Friday, May 31, 2024

Carry On Adventuring!

Something weird happened last night. I finished a game and it didn't stop. 

I finally got to the end of Dungeon of Naheulbuek. I fought the final boss, Zangdar, and beat him on the second try, after I looked the fight up on the web and found there was a perfectly legit but totally dubious way to cheese it.

While I was reading up on how to avoid playing the game the way the developers intended, I couldn't help but notice a lot of complaints about the ending. For one thing, some people think the late-game fights are too easy. It's true they aren't as tough as some of the earlier ones, although I wouldn't complain about it. It's not like the game is especially challenging to begin with. Apart from that one super-annoying one I posted about, not that many battles took me more than a couple of tries on the default difficulty.

The real beef, though, was that the game ended far too abruptly. Supposedly it just sort of stopped with no real pay-off for all the hours it took to get there.

I wasn't too bothered although I was quite glad I'd spoiled that part of the surprise by reading about it ahead of time. That's also how I knew there was no loot to be had from the last battle other than a derisory half-dozen healing potions, as if to say "Here, fix yourselves up and bugger off." But I didn't care. I'd had my fun. I've been playing this game most days for months. 

I haven't kept a track of the hours I've spent on it but the average total playtime is supposed to be between thirty and forty-five hours, depending on whether you stick to the main plot or try to 100% the whole thing. I haven't remotely attempted to complete all the collections or get all the achievements but I'm sure I've played for well over thirty hours. I probably spent a dozen on that bridge fight alone.

However long it was, I definitely feel I got my money's worth. Or I would have, if I'd spent any, which of course I didn't. For all its many, obvious flaws, I'd rate Dungeon of Naheulbeuk as one of the more amusing comedy-adventures I've played - admittedly not a very high bar. It raised the occasional smile and rarely had me wanting to chuck a bread roll at the writers. 

Gameplay is solid. It held my attention throughout. If there was a sequel I'd be happy to play that too, which is just as well because it seems I've already started.

After the battle, when Zangdar had gasped out his inevitable, self-justifying, final words, I was expecting credits to roll. Instead, another wizard from earlier in the game ported in and the game just... carried on. 

First, there was a lot of dialog. I sat back and listened while my party bickered and bargained and went to and fro with various NPCs. It felt like it went on for about ten minutes. Maybe it did.

Eventually, the wizard translocated whole lot of them to an entirely new location, which turned out to be a graveyard at night. That's never a good sign. After warning them not to touch anything, he ran off through a convenient nearby door, leaving the party standing there in the dark, looking even more like they'd been left holding a ticking time-bomb than usual.

At this point I was feeling very confused. I'd timed my evening session in the expectation it would last barely longer than the fight itself and now here we were, apparently carrying on. I thought about going with it to see where things went next but somehow I didn't get the feeling this was a neat little coda the developers had added in response to all that criticism about the ending. It felt a lot more like the start of a brand new adventure.

It was late, so I stopped but as soon as I got back from taking Beryl for a walk this morning I fired the game up and started over from where I'd left off. Naturally, having been told not to touch anything, the first thing the Dwarf did, on noticing some gold pieces just lying around on the floor, was pick them up. And we were off.

An hour or so and several fights later we'd killed a bunch of undead (If you can kill something that's died already. Never been exactly clear how that works.) looted some nice upgrades, something that strongly implies further progression to come and somehow found ourselves in the middle of a feud between Vampires and Necromancers, a feud in which we're expected to take sides. It was one long, run-on action scene that looked like it would never end.

Enough! I saved, logged out and googled the name of the quest I was on, Ruins of Limis. That, it transpires, is also the title of the game's fist DLC. That's what I am now playing. 

No-one asked me if I wanted to. It just happened.

Clearly, the DLC must have been included in the package that Amazon Prime handed out for free last November. Except it wasn't or rather it wasn't mentioned. I didn't say anything about it in my post at the time and neither did any of the news sites that reported on it back then. 

So, maybe the DLC came to Prime later. It's been six months. There's a hand-out every week, pretty much. 

But you don't get those automatically. You have to claim them. And I didn't claim this one. I'd never even heard of it.

I guess I'm not complaining. No, I'm definitely not complaining. I would have liked to be told about it first, but never mind. 

As for the way the new adventure just carries on from the original, it does look as though it's set up to work that way. There's a whole bit explaining why you lose all your gold but keep your gear, for a start. I imagine, when it was first released, players would just have booted up their final auto-save and found themselves carrying on from the end of the final fight. 

In fact, it might even have been designed that way from the get-go. That would certainly explain the non-ending everyone complained about. Also why you might need more health potions even though the game seemed to be over.

It is a bit disconcerting, all the same. I'd been enjoying DoN quite a bit but I have been playing it for what feels like a long time now. I'd been having mixed feelings about it coming to an end. I thought I might miss it and I was wondering what I'd replace it with but I was also quite looking forward to getting stuck into something different for a change.

Now it seems I'm just going to be carrying on as I was. I have mixed feelings about that, too. What's more, there are two more DLCs  and I have no idea if either is also included in the Amazon version. If they are, I could playing this thing all year!

Or I could just stop. It's not an MMORPG. You can save any time you like, come back six months later and nothing will have changed. 

I don't have to go on playing just because I got suckered into it. I'm not some dumb adventurer who can be manipulated into doing something stupid by any smart-talking, hand-waving, beard-faced snake-oil salesman that happens along...

Oh, wait a minute...

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Drop The Pilot?

Yesterday's post was meant to be about the upcoming release of Tarisland. As you'll know, if you read it, that isn't quite how it turned out. Things began to spiral in the second paragraph and didn't begin to straighten out again until close to the end. 

As I improvised around the topic of digital ownership, I threw in a number of quite specific references to Spotify. Some of those came from my own memories of news items I'd read this year. Google Search provided the links. Others were found for me by Microsoft Copilot.

I only had the idea of using Copilot because I'd seen someone else do it first. Noizy Gamer posted a detailed article entitled "Using AI To Examine CIG Reaching $700 Million In Revenue" which I found interesting, not so much for what it said about Chris Roberts' almost superhuman ability to keep the Star Citizen funding coming but more for what it implied about the current state of so-called Artificial Intelligence in the context of research.

On a number of occasions, writing here about AI, I've said that one thing I'd really like from the new tech would be an unpaid, virtual research assistant. I have been known to engage, albeit sporadically and ineffectively, in some half-assed, amateur investigative journalism on the blog, mostly involving games and who's really making them - or making bank on them. Those posts always involve a lot of googling and skimming through tedious company websites, which isn't always the most thrilling way to spend an afternoon.

I wouldn't say I don't enjoy it because I do like doing research but it would be very handy to be able to hand off the more brain-numbing grunt work to an AI. And I have tried but until now the results have been so unreliable I've had to check every claim before I used it, meaning I might just as well have done the leg-work myself.

Noizy seemed pretty satisfied with the results Copilot came up with, though, and he's orders of magnitude more experienced in this kind of research than I am; much more qualified to judge how useful and trustworthy the information the AIs are returning from his requests. That thought came into my mind as I found myself somewhat unexpectedly extemporizing on things I really knew very little about in the opening paragraphs of yesterday's post. 

I'd already realized that if I was going to keep making sweeping statements about Spotify, I'd have to provide some evidence for them. Why not combine finding the information with a test run for Copilot? So that's what I did.

First, I had to find Copilot itself. I like to avoid getting locked up in Microsoft's ecosystem whenever possible so I don't usually use a Microsoft browser or a Microsoft account, although I have both should I need them. For this, I didn't bother with either. I just googled "Copilot" and took the first link. I did find it mildly ironic that I went immediately to Google to find a Microsoft product but not until after I'd already done it.

Once I had Copilot onscreen I found out there are effectively three versions available. You can pay £19 a month for a subscription to use Copilot Pro, which seems like a lot to me. There is a free month's trial at least, so you can test it out and see if you think it's worth paying that much. 

Alternatively, you can log into your Microsoft account for free but more limited access to much the same suite of services. Or you can do what I did and just ask questions without logging in to anything. I was quite surprised that was allowed. 

The free, unregistered version turned out to be fine for what I wanted. I only had to ask one question and a follow-up to get all the information I needed for the post. I simply asked Copilot to give me all the recent news stories involving Spotify and when the results came back looking like they'd been put together by Spotify's Head of PR, I rephrased the query to ask for all the news that had received a negative reception. That did the job.

When you ask Copilot a question, you can set three "conversational styles" for the output: Creative, Balanced or Precise. I wondered what effect that might have on accuracy but in fact it just changes how the AI "talks" to you, not the content of its replies. Or at least that's how Copilot says it works...

I picked Precise and got a nice, polite, formal set of answers. I like my research assistants to be professional, not familiar. I hadn't specified a number of results but both times I asked I got four news stories back and not the same ones each time, which makes sense since I'd changed the paramaters.

The results looked perfectly convincing but don't they always when you're dealing with AIs? By far the best part of the experience was that all of them came with citations and hyperlinks to the source material. 

There's a warning right on screen when you use Copilot, telling you the output is provided by AI and should be checked, which was the case back when it was still Bing, only then you had to go look at the tiny footnotes to see the sources. Copilot streamlines the process so all you need to do is click the links in the results themselves to check how accurate the data-gathering has been.

And it was entirely correct. All the links went to appropriate sources, which I was then able to reference in my post. It was nothing I couldn't have done with a Google Search but it was faster and easier. 

In fact, as far as I can tell, it was a Google search. Or, I guess, a Bing search, since this is Microsoft we're talking about. The AI framed the results with a polite introduction and sign-off and presented them neatly on the page with summaries, which certainly made it quick and easy for me but in essence it was pretty much the same set of links I could have pulled off the first page of Google.

This morning I asked Copilot to give me "a chronological list of superhero movies from the 1960s to the present day". I have it in mind to write a post about the CW adaptations of various DC heroes and whether their meandering, discursive approach fits that publisher's traditions and history better than big MCU movies have served Marvel, which is one hell of an undertaking and one that requires a lot more research than I can be bothered doing at the moment.

Copilot's response was less comprehensive than I expected, albeit still quite useful. I was hoping for a neat list of movies, suitable for cutting and pasting straight into a post. What I got was nothing much more than a gussied-up set of search results, complete with links, citing some very obvious, high-level websites - Letterboxd, Wikipedia, IMDB - plus one that felt less familiar but right on the money, the Superhero Database

It felt so much like a Google search thought I'd run a comparison check. I pasted the same enquiry into Google and got the same three, well-known names in the first four results, with a blog called Fights, Tights and Movie Nights filling in for the Superhero Database. 

I'm not drawing any conclusions from this minimal experimentation and I'm certainly not casting aspersions at Copilot (Which used just to be Bing AI.) or AIs in general. I don't know if Copilot's direct competitor, Google's Genesis (Which used to be Bard.) or ChatGPT (Which is still plain old ChatGPT and which also powers Copilot, just to make things even more murky.) could or would do better.

If you're interested in finding out, I refer you to the New Scientist article "Battle of the AI bots: Copilot vs ChatGPT vs Gemini", which I found by the simple expedient of typing "which is the best out of Copilot, Gemini and ChatGPT?" into Google. (Spoiler - "they’re all fairly matched"). Or you could ask the AIs themselves, I guess. I asked Copilot and it broadly agreed with New Scientist, concluding "the best choice depends on your specific requirements".

What a bunch of fence-sitters! And how insufferably polite!

My own feeling is that, for my particular purposes, I can't yet see much difference between what any of them is offering and just running the same query through Google. In the end, what I'm usually after is links, anyway. I need documented evidence to stand up whatever point I'm trying to make and for that I need to be able to cite a source. For that, I don't actually need a research assistant, just a gofer. By using AI to do my searches for me I'm basically hiring a Lamborghini to take me to the corner store.

What I do feel has changed is the degree of confidence I'm willing to invest in AI to shortcut some of the more tedious aspects of doing research. While I could have found all the same links with a Google search, Copilot undoubtedly made the process faster and less tedious. 

I don't generally need to check half a dozen possible sources to confirm a point I'm making in a blog post. One will do just fine. If Copilot or Gemini can do the winnowing for me and cut fifty or so Google first page results down to four or five, complete with a short precis, that's very helpful. Not game-changing or paradigm-shifting... just helpful.

Which leaves us a good distance ahead of where we were last time I did this. So, progress! Whether it will really make writing posts any quicker I very much doubt but I think that's probably down to my inability to know when to stop typing rather than any shortcomings in the software. Maybe my next experiment ought to be seeing how well Gemini does as an editor.

I probably need one of those more than I need a research assistant anyway.

Notes on AI used in this post.

In this case, we're only interested in the pictures, both of which were generated within Copilot itself. That required me to log in with my Microsoft account, which disturbingly required just a single click and no details. I may need to purge my cache. The images themselves were created by  DallE 3, to whom Copilot delegates art duties.

The header is supposed to be the three named Chatbots, Copilot, Gemini And ChatGPT, relaxing in a bar after work. The full, somewhat overwrought prompt, which I failed to record for posterity, asked the AI to imagine it was the illustrator of a 1970s comic book, something which wasn't remotely evident in the resulting image. I also changed the image to landscape and re-envisioned it as a "block print", one of the offered options. 

The second picture is the result of the prompt "Here is a line taken from an article about AI: "What a bunch of fence-sitters! And how insufferably polite!" Please provide a sutable illustration. It can be in any style but must be a drawing or painting, not a photograph." I then altered the result in the same fashion as the first.

Both images are unmitigatedly tedious and uninspired. They absolutely look like they were created by AI, not least because each of them has issues with feet going in the wrong direction, alhough I guess we can't conclusively prove which way an AI's feet ought to go... 

I wouldn't use either of these images other than to make a point about the quality of Copilot itself in the context of this particular post.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Why I'm Not Playing WoW Right Now (Like I Thought I Would Be)

For all my enthusiasm over World of Warcraft's Pandaria Remix, I haven't gone ahead and re-upped my sub. I keep thinking about it but then I remember I'm paying for EverQuest II and not playing that either. It's not like I begrudge the money but there does come a point when you have to ask yourself if spending more is really the smart thing to do.

I'm not going to rehash all the familiar arguments for and against various payment models, nor even remark once again on the ever-growing realization that, as consumers, we're screwed if we pay, screwed if we don't. If anyone needs a final confirmation that no-one owns anything any more, even when they've paid for it and taken it home in a box, look no further than Spotify's short-lived entry into the hardware market, the Must Have Been Named By A Teletubby Car Thing

I am not a Spotify user. The service they provide doesn't fit well with the way I listen to music so I've never even considered subscribing. Until fairly recently, I didn't have much of an opinion about the company either way. I don't tend to waste a lot of time pondering the worth of services I don't use or plan on using. 

All the same, it's hard to avoid hearing plenty about the Swedish company. I read a lot of music news and the name comes up over and over again. Of late, that reporting has skewed hard towards the negative.

 Q1 revenue this year was up 20%, immediately following a cull of 17% of its workforce in December. That sort of thing always goes down well with shareholders. Everyone else? Not so much.

Since making money is the primary purpose of business, there are always plan to increase the yield.  In Spotify's case, there was talk of a "Supremium" level of service, intended to raise subscription rates even further, but apparently that was torpedoed by consumer resistance. It seems there is a temperature at which the frogs start to jump out of the pot after all.

Until yesterday, by far the most controversial of Spotify's recent business moves was the decision to stop paying royalties on any track listed on the platform if it receives fewer than a thousand plays per year. This has been widely reported as an attack on independent music-makers although, as Spotify points out, seemingly without either irony or self-awareness, a thousand streams earns you less than $3.

Bad though that looks, yesterday's news that the company is about to brick its own, dedicated, in-car device, the Car Thing, beats it hands-down for self-inflicted bad PR. It's almost up there with Apple's disastrous piano-crushing commercial.

At least Apple's PR department had the sense to walk that one back once they saw the reaction it got. There's been no indication of Spotify enjoying even that degraded sense of self-preservation. 

Not only will the devices they sold, apparently for $50-$100 dollars a time, cease to work entirely just before the end of this year, there will be no refunds and no alternatives. Spotify helpfully suggests you recycle yours because of course they care about stuff like that...

You might argue that, for a piece of consumer electronics that was only available for around five months a couple of years ago, that's not a wholly untenable position. Nothing last forever, after all, The U.S. Federal Trade Commission might not agree. They seem to think that if you sell someone a thing it ought to last more than five minutes. Luddites!

Inevitably, a class action suit has already been raised. Whether or not that gains legal traction, brand damage has already been done. Not that Spotify probably cares. This is clearly one more tone-deaf marketing decision from a company that doesn't seem to hold much concern for what its customers or anyone else thinks about it. 

Lest there be any lingering, residual doubt in anyone's mind about just how far removed Spotify corporate is from anywhere that could even remotely be described as "in touch with popular opinion", let me just quote the stated reason they've given as to why they very briefly entered, then just as quickly exited, the arena of automotive audio products in the first place:

“The goal of our ‘Car Thing’ exploration in the US was to learn more about how people listen in the car.”

So it was all for science. An experiment, carried out using other people's money. And, presumably, their data, although I imagine all rights to that are waived in the EULA when you sign up for a Spotify account.

Not that any of us own anything any more. Certainly we don't own our games. Not if they require an internet connection to play and not even if they don't, according to Valve. You may be able to play Nightingale offline now but don't let that give you any funny ideas about who owns the game you paid for. I'll give you a clue: it's not you.

It can't be, can it? If it was, you'd be able to bequeath your Steam games to your heirs. Yeah, that's not happening. As the NME helpfully points out, there are ways around the problem, such as taping your password to your PC before you gasp your last. That way your games can be handed down the generations like the family heirlooms they will literally have become. As the article blithely puts it, "Steam can’t prove a bunch of 135-year-olds aren’t still playing games."

I suppose one thing you can say about the good old MMORPG subscription model is that at least it's clear. We grizzled vets may have shelves of cardboard boxes and stacks of shiny discs to prove we went to the store around the turn of the millennium to buy EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot or Final Fantasy XI but we all knew those were nothing more than souvenirs. We owned the boxes but we never owned the games. Those we just rented at $14.99 a month.

The Free to Play revolution muddied the waters but even with the entry fee removed, no-one was fooled into thinking we owned anything more than we ever had. If the company chooses to shut the servers down the result is the same whether you were paying to play on them or not. 

All of that has something to do with why I haven't ponied up for a WoW sub, even though I was quite enjoying myself on my return but other factors are having considerably more impact on that decision. It's true I'm in a bit of a lull with MMORPGs just now but that's not going to last. I'm somewhat wary of subbing to WoW and then almost immediately finding I have other, more pressing gaming concerns to occupy my time.

The new EverQuest II Origins server opens next month, most likely just after Steam's Next Fest, and now Tencent have revealed the official launch date for Tarisland to be June 21st. As I mentioned yesterday, Once Human could go live as early as August and this morning I got an email from the people behind Genshin Impact, telling me their new title, an "Urban Fantasy ARPG" by the name of  Zenless Zone Zero is set to relaease globally on 4 July.

That's pretty much got the whole summer covered and all of those I can either play for free or via a subscription I've already paid. Sure, I'd like to play WoW but would I want to play it more than all of those? It seems unlikely.

In the end, it probably doesn't matter all that much whether the games I play really belong to me, whether I'm just renting them or whether I'm getting them for free. What counts is whether I'm going to play them or not. And it looks like I'm not going to be playing WoW after all.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

"Coming Soon..."

For no better reason than it just occurred to me it would make a quick post and because everything else I have in mind to write about would take fricken' forever  - and require a ton of research that I'm really not in the mood for right now - here's a list of the unreleased games on my Steam wishlist, along with some brief thoughts and a rough estimate of the chances I'll buy any of them, should they ever become available, something that can't be considered in any way a certainty, if previous experience is anything to go by.

I'm counting them down from the top, which means we're going backwards in time, from the most recently added to the longest-ago, although that just tells you what's been on the list the longest, not how long any of the games might have been in production. It's frightening how long these things take.

Throne and Liberty - I'm guessing everyone's heard of this one. It's "a free-to-play, multi-platform MMORPG", which obviously explains what it's doing on my list. It began development as part of the Lineage franchise but supposedly now stands alone. 

I'm fairly sure I added it because it's going to be published by Amazon, which means it will most likely be easy to access without having to create a whole new set of accounts and passwords, something I find myself increasingly unwilling to bother with these days. I also watched a promo video and it looked pretty, so that probably had something to do with it, too.

The game was in the news recently when the Producer resigned, a fairly unusual event at this stage of production, it has to be said. Whether that will affect the timeline remains to be seen but the game is supposed to arrive "sometime in 2024". Since it's free, I'll almost certainly try it but I have a feeling I won't stay long. 

Chicken Police: Into The Hive - The sequel to Chicken Police: Paint It Red, which I thoroughly enjoyed and wrote about here more than once. I played and posted about the demo to this one, too. Once again, I enjoyed  the humor, the writing and the gameplay but I did feel diminishing returns might be beginning to kick in. 

Still, it seems like a solid sequel. There's no estimated release date other than "Soon". I'll definitely buy it at some point but I'm in no hurry to play the game on release. I'll probably wait for a sale on this one.

Under A Rock - The first game on the list I have no memory of ever seeing before let alone wishlisting. I had to read the description to remind myself that it's "a procedural open-world survival craft game" and even then I couldn't remember it. 

Reading further, I see the set-up is that you play "an early-nineteenth century explorer who has just been stranded in a strange new world, a hidden world that few can travel to (and from!), with a different evolutionary path.", which gives off some definite Nightingale vibes. Graphically, however, it looks much more light-hearted and cartoony. It looks fun, in fact. I still don't remember how I found it but I'm glad I did.

No release date or price yet but it will go into Early Access first. Unless it's unreasonably expensive, I'll most likely give it a try when that happens. 

Once Human - I don't think I need to tell anyone what this is, at least not anyone who visits here regularly. I have cooled down on it a little since I figured out that gameplay will be more repetitive in the mid-high levels than I originally imagined but I don't think that will significantly impact the sheer, exhuberant fun of the whole thing. It's just a real blast to run around shooting at bizarre monsters, exploring abandoned office buildings and shopping malls, beating up animated kitchen appliances and chatting with the weird people who have to try and make some kind of life for themselves among the chaos. 

All of that should provide enough entertainment to keep me playing for a while but if not there's some great base-building to enjoy as well. The estimated release date is Q3 2024. Apple says early August. They just opened registrations for the mobile version and they're already up to 13.5m. I suspect this one is going to go big. I'll likely be there from Day One.

Dungeons of Hintenberg - A gorgeously designed action-adventure RPG that Steam tells me "doesn't look like other things you've played in the past".  It kind of does, though. It reminds me of quite a few adventure games set in mountain villages and small central European towns, where mystery abounds and puzzles must be solved. The action part is new, though.

This one has a solid release date: 18 July 2024. There was also apparently an extended play test that went on for much of May, about which no-one told me. You'd have thought I might have gotten an email, what with having the game on my wishlist. I've missed that chance to try before I buy but luckily there will also be a demo in next month's Next Fest so I'll be sure to give that a go.

If I like what I see, maybe I'll buy it on release. I kinda doubt it, though. Chances are I'll play the demo and then feel like I'm done. That seems to be my pattern.

Schrodinger's Catgirl - Let's be honest. I wishlisted this one for the title. It's genius, isn't it? 

It does look good, though. It's a Point & Click adventure based around a murder in an abandoned manor house, which makes me think of Scooby Doo, although Steam compares it to Disco Elysium. Yeah. I wish!

There's no release date but there is a demo available, which I assume will be in the upcoming Next Fest. I'll play it, post about it and maybe make up my mind about it then. I do have a much better record of converting Point & Click Adventures from demo to wishlist to purchase than any other genre so here's hoping.

Old Skies - Now we're starting to get to the games that have been on the list for a while. I added this one (And the last one.) in 2022. It has a demo, which I played and posted about a while back, when I called it "a great advert for the game and a lot of fun in its own right". Since then I've heard not a word.

It's a Wadjet Eye production, which means I'm fairly confident this will still be in production, not gathering virtual dust after the creators lost interest and moved on to something more lucrative. They could get a move on, though. Once again, a definite will-buy and quite likely on release.

Albert Wilde: Quantum P.I. - Another one wishlisted after I played and posted about the demo. But that seems like a looong time ago. I wasn't over-enthusiastic about it at the time and I did note that it felt like a very early build. 

The developers were still trucking around festivals promoting the game until late last year but I haven't seen anything since then. Honestly, I'd be quite surprised this one ever appears in anything like a finished form and even if it does I don't think I'll be buying it. The moment has passed.

Nighthawks - And finally, the oldest game on the list and quite possibly the one I want to play most of all. Another Wadjet Eye title, this time centered on vampires trying to build a nightclub empire. I mean, seriously, why don't all vampires do that? It seems so obvious...

Once again, Steam thinks this is similar to Disco Elysium and for once it might be right. I will certainly be buying this as soon as someone will take my money but I've been waiting almost three and a half years now and there's still no sign of a release date - or even a demo. Some people really do like to take their time, don't they?

And that's the lot. Roll on Next Fest so I can add a bunch more games I'll probably never buy!

Monday, May 27, 2024

New Lines Now In Stock - No Internet Connection Necessary

Since Inflexion Games (Or "Tencent's Inflexion", as MassivelyOP likes to call them.) chose to make such a priority out of adding an offline mode to Nightingale, I thought the least I could do was try it out, although I can't say it's an update I've been waiting for. 

To be honest, until all the kerfuffle about taking Nightingale offline began, it had never occurred to me that anyone would want to play the game without an internet connection. I never thought it would even be an option. 

Since I started played EverQuest in late 1999, I haven't really made any differentiation between online and offline gaming. If I can't get an internet connection for some reason, I don't play an offline game instead. I do what I can to get back online, and if I find I can't because there's a problem outside of my control, I go and do something that doesn't involve a computer at all, until somebody fixes things.

I'm so used to playing games online, I don't even think about it. Why would I? In the case of Nightingale specifically, in more than a hundred hours of playing I rarely experienced any lag or downtime to speak of. The servers didn't crash, there wasn't much in the way of maintenance and loading times seemed perfectly acceptable. 

Granted, until I got to the central hub near the end of the storyline, I was playing entirely alone, so there wasn't any real need to be connected to the internet but then again I didn't see any reason not to be, either. Once I did get to what passes for an end-game in Nightingale, I was happy to be able to team up with other players so they could carry me through the final instances and fill my coffers with the Essences I needed. If I'd been playing offline I'd have had to do all the hard work myself and where would the fun be in that?

The same patch that brought the Offline changes also added a whole bunch of other stuff, including the game's first holiday-style event and several new NPCs offering quests (Edgar Allen Poe, Joan of Arc and Taliesin the Bard, which tells you about as much as you need to know about what passes for lore in this game.). I'll get to those but it'll have to be online. As of now there's no way to transfer characters between modes and I'm sure as hell not leveling another character up far enough to see the new content.

To play offline you have to roll a fresh character, which is actually quite handy for this post. The update also brought improvements to Character Creation, including new player outfits, body types, and professions. Apparently you can "edit existing character visuals in the character select menu"so maybe I could have checked out the new frocks that way, but I thought I might as well make a new character for offline play and check out the outfits and the mode all at once, even if I had no serious intent to play whatever character I made.

What I might do offline is a bit of building, now and again. It always bugged me a little that you can only have one Abeyance Realm in Nightingale. I wouldn't mind having homes in the Desert and the Swamp as well as the Forest, where I live now. Both of them are a lot more pleasant than they sound. I thought I'd make a character, take a look at the new outfits, then pick an Abeyance Realm that wasn't Forest and see how things went. 

The first thing I realized as I was getting started was that I had no way of knowing which were the new body types, let alone whether they were any better than the old ones. I had no clue which was which. Until today I'd only made one character, back in February, and I can't remember much about it. I did describe some aspects of of the process in a First Impressions post but I didn't list out the full range of possibilities. I can't remember how many there were to begin with, so I certainly can't say how many have been added.

I can say there are a lot now and it does seem to be considerably easier to get a character who doesn't look like Violet Elizabeth Bott chewing a wasp. I didn't bother much with precise adjustments. I said last time that "There were so many possibilities that even thirty minutes spent fiddling with sliders felt like not nearly long enough" and who has the time for that? Mostly I just kept hitting "Random" until I got something I liked.

The addition I was really curious about was the new clothing, anyway. I think there were only three outfits in the original version and I don't recall any of them being all that great. Now there are twice as many, not counting your underwear, which you can still choose to prance around in if you want. And there still aren't any really good choices. Or maybe you disagree. You can see all six in this post and make up your own mind. 

I opted for the military look, one of the new ones and if not the least ridiculous-looking then certainly the most practical. Inflexion claim the new outfits were "very much the fashion at the time", which may be true for whatever alternate dimension the game takes place in but clearly has absolutely no relevance in any timeline known to humanity. I'm pretty sure there were people wearing denim work clothes in the later Victorian era, so why we have to dress up like extras in an end of the pier pantomime beats me, but there you are. That's video games for you.

There are also some new "Loadouts", a fancy name for a very small boost to gear and buffs. I can't imagine having these extremely minor benefits is going to change gameplay in the very early stages to any significant degree and they'll be replaced in a matter of hours, anyway. Still, I suppose every little helps, even if it doesn't help very much.

Other aspects of the character creation process remain as mystifying and bizarre as ever. If there's a reason we need to establish ancestry going back several generations before we can make a character, I'd love to hear what it is. Fortunately, you can randomize that, too.

I tore through the whole thing at a fair old clip, picked Swamp for my Abeyance Realm, took the new Skip Tutorial option and logged in. I got as far as picking a spot for my new home and putting up a cairn to claim it and then I logged out. 

The whole thing took me maybe three-quarters of an hour during which I had no technical problems. Offline, the game played as smoothly as it always has online. It seemed neither faster nor slower, no more responsive and no more sluggish. About the only discernible difference was sound of the fans in my PC whirring away, something I can't recall hearing when Inflexion's servers were doing most of the work. 

It seems unlikely I'll pursue the experiment much further. If I'm going to play Nightingale again I'd rather see what Joan of Arc and Edgar Allen Poe have to say for themselves. Poe is easy to imagine but Joan of Arc is a stretch. 

Maybe when I find out what it is they want I'll come back and report on it. Or maybe not. Perhaps the most instructive part of this whole exercise has been how "done" with Nightingale I feel right now. The curse of Early Access: you get to the end of what there is so far and you feel like it's all there's going to be and maybe all there needs to be. 

Eh. Or maybe I just wasn't in the mood. We'll see.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Milking It

Well, it's been a couple of weeks. I guess it's time. Now, where to begin...

Let's start with some famous people. Kind of like putting the bread and milk at the front of the store. Or do they put them at the back now? I know that works, too, but only when you actually have to walk there. Not so much when you can just scroll down.

Bunch of friends of the blog dropped tunes since last time. Billy Eilish, Miley Cyrus, Clairo, PinkPantheress, Kate Nash, Shygirl, New Jeans...

They're all good. I guess we can't have 'em all, though. Shame. That Miley Cyrus Talking Heads cover tho' ...

Psycho Killer - Miley Cyrus (Talking Heads cover)

That is a really hard song to cover. Just ask Duran Duran. Like most songs that definitive, you have to tear down and rebuild or why bother? Miley's sure done that. It's barely recognizeable. 

Obviously people are going to hate it. The YouTube comment thread is gonna be fun.

Outside of the news pages, I've been doing my own legwork. I spent a while skimming the surface of the dark, uncharted depths of Japanese indie rock. The names always get me. The winner this time has to be My Hair Is Bad. I mean, would you call your band something like that? 

Anyway, I listened to a load of them and the song I liked best was School by Chilli Beans. Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, their management chose to block all the band's material from being embedded anywhere off YouTube, even Blogger, which is bloody stupid given the two platforms are both owned by Google, but there you go.

Because of that idiocy, I'm going to have to lead with the runner-up, Glim Spanky, who have a great name but sound a tad too rawk for my tastes. I liked this one, though.

怒りをくれよ - Glim Spanky

Could that be any more '90s? Matthew Perry still speaks to Courtney Cox, by the way. Did you know that? Come to listen, stay to learn.

Once I'd gotten that out of my system, I moved on to a surprisingly rich seam of very English oddness. There never seems to be any shortage of young Brits willing to make themselves look foolish for the sake of... shall we agree to call it their art?
Case in point:

Shopping - Welly

A couple of days ago, Mrs Bhagpuss asked me if I knew Yard Act. I said "Yeah, I like them but not so much I'd buy a CD." Apparently I don't need to. We have one already. It's in the car.

Not that Welly sound much like Yard Act apart from the talk-singing. They sound like Art Brut covering the Young Knives. In the last fifty years of English Popular Music there's always been at least one band that sounded like that. Usually a lot more than just one. Tradition is reassuring, isn't it?

Bale of Hay - The Pill

There are other bands called The Pill. At least one of them sounds quite a lot like this one. That confused me for a while. I suspect there may be a particular influence at work here but I wouldn't be so gauche as to name it.

Yoo Hoo - Maty Noyes

Alright, so it's not just the English who like to dress up. Also, who could resist following that last video with this one? Not me, obviously.

It gets quite disturbing towards the finish, by the way, something I think ought to be obvious from the moment the old geezer in the cowboy hat says "What's your name, sweetie?" The whole thing is making a statement against factory farming, which was something I didn't appreciate until I read the end titles. 
It all makes sense now. Sort of.

America In Your 20s - Winnetka Bowling League

It might not sound like it but Winetka Bowling League fit right into the nerdy, wordy, herky-jerky niche carved out mostly by underweight white guys wearing suits or smart casuals, going back at least as far as The Monks. If you could see them you'd get that. Oh, wait, here's a link!

That's a much more interesting video but America In Your 20s leads neatly into the next one, what with their shared theme of how shit being a grown-up is and how no-one in their right mind wants to do it. We can all get behind that sentiment, right? If not, what are you doing here?

Teenagers Forever - Durry

"Still love Dungeons and DragonsIn the basement with my friendsBut everybody's got commitments nowIt's getting hard to plan"

I could quote the entire lyric for truth. Listening to midwestern emo feels like taking a philosophy class sometimes. Must be hell growing up in the midwest, that's all I can say. Or not growing up.

Bunny Goes 2 Business School - idialedyournumber

I normally draw the line at screamo but look at that title. Also, bunny ears. Plus that guitar just goes there, doesn't it? 

Love the video, too.

Kind Robots Make Me Cry - Strawberry Girl

Me too, Strawberry. May I call you Strawberry? Probably not.

Seriously, though, they do. I have a very similar emotional reaction to stories about robots and AIs being mistreated as I do to ones featuring animals or children. Somehow, instead of having them labelled as a Threat To Humanity I have them filed under whimsical imaginary friends. Going to get me killed one day, I'm sure.

There's a great discussion on the YouTube thread for this one, where someone makes a comment and Strawberry Girl replies and they get into a to and fro about it until a third person enters the thread and sorts the whole thing out. It's a textbook example of why YouTube comment threads are a net social good.

Golden Retriever Boy - KiNG MALA

There's an official video for this one but it doesn't have a dog in it. You could probably watch this with the sound off and still enjoy it. Don't do that, though. It'd be rude.

Minimalism - Daphnie

Always good to end with a banger. Although they've pretty much all been bangers up to now. And this isn't even the end. One more to come. Also, another skinny, white, hyperactive English guy. Do they ever stop?

Woke Up - XG

"XG is a Japanese girl group based in South Korea." So does that make them KPop or JPop? Who fricken cares? People on Reddit, apparently. There's a bunch of threads about it there. I didn't read any of them. Obviously.

And that, I think, is about it for this time. Kept the chatter to a minimum for once. Can't promise it'll happen again.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Do I Not Like This?

I spend quite a lot of time here banging on about how I mostly look for relaxation from my games. I often say I don't want much in the way of challenge. I try to avoid content that could realistically be called "difficult". If I have to do it so I can get to other content beyond the difficulty gate then I will but I'll do it grudgingly and with bad grace.

One thing I've never been known to do willingly and without complaint is to retry the same fight again and again in the hope of learning the mechanics. Perfecting my technique and making incremental progress until eventually I win. Unfortunately, since around the middle of the twenty-aughts, that kind of content gating has been a constant in MMOPRG design so, much though I might dislike it, I've had to do more of it than any rational, reasonable person would consider sane.

It's very odd, then, that over the past two weeks I've spent something close to fifteen or twenty hours repeating the exact same set-piece battle with every sign of enjoyment. I haven't counted my attempts but I've made at least one try most days for about a fortnight. Some days I've tried twice. I think day I tried three times.

Each fight lasted at least half an hour. One particularly gruesome farrago dragged on for more than ninety minutes. Most times I restarted again from the exact point where I began, without making any changes to my team or my build. Occasionally, I made major revisions to talents or gear. 

Sometimes thing went better. Sometimes they went worse. If I was lucky, I learned something. Mostly I didn't.

I did some googling, looking for advice or suggestions. No-one seemed to be having the same problems as me. No-one really seemed to be having any problems at all. The main suggestions were to do pretty much what I'd done the very first time I tried the fight. I'd thought it seemed like the obvious way to handle it and it seemed I was right.

The gist of the scenario is this: 

  • There's a bridge. 
  • At one end is your team.
  • At the other end is a gate with a lever.
  • Between your team and the lever are more than a dozen enemies.
  • If you don't close the gate by pulling the lever, after a few rounds more enemies begin to come onto the bridge.
  • The additional enemy forces arrive, two at a time, every two or three turns.
  • They never stop coming so long as the gate remains open.

I mean, it's not hard to figure out, is it? Get the bloody gate shut ASAP. The plan is simple enough. it's the execution that's the problem.

That's how I spent most of my game time these last couple of weeks. Trying to cross that bridge and close that gate. 

At first I couldn't even get to the damn lever without everyone dying. After a while I could get someone there but they'd die before they could pull it. If I managed to get the gate shut it was never before I already had more enemies on the bridge than I could handle. 

Concentrating on getting one person all the way across the bridge with enough health left to pull the lever frequently left most of the rest of the team dead or close to it. Trying to get several people across so as to have redundancy on the pull attempt went even worse. 

After too many failed runs using the obvious tactic I flipped the plan and tried moving forward as a team, clearing the bridge of enemies as we went. That didn't work either.

Although I always felt my errors were the main reason I was failing, a part of the problem was out of my control. Combat in the game involves a significant amount of dice-rolling so luck is always a factor. It also employs a system of Critical Hits and Failures, meaning a particularly bad roll can be catastrophic.

There were things I could do to mitigate some of the impact of a bad set of rolls. There are talents that prevent crits, for a start, and others that negate specific types of damage. All the usual push and pull of RPGs down the years. 

But the thing about random factors is they're random. It's all very well giving one character immunity from critical hits but who's to say they'll be the one to get the bad roll? And you can't make everyone crit-proof. Or fire-proof. Or poison-proof... 

Then there are the really super-annoying design decisions you would never have made in a million years. For example, if you have a Thief, who can go into stealth so no-one can see him, why would you have him come out of stealth automatically, just to take advantage of an Attack of Opportunity? Wouldn't you code it so he stays in stealth unless he's either spotted or chooses to attack?

That one dumb mechanic screwed me over on several runs to the point that I had to stop using the Thief as my sneaker altogether. I had the Elf do it instead. She was lighter on her toes, anyway. 

I also had the Barbarian do his flying leap to get past people. I even had the Ogre throw the Dwarf halfway across the bridge. It's a party trick they do. None of it really worked.

But I kept trying. I didn't even get mad when I failed, again and again. Ok, I didn't get mad much

Mostly what I got was interested. It didn't feel so much like I was being forced to repeat the same annoying, over-tuned fight again and again. It felt more like I was putting together a puzzle. Maybe if I put this piece here... or move that one there...

It probably goes without saying at this point that the game I was playing was not an MMORPG. Fights of this kind in MMORPGs are rarely - if ever - fun. Also, most MMORPGs I've played haven't been turn-based, although of course there are a few.

The game in question was one I've mentioned before: The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk. I'm only playing it because it came free with Amazon Prime Gaming. There is absolutely no chance I'd have paid money for it.

And it's not even that great an example of its kind. I'd say it's pretty good but it sure as heck isn't Baldur's Gate or even Divinity: Original Sin. It doesn't have that much of a plot and the dialog is cheesy. The whole game doesn't amount to a lot more than a string of set-piece fights strung together with a bunch of lame jokes. 

What all this tells me is that I'm not very good at knowing what I like. Although, I already knew that. I didn't need to have it pointed out to me. Again.

I have a tendency to believe I actually like things when in fact they're just things I think I ought to like. Conversely, I imagine I don't like things when all the evidence suggests I do. It doesn't happen all the time - just often enough that it catches me out, once in a while.

I think it might happen more with games than anything else, too. I expect it's because I know less about games than most other things I like. Or don't like. Whichever.

Now that I've noticed, I'm hoping maybe this time I'll learn something from the experience. That's why I've written it down. In the hope that might make it stick.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and find out what comes after the bridge. I think I've earned it.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

What's Going On

has several primary functions. It's a store-front, where you can buy games. It's a platform, from which you can access and launch them. It also acts as a kind of social network for players and it provides a virtual fairground for games companies and developers, with its endless parade of special interest events, such as next month's NextFest or next week's Open World Survival Crafting Fest.

All of which is very helpful and useful and so on but there's another aspect of Steam's service I'm only now beginning to appreciate. It's a great place to get gaming news.

You'd think there'd be enough of those around already but I've always found it unecessarily hard to find the kind of news I wanted, presented in the way I wanted to receive it. Many, maybe most, gaming sites seem to be more interested in being entertaining than informative.

I used to complain quite frequently that what I wanted from MMO news sites like MassivelyOP was a lot less editorial and opinion and a lot more straight news reporting. I fully appreciate that just recycling PR handouts doesn't bring the eyeballs and pay the bills like snark, sarcasm and clickbait headlines but it's a plain fact that the posts I read all the way through at MOP are the ones that stick most closely to the information handed them by games developers. 

I realize it's hypocritical of me to complain about other people doing exactly what I do here all the time, namely using publicity material as a springboard for a string of self-indulgent dad jokes. My justification is that this is a personal blog, not a professional website. My one and only brief is to keep myself amused. If in doing so I happen to amuse anyone else, that's gravy.

I hate gravy, by the way. Who wants wet food? How did that ever get to be the benchmark?

See? That's the sort of self-indulgence I'm talking about. And so is this. Do you really want that sort of nonsense in your news reporting? I don't, which is why I'm constantly on the verge of removing MOP from my news feeds. 

And yet somehow it never happens. The problem is, no-one else covers the industry segment that interests me as fully and accurately as they do. MassivelyOP doesn't catch every development in the genre but it nets more than anyone else I've found and frequently tells me things I didn't know about games I play or introduces me to games I hadn't heard of. I have other MMO news sites in my Feedly, notably MMOBomb, whose coverage tends to be a lot straighter than MOP, if still prone to the occasional, unsolicited opinion, but it's rare for any of them to scoop Bree and her team.

Still, what I would really like is a true news aggregator for the genre. Something that just collates and distributes the press releases sent out by gaming companies and links them, unedited and unfiltered, under simple, declarative headings. That would allow me to skim them, read the ones that interest me and then do my own research to see how accurate or otherwise I feel the information promulgated by the marketing departments might be. I do love to do my own research.

It's taken me a long time to realize it but in a way that's what I already have with Steam. 

I tend to use Steam mainly from the Library page. Along the top is a band called What's New. For a long time I ignored it completely. It was only when I started to notice that information about a game I thought was all but dead was appearing almost daily that I started to pay attention. 

Few people reading this probably remember Bless Unleashed. Even fewer care what happened to it. I imagine most people who recognize the name assume it either closed down or went into maintenance mode long ago.

That's about what I thought, too. I did have a vague recollection of some half-assed conversion to NFTs or blockchain, back when those were the scam-du-jour, but so many fading, failing games tried jumping that bandwagon, none of the details really stuck with me. 

I still don't really have any clue how Bless Unleashed is doing. I uninstalled it a while back to free up some hard drive space so I can't log in to check for myself. I can tell you that according to the Steam charts it has a 30-day average of just under 500 players, which isn't a lot, although it's better than many MMOs on Steam. Lord of the Rings Online, for example, only has about a hundred more Steam players than that. MMOs often have multiple points of access, so Steam charts don't tell the whole story.

As for Bless Unleashed drifting dead in the water, belly-up in the oil slick of maintenance mode, thanks to Steam's What's New strip rolling along the top of my screen, I can confidently say it's not. As I write, news of updates for Bless Unleashed takes up much of the row. The game patched twice on May 17 and again on May 22. It also required an Emergency Update on the 20th and on the 22nd. An activity called "Ordo Chess" was added, along with half a dozen quality-of-life adjustments and the inevitable cash shop offers.

It's nothing major in itself but having played many similar MMORPGs, where even minimal updates like these dried up completely with no word at all from the developers for months on end, it definitely shows the game remains a going concern for the publisher and that there's still someone being paid to work on it.

Steam's What's New is how I heard about the bizarre bee competition in Rift. Like Valofe, who publish Bless Unleashed these days, Gamigo pump out a stream of "updates" I only know about from the news squibs. Granted, almost all of them are re-runs of events Trion originated but even that shows a kind of active engagement missing from games in true maintenance mode.

As a promotional tactic, it works. Better than you'd imagine. I still have Rift installed and I do occasionally log in as a result of reading something in that strip across the top of my screen. I did the quiz and I don't even want the prize. If I'd read about it in a quip-filled paragraph on a gaming website, I doubt I'd have bothered. 

I find  information presented this way, unmediated and without commentary, more engaging and involving than most of what I read after it's been filtered through the observations and interpretations of a third party and there's good reason for that. It's how I was brought up by print journalism.

Back in the day, when I got all my music news from the inkies, there was a very clear division between news and opinion. The first few pages were filled with news, which was presented entirely without comment, just the bald facts. Once past that, opinions ruled. Interviews, editorial, reviews, columns - it was a free-for-all filled with irony, ridicule, posturing, pretension and pontification and I loved it. 

Even now, most of the music websites I follow operate under roughly the same rule: news up front, no commentary; opinion in the back and give 'em hell! I'd love it if I could get my gaming news the same way but so far I've yet to find a site that covers the games that interest me in the way I'd like, which is why I'm so pleased to have identified a possible alternative.

The limiting factor for Steam's What's New, of course, is that it only feeds me information about games I have registered with the platform. And it seems as though only a subset of developers choose to send that information to the channel. 

I hear a lot about Bless Unleashed and Rift. I read plenty on AdventureQuest 3D (Did you know they're about to remove level scaling from the game almost completely? That's worth a post of its own.). Palworld, Nightingale, New World and Palia all keep me up to date with everything they're doing. I even hear from Legend of Edda occasionally, although that one sends me emails more often than it posts updates.

Other games on my roster remain silent, which might lead me to think they'd died, if it wasn't for another benefit of having them on Steam: the Community Hub. The hub is not, in my opinion, as good as the What's New feed for the simple reason I have to go looking for it. I have to think of the game, wonder what's going on with it, find it in my Library and click through to the Community page before I can see any news there might be.

I just did that with two MMORPGs I play - or at least used to play - through Steam. Both of them used to post regular updates in the news feed but neither of them has appeared there for a while. Having made the effort to catch up with them both, I can now tell you Dawnlands hasn't issued any kind of update or news since just before Christmas but Dragon Nest has been putting out a solid four notifications per month all year, none of which I have seen.

Why those have stopped appearing in my feed I have no clue but I wish they hadn't. I don't care that i'm not playing the game any more. I don't even care that I maybe can't play it, thanks to the endless fuck-ups with regionalization Dragon Nest has always been subject to. I would still like to read about what's going on there even if I can't join in.

I was a tardy and reluctant adopter when it came to Steam and since I caved and began using it I've treated it grudgingly and with bad grace. No more. I'm beginning to see more advantages than drawbacks in using the platform and I plan on making more of the opportunities it offers in future.

If I can't get what I want from the gaming press, perhaps I can get it from Valve. Or from Microsoft, if rumors are to be believed.

I didn't read that on Steam, though, and I doubt I ever will, at least until it's a done deal. 

I guess I won't be removing those gaming sites from my Feedly after all.

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