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Aerial Perspective

With a new World of Warcraft expansion in the news cycle, it’s only inevitable that the Flying discussion cycles around again.

I make no secret of the fact that I love flying in games.  I am a Bartle Explorer, through and through.  Flying is perhaps my favorite activity in WoW.

So, when there’s a view that says “flying is bad“, I can’t help but think that they have a different perspective on what this World of Warcraft is.

(Caveat:  As I noted on Twitter in a comment to Big Bear Butt when he mentioned his article and that WoWInsider piece, I don’t mind waiting until the end of an expansion to be able to fly through it.  I think it’s a sledgehammer solution to the perceived problem, but I can live with it.)

One of the most repeated rationales for this worldview is that “flying makes the world smaller“.

To me, this is a completely alien way of looking at it, and completely backwards.

Yes, flying makes it possible to travel around quicker.  It makes it easier to plow through content.  It makes it easier for players to ignore enemies stuck on the ground and forces players to jump through the developer hoops and pacing.

(Aside:  When a game monetizes time, I consider it a cardinal sin for devs to waste my time, trying to find ways to slow me down.)

Also, from a technical standpoint, it does make something look smaller if you increase your distance from it, so flying up in the air will make something on the ground look smaller.

And yet, from my perspective, the ability to fly makes the World of WoW much, much bigger.  This is true for one simple reason:

I can explore more of it.

Flying opens up new camera angles, new places to go and see, and new ways for me to see how places relate to each other.  It’s a new perspective on what’s already there, a way to see things that I simply can’t get when I’m stuck to the ground.

It’s similar, in a way, to how I see the real world.  Yes, digital photography has allowed for more of the world to be captured and shared than ever before, and the internet makes it possible to “see” places around the world from the comfort of home.  In a way, it “made the world smaller” inasmuch as you don’t have to walk or ride out to see the sights yourself.

And yet, from where I sit, if I could never see those places, they may as well not exist.  (At least as far as my own personal experience, anyway; I’m not arguing any sort of absurd anthropic “China doesn’t exist because I didn’t hear a tree falling there” or any such nonsense.)  Being able to see, even just a glimpse, of what’s out there doesn’t make our world smaller, it makes it much, much bigger.  There’s all this stuff out there.  The more I see, the more I want to see, and the more aware I am of just how much there is that is there to see.

This is the beauty and fascination of the National Geographic magazine, or the Cosmos series.  They help us open our eyes, just a little, to what’s out there.

And when I see that, the only thing that feels smaller is me.

I stumbled across this article today, and thought it worth sharing:

The Best Final Fantasy Music

I love game music.  If I could only listen to three composers for the rest of my life, I’d be happy with Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda and Yoko Shimomura.  Of course there are other greats, both in the game industry and in the rest of the music world, but those three shaped my music sense in ways only Mannheim Steamroller, Enya, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach can match.

Uematsu is particularly important because of his work on the Final Fantasy games, which had a marked influence on my spare time as a teen and my present career in video games.  I’m not making epic RPGs, but I see good potential in games, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing instead of pushing for a career animating in movies, like I thought I would when I was a child.

Anyway, here are a few of my favorites from Mr. Uematsu.  Easy picks, perhaps, but still, ones I’m very fond of.

To Zanarkand (the simple piano version is still my favorite, though the orchestral version is really good, too)

Aeris’ Theme (one orchestral version is here)

FFIX Overworld

Piano arrangement of Fisherman’s Horizon (the original game music is good, but I really love the guitar and piano arrangements, and the orchestral pieces are most excellent)

Terra’s Theme

Troian Beauty

And then there’s this gem, which isn’t entirely in English.  I actually prefer game music with lyrics to be in languages that I don’t understand.  That way I listen to them purely as music.  This one isn’t even Japanese.

Home Sweet Home

Entropic Appeal

I’ve written about this before, in my Broken Down article.  Old things fascinate me.  There’s something both sad and heartening to see the effects of life as time goes on, both human life and all the other forms that we share our spaces with.

Anyway, this is a link repository of some more fascinating photo collections of beat up, run down places and things.

Abandoned Areas (Twitter feed)

Abandoned Olympic Venues

Abandoned but Beautiful

Abandoned Places

Abandoned Places 2

Abandoned Places Around the World

Abandoned Places LiveJournal

Abandoned Places.com (navigation is a bit wonky, but they have more details about the places, which is cool)

Expoland

Keelung Taiwan

Maunsell Sea Forts

Nara Dreamland

Spectacular Abandoned Places

Swallowed By Nature

Gearchip Poker Case Surveys

Just a few questions on potential cases for the poker-chip sized Gearchips, now rolling on Kickstarter thisaway:

Wood or Aluminum?

(Wood cases would be laser engraved, aluminum cases would be printed right on the metal.)

How Big?

Fancy U.S. Based or Bulk Chinese Order?

This one requires a little bit of explanation.  We could get custom cases here in the States (lower shipping to us, since we’re in the States, likely high quality, can order only as many as we need… but more costly per unit), or we can get a bulk order from a Chinese manufacturer (unknown quality, more costly shipping to us, must order 100 units minimum, but should be a lower price per unit… if we can get enough orders together).  Of course, we’re certainly open to other sources, if you happen to have a lead on a great deal.

I’m afraid that I don’t have hard numbers yet, we’re still researching… but as a guesstimate, for the U.S. Based cases (just the custom case, with a Tinker logo… though we’ll throw in a pair of decks and a pair of Tinker dice since there’s room for them), a 100 chip case should run around $100, 200 chips around $120, 300 chips around $140 and 500 chips around $160, end costs to you.  The Chinese numbers are up in the air a bit, but I’d hazard an estimate at $25 less in each case.  We’d also have to have enough orders to make it a sensible proposition, or else getting the minimum order quantity put together would probably put the project in the red.  Yes, we’re overfunded so far (thanks, everyone!), but there’s really not a big profit margin on the Gearchips, so it’s not like we’re dealing with a big slush fund to go crazy with.

For all cases, it would be an additional $30 to ship to Canada and an additional $50 to ship pretty much anywhere else (shipping in the U.S. is part of the base cost noted above).

So… it’s almost as if the cases should really be their own project, unless we’re going to go with the U.S. based ones, where we can just get as many as we need for those who are interested.  The prices are… high.  There’s no disguising that.  This is why we’re seriously considering just offering a graphic for you to use to put on your own case.

Anyway, thanks for your time, and we welcome your feedback!

Marvel Puzzle Quest Addendum

Last time I noted some of the great bits and a few of the bad bits of this fancy new Marvel Puzzle Quest.

It turns out that the game is still more or less in beta, and the developers are still monkeying around with the character balance, progression system and monetization.

And it turns out that most of those changes are making the game slower, harder and more expensive.

I’d still buy a single player offline version of the game, and I still recommend at least taking the game for a spin, but I cannot recommend spending money on it.  I had hoped that the continuing development would mean that the problems I highlighted last time would be alleviated.  It turns out that such a hope was, at least so far, merely a dream.  Almost every change I see on the developer forums over thisaway winds up being what I’d call Bad Design, sometimes even Twinkie Denial choices.

I actually don’t mind slower, more tactical battles on the whole, but PvP and PvE scoring races mean slower battles tilt the scales ever so slightly more in the favor of established players or those who spend more money.  With the overall “rich get richer” system in place, it’s really not a game to play if you want to make steady progress.  It’s a game to play because the core puzzle combat design is really good, and the progress side is something you can ignore.

Marvel Puzzle Quest

I loved Puzzle Quest.  I loved the sequel, PQ: Galactrix.  I really like Bret Airborne, though I found that I was a bit frustrated by the campaign’s limited “lives” (though the core of the game is really great).

So, when I caught wind of a new Puzzle Quest, I had to investigate.

Specifically, it’s Marvel Puzzle Quest.  It’s on Steam, but I’ve been playing on my phone thanks to Google Play.

It’s… different.  Some really good parts, some… less so.  At its heart, though, it’s still Puzzle Quest, and I do recommend it.  (For an entertaining video review, check out TotalBiscuit’s one over thisaway.)

Pros

It’s match three combat, with bonus abilities powered by matches.  That’s the heart of PQ, and it’s strong here.  There’s a twist or two, though:

It’s three-on-three combat, with each team fielding three units.  This is a nice expansion of the mechanics, as you can shuffle around your team by making matches strategically, allowing you to have a “tank” that keeps itself healthy and “DPS” units that hang back and use damaging abilities.  There are even healer units.  Yeah, it’s a weak trinity design in some ways, which can often be kind of trite, but it’s a nice expansion of the PQ systems.  Building around the trinity isn’t necessary, either, but it’s there if you want to use it.  Smart planning of overlapping abilities and specialties can make for a strong team, and figuring that out and then executing smart play is the heart of the game, I think.  That said, if your team isn’t all about at the same level, your weakest character may never actually step to the front of the team to take the hits.  That might be a good thing if that’s your damage dealer, but this isn’t always ideal.

It’s fast.  Faster than PQ has been before now, at least.  That may not be good for everyone, but I like it.  Every single match you make does damage.  There are no “skull” tiles that are alone in their ability to damage.  Every move you make helps you somehow, and that’s a Good Thing.  Certainly, making matches in colors you can use for abilities or that your characters do more damage with (usually the same thing, though not always) is usually the right decision, but even if you’re forced to make a subpar match for defense or to set up a combo, it will still help out a little.

It’s fairly pretty.  Yes, it’s a match-3 game, so it doesn’t need a lot to look good, compared to a Gears of War or Kingdom Hearts, but it has clean, readable UI and an overall good design.  Character portraits and action shots are static images that get a little Flash magic applied to them, and it works pretty well.  There’s a bit too much rim lighting for my taste, but that’s a rant for another day.  Overall, it’s a nicely presented product.

It’s Marvel.  I like some of the Marvel characters, so their IP is a nice touch for me.  The characters have abilities that fit their theme as well, like Captain America’s tactical shield strikes that “boomerang” back to give you more power for a repeat strike, or Thor’s pure, unadulterated beatdown, with all three of his special abilities doing direct damage.  The flavor of the characters and mechanics going together is a nice touch, and in its way, more interesting than the generic fantasy abilities of the original PQ.  Yes, you had four classes in that game, but their unique abilities were often superseded by found abilities. That’s one of the strengths of that game, to be honest, but in this PQ, being limited to the three prebaked abilities (albeit of different power levels depending on your cover build) per character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows for more experiments to see which characters synergize best for your playstyle.  It’s not too far removed from the original game in that you’re effectively fielding a team with a handful of abilities, where in the older game, you’d have a single character with a handful of abilities.  Making smart choices of what to bring to the fight when you’re limited is a big part of the strategy of the game.  Limitations aren’t always a Bad Thing.  And yet…

Cons

The progression is… dumb.  (TotalBiscuit’s video covers it well, but I’ll also expand here.)  The experience system in previous PQ games was great, as you could build your character or skills just by playing (experience gems were part of the combat board).  This cover-and-ISO system is far too random and finding rarer covers (presently there are four levels of rarity) makes the rarer characters far less useful than common characters.  You’ll have a very difficult time acquiring all the characters and once you do, it’s going to be very hard to make them all competitive.  It may be exciting to get an Invisible Woman cover, as I did rather unexpectedly, but when she’s limited to level 30 until you get more covers, and your Uncommon team is nearly maxxed out at lv. 85, she’s a bit underwhelming for a character that should be special, because she’s rare.  (It’s a bit like Magic: The Gathering in that regard, if all the rares were big, splashy, overcosted creatures, except there’s no secondary market to take the edge off the sting, and the present Legendary characters all have big power costs, meaning quick Uncommon or Rare characters would make short work of them anyway while the Legendaries scrape together enough energy to use their abilities.)

Characters with two skill colors can max out their abilities.  Characters with three skill colors can only power up 13 out of a total 15 slots (five levels of each power).  I get that game devs think that “decisions should matter”, but this is inconsistent.  There is also no way to respec your character if you build it in a way that you don’t like.  If you don’t like your choices of those 13 (and there’s no way to look more than one power level ahead, so you must go to a wiki to properly plan ahead, a twinkie denial condition in my book), you have to just build the character all over again, with new covers and more ISO-8.  (Apparently, the devs are looking into a respec system, but this is the sort of thing that should have been designed better far earlier than now.)

ISO-8 is how you actually level up your characters.  The covers level up the powers and raise the character’s maximum level, and ISO-8 expenditure is how you actually have the character grow in their basic attack power and health.  ISO-8 is earned fairly easily from fights, events or redoing fights… but it seems to come at a slower pace than experience in older PQ games, and trying to grind out ISO-8 by replaying old missions is a VERY slow process.

Common, Uncommon, Rare and Legendary characters have disparate power levels… too disparate.  Beside the trouble of finding enough covers to fully realize the rarer characters, if you do happen to get one of each tier to their maximum level, you’re probably looking at a level 40 character, a level 85 character, a level 141 character and a level 230 character.  This difference in power is absurd.  I’d have made them all have the same power caps and let special ability and playstyle synergy keep things interesting.  As it is, if I were to have the two existing Legendary characters maxxed out and a Rare character at level max, there’s almost no way that any different team would be competitive against me.  The Rare character’s lower power would be so small a part of my team’s overall power that it almost doesn’t matter who is in that slot, aside from absurdly strong abilities that might be on offer, and a team of Rare characters would have a tough time beating the Legendaries, even with their slower powers, just because of the massive power difference in basic match attack power and health pools.

PvP is weird.  It’s not actually against other players, it’s against their team, but the AI is driving.  Since the AI is a little flaky (it plays too offensively, with too little defense or disruption, and doesn’t seem to see cascade opportunities or right angle “five” matches), it’s a less than satisfying proposition if you really want to test your skills.  The matchmaking system is rather annoying as well.  And the “progression” rewards for winning matches, well… they are more of a tease than anything to really aim for.  You’ll almost never get more than a few tiers in, just because of how the scoring system keeps pulling you back down when your AI-controlled team loses.

Health packs are… not cool.  Damage your characters take is persistent between matches, and while your characters do heal naturally over time, it’s very sloooooow.  Health packs are consumables that restore a character to full health, but they are throttled over time as well.  I’m not sure if there’s a limit to how many you can carry (I think the limit is ten, but I haven’t verified that), and they regenerate over time as well, but they are slow to regenerate (35 minutes or so each), and if you spend all of yours, the natural regeneration only regrows so many.  You’ll usually only have the five that the automatic regeneration gets you (you can pick up extras as rewards).  It seems designed for mobile gaming, with long breaks between play sessions, but it’s a troublesome throttle.  It’s a monetization vector, but it’s one of the more annoying ones.

Finding covers is a gamble.  You win or buy “recruitment tokens” that are an awful lot like coins.  You then put those in a sort of slot machine and hope you get something useful out of it.  You’ll get a cover each time, but most of the time it will be something that you don’t want, and have to sell for a pittance in ISO-8.  This is better than a box full of useless Magic: The Gathering commons, but only barely.  (Check out these two videos for more fun in this vein.)  I’m decidedly not a fan of this sort of thing in general (though I love MTG drafting), and it only exacerbates the problems with the cover progression system.  There is no cover trading, no way to trade a red Wolverine cover for a yellow one, so you wind up with a lot of useless junk.

Oddments

It’s Free to Play.  This kind of annoys me, actually, since I think it’s tied to the cover system.  I don’t begrudge them the Hero Point system, at least not the way I’ve used it.  I just use the Hero Points to expand my roster, allowing for me to collect more characters.  It’s like buying character slots in a F2P MMO, and I’m OK with that.  The other uses of Hero Points, though, from shields to protect PvP score to buying recruit tokens… those are closer to “pay to win” and “lockbox” purchases that I’m not fond of.  And yet… it’s free.  You can download it and just start playing.  You can do a lot without spending money, and that’s pretty cool.

Still, I really wish I could just get the game via a single purchase and play it single player.  I suspect this would allow for the hero levels and rarities to be normalized, quicker and more even progression (single player games don’t have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses), and ultimately, more exploration of character synergies.

…in sum, I do have a lot of little complaints with the game, but they are almost entirely on the progression side.  The core gameplay is really good, and I wish that the progression side would facilitate that better.  I’d have done that with a very flat level curve (no inherent advantage given to rarer characters) and drop the cover system, but you can’t win them all, I suppose.  It’s definitely possible to just play and have fun with whatever team you can scrape together, you just won’t have a great deal of success in PvP or PvE races without some luck in the progression scheme getting covers you want, and enough ISO-8 to make your team stronger.

I’ve been lucky to get a max level Thor and Captain America, as well as a midlevel Hulk, Hawkeye and Wolverine, and they have carried me to a fair bit of success.  I placed in the top ten (out of 1000+ players) of the most recent week-long PvE competition, scoring in the top 50 in half the two-day overlapping mini phases, in the top 10 in most of the others, and top 2 in one of them.  I didn’t get the top spot, but I wasn’t far behind.  It took a fair bit of time overall, but it was fun to play, so it worked out.  The way that the scoring opportunities “regenerate” during events means playing every 8 hours or so… but it doesn’t take a lot of time in each play session to scrape out a handful of high-scoring matches and stay ahead of the curve.

I’ve been able to have a fair bit of success in the game without spending anything other than time.  I count that as a successful game… though I’d still really like to get a single player single purchase version with some of the more annoying F2P barnacles scraped off.

…and yes, I think F2P can be done well.  I’m just not all that happy with this implementation.  You really can do a lot without spending money in the game, but I find myself stubbornly refusing to spend money, wishing rather for the ability to spend on the game the way I’d prefer to.

Design Notes: Geistflies

One of the things I do when I have a minute to spare, but can’t do much but think, say, while waiting at a traffic light, is to ponder a fictional setting that I’ve been puttering around with for years.  I think about pieces of that world, characters in it, historical events, magical mechanics, whatever seems most interesting at the moment.  I’ve written some of it down, and I’ve structured some of it into a series of stories I’d like to tell, and a lot of art I’d like to do.

Sometimes I find it helpful to share my creative process, if only because it forces me to think about it, and possibly refine it.  If you all can get something out of my meanderings, hey, that’s a bonus.

This time, I want to write about Geistflies.

Geistflies

These little guys, to be precise, or at least, a fictional variant:

Fireflies

(Photos by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu)

Fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some call them) are mostly harmless, but have a certain visual charm on dark nights where their lights show up.  As with so many other weird phenomena, they are ripe for fictional explanations.  We know today that fireflies glow thanks to chemical reactions, but a less informed populace might invent other reasons for the glow.  Sometimes these reasons are based in evidence and observation, sometimes they are pure whimsy.  Often, there’s a bit of both involved, especially if location is important and patterns show up.

And as is so often the case, reality can be weirder than fiction anyway.  Take, for example, the weird story of the “Angel’s Glow” from the U.S. Civil War.  Some Civil War soldiers had wounds that glowed in the dark.  Weird, crazy stuff.  That article is just outlining a theory still, but a reasonable one.  And yet, to a delirious soldier in the field, would bioluminescent hitchhiker bacteria be the first thought?

Anyway, I designed that Geistfly Swarm card for some friends a couple years back (which actually is why I started digging into card design, which led to the Tinker Decks and Tinker Dice).  I just used a photo from a quick online search and ran with it to mock up graphic design concepts.  The text is really just official looking gibberish I made up so it looked like a card from an actual game, and I did the rest of the graphic design, experimenting with visuals.  The title of the card, “Geistfly Swarm” was just part of this creative tinkering… but it’s a name that has stuck in my mind since then.  It was just an experiment with making an interesting sounding name, sort of like my mild fascination with alliteration, but there’s something interesting happening there.

One, it rolls off the tongue well, with a pair of vowel sounds that echo each other in the two syllables.  There’s a lyrical quality to the term.  This lyricism can inform the genesis of the term, culturally speaking, and how it’s applied in society in the novel setting.  Perhaps the whimsy involved means that it’s largely used as a children’s story term.  Perhaps, though, like the Grimm Brothers stories, there’s a dark secret at its heart, and it’s been candy coated by the pretty sounds over the years.

Two, it’s a mishmash of two languages, German and English.  What sort of culture would use such a mix?  Would anyone try to be more grammatically correct and call them “ghostflies”?  What effect would that have?

Three, what if there are two species involved?  Regular fireflies, where the term is used much as we would today, and then the geistflies?  What would differentiate the species?  Color?  Behavior?  Location?  Mechanics?

…and so I decided that geistflies are an offshoot of normal fireflies.  They live in my world that has magic, sometimes wild and powerful, sometimes regimented and almost baked down to a science.  This particular bug, the geistfly, doesn’t light up for the same reasons as the firefly.  No, these geistflies react to magic and light up purely as a matter of physiology and its reaction and proximity to magic.

That relatively simple idea sparks a new series of questions, then:

Can they be used as detectors?  Do they have different reactions to different “flavors” of magic?  Where do they live?  Can they be domesticated?  What is their life cycle, and are they only sensitive to magic when they are adults?  Do they feed on magic?  How do they interact with magic users or “spells”?

Where does their energy come from to light up?  

That one spawns even more questions, like “if they tap into the surrounding magic, how would that affect their behavior?” or “if lighting up drains their own energy, would that mean they avoid magic instinctively purely as a survival mechanism?”, and answers to those would modify the answers to other questions, like using them as detectors.

Or maybe this one:  Why are they called geistflies?  Have they been linked to ghosts?  Are they most prevalent around battlefields, creepy old buildings or graveyards?  They aren’t exactly pyreflies, but maybe there are echoes in there somewhere?

I haven’t decided on answers to all of these, and really, it’s possible to dive down the rabbit hole and chase a lot of different aspects of these questions and their implications.  To me, that’s one of the great parts of creative writing and worldbuilding.  I love asking and answering those questions, and finding out how different ideas play off of each other.

This is also why I love games, where some of that incredible potential can be given to players, making for all sorts of interesting effects.

I’ll work geistflies into the stories somehow.  Even little things like this, the details that aren’t the spine of adventure, but rather the spice, are sometimes extremely useful and even important.

P.S. I just ran into this today:

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/01/bioluminescent-beach-maldives/

There’s a lot you can pull from real life weirdness for fictional worldbuilding.

bio-beach2

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