Monthly Archives: May 2014

Opinion – Work should be more like nonograms

And no, I’m not talking about making my job a video game… Mostly.

I’ve invested an incredible amount of time into nonograms. There are a number of games that offer them (Picma, Pixelo, and Picross), but they all provide the same basic experience. It’s a simple puzzle game where numbers are written on the top of the columns and the left side of the rows of a grid. The numbers signify how many blocks to fill in a given row or column with a space between multiple numbers. The goal is to use logic and the process of elimination to create a simple picture. It does raise an interesting question. I have devoted many an hour to this simple concept for free yet I work a job that must compensate me to show up. Why?

Clear rules – I’ve laid out the basic rules of the game above. They don’t change, though they are sometimes added to. This means that I’m aware of what I need to do at all time. Work, on the other hand, rarely benefits from such precision. Often one must make judgments with imprecise information. I understand the upside of a changing or unclear ruleset. If everything were straightforward, than my job would be quickly automated and I’d be trying to write reviews for a living. Still, the inconsistency can be frustrating and a guy appreciates some consistency now and then.

Constantly changing challenges – Nonograms use a basic set of rules to create a wide variety of puzzles. Pixelize any picture and it’s a brand new nonogram for someone like me to figure out. Jobs, on the other hand, present the same challenges over and over. Most employers cannot provide variety, rather, they focus on training up an employee to be good at a few things. As an employee gets good at a task, they also stop feeling challenged by it. As mentioned above, the rules of these tasks may vary, but the overarching product is often the same. It is easy for a worker to become bored with a job when they produce the same thing day after day.

Low penalty for failure – Reducing the penalty for failure encourages innovation and reduces stress by lowering the importance of a given task. When a player doesn’t fear failure, they’ll try countless strategies knowing that the only penalty is starting over. For work, the stakes are higher. Screw ups can result in lost business or harsh treatment. Overtime (or with a sufficiently titanic mistake) failure can lead to firing with all the repercussions that necessarily result. This reduces the chances that most are willing to take for fear of the consequences. Innovation declines and stress increases as the worker avoids untested methods to reduce error, rather than to increase efficiency.

Choosing the environment – When I play a nonogram, I get to choose the environment I work in. I choose the music in the background, the clothes that I wear, and the chair that I’m sitting in. I can maximize my comfort. Most places of employment don’t have this kind of freedom. They provide an area to work in and require a certain dress code. Accommodations that someone might make at home like music or sitting on the balcony are difficult to achieve due to the shared spaces and work areas designed for efficiency, not comfort. Individual preference is sacrificed to efficiencies of scale with the loss of individual productivity.

Attendance mandate – While all work is technically voluntary, the reality is that most people are not independently wealthy enough to not need a salary. They must work, even if they aren’t technically required to. The forced nature of employment means that individuals must come in even when they are thoroughly unmotivated and must continue to do so even if a few days rest would improve their productivity. Nonograms, and games in general, are entirely voluntary. Players start and stop them at their leisure. The lack of concern prevents the player from burning out on the game by allowing them to disengage when the puzzle is no longer interesting. Productivity decline never craters like employment because the player is given the option to do something else.

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Review – Call of Duty: Ghosts – PC

I don’t get it.

Call of Duty: Ghosts (Ghosts) is a tired game from a tired series.  All of the ambition, intelligence, and cleverness that must have been in the earlier games has degraded into this messy slop.  So many aspects of this game are subpar and the base mechanics are a shadow of their predecessors.  Ghosts is a perfect example of a series that has passed its prime.

As I’ve already mentioned, the story is a mess.  The setup is totally contrived, the characters are flat, and the setting is completely drab and uninteresting.  You play Logan Walker, a member of a US special forces unit called the Ghosts, as he attempts to stop the former Ghost Rourke from assisting the Latin-America based Federation from invading the US.  That’s absolutely silly, and Ghosts only gets worse from there.  It never bothers to develop Logan or the other characters and, instead, relies on general positive feelings towards the military to see the plot through.  “We love soldiers” has definitely been abused by the FPS genre, but rarely is a game so totally reliant on it as Ghosts is here.  The hero is a solder, his brother is a solider, all his friends are soldiers, everyone who dies is a solider and, now that I think about it, only soldiers get any mention at all.  The opening cutscene has a few civilians, but that’s it.  Everyone else is a bland bot in a US army uniform.  Unless you burst into tears at the very thought of some generic gunman skinning his knee, Ghosts will hold little emotional heft for you.

Sadly, the gameplay is also heavily flawed.  Ghosts relies on the series staple of set piece battles, but doesn’t seem to know how to execute them properly.  Instead of creating a feeling of drama and excitement, Ghosts feels more like a curated tour of bombed out buildings.  From the very beginning, the game makes it clear that the player’s actions don’t matter.  The AI is constantly winning fights for the player and, when the computer controlled allies not mowing down every enemy in sight, they’re performing all of the quick time events by themselves.  The opening scene has the player and his brother jointly bashing open a door, but ultimately it is the AI controlled brother that completes the task.  This wouldn’t be so bad if there were solid gunfights in between, but Ghosts fails at that too.  From samey feeling guns to brain dead AI, Ghosts can’t conjure a decent shootout.  Fights quickly become gun whack-a-mole with little sense of tactics.  The game attempts to break it up with special game modes, but they are overly simplistic and serve to highlight how little the developers trust the actual gameplay.

The multiplayer improves the situation, but never really grabbed me.  The usual compliment of RPG elements are there to encourage the player to keep playing, but they do little to shore up the base gameplay.  Different loadouts do lead to some variations in play, but I never felt like I cared much about the multitude of guns.  For a casual player like myself, the tiny improvements did little to make me want to play more.  My experience, particularly as a new player, was greatly harmed by the low player base.  Most remaining players have maxed out their gear and memorized the levels.  The low base forces the game to mix newbies and these killers together with disastrous results.  It’s not fun to die repeatedly, even if the metagame RPG elements do add a small sense of progression.  When I found equally skilled matches, I had some fun.  Still, I never felt like Ghosts provided anything special.

It’s easy to see how the elements of Ghosts could have been a better game.  Unfortunately, they are all handled so poorly that it’s hard to eke out any fun.  If this formula is to work, the developers need to polish each piece so that they can all be enjoyed.  Instead, the game just feels like a tired attempt at the same old formula.

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Diary – Dieing is no fun

You should probably avoid it.

My first experience with Ghosts multiplayer was fun. True, I died a lot, but I snuck some kills in, learned some of the game dynamics, and generally improved my skills. Over the course of several matches, I increased my lethality to the point where I wasn’t always last. I was a serious threat for second to last. On rare occasion, I reached third to last, but never by the end of the match. My second attempt did not go so well. In one match, I died about 9 times in under a minute and often without a chance to fire a single shot. I once unload a clip into an enemy who then destroyed me. This was, unsurprisingly, not fun. Let’s see if we can’t get to fun.

The reason for my total failure the second time was fairly simple, I was completely outmatched. The Ghosts PC community has dwindled to the point where only die-hards remain. Those individuals have maxed out their levels, know the maps, and have generally mastered a game and a genre that I have one campaign’s worth of experience with. In a just world, I would be escorted off to my own little corner of the server to play against equally skilled kittens. We would merrily paw each other until the game took pity and declared one of us “the winner”. With server populations down, Ghosts must merge all skill levels to achieve critical mass to start a game. In short, there is no justice. Only pain.

This highlights the importance of good matchmaking. When players of vastly different skill levels play together, the elite players inevitably dominate. This has a number of deleterious effects. First, it clamps down on learning. In the aforementioned bout, I barely had a chance to move, much less begin to understand the intricacies of the map. I never got to try out weapons or tactics and, even if I did, there was a good chance that they may not have worked given the gulf of skill and equipment. It’s hard to learn if you’re totally ineffectual. The second issue is that it slows progression down. Modern multiplayer FPS’s often include a leveling component that increases the player’s abilities as they succeed. If the player isn’t succeeding, then they aren’t accessing the very things that might help them do so. It effectively punishes the player for starting out. Finally, it’s not fun for either the elite players or the new ones. For elite players who have devoted considerable time to improve their skills, mowing down the helpless may hold some entertainment value, but it doesn’t produce the tense matches that great stories are made of. As for the new players, the constant loss is frustrating. Stifling a player’s attempts at enjoying your game is the worst way to start them off.

That being said, skill matching is incredibly difficult. There isn’t a single metric that denotes player skill. High kill count may suggest a competent player, but if their death rate is similarly high then they might just be a fan of explosions or are feeders of better players. Furthermore, if the players figure out the algorithm used, they will undoubtedly exploit it. High kills get you first place? Prepared for suicide tactics. Low deaths? Watch out for extremely conservative gameplay. It’s impossible to implement a rankings system that doesn’t shape the metagame. This must be handled with care lest the best players adopt boring or frustrating tactics to ensure a high ranking. That’s no fun for anyone.

Other games have done this well. Starcraft 2 stands out for its tiered play system and hidden criteria. It generally matches evenly skilled players and occasionally throws in advanced opponents to see if a player is ready to move up. It maintains a sense of progression the keeps players engaged rather than frustrated. Regardless of how it is done, multiplayer games need to ensure that player’s play against similarly skilled opponents. This ensures they are constantly challenged, but rarely face the game ending feeling that they can never win.

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Diary – Call of Duty: Ghosts is a flaming bag of stupid

Because plausible scenarios are just too hard

 

It’s never good when the setup of your game is just so implausible that I can’t get beyond it.  Call of Duty: Ghosts (Ghosts) is rife with such silliness.  It’s a cornucopia of stupidity that stands as a monument to terrible setting design.  The basic premise is this: Venezuela succeeds in unifying South America under a new entity called the Federation and, faster than you can say “empire consolidation”, attacks the USA.  It overcomes our military might by commandeering a US weapons satellite that is apparently capable of leveling cities.  Gee, I wonder why a state would get nervous about that?  That could be the motivation, but Ghosts never tells us why the evil Mexicans are attacking the US. They’re probably after our women and minimum wage jobs.

I take that back.  They can’t be after our women; we don’t have them!  During some unmentioned catastrophe, all the American women disappeared except for the one that we sent into space.  Ghosts has no other women.  One of the protagonists mentions his mother, but I suspect she died in the Great Female Purge of 2015.  We lost so much.  Including diversity.  California is made entirely of white people.  So far, I have seen exactly two minority characters.  One was an NPC that got a whopping five seconds on screen before disappearing into the ether.  The other was a black guy whose first scene is him dying.  Don’t want to wait on that kind of thing.  He does get a brief scene in a flashback where he at least benefits from the temporal requirement that he not die, but he’s probably well aware that it’s coming.  The knowledge so paralyzes him that he doesn’t speak a word until disappearing sometime later.  Poor token black guy.  I feel for you.

This all results from the need to pander to what developers think their audience wants.  To Activision, players want manly, white protagonists who kick ass in the name of the stars and stripes.  Unfortunately for them, this leaves very little room to build a realistic world or solid characters as they must conform to simplistic, overdone archtypes.  The end result is characters that are uninteresting.  Emotions are rather important components to the development of a narrative arc.  Remove them and you just have meatheads fighting for non-descript “freedom” while, and I’m not kidding, wrestling wolves.  Ghosts relies entirely on reverence for the military and generic machismo to connect to the players and (surprise!) it comes off as flat as you’d expect.  At little character complexity and genuine conflict would go a long way towards making these characters feel human.  Or close to human.  At least part of the same biological family.  Let’s not get too ambitious.

Bland archetypes also force the story down very silly paths.  Consider the conundrum of realistic war games.  They all feel the need to use the United States of America as the protagonist, and must place the country in peril in order to have sufficiently high stakes to keep the player interested.  Small problem: the USA is a military beast.  In the 15 years preceding this game, the US military has successfully invaded and occupied two remote countries with strong insurgencies.  It has the largest Navy of any country and almost double the number of aircraft carriers of the second place country, Britain.  It takes a lot to weaken that kind of force and the ham-fisted theoretical attempts by developers all come off as wildly misinformed.  They require that the US be both vulnerable and strong, and so contort into strange positions and awkward alternate realities to make it happen.  Case and point, requiring the takeover of a satellite superweapon by a collection of countries that don’t have a space program.  Maybe they just got a really good running start.

There is a solution to this.  It involves introducing realistic scenarios, complex characters, and adding a bit of diversity to a stupidly white world.  It means giving your audience credit for having read the occasional news article and being able to appreciate that the world is not just lava guzzling super men without more emotions than revenge and indigestion.  It means growing up as story tellers and speaking about the actual realities of war instead of the eighties action movie version.  But that would be hard, and stupid is so easy.

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