Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 30, 2021
I don’t want to call it a sandbox

Can you write an essay or short story by next week? You probably can, because you have been given assignments like that since middle school. Could you write the same essay or short story right now, within the next 10 minutes? Most people either can’t, or they’ll try and the result will be much inferior to the one with the longer deadline. Now in Dungeons & Dragons one job of the Dungeon Master is to tell a story which binds together the smaller scale stories that the players tell about the actions of their characters. And one of the big differences between different Dungeon Masters is in how far they prepare for that. Now over the past years I have been mostly playing adventure campaigns published by Wizards of the Coast themselves, currently Curse of Strahd. And, initially due to the pandemic, but now also because people moved, we are playing on a virtual tabletop, in our case Roll20. I bought the Curse of Strahd module on Roll20, so now I have already all the maps, tokens, and handouts premade in there. But more importantly, Curse of Strahd is a campaign with a defined story, with a defined end. At the end of the campaign, the players will have become strong enough to enter Castle Ravenloft, and fight the archvillain of the campaign, the vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich. I don’t know what the players will do in detail during each session, but I can prepare the larger story; and the moment the players step into Castle Ravenloft, I will already have the battle maps and tokens prepared, and probably have familiarized myself with the content of the castle from the campaign book.

Now it is perfectly possible to play D&D without preparation. You can improvise everything and play a completely “sandbox” campaign, with no preplanned story at all. But there is an obvious price to pay: The story the DM had to invent on the fly is probably not as epic, and the world not as consistent, as something prepared. It makes for pretty stressful playing sessions for the DM, because not only does he need to invent the world and story in a short time, he also needs to take notes, so that what he tells the players in the next session doesn’t contradict whatever he is saying now. And this sandbox style of play works best for “theater of the mind” gameplay, without tokens or maps. Or you play with a blank map, the terrain being quickly handdrawn, and the enemies represented by generic tokens. On Roll20 at least the tokens can be pulled quickly from the compendium, but any nice maps need preparation. As a DM, I don’t like totally improvised play.

However, there is a middle way: The DM can prepare a world, and fill it with location maps, story snippets, and NPCs. Think of it as a sandbox which doesn’t start with just a flat surface of sand, but there are already some sand castles and structures preplanned. The DM doesn’t need to invent the name of the kingdom and the name of the king on the fly, he has them prepared in tools like Roll20 or World Anvil. The players still enjoy great freedom, they can decide whether they want to ignore that king, work for him, or assasinate him and take over the kingdom. But at least, when the players ask how the kingdom looks geographically, the DM has a map he can pull out. The campaign can still be player-driven, open-ended, without a predefined archvillain at the end.

This is what I want to do for my next campaign, after Curse of Strahd. After some initial discussion with my players, we decided on a campaign of naval and aquatic adventures, with a pirate theme. I’ll be using source material from Ghosts of Saltmarsh, but not necessarily all the adventures from that book. And certainly not all the maps, because there are a lot of low quality black & white maps in that book. I will not prepare more than one adventure ahead, and use player input to select or create adventures. This will require me to encourage the players to give me more input; but it should be easy enough to ask them what they would like to see in such a campaign, and then create stuff in response to that. Everybody has ideas on pirate stories, whether that is a treasure hunt, or naval combat against a ghost ship. I don’t want to call it a sandox campaign, but rather a “player-driven campaign”.


Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Beyond Rashomon

One of my favorite movies is Akiro Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The film tells different versions of the same event, from the view of the different participants. These version differ a lot, but you can understand how each of the participants bends the truth to make himself look better. The movie is a great lesson on why we will never arrive at an agreement on some universal truth, and helps understand why the same event today can be covered by different media and commented very differently.

As European I follow American news like somebody would follow a horror comedy series. Many of the characters are totally over the top. In fact, people who made political satire series like Veep have given up, because some of the real world people in the news behave in ways beyond the imagination of scriptwriters. You can’t *invent* people that crazy. But in many cases it is still Rashomon: People agree on some basic facts, e.g. “women in the women’s section of a spa in L.A. were exposed to the sight of a penis”; the fight is then about the interpretation of these facts. Is a penis in a women’s spa okay if the owner “identifies as a woman”? Is it a case of transgender rights, or a case of indecent exposure? You don’t need to be a political extremist to understand how opinions on this might differ. Even if you gathered a group of completely apolitical people, they would probably disagree on a complicated issue like this.

But where it starts to really worry me is when there isn’t even the slightest agreement on the underlying event anymore. I have been reading about politicians who claim that on January 6 a group of tourists were invited by the Republican party to a peaceful guided tour of the capitol, somebody accidentally broke something there, and the Democratic deep state reacted by killing one of the tourists and locking others away as political prisoners. Obviously the abundant video evidence of the event doesn’t support this version at all, which is why all reporting on this version is done without video or photo evidence. I would understand if the Republicans claimed that it was a protest gone wrong, not an insurrection. But to claim that basically nothing at all happened, after everybody *watched* it happening on TV, is beyond Rashomon-like truth bending.

I also worry about the left changing history. As a hobby historian, I always thought that the best way to deal with uncomfortable truths of the past is the 2000-page annotated new version of Mein Kampf, with 3500 notes about why Hitler’s arguments were wrong. The worst way to deal with uncomfotable truths of the past is to deny that past happened, and reinvent an alternative version of it, which is more in line with modern social standards. Falsifying the past, even in an entertainment context, is counterproductive to enlightment. How do you explain the Windrush scandal to somebody who watched Bridgerton and now believes that the British ruling class was mixed race for centuries?

Civil society is based on a fundamental agreement to be able to disagree on the political interpretation of facts. Attempts to just change the facts are the stuff of Orwellian nightmares.

Monday, July 26, 2021
Do I need a new world?

Once upon a time, this was a MMORPG blog. I spent thousands of hours of my life in World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs, and thousands more reading and writing about them. Until I got bored with the genre, feeling that it had stagnated, and not lived up to the promises of its early days to deliver us attractive virtual worlds in which we would lead virtual lives. And it wasn’t just me. MMORPGs stpped being “a thing”, investors stopped financing them, developers stopped developing them. These days, releases of triple A MMORPGs are few and far between. And the next one is New World from Amazon, developer and publisher of great games like … uh, help me out here, uh, actually nothing that wasn’t cancelled. They sure have money, but can they make and run a MMORPG? They might actually have an advantage in the running department, with their Amazon Web Services being considered as a leading cloud computing services. But what about the game?

So I tried to understand what New World is, by reading reviews and watching gameplay videos from the beta. Overall I think it is safe to say that it isn’t a revolution. It is a mix of features we have seen before, and in some aspects New World is certainly playing it safe by not deviating too much from the old, stagnant formula of games from a decade ago. With technology having evolved, combat is possibly a bit faster than earlier generations; too bad that “Dark Souls-like combat” is not a feature that attracts me at all. In fact, I might not buy New World at all because of the combat system. The other feature that is definitively a turn-off for me is PvP, although that has been scaled down from the initial concept.

The features that attract me to New World are an extensive crafting system, and a player economy in which the same goods can have different prices in different regions. That is unusual for a fantasy MMORPG, usually only Sci-Fi games offer the possibility to buy low, transport, and sell high elsewhere. But what I couldn’t find out is in how far that is actually a possibility, or whether the PvP system prevents you from living the life of a trader. I already heard that playing a pure crafter isn’t really possible. One of the banes of the genre is interlocking game mechanics, where you are basically forced to do a bit of everything, and concentrating on a single aspect of the game is heavily discouraged. It stems from a vision of MMORPGs as games, not worlds.

New World also appears to have some tried and failed bad ideas implemented, like not locking the loot of a killed monster to the player having killed it. There are “collect 10 foozle pelts” quests in the game, where a large number of players can end up hunting a limited number of foozle spawns, and players can steal the foozle pelt from another player’s kill.

So, up to now I am far from convinced that New World is a game that I would want to buy. I’ll have to see whether my Amazon Prime subscription gives me a cheaper way in, and how the game evolves after release. But riasght now this still doesn’t look like the game that would bring me back to the MMORPG genre.

Sunday, July 25, 2021
Cross-marketing porn to gamers

I was reading the recent piece on Kotaku about Amouranth (who I didn’t know before). And it struck me that in that very long article, the author never actually came to the point. Ironically, for exactly the same reasons he described for Twitch, Kotaku can’t be too explicit about the situation either. So, as I don’t have any advertisers who could punish me for NSFW content, I can give it to you straight: Some young women are putting just-this-side-of-allowed sexual content on Twitch, in order to cross-market their more explicit content on other sites, usually OnlyFans. So on Twitch, the lady has a stream with her in a bikini in a hot tub, or posing in a tight yoga suit, or licking a microphone. That content is still within the rules of Twitch, and free. If you want more, you need to search the same username on OnlyFans, pay a subscription, and you’ll see the same lady taking the bikini off, posing naked, and licking a dildo or actual erect penis.

Gaming has become mainstream, with people of all genders and ages playing games. But that is on aggregate; different demographics play different games and hang out on different platforms. There aren’t too many grannies at an e-sports event. On Twitch, which used to be all about streams from gamers, much of the viewership is young and male. Even without stereotyping gamers in particular, it doesn’t take a cross-marketing genius to realize that this same audience might be interested in porn. Now porn has a marketing problem: You can only advertise porn on a porn site. You can’t just put an advertisement for pornographic content on a regular social media site, as they would block that NSFW content. But there is nothing in the rules of social media sites that a porn star with clothes on and behaving within the rules of the site can’t put out content. As a result, “Just Chatting” is the most popular category on Twitch; and some of those streams look remarkably like porn cam site streams, just with slightly more clothes. The streamers can’t put up links to pornographic content directly, but they can put a link to their Twitter profile, where you can then find the link to the OnlyFans site. Or the streamer just mentions her OnlyFans site during her stream, and the viewers can just search there for the same username.

Done right, this can be extremely profitable. One can become popular as an “influencer” on Twitch or YouTube if attractive. So the streamer ends up with two income streams, one from advertising and tips on Twitch or YouTube, and another from selling more explicit content on OnlyFans. Obviously some male and/or less attractive gamers who are trying to make a living on Twitch are upset about this, as these cross-marketing streams end up being direct competition for viewers and tips. But for Twitch, “Just Chatting” is far too popular and bringing in too much money for them to shut it down and limit their content to just gaming. It gives a whole new meaning to the term hardcore gamer.

Note that similar cross-marketing exists elsewhere on Twitch, trying to lure gamers onto casino gambling sites. Personally, I would consider that more dangerous than porn; but then, I am not American. :)

Saturday, July 24, 2021
Mining on the Switch

I never mined Bitcoin. Of course, I wished I had done so back in 2009. But in 2021 it is definitively too late, in most western countries you can’t even get the cost of electricity back from mining Bitcoin. And I don’t like the 129 TWh of electricity wasted on Bitcoin globally per year now, as it unnecessarily contributes quite a high amount of CO2 to global warming. Having said that, my Switch is currently lying next to me, running, consuming electricity, in order to “mine” monstie xp and resources in Monster Hunter Stories 2.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 has a game mechanic introduced in area 3 where you can send your monsters on “monstie expeditions”. You can send up to 6 monsters on expeditions that net you different amounts of experience points for them, plus random resources and even some rare items. These expeditions have different lengths, with the longest being half an hour. But, unlike mobile games, time only passes when the game is running. You can’t start an expedition in the evening before going to bed, turn off your Switch, and get your rewards next morning. The expeditions are intended to run in the background while you are playing.

Having played a lot of mobile games where you get rewards from letting time pass, it was immediately obvious to me that I could abuse the system by letting it run when I am not playing. A Switch uses a lot less electricity than a Bitcoin mining rig. I just need to collect the rewards and start the next expedition every half hour. Besides the resources, I also like to use the xp on the monsties that I plan to sacrifice to the Rite of Channeling. A hatched egg gives a level 1 monstie with few genes; send that monster out to a few expeditions, and more genes unlock, giving you more options to pick a gene to transfer to another monster.

At the same time, this “mining” doesn’t increase the level of my main hero, and I don’t use it to make overly powerful monsters for combat. Having already restarted the game once because I had overleveled, I am careful to avoid becoming too powerful for the story content. I am mainly using the mining for genes, so I need to grind fewer monster dens for eggs. The method is certainly not working as intended, but it works for me.

Friday, July 23, 2021
Netflix game pass

I have a Netflix subscription. I watch TV series on Netflix frequently enough that the annual subscription for Netflix is cheaper than buying an equivalent amount of content on DVD. While Netflix gained a lot of new subscribers during the pandemic, their outlook for growth looks a bit less positive for the coming years, as they are reaching market saturation. So they decided to try something new and get into video games. Obviously I am interested, especially if it would mean access to games at no additional cost beyond my already existing subscription. However, I can’t help but think that this isn’t going to be easy.

One of the features of the current Netflix app is that it runs on pretty much everything, including your toaster (with the strange exception of not running on the Switch). If you have a smart TV, smartphone, tablet, computer or console, regardless of operating system, there is probably a Netflix app available for your device. That works for streaming video, but I can’t see it working for video games. The video game market is far more splintered into different operating systems. There are very few games that run on the PC, several consoles, and both iOS and Android mobile devices. And given the different graphics and computing powers of these different devices, you’d need to design for the lowest common denominator.

Yes, millions of people play Candy Crush or Clash of Clans. But these and many other mobile games are already free to play, so they wouldn’t really be a good fit with a subscription business model. I am paying €10 monthly for my Xbox Game Pass for PC, but that is to get access to PC games which would otherwise cost me between €20 and €60. Hey, if Netflix partnered with Microsoft to include the Xbox Game Pass in my Netflix subscription, I’d be all for it; it would just mean one *less* subscription for me. But anyone using something else than a PC to watch Netflix wouldn’t be able to use those Game Pass games on his device. While mobile devices already have a huge abundance of free or cheap games, and mobile games included in Netflix wouldn’t be much of an incentive.

So, I am interested what exactly their plan is. It being announced in their quarterly earnings report might mean that the news is just smoke and mirrors for investors, so they don’t react too badly to slow subscription growth. But then Netflix invented a lot of very popular services that didn’t exist before in that form, so they might surprise us.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

After being about half way through, I deleted my save game from Monster Hunter Stories 2 and started over. With RPGs that is something that happens actually quite frequently to me: Somewhere mid-game I arrive at the point where I think I mostly understood all the game mechanics and flow of the game, and then I realize I would have more fun if I had taken other decisions earlier in the game. With Monster Hunter Stories 2, this was my own fault: I simply overleveled. I completely forgot about the main story (in my defense, it *is* forgettable) in area 2 and got completely engrossed in collecting monsters, splicing genes, hunting rare “royal” monsters and the like for many hours. When I finally moved on to area 3, I was far too strong, and all combat was trivial. Oops! I decided instead of rushing through that area and hoping to catch up with the difficulty, I’d rather start over and only grind when I need it to get strong enough for the main story.

For another role-playing game which I started over earlier this year, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, I would say it wasn’t my fault. I made a choice of a character class, cleric, not knowing that two of the NPC companions I would encounter were clerics too. Only once I had encountered all possible NPC companions could I possibly know which character class would work best with them, so I restarted with a wizard. Yeah, I could have played with a bunch of custom mercenaries, but then I would have missed out on all the NPC companion story content. That is a bit of a problem with games that have you make lasting character decisions long before you actually can understand what the consequences will be. I much preferred Divinity Original Sin 2, which offers a complete respec of you and your companions; in Pathfinder you couldn’t change your character class on a respec.

One reason why I often don’t mind restarting RPGs is that I often enjoy the earlier parts more than the end game. As I discussed here before, that is also true for D&D: Having ultra-powerful characters that don’t evolve very much anymore is less fun than early character development. In a computer RPG the added benefit of restarting is playing this early part now much more consciously of what will be needed later. So in this second playthrough of Monster Hunter Stories 2 I now have very different priorities when collecting monsters, because I now understand the gene system and other game mechanics much better.

Monday, July 19, 2021
Freedom Day - Going Endemic

Today, according to the UK government, is “freedom day”, the day where many of the existing Covid lockdown measures are being dropped. Not because the UK is Covid free, in fact it has one of the highest rates of new infections per million of inhabitants, about 10 times as high as the USA or France, and the case numbers are already quickly rising. But the goverment is responding to the will of the people, who are mostly fed up with those restrictions. And by doing so, the UK is launching a nationwide public health experiment which will be an example to the world, either because it is a success, or because it is a failure. Basically the UK wants the pandemic to go endemic, that is to say reach a steady state in which it is managable. There is science behind that, but it is hard to understand, and riddled with uncertainty, so things certainly could go very wrong.

Over a century ago, the Spanish Flu killed between 20 and 50 million people world wide (in the aftermath of World War I, medical record-keeping wasn’t great). If you think that the Spanish Flu is long gone, you’d be wrong. It still kills people every year. But it has become endemic, part of the mix of viruses causing seasonal flu. Serious enough for your doctor to advise flu shots, but not deadly enough to justify lockdown measures. Between flu shots and antibodies humanity acquired over the last century, the Spanish Flu has gone from mass killer to seasonal nuisance.

With 190 million cases of known Covid-19 cases and probably over 100 million undocumented ones, the idea to completely eliminate the corona virus from earth is probably farfetched. The most likely future is the corona virus joining the club of seasonal flu viruses and staying with us forever. In a probably misguided attempt of appealing to your civic duty, governments worldwide have told you about vaccination stopping the spread of Covid-19. The haven’t emphasized that the track record of vaccinations stopping such a virus is spotty at best, but that vaccinations actually do a pretty good job of lowering the intensity of the disease when you catch the virus, and have a pretty good probability of stopping you from dying. We just need all of humanity to be either vaccinated, or full of natural antibodies from an infection, for Covid-19 to become what some people have tried to sell it as before, just another flu. Of course we don’t know that for certain, as the virus is different from regular flu viruses, and we don’t know how it might evolve further. But an endemic future for the corona virus sure is a possibility.

While other countries have tried various things to get a larger percentage of their population vaccinated, from vaccine passports to lotteries, the UK is doing something radical: It has a relatively high percentage of people vaccinated at least once. And “freedom day” is basically a declaration that if you are in the UK and didn’t want to get antibodies by vaccination, well, there is always the natural way to get those. Remove all lockdown restrictions, count on the vaccinated people only getting the sniffles, count on the unvaccinated people needing hospitalisation being low enough to manage, and presto, half a year later you have an immunized country free of restrictions. If it works like intended, that would certainly be a big boost to the economy.

The obvious downside of the experiment is that even in the best of cases it will result in thousands more deaths than mandatory vaccination strategies. And in a supreme case of irony, most of these deaths will hit exactly the people who would prefer this “freedom” strategy to mandatory vaccinations. Which might actually be an act of political brilliance, because a strong belief in individualism makes it less likely that these people blame the state for those deaths. Remember “flatten the curve”? The UK believes that the curve will now be flat enough to handle, due to the vaccination rate. People will die, but if everything goes according to plan, they will be hospitalized and die in low enough numbers to not be a political embarrassment.

Some weird side effects of this strategy is that the UK just implemented travel restrictions to the UK from France, in spite of France having 10 times lower infection rates currently. But in France a different mutation of the virus, beta rather than delta, is in the mix, and that might mess up the hoped-for resistance by vaccination. And of course the UK goverment isn’t actually telling their citizens that their plan is to let thousands die so that the rest can live without restrictions. With already over 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the UK, it is hoped that these human sacrifices won’t be noticed. Grisly as that is, it might just work. If it does work, the approach will be copied.

My personal advice: Get vaccinated. It stops you from dying when your government decides to celebrate “freedom day”. Have a nice celebration, UK!

Saturday, July 17, 2021
Monster Hunter Stories 2 : Wings of Ruin

I like playing JRPG on my Switch. Most of them are designed to be played on console, so that works better than playing the same game on PC. And with me mostly using my Switch on holidays, and these games requiring a lot of time, that tends to be a good fit too. However, not every triple A JRPG is actually good. Earlier this year I was severly disappointed by Bravely Default II, a game in which the game mechanics push you towards boring, repetitive tasks, and away from the story. Fortunately I am having much more luck with Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin. In fact, MHS2 is one of the best JRPG games I have played in a long time.

As I said before, I am not very familiar with the other games in the Monster Hunter series, because they are action combat games. But frankly, I’m not playing MSH2 for the story, so who cares if I don’t know the universe. The story is a bog standard “Your grandpa once saved the world, now it’s your turn” heroes journey, nothing to write home about. I’m playing MSH2 for the excellent tactical combat system, and a “collect and improve monsters” game loop that is more motivating than the Pokemon games. Monster Hunter Stories 2 is just the better Pokemon game!

I’m in the third region, which is still far from the end game, but certainly far enough to have understood the flow of the game. And that flow is excellent: Not only are there lots of different things to do, the game manages to make all of these options appealing. Whether you follow the main story, hunt for rare eggs, or farm for resources to craft weapons and armor, the game never feels boring or like a grind. That has probably to do with the huge amount of well thought-out quality of life features in the game. Not just the regular kind, like fast travel, but also surprising stuff like a button that allows you to skip trivial combat and still get the rewards. And the game balance is fantastic: Except for a few well-indicated and optional extra hard encounters, you are very likely to succeed on everything the main story throws in your way; and then the reward system is designed to encourage you to up your game, play better or improve your stats, in order to be able to get better rewards from the next fight against that type of monster. And before you get bored by a region, it is time to move on to the next one. When you find a new monster, the xp system works brilliantly for it to catch up in level with the rest of your team, so that you aren’t stuck in a bad choice between an old, high-level monster and a new, low-level one.

For those who like to optimize things, the monster gene system provides endless hours of entertainment. Each monster has a 3x3 grid of genes, into which you can slot genes of different types and color. You can build a jack-of-all trades monster, or you can try to match colors and types to achieve “bingo” bonuses. The genes to do so you get from the monsters you don’t need in your team, so even if you have a great team, you will always be looking for rare monster eggs. The whole system is very motivating and entertaining. And if you get good at building a strong team and using it in combat, you can do these bits of optional extra-hard content, like hunting for royal monsters. But if that isn’t for you, the monster that was extra hard and royal turns up as a regular monster some regions later, so you don’t miss out on ever owning one. If you wanna catch ‘em all, you probably can.

Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is available on Switch and via Steam on PC. If you have the choice, I’d go for the Switch version, as the PC version seems to have a bug that in rare cases can corrupt your save game when playin multiplayer. In spite of that, the game has over 4,000 “mostly positive” reviews on Steam, with the negative ones coming from the people who lost their save files (understandably, ouch!). If you read this much later than the time I write this, the PC bug will probably have been fixed, and the game might be cheaper on Steam, while Nintendo doesn’t do this whole “discount” thing. In any case, if you might at all be interested in a better Pokemon game, I can only recommend Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin.

Friday, July 16, 2021
Steam Deck thoughts

I am currently on my summer holidays, playing games (mostly Monster Hunter Stories 2) on my Switch. And I am hearing the news of the “Switch Killer”: Valve’s newly announced Steam Deck, a Switch-like console able to play Steam games. Color me skeptical. While I am well aware that there are far more Steam games than there are Switch games, and that Steam games are generally cheaper, I believe that the Switch has one fundamental advantage: Games that have been designed for its particular format and control scheme. Or, in other words, the Steam Deck will have lots of games that were designed for a PC with a large screen, mouse and keyboard.

As rhe name suggests, one of the big selling point of the Switch is that you can play it either handheld or docked, like a console. While you will be able to dock a Steam Deck too, that basically ends you up with a $399 PC; and PC gamers are terrible snobs, who will tell you that they have graphics cards more expensive than that. Most people buying a Steam Deck will never dock it, because they already got a more powerful PC. The reason to buy a Steam Deck is playing PC games handheld. I can think of a number of games for which that should work fine, especially indie games. I can also think of a lot of games that I sure as hell would not want to play on a 7” 1280x720 screen using thumb controllers. UI elements that have been designed to be readable on a 27” screen don’t necessarily scale down very well. And a thumbstick doesn’t have the same precision as a mouse. I’m not saying you can’t make great games for small screens and thumbsticks, but it is hard to make a game that is great on every possible screen size with every possible control setup. PC games aren’t usually designed for touch screen controls, for example.

There are some Switch games I don’t like, because they are basically ports of PC games and suffer from exactly these issues. And there are games on Steam, e.g. Monster Hunter Stories 2, which have been designed for a console and will run fine on the Steam Deck. But with my preference for relatively complicated games, I don’t think my Steam library would be a very good fit with the Steam Deck.

Friday, July 09, 2021
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin

Apparently there are 18 games in Capcom's Monster Hunter series, and I haven't played a single one of them. Except for once trying a demo once and not liking it. This is not because of the basic idea of hunting monsters for parts and crafting gear with those parts, which sounds exactly like the sort of game I like. No, my problem with the Monster Hunter series is that the large majority of these games use action combat. I'm not good at most action combat game, probably because I'm getting too old for rapid and precise button-mashing. So I always felt that this wasn't the series for me. Until today, where Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin (MHS2) was released; and that on the day where I am packing my bags for my summer holidays. MHS2 is a turn-based game; presumably like Monster Hunter Stories 1, which I never played, because I didn't have a Nintendo 3DS.

I like taking a JRPG with me on my Switch on summer holidays, because these usually can occupy me for many hours. And the currently installed JRPG on my Switch is Bravely Default II, which I found has a rather bad "flow" and isn't that much fun. Now there is some curious psychology at work when I buy games for the Switch: I don't mind buying them full price on release day. MHS2 also has a PC version on Steam, but if that one would have caught my eye, I would probably have wishlisted it and waited to pick up a half-price version. But for a Nintendo Switch game you can't count on getting it heavily discounted sooner or later, so you might as well pick it up on release day. I did.

On the other hand, Nintendo isn't getting my money for the new Switch OLED. I had hoped for a "Switch Pro" with features like better battery life, faster processor, and non-drifting JoyCons, but apparently the OLED version doesn't provide that. It mostly provides a minimally larger screen with brighter colors, which isn't really what I was looking for. Yes, if my Switch broke I would buy an OLED one to replace it. But as my Switch is still running perfectly, the upgrade isn't that big as to justify spending $350 on it.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021
The complicated math of retirement

98.375% of all investment advice on the internet is as fake as my 98.375% number. The subjects most people are interested in are sex and money, and many social media platforms have severe limitations on what sex content you can offer; so there is a plethora of content about money, just because it attracts a lot of eyeballs. The content includes a lot of scams, investment advice designed to pump & dump a specific stock, fake millionaires, and some popular influencers who don't realize how lucky they are, and how real life is for the rest of us.

If you look up financial advice on retirement, you inevitably stumble upon the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement. The idea is based on some easy looking math: Imagine at the age of 20 you earn $125,000 per year. You save 80% of that, $100,000, and spend only $25,000 per year. 10 years later, you have $1 million on the bank. You retire at 30, and as long as your investment yields at least 2.5%, you can keep up your current lifestyle forever. (If you assume 3% or 4% yield, the numbers change a bit, but the principle stays the same.)

While a 3% yield from a balanced passive investment budget isn't unreasonable, the flaw of the scheme lies in the other assumptions: The overwhelming majority of people don't earn $125,000 per year at the age of 20. And living on $25,000 per year is extremely frugal, and is only possible in specific circumstances, e.g. married with no children, with your partner on the same scheme contributing another $25,000. The annual median household income in the USA is under $70,000, and for people at age 20 it is below $50,000. And the required savings rate for the FIRE scheme doesn't scale down well: If you earn $50,000 at age 20, living on $10,000 per year is nearly impossible, you'll spend that much for rent alone in most places. And if you are single, and have children, you'd be hard pressed to save anything at all.

But while retiring at 30 will only be possible for a very select small group of people in very lucky circumstances, the "3% rule" on which the scheme is based isn't wrong. You can count whatever savings you have, and assuming a reasonable and low-risk broad investment strategy, assume that your income from your savings is about 3% of that. At least historically speaking that is true, but of course "low risk" isn't the same as "no risk". If right after your retirement starts there is a major financial crisis, and you lose 30%+ of your savings, your calculation goes out of the window. And inflation can also mess up your numbers, depending on how inflation-proof your investment is.

The other fundamental truth of the FIRE scheme is that how long your money lasts depends very much on how frugal or luxurious you live. If your dream of retirement is having a small house in the countryside and spending your time gardening, that is more easily realized than a retirement mostly spent on a cruise ship. Even without luxury, your cost of living might be much more than 20% of your income. One reason why retirement at 60 is more likely than retirement at 30 is that many people have children, and at 60 those children are hopefully grown up, out of the house, and financially independent. And with full retirement age in most places being 65 or more, many people still consider retiring at 60 as "early retirement".

The math of that is complicated by a lot of factors: On the positive side, if you retire at 60, you probably benefit from some sort of state pension scheme, like social security in the USA, with an average monthly benefit of $1,382. You probably also get something from the companies you worked for, either as a monthly pension, or as a lump sum on retirement adding your savings. That is very important, because the average retirement savings in the USA are only $65,000. In other words, a lot of people live mostly or purely of their social security or other monthly pensions, not their savings. 3% of $65,000 is only $2,000 per year. But in the USA, the money is very unevenly distributed, and there are 13.6 million US households with a net worth of $1 million or more. If you are on the richer side of the spectrum, have $2,500 of monthly pension benefits (combined social security and private pension), and you have $1 million on the bank, you end up with an annual income of $60,000. On the other hand, we don't have numbers on how many frugal millionaires there are, and $60,000 per year doesn't exactly give you a "millionaire lifestyle". If you get your math wrong, you might be a millionaire at retirement, and broke a decade later.

Where it gets complicated is that in the calculations up to now, we calculated your income for the case that you will live forever. That is unlikely. If you retire at 60 and you would know for certain that you will die at 80, you could take out 6.5% of your savings every year while having only a 3% of investment yield; your savings would get smaller over time, but there are formulas that would allow you to calculate how much you can take out so that the money runs out after exactly 20 years. The obvious problem is that you don't know how old you will get, some people die before they are 65, others live to 95+. You also don't know how your health will develop. A nursing home can cost over $100,000 per year, and that doesn't include medical cost.

So how do you determine whether you can afford to retire? Probably the safest bet is to find out what your monthly benefits from your various pensions scheme are, multiply by 12 months, and add 3% of your current savings (plus lump sum pensions) to that. That gives you the "forever" annual income. If you can live with that, you can probably afford to retire. To some extent, counting only on 3% of your savings as income from it balances out the risk of additional expenses for care at end of life. But of course there are no guarantees in life. But the "3% rule" of the FIRE movement explains why 57% of Americans retire before reaching full retirement age. The more you save, and the more frugal your lifestyle is, the earlier you can retire. But retirement at 60 remains far more likely than retirement at 30.


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