status bar functionality back. I love Firefox as a browser, but every once in awhile the developers just seem to do something totally boneheaded.

DLC and Me

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Games

Shamus had a post a couple of days ago discussing the outrage of certain gamers over the day-one DLC in Portal 2. I’ve been meaning to write a response for awhile, but I wanted to let my thoughts on the matter simmer for a little while before actually writing anything. That and I’ve been unfortunately pretty busy and not in the mood to write much when I have had time.

My copy of Portal 2 has not yet arrived, so this is still a little off the cuff, and I reserve the right to change my opinion later on after playing it. The fact of the matter is, though, I don’t like the idea of games selling me extras within the game. I don’t like the idea that a game was built with the expectation of selling items within the game from day one. Other people may not have a problem with that, I do.

Why? Well, the answer is complex but it comes down to this: Emotionally, I don’t like it. I don’t like blatant product placement in movies or television. I don’t like advertisement in general. I don’t want to see advertisement and product placement permeate games the way they have other forms of media. I think it’s perfectly fine if game developers create and sell DLC — But I don’t trust game developers to be responsible with the power that in-game advertisement / microtransaction models provide.

Why do I care?
I’ve learned to experience games in a certain way, and I enjoy experiencing games in that way. What I mean by that specifically is the purchase-product model (there might be another name for this, however I am not interested enough in marketing/sales or its terminology to care). This is the model most games have used from Kings Quest & Mario to most current-day games, whether they be released as a box on store shelves or as a digital download. There are a couple of other models for games to follow, whether it is an “Arcade” model where players must pay cash immediately to continue, the “Subscription” model followed by games like World of Warcraft, the “Free-to-Play-Pay-for-Advantage” model used by many Facebook games or games such as League of Legends, and so on.

Portal 2’s in-game store may be kind of innocuous and tucked away, but game developers (or more specifically: game publishers) are always on the lookout for profitable ways to get you on the hook. Whether we as gamers like to admit it or not, games are essentially brain-hacks designed to provide feedback to the reward centers of our brains. For some people those rewards might be visceral, cool graphics and moves displayed by your avatar. For some people they might be more abstract markers of progress – A full progress bar. For some people those rewards might be a cutscene to drive the story forward, or for others it might be an achievement on your gamer profile to show off to your friends. The techniques used by games to entertain us can also be used for evil, and as cliche as it is to talk about game addicts, there are games that are literally designed to be addicting. In fact, addicting games predate videogames — You’ll find plenty of games designed to be addicting in casinos.

The uniqueness of addicting videogames over casino-style games is simply in variety. Videogames as a whole can provide a much more engrossing experience than a casino game, one which triggers addictive patterns of behavior in players with a wide variety of tastes and preferences. The hat-craze that took over Team Fortress 2 began as a status-only feature, but later on grew to add real functionality to the game. This hooks both the players who play for fun and want uniqueness or status, and also the players who play to win and want a competitive edge.

I do think it’s in the best interests of players and the industry, in the long term to promote ethical behavior from game developers and publishers. What exactly constitutes ethical behavior? I’m not going to say, because my opinion isn’t the only one that matters. The point is there needs to be a conversation about what actually is ethical for game developers to do within their games and what isn’t. Is it ethical, for example, to give players a goal that takes thousands of real-life hours to accomplish, even if the actual gameplay involved is merely a grind of slaying identical monsters over and over? Is it ethical to sell in-game advantages, and if so what kind and what power?
Games are extraordinarily complex to talk about in these terms since they are so varied, but at least for me, selling me items within the game is a bright-line red flag behavior that I think is too prone to abuse to tolerate, no matter how good the game is otherwise.

Interruptions and Interludes

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Games, Tabletop

My gaming group hasn’t met for a week due to scheduling conflicts, but we’re hoping to get back into the swing of things this upcoming week. We’re also running into the final couple encounters of the Keep on the Borderlands adventure that I’ve been running, so my thoughts have been turning to what we can do after the adventure finishes.

The first option, which I’m going to immediately dismiss — Everyone rolls up new characters and we play a different adventure. Our group is really just getting into the swing of things, and I think a lot of the players want to continue playing their characters. I’m a little hesitant to continue the campaign onward after the KotB adventure finishes because D&D 4th Edition has some built-in assumptions I’m not really comfortable with (prevalence of magic mostly, and how this interacts with the game world). However, it’s not about me doing what I want, it’s about everyone having fun, so I’m going to ignore that little voice for now.

The second option is that I could run another published adventure. I actually have a copy of the Undermountain adventure from an earlier season of D&D Encounters, and another published adventure called The Slaying Stone. There are two problems posed by using either of these adventures. The first is story continuity: There really isn’t any story continuity, so I’d need to do additional work to try and fit the subsequent adventures into the context of the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. The second is that both of these adventures are designed for level 1 characters, while currently the group I am running is sitting around 3-5. This is particularly tricky because the Dungeon Master’s Guide spells out that adjusting monster difficulty up by adding levels doesn’t really work that effectively beyond a 5 level jump/dump — So I’d need to really think about the encounter building.

The third option is that I could write my own adventure from scratch. I actually want to do this. At the same time, I really need to invest my time and energy into other pursuits that are more important to me than a D&D game. The only question in my mind is whether it’ll be long-term easier for me to write my own adventure than to take the time and effort to try and adapt a published adventure to my purposes. The Undermountain adventure, for example — I’m sure the encounters themselves are something I could easily adjust to make more challenging. But the plot itself, and the characters, present a problem for me. The alternative, the Slaying Stone adventure, could actually dovetail fairly easily with the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. The downside is it’s designed in a non-linear way and so there’s no easy way to adjust the encounters on a per-session basis. I’d actually have to sit down one day and type up a bunch of new statblocks and encounter notes for level-adjusted encounters. That might be feasible at some point in the coming weeks, but large unfilled blocks of time are something that’s a little tricky to come by.

More on the Borderlands

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Games, Tabletop

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m running a campaign in D&D 4th Edition using the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. Earlier this week my group entered the final “Season” for this adventure, and I figured I’d make a post about it because I thought the ending scenarios are pretty cool and demonstrate some of the neater things about 4th Edition.

Fair warning: Spoilers ahead.

Continue Reading »

4th Edition Success

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Games, Tabletop

I haven’t blogged much about my gaming habits in awhile, so I’m going to give a brief catch up. The last time I was seriously involved in a tabletop RPG game it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition. I’ve played in some 3rd edition games since then, and also played in some 4th edition games, but none of them have survived for very long.

I do like 4th edition, but there are some things that bug me about it. Some of those problems are part of the system, and some of those problems are just issues that arise from how players approach the game. That said, it’s fun, easy to pick up, and entertaining enough. This post isn’t about the merits and flaws of 4th edition though, so I won’t get into much more detail there.

Lately I’ve been running a D&D 4th edition campaign using the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. This campaign was initially being run by another player, but I’m a perfectionist and I felt I could do better, so I stepped up to the plate. Due to attendance issues, players in our group are not always near the same level, so it’s been a bit challenging getting the difficulty level for our players just right. Fortunately, adjusting the difficulty of encounters downward is usually quite easy – Remove a creature or some minions and you’re good to go.

This week’s session, we actually had a full group of players, including a new player. This posed a different problem for me, as I felt the group was actually substantially more powerful than had been accounted for in the published adventure. So before the session began (I was only aware we had a new player joining us when I arrived), I had to quickly do some sheet-margin math to adjust the encounters the players would be facing to ensure they’d be challenging. One of the the encounters for that night was actually against a young black dragon, so I wanted to make absolutely sure that monster was a fearsome and challenging foe.

The thing that impressed me was how easy it was to adjust the attributes of a monster upward in 4th Edition. For every level you’re increasing the difficulty of the monster you: Increase hit points based on the creature’s role, and increase all its defenses. For every two levels increase damage. When I saw that I was kind of shocked, in 3rd Edition D&D building opponents can be a very time consuming process. Granted, this is very simple adjustments of one level, and the 4th Edition DMG even notes that this works best for level adjustments of 5 or less, but I was still impressed.

Due to my adjustments the session went great and was a challenging and rewarding experience instead of the pushover it may have been otherwise.

Blogroll Update

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Administrativa

My blogroll was in desperate need of an update, so I went through it and pared it down a lot.

It’s almost been 5 years since this blog was started. That’s a long time. A lot of the blogs I used to read don’t update anymore. I think probably the most disappointing one on that front is the awesome 2Blowhards blog, which was always an entertaining and insightful look into the arts. I kind of want to reminisce over the other blogs I used to read, but well, I’ll spare you.

Then there’s the blogs I don’t read anymore. Sometimes this is just natural. You read a person’s thoughts for awhile, come to understand their perspective, then move on. Sometimes the blog moves away from you: Steven Den Beste’s USS Clueless was very insightful political/cultural blog when it ran. Later he turned his blog into Chizumatic and started blogging about anime. However, he seems obsessed with banal loli and harem animes that I can’t stand watching in the first place, much less reading about them secondhand. Mike Mearls’ blog turned into a twitter feed. I just don’t understand twitter, and I don’t need to read 1,000 1 line updates with no actual thought behind them.

And then there are blogs which I never really liked, but did read as a bit of a look over the fence. Mostly here I’m thinking of Bankuei/Deeper in the Game’s blog, which went through a couple of different incarnations before going off the deep end. Or more realistically – The author of the blog was well off the deep end before, and at some point he wrote a couple of gaming posts that actually were interesting based on real-life and not on confabulation and delusional thought systems, then he returned to the regularly scheduled madness. I’m actually a little irritated with myself that I linked to this guy’s blog for so long as people who perpetuate psychotic ideologies should really be isolated and ignored.

At this point I have to consider adding some new links to the blogroll here. My general reading has moved on to different tastes, so we’ll see.
I should also mention that while WordPress has some nice quick tools for editing posts and pages … Editing blog links is really tedious and slow in comparison. It’s shocking and pathetic there’s not a “Quick Edit” option for Links but there is for other things, nor can you easily “Bulk Edit” links to move their category or adjust their visibility. I may have to look into plugins to improve this because it’s shocking and I’m sure that anyone who has tried to manage their blogroll has run into this issue.

Achievement Unlocked:

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Games

If you’ve played any recent videogames you’ve probably noticed that all, or nearly all of them have these things called “Achievements” or “Unlocks.”

Is it just me, or does the entire concept of achievements in a game generally deflate long-term interest in the game? I know it does for me. No matter how amazing a game experience may be, I really don’t want to have to do it 20 times so I can unlock the super-awesome-basically-required item. In fact, by setting up game experiences as predetermined units of “achievement” it pretty much sucks all of the life out of it.

For example, during the Christmas Steam Sale I purchased Battlefield: Bad Company 2 for about $6. I’d never played a Battlefield game before, and so I decided to pick it up. I finished the campaign in one day, then later on went to multiplayer. I actually kind of enjoyed the multiplayer experience, it’s got some interesting ideas that I think have merit (even if the overall gameplay is kind of lame / boring since all the weapons are bullet-based and the accuracy and damage on every weapon is so high that it’s easy to snipe players and kill them with 3-4 shots).
After a few days of playing I managed to unlock all the guns and equipment available in the game. But ever since I finished doing that I haven’t had any motivation to play the game. I essentially “beat” the multiplayer, and there’s nothing left except going for some of the in-game achievements, for example, “Play for a total of 48hrs” or “Kill 200 enemies with land mines” — Those are actually the most depressing, because then if I play the game the way I “want” to, I’m not progressing in most of the achievements that focus on arbitrary tasks. But if I’m playing the game to get the achievements and not how I “want” to, then I’m bored or frustrated.

If BC2 had set things up so most of the items in the game were available from the get-go, would I have remained interested in the game longer? It’s hard to say – To be honest it’s kind of a shallow gameplay experience. But I think if my focus in playing the game had been on intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic rewards I may have stuck with it a bit longer. (Though honestly it’s difficult to say. Particularly because even as a player with ~20 or so hours of experience I often find myself at the top of the scoreboard for my team, just because I do basic things like dropping health packs, ammo boxes, or motion mines. I don’t know why but the average BC2 player is awful at doing anything other than sitting behind cover and taking potshots.)

In the end, when you go with achievements you’re wrapping up something which may seem like an amazing experience into a mechanistic and dull achievement mechanic. Either achievements are worth something, they grant an in-game advantage which makes them required grinding, or they are worth nothing and merely serve to devalue experiences by labeling and quantifying them.