Categories
entertainment

Thoughts About the Heavy (and Medic) in TF2

A lot of people think the Heavy Weapons Guy needs balancing in Team Fortress 2. Often seeming underpowered for gamers used to the pace of a Soldier or Demoman, the Heavy seems due for a buff (an increase in his abilities).

Meanwhile, the high-skill Heavy players present a huge challenge to that idea. They mow down whole teams, so the notion that a direct improvement of Heavy’s items can suffice misses the problem that Valve faces. If they direct-buff the Heavy, the skilled players will only become that much harder to beat.

Back before TF2’s Heavy update came out, Valve’s design problem was how to make Heavy less reliant on a Medic. The Heavy-Medic combination is very powerful, but lots of times there isn’t a Medic to help. So they added the Sandvich to compensate, and let the Heavy roam free of a Medic.

While that was itself a positive move, there was likely another side to that design problem: how to get more people playing Medic. Medic stands apart from the rest of the classes in being almost purely support. Medics do not get the same sense of achievement (that of actually getting frags). They can provide major help to a team, but without that reward of a kill it’s harder to quantify their ability.

If you play Soldier on a losing team, you can still see if you got a lot of kills and points. You made some difference. A Medic doesn’t have the same feedback, and being the one player that counts on others’ abilities makes Medic a niche class. Even using the Medic’s big ability of an Übercharge (making a teammate invulnerable for a period of time) still counts on them doing the killing.

A game like TF2 requires at least some damage-heavy classes. Too many Snipers or Spies sinks a team very quickly. There is something of a food pyramid to team construction. Roughly:

  1. Soldier, Demoman, Pyro
  2. Heavy, Engineer, Medic
  3. Scout, Sniper, Spy

It varies a bit by game mode, map, whether a team is attacking or defending, and a player’s skill in a class. But that’s the general shape of things. The first tier consists of classes that are good at dealing a lot of damage both offensively and defensively. The second group is area denial, slow pushes, support. The third is countering, distracting, and slowing the other team.

But skilled players can take their class of choice and push it up to the top tier, which is why Valve has to be careful about a buffed Heavy. If they found the right alternative (akin to Demoman’s shields), Heavy could straddle the line a bit more without making him too good for the skilled.

On the other hand, they could seek to tweak the Heavy to make him sit more securely in that second group. That would mean the players that can currently turn Heavy into an offensive powerhouse would find him in a more support-oriented role. It might not go over too well, but if that change involved new toys it might.

As for the Medic, it’s not clear what such an alternative would look like. Back in QuakeWorld Team Fortress the Medic could infect enemies. It’s not clear if that mechanic would do much or be something Valve is interested in reviving. Others have suggested making Medic a walking dispenser, but that would be overpowered unless the ammo dispensing capabilities were fairly limited. My guess is that a dispensing Medic is partly borne from the desire to see Medic have something more to do than just healing and Übercharging.

It’s also clear that the team pyramid is a good thing in itself. Small games need damage classes. Larger games need diversity of classes. I don’t think Valve will move away from that general landscape.

Categories
design

Improved Discovery of Functions via Socialization

You have probably seen a comment on a website do something like:

Hello, world!
I am a block quote.

One common, simple styling of blockquotes is to throw a left border on them, maybe some indent, and call it a day. Even some rich-text-esque e-mail programs do that for quoting in replies.

Now you may have seen a comment on a website do something like:

| Hey, answer my question: what?

The answer is mu.

That use of the vertical bar (|; a.k.a. pipe; see Wikipedia: Vertical bar) is an example of cargo culting. People reading comments see the left-bordered replies and say, “okay, good, a distinctive way to quote exists,” but they fail to guess that the quote character is > (a.k.a. greater-than).

Still, if you see users cargo culting something, it tells you a couple of things:

  1. They think the behavior they’re trying to mimic is valuable for some reason.
  2. It isn’t easy enough for them to discover how to do it.

I nearly wrote “the right way” for [2] there, but if it were the right way, then it would be discoverable.

There are options:

  1. Adopt the cargo-cult attempt as the new way (or an alternative way).
  2. Implement a rich editor (e.g., with a shiny “quote” button).
  3. Make it easier to “view-source” of existing comments so users can see the secret sauce.

Something like [3] is the way to go in this instance. Let people learn from each other without explicitly needing to ask, “how?” If a user sees another with a fancy comment, they might dig into the source (when available) to see how it works.

This is the way we traditionally learn: observation. That’s how we learned to speak, and to a lesser extent how we learned to write and read.

In general, if you see mistakes being made with a piece of software that’s an opportunity for improved design. One source of inspiration should be video games. If you watch the commentaries from Valve Software’s games, they have a common pattern for learning game mechanics.

  1. Show the user the mechanic in action.
  2. Let them try it in a simple example.
  3. Trap them until they show they’ve got it down pat.

The games Portal and Portal 2 are chock-full of this pattern. You start out not even holding the portal gun, only learning you can move through portals. Then you only control one portal. Finally you learn to control both.

In more advanced puzzles you learn about conserving momentum to fling yourself, or in the second game how to paint with and make use of the gels.

Only after you have completed what amounts to a whole set of portal classes do you get to the part of the games where you are apparently fighting to win, but the whole experience (classes and all) are kept enjoyable.

We don’t currently approach general software in that manner. The first time you fire up Firefox, you aren’t presented with a puzzle of how to open a webpage, for example.

But maybe you should be.

Categories
society

FDA’s Proposed Nutritional Labeling

The FDA has proposed new regulations for food labeling and determining portion size. While giving clearer information to consumers is a good first step, when will they finally ban flavored food? Just kidding (also, in solid or liquid form which both pose real dangers (e.g., choking and drowning); also, kidding).

The proposal seems good for as far as it does go (see Federal Register: for publication on 3 March 2014: Food Labelings: Revision to the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels to download the PDF; the serving-size proposal is a separate document and proposal (both proposals have some information combined at FDA: Press Announcements: 27 February 2014: FDA proposes updates to Nutrition Facts label on food packages)). One missing feature would be something to improve digital access to nutritional information and ingredient listings for foods.

There are, apparently, mobile applications that can do optical character recognition (OCR) to import nutrition facts, but something more universal might help both improve adoption of digitally tracking food and of the use of better physical-to-digital handling in wider industries. Also, using a digital format could keep the printed version succinct while possibly expanding manufacturers’ participation in the publishing of voluntary data.

Also noteworthy is that at-present the regulations do not require a specific font. Quoting from the proposal (pp. 251-252):

In addition, we are requesting comments on […] requiring the use of a specific font.

It also mentions (pp. 274-275) that the current regulations “[…] specify […] that the type style should be a ‘single easy-to-read type style’ but no specific type style is required. However, […] we urge that certain type styles […] be used” with a parenthetical: “i.e., Helvetica Black, Helvetica Regular, Franklin Gothic Heavy.”

Although I’ve never seen a Nutrition Facts panel in Comic Sans, I do wonder if font variability exists and how much it affects the use of OCR. Also, certain format variations (there are a number of them, even for existing labels) may make OCR very hard, including lack of opaque background (e.g., on foods wrapped in clear plastics), deforming packaging (again, most likely thin plastics).

Digitally available nutrition information could eventually lead to much simpler printed information. Some countries employ much simpler labels, usually in the form of five pips with specific data such as caloric content, fat, sodium, etc. This takes up less space than the FDA’s tabular design, integrates with packaging better, and comes across as gentler, less authoritarian.

They could also go further by setting requirements for display of the information digitally. Junk food would be required to display in Comic Sans, while organic vegan baby food would be required to display in a blackletter.

No more calories from fat, not even voluntarily. But it’s not that simple. They still allow calories from saturated fat voluntarily and it says they considered making that mandatory.

They stuck to a reference diet of 2,000 calories. Again, importing the information to a digital system would allow recalculation based on an individual’s dietary need. The printed label should be basic, but the digital display could be very much tailored to the reader. Digitizing the ingredients would also make it much easier for those with allergies and sensitivities to avoid problem foods.

On the whole it is very good to see this vital service get a reroll. The only real danger is that this step in the right direction will end up being followed by such a long pause that we won’t have readily-digitized, expanded information available on foods until around 2034.

Categories
design

Business Doesn’t Want To

Today, an anti-pattern.

This coming week (24 February 2013) five major Internet providers will roll out their private enforcement of copyrights (EFF: Deeplinks: 14 February 2013: Don’t Be Fooled: “Six Strikes” Will Undoubtedly Harm Open Wireless).

Businesses are no longer interested in training workers, but instead relying on things like H1B to provide them with cookie-cut human capital.

Arm pilots and teachers instead of making real reforms to prevent violence.

The anti-pattern is businesses that push the work off to someone else. The Affordable Care Act sought to remedy a wholly dysfunctional health care system that was built by private interests failing to heed the give in give and take. The only people giving were (and are) the patients, the workers, and other businesses that provide them with insurance. People are paying NASA rates for common health care items, including simple pain relievers (for more look at Time: Healthland: 20 February 2013: Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us). That is, we’re pretending like aspirin are as rare in a hospital as they are on the International Space Station.

So the healthcare industry, as many others, push the work off onto an utterly broken US Congress. They dare the legislators to come and regulate them, and if they do, their lobbyists water down any solution.

That’s what the Copyright Armada is doing with this Six Strikes program. They’re pushing the work off on the ISPs, and when that inevitably turns into the head of a Gorgon, they’ll callously dare the congress to “fix it” by breaking it even more.

Congress, for its part, has long since given the drafting process over to lobbyists. They dare not write the laws themselves, for if they pass a bad law they can now blame it on the lobby that wrote it. How long before we can cut out the middleman and have industry hire some professionals from Hollywood to produce a farce in place of a real government. At least that would be entertaining.

But no, not these days. These days they would turn it into a “Reality” show, bringing in a bunch of poor saps who want to be rich and famous to argue over which mock Senator drank all the insert-name-of-sponsor.

Personal responsibility begins to mean whatever’s left after you pawn the rest off on some sucker.

But back to Six Strikes. The plan is that your phone company, cable company, whoever happens to also provide you access to the Internet, will watch your traffic. You visit this website? They’ll be watching. You download a copyrighted portion of a regulation (EFF: Press Release: 22 February 2013: Free Speech Battle Over Publication of Federal Law)? They’ll know.

And if (and only if) you download something that looks like it’s from someone that pays them off, they will punish you. They won’t ask for proof. No fair use defense. Doesn’t matter if it was an album you already owned but you don’t have the technical know-how to rip it. Doesn’t matter if it was a false positive. Maybe you can challenge it, for a fee likely as large as your monthly bill, which they keep even if they were wrong. But even that’s sketchy.

But if you’re a non-affiliated musician and someone downloads your album? Too bad. Even if you’re a major artist, the copyright holder, and you download a fan’s cover to check it out, you might get slapped.

We’re on track to an ever less-perfect world for information availability. Chilling Effects: 20 February 2013: Germans Unable to Watch Dashboard Cam Videos of Chelyabinsk Meteor talks about the recent swath of videos showing the recent meteor over Chelyabinsk, Russia (Wikipedia: 2013 Russian meteor event), and how many Germans were blocked from watching the footage on sites like YouTube. Because the radio was on when the meteor blazed across the sky.

Those dirty scheming pirates! They planned that meteor just to try to let Germans listen to Russian radio. Shrug.

Either the Six Strikes will fail spectacularly and be scrapped, or they’ll double down. They’ll start blocking independent sites that they feel are contributing to copyright infringement. Then they block independent sites that link to those sites. Pretty soon, they just block any site that doesn’t pay. They’ll likely expand it until it does fail. It will fail.

There will be lawsuits from both false positives and those who aren’t protected by it. It may even serve as a basis for long-needed anti-trust actions against the ISPs. But it’s still sad. It’s sad business doesn’t want to be business anymore.

Categories
linux

Thoughts on GNOME 3.6 UX Changes

GNOME 3.6 has entered Debian Experimental, at least to the point where it’s installable save for a few applications. Here are some of my thoughts on the new experience.

Application Menus

In GNOME 3.6 some applications (specifically Files (previously Nautilus)) move their menus to the spot next to Activities. This spot is occupied by the currently-focused application.

The main thing is to be aware of the change. You now have to go there for those applications, and you have to ensure the application is focused before doing so.

On the whole I don’t think this is that bad. Yes, I do happen to keep my Files instances way on the right of a two-monitor setup, and the menu is way on the left. But how often do I need that menu? Pretty much never. Occasionally I’d get somewhere via bookmarks in the old Nautilus. Every now and then I look over my preferences and tweak them. But neither were remotely a daily occurrence for me.

Assuming other applications that drop their menubars for this global menu spot take similar pains to avoid needing the menu very much, it won’t bother me.

In that, this design is a kind of dare to application developers: try to get all the bang out of the UI itself.

Scrollbars

Now that the Gtk+ 2 theme is closer to the Gtk+ 3 theme, all my scrollbars are normalized. That means my scrollbars are now like one bead abacuses. Formerly I had bookends on them letting me press buttons. Now I only have the slider and non-slider areas.

The mouse buttons changed their meanings. Formerly middle-click would jump to the point in the scrollbar. Now that’s left-click.

Provided the scrollbar semantics don’t change every release, this is passable. While I would occasionally use the buttons, I can live without them.

My main complaint with the current generation (and with 3.4) scrollbars is the color of the inactive thumb and blurred thumb. By those I mean the dragged part of the bar that’s not in active use, and the bar that’s part of an inactive window.

I tend to lose my place, as they don’t stand out particularly well. That’s especially true of the blurred bar, where it probably takes me a full second to find the white on light gray thumb.

Why do I need to know that? Often I am going through a scrollable area in a linear fashion, and deciding how far I am is important to time management. But more importantly, switching to that window means evaluating where I need to scroll to. Before, with easily seen bar positions, I could make that decision as I was making the switch. But now I usually have to make the switch, then decide where to scroll.

In time, maybe I’ll learn to ignore the bar and simply try to discover my position based on the content, but more likely I’ll find an alternative to Adwaita (or modify it).

Still scrollbars on the desktop are a far cry better than what I’ve experienced on Android. There, scrollbars are basically vestigial. They only show you where you are. There are a few applications that have functional scrollbars, but even those don’t really allow for jumping to points in the list.

This is especially annoying when you’ve read to the bottom of a page and need to get to the top. I’ve tried gesturing at it, but it doesn’t seem to understand what that means. So I find myself repeatedly dragging the page until I get to the top (or bottom). Give me a regular scrollbar any day!

New Lock Screen, Shutdown Without Holding Alt, etc.

One of the features people cared about in this release is the new lock screen, which you have to either drag out of the way or press enter to be able to unlock. It doesn’t bother me. I can press enter. The updated lock screen looks nicer.

Same goes for the shutdown with or without alt. I was used to holding alt, but I haven’t accidentally hit suspend so far.

Only things that have really bugged me so far are both in the Activities overview:

Centered Search Field

This just feels like it’s in left field. Like it should belong somewhere, but there wasn’t a spot that was preferred, so it was stuck there. It’s got an unusual sizing, it just feels awkward. Maybe I’ll get used to it.

Show Applications

This is thrown in the iconic application bar in Activities, and it brings up the full listing of applications available to the user. The button is immovable. It doesn’t belong there. Again, it feels like there was a desire to shove this somewhere, but no particularly apt place came forth.

It’s a useful feature. But as any Sesame Street alumnus could tell you, “one of these things is not like the others.” It should be elsewhere.

Conclusions

On the whole this is another solid release of GNOME. While I understand some of the concern by others regarding the direction of the UI, I still think that most of their concern is overreaching.

Specifically, they seem obsessed with the alleged obsession of GNOME developers to make things useful with a tablet. Having never used a tablet, I can’t say how useful the current designs would be.

But I can speak to the usability of a touch-based mobile device. So far it’s a lame experience. Way too many times have I clicked the wrong link. I can’t tell where a link goes, which is important to judging if it’s worth clicking or passing. Typing is difficult to begin with, made worse by ineffective input editing tools (if I misspelled “misspelled” as “nisspelled” then it’s faster for me to erase the whole word than try to get the cursor to the “n” and fix it).

If the GNOME developers are eroding these sorts of problems in a product that will see any tablet/touch device adoption, then they deserve praise, so long as they’re cognizant of the needs of the desktop/laptop platforms as well.