Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 30, 2023
AI and the curse of the MMO

Once upon a time this used to be a MMO blog. The era of the classic MMORPG came and went, and while several games are still technically alive, it isn't a hot genre anymore. However, many of the games that came since then are still technically "MMO" games, that is to say that they are online games with large numbers of players playing together. The whole games as a service or live service games idea isn't fundamentally different from MMOs; it is mostly the gameplay that varies, not the underlying structure. Unfortunately that means that they inherited the same curse: Network effects going both ways.

Imagine you would be the only person on a Fortnite server. It would be a pretty boring game. Players in these games are not only the customers, they are also the content for other players. The more people play, the more interesting the game becomes. That leads to a network effect, where a game becomes popular shortly after release and has rapidly rising user numbers. The game attracts players because it is growing. But that works both ways: After some months or years, the game reaches its peak, then it starts declining. And the decline is as self-accelerating as the growth was. There is typically a die hard base of around 5% that sticks around until the game actually closes, but the other 95% are tourists that can disappear as quickly as they had arrived. History repeats itself, the curse of the MMO strikes again, even if the games don't call themselves MMOs anymore.

Live service games aren't doing so well lately. Not only were there too many of them, which accelerates the tourist problem described above. But games also reached some sort of a plateau regarding graphics. Over the last decade a lot of these games sold on the premise of being graphically more stunning than their predecessors. Now a level has been reached by the average game that is hard to beat at a reasonable cost. Other genres of games, in which graphics aren't quite as important, have reached that plateau years ago. You can't visually distinguish for example Octopath Traveler from Octopath Traveler II, despite 5 years of difference in age. Age of Wonders 4 coming out in May this year is a lot prettier than Age of Wonders 3 from 2014, but most of the difference had already been reached by Age of Wonders: Planetfall in 2019.

One of the hot topics of 2023 are the advances in Artificial Intelligence. Machines are getting better at pretending to be humans, creating text and images of a higher quality than the average person. Sure, if you look twice you'll notice the AI is having problems getting the number of fingers on a human hand right. AI chat bots sometimes get basic facts wrong. But Artificial General Intelligence is a much harder problem than the application of artificial intelligence to specific tasks or problems. Computers have gotten quite good at beating humans in games like chess or go, well beyond the capabilities of average players.

And there maybe is a chance for gaming: Instead of pouring more money into graphics that are getting exponentially more expensive for little gains, why not improve the AI of games, which has been a widely neglected field in game design? There have been a lot of lame excuses for that, like saying that if you made a good AI, it would always beat human players, making the game less attractive. That is just a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that an AI would play in a game: The goal is not to make an AI that can beat players reliably, but, like with chat and image creation applications, to create an AI that can pretend to be human at first glance. You can buy chess computers for under $100, and they can easily be adjusted to whatever level their human opponent is playing, as long as that human isn't a master chess player.

Anyone who has ever played the same game both against the computer and against human players knows that the two feel very different. Current algorithms that play computer game are often highly predictable, because they are simplistic and don't use any actual AI technologies. If you search for "advanced strategies" for single-player games, these almost always consist of knowing what the computer opponent will do in a specific situation, and exploiting that foreknowledge. The interest of playing against real humans comes from them being less predictable. It wouldn't be so hard to create game AIs that are less predictable, or even have a bit of machine learning features, changing their strategy if the human always plays the same way.

Let's face it, the people you meet in a massively multiplayer online game or live service game or multiplayer strategy game aren't geniuses either. The average person you meet, by definition, has average capabilities. You could create bots that have a similar level of game performance, similar level of unpredictability, and a much lower level of obnoxious and trolling behavior. Which means that you could create a live service game with a constant number of participants, but varying percentage of bots. You wouldn't get that "oh, this games feels empty, I'm leaving" negative network effect to the same level anymore. AI could break the curse of the MMO, just by being good at pretending to be random average people, not by being exceptionally good at playing the game.

Strategy games would probably benefit even more from better, more human-like AI than live service shooter games. Games are longer, which leads to frequent problems with real human opponents having to leave for real-life reasons or rage-quitting when it becomes obvious that they are in a losing position. Many strategy games offer both single-player and multi-player options, but the games in which multi-player is the more popular option are usually a lot faster and simpler games, like Among Us. Getting a more human-like AI opponent for longer games would be quite a boon.

There has been a lot of speculation, frequently exaggerated, about what the progress in AI means. Some people invoked the rise of the machines, or at least making a lot of current jobs obsolete. We aren't there yet. Maybe we should start by applying this progress to software that already pretends to have AI, but in which the simple algorithms currently used are really not up to the task. It is hard to imagine a world in which AI is able to replace humans at doing real work, but not able to replace humans playing a computer game. If humans are content for MMO-like games, then partially replacing them by bots could significantly slow down negative network effects, and result in games that fail less quickly. That should be a worth while investment for game development studios.

Monday, March 27, 2023
Age of Wonderful

I have played a lot of different strategy games: Grand strategy games from Paradox, games from the Total War series, 4X games like Civilization and many others. That goes back all the way to the 90s, where I was playing games like Master of Magic. I was looking forward to the remake of that, but unfortunately it turned out that the Master of Magic remake was a bit too close to the original, and has a lot of systems that three decades later feel dated. However, compared to the first Civilization, Master of Magic to me had two major advantages: The fantasy setting, and the tactical combat.

Tactical combat is probably the bigger factor here. In many of the games listed, combat isn't great. That has usually to do with it taking place on the the large strategic map, and then being either simplified or automated to a point that the results can sometimes be very weird. The Civilization series, with its focus on the tech tree, frequently resulted in combat encounters between troops of different historical eras. The Paradox games, like Crusader Kings 3 or Victoria 3, often have difficulties handling the mobility of armies on the strategic map, and combat is more or less automated once it finally happens. Some people do like the real time combat of the Total War series, but I have always preferred turn-based combat, and Total War AI tends to make weird decisions.

Given all that, I very much enjoyed Age of Wonders: Planetfall when I played it around end of last year. The different alien races and leader customization lead to a lot of replayability and variation. And the mix between 4X strategic gameplay and zoomed-in tactical maps was just right for me. I played over 150 hours of that before moving on to other genres. But having looked at and disliked the Master of Magic remake, I couldn't help but notice that Age of Wonders 4 is scheduled to come out on May 2nd, which might be a better alternative for me. But that is still over a month away, so what should I do until then?

Then I remembered that I did own Age of Wonders 3. I had played that when it came out back in 2014, but at release I didn't much like the game. However, since then the game has had 38 patches and two DLCs. So I tried the game again, and this time I liked it a lot more. Obviously it is hard to say in how far that is due to constant improvements of the game, or to changes in attitude on my side over the last 9 years. But Triumph Studios clearly improved on and supported Age of Wonders 3 for five years, and that is something I do appreciate. To many game studios are on a "fire and forget" mode, where after release only the most egregious shortcomings are still patched. Or they rely too much on paid DLC, like Civ 6, which still today is $60 game with $150 worth of DLC (although you can get it all in a bundle for about half price).

So now I'll be playing Age of Wonders 3 for a bit. And I pre-ordered Age of Wonders 4, after having studied some very interesting looking previews. Maybe Age of Wonders 4 will be the new "Masters of Magic" that I never really got.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

I just finished playing through Pentiment. Wait, that is the wrong verb. I just finished reading through Pentiment. It was an interesting and enjoyable experience, but gameplay didn't really figure into it. Which was an interesting contrast to my previous game, Phantom Brigade, which is strong on the basic gameplay loop and weak on story, campaign, and progress structure.

Obsidian stated that Pentiment wouldn't have been possible without the Xbox Game Pass for PC. I agree. I don't think I would have played it, if I didn't have that game pass subscription, which made it basically free. Pentiment is $20 on Steam, and I would hesitate to recommend it at that price. I am sure that some people will enjoy it. I did, but it certainly isn't for everybody. For a service like game pass, it is good to have games like this, that a diametrically opposite to those never-ending live service games.

While Pentiment at first looks like a point and click adventure, it is more a purely narrative game. There aren't any puzzles to solve except for the occasional easy mini-game. There are murder mysteries in which it doesn't matter whether you find the culprit, because the one you point your finger at is it. And so you just click yourself through the various locations and dialogues, until 15 hours later the game ends.

For anybody who enjoys history, Pentiment is great fun. The use of books and fonts (instead of voice acting) to tell the story is extremely well done. Live in 16th century Bavaria is presented in a believable way. This is the one time where I played a game from an American developer in German, which except for the translation of old bailey was very well done.

If you have a game pass subscription, Pentiment is certainly worth looking into. For users of Steam I would only recommend it to history buffs like me.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Our house

As I mentioned recently, me and my wife are currently building a new house, and we will move later this Spring. So in this post I would like to talk about some of the considerations that went into this project, beyond personal ones.

Look at the median household in any first world country, or even many of the developing ones: Housing, in the form of a house or apartment, is either the most valuable single item that household possesses, or in the case of renters it is the single largest item of monthly expenditure. It is safe to say that housing is extremely important to us, although obviously it becomes a less pressing concern once the problem is solved and you are in a stable housing situation. House ownership for many people is a huge part of personal finance. Economists frequently rank countries by GDP per person, or median household income. But it turns out that GDP per person doesn't tell you very much how well off people in a country are; a different measure like median household net worth is usually a better descriptor. And median household net worth strongly correlates with house ownership.

Now if you read any sort of news on house prices and rents lately, you will have heard that house prices and rents have been going up, causing affordability problems in many places. But once you get past the usual throwing around blame for the problem, it turns out that this is mostly an urban problem. In many countries urban population is rising, while rural population is shrinking. If you read a sensationalist news headline about large numbers of houses standing empty (16 million in the USA), that is not a nefarious plot to keep housing prices high; instead the empty houses are in very different regions than the ones in which housing is unaffordable.

That gets me to the first important point about our new house: It is in a more rural region. And as a result the base price of that new house is roughly the same as the price we sold our more urban apartment for; and that in spite of the apartment being 30 years older, and smaller than the house. Now there are a lot of personal reasons for people to want to live in urban environments; but in many cases it has to do with employment. My wife and me retired last year, which removed the necessity to live close to our work. And this is Belgium, a relatively small and densely populated country; our "house in the countryside" isn't all that far away by car to the next city. So it isn't as if we will live in a truly isolated spot with no shops around.

In terms of personal finance, a house in which you live yourself tends to be a great investment in most countries and under most market conditions. Living in your own house means you don't need to be afraid of rent increases, any rise in housing prices increases your net worth, and any fall in housing prices doesn't have an effect until you decide to move out and sell the house. That is especially true for retired people who have a certain amount of savings: An investment in your own house is a lot safer than putting the money into the market, and it saves you the large monthly expenditure that would otherwise go towards rent. If you don't have the money, buying a house on credit in conditions of high mortgage rates and high local house prices might be not so generally advisable, and depends a lot more on individual conditions. And yes, I am aware that this is a generational problem. In the 1980s the term Yuppie for young urban professional had a notion of financial success, while in the 2020s young urban professionals are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck, and not be able to afford to buy a house.

The second big feature of the new house compared to the old apartment is energy efficiency. Globally a large chunk of CO2 emissions is due to heating or cooling buildings. That is a consequence of long decades in which fossil fuel was relatively cheap, while housing insulation is relatively expensive. Our new house will comply with a near zero energy building standard, and near zero emission building standards after we add solar panels. Yes, there are disadvantages, like the walls being very thick, and the house needing a ventilation system. A lot of the fresh air in a regular house comes in through gaps between window frames and wall. Eliminating those makes a house more energy efficient, but then you need artificial ventilation (preferably with heat exchange) to keep oxygen up and humidity down. On the plus side, features like thick walls and triple glazing also isolate the house from outside noise.

There are political and economical aspects to housing insulation. On the political front, many countries have signed up to various conventions like the Paris climate agreement; getting national CO2 emissions down necessitates making houses more energy efficient. Thus the pressure by regulations on home owners to increase the energy efficiency of their houses is mounting. But installing proper insulation on a new house is a lot easier than getting to the same level of energy efficiency by renovation. Expect to hear a lot more on that subject, because the commitments of governments to energy efficiency of buildings in 2030 currently largely exceed the capacity of the construction industry to do so; and the capacity of some home owners to pay for all that renovation.

The economic aspects of housing insulation are a lot more complicated. Energy prices are volatile in general, and specifically so in Europe since the start of the Ukraine war. A perfectly isolated house would need no energy to heat; it would also suffocate you, so it isn't the perfect example. But the point is that all the heating energy you consume is eventually lost to the outside, with insulation determining how fast that loss is, and thus how much energy you need to keep your house at a given temperature. If energy costs are high, housing insulation is a good investment; if energy costs are very low, it takes much longer for that investment to pay back in lower energy bills.

So in the end our nicely isolated new house has a bunch of different advantages, some of which you might value more highly than others: Our energy bills we be lower, and we will be less susceptible to sudden increases in heating costs. Our environmental footprint will be lower, and there is less of chance of being impacted by new government regulations on building energy efficiency. If you combine that with personal finance advantages listed above, you get to a situation which is good for retired people: Savings safely invested, monthly expenditures lowered, and less volatile. It is generally a good idea to adjust your lifestyle to changing conditions, in this case retirement. But admittedly this isn't easy, as people might have a sentimental attachment to the place they live in, or consider major life changes to be either too scary or too difficult.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023
Artificial Dumbness

This is post number 6224 on my blog. I have no idea whether my previous posts have been part of the vast amount of internet content used to train ChatGPT. Probably not. But if it were, ChatGPT could easily reply to a request like "write a blog post about World of Warcraft in the style of Tobold". And the result would look pretty convincing. Now if you read some of my blog posts, you probably have some opinion on my intelligence, whether that is a positive or a negative opinion. But that opinion is something that has formed in your brain, based on the very limited information you have about me from my blog posts. The same leap to judgement would happen if you read a ChatGPT blog post: If it sounded reasonable and was well argued, you would attribute some "intelligence" to its author, ChatGPT. Thus we talk about the progress of artificial intelligence, because we can see outputs that resemble the output of intelligent people. But that is all fake.

I have written enough blog posts about MMORPGs and World of Warcraft for an artificial intelligence to be able to recognize patterns in that wealth of data, and to be able to reproduce something superficially similar. If you used the same data and asked ChatGPT to write a blog post about the NFL, the result would look a lot more like garbage, because I never wrote about that subject, and so there isn't much data to go on. ChatGPT would still have a lot of information about how I use the English language, and how I tend to write, but with no data on the subject, the "write a blog post about the NFL in the style of Tobold" request would probably yield something extremely vague, lacking logical coherence about the subject matter.

You also couldn't ask ChatGPT to write a "review in the style of Tobold" about a newly released game I haven't talked about yet. Unless you feed it with both my blog, and a bunch of reviews from other people about the game, in which case ChatGPT could project my writing style on the information about the game it got from elsewhere. But if the other reviewers liked the fast action sequences of the game in question, ChatGPT might well repeat that in fake Tobold's review, and regular readers of mine might spot that to be inconsistent with my preference for slower games.

The surprising thing is that the limited ability of ChatGPT to write a text based on pattern recognition and repeating what other people have said can very well be all that is needed for certain applications. A teacher giving students the homework to write an essay about some subject doesn't expect the result to be brilliant and original. You can easily let ChatGPT write that for you, and just edit it in case there are some mistakes a human wouldn't have made. I don't know if you ever googled for some sort of "game guide" information about some game, but if you do, you would find that there are already a lot of sites out there which seem to have copied and pasted that sort of information. It wouldn't be hard for ChatGPT to replace some of the people writing for that sort of publication. Even scientific publications (of which I have written a bunch) tend to start with a more general introduction to the subject area, e.g. climate change, and that general part could easily be written by ChatGPT.

A lot of articles about ChatGPT have been written this year in which the author prodded ChatGPT with questions until ChatGPT answered with something that sounded creepy, or emotional, or self-aware. You can get ChatGPT to devise a plan for robots to take over the world. And that makes for a nice, click-bait headline about "artificial intelligence plans to take over the world!". But that only looks scary because we tend to attribute thinking and intention to what other people say. ChatGPT producing the plan for robots to overthrow the rule of humanity doesn't know what it is writing, nor does it have any intention behind that. It just assembled a text, based on user prompts and pulling from existing texts in its database.

There are areas of human content creation, e.g. on social media sites like YouTube, where humans deliberately adjust their style to the algorithm the site uses to recommend content. An artificial intelligence application that was specifically trained on YouTube recommendations would be quite good at writing a script for a YouTube video that would have a lot of success. The same artificial intelligence would be unable to write of script for a YouTube video that was original and highly intelligent. Because artificial intelligence can't even recognize real intelligence; it can however recognize patterns of success and reproduce them. That says more about our patterns of consumption of online content than it says about the ability of machines to think.

Saturday, March 18, 2023
D&D Adventure Creation

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that varies a lot between one group of players and another group, even if they are nominally playing the same adventure. So once you get into the realm of creating D&D adventures, there aren't really any fixed rules. You might find tips on the internet, but those tips could very well be specific to one group, and not really work well for your group. What I would like to talk about in this post is the dichotomy between adventure creation/preparation and player agency.

The basic question here is whether your adventure should have a plot. Both possible answers to that question are bad. If you have a plot, you could be accused of railroading your players along that plot. If you don't have a plot, then probably no amount of improvisation talent is going to make the adventure really interesting. Some people suggest to create adventures based on a villain having a certain plan, with that plan being open to disruption by the players. Which still leaves you with a problem if the players either don't disrupt the plan, and the "plan" becomes the "plot" of the adventure, or the players aren't interested in the villain and just wander off, ignoring that villain and his plan.

Now your mileage may vary, but my group of players has a tendency to go into whatever direction the events point at, happily following every plot. Which is good, because if they decided to go elsewhere, I would have a purely technical problem: We don't play theater of the mind style, but rather play D&D like a tactical combat game with battlemaps and figurines. These days the maps and figurines are virtual, on the Roll20 virtual table top. But the problem is the same as back when I was printing the battlemaps and used 3D-printed monsters to fight on them. The problem is that you can't have an endless supply of maps and figurines. So if your plot is about exploring a pyramid in the desert, you prepare maps of the pyramid, and some outside maps of desert and maybe an oasis. And you populate those with monsters appropriate for that environment and the level of the party. If your party then decides that they aren't interested in the pyramid, and tell you that they'll go diving for a shipwreck near the coast that was somehow mentioned in the story, you have a problem: You don't have any underwater maps with underwater monsters prepared. You can improvise, quickly draw a battlemap on graph paper and use meeples for monsters. But the contrast between that and your regular battles would be glaring. And the same would be true on Roll20. The alternative to that would be announcing to your players that if they want to go exploring a shipwreck instead of a pyramid, today's session is over and you'll prepare the shipwreck for the next session. But that solution isn't going to make anybody happy.

So, unless you play D&D with a completely improvised style and no maps, a D&D adventure often ends up with a structure similar to an adventure in a RPG videogame. You may be given dialogue options and other choices, but whatever you do, you end up in the same dungeon with the same encounters. I am preparing an adventure which contains exploration of a shipwreck, and the players will have all the freedom and player agency in the world in the part where they gather information and localize the shipwreck. But I do have a map for the underwater location and monsters prepared, so in all likelihood that combat encounter will take place.


Friday, March 17, 2023
Taking stock

I have been living in the same apartment for the last 25 years. But we are currently building a new house, and will move house in spring. Both in preparation for the move, and to empty the current apartment in order to make it presentable for selling, we had to go through all of our belongings and decide what to keep. Over the years a lot of stuff accumulates, and the move is an opportunity to take stock and decide what is still relevant.

In other news, my PC has been running more and more slowly lately, so that when I double-click on a desktop icon it sometimes took minutes for the program to start. That turned out to be a similar issue as the apartment: Over many years a lot of stuff has accumulated, and messed up Windows. In that case the solution was to reinstall Windows, but even if you keep the files, the process of reinstalling makes Windows forget what software was previously installed. In some cases, you can recover stuff, e.g. Steam games, without having to download them again. In other cases you need to reinstall your applications too. Which again is an opportunity to take stock, especially of my PC games.

What I discovered was that I had a lot of games installed of which I thought of being good games that I had enjoyed a lot, but which somehow I wasn't playing anymore. I played 138 hours of Against the Storm; it is a really good game, and it gets updated every 2 weeks; but still, at some point it just isn't exciting anymore. My interest in Phantom Brigade just ran out, after about 65 hours. I have played 68 hours of Hogwarts Legacy, and am not sure whether it is worth reinstalling it just to play it to the end of the story. I tend to feel okay about a game if I spend more hours of fun with it than it cost in dollars, which make Against the Storm the best deal of the games mentioned. But between weekly free games from the Epic Games Store and free access to games with the Xbox Game Pass for PC, there are obviously a lot of games to which that rule doesn't apply.

Then there are games that are evolving. I have 124 hours played of Baldur's Gate 3, and the game doesn't even come about before August this year. 78 hours played of Solasta: Crown of the Magister, but there is a lot of DLC content I haven't seen yet. I reinstalled Gloomhaven after 92 hours played, to play through the Jaws of the Lion DLC. I have 78 hours played on Wartales, but will probably reinstall it when release version 1.0 comes out in Q2 of this year. Before the Windows reinstall, I had Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous installed for 18 months, and I swear that every time I started Steam there would be a patch for that game; I only played 37 hours of it on release, but it felt as if I had made a mistake to buy the game early, and should wait until they were finished patching it.

Part of the problem of games outstaying their welcome on my hard drive is the barrier to entry of starting a new game. I do like complex games, but they definitively take a good amount of time to learn and play properly. Of course the learning experience is also a big part of the fun, which makes mastering a game also the point where interest wanes. But then it takes some mental effort to decide to stop playing this and to start and learn the next game. I wish the transition was smoother, but the reality is periods in which I am very much fascinated by one game, interrupted by periods in which I lost interest and can't really find the energy to start the next game.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023
Video game streaming

I never made the switch from blogging to streaming, in spite of knowing that blogging is a dying art. I know that because as a consumer, I don't follow blogs anymore, I watch streams on YouTube and Twitch. For example recently, I watched at lot of Phantom Brigade streams. Phantom Brigade is a very complex and interesting game, but with a lot of flaws, things that outright don't work, and features that are not explained. Watching somebody else play and comment on his game helps understanding what is going on, which then makes playing the game more fun.

Now Phantom Brigade is not a very fast game. The tutorial to conquer the first province already takes hours, and if you don't know the game very well, the second province can take tens of hours to conquer. So when looking for streams that covered the game beyond that second province, I realized something: A lot of video game streamers keep their stream interesting by frequently switching to the next hot game. Some extremely so, covering a game like Phantom Brigade with a single video that doesn't even get past the tutorial. Most in a moderate way, making a dozen or so videos before moving on to the next game. Finding Phantom Brigade videos with the player beyond level 4 is actually difficult. One streamer I found made the wise decision to not show the early game videos, and start his series of streams at level 4, but then he also just made few videos before moving on.

I mostly watch videos on YouTube, but for Phantom Brigade I also looked at Twitch. So Twitch then reminded me that I was technically still "following" some World of Tanks streamers. Which led me to the other extreme end of the spectrum: Video game streamers that stick to one game forever. World of Tanks released in 2010, and like all "live service games" has seen a decline in its user numbers. It hasn't helped that World of Tanks is Belarusian, with the Russian servers being the largest, while the North American servers and Steam version have tiny player numbers in comparison. So I wonder how that works out for video game streamers that play World of Tanks nearly exclusively. Does that translate to dwindling revenues, and a feeling of being trapped in one game, unable to switch your stream to something else?

So, covering every game only for a limited time and then moving on might well be the better business strategy. But I remain skeptical of the viability of video game streaming as your main source of income. I am sure that it can work for some time, but the internet is fickle, and you might well go out of fashion. And it isn't as if YouTube or Twitch offered pension plans for content creators.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023
Leveling as a punishment

Games describe game elements with words that have a certain meaning in general language and then game design sometimes ends up players feeling something very different about that game element than the word would suggest. A great example is "monster", which used to describe something scary to be avoided, but in many games ends up being more like a resource to be searched after. But in the large majority of games that I have played over several decades, "leveling" your character was a good thing. Until Phantom Brigade. I recently deleted my save games and started over, because I had leveled up quickly, and then found out that it was a bad thing.

In Phantom Brigade, each of your mechs has a level, and that level is the average value of the level of the parts that make up the mech. You also have a workshop level, which is the level of parts you can craft in your workshop. That looks like a good thing, because the cost of crafting is independent from level, so if you increase workshop level you can craft better stuff for the same cost. At first I was a bit confused about workshop level, as it sometimes appeared to be increasing randomly. But then I found out that if you increased the level of one of your mechs by equipping higher level stuff you found, your workshop level would rise accordingly. For example, if you had workshop level 4 and level 4 mechs, and you salvaged a level 6 enemy mech and used all his parts to bring one of your mechs to level 6, your workshop level would go up to 6 as well.

So I tried whether I could push that system. Raiding higher level provinces can work to get higher level parts, as long as you do it quickly to keep hostility level down. My goal was to push up my workshop level, and I managed to do that. Only then I found out that the level of the enemy provinces is linked to my workshop level. In the above example, when pushing my workshop level from 4 to 6, the recommended level of the neighboring province was also going up from 4 to 6, and so was the average level of enemies encountered there. Basically, by increasing the level of one mech, I increased the level of *all* enemies, while I still had 3 lower level mechs that were now at a disadvantage. And as I had exaggerated for testing purposed and increased my level by far more than that, I had really screwed up my campaign and decided to start over.

So it seems that the optimum strategy in Phantom Brigade is to *avoid* pushing the average level of your mechs above the current workshop level. It is better to keep the level of all of your mechs balanced. [EDIT:] I got to the point where my average level was just below 5.5, and my workshop level and average enemy level was 6. *Any* upgrade of any single part on any of my mechs would increase my average level to above 5.5, at which point the workshop level and enemy level would go up to 7. But by not upgrading anything, I was able to liberate 7 provinces without the enemy level going up. Thus workshop and enemy level *only* depends on you putting higher level gear on your mechs. Liberating provinces does not increase enemy level.

Monday, March 13, 2023
Hogwarts Legacy - The political part

I wrote an unpolitical review of Hogwarts Legacy, but everybody knows that is only half the story. Unfortunately the political part is a lot darker and contains a lot of scary shit. If this is the future of social media and video game journalism, we are in for a world of hurt. But let's start with some background.

Some activists believe that "trans women are real women", and should therefore be referred to simply as "women". In consequence, the group of people previously referred to as women should be referred to as "menstruating people". While this change of language is designed to prevent offence to trans women, unsurprisingly some feminists think that being referred to as "menstruating people" is offensive to them. In 2020, J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, and long-time feminist tweeted a rather mild tweet mocking the term "menstruating people". Since then she is being accused of being "transphobic", with that tweet being widely thrown around as evidence for her transphobia. As you can see for yourself, that is already a stretch. At no point before or after that did J.K. Rowling actually object to trans people, she even made tweets supporting their rights to live as they like. She only objected to a rather ridiculous attempt to redefine the word "woman".

J.K. Rowling is also a political activist against men who are pretending to be trans women in order to gain access to single-sex spaces and harm women there. That culminated in the case of Isla Bryson, a person who presumably identified as male while raping several women. When facing two trials for rape, Isla transitioned, and identified as female at the time of her conviction, demanding to be sent to women's prison. To the abject horror of many people that worked, probably related to the timing shortly after Scotland passed the the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. Only after widespread public outcry did the Scottish government backpedal, and transferred Isla to a men's prison. First Minister of Scotland (at that time) Nicola Sturgeon then stated her opinion that Bryson is "almost certainly" faking her transgender status. But for having fought to keep a rapist out of women's prison, J.K. Rowling was again accused of transphobia. You have to ask who would do that? Pro-rapists? I would rather say that preventing men from faking transgender status to harm women is an area where the interests of real trans people and feminists are very much aligned.

A decade ago, in 2013, J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers reached a deal which resulted in Warner Brothers co-owning the US trademark rights for “J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World”, and receiving rights that would eventually enable them to make not only Harry Potter movies, but also Hogwarts Legacy. Other than by the terms of the 2013 deal, J.K. Rowling was not involved at all in the making of Hogwarts Legacy. With the game not actually using very many characters of the Harry Potter books, her royalties from Hogwarts Legacy are probably just a few cents for every copy sold. She made, and continues to make, a lot more money by other ways.

A quick search for "Harry Potter" on just yielded 20 pages of results. There are Lego sets, Golden Snitch Fidget Spinners, wands, stickers, flags, sofa cushions, suitcases, and every other Harry Potter branded merchandise you could possibly think off. There are Harry Potter theme parks in Orlando and London, and a myriad other ways in which J.K. Rowling is making money out of the intellectual property she created. She is a billionaire now, but she was born middle-class, and made all that money out of the shrewd marketing of her creative work. Before the "transphobic" accusations, she was rather a hero of the left, having suffered domestic abuse in her marriage, ended up as single parent, and was on social security before her breakthrough. So I have no idea how we got from there to people earnestly claiming that "if you buy Hogwarts Legacy, you contribute to trans people dying". Why single out that one video game among all the other products J.K. Rowling is making money from? And how does mocking the term "menstruating people" and fighting men faking transgender status contribute to trans people dying? This is an extremely far stretch, that is probably only possible due to the character limitation of Twitter, which encourages extreme shortcuts in arguments.

Now if the story had ended with a few video game journalists and people on social media calling for a boycott, and a few people being convinced by the flimsy arguments and not buying Hogwarts Legacy, that could easily have been the end of it. Unfortunately Hogwarts Legacy turned out to probably be the best-selling PC game of 2023, and outsold fan favorites like Elden Ring. Which made the people who had promoted the boycott really, really angry. And made them react really, really badly. Having proven unable to affect either J.K. Rowling nor the general public, they went after what they considered the weakest link in the chain: Streamers. There have been a large number of cases in which content providers on YouTube and Twitch who streamed Hogwarts Legacy were harassed, up to the point of receiving death threats. An activist put up a website that allowed activists to find streamers who played the game, so they could be harassed. Some streamers quit their careers because of it. Others went on record saying they didn't dare stream the game. Some fought back. Hogwarts Legacy still ended up breaking records for the most streamed game on Twitch, but it got pretty ugly. George Carlin once said 'Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity.' You wonder what he would have said about 'Harassing for tolerance'. This isn't just a witch hunt. It is a mob with torches and pitchforks threatening to burn down their more reasonable neighbors' houses if they don't join the witch hunt.

Now this wasn't just a few alt-left trolls. Several rather prominent gaming sites attacked gamers as spineless, or even defended the trolls, stating that whoever streamed Hogwarts Legacy deserved the death threats they received. Wired went full troll themselves, and gave Hogwarts Legacy a 1 out of 10 review. Other game journalists were pretty spineless themselves, and put out reviews with a disclaimer that basically said "Dear activists, please don't hurt me, I agree with you, I just had to review this to keep my job", or downrated the game to a lesser degree. The problem with that is that if you do that with Hogwarts Legacy, you should do that with every game that has some remote connection to somebody controversial. Which is basically every game. "If you buy Atomic Heart, you are contributing to the slaughter of civilians in the Ukraine" is not strictly a true statement, but has actually more truth to it than the connection between buying Hogwarts Legacy and hurting trans people. Where do you stop? And as it turns out, most people visit video games sites to get reviews and game guides, not to get into political discussions about what dirt the video game journalist was able to dig up on somebody remotely connected to the game. Controversy is clickbait, but clickbait is not a sustainable way to run a business. Readers who mostly want a honest review of games feel betrayed if they get review scores skewed by questionable politics instead. The alt left is loud on social media, but is a small minority of the people who buy videogames and represent the audience of game websites.

As I consider myself to be center-left political, I feel hurt by the damage that the alt-left is doing with actions like these to the left cause. There is a reason Desantis is running on an anti-woke platform: You don't need good politics to win elections, you only need regular people to be more scared of the other side than of you. Hogwarts Legacy is the the moment the alt left movement showed its uglier side to the world of video games. And many content creators are scared. So am I.

Sunday, March 12, 2023
Saltmarsh - Sessions 5 to 7

I haven't written much about my ongoing D&D campaign lately. Last weekend we played session 7 of that campaign, and I noticed that I hadn't written a journal for sessions 5 and 6. So this is a recap of sessions 5 and 6, and 7.

In this campaign the players are pirates operating in the seas around the coastal town of Saltmarsh, as described in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventure collection. But I am not playing the adventures from that collection anymore, but rather a mix of indie and self-created adventures. In session 5 the players finished a hex-crawl adventure in which they succeeded to liberate the crew of a stranded pirate ship from goblin cannibals. So now they have a ship and a crew.

As the player who was the pirate captain left, the captain of the pirate ship is now the tabaxi wizard of the group. He has a background story in which he was cursed by a magical goldfish, for trying to eat the fish. In session 6 the group encountered that magical goldfish, but it was now enormously big, larger than the largest whale. And after it emerged from the ocean it was flying in the air. When they encountered the goldfish on the open sea, they witnessed a group of water genasi on a boat approaching the fish. The fish swallowed one of the genasi whole, and flew away. The genasi told the group that this was their priestess, who had come to heal the goldfish, who was a venerated deity of their tribe, and apparently sick. The group agreed to help the genasi, found out where the goldfish was hiding in an ancient mountain temple, and made their way up to the fish. They discovered that the goldfish was suffering from an internal parasite, so they entered the fish and battled the parasite spawns inside. Thus they healed the fish, free the priestess, and removed the curse from the tabaxi.

Session 7 began with an encounter on the open sea at midnight, with a ghost pirate ship that was glowing green. The ghost ship was attacking, but it turned out that the enemies and their weapons were ghostly, and just passed through the heroes without doing any harm. Only the ship was solid, so the group could search it. They encountered a lot of undead pirates, but neither side could hurt the other. Unfortunately the treasures on the ghost ship were also ghostly and couldn't be touched. Finally they met the ghost pirate captain, Calabran, a revenant. He told them that when their ship was still real, their first mate Osric had found a treasure map and used it to recover a large black pearl from an underwater cave. The captain wanted to share the treasure between the whole crew, as usual, but the first mate wanted the black pearl for himself. So the first mate betrayed the captain and his mates, and sunk the ship, escaping with the black pearl. But the black pearl was a cursed artifact, and the power of the artifact combined with the Calabran's thirst for vengeance turned the whole ship into a ghost ship. Nobody knows what happened to Osric, but Calabran is somehow aware that the black pearl returned to the underwater cave where they had found it.

So the ghost captain offered the group a deal: If they could recover the black pearl, Calabran could use it to "phase in" the ghost ship with the real world. Then, depending on what the heroes want, they could either fight the undead pirates, or just receive the treasures on the ghost ship in exchange for the black pearl. The group agreed to just getting the treasures, and set off to the small island, with the map and instructions left behind by the first mate. They fought some sahuagin patrol on the island, found the ritual site, and managed to perform the ritual that made a water vortex appear nearby. Diving in (and having been blessed with permanent water breathing in session 3) they made it to the underground cave. There they fought some merrow, managed to avoid swarms of piranhas, and had an epic fight in the last room with several giant octopuses. They found the black pearl, and despite it obviously having great powers, traded it with the ghost pirate captain. The captain kept his word, gave them his treasures, and they separated peacefully. They didn't even consider that unleashing a ghost ship on the local waters might not have been such a good idea. But that is for some future session. :)


Wednesday, March 08, 2023
Some Phantom Brigade Tips

So I have been spending my time between playing Phantom Brigade and watching other people play the game on Twitch / YouTube. And it is interesting to see how different people mess up different aspects of the game, me included. That is in part because this is an indie game, and while first 2 or so hours you need to capture the first province act as a sort of tutorial, there are a lot of things that are easily missed, or not very well explained.

The main thing I didn't play very well was that I am not using shields as much as I should, and I don't time the use of the shield well. In the planning phase of each 5-second turn, you can click on the enemy mechs and tanks, and you will see exactly when they are shooting, and who is their target. Thus you can use that information to raise your shield exactly when, and only when, you actually need it. That works extremely well against bullets; missiles are a different issue, as they can take quite a while to arrive over long distances, and once they are in the air you can't track at what time their impact will be. I found that Dash works better against missiles than shield, but that also has to be timed well.

One weak point of Phantom Brigade is that the system that tells you how hard a fight is isn't doing a particularly good job. That starts in the tutorial, at the mission where the home guard joins you the first time. That mission is easier as it says, because it just compares the strength of the enemy forces to the strength of the only 2 mechs you can bring, without counting the 2 home guard mechs you also control. Obviously having control over 4 mechs makes it a lot easier, but you aren't told that very well. Note that there are a number of missions where you are limited to how many mechs you can bring, and there is no advance notification of that either, which is annoying. Nevertheless, having more mechs than you can field in combat isn't a bad idea, as it allows you to bring a fresh mech if you have several fights in short sequence without time to repair.

After combat, you get into a salvage phase. What many people overlook is that on the left side of each item on the list there is a little greyed out section if that item was destroyed in combat. Destroyed items cost more salvage points to recover. That might still be worth it, if the item is particularly valuable to you; but if you have limited salvage points and are just scrapping a bunch of items for supplies, taking all the non-destroyed items first means you get those supplies at half the cost of scrapping destroyed items. Note that if one of your mechs got destroyed, you need to pay salvage points to recover his parts, making the fight a lot less profitable.

Your mechs repair at a quite good rate between fights, using a commodity called Liquid Fix. What that means is that you need to plan your expeditions into enemy territory around that Liquid Fix, as the only way to get it back is to return to a friendly base and rest there for 10 hours. That gets your Liquid Fix up to 100. Supplies are the main currency of the game, with uncommon and rare components being secondary currencies. All upgrades to your tech tree are paid with these currencies, and you can build more mechs and mech parts with these currencies in the workshop. Don't forget that you can scrap old parts in your inventory to get more supplies and components.

Your workshop has a not very well explained level, which will be level of the mech parts you produce. Note that it is quite likely that your workshop can produce relatively high level parts. Once you unlocked the technology and gather the components, your workshop can also make uncommon (green) and rare (blue) parts, which means that sometimes the best mech part available to you might be from your workshop. Your workshop level goes up when you conquer locations and provinces, but there are some hidden numbers in that system.

Now I played the conquest of the second province in a very particular way, which has its advantages and disadvantages: I took it extremely slow. I constantly attacked, retreated to my base, resupplied, and then started that cycle over. That increases hostility, which increases the level of the enemies. I tried resting for a few days to lower hostility, but while that works, it is very, very slow. In the end I used scan jammers to lower the level of the enemy, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to finally capture the second province. On the positive side, this strategy made me a ton of supplies and components, so I upgrades my tech tree a lot, and built a lot of nice mech parts. The only problem is that you need to find recipes before you can make weapons, so I am a bit limited by the types of weapons I have the recipes for. Not sure yet if those recipes are random or scripted.

Assembling mechs has quite a lot of depth to it. There are light, medium, and heavy parts. The lighter the part, the less armor you have on it, but the better heat dissipation is. Also your torso contains a reactor, which has an overall power value, and the ratio between that power and your overall weight determines your speed. It is very possible to build a very heavy tank mech, which turns out to be somewhat useless because it is too slow to actually get into short range with the enemies. And you need to check the heat produced by your primary attack; it is possible to build mechs which overheat every time they just fire their main weapon once, which will damage yourself. It is also possible to build mechs that are so well cooled that they can fire their weapons continuously without overheating. Basic armor only has "integrity", which can only go down during a fight; advanced armor can have both "integrity" and "barrier", which is armor that regenerates. Personally I am not a big fan of barrier armor, as I usually don't want to hide my mech for a couple of rounds to regenerate barrier.

So what I have noticed from watching various streams is that the first couple of hours to play through the first province are pretty much identical for everybody, which is probably how it should be for a tutorial. But after that, different people play this game in quite different ways. Some are extremely good in combat, others are better at the management / building part of the game. And depending on the strategy that people choose, the game develops in quite different directions. I find that commendable.


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