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Posts Tagged ‘fun’

I’m a gamer.  I define that as “a guy who plays games for fun”.  Some might define it as “I play video games for a living”, or “video games are my hobby” or “I simulate wars with little action figures and dice” or “my life is meaningless without video games” or even “I spend all my welfare check on slot machines”.  It’s a very fluid term.  For me, games are something I play in my few bits of free time, just one option among many ways to spend my time.  There are a lot of different reasons to play, though.

Sometimes I want to be intellectually challenged.  This is when I’ll play a Professor Layton game, Brain Age, Portal, Cogs or Safecracker… something in that vein.  I enjoy a mental workout and the joy that comes with figuring something out.

Sometimes I merely want to be entertained.  This is when I’ll play LEGO Batman with my kids, Arkham Asylum/City, Audiosurf, Rock of Ages, A World of Keflings, or World of Goo (or maybe an Uncharted if I had a PS3).

Sometimes I just want to mindlessly plow through bad guys and collect loot.  This is when I’ll play Torchlight, a DIKU MMO, Kingdom Hearts or even a JRPG like Chrono Trigger or a Final Fantasy.  (The bulk of which really does tend to be “grinding” and killing tons of baddies for cash and experience.)

Sometimes I want to explore and take screenshots.  I love WoW for this, but Allods Online, LOTRO, RIFT, Portal 2 and many others are great, too.  (This is one big problem I have with console gaming; I can’t take screenshots.  Yes, it’s possible, I just don’t have the tech.)

Sometimes I want to smash digital stuff.  This is when I’ll play Burnout Revenge or Boom Blox, TMNT 2: Turtles in Time or Super Dodgeball… or maybe fire up a fighting game like Soul Calibur, Super Smash Brothers or Marvel vs. Capcom 2, or even River City Ransom as a weird sort of hybrid game.

Sometimes I want grand adventure, and only a journey to Hyrule can scratch the itch.

Sometimes I want a great story with simple game elements, so I’ll dig into something quirky like Ghost Trick (a fantastic little game with a very well-wrought story) or a Phoenix Wright game, or fire up an old Sierra or LucasArts adventure game (currently playing through The Dig, then the Indiana Jones games).

Sometimes I really want to get creative and tinker, so The Incredible Machine or Minecraft are the best.

Sometimes I want a good card game, so I’ll play Magic the Gathering, the WoW TCG, Rook, Rage, SET, the Monopoly card game or even UNO.

Sometimes a board game is best, so I’ll play Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Chess, Mancala, or my new favorite, Blokus.

…and with all of these, there are at least dozens of other games that easily come to mind, but I’m trying to keep it somewhat concise.

There is some overlap, to be sure.  The Portal games are both mentally interesting and entertaining.  JRPGs sometimes have great stories too.  RockSteady’s Batman games are great for exploration, story and fun brawler combat.  Blokus is great for flexing puzzle thinking and having fun with my kids.

Still, even with this wide variety, sometimes I just want to play something I’ve played before, that I know I’m good at.  This is the “fuzzy slippers gaming” from the title.  It’s like that old dog-eared worn out copy of I, Jedi that I read every few years because it’s one of my favorite books.  Sometimes, I just want a familiar game to go play for a while, maybe because it’s about revisiting old, cherished memories that are tied to the game.  Maybe it’s because I won’t have to think too much.  Maybe it’s because I want to share the game with my kids.  There’s something valuable about a game that is worth playing again and again.

So, that Star Wars invocation isn’t an accident.  What of Star Wars: The Old Republic and the familiarity that it’s perhaps trying to invoke?  As Brian Green and others have noted, it’s largely “more of the same”, and can fill that niche of “familiar” for a lot of players.  I think there’s value in that, to be sure.  Not enough for me to pay anything more than $10 for an always-online game, and certainly not enough for me to pay a subscription for.  Also, there’s a distinction between gameplay and the game itself.  I’d happily accept a new Miles Edgeworth or Phoenix Wright game because of how they play; that scratches the “familiar” itch while still providing a new story to enjoy.  Ditto for a new Professor Layton.  Still… I’d get them on sale, simply because if I just wanted the nostalgia, I’d play the older game I already own for free.

Of course, sometimes there are other motivations.  I’d buy an English release of Seiken Densetsu 3 because I loved Secret of Mana and want to tell Square that SD3 is a worthy successor.  I’d buy a new Chrono game because they dropped the ball by stopping with Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger is incredible.  (It was the first game I wanted to make a direct sequel to, and even wrote up some design documents for it.)  Sometimes I do want to tell companies that their trendlines are good and to keep up the good work, though with a side order of “keep this trend, but keep experimenting around the edges”.  That can be a hard message to send sometimes.

All in all, though, I value innovation and new experiences.  That’s why I play a lot of different games instead of welding myself to a monogamous MMO.  (Even beside the annoyance I have with the subscription model.)  There’s value in familiarity, but if I have to keep paying for it, well… that’s usually something I’m not interested in doing.  Tangentially, this is a great article on Frozen Synapse and their business model; my favorite “single pay” model.

Ultimately, I have other games to scratch that itch for familiar gaming, so I’m not going to buy into a new game that does the same old things but asks a premium for it.

This is also why I strongly resist games that require me to be online to play.  I don’t trust that they will always be available, or that I’ll always have a usable internet connection.   If the idea is to make me want to go back to play the game, I need to be able to do that on a whim.  Similarly, this is why portable games are so great; the low overhead of the DS version of Chrono Trigger means I’ll play it more than my old SNES version or PS1 version, and I played those a lot.  The easier it is to just get in and play, the better, if you’re trying to get me to put your game in that “familiarity” slot.  Otherwise, I’m going elsewhere.

As for why this is important when I’m not a continuing stream of obvious revenue via a sub, well, I do occasionally buy DLC, and I do talk about and cheerlead for games that I love.  I strongly recommend Chrono Trigger, Minecraft, Frozen Synapse, X-Com, Professor Layton, Recettear, Ghost Trick, World of Goo, Cogs and a whole bunch of other great games.  Other people have purchased games I’ve recommended.  I’ve purchased games other people recommend.  If I didn’t have that positive experience with the games, then that free advertising goes away.  Maybe it’s hard to quantify that, but there’s value there, and trying to mine it with RealID shenanigans or subs will make it evaporate instantly.

The last thing I want when I go for familiar gaming, my mental Fuzzy Slippers of Comfort +5, is to be hit up for money or a need to login to a server.

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I Can Fly

OK, WoW Anonymous admission time.

My name is Tesh, and I actually kinda sorta like World of Warcraft.  Sometimes, it even makes me happy.

Piggie!

(If you don’t understand the piggie, check out the link to Larisa’s place.  She and BBB have been pontificating on the state of WoW of late, so this is, in large part, for them and anyone else who wants to maybe find a little magic again.  I’m definitely out of touch with the WoW mainstream… and I love it that way.)  And as any good Peter Pan fan knows, happiness can lead to flight.  But I get ahead of myself.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I stand by my assertions that the subscription model* is a Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea for several reasons, I wish WoW were more “world-like” and less “game-like”, and I still see several problems with the game design of WoW.  The one that bugs me the most at the moment is that crafting tradeskills suffer from atrocious pacing, high cost (in time or in gold via buying ingredients at auction) and irrelevance to gameplay and the economy 98% of the time.  Sometimes, other people still stink (though my experience with other players is 80% pleasant, 15% awesome and only very rarely bad). I can even see a LOT of little art things to nitpick, since I deal with 3D game art all day.  The game still has an unfortunate gravitational effect on the MMO industry on the whole that I think is stifling innovation.

…but y’know what?  I’m a latecomer to the party.  While I’ve studied the game off and on since it came out years ago, as a player, the world of Azeroth (and Outland) is still largely new and even joyous to me, even though most of the mechanics are long since rote and bland (though really, the same could be said of most of my beloved JRPGs, even the incredible Chrono Trigger, so that’s nothing new).  There is still stuff to see, places to go, quests to read, ways to explore.  I got my first level 60 character just a couple of weeks ago.  My Tauren Druid, Tishtoshtesh, dinged 60 and immediately set out to get the Druid Flight Form.  And hoo boy, bob howdy…

I LOVE FLYING

If I could have a supermutant power, I’d want to fly.  OK, well, if I could have only one supermutant power, I’d want invulnerability, but flight almost as much.  (Since really, flight without invulnerability of some sort is asking for trouble anyway.  RIP, Banshee.  But I’m not bitter.  Nope, not at all.)

So yeah, I’m loving just flying around the Old World of Azeroth, taking plenty of pictures of things that interest me.  I’ve been given license to explore like I’ve never done before in the game, and I’m taking advantage of it.  Let those ground-pounding grinders race to the endgame treadmill (sort of like accelerating into a red light), I have sights to see.  I’m sure they think I’m wasting my time, but hey, it’s mine to waste.

Sights like these make me happy.  (And yes, if I could fly in Minecraft, you can bet your favorite great aunt that I’d spend a lot of time doing so.  It’s not as pretty as WoW, but seeing the sights from the air is still great fun, like that greenhouse my daughter and I built the other day, or the water-encased diving tower from world’s top to world’s bottom…)

Tesh’s Picasa WoW stuff

Silithus

Zangarmarsh

Darkshore

More, but better; stitched “panorama” shots

Lordaeron Throne Room

Dalaran

Volcanic Lava Flow

Darkshore Sinkhole

It’s a mix of the mundane (shots I took to study how they do texturing and modeling) and the marvelous (the remodeled Darkshore looks especially great from the air), but hopefully there’s something in there that shows some of what the game has to offer those who go off the rails, taking to wing to see the sights.  There’s a world out there to see, and I’ve been having fun exploring it.

*Disclosure: I’m taking advantage of the WoW VISA card to get some playtime.  I keep it around just for big purchases and emergencies.  We replaced our 35-year-old house’s windows, so I put that bill on the WoW VISA, and bam, four months of playtime in the form of four one-month time codes, just for going through a little extra paperwork.  (We paid off the VISA bill almost immediately from savings; we had the money to pay the bill effectively on-hand, but we may as well push it through the system for a little bonus, hm?)  I maintain that subs stink, but hey, there’s enough fun to be had in WoW to play, at least for a little while.  I’ll man up and burn out like a bitter veteran later.  Maybe.  If I feel like it.

…though I maintain that it’s possible to like the good parts of the game and dislike the bad parts without conflating the two and condemning the game or praising it to the exclusion of the other.  Weird, I know.  That just isn’t done on the internet.

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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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Bleeding Edge

Shamus has another great article up:

Death to Good Graphics!

While he states things a bit more… vitriolic than I might, I wholly agree with the sentiment.  Those of you who know that I’m an artist in the game industry might find that a little odd, so I’ll elaborate.

Why do Pixar movies regularly beat out Dreamworks offerings?  Both produce well crafted visuals, employing bleeding edge technology.  They do have slightly different target audiences, but the visuals are comparable.  Monsters vs. Aliens has a character that could pass as Sully’s cousin (from Monsters, Inc.).  Kung Fu Panda is perhaps the most Disneyish of Dreamworks’ lineup, as it shows a great degree of restraint and respect for the source material, but it doesn’t really offer a visual enhancement over Ratatouille or Monsters, Inc. (and some of the most visually striking sequences are the “storybook” bits that aren’t in the “full real world 3D” style).

The beating heart of Pixar’s success is the story.  Solid characters drive the story.  The visuals are just a means to an end.  They look great, certainly, but without the lovingly crafted stories, Pixar movies would be little more than tech demos.  Dreamworks is just as technically visually adept as Pixar, but their storytelling leans more to the armpit than the heart.  As a result, they don’t enjoy the same level of success as Pixar, either critical or monetary.

The beating heart of a game is the fun factor.  If a game looks gorgeous, but requires clinical insanity to appreciate the gameplay, it’s not much of a game.  If the development budget of a game is largely bent to serve the blingy visuals, something else is getting cut, and more likely than not, it’s the stuff that actually makes the game fun (or stable).

Look at some of the most popular games out there:

Peggle is extraoridnarily low tech visually, but still has a ton of players.  Ditto Bejeweled or the like.  They aren’t ugly, and they have competent art direction to make them visually appealing, but first and foremost, they are fun to play.  This is a big part of why handheld gaming is so significant in the industry, and why “casual” gaming and short session gaming is closer to the future of the industry than Gears of War 5.

World of Warcraft isn’t the most visually attractive game out there, but solid art direction and savvy scalable art assets are layered on top of a game that is fun to play (at least until you’re burnt out).  Age of Conan has detailed art and plenty of eye candy, but just isn’t as fun to play as WoW, according to many.  (I don’t speak from experience on that; AoC isn’t interesting to me, but there are those who I respect who like it more than WoW, like Openedge1.)

Uno on XBox Live has sold a few copies, and Castle Crashers is a critical and monetary success, despite graphics that aren’t appreciably advanced beyond those of a decade ago.  People still play Settlers of Catan, even online, or even Risk or any of its derivatives, and they are far from pixel-shaded DX10 monstrosities.

The priority in game design should be giving the player the chance to have some fun.  I love making pretty visuals as much as the next guy (and I was trained to make Pixar-level visuals; I can *do* super high end with the right tools), but constantly chasing the bleeding edge of visual prettiness means making sacrifices in time and monetary dev budgets that more often than not, could be better spent making the core game experience better, whether that means more iterative design with ugly graphics (to see if the thing *plays* well) or more features, less visual creep.

Yes, that may mean fewer artists in the industry, so I may well be shooting myself in the foot on that, but I really do think that the health of the industry depends more on making greater *games*, and not on making prettier games.  If you can do both, that’s great, but if there has to be a choice made (and there usually is), even though I’m an artist, I’ll always side with making a better game.

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Stuck in the Web

Or, fun ways to waste your lunch break.

Shift

Shift 2

Shift 3

Eyeballing

QWOP

Snowflake

And this is fun for the upcoming snow, though it’s technically not a web application. Unless you’re in Australia, then you have to wait a bit longer than us Northies.

I’m sure there are plenty of other great toys and games, but these are the ones that have caught my attention of late. Game design isn’t all about the gears of war or worlds of warcraft.

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