"Parallel Economy"

While desperately searching through the internet to find something to rip of-IMEAN- “while looking for inspiration to put into a highly-original post”, I came across this Penny Arcade. Seeing that everyone’s talking about it, well, the bandwagon goes really fast and makes all these sweet curves, it’s quite like an awesome roller coaster. Why not ride it?

Anyways.

I’ve always considered stores like Gamestop and the like to be nothing more than parasites. Yes, I have bought games there before, I will admit. They were games that the developer no longer sells personally, though, so there really was no way to ship money over to the publisher other than mailing a check. In my defense. However, it’s hard to ignore what they do to companies as a whole.

To make a convoluted comparison, look at books of poetry released by third parties. You know what I’m talking about, the books that are 90% composed of Poe’s works, but there’s a ten-page foreword by Literary Weasel. Guess who makes most of the profit off of the sales! Literary Weasel, because he’s the one that published the book. Taking the genius of others and using it for your personal gain… parasites, all of them.

Seeing that I’m using the word “parasite” more than Andrew Ryan, let me point out the opposite view: yes, it is a legitimate business, and there’s no room for playing nice when it comes to business. They do provide a service (selling the game itself) for a price that is lower than the publishers themselves. The game is in worse condition than new, thus they are selling an inferior product for less money, as basic economic principles would tell them to do. Yes, you could drop a few more bucks on a new disk, so it’s not like they’re stealing all of the publisher’s gain.

However, games are not like other goods. You see, most long-lasting goods, like books and cars, deteriorate in a way that affects their performance. Books might lose words to smudges, or even entire pages. And anyone who has bought a well-used car can account for the effects of time. However, a videogames will retain its full value because the good isn’t the disk itself, but the info that it contains. This is why digital distribution is possible, you buy the code, not the game itself, if that makes sense.

Thus, when I say that GameStop sells an inferior product, it’s not true. They won’t buy back break in to your house and steal your game collection while leaving 5 bucks on your kitchen table if any of the games are damaged beyond reasonable playability. Thus, the real product remains as pure as the day it was printed, even if the medium itself is a little tarnished. So what GameStop does is sell the same product as the publishers, but at a reduced cost.

Many people say that the simplest solution is for the publishers to simply drop their prices to a point where they are competitive with GameStop and its brethren. However, there is a problem with that: the publishers could never be competitive. As I said before, GameStop buys back games at a price that is blatant highway robbery. How can a developer/publisher compete with a company that buys back the game for five bucks, then turns around and sells it for forty? Yes, the publisher might cut back on GameStop’s profit margins, but they could never truly compete.

Unfortunately, there’s no good way out of this. GameStop isn’t doing anything illegal or stupid, their business plans are actually quite brilliant in a slimy way. Yes, gamers might actively avoid buying from GameStop, but let’s face it, those who self-identify as “gamers” are the minority. For every heroic defender of the developer you will have three coupon-clipping cheapskates that will simply look at the price tags, not what’s behind them. The only real way to help with the problem is for the developers to push harder for “Buy new, get this in-game ____” prizes or bind-on-account games, a la Steam. Both are being implemented, although the former is being pushed hard by GameStop, a fact that I can’t understand. Why would developers agree to give special prizes to people who bought the game from the leeches at GameStop? It seems silly.

Personally, I haven’t bought a game in physical form (other than SC2) in ages, so I don’t really bother with GameStop. Steam is my wonderful library. However, I implore you CD-buying or console-gaming people, please, buy from the developers.

A Shared Story

Videogames are something of a diverse medium. You really can do anything you want with them, imagination and funding allowing. However, I suppose that you can divide them into the “single-player” and “multiplayer” in that each has a different focus. We have games that are entirely based around the single player experience, with a huge emphasis on story. Multiplayer-only games usually only have a (relatively) token single-player experience, with the clear emphasis on PvP gameplay, like the Battlefield series. These are things that we know.

And there are games that breach the categories and provide both. CoD: Modern Warefare had a decent single-player campaign that may have had a weak story line, but it was relatively good. Of course, that particular example threw itself into popularity by its ridiculously popular multiplayer, but it still had a decent experience.  Of course, a game will always focus on one thing or another, but sometimes there can be balance. Plus, the game is what you make of it. I know a guy that had MW2 for months, racking up hours upon hours of multiplayer, and he never delved into the single-player campaign once. That’s just sad.

However, we run into problems when a game is truly multiplayer-only. Whether it’s World of Warcraft in the upper levels or the earlier Battlefields where the single-player experience was simply multiplayer with bots, these games are only really playable with online peers.

However, you must have the right mindset to play multiplayer-only games for a long period of time. Why? Because they lack story.

I came to the realization a bit ago that I have a Steam library full of 9 (now 8, finished Trine) games that I’ve never finished, some never started, because I’ve been so busy with games like WoW and BC2. Starcraft 2 luckily broke this trend by throwing me back into the single-player experience and allowing me to once again play for the story. And guess what… it was fun! I didn’t realize how much I missed plot until I played that game. Even a game like Trine with no real plot to speak of was interesting, if only for the mechanics. Thus, I jumped back into the games that I left behind and now I’m having the time of my life.

Thus, multiplayer games have a problem with holding your attention unless you’re the super-competitive type that will never play a game other than that ONE game that you’re trying to be the “uber 13337 haxorz-raxorz” at, a kind of gamer that I truly feel bad for. It’s like only reading the works of a single author, you miss so much simply because of your tunnel-vision.

However, there are exceptions. For example, it’s a widely-held fact that Team Fortress 2 is a strangely long-lasting multiplayer-only game. People like me, those who enjoy plots and such, are racking up hundreds of hours on that game. My theory why? Because the characters have personality. The Scout is a hyperactive squirt, the Spy is suave and egomaniacal, and the Soldier is just nuts. They have character, and that lasts longer than any faceless avatar that shot the same rocket  for the five-thousandth time.

The same can be said about WoW, to an extent. I’ve always held that the game boils down to nothing but glorified spreadsheets, but that’s not true in lower levels. Many of the quests have flavor texts that I unfortunately skipped over for a large part of my leveling, much to my chagrin. I suppose the minor stories could really give the game more of a feeling, plus the additional out-of-game lore might help a lot as well. However, most of the players spend their time at level cap, mindlessly grinding away the same things, without story or really any reason. Yes, there’s community, but that only extends so far…

Just an observation, make of it what you will. I suppose my point is thus: multiplayer games are fun and all, but largely limiting yourself to them is a shame. There’s so much good material out there that you should at least try, if only to broaden your horizons a bit. Drop five bucks on a copy of Bioshock or Beyond Good and Evil. If you hate it, crawl back to your familiar territory. However, I doubt that you will be disappointed.

On Loot

I can feel the MMO burnout setting in, like a growling creature lurking in the back of the room, waiting to pounce. Anyone who has played knows what I refer to. It starts with you “having” to do something in game. Then you start logging off for longer and longer and play more solo-oriented games instead. Eventually you stay on only because you are needed in your guild, at least until you go on sabbatical. Everyone has it, a fact that is somewhat indicative of how much time we spend on the games. It really does become a second life, an odd concept. But that’s for another time.

A story: I was once reading a manga, one of the .hack series (don’t remember the subdomain or whatever the term is for it) when I came across one of the little stories that are housed in the back. This one had the rare item collector character fawning over some super-rare set of wings that a guy was showing off. It turns out that he hacked his way into having the wings, a fact that the collector got pissed about. To teach him about loot, she took him on an incredibly difficult cavern run in order to reach a really rare staff. The moral of the story is that things aren’t worth anything if you don’t work for them, yadah yadah yadah, but the story gave me pause. I thought, Now that is a game that I would like to play.

One of the biggest problems in MMO gaming is the entire idea of a random drop system. It works for relatively trivial mobs, but the endgame of an instance/cavern is the problem.

Let me explain. For those of you who have played Oblivion, let me ask you this: what’s one of the most entertaining and addictive things to do in the game? That’s right, exploring all those sunken mines and ancient ruins. Why? Because you always knew that there would be at least one thing in there that you would want, a thing that would *always* be there, regardless of timing or whatever. There was always something to drive you to search just a little more to find that fancy bling. But that’s the thing, there was a goal to your exploration, because taking the initiative to explore would almost always benefit you. Thus, you explored every nook and cranny, taking in as much of the game as you could, and it was all for the better. Who can forget the vampire plants hidden away in that guy’s basement? Or the nord going insane after you silently assassinate everyone else in the manor party? It’s the flavor that really makes a game worth playing.

And that’s why MMOs fail me. On the surface they seem to be made for exploration, there’s huge maps, many tunnels and nooks, diverse travel methods, all of it. And yet, what’s the difference between one hole and another? There’s no real benefit to exploration outside of grinding up to the top level and then searching for crafting ingredients. I crave the cave with the staff, or a sword or MacGuffin, I don’t care. I want little places that are completely separate from any quest lines or raids, places housing treasure untold that rewards adventurers. It doesn’t have to be the same item every time, but at least give the explorer a token for his troubles. I don’t care how you implement it, you NEED to find a way to make the players want to dive into every cave they find.

Of course, the other issue that MMOs have, that of all of the flavor being worn down into nothing more than numbers. Nowadays most people play games like WoW on autopilot, with DeadlyBossMods and information sites removing all the mystery from the game. To be fair, those things are both necessary to beat the upper-level bosses, that’s true. However, imagine being the first people to try to kill the Lich King, before all the information got dumped on the net. Yes, you would probably fail again and again, but you would get an experience unlike nothing else, an experience of something truly new.

Look at it this way: for those of you who play upper level WoW, think back to every single time that you’ve fought Lord Marrowgar. Now tell me this, have you ever looked UP? The ceiling in his chamber is a giant spire with all kinds of fancy stuff. It’s really quite beautiful. Now, I almost wrote this off as my unawareness of my surroudings, and I would have if I hadn’t mentioned it over Vent to my raid buddies. I kid you not, most of the raid had never taken the time to look up, and the chat was filled with oooohs and aaaahhhs for a while. Are we so blind?

I dream of the game where exploration is worthwhile again. Someday, maybe. We’ll see.

Kid With Experience/ Jess Fink Comics

Kid With Experience

Well… Jess Fink. What, did you think that I was lying?

2009-present

Updates as completed

I first came across the work of Jess Fink through her comic Chester 5000, an extremely NSFW story about a woman, a man, and the anatomically correct robot that he builds to keep her off his back. Anyone who has heard of Japan can probably guess where this is going. Normally I would have written Chester off as another handwave-worthy attempt at drawing money in through porn, but I hesitated and actually read the thing. You see, much like Oglaf (I swear, my traffic jumps every time I mention that comic. Buncha perverts) I was intrigued by the art style enough to move on. Chester was based more on the sex itself than Oglaf, that’s true, but it was still an interesting example of someone who can take something like sex, a subject that has had all the candy coating licked off to the point where the stick is dyed red with blood, and make it good. Well, the plot was kind of weak (not bad for porn, I suppose) but I really enjoyed the art style. Plus, Chester always kept his bow tie on, like a true gentleman.

On a whim I followed Jess Fink on Twitter and discovered Kid With Experience, a blog-style comic about her daily life. Typically these comics are absolutely horrendous, they’re usually self-absorbed pieces of garbage that are filled to the brim with ego, evidenced by the fact that they believe their daily thoughts are worth reading, much like a blogger who criticizes webcomics. WHO SAID THAT?! Damn straight, “no one, sir”.

However, I’ve found Kid to be an interesting read. I suppose the key to comic-blogging is this: you can’t post every day with deadpan presentation and expect it to be any good. Kid updates rarely, but the comics seem to be somewhat humorous, both in content and style. I can compare it to Sketchfevor, a comic that I just realized that I’ve never reviewed. Odd.

Anyways, it does tend to drag a  bit occasionally, as the comics aren’t always continuous stories and thus will fill a panel with the entire story, making it rather wordy. The Star Trek fanfic comics are particularly guilty of this, although I will allow it seeing that Fink acknowledges that Picard is composed of super-densely packed sex.

The art gets a lot more simplistic over time, with the original panels being like Chester and the latter are more hourly-sketch-like. However, one doesn’t need detail to be expressive. It helps, yes, but look at xkcd, the comic that destroyed any hope of anyone else creating a stick-figure comic. You can be expressive with simple geometric shapes, if done correctly. And it is, oh yes, it is.

To wrap it up, Kid With Experience, Jess Fink’s life. It updates rarely, but I kind of like it, and that has to mean something.

Ignorance

I am by no means a sensitive person with his finger on the pulse of the world every second of the day, mostly because I believe that major governments are the puppets of others. Plus, my feelings towards mass media is “Don’t wholeheartedly believe in a piece of information unless you extensively research it, and even there’s only a 50% chance that you have the majority of the truth”. However, even my world-oblivious mind can see that the crap that spouts from the face-orifices of Americans is horrid.

I originally was going to do a piece on digital distribution, but then I logged onto my YouTube account to set some writing music. Settling on Jib Jab’s “It’s Time For Some Campaignin’ ” (I have a varied favorites list…), I accidentally hit the scroll bar to show the comments section. Now, I make a rule of keeping off of the “commons” of the internet (such as YouTube comments or most trending topics on Twitter) but this one drew me in simply because it was so insane. How, in this “enlightened” age, do people manage to argue for years about Obama being black and (my favorite falsehood) his being Muslim? One of those things is an outright misnomer, and the other shouldn’t be an issue. And yet, ignorant people keep shoving the same things around for reasons that are beyond me.

That brings me to Muslims. I’m an atheist, so I find all religion rather silly, but it drives me insane how Americans continually blame things on the “Muslims”, as if they all got together in a single mosque and planned the downfall of mankind. Religion is based entirely around interpretation, a fact that has bred untold numbers of Judeo-Christian sects, groups that members of which will slug you if you dare assume that they belong to another. Try telling a Protestant that he’s Catholic because it’s “the same thing” and see where that gets you. And yet, Muslims are immune from this effect? Hell, now they’re talking about stopping the construction of a mosque near the 9/11 site? That’s like saying that Catholics can’t build a church anywhere in France. Utter nonesense. Crazy people find their own reasons to be crazy, and that breeds things like Al-Qaeda and Waco. It’s no different.

As for politics in general: let’s pretend for five minutes that politics isn’t entirely smoke and mirrors and the opinions of the general populace actually mattered. Not that the general man has the mind to make a real opinion in the realm of politics, but while we’re in fantasy land let’s throw a brain in everyone as well. People need to learn to move outside their political parties. Unfortunately, our winner-take-all system forces parties to make platforms “for the masses”, but for the love of kittens please vote according to what the person is saying, not what your party lines are. I know diehard Republicans and fanatical Democrats, and let’s be frank, they’re both insane. If we’re going to force ourselves to have one person take the entire pot, we can’t have half the country hating him simply because he’s outside the party that they voted for. And if you think that you’re hating because he’s <insert political thing here> then you’re going to hell for lying. Most of the opposition that I’ve witnessed follows party lines directly. Yes, I’m generalizing, but since I can’t observe your specific case, I can’t make exact calls, now can I?

Lastly, I implore every single one of you, don’t believe anything that you hear. I’ve heard that the key to watching/reading the news is learning to spot bias and move around it, but let’s face it, every source has someone pulling the strings somewhere. You could piece together everything in the world about a subject and never get the entire truth, because that’s just how the world works. And yet, so many people take the news at face value. For an example, look at the idol worship that some of the news figures get, like Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilley (yeah, I know that those are both Fox but they’re just an example). All I’m saying is this: if you want to claim that you know that absolute truth then you need to look at the source material and draw your own conclusions. A painter that views his subject through a warped mirror will never catch the true image, no matter how he bends it.

/sigh. Sorry everyone, I try not to get political but this has put me off for a while. I know that the above was rambling and badly done, I’m afraid that I tend to write as things come to my mind when I’m doing improv, but such is life. Cheers.

Natural Progression

Today is going to be a piece in honor of the recent Singularity Summit, a “meeting of the minds” to discuss the future of technology and mankind.

I already briefly explained the definition of the Singularity in my Dresden Codak review, so I won’t repeat myself in that sense. I also do not want to express my specific views towards the concept of the Singularity because, frankly, I don’t have any. I know that it will someday happen, but that’s it. There’s really no point in trying to argue anything different.

The issue with setting a date for the Singularity lies in the concept itself. A machine that is capable of creating machines greater than itself would require some kind of creative side, even if it’s a marginal one at best. Thus, the machine would need to have some form of strong AI, that is, an AI that can learn from its surroundings as well as the weak AI approach of shoving data in and hoping for the best. Strong AI’s can’t be researched like a normal subject, any program that is deliberately programmed in a certain way is only going to operate within the parameters that were originally put down, making it a weak AI. As John Serle said, it’s the difference between simulating a mind and having one.

Thus, as much as it pains me to say it, there’s no rational way to deliberately develop strong AI. We can give it more and more processing power to work with, we can set up basic frameworks, we can do all that, but there’s a point where we have to sit back and just hope. You can’t set timeframes based on hope.

Oh dear, I seem to have made a statement after all. Still, let me veer out of oncoming traffic and get back on my original line of thought.

There’s nothing that infuriates me more than people who are unwilling to give into science’s seductive call. I’m not saying that everyone needs to grab a Bunsen Burner and lab coat right now, mind you. We need most of the jobs out in society to some extent. I’m directly referring to people who stab at research because it challenges their particular worldview, such as those who squash research in the name of “staying human”. Also included are religious nuts, non-Hippocratic doctors, Luddites, and so on. Above all, it should be a capital crime to destroy the very curiosity that science consists of, the curiosity that makes us human.

Science has been held back time and time again by every excuse imaginable. Whether it’s the fear of change, economic competition, or politicians hiding their motives by calling them “ethics”, history is full of roadblocks. Look at stem cells, the US government threw wet blackout drapes all over embryonic stem cells in a call to research adult stem cells (Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently, ASCs are vastly inferior to ESC). Then they backed off on the bans a bit, and guess what! Research into stem cells skyrocketed now that it wasn’t being forced to ride on a barbed-wire bicycle seat! Imagine that. We could have a cure for Alzheimers, spinal cord injuries, practically anything by now if the restrictions weren’t placed on research by fear-mongering politicians.

Earlier I said that we couldn’t develop strong AI purposefully, and that’s still true. But we’re still going to try. “Why?” you might ask, “What’s the point in sinking money into something that can’t make true positive progress in set time”? The answer is simple: human curiosity.

I’ve never put much stock in dualism (and therefore the “soul”) since isn’t grounded in anything, but I cannot deny that humans possess a consciousness that other species probably lack, an advanced form of self-awareness. What that consciousness is in form and function is a matter of debate, one that we needn’t bother with here. However, one fact is clear: curiosity is what makes us who we are, not our cells and organs. Perhaps that is what consciousness really is, a over-evolved sense of curiosity, one that drove our ancestors to create fire, language, all of it. Therefore curiosity is part of evolution, a natural progression of knowledge that has formed us into what we are today.

Look at yourself. You are squishy and frail, with a relative lack of claws and body hair. Your chances of surviving out in the wild without technological support are just next to zero. How did you survive? Answer: technology. Humankind has been evolving constantly over the many years due to technological progress. We are our own strong AIs, if you will. Frankly, we could ditch organic bodies and stay human simply because our minds are the key part of keeping our human-ness. I’d go into cybernetics in detail, but this is already too long. Later.

So here’s the point: Why stop now? Why stand in the way of natural evolution? I implore you, every single one of you, to stand behind the scientific community. Support intellectualism and scholastic behavior.

And above all, never tell anyone that it’s okay not knowing. Because it’s not.

Trine

Seeing that I haven’t read a new comic this week and my cache of pre-read stories is running low, I think that I’ll grab hold of the amorphous nature of my blog and do a video game review. Today, I bring your Trine.

Trine is a game that has been out for quite a while, but I only got/finished it recently due to the big Steam sale a bit back. I’m justifying reviewing it by knowing that most of you are cheap bastards who won’t drop five bucks on a good game if it doesn’t have at least one head explosion in the trailer. It was developed by Frozenbyte, a Finnish group that defines the term “indie” if only by their abysmal sales and lack of catalog. Their first game, Shadowgrounds and its sequel, was a top-down alien shoot-em-up that failed somewhat. They came to their senses, luckily, and released Trine.

Trine (try-nuh) is a game based around enough physics puzzles to make Valve’s collective pants shorter. Basically, go from one end of the chaos-filled dungeon to the other by any means possible.

The plot is kind of weak, I will admit that. Basically, a standard fantasy group (minus a cleric) of a bumbling wizard, an agile thief, and a meathead soldier all touch the same magical Plot Explaining Device called a “Trine” at exactly the same time (apparently they couldn’t see each other, somehow) and it bound them all together into one body. Now they move as one, with one person’s “image” being active at a time. Yeah, you don’t play this for the plot.

No, no, you play this for the gameplay. I almost shiver at saying that, I’ve been a longtime hater of anyone who skips out on plot for gameplay, but it works for Trine. Each character has its own abilities; the wizard can conjure up basic geometrical shapes to stand on, the thief has a bow and an awesome grappeling hook that can latch onto anything wooden, and the soldier has a shield-sword combo that’s relevant in about 1% of the game. Seriously, Soldier is fucking useless.

Anyways, you use 2/3 of the team’s abilities to run, jump, fly, bash, etc. your way though the levels. The beautifully rendered levels. There’s a lot of design that goes into all of it and it shows. Every backdrop and surface has a magical, living feeling to it, as if we’re going back to the idealisitc world of fantasy, instead of the “nitty-gritty” new fantasy. The world shines in radiance, even when you’re crawling through caves, simply because everything is very shiny. It’s very pretty, for you tl:dr crowd.

So yeah, it’s a great game that you can probably beat in 4 hours, max. Hey, it’s either that or go see a movie, and guess which one is more fun.

The only real beef that I have with Trine is that it’s too easy. The game suffers from a design flaw that really can’t be avoided by how the game is step. See, the characters don’t have a shared health bar between them, each on has its own. Thus, it’s possible for the thief to be dead but the other two alive, or perhaps the wizard is the only one left and has to survive by dropping boxes on people’s heads, and so on. This is a logical method of doing things, except for one tiny thing: the level design. You can’t ressurect the fallen comrades until the next checkpoint, so the game needed to have a way that either

(a) Gave you a checkpoint right before you got to the point where only one character could do it

or

(b) design the level so that any one of the three (okay, one of the two) could get to the next checkpoint alone.

This has caused the problem where the thief’s hookshot/portable swinging vine can be used to solve practically every single puzzle in the game. Almost everything in the world was wood, and once you got the hang of a move that had you swinging up onto the platform that you were attached to, you could pretty much beat 90% of the game. All you need is a bit of manual dexterity and the occasional reflexive move, something that a gamer has in ample supply. Seriously, there was times when I would trek all the way back to the checkpoint so that I could rez the Thief because the other two were next to useless. Well, the Wizard wasn’t, he could stack a thousand boxes on top of each other and pass any “get over this wall muahahahah” puzzle with ease. It almost makes you feel guilty for not using the level as the designers made it. After all, you can usually look back after hookshotting your way across the room for the fiftieth time and see a rather clever path that you could have taken. However, it was unnecessary.

Eh, Trine 2 is in the works, supposedly, so maybe it’ll get better.