Tobold's Blog
Saturday, August 08, 2020
An experiment in international shipping

The internet, as the name suggests, is international. Except for some authoritarian governments blocking access, you are mostly free to visit websites all over the world. Although I live in Belgium, I can go to the website of a US company. However, once we make the transition from the virtual space to the real world, things become a bit more complicated. If I want to order something from that US company, I might find that they aren't shipping internationally.

Today I started an experiment to overcome this problem. I opened an account at ColisExpat. They provided me with a US shipping address, which is basically a PO box at one of their warehouses. So now I can order a parcel from a US company shipped to that US PO box. When it arrives, I'll get an e-mail, and can then pay them for the international shipping of that parcel to Belgium. If I have several parcels, I can get them repacked into a single one to reduce shipping cost.

I assume there are other companies that do the same thing, but ColisExpat was the one I found when I was searching for shipping options for a particular US company. Of course international shipping is expensive and slow (or extremely expensive and not quite as slow), and adding the fees for one more company isn't helping. I used to fly to the USA for professional reasons or the occasional holiday at least once a year, and do some shopping there, but that isn't an option anymore. Let's see whether this service gets me the things I want to buy from the USA to Belgium.

Sunday, August 02, 2020
Real time rewards

Once upon a time you progressed in a computer game only when you were running that game. Online games then introduced the idea of real time into games, from the power hour in Ultima Online to rest xp in World of Warcraft. Mobile games use the concept very frequently, hoping that by granting you things like a "daily login reward" you keep engaged with the game.

I actually have a few games on my iPad which I don't actively play, but start once per day to collect the rewards. I don't do that with very many games, only those that I think I will want to play later anyway; so why not spend a minute every day on them to collect those real time rewards, and profit from them later when I actually want to play this game? Of course I might end up then never playing that game and wasting a bit of my time every day. But getting a virtual reward is always a dopamine moment, even if the reward is just for logging on.

My holidays have ended, and I haven't gotten very far with Pokemon Sword, only just passed the second gym. But I did notice that Pokemon Sword and Shield has some sort of real time reward system as well: You can send your Pokemon on "jobs" that take up to 24 hours of real time, and reward you with xp for the Pokemon, and a few bonus items. So I might start up my Switch from time to time and send out Pokemon on jobs. Why is that interesting? Well, I already have 90 Pokemon, and that is after releasing most of those that I had more than once. The classic way of leveling Pokemon is using them in combat, but only the 6 Pokemon in your party gain xp, and only those you actually swapped in and out of combat gain full xp. So keeping all your Pokemon leveled up would require quite a lot of grinding. But the different gyms and regions force you to change Pokemon from time to time; so gaining a gym badge and needing a new Pokemon type for the next content might result in you having to use Pokemon of lower levels, because you didn't take the time to level them up. You can fix that in part with the use of the xp candy you find in the max raid events of the wild area, but that is just another sort of grind. The Pokemon jobs appear to me the fastest method to keep many of my Pokemon at a relevant level.

However, I am not really sure that this is perfectly balanced. It appears to me that in the 5 minutes or so it takes to collect all the rewards and send out the Pokemon again, I am gaining a huge amount of xp, compared to other methods of leveling up. So if I actually do this in "mobile game mode", only collecting real time rewards while not actually playing the game, I might end up with a *lot* of xp and levels. Which I am willing to risk, because I don't really enjoy xp grinding in this game. I will see how this works out.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Pokemon Sword and Shield is too easy

As I skipped a lot of Nintendo consoles in my life, I played relatively few Pokemon games. However, I always recognized that behind the child-friendly exterior of the Pokemon games there lurked thr most hardcore of all turn-based combat systems, which made the games interesting to adults as well. And up to Pokemon Let’s Go I enjoyed the few Pokemon games I have been playing. Now, in my last week of summer holidays playing Nintendo Switch games, I started Pokemon Sword. And I don’t like it so much. It appears that the more hardcore aspects of the game have been deliberately pushed behind a paywall of Nintendo Switch Online and Pokemon Home Premium, while the basic game has been dumbed down and made far too easy.

There are two related big changes to the base game: The wild area and the camping system. The wild area is a new “open worldish” area, which is larger than the usual zones (although still small compared to other open world games). And in this wild area you can collect respawning treasures and farm “max raid” dens. That is A) very easy, and B) extremely profitable, so that after a bit of doing so you are swimming in money and items, making the rest of the game economy pretty much obsolete. And in the wild area you learn how to do camping, aka resting between battles, and you can keep doing that outside the wild area as well. Camping allows you to cook, which restores the health and moves of your Pokemon, as well as giving them experience points. XP for resting? Really?!?  If you combine the treasure hunt in the wild area giving you thousands of credits with the greengrocer selling you berries for cooking for 80 credits, you end up being able to camp and cook whenever you want, even in the middle of a dungeon. Your Pokemon will never run out of the Power Points you need for your moves, or run low on health over time. That completely kills the resource economy of the previous games, and makes the whole campaign ridiculously easy.

Meanwhile, the judge function you need to see whether a Pokemon you caught has good stats is only available either after finishing the campaign, or by paying for Pokemon Home Premium. The game basically tells you that you don’t need to worry whether your Pokemon are any good until after the campaign, where you can do online PvP battles, if you pay for the Nintendo Switch Online service. The PvE game got dumbed down to the point where you don’t need to care whether you Pokemon have good stats. As Pokemon Sword doesn’t even have basic quality of life features like the ability to automatically sort Pokemon, you can just get away with building a team out of the relatively good Pokemon you easily get from max raid dens and just ignore the previous “gotta catch them all” Pokemon collection game. For somebody like me, who isn’t interested in paying for post-game PvP modes, the basic PvE game is now far too easy to be really enjoyable. The balance that the resource management of previous versions of the game brought simply isn’t there anymore, making the single-player experience a rather boring one already pretty early on in the game. Not recommended!

Saturday, July 25, 2020
Dragon Quest Builders 2

I have played a lot of JRPG over the years. You typically follow a main story for around a hundred hours, engage in a great number of combat encounters, and do some side activities like crafting. But what if you would reverse those activities? What if the game would be about crafting most of the time, with the occasional combat thrown in for variety? Then you get a game like Dragon Quest Builders 2, which I just played through for around a hundred hours, until the end of the world. No worry, there is a post-game after that and the credits, so I can still work on my island.

The main selling point of Dragon Quest Builders 2 is that it combines the linear structure of a JRPG with the sandbox freedom of a game like Minecraft. On the one side you have the freedom to flatten a mountain and build whatever crazy structure you want in its place. But on the other side, if you find building without a purpose too boring, there is that long story with lots of quests asking you to build specific things. Sometimes you have to follow a blueprint, but often you still have a lot of freedom to build the requested structure as you want, you just need to include certain specific elements to make the game register quest success. The great thing here is that the rooms you can build are functional. If you build a bedroom, a kitchen, a dining room and a toilet, your residents are going to use these rooms over the course of their day in the manner that you would expect. And while doing so, they drop little hearts called gratitude, which serve as a sort of currency to unlock new things.

To get to those hundred hours of gameplay without getting too boring, Dragon Quest Builders 2 uses a specific game flow structure; You play through 5 large chapters of the game, each of which are separate, and you can’t use the materials and recipes from the previous chapters in the next one. But between those chapters you always go back to the same place, the Isle of Awakening, and there you can use everything you have found in the chapters. So in the first chapter you learn about farming, and then you can build a farm on the Isle of Awakening, then in the next chapter you learn about mining, and then you can use metals on the Isle of Awakening, and so on.

Combat is on the simple side, you walk up to the monster a press a button to swing your sword, or hold that button for a special attack. However in the chapter about warfare you learn how to build a fortified castle, and how to vanquish armies of monsters by creating a gauntlet of traps. Unfortunately that ability is used only once on the Isle of Awakening later, I would have loved to be able to play around more with that feature. You can still build a castle for show, though.

I very much enjoyed playing through Dragon Quest Builders 2, much more so than Dragon Quest XI, which had too little freedom of choice for my taste. So I now consider buying Dragon Quest Builders 1, although I know that 2 is the better game. But these long JRPG have limited replayability, and I’d rather play DQB1 with a less good UI and new story rather than DQB2 with the same story again. I have some minor complaints about Dragon Quest Builders 2, like the unskippable long inner dialogue cutscenes which take way too long, but overall I can really recommend this game.

Saturday, July 18, 2020
Switch design flaw

I have a first generation Switch console. During my current holidays, I am using it without a docking station as a mobile gaming device. But as the battery life isn’t great, I keep the power cable plugged in. And I have to say, the power goes in at completely the wrong position, at the bottom. Which means that when holding it, the power cable point towards you, and is constantly in the way. You can’t really rest the Switch in your lap when sitting, or on your belly when laying down.

Now the reason the power plug is at the bottom is because there it connects with the docking station when you place the Switch in there. So I understand the need for the power plug to be in the middle of the broad side of the console. But why not place it on top instead of at the bottom. You’d need to insert the Switch into the docking station upside down, but that doesn’t really change anything. But as a plugged-in mobile device, the power cable going in at the top would be much more convenient and comfortable.

Monday, July 13, 2020
What games are better on the PS4?

I’ve been visiting my family, and my nephew showed me his brand new Playstation 4 console. However, he was a bit disappointed that when he installed his favorite game, Fortnite, on the PS4 it played worse than on his PC. Longer loading times, and the controller not so suited for shooter games. That got me thinking that there are games on my PC where I deliberately choose a game controller over mouse and keyboard. Not shooter games, but other 3D open world games, where having two sticks for movement and camera controls are quite an advantage.

As I don’t own a PS4, I was wondering which games I would prefer to play on a PS4, rather than playing the game on my PC. Maybe some PS4 exclusive games that aren’t shooters? Or some open world games, like Assassin’s Creed? Or maybe something completely different, like a soccer game that can be played by two players with two controllers simultaneously. Consoles are obviously better for that than PCs. I’d be grateful for any advice from PS4 owners, so that I can pick some good games to buy for my nephew for Christmas, when I will see them again.

Friday, July 10, 2020
Downloading Fallout 76

Fallout 76 on the PC has a 52% critics review average score, and 2.7 out of 10 user score. The game is currently on Steam for 40 Euros. Which means that I would be very, very reluctant to spend that kind of money on a game that controversial. However, Fallout 76 just got added to the Xbox Game Pass. So I can play it for free, with the only obstacle being the 75 GB download. The recent reviews on Steam are "mostly positive", and the Fallout 76: Wastelanders expansion has better review scores than the original. So, I am currently downloading the game to check it out for myself.

Review scores are an indication, but not an objective measure of how likely a game is to please me. Games get "review bombed" by both critics and players for reasons that have very little to do with the quality of gameplay, sometimes for something as simple as trying something new. There are games that crash on half of the PCs out there, but run perfectly fine on the other half, so there can be an element of chance involved in whether you'll like a game. And of course every player has his own pet peeves and niche preferences, so you might well like a game that everybody hates, or the other way around.

Don't hold your breath, though, waiting for me to post a review. It is July, I live in Europe, and we Europeans have this strange custom Americans can't understand to take 3+ weeks of summer holidays. I'm leaving tomorrow. And while I did buy a new gaming laptop last year, I'm not taking it. My iPad and my Switch make for far more comfortable mobile gaming, especially when the internet is flaky. So my summer holidays are also a break from PC games, especially online ones, whether that is World of Tanks or Fallout 76. While I can blog from iPad, I usually don't do much of it during the holidays, so don't be surprised if updates are rare for the rest of the month.

Thursday, July 09, 2020
UEFA President - A simulation game

Congratulations, you have been named president of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)! However, directly after your election a major problem has come up, which you will need to resolve. The Royal Spanish Football Association, pushed by the FC Barcelona, makes the following demands from the UEFA:

1) They want to leave the association, following the procedure foreseen for this case, and no longer pay membership fees.

2) After having left the UEFA, they still want to be able to participate in UEFA events, like the Champions League. They argue that not letting them participate would hurt the finances of the UEFA.

3) They want to be no longer follow the rules of the UEFA or any other soccer association. They don't want to be bound by the "Laws of the Game" association football rules, nor answer to any governing body that enforces these rules. They do however offer a non-binding general promise to "play nice".

So, you as UEFA president, what will you decide regarding these demands?

Let's have a look at these demands one by one. The first demand is a relatively easy one. Most associations other than the mafia have rules that allow a member to quit the association. You, as UEFA president, can't do much here, other than asking them whether they are really sure they want to leave. Emotionally a divorce is painful, but legally this is not really a problem.

The second demand is trickier. On the one side you could make a calculation of how much money the UEFA would gain if it let big non-member clubs like the FC Barcelona play, seeing how these clubs attract a lot of attention and TV money. On the other hand you need to consider how that decision would play with your still existing members. If they think they could all leave the association and retain all the benefits, you'd end up with no membership fees at all.

The third demand at first sounds tricky, but then very quickly becomes very clear when you consider the possible consequences. If you gave in to that demand, what would keep the FC Barcelona to turn up to the next UEFA Champions League game with 12 men on the field instead of 11? Association football, aka soccer, absolutely demands that everybody plays by the same rules, otherwise it wouldn't work at all. There is no way that you could allow them to play in UEFA games based on no more than a vague, non-legally binding promise, with no mechanism of dispute resolution.

So, what is your decision as UEFA president regarding the demands of the Royal Spanish Football Association? Did you make the right decision? Congratulations, you have won this simulation game. And, oh, by the way, you now also understand Brexit and can accurately predict what will happen on December 31st of this year.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020
Thought police

A friend of Voltaire described his attitude towards free speech as "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Today a similar sentiment was expressed by JK Rowling and 150 other public figures speaking out against "cancel culture". The question is one of proportional response. If somebody just holds and expresses an offensive opinion, but other than that does not act on that opinion in a way that would be illegal, then wouldn't the proportional response be to tell him off? If people organize an online lynch mob to make somebody lose his job over an offensive remark, that is basically the thought police.

I'm not saying that you don't have the right to be offended by somebody who is for example racist. But does that racist person have to lose her job over the incident? And where exactly is the limit of offensiveness at which a person expressing a personal belief needs to be punished beyond being told that you disagree with him/her. Oh, I said "him/her" without including a third non-binary option. That could potentially be offensive to somebody with a non-binary gender identity. So does that mean that you should find out where I work and get me fired? (Fortunately that doesn't work in Europe) Should you get fired because you happen to believe that Columbus was a great person? That sure does offend somebody.

Nearly 160 years ago, the United States of America became disunited and split up over a difference in opinion about social justice. The result was over 1 million deaths, a third of which civilians. Sometimes I feel as if the USA are well on their way towards a second edition of this. You need to realize that Trump is not a politically correct person, and that the 40% of Americans who support him strongly are also unlikely to be politically correct. Organizing witch hunts against those 40% of Americans and causing them economic harm, despite knowing that these are the 40% of Americans who also own most of the guns, doesn't sound like a good idea to me. I am all for trying to change somebody else's mind with arguments and discussion. But the stronger the political correctness brigade persecutes the not-so-politically-correct with means beyond words, the stronger they will fight back.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020
The political virus

The idea that politics are "left" or "right" originated in the seating order of the parliament during the French Revolution of 1789. The disadvantage of that descriptor is that if you aren't already familiar with the political positions of the left and the right, the term itself isn't of much help. Personally I would call myself a centrist, which is to say that when I write a political opinion on this blog I get shouted at by people from both sides. :)

There are a number of different other ways to describe the political left and right. But in the context that I want to talk about here, it helps to think of the right as being for the individual, and the left for the collective. I am not putting any value judgement here, both the interests of the individual and the collective need to be defended. Different countries at different times chose governments that were more on one side or more on the other, and many of them worked reasonably well, if they weren't too extreme. There is a matter of cultural preferences, with American politics for example being a bit more on the individualistic side, and European politics a bit more on the collective side. And that is perfectly fine.

As a hobby historian, it is interesting to me how the world changing around us affects human behavior, including economics and politics. And the corona virus pandemic certainly is a world changing event. The big strength of humans, as a species, is how good they are at adapting to their environment. And if you look at how the world has been doing over the first half of 2020 with an open mind, you can't help but notice that there appears to be a link between left/right politics and the success of "flattening the curve": Countries more on the left side of the political spectrum had a better success rate at containing the epidemic than countries on the right side of the political spectrum.

That isn't totally surprising. While the virus by itself is apolitical, a person that is more concerned for the welfare of the collective is going to infect a fewer number of other people than a person that is more concerned with his individual freedom. Wearing a face mask protects other people more from you than it protects you from other people. Even without government intervention and regulations, how willing somebody is to wear a face mask in public correlates with his politics. Furthermore, once a person is infected, the severity of his illness is correlated with the health care he receives, and the health care he received previously, as pre-existing conditions play a big role. It comes as no surprise that Germany, which introduced universal health care in 1871 is doing better than the USA, who is still discussing that option.

The question that is still open today is how the pandemic will change politics over time. Maybe after a vaccine is found, everything goes back to the way it was before. Or maybe some countries will experience a political pull towards the left, at least on subjects like the usefulness of universal health care. If right-wing governments send out relief cheques to every citizen, a previously extreme left idea like universal basic income suddenly doesn't look so outlandish anymore.

Sunday, July 05, 2020
Game stats

These are the XVM stats of a rather mediocre player of World of Tanks: He has played a good number of battles, but his win rate is at best average (due to draws the average in World of Tanks is 49%, not 50%). The WN8 score, which is supposedly representing this player's skill is in the "orange" color category below 1,000, just one step up from the bad players "red". You wouldn't be happy seeing this player in your team.
Now this player is rather decent. It is clearly a reroll account, as nobody gets this good with just 100 battles played. The 56% win rate is rather good ("green" color), and the 1321 WN8 is decent enough at a solid "yellow" level. You'd be okay seeing this player on your team.

Of course, you guessed it, both of these stats are mine, my main account and a reroll account. As I said in a previous post, trying to optimize the Battle Pass event in World of Tanks has steered me towards the tier and type of tank I feel most comfortable with, and I have the most fun with: Tier 6 medium tanks. At this tier I find World of Tanks challenging, but not frustratingly so, and I manage sometime to have a real impact on the game. So after playing mostly at that level for some months, I noticed that my stats in term of win rate and WN8 were going up constantly, but slowly.
Of course I wondered what my actual "current" stats are, that is to say what my stats would be if they weren't bogged down with 15k battles with lower stats. So I created a new account, spent a bit of money to buy two tier 6 medium premium tanks, got two more tier 6 regular tanks from the same two nations (as then you can use the same crew), and played the 100 battles XVM requires to calculate stats. So the good news is that I am playing better than the stats of my main account would suggest. The bad news is that it is nearly impossible to improve the stats of my main account, because the stats displayed are the average of everything, not "the last X battles". If I had played those 100 battles with an average WN8 of 1321 on my main account, my WN8 would have gone up only from 857 to 860. I would need to play 7,000 battles on my main account at this level to just increase the stats to the "yellow" level of a bit over 1,000. That is more battles than I usually play in a year.

While that reroll account was useful for determining my current level of skill (in as far as you believe that stats can represent level of skill), I certainly wouldn't want to permanently switch accounts just for better stats. There are lots of players who do, but on my main account there are 190 tanks, and I have unlocked more than that on the tech tree (I just didn't keep them all). Besides the tanks, the main account also has a nice selection of good tank crews, lots of equipment, and various other goodies that one tends to accumulate over the years. Those things are more important to me than stats, I look at my stats only out of curiosity. Still, I bet that if WoT allowed players for a 50 € "fee" to reset their stats while keeping everything else, they would make millions.

Having your stats go back to the day you started is really counterproductive to the idea that your stats somehow measure your skill. It is as if a "gear score" in World of Warcraft would represent any single piece of gear your character ever wore, instead of the current set. I understand why they keep the whole set of stats, so people can look at for example how often they drove one particular tank. But the third party organizations like XVM that calculate WN8 would probably get a more accurate picture if they could just look at the stats of the last 1,000 battles of a player.


Wednesday, July 01, 2020
D&D needs evil races

In real life, I do not own a sword. As it happens, for the complex problems of the modern world a sword is not really a useful solution. I did however swing a large multitude of different swords in fantasy worlds, whether that was in stories told around a table in Dungeons & Dragons, or virtually on the screen in some video game. The reason why a sword is more useful in a virtual world than in the real one is that virtual worlds by design are simpler. There is less moral ambiguity, and a sword is a perfectly viable solution if your problem is an evil, fire-breathing dragon. The simplicity is a desired feature, simple solutions for simple problems are a feature, not a shortcoming. Our real lives are complex and confusing, and sometimes retreating into a simpler fantasy world is good for stress relief.

Since Dungeons & Dragons has moved more and more into the mainstream, it has increasingly become a target for the raging culture wars. And the latest move is that WotC has been pressured into reworking races in D&D; somehow "Black Lives Matter" is deemed to be relevant to how Dungeons & Dragons treats races like Drow or Orcs.

Now, racism *is* a real world evil, especially in the extreme form where it leads to people getting killed. Scientifically speaking, humanity doesn't even have races; "racism" is usually used to mean discrimination based on differences in looks and origin. The term "race" is more correct with regards to fantasy worlds with elves and orcs, as these are clearly more different than real world humans are between them. But somehow the use of the word "race" in Dungeons & Dragons ended up making the game a target: "This is a racist game, because it has races in it, and some of those races are described negatively!". I think that argument is nonsense.

First of all, we need to remember that the world of Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy world, and not real. No orcs were harmed in describing orcs as evil, brutish, and stupid, because orcs don't really exist. There is no hidden analogy between some race in D&D and some real world group of people. Some people might use a Scottish accent when role-playing their dwarf character, but that doesn't mean that the characteristics used to describe dwarves in D&D is supposed to be discriminatory to real world Scots.

Second, as I said in my introduction, evil is a desirable and necessary part of Dungeons & Dragons. There is nothing that would keep you from designing a role-playing game in which each player plays a social worker fighting for social justice, but D&D is not that game. D&D players wouldn't be very interested in a game where they have to delve deep into a dungeon to resocialize orcs. D&D players are looking to solve simpler problems with virtual swords and sorcery, and that requires easily identifiable "evil" targets. Evil dragons, evil necromancers, and sometimes evil orcs.

In its current form, D&D successfully manages to push some people out of their comfort zone by offering them "racial bonuses" for playing a race other than human. That, again, is a feature: It encourages players to think how their character would feel or behave differently because of their origin. This feature is actually rather "woke", because it makes players think about different origins and their impact. Somebody who has managed to play a halfling different than he would play a human might be more open to understand differences between people in the real world. Now this feature is under attack, because it is somehow seen as "racial stereotyping". But if half-orcs aren't strong, dwarves not tough, and elves not dexterous, then even more people will play humans (already the most popular race in D&D, and not because it has the best stats.). It is a shame that WotC would make their game worse, just to appease some radicals.



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