Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, September 20, 2023
 
Hoyoverse - On how not to design loot boxes

I am currently playing Honkai: Star Rail. That is very similar, and from the same company, as Genshin Impact. Only it is SciFi instead of Fantasy, and turn-based instead of real-time. Not a big fan of SciFi, but I like the turn-based combat a lot more. Reminds me a bit of the old Final Fantasy games, before they went off the rail and became real-time. One thing that is very, very similar in the two games is the loot boxes. Now I am not opposed to loot boxes in general, but there are criteria that make me like them more or less. And in Honkai: Star Rail and Genshin Impact I very much dislike the loot boxes.

When looking at loot boxes, many people look at the biggest possible prize you can win, and how much money it would cost to have a good chance of winning it. I am mostly looking at the other end: I assume that most of the time I’ll get a bad or average pull. So I am mostly interested in the low end rewards. What do you get if you don’t get lucky? Although I am not playing it anymore, I have to give a honorable mention to World of Tanks here, a game that at least when I played it only had loot boxes for Christmas. What was absolutely great about these is that the worst possible prize you could get was gold, and buying a loot box and “losing” would net you more gold than if you had bought the gold directly. Also, besides the big prize of some special tank, which wasn’t overly rare, there were a ton of mid-level rewards, most of which where quite useful. So you never opened a bunch of loot boxes and came away completely with nothing.

Honkai: Star Rail and Genshin Impact have the absolute opposite system: There is not much variety, and you either get a 4- or 5-star character or weapon that you probably wanted, or you get a 3-star weapon (called Light Cone in Honkai: Star Rail) which you absolutely didn’t want. You can use these 3-star weapons to boost the level of the good weapons, but it’s by not much. And although the game is full of other interesting materials and rewards you might be interested in, you simply never get any of those. Either you luck out, or you get something that is nearly completely worthless. And while there is a “pity system” that guarantees a better reward every X pulls, even that system gets worse over time, because pulling the same character a second time just gives you a minor boost. The more characters you have, the less interesting loot boxes become.

Now of course even back in the days of early Magic: The Gathering the opening of boosters had diminishing returns. But at least with every new set you could open up a box or more of boosters and get common and uncommon cards you could well use for deckbuilding, the rares weren’t the only useful thing in these packs. And that is what good loot boxes do: As long as you open only a reasonable number of them, you always get something useful. In Honkai: Star Rail I did spend some money on a battle pass and supply pass. But already with the free tickets for loot boxes the game gives you, you end up with mostly worthless 3-star weapons. That doesn’t encourage me to spend money on loot boxes at all, because I don’t believe in luck. And in these games you either get extremely lucky, or you just completely lose out. There are no consolation prizes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023
 
The end of “free”?

I was watching a video about a company called FreeWater. They hand out free bottles of water, financed by advertising printed on the bottles. The limits of that business model are easy to understand: If you went up to them and asked for 1,000 bottles of free water, they would refuse. Their business model doesn’t scale, a bottle of water isn’t actually “free”. A lot of the things we are used to get for free aren’t actually free. Their cost might be small, but it all adds up for large numbers. And my observation this year is that there have been several cases in which previously “free” stuff stopped being free, usually to a huge outcry.

The biggest examples were X/Twitter and Reddit making API access not free anymore. In the context of the rise of large language model AI, giving all your content away for free in a format easily readable by a computer wasn’t a good idea. And handling millions of API requests isn’t free. With the currently still unresolved Unity runtime fee story, I wonder if there isn’t a bit of this here as well. If Unity wants to charge per install, I at least guess that the installation of Unity Runtime is using servers of Unity Technologies, and that somebody in the company figured out that in the millions these installs cost Unity something. That doesn’t excuse the horrible execution of the move, the excessive pricing, and the bad communication. But I am not excluding the possibility that these installs aren’t really free, and that the company is unwilling to subsidize them in the future.

Imagine you had to pay 1 cent per e-mail you. That wouldn’t really impact any regular user. But it would make the business model of spam a lot less attractive. This is a typical example of possible negative examples of giving something out for free. It creates wrong incentives, especially at large scale. A million times 1 cent is serious money, but a million times free is still free. The whole capitalist model and free market mechanisms stop working at “free”. This hit home hard this year when people discovered how “free” data were feeding the AI boom. It is one thing to give content for free to a single user, but something completely different to give all of your data for free to an artificial intelligence that might use them to compete with you.

I do think the idea to hand out stuff for free only in limited quantities, but charging for the same stuff in large quantities has merit. The transition from “free” to “only free in small quantities” will have to be better managed and communicated. But the general argument of there being costs like server costs that add up in large quantities isn’t unreasonable.

Monday, September 18, 2023
 
When to play?

No Man’s Sky is reporting their “most successful month in the past few years”. Apart from their Echoes update, this is probably also boosted by the release of Starfield. Watching some Starfield gameplay videos on base building and planetary exploration followed by some No Man’s Sky videos of similar gameplay, it is hard not to come away with the impression that No Man’s Sky is both prettier and a lot deeper in these areas. Now No Man’s Sky obviously was in a horrible state when it came out in 2016, and I was able to get it for 60% off on Steam in 2017. Played it a bit then, liked it, haven’t touched it since then and have forgotten all about it. I barely recognize the 2023 gameplay, as the game continued to evolve and change. So for people for who Starfield was a disappointment, No Man’s Sky might be a reasonable alternative, especially if you still got a copy in your Steam library which you got at a steep discount. But thats poses the question when a game is best to play.

Video game technology advances. Maybe not as fast anymore as it used to, but playing a game that is over 10 years old and didn’t get some major engine overhaul since then is likely to feel outdated. I’m not saying that Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 weren’t great games, but you can’t play them followed by 3 without noticing the technological gap. And that is if the old game is still available: With live service games and MMOs there is a significant risk that instead of getting better over time, they get worse due to lack of other players, or downright get the servers shut down for not being profitable anymore. Another aspect is social media: Some 10-year old games still have a strong following, e.g. Rimworld. But others have completely disappeared from the public conscience, and you can’t find a Twitch streamer still covering them, and if you talk about the game on your social media there is no echo. My Steam library has 70% unplayed games, and that is actually not an unusual number; lots of people buy Steam games, decide for various reasons to wait before playing, and then never get around to it. And not every game actually gets good developer support over the years, some games get released half-finished and never get more than a few hotfixes.

The cult of the now has advantages when it comes to playing new games that are relevant to others, and thus it is easier to find some conversation about them on social media. But even highly praised games like Baldur’s Gate 3 have bugs and missing content in Act III, and will probably be a better experience once the definitive edition is released. I played Pathfinder: Kingmaker for 180 hours, then bought Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous and stopped playing after 37 hours. A combination of too much of the same sort of gameplay in series, and the newly released game being buggy, killed it for me. Wrath of the Righteous is now at patch 2.1.5, and presumably a lot better. But of course I wasted money by buying it on release. And 2023 is a year filled with great RPGs, which doesn’t help dealing with a backlog. A game like Starfield I want to play soon, when I come back from my holidays, because with subscription services like Gamepass I never know how long a game will be included in the subscription, games are leaving Gamepass every month. But I would also be interested in finally trying out Cyberpunk 2077, with the new 2.0 update.

Lacking a crystal ball, I don’t have a good answer for any given new game whether it would be better to play now, or wait at least a year or two until the game is actually in a finished state, and can probably be bought a lot cheaper. Usually I decide based on emotions, my current interest, but that isn’t always a good guide.

Friday, September 15, 2023
 
AI-controlled NPC

In a computer RPG, only few characters are fully fleshed out, like the companions in Baldur’s Gate 3 or the crew in Starfield. Besides those, there are a lot of minor NPC that mainly serve to make settlements seem inhabited, or have minor roles to provide side quests, clues or trade. If you interact with them repeatedly, their repertoire quickly runs out, and you’ll end up getting the same response over and over. But what if these NPCs could be powered by AI? While you probably hadn’t identified Stanford University as a game development studio, resesarchers there created a “game” called Smallville, in which the user can interact with 25 inhabitants of a small town and get believable, non-repetitive responses.

An NPC doesn’t have to have a full ChatGPT 4 large language model behind him to be believable. In fact, if the NPC is supposed to be a peasant in a medieval village, you probably don’t want him to be able to give his opinion about mobile phones, television shows, or modern day politicians. But currently, if you are looking for the village smith, and nobody thought to give the peasant a dialogue option to ask where the smith might be, the NPC is useless to you, and not very believable. It wouldn’t be too hard to give that NPC limited AI, enabling him to answer simple questions about the village and its inhabitants.

While there are some issues about the compensation of voice actors used to train text to speech software, that technology also has much advanced. Thus the NPC peasant could possibly even use a voice over generator to reply with audible speech, not just written dialogue. And for triple-A games with lots of NPCs, the advantage of simple chatbots and voice over generators is that they scale up better, and thus could end up being cheaper than getting the traditional and far more limited dialogue voiced over by voice actors.

The current state of the art in games is NPCs which are just dolls: Most of the are stationary or have very limited movement patterns, and most of them have just one, or at best a few, canned responses to being interacted with. That also leads to stupid strategies for gamers, who simply talk to every NPC in a settlement until their dialogue runs out, to be sure not to miss anything. How much cooler would it be if you couldn’t find out about the murdered traveller unless you actually asked about him?

Thursday, September 14, 2023
 
Dis-Unity

Imagine your landlord sends you a letter that starting January 1st in addition to rent he is going to charge you a “usage fee” of 20 cents per person per hour spent in your appartment. He would be doing the tracking of that with movement sensors, and just send you a bill for an unspecified amount of money, based on his own data at the end of every month. You would probably have concerns about the fairness of this all. You would have questions in how far you would be charged for specific cases, like holding a party, or having a dog or Roomba triggering the movement sensors. After some outrage you would probably do the reasonable thing and call a lawyer. This is contract law, and while your rental contract and existing laws probably foresee the possibility of regular rent increases, the landlord can’t unilaterally change the whole cost structure of the rental contract.

While this example seems far fetched, something very similar just happened to a lot of game developers. Unity Technologies, makers of the Unity engine, which according to Google has a 29.4% market share among game engines, announced a new “runtime fee” of 20 cents every time a user downloaded and installed a game. X, formerly known as Twitter, exploded with devs pointing out specific cases, like Humble Bundle or Microsoft Xbox Game Pass or free-to-play games. There was some backpeddaling from Unity, and some proposed solutions that for a Game Pass game the fee would apply to Microsoft, not the game studio. At this point it became clear to me that this would end up with the lawyers. You try to send an unsolicited bill to Microsoft for a fee you just made up, and a Microsoft corporate lawyer is going to legally blast you to smithereens.

In other, related news, the share price of Unity Technologies dropped by 5% yesterday after the announcement of the runtime fee. Some angry people pointed out the publicly available information that the CEO and senior management of Unity Technologies had recently sold their shares, which might be considered insider trading. Meanwhile game studio Massive Monster, makers of the highly successful game Cult of the Lamb, made with Unity, announced they would delete their game from Steam and all other shops on January 1st. Epic Games, makers of the competing Unreal engine, pointed out that their royalties haven’t changed, and are just 5% of any revenues above $1 million, with revenues from the Epic Games Store not being counted. The proposed Unity runtime fee would already kick in at $200,000 revenue.

A point that caused little outrage yet, but seemed curious to me, is the idea that Unity would base their fee on their own tracking data, which is impossible to verify by the game developer who has to pay the fee. And the idea that because with every installation of the game the current Unity Runtime software is installed too, Unity is technically capable of preventing an installation in case of non-payment of their runtime fee bills. Imagine Unity sends that runtime fee bill to Microsoft, Microsoft refuses to pay, and suddenly nobody can install games running on Unity from Game Pass anymore. The resulting legal fallout would make Epic Games vs. Apple look like a minor skirmish. The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that Unity Technologies will either be forced to scrap their “runtime fee” charge, or this is going to end up in court.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023
 
Mental Health

As I mentioned yesterday, I was feeling slightly depressed for a few days. So it was of some interest to me to hear that the upcoming iOS 17 would add features to the Health app to track mental health. Because mental health generally has a threshold problem. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and its international counterparts, which are the “bibles” of mental health, usually define mental disorders as “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”. So while it recognizes for example autism spectrum disorder as *being* a spectrum, it doesn’t really concern itself with people who are so far on the mild side of that spectrum that they can still function in society. But if you look at the definition of autism spectrum disorders as “characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction, and repetitive or restricted patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities”, you probably know some people you called “nerds” that fall into this definition on the mild side. I certainly was that kind of guy at school and university, and had to work on my deficits in social communication and social interaction to overcome them. And yes, this blog is part of that process.

In a similar way, lots of people can feel mild depression sometimes, a sadness without reason. Or they can suffer from anxiety attacks. But as long as they can “get over it” and still go to work, this isn’t considered as a mental disorder. As opposed to physical illnesses, which we can identify and treat at much earlier and milder stages. We wouldn’t dream of waiting with a diabetes treatment until the patient was non-functioning from the illness. The threshold issue of identifying and treating lesser mental health problems can lead to other, more severe consequences; for example people “self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol, leading to addiction.

Society is getting better at recognizing lesser mental health problems and doing something about it. Mental health counselors are getting more common, also at schools. And Apple including mental health tracking on their iPhones is certainly also a step in the right direction. However, we are still far away from fully undertanding mental health problems, for example most of them can’t be easily tested for clinically. And the medication we have, for example antidepressants, is only recommended for medium and severe cases, and doesn’t really cover mild depression. Children with high emotional intelligence and low IQ are much more likely to get help from parents and at school than those with low emotional intelligence and high IQ, because the latter tend to have better grades, and their social deficits are considered less of a problem.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023
 
Fae Farm

Dammit, I bought another game full price on release day, it is becoming my bad habit of the year. My only excuse is that this time it was another Switch game, and those don’t get much cheaper over time anyway. I got a bit of the blues, and I bought a cozy game to cheer me up: Fae Farm. It’s also available on Steam for PC, and there is a cheaper version without access to the future DLCs there for $40. But I’m on holidays, and Switch and iPad are all I got. Fae Farm is more or less a Stardew Valley clone, with prettier graphics and some quality of life improvement. It isn’t highly original, but it is fun and relaxed. I played through the main story in about 30 hours, but the game doesn’t end there. You could say that the main story is a long tutorial, unlocking most of the content. Afterwards you are free to work on designing the farm of your dreams, or pursuing a large collection of job quests, or trying to befriend or romance one of the villagers.

I find these games have a nice mix of things you “should” do every day, like watering your fields and feeding your animals, with a range of other, optional activities. Well, sooner or later you’ll need to do everything optional, but on a given day it is up to you whether you want to go down a mine for minerals and gems, or whether you would rather spend your day fishing. Fae Farm doesn’t even punish you much if you decide to skip the chores, your fields don’t wither before the end of the season, and your animals never starve. You just don’t get the benefits.

I like the system in Fae Farm where your character stats depend on the furniture in your house. Your life, energy, and mana increase when you put in one of ten per category furniture items. It gives you some more specific goals to decorating that was missing for me in other games, like Animal Crossing. What I didn’t like was that some game systems depend on hard to get ingredients, e.g. Alchemy uses far too many Frog Sweat, and there aren’t enough frogs around when you need them.

Overall I enjoyed Fae Farm, and it did manage to get me out of my blues. It might not be worth $60, but hey, I’m on holiday, I’m currently overpaying for everything!

Wednesday, September 06, 2023
 
Success metrics

I don’t know how many video games I have ever played. The best data point I have is about 150 games played on Steam. But I have been playing games on the PC long before Steam even existed, and on many other platforms before and besides that, so overall I can only say that I have played hundreds of games. What I do know is that there were only a handful of games which I have played for longer than 6 months, and most of those were MMORPGs. The overwhelming majority of games, especially single-player games, for me are a matter of weeks, at best a few months. Besides two idle games, where the playtime is falsified by me letting the game run in the background, my top 4 played games on Steam are Magic Duels, Baldur’s Gate 3, XCom 2, and Pathfinder Kingmaker, and of these only Magic Duels was played for more than 6 months consecutively. I have 184 hours played of Pathfinder Kingmaker, but as I play a lot when I get strongly engaged with a game, that just took me a little over a month.

Why would that be important? Because if you have similar play pattern like me, and you would like to play Starfield now, instead of waiting until it is half price in a year, subscribing to the Game Pass for PC for $10 a month is probably the better option than buying the game for $70 on Steam. The probability that you play Starfield for so long that the Game Pass subscription costs you more than the full Steam price is pretty low. And I don’t believe for a second that I am the only genius on the internet who managed to do that math.

I don’t know how many concurrent players Starfield will reach on Steam this weekend. But I’m pretty sure that somebody will look for this number and make a social media post or YouTube video showing how much lower the Starfield number is than the 875k record of Baldur’s Gate 3. Which would be rather unfair, because I am pretty sure a lot more PC gamers will be playing Starfield on Game Pass than there were PC gamers playing BG3 on GOG. I’d be really interested by how much Game Pass subscriber numbers went up, but some people (including me) already had that subscription, while others will subscribe for reasons other than Starfield. I don’t see any valid method to fairly compare sales numbers or player numbers between these two games, as the business models are too different.

One might be tempted to compare BG3 sales numbers on the PS5 with Starfield sales numbers on the XBox, especially since they release the same day. But as the PS5 sold nearly twice as many consoles as the XBox, the numbers again would be skewed. And this late in the console generation cycle the ability of the two games to sell systems would also be very hard to judge. Having said that, I am pretty confident that Microsoft is making money on Starfield via sales of consoles and Game Pass subscriptions, not only by selling the game to own. Starfield will make the whole games segment of Microsoft look better in their books at the end of the year, and that is probably a good thing. Especially if you are Phil Spencer, and would really like that Satya Nadella has forgotten about Redfall by the time the end of year bonuses are distributed at Microsoft.

Tuesday, September 05, 2023
 
Science Fiction?

I’m a boomer, I was born in the early 60’s. And I just need to leaf through some family photo albums to see how much our daily lives have changed over the last 60 years. A Belgian mobile phone operator this year ran a series of advertisements where somebody showed people in their 20s objects like a floppy disc, a walkman, or a Viewfinder toy, with the slogan “if you don’t know what these objects are, we got a special mobile phone plan for your generation”. Technology strongly influences behavior, it is hard to realize for younger people that there was a time when there were no mobile phones, and family, friends, or work colleagues weren’t reachable all the time. As a kid in the 70s I had books, toys, and board games, but I was already a teenager before I saw the first game console, and it played only Pong. I remember black & white TV, recording music from the radio on cassettes, record players with vinyl discs, my first computer with 1 kB of RAM, and lots of other things that would be hard to understand for somebody born this century. So, given the rapid change in technology and life over the last 60 years, I do not think hat this change will come to a halt. The objects I use frequently today will look quaint or unrecognizable to somebody in 60 years, and I today can’t even imagine the everyday items the people in 60 years will be using.

Starfield is science fiction, playing in the year 2330. Three centuries is a very long time if you consider everyday life, technology, and living standards. 300 years ago, in the early 1700s, people were still using candles and oil lamps to light their homes and were cooking on wood stoves. The nature of the Starfield game is that you frequently go through people’s homes and work spaces, usually to streal everything that isn’t attached. So you get a very detailed view how the writers of Starfield imagine everyday life in three centuries to be. And the lack of imagination is astounding, it seems that way of life and interior decoration will barely change in the next three centuries. Computers will still have flat screens and keyboards, and icon-based user interfaces. Even voice-controlled smart speakers are still state of the art in 2330.

That observation isn’t unique to Starfield. There is a lot of science fiction depiction in 2023 which looks less advanced than the household of the Jetsons, as drawn in 1963. And I think the big cultural difference is that in the 60s we still believed that technology would improve lives. George Jetson was shown having the 2-day work week, and even then worked just 1 hour per work day. Which was enough to afford an upper middle class lifestyle, robot maid included. Our belief in the future has gotten a lot darker in 2023. Earth is an uninhabitable wasteland in Starfield. 78 percent of American adults in 2023 believe that their children will have worse lives than they do. I couldn’t find numbers for 1963, but I’m pretty certain that is was the other way around then. Progress these days, for example in artificial intelligence, is greeted with concerns that it will destroy humanity. The more optimistic view that AI and automatization could lead to all of us having to work a lot less while keeping up a good standard of living, isn’t generally shared anymore.

We also appear curiously unaware of the social progress we have made. It was poignant how in the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington the media carefully avoided to quote MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. The uncomfortable truth is that these days the demand that children be judged by their character and not by the color of their skin is considered a conservative talking point, while progressives consider color-blindness a racist concept that doesn’t go far enough. Which isn’t to say that MLK’s dream has already fully come through, but the progress in all forms of social justice matters over the last 60 years has been enormous. In the early 60s the first states of the US just began decrimininalizing homosexuality, and transgender rights are a lot more modern than that. Given that workers’ rights and salaries have progressed a lot less over the past decades than social issues, the continued focus on identity politics in the US is a puzzle to me. It appears to me that activism towards greater economic equality would improve more lives faster, including lives of minority groups, than calls for slavery reparations. In global comparisons the correlation between lower income inequality and people being generally happier is very well established.

The big question is in how far our mistrust of actual technological and social progress will keep us from progressing further. Will our houses and lives in 2330 look like they are shown in Starfield, because we put a moratorium on labor-saving technology? Will our fear of the future stop us from having one? Will the Jetsons have the 2-hour work week, or will they work 5 jobs, children included?

Monday, September 04, 2023
 
Engaged in insurrection or rebellion

I’ll have to put a standard “I am not a lawyer” disclaimer at the start of this post, but I can’t shake the feeling that my knowledge of the US legal system is far greater than that of most pundits in US media, or, more likely, that some of these pundits decided to say what they think their audience wants to hear, rather than what their scholarly knowledge tells them. This feeds a widespread and highly dangerous belief among Democrats that the 2024 US presidential election is in the bag, because the Republican candidate will be in jail or barred from office by the 14th amendment. But even the most perfunctory reading of the 14th amendment reveals that it bars from office people who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion”. Not “are accused of insurrection”, but have been “engaged in”. “Engaged in” very obviously requires some legal proof, and it is stupid of some pundits to pretend that this would be “self-executing”. Otherwise both parties would simply accuse any candidate from the other side of insurrection, and every possible candidate would be barred from office.

That is a bit of a problem for Democrats. Not only is Donald Trump, legally speaking, innocent until proven guilty. But furthermore in none of the ongoing lawsuits or past impeachments has Donald Trump even been formally charged with insurrection or rebellion. He has been charged in 4 ongoing cases with multiple counts of conspiracy, fraud, false statements, and even violations of the espionage act. But even if he were found guilty of every single charge in all 4 cases, he still wouldn’t disqualify under the 14th amendment. Any attempt by Democrats to prevent Donald Trump from taking office by ways of the 14th amendment will be thrown out by courts about as speedily as Trumps claims of election fraud were previously. Although not yet tested, the Republican legal position, which is “let’s get Trump elected, an then he’ll pardon himself”, is probably more constitutionally sound than those 14th amendment theories. And that would be true under a completely non-partisan SCOTUS, with the current conservative bias shielding Trump further.

While of course we can argue that Trump invented “lock her up” chants, that doesn’t make “lock him up” a viable election strategy. In 1985 the chief justice of New York’s Supreme Court famously said that any good prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Politically some of these indictments might have worked in 2021, but by waiting until the next election cycle it is all too easy to dismiss the charges as politically motivated. If necessary, Republicans in the House will impeach Joe Biden, and Republican statet prosecutors will indict the Biden family for a bunch more things, until it looks as if both candidates are under equal amount of legal troubles. Tit-for-tat indictments as far as the eye can see, and both the political system and the legal system of the United States will be worse off for it.

For somebody from outside the USA it appears evident that Americans shouldn’t vote for Trump as president on the basis that he already had a term and turned out to be rather bad at the job. The “let the courts keep Trump out of office” electoral strategy suggests that Democrats don’t have good political arguments for their candidate. Alexander Hamilton argued in the Federalist Papers that the electoral college system would be be suited to raise the most qualified person to the office of US president. But “candidate quality” is increasingly becoming a problem for both parties. If the 2024 US presidential election had a “none of the above” option, that might well be the majority choice.

Saturday, September 02, 2023
 
Comparing the incomparable

So the first reviews of Starfield are in, and on average the review scores are about 10% lower than those of Baldur's Gate 3. But, as usual, things are a bit more complicated than simple review scores suggest. In this case, there is an added complication from console gamers. Starfield releases on September 6 (unless you buy your way into a few days of early access) in the XBox, and has no release confirmed on the Playstation. Baldur's Gate 3 releases on September 6 in the Playstation, with a possible release on XBox "later this year", moved forward from a previous "2024" release date. Which is to say that on September 6 and the days following it, a lot of people who own an XBox will play Starfield, while a lot of people who own a Playstation will play Baldur's Gate 3. So now, in a typical sour grapes moment, some of the people who only own one console, or are especially fans of one console, are claiming that the game that is not available to them is worse than it is. Or that somebody who is giving a bad review to the game that is available to them is just a shill for the other side in the console wars. Sigh!

On the more questionable side, it appears that Microsoft has been marketing Starfield aggressively. It goes way beyond giving some streamers early access to drum up the hype a few days before release. I have seen an unboxing of the goodies that they sent out to major streamers, and the box contains a nice quality quilted Starfield jacket, a $160 Logitech mouse, and a $150 stream deck. This to me seems to be on the upper end of what is usually in swag bags. And the number of paid content on Twitch and YouTube for Starfield also seems higher than that for many other games, but I have no idea how much Microsoft is paying. I remain somewhat skeptical of influencer marketing beyond a "have a free early access review copy of my game". The only advantage I see is that marketing always gets the core competencies of some streamers wrong, and ends up persuading somebody to play their game publicly who isn't really into that genre, which can be both hilarious and very revealing.

If you are a PC player, like me, what you think of Starfield in comparison to Baldur's Gate 3 depends on a lot of very different considerations. First of all, a month is a long time in gaming. Not everybody has finished playing Baldur's Gate 3 yet, but a good number of people have either finished the game, or stopped playing without finishing. The 24-hour peak number of concurrent players is down to a bit over half of the all-time peak. It is completely possible for some RPG fans to have played and enjoyed Baldur's Gate 3, and now ready to play and enjoy Starfield. The next consideration is cost: Starfield on Steam is $10 more expensive than Baldur's Gate 3, but if you are subscribed to the XBox Game Pass for PC, you can play Starfield as part of that subscription. Which is what I am going to do. I'm not sure I would have paid $70 for it. But, in my case and that probably being true for other people as well, the shooter gameplay of Starfield makes this a *very* different game for me than the turn-based combat of Baldur's Gate 3. While for others genre is very important, and SciFi vs. Fantasy makes a big difference.

If you try to be as objective as possible, and compare what is comparable, while ignoring the differences of platform, underlying combat system, or genre, I do think that the average review scores aren't too far off the mark. Just watch 5 minutes of video of a dialogue involving a persuasion check in both Baldur's Gate 3 and Starfield. The graphical quality and facial expressions of Baldur's Gate 3, as well as the clarity of the user interface explaining the result of the persuasion check, are very clearly superior in Baldur's Gate 3. And the previously leveled accusations against BG3 that you couldn't use it as a standard because of the amount of money and time Larian put into the game doesn't really work here either: Starfield had a 2 year longer development time than Baldur's Gate 3, Microsoft has a lot more money than Larian, and there were 500 developers working on Starfield compared to 400 on BG3. Thus I believe that a direct comparison of comparable features is fair enough, and Starfield isn't winning that.

Maybe the best is to ignore BG3, and just look at Starfield in isolation, or compared to games that are more similar in genre. A lot of the people who played it say that it is very comparable to previous Bethesda games like Fallout 4 or Skyrim, with the obvious "No Man's Skyrim" jokes thrown in. I'd even venture that a comparison to the September 26 relaunch of Cyberpunk 2077 would be interesting. In any case, Starfield compares very positively against Fallout 76, which was some people's biggest worry. Still, it isn't wholly flattering if reviewers say that Starfield has few bugs "for a Bethesda game", because that is just a polite way of saying that there are still a rather noticeable number of bugs left, they just aren't game-breaking. Watching some streamers who aren't Bethesda game veterans playing Starfield also left me with the impression that the user interface is somewhat confusing and not very intuitive. I do think that how much you liked Fallout 4 or Skyrim is probably a good indicator of how much you are going to like Starfield. It seems to be a solid enough game, and I'll certainly try it out after my holidays. Personally I don't expected to be enchanted by it, but 2023 is full of releases of exceptional games that are closer to my personal preferences. There are at least 20 major "game of the year" awards, all with their different biases, and it isn't impossible that Starfield wins one of them. But if there is some website that compiles a ranking of number of GOTY rewards, my money would still be on either Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom or Baldur's Gate 3.

 
Junk loot

So I am watching the first streamers play Starfield, and couldn't help but notice people picking up all sorts of objects like a pen (mass 0.01, value 1), a wrench (mass 0.75, value 35), or a coffee mug (mass 0.25, value 55). And my blood starts to boil, because I really, really wished that for once we could get a CRPG without that sort of junk loot. The wrench has absolutely no function in the game, in spite of what you might think about a game in which you build space ships and colonies. Just like the rope in Baldur's Gate 3 doesn't have any function, in spite of a rope being a staple of D&D equipment. These are all just items that take up space or weight in the inventory, until you get to a vendor to sell them. And as that might take some time, you end up with an inventory full of junk, and you wasting valuable play time managing the junk in the inventory. With bad inventory management already being a point of criticism in the early Starfield reviews, as well as the lack of usable maps that actually would show where the vendors are.

If you open every container and scan every room (with "F" in Starfield, "ALT" in BG3) to loot every item, then manage your inventory when that becomes necessary, and finally sell all the junk to a vendor, you end spending a significant amount of time for all that. Easily around a quarter of the overall play time, if you like to be thorough. If, like me, you prefer to think of your character as some sort of hero, rather than a combination of petty thief and junk vendor, you can obviously spend a lot less time searching everything. But you never know whether there isn't any good loot in one of the hundred containers you didn't open. And the general economy is balanced in a way that you'll be short on cash if you don't sell bundles of junk. When you are invited to join Constellation and generously given a room in their lodge, you are *supposed* to steal the copy of Moby Dick (mass 0.50, value 590) from your own room and sell it.

I consider junk loot to be artificial filler content, and bad game design. Nobody *likes* collecting a bunch of junk. People like good loot and significant gear upgrades. One treasure chest with 1000 credits / gold in cash is a lot better than 20 crates with 40 items, which together are worth 1000 credits / gold. It isn't even as if you could interact with every single item in the game for the sake of realism, neither in Starfield nor in Baldur's Gate 3: There are still far more objects visible on the screen that you can't interact with than those you can. If devs already decide which items I can take and which aren't worth taking, why not leave out all those junk items with no game functionality?

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