Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

First Move Advantage …

December 6, 2017

So, as I promised elsewhere, this is another post taking on a post by Extra Credits. This time in a video from three years ago they’re talking about “First Move Advantage”, they are talking about “First Move Advantage”, which is when in a turn-based game — or in a turn-based element of a game — the person moving first gets a turn up on their opponent and so has an advantage over their opponent. They treat this like it is inherent, but I submit that there is no such thing as an inherent advantage to the first player and that if you are noticing this in your metrics the problem is likely with how your game is structured.

As usual, I can’t copy-and-paste quote directly from the video, so let me summarize their argument. This video follows on from a previous video — that I haven’t watched — about randomness in E-sports, which spawns this new discussion, even though it isn’t focused on E-sports (I’ll talk more about E-sports later). They start by giving examples of games that have had or are at least believed to have significant first move advantage, and talk about ways they went about trying to compensate for that. It is interesting to note that these compensations are, in general, not a matter of tweaking rules but are instead about giving direct and generally external to the game advantages to the second player, like giving more cards to a Magic player or more points to the Go player who goes last. They then talk about ways to detect and compensate for this if you’re designing a game, hitting topics like having metrics in the game to determine if it is happening and how significant it is to being aware that it might get worse over time as players get better at the game and exploit it more. At the end of the day, their main point is to ensure that designers are aware of and compensate for first move advantage in turn-based games and in games that have turn-based elements.

The problem is that moving first isn’t always an advantage, even in the “developed resource” games that they talk about, and is only a significant advantage if the game design is built to give an advantage to what the first mover gains from moving first at the expense of what the second player gains from moving second.

The first thing we need to do to see this more clearly is generalize away from a simple two-player turn-based game and thus from the simplistic “First move vs last move” mechanic to “Early move vs late move”. This allows us to look at other turn-based, multiplayer games like Civilization, Disciples 2, Master of Orion and a host of others, including tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. What we can see, then, is that if you move first you get initiative — you even roll for that in D & D — and if you move later you have to be reactive. But that also means that you get to react to what your opponent is doing. You can see what units they are creating, who they are attacking, what their formation is and adjust accordingly. So the advantage to going earlier in the turn is that you get to enact your strategy before your opponent does, but the advantage to going later in the turn is that your opponents’ strategy is revealed to you before yours is to them. In some games, that initial strategy can be revealed as early as the first turn.

We can see how this works with a D & Dish example. Imagine that there is one character who, due to their level or class or whatever, has an overwhelming ability that will mostly win the battle for them, but activating it reduces their initiative so they have to go last. The first player can — and obviously will — try to pull out all the stops in trying to kill it before it can be activated. If they succeed, then they probably steamroll the rest of the team and win the fight. But if they fail, they pretty much lose the battle. Knowing this and seeing the first player positioning for this move and/or even starting the attacks, the second player can do things to add to the survivability of that character, like using other characters to heal it or to intercept attacks so that it can survive and win the battle for them. If the first player doesn’t, in fact, make this sort of focused move, the second player can then take other actions to bolster their advantage and doesn’t have to focus on protecting that character as much (which isn’t all that great if the ability is hugely, hugely overwhelming, but in closer battles it can be critical). The first player will get to do some damage first, but as long as that damage isn’t inherently overwhelming the second player gets to react to that strategy. Heck, they might even be able to plan for that character being wiped out and position themselves with an overwhelming advantage considering that, if the game is sufficiently balanced, using that character as a decoy.

An example of this is shown in this Order of the Stick comic. The monster gets to attack first, but whomever it attacks the other cleric simply heals that damage. They don’t need to try to heal any specific character until they know who has actually lost hit points. Sure, if this pattern continues eventually the monster will win because they will run out of heal spells, but that assumes that that’s all they do. If they attack at all, then it comes down to whether or not they can kill the monster because it does enough damage to run them out of heal spells.

And this leads us to another way the later turn advantage plays out, with the later player never having to waste resources — or additional resources — trying to do something that won’t have benefit them because of what the other player has or hasn’t done. Take the healing case. If you have to specify that you will cast a healing spell but have to wait for your casting time, it is possible that when your turn comes up no one has been damaged yet, and so the spell is useless at this point in the turn, even if it would have been useful later. Meanwhile, the character with the later turn is pretty much guaranteed to be able to heal someone that turn, even if it isn’t the optimal person to heal, so they can be more comfortable casting the spell without risking wasting it. The same thing can apply to Wonders in a game like Civilization. If they find out that another player is building a Wonder and will finish it first, the player reacting to this can stop putting resources into building it and can shift the ones already allocated to build something else useful, even a different Wonder. Now, this isn’t as pure an example of early vs late turn advantage because in Civilization this depends a lot on how productive the various cities are, which doesn’t depend quite as much on who goes first (it depends more on what is around you and where you plant your cities) but there is a bit of that here. All other things being equal — which they aren’t — the early players will build Wonders first but later players will get to react to being beaten to the punch.

And this ability to react can have advantages. The early turn player has to wait longer for their opponent’s strategy to become clear, so they have to guess at what is a good move more often. Take this example: there are two resources that an early player can or wants to acquire. The best one also happens to be close to another player who moves later, and who could get it before them if they went after it. The further one isn’t as good, but they could get it before anyone else if they started for it immediately, but might not if they don’t. None of the players can know what resource another player is trying for until they make that first move. For the early turn player, they have to guess at what their opponents are going to do. Do they see that resource? Are they occupied with something else that will prevent them from interfering? If they decide to play it safe, they get a resource but not the one they really wanted. If they don’t, then they might get neither.

Meanwhile, the later turn player merely has to watch and wait to see what the early turn player actually does. If they move towards that resource, the later turn player can immediately move out towards it and deny it to them. If they move for the other resource, they can either take that resource anyway or else take the opportunity to do other things secure in the knowledge that no one will be able to take that resource without them being able to react in time. The early player is in a tough situation here, because being able to react to their moves first can leave them in a terrible situation.

So we can see that we can have early turn and later turn advantage. You’ll tend to have early turn advantage when being able to enact your strategy first will give you more advantage than being able to react to your strategies first does, while later turn advantage occurs when the opposite is true.

But just as if your game is imbalanced as players improve they will find ways to exploit it, if your game is actually balanced as players improve they will find ways to mitigate an early perceived advantage. A game might start with early or later turn players having the advantage, but as the players develop this might balance out. An example of this is with an RTS, Starcraft, and “Zerg Rushing”. Basically, the Zerg faction was built to produce a lot of cheap units really quickly, and so a main strategy was to crank out a tonne of these and send them to the nearest enemy base, wiping it out. I’m not a Starcraft expert, but I understand that players here learned that this was a possibility and learned ways to counter that, making that early advantage less of one. So an advantage to either early or later turns in a game might get eliminated as players learn those strategies and develop effective counters.

Of course, it’s always possible that a game really does have an early or later turn advantage. Rather than simply giving benefits, it’s probably a good idea to look at your rules to see what is causing the problem. If there is a significant and consistent early turn advantage, the issue is that initiative matters more than being able to react, which usually means that either the opponents don’t have effective counters to strategies or can’t figure out what strategies the early turn players have before it is too late to counter them. For later turn advantage, it usually means that the strategies are too obvious and the counters too easy to implement. All of these can be tweaked to reduce or even eliminate the advantage.

But after all of this it might indeed still be the case that the advantage cannot be eliminated without changing the game so radically that it isn’t the same game anymore and might not even be fun anymore if you did so. What do you do if you want some kind of formal competitive structure, like ranked PvP or E-sports? Well, for actual competitions, instead of giving random point or card advantages or other external to the game corrections, you can do what other competitive sports have done. Both tennis and darts have huge advantages to one player. In tennis, the player with serve wins most of the time, while in darts the player who has the throw — ie throws darts first — has a huge advantage (and that is indeed because they get to enact their “strategy” first by usually getting the first chance to throw for a “finish” and win the game). Yet both have strong competitive leagues. How do they resolve the problem? They alternate serve/throw, and force a player to win “by two”, meaning that if a player wants to win a match they have to break serve or break throw, meaning that they have to beat their opponent at least once when their opponent has the advantage to win the match. If the advantage is huge and the players equally balanced, this can take a while, but even with the massive advantage for those sports this rarely happens. And any game with luck elements will want to have the players play a series rather than simply one match, so this isn’t hard to fit into most competitive structures, and avoids the rather odd looking “balance” options given in the video.

In summary, there is no inherent early turn or first move advantage. Early turn players get initiative and to enact their strategies first, while later turn players get to react to those strategies first. A game can advantage either of these, and if you find that a game advantages one or the other understanding the advantages of going first or going last can help you balance it. And if you have a game that can’t be balanced but that you want to have in competitions anyway, forcing a player to win “against the throw” is a way to keep it balanced and exciting without introducing artificial, outside-the-rules balancing mechanisms.

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Your chance to help decide what I write about!

November 29, 2017

So, I’ve been running with the three updates a week schedule for quite a while now, and it seems to be working out pretty well. It even managed to survive my incredible busy time without all that much of a hitch. In doing this I’ve also started to figure out what things work, what things don’t and how things can work out better in my schedule, which then might start to make the blog more predictable consistent in how things work and what sort of content you might see here. In short, there are certain types of content that work pretty well whether I’m busy or not, and that are also things that I like talking about and am going to do some things with anyway, so I might as well talk about them.

The key is that what works best for the blog are things that I can watch, read or do at any time and then comment on later without having to refer back to the original source material that much. If I can do that, then it really makes my blog writing more flexible and so gives me things that can be done in a relative hurry if I’m busy but that I can do in free time if I’m not busy. TV shows are the ideal for this, and books are probably the worst (since to comment on arguments fairly I generally want to quote from them). But since a lot of these things are things that I haven’t focused on or that are suddenly fitting into my schedule better than they did before, I’m also a bit short of things that fit into those categories and so need to find some new sources for those sorts of posts.

Here is your chance to guide me towards new things to try in those areas.

So, one thing that I’ve found myself lately is watching Extra Credits youtube videos and commenting on them (which in their case means “Disagreeing with them”). In fact, I’m planning on commenting on another couple of them in the near future. But other than SF Debris, I don’t really watch a lot of youtube videos, especially when it comes to gaming. And about the only other commentator on games that I read consistently is Shamus Young, and I’m thinking about digging through his old columns — which he is planning on revisting himself, making this so much easier — to find some other things to talk about. But what other video game commentators do you guys like to watch or read who might have things to say that I might find interesting and want to talk about? While ones that I would probably disagree with are in some sense good — because it’s always pretty easy to write posts disagreeing with people (Hi, Extra Credits!) — I’m also open to people who just say things that might bring up interesting, tangentially related ideas for me to talk about (Hi, Shamus!).

A couple of caveats, though: for youtube videos, the videos can’t be longer, on average, than a half-hour, and can’t be Let’s Plays. Text reviewers are not only excluded from those restrictions, they’ll get precedence because it’s easier for me to read them anywhere and quote them if I want to talk about what they’re saying.

Another thing that I’ve recently started doing more frequently is commenting on TV shows that I’m watching in general, which you saw with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Transformers, and most recently Cheers. I’m currently watching Frasier, and will talk about it as things go along, and I still have a show like Wings waiting when this is done. But since I don’t watch a lot of TV in general, I don’t have much of an idea of what shows might be worth watching, and for my purposes — see the upcoming caveats — don’t want to risk trying something out that I don’t think will be good.

Right now, there are a number of caveats. First, for at least the next year it looks like half-hour shows are what I’ll be watching, and that’s all that I could do for the blog because it would take me too long to watch hourly shows to be useful for generating content on the blog. However, that isn’t limited to sitcoms, as it can fit into anything that is half-hour in length and sounds interesting, like cartoons (for example). Second, these have to be completed series, and it has to be the case that I can get the entire series for a reasonable price. Ideally, if I can order them all on amazon.ca, that would be wonderful. EDIT: I’ll pretty much be buying DVDs, so if it’s not out on DVD the chances of my watching it are slim to none. Third, they can’t be too long; the eleven seasons of Frasier and Cheers are probably about the limit, although that’s more number of episodes rather than number of seasons.

As an example, I’m right now looking to see if I can get Hot in Cleveland — which I’ve talked about before — and maybe, now that its run is done, 2 Broke Girls if I can get the seasons for a reasonable price. Big Bang Theory is out because it is still running and is too long anyway, as is something like The Simpsons for the same reason.

I’m also interested in getting suggestions for books to read and talk about. I do want to keep reading and writing about deeper and more serious topics like that, even though it takes me a while to get around to commenting on them (I have finished reading Philipse’s book, for example, but still have to finish writing posts about it), and I’m a bit out of the loop on what the most recent or, for some genres, even what the popular books and topics are. So I’d be looking for suggestions in the genres of theology, philosophy, and history primarily. I’ll also consider requests for TPB comic editions (but, at least for now, not Alt-Hero).

Now, just because something isn’t listed here doesn’t mean that I won’t be writing about it. For example, I still intend to write about video games, but that will still be limited to the ones I play, and I won’t be soliciting ones to consider as something new so I can talk about it on the blog. And I’ll talk about music and my own eccentricities and do song parodies and talk about computers and write philosophical posts regardless. It’s just that these are categories that it is both relatively easy for me to write about and that I’m fairly uninformed about what’s out there that I might want to get into and write about, which is why I’m asking for suggestions here.

Also note that this isn’t like Chuck’s requests. I don’t put these on a list and promise to have them completed at some time in the near future. I’ll do them if I feel like it and get time and can get them without breaking the bank. I’ll try to respond to all comments as to whether there’s even a chance of it and I’ll try to put something up for things that I’ve bought and so plan to get to at some point, but any suggestion you make here is a suggestion that I’ll consider but may not do, even if I think it’s a good one.

Final Thoughts on Cheers

November 27, 2017

So, I finally finished watching all 11 seasons of Cheers. And I have to say that while the show improved significantly after Diane left, season 11 was the season where they pretty much ran out of ideas and it all went downhill. It was a really good idea to end it where they did.

Sam and Rebecca, despite being the two characters whose actors got first billing, faded into the background in the later seasons. Sam ended up being a supporting character for the most part, while Rebecca was turned into a B-plot character most of the time. Which in some way makes sense, since they really focused on her dysfunctions and so the easiest way to use her character was to trigger a dysfunction as a background funny event and then use that as the B-plot for that episode. But there wasn’t really much more to her character and so no where for it to go. Even her getting married at the end was a quick ending that served little more than to have Rebecca act dysfunctional for the final episodes. Kirstie Alley did that well, but I still tended to prefer her when she was in tough mode than in dysfunctional mode.

Sam’s sex addiction storyline makes sense to me, because it seems to me that while it was something that he enjoyed, there ended up being an undercurrent of that also being a status symbol for him, especially since the bar patrons liked to live vicariously through him. As he aged — and clearly had problems with aging — it became more and more important to him as a sign that he still had it, and less as something that he did for fun. This could, then, have led to it being something he did even when he didn’t want to, because if he failed then it would greatly impact his own self-image. So he had to keep up a large string of successes, even as it seemed to become less and less interesting to him, especially since if he even decided to not pursue it the regulars would pressure him into it, like they did with the competition with Henri. Which had a great ending, where Sam decides to not pressure a purportedly vulnerable woman to get the number he needed to win or tie the event … and then after she says that she spins that line as a test and that her and her two friends — who do everything together — were interested in going out with him, and so Sam gets to say to Henri that he is obviously broken up over losing to Henri as he leaves with three beautiful women.

They also added a new semi-regular character in Paul, but I never warmed to him. As he was new, we didn’t have the years to get to know him like we had for the others, but he also didn’t really have a specific role — like Cliff and Norm — at the bar to slot into. Thus, he ended up being kinda a generic loser, which wasn’t very interesting. At the end of the day, as a character he didn’t have any more development than the other semi-regular bar patrons, but he seemed to be shoehorned into more situations that they were and so was made more prominent, which kinda made him more annoying than entertaining.

As the show progressed, Woody lost a bit of his naivete and was more often willing to engage in mean-spirited humour, which hurt the character. The problem is, though, that you couldn’t really keep him that nice forever, and a lot of the jokes he made were things that you’d expect from someone who grew up in a rural area. However, since Carla’s entire schtick was based around being mean-spirited — although she got some development later — the show could slide towards having more mean-spirited humour than was probably good for it. Good-natured ribbing was par for the course given the environment, but with Carla none of it was good-natured, except possibly at times with Sam. Which meant that while I might have liked Carla more when I first watched it, this time I found her to be annoying.

It’s also fairly clear from this why Frasier was the one who got the spin-off show, as the two most interesting storylines, at least to me, was his with Lilith and Woody’s with Kelly. And while I would have liked to have seen more of Woody and Kelly — as their pleasant but naive and often stupid personalities really broke up some of the nastiness — there wasn’t much that you could do with that specific line, and attempts to develop them, as already stated, risked making them less nice and so less pleasant to watch. There’s just more sorts of humour and development you could do with Lilith and Frasier, either together or, at it turned out, separately.

I actually liked Lilith as a character, but strongly disliked the part of the plot where she had an affair. The problem is that her having one made little sense. Even during the affair plot, she talks about how great the sex was, so it doesn’t seem to be a lack of sexual satisfaction that causes it, but then about the only other reason for it would be a lack of emotional support … but Lilith was so emotionless most of the time that it would make more sense for Frasier to cheat on that basis instead of her. It probably should have been built more around her career entirely, with her leaving him precisely for the chance to go into the Ecopod and the affair developing there, which would also have played into the fact that based on how she talks she quite likely has a pretty high sex drive, and thus might have a harder time abstaining from sex than Frasier would. Still, it was one of the better storylines.

One thing that happened to me a lot while watching Cheers was that as it seemed to drop subtle hints about its plot twists I often figured out what was going on before they actually revealed it, like with the one case where Diane has a dream within a dream where Sam changes and pushes for a relationship and because he changes so drastically we know that this must be a dream and where when Frasier receives a letter from Lilith asking for a divorce when she storms into the bar we can pretty quickly guess that it was her boyfriend who sent the letter even before he reveals it. To the show’s credit, figuring out the twists doesn’t usually make the scenes less entertaining, and in fact might even add to it as we wait to see how far things will go or how it will be revealed, and pat ourselves on the back for being right.

Cheers also probably relies on continuity far more than almost any other sitcom I’ve ever watched, constantly making references to things that happened in the past and often elevating small scenes that were almost forgotten into full-fledged plots. That these generally worked is also to the show’s credit. I have no idea if they planted seeds in case they needed to use them later or had them as throw-away jokes that they were inspired to use when they needed it for a plot, but whatever the case it provided something that I haven’t seen in a lot of sitcoms.

Now, onto the ending, where Diane came back. I can see why they did it, but it both came up and was resolved too quickly to really matter, and if you weren’t pining for Sam and Diane or weren’t hoping for a resolution to their relationship or an explanation for why Diane never came back you really wouldn’t care much about it, and so it will come off a bit flat. If you didn’t care for their relationship, then it will seem like time wasted that could have been used exploring better storylines.

At the end of the day, my overall assessment of the show is that it was … okay. It was rough in some parts, but for the most part never really fell below “meh” even in its worst episodes. So it was pretty much always watchable. The Sam and Diane relationship probably dragged on longer than it should have, and the show really hit its stride when it ended and the satellite characters got more focus, only to peter out towards the end. I probably will watch this again at some point.

Loot, There It Is!

November 15, 2017

So, Shamus Young wrote a post answering a reader’s question about whether we might be entering into another PC Golden Age. This is a bemusing topic for me, since I recently bought five new PC games … all from Good Old Games, all older games, and one of them, at least, I bought because I originally played it on the Amiga. I can’t think of any new PC games I want to play and, in fact, can’t even really think of any new console games that I want to play. While I’m more likely to buy a new video game in the next few months, I’m far more likely to be anxiously awaiting a new board game than I am a video game (Legendary: Buffy in particular). So to me it’s not looking like much of a Golden Age, for gaming in general and PC gaming in particular.

But, I recently picked up a new game. And it contains one of the big things that Shamus doesn’t like: loot boxes. And yet … I kinda like the loot boxes. But on reading Shamus’ complaints — and especially the links to what they do in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and Shadow of War — I can definitely see the potential problem with them.

See, the thing is, why they work for me in Injustice 2 is because I get credits and loot boxes for, well, doing the things that I want to do in the game. Supposedly, they can increase stats and so add benefits and power to your character, but I generally play the game on the easiest mode possible anyway so I don’t really care. I like the idea of using them to customize characters, although I don’t get quite the same thrill on opening them as other people will because the list of characters I like to play with is very short — Supergirl and Black Canary — and so most of the stuff that comes up are things that I have no interest in. Which, of course, means that I’m completely immune to any kind of additive or even gambling type of stimuli, because I’m not opening each box with trepidation hoping for something really, really good. I’m more in the mode of opening up the things that I earned to see if there’s any goodie inside. And yet, there still indeed is a bit of a thrill in opening them up and seeing what I got.

And this, then, triggers the problem, as was pointed out in this article about Star Wars: Battlefront 2:

This system is just miles worse than a traditional progression system that allows players to choose what they want to upgrade. While loot boxes could work in a game like this sprinkling in extra stuff here and there, used as the entire core of the progression system, it’s beyond frustrating. You’re now not just grinding for upgrades, your grinding for the chance at an upgrade that you actually want …

Which returns it to my experience with Injustice 2. Since I only like a small number of characters, what I’d like — even if all of the loot is merely cosmetic — to do is buy stuff for those characters, at least at first. And for those characters, I’d like to buy the things that I want them to have, like specific costume options or things that improve the traits that I most rely on in the fights, or whatever. Under the old models, even and perhaps especially in fighting games, I fought through enough to get enough credits to buy the things I wanted, and in general I saw exactly how much that would cost me well in advance and so, since I can also figure out how much I earn on average doing specific things, could know how long it would take me to get there (roughly) and thus, if I had to grind, knew how long the grind would be and could decide if it was really worth it for me.

With this system, I have no idea how long that will take. I have to grind to get the credits and/or boxes, and then when I open them I’ve either gotten something I wanted or I haven’t. If I have, then I can stop. If I haven’t, then I need to keep grinding again. In the worst case, I’m spending lots of time doing things I didn’t really want to do in the hopes of getting what I want or need, in an endless cycle of earning, looking at, and then sighing and going back to the things I don’t really want to do again.

But this gets worse, as I think that game designers have underestimated how much hope turning into disappointment can impact the attitude of a player. If I get enough to buy an appropriate loot box, I will feel some hope that maybe, this time, I can get what I wanted. And then that hope will come crashing down when I don’t get what I wanted. In fact, if I end up only getting things that I don’t want, that disappointment will only be heightened. Essentially, the game will continually force the player into a cycle akin to Christmas morning, where they run downstairs to open their present full of hope that they’ll get that gift they’ve wanted for ages … only to be disappointed when they find out that that’s not what they got after all and, even worse, they got something they don’t like and can’t use. And the game will do this over and over and over and over, in the worst and likely even in the most common cases. That can’t make the player pleasantly disposed towards the game.

The only way to avoid this is to make the loot boxes and the things they contain unimportant, nice little asides that you can open that might have something interesting in it but in general might just have trash. So as you earn them, you open them up to see if you get anything neat but you are never really looking to get anything specific or really interesting from them. The problem with this is that if they are that unimportant/uninteresting no one will grind to get them and certainly no one will pay real money to get them, and so they won’t achieve any of the goals that the developers are putting them into the game to achieve. But if they make them important enough for that, then their random nature will cause players to be very upset at being jerked around. And unlike CCGs, these loot boxes exist pretty much entirely within the game itself, so anger at that system will definitely carry over to the game itself.

So, the only reason that I like the loot boxes in Injustice 2 is because I don’t really care about what’s inside, and so there’s some fun in the anticipation of what I might get and I think that it might be neat to see what some of the options are. But I certainly don’t care enough to play the game to get more of the boxes and see what’s inside; if I’m not having fun playing the game, I’m not going to play it to get the next loot box, so adding the loot boxes to the game didn’t add any incentive for me to play the game. And if I did care, getting a ton of Joker and Green Arrow gear when I really wanted Black Canary and Supergirl gear would have made me quit the game in disgust. If I like the game, then I’ll play it regardless of the loot boxes, and if I really want the loot then the loot boxes not giving me a predictable path to the loot I want is going to frustrate me more and sour me on the game. It’s only if I actually get addicted that these moves can pay off … and that’s probably not a market that games want to deliberately cater to.

Thoughts on Injustice 2

November 13, 2017

As I’m sure I’ve stated before, I tend to play fighting games for the story, and not for the actual fighting. I had picked up Injustice a while ago, played it, and enjoyed it, and so while browsing in EB Games I came across Injustice 2 for the PS4 and decided that I’d give it a shot. Since this is a recent game and I’ll be talking heavily about the plot, I’ll put the rest below the fold:

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You asked for it …

November 10, 2017

So, over at Feminist Frequency, Carolyn Petit has posted a commentary on Super Mario Odyssey. However, her really big complaint ends up being about something that the game pretty much did to subvert gender expectations and the damsel in distress trope in the way that Sarkeesian’s entire “Tropes vs Women” series seemed to call for. It’s no surprise that it wasn’t a good move, and only a slight surprise — presumably to people who haven’t been paying attention to how the Social Justice side generally engage in games — that Petit doesn’t like it.

Before I get into that, though, I want to talk about the Tiara and the Cap (and the thief of the night):

This time around, it’s not just Peach who needs rescuing. There’s also Tiara, the sentient crown Bowser has snatched to rest upon Peach’s head during the nuptials he’s rapidly arranging. Now, Tiara is not just a living hat. No, Tiara is a female hat, and with her in danger, her brother Cappy rides along on Mario’s mop, giving him the remarkable powers he needs to complete his quest.

I mean, look. In a series that has been relying on gendered tropes for decades, if we’re gonna go so far as to gender the hats, couldn’t we at least switch things up and have the female hat (Hattie, perhaps?) ride along with Mario on a quest to rescue her brother? But no, Odyssey does damseling twice over, delivering a one-two punch of reinforcing those good ol’-fashioned video game gender norms.

So, here’s the issue. They came up with the idea of using parts of the characters’ apparel as sentient beings that can help out the characters, or at least be confidants for them (I don’t know how much of a role the tiara plays in Princess Peach’s story, at least throughout the game). They chose their typical head wear … or, at least, what would be typical head wear for their occupations (cap for a plumber, tiara for a princess). Now, these clothes are in some sense gender-typed; while women can indeed wear caps, men don’t generally wear tiaras, and a cap would not go with a princess outfit, and a tiara would not go with a plumber’s outfit. With the tiara, at least, being strongly feminine, if they had tried to make the tiara male and the cap female, it would have turned into a joke, because of the incongruity of a tiara being masculine. This means that if they did that, it would have been seen as a joke and it would have lent itself to more and more jokes about the incongruity, which would have annoyed Petit to no end, I imagine. The only way around that would be to make the cap and the tiara both non-presenting trans, which would have introduced many complications and more serious content than a Mario game — primarily aimed at kids — would want to do. So they took the easy way out and made them match the impressions, in a way that really isn’t any more problematic than what they were doing with Princess Peach in the first place and in all of their other games … which Petit then gripes about as being a doubling of damseling.

Sorry, but that criticism seems both petty and ignorant of the potential consequences of the switch, including the idea that Peach might be controlled by a male character in some sense (depending on the role of the tiara in the game, which I haven’t played).

But now onto the scene that she really hates:

The final battle takes place as Mario literally crashes Bowser’s wedding ceremony. Once the battle with Bowser is at an end, Mario, Peach and the Koopa King are together on the surface of the moon. Bowser, not entirely out of steam, charges up to Peach with an offering of a piranha plant, still trying to win her over. And here’s where things really got weird for me. Mario also crowds Peach, holding a flower, engaging in a moment of “pick-me!” rivalry with the Koopa King. For a few seconds, the two dudes elbow and jostle each other, pushing their respective flowers in Peach’s face.

Now, this is a really messed-up thing for Mario to do, a vile position to put Peach in. Furthermore, until this point in the series, it’s remained plausible that Mario’s motives for rescuing the princess were mostly selfless. One could say that he simply objected to her freedom being infringed upon, and didn’t want a brute like Bowser getting away with his dastardly schemes.

However, this moment suggests that it’s not that at all, that the real reason he’s rescued Peach so many times is because he wants her for himself. I’ve made countless jokes with friends over the years about how the surprise plot twist of the Mario games will someday be that Mario was the villain all along, but this game was the first that kinda made me believe it. It was impossible for me not to think about the twist ending of the Mario-influenced game Braid, in which the protagonist Tim is revealed to be a stalker, not a hero. Peach has long served as a reward for players in these games, but this scene made me think that Mario, too, sees Peach more as a prize than a person.

To her credit, Peach doesn’t deign to give Mario so much as a kiss on the cheek, but instead gives both of these jerks the cold shoulder and walks off, at which point Mario and Bowser take some solace in their shared rejection. I guess at the end of the day, Bowser is really just another one of the Bros., and, well, you know what they say about Bros.

Yeah, and do you know why all of that is there? To set up that scene where Princess Peach rejects them both and storms off in a display of female empowerment, to later cruise around the world herself having adventures. This is clearly an attempt to subvert the damsel in distress trope — and, particularly, the “Women as Reward” trope — in precisely the way that Sarkeesian had talked about in the past. Yes, to do that you have to derail Mario into someone who presumably was at least seen as being in this for the reward of the love of the princess instead of just trying to do the right thing, but what’s derailing an entire male character when compared to making that obviously visible pro-feminist statement? Which Petit, of course, likes; it’s making Mario a, in her words, “creep” and that Princess Peach didn’t get to do more than she objects to. Um, despite the fact that Mario falling in love with her isn’t actually unreasonable, and that the only thing that, to me, makes his timing suspect is that Bowser isn’t actually real competition. If Bowser was seen as real competition that Peach might have chosen but only if she didn’t believe Mario felt that way about her, then the timing would be necessary, somewhat romantic, and fit into the normal trope that people really should express their feelings about each other if they have them.

Anyway, why did this scene flop for everyone? Because it put, it seems to me, the feminist message ahead of telling a good story. Petit can argue that it’s there just for a cheap joke, but with the final sequence where Peach goes off to be an independent woman having her own adventures that’s hardly likely. No, it seems obvious to me that they wanted to do the sort of subversion that people like Sarkeesian and Petit ask for and didn’t care if they derailed the existing characters to do it, and instead ended up getting complaints because they derailed Mario into someone who is non-feminist (ie a “creep”) with nary a mention that he was derailed in a terrible way specifically to promote a feminist message. Feminists didn’t like it because it wasn’t feminist enough, in that Peach got limited freedom and Mario fit their idea of a “creep” or “Bro”, and non-feminists — or, at least, those who pay attention to the underlying theme — won’t like it because it derails Mario for a ridiculous feminist subversion that even the feminists don’t care for. This is precisely what happens when you try to satisfy the vague and poorly thought out demands of much of the Social Justice line instead of looking at your games and your story and deciding what you want to do. In short, don’t listen to what they say they want, but look deeper to see if there’s a valid complaint and do the work to fix that complaint.

Of course, if you do that, shallow analysis might still have them up in arms. But shallow fixing of complaints brought about by shallow analysis won’t make anyone happy. Least of all you.

The Importance of Goals

November 8, 2017

So, recently, Extra Credits did a video on what they have coined “The Arbitrary Endpoint Trap”. Essentially, this is the case where you are playing a game not just to have fun with the game and in fact might even be having less fun playing the game than you were earlier, but you have an endpoint or goal in mind and are trying to finish that before stopping for the night. In general, they are against this sort of thing, and are encouraging players to stop when they stop having fun, and to notice when games are trying to use these sorts of arbitrary — in some sense meaning “in-game goals that have no real impact on the player” — goals against them to get them to play longer or to play their game instead of another game.

There are a couple of problems with their analysis. The first is that often gamers — especially casual gamers — do get an improved experience from completing these “arbitrary” goals, even if that pay-off is only when you start the next session. The second is that the sort of goals that they cite for mobile games are actually a different goal altogether, being more of the “one more turn” type of mechanism than the “let me get this next level and I’ll stop for the night” sort of mechanism. I’d actually argue that in most of the cases that they cite as being problematic, the problem is that there aren’t enough arbitrary goals, or that they are in fact spaced out too much, not that they exist at all, and that adding more goals might solve more problems than trying to avoid making or following them.

As a casual gamer, one of the big hurdles I face in playing games is the fact that in order to really feel satisfied with my experience, I have to feel like I’ve made some sort of progress in the game. As I commented when trying to decide what to play after Persona 5 — as well as at other times — it is important to me to feel like I’ve managed to get somewhere in a game in a session, that I’ve made some progress or that something has happened. Record of Agarest War is always problematic for me since there are long stretches of grinding where you don’t advance the plot and only gain levels and skill points in the hopes of being able to eventually take out that boss that you need to finish the dungeon and advance the game. It’s particularly bad because it’s not the combat that I like about the game, but instead the story and the dating sim elements, so I end up spending many sessions doing things I like less in order to finally overcome the boss and therefore to be able to do the things that I actually liked to do in the game. Persona 3 had the same problem for me, because the dungeons weren’t all that interesting, so I’d spend one session merely grinding through the dungeons and then the next advancing S-links, which were the things I most enjoyed about the game. And that was when I could exploit the fact that the MC’s level carries over on NG+ to blow through the dungeon on one night. When I had to start from scratch and couldn’t do that, the game was more of a slog than really entertaining.

Now imagine how much worse this is if you can’t play the next day, and your next session is a week or more away. You can really start to feel like you’ve made little to no progress for months if you aren’t achieving any goals and are just grinding your way towards them. So a bunch of small, achievable goals will break up the grind and give you a good place to stop a session where you can feel that you’ve accomplished something in that session. This, of course, will mean that at times you will push on towards a goal to finish it rather than because you are maximizing your fun in the game, but the satisfaction you get from the feeling of having made progress will generally make up for that.

The video also ignores that there is often an experiential cost to stopping in the middle of something and trying to pick up where you left off in your next session. Let’s take their example of a book. The reason that I might want to push through a book and read the last ten pages even if I might enjoy it more if I was more awake and, well, wasn’t making it a goal to finish it tonight. And the reason is that the next time I sit down to read, I can sit down and start a new book and get into it without having to instead go back to that previous book, get into reading it again, only to have to put it down ten pages in — because it’s finished — and then pick up another book and get into that one. And presuming that there is at least some suspense in it or at least something driving me to finish those ten pages, leaving those ten pages to the next session can, in fact, leave me feeling tense and anxious to finish it. If I’m actually enjoying it, then I want to keep going and get to a nice end point, and stopping in the middle will always feel a bit less satisfying to me, even if I’m not enjoying it as much as I would when fresh.

Games, especially for casual gamers, can be even worse. Stopping in the middle isn’t always that easy, because for any game that is at all interesting there are things that you are trying to do and, depending on the game, various different things that you are trying to keep track of. In a strategy game, you usually have multiple objectives — including attacks, defenses and build and research queues, among others — that you are working towards. In RPGs, you usually have multiple quests on the go, and are also looking at level progression, equipment progression, and possibly even companion quests and influence. In adventure games, you almost always have to end on a puzzle that you are trying to figure out. And we can see that stopping in the middle of a match in a sports game would be terribly annoying. All of this only gets worse when your next session isn’t going to be the next morning, but is instead going to be the next week. Or perhaps even longer. Not only does that mean that you’ll have to take some time to get back into the game, you also might well have forgotten all of the things that you were trying to do, and have to spend time trying to remember that before playing again. And forgetting some of those things, depending on the game, could mean that you ruin your game because you, say, forgot to bolster the defense of that city or forgot to seek out your companion to talk to or trigger a quest before you take on the next mission and so lose the opportunity forever.

Or you could push on at less than optimal gaming fun for an hour or two and finish that, and start “fresh” the next day.

See, the thing about these “arbitrary endpoints” is that while they are in some sense arbitrary, when done properly they are also natural endpoints. They are a goal or achievement that you can use to say “Whew, that’s done, so now I can forget about them and do something else”. As such, they work to mark progress, by you getting something completed and thus being able to point to, at the end of your session, all of the things you got done. They can make endpoints of a progression, meaning that you don’t have to remember where you were in them the next time. They can make a natural ending point for the night, like the end of a chapter so that you can start from something that has even a minor resolution, and start over from something that is a natural new starting point. And these sorts of endpoints are important for the enjoyment of players and to allow them to not get completely sucked into an endless progression where they are still playing but not having fun because they haven’t hit a good place to stop yet.

Which brings us to their comments on mobile games taking advantage of our tendency to create and chase goals, because the problem with those games is that they don’t in fact have natural “arbitrary” endpoints, and so encourage “One more turn” sorts of gameplay. The game that most hits this for me is the game Star Wars: Rebellion, but the game that probably most exemplifies this is Civilization, where players keep playing for turns and turns and turns barely noticing the passage of time, and constantly thinking “I’ll just play one more turn” when they know that they really, really should stop. So why does this happen? Well, the issue here is that the players don’t really want to play for “just one more turn”, but instead want to play until one or more things get finished … but as those things get finished, you’ve had to start other things that also need to be finished, and all of these progressions have multiple chains where finishing one progression immediately starts the next one, and so on and so forth. So, in Rebellion, you might want to wait to finish building your Star Destroyer so that you can add it to a fleet, but then when it’s produced you want to send that fleet to capture a planet, and when that’s done the planet is now in uprising so you want to quash that, and send diplomats to make it happy and turn to your side, and then when that’s done attack the next planet, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the Rebels are threatening one of your planets so you want to chase them away, and Thrawn has figured out how to build Lancers so you should start building some for your fleets, and new ships have been built to add to fleets to attack more planets, and you want to see how your probes in the Outer Rim turned out and … well, you get the idea. There is no natural endpoint in the game, no point where you can say that nothing is happening so it’s a good time to stop. Sure, there’s downtime in the game, but that downtime is spent watching the progression bars pass so that you can get something done so that you can move on to the next thing, but there is no point in the game where there is nothing that you are waiting for.

This is precisely the sort of progression that they note is being exploited for mobile games.

Compare this to games like The Old Republic or Persona 5 or even games that rely heavily on “one more level”. In TOR, when you finish a section or especially finish a planet you have to either move on to the next area or return to your ship to move on to the next planet. While there are always quests to push you forward if you want to, finishing a planet or area gives you a natural down period when it seems reasonable to stop. For me, my playing of TOR was pretty much done that way: go through one section — which used to take me about three hours, doing every available non-heroic quest — and then return to the cantina for that sweet, sweet rest XP before doing the next section of the planet. While often the quests pushed towards the next area and tried to rush the player, knowing that there was no real rush and that I’d have to travel somewhere anyway — or, at least, just spent my time walking to the new area and so had had a lot of dull downtime — allowed me to quit the game for the day/night feeling like I’ve accomplished something and knowing that I wasn’t going to have to slog out to the middle of the area again if I quit early. In the Persona games, in general the dungeons and the deadlines gave a time when the game wound down for a little bit with a resolution before the next phase of the plot ramped up again. In games like City of Heroes, gaining a level — and a specific one — gave access to new powers that would be interesting for the next session and required me to trek to somewhere specific and thus to stop questing/grinding for a bit, and so finishing the level let me do that right before I quit for the night, meaning that I could start the next session doing quests and using that sweet, sweet new power that I got. In all of these cases, there’s a natural stopping point if you want one, but something that can push you forward if you don’t.

That doesn’t exist in those strategy games I mentioned, and likely not in those mobile games that they’ve talked about. And this means that you actually have to exert more willpower — or be more tired/bored — to quit those games, which then can lead to the problems that the video asserts. But the problem isn’t that those are arbitrary endpoints, but that the game tries as hard as it can to make there be no endpoints, arbitrary or otherwise.

This, of course, can backfire on them, especially in light of what I said about casual gamers earlier. If I have too many different progressions on the go, and come back to the game a week or more later, then I might forget what I was doing, or else might have a hard time getting back into the swing of the game. And if that’s the case, then I might screw up my game or at least not have as much fun playing it as I did that first session. And then I might stop playing it. Thus, their strategy to keep people from quitting their game might actually end up causing people to quit playing it, whereas if they’d even added something like a chapter break it might allow their players to get a sense of accomplishment and be better able to pick up where they left off the next day.

Arbitrary endpoints aren’t bad, and as endpoints actually work against the overly addictive “just one more turn” sort of thing they gripe about. If you constantly find yourself pushing yourself longer than you’d like to finish endpoints, maybe the problem isn’t having those endpoints, but that there aren’t enough of them to give you that sense of satisfaction without having to play for so long, and so adding some of them might, in the long run, be better for you and the fun you get from games.

Still Further Thoughts on Cheers (End Season 8)

November 6, 2017

Cheers got much, much better after Diane left.

A big part of this is because of what I touched on at the end of Season 5, as the Sam and Diane relationship overly dominated the show and wasn’t all that interesting to start with. As the show went along, the secondary characters became more and more important and also more and more interesting. With the Sam and Diane romance out of the way, there was more time available to explore these characters and tell stories featuring them. So we could focus on Frasier and Lilith getting married and having a child, Cliff’s mother moving to Florida and him finding romance with someone as mail-focused as he was, on Woody and his relationship with the absolutely spoiled sweet Kelly and a bit more on Carla to take her from the snarky tramp to having a bit more depth to her. About the only secondary character who doesn’t really get a chance to shine is Norm, but his big story arcs — his love for his wife and the details of his career — were pretty much settled before this. As he strikes up an early friendship with Rebecca, he turns into the perfect supporting character for all the storylines, as he’s pretty much the only character that everyone in the bar gets along with. Even his painting business is best used to set-up storylines for other characters.

With the big romance out of the way, the relationship between Rebecca and Sam can take a back seat to the other stories. Sam is indeed trying to pursue her, but it isn’t the main relationship drama of the show. This means that while it can be the main plot of an episode, it can also be a B-plot or even merely a complication. Even the triangle with Robin is less one of actual love and more of mutual jealousy. So this allows the plot to have more elements because they don’t have to play out the typical atypical dramatic romance plot. I actually really like Rebecca’s ploy when Sam finally corners her: agree, but refuse to participate. Not only does this show cleverness on her part, it also reveals that Sam doesn’t just want sex, but instead wants eager participation. If she’s just going to be passive about it, he’s not interested. This actually expands his character from the simple lothario to someone with a bit more depth. This is also revealed when at one point when Rebecca was devastated, he started to make a move on her and when she was somewhat responding, he decides not to take advantage of her, leaves, and calls her from the lobby so that he could still support her while not risking seducing her. When Rebecca insists that it wouldn’t happen, he asks her to check her bra, and when she does she asks “How did you do that?”, not knowing how he could do whatever it was while they were simply hugging on the sofa, which a) keeps his “ladies man” image alive, b) shows that he’s right to not want to stay because he’d probably seduce her and c) is actually funny.

I also liked how when they first met Rebecca gives a big smile of attraction and interest and only turns cold after he tries to hit on her.

As the series goes along, Rebecca becomes more of a loser. Up until Season 9, she hadn’t lost all of her competence and strength, but more and more she was screwing things up and had a disastrous personal life. I don’t mind the disastrous personal life, but think that her incompetence works better when it’s played up as book smarts vs street smarts rather than her just being, as she herself puts it, too dumb to live.

Speaking of that, at one point I was washing dishes and wondering what Robin Colcord saw in her that made him interested in her, and then remembered the ending — that I hadn’t seen the episode of yet — of that and noted what, indeed, he was after. But at the start of Season 9, he seemingly really does love her. We’ll have to see how that plays out (I already know the ending, but want to see how it gets there).

Ultimately, at this point Cheers is actually entertaining most of the time.

Further Thoughts on Cheers (End Season 5)

October 23, 2017

So, the first five seasons of Cheers is dominated by the Sam and Diane relationship. Which is unfortunate, because this arc is the least interesting out of the ones they had, featuring the least interesting characters — at least at the time — and is also filled with nonsense in an attempt to wring dramatic tension out of the relationship.

At the end of Season 3, Diane is proposed to by Frasier, accepts, and then tries to call Sam to, it seems, get him to admit his feelings for her and/or talk her out of it. When Sam finds out about the upcoming marriage, he rushes off to Italy to try to stop the wedding. The arc ends at the beginning of Season 4 with Diane having left Frasier at the altar, and Sam having had to go through a number of trials to stop a wedding that never happened. And both Sam and Diane are quite aware that the other did that.

So how come they don’t get together after that? At that point, neither of them can really deny their feelings for each other, and there isn’t even a real explanation of them thinking that the passion was there but that the relationship wouldn’t work. Even then it’s clear that they aren’t going to be able to move on any time soon, and so at a minimum Diane probably should have stayed away from the bar and gotten a job somewhere else. But none of that happens because the show can’t let that happen, but there’s really no way to top this when it comes to their relationship. If this event didn’t convince them to get married or at least get back together, it seems that nothing could. And yet they still have to play this tired arc out and try to keep the tension in this relationship going somehow.

After a full season of this, they have Sam date a politician, who says that she wants marriage. This triggers Sam to think about marriage, and ultimately to ask Diane to marry him, who initially says “No” and then reconsiders, only for Sam to withdraw the offer. Not only is this in and of itself mostly ridiculous, it leads to Diane adopting the very annoying trait of consistently insisting that Sam is going to ask her again while Sam vehemently denies it. And the worst part of it is that given what has gone on before we know that Diane is right, but she’s being very smug and annoying about it. In an episode where Diane smugly insists that he will ask her that day, he does … and she says “No” again. At which point, they probably should just give it up, but instead they go to court and the judge insists that Sam propose in order to not be charged, which he does, she accepts, and they head to the end of the season planning a wedding. Which was also stupid, as it never really resolves why Diane said “No” the other times.

But since they don’t get married at the end of the season, you’d think that what makes them break up would follow from that, right? Nope … well, at least not directly. What happens is that Diane’s first fiance Sumner conveniently comes back right before the wedding — I think it was in the season finale — and says that he’s sent Diane’s book to an editor friend of his who thinks that it might be worth publishing, but only if Diane finishes it. He later confirms that it would be published, setting up a situation where it is believed that Diane has to choose between marrying Sam now or finishing the book. Sam convinces her — over her protests — to take the time to finish the book, which just happens to involve her going to Sumner’s cottage somewhere for six months. Diane insists that she’ll return, but she never does and the book deal ends up falling through. Diane is hinted at having gone to Hollywood to write for TV, probably a comment on Shelley Long focusing on making movies after that point.

But here’s why this really doesn’t work for me: bringing Sumner in at that point was just too convenient. Everyone should have suspected that he was doing this to try to break Sam and Diane up and possibly make a move on her himself. That he happens to send her novel off at pretty much the same time as he found out about the wedding and happens to send it to a friend who happens to think it will work and it just so happens that he has a secluded place available for her to work is an awful lot of happens to absorb, and yet no one questions his motives. If this had been set up more episodes in advance where there would have been time to question and verify what was happening, this would have worked out so much better. As it stands, it really looked to me like Sam and Diane got suckered by Sumner.

You can argue that Shelley Long’s decision to leave came too late to really do that sort of set-up, but then all they needed to do was have Sam or Diane have doubts about what her consistent “Nos” meant. Even if they had to leave the door open for her to return, this could have easily been resolved with her deciding that she needed more meditation time and then resolving that either way at the beginning of this season. As it stands, it’s a nonsensical ending to a nonsensical and boring story arc.

This is not helped by Diane being Flanderized a bit and becoming more annoying because of it. She always did have a streak of thinking that she was smarter and better than she really was, but she was always presented as being cultured and, for the most part, having some talent but ruining it by being overly ambitious and thus complicating everything. In Season 5, she’s far less competent and far more often overlooks failings that she really should have been able to spot. For example, in one episode she is trying out for ballet and gets a bad review of her abilities. To be nice, Frasier changes the recommendations to be more flattering, which ends up prompting her to barge in and try out for a professional ballet troupe to follow her dream, but Sam and Frasier stop her before she can make a fool out of herself. The problem is that she had a video of it, which makes everyone in the bar laugh at how ridiculous she looks. It’s perfectly reasonable for her to not see how her dancing really looks while dancing it, so that’s fine. But she watches it with them. And despite her having to know what the dance should look like, she thinks she did well, and it’s only when they tell her that they faked the review that she realizes otherwise. Well, sure, she might decide to trust the famous teacher over her own opinion, especially when that tells her what she wants to hear … but Diane had shown some self-awareness in the past, and this just sails right on past it. We might be able to believe that she could delude herself that badly about writing or poetry — although in those cases given how she does immerse herself in those media she’d likely be more derivative and think herself creative than be really, really bad — but with this she really should have known better.

And it isn’t even funny.

However, Cheers can be clever at times, and by now we’re starting to see its strength, which is its characters. Sam and Diane as characters work so much better when they are supporting the other characters and not hogging the spotlight. The relationship between Frasier and Lilith is much, much more interesting that the one between Sam and Diane. After starting from a disastrous first date, they end up on a show together, and Diane realizes that Frasier is in love with Lilith. Given her nature, she decides to intervene and tell Lilith about it, and then try to make her over in order to attract Frasier. What’s wonderful here is that when Diane tells Lilith that Frasier is in love with her, Lilith’s immediate reaction is that she’s not the type of pretty girl that people fall in love with, which made me immediately react with puzzlement. This seemed to come out of nowhere, and Bebe Neuwirth is a very attractive woman. But this results in Fridge Brilliance when you realize that the person who, so far, has made the biggest deal out of her looks is … Lilith. Diane simply says that she needs to dress better and use more … some makeup. Frasier, when he badmouths her, tends to talk about how cold and emotionally repressed she is, not about how unattractive she is, and give his personality he wouldn’t have asked her out the first time if he didn’t find her attractive. And if anyone else comments on that, it’s as a quick aside. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that she might have been awkward as a teen, and to avoid the teasing retreated to what she was better than most people at, which was things that involved intelligence, and thus cultivated the ideal intellectual manner, including the look. Since she wasn’t surprised that Frasier asked her out the first time, she had to think that her peers at least wanted to have sex with her, but could have fobbed it off as being the result of a male dominated field and her being one of the few women available. Her cold manner and aggressive intellectualism — worse than Frasier at lot of the time, who is pretty bad at it himself — would make most men not want to pursue a relationship with her, justifying her comment, and we can note that that is indeed what Frasier dislikes about her, and her more open style of dress and reaction to his flirting is probably more responsible for what gets his attention than simply that she looked hot. This underlying dynamic makes the relationship a lot more interesting than the shallow — and quickly dropped — idea of the cultured vs the everyday clash of Diane and Sam.

What the later seasons did better was avoid the split between the moral cultured class and the immoral or amoral working class. When Norm finds out that the person he is up against for a promotion is sleeping with the boss’ wife, while Diane is clearly opposed to him using that to get the promotion, Carla is also strongly opposed and Sam is uncertain about doing that as well. It’s pretty much left to Cliff to push for Norm doing it, and even here there isn’t a clear right answer.

That Norm doesn’t do it leads to another example of the importance of character. After he choose not to do it, the boss tells him that the reason Norm lost the promotion to the other person was that Norm’s wife Vera didn’t fit in with the other wives. Vera really wanted him to get the promotion so that they could buy a house. Norm is outraged and ends up quitting, and then has to tell his wife what happened. While he says that he plans to tell her the truth, he can’t hurt her that way, and so ends up accepting all the blame himself, proving that he really loves her despite his constant comments about her. This character development only carries on later when Diane tries to help Norm get noticed at a new job and get a promotion, and after his colleague steals Norm’s — bad, as it turns out — idea Norm finally says that he doesn’t want to big a big shot and just wants to be a worker drone, and is happy that way.

Woody makes a better replacement for Coach — the actor passed away in Season 3, I think — because as someone who is young you can maintain the naivete and stupidity without ever having to use the character as a mentor, which works against that. And Carla’s sniping got old, as it seems that pretty much everything she said was a snipe and it often interrupted the show to try to get in some cheap humour, which hurt her as a character.

So far Cheers is still “Okay”. Sometimes it’s clever and sometimes monumentally stupid. As I go on into season six, I’m finding that there’s more clever and less stupid, which is a good thing.

MMO Difficulty …

October 18, 2017

So, recently while playing The Old Republic I decided to dismiss my companion because I was going to do the Rakghoul infection quests and noted that in the past when playing with a companion they either tended to kill all the Rakghouls or at least draw all their attacks, making the infection a bit too difficult to achieve. However, I made a mistake and clicked on myself instead of on the companion, and noticed a setting called “Mission difficulty”, which I had set to “Story”.

Huh. No wonder the game was seeming really, really easy lately [grin].

To be fair, I had probably at some point noticed it and deliberately set it to “Story”, because that’s really how I wanted to play the game anyway. But this reminded me of how important and yet how counter-intuitive difficulty levels are for MMOs.

TOR isn’t the only MMO that did difficulty levels. The one that I’m most familiar with, City of Heroes (sniff), did it before it ended, and I’m sure other MMOs have tried it as well. But it seems kinda off to have difficulty levels in an MMO, since it would mean that you’d have different players in the world playing the game at different difficulty levels. Since one of the easiest ways to implement difficulty levels in an MMO — especially one that is heavily instanced — is to reduce the hitpoints and attack and defense strength of enemies, which can run into problems if you are in fact in a group and have to decide how to adjust them given the players in the group. Even adding attack and defense to the player’s character can cause problems, especially if, say, you give bonuses for damage done. It almost always seems like a safer and easier move to simply pick what you think is a reasonable difficulty level and let people who find it too difficult find a group to help them with those missions.

But the problem goes both ways. Some players will find some enemies to be too easy for them, and some missions thus too trivial, and would rather have a greater challenge, one that tests their skills. Thus, they might even want to play at a level where if you make even one mistake your character dies in order to have a tense challenge that forces them to practice their skills and pay close attention to the battles they are in. Obviously, setting the enemies to have this level of difficulty for everyone would eliminate most of your player base, so without difficulty levels they rarely, if ever, get that sort of challenge, and are bored.

Difficulty levels also provide a hedge against server population shrinkage. There might be a mission that is readily beatable with a group, but very tough to solo. This is fine and possibly even something to encourage when populations are high, but as they decline someone might really want or need to complete that mission and yet can’t find enough people interested in it to form a group to do it. Dropping the difficulty, if they are experienced or geared enough, might let them complete it anyway, even if they can’t find a group. Sure, they might be able to outlevel the mission enough to complete it, but that might require grinding and grinding is boring … and even then, changing the difficulty level means less overleveling they have to do before they can beat that mission.

Difficulty levels seem odd in an MMO, and yet they can indeed be useful to solve some issues that MMOs have and keep MMOs appealing to players longer.