Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 20, 2020
 
Spool holder

I now tested my new Flashforge Adventurer 3 with ABS. Although the temperature of the extruder is limited to 240°C, this is just sufficient to make good prints. The bed temperature of up to 100°C and the full enclosure result in little or no warping. I only needed to solve one problem: The spool holder.

The printer has an internal spool holder, but that one holds only 0.5 kg spools. The ABS I had on hand was on a larger 1 kg spool, which are far more common. So what I needed to do was construct an external spool holder, and set it next to the printer. Fortunately there are other printers out there that need external spool holders, so the problem is a known one in the community.

One low-tech solution is to use the cardboard box the spool came in. Just remove the plastic and pull the spool out from the box by a bit, I'd say by a quarter of its diameter. Then stick a pencil through the box at the place where the middle hole is, and use that as the axis. Or, if you are feeling fancy, you can print the axis.

Me, I went for a slightly fancier solution. I still had in stock a number of 608 bearings, which I had used in the past for self-printed fidget spinners. Using 4 of those and 4 relatively small printed parts, I built an Ultimate Spool Holder. Not sure I would have called it ultimate, but I can see the advantage of supporting the two "wheels" of the spool separately. It fits pretty much any spool I can think of, has nearly no friction at all, and doesn't have to be disassembled to change the spool. So I printed the spool holder with the PLA that came with the printer, and was ready to switch to a roll of ABS next. Worked like a charm.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020
 
Kickstarter credit card declined

Heroforge has a new Kickstarter project for Full-color 3D printed custom miniatures. While I don't necessarily want a $40 full-color printed plastic figurine, one of the pledge levels allowed to pledge $50 for downloading 10 STL files for printing at home, which is $30 less than the usual price ($7.99 per download). Only my pledge didn't work, I got a "credit card declined for unknown reason" error message, although I had used that same card on that same site before. Removing the card and entering the information again didn't help.

My credit card getting declined always makes me nervous. I had several instances in the past where this was due to my credit card having been automatically deactivated because somebody had tried to defraud me. Never lost any money, but the bank never tells you that this has happened, and you need to go and find out, and order a new credit card, which takes a while. So my first concern was how to find out whether my credit card was still valid and active. That is surprisingly difficult, there is no easy way to check it online. In the end I decided to donate $10 to charity online, and as that payment went through without a problem, I knew that my credit card was still okay.

So I called the company that is handling my credit card transactions, which is *not* my bank, but a large French company called Atos Worldline. They handle credit card transactions for many different European banks. I had found out over the years that calling my bank to ask about a credit card transaction was useless, you have to call Atos directly. So after the usual safety questions I got an answer to my question: Atos had recently decided that Kickstarter was not safe, and is now systematically blocking all payments to them. Fortunately there was an option to ask them to unblock the site for my credit card, I just have to wait 24 hours for that to get processed.

Searching the internet I found out that I am not the only one with that problem. A number of banks and credit card handlers have blacklisted Kickstarter as a safety risk; presumably because there are a high number of customers demanding chargebacks. The very nature of the Kickstarter business model makes buyer's remorse more likely than buying something on another website. Scams are all too frequent on Kickstarter, and even honest projects are often late or under-deliver on their promises. No wonder sometimes customers try to get their money back!

Sunday, January 12, 2020
 
Tankrewards

In World of Tanks there is currently a "Tankrewards" event going on. These events are slightly different, and weirdly so, from the usual events in that you gain points in the game but then need to visit a website to redeem the rewards for these points. In the EU the external site is called Tankrewards.EU. You can probably figure out the name of the site for the other servers. :)

The event gives you a bit over 3 weeks to collect points, and gives you up to 4 tiers of rewards if you reach 3,000 points over this period. Tier 3 is at 2,000 points, and as you can get 100 points per day for just playing a battle, tier 3 can be reached with very little effort, as long as you play every day. Tier 4 is not so much more difficult, but you will have to do other missions to achieve it: There are 9 missions every day, asking you to win a game and be in the top 10 with a tank from each tier from 2 to 10. Tier 2 to 7 missions give 10 points each, tier 8 to 10 missions give 20 points each, for a daily maximum of 220 points.

Not wanting to overoptimize this, I just tried to get as many points per day as my playtime allowed me, up to now. I just reached tier 3, and with over 10 days to go I can get tier 4 just by playing a single battle every day. But the exercise of going through all tiers to try to win a battle in the top 10 really drove home the point of how different the game is at the different tiers. It is a lot easier for me to win a battle in the top 10 at lower tiers, and quite hard to do so at tier 10.

Now statistically 10 players out of the 30 players in a battle are in the top 10 of the winning side; so on average you need to play 3 games per tier to fulfil the mission condition. However that assumes a player that is completely average at every tier. In reality an average player like me has a slightly higher winrate at lower tiers, and a much better chance to be in the top 10 of his team, so at low tiers I need on average maybe 2 games to do the mission. At the top tier my winrate is slightly lower, but my chance to be in the top 10 is much reduced, so I need on average maybe 5 games to do the mission.

The most frustrating part is the impression that I have very little influence on whether a battle is won or lost. Now top players like Quickybaby argue that it is up to you whether you win or lose. However Quickybaby has a winrate of 60%. That to me suggests that he didn't influence the 40% of games that he lost. And a very bad players (and in one notable exercise a player who just went afk in every game for testing purposes) have a winrate of 40%, I would think that another 40% of Quickybaby's game would have been won with or without him. So a great player has a positive influence in only 20% of his games. And an extremely bad player has a negative influence on 20% of his games. If you draw a curve between those two extremes it becomes obvious that anybody in between influences fewer of his games. Even if every game had one player "carrying" it for his team, that would be only 3.3%, one player out of 30. Even if I imagine I "carried" every game in which my team won and I came top on experience and damage, that is not more than those 3.3%. Thus the frustration when I play well, and my team loses anyway, and I can't get my mission done because of it. Fortunately the event doesn't require me to get full points every day.

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Saturday, January 11, 2020
 
Flashforge Adventurer 3 review

A few days ago I received a new 3D printer, the Flashforge Adventurer 3. I purchased this as a sort of backup printer, as my main 3D printer is now already the second time for a prolonged period at the repair shop. Thus I wanted a simpler and less expensive alternative so that I could continue working on my various 3D printing projects while waiting for the repair of the bigger machine.

Now if you search for the cheapest option on 3D printers, you will find quite a number of similarly priced entry-level printers between $200 and $300. However, all of these come as a kit, that is to say you need to assemble them yourself. The resulting printer has no enclosure, which makes it difficult to print plastics that are likely to warp, like ABS. And they usually don't come with Wifi connectivity, so you need to transport your files for printing to the printer with an USB stick or SD card. Thus I decided to go for a slightly more expensive option: At $450 the Flashforge Adventurer 3 comes fully assembled, has a fully enclosed structure, and several connectivity options via Wifi or Ethernet, including the possibility to control the printer via a cloud application. Not bad, for that price.

I got the Flashforge Adventurer 3 a few days after ordering it. Unboxing and installing went very smoothly, it really is just a matter of removing the packing material. Otherwise it comes as close to plug & play as it gets for 3D printing technology. You put the roll of PLA in, press a few buttons on the touch screen display, and the machine starts printing the first demonstration object, a simple rectangular block, without any problems. Then there is a sort of a gap: The quick start manual ends at this point, and there is no hint on how to continue and print your own stuff. The solution is obviously to go to the Flashforge website and download the FlashPrint slicer software from there, but a hint in the quick start guide would have been helpful for that.

With the FlashPrint software I printed a 3D Benchy boat next. The result was pretty neat: Just a bit of stringing, but very little sagging of unsupported overhangs, and at the best possible settings the surfaces were incredibly smooth, and the details were great. And that was just out of the box with standard settings, no optimization. Rather impressive, I would say, and way better than my experience with my previous two 3D printers.

Nevertheless I do have to mention two downsides of the Flashforge Adventurer 3: One is the build volume of 150 x 150 x 150. On paper that doesn't look so much less than the 200 x 200 x 180 of my Zortrax printer. But of course if you calculate it in volume, you get 3.4 liters of volume instead of 7.2 liters, and that does make a difference. The other disadvantage is the internal spool holder for spools of 0.5 kg. The far more common 1 kg spools of filament don't fit. You have to leave the spool case open and put the large spool on an external spool holder. At least, unlike my first 3D printer from XYZ, Flashforge doesn't complain if you use filament from other suppliers.

I have since printed a series of my usual 28 mm scale D&D miniatures on the Flashforge Adventurer 3, and that worked very well. I also printed some parts for my new Gravitrax printing project, but still have to test them on an actual marble track comparison. I haven't tried printing with ABS yet, nor with PLA from other companies, as I am still on the spool that came with the printer. And of course it will take months or longer to find out how durable this printer is compared to my unreliable main one. But at the current point in time I am quite happy with my purchase. The Flashforge Adventurer 3 costs a quarter of what my Zortrax printer cost, and up to now is nearly as good, except for the build volume. So if you should be looking for a 3D printer, especially if it is your first one, I can only recommend the Flashforge Adventurer 3.

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Sunday, January 05, 2020
 
3D Printing Gravitrax

I don't currently have a working 3D printer; but my old printer is in the shop for repairs, and I also ordered a new second printer, seeing how often the first one is out of order. Now home 3D printers are a solution in search of a problem: Most people simply don't have all that many useful things they could print in 3D to make buying a printer really viable. So I am quite happy to have found a new 3D printing project: The Gravitrax marble run system.

I bought a Gravitrax marble run starter set and two expansion boxes for my brother and his children, as a sort of "fun for the whole family" additional Christmas present. That was quite a success. The system has a base plate with hexagonal holes into which you put hexagonal flat pieces, connected with rails. There are stackable hexagonal pieces to achieve height, so the rails can slope downwards and accelerate the metal marble, giving it the energy it needs to cross the flat parts. The whole system is very modular, and if you search for Gravitrax on YouTube, you will find some people who made really huge marble run tracks with all sorts of tricks.

Now the starter set costs $60 for 122 pieces, or 50 cents per piece. Special pieces, like a box with a looping and 6 rails, cost $10. And once you get building, you will quickly want more pieces. So while I hadn't thought of it when I bought the starter set, once I played with it I quickly realized that I could print these pieces. Getting me exactly the pieces I want, and for less money. Plus it turns out that people have designed Gravitrax compatible pieces as 3D prints that aren't available to buy, from the simple straight line hexagon, to the U-turn piece.

So once I have a 3D printer up and running again, I have a project for printed pieces. I bought another Gravitrax starter set for myself, in order to be able to test my printed pieces for compatibility before giving them to my brother. While the hexagon pieces are only 6 cm in diameter and thus of an ideal size to print for a typical home 3D printer, there remain some challenges. A marble run works best with minimal friction, and I suspect that the surfaces of 3D printed parts won't be as smooth as injection molded ones. Maybe if I print in ABS and then smooth the surface with acetone vapors, I can get friction-less parts.

The legal side of this project is a complete mystery to me. If I print stuff that is compatible with Gravitrax, but not an identical copy to something I could buy, is that copyright infringement in any way? As long as I don't start a business selling the pieces I am unlikely to run into any trouble, but I find the question theoretically interesting. 

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Saturday, January 04, 2020
 
Non-gambling lootboxes

Although I already had all of the new tanks, I bought another 75 lootboxes in World of Tanks for €100. Why? Because I had calculated that this would be a cheaper way to buy WoT gold than the regular price, or even the frequently available discounted bundles. I ended up with over 60K gold, or €200 worth. Plus 5 million credits, 53 premium days, and 14 garage slots, or roughly another €50. Its going to last me for several months. And as I am reasonably confident that I will still be playing this game for a while, the lootboxes weren't gambling at all, but rather a complicated way to get a heavy discount on stuff I would have bought otherwise.

The reason why I pay several hundred Euros per year for World of Tanks is that it enables me to play without having to grind. I'm okay with that. I can afford the money, but I haven't got the time for grinding. And in the end every game needs some people like me who are willing to pay, just to keep the lights on. Free to play is an illusion.

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Friday, January 03, 2020
 
Valkyria Chronicles - Why don't I like it?

As part of the Xbox Game Pass for PC I downloaded Valkyria Chronicles, the first one. I had already started that one once on the PS4, but never gotten far. And on paper it ticks all the right boxes for me to like it: I love games with turn-based tactical combat, I like Japanese role-playing games, and I have no special dislike towards the WWII setting. But again I'm a few hours into the game, and have problems finding the motivation to continue. Why don't I like this game?

I think it might have to do with the scripted nature of the battles, and the way the game keeps score. You get xp and money based on in how few turns you finish the battle. Now if you play a battle for the first time, you don't know the enemy positions, and might run into some surprises, like a scout hidden in the grass somewhere. So your battle result probably isn't going to be perfect on the first try, and you might get something like a "C". You can't replay story battles, but you can reload a save game, and with the added knowledge from the first try, maybe the next run you get a "B", netting you more xp and money. Or you go on YouTube, and find a video explaining how to get an "A", which usually involves rushing the battle with a single scout, and takes much of the variety out of battles. In other words, if you want to play the game "well", you need to play it like a puzzle game, not like a tactical battle game. If you insist on playing it like a tactical game and don't save-scum, the game punishes you with giving you less xp and money.

I think I will use a work-around. I'll play the game as a tactical game for fun. And now that I have it on PC, I can use software like Cheat Engine to grant myself the xp and money I would have gotten if I had played it as a puzzle game. I don't object to cheating in a single-player game, it basically just is a way to redesign the game, if you use it right. I don't regularly do it, but in some cases cheats and mods can make a game I don't enjoy so much more enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020
 
Happy New Year!

I would like to wish my readers a happy new year, all three of you! :)

Probably there will be not much going on here in 2020. Blogging in general continues its slow decline. Due to a player with a serious health problem, one of my D&D campaigns might end, leaving me with just one campaign left. I will have to see whether I want to take steps to start something else; that will mostly depend on work, of which there is plenty. There will be posts about computer games, with World of Tanks probably still rather prominent, although I am not sure anybody reads those. But with the Xbox Game Pass I will most certainly also try out a bunch of other games and write about them. There will also be some posts about 3D printing, as I am looking to buy a new printer, with my Zortrax printer being on the fritz again.

So, probably the usual fare, with the now usual slow update frequency. Happy 2020!

Monday, December 30, 2019
 
Are you a bird, or are you a butterfly?

Between subscription gaming services on the one side, and free or cheap game offers on Steam or Epic on the other side, it is possible to play a different game every day. Like a butterfly, you could flit from one game to the next, without ever staying anywhere very long. But it seems my gaming behavior is more like that of a bird, I build a nest somewhere and stay for quite some time. So most of my time is still spent playing World of Tanks, instead of trying out the many other games I have access to.

How about you? Are you a bird, or are you a butterfly? How long do you typically stay with one game, before moving on to the next?

Friday, December 20, 2019
 
I will never escape the Xbox Game Pass

I am still subscribed to the Xbox Game Pass. I just installed two more games via that service, Phoenix Point and Age of Wonder: Planetfall. In other words, the Xbox Game Pass subscription service is adding games I am interested in faster than I can play them. My plan to be only subscribed for a few months, until I have "played through" the offer, is looking increasingly shaky. I might never escape ... :)

Thursday, December 19, 2019
 
Why a sparkly pony is better than an AAA game

In a recent post on World of Tanks a reader asked why I would spend more on virtual items than it would cost to buy an AAA game. There are a lot of dimensions to the answer to this question, but ultimately it probably comes down to choosing depth over width.

I own a lot of computer games, 384 on Steam alone, of which only 112 were ever played. That is not unusual. More than half of all games bought on Steam get played rarely or not at all. Clearly the cost of games for most people is not a major obstacle. People spend more on a bottle of good wine than they spend on a computer game. For the cost of a one-week ski holiday you can buy enough games to entertain you all year long. The demographics of gaming have changed over the last decades, but the pricing hasn't followed. You now have customers that are adults with a certain disposable income buying games that are still priced like toys, not more expensive than a typical Christmas present for children. Some people buy a specific console just to be able to play one specific game, like buying a Switch just to play Zelda. As a hobby for adults, gaming is rather cheap.

So I could easily afford to play a different computer game every day of the year. But I don't. I don't think anybody does. Most games offer more hours of entertainment than I have disposable time per day, so even playing "through" a short game can take me several games. And then there are the evergreen games, I once called them lifestyle games, the sort of games you play every day for months or years. MMORPGs are typical examples. But this year my lifestyle game was World of Tanks. I played it most days of the year. I don't know exactly how many hours I played, but I went from 6k battles to 13k battles, so I played 7k battles this year, which probably took me around 1,000 hours. That is a lot, considering that I also have a full-time job. I would guess I spent more than half of my disposable time this year on World of Tanks.

And there you have all the ingredients you need for game monetization: Customers with a good disposable income spending the majority of their disposable time on a single game. If that single game sells you sparkly ponies for $100, these customers will buy a sparkly pony, rather than buying an AAA game. The question of whether that sparkly pony is an in-game advantage over a player who doesn't have a disposable income and is playing that same game for free is actually irrelevant. Does eating in a fine restaurant give you an in-life advantage over somebody eating at a fast food restaurant? Does driving an expensive car give you an in-street advantage over somebody driving a clapped-out second-hand car? The question isn't even necessarily part of the buying decision. You buy the sparkly pony because you want that sparkly pony, not because somebody else doesn't have it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019
 
Dungeons & Dragons brand mismanagement

Imagine you had to explain the difference between the Diablo series of games and the Baldur's Gate series of games to a relative who doesn't know computer games very well. Would you talk about the differences in lore? Or would you rather explain that there is a big difference in gameplay, with Diablo being more action-oriented, while in Baldur's Gate there is more dialogue to read and tactical decisions to make? I would think that for most gamers the brands in video gaming are more related to gameplay. A turn-based version of Diablo would be as confusing to us as a Pokemon first-person shooter.

It seems that Wizards of the Coast hasn't understood that. They just revealed yet another Dungeons & Dragons computer game, Dark Alliance, which again clearly has nothing to do with the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons. It's a co-op, action slasher game using characters from D&D lore. In the past years we had a idle clicker D&D game, a mobile gacha heroes collection game, and other abominations, none of which had anything to do with the gameplay of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Weirdly enough the only game in the making that is actually based on D&D rules, Solasta: Crown of the Magister, is not supported by Wizards of the Coast, and is made independently.

Dungeons & Dragons as a brand is over 40 years old. People of all ages play 5th edition, which is a huge success. It is silly to think that computer versions of D&D need to be very simple and action-oriented, to appeal to a very young audience. This is not what the brand is about! If a D&D player wants to play a computer version of D&D, he is far more likely to want a turn-based game in which the computer replaces the DM. We want modern versions of the SSI Gold Box series, not Dark Alliance!

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