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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Exciting Times

No time is better for a sports fan than pre-season. In pre-season, your team is undefeated, hope is rampant, and speculation is made with wild abandon.

I am a Detroit Lions fan. Have been since the late 1970s, when my father told me I had to pick a football team and root for them through thick and thin, good and bad. In that time, I have seen a lot of bad Lions teams and a few good ones. In that time, we have won only one playoff game. In that time, we had Barry Sanders to dazzle and an 0-16 season to shame us.

This pre-season, I'm trying to stay cautiously optimistic and not get too hopeful. I have been jilted before. But, for the first time in a long time, I can say that the Lions actually improved in pretty much every area that they needed to in order to become more successful. They picked up offensive line help, so maybe Stafford can stay on his feet and in the pocket long enough to connect on passes. They got what might be the perfect complimentary running back help so Stafford has someone to check down to and ease his record number of throwing attempts from last season in Reggie Bush. They solidified the DB position. The defensive line has come in hungry and angry -- just what you want from your D-line. Their linebackers look to be solid.

The Lions biggest issue has always been their division. Playing the Packers, Vikings, and Bears twice each means that each team beats up on the others. It is called the "black and blue" division for a reason as, even when one or more teams aren't very good, they play each other tough. It is relatively rare for a team to sweep the division. The Packers haven't always had great teams, but you always have to respect and fear their offense. The Bears haven't always had great teams, but you have to respect their defense. The Vikings haven't always had great teams, but they have alternated having strong offenses and defenses. The Lions haven't always had great teams, but they have usually had an offense you had to respect and a player you had to gameplan against.

This year's Lions team has a tough schedule. Most seasons they rank in the upper half or higher in Strength of Schedule (initial or adjusted). Not only do they play the Packers, Vikings, and Bears twice, but they get to play the AFC North this season, so get an always tough Steelers crew, the Super Bowl Champion Ravens, and much-improved Bengals and Browns teams. In addition, they compete against the NFC East this year, having to try to eke out wins against the Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins. They round out their season playing the improved Cardinals and Buccaneers.

Trying to keep my fan hopes to a minimum, I can make an argument for somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7 this coming season. It is tough, because so many of the teams the Lions play are revamped; the Eagles have a new coach and a new system, the Cardinals have a new QB, the Steelers and Ravens have both had a lot of player turnover, the Redskins may or may not have their QB that early in the season, the Bucs made a huge pick-up (granting he is still the player he was prior to injury), and the Bengals have been making steady progress. Actually, many of those teams have new/young coaches -- will that bring turmoil or success?

Any number of wins above four will be a victory for the Lions. Last season, out of 12 losses, the Lions lost nine of those by one score (<=8 pts) games and four of them were by three points or fewer. So they were right in most games. They were a play or a stop away in most games from being an 8-8 team or better. I'm hopeful that this year's team will be able to make those plays, offensively or defensively, and win those close ones like they did in 2011.

What can I say, I'm a fan... and hope springs eternal!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Jaundice

With my health situation, one of my biggest fears is having someone, most likely my wife, tell me I look jaundiced and having to head to the ER only to discover my liver has stopped working. The chances of that happening are low, as I take my medications, I get 3-4 blood tests a year, and I meet with my doctors fairly regularly (not as regularly as when I lived in America, and not so often with my GE doctor, but still fairly often).

I woke this morning to a post on Facebook by my cousin's wife. She said that my cousin is in the ER because he got sick and became jaundiced. Everything is pointing toward gallbladder stones that may also be affecting his liver. He may need to have his gallbladder removed, he's having tests on his liver and liver function, and they are doing surgery today to figure out what has happened.

This is pretty much my worst nightmare come to life. He had no indications of anything wrong except falling ill during the San Diego Comic Convention, so chances are this is something treatable that had a sudden onset. But still; my connection to liver illness gives me a unique perspective and greater fear for him than maybe the average person. As long as he has no cirrhosis (which destroys the liver cells) his liver should heal and he should recover.

My thoughts are with him and his wife today and over the next few days (at least) as he hopefully recovers from successful surgery. Here's to hoping that it winds up being something simple and treatable!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

More Game Design

I have previously talked about game design changes I would make to games I enjoy playing. Another thought struck me recently: penalizing the player. By this I mean that the player is penalized in multiple ways for using his character/avatar's abilities.

Your character has an Energy bar that is used to cast his abilities and each ability has an energy usage amount. So, for example, a power may "cost" 10 energy to cast and your character may have 100 energy total. If you do not have enough energy to cast the ability, you cannot cast it. The higher the power (or more powerful it is), the higher the energy cost to cast it. There is usually a method by which your character regenerates those used energy points, either over time or via some sort of "energy potion" concept.

In addition, each of the abilities usually has a "cool down" timer. This means that, when you cast it, you have to wait that period of time before the ability is usable again. More powerful abilities typically have higher cool down times, so can be used less frequently.

Next, many games use a system whereby a power is only useable in certain circumstances. For example, only after a previous power is used or only when a certain game circumstance occurs.

Lastly, a fairly common practice is to create enemies that have powers that take away your energy, impede your use of your abilities, are immune to some or all of your abilities, or render your character completely unusable for a space of time.

So, to sum up: powers have a cost to use AND they also have a timer for how often they can be used regardless of cost AND you are limited by the amount of energy you have and how fast you can restore it AND some powers can only be used in specific circumstances, plus enemies are often designed to make it difficult to impossible for you to use your character's powers. This seems like multiple penalties all to one game system.

I have a few suggestions to resolve these issues:

  • Pick either the Energy bar/Energy cost OR the cool down timer concept and eliminate it. Both do essentially the same task: they limit how often you can cast the ability in question. If you don't want the player to use the ability very often, then remove the energy cost/bar and keep the timer. If you want the player to have the choice of how quickly he uses the ability, remove the timer and keep the energy bar/cost. 
    • In scenario 1, you remove the bar/cost. You keep the timer. So, in LOTRO, my Runekeeper would still have a low-damage ability I can cast every second, but higher power abilities can only be cast every 5, 10, 15, 30, and 60 seconds. It doesn't matter how much they cost because I'm limited by time to how often I can use them, regardless.
    • In scenario 2, I have no timer on anything. The player must manage the resource and the resource costs of the powers. Knowing I have 100 energy points total, do I deem this combat worthy of using the 50 power cost ability, or should I use ten uses of my 10-point ability? How quickly do I regenerate my power? It all comes down to resource management.
  • Depending on your choice in the previous step, you may want to eliminate having abilities that only enable if/when another power or circumstance comes up.
    • As a player, it is no fun to have abilities that either suddenly pop up and you have (typically) a short period of time in which to click them to make them work, or they only enable after a certain sequence of powers have been selected first. Either make these abilities available all the time (but limited by power cost or a long cool down timer), or make the abilities of the power an upgrade to an existing power, making the timer longer or cost of the power higher to compensate for the added ability.
At this point, you have resolved the issues from the player's side. Either the player has a resource he needs to manage (a power bar and power costs) and he can choose to attack ruthlessly and run out of power fast or efficiently and be available for the long haul, or the player has to time his attacks based on their timers and availability to make "attack chains."

The last point, enemies that somehow make your character unable to use his abilities, either through taking away some/all of his power, increasing the timers on the character's powers, or by "mezzing" (mesmerizing) the character so they cannot contribute at, should be handled delicately. Early on in City of Heroes, for example, the high-end game was not fun because it seemed like every high-end enemy type had one or more energy robbers or mezzers in the group. You either had no energy to use your super-hero abilities, your character was unable to do anything due to being mesmerized, or the enemies turned off your "always on" abilities, making you much more vulnerable. In LOTRO they do the same thing primarily with mezzes; you suddenly find your character completely unable to do anything and very vulnerable to attack. Often, these attacks stack so you are down for 20 seconds, then another hits you just as you come out of it so you are essentially useless for 30, 40, 60 seconds at a time.

Players don't mind when a mob uses good tactics and has powerful hits that take chunks of  their character's "health" (hit points, endurance, etc.) points away and defeat them. But players get upset when they cannot play their character and have no choice in the defeat; the enemy did something that mezzes them and then defeats them, the enemy drains their energy bar to nothing, making them useless and unable to do anything; etc. Game designers need to keep these types of enemy forces reserved for special situations and climactic boss enemies.

In the end, most games I play restrict or penalize players multiple times when they use their abilities. I think a better system would be one that allows the players to make the choice of what and how quickly they will use the player's abilities over one with artificial restrictions. 

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Heavy

In the past, I bowled, rode my bike nearly year round, and played softball. As my health grew worse, I slowly gave up on these activities due to the stress and pain they caused me. What I didn't realize was that when I was still doing at least one of them regularly, it was enough exercise often enough to counterbalance the appetite stimulation (caused by the medications I take) and my caloric intake. However, I have been primarily sedentary with little exercise for the last five years, while still having the appetite stimulation from the meds, and my weight has crept up. A sedentary life plus constant appetite stimulation has turned out to be a bad combination!

My wife has turned me on to a site called "My Fitness Pal" online. It allows you to track your calories and exercise per day to help you realize your intake and output so you can manage your weight loss goals. You can feed the results to your Facebook and Twitter, if you wish, and you can have friends on the site who get posted your results for the day (ostensibly so they can encourage or admonish you to stay on target).

While I want to lose weight, I started using it primarily to get a rough idea of how many calories I take in during the day. So I've been tracking my normal intake without concern for how it will affect any weight loss goals I have. As it turns out, I am almost always under a 2000 calorie intake for the day, and often I am under/around 1500 calories due to my natural ebbs and flows in eating.

For the weight loss goal I entered, My Fitness Pal recommended a 1500 calories per day -- which, as I said, is already right in line with my usual consumption habits, but I have done nothing but gain weight. So it is obviously going to take more than simply lowering caloric intake in order to lose the weight. My wife and I have turned to a "paleo-like" diet, where we are trying to increase the "real foods" we eat, sticking with fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats, and lowering our intake of overly-processed foods. We have also cut down on eating out and have started a weekly meal planner system.

In addition, I have been weaning myself off of colas for the last six months or so. I have achieved the point where brown sodas (Pepsi, Coke, etc.) don't taste very good. I am now tackling the other sodas in an attempt to wean myself off of them, too. I am down to having the occasional soda once or twice a week, rather than per day, and those are slowly starting to taste bad to me also.

However, this has increased my milk consumption manifold. While not empty calories, per se, and imbued with many vitamins and minerals and a good dose of protein, milk still has a bunch of sugar in it unless you can stomach it straight from the cow. I drink the 2% milkfat version, but that still is about 180 calories per 12 ounce drink. Which, actually, is more calories per 12 ounces than drinking the sodas (about 150 per 12 ounces)!

At this point, most people I speak with say, "Just drink water." The problem is, and many people simply cannot fathom this, I HATE water. I don't like the flavor of it (and, yes, there IS a flavor to water). Water never quenches my thirst, even on a hot day or after exercise. Water never even tries to make me feel full or even "less empty." I am trying to increase my water intake with the hopes that, just like I have stopped liking the flavor of sodas, I will gradually come to at least be neutral toward water, but so far no luck.

I am tackling my sedentary life through the purchase and use of an exercise bike. I also have a real bike for when/if I can get my level of exercise high enough that I can actually ride the thing on the road without dying. Right now, my stamina is so bad that I can barely ride the stationary bike for more than 15 minutes at a moderate pace, but I am improving. My goal right now is to get to 20 minutes three times a week. My long-term goal is to get back to being able to ride around at least the neighborhood (which is pretty hilly) without difficulty.

The My Fitness Pal site is a great tool for tracking both your exercise and your caloric intake. It has been extremely educational to enter the calories for the foods I eat regularly and see just how much that PBJ, that glass of milk, that handful of chips actually is, and how it adds up through the day. With diligence, this tool may help me to lose some of the weight and prompt me toward my exercise goals. We'll see.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Congress Must Go!

"... Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...".
I think it is just about time for us to abolish Congress, both House and Senate, and start over. We need to enact laws that limit the amount of money these positions can accrue while in office, make sure existing laws apply to Congress equally, and to limit the amount of time that one can spend in Congress.

Currently, Congress refuses to work together or with other parts of the executive branch (i.e., the office of the President); refuses to take a pay cut during one of the most dire economic hardships our country has faced; and refuses to hold themselves accountable to themselves or to the American people who, through their votes, have issued directives on what direction and what policies they want to see enacted. It is time for a new revolution where we evict these people from office and, through careful consideration, replace them with people who will put America and Americans first, rather than their own political power and gain.

It is nearly impossible to remove a Congressman from office once they are elected. Congressmen themselves are supposed to monitor each other and evict those who are failing to do their duty. Yet we have a number of Congressmen who rarely show up for votes, often use insider information to accrue wealth and power, and pervert the laws of this great land to their own political, personal, and religious ends. In any other aspect of American life, if you do not do your job, you illegally use your knowledge to profit, and you go against the precepts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, you are held accountable and removed from your position and put in jail. Congress should not be above these laws. We need new rules and laws that allow outside forces to begin the process of expulsion from Congress, as who can trust Congress to govern themselves?

We need to hold Congress accountable for enacting legislation, too. We need to limit the riders and extraneous information that can be added to a law (or give the President back the power of line-item veto so that the extraneous riders and such can be removed and the original bill can be passed). And we need to restrict the amount of time that a Congressman is in office so that they must leave politics and live by the laws they have established.

I have detailed my suggestions for Congressional Reform in previous posts. I am open to debate, but think these five rules are a good first step in reforming politics in general and Congress in particular. I might add a rule that Congressional salaries and/or jobs are tied to passing and having a balanced Federal budget; no Federal budget, no job (or, at least, no money). From here, we can get the government moving once more toward respecting America and Americans.

It is time for a new revolution.