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March 31, 2011

Game Design

I enjoy both MMORPGs and individual games. One thing I've noticed over the years with MMORPGs in particular, but any game that involves your character "leveling up" and getting stronger as the game goes on is that game designers make it harder to use the interface by providing too many powers.

I regularly play Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), City of Heroes (COH, not to be confused with Call of Heroes which sometimes uses the same acronym), and Champions Online (CO). I occasionally play Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). I recently was in the closed and open beta for DC Universe Online (DCUO), and, while I commented at the time at how awkward the PC interface for DCUO was, one thing they did well was that many of the choices you had during level-up actually made existing powers better rather than providing a new power.

I have four 10-slot power bars, mostly full, up when I play LOTRO. On CO, I have three bars, with one completely full. In COH I have, on the average character, at least three mostly full 10-slot tool bars.

The problem with this is two fold:
  1. Complexity of the interface. Having that much space on your monitor taken up with power/tool bars means less space to see and interact with the world. You also have to visually scan and see all the icons and select the one you want from 20, 30, 40 visible icons.
  2. Interaction with the tool bars. In most games, one tool bar is hard-coded to link to the number keys across the top of your keyboard. So, pressing the 1 key means the power or skill in the first slot of that first tool bar activates. However, I've noticed in my own playing and while watching, or asking how, friends play, we all typically put our most used powers in tool bar 1, slots 1 through 4 and then don't use the other slots nearly as often. When we do use them, it is typically using the mouse cursor and clicking. Or, worse yet, we have to take our eyes off the action in order to find the right key(s) to press.

DCUO changed that paradigm to a degree. In the betas, you only had 6 slots on one tool bar to use for your slots (there were two other slots, used for devices/potions). Each aspect of your character (aggressive, defensive, or generalist) had its own tool bar that could be set up with different powers on it but, depending on your aspect, you only had those six slots to work with. The reason for this was that most of the advantages given during a level-up were abilities that made existing powers better.

I have a group of buddies with whom I play LOTRO every Wednesday evening for two hours. We have lots of fun, everyone has a unique character, and everyone fills a different role in the group. However, we're all in the 37-40 level range right now, which means, as I commented above, I have four 10-slot tool bars, mostly full, on my screen with my Runekeeper character. I have some 5 fire power icons, 5-6 lightning power icons, 4 cold power icons, 5 or so healing icons, 5 or so miscellaneous powers, plus a bunch of items, food, potions, or skills that I use regularly. The bottom third of my screen is taken over by this plethora of tool bars and icons.

Last night while playing I thought about the DCUO concept and concluded that LOTRO (and most of these style games) could benefit from the concept of specialization and diversification of existing powers.

Using my Runekeeper as an example, I have a fast, low damage, single-target damaging lightning, cold, and fire attack (3 powers). I then have a slightly more powerful, faster/slower, single-target attack for all three elements (3 more powers). I then have much more powerful, slower attacks with side benefits (for fire, area of effect, for cold, slows, for lightning, stuns). Lastly, I have at least one more even more powerful attack with similar side benefits. So, as you can see, I'm now up to a minimum of 12 attack powers that all do relatively similar things.

What if, instead of getting a new power at level-up, I instead had a choice of power specialization or diversification? Using the same examples, let's say I start with a choice between a starting lightning, fire, or cold attack. I choose lightning. The first-level attack has a fast induction time (time between pressing the button/clicking the icon for the power and when the power activates to do damage). It starts with low damage and is a single-target attack. When I level up, instead of a new power with slightly higher damage, slightly longer induction, and maybe a side effect, I have a choice to make the existing power better from the following list: a) increase the damage/duration on the power, b) add X special ability to the power (may increase induction time), or c) give the power (if applicable) area of effect (may increase induction time). I can only pick one at this level and, in general, once I pick one it leaves the list (except for damage). I pick A, and for the next few levels I'm doing higher damage to single targets. At the next appropriate level-up, I choose C, because I want my lightning attack to have the Stun ability. Because this is a special ability, the application shows that choosing this will increase my induction time for the power by 2 seconds. Now my power is slightly slower, does good damage, and has a nice chance to stun the creature it hits.

The same can be done for the healing power; start with a fast, low heal amount, single-target heal and then add to the power more healing, group effects, heals more than just damage taken, etc.

The result being that my character has improved, has a more powerful lightning attack that does an additional effect, and I only have one key to press on my tool bar. Looking back at the original example, I've now replaced the first three powers with one power that does what each of them does. Now, as I level, I get options to further increase the damage, add new effects, etc.

Or, maybe you break it down so you have your melee (touch) power, your single-target ranged power, and your group/AoE power, each with multiple specialization and diversification choices. Each time you pick a new power, that is one less "power up" that you made to an existing power (or, at least, delayed making). So now you're a generalist who is good in close combat (melee), can hit single targets (standard ranged), or attack groups (AoE ranged), but each individual power is weaker than someone who chose one power and "powered up" that power (say, a melee character who has the touch attack with extra damage and a stun, compared to your standard touch attack at base damage with no extra ability-- you can attack at range and he can't, but he does a lot more damage in close combat than you).

Right now, these games rely on the players having a wealth of the powers available at their current level and making tactical decisions about which power to use in which circumstance, and then finding and using that power amidst that plethora of choices. All while attacking and being attacked. I'm moving the tactical decision making to the character creation and level up points, out of combat, where you have time to ask yourself, "How am I planning to fight (or have been fighting)? Should I take the new power to give me more tactical advantages, or should I stick with what I have and make it better or stronger?"

The downside to my plan is that you will have less to do as a player to start. You will have fewer buttons to hit, and some players may feel slightly more "one-note" by always having just the few buttons to press, even though that one button does more than the previous multiple buttons did. Ironically, many of those who have complex attack chains in their games still predominantly only use slots 1 to 4 (or maybe 6) of the first tool bar when actually playing.

In the meantime, I dream of playing a Runekeeper who is just as capable at level 37 as my current guy, but who only has a couple of attack, healing, and miscellaneous powers to hit. I dream of playing a game where the character-related decisions are left to character creation and leveling up, not for the middle of pitched battle.

March 29, 2011

What a Wonderful World

I wonder sometimes what would change in America if the news reported good things, if politicians told the truth and actually worked for the betterment of the nation and its people, and if the public at large heard a consistent, positive message about the country.

The closest analogy I can draw would be to Reagan's first term in office. The late '70s were a time of upheaval and grim news. America was down on America, and the world seemed poised to rip it to shreds globally. The economy was in a tailspin, gas prices and housing prices were through the roof, and America was struggling with its global image, especially in the face of a lot of press concerning the Middle East (including hijackings, military skirmishes, and threats from leaders toward the West). Then along came Reagan, with a hard but humorous stance that America was the best place in the world, we should believe in ourselves, we should buy American, and everything will be all right.

And, you know what? It worked. By making people think of themselves as great, and making convincing them to buy locally (even if the American product was a bit more expensive), America halted the economic slide and made itself great again. The economy rebounded, the GDP went through the roof, and America became a leader globally again as it was seen to have heralded the fall of communism and stilled the voices of the Middle Eastern dictators, for awhile.

I see a lot of the same issues today. When Obama ran for President on the "Change you can believe in" mantra, I thought he might try to do something Reagan-esque by making Americans believe in America again and turn things around. And he did try. But the world in which Obama was elected is a much different place than the era of Reagan; the twenty-four news cycle, the divisive politics didn't allow him to present the same message of hope and encouragement that Reagan expressed. Whenever he said, "Let's work together," the opposition said, "Okay," but proceeded to then turn on him and tear him apart and lie about him. The news media took a surprisingly hard stance (compared to past Presidents, Democrat or Republican) on each and every attempt Obama made to right the economy. With the media and the opposition not doing or proposing any solutions of their own, but hammering the perceived failures of the existing administration, it is no wonder that polls showed a quick decline to Obama's once very favorable numbers.

The funny thing is, the American public do not seem interested in finding the facts. They are told that Obama has been ineffective, yet the economy has stabilized. They are told Obama is doing little, yet he has passed more bills so far than any other President. They are told that Obama doesn't want to work with the opposition, so the opposition will not work with him. Yet if you go back to every speech he has given so far and you will see at least a few lines if not whole paragraphs devoted to asking for both sides to work together, saying he has an "open door" to the opposition, and asking for bipartisanship. They are told the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is not going as well as it could be, and that Obama's plan to bring home troops will make it worse. And yet the number say fewer are dying, more enemy combatants are being captured or killed, the UN forces of America's allies are doing more, and that the people of each nation are moving steadily toward self-protection.

I have come to the conclusion that the American people no longer want to think for themselves, and that is the true problem facing the country today. The news media has become a money-making enterprise, which hurts the truth. It is all about ratings, grabbing viewers, and getting ad revenue. So you have to hook people any way you can. The way some outlets have chosen is by having pundits (note that very few are called "news anchors" anymore) with a message and an agenda. They want you to be afraid, to listen to them, and to revere them. When called on it, they simply shout louder, knowing the American public will listen to the loudest.

I believe that we are only really hearing from the far right and the far left on most issues. Think about it, there are 535 representatives in the House of Representatives (435) and Senate (100). From how many of them do you normally hear? It is usually the same 15 or 20 from either side of the debate that makes the media rounds whenever something comes up, isn't it?

I truly believe that the vast, silent majority of people are somewhere in the middle on most issues, are fairly moderate in their opinions, and just want all the sound and fury to go away. I believe that this majority understands that things are not as the far sides are constantly insisting it is. The problem is, though, that this silent majority does not want to speak out, make waves, or become political. They are silent for a reason; they have their noses to the grindstone, are trying to make ends meet, and be good people to their families and friends. They don't necessarily care about Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Japan, global warming, or the global or national economy, per se. What they care about is their job, their car, the local prices they have to pay, if their child is in harm's way.

And I think that is where the solution is. Let's start taking a local approach to fixing the economy. Let's take a page from Reagan's "trickle down economics" package, but work it in reverse. Let's start buying locally, from small businesses and local farmers whenever possible, even if the cost is a little more. These people will then need more workers, will buy more products, and will invest more in the local economy. This makes the local economy, wherever it is, more attractive to others. People move (housing purchases, promoting growth), people open new businesses, people have more to spend on discretionary items, like movies, electronics, home projects, and similar. More products and people are needed from nearby locations to feed this growing economy, which benefits the next town, city, state. It trickles up to the rich and powerful, making for a strong GDP, a strengthened dollar globally, and a sense of pride and ownership in America and its products.

You may think me naive, but there are many organizations that prove this works in third- and second-world countries by providing what are called "micro-loans" or "micro-financing." The concept is the same; you loan someone in, say, Africa $100 US. They use that to open a, say, clothing store in their local village. That $100 goes to purchasing products, paying wages, and renting/buying a location. The people then have some place to buy clothes, which establishes the business. They soon need more product and more workers, so the money pays wages and buys product. Which then gives those people more money to buy other things (food, livestock, tools, vehicles), and the cycle feeds on itself and the entire area prospers from one $100 loan.

While America is not a third- or second-world nation, the economics work the exactly the same. If you have more money to spend, typically you do. Which provides the places where you spend it with more money to pay wages, to buy more goods, and to invest in the local economy. This in turn provides more money to those businesses that the first business works with so they can continue the trend. And the end result is that your local economy is strong, which ensures you have a job, can buy goods and services, and can keep buying from local businesses. Which makes the state's economy stronger, and the nation's, and finally the global economy

In the end, I think the media and the politicians need to start looking for simple, moderate, workable solutions like these, and reporting them. Make policy that helps it happen. Imagine how you would feel if the next time you turned on the news or read a report, it lead with "Economy stabilizing, trends are positive," "Global view on America bullish," and "Fewer lives lost, battles going well." Imagine if the next time a political person was in the news it was saying, "Bipartisan committee proposes economics plan all are confident in," or "Both sides working together toward stronger and better health care plans for all," or "Both sides agree on infrastructure changes." What if the press reported things as they are rather than using shock tactics and red journalism? What if we had even a one week moratorium on anything relating to pop stars, "celebutantes," and the latest drug overdose?

What a wonderful world it would be! One in which Americans would feel more proud, would feel more hopeful, and would work toward a better future. Call me naive if you want to. I can take it.

March 25, 2011

Don't Let Democracy Slip Through Their Fingers

No democracy has ever survived for long if its people didn't rise up and demand it, which is where the failure occurred in Iraq. We went in there and gave them democracy when they, themselves, weren't demanding it and fighting for it.

However, many nations of the middle East are now fighting for democracy. Libya, Yemeni, Bahrain, and other locations have people fighting, and dying, in their streets wanting freedom and an end to totalitarian regimes.

And we, the shining light of democracy, sit and do next to nothing.

We should be flying overhead and dropping food, weapons, and pamphlets to the embattled people fighting for a change in government and for their lives. We should be offering to send in people to train them in guerrilla warfare and how to set up and maintain a democratic government. We should be poised to swoop in with advisers who can help them transition to a free-market economy.

Yet, we sit and do next to nothing.

Bush forced democracy on people who were not yet willing to fight for it themselves, and the results have been disastrous. Well after Bush proclaimed "Victory!" our troops are still there, are still fighting local insurgents who want a return to past ways, and trying to teach people how to govern using a democratic principle. (Rights for women? We're not too sure about that!)

If you don't remember the past, you are doomed to repeat it, or so the saying goes. And in every case of a successful, lasting democracy, it came about because the people wanted it and fought for it. Often, the people had help to overthrow the government in power, and much more help setting up their new form of government. But the people wanted it, struggled for it, and achieved it.

It is much like your children. Those children who are given everything they want tend to be spoiled brats who cannot handle life's adversities. But those children who save their allowance, learn the value of hard work, and strive to succeed often are the most grateful and protective of what they earn and what they buy with that money. So it is with people in general and a democracy in particular.

Democracy is HARD. It is, most likely, the most difficult form of government to run and to do right. A democracy gives everyone, even those who you despise and don't want to listen to, a voice in the government. It means that the minority has rights and privileges that the majority can not and should not infringe. America is living proof of that right now: the right and the left are screaming at one another and trying their damnedest to ignore and push around the other. Both sides are out and out lying about the policies, procedures, and intents of the other. These squabbles are straining the democratic ideal to its breaking point. And a new revolution of cooler heads and moderate voices may be needed to keep America strong and prosperous. It isn't easy at all to run a democracy at all!

When the people rise up and demand democracy and change, successful democratic governments have to step up and help them. Show them the way and help them fight for the freedoms that those in their own nations once stood up and were counted for.

Yet, we sit and do next to nothing. The moment in history for that region has finally come, the one that Reagan spoke about, that the first President Bush longed for, that Clinton tried to cajole with foreign policy and embargoes, and which the second President Bush tried to force has finally come to that region, and America stands back and watches from afar.

I'm not saying that we should send our forces in and fight for the peoples of these nations, but we should be ready to help those people when asked and with whatever they need short of troops to do their fighting for them. They have to want it and they have to earn it, but we should, like proud parents teaching them the value of a dollar and how to buy their own toys, be prepared to help, encourage, and support them in whatever way they need.

March 20, 2011

No Rest for the Wicked

It is funny how quickly the relaxation of a vacation can be sucked out of you. Normally when I go on vacation I try to schedule the next day off as a travel-recovery day before I have to do anything important (like work). This year, it simply did not work out that way.

We got home and I was in bed on Tuesday night (3/15) (well, really, as it was after midnight, Wednesday morning) by 1am with my alarm set for 7am. After four planes and 20 hours of travel, that 7am wake-up call came very early indeed!

I quickly realized my brain was not good for much, and I rescheduled my meeting to the next day and used that day to read through the emails and try to get back up to speed on where I was and what I was doing with the project, and what was needed.

Thursday I then had my two meetings, learning of the due dates that they continue to promise the end-user without consulting me and discovered that I did not have much time to hit any of the three upcoming deadlines. Then, on Friday, I only worked about half the day or a little more, as my usual "travel sickness" struck me and I was feeling sick (headache, sinuses, very upset stomach, slightly feverish -- happens after traveling nearly every time with my compromised immune system).

So, this week I have to work like a fiend to make the first deadline (Saturday-- not sure why they keep scheduling due dates when the end-user isn't in the office and no one, not even those in Israel, are supposed to be at work).

My shoulders, which were relaxed and pliable during our days in Florida, are back to being tense balls. My headache is back (not as bad as on Friday, but steady and ongoing regardless of aspirin or similar).

After the next three weeks or so, I'll feel like I need yet another vacation.

March 9, 2011


Vacation got off to a poor start, as you can read in the previous post. In addition to that, the first house we were put in was within maybe 500 yards of the local dump, so the outside smelled pretty bad. When we were inside the house, we noticed an additional smell which gave me a headache and put off my wife. We had to stay the night (having arrived after midnight), but additional issues we found that night and upon waking (broken closet doors, stains on the sheets, inadequate supplies, inadequate internet provisions, improperly or inadequately cleaned bathrooms, etc.) had us contacting the housing broker and getting moved from that house to a new one. The caveat being that the new house was only available for some of the vacation, and she have to move us again on Friday. Anything was better than staying in a place that literally gave me a splitting headache, let alone smelled so horrible, so we took it.

After that rocky start, the vacation has turned out to be just what the doctor ordered... nearly literally. Being in FL has been, so far, very restful and relaxing.

We are with two other couples, close friends. Between the six of us, we have two vehicles. So, pretty much everyone can come and go as needed. Or, as I took advantage once, stay behind and do nothing!

Group highlights so far:
Sunday: We started with a trip to Disney's Downtown Disney section, where we ate and did some shopping. It was fun, but tiring on my feet and knees for as long as we were moving around. We ate at a place called Ragland Road, an Irish pub/restaurant that was very good (but pricey).

Monday: Sea World was next. Last year we didn't get to go because the same day we were preparing to leave, the news suddenly announced half the park was closed because one of the killer whales had killed a trainer. This year, no such thing happened, and we spent a very nice day there. It is a great place to visit; lots of touchy-feely exhibits (rays are so smooth they almost feel slimy), interesting shows, and nice exhibits.

Tuesday: Shopping day for four of the vacationers, while two of us went to putt-putt at Congo River on the I192. Two courses, both challenging and fun, with a lot of variety in obstacles and elevations on most of the holes. Lot's of fun. As the shoppers weren't done and back, the two of us then spent a pleasant afternoon reading and talking.

Wednesday: M had to go to church, and she and I wanted to do some shopping for our house, so the other four went to Disney World proper (M and I didn't want to go). She and I tried a new church, with a great priest, and she did the Ash Wednesday thing. We then did some light shopping, found and ordered our new deck chairs and tables, and just had a nice day together. Our friends will probably not be back until well after 9pm, as that is when the park closes for the day. They are pretty much visiting from opening until closing!

Not sure what the rest of the vacation will bring; Thursday is supposed to have thunderstorms, so we may find some indoor activities to do (maybe a new movie or a game night?), Friday involves the move from one house to another, and Saturday is M's church. We still have some plans to go to a few restaurants that we don't have available in Canada, and M "needs" to do more shopping. I'd like to replace my current tennis shoes with new ones. Outside of that, I think I may see some more long reading sessions by the pool in our future.

One set of friends leaves on Saturday and the other set leaves on Monday, with us following suit on Tuesday. M has Wednesday off to recover, but I have to hit my contract again hard and fast, as the next deadline is exactly two weeks from that Wednesday for a document that hasn't even been created. I'll probably feel like another vacation by the time this contract is up!

March 4, 2011

US Airways

As any frequent reader of this blog knows, when I travel I have an... interesting... time of it. It is always an adventure, whether (rarely) good or (often) bad.

Yesterday, my wife and I traveled to Orlando. The trip was an adventure. The set path had us flying out of our home airport at 9:40 and arriving 45 minutes later in Halifax. An approximately 7 hour layover there and then we were on the 2 hour flight to our second stop, in Philadelphia. A two hour layover there and we were off to our final destination of Orlando.

The flight out of our home airport was delayed approximately 2.5 hours, departing at about 12:15pm rather than the 9:40am flight time. Since we had the long layover at the next airport, that wasn't so much of an issue. However, there was no notice of it prior to our leaving the house, so we actually sat at the tiny little airport for that entire time.

In Halifax, US Airways announced the next flight was delayed by approximately 1:15. We learned later this was caused by the original plane having issues which caused them to order a replacement plane to take the flight, which they then had to wait the hour and a quarter to arrive, get the passengers on board, and off to Halifax. Since we had a 2 hour layover, we weren't overly concerned about this at first. It would be tight, especially since we already knew we were landing at the end of the F terminal and flying out of the end of the A terminal in Philadelphia. That's a long haul, but there is a shuttle, so we didn't think it would be an issue.

After pushing back from the gate, the bad news came: there was an electrical issue with the generator that supplies power to the AC unit and some of the rear electrical. It took them about 20 minutes to figure it out, fix it, and get us moving again. If the pilot could not "make up" time on the flight down, that left us with only 25 minutes to go from gate to gate in Philly. Serious issue now, as that was not enough time to cross the sprawling airport, even with the shuttle.

There were a total of eleven people on board that US Airways flight (including us) who all had to make the same absurdly tight connection in Philly to the Orlando flight. When asked about it, the best advice the US Airways personnel could give us was "You'll have to run."

And this is where I have an issue. The plane we were on had a radio. The ground personnel had radios. US Airways has computers that can track this sort of information. Why couldn't our flight crew radio ahead and say, "Look, we're running way late and we have 11 people who need to make this flight. Make sure the plane holds off departure for 10-20 minutes." Or, another tact could be, "We're running late and we have 11 people that need to make the Orlando flight. Can you have airport crew ready with carts to help them get across the airport (from gate F27 to A24)/get to the shuttle?" There are any number of ways in which radios and computers could be used to convey the message that 11 people need that flight, hold it and help them get there!

There were many things the US Airways (or any flight crew/airline) could do in these situations to be saviors and help their passengers have a better experience under trying times, yet in every situation like this I find myself, the usual response is to make it the passenger's problem. This is exemplified by the "You'll have to run" advice we were given. One look at their database of passengers would show them that the flight was delayed (their issue caused it), a further mechanical issue created another delay (again, their issue), and that eleven people on the manifest had to make the last flight out to Orlando in an extremely tight timeline. In order to avoid having the airline need to put us all up for a night in the hotel (the reason we would be missing the flight was mechanical, so their own rule says they have to put us up at their expense), the system should flag someone and issue an alert to hold the outbound flight. It is both cheaper for US Airways to hold the flight and makes them look all kinds of good doing so, which is a PR bonus for them.

As it is, we got off the plane, we hooked up with a woman in a pink sweater who knew what she was doing and where to go and also needed to make that flight. We stumbled on another woman who was an airline/airport employee who gave us some advice, and we managed -- out of breath and with literally no time left -- to make it across the entire airport and to the (new) gate our flight was out of. My wife ran ahead, determined to make them hold the gate open for me, as I limped my way along behind at as fast a walk as I could muster (was not having a good arthritis day and simply can't run like that any more).

One last caveat: the original information we were given, and confirmed by the fight attendant just before we landed, was that our gate was A20. However, the airport/airline had moved it to A24. However, when we got there, there was no notice or indication of this move (even though, according to one of the other passengers who had been there well before us, it had happened about 2 hours prior-- so our flight attendant should have known). We had to ask someone what happened to the flight and get directed to the new gate even farther down the concourse -- yet another delay which could have proven costly and made us miss our flight.

I am disappointed in the advice, reaction, and inability of US Airways as a company and the specific individuals with whom we had contact to use their heads, think not very far outside the box, and help the stressed and harried passengers by either getting us to our gate or calling ahead to keep the gate open a little longer. This disappointment stretches to all the airlines, none of whom seem able to take ownership of the responsibility they have to their customers. A small bit of effort on their end would create so much goodwill on the passengers' side that they may have loyal customers for a long time to come.

Moral of the story is: the passengers banded together, all walked fast/ran to the gate, and all arrived out of breath, upset, and frustrated. But we all made the connection and got to Orlando