Monday, December 18, 2017

Post at Esoteric Gaming

Exciting news, Mark Chen just rolled out the second issue of Esoteric Gaming (along with his team, of which I am proud to say I am one), and I have a piece on EQ2, multi-boxing, and the prison server! Super cool, and all the articles are well-worth reading. You could head over there now!

The articles in the second issue are:

I love the Minecraft/Portal mashup there in that one title.

Monday, November 20, 2017

More EQ2 Homage

I was looking around for some images of EQ2 to use, since when I played it I was just playing it (I rarely took screenshots), and found a great directory of old images posted by a gamer here: -- here's one they took, cropped down to just the one window.

Hilarious! That is, if you know that A Flock of Seagulls was a new wave band in the 1980s and their big song was "I Ran (So Far Away)". EQ2 is so full of homage to culture, it's great fun in that way.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Some MMO/Gaming Blogs, and Leveling

I've run into some gaming blogs and posts I've quite enjoyed recently.

1. 18 Years Later, Why Are People Still Playing Ultima Online? The comments are where the heart of it is, although they go a bit off in the middle, stick with it.

2. Raph Koster's Website, and two of those pages, A UO Postmortem Of Sorts and Popular Posts.

3. The Ancient Gaming Noob, and two of his pages on in-game economies: Yelling and Selling in Waterdeep and, relatedly, Charting the Relative Natures of MMO Economies.

I want to pull a quote from Koster's UO write-up:

We also wanted to get away from levels...
For quite some time, I've felt that leveling is ridiculous. It's a useless, sparkling hamster wheel. In WoW and EQ2, the designers had to come up with ways to deal with it--eventually in EQ2, there was the "mentoring" system, where higher-level characters could mentor down in level to the level of a lower-level character for the purpose of grouping (thus the name mentoring). In ESO currently, they have essentially done away with leveling although it is still very much a part of the game. What I mean is that, your level is meaningless in terms of encounters--everything is, behind the scenes, scaled to max level--and so levels are meaningless for grouping (which itself isn't even needed much of the time). Yes leveling is still relevant for skills and gear, but it's just a shiny carrot.

(Edit: I just caught this post from Koster, Do Levels Suck? Really nice thoughts there.)

So I thought about it, and went back in my mind to the cannon for the mechanics of much of the fantasy-based computer gaming today: AD&D (let's be real here, 1st edition, which wasn't even called "1st edition" at the time since it was the only edition). This is true for single-player, single-player party (like Wizardry or Icewind Dale, or even multi-boxing in an MMO), multiplayer, and MMO scenarios. What was leveling like in D&D?

It totally made sense for players. No, wait, it was also horrifically problematic within the storyline of the game itself. Why?

Because elves. (Blame the elves, poor things.) Remember? They could live for hundreds of years, so in theory they could gain level after level, hundreds of levels beyond the capabilities and lifespans of their original human companions. Thus, the longer-lived races (like elves and dwarves) were level-capped, while short-lived humans had no level caps. This made absolutely no sense within the fantasy world, it was completely and solely because it would lead to 200 year old elves who were also level 200 magic users and would be like demi-gods, and that would imbalance the game. Of course there's a big "if" on that last one: only if DMs allowed it, which they didn't have to. Remember, in D&D1, IIRC in the DM's Guide, there was a paragraph at the back (or maybe the front) saying how these are not rules, they are just guidelines.

So one on hand, the origin of today's leveling (which probably has a history beyond AD&D, and does make some sense within lived experience) is terribly flawed. Yet it could have been dealt with differently (how many people actually played characters forever and would have actually run into level caps?).

And today's leveling has another issue, which is that every level is the same. At higher levels you need more XP, but the things you do give you more XP. It's not exponential, it's just linear.

This is part of a larger discussion in game design about where the skill lies and how to get more skill. Is it like Halo, entirely within the player? Does it mostly lie in the character, like WoW? Is increasing skill dependent on time (levels), or perhaps spending money (pay-to-play)?

I think it could be done differently. They never level up in the other fantasy game canonical source, Tolkien's imaginary worlds, although Gandalf is old and powerful with an intentional connection between age as experience and power as level. Skills could erode over time partially, or parts of them could and other parts could be maintained, or re-learning forgotten skills could come with a discount compared to learning them the first time.

Blogging, Ephemeral

So, I've been blogging for well over ten years now (but mostly the "readers" are myself and, I would guess given the consistent 30-40 views per post, webcrawlers), but I was blogging at UM before the earliest posts listed here (2007), which are re-posted UM posts IIRC.

Which made me think about how ephemeral this all is, although I might have a folder with the UMich blog material in it.

Relatedly, I've been thinking about digital photos, and what is Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, for instance, it's all ephemeral. Someone a while ago pointed out how, in terms of records and photographs, we are in a terrible period, as none of it will be saved for posterity. I'm debating taking an afternoon and ordering up some print books of my photos, but am not even sure what I have anymore. I think I've lost my Belgrade trip photos, back in the days of my Canon Elf (~2003?), although I might have a CD with the photo from a friend who was on the trip as well (but neither my desktop nor laptop have a CD drive, however I have an old Macbook with a CD drive that I have saved just in case).

So, no more finding ancestors' diaries and photos.

My great-grandfather and great-grandmother made a scrapbook of their trip to England in the summer of 1914, just before WWI started. My great-grandmother's parents were German and had emigrated to the US. Oops. Being German-ish in England during WWI, not a great idea. They managed to get some money somehow and got on a boat home, but it wasn't easy. Sure, if this had been 100 years later, a blog, but would it even exist for a great-grandchild to read 100 years after the fact? Our digital world hasn't been around long enough to tell, but, given the rate of digital decay we've seen, the answer is no.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


A working Minitel! This one was built in 1985 and is still going strong, cared for by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll, who spoke recently at MIT's Comparative Media Studies program weekly seminar. They have an awesome new book out about the Minitel that hit on many of the issues I also ran into studying related technologies in my dissertation back in ~2003.

But, as they told me, all the specs for the Minitel were released when it came out in the 1980s so all the service providers could connect to it. Those specs are still available today, so they have a working Minitel and an Arduino device sending it some data. Wow! Super cool.

Minitel, front
Minitel, back, and Arduino device

Closeup, Arduino device

Pokémon GO and Cultural Locations

This is not new, but I have an example of a problematic Pokémon GO stop near my apartment (besides the one that is in the wrong location and the one that was removed IRL), one where the cultural info is wrong in the game but the correct information is just a block away. (And yes, I know these are all from Ingress.)

The stop is "Laughing Man", as you see here in this screen grab:

However, just a short block north is a plaque about the sidewalk tiles in the neighborhood, and it's not a man, it's Geneva, and there is a fair amount of information about her that could have been included in the in-game description. This is another problem: there's no in-game way to rectify erroneous information. Granted, allowing people to submit any old thing would be a disaster and Niantic would need real human filterers (not just machine learning), but allowing people to submit any old thing is how they got the data in the first place for Ingress.

Detectives on the Periphery, and, Volvos

Four detective shows I've been into lately, as two of them came back into rotation on PBS: Shetland, Hinterland, and also the two versions of Wallander (UK and Swedish).

They are all fairly similar in a lot of interesting ways. Moody straight male detective who has difficulties with relationships, wife is maybe in the picture in a difficult way (but this is his fault, not hers) or has passed away but he is still having issues, they all have daughters with whom they also have a difficult relationship, they all take place in the periphery of the English (England) world: Shetland in Scotland, Hinterland in Wales, and Wallander in Sweden, and lastly they all make really interesting and wonderful use of moody, artistic cinematography.

Amusingly, they all drive Volvo wagons, which are Swedish, except in the Swedish Wallander where, at least in S3, he drives a VW. (Technically in Hinterland he drives a small Volvo SUV but it's just a pumped-up wagon with the name SUV.)

Hinterland, S3E1

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Civ V and Information Science!

Cool to see this nod to information science in Civ V. Shannon didn't drive around on a steam-powered automobile, and probably didn't wear a lab coat with mad scientist goggles. But, cool anyways.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Game Homage! Not Really

So fun when you find your name in a game! Ok my name is also an adjective and as an adjective isn't particularly uncommon. Here's a "hack the terminal by guessing the password" screenshot from Fallout 4. (A room mate of mine from a long time ago is in game design and had her name as a sign in one of the BioShock games, which was cool to see. This is not that, but it's fun anyways.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Isn't Underlining Dead?

I was editing a shared document, and we had a bunch of different header types, and some were in underline style.

I changed them to italics.

Now, the history lesson.

Back in the day of typewriters (IBM Selectric II with correctible ribbon ftw!), you had the keys (same pretty much as computer keyboards today) and each key related to a ... thing. Arm? The typing part that thwacked away onto the ribbon, leaving an imprint on the paper (and if you hit too many keys at the same time, the arms would try to occupy the same space at the same time and they'd get stuck). Oh, "type hammer" or "typebar", well those are ungainly.

Each bar / arm had two possible items it could print -- usually, a lower case and an upper case of the same letter. Hitting the SHIFT key would adjust the mechanism (I don't recall how anymore) so that instead of the lower-case part of the key hitting, the upper-case part would.

So you see what is missing: not just fonts, but italics or even bold.

Underlining was easy though: just back up and hit the underline key. _____ Like that but now on the computer _ is its own character in a way that can't be used to underline letters (other characters).

Underlining was the way you indicated to the typesetter (for printing for real, in a book or journal or magazine or newspaper, that is, on paper) that you wanted italics. Even early on with computers when you could have the computer do italics, often we were still told to use underline and then the typesetter would know what to do, since it was the same old thing. Computers were just fancy typewriters in this way -- but of course, they weren't.

Today we are stuck with so many web pages and word processor programs that insist on using black text and a white background to look like black ink on white paper. It's familiar, we know what it is. But that paradigm has been, not dead, but well yes dead in its solitary focus. We can do black ink on white paper, but we don't have to do black on white in the digital space. The paradigm should be "do what is nice and readable." The Financial Times, which prints on slightly pink paper, brands its website in this way (pinkish background), which is sensible. (Actually it's looking yellow, I thought it looked pink a few months ago.) Microsoft Word Mac used to have a "white text, blue background" option which I loved for many versions starting in at least 5.1, but they recently killed it and we're stuck with the black ink on white paper paradigm.

Maintaining the familiar within the new is a long-used approach and helps adoption of new technologies. "Horseless carriage" was what people called "cars", they knew what horses were and what a carriage was. "Wireless telegraphy" was early (pre-music/voice) radio, as people knew what telegraphy was and what wires were. "iPhone" well no it's not a phone, it's a hand held color wireless computer and communicator, but "iPhone" well people knew what cell phones and iPods were, so...

And thus black digital text on white digital background. And, keeping the computer and its keyboard and the overall gestalt familiar, underlining in the fonts. But we don't need it. It's redundant (it means italics!) and I don't think it looks very good. It is time for underlining to end.

Python 3 vs. Python 2.7

I decided it was finally time to move to Python 3 from Python 2. Having done so, I don't see why I wasn't using Python 3 years ago, although my code worked just fine so it wasn't really a big deal.

Python 3 has two big advantages, and there's also a third reason you should be using it by now.

  1. Unicode: You don't have to worry about catching Unicode characters in string types anymore, Python 3 does it for you. This is a concern for me with web scraping. So much easier.
  2. For years I've read about the following dilemma in OSX, with no solution: 
    1. If you DON'T install your own copy of Python 2, you are modifying the OS's copy of important libraries and such, and that can cause problems.
    2. If you DO install your own copy of Python 2, you then have two versions of Python 2 on your computer, and that can cause problems.
    The solution... just install Python 3. These two problems aren't even relevant.
  3. But, the best part was that about 99% of my code still works as is. All I've had to do so far is change print statements, from print "Print this Py2!"  to  print("Print this Py3!"), and get rid of the Unicode error catching.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

More In-Game Homage!

Some people whom I will not name got me into Tinker Island, which is a game on mobiles and such. Free to play, pay to do better faster kind of thing. But it has long term planning and resource allocation. Anyways, I came across this and was delighted:

It's homage, very directly, to the MC Hammer song, "U Can't Touch This" (I see I have forgotten the "U" part of the title). Awesome!

(In the image, you can make a hammer, it costs 150 wood and 150 stone -- must be a big hammer -- and you need overall 80 crafting units to make it, and your islanders have to put in 10 minutes of work when you put them to work on it. One islander who uses it will get +4 crafting.)

Edit/Update: Shortly after this post, I unlocked... Milson! Milson is a morale-maintaining ball (with a red mark on it), and is clearly homage to Wilson the Wilson-brand volleyball from the Tom Hanks film "Cast Away".

Update 2
: Also, these two characters you can add. (Google is making this process difficult in terms of the layout....) We have a Gilligan copy (white guy, the shirt, the hat, castaway, first mate--and apparently "Willy" was intended as the character's first name I just read), and a Lara Croft copy (Sara instead of Lara, "relic hunter", white woman, brown hair, green shirt). Yes I could use the word "homage" instead of copy. My label is rather irrelevant, it's the idea. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Oh, Amazon (Student Prime)

Now Amazon is teaming up with Facebook to think I am a student. That two giant data companies that focus precisely on user demographics are incapable of realizing that I am not a student, despite my telling one of them several times that I am not (directly, talking with customer support human beings), is incredible.

Ok that was not the image in the advert initially (it was a student), but it appears to be what I captured. Try Amazon Prime Student. No, I am not a student, I don't qualify.