Category Archives: rants

Destiny Year One

The original retail release of “Destiny” was savaged by critics for it’s lack of story and repetitive game play. Considering the reviews of repetitive, multi-player only games like “Titanfall” and later “Evolve”, these reviews seem unfair. Yet the scores the game reviewers gave “Destiny” seem accurate in retrospect. This is a game with undeniably fun mechanics that ultimately provides an underwhelming experience, and in some cases a negative experience.

The ultimate problem with “Destiny” in year one is the in-game reward system. Collecting weapons and armor is part of the game. Bungie made it that way. Finding and using new pieces of gear is fun, and “Destiny” has a plethora of interesting gear to find and use. When the reward system is part of the game, you do not win by beating the end boss, but instead you win by getting the end boss’s rewards. For some reason, Bungie decided that the end boss’s rewards should be distributed randomly, creating random winners and random losers.

Back before December, Bungie was coming up against criticism for the #forever29 meme. Players kept beating the final boss, Atheon, over and over in hopes the game would randomly drop the end rewards players needed to reach level 30. For some players, level 30 was possible after their first time beating the final boss. For a frustratingly large portion of players, myself included, a dozen victories would end hollow. Somehow Bungie was unaware that randomness meant some players might never receive meaningful rewards from beating the final boss.

Bungie promised a fix for the next final boss, Crota, and players saw a much improved random reward system. This fix was just in time, as anecdotal reports told of players quitting “Destiny” because of their frustration over the rewards. I saw more than a few players on my friends list quit “Destiny” forever. Bungie also left nothing to chance, and players could also reach max level during the player versus player Iron Banner events. The latest expansion, House of Wolves, also ensures players can reach maximum level by earning one piece of armor each week from an arena even, Prison of Elders. Some players might take longer than others, and they might not like the rewards they receive, but all players are able to reach maximum level.

Random rewards remains an issue in “Destiny”. While beating the Prison of Elders activities will reward you with the highest level armor and weapons, most players do like this gear. For them, the “real” reward is Etheric light, an in-game substance that will maximize the damage for any “legendary” weapon or maximize the armor for any legendary piece of armor. Some game activities like the Nightfall strike will randomly reward players with Etheric light. Personally, I have not seen any Etheric light from a Nightfall strike after 5 week’s worth of strikes. Other players found enough Etheric light from the Nightfall to hit the maximum level on the first day Etheric light was available. Etheric light is also rewarded in the hardest Prison of Elders activities and a curious player versus player activity dubbed Trials of Osiris. The former requires players to be at maximum level for completion, and players lucky enough to find Etheric light from the Nightfall reaped weeks worth of Etheric light before the unlucky players could hit max level. Trials of Osiris only rewards Etheric light to players who can successfully win 6 or more matches against randomly matched players. The results were obvious, with the 1% of highly skilled players swimming in Etheric light and most everyone else ignoring Trials of Osiris. Bungie again left nothing to chance, and the Iron Banner event also yields Etheric light.

The random reward problem also plagues weapons, and even more so than the reward problem with armor. The best weapons in the game are inarguably the weapons that can be randomly dropped when you defeat a final boss. The second best weapons, called exotics, can be found randomly from activities like the Nightfall strike, defeating final bosses, or from a receiving a random task from a robot. This randomness is abrogated by a weekly visitor named Xur. He or she, though Xur sounds like a human male, sells one random exotic each weekend. One exotic Xur refuses to sell is Gjallarhorn, a rocket launcher that does more damage than any other weapon in “Destiny”, more than twice as much as any other rocket launcher. (Xur actually sold Gjallarhorn the second week after the release of “Destiny”, but most players, including myself, did not have enough in-game currency to buy it). Randomness means some players will be rewarded with the best weapon after little to no effort and some players will never be rewarded with the best weapon.

Year one was plagued by other issues. Bungie did not have player matchmaking for most of the year one content. After much protestation by the player community, Bungie added a matchmaking to a couple more activities. The problem is philosophical and not technical. The content for year one additions seemed lean to players. Bungie had to continually patch the game as players used every mechanism they could find to reach the maximum level. The ensuing battle raged between players who wanted to play the game their way and Bungie who wanted players to play the game Bungie’s way. Ever fix by Bungie would cause more problems. Players were using auto rifles too much so Bungie made them weaker. Now players almost never use auto rifles. The teeter-totter of fixes shows a game that is fundamentally broken and unfixable.

Playing “Destiny” seems like madness. Maybe it is. The game is about receiving rewards and those rewards are not at all correlated to player effort. No other game has made players feel so heartbroken after they defeat the final bass. We put up with this kind of madness because we believed in Bungie. The running and shooting parts of “Destiny” are fun. They should be, because “Destiny” is made by Bungie, the same studio that made “Halo” and “Halo” was nothing less than a cultural phenomenon that defined modern gaming today. (“Halo” was the iPhone of first person shooters. It looked like nothing that came before it but every thing that came after looked like it.) Despite every misstep, Bungie said they were listening, and Bungie did make changes, albeit begrudgingly. Year one has been tough for “Destiny” players. A lot of trust has been lost. Most of of my friends on “Destiny” pre-purchased all of the year one content. Back before last September, we believed in Bungie enough to make those future purchases. Year two is different. Year two is wait-and-see. Bungie needs to earn our trust back or for many of us, there will not be a year two.

The Tortured Decision To Buy A Game Console

Like a game of risk, the console wars have exploded into a conflagration amongst all the major and minor power in computers, electronics, gaming, and on-line shopping. Then Microsoft announced it was dropping Kinect from the Xbox One and the war went nuclear!

Of all the glitziest new consoles, Sony’s PS4 is the clear winner with 7 million sold to consumers as of April and undisputed proof that games run better on the PS4 than the Xbox One. Then Microsoft surprised everyone by announcing that they were going to make the Xbox One just like the PS4, with no Kinect, a $400 price, no online subscription required for Netflix, and 2 free games per month if you pay for an online subscription. The only difference between the machines are now the controllers, the Xbox One’s HDMI input, and the PS4’s superior performance. If I were Sony, I would offer some sweet incentives to buy a PS4 before the PS4 can get back on its feet. 

On the PC front, Valve is playing early 1980s Microsoft and licensing its Steam OS to any hardware manufacture willing to build a Steam Machine. 13 planned Steam Machines were announced a few months ago and they were estimated to cost anywhere between $500 to $6000

On the one hand, new PC game releases have always run terribly on anything but the newest and most expensive hardware. On the other hand, PC games are generally cheaper than console games. This point is veritably moot, as the only Steam Machines worth buying cost more than twice as much as an Xbox One or Playstation 4.

On the mobile front, iOS and Android games are cheap and plentiful. However, I own lots of iPad games I never play because they do not work with virtual controls. SteelSeries released a bluetooth game controller for the iOS that uses Apple’s own game controller API. Unlike other bluetooth iOS game controllers, this one will actually work. The controller looks like the child of a Playstation and Xbox controller, which is to say, it looks pretty good.  Too bad it only works with the newer iPads, because this would be great for my iPad 2. There are plenty of controllers for Android too.

The last consideration for me is whether to keep playing my old Xbox 360. There are plenty new games available for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 and they play great. In fact, most of the games on the newest consoles are also available on the old consoles and some games of the old consoles are not available and the newest consoles. Both Microsoft and Sony made a big mistake buy not including backwards compatibility. If the Xbox One had backwards compatibility, I would bought an Xbox One at launch and this article would be about how much I still hate Kinect.

Let’s put all of this information in a chart:

Game Console Price Multi-Player Fee Other Considerations

Xbox One (no Kinect)

$400

$60/year

Halo 5 coming eventually

Playstation 4

$400

$50/year

better graphics than Xbox One

Steam Machine

$500-$6000

$0

it’s just a PC without Windows
iPad Air + Controller $560

$0

iPads are great, cheap games.
Xbox 360 that I own

$0

$60/year

Cheap games, I already own it.

Looking at the chart, keeping the Xbox 360 is a no-brainer. The same goes for anyone who owns a Playstation 3. This is a great time to own an old console. Microsoft has been giving away two free Xbox 360 games per month for Xbox Live Gold subscribers and has been selling most other old games for $5. Sony has been similarly dumping games on PS3 owners. For the first time ever, I have more games than I have time to play. (Of course, I hardly have any time to play games unless I give up copious amounts of sleep, so maybe that’s not a good metric of a console’s value).  Moreover, the new consoles cannot yet play Minecraft, and there is no way my kids are going to give up Minecraft.

Between the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One, the Playstation 4 is the obvious winner. The whole point of buying a new console is to play better looking games, and I want the console with the best looking games. The Xbox One has some TV stuff and picture-in-picture features. I shrug my shoulders because I do not subscribe to cable or satellite and I already use my iPad as a second screen for things like watching video while playing games (multitasking!). None of these features balance the Xbox One’s poorer performance playing games.

Having chosen the Playstation 4 as the next console in my household, I have to decide when to buy it. Now that Microsoft is offering a $400 Xbox One, I expect Sony will offer some free games with the purchase of Playstation 4. Why buy now when you know a deal is forthcoming. The Xbox 360 also has quite a bit of life left, so I can wait.

Browser Wars Still Not Winning Me Over

Way back in 2011, I made a terse comparison of popular web browsers.  My top consideration at the time was the amount of the browser window dedicated to actual web browsing. Almost 3 years later,  the amount of space dedicated to web browsing remains my top consideration. This time, I loaded up the Compact Classic extension for Firefox. This extension squishes the tabs, address bar, and bookmark bar like a car in a car crusher. Now Firefox is back in the running. 

Surprisingly, the newest Internet Explorer is a pixel or two more compact than Google Chrome, despite the roomier bookmarks (a.k.a. “favorites”) bar and enormous back button. Compact Firefox is slightly more compact yet, but look at the dark horse in this race, Sleipnir. The browsing space in Sleipneir 5 is one bookmar bar larger than all the rest, despite the inclusion of tab previews in the tab bar. 

Opera is written out of this comparison entirely. Not only is does Opera have the smallest browsing space, it is not near as extendible as Chrome, Firefox, or Sleipnir. Internet Explorer is barely in the race. Safari for Windows is a casualty of Apple, who replaced Safari with a browser extension that syncs bookmarks with iCloud .Microsoft kept the good design decisions of Internet Explore 8 and all the many, many bad ones. Worse, Internet Explorer never became a home for extensions. Some of use browser for real work and extension like Link Clump make a world of difference. Firefox remains as extensible as ever and clearly the most morphable browser. Chrome has actually become worse since 2011. The once useful new tab page has been replaced with eight tiny boxes showing the most visited websites. 

Look at all that empty white space. Chrome used to have links for off-line apps, web history, and recently closed tabs. I used to use those things from the new tab page all the time.

Sleipnir is something of a magic trick. The newest version of the browser for Windows is built on Chromium, the open source version of Google Chrome. During installation, Sleipnir borrowed all of my bookmarks, web history, saved forms, and extensions from Google Chrome. That last part is the best trick; Sleipnir can load any extension from the Chrome Web Store. Sleipnir has some nifty features of its own, such as excellent text rendering. The tab previews are a mixed bag. Seeing a little preview window of a tab is nice, but if I am searching through a database and have multiple results in different tabs, they all look the same. Some great Chrome features are missing, such as dragging text into the tab bar to open a page of search results. At the very least, Sleipnir is moving in the right direction when the older browsers are moving in the wrong direction.

Why I still don’t read slate.

Getting hard to read anything on the internet. Thank goodness for steady stream of Anrgy Birds levels.

Viruses

An affliction with. a virus this week has lead to a panoply of thoughts, few of them are good.

My virus is clearly set upon transmitting itself to another human. Every orifice on my face is leaking fluids. My eyes are tearing so much I look like I just watched “Lorenzo’s Oil” for the first time. My mouth is a swimming pool of saliva. I shan’t reward the virus by spitting. My nose of course runs like a leaky faucet, only to dry up like a lizard in the sun. Even my ear wax is building up. The worst offender is the cough. One cough can fill a whole room with virus particles and in the meantime every cough breaks my concentration.

The most excellent strategy of the virus is keeping me mostly alive and healthy. The cold virus hardly dents the health of its victims and there are more than 200 varieties at a given time. The more deadly flu is much rarer. Ebola and West Nile are rarer yet. Despite the fear of super viruses, the selection pressure pushes viruses to be more mild, not more deadly. That these viruses have no conscience strategy is all the more vexing, in my opinion, though their evolutionary paths do create the opportunity for virus extinction. Virus evolution is only present in progeny and a virus cannot make progeny when its been wiped out. In other words, be a deterministic being, beat the viruses, and get yourself vaccinated.  

Aside of the terrible symptoms, my other thought was to my deteriorating will power. Fighting a fever, headache, and general wooziness, ever positive act is a drain on willpower. I let my local grocery store charge me too much for Chinese food because I was too tired to go back to the deli section and ask for a new price sticker. All I wanted to do was sit down in the front seat of my car and it only cost me a couple of dollars. If the store knew I was in such bad shape – fever, headache, fatigue, and labored breathing – I would charge them with duress. Quick tip: if you feel bad, then you should put off major decisions until you feel healthy again.

Lastly, my thoughts are on quarantine. At work I can slink into my office where my coughing sputum cannot sicken my coworkers. My strategy must be working, because no one in my office has been infected all week. At home, there is not practical way to protect my family from whatever virus I have. My theory is that I have the flu and they are immune because we were all vaccinated back in October. Of course, I was vaccinated and I came down with something. True, but keep in mind that the flu virus is always mutating and there are many varieties. The flu vaccine only covers the most common of the most recent flu viruses. Antibodies are not little decision makers, though, and if they can stick to an antigen, they will. This means that a flue vaccine or a bout with the flu will help you create antibodies that can attenuate other flu viruses. (I used to study viruses; I know these things.) My theory is that my family all got lucky, and their antibodies are crushing the virus that is making me miserable. Either that or they are about to get hit hard by whatever attacker I am spewing out with each cough. 

Adamomics: Warranties Make No Sense

Something I always ask when a sales clerk is trying to sell me a warranty, “Why are you selling a product you expect to break?”. I am only half kidding. Products do break and sometimes warranties make sense. My Dad in particular has had terrible luck with weed eaters, snow blowers, water softeners, computers, and vehicles. Now I might advise he not buy the cheapest option, because when you price in the warranty, the better, sturdier, more dependable option might be cheaper. For those products that are not objectively crap, I have developed a simple formula to determine whether a warranty is worthwhile: 

  1. Pretend you are a bulk purchaser and add the cost of 100 of the product. (100 is easy, add two zeros).
  2. Estimate an X% failure rate and add up the cost replacing the X% of the product. 
  3. Add up the cost of 100 warranties on the product. 
  4. If the warranty cost is higher than replacing failed products, the warranty is a money loser. 

Determining the failure rate is the difficult part of this formula. We cannot assume a 100% failure rate like my Dad. Consumer Reports is a great resource determining the failure rate on product lines. Some items defy conventional failure rates, such as the well reported 30-60% failure rate of the original batch of Xbox 360 game consoles and the legendarily indestructible Nokia feature phones. Sometimes store clerks will be honest with you about a products return rate. Do the best guesstimate you can.
Let’s use Macs as an example, because the AppleCare program for Apple products is a particularly attractive warranty for buyers and the failure rate of Macs is well reported at about 17% within 3 years (or at least, it used to be). That means over your lifetime, 17% of your Macs will need to be replaced within 3 years. For a $1200 Macbook Pro, you’d spend $120,000 on 100 and $20400 replacing 17% of them. Buying 100 warranties at $250 each would cost $25,000. Buying AppleCare for a $1200 McBook Pro is therefore likely to be a money loser. 

Also consider this: your stuff loses value over time, and the longer you keep something, the less expensive it is to replace. For electronics and vehicles, you can almost see the drop in value in real time. Most all products come with a 1 year warranty, so you only need consider the cost of replacing the product when it breaks in the second or third year versus the cost of the warranty. Let’s assume a 30% drop in value in the second year and run the MacBook Pro numbers again: the cost of replacing 17% of them is down to $14,280 while AppleCare on all of the computers remains at %25,000.  

Since we mentioned the Xbox 360, let’s use this game consoles as another example. Assuming an average of $400 per console in 2005 dollars, the above formula says that a warranty has value at $120 or less. However, in the second year of the console’s life, the price dropped as low as $300 and the reliability improved dramatically. This second round of consoles was the one to get (careful buyers always win). The lower cost of replacing the consoles means a warranty had value at $90. In actually, though, Microsoft extended the factory warranty of the Xbox 360 to 3 years, thus making any 3 year warranty a waste of money.) The legendarily unreliable turd like the original Xbox 360 is an anomaly, though and game consoles are notoriously reliable with have a failure rate of about 5%. (Microsoft sells a $60 3 year warranty for its $500 Xbox One, meaning it believes the failure rate on Xboxes is back to the industry average). Assuming the life span of a game console is about 6 years and an adult will buy about 7 game consoles in a lifetime the original Xbox 360 raises the average failure rate of a lifetime of purchases from 5% to about %10. That brings the warranty value down to about $9 for a console like the Xbox 360 that lost a quarter of its value in the second year. 

Using this formula, it looks like a warranty never makes sense. That is why everyone is always trying to sell you one!

Why I Hate Slate.com

A true story: 

Of course, I have almost stopped reading Huffington Post too.