Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dammit, Lex Luthor

Oops. I forgot to make a post yesterday. This is unfortunate, because if I had, I'd have made a post every day for 4 days in a row. And that's as many as 4 1s. And that's terrible.

It's not quite the same punch as 4 10s but there was no way I was going to get 40 in a row. Blog posts are not cakes, even though they are frosted with overused internet memes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

for_profit = true;

I am consistently amazed by how grown adults utterly fail to understand the workings of the business world. Why do people demonize for profit corporations for doing, well, exactly what they were made to do?

A common trend on the forums of video games (though I'm sure it's prevalent in other industries too) is "omg, [big corporation here] just wants money!" This is often a last resort when the arguing party has run out of viable arguments, an attempt to gain some imagined moral high ground by casting the big bad evil corporation in a negative light for only caring about dollar signs but . . . that's why corporations exist. Do you really expect to get products for free? I suppose some unhappiness when a price is raised is understandable, but it's unavoidable. As the cost of living rises, wages must go up and as wages go up, development costs go up which in turn leads to increased prices. It's just how math works.

Now, I'm not saying that all big corporations are pristine paragons of virtue. Sure, stuff like the Enron debacle happens, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking solely about big companies that offer a product or service for which they charge a reasonable fee, not crooks with their hands our wallets when we're not looking.

What's even more ridiculous is when these complaints are roused by a new product. The inspiration for this post, though by no means unique or the only case of this happening, came from a Facebook comment thread following an announcement by SOE that they would be selling wall posters with art from some of their games. Amid the "Oh neat, I'll probably buy one" comments, there were a handful of "Great, Sony just trying to get more money!" as if this was some horrible thing. I can understand some of the frustration at a product's cost going up, or its features being cut to reduce costs, but what cause do we have to complain about a company offering an entirely separate product? If you don't like it, you certainly don't need to buy it.

Of course, this is mostly rhetorical, as we already know the answers: people have obnoxious senses of entitlement and thing they should get everything they want for free and hating big corporations is "trendy." Also ranting on a blog is therapeutic.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Your Pokeblog is Evolving!

Let's talk about evolution. (Sorry, creationists, though after my posts about the mosque and gay marriage I'd be REALLY surprised if there were any lurking on this blog.)

I was reading Cowbirds in Love, a hilarious web comic, and one of the comics made a pretty good point:

Arrogant as we are, humans seem to have this notion that we are the apex of evolution, the pinnacle of natural progress. Some even venture to say things like "We evolved from monkies." This is silly. Monkies have been evolving just as long as we have. They are as much a pinnacle of evolution as we are. We did not "evolve from" monkies. We evolved from a common ancestor that we share with monkies.

Though if one wanted to explore this notion further: Evolution happens because of mutations in new organisms when they are born (well really when they are conceived). This means that, as the movie Mimic pointed out, evolution is about generations, not time. While the ultra-fast evolution in Mimic is still a bit unrealistic, the principle is sound: A species that reproduces faster will evolve faster. So where do we sit on this scale? In theory, we could produce a new generation of humans every 12-15 years if people began producing children as soon as they were biologically able to. People having children so young is an appalling thought now, but was not uncommon back in the days of 30 year life expectancy. If you didn't have kids that early, your kids would probably be orphans before their age hit double digits. Anyway, now a new generation happens every 20 or 30 years.

On the other hand, many other species reproduce far, far faster than us. Many plants have a new generation annually. Some insects can even have several generations per year. Monocellular organisms can even have multiple generations per hour. So, long story short: They're all evolving faster than us. We are technically LESS evolved than house flies. So there.

However, you might say "But I can still hit it with a fly swatter." Or you might not, but then let's assume someone else said it instead. True, evolutionary progress does not necessarily mean "better." It just means those are the attributes that were most advantageous in that situation. As Sanjay points out in the text below his comic: It's all about better fitting your niche. For example, penguins may be pretty damn good at surviving in the cold, but drop them in a desert and they'd fare far worse than "less evolved" desert dwellers from millions of years ago.

Of course, in some cases the niche lies somewhere other than individual strength. You might feel victorious when you crush a cockroach, but remember: for every one you see there are 40 you don't, and they often breed faster than we can kill them. Also remember that though things that will kill a roach (getting stepped on, bug poisons, the cat) might not bother a human, there are plenty of things that will kill a human quickly and painfully that a cockroach can survive.

tl;dr We're arrogant but we're not doing any better than rats.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In Defiance of Classification

I don't plan for this to be a game review site. That market is pretty saturated, and has people with more resources than I (ie, the ability to consistently buy new games as soon as they hit shelves rather than waiting for them to drop to $10). However, periodically when I feel like there's something I *really* want to say about a game (or I don't have a rant prepared about dumb stuff) I will write one. Like this!

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, is an interesting game because I don't know how to summarize. There are good games, there are bad games and there are games in between. Oblivion is neither good nor bad. One would think this means it's somewhere in between, in the realm of "average," but there is nothing average about this game. Every part of it is either really, really good or terribly bad.

I'll be nice and start with the good. It's a fairly beautiful game. The characters, monsters and environments are all beautiful. There are dozens of sliders for customizing your character's appearance, for those who are into that sort of thing.

Every inventory item has a 3D model associated with it, and there's quite a variety of them. If you drop an item it falls to the ground with that model. Also, many of the decorations are actual items. All the cups, plates and food sitting on a table, or the rows of books on a book shelf are actual items you can pick up or push around (they all respond to physics). I know that sounds like something silly to be excited about, but after all the games where dropped items either vanish or adopt a generic bag or box model, and books in bookcases are just a decorative texture, I thought it was really cool.

It also has neat systems for procedurally generating items and spells. There are tons of alchemy components you can use to make varied potions and poisons. For spells, once you know an effect (such as fire damage, restore health), you can make a spell with that effect, select the target type (self, target, touch, ae), duration and magnitude and the game calculates the magic and gold cost for it based on that. You can make some interesting stuff.

The voice acting is generally pretty good, though there were a few cases where it was kind of bland. I expected The Gray Prince to express a tiny bit more shock when he learned his father was a [spoiler].

The world is vast and you can wander around and explore, but there is a fast travel option when you just want to get where you're going. The world is also full of unique NPCs. Other than guards, most NPCs in the towns have specific names. Also, (except for essential quest NPCs) if they die they are dead. Sucks if a shop keeper you like gets killed somehow, but I think having a mutable world is generally neat. It also gives you an incentive to try to keep allies alive. Keep that guy alive in this quest and he might help you out later on.

There's also a fair amount of content. Lots of dungeons, and plenty of quests. Some of the side stories rival the main story in length and complexity. There are lots of options, which can be overwhelming but overall is neat.

So. The bad. All of the awesomeness above is marred by Oblivion's leveling system. Now in fairness, the "enemies level with you" paradigm does have some merits. It means everything is theoretically level appropriate. It also avoids the problem of "missing" a dungeon at the right level range. In a few MMOs I played, I've totally missed out on dungeons on my main character because by the time I found out about them I was too high level for them, so I usually have to make an alt if I want to do it "as intended."

However, this system carries with it a host of new problems. For one, if enemies get stronger as you do, it diminishes much of the point of leveling up. One of my favorite things to do in Everquest was go back and solo or group old raid mobs, which you can't do if they get tougher as you do. It also poses a problem for those who make sub-optimal characters. It's easy to make bad choices in a new game that you don't know everything about yet, especially one as complex as most modern RPGs. If you don't get new/enchanted gear and allocate your stats efficiently, the game can actually get *harder* as you level up. Leveling up should be cause for celebration, but in games with enemy scaling (Oblivion is not the only game guilty of this) it's almost a source of frustration. Since you only level up when you sleep in Oblivion, some players simply never sleep, remaining as low level as possible for the entire game. That's kind of a red flag.

The way leveling up works is interesting, but also causes problems when coupled with the enemy scaling. There are 21 skills in the game, in 3 groups of 7: Combat, Magic and Stealth. Each class has 7 major skills, and can specialize in one of the 3 groups (specializing means they go up faster). Major skills also go up faster, but more than that, determine how you level up. Every 10 skill levels worth of major skills you gain, your character goes up a level. Now, in an RPG with static enemies, this would be really cool. In unmodded Oblivion, it means that the way to make the optimal character is to pick a class with major skills you never plan to use, so that you can increase all of your useful skills without increasing your level. It was kind of jarring when I realized that picking the Warrior class for a melee type character would make the game harder, rather than easier.

All of this boils down to one main problem: If you encounter a boss or area that is too hard, there is little you can do (short of turning down the difficulty slider) to make it not-too hard. In most other games, you'd go gain a few levels, come back and beat it up with your new abilities. For example, I'm pretty sure every Square RPG ever could be beaten well before max level, so those who just sucked at the game or had a hard time could over-level and use more muscle. You can't do that when enemies get tougher with you, which makes it unforgiving for anyone who made mistakes developing their character.

I think there are two solutions that blend the best of both the static enemy and auto-leveling enemy worlds. One is to have enemies level up to an enemy specific cap, and the other is to only have them level once. The former is more appropriate for overland enemies, while the later better for dungeons.

With capped enemies, when you are level one, all enemies would be level 1 (or slightly higher if their level is PC + 1 or 2 for harder enemies). When you are 2, everything becomes 2. When you reach 3, everything is 3 except for rats and similar weaker enemies, that would stay 2. Oblivion sort of does this for non-dungeon enemies, since you face new creature types as you level up. In a way, I don't mind that as much, since you're not fighting a level 20 rat. You're fighting a level 20 minotaur where a rat used to hang out. Also, overland enemies can be easily avoided either with a horse or the fast travel option, so I'd say that could be left as is fine.

For dungeons, I think the optimal solution is to have them scale to the player's level the first time the player sets foot in the dungeon, but then stay there until the dungeon is cleared out. That way, any new dungeon the player finds is level appropriate, but if it proves to be hard, they can go get a level or two and come back.

Of course, really I'd like to see more RPGs do away with "levels" entirely and go entirely by skills and gear, but that's a ramble for another post.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Faulty arguments stretched to their (il)logical extremes:

Argument A: Muslims should not build their cultural center in Manhattan since the terrorists were also Muslim, thus it's insensitive.

Argument A taken further than its proponents intended while remaining logically consistent: That's true! Furthermore, I have it on good authority that the men who committed the atrocity breathed air. We'd better make sure no air breathers are allowed near Ground Zero, as that'd be insensitive.

Does that seem ridiculous? It's conceptually the same as the base argument.

Argument B: Birth Control shouldn't be used because you're killing your unborn child.

Abortion is a pretty sensitive subject, and probably one I will try to remember to devote a full post to in the future. There are those who argue abortion is murder as it is killing the child. Fair enough, as there is a baby there, though at what point it stops being a few cells and starts being a baby is a subject of much debate by people who have done far more research on the topic than I. However, some people take it further and argue that birth control is bad too, as it's killing the theoretical baby. Well . . .

Argument B probed a bit more deeply than its makers intended: If preventing a baby from being conceived is murder, then logically any method of preventing a potential baby is the same. Any woman who spends more than 9 months not pregnant has just killed the child she could have been having. Men are even worse, since every time a man does not impregnate a non-pregnant woman, he's killing the potential kids. Furthermore, you are then guilty of killing any children that those children would have had. Thus, by the same logic employed to argue against birth control, ever single non-sterile human beyond the age of puberty is guilty of infinite counts of infanticide. Way to go guys. You're all ultra-dicks.

That's it for the moment. I was going to do something gay marriage related but I did that recently, and there are so many faulty arguments employed there I could make a novel out of them. I wouldn't know where to start.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Marriage is so Gay

It looks like proposition 8 finally got (rightfully) repealed: (Maybe this will draw some of the rage away from the Mosque story. =p)

Despite it being a very big topic currently, and one I have a lot to say about, I have thus far not posted about it on this blog mostly because everything I have to say has already been said. However, as this blog is as much to vent and collect my thoughts as to say things that are original and new, I guess I might as well go ahead with a few of them.

So, let's investigate some of the arguments brought to bear against gay marriage. The most common one I hear is a passage from Leviticus: Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. (Leviticus 18:22) Well let's investigate this, shall we? When interpreting the Bible (or any text, really), it's important to keep in mind the cultural context in which it was written. Leviticus was, as the name implies, a code of laws written for the Levites, one of the 12 tribes of Israel. This is a culture where infant mortality was high, life expectancy was low and the entire culture was perpetually on the verge of extinction. They needed people constantly making babies, which mean men needed to be sleeping with (and impregnating) women, rather than each other, for the sake of the survival of the culture. In modern times, with overpopulation a huge problem in many areas, this is no longer as big an issue.

Of course, fanatic Biblical literalists will tell us that every word in the Bible is literally true no matter the context and that I just committed blasphemy. If that's true, I hope they never eat shellfish or wear two kinds of cloth together. It also alarming that they feel that handicapped people shouldn't be allowed in church (Leviticus 21:16-23) and that genocide and slavery are acceptable.

Then there are more secular arguments against gay marriage, though no less silly. For example: Gays shouldn't be married because the union will not produce children. Marriage stopped being about just children the moment it had legal benefits like hospital visitation or joint tax return filing attached to it. Also, what about infertile heterosexual couples? Are we going to tell them they can't marry? Or older couples past child bearing age? Or couples that can have children but choose not to? Then of course there's the option of adoption. With so many children in foster homes and orphanages in need of loving parents, it's arguably an even greater service to the species to take care of an adopted child than to make a new one, at least while so many are in need of care.

tl;dr Gay marriage is not going to plunge us into Armageddon.