Videogames Are Murderer Kryptonite, Says NPR

videogames-and-murderersFor your enjoyment, here’s another salvo in the ongoing discussion about “do videogames make kids into psychopaths,” aka “First-Person Shooters Were Designed by ISIS and the Taliban to Extend Satan’s Nefarious Reach into Our World.”

As you might expect, this TED Radio Hour episode connotes play with balanced human psychology. Less expected, perhaps, is a researcher who finds that the lack of play is part of the formative story for murderers.

Yes, that’s right. Murderers might’ve turned out okay if they’d only played more first-person shooters. 

I mean, maybe the infamous University of Texas mass murderer, Charles Whitman, wouldn’t be the first guy you’d want to see pumping quarters into a Silent Scope cabinet at the corner arcade. But, says Dr. Stuart Brown, the lack of unbounded, reckless, communal play might’ve been a factor in his lack of normal psychological development.

Personally, I find the demonization of videogames to be a bit tiresome, a symptom of a society looking for easy answers. Sure, like anything else, videogames can be taken to excess. But outlawing videogames is like outlawing kids playing cops and robbers in the local park. Just because it’s popular and loud and visceral doesn’t mean it’s evil.

In many cases, the solution for violent, unruly kids is quality parenting. Right? That’s my easy answer for the day. (“Said like a true non-parent” would be a valid riposte.)

Anyhow, I think we can all agree with the theory that play is an important part of the human experience. Here’s your podcast breakdown:

Does something serious happen when we play? In this episode, TED speakers describe how all forms of amusement — from tossing a ball to video games — can make us smarter, saner and more collaborative.

Here are the four parts:

  1. Comedian Charlie Todd and his group Improv Everywhere choreograph bizarre, hilarious and unexpected public scenes, creating whimsical opportunities for total strangers to play together.
  2. Dr. Stuart Brown says humor, games, roughhousing and fantasy are more than just fun; humans are hard-wired to play. He came to this conclusion after conducting some somber research about the stark childhoods of murderers.
  3. Primatologist Isabel Behncke explains how bonobo apes learn by constantly playing. She says play isn’t frivolous; it appears to be a critical way to solve problems and avoid conflict.
  4. When video game researcher Jane McGonigal was bedridden after a concussion, she gave herself a prescription: play a game. She says games helped her get better; and for many of us, virtual games can improve our real lives.

How to Harvest LR41 Watch Batteries from Junk Mail

In the Geek Skills category of Game Writer Central, I’m happy to announce this new lifehack: converting junk mail into value…!

LR41 Watch Batteries in Your Mailbox

free-watch-batteriesIf you’re in the right neighborhood, you’ve been getting an occasional giant postcard with a little plastic “sweepstakes” gadget attached, like this one. Mine comes from my local generous Nissan dealer. In theory, you pull out the tab from the gadget and it’ll show you your winning sweeps number or whatever.

If you’re like me and you don’t want to buy a new car, you are tempted to pitch this advertisement. Don’t!

The Gadget Is Junk

Admittedly, the gadget is not even the secure electronic device it’s designed to emulate. The digital display is actually fake; there are no LED digits and the number is the same for every single recipient.

free-watch-batteryHowever, it is a lighted display and the little unit does have an LED light to illuminate. And that display is powered by two shiny new LR41 watch batteries.

If you get one of these ads, don’t pitch it until you pry the gadget open and salvage those nice batteries…! Ordinarily these sell for about $1 to 3 each. If you can’t use them, give them away to friends or on Craigslist. Enjoy!

How Do You Meet Game Writers and Designers?

meet-game-writers-designersI got an interesting question recently on Quora and thought it might be useful to repost the Q&A here:

How do I meet game developers?

(I titled this post targeting game writers and game designers because that’s a little more relevant to this blog.)

Here’s my answer:

That’s not hard.

1) Find a local meetup for game developers and attend. Be courteous and research your questions before you ask them. Never ask anything that you could’ve read on Wikipedia. (Not so easy if you’re in a remote area.)
2) Go to the Game Dev Conference in California: GDC 2016.
3) Arrange a tour or informational interview with a local game studio for your school or interest group. (Not so easy if you don’t live near a studio)
4) Find the game developer group at your local university and join or support as best you can.

And of course be wary of the wannabes. There are a lot of “developers” who are just gamers with vaporware dreams.

See the Quora thread and feel free to weigh in.

Videogame Indictment: Dragon Age Inquisition

A Dragon Age Review with Bugs Attached

Been playing this popular game on PS4 recently and man, am I disappointed. I really want to love it, but instead I just think about how Bioware shipped this thing about six months before it was finished, with some bad design decisions baked in. I’m also a bit irate to see how badly they’ve evolved in the storytelling process while Bethseda has leapfrogged them handily with titles like Skyrim and Fallout.

It looks and sounds lovely and there’s clearly a heapton of backstory and thought. The characters are interesting and well-acted, when you can figure out what they’re saying*. You can see that, as Ray Muzyka said in a Wired interview, they “aggressively checked out” Skyrim and tried to borrow some concepts. Some of them have good conflicts with each other while all pursuing common goals in their own ways. All of this merely adds to the disgust and tragedy of this buggy, burdened, burdensome game: I think of all those game developers who poured their hearts into this damned box and all they (and we) got for their inspired labor was a shining turd.

What’s Broken in Dragon Age: Inquisition

The key bugs that annoy me in DA:I are clear A-class bugs in combat, especially in the time-stopping Tactical View, which is a necessity in tough fights, when the AI’s decisions can quickly decimate your party (and frankly, there’s really no AI that can handle a tough fight as well as a person can). What kind of bugs? Party members going completely AFK. I give them an order, and they just stand there. Forever. I have to pop out of Tactical View into real-time and jump with that character to wake them up. Why? Who knows. It might be a terrain issue; I have seen party members fall through gaps and occasionally stick on terrain until their deaths.

Oh, did I mention that the Tactical View camera traverses the terrain like a person? So when you want to attack an enemy from up on a rock ridge, you have to guide the damned thing down a walkable path to target the enemy. And then back up again anytime you want to check your guys or adjust them. And Maker help you if you’re fighting in a narrow gully with trees roofing it. The camera will hop around like a bullfrog on crack as you move it, and positioning a spell effect area precisely is hopeless when you can’t get high enough or low enough due to ceilings and obstacles. Bioware, here’s a hint: Please don’t do detailed collision detection with the damned camera. Make stuff translucent when the camera goes through it. It can be done. It has been done. Please.

Or I hit the button to switch characters and nothing happens. I can only control one character until I finish the fight or get to a menu somehow. I tell someone to stay out of danger, and they inexplicably start wandering. (Yes, I am double-tapping on the target location to see the little shield icon for HOLD POSITION.) Rubberbanding foes that teleport across the area in Tactical View (no, they weren’t being yanked by heroes’ grapples). And yeah, it’d be nice if the AI didn’t cast fire spells on the fire demons… sigh. The latter is a rarity in RPGs, I know, but one that wouldn’t be all that hard to code.

The menu system is a mess too. Inventory’s complicated if powerful. But you can’t equip items in the shop interface, which means you have to hop in and out of menus to buy an upgrade (buy new item, switch to inventory, unequip old item, equip new item, switch, sell old item). Nor can you discard item crafting patterns (“schematics”) for useless low-level items; instead you have to scroll through an ever-growing list of junky schematics, comparing their numbers, to find the good stuff. Feels like work.

And when you’re crafting items, you can’t compare the proposed item’s attributes with what you’re currently using. I actually wrote a bunch of numbers down on paper to figure out whether crafting was a good use of my resources. Uhhhh… really? Feels like work.

The final insult: you also can’t switch a character between melee and ranged weapons during a fight. I certainly understand penalizing a character with a delay as they swap weapons, or keeping someone from swapping between a dozen weapons like Duke Nukem, but utter inability to switch between a bow and a sword? Unheard of. This from the company whose heritage extends back to the original tactical party RPG, Baldur’s Gate. Just freaking shameful.

So Many Unique Lootz That You Hate Lootz; So Many Quests That You…

The game also manages to make loot uninteresting. There are so many unique items that you never know when you’ve found something cool. Instead, everything’s different and 99% of it is junk. (Granted, the latter’s true of any real RPG.) As a result, you don’t care about anything you pick up.

In Skyrim, you run across dozens of iron swords. When you get another iron sword, you immediately know it’s junk. But when you see an mithril sword of cleaving, that name gives you an obvious tip-off that it’s your lucky day. Also, it glows because it’s magic and you light up like Christmas.

But no, in DA:I, everything’s got a different name and you can’t see it physically unless you take the special effort to pop through a few menus and equip it to view it inventory. All you see is a loot item that, when opened, shows a list of the items within. Rarity is indicated by color (blue and purple being rarest), but there are useless purple items and good common items. And crafted items are generally the best of all, which means new item designs (“schematics”) can be valuable, but you’ll have to drag your butt to a crafting station to figure it out.

So it all sits in your bag until you have a chance to sort through it. Kind of like your bank statements. Congratulations, Bioware. You’ve managed to nerf one of the primary joys of RPGs.

I think they went the opposite (and wrong) direction of Fallout 4 on loot in this game, a grave error. In Fallout 4, you don’t even have to press a button to see what’s inside a container — you just look at it and the text appears showing contents. This avoids the annoyance of opening empty chests when you’ve doubled back on your path. Bethseda’s gotten rid of the opening action entirely.

There’s a minor innovation in the form of a war room where you can commit points to unlock abilities (like larger inventories) and new map areas. You can also send your war council on errands to solve problems and expand your influence, giving a nice impression of a larger international conflict (and challenges of leadership) that compliments your individual adventuring. Too bad the UI is tedious to navigate and the tasks apparently can be completed in almost any order, with few conflicting tasks and no time-dependent tasks. The UI is a lot like scrubbing a scene in a pixel-hunting adventure game; it’s littered with icons that are irrelevant, and positioning the cursor is onerous. Feels like work. A little snap-to-POI algorithm would go a long way here.

And of course there are meaningless quests galore. Find the pisspot you lost in the Sewers of Despair? Sure, I’ll do that in hopes of getting 5 gold and another item that looks like all the other junk in my bag. Heck, maybe it’ll be a multi-part quest. Love those.

Other Gamer Grousing

In addition, the multiplayer mode is dumbed down and unstrategic. No Tactical View, and the one time I tried it, my friend and I were killed repeatedly in the first scenario such that it felt hopeless.

*And as mentioned earlier, the dialog is oddly oblique and obtuse. All of the heroes are apparently politicians. No one says, “I hate demons and I want to see them all dead.” Instead they say something like “Demons are offensive to the Maker. When I am inclined to consider action, I find my aims aligned with the Maker.” Uhhh, right. As a purported wordsmith, I admire the artistry here, people, but this all feels like work.

I will give unadulterated praise to one feature of the game, though. There is a throne that you can sit in to decide what happens to various prisoners and defeated NPCs. The options are thought-provoking and I appreciated the effort to create a “heavy is the head that wears the crown” effect, presenting the player with moral decisions.

Having a horse on call to speed through maps is good. (Also in Skyrim.) I did genuinely enjoy the tavern songs by Raney Shockne, which were pleasant and also distinctive. I’d have to say this is one thing that Inquisition did better than Skyrim.

And the skill trees and the skills themselves are quite cool and generally make a clear difference in combat. Also in Skyrim, and probably the one thing that kept me going as far as I did. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve just played Skyrim.

Storytelling is Not an Afterthought, People

Especially in a text-heavy RPG. And text-heavy is one of the problems: Bioware continues to think that quantity is a substitute for quality. Just like older Bioware games such as Planescape: Torment, the landscape is littered with characters who want to tell you their life story, but the core experience is buried under all that excess… especially when most of them speak in that same constipated manner I mentioned earlier.

Maybe the name Inquisition itself should’ve been a warning. Any game that chooses a title so closely tied to an oppressive, murderous, and inhuman movement as the Spanish Inquisition is going to be a little tone-deaf.

I don’t want to know why the gardener is sending me on this FedEx quest to take his stupid broken trowel across the treacherous swamp; I want solve the mystery of my hero’s talent and beat the big boss. And when I don’t get tapped into that big conflict in a regular and meaningful way, I feel like the game is simply throwing chores at me while I grind my character toward advancement. I could be playing a game. In my leisure hours, why should I bother with all this work?

I’m sure an apologist would mention the rifts you have to close across every new map. Each rift is a reminder of the main quest and your special ability, and they do spawn new and tougher creatures as you progress. (Sometimes well beyond your ability, and much tougher than anything else in the map, with no indicator of difficulty.) But there’s a real lack of panache in the presentation. For example, I ran into a new beastie at one rift – a Pride Demon about forty feet tall and tough as nails. But no one in town was talking about him, and none of my party reacted to this obvious challenge. Opportunity missed.

A Modest Proposal for Books in RPGs

Actually, both Skyrim and Dragon Age fail with the many books you encounter in their worlds. These are amazing opportunities to enrich and entertain the player, but instead the developers are treating them like easter eggs, fodder for the completists. FAIL. How come these books almost never have anything related to the current quest that you’re on? How come they rarely mention anything useful or funny about characters you have encountered? Weapons or spells you’re using? Journals of people who are facing the same decisions as you are? How come we never start a quest or finish a quest by reading a book? How’s that for a way of telling the player that these things are just window dressing?

Here’s my simple proposition: make these damned things fun. I don’t want to read 14 volumes about ancient lore, in random order. I want to see the same number of books around, but 75% of them are dull-colored so only the completists will read them. Or maybe they’re even empty: when you pick them up the game says “You’ve read this one before in school” or “Yet another advice book on how think positively about the bubonic plague.” However, the brightly-colored books are always funny or relevant to your immediate situation. Make it so, people!

How Bad Is the Astros’… Chron Blog?

It’s October baseball, folks, and the Astros are in the postseason for the first time in 1,000 years. Hope and delight reign in the hearts of Houston sports fans, but torpor rules on the pages of the Astros’ primary blog, blog.chron.com, where Astros fans often turn for news. Why?

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that your phone or computer starts to struggle whenever you hit the Astros’ Chron blog, and here’s why: the Chron blog webdesign needs life support, stat.

Chron.com pages have 17+ adsAstros blog fail #1:

Too many ads. Soooo so many ads.

I counted 17 ads in this example (right), and I was generous. I only counted the giant Outbrain panel in the middle of the page as one ad. It has fourteen links, half to Chron sports content and the other half to the typical drivel that earns the Chron income — clickbait content like “9 MLB Players Who Are Actually Huge Jerks” and “Sofia Vergara: Her Hottest Photos From Her Adolescence Until Now” (because Vergara is a huge Astros fan, right?).

Click on the image to the right to see the detail; look for the green arrows which denote ads.

ASTROS BLOG FAIL #2:

The Chron’s Astros blog also needs tuning to meet Google’s standards. I ran a random Astros blog page (about McCullers allegedly making a throat-slash gesture at the Royals) through PageSpeed Insights and compared it to a random ESPN article.

Google rates the Chron’s Astros blog as a 39 of 100 for desktop and a lousy 16 for mobile. That’s a failing grade by any standard, HISD or otherwise. Meanwhile, ESPN’s news-heavy page gets a 73.
chron astros blog page speed astros blog page speed espn page speed

 

 

 

ASTROS BLOG FAIL #3:

Lastly I ran my sample Chron blog page through a website speed test and compared it with ESPN’s. Again the results aren’t pretty.

ESPN’s page weighs in at 1.7 MB, loading in 8.1 seconds on average.

The Chron’s blog page loafs in at 14.5 MB, loading in 47.5 seconds on average. It’s almost ten times fattier and almost six times slower.

This site’s no glowing example of web design. It’s pretty basic. But since we respect our readers, we try to make the reading experience welcoming and enjoyable.

We spend an inordinate amount of time at the Chron’s Astros blog. They’re tuned in to the happenings and all the games, and our lives would be poorer without their reporting. But it wouldn’t take much for the Chron to tidy up their web presence a smidge and make the Astros blog pleasant to visit instead of a teeth-gritting, disk-churning experience. Will the Houston Chronicle deliver? Or will they continue to treat the Astros blog as a low-brow basement useful only for penny-click ad revenue?


espn speed test
astros blog speed test

Star Wars Battlefront Beta: A Review

star wars battlefront reviewThe new Star Wars Battlefront beta is out and we’ve got some unsolicited impressions.

First the bad news. The Star Wars beta is overflowing with snipey reload-free blaster gameplay. In this Star Wars implementation, a standard blaster has a high fire rate, high magnification in zoom mode, and nearly infinite range, allowing ridiculous snipefests on the open snowfields of Hoth. A snipe battle between you and a six-pixel black blob on a black mountain is not quality gaming. Blasters do eventually overheat, requiring a reload-like cooldown, but it definitely feels different than a standard assault rifle. The end result? Newbies dying all day and not knowing why. Campers everywhere on the heights and slopes. This is cheap, cheesy gameplay.

The other gripe I have regards the dearth of objectives on the maps. Whether fighting for drop pods or Hoth uplinks, these are huge maps with dozens of players swarming toward a mere handful of objectives (two on Hoth!). This makes for ugly, random battle experiences. You’d think DICE, veterans of the Battlefield games, would understand the joys of faceoffs all across a balanced and diverse map, which was their bread and butter all the way back to Battlefield 1942.

Although the other levels may offer more restraint, I fear Star Wars Battlefront will serve us explosion overload instead of a variety of epic combat experiences like those we saw in the Battlefield games, like one heroic player fending off a wave of a half-dozen opponents at a base, or one-on-one standoffs, or coordinated efforts to break down armor-heavy defenses. Digital combat loses all flavor and strategy when served up as a massive dogpile of idiocy.

My suggestions are simple: trim down the blasters’ range, and add more objectives to the maps.

IMHO, too much has been made of the Rebels’ disadvantage in the Hoth level. Sure, it’s skewed a bit toward the Imperial side, but unlike some writers who never saw an Imperial defeat, I’ve seen the Rebels win about 30% of the time. (The Forbes writer makes some good arguments for skewing the rewards as well.)

Others also objected to the content unlocking (under the sleazy click-baity title of “was the beta a mistake”… tsk tsk), which is a legitimate point. But overall I think the beta has been a huge success for Lucas/DICE. The game looks great and introduces some new ideas.

And now the good news: I like the approach to regenerating your chosen “deck” of items, with the best item needing powerups to gain uses. This means grenades (if you choose them) are almost always in hand when you need them, and no more grenade spamming by an ammo crate. It also means that (if blaster range gets nerfed) snipe campouts will be greatly reduced because of the delay on sniper reloads, which are part of the deck. The sound effects are truly magnificent, with the devastating thermal charge grenade really setting the bar. (The one exception is the orbital strike, which is deafening in its sonic absence.) Seeing Vader and Skywalker running around in combat is a serious hoot. And removing the respawn timer? Well, I think we can all applaud that move.

ACL Festival video + Shia Arrested, Of Course

shia labeouf drunk againIf you missed the Austin City Limits Music Festival (like I did) or are just looking to relive some of the moments in video, check out the Red Bull TV video highlights. It’s not the most generous assortment of headliners, but you can find songs from Gary Clark Jr., Nate Ruess (of Fun), San Fermin, Alabama Shakes, Dwight Yoakam, Hozier, and Vance Joy, plus interviews and such.

And in case you were curious, actor Shia LeBeouf was definitely at ACL, and here’s the public intoxication arrest article to prove it.

WTF, WWF?

Zynga’s Words With Friends. I’m a word guy, obviously, and I can’t help playing this game against friends and strangers. It’s crowdsourced word puzzles, really.

But why, Zynga? Why does your QC have to be so utterly lousy? Why are you so hellbent on proving you couldn’t care less about this marquee property?

Here’s example #1: The word of the day recently was “whore.” Inappropriate word to feature, obviously, and also not exactly a word of special interest. Today’s word is “oi” with the definition of “oy.” Not exactly something you’re going to tweet out to all your friends.

IMHO, Zynga has the WOTD on “randomize” without anybody on staff bothering to eyeball it for the .5 seconds it requires to pick something fun and family-friendly.

Example #2: the definition and example sentence for the word KEEF. Do you know what a KEEF is? I didn’t, and here’s what WWF had to say about it.

wtf wwf

Thanks for nothing, WWF and Zynga.

P.S. It’s the resin glands of cannabis. Bonus drug reference for you.

Chrome Doesn’t Trust Google

A few days ago I tried an innocent Google search in Chrome — “master lock 141q” — and Chrome told me that www.google.com presented a certificate issued by an mysterious entity (the Elder Gods, I assume) that is not trusted by my operating system, aka Android.

chrome-hates-google

Essentially, Chrome doesn’t trust Google.com.

Chrome, please help me understand.

Hilton Hhonors Royally Botches Password Security

password-resetHow Not to Handle Password Security

Recently Hilton’s Hhonors loyalty program asked me to reset my password in their attempt to increase security. Makes sense, after high-profile security breaches at several online websites like Target.com. They dangled a 1000-point reward for early action so of course I hopped over and reset my password.

Today I had need to log in to Hhonors and found that my password (saved via a password assistant, so definitely correct) was not accepted. I requested a password reset email, completed the process properly, and got a failure message. So I had to call customer service.

They informed me that the new passwords have to be exactly eight characters, only one capital letter, only one number, and no special characters. Their new “system” didn’t work with any variations, or longer passwords. Not only that, but the password reset screen is inaccurate; it tells customers that it accepts a much wider (and more secure!) set of password variations, including 8+ characters and special characters.

No One’s Happy

This is a total fail. Hhonors is forcing everyone to choose insecure passwords; eight letters plus one number is an easy password to crack. Customers who use more secure passwords are then locked out of their accounts. Customer service is bogged down with unnecessary calls, having to tell customers about password rules that aren’t even on the password reset page.

So in short: Less security. Unhappy customers. Unhappy customer service. And an inaccurate website that wastes my time.

In my opinion, any public system that doesn’t accept special characters or long passwords is run by an incompetent CTO. Period. In 2015, there is no excuse for forcing your customers into less-secure accounts.