Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
 
Xbox Game Pass for PC (beta)

Thanks to Bigeye for mentioning the game pass option to play The Outer World. Having looked into it, I decided to try out the Xbox Game Pass for PC (beta). That turned out to be not much of a risk, as I got an offer to subscribe for my first month for €1, with each following month costing €3.99. The installation was a bit weird, with some strange error messages, but after trying a couple of times, I finally had the Xbox (beta) application installed on my PC.

So now I have access to currently 147 PC games. The games aren't streamed, I still need to download them to play. And I assume I can only play them as long as I am subscribed. The games catalogue is neither huge, nor does it contain only triple A games. But then, I downloaded and played "The Flame in the Flood", which turned out to be a fun enough indie survival game. And it costs €14.99 on Steam. Well, I'm not going to play that for 4 months, so even if I used the Game Pass for nothing else, I already paid less than the Steam option. And of course in 2 days The Outer World gets released, and I can play that on release for no additional money, while other people will pay $60 for that. That sounds like a really good deal to me!

I don't know if the Game Pass is going to stay this cheap, but I assume that depends on the size of the game library. I probably wouldn't want to pay more than €9.99 per month, and that only if the game library was a lot bigger than today. But I think of it as Netflix for games, and my Netflix subscription is sure cheaper than buying movies and TV series on DVD, which is what I did previously. Basically the only way to lose money on this is to keep paying the subscription and forgetting to actually use the service.

I assume some people might be bothered by not owning the games anymore. Well, legally speaking you don't even own the games you bought on DVD, you just have a license to use them, and the means to use them for as long as the DVD works and you have a PC that runs it. But practically speaking, games are often consumables which we play for a while and then never again. At zero additional cost, and just the time and effort needed to download the game, you can try out games you aren't sure about. As few games have demo versions these days (unless you abuse the Steam refund system), the ability to try out lots of different games for free is quite nice.

So right now, I am quite happy with my Game Pass subscription. I'll see how it works out over the coming months. 

 
Exclusivity

After watching a video review of a pre-release version, I added The Outer Worlds to my Steam wishlist. "But Tobold, you are doing it wrong, The Outer Worlds is exclusive to the Epic store!", somebody is likely to say now. Well, it depends how you define exclusivity. The days, "exclusivity" is a short-term concept. The Outer Worlds is exclusive to the Epic store, for a time. In this case, a year. In other cases, as short as 6 months. In other words, it is exclusive to the Epic store for people who want to play the game while it is new.

My Steam Calculator tells me that I own 379 games on Steam, of which I have only played 29%, or 111 games. The last thing I want is starting a similar library of unplayed games over at Epic. On the other hand for any new game I would like to play, I can probably find a similar game in my library instead. I don't need to buy new games as they are released. I don't even buy new Steam games as they are released. I usually wait a year anyway, until the game is at half price in a Steam sale. So waiting for the "exclusivity" to end isn't a hardship for me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm okay with there being an Epic store, as to avoid a complete monopoly of Steam, to keep them honest. I just don't want to bother right now with multiple platforms for PC games on my computer. Some of the "exclusive" games I could actually buy on a DVD in a box from Amazon, although that option doesn't seem to exist for The Outer Worlds, unless I want to play the game on a PS4 or XBox. But overall the exclusivity stuff doesn't stress me, because I have time. I have too many games, and not enough time to play them, so I can easily wait.

Saturday, October 19, 2019
 
A new World of Tanks?

How many arrow does it take to kill a level 1 wizard in D&D? The answer is that it depends very much on which edition of D&D you play. In some editions a single arrow kills a level 1 wizard, in 4th edition you'd need like 4 or 5. That makes a huge difference to tactical gameplay. And that is not just true for D&D, but for all games which have attacks and hit points. Like World of Tanks. If you change how many shots it takes to kill a tank, you massively change the game.

On the latest Sandbox test server run, Wargaming is doing exactly that. By changing the number of hit points that tanks have, and the damage of various ammunition types, the overall effect is that it will in future take more shots to kill a tank. At lower tiers, much more. Lightly armored tanks being one-shotted by a single shell from a derp gun doesn't happen anymore. And regular tanks with regular ammo trading shots takes a bit longer, or much longer at lower tiers. If this is implemented on the live servers, that would massively change World of Tanks into a very different game. And I think, for the better.

In many cases today, World of Tanks battles go too fast, because a lemming rush from one team rolls over the weaker flank of the other team. More shots needed to kill tanks slows down the lemming rush, and gives the defenders the time to move tanks to the attacked flank. In other cases today, World of Tanks slows down to a crawl, because tanks are in very strong defensive positions, and the attackers feel that if they advance, they will get obliterated before getting a shot off. Again, more shots needed to kill a tank resolves this problem. If you know you can withstand a few more shots, you can be a bit more heroic in advancing.

Besides making the game itself better, the changes might actually also be beneficial with regards to some behavioral problems. Most World of Tanks players use a mod called XVM that displays the stats of players. And that results in some players "stat padding", that is playing in a way that maximizes their WN8 stats, for example by targeting new players in low tiers. The way WN8 and XVM works is by using a database of lifetime statistics of damage dealt, and comparing the damage a players deals to the average of all players playing the same tank. If you change the hit points and damage dealt of all tanks, all the statistics accumulated before the change will be incompatible with the statistics generated after the change. And because the changes are complicated, you can't use a simple adjustment factor to make the stats before and after compatible. So probably XVM will have no choice but to exclude all the old stats from the calculation. Which will simply evaporate all the effort some people put into stat padding. So hopefully the practice will become a bit less common.

Personally I wouldn't mind a stat reset. When I first played World of Tanks, I wasn't playing it very seriously. Since I restarted, I am making more of an effort to play better, and in consequence I do play a lot better than before. But because my stats are an average of old and new, my WN8 is rising very slowly, being dragged down by the thousands of battles of the past. A lot of people with that problem just "reroll" and start a new account, but I don't want to lose all the tanks I already have. Stats are not *that* important to me.

The only negative news about the changes is that they will be slow in coming. The first changes to ammo have been discussed months ago, for AP and APCR ammo. Now HE ammo is reworked. HESH, artillery, and a few exotic ammo types still need to be reworked. And so, probably, will some tanks: On the European servers Wargaming is currently selling a KV-2R with a Warhammer skin, but that tank relies very much on its derp gun. By making those guns much less effective, some of the tanks that rely on them are right now a bit useless, so Wargaming will need to do something to make them useful again. Otherwise the people paying €27 for a KV-2R now and getting it nerfed to uselessness a few months later would justifiably complain.

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Thursday, October 17, 2019
 
Modern games and team spirit

Imagine the following situation in World of Tanks: Three tanks from one team are around the corner from a single enemy tank. If they move around the corner, they will easily kill him. However the enemy tank sees the three tanks, and is pre-aimed at the corner, so the first one of the three to move will take big damage and potentially die, before the other two then finish off the enemy. So, do the three tanks rush around the corner, or not?

Obviously from a team point of view, rushing around the corner is the best option, the one getting the team closer to the win. The single tank isn't going to make a move, and if the three tanks wait around the corner, the single tank has basically neutralized three enemies. However modern games work with individual scores and rewards. Being first through the breach and getting killed scores you zero points, being one of the two other tanks that then farm the enemy tank while he reloads scores you lots of points. Playing for the team diminishes your personal rewards. Yes, if you do the same amount of damage, a win gives you more xp than a loss. But a team win in which you didn't do much damage because you died early is as bad as a loss, or sometimes worse. The guy camping in the back in a strong defensive position that does nothing for a team win might end up with more xp than the player who is heroically at the front.

For me this is bad game design. In other words, the incentives of the game push the player to act against the best interest of his team. The "more skilled" a player gets, the more he understands that personal sacrifice is against his interest, and the less he will play for his team rather than for himself. Rushing around the corner and getting shot is for noobs. If by the randomness of the matchmaker you don't have any noobs on your team, everybody camps and the game is a boring draw that takes forever.

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Saturday, October 12, 2019
 
Last chance to see?

On sites like GOG.com I can get 30-year old games like Ultima IV, Pirates!, or Defender of the Crown. I don't necessary want to, but at least it feels as if these games are preserved, and I *could* play any old game I want. I don't have that feeling with multiplayer online games. And that sometimes makes me think that "I should play this, while it is still around".

One aspect of that is that multiplayer games do decline, and sometimes die. World of Tanks is at the lowest number of players per week ever, at around 650k on the European server (US server is only 125k). That tends to spike up around Christmas, but every year the spike is lower, and then it falls to an even lower low point. Not only is World of Tanks already 8 years old, it also suffers from a game design which encourages veteran players to prey on new players, which makes a large influx of new players unlikely.

But another aspect is that World of Tanks today, patch 1.6.1, is a very different game than it was years ago. Every patch changes things, and every year makes the player base more veteran. Unlike WoW Classic, a WoT Classic server wouldn't even make sense, because you just can't get back to the collective sense of discovery and trial-and-error gameplay.

The overall result is that World of Tanks is one of the few games I know where I have the impression that I missed out on something because I didn't play it for several years. And where I am a bit afraid that if I stop playing now, the game will be essentially unplayable or gone the next time I come back.

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Sunday, October 06, 2019
 
No-lifer video game excellence

I am good at my day job. How do I know that, when there curiously is no "gear score" or similar rating of my performance displayed over my head? Well, while companies aren't always very good with giving feedback to employees, they tend to have some pretty easy system in place. Your continued employment depends on you not totally sucking at your job. And if you do your job well, you probably get a promotion from time to time, and/or a bonus. If you really need a score, you could argue that the number on your paycheck is just that, a representation of your value to the company that employs you.

A major reason why I am good at my job is that I have been doing it for about quarter a century, for over 40 hours per week, around 2,000 hours per year, or 50,000 hours total. That is well above the usual estimate of 10,000 hours needed to master something. Now because you know me only from my blog, and on my blog I tend to write about games, you might think that games are my major occupation. They aren't. I spend significantly less than 2,000 hours per year on games. Furthermore I play a wide variety of very different games. The skills that would for example make me a good dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons are completely irrelevant to my performance in World of Tanks. So while I have a good "general gaming" skill and knowledge, there are few games in which I am any good, and none in which I could dream of winning an e-sports or other game tournament (well, I did win some minor Magic the Gathering tournaments long ago, but only local ones).

Why am I talking about my skills in my job and in games? With games having become more and more "main stream", there are now millions of people like me. People who work a full-time job and are good at it, and then spend much less time on games than they spend on their job, and so they aren't particularly excellent at those games. Now the convention in gamer culture is to look down on me and these other millions of people. Filthy casuals, that can't even dedicate 10,000 hours on completely mastering game X. How dare they tread the same (virtual) ground as the masters of the universe, the people who are really good at their chosen video game?

Now the casual players tend to also spend less time to gather on forums and talk about games. But if they would, their point of view somewhat mirrors the point of view of the hardcore gamer. The thing is that there are only so many different things a single person can be good at. There are only 8,760 hours in a year, and if you consider the need for sleep and other necessities that means you need at least 2 years to put in 10,000 hours to mastery into anything, and only if you concentrate on one single thing. You need to choose carefully what you want to become good at. The reason why many people choose to become good at their job is the above mentioned link between job skills and pay check. From the people who are excellent at a video game, only a tiny percentage can make a living out of it, be it from prize money in tournaments or as streamer / YouTuber / influencer.

In absolute terms being good at your job isn't completely incompatible with being good at a video game. You could fit in a 40-hour job with 40 hours per week of gaming, if you don't do much else. But for most people that would be stretching it. So the people who do work 40+ hour weeks are often correct in assuming that the people who play 40+ hours per week don't also excel at their jobs. So when it comes to trading insults, the "no-lifer" description of the hardcore gamer is an obvious one, even if it isn't always true.

That has consequences. For example in the course of my job I sometimes have to review CVs of young people for job interviews. I am pretty certain that most people under 30 play video games regularly, and a good percentage of them plays them enough to qualify at least as "a hobby". However the "hobbies" category of a stack of CVs is full of reputable things like sports and social engagement, and rather void of any mention of games. So even people who would privately consider themselves as "gamers" wouldn't want to attach that label to themselves when applying for a job. I don't frequent dating sites, but I'd assume that it is the same there. "No-lifer" is more than an insult; it is a description that hardcore gamers actually fear when it comes to their life outside of games. Anything you do in life has an opportunity cost, that is to say it costs you time you could do something else with. As gamers, hardcore or casual, we need to be aware of what the opportunity cost of gaming is, and if we are really always doing the right choices.

Saturday, October 05, 2019
 
Expensive experience

Whenever you do a battle in World of Tanks, you gain a small percentage of the experience earned in the form of "free experience". Free experience isn't attributed to any specific tank, but can be used to unlock any tank or equipment you want. Thus it is very, very useful. And in consequence you don't get very much of it. Unless you pay.

If you play a premium tank, or a tank that has been fully researched, you have two options: Either you use the experience gained towards crew training, albeit at a rather horrible conversion rate. Or you accumulate that xp on the tank. The only thing you can do with that accumulated xp is to convert it to free xp, but it costs 1 gold per 25 xp. But you can wait for one of the regular XP Fever events, where the conversion rate is discounted to 1 gold per 35 xp.

Most people choose the accelerated crew training option. I don't. Spending money on World of Tanks doesn't bother me, and I can afford it. Wargaming constantly bombards players with offers to buy premium tanks, but I only buy the really overpowered ones. And once you have some good premium tanks, there isn't much reason to buy many more of them. Instead of paying 100 Euros for a "special edition" premium tank, I can buy 30k gold with that. And that converts a cool million xp into free xp. Obviously I don't do that very often, because you also need to earn the million xp in the first place.

In consequence I never use that free experience to research new tanks. Rather I play to earn the experience to get to a new tank, and then use the free experience for researching modules. That has a huge advantage: I never have to play a tank with bad stock modules. I fast forward to having all the good modules on the tank, which then makes playing that tank a lot more pleasant. And so I can play that tank to earn the experience I need for the next tank up the tech tree.

You could claim that this is pay to win, because a fully equipped tank is obviously better than the same tank with stock modules. But I see it more as a comfort function, paying money to avoid a tedious grind with a stock tank to earn your modules. It isn't cheap, but I think it is a better purchase than buying yet another premium tank.

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Saturday, September 28, 2019
 
Prime advantages

As previously reported, I have an Amazon Prime membership which results in a free Twitch Prime membership, which gives me monthly "care packages" for World of Tanks. And I have the feeling that the content of these care packages is getting better every month. The care package for October (which just was released end September) has lots of useful stuff like a permanent camouflage style, 3 training booklets for each nation (for a total of 33 times 20k xp for the whole crew), and 20 missions for 5x XP after the first win.

Furthermore as long as you have Twitch Prime, you have access to the Captured King Tiger, a decent tier VII heavy tank. And each month there are new missions for it. This month you can even get a tier V premium tank plus garage slot from those missions. And they aren't very difficult: You just need to be in the top 10 by experience on your team 3 times a day, for 15 days. I just had a pretty bad game, a defeat in which I only landed two penetrating shots, and still managed to do that mission. You just need people in your team that suck even more than you.

The only thing I don't like is that those missions force you to play a specific tank 3+ times a day. But I can usually do that in half an hour, and I can play other tanks in between, if for example my King Tiger got shot early and I need to wait for him to come out of battle again. Now I'm not the world's biggest fan of heavy tanks; they can be great if you are top tier, but if you are bottom tier your armor becomes basically useless, and then you are the slowest, blindest, weakest tank on the map. It helps that I spent training booklets to have a decent crew with Sixth Sense, Brothers in Arms, better view range, and repairs. But for fun I'd rather play something else.

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Thursday, September 26, 2019
 
Fire Emblem: Three, no four, houses

I finished my first playthrough of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, having chosen the Golden Deer house. During that game I realized that the different houses have different stories, at least for the second half of the game. And of course the different houses have different characters, so all the character interaction cut scenes are different. And as the battle system is varied enough for different approaches as well, this gives the game quite good replayability.

As an additional bonus Fire Emblem: Three Houses has a "New Game +" system, which carries over some stuff of your previous game into the next one, and allows you to spend renown on unlocking stuff you had already achieved in a previous game faster. That is great, because it does eliminate the few grindy elements the game has, like doing fishing to gain professor levels.

So I started a New Game + with the Black Eagles house. However with this second playthrough, two things went wrong: First I messed up the selection of difficulty by changing it in the options after having already started, and then was unable to change it back to hard. And then I hadn't looked up any spoilers on the story, and completely missed one important choice point: If you play the Black Eagle house, you *must* in chapter 11 on day 8 of Pegasus Moon choose the exploration option, and have a dialogue with Edelgard. If you choose another option like battle on that day, or explore and don't talk to Edelgard, you miss out on the option to join her, and end up opposing her. As playing any other house also ends up opposing Edelgard, this "fourth story route" of joining her would have been more interesting to me, and I only found out about it when I didn't even have a save game old enough to go back.

So now I am 100 hours into the game (the played time of New Game + doesn't reset the clock, so I'm at 100 hours total first + second playthrough), and wish I was on a different story route with a different difficulty level. But unfortunately it turns out that to carry over your achievements into a New Game +, you need to reach the end of the game. If I start a New Game + now, I'll be at the point where I was at the start of the second playthrough, with everything done in my second playthrough forgotten. So instead of starting over, I decided to play the Black Eagles / Church of Seiros route that I am on until the end. That will give me a New Game + with more options, and that one I will play on hard difficulty. The current game being on normal makes that fast enough.

Speaking of difficulty levels, there is a second choice to make when starting a game: Classic or Casual mode. In Classic mode your dead characters remain dead, in Casual mode you revive them after battle. Pretty much every gaming journalist snob out there will tell you to play Classic mode. Don't! Basically nobody ever lets his characters die, you invest too much time into them, and unless you spend far too much time and resources to recruit all the students from the other houses, you don't have enough characters to be able to afford losing one sometimes. Thus if you play in Classic mode and a character dies, you first use Divine Pulse to turn back time, and if that doesn't fix the problem, you reload a save game. Thus everybody really plays in Casual mode, you just have to replay stuff more often if you choose Classic mode. It's less of a hassle and more honest to say that you won't let characters die and just choose Casual mode.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019
 
History being made

At high school I majored in both Chemistry and History, but then went on to study Chemistry due to better job prospects. Still I remain fond of History as a subject. That comes with a useful skill: Being able in the day-to-day din of the news cycle to spot the bits that might potentially be of historical significance. One of those happened today.

Imagine that the US Supreme Court would make a ruling unanimously in a case against the government. That would send a pretty strong signal. However it would not change the US constitution, because the US Constitution is a written document that requires a very special procedure by legislators to be modified or amended. The UK works differently. It doesn't have a constitution in a single document; instead it has 400+ years of precedent, and the sum of court rulings, laws decided by parliament, and customs regarding how the country is run together form a constitution. The difference is that if the UK Supreme Court makes a ruling unanimously in a case against the government, that not only affects that particular case. It also *sets* a precedent, and thus effectively in some way changes the constitution.

Today's ruling of the UK Supreme Court is widely seen as a blow to the UK government, and is by some interpreted as a blow against Brexit. As such of course it is subject to political commentary, and to complaints against courts meddling with a political decision. But the fact that all 11 judges agreed on the decision, regardless of political affiliation, shows that they were rather concerned with the constitutional aspects of the case. If you have a parliamentary democracy, can the government be allowed to suspend parliament, effectively removing the checks and balances that the constitution put into place against a government's possible overreach? Fortunately for parliamentary democracy, the answer was no. And that is now precedent in the UK constitution, regardless of which party or other institution will be the next one to try something similar. It is not a decision against "the" prime minister, but against *any* prime minister or other leader trying to circumvent UK parliament.

In a world in which over the last decade various populist leaders have tried to disable the checks and balances that prevent them from doing whatever they want, this is a beacon of light. And that is true even if you happen to be pro-Brexit.

Saturday, September 21, 2019
 
Inconsistent

I was watching a YouTube video about a new tank in World of Tanks. At the start there was a discussion that they didn't want to call that video a "review", because they thought that you can't properly judge a tank in World of Tanks by playing it 10 times (roughly 1 hour). I agree. And the reason why I agree is actually kind of my problem with World of Tanks.

Is World of Tanks a fun game to play? My answer to that would be yes, no, yes, yes, no, yes, no, no, no, yes, yes, ...

Fact is that World of Tanks is probably the most inconsistent game I know. I am not just talking about winning and losing, because you can have fun in a game you lose, or not have fun in a game you win. It is everything. Whether you win, whether you have fun, whether your tank does okay, whether your team is supportive, all of this varies wildly all over the map. You can drive your favorite tank and get ten games in a row where you aren't happy with how they turn out, and that can be extremely frustrating. Or you can play a tank you just want to get through the grind because it isn't very good and suddenly all your shots hit and you end up with an ace result.

This makes it very difficult to start up the game and decide "oh, let's just play something for fun", because you just can't predict whether a game will be fun. If you play for progress you'll always make some progress, but with all the xp boosters in the game for winning the span between a good game and a bad game might be over 10 times the xp. So any evening you play could be either great fun, horribly frustrating, or something in between, with very little you can do about it.

Note that this is also why watching World of Tanks on Twitch, where you see all games somebody plays, is giving you a far better idea of the game than watching it on YouTube, where you often see only the great games. Even great players can have frustrating games or streaks of games. That might make you feel better about your own experience, but to me it mostly says that the inconsistency is inherent in the game, and not a function of the player.

Now there are other games which have parts that I like and parts I dislike. You can play a MMORPG and end up with an frustrating evening or a fun one. But that is mostly a function of what activity you chose to do in the game, maybe fishing is more fun to you than PvP arena mode, or the other way around. In World of Tanks the inconsistency touches all modes, and you can't simply move to your "safe space" in the game where you know you'll have fun.

So will I keep playing? Yes, no, yes, yes, no, yes, no, no, no, yes, yes, ...

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Thursday, September 19, 2019
 
Are lifestyle games unhealthy?

I have had what I would call healthy relationships with many different games: I get interested in the game, I install it, I play it, I have fun, until at some point I lose interest, I stop playing, and I remember the game fondly. Depending on the game that might be as little as 10 hours of gameplay, or as much as 100 hours. Sometimes I only play a game half through, sometimes I play through several times. But all of these games just hold my attention for a limited time.

And then there are the games that don't work like that. The games like World of Warcraft, or a few other MMORPGs in the past, and World of Tanks now. These are the games that somehow turn into a lifestyle for months or even years. The games I end up playing nearly every day. The games that sometimes I feel I play way beyond the point where I am having fun. The games that become a lifestyle. While I don't think that "addiction" is the right word to describe it, "habit forming" probably is.

Now of course this is not by accident. It is a whole business concept, "games as a service". If you get in the habit of playing those games, you usually pay a subscription fee, or regularly shell out some money for other virtual goods. Much cheaper for a game company to keep you playing by feeding you some new content occasionally than developing a whole new game would be.

The big advantage for me as a player is the comfort of familiarity. I don't have to learn a new game with a new control scheme and new strategy every few weeks. I don't have to make a decision on what I'll play next. But sometimes I feel that this relationship with those lifestyle games is less healthy. The moments where I play, don't have fun, but continue playing for some reward, or finishing some event. Like me currently playing the M41 Walker Bulldog in World of Tanks for the Top of the Tree event, although I don't enjoy playing that particular tank and it takes rather long to get to the next one. Sometimes these games can feel more like a job than like a game. And that is reflected in our choice of words, when we talk of things like "grinding" or "farming".

What do you think? Are lifestyle games unhealthy? Or are they just a different mode of gaming which is an equally valid way to spend your time?

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