Shadows Over Innistrad Prerelease Report

Last night I went to a Shadows Over Innistrad Prerelease. This was my first paper event, or at least my first DCI sanctioned event, so there’s a lot to talk about. Let’s not waste any time and jump right in.

There are multiple reasons as to why this was my first event, but there’s only one worth talking about. As a disabled person there’s always a certain anxiety in doing something new due to concerns about accessibility. These concerns were addressed through doing some prep work(the type that everyone benefits from doing) as well as a good store environment. Said store is Labyrinth Games & Puzzles, which is just an all around excellent store that I highly recommend.

There’s a varying amount of prep work that one can do for a prerelease, ranging from not knowing anything about the set to suing things like Cockatrice to do limited testing. I went for something in between, following the spoiler, looking at the full spoiler, watching the LRR preprerelease, listening to the LR set review and reading LSV’s set reviews; which is to say a lot of time went into figuring out how the set works and familiarizing myself with the set. By the time I showed up and got my packs, I felt comfortable in making the best of my sealed pool.

My pool didn’t exactly offer many options. White had a Hanweir Militia, some creatures and removals, Blue had a Jace and five bounce spells. Black had a good mix of removal and creatures but the first tier, of cards that I wanted to play was only eight cards. Red and Green had a plethora of playables, three good rares(Devil’s Playground, Flameblade Angel, Silverfur Partisan). G/R on a first pass got me to 20 cards, added in some more marginal cards to get to 23 and went to battle with:

Creatures

1x Insolent Neonate

1x Falkenwrath Gorger

1x Kessig Forgemaster

2x Hinterland Logger

1x Sanguinary Mage

1x Graf Mole

1x Silverfur Partisan

1x Bloodmad Vampire

1x Howlpack Wolf

1x Voldaren Duelist

1x Pack Guardian

2x Intrepid Provisioner

2x Cult of the Waxing Moon

1x Flameblade Angel

1x Kessig Dire Swine

Instant

1x Rush of Adrenaline

1x Aim High

Sorcery

1x Rabid Bite

1x Reduce to Ashes

1x Devil’s Playground

Land

9x Mountan

8x Forest

 

My sideboard was largely irrelevant save for a copy of Root Out. It’s a fairly aggressive deck that doesn’t just fold in the late game. I ended up going 3-2 with this deck, with one my losses being on account of multiple punts on my part. Instead of recapping the rounds it seems more useful to just note my random observations.

  • A lot of creatures have 3 power. 4 or more toughness is a good way to have your creature live through most combats.
  • While there are a lot of X/1s in the format. I never saw enough to make me wish I had Dual Shot in my main deck (Except as a way to deal with fliers which I was sorely lacking in.)
  • Insolent Neonate taken in its individual parts is bad, but adding them all up gives you a card that isn’t terrible in aggro decks and I imagine that he goes up in a dedicated vampire deck.
  • Silverfur Partisan is really good, the ability is just instants and sorceries, not instants and sorceries you control
  • Delirium is in fact payoff for self mill and there are enough cards in the set of harder types to get in the graveyard that even a non-dedicated delirium deck will get there if the game goes on long enough.

 

Beyond that I don’t really have much to say. I played against players who had good cards in their deck and they all seemed obviously good. A lot of games didn’t feel set specific, they were just good games of Magic that played well. I look forward to playing more of this Limited format to see if how unique it is and how it holds up. Till next time.

 

Review: Pokemon X & Y

Pokemon X and Y (Gen 6) aren’t good games. I don’t mean they’re bad games in the way that all Pokemon games.* I mean they’re bad games in ways that aren’t specific to the franchise as the game relies upon the 3DS’s features to push it over the top. Those feature being the graphics, which are admittedly gorgeous and the online functionality. Games are more than their mechanics though, they’re about creating experiences. This is what these games excel at; it’s what they’ve always excelled at. Let’s not waste any more time and jump into it.

Gen 6 isn’t hard, it’s mind numbingly easy. While the games have never been hard, there are certain things in this game that exacerbate the problem. First, there’s the issue of the game just throws powerful stuff at you. While your starter has traditionally been very good, you also get a Kanto (Gen 1) starter, a Lapras, a Lucario that can mega-evovle, and that’s just off the top of my head. Sure you could not use them, but in the case of the starters that’s boring. It’s a problem accentuated by the ease of which you find powerful mons in the wild. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, being given powerful options is fun. This does lead into the second problem.

The opposition is playing at a serious handicap. Their pokemon aren’t of the same caliber in the abstract. It’s not until the Elite Four that the designers even deign to give the opposition a full roster. Compounding this, the AI seems to have regressed** to the point of selecting moves at random. The least egregious part of this is that the levels of opposing trainers are off. While the change to the XP share in which it gives all of your pokemon xp instead of just one, requires less grinding to keep your party on even levels. It shouldn’t, least on an instinctual level, result in your team being on average five levels higher, but that’s what happens. I played the game with little foreknowledge (the most I knew was that one of the Gym Leaders was Fairy) and was never seriously challenged until I did the super rounds at the Battle Maison, but that’s post game.

While the game is easy, it’s also incredibly small. Kalos as a region has you going from point A to point B in a straight line with little deviation. There’s little exploration, the HMs are used almost exclusively to get items laying around in the field. And since the game is so easy, a feeling that bothering to collect these is a waste of time. The dungeons and Gyms are equally straight lines without the barest pretense of puzzles; getting some of the better TMs is the most interesting thing you’ll do.

This sense of being in a small world doesn’t just stop at the limited exploration, there’s just not a lot to do. There are a few to interact with, most of them being in the obnoxious to navigate Lumiose City, but that’s not much. The Friend Safari, this version’s equivalent of the Safari Zone, isn’t unlocked till post game. If there are Contests, I missed them completely. The Battle Chateau is a neat concept, but in practice it’s a money piñata.

All that being said, it’s still Pokemon and the basic formula still works. The fact that the game isn’t challenging means it’s relaxing to play. I like the group dynamic in this generation with multiple rivals and acknowledging that people would be interested in different things. I like Team Flare in concept; they’re James Bond villains with Malthusian motives. I wasn’t keen on how shallow the Gym Leaders and Champion were; but I’m comparing that the torrent of material from Gen 1 that makes me feel this way.

The game really relies upon its online features though, to make it an experience. Wonder Trading is fun, and a good way to stack the lottery in your favor. The GTS is super useful. O Powers make you want to play with your friends. If you can do that, then the game is a memorable experience. If you can’t do that for whatever reason, then the game is just ok. The result is that the game is only two years old and it hasn’t aged well and by the time Gen VII comes out its main value will be in grinding legendaries or some such if you can’t get a group together.

Pokemon X & Y show that a game is more than a mechanics. It’s how it uses those mechanics to create an experience for the player. It creates memories for its players but means that the game has a short shelf life. Next time, I’ll be reviewing John Scalzi’s The Last Colony. Till next time.

 

*In short a series of design decisions such as having ‘all pokemon being good in game’ the way the type chart works and other factors means that by and the large the games have never been the most challenging or well balanced.

**I skipped Gen V but Gen IV had the AI actually be a challenge in terms of move selection

Nozdormu is Representative of Hearthstone’s UI Problems

Hearthstone is a game that I have a love/hate relationship with. I enjoy more or less stock CCG gameplay in a f2p model and it’s popular enough that I can easily key into discussions about it online to get an idea of things like the metagame. There are also a lot of things I absolutely loathe about this game, chief among them are the UI and assorted elements. Nozdormu is a perfect encapsulation of my problems. Let’s not waste any time and jump right into it.

First, it’s important to understand the design decisions that were made to have Hearthstone look the way it does. The short turn timer, the animations, the ability to poke stuff on the battlefield, layout of hand and board and so on are all meant to keep players engaged and make the game good for streaming. These decisions have clearly paid off to some extent, but there are drawbacks. Take the turn timer for instance, it punishes the people who have things come up such as answering the door or running to the bathroom, people who don’t think quickly, people with various tech problems and who don’t have the requisite manual dexterity. That’s not the only thing though, Animations are often gratuitous and some of them are grating, to be charitable. The obfuscation of cards in hand and that you can see what your opponent is looking at means that you’re rewarded for knowing what everything is, and being able to see what everything is. Hearthstone’s graphic and UI design are ableist, exclusionary in a way that I honestly can’t think of another videogame that does so in the same ways.

Nozdormu exacerbates all of these issues. He’s a legendary, big flashy effect that you can only have one of in a deck, whose text reads “Players only have 15 seconds to take their turn.” Not only that, but it adds a layer of dust to the board. This isn’t a competitive card, it’s a joke that showcases what digital design can do and is a unique effect, what Legendaries should be. Of course, that doesn’t excuse the problem inherent with the card. Nor does it address the fact that Nozdormu is a part of a combo/control deck. Now if you’re not familiar with how it works, you can probably guess. It uses animations, either youthful brewmaster or joust, in order to stagger animations to the point where your opponent can’t do anything on their turn. It’s an unintended exploit that’s been around from the beginning that’s only being dealt with because of the efficacy of joust.

Nozdormu may be egregious, but it is still an encapsulation of problems that Hearthstone has worked into its system. These problems probably can’t be fixed in this game, but they are problems that future games should take heed of it and not correct. Next week, I’ll be talking about Fury Road and disability. Till next time.

 

Some thoughts on Solforge Set 6

Apologies for the lack of a post last week. Real life and writer’s block meant that putting out any sort of quality post wasn’t in the cards.

Solforge’s latest expansion, Darkforge Rising and it’s mini expansion Factions United have been out for a while now and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it as a set and the draft format. For some background, I’ve been playing since the game first came out, the only money I’ve spent on this game is from the kickstarter and play somewhat completive. I don’t have the card pool to build a lot of tier one decks and I’m happy enough just drafting every three days. That’s being said, let’s jump into it.
Long-time readers, or people who just looking through my archive, will note that I used to do monthly draftcaps. I’ve stopped doing partially cause the process was mildly annoying, but more because this draft format isn’t fun. This is better than Set 4, where the N/T Assault deck was the best deck to draft, miserable to play against and not terribly interesting to play with, but that’s not exactly a high bar. Part of the problem is the titular Darkforged, a cross-faction tribe with a straightforward, linear mechanic. It makes drafting a game of chance in whether you decide to go in on the Darkforged, which is fine. I like that there are archetypes and that the nature of Solforge’s draft system means that you have to be willing to take risks and accept that sometimes the packs just won’t open your way. The problem is that this is present in every draft cause the darkforged are in every faction. Not only that, but the cards are very linear and very simple designs. If you get a critical mass of the right types of darkforged, then the games just feel very similar. If you don’t then they’re more interesting but can increase the feeling of variance in draft if they don’t show up in your hand. In terms of tribal mechanics this is preferable to the abomination deck from the last format.
My other main problem with the draft format is that Voltron strategies are a real theat. ‘Voltron’ for those who are unfamiliar with the term, refers to an old anime series that had combining mecha. It’s become a piece of MTG slang meaning to stack up a bunch of pump on one creature to make a giant monster. In Solforge this is a legit strategy due to the nature of removal in draft as well as how creature combat works out; although in what form and how prevalent varies from format to format. This format it seems easy enough and diverse enough. Which is legit, it’s also the mode of play that I find the least interesting. I love long, grindy games where you’re eking out incremental advantage. Which is still possible in this format, but it’s nowhere near the default mode of play.
Now despite my gripes about the draft format, I still think this is an overall good expansion due to the options it gives constructed. Not only that, but it gives a number of good unlegendary options. The Darkforged are a fine foundation for a deck. Take nine each from two factions and you’re already 60% there to making a deck. Zombie Dreadknight has given Zombies a shot in the arm, and it’s entirely possible to build an unlegendary version of that as you don’t need things like Zimus or Tarsus. I haven’t seen the Patron cycle in play, but they seem like a good boast in the arm to mono-faction, or nearly mono faction decks. I haven’t seen much else or many of the legendaries, but their designs are what I expect from legendaries: relatively unique. Also I think that has to do with my lack of playing in things the constructed queue or unofficial tournaments. The random queue only has so much, and I did see some cool things during Forgemaster Weekend.
Finally, there’s one more thing to talk about regarding this set. The whole concept of the Darkforged and the factions coming together to fight them is a flavor fail. While SBE has been good at setting up the world and telling stories on individual cards or evoking ideas of what the setting is like through groups of cards, it’s been less than stellar at anything more than that. The campaign was nice, but hasn’t been updated in months and the lack of flavor text means that the mechanics and card names only go so far. SBE is great at resonance and implied flavor, it’s terrible at actually putting it front and center to appeal to a Vorthos, or whatever they want to call that archetype for their game. I’ve stopped caring about the flavor, since there just isn’t enough to get invested in, but it’s still worth pointing out as an area of improvement.
All in all, I’m still having fun with Solforge. No set is perfect after all. Right now I’m just looking forward to the new client and all that entails. Till next time.

Violence in Videogames as seen through Fallout: New Vegas

Violence in video games has been something that’s been talked about since videogames have become a thing. It was used as one of the key examples of how videogames were inherently immoral and corrupting those who played them. While those arguments have fallen to the wayside; a sign of videogames maturing as a medium is that you now have people who play games looking at violence critically. I recently read two articles, which you can find here and here, about the topic and it got me thinking about how violence is used from a design perspective and the limitations thereof. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

There’s the question of why Fallout: New Vegas? The answer is pretty simple:: it’s the game I’ve been playing a lot of recently. Not only that, but it is a game that is often praised for its narrative elements and part of that is how it uses the options of violence to provide characterization.

New Vegas starts with your character, known only as the Courier, getting jumped while o the job and left for dead. It’s only through sheer perseverance and luck that you survive. Once the opening cutscene ends you are given the character creation options. You can choose your race, gender, name all of which have at best minor impact on the game. The next part of the process has far more mechanical weight with your stats, skill specialization and traits.

Stats are important for the game’s mechanics, but their impact on visible actions taken by the player are limited. Skills on the other hand, are far more important as they determine what you can and can’t do. They determine how effective you are at various features of gameplay as well as serve as the primary means of passing checks in conversation. Traits are completely optional and allow you to add a level of personalization, such as being a night person or needing to wear glasses along with things that can alter the way you play the game. Of these three, skills are the most important in terms of impact and their delineation is informative. Many of these are straightforward: Repair determines how well you can fix things, Speech is how well you are at talking and so on. A majority of the skills are delineations of how you want to enact violence.  The logic behind this makes sense; a player will want control over the predominant activity in the game. Not only that but someone who uses energy weapons is different from someone using a rifle and is different from someone using their fists. These decisions invite you to create a character archetype at the very least. These archetypes can be further fleshed out by the player in a way that the game itself can’t acknowledge, but are still important to the player. In my current playthrough of New Vegas, I am using mods in order to solidify the archetype of my character, which you can find here and here.

In comparison the non-combat skills are either far broader or relate to a narrow field in practice.  Science represents omnidisciplinary mastery, Repair is to fix anything from a gun to robots fall into the former category. Lockpick, Survival and Medicine fall into the latter category. This leaves Speech and Barter, which are worth discussing in their own category. Speech doesn’t do anything beyond letting you pass skill checks while Barter impacts your dealings with merchants as well as be used in conversation checks. These two skills stand out because they’re social skills they show how competent you are in social situations. The fact that Speech is just one skill and not multiple skills shows that the developers didn’t want to elaborate on the social system. Speech being one skill means that it’s a measure of general social competence whereas if there were more than two social skills they would represent your ability to handle a multitude of social situations differently or the same situation in different ways. (The exception to this is the Terrifying Presence perk)

All in all, this shows that there is a big emphasis on how you kill things upfront in the game mechanics and streamlining of many other functions. This trend continues with the perks. More than a few of them continue the trend of fitting your character into an archetype by giving you increased damage of some sort. Others make some part of the game easier, with some using skill or stat requirements to add a layer of characterization. There are two sets of perks that are worth focusing on: Black Widow/Lady Killer and Cherchez La Femme/Confirmed Bachelor. These perks not only establish your character’s sexuality, which comes up in some conversations. The real incentive to taking these perks is the 10% damage you get towards the relevant sex. This juxtaposition shows what the devs prioritized.

So the devs focused their attention on violence and how to be efficient, this raises the question of why? First there are the obvious legacy answers. Fallout is a franchise that took its aesthetic from films such Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog as much 1950s scifi, it’s a bleak post apocalyptic setting in which the use of force is an accepted necessity of survival. New Vegas in particular is also drawing upon Western tropes. There is also an issue of technical limitations, there’s only so much deviation that could have been done given that this is the same system that was used to make Fallout 3. This explanation only goes so far though.

Game design has gotten really good at combat; Dungeons and Dragons started out as narrative layer to a wargame. Since then, we have collectively become good upon iterating on combat design to make it better. The reason for this is threefold. First, the narratives that are often told in games have violence as an accepted part of life and that problems can be solved with violence. Second, combat allows for game design to create something that’s challenging and has replayability, or it should at any rate. Putting this point another way, the actual game is the combat system and everything else is little more than flavor text. Third, combat is easier to program. All of these factors explain the current order of things but don’t go beyond that. While looking at violence in videogames in relation to the patriarchy to be useful, it isn’t the only way to take that discussion.

If one wants games in which violence is an option, not the only option, then it makes sense to have an idea of how to do this. It is worth repeating that any piece of entertainment is the culmination of design choices, both conscious and unconscious; for any of this to matter designers need to think of new things and in new ways. While some games allow for stealth or nonlethal playthroughs, those aren’t really what I have in mind. Instead, enhanced social mechanics and interactions are things that I find much more interesting and seemingly hard to implement.  Looking back at tabletop games again, how to handle social interactions is a tricky question. Ignoring the school of thought that holdVis that all social interactions should be purely roleplaying on the grounds of being impossible to replicate, there are still numerous ways to represent social aptitude and social interactions with no answer that rises above the rest outside of personal preference. Going forward, it certainly makes sense to look at what tabletop games have been doing and modeling system after those.

There are certainly technical limitations with this approach though. Social interactions in tabletop games work because the GM is able to react to the players in a way that a videogame can’t. On some level we accept this, being railroaded isn’t an inherent evil so long as the game you’re playing is fun. The tracks are just narrower. Of course it’d be disingenuous to not mention that this calls for a different skill set, which has an impact on the human side of development at some point, but beyond that I can’t comment.

The use of violence in videogames is constricting in the types of games that can be made. This isn’t in question, but it’s still useful to look at how violence is used in roleplaying games as a means of characterization. It is equally useful to posit what can take the place of violence and how to implement that, even if it is only a first step towards actualization.

Next time I’ll be discussing ableism in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Till then.

R.I.P. Satoru Iwata

Originally I had planned to write a short memorial for Satoru Iwata and then look back at who he was as a springboard to talk about other things. However, I’ve been staring at a mostly empty document for the better part of the week unsure how to bridge those two things. While this may not be the most timely post anymore, I decided to shelf the ideas about video games for another post.

Satoru Iwata’s passing was surprising for many reasons. The first of which was because I didn’t know who he was, but the outpouring of sadness and remembrance on the internet served as a good crash course and had me joining in. This was a man who not only played a major role in making some of the games of my childhood, but was a genuinely decent person who loved what he did. His passing made the toxic world of videogames dimmer. He was a gamer at heart and thought that video games needed to be one thing, fun. Beyond that there really isn’t anything worth saying. Thank you Iwata.

In light of altered plans and how short this post is, I hope to have another pot up this discussing violence in video games in the context of Fallout: New Vegas. Till next time.

The Platonic Idea of Gaming

Gaming at its best is a contest between players who respect each other and are challenging one another to do their best, good players make good games after all. It’s the kind of things that can make friendships or even save a life. Nothing else matters, nothing else should matter anyway. This platonic ideal is harder than one would think or want to attain though. Let’s take a look at what makes this ideal so appealing and why it’s hard to attain this week, shall we?

This idea where society at large and all of its ills don’t matter; that this is a world a person can escape to in order to have fun. That this ideal exists in the first place is a big reason to be interested in gaming in the first place. It’s the promise of a different world where you’re able to channel your creative and/or competitive spirit free of societal pressures.

The hurdle to this platonic ideal can be summarized as the fact that gaming does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within the context of the real world and as much as we’d like it, and it’s hard to escape that baggage.  I want to use the controversy that has come to be known as Gofygate as a starting point.

Last weekend was Grand Prix Las Vegas, the biggest trading card game tournament of all time. It was a Limited Magic: The Gathering tournament for the set Modern Masters 2015, an all reprint set meant to alleviate the price of key cards for eternal formats. In short, we’re talking about a close to 10k person spectacle in a set where you can open serious money. In the Top 8, Pascal Maynard took a foil Tarmogofy pack 2, pick 1, over a card that would be good for his deck. Now, a foil Tarmogoyf is literally the most expensive card in the set, being worth about $400. The reaction, as with anything Magic related, was hyperbolic and negative. Several other pros talked about how they lost respect for Maynard and how he should respect the game. This was in turn accompanied/followed by people doing EV/utility calculations to determine if that was the right pick. It ended with Maynard saying he made the wrong pick and putting the card up on Ebay.

On one hand, it’s easy to see why there would be a negative backlash. It’s one thing to raredraft at FNM or on MTGO, cause those money cards are what enable you to keep drafting; and it’s often justified with logic along the lines of “well this isn’t Day 2 at a GP.” But this was the final draft of the tournament. On the other hand, this is literally a set designed to put out high value cards and passing a few hundred dollars while under time pressure is understandable; also it really can’t be stressed just how hyperbolic the reaction was. Such financial considerations are unavoidable in a collectable game but it does mar the idea of perfect gameplay, even if we’re talking about percentage points.

This isn’t an issue that is confined to money in collectable games either. It’s the small things, the microaggressions that bleed over from ordinary day. The bigger things as well: the flat out rudeness, hostility, and worse. All of these things mean that the platonic ideal is most likely accessible for only a segment of the population for basically no reason. While gaming’s original sin may recreating the patriarchy and other societal constraints, it doesn’t have to be that way. While the platonic ideal in its entirety may be a truly rare thing, there’s no reason why we can’t act in a manner that makes it as real as possible.

Next week, I’ll be reviewing the Netflix series Sense8. Till next time.

 

The Emergent Politics of Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed first came out in November of 2007 and has spawned a franchise with 7, soon to be 8, games in the main franchise, a dozen side games, and a number of other tie-in media. It is a massive franchise that is to many a moribund, lumbering part of the videogame landscape. Its overarching plot concerns two groups: Assassins and Templars, who have been fighting in the shadows for all of human history and working with various Great Men for their own ends. In addition to that, there’s an Ancient Alien conspiracy involved as well. In short, it’s a delightful setting that hits a lot of my buttons in the right way. Given how many installments this franchise has, looking at it as a whole and the emergent trends within it becomes interesting, so let’s get into it.

First, it’s important to give some more meaningful context to just what it is I’m talking. The first Assassin Creed, or AC for short, was set during the 3rd Crusade and had the Knights Templar, a Christian monastic order who have been the source of numerous conspiracies theories, locked into a secret war that is as old as humanity itself with the Assassins, a Muslim sect who gave us the word assassin. They’re fighting over artifacts from a Precursor civilization, known as the First Civ and this war has lasted long after the Crusade, up until the current day. The games following that have focused on different time periods as well as a continuation of the modern day plotline.

This is all pretty straightforward but raises the question of am I talking about emergent stuff? As I mentioned above, this franchise is huge, and has had multiple creative teams working on it. At best, this means poor communication creates a less cohesive whole; more realistically this means that different people have different interpretations and opinions of how things should work that get canonized. Also, these games aren’t very smart, or rather, they don’t set out to be. They’re part historical parkour part muderfest; these games are open about being theme parks.

Now, this raises the fair question of just what they have been fighting over for all human history?  In theory, the Assassins are dedicated to the enlightenment and liberation of all of humanity, the titular creed is “nothing is true, everything is permitted”. In short, they’re anarchists, revolutionaries. The Templars on the other hand, are convinced that they need to control humanity and through their guidance can lead humanity to better heights. In short, they’re technocrats, the Establishment.  Given this kind of setup, AC by definition is some flavor of punk.

This is especially true in the earlier installments. AC1’s targets are the ruling members of both sides of the Crusades who are by and large war profiteers. The modern day Templars have formed Abstergo, your typical cyberpunk megacorp. AC2 has the Italian Assassins be primarily drawn from the lower classes: sex workers, thieves and mercenaries. It is revealed that most of the 20th century, with the exception of the Lenin in the Russian Revolution, was orchestrated by the Templars; Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were Templars who thought that industrialization would be the perfect means of control.

While the setting is punk, the games are less so. AC1 is more focused on two hidden monastic orders fighting one another and are somewhat disjointed from the rest of the world. AC2 on the other hand, is a bit of a mess due to the main character of Ezio Auditore di Firenze. The first problem is that Ezio is the son of the wealthy merchant, he’s a part of the Establishmetn and while he gets along with thieves, sex workers and the like, he also gets along with the Medici. Second, Ezio isn’t really concerned with being an Assassin; he just wants to kill Templars because they murdered his family.  The games shy away from actually embracing these punk origins in favor of more generic conspiracies fighting one another.

This is inevitable given how the games approach history. If no small part of the appeal is supposed to be interacting with the Great Men of history, then that is going to predispose the narrative to embracing the Great Men theory. In turn, narrative necessity means that the Assassins need to ally with some of these Great Men. The ultimate result is that it moderates the Assassins from being anarchists into generic good guys who have a cool catchphrase. They become a part of the system and cannot destroy it.

This is coupled with the fact that anarchism or any sort of ideology that the Assassins should theoretically support hasn’t really done all that well historically and you don’t want every game to be a tragedy. Again, this idea is tied to the Great Men presentation of history; by focusing on these big shifts you ignore local shifts or shifts in societal norms.

This moderation of the Assassins isn’t enough though, in a lot of ways the first two games have been pushed to the sidelines as much as possible. It seems that the writers looked at AC, realized that there was a problem in moderating the Assassins, didn’t stop to think about their own assumptions that lead to happen and decided to take the series in a different direction. Instead of being revolutionaries, they’re morally ambiguous good guys who aren’t that different from the Templars. Considering that the Templars include Hitler, that’s an interesting claim to put forward.

By pushing for the two sides to not be that different, that’s exactly what happens. You have two conspiracies who are really good at wiping out branches of the other side and getting their team on top. It creates a false moral equivalence between the oppressed and the oppressors by just presenting them as the same thing. Of course, talking about how the two factions are just different shades of grey who could work together if only they stopped killing each other requires me to discuss AC’s metaplot and the First Civ. The short version is that there was the First Civ, who used humanity as slaves. They were also trying to stop the world from ending and between their efforts to stop that and humanity having enough First Civ DNA to use their tools to rise up against them. The end result is that the First Civ is wiped out and leave a bunch of their stuff around that humanity ends up using. A First Civ survivor has been able to use these tools to manipulate people and is probably the reason for why the Assassins and Templars have been fighting for all of history. So it turns out that the real answer is some sort of mythical moderate position that lacks any substance. It ultimately means that the Templars, an organization that is devoted to establishing and maintaining all of the world’s ills, is basically right, but maybe they should put a human face on it.

So how is surprising and why does it matter? It’s not surprising; we’re talking about one of the biggest AAA game franchises right now after all. Made by a major publisher and focus-group’d to seeming perfection. And it’s exactly because it’s such a big franchise and because of the subject matter that talking about this is relevant. History isn’t some objective and immutable record, it’s a collection of stories that tell us where we came from, but these are stories that are fought over constantly. This is why we have histiography, basically the study of history.  The presentation of history in pop culture, and this ultimately liberal moderate wistful thinking is nonsense.

That’s all I got for this week, next week is a surprise for both you and me. Till next time.

 

 

Monetization of Mods is a Terrible Idea

Valve recently tried to monetize Skyrim’s mod scene by allowing modders to charge for their mods*. This proved to be disastrous as it turned the modding scene, a functioning collectivist system that is one of the main selling points for Bethesda’s games, into an app store with Valve’s known nonexistent quality control that turned into a vicious race to the bottom. As a result, the program was scrapped in a few days. While this will undoubtedly come up again(I would be surprised if the next Fallout or Elder Scrolls game wasn’t more tied-in with the Steam Workshop so that it really would be an app store) the issue for the time has faded from the public eye. What prompted me to write about this was that Extra Credits** did an episode about this that I wanted to respond to. Let’s not waste any time and get into it.

First, let me explain my background. Bethesda games always get me interested. Morrowind is one of my favorite games and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit looking through mods. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent for Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I’m also not a big fan of Extra Credits for a number of reasons. Their videos are too short to really go into detail, which by default makes the analysis surface level. As a result it doesn’t really do much. They’re not being presented as a springboard for discussion, and I’m not wading into youtube comments to test that, but they’re not really saying much either to feel like you’re learning. At best it can give you fodder for thought but that only goes so far.

Their basic argument is as follows: since this is going to come up again, we should actually think this through. They break this down into the question of whether this is good for modders, would this be a good shift for the community as a whole, would paid mods be good for players, will paid mods be good for developers and would paid mods be good for Valve. I’m going to break down my response to each of these points individually.

‘Would these be good for modders’ focuses on the fact that it’s better for modders for to be paid for their work. This is at best a naïve argument and at worst one made in bad faith. I”m a firm believer in everyone should be paid a living wage for their labor, that doesn’t really apply here. The fact that modders aren’t paid is something they understand from the beginning and accept. Everything doesn’t need to be commoditized; some people are happy with their hobby being a hobby and don’t want to go pro. The idea that modders should be paid for their work implies that they’re getting a fair deal, which they’re not. Not only were they only getting 25% profit, but that only happened once a mod had been purchased a certain amount of times. Until that point it was 100% to Bethesda; a fact conveniently omitted in the video. Ultimately, this turns the modder into an independent contractor, a more formalized and exploitable appendage in the videogame industry. An industry that is well-known for its poor working conditions.

The other part of their argument is based upon the notion that Bethesda taking part of the cut is supposedly fair because of licensing and IP. This entire line of argument is nonsensical as it’s predicated upon several faulty assumptions. First, there’s the idea that turning a modder into an independent contractor is a good thing. Second, is the idea that making mods are on the same scale as making a game. Third, there’s the idea that this arrangement is anyway fair. Since they used the number 75,000, I’ll use it here; in order to make 75,000 dollars off of a mod that costs a dollar you need to sell in the order of 300,00 copies. To put that into perspective, on May 21st, 2015, Skyrim peaked with 34,104 players. Even if every player bought a copy of this mod, that’s $8,526. I have no idea how the 75k/a year figure is even remotely realistic or what it’s trying to prove. Most mods aren’t these massive projects like Darkest Hour or Arsenal of Democracy**, they’re maybe the size of some DLC package or smaller. Of course, this entire line of argument is based upon the idea that because Bethesda has put in the time to cultivate these products, they can turn what was essentially free advertising into an additional revenue stream and people should be thankful that Bethesda isn’t taking as much as they could in the name of protecting nebulous concepts.

“Would this be good for the modding community” is answered in a way that conveniently sidesteps any real issues that did or could emerge.  They open this segment by talking about a host of legal problems that will emerge as modders use things that they don’t have the license to use. Most of these things should be irrelevant to the modding community, it doesn’t matter if they put Lord of the Rings into Skyrim or added something from the Witcher. What does matter is using other mods as a foundation. Mods aren’t things that are independently developed; it’s a sprawling interconnected web. How many mods work because of the Skyrim Script Extender? How many mods build off other mods and use their assets? How many mods are just assets to be used by other people? The answer: a lot. Not only that, but right now you have feuds over people not attributing others or giving credit when they do build off of other mods if they requested that. These issues quickly escalated once money was introduced as you had certain base mods becoming monetized and things built off of them were not or vice versa. You had people download mods from the Nexus, reupload them to Steam Workshop, claim them as their own and charge money for them. Monetization long term would have destroyed the modding community. There is no community because you’re no longer collaborating on something open; every other modder just became your competition.

The second part of their argument, which for some reason isn’t in the previous segment but provides the illusion that there would still be a community, is how this would theoretically enable modders to do this fulltime if they want. This allure of money will supposedly grow the modding “community”, as people will be drawn to this new money-making opportunity.  This seems unlikely for three reasons: 1. This requires the influx of people to already be competent modders, since there won’t be pre-existing assets they can draw upon like there are now. 2.How many of these people will put in the time investment to even try and make a profit? 3. Given how unlikely it is to actually make a living under the model we’re discussing, why should modders rely on that and not Patreon? How many artists, writers and other creatives have been able to support themselves with Patreon? Answer: a good number. Again, it’s worth repeating that by making modders independent contractors they become a part of the video game industry and end up doing this work for bad pay in the hopes of being hired into an unstable industry with poor working conditions.

“Would this be good for the players” is answered in a way that is again disconnected from the reality of the situation. Surprisingly, they linger on the point about how one would have to pay for utility mods as that’s a perfect example of why this entire scheme is horrible for the players. A common complaint is that companies will released unfinished games and just leave the problems to be fixed by the mod community. This statement was of varying degrees of truth before, now that you’re paying for mods, it means that you are paying extra to make the game functional. I’m curious how the price of a game is no longer the price of the game, just the entry free to a license so I can start to spend more money to make the game functional is better for me. This also ignores the reality of mods in that they’re a bit of a crapshoot. Mods being free is integral to how they’re used as they’re a crapshoot. Leaving aside the issue of quality of content for a moment, mods are modifications to the game, they’re not a part of the game and this means that they can break the game. Sometimes that break isn’t obvious and it happens hours down the line, but you accept the risk when you download a mod. Sometimes that break isn’t that big and sometimes it eats your save. This issue becomes even more pronounced when you have multiple mods running. This isn’t an issue that can be fixed through the professionalization of modding, it is literally a structural issue with mods.

Somehow, this will cause the quality of mods to rise. This isn’t impossible, but it’s highly unlikely when you consider that modders can no longer stand on the shoulders of other mods anymore. In the pursuit of money the following things will happen: big and ambitious projects will be finished, mods will be higher quality with fewer bugs and will be launched as close to launch as possible in order to maximize profit. There is absolutely no way for all of these things to be true, especially since working solo on such projects isn’t doable so modders will team together…into what amount to development studios on an incredibly precarious funding structure; at this point you’re better off learning how to design mobile games honestly. It’s important to think of modders as independent contractors/dev studios in this model because it quickly reveals the rest of the problems. A lot of games are just not that good, what makes mods any better? What’s to keep someone updating a mod so it remains compatible with the game in light of patches and expansions? What’s to keep a mod from being Early Access? Abandoned Early Access? What’s to keep a mod developer from any failing that an indie dev has?

‘Is this good for developers’ is the most coherent part of this video, although that’s awfully faint praise. This is mainly by virtue of the fact that they recognize the power and issues that game developers face in monetizing mods and spend most of the segment asking questions that clearly weren’t asked when this program was conceived and implemented. While this might be mistaking the forest for a tree, but I found the issue of DLC to be another example of them not understanding what modding actually is. Not all games are equally modable and the Workshop doesn’t have to support games that rely upon DLC. They did not stop being unthinkingly pro-corporation in three minutes and ask why any of this is the case. On the subject of their paradigm, it’s also worth mentioning what they don’t talk about. In theory, this experiment was bad for Bethesda since it generated a big amount of negative publicity and torched goodwill. A big reason to buy a Bethesda game was because of all the mods you could use; now that they’ve demonstrated a willingness to shift that arrangement in their favor, the disaffected player has no recourse t register their displeasure by not giving them money. It’s also fair to say that any damage done almost assuredly isn’t significant to do any meaningful harm and there will be enough buy-in from the community for this to work when they try it again.

‘Is this good for Valve’ is a question that they flippantly answer yes with an image of an avatar of Valve carrying sacks of money. It’s a silly question with a silly answer that is actually worth discussing in its own right. Steam has become basically become the industry standard for pc gaming, even if you can buy it elsewhere you need to have Steam to run it. This is another way for Steam to make money in a way that they want as much liability as they do with Early Access. It’s good for them because it can’t be bad for them.

Overall, the monetization of modding is a demonstrably terrible idea that would only grow the industry by turning modding into the development periphery. EC’s claims to the contrary primarily based upon ignoring what actually happened in favor of a pro-corporate optimistic agenda. Till next time

 

 

*’Mods are modifications to the game that add new content such as quests, items, unofficial patches and graphic changes

**An internet group devoted to explaining the game industry and game design. You can find them at youtube.com/user/ExtraCreditz

***Mods of Hearts of Iron 2 that became actual Paradox games.

January Solforge draftcap

Pack 1: This is a fairly interesting pack. Netherscale is a great way to try and get the poison deck rolling. Scarab is a fine card for an Esperian deck. Oratek Explosions hasn’t really impressed me in draft as being anything other than a Heavy Artillery. Windreaver is one of the best cards to open, as is Broodqueen due to their sheer power level. Mimicleaf is just bad. I’m not in the mood to try making the poison deck and I’m feeling lucky enough that I can make Dysian happen, so Broodqueen. Windreaver is a safer pick and comparable in power level, but I did that in my last draft and want some diversity. Even if youcan’t proc the allied trigger Broodqueen does work.

01

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 2: And punished. Conflagration is a fine spell,  Explorer isn’t terrible but it’s not good either. Battlesuit is pretty bad. Razortooth Stalker is one of my favorite commons and Oracle is fine as well. I take Stalker and regret not taking Windreaver.

02

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 3: the RNG us just mocking me now. Siphon is bad if you’re not Dysian and Ghastly Renewal is pretty bad. Ambusher is good at trading but is fairly interchangeable beyond that, Titan is a bit more unique and a good card in its own right.

03

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 4: Spirit Torrent is bad, as is Ghastly Renewal. Mystic turns into a beater with minimal investment and is an easy pick here.

04

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 5: Ooze blocks twice, Kadars Colossus is one of many big level 2 creatures and is fairly interchangeable. Ooze is the pick.

05

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 6: Glacial Crush is a relevant card. Cinder isn’t what I want unless I”m in Oratek. 2nd Stalker is good and points this deck in a solid direction.  Spiritleash is I card I like when I”m Onxyium or Dysian given the density of small creatures you can get. Colossus is still meh and I probably don’t value Seal as highly as I should.

06

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 7: Steed is fine,the mobility and the fact that it gets massive are relevant. Host doesn’t do enough of anything. Fiend affects multiple lanes. Sparksoul is jmeh. Fiend is the pick easy.

07

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 8: Brute is very powerful by virtue of what he can do to the other creature you play than himself. Sorrow Harvester is bad unless you’re an abomination deck…which you can’t do anymore. Crypt Slime is ok. Titan would be nice to have a second of down the line.

08

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 9: Asir is such a marginal card. Wallbreaker is passable on the vanilla test and has a relevant, albeit, levelgated ability. Death Current has never impressed me.

09

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 10: Zombie is a creature, gets massive at level 3 and just does more than spiriteash.

10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 11: Stampede doesn’t do a ton in this deck, or in general. Tremorcharge is pretty good, since it makes the Stalkers harder to deal with. Second Titan with Brute is nice. Brawler is a good aggressive card/underdrop. Harvester is the worst card in the pack Shambler is good, but a small step below the others. I take Brawler.

11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 12: Spiritcleave is somewhat conditional removal. Pact isn’t doing much in this deck. I still don’t want Colossus. Beserker kills just about everything. Harvester is still bad. I take Berserker.

12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 13: Shaman and Ambusher are the only two cards worth talking about and Shaman is strictly better.

13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 14: Manticore is good, it picks stuff off, it puts pressure on the opponent. Organ Harvester is also a card I like, but I want to be more aggressive. Spider basically doesn’t do anything unless you’re ahead.

14

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 15: Carg Walker is exactly what this deck wants.

15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 16: I basically never pass an Ebonbound,or any of the bound cards for that matter. While Brawler and Titan would be nice, I think I”m more likely to get them later than a Warlord.

16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 17: I would happily take a Brawler or a Fiend but I have no spells and Conflagrate is a good one.

17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 18: Wow, this is terrible. Primoridal is the only playable here.

18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 19: Mystic is the only playable.

19

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 20: Chant, while not being amazing in what this deck wants to do, is at least a different effect, which isn’t nothing.

29

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 21: Burnout wins here cause i just want spells that let my creatures get in.

21

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 22: Rotfiend is the most powerful card here, although I would be happy with anything but warrior.

22

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 23: Brawler, not close.

23

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 24: Crush does the most here.

24

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 25: Asir gives me slightly more flexibility.

25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 26: This is interesting, Evoker primarily makes my Stalkers more of a problem while Infernal Visage makes Brute and Titan more of a problem. I think Evoker has just a bit more upside though.

26

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 27: I would happily take this entire pack, but I can’t. So I’ll take the Barbarian.

27

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 28: Again, I want all of these sans the shock. Drake has more upside for this deck.

28

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 29: Well that’s a plummet in quality. Asir does the most.

29

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pack 30: Happily take another Crag Walker.

30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Round 1 was against an A/N deck that didn’t seem to draw that well and lost the tempo game in PL1 due to a Conflagrate on my part. 1-0

Round 2 was against an U/T deck that just ran over me.1-1

Round 3 was against an A/U deck that was just better. 1-2

Round 4 was against  an U/N deck that couldn’t handle a Stalker in PL2. 2-2

Well that went about as well as expected. Till next time.