31 October 2015

The Summer Wind ...

... came blowin' in from across the sea

Time has moved on since the summer and we’re now smack in the middle of autumn. My summer this year was simply marvellous. I attended a conference in London in the last week of July and I was able to bring the family along. That was a magnificent experience. I always enjoy visiting London, having spent a year at college there. After that we had a two week vacation in Italy, followed by a week each at both my wife’s and my parents. Working in the educational sector in Europe is rewarding in more ways than one. Speaking of work, I’m back at the university, still pursuing my goal of becoming a tenured professor. So, personally and vocationally, all’s good.

I stopped all gaming over the summer to focus fully on my family. Upon returning home, however, I felt the urge to revisit some of my old-time favourites, namely three instalments of the Heroes of Might & Magic series. Heroes of Might & Magic III was the first turn-based strategy game I ever played, and, after a brief introduction, both my wife and I did play quite extensively. I might even go so far as to proclaim HoMM III my favourite game ever. Strangely enough though, in all my time playing this series, I had never even played the campaigns as I agree with TotalBiscuit that the true value of the Heroes series can really be found in the custom games. So it happened that I finished all the campaigns of Heroes of Might & Magic III to V including their respective expansions. Unfortunately, the series ends with HoMM V for us as there’s no way we’re going to succumb to Uplay. All in all I have to say that HoMM III remains my favourite despite its dated look. I know that some die hard fans will shout heresy when I state the following, but for me it is, in fact, a close call between HoMM III and IV. I must be one of the very few people who genuinely enjoy HoMM IV and consider it to be a very good advancement of the Heroes series. I’ll gladly admit that it has glaring flaws but I don’t think it’s nowhere near as bad as some people make it out to be. HoMM V on the other hand really feels like a cheap rip-off of WarCraft III (e.g. story and cut scenes) and plays like a 3D port of HoMM III. So I’m kind of torn here: I like many gameplay elements but found the story, in particular, to be rather lacklustre. I do, however, enjoy playing all three instalments, especially together with my wife.

Much has changed on the MMO front. WildStar went free-to-play and after reading what Bhagpuss had to say about the game, I decided to give it a try. I finished the tutorial and afterwards started exploring Nexus. I must have played for about an hour when I had enough. That game is just not for me. I remember when I first heard about WildStar I was rather intrigued. That changed quickly when I learned about the action combat and the telegraph system. I seriously hate twitch gameplay, so naturally I uninstalled the game right away. But at least I did give it a try and tested it for myself. Many voices can be heard as to why WildStar tanked and with it yet another MMORPG had to resort to a free-to-play model, most of them claiming that the game was too hardcore and that this is the sole reason for its failure. As I don’t believe in mono-causality, I wouldn’t want to fault any single aspect for the demise of any game. It usually is a combination of several factors. Consider e.g. that WildStar was indeed marketed as a hardcore game (40-man raiding) with a cartoony exterior and action combat. Any combination of those basic pillars could both attract and repel potential players. I for one would enjoy a cartoonish look and a hardcore approach, but I cannot come to terms with twitchy gameplay. Couple that with the fact that WildStar’s idea of “hardcore” means (or meant, not sure if that’s still the case to be honest) time constraints (Gold runs, Explorer path), count me out. Even if WildStar was the perfect MMO otherwise, combining all the elements that I want to see in an MMO like a game built around crafting with strong social ties and interaction, in a living and breathing world, those two elements (time constraints and twitch) would drive me away. I can imagine many people feeling similarly or altogether differently.

No comment on the next WoW expansion. I’m simply no longer interested in retail WoW and instead get my kicks from the Nostalrius project. They have launched a PvE server most recently. YAY!!!

The 4.0 patch of Knights of the Fallen Empire has almost completely ruined SW:TOR for me. I was hopefully optimistic after the koffee announcement, but all that is left now is disgust! More on that some other time.

21 June 2015

No Time Available?

Who has time? But then if we do not ever take time, how can we ever have time?

This post by Tobold along with the subsequent discussion may very well be the worst that was ever published on his blog. Tobold makes several assumptions and statements that I strongly disagree with. A hat tip to Bhagpuss once again for the best comment and to Azuriel for arguing a solid case against Tobold in the comments and on his own blog. My reply will focus on the specific problems surrounding Tobold’s conception of time and how it is connected to choice. I will, therefore, exclude his nonchalant and almost completely inaccurate depiction of capitalism and communism, and to some extent his theories on fairness as well. The point of reference is a healthy human being on planet Earth. I’ll start with two relevant quotes (with my emphasis) because they highlight the assumption that I object to the most. The first one is from the original post and the second is one of Tobold’s own comments.

... there are now people who were favored by the flat payment model because they had more time to spend than others, and these people are now complaining about "Pay2Win", as if that was any worse than "Grind2Win".

There is absolutely no difference between somebody using his larger pool of available time to reach a personal win condition in a MMORPG and somebody using his larger pool of available money to reach a personal win condition.

In order to address the issue of time it is necessary to first define two central terms, namely experience and perception, including their corresponding verbs. For the purpose of this post experience is defined in its relation to physics or the physical world. It can be measured (objectively) using scientific methods. Perception, on the other hand, relates to a person’s mental state, i.e. what goes on in the mind of a human being and can therefore easily change based on individual circumstances. Temperature is a simple example: if it is 30° Celsius then everybody experiences the same objective physical sensation while at the same time each individual may possibly perceive the temperature subjectively, differently depending on their weather preferences.

The same distinction of experience and perception applies to time as well. As a physical unit, a unit of measurement, time is independent of both human experience and human perception. One can say that it exists a priori. In that sense time is not relative. As such the old saying “Time flies when you’re having fun” does not relate to the (physical) experience of time, but rather to how an individual human being perceives the time spend doing an activity. Time is the same for every living human being. That is a fact of existing on planet Earth and as such it’s true for everything on our world. We may perceive time differently but we all experience time in the same way.

People like Tobold who claim that they don’t have the time (to do something) are – probably subconsciously – employing both a stylistic and a mental device that helps make language more economical and (maybe) even more importantly allows them to negate personal responsibility by blaming external factors. The problem is choice. As Dàchéng accurately points out in the comments of another one of Tobold’s posts, the critical issue here is choice. While every single human being on this planet by definition has the exact same amount of time available, it is their choice how they spend this time. Barack Obama may choose to watch an episode of Modern Family with his wife and children when he’s not busy running the U.S.A., but that is his choice. He could also do something else entirely. Tobold and I choose to work (probably) over 40 hours per week, but that is our choice. Or as Sheldon Cooper says: “we have to take in nourishment, expel waste and breathe in enough oxygen to keep our cells from dying. Everything else is purely optional”.

The choices of any human being, the structure of his life can be modelled as a system of hierarchies. This is also true for the course of human interactions. If I ride my bike I cannot, simultaneously, drive in my car. If I visit my parents who live in one city, I cannot at the same time visit my in-laws who live in another city. That is a choice! Now, make no mistake here: every single time someone says: “I’d like to do this, I just don’t have time.” it’s not that they don’t have the time (available) because everybody has the exact same amount of time available, it’s rather that they choose to do something else based on their system of hierarchies. That is the simple truth; and an inconvenient truth at that. People do not like to hear that something or somebody else is more important to us than they are and the expression “don’t have the time” offers a loophole of sorts, a clean way out. This has become so ingrained in our everyday language use that most people don’t stop to reflect upon the meaning.

Note that I did not comment on the practical implications or consequences of the time versus money debate and its relation to MMOs because the outcome depends on personal preferences. To reiterate one more time: every single person on this planet has the exact same amount of time available, but not the exact same amount of money and I’d be cautious of any argument to the contrary since it might be heavily skewed, unless it’s coming from Bill Gates, of course. Nonetheless, this is what happens when someone on a crusade, in this case an engineer and a self-proclaimed scientist enters the realm of philosophy: he ignores the fundamentals and takes the second step before the first.

18 June 2015

SW:TOR // Knights of the Fallen Empire

Looks like the hot topic right now is the announcement of the next expansion of Star Wars: The Old Republic, called Knights of the Fallen Empire. As usual, Dulfy has the complete coverage. I’d also suggest taking a look at what both Shintar and Rohan have to say on the issue. Shintar’s blogroll will also lead to plenty of other related posts.

The expansion is marketed as a return to cinematic storytelling and apparently only subscribers have access to the new content. I agree with Shintar in that “I haven't been this excited about an MMO expansion in a long time” as well and I’m even tempted to re-subscribe. I will, however, make that decision only when I know a lot more about the expansion because I’m still sceptical. Also, none of the subscriber rewards interest me. We’ll see how things pan out.

As to the actual trailer, I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised. I think it’s very well done and has surpassed the Hope” trailer as my favourite. Unlike many others I did not miss the final death blow because my eyes were glued to the screen. AWESOME! The topic of father issues has a long tradition in literature (and by extension in all other forms media) and the trailer once more reaffirms my vow to be a good father to my children.

All in all I can say that I’m now hopefully optimistic about the future of SW:TOR even though I’m not quite sure if a unique single-player experience warrants a subscription.

02 June 2015

Apodeixis Galore

Tobold and Azuriel are at it again, presenting their personal opinions as facts. For only they are aware of the truth and everybody who holds a different view is blind or delusional. This sort of apodictic thinking is as widespread as it is counterproductive. There’s no point in discussing anything when one side always assumes that their position and their position alone is the only one that matters. “I’m right, you’re wrong. End of story. Bye Bye.” Now, to be fair, I don’t think anybody is like that all the time and even Tobold and Azuriel have their moments. Nonetheless, based solely on my personal observations, both of them seem to step into this particular pitfall quite frequently. The approach of projecting one’s own preferences onto others is very common and, at best, it can be interpreted as a stylistic device that some people employ to give more credit to their opinions.

Towards the end of an otherwise decent post Azuriel make the following statement:

For the longest time I have sought to moderate the absurd histrionics I’ve encountered regarding WoW. Things like the removal of atunements, introduction of LFD/LFR, hybrid taxes, Old Blizzard vs New Blizzard, and so on. Not to defend Blizzard for the sake of Blizzard, but to defend rational design decisions in their own contexts.

The way I understand it, is that Azuriel considers the removal of attunements or the introduction of LFD/LFR rational design decisions and those who disagree are simply not clever enough to understand why that’s the case (“absurd histrionics”). For me the key word here is “rational” and looking back at my last post I want to explore what is meant by that word. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as being “able to think sensibly or logically” and to be “based on or in accordance with reason or logic”. Following this path one arrives at a dichotomy between rational and emotional thinking or behaviour. This dichotomy can be described as a continuum with reason on the one end and emotion on the other end. Any person is more or less free to move along in either direction. This model, however, does not appreciate the fact that emotions are a primary aspect of the human condition and personal experiences will always influence one’s judgement. It’s very hard – if not impossible – to imagine a person who thinks or acts devoid of any feelings whatsoever. Human beings are not machines. For some reason, however, rational” is attributed a positive connotation while emotional” is often attributed a negative connotation. This could be endlessly debated in a philosophical discussion of its own.

Returning back into the realm of MMOs, the main question for me is how the rational part of (design) decisions is defined in a non-arbitrary way. In fact, if one cares to read Blizzard’s own statements one frequently finds them using phrases like “we feel” or generally referring to how players feel about something. That doesn’t sound too rational to me. Question: why is e.g. the removal of attunements a rational design decision? Answer: because people don’t want to jump through hoops before doing the content they’re interested in. Conclusion: desires are more emotional than rational. This thought process can be repeated for every design decision. Maybe there’s a different answer to that question though; one from the viewpoint of the developer, the one who actually made the rational design decision. Assuming that the developer’s primary motivation is to increase revenue, any decision that results in more money is certainly better for them. The establishment of causation, however, is again debatable. Who decides what is rational (in a specific context)? Is the removal of flight in WoW another rational design decision? Or is the situation different this time because Azuriel disagrees?

Somehow, I have the distinct impression that people like Azuriel and Tobold simply do not like attunements or hybrids taxes or several other mechanisms that WoW used to have, and are therefore glad that those were changed. I can fully accept that. If someone does not enjoy a feature but is contend with a modified version or its outright removal, good for them. What I do object to, however, is the depiction that those who did like the older version are somehow deluding themselves. In this sense, Tobold is a very strange fellow. He has mentioned before that he more or less only plays WoW for a few weeks/months at the beginning of an expansion and then leaves again. Yet somehow he argues against other people behaving similarly.

So for me the most likely scenario is that people will start playing on this Ragefire server out of nostalgia, and then relatively quickly discover that their selective memory made them remember all the good things and forget about all the bad stuff. [...] Most players will give up after only a few levels

How he knows this is beyond me, especially the last part. But fear not, Bhagpuss has the perfect reply once more in the comments. The first part is another prime example of Tobold simply dismissing other people’s perceptions as nostalgia. I’m currently playing WoW on the private vanilla server Nostalrius and I do admit that I had forgotten many annoying things. However, I can live with all of the “bad stuff” (e.g. looting quest items in groups) as long as the good stuff remains the way I like it (e.g. player stratification or the difficulty of dungeons). I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of the people who choose to play on such a server feel the same way. As any regular reader of Tobold’s blog should have realized by now, he is a man of the masses, i.e. he is only interested in what the masses do and fails to realize that the exact number of people who participate or who enjoy something is irrelevant as long as there are enough people around (to play with or) to keep the lights on.

25 May 2015

On Semantics

Semantics as the study of meaning is a branch of philosophy related to linguistics. It has a close connection to the field of pragmatics. In a very simplified way one can say that semantics is concerned with codified meaning whereas pragmatics identifies the meaning of utterances in concrete communicative situations. The phrase “it’s all just semantics” which is frequently used to invalidate a different opinion or to shrug off differing opinions seems to suggest that semantics is not important. I disagree strongly with such a sentiment because I consider semantics to be central to the understanding of the human condition. Our reality is defined by our language and in order to successfully communicate with other human beings nothing is more important than to adequately express what one means.

All too often, however, there is a stark contrast between what is said and what is meant. One reason for that might be that many speakers assume that their use of an expression is shared by all speakers of their speech community and that said expression has a fixed meaning, probably assigned by a dictionary. And, to be honest, in most cases they are justified in that assumption. In other cases, however, it does make a lot of sense to define essential terms at the beginning (or during the course) of a discussion in order to establish a solid basis. Alas, it seems that many people are reluctant to discuss fundamentals – for whatever reasons – and rather want to focus on minor details, oftentimes taking the second step before the first. This can be frequently observed when politicians or “experts” discuss an issue in political talk shows. These discussions usually lead nowhere because everyone is only interested in promoting their own agenda. A personal pet peeve of mine is the misinterpretation or misrepresentation of statistical data or terminology by politicians, especially the difference between correlation and causality.

So how does this excursion into semantics pertain to MMOs? In the scientific community it is standard practice to define terms and concepts relevant to one’s study and maybe MMO bloggers could adopt this approach as well. Take, for example, this post by SynCaine where he talks about “backer-envy” in relation to crowd-funded video games. Irrespective of the content of his post he fails to define what exactly he means by this expression and somehow takes for granted that his audience already knows the meaning or that it will become apparent by reading the article. Unsurprisingly, the very first comment – by Rohan – asks specifically what SynCaine actually means with his concept of backer-envy and the following discussion – beautifully continued by Bhagpuss – is needed to clear the waters. As I understand it now SynCaine considers backer-envy to be the reverse of buyer’s remorse which is how I originally understood it. So the new concept (“backer-envy”) is formed in analogy to an already established concept (“buyer’s remorse”), but with a major difference: it’s not the backers who are envious but rather the other players who did not back the game. This confusion could have been avoided by defining the relevant terminology at the beginning of the article.

Similarly, there’s an ongoing debate about pay-to-win scenarios in video games without a general definition of what that actually means. It seems that almost everyone has a broad understanding of the concept as such but working definitions are far and in-between. To be more precise the term “pay-to-win” should actually be abandoned because etymologically it suggests that a financial transfer results in the completion of a victory condition within the framework of the game providing a win for the buyer. If one agrees that the primary purpose of any video game is to play, then it doesn’t make any sense to buy a win and rob oneself of the playing experience. In addition, MMOs do not offer any win conditions at all. They are open-ended, never finished and won’t reward players with a “Victory or Game Over” screen. Boss fights and PvP matches hardly count in this regard because the victory is only momentarily achieved and does not constitute the final goal of winning the entire game. The expression “pay-to-win” is a misnomer and should therefore be replaced with the more accurate phrase “pay-for-power” (or maybe “pay-for-advantage”). Both Gevlon and Dàchéng have discussed this as well and I think that their contributions are very noteworthy since they offer a sensible definition of the “pay-for-power” scheme as any item being sold in a cash shop that “affects the gameplay of other players”, i.e. the gaming experience of other players is directly influenced. The focus on other players also explains why most objections against pay-for-power items are brought forth by PvPers. Note that the situation in professional, competitive environments (e.g. e-sports) is purposefully excluded here.

The final example to highlight the importance of semantics has to do with language change. I’ve talked about this before. All natural languages are constantly changing and evolving which sometimes leads to words acquiring a new meaning, i.e. they are used in a way that differs from established usage. In the discussion of MMOs this can be seen by the inflationary use of the term “burnout” to denote that someone has lost interest in a specific MMO or in a specific activity in a specific MMO or in MMOs in general. Essentially, some people who have lost interest in or are bored with anything related to MMOs claim to be “burned out”. I find it quite hard to imagine that every single one of these people is actually suffering from a “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress” because, as a psychologist, that is my understanding of what the word means on a basic level. The psychological concept and medical diagnosis are, of course, a lot more refined. It may very well be the case that “burnout” was overused in media coverage in recent years and people subconsciously feel that saying they’re burned out is sexier (or more socially accepted) than admitting that they are simply bored. Regardless of the reasons behind it, this new use causes a devaluation of the medical component which in turn could lead to problems for people who are in need of help. One should at least be aware of this.

In conclusion, I’d suggest using the expression “pay-for-power” instead of “pay-to-win” and to avoid equating “burnout” with a loss of interest or boredom.