Posts Tagged ‘PvP’

Friday Fun

This is a followup on a Big Bear Butt post over thisaway, wherein he suggested some art based on World of Warcraft PvP fickleness, and then I went and made some art.

Here are the basic pieces, Horde and Alliance…

Go Alliance!

Go Horde!

And here are some desktop images from them…

And then here are the two-sided shirts.  Mostly just because the idea of them made me smile.  Those are in my Zazzle storefront, Tish Tosh Tesh Toyz, where I have a variety of other artstuffs, so if you do go check out the shirt, please poke around and see if anything else piques your interest.  Oh, and incidentally, shirts are on sale over there for the 4th of July holiday, so it’s a good time for shirts.

(Edited to remove shirts; may as well not flirt too much with trouble.  They weren’t up for profit anyway, but Zazzle doesn’t have a “demonstration only” setting.  I still love the idea of a two sided two-faction shirt.  Maybe I’ll make a sufficiently noncopyright version one of these days. )

Happy weekend!

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Dead Man’s Party

I have nowhere near the pull or presence to make this sort of thing happen, I just wanted to mention it because, well… I thought it could be funny and/or fodder for blog posts, and maybe someone can take the idea and run with it.

Big Bear Butt has recently done some PvP, and one of the things he mentioned was setting up a cross-realm battle comprised of teams of bloggers.  That’s a fun idea, and could spur some interesting posts.  Putting a pseudo-face to a name in-game has a way of changing things, ever so subtly.

I can’t help but think that a similar session of PvP comprised wholly of baby Death Knights might be worth attempting.  Let’s call it, A Dead Man’s Party.

Y’see, everyone would be on more or less equal footing, with the same gear and levels.  The differences would be racial, spec and personal skill.  This sort of flatter playing field interests me much more than most PvP… but then, I’m probably weird.

Anyway, just a thought, for all you PvP fans out there.  I know you exist.


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Disclosure:  I don’t own a gun, but I fully support the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.  I think it’s crucial as an equalizer between citizens and a check on runaway government statist tendencies.  If you want to debate that, well… this isn’t really the place, and I’ll moderate accordingly.  I mention it first so you can get your prejudicial reflexive responses out of your system and move on.  No, I’m not really talking politics, but there’s enough potential intersection that I wanted to get that out of the way.

I’m talking about PvP.

One of the things that bothers me most about PvP in most modern MMOs is the rather extreme power differential.  It’s absurd to have level capped characters be orders of magnitude more powerful than rookies.  Yes, PvP is all about exploiting imbalances and the whole Sun Tzu thing, but when you have a max level character who literally cannot be harmed by a newbie, and who can in return slaughter newbies by the score at whim, you’re not dealing with PvP any more, you’re dealing with bullying.  That’s what “ganking” is, pure bullying, something corrosive to a gaming community.

I actually don’t mind class imbalances or other world-based spatial tactical advantages.  That’s sort of the point of open world PvP.  It seems to me that the venerable Sun Tzu would be all for taking advantage of whatever you can find.  Still, I’m not convinced that he was imagining a world like we see in these fantasy games.

I’m not blaming players, either.  The notion of  “fair play” is a squishy one, as is “honorable combat”.  Players play with what they are given.  No, I’m arguing that designers really should make PvP most about player skill and minimize leveling, gear and other influences as much as possible.  Or maybe, just maybe… set up equalizers.

What about guns?  According to some, they are the great equalizer out here in monkeyspace.  Sure, a brute like Mike Tyson should be a clear winner in a PvP bout with a waif supermodel, but what if she’s packing heat?  A .22 slug to the brainpan should stop even a bull like Tyson.  As the old argument goes, “an armed society is a polite society”, and that’s even possible in a merely magical world, as I noted a while back.

How might that work in a game world?  It’s not like gankers would sit back and agree to let their marks have teeth.  That’s against their design.  Maybe it has to be reactive.  Maybe outclassed victims simply get a revenge mechanic.  Bullies can be haunted by players they bother, and may be “shot” into incompetence at the most inopportune times.  Maybe this means a root/snare, maybe it’s a nudge off a cliff, maybe it’s a stun that makes the bully drop to level 1 for a while in hostile territory.  Maybe make it automatic and persistent, but victim-defined, so that the bully can’t just log out and clear it.

Maybe players always fight at the same level, no matter what.  PvP fights are always based purely on class balance, and stats are normalized.  How to do that on the fly might be tricksy, true.

…or maybe, just maybe, make your power differential smaller to start with.  That’s what I’d do, but that’s really a “ground up” design, not something to adapt to midstream.

So why do I care about all of this?  Well, if the newest WoW expansion is going to make war between factions more personal, it may well be more relevant in that game.  For better or worse, as WoW goes, so goes a significant undercurrent of the MMO genre.  PvP is a niche pursuit at best, I think, but if the goal is to get more players involved, it has to make sense and not be a frustrating mess.  Open world PvP has the potential to make the world of an MMO interesting and exciting… but if it’s just a cycle of bullying, it’s really not much fun for anyone but the bullies.  I find that… unfortunate.

Edited to add this sweet post by Shamus over at Twenty Sided from a while back, just as a tangential bit of great writing and game design philosophy:

GM Advice: Guns and Dice

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OK, so apparently, World of Warcraft is supposed to be angling to be more warlike, pitting the Alliance and the Horde against each other as in days of yore.  Actions have been taken by both sides that are somewhat less than tolerant and neighborly, leading to something resembling hate.  Faction pride rests largely on putting the other guys down, and as Raph Koster notes (among other things in this interesting presentation), the service business model (live games, whether subscription or microtransaction) relies heavily on emotional attachment.

On the other hand, there’s this Corpsegrinder fellow, no doubt his moniker of choice indicating his civility and kindness, caught in a recording embodying an attitude we might see as somewhat less than tolerant and neighborly, fracturing the WoW community.  The reaction has predictably been… hostile.

I don’t really intend to speak to the political or social concerns with Corpsegrindergate, other than to note that I think the guy isn’t someone I’d invite to my home.  No, what interests me at the moment is the juxtaposition between the efforts to foster war and division within the game, and the bitter divides that arise out of the game.  How curious it is that hate might be said to drive both (and there’s plenty of hate and anger to go around… Mr. Ranty McGrumpypants Corpsegrinder isn’t the only fellow who needed a nap), yet the former is somehow desirable while the latter isn’t, as if hating someone because they were part of the Alliance or the Horde is somehow less prejudiced than real world bigotry.  (And if we’re going to run the “it’s just a game” excuse, that cuts both ways.)  It’s so easy to demonize the Other… but it’s not paying attention to what’s really there.

I tend to think that driving faction pride and rage-fueled PvP isn’t wise for the community at large.  BBB and his commenters note occasions where die hard Horde players are civil around Alliance players (and why are Hordies assumed to be ruder in general?), so I’m not asserting a full correlation (thankfully)… but I do think that the faction split should be framed more as competition than contention.  There are plenty of threats to Azeroth and its denizens that we don’t need to manufacture internecine warfare.  It’s no longer us as a single player pitting our RTS armies against a computer, those Hordies or Alliance grunts are piloted by real people who have a tendency to take offense, whether intended or not.

Some players will always take things personally, and some jerks are simply jerks.  Some people are incurably ignorant.  Few will conflate real life with the game… but hatred leaves its prints on attitudes and learned behavior, no matter the venue.  It’s a burden on the soul that weighs in at the most inopportune moments.  Yes, drama and games tend to be based on conflict of some sort, someone winning while someone else loses, but the attitudes behind that drive can vary.  It’s always interesting to me to see how devs try to mold player actions and attitudes.

Hate is a powerful, driving force.  It’s also a potentially hazardous thing to use to fuel your game.  Competition and contention aren’t the same thing.  Much like it’s silly to piddle around with various poop harvesting quests while Deathwing is in the wings, Azerothians have better things to do than engage in a deadly version of “he said, she said”.  If we’re supposed to be heroes in Azeroth, petty squabbling isn’t going to help.

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I’m not a fan of PvP (Player vs. Player combat) as found in most MMOs.  The prevailing DIKU DNA, manifested in levels, gear and ganking, just doesn’t provide the level playing field that I prefer when it comes to pitting my playing skills against those of another human.

I loved Street Fighter and other assorted fighters when I was in high school.  SF2 really hooked me, and I thoroughly enjoyed several derivative games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, SFAlpha, Killer Instinct, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, DarkstalkersSoul Edge, and their variants.  Mortal Kombat is too exhibitive for my taste, but for a while there, there were a lot of good fighter games floating around, so there was no dearth of options.  The most expensive game I ever purchased was the SNES cartridge of SF2Turbo ($70 at the time, stupidly expensive, but still a ton of fun).  My friends and I spent a lot of time and money in arcades and at home with fighting games, a not uncommon thing for teens of the 90s.

My skills were never such that I could play in a tournament, but I did hold my own against most arcade players, and won far more often than I lost.  It was very satisfying to play in a hard-fought match and come out on top.  Steamrolling new players wasn’t much fun, and I’d often take it easy on them reflexively.  I like to win, but I like it to be an honest win that requires good play on my part.  Perhaps I was doing a Darwinian disservice to those noobs by taking it easy on them, but I tried to always have fun and try to let the other player have fun too.  It seemed to me to be a better way to spend my time.  Constantly losing to a better player is only fun if you’re learning something  (and if they aren’t a jerk).  Frustration isn’t fun.

The best part of these fighting games was the intricate balancing jobs they did, working with disparate characters and playstyles.  Some games were better balanced than others, to be sure, but on the whole, success in fighting games when playing against other players usually boiled down to player skill.  This made successes sweeter and failures more instructive.  It was also a lot of fun.

Dave Sirlin has made a bit of a career out of writing about SF games and fighting games in general, and he wrote a great article some time ago about how World of Warcraft teaches the wrong lessons.  Everything Sirlin writes is filtered through his SF background and his “Play to Win” ethos, so it’s not going to be a set of assertions that works for everyone, but it’s a solid read, and really strikes at the heart of what I don’t like in MMO PvP.

One of his memorable quips is the suggestion of a “level 60 Chun-li” and the absurdity that such an image presents.  It’s silly to think that player time investment in building a character would outweigh player skill in the fighting game scene, yet it’s precisely that paradigm that drives PvP in most MMOs.  This is why open world PvP inevitably degenerates into a cycle of bullying and “ganking“; players aren’t looking for a fair fight, they are looking to win, or worse, to give grief to other players.  A game system where time investment brings more powerful characters in the form of higher levels and/or better gear doesn’t offer much in the way of a fair fight.  (Notably, it also causes problems even when you’re not playing against other players… there are problems playing with other players against the computer.  Levels do weird things sometimes.)

I might note that a very narrow power band might make for tolerable PvP, of course.  Guild Wars gets close to this.  World of Warcraft, with its endgame characters being orders of magnitude more powerful than new characters, is a bit different.  It shouldn’t take 300 characters to kill one foe.  (Sadly, the video has been lost on that one, and the 300 weren’t even enough, but still… the power of a end game character is absurd compared to a new character.)  Maybe that makes for good fantasy power trips if you’re the powerful one (and that was a Player vs. Environment contest), but it’s awful for PvP.  Puzzle Pirates has a very narrow power band, and the vast bulk of the game is based on player skill.  This is a big part of why I still consider it to be my MMO home.  It just feels more like my skill matters, rather than my time investment.

I want a level playing field for PvP contests.  If I fail, it should be because I wasn’t good enough.  If I win, it should be because I played well.  It’s all about player skill.

I don’t see that in most MMOs, which is one of the reasons I’m a dedicated solo Explorer who occasionally indulges in dungeon prowling with other players.  I don’t mind an imbalanced contest against the computer’s monsters (though it’s nice to have a spectrum of challenge), but when I’m playing with other players, I want to know that the contest is one of skill, strategy and tactics, not a barely disguised measurement of time investment.

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I’m decidedly not a fan of the sort of PvP that is typically offered in MMOs.  While I was a huge fan of Street Fighter 2 once upon a time, and thoroughly enjoy a bit of Puzzle Fighter-esque Swordfighting in Puzzle Pirates (though Rumble is definitely superior in my book), those are very different animals.  They are delightfully balanced, tuned like a loved machine.  The imbalances that come with a leveling system and gear variance make MMO PvP far less appealing to me.

Still, on my last day of the ten day retrial of WoW (for The Burning Crusade… though I spent the bulk of my time pushing through the high 40s and low 50s with my old character, Padgi) I figured I’d at least see what the Alterac Valley had to offer a scrub like me.  Open world PvP is just a cycle of bullying fueled by ganking, so it’s an aggravating waste of time for me, but the battleground was a bit more interesting.

It almost felt like taking part in a bit of good old WarCraft, just as a foot soldier rather than a disembodied commander.  Of course, the only direction and strategy was “rush em!”, and try to stay in the knottiest of Zerg knots so as to stay in the action and hide behind juicier targets.  I’m sure some focused battleground groups would wipe the arena with such an unfocused blob, but it was fun enough to run about willy nilly and take out targets of opportunity.  I probably killed this one Human dude a half dozen times… a rather surreal way to wage war, but fun enough for what it was.  (I still think a Valhalla MMO would be a good idea.  We’re not living alternate lives, we’re piloting weirdly immortal bloodlusty berzerkers.)

As it happens, though, it seems my computer is allergic to PvP.  Just as our blob was about to overwhelm the northernmost Alliance graveyard and push on to the NPC boss, I was cut down by an errant Shadowbolt… and my computer crashed.  Hard.

I got a Blue Screen of Death, and my computer spent the next fifteen minutes in a death spiral of rebooting and recrashing.  I finally powered it down and let it rest for a while, after which it seems to be running well enough… but for a while there, it was a most unhappy machine.  It has happened several times in the last week or two… and I’m still not sure why.  I blame it on Steam, since the first time it crashed, I was playing the recently installed Mirror’s Edge… and I’ve had crashes during other Steam games… though that was the first WoW crash.

It seems my computer has some problems with PvP as well.  Maybe the Cataclysm will make it happier.  In the meantime, it’s Rumble for me.

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What is a game, exactly?

There are a lot of different types of games, to be sure, but to my eye, the heart of what makes a game is the possibility of making choices.  Games are differentiated from passive entertainment like TV or film by allowing the end user to have some input that changes the experience.  Exactly how much control devs give to the player can vary wildly, but giving the user choices is important.  Of course, when you give the end user the ability to make choices, they may make mistakes.

I’ve come to believe that mistakes are what make a lot of games tick.  Part of this is the notion that experimentation and punishment-light mistakes are a significant part of how I define “play”.  Mistakes are part of learning, and if learning itself is fun, it’s usually because those mistakes aren’t backbreaking.  Take chances, get dirty, make mistakes!

I’ve been experimenting with board and card game design for a while now.  I’m close to having two more PDF games for download, like I presented Alpha Hex.  (I’d love it if I could make a bit of money on the side with these, but since I’m a rookie designer, I’d be pleased with feedback.)  Card and board games tend to be Player vs. Player, while video games tend to be Player vs. Environment.  Sure, there are the occasional cooperative PvE-like board games like Pandemic or Lord of the Rings, and there are many PvP video games like Street Fighter or Counter Strike, but I’m just talking in generalities.

The PvP in Tic-Tac-Toe is trivial.  The game can always be played to a draw with two sufficiently competent players.  (The level of competency is low, as well.)  PvP in Rock-Paper-Scissors is mechanically trivial, though there is a layer of “yomi” when it comes to the psychological games played between players.  PvP in Othello is a bit more mechanically involved, as well as strategically and tactically varied.  Go and Chess are a step further than that.

In most PvP scenarios, games between equally competent players tend to come down to mistakes.  Perfect execution in Tic-Tac-Toe means you always get a draw.  A player with better mastery of mind games will do better in Rock-Paper-Scissors.  Perfect execution of  a strategy in Go or Chess is a different thing, though, since the opponent has more opportunity to throw a wrench in the works.  More choices for each player tends to provide greater strategic and tactical depth, largely by giving players more opportunities to make mistakes.  Savvy players will capitalize on opponent mistakes while avoiding making any of their own.

In these more complex games, player choices tend to have multiple effects.  A knight in Chess, for example, can be used to “fork” an opponent, forcing them into choosing between two (or more!) pieces threatened by the knight.  If one of those pieces happens to be the king, the other piece must be sacrificed (or the knight captured).  In other words, players can use pieces that have multipronged influence to force decisions on opponents.  Force enough of those decisions without making too many yourself, and you can break an opponent.

To a lesser degree, that’s exactly how you can win Tic-Tac-Toe, by creating a choice for an opponent; block here or there… but if both are winning positions, the opponent cannot win since they don’t get two turns in a row.  Connect Four is a step beyond, extending the grid and allowing for more opportunity to force bad decisions.  Chess and Go do a similar thing, just with much more effective pieces and a tendency to need to think more than one or two moves ahead.  Greater piece and rule complexity allow for increased depth.

OK, so none of this is exactly rocket science.  It’s Game Design 101 kind of stuff.  This is just the sort of thing I find myself thinking about when I try to distill my own game designs.  I want to make games that are relatively simple to play, but with tactical or strategic depth, not unlike Go or Othello.  The game mechanics are simple enough, but thanks to large decision trees and yomi layers of move-countermove, tactics and strategy have plenty of room to breathe and develop.

On one hand, we have “games” like Candyland, where the entire game is decided by the initial state of the shuffled cards.  Players make no significant decisions, they just go through the motions.  The “game” is an exercise in foregone conclusions, and players are just seeing what will happen, their biggest decisions being when to turn over the inevitable card, or when to simply quit.  (OK, they could also choose to cheat, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at here.)

On another hand, we have “games” like Roulette, where the player makes two initial choices (what number to bet on and how much to bet), and random chance does the rest.  Slot machines are even worse.

These really aren’t games in my mind, but I’m not sure what to call them.  Still, people “play” them, and somehow derive fun.  Perhaps, like Avatar‘s popularity despite a weak “story”, the fun is derived from the window dressing and the experience.  Would a 3D holographic Candyland sell?  Perhaps it’s all about the payoff or the achievement, where the ends somehow determine that the means were fun.  Or maybe it’s all about the payoff, and the “game” is just something to suffer through.

On another hand, games like Rock-Paper-Scissors are all about the mind games.  David Sirlin’s Yomi card game digs even deeper into the yomi layers.  The actual conflict resolution is less about the very deterministic mechanics (Paper can never beat Scissors), and more about the player choices, especially since every player can choose rock, paper or scissors at any time.  These games can be very satisfying if you find fun in outguessing another player.

Tangentially, PvP in class-based MMOs tend in this direction, albeit more simplistically.  Rogues beat Mages who beat Warriors who beat Rogues.  There are some ways to alleviate this rigid dynamic (panic buttons like Ice Block for a Mage, Spell Reflection for a Warrior and so on), but for the most part, we’re back in RPS territory.  Pokemon is similar, just with an extended dependency/elemental heirarchy.

I tend to find this sort of rigid design less than satisfactory.  Sure, it might feel great to always beat on the class that you are inherently superior to, but it stinks to lose continually to a class inherently superior to yours.  This is one reason why I keep asking for more flexibility in MMO combat (BBB has a great article up on this philosophy), even allowing every player to shift to their own Rock, Paper or Scissors at any given moment.  To me, that’s more interesting game design, and far more satisfying to pull a victory out of, since it hinges on my choices in the moment, not an irrevocable class choice I made a long time ago.  I don’t like approaching a RPS game if I’m stuck being Scissors.

On yet another hand, there are the relatively simple two player games that tend to give one or the other player an advantage simply by the way they are designed.  Chess gives a slight edge to White, but a game like Y or Hex might have an even stronger advantage for the first player.  (Alpha Hex, strangely, gives a fairly strong advantage to the second player.  That’s the natural result of the capture-countercapture nature of the game.)  There are even games that, given perfect execution of a “determined” winning strategy, do not allow one of the players to win.  Ever.  Sometimes a draw isn’t even possible.

These games are where mistakes are especially important.  Perfect execution of an invincible strategy makes for a tedious “game” for the player who isn’t going to win.  The strategy-stealing argument suggests that the losing player cannot “steal” the winning strategy as long as the winner maintains the strategy.  The best they can hope for is a draw, if the game even allows that.  The game could effectively be declared finished when the initial turn order is decided; it’s all just going through the motions at that point.

Unless the winner-to-be makes a mistake.

This sort of strong bias for one player or the other can be a handicap mechanic for players of widely diverse skill levels, but it’s not much fun for players who both know the strategies and who can execute them perfectly.  That’s where a number of fudge factors come into play.

Increasing the opportunities to make mistakes by increasing the number of decisions to make is one way to fudge this bias.  That’s effectively how Chess evens the playing field.  Some games hide information, like Stratego, forcing players to make decisions with imperfect knowledge, effectively playing the odds and trying to outguess the opponent.  Many games use a random element, whether it’s shuffled cards, dice rolls, variable goals or even just each player holding cards only they can see (until played, anyway).  Whatever the case, these fudge factors allow mistakes (or force them!), thereby disrupting the formation of a perfect strategy.  The lack of perfect information is a benefit to these efforts to make the game more interesting by inviting mistakes.

Alpha Hex does give the second player an advantage (which messes with the psychology of gamers, since it’s usually the first player with an advantage), but the fudge factors of an unknown opponent hand (which cards they are holding, which may be magnified when you’re playing with random cards rather than sticking to a purely monoelemental deck)  and the ability to play any given card in six different orientations (more choices) help alleviate the bias. The optional elemental rule (especially if randomized) throws another variable into the mix.  The also-optional chain rule makes the game very swingy, but gives the opportunity to make up for past mistakes (or even lets players use fake “mistakes” to manipulate the opponent into making their own mistakes… more yomi gaming, there).

Also, the first player can control the pace of the game.  A timid player going first might start in the corner, but that gives the second player an advantage.  An aggressive player starting on an edge or in the middle will start in a cell that has an even number of cells around it, setting up a sort of “game within a game”.  (If the board were only ever 7 cells in a circular pattern, the first player playing in the middle would have a very strong advantage.  If the first player can manage to win this minigame before filling out the board’s other 5 cells, they can come closer to parity.)  Even so, the game tends to be decided in a few key points, rather than at any point in the match.  The first play is crucial, the 7-cell minigame is important (even if it means you build differently from the seven cell circle), and the transition from the 7-cell to the “endgame” can be a backbreaker.

This is why I’ve toyed with different board geometry, with more cells in different shapes.  I want to disrupt the formation of a perfect strategy, in an effort to make player choice crucial to the game.  I want to give the players more chances to make mistakes (and make correct decisions).  Alpha Hex isn’t a perfect game, but it’s been fun to design and to play.  I hope others have fun with it as well, and mistakes are a big part of that.  (So if you’re interested at all in a hex-based card game with shades of Triple Triad, please download the Alpha Hex Paper Beta!  I’d really appreciate some feedback on it, too.)

Mistakes are important in game design, too, which is why testing is such a huge component of polishing a game.  Mistakes can provide critical feedback, whether it’s for the player or the designer.  This is also why it’s important to learn from mistakes, rather than just blithely go on making the same ones over and over.  We are guaranteed to make mistakes, since we’re not omniscient.  We simply have to learn from them as we try to develop our own perfect strategy.  (Interestingly, it’s the designer’s job to prevent perfect strategies, at least with some games.)

That said, I’ll admit that if I do manage to devise a perfect strategy for a game, I almost immediately lose interest in it.  A solved puzzle just isn’t as much fun.  Likewise, “solved” PvP, if dominant or perfect strategies exist, just isn’t all that fun to play, at least not for me.  It’s just going through the motions, convincing myself that I’m having fun doing the same thing over and over.  The interesting part is that I get tired of it whether I’m winning or losing.

Perhaps variety really is the spice of life, and making mistakes is a part of that.  It’s certainly key to making a game interesting in my book.

It should be noted that I’m talking about mistakes that can be learned from, not a Random Number Generator forcing mechanical “mistakes”, thereby destroying any sense of control and progress.  It’s a crucial difference; I don’t mind mistakes that I make and learn from, but I can’t stand mistakes that the game makes then forces me to live with the consequences.  I love game design that makes all mistakes hinge on the player choices… because those are the ones I learn the most from and have the most fun playing.

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