Categories
entertainment

How I Track Games to Buy

One year I made a spreadsheet, but it was a pain to update/maintain. Before (and after) it was just a text file listing. But for a few years now, I use bookmarks in Firefox. The URL of a game’s store page is the closest thing to a key value, and having the minimal data associated with it in the title is quicker than trying to manipulate it in a spreadsheet and flip between that and the browser.

When I see a game I might be interested in, I bookmark it into one of the following folders:

  1. Buy it.
  2. Conditional on price or possibly whether ProtonDB gives enough reports it works (for non-Linux games). I distill that information into something like: “p? (<$20; w+) TITLE” where p? means “does it run okay on Proton?” If a game does run okay on proton it gets p+ instead. This also now includes games that had exclusivity on another store (w+ means wait a year, explained more below).
  3. Unreleased games that look promising. I’ve never really done preorders. (This is for truly unreleased games, not ones in early access; I don’t have a problem with early access games, if there’s enough content and stability to them to buy them in their current state.)
  4. (Rare, but there) VR-exclusive games that maybe I’ll buy and play someday. For now I lack the necessary reality hardware.
  5. (For those that graduate through the system) Bought games, which are nested inside of a dated folder to track when they were bought.

For the ones I do buy, I add the price I paid (though it happens when I’m deciding to buy them, as I use it to figure out how much I’m spending before purchase). After I’ve played them, I also add a prefix of up to three exclamation points for titles I thought were really good buys.

About 30% of the games I bought last winter got at least one exclamation point. More of those came from the conditional set than the definite-buy group (though the conditional group was slightly under twice the size). On average, for conditional games, the sale prices were slightly below my cutoff price (within a few dollars).

The conditional price is based on several signals, including reviews, particularly negative reviews. If a game is noted to be shorter or lacking in some specific way that makes me wary of buying it, but it seems salable at a lower price (often, reviews note that: “wait for a sale”), that becomes the condition.

The Proton condition is generally less relevant: by the time I play a game it probably works in Proton/WINE. But some games have notes from players for how to avoid crashes or increase framerates, so ProtonDB is usually worth checking for non-Linux games.

The wait condition is because of the store exclusivity some games have now. I disagree with that practice, so I make a point not to buy a game that was exclusive for a full year after its exclusivity expires. There are a ton of games to buy and play, and while many great games get exclusivity, a far greater number do not play such games with their customers. If you want to play games with your company’s reputation by making exclusivity deals, expect to be judged for it. Maybe the money is worth it, but that doesn’t mean gamers have to respect the decision.

Why not use Steam’s wishlist feature? While there is some convenience to that feature, it doesn’t allow for annotations as my bookmarks system does. There are also some privacy implications to wishlisting, but I’m not sure what call I’d make if the wishlist system were more comprehensive.

A few statistics: I currently only have one unconditional game in my list (likely more reflective of not having reviewed my conditional list and promoted some out of it). There are 41 conditional games, and about a third are holdovers. Some didn’t meet my price last time, and others I might decide against getting. There are also 19 unreleased games I’m looking at.

In terms of satisfaction, some combination of luck and effectiveness I didn’t really feel like I had any duds in the latest set of games I bought and played. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily remember all of them from their titles. I remember most, though, and the ones I don’t couldn’t have been particularly bad, because I definitely remember the games I’ve bought and felt like they were a waste—some because they’re just bad, but others because they’re not for me.

That last grouping is particularly interesting to me. Even for games I don’t buy or even consider, some sound like they’d be cool if I enjoyed that type of game. Others feel like if they had a different concept or changed the gameplay (akin to what I discussed recently about Cortex Command), they would be really awesome. There are some games that really nail an aesthetic, but the gameplay just isn’t there.


(You can stop reading now unless you want to hear some brief thoughts on Firefox’s bookmarks system.)

The biggest problem with the system is the lack of polish for Firefox’s bookmarks system. They still don’t have a tab-based bookmark browser, for example. They’ve tried to get that done (getting so far as to even have a version hiding behind a preference at one point, if I recall correctly), with some good work put into it, only to have it skim off the atmosphere before it could land, and now it is bitrotting as it drifts through space. Oy.

To try to look up a game quickly, the easiest way (if I recall its name) is to prefix my lookup with an asterisk in the awesomebar (which restricts it to bookmarks). E.g., “* Amnesia” would show Amnesia: Rebirth, a currently-unreleased game I’ll look at once it’s released (I enjoyed SOMA by the same folks, but while I have played at least a half-dozen horror-style games, I still have mixed feelings about the genre in terms of the gameplay mechanics involved and the lack of player agency beyond run-and-hide).

But if I don’t remember a title, or just want to browse, the bookmarks menu is cumbersome when you’re trying to get into folders inside folders inside folders in a cascading menu. A basic iconized file browser would feel much nicer.

Categories
entertainment

Scores and Gaming

I recently played Cortex Command, a 2D game similar in some respects to Terraria except rather than being built with blocks, it is built with pixels. You are a brain in a vat, and you can control soldiers and robots to assault against another brain in a vat (also in control over forces).

It took a bit to get into the game, to get a feel for it. It does have a tutorial, but the initial experience is rather clunky until you get a feel for it. The tutorial only gives a sense of what the game is. It’s a game about digging (you can mine gold to buy more forces) and assault in a pixel-destruction environment.

The tutorial has a small pile of dirt you dig, with gold in it, but in my first attempt it wasn’t clear how much digging I would be doing in the game. They should have buried an object to dig for, just to make the point clear.

It’s a fun enough game, once you learn the ropes and begin trying the combat challenges (called scenarios). But it doesn’t quite gamify itself enough.

I’m currently playing AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome, which is another simple enough game. You jump off a starting point and fall down. You get points for falling close to buildings, among other things. But A for the Awesome has something going for it that Cortex Command lacks: a point system. That’s really all it took to make something that would seem about the same (a fun mechanic without a lot beyond it) into a game that has more depth. Counting up the scores at the end, and seeing what points are needed to get five stars really gives the game a different element that it needs. A challenge, something to dig for.

In many games, there is a narrative structure that provides that challenge. And there may be upgrades that the player can seek out along the way. But these goals, these challenges, are what makes it a game. It’s not just a simulation, but it’s a mountain to climb.

That’s what Cortex Command seemed to lack. It didn’t track points. How did I do last time? Can I do better this time? The past didn’t exist. It was a blank slate every time. That lack of continuity, of any kind of goal, made it less of a game, less likely to draw you back to try again.

It was still a fun enough experience, once you got into it. Same with The Long Dark‘s survival mode in some ways (though they have a story mode that’s really great). Surviving can go on for ages, but every time you start it’s a blank slate again.

Maybe The Long Dark‘s survival mode could add a version more like what A for the Awesome does. I believe they are working on more challenges, which are separate from both survival and the story. Anyway, fun games. Time to go jump some more.

Categories
entertainment

Terraria: Journey’s End (Plus: Some more plague activities)

If you came for the plague activities, please scroll down.

I was a latecomer to Terraria when I first played the game in the spring of 2017. Best I recall, I saw a screenshot of something someone had built in the game, and intrigued by that creative aspect I gave it a try.

That is still probably my biggest plus for the game: building, creating. The worlds are generated, which gives you a good amount of variability to begin with. That variety includes the different zones or biomes like the ocean, desert, and jungle. Each has its own flavor, and you can build in any of them.

A house in a jungle with a roof made of living vines and plants.

The final major update has released today. The official word was that there would be some delay in Linux (and Macintosh) stability or optimizations, but so far it plays fine here.


One of the other neat things about Terraria was digging into their savegame format (with the help of some sites that publish some of the specification) with Python. Prior versions (we’ll see what 1.4 does) use what’s known as run-length encoding (RLE) to store a subset of the actual world tiles. You can think of it similar to a keyframe system in video, except it marks the last tile type and then the number of (vertically and below) tiles of the same type. Given that large parts of the world are filled with the same type of material (dirt, sand, etc.), this saves a lot of space.

Anyway, for awhile I had a lot of fun messing with that, even wrote a simple tool to turn an image file (using PIL as I recall) into background walls (something that, from a search at the time, had been done by several others).


The main thing I’m looking forward to for 1.4 is the improvements for building (including the ability to craft previously-uncraftable walls and some of the new furniture and other enhancements). They also add a feature called block-swap that speaks for itself, but will be useful for quickly changing the look of a building without having to tear everything down.

A single-mast ship with sail down (in port).

But some of the other features will be nice, including the more responsive world, updated artwork, added music, new town NPCs, and even golf.

Plague Activities (to get them out of your hair long enough to catch your breath)

As obvious, age-appropriateness depends on propensity to put things in mouth, dexterity, etc.

  1. Painting the basement walls. Requires a paintbrush and some container with water. Suffice it to say, you let the kid dip the brush in the water, then use the brush to make wet the basement wall, because it looks like they’re painting it. Could work on other surfaces like sidewalks/walkways or exterior walls. Good for a relatively unsupervised 20 minute break.
  2. Sort the things. Requires three containers, items to be sorted. Preparation: dump the things to be sorted into one bucket, then task your child to put the items of each type into the other buckets. More buckets needed if more than two types of things. Elastic task, as the more things to sort the longer it lasts, but boredom may take hold at around 20 minutes depending on complexity/enjoyability of the particular stuff being sorted. Suggested items include coins, pasta of different shapes, nuts and bolts, goats and sheep, etc.
  3. Terraria! The new version has so-called “journey mode” which lets you turn off enemies. You could build in peace, and you could play a video game while your kid(s) help you decide what to build. Something to consider anyway. Probably works better if you’re already familiar with Terraria. Not as unsupervised as some, but you get to videogame while keeping the runts entertained! Could work for some other games including Minecraft, bridge building games, Besiege, etc.
  4. Tape recorder. If you have an app or other way to play with audio recording, kids can amuse themselves quite awhile just recording, then replaying what they recorded. (At least I did when I was wee. I spent a lot of time playing by myself, in case you wondered.)
  5. Draw your own alphabet. (Requires basic alphabet skills.) 26 new drawings for new letters. Even if they take a minute to come up with each one, that’s 26 minutes back to you.
Categories
entertainment

Things to Fun During This (2020)

Here is a list of random things to fun. I know it’s not comprehensive, or even that great. But if you have kids that are in need of something to do, or are just a bored adult, maybe it’ll spark an idea of a decent way to stave off the boredom a bit. They’re all more-or-less adaptable to different age groups.

  1. Everyone in group finds one thing around the house, does a bit of online reading about it, and then does a 5-15 minute show and tell about it. Minimum time: 15 minutes + number of people × report lengths; average 30 minutes to one hour.
  2. Origami of various kinds. Requires paper, flat surface. Look up some various things to make with paper. Planes, swans, geometric shapes, boxes, all sorts. Minimum time: 30 minutes.
  3. Paper+trash basketball. Requires paper, unlined clean trashcan. Ball up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash. Repeat ad infinitum. Minimum time: 1 minute. Maximum time: Can you believe we just wasted an hour throwing balls of paper in the trash?! Educational opportunity: each participant must answer a topical query (e.g., geography, capital of a state) before they get throw.
  4. Bar tricks. Go online and look up match tricks and other small bar-bet tricks and go to town. Educational opportunity: teach kids to pour or mix drinks. Minimum time: ten minutes.
  5. Editor. Find random websites or other text content, and rewrite or edit it for spelling, grammar, tone, etc. Share your changes with the group. Minimum time: 30 minutes.
  6. Photo-editor. Same as previous, but using a program like GIMP or Photoshop. Add mustaches to famous people! Fun! Minimum time: 30 minutes.
  7. Gueeeess thaaaaaat Tuuuuune. Requires audio modification software, song files. Someone picks a song, slows it down, and plays it while everyone else has to guess what it is. Minimum time: 20 minutes.
  8. Counting games. Each round has a rule, like odds are replaced with animal names (bird, 2, dog, 4, …). Last person to make a mistake has to pick a rule for the next round. Minimum time: five minutes.
  9. Mad libs. Find a text, remove the nouns and modifiers and then replace them with your own! Minimum time: 20 minutes. (_Chilly_ _beans_. Find a _smurf_, remove the _ears_ and _feet_ and then replace them with your own!)
  10. Look for more ideas for tomorrow! Minimum time: five minutes.

Dunno. Maybe this helps. Seems like there are a lot of options, but there are a ton more where this came from.

Categories
entertainment

Random Thoughts on VR and Game Streaming

With some new modes of gaming, it’s useful to write down some thoughts.

VR

The main hurdle to adoption is the need to purchase hardware. In general I don’t buy much hardware for specific uses, and VR is therefore a harder sale as it isn’t a general tool for computing.

It’s possible VR does become more generally useful, in terms of non-gaming content coming out, but even then it’s not like having a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, it seems. The best case is that the HMDs can become thinner in their built-in technologies, relying more on their host system for any computational needs. In that, their costs can drop to where they are mostly the cost of the built-in displays.

The immersion of VR is very important and a useful artistic tool. There are other aspects of VR gaming that are very attractive, including having two hands where every traditional first-person game only lets you have one hand. The trailer for HL: Alyx shows at least one event where they intentionally occupy one hand to remove that advantage, which is a good indication that the creators think that feeling of limitation is an interesting interaction—that the player in VR, used to having two hands, will find only having one available is challenging and heightens the excitement of the combat there.

I will probably get into VR gaming in a few years, when the hardware is further developed and hopefully more stable.

Streaming

There are a lot of upsides and downsides to the streaming games platforms like Google Stadia. One upside is that it makes cheating much harder to do without full-on machine learning. Another is the lack of install and update needs.

But there are obvious downsides, including the sensitivity to latency and the general reliance on the network to game at all.

Another big problem is the inability to modify gameplay. Mods for computer games have always been part of their charm and appeal. Many of the games I have played over the years began as modifications of other games. It is unclear how or if a streaming platform would allow for players to create and install modifications beyond a very superficial set of cosmetics.

I doubt I would play streaming games any time soon. The variety of games already available and the lack of any big draw to streaming makes it well outside of my personal appeal in gaming. But for the larger gaming market, particularly casual gamers, the choices and tradeoffs do show some appeal. That’s especially true for introducing gaming to players who might later decide to buy hardware for gaming or other purposes.

Indeed, the lack of ability to modify console games never deterred those players (though there have been some ways at times to modify even console games, for those who wanted to).


Hope all have had a happy Thanksgiving holiday.