Tuesday, July 27, 2021

You know you are a PC gamer when ...

 I am currently playing FTL:Multiverse. This is a massive overhaul mod of the 2012 kickstarter hit FTL. The mod is enormous. It massively expands on every aspect of the game with many new races, new weapons, new ships, new mission content and a massive amount of new lore to support it all.

I am really enjoying multiverse and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed FTL but that isn't really the point of my post. Instead I want to briefly comment on the process of acquiring and installing the mod. First off you need to have the original FTL game of course but then you need to find three separate packages from three separate modding teams. The packages need to be unzipped and installed in the FTL install folder on your machine. Then you need to un-patch your installed FTL to an earlier version to ensure compatibility with one of the key packages. Then you need to use the mod manager (one of the three packages) to locate and install the multiverse mod file itself. This step is complicated slightly by the fact that the mod manager looks for .ftl files by default but the multiverse mod comes in a .zip file. 

The mod has grown very popular so there are  helpful posts to be found on reddit and elsewhere which talk you through the process step by step. To be truthful it is pretty straightforward to anyone who is familiar with modding PC games but I am also sure that the process would be intimidatingly cryptic to non techie gamers. 

The bizarre thing is that once you go through the modding process the mod itself is enormously polished. It is supported a by a large online community and there are helpful guides and a discord channel. 

Having gone through the process I can't help thinking this is so typical of PC gaming. You often have to go through pain involving hardware or software just to get a game you want running but if you are prepared to put in that effort then the reward can be the best gaming experience possible. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Is Easy really better than Free?

Many years ago a friend explained to me why Apple's Itunes music store was a huge success despite the fact that (at the time) there were many ways to acquire digital music for free. Apple realised, he explained, that for most people "Easy is better than free". 

The power of that concept has been proven by Apple and other companies over and over since then but my inner nerd has never been fully comfortable with it. The cost of "Easy" is rarely just financial, invariably you must also sacrifice some functionality as well. 

Most recently this point has been brought home to me once again through the world of TV providers (cable companies). 

First a bit of background: Ireland is a small country with only a small number of free to air TV channels  so most people rely on additional cable, satellite, aerial or internet based services to extend the selection and in particular to access the large range of channels available in the much bigger neighbouring market in the UK. There is an array of options that vary widely in cost, content selection, ease of use and indeed legality. 

In our house we  pay a monthly subscription for a well known satellite TV service. Even though many of the younger generation have dispensed entirely with broadcast TV this satellite provider is still the market leader. Most of the several hundred channels it provides could be freely accessed with a generic satellite receiver that incurred no monthly fee. It does provide some premium channels but services like  Netflix and Amazon prime which subscribe to anyway are worthy alternatives to those premium channels at a lower overall cost.  So why do we and many others still pay every month? 

One answer is that this provider has tied up some popular content with exclusivity agreements but to be honest I think the real answer is their interface is acknowledged to be the slickest and easiest to use on the market. One simple interface allows you to search broadcast channels, on demand channels, recorded shows etc. A simple voice command will record an entire series for you. They even include Netflix, Prime and YouTube on their system so one remote can control everything. 

Easy is better than Free. It annoys me  that I  could cobble together a home grown system (combining satellite receiver / recorder and streaming services) that would provide the same content at a much lower cost but I realise that this would not be a popular solution for the rest of the family so I put up with it.  I even put up with the fact that they often pay over the odds to buy or rent a movie from the included store when I know they could get it cheaper from a different provider. 

Our satellite provider is not cheap and knows how to charge for every possible extra. Easy is not cheap.  There is also a price to be paid in functionality. There are many channels that are available from our satellite dish that do not appear in the standard lists with this service. You can find them via obscure sub menu options that allow manual channel selection but you cannot add them to the menu in any convenient way. In fact you can't really customise the interface at all. It includes some subscription content providers but not all of them Notably it does not allow anyone who will sell or rent you a movie in competition with their own overpriced store. Perhaps the most annoying thing of all though is that there is no way to filter the selection to just the channels and services in your current package. Indeed it will only alert you to the fact that something is not included in your package after you try to play it and then it will nag you to increase your subscription in order to view it. There is one series that I am currently watching that is not available on out main TV through the set top box but which is inexplicably available on the companion app on my computer. I don't know why and it won't tell me why although it does offer to charge me more whenever I try to watch it on the wrong device. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

AC Odyssey's Blood Fever quest gets a little bit too close to 2020 reality (Spoilers)

 I was only a couple of hours into Assassin's Creed Odyssey when a young street urchin friend came and asked for my help. Her family it seemed lived in another town which was in the grips of a terrible disease called "The Blood Fever". I'm not sure what she thought my warrior character could do but the girl looked up to me so I set off. Perhaps I would find the source of the mysterious illness,  a polluted well or some such. 

I was surprised on arriving at the town to find that it had been burned to the ground and the last few survivors including my friends family were being held captive by a priest and his guards. When I talked to the priest he explained that he had to kill everyone in the village because it was the only way to stop this terrible plague from spreading to the whole island. The remaining villagers begged for their lives and pleaded that they weren't even very sick but just wanted to leave the cursed town. 

This left me with a surprisingly distressing dilemma. Do I leave the priest to continue his extermination or do I fight the guards to save my friends family. This was a surprisingly nuanced dilemma not to mention an incredibly timely one to be faced with in December 2020 the year when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the entire world. 

The priest didn't come across as evil he was just an earnest man who knew that this terrible task was necessary for the greater good. Twenty first century me was inclined to agree with him. There were no miracle antibiotics or vaccines in those days and very limited understanding of how to control infection. I realised that those with mild symptoms were carriers who would surely spread the plague and cause countless more deaths if they were let live. On the other hand my in game character was an aspiring hero in classical Greece. I just couldn't see that character being willing to stand back and watch the slaughter of innocent people including her friends family. 

In the end I felt I  had to make the choice that seemed right for my in game persona so I saved the villagers. They promptly thanked me and left the burned out town to spread the disease far and wide. I am sure I will have cause to regret this later. 

PS: I have tried many Assassin's Creed games over the years and none of them has really stuck with me. AC Odyssey however seems to largely ignore the whole Animus concept which I found quite jarring in previous games and also has better combat and better rpg elements. I am enjoying it a  lot so far. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Horizon Zero Dawn causes me to re-evaluate the Ubisoft open world formula

 I would like to share two moments from my recent playthrough of Horizon Zero Dawn:

Moment 1: I was only a few hours into the game but I had already sampled enough to realise that this was a very good game with a stunningly beautiful game world, interesting gameplay and combat, rich and  interesting lore, and great characters and story.  However a couple of hours in as I was beginning to get to grips with the game mechanics another realisation hit me and my heart sank.  It was the bags that did it The game has about half a dozen bags for items that you have to level up by collecting stuff. It also has all the other hallmarks of an open world Ubisoft game. A beautiful open world map populated by  creatures and sites of interest for you to explore and get distracted. Towers to climb to open up new sections of the map (in this case the towers are giant robotic giraffes which is a nice touch but still the principle remains). It has tonnes of make-work errands and side quests that can easily distract you. All of this is polished to the nth degree with lots of quality of life features like fast travel, quest markers and button prompts to make it very easy to just lose yourself in this playground of activities. 

I don't actually think that Ubisoft Open world is a bad thing. In fact when I first came across the formula in Far Cry 3 I thought it was fantastic. It is only after playing through multiple iterations of the formula in more recent Far Cry, Assasin's Creed, Shadow of and other games that  I have become tired of it. One hallmark of Ubiusoft open world is that the game is full of make work activities. There is always something to do but very little of it feels worth doing. Another hallmark is that the game mechanics are polished to remove all player frustrations. This should be a good thing but making things so frictionless  also diminishes the game in some way. Perhaps we need to be challenged and indeed frustrated at times to feel a sense of accomplishment from a game. It is telling that another very popular game formula the "Souls like" seems to take a polar opposite approach and make life as difficult as possible for the player. I am not sure if either approach is perfect but I think it is easier to get tired of the Ubisoft formula because once you have played one Ubisoft Open world game it can feel like you have played them all. 

I should point out that Horizon Zero Dawn is not devoid of challenge. The main quest and several of the side quests have challenging combat encounters and your heroine Aloy never really becomes an invulnerable combat power house. There are plenty of dangerous monsters in the open world which need to be handled carefully but outside of the main quest lines it is trivially easy to avoid  or work around these dangers. You can spend hours running errands and making collections in the open world without ever really breaking a sweat. 

Moment 2: Perhaps 30 hours later. I was deep in one of the games forests hunting rabbits and racoons for components to craft bigger ammunition bags. It was not challenging and it was repetitive. Why was I doing this? After my earlier misgivings I had resolved to ignore collection and errands as much as possible and just enjoy the main quest. This strategy worked surprisingly well because Zero Dawn is largely a stealth game and a lot of the time you try to avoid direct combat. Being somewhat under geared was not really an issue. In fact I was really enjoying the main quest line and a number of substantial side quest lines as well. End game was approaching however and soon I would have to face off against some serious bosses so I couldn't put off gearing up any longer. Hence my sojourn in the forest. I also had to embark on a number of specific monster hunts to collect all the components required  to upgrade my gear and armour. To be honest even though it was repetitive it wasn't that bad. All in all this was a relaxing few hour hiatus from the main questline progression and the game did everything possible to make the scavenging as painless as possible with detailed maps , fast travel and big glowy markers for loot.  I had to put up with the figaries  of the random number generator to get the specific parts I needed but drop rates were high enough for it not to be too much of a pain. 

Once my scavenging phase was complete I was ready for end game. I continued on to finish the main quest line and very much enjoyed it. Overall Horizon Zero Dawn is a very very good game and one I would highly recommend. It features an engaging story set in a beautiful world with a rich back story and it is fun to play. 

Does this mean I have gotten over my boredom with Ubisoft formula? Perhaps not entirely but I think it means I have found a better way to approach formula games. Putting off all of the collection and errand quests until I really needed to allowed me to enjoy the world and the main quest line a lot more. By the time I got around to them I was already heavily invested in the game so I knew exactly why I was doing these errands which made them a lot more palatable. It was also painless because by that stage I had opened up most of the map and had fast travel points to all the locations I needed. I was also experienced enough to quickly deal with any monsters I met along the way. I think it is also important that I had no intention of being a completionist. I was late enough into the game to know what tools I would need and I focussed on upgrading those. Prioritising the main quest first and only doing the errands when necessary worked well for me. I am pretty sure that if I had allowed myself to get sidetracked by errands with a completionist mentality it would have killed my enjoyment of the game. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Tough bosses and gaming road blocks. Are difficult games about the destination or about the journey?

 I am currently stuck on a boss called Ixillis  in Remnant from the Ashes and I have tried and died over a dozen times so far without being able to overcome it. Stepping back and thinking about this makes me realise that while I really enjoy the sense of achievement I get from overcoming difficult challenges in games I don't actually enjoy the process of repeatedly trying and failing that is required to do so. I like the destination but I don't like the journey. I am beginning to think that this is a problem. 

It is a problem because the repeated cycle of trying and failing can pull down my mood in the real world. It is a problem because even though there are other games I could play instead, the lingering shadow of an unresolved encounter diminishes the pleasure I would get from other games. It is a problem because experiences like this make me fearful of hitting similar challenges in future either in this or in other games. It is a problem because I really do want the high I get from overcoming challenges in games. I have become dependent on it in fact so playing only easy games or playing games on their easiest difficulties is not an attractive option for me either.  

Hmm.. reading that last paragraph again suggests that things may have gotten serious. Gaming has been a huge part of my life for at least a quarter of a century and on the whole I am convinced it has been a positive experience. It has given me hobby and an interest. It has never caused any hurt to myself or anyone else and it has often given me a harmless distraction from the toils of the real world. It has broadened my horizons both in the real world and in the world of the imagination and while I have never really been a social gamer it has resulted in some shared experiences with other gamers online. When I played mmorpgs I was aware that gaming could become  a problem if you got too sucked in and neglected the demands of the real world but I survived my encounters without any lasting after effects. I can honestly say that gaming has never really been a problem for me. Yet here I am looking at a facet of my hobby which causes me stress rather than pleasure and I think I need to change my approach.  

I probably need to look at two things: 

In terms of destination it is not healthy to allow my personal happiness to be so dependent on overcoming virtual challenges. I need to get less low when I am failing and that probably means getting less high when I succeed. If I hit an insurmountable challenge I need to learn to accept it and move on. I need to get over feelings of shame or failure that arise from not completing an encounter or from having to lower difficulty settings. It is probably no coincidence that these things have come to a head during the covid pandemic when the strictures of lockdown and social distancing have narrowed all of our horizons. Maybe I just need to get out more and get a sense of perspective. 

In terms of journey I wonder if I can become more appreciative of the actual process of trying and failing and learning by doing. I would like to change my mindset so that instead of challenging encounters being scary roadblocks standing me and my enjoyment of the game  they become enjoyable parts of the game in themselves. I don't expect to be able to develop leet gamer skillz at my age but persistence is a skill that is available to anybody. 

Edit: Immediately after completing this post I decided to have another go at the boss that was holding me back. Following the resolve of this post I tried to focus on enjoying the encounter itself rather than concentrating on whether or not I would fail.  My first attempt of the day went very well. I got the twin bosses down to about 10% before a misstep sent me plunging off a narrow bridge to my death. I immediately went back in with an optimistic mindset and got it on the second attempt. Go me! I think that writing this post definitely helped. It helped me to diminish my view of the boss as a big bad scary roadblock which allowed me to enjoy the game more and also helped me to perform better. Of course just saying something to yourself doesn't immediately change deeply held feelings but it is definitely a good start. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Lite Souls (Remnant from the Ashes)

 I am currently playing and enjoying Remnant from the Ashes a Soulslike game that has  a few twists of its own. 

In common with other Soulslike games Remnant is a third person adventure where saving at a checkpoint re-spawns all non boss enemies. Even regular enemies are dangerous and death is a frequent occurrence as you progress through the world. 

Perhaps Remnant's most significant difference is that it relies far more on ranged combat than melee combat. There is a wide range of guns and gun powerups available but the melee combat is quite simplistic in comparison to a typical soulslike game. There are no blocks or parries and a very limited number of melee moves. I find myself using melee only as a fallback when I am out of ammo or an enemy gets in too close. 

Another feature of Remnant is that is uses procedurally generated maps and levels within an overarching plot framework. Even the boss fights you encounter on any given play through are randomised  and you need to play through multiple times to see everything and collect everything. Encouraging multiple playthroughs is a common feature of Soulslike games but this randomisation is an added incentive to do so and keeps things fresh on repeated playthroughs. 

One feature that will upset many fans of hard core Soulslike games is that Remnant is relatively forgiving in comparison to the FromSoftware games which spawned the genre. The game is full of dangerous enemies and death is common but unlike regular Souls games you don't lose all your stuff when you die. Dying is a minor inconvenience rather than the gut wrenching defeat it could be. It is also more forgiving because there are several ways to heal in addition to the limited number of Estus flask like dragon stones you can carry. I find the switch to ranged combat makes the game easier in itself because combat is less reliant on a player's individual skill with button pressing and allows a more tactical play style with use of terrain. Remnant does compensate for this somewhat by throwing large numbers of enemies at you but overall I find it easier to manage. Then again I was never very good at melee combat games. 

The one aspect of remnant that is a bit of a disappointment for me is that the boss fights I have encountered have been relatively uninspired. I have only fought five bosses so far but all have followed a very similar pattern:  A main boss with a lot of hitpoints who constantly spawns annoying adds. In most cases the boss itself was just a souped up version of one of the earlier mob. The encounters are challenging in an annoying way because of all the adds but very forgettable.  

I personally like the fact that Remnant is on the whole easier that more canonical souls games. I like the fact that the game has selectable difficulty levels (I play on normal thank you very much). I like the fact that multiplayer interaction is co-operative assistance rather than the brutal player versus player invasions in Dark Souls games. While this lack of difficulty may limit its appeal for the "Git Gud" school of hard core enthusiasts I think it makes the game more accessible to a wider audience. The fact that I got it for free from the epic store less than a year after launch suggests it wasn't a runaway success which is a pity. The success of Jedi Fallen order shows that there is a market for a less challenging Soulslike experience and I think that Remnant would well suit those who enjoyed that game. 


Friday, August 14, 2020

The Perils of Amateur Tech Support

I am not an IT professional but I am technical enough to be called upon for computer support among my friends and family group. When it works I love being able to help people out but the experience is fraught with risks.  The diversity of things that can go wrong can be overwhelming and everything to do with computers seems to take much longer to fix than people expect. I have had the opportunity to watch professional support technicians in my workplace and once a problem goes beyond a certain complexity they very quickly go to the nuclear options of re-imaging disks or replacing hardware. Unfortunately these are not popular options when working with a family laptop that has has never been backed up. The biggest pitfall in providing amateur tech support however is the unwritten rule that once you attempt to repair a device anything that subsequently goes wrong with that device is now your fault, no matter how broken it was originally and no matter how much you acted in good faith to try and help.

I guess I have become a bit wiser (and a bit more cynical) over the years and I now make a conscious effort to think twice before jumping in to offer computer support. I still try to help but I try to be more realistic about the process. It has taken me a while to realise that often solutions that would make sense for me might not make sense for one of my less technically savvy family members. Sometimes replacing a device with a brand new one is the best choice. 

Here is a recent example: A relative asked me to look at an old desktop computer that their workplace was throwing out. They wondered if it could be used as a basic home computer for internet browsing and simple tasks. Here are the steps I took:

1. I brought the machine home and powered it up to find that it was a ten year old desktop with a weak CPU,  a slow hard disk and only 2 Gb ram. It had Windows 7 Pro installed on it (password protected). At least everything seemed to be working. 

2.  I knew I had to wipe the disk (the company should have done this before throwing it out) but then I needed to select an operating system for it. I discounted Windows 7 because it no longer receives security updates. I knew that Windows 10 would be painful on 2 Gb of memory so I looked in to some lightweight Linux distros. I even went so far as to boot up the machine with a USB version of Puppy Linux but then in a sudden outbreak of common sense I called STOP. If I install anything other than windows on the machine I am setting myself up for a lifetime of support calls about "how do I install" this printer or that piece of Windows software. I even discounted the more lightweight 32 bit version of Windows 10 because I knew that some programmes no longer support it. I installed Windows 10 64 bit  regardless of how slow it will run.

3. I thought briefly about trying to debloat Windows by removing stuff that isn't needed. You can even get a script that will do that. However I quickly realised that if I supply anything other than a standard installation of Windows then I risk getting support calls about why this or that function doesn't work. 

4. Slow and all as the machine is I knew that some improvements could be made.  Increasing the ram to at least 4Gb should reduce a lot of the disk churning and a wifi adapter would be essential for connecting to wireless internet. I also knew that both of these upgrades were within the capability of my relative to upgrade by themselves under my remote direction. An SSD would also make a big difference in responsiveness but it is marginal as to whether the expense is worth it. Also an SSD upgrade would definitely require my intervention to re-install / transfer Windows. My recommendation to relative: Try the machine as is. Buy and install the wifi adapter and ram to do the upgrade themselves. 

5. The relative is interested in genealogy and asked me to look at genealogy software. They mentioned a well known commercial product. I googled around and found a couple of free open source products that offered similar functionality as well as the ability to share data using standard file formats. I installed two free programmes and the free trial version of the commercial programme. I know very little about genealogy software but I quickly discounted one of the open source programmes once I realised that you need to be able to write your own scripts in Python to get the most out of it. The second open source programme looked a lot nicer and to my untrained eyes seemed broadly comparable to the commercial product but again the voice at the back of my head called STOP. If my relative uses the free product and encounters a problem it will be up to me to try and solve it. If they like the commercial programme and are willing to pay for it then any issues that arise are down to the company that provides it. 

So the machine is going back to the relative today with Windows 10 installed and in a working condition. I suspect they will quickly tire of how sluggish it is. The ram upgrade should help a bit if they choose to do it. 

You know you are a PC gamer when ...

 I am currently playing FTL:Multiverse. This is a massive overhaul mod of the 2012 kickstarter hit FTL. The mod is enormous. It massively ex...