Tobold's Blog
Friday, June 21, 2024
 
And lead us not into temptation

I have a body mass index between 27 and 28, so I am overweight. I am okay with that. I’m nearly 60 years old, and some scientific studies suggest that for retired men, a BMI between 27 and 28 might actually be optimal, as with age the ratio between fat and muscle changes. I do think that some degree of “body positivity” is necessary, and it is unrealistic to expect everybody to look as slim as a model. Trying to be a lot slimmer than your natural body morphology allows is likely to do more harm than good. Having said that, I think there needs to be an upper limit to “body positivity”. Obesity is not a life-style choice, it is a serious medical problem. In the USA, in 1975 12% of adults were obese, and that number tripled by 2016. Human biology hasn’t changed over those four decades. Obesity might have peaked now, due to the invention of Ozempic and similar miracle weight loss drugs. And I can’t help but think that something is fundamentally wrong with a society in which a large percentage of the population first eats far too much, and then has to pay $1,000 per month for the rest of their lives to keep their weight under a limit that is seriously bad for their health.

I have seen several documentaries that argue that it is not the people’s fault if they are obese, but the fault of the food industry. The industry produces highly processed food full of empty calories, so it is their fault if the population is obese. I think there is a deliberate confusion between cause and effect here. At best you could argue it is a vicious cycle: Maybe people buy more junk food because of higher availability, but the industry is producing that junk food because that is what people are buying. It isn’t as if you couldn’t find any healthy food in your supermarket anymore. While some highly processed food is cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables, that argument doesn’t hold for example for sugary drinks, which are a lot more expensive than drinking water.

Yes, capitalism works a lot with temptation. Billions are spent on advertising to tempt people into unnecessary consumption. But I do not believe that the existence of temptation absolves people from giving in to that temptation. The success of the fight against smoking shows that we can do some things to restrict advertising and reduce the temptation. But in the end we all live in a world in which we always will be tempted to do a lot of things that are bad for us: Drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, the list goes on and on. If we are not all alcoholics and heroin addicts, it is because at some point in our lives we learned that sometimes it is better to resist temptation. That requires a certain strength of character. It is unfortunate that strength of character has fallen out of fashion in favor of unlimited permissiveness. Yes, there are always a few anecdotal cases of people being overweight due to a specific disease they aren’t responsible for; but you can’t extrapolate from that to over a third of the population. Even when obesity numbers were a lot lower, only a fraction of these people were overweight for medical reasons. Most simply were tempted by a lot of tasty food, and ate too much.

Weight loss drugs like Ozempic or Wegovy basically work by removing the temptation. They send signals to the brain that you are full and really don’t want another piece of cake anymore. As a result of widespread use of the drugs, there has been a visible hit to the earnings of some food companies, with some CEOs having to address the issue to their investors in their latest earning calls. If that looks like a win for the people against the evil food industry to you, look again. The US health care system is seriously messed up, and prices for these weight loss drugs are significantly higher than in Europe. But even in Europe the cost of taking the drugs is higher than the savings from reduced food consumption. And we don’t know the long-term effects of taking these drugs for decades yet. You don’t have to live an extremely ascetic lifestyle, just some common sense around food usage and a bit of movement for most people is enough to stabilize their weight below obesity-level. That seems to me a much better solution than first spending too much on junk food, and then spending even more on the drug that stops you from craving that junk food.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024
 
Small apartments and tourism

I am currently on holiday, one week in a small town in the Rhine valley, renting a holiday apartment. But this apartment is different than the ones we have rented for holidays in the past. It isn’t a studio that is part of a larger house, where the owner of the house makes some extra money by renting out the excess space he has. This holiday apartment turned out to be just a regular, small apartment in a big apartment building. In fact. two thirds of the apartments in the building are inhabited by regular families, and one third is owned by a company that is renting out the apartments on a weekly basis. I’m not sure that I am okay with that.

The economic incentive is obvious. A 50 square meter apartment, one bedroom, one bathroom, one living room / kitchen in this area would rent for around 900 Euro per month. That is 30 Euro per day. As a holiday apartment, with just some basic furniture added, the owner can ask for 120 Euro per day, four times the revenue. Even if the apartment stays empty half of the time, the owner makes more money from tourists than from regular renters. Now I don’t know how the housing availability situation in this particular town is, but in general I can see how it would add to the housing crisis if the tourism market takes away smaller, more affordable apartments from the general housing market. For the tourist, there is also an incentive: An apartment at the same price as a hotel room tends to be a lot bigger, and has amenities like a kitchen. Who cares if there is no room service, and the bed isn’t made every day.

Internet platforms can enable smaller providers of services to compete with larger companies, in this case the owner of one or few apartments to compete with a hotel chain. But in some cases that creates unfair advantages, e.g. if Uber drivers compete with taxis, and a taxi is much more heavily regulated. For holiday rentals, many cities are now clamping down on the conversion of housing that has been zoned as residential into year-round commercial tourism use. Over-tourism has been increasingly identified as a problem, and the gains from tourism are often unevenly distributed, benefitting just a few landlords, while being a drain on the resources of the rest of the community.

The hope is that legislation catches up the technological opportunities of internet platforms. In the end, a community should be able to regulate holiday flats to the same degree as hotel rooms, without giving a regulatory advantage to either. Taxes on tourism income shouldn’t be the same as taxes from renting out the same apartments on a residential basis. The current housing crisis is most severe where it concerns smaller, affordable apartments, and exploitation of that housing through tourism shouldn’t be allowed to uncontrollably add to that housing crisis.

Sunday, June 16, 2024
 
Less is more in the inventory

I stumbled upon an interesting playthrough of The Witcher 3 on YouTube. Interesting, because while the game was already good at release, there is now a prettier “next gen” graphics version, and two DLC, that make the game even better. So I looked at the 20 hours only that I played The Witcher 3 back in 2017, and considered whether I should give it a more serious go.

The reason I didn’t stick with The Witcher 3 the first time was action combat. I don’t like action combat in role-playing games very much. I can never get the difficulty settings right, so that pressing the button at the right moment still feels like an achievement, without being either too easy nor too frustrating. I also always feels very dissociated from my character during action combat: I press a single button, and my character on the screen makes a complicated combat movement. I don’t really control what exactly my character does, only when he does it. Ultimately it is an extremely simple game of reading a timing signal from a monster animation right, and pressing a button at the right split-second moment. I much prefer the much greater complexity of a turn-based combat, like in Baldur’s Gate 3.

But besides combat, watching some The Witcher 3 played reminded me of another issue I don’t like in many modern role-playing games: Garbage collection and inventory management. In many of these games I feel like a homeless person collecting cans and bottles from trash cans to make a little money from the recycling deposit. In Fallout the currency is actually bottle caps. In a typical modern RPG your character opens thousands of crates, barrels, and other containers to search for loot. And the large majority of that loot is totally boring and uninspiring, junk to be sold to a vendor.

I like the quantity and quality of the loot in games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. Everything you find has at least some use, and the weapon breakage system makes carrying less good weapons around not totally useless. I also like systems like in Borderlands, where weapons with a mix of different properties make several different weapons viable. But many other games first multiply the number of locations you can search, often leading to your “hero” rifling through some civilian’s underwear drawer, and then multiply the number of items you can find. 

In The Witcher 3, some of the items you find by searching all those containers are useful for making potions and similar items. That is marginally better than collecting trash, but there frequently is no logical connection between the ingredient you were looking for and the location you found it in. The crate in the abandoned farm contains amethyst dust, why? If you were looking for that ingredient to make something, why would you search that particular farm? In reality, there is simply a huge list of possible items one can find in containers, and somebody (and in some games a random algorithm) distributes all that junk over all the containers in the level-appropriate locations.

I would say that for containers and items in role-playing games, less is more. I don’t want to spend hours opening every cupboard and drawer. Just put a few very visible treasure chests with actually interesting loot somewhere. I’m a hero, I don’t want to deal with mundane objects in mundane containers. I feel ashamed when I turn up at the vendor with a bunch of rusty weapons and used household items.

Friday, June 14, 2024
 
Not escaping the DM role

Back in the days of World of Warcraft, my two main characters were a healer and a tank. That was due to simple math: A group needed one tank and one healer, plus three damage dealers. But more than 60% of the player base wanted to play damage dealers, so that healers and tanks were always in short supply. By playing a healer or a tank, I could guarantee finding a group faster. The disadvantage was that most people tended to blame either the healer or the tank when things went wrong, even if in reality the damage dealer often weren't innocent in failure.

Playing Dungeons & Dragons, especially in the last decade, I was frequently the DM, the dungeon master. Same principle really: A typical group to play D&D needs 1 DM and 4 - 5 players, most people just want to be players, and DMs tend to be the limiting factor. But in D&D the DM not only has a larger responsibility for the game being fun than the other players, he also has to do a lot more work. Nearly all preparatory work for a game falls on the shoulders of the DM, which also means that he is usually taking on more of the cost than the other players do. I haven't been looking for new people to play D&D with since my last group fell apart.

What I did do since moving into a new region is looking for people to play board games with. And I have been pretty successful with that. I have a regular board game night in the friendly local games store, and two other groups of people with which to play on weekends. And at first I thought that this meant that I didn't have to be the DM anymore. Most board games don't have a dungeon master or game master, and players are supposed to be equal.

But it turns out that if you meet a group of random strangers at board game night, there is a large number of people who are very willing to play with others, but they aren't quite sure what game, and they haven't prepared anything. And the games shop has a limited selection of games that people can play. If you want to see another game played, you'll have to buy it and bring it yourself. And if you bring a game, you should also already have prepared it, read the rules, and be able to explain it. I've been doing that, but somehow I feel that I am the dungeon master again. The choice is always the same: Either have a harder time finding a good group, or make finding a group easier by accepting more responsibility.

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Thursday, June 13, 2024
 
My review of Agemonia

I posted a review of Agemonia on BoardGameGeek, my only 10 out of 10 review on the site so far. Here it is:

Purpose
When reviewing a game, it is important to first consider what your purpose is in playing the game. For big campaign adventure games like Agemonia, my purpose in general is to achieve an experience similar to what I get from playing a pen & paper role-playing game, but without one player having to do all the work of being the dungeon master. The reason why I consider Agemonia the best campaign adventure game that I have ever played is that it comes the closest to this purpose. I tried the game in every configuration from solo to 4 players, and it always worked. There were always moments of adventure, of excitement, of surprise, with a lot of laughter around the table even when things sometimes didn't go as planned. We haven't seen a scenario yet that we didn't enjoy, and they all played somewhat differently. The backstories and player booklets do a great job of giving every player a bit of personal story within the larger adventure.

Story vs. Gameplay
Agemonia is both a narrative game, and a tactical game. In this sort of campaign game, that often is a tricky balance. Personally, for example, I enjoyed the story of Tainted Grail very much, but found the gameplay sometimes tedious, while in Gloomhaven I really like the deep tactical gameplay, but found the overall and personal stories somewhat lacking. Agemonia hits a sweet spot for me: Combat and skill checks are done by rolling a few dice; the growing number of abilities lead to meaningful choices having to be made, but combat never gets too grindy. Meanwhile Agemonia does a great job of telling stories, and that isn't limited to the bits between the scenarios: The story cards you uncover during exploration in a scenario keep the focus on this being a narrative game, and not just a mathematical problem to be solved.

Randomness
With success and failure frequently being decided by dice rolls, Agemonia has its fair share of randomness, which might not be to everyone's liking. But there is also a good amount of dice mitigation and added options to influence success and failure. You can push your luck and take the risk, or play in a way that is more likely to succeed, but either slower, or burning resources. When playing a scenario for the first time, blind, as intended, the story cards add a big unpredictable element to the game. That is as it should be, and I found that playing a scenario a second time, and knowing which story point triggered what, led to a lot less fun. Fortunately the 36 scenarios in the campaign mean that you can play Agemonia for 100+ hours before replaying it.

Material
Agemonia is a big game. The box is bigger and heavier than Gloomhaven. Fortunately the box comes with a large number of trays and a detailed plan what goes where, providing both a storage solution, and added convenience during play. Having said that, and not knowing how big your gaming table is, I can assure you one thing: Your table is too small. When we play, we fully occupy a large gaming table, plus a side table, and then still have some trays stacked on top of other games in my games shelf. I have the basic version of the game, with miniatures only for heroes, and monsters being represented by standees, so I can't tell you much about the quality of the monster miniatures. I can recommend the extra dice. The only material I am not happy with is the use of stickers to mark the reputation with the different factions. I just made a photo of the reputation track, printed it on paper, and am marking my reputation on that. The rulebook doesn't come with an index, but you can find the index on BGG.

Complexity
As I am writing this, the average weight score for Agemonia on BGG is 3.27 out of 5. I would say that much of the complexity of Agemonia is the result of there being a lot of game material; thus when a new situation arises in the game, e.g. the first time you encounter a trap, there is complexity in finding the trap token, the trap card, and the rules regarding traps. Once you are very familiar with all the rules and all the materials the game offers, Agemonia becomes easier to play. Due to the story cards and dice providing a certain degree of unpredictability, Agemonia can be played with a certain degree of spontaneity, without planning several moves in advance. I wouldn't say the BGG weight is wrong, but it is a different sort of weight than what you would get with a Eurogame of the same weight score.

Play Time
Our last session of Agemonia took 6 hours, and in that time we played through 2 scenarios, and played 3 city phases (before, between, and after). You can get through one short scenario in "60 to 120 minutes", if everything is already set up, and you don't play the city part of the game. For one complete loop of the game, from the start of one scenario to the start of the next one, I would rather plan 3 hours. Note that "saving" the game in the middle of a scenario isn't foreseen, and would be difficult, so this isn't really the game for shorter play sessions.

Overall
My group and me enjoy Agemonia very much, and we are looking very much forward to playing more of it. An afternoon with Agemonia feels very much like an afternoon spent playing a pen & paper role-playing game, but without me having to do all the preparation and work of a dungeon master. I have played a number of different adventure and/or campaign games, and up to now this one is the best that I have seen, and comes closest to what I want from such a game. Thus, for me it is a 10 out of 10 game.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2024
 
This game needs generative AI

In the context of the current Steam Next Fest I stumbled upon the demo for a not yet released game called Hollywood Animal. It is an economic management game of a film studio starting during the Great Depression. At the start of the game is a sort of tutorial, where you choose one of three possible half-finished films, and are led through the game steps of bringing it into cinemas. During this process you get a summary of the plot of the film, which really helps to get an idea what the film is about. And that first film is the last one where you learn anything about the plot. Every film you make from now on is only defined by a couple of keywords, like being a romantic comedy in which the protagonist is a working man, and the antagonist is his angry boss. That obviously gives you some idea, but after the fun experience of seeing the plot for the first film, the bare-bones description of every other film is a disappointment.

So I couldn't help but think that generative AI would be the perfect solution for Hollywood Animal. Feeding a generative AI this list of keywords and asking it to produce a few paragraphs of plot summary is exactly what current AI technology is rather good at. And if the AI produces either a blatant copy of a known film plot, or produces something extremely strange, those results would still be entertaining in the context of a game that simulates a Hollywood film studio. Hollywood Animal allows you to create weird movies, like an action drama on a tropical island, where the protagonist is a knight, and the antagonist a serial killer. Getting generative AI to make a script for that film would be really funny.

The current situation of AI in games is characterized by the allergic reaction some people have against it. But with the endless possibilities of combinations of keywords in Hollywood Animal, it would be impossible to hire a real person to invent plot summaries for all possible films. The choice is between not having a plot at all, and having an AI-generated plot. That doesn't take away the job of anyone, nor is it a breach of copyright. Generative AI would simply make the game better and more entertaining.

Monday, June 10, 2024
 
How to prevent a shift to the right

Being both European and of a center-left political disposition, I am of course worried as much as everybody else about the political shift to the right demonstrated in this weekend's elections for the European Parliament. In many big European countries, parties that are generally described as "far right" did extremely well, and often much better than the parties in government. Now part of that comes from the idea that the election for the European Parliament doesn't really matter, and is thus a "safe" opportunity for protest voting. But I will say for Europe the same that I said for the USA: Protest voters are an important indicator of what issues regular people have, and what problems the parties in government failed to properly address.

If the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen gets 31.5% of votes in France, twice as much as the party of president Macron, you can't just call a third of the population of France "Nazis", and tell yourself that these people don't matter. Not even Macron does that, which is why he reacted in a very democratic way by calling a national election.

If you analyze it, the current main attraction of right-wing parties in Europe (and often elsewhere as well) is their hard stance against migration. In 2022, 875 000 people applied for international protection in the EU countries for the first time. That is the highest number since the 2015/16 peak from the war in Syria. And it is in addition to 3.8 million of people under "temporary protection" status, 98% of which are war refugees from Ukraine. The fundamental problem of migration into Europe is that Europe has very little control over the numbers under the current system. Waves of migration happen due to international events, like wars. But there is also a stream of asylum seekers that come due to economic conditions, just hoping for a better life, even if they aren't actually persecuted in their home countries. How many of the asylum seekers are legit is unclear, for example France only accepts 27.5% of asylum seekers in the first legal instance, while the Dutch in 2022 accepted 83.5% (and then elected a right-wing to far-right government in 2024), with the European average being just under half .

All of this results in some real issues for voters. They feel that there are too many immigrants, that they don't have control over how many of them are let into their country, and that a good number of them are basically cheating the system. Many voters also believe far-right statements that migrants are criminals; a more detailed analysis shows that it isn't the fact that somebody has a migration background that makes him more likely to be a criminal, but that the asylum process creates a large number of young men which are unemployed (because they aren't allowed to work). Young, unemployed men are more likely to be criminal than other parts of the population, regardless of origin.

The political problem is that the political center and left doesn't have any good solutions to these problems. Sometimes they just adopt a right-wing hardline, as Biden just did, limiting the numbers of migrants that are let in; such a solution is obviously unselective, and risks harming people legitimately in need of asylum, while letting others in that aren't. More often, the parties in Europe that aren't right wing simply say nothing much at all about the issue of migration. Voters, who have the choice between no answer to their issues, and a bad answer, will mostly choose the bad answer.

Europe actually needs immigrants, as they are a good solution to Europe's demographic problem of not having enough children. Migrant smuggling over the mediterranean with small boats is both costly and dangerous for the migrants; they wouldn't do it if there were accessible and legal ways to come to Europe and work. The centrist and leftist parties of Europe can't leave the important problem of migration unanswered, leaving dumb propaganda from far-right parties as the only answer out there. If Europe can solve legal immigration, they would stop the political shift to the right and seriously damage the far-right parties. 

Thursday, June 06, 2024
 
Songs of Silence - Game-breaking bug

Songs of Silence released this week. It is a 4X fantasy strategy game, with an interesting Art Nouveau style, combining kingdom management with auto-battler combat. 5 hours into the game I got stuck. I was playing the third chapter of the campaign, and an enemy army had taken the only bridge between north and south of my kingdom. I moved my army onto the bridge, but there was a bug, and combat didn't start. Both my main army and the enemies army were shown holding the bridge. I couldn't move my army anywhere anymore. And my other armies couldn't cross the bridge anymore. There was nothing I could do, other than restart the chapter. Which I'm not doing before a patch.

I hadn't seen game-breaking bugs in games for a while. Games frequently have bugs, especially at release. But most of them are either just visual, or they are of the "annoying, but can work around" variety. Songs of Silence has a number of those minor bugs, but also at least this one game-breaking bug as well.

Even without the bug, I can't really recommend Songs of Silence. There is a lot to like about gameplay, but the flow of the campaign isn't great. At the end of chapter 1 some event happens, and then you need to fight your way out in a hurry; but whatever you did in this chapter to build up your kingdom and army, the event resets your army to a standard configuration, making all of your work feel in vain. Chapter 2 is absolutely horrible, as you are supposed to "sneak" with your army through enemy territory. There are a lot of combat encounters you need to avoid, and a few that you need to tackle, but other than trial and error it is very hard to see which are the fights that you need to take. The sneaking, unsurprisingly for an army, doesn't work very well. And until a promised patch, every time you get into a fight you didn't want, you need to sit through the whole battle and defeat screens for several minutes, because you can't just press escape and reload once a battle has started.

Overall I can see some potential in this game. But the €40 price tag (-10% at release) seems a bit steep for what the game is offering. There is only one campaign, and it is not very long. The game is early access, and besides the bugs, there are also several features still missing. I should have waited another year before buying this one.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024
 
Advertising Agemonia

Last weekend I spent over 6 hours with friends playing Agemonia. We had a lots of fun and arranged to play again next weekend. I talked about the game in previous posts, but in short Agemonia is an adventure campaign game. You play through 38 scenarios with up to 4 heroes (out of originally 7, now 9), exploring different maps, and encountering lots of different monsters. The heroes level up over the course of the campaign, get new skills, find new gear, and make important decisions on the development of their own character with the help of a little "choose your own adventure" booklet for each character. Overall it plays a bit like a role-playing game, just without needing a dungeon master.

The reason I am writing this post is that Agemonia today launched their second Kickstarter. And while you can get the game from the company webshop for €179 plus shipping, the Kickstarter price is €109 plus €34 shipping. Not quite sure how much the difference ends up being, as I think the webshop price already includes VAT, and the Kickstarter does not. Personally I just pledged €35 for a box with all the new stuff. But as this is really I great board game that I can only recommend, I decided to give it some free advertising.

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Monday, June 03, 2024
 
Video games dreams and reality

Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing and internet personality, repeatedly pointed out that in the last century the mantra of advertising was that sex sells; this century, with an internet economy built on grabbing attention and then converting it via advertising into profit, the mantra has become that rage and negativity sells a lot better than sex. That might have to do something with there being legal limits on how much sex you can show on a non-porn website, compared to how much negativity you can show. But if you follow any subject, in the case of this post video games, you can't help but notice that the overwhelming majority of stories is negative. While positive hype is still a thing, the fact that some developer made a half-decent video game, which is fun to play, and is not too expensive, doesn't merit a headline. The headlines are full of rage about video games that failed to deliver on their promises, companies trying to milk customers for too much money, and game studios closing with developers losing their jobs.

If we take a step back from the headlines, and connect the dots to arrive at some sort of picture of reality in developing video games, the problem appears to be rather obvious: Most of the cost of making a video game and market it is paid before the game is released, while the marginal cost (the cost of selling 1 more game) is close to zero. On the first day of sales, when you get the first idea of how much money a game could make, it is too late to adjust the cost. The cost of making a video game is mostly the salaries of the people making it: There are a few games which have been made by a single person, and thus were incredibly cheap to make; but a game like Skull and Bones is reported to have cost $200 million to make, because there was a large studio with lots of people behind it, and it took years for them to make the game. Now as Skull and Bones is also reported to have less than a million players, including free players, Ubisoft lost a huge amount on money on that game. On the other end of the spectrum, Palworld this year sold over 25 million copies, and was presumably a lot cheaper to make than Skull and Bones, thus publisher / developer Pocketpair made a huge profit on that game. Video games have the potential to make hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, but they can also make very little, which makes spending hundreds of millions of dollars in development cost on them a very risky business.

Warner Bros. Games, which according to their own financial reports made a loss of $200 million in the first quarter of this year, and blamed that loss on the lack of success of Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, is back in the (negative) headlines with MultiVersus. That is a PvP brawler game which doesn't interest me at all. It is free to play, but players are complaining that it takes 38 hours of grind to unlock a typical character (that is in the long run, because at first the game is more generous with handing out currency), and that it costs something like $250 to buy all the characters that you can't get through just playing. It is impossible to say whether Warner Brothers are making money or losing money on this, as with free to play games the player numbers don't easily translate into dollar numbers. But we can strip away all the guesswork, all the negative headlines, and all the rage about company greed to arrive at a rather fundamental reality: In the end a company needs to make more money with the average game they produce than it has cost to make the game. Which means that the number of players multiplied with the spending per player needs to be higher than the development plus marketing cost multiplied by a factor of at least 1.2 (for a 20% return on investment), probably more due to the high risk and unpredictability.

Players want the largest number of different games possible, at the lowest cost per game possible, and the highest quality of the games possible. But a larger number of available games and lower cost per game mean lower revenue per game for the developer, while the demand for higher quality is increasing cost (although a game that was costlier to make isn't necessarily better in quality). Most of the negative headlines about game studios closing were the direct result of overinvestment during the pandemic; and yes, that has to do with bad, too short-term management, companies could have known that the rapid growth of the industry during the pandemic would at least stop, if not reverse, after the pandemic was over. But this is just reality catching up with too optimistic spending on game development.

There are many different ways in which things can develop to make video game development more stable, and players aren't gonna like any of them. There could be fewer games developed each year, at least fewer of the very expensive AAA titles. Games could become more expensive, whether that is for games that you pay only once, or continued costs for DLCs, battle passes, and not-so-micro-anymore micro transactions. Or companies could right the balance by significantly reducing the cost to make games, for example by replacing human artists with generative AI. Companies can operate at a loss only for so much time, before they either close down, or balance revenue with costs. In aggregate, the sum of what all of us players are spending on video games needs to be more than what it costs to make all of those games, and there is no long-term solution that would avoid this.

Saturday, June 01, 2024
 
An awareness of mediocrity

Mathematically, in a normal distribution, 95% of all data points are within 2 standard deviations of the mean, and 68% within 1 standard deviation. And a lot of human characteristics, skills, and talents follow a normal distribution. Which is to say that if you take a random human characteristic, e.g. the innate talent of somebody to be good at chess, and a random human, it is extremely likely that this human is mediocre at that. Being mediocre is the norm, not the exception. The awareness of this is slim. 65% of people believe they are above average, which is an obvious mathematical impossibility. And many people with just a sliver of talent believe their talent to be exceptional.

Whatever my talents are in the areas that I am most talented and skilled at, these areas can possibly only cover a rather small part of all human activities and talents. It follows that I, and everybody else, must be mediocre at most things. You might, for example, consider Ernest Hemingway to be among the greatest writers of all time; that doesn't exclude the high probability that he was mediocre at car repair or doing his taxes, but I simply don't know. My personal experience of my work life was that my job, for which I was hired due to having certain certified skills, involved a wide range of different skill requirements, some of which I wasn't as good at. The more different requirements you add to a job description, the higher the likelihood that you can't find a candidate that is exceptionally good at each of them.

The awareness of your own mediocrity can sometimes be very helpful. For example when deciding what career you want to pursue: There are some careers in which only the exceptionally good make money, e.g. rock stars, athletes, painters, and influencers, while people who choose that career with only mediocre skill end up not making even enough for a living. Other professions, like plumber, accountant, or engineer, do not really require people to be exceptional, and a person with a mediocre talent in that field will do perfectly fine.

I do have a few talents regarding gaming. But again, gaming has a lot of different forms, and spans a wide range of different required talents. It is only normal that I am at best mediocre at some of those talents, and thus at the games which require those talents. Which is why I am much in favor of games having variable skill requirements. Games where you need to be "this good" to even play the basics automatically exclude the part of the audience that is average or worse at that particular skill. Any game that requires any skill is usually most enjoyable when the skill requirement is a bit challenging, but not frustrating, and you can't achieve that with a single fixed setting for everybody. The guy on the internet gloating about how good he is at game X is still extremely unlikely to be as good at games requiring a different skill set, and in other aspects of real life.

There is currently an ongoing discussion of how close we are to achieve artificial general intelligence. The discussion is somewhat misleading in the context of people fearing for their jobs. General AI will always be rather expensive compared to narrower AI. A company would replace you with AI if that is a) cheaper than you are, and b) less likely to result in some catastrophic failure. So a) is unlikely to be true for general AI, while the current generation of narrower generative AI is still failing on b), and recommends sticking cheese to pizza with glue, or produces pictures of humans with the wrong number of fingers. However, it is rather likely that large language model generative AI achieves a mediocre level of writing more or less consistently; after all, if you basically take all writing, disassemble it, and put it together again, what else can you get than a mediocre result? Thus AI will never write at the level of Hemingway, but might very well be able to write Video Game Release Dates: The Biggest Games of June 2024 and Beyond (link more or less randomly chosen, no insult meant to the human author) without anybody noticing it wasn't written by a human. While writing legal briefs is probably still better to be left with humans. In the example mentioned above, I was unsure whether Ernest Hemingway was any good at car repair or doing taxes; I am pretty certain that I wouldn't want ChatGPT to do either for me. Nothing suggests that the skills of an AI follow a normal distribution, and it is more likely that mediocre is the best you can get, while a bad result at a task it isn't optimized for is highly likely.

Friday, May 31, 2024
 
My week in board games

This is a rather interesting week for me regarding board games. I played Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion twice, with two different groups. And I prepared playing Agemonia, which I will play tomorrow. My preliminary conclusion is that I like Agemonia a lot more than I like Gloomhaven, but as that is totally subjective, I would like to talk about the reasons.

Regardless whether you buy the original Gloomhaven, the even bigger Frosthaven, or the much more affordable Jaws of the Lion, the core game is always the same. There is a scenario with a hex-based map, and it is usually a few rooms big. Gloomhaven scenarios tend to have roughly the same size, for the simple reason that the length of one scenario in turns is limited by the rules of the game. You start with a hand full of cards, let's say 9 for the Demolitionist in Jaws of the Lion. You play exactly 2 cards per turn, so after 4 turns you don't have enough cards anymore to play another turn. So, you need to take "a rest", in the process of which one card gets removed from the game, leaving you with 8. Then you can play another 4 turns, another rest, leaving you with 7 cards, and only 3 turns for the next cycle. Overall you can't play more than 4+4+3+3+2+2+1+1 or 20 turns. And there are other methods of removing cards from the game, which in consequence shorten this even further.

So all Gloomhaven scenarios are designed to be finished in under 20 turns, which given the speed of the characters and the time needed to kill enemies results in dungeons of a certain size. At level 1, the Demolitionist has 9 level 1 cards, and three "X" cards to choose from. But he can only ever take 9 cards into a scenario. With just 3 extra cards, at least two thirds of the deck will be identical from one scenario to the next. Some cards are simply better than others, while other cards only fit into a specific build. Over the course of the campaign, each character only gets one new card per level, and it can take several scenarios to gain a level. In summary, you are going to play a lot of scenarios with a similar size, using a similar deck of cards. And while some good work has been done to try to make the scenarios different from each other, with different objectives, and the occasional added difficulty of a boss mob, in the end the basic structure of the cards necessitates a somewhat similar gameplay. Overall, Gloomhaven plays like a puzzle game, like Candy Crush: You play through different levels, but the basic puzzle remains the same, and you are trying to "git gud" to be able to handle all the small variations of the different levels you play through.

Agemonia is a very different game, although it at first looks a bit like Jaws of the Lion: Scenarios printed as pages of a book, and miniatures engaging in tactical combat against monsters represented as standees (unless you bought the miniature expansion). But the basic structure of combat is a lot simpler, based on rolling dice. Instead the main feature of the scenarios and the game is that all over the map there are printed letters, with a range information. When you get in the specified range, you draw the story card with the corresponding letter. And the story card makes something happen: It gives you some information, it might pose a challenge to be solved with a skill check, or it might spawn some monsters.

As scenarios in Agemonia tend to have "fail forward" mechanics, where you don't replay scenarios for failing, the normal situation for an Agemonia scenario is that you are playing it blind. You simply don't know what will happen. You could concentrate on the main mission and avoid uncovering the story points that are a bit off the main path. But of course those story points might be interesting, or give a nice reward, and usually there is a end-of-scenario award for having uncovered all of them. Then again, there is often some sort of timer, which pushes you to not dawdle around forever. And you rarely have advance information about what will happen; it could well require a skill check in just the stat that your character is bad at, require an item another character is carrying, or result in you being attacked by monsters.

Overall, Agemonia is not a game you "git gud" at so much, but rather an adventure game, a game to be experienced. The joy is playing together, and getting into all sorts of situations together. With advance knowledge of all the story cards of a scenario, you could optimize it as a puzzle, but you are practically never supposed to have all that knowledge. You'll try to get through all those situations as good as you can, but there is luck involved, which gives everybody a good excuse if things don't go as planned. And it isn't all that bad if you don't get the best outcome of a scenario, you can still play on perfectly fine. It is a lot less serious than Gloomhaven, where playing badly and failing the scenario will get you some nasty looks from your fellow players, as now you'll have to play it all over again.

As a roleplayer, I enjoy Agemonia more than I enjoy Gloomhaven. There is more of a sense of adventure in Agemonia, exploration and discovery are an important part of the game. Experiencing a good story is more important than playing optimally. I also enjoy character development more in Agemonia, as you start out with just 2 different actions you can do during your turn, and end with 8 different actions, with each character over the course of leveling having 17 different options from which to build those sets of 8 actions. I find the story of Agemonia less thin than that of Gloomhaven, which might have to do with there being some story during each scenario, not just a prologue and an epilogue. But of course, I can see that gamers with a different character than mine might prefer the more hardcore Gloomhaven over Agemonia.

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