Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

“The Elder Scrolls Online” thoughts

These days, most of my gaming is spent looking down and controlling large armies of space marines in epic, strategic battles. My favorite genre of games, however, typically involves playing a single hero (and maybe a few companions) embarking on an epic quest in some fantasy world where my character grows stronger and find magical equipment and loot. Among these games, known as western (as opposed to eastern or Japanese) role-playing games (RPGs), there are several well-known franchises, such as Baldur’s GateDiablo, and Mass Effect. One important franchise that I came late to is The Elder Scrolls,. Most recently, I have been playing the 5th installement, Skyrim, but thanks to the generosity of my friend Tom, I had the chance to play in the open beta for The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) this past weekend. Continue reading “The Elder Scrolls Online” thoughts

Shifting Towards “The Resistance”

After AP tests at the end of senior year in high school, there wasn’t much to do in class. Our teachers didn’t have anything to teach, and we weren’t particularly motivated to learn, so we were stuck in a room full of peers for 51 minutes until the bell rang and couldn’t get too loud. Some may see this as a waste of time: we saw it as an opportunity and played a lot of Mafia.

Mafia is a simple game of social deduction. The basic game has 3 roles: the narrator (who runs the game), the Mafia, and the townspeople. To setup the game, the Narrator gives out secret roles to all of the players: either one of a few Mafia or mostly townspeople. Then, everyone closes their eyes, and the Mafia open their eyes and to see who each other are. The game then switches between 2 phases of day and night until the Mafia or Townspeople win. During the night, the townspeople close their eyes, and the Mafia silently choose to kill someone. When everyone wakes up for daytime, the Narrator tells everyone who was killed and eliminated from the game (usually with a grisly story). Then, everyone has to argue and agree to lynch someone. Various suspects are accused over discussion, and a vote is taken by the Narrator. That player is then eliminated from the game, and it goes back to night. The townspeople want to lynch all of the Mafia, and the Mafia want to kill all of the townspeople. Continue reading Shifting Towards “The Resistance”

Why I Think StarCraft is Awesome

I play, watch, read, write, and think a lot of StarCraft. Specifically, since StarCraft 2 came out in July 2010, I have played at least 653 games of StarCraft (source: battle.net); watch on average a half hour to an hour of StarCraft a day via online streams like Twitch; read /r/starcraft first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and at least a dozen times in-between; write a StarCraft blog; and think about StarCraft a lot.

Looking at my blog history, I haven’t shared very much about StarCraft at all given how passionate I am about it, and with the upcoming release of Heart of the Swarm, the first expansion to StarCraft 2, I want to share why I think StarCraft is so awesome.

Like with books, video games can engage people in many different ways, depending on both the game and the person*. For me, StarCraft is all about the challenge of making quick, strategic decisions while managing many tasks simultaneously.

StarCraft is like Chess come to life in a sci-fi setting between humans (Terran), bugs (Zerg), and psionic warriors (Protoss). You and an opponent each start with a base and need to mine resources to build an army to destroy each other. The strategy and quick reflexes come in at several different levels, all of which must be maintained simultaneously.

At the lowest level, you control individual army units, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. With good dexterity, you can guide a flamethrower buggy (a “Hellion”) into your opponents base and kill lots of workers when they aren’t looking. Or maybe you need to split up your clump of Marines when explosive, suicide Banelings waddle up. These require careful attention to individual units to make each of them as effective as possible.

Going a level up, you need control your whole army that may be as many as 200 units. Typically, most of your units are in one main army, and how you position that depends on where your opponent’s main army is and what you think they’re going to do. Your strategy, however, might be to attack in multiple places at the same time, and professional players can control attacks on up to 4 different places simultaneously.

Going up another level, you need to be building your army. Depending on what units your opponent has and what your strategy is, you might want slightly different compositions of units. If your opponent has lots of flying units, you should probably have anti-air units, but if you also get some invisible units, you can force your opponent to build detectors or possibly take a lot of damage. To ensure that your army is at full strength, you must constantly be queuing up more units to be built at various buildings, while controlling your army and individual units in it.

Up one more level, you need to control your economy as a whole. Although you start with one base, you need to build various types of buildings to get access to different units and different technology. Additionally, you can also take more bases around the map to get more resources faster. It can be hard to know which bases are safe to take and when to take them. It’s even harder to figure that out while constantly building up your army, managing your existing army, and all of the units in your army.

At the highest level, you need a game plan. Will you build an army really quickly and try to destroy your opponent before they have defenses ready? Or will you try to take a bunch of bases to mine more resources to build a bigger, stronger army later? Of will you build up defenses and try to develop technology as quickly as possible to get advanced army units very quickly? As the game progresses, you constantly need to readjust your strategy between army, economy, and technology. This strategizing is happening while you’re figuring out how your economy works, training a bigger army, moving your army about the map, and controlling individual units.

So at the highest level, there’s a lot of strategy and little physical work, but as you move down, the focus shifts more and more to reflexes. Different players have different strengths among all of those tasks, but regardless, StarCraft is a constantly demanding, both mental and physical, game. In fact, I think it’s the hardest video game out there. Like chess openings and football plays, StarCraft games start with a plan (known as a “build order”), but soon, the game is alive. Professional players can perform upwards of 300 clicks and key presses per minute to do everything they need to, and they practice as their full-time job (40+ hours a week) to understand the game and learn strategies.

So beyond playing, I also follow professional StarCraft, which is now an eSport. Watching professional StarCraft players is amazing. Many players stream their practice sessions so you can follow your favorite players as they play everyday. They compete in a regular tournaments where commentators talk through all the games played in big brackets. Between the strategic depth of the game, the storylines of individual players, serious mindgames between familiar players, and crazy highlight plays, following and watching tournaments are always engaging. And there’s a vibrant online community to make the game accessible and fun for everyone.

So back to the original prompt for this post: Heart of the Swarm is coming out. Many people only play the story-driven single player, which plays through a sequence of different missions. I often forget about lore and only see the concrete gameplay (it’s kind of like just seeing the green code for the world in The Matrix), but the story alone is a great experience. Take 2 minutes to watch the cinematic trailer for the game. Hopefully you think that part is pretty cool as well.

Okay, the final part of this post is the pitch: please try out StarCraft**. I would love to have more friends to play with (we can play together on a team), and despite focusing on how hard the game is, I think anyone can have fun with it. For example, Julie played few video games beforehand, but I got her playing a bit of StarCraft 2 summers ago, and we’re both hooked. We play every week or 2, but we’re both frequently watching StarCraft, and it comes up almost every time we talk.

So that’s why I think StarCraft is so interesting to follow and play for several years. I hope you give it a shot if you haven’t already.

 

* We read to learn new skills (technical books), learn (history, science), engage with deep moral questions (philosophy), laugh over something ridiculous (humor), put ourselves in other people’s shoes (fiction, fantasy), figure out what all the hubbub is about (50 Shades of Grey), and more.

We play video games to test our twitch reflexes (shooters), engage in social situations (MMOs), challenge ourselves (puzzles), make us think tactically (strategy games), fill time (many mobile games), experience a story (roleplaying games), and more.

** If you want to skip the $20 for StarCraft 2 and $40 for Heart of the Swarm, you can try the free starter edition first

The Board Game Chooser: find a board game for any occasion with a few simple questions

My friends and I have been playing a lot of games together recently. It’s quite remarkable how much time one has when no longer in school, and given how much time we spend together, it always helps to find fun, accessible activities for us to do together. Enter board games.

It turns out there’s a huge world of board games. BoardGameGeek is a great database of the ones that exist, but with so many and a decent investment to get any of them,  it’s hard to know which one is right. Right now, most of them aren’t right since my housing is in transition right now, but if I wasn’t, it would be really handy to find a way to narrow down to my own preferences in games and the situations I would be playing it in. For that, I built the Board Game Chooser, a simple website that walks you through to a good fit.

All of the credit for the data goes to the Silver Oak Casino, who made a huge flowchart for picking a board game. My contribution here was just processing the data and putting it online for greater accessibility. I hope it’s helpful to you.

For a project that took only a few hours, I’m happy with how it works. All of the data is in JavaScript, so notice that once you load the first page, you never need to load another page again. Not only does this reduce the amount of traffic my server needs to deal with, it results in a much faster experience for you as well.

Given that the path does feel like a series of pages, however, I am also using browser history in HTML5 to simulate the same effect. If you’re in a modern browser, you’ll notice the URL change as you click through choices, and if you navigate directly to any of those pages, you’ll return to the same state. It even supports the browser “back” and “forward” buttons, which have become critical in surfing the web but can often be a web developer’s nightmare.

Anyways, enough about tech. If you’re still interested, you can see all of the code at https://github.com/StoicLoofah/boardgame-chooser. Otherwise, go ahead and try it out, and I hope you find something that interests you.

And as a last second pitch, if you do want to play a game, please consider going out to a local game store or bookstore instead of just buying it online. The game store I went to growing up was a great place, not only as a retail space for fun things but also as a community for people looking to play games of any sort. Internet retailers may be $10 less than MSRP, but they don’t have tables in the back to meet new people to play with.

My Google+ Hangout Success Story

This past weekend, 3 friends and I met up to play Dungeons & Dragons in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and late night, in California, Washington, the UK, and Korea. Simultaneously. And we could all see each other and share notes and drawings with each other. Technology just works when we can easily do things we haven’t been able to in years, like meeting up with friends from junior high.

Since we were split across 3 time zones exactly 8 hours apart, one of us is working at literally every hour of the weekdays, with some spill onto the weekends. It took us maybe 4 weeks to schedule our first session, but it was well worth it to get a chance to catch up under the premise of playing Dungeons & Dragons, a game that I will try to sell you on in the next 2 paragraphs.

Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) is improvisation with a few dice rolls as a final arbiter for how things go. The players take the role of adventurers in a fantasy world of swords and magic controlled by the Dungeon Master (or DM). Unlike most tabletop and video games that have rules to dictate what you do, D&D lets you dictate your actions and makes the DM determine how those flesh out in the game. Want to stiff-arm retreating goblin instead of just swinging your sword? Or do you have a 5 minute argument to give the innkeeper about why his fedex quest was a waste of time? Just about anything goes.

Despite its nerdy association, D&D is very social: in this last session, we extensively discussed a battle plan that was obviously (and hilariously) flawed as soon as we began fighting, I described how my character was pretending to play dead to get a jump on a hobgoblin (which also didn’t work when I failed to roll well enough to bluff the enemy), and we interrogated a rescued hobbit about his plans. Like any good game should, it encourages interaction between players.

Being able communicate in speech and gestures, share documents with character details, and draw out various rooms is critical for D&D, and in truth, nothing beats sitting around a kitchen table. Even so, a Google+ Hangout was about as close as you can get without being physically present. Group video chat let us all look at each while talking and brought back the surprisingly important gesturing to conversation. While waiting for our last player, we watched a YouTube video together of the promise of custom games in StarCraft 2. The chat window let our DM copy-and-paste in written descriptions of the scenario, as well as being used as a log of in-game events. We shared Google Docs describing our various abilities (and also used an online character sheet I wrote to keep track of our stats. Check out my character!). The sketchpad took the place of the game board as we drew a grid and placed ourselves on various parts. And we even had a few laughs over the mustache and hat effects.

I have admittedly been somewhat fearful about Google’s integration of everything into their platform. With my email alone, they basically control me, but when they know what information I’m looking for (search history), where I’m going (google maps), what I’m working on (google docs), and more, I’m concerned about how much they know about me. At the moment, I’m not even using Google Chrome (which I admit is all-around the best browser) as my primary browser because I’m scared of the vertical integration of products in addition to the horizontal integration they already have.

But integration isn’t entirely to be feared. Google+ Hangouts are awesome because Google glued a lot of good features together in a single product. We spent surprisingly little time fighting with technology to make things work, and our game just went smoother as we discovered more features to use. At this point, this post likely sounds like an advertisement, but I’m just really excited about how well it work, so let me round out this post.

I’m very cynical about a lot of technology. Despite how “social” we’re being pitched that technology like facebook or mobile phones are, I think that these communities built on a virtual substrate are making us more disconnected than ever. I’ve been taught about the importance of physical embodiment in the world, and I worry tremendously that we’re replacing meaningful interactions with impersonal bursts, 140 characters at a time.

But this time, technology worked. When my friends and I are spread across 3 continents, it is impossible for us to get together for a quick check-in, much less playing a game. With this, however, we were instantly back to joking around and sharing the latest news with each other. I’m still anxious for the opportunity for us to all be in the same room again, but until then, I’m glad we have another way of hanging out  like we were.

My Thoughts on the Diablo 3 Beta

Hopefully those of you who also spent years in Diablo 2 didn’t miss the big news last weekend that Diablo 3 was in open beta for stress testing. The servers were up and down as Blizzard presumably was testing various capacities and training staff responses, but it was a tremendous opportunity for many fans of the series, like me, to jump in and try out the game.

For the unfamiliar, Diablo 3 is the 3rd installment in a fantasy hack-n-slash RPG. It’s set in a medieval world full of magic, where you wield swords, bows, fireballs, and more in a series of dungeons to defeat the Lords of Hell. The basic gameplay involves killing lots of monsters, which, to an inexperienced observers, looks like running around and clicking on monsters until they die. The slightly more observant will note that the game takes place from an top-down 3rd person view, and to defeat the monsters, you must run up to them and click them until they die. The final component to the game is roleplaying: you focus on developing a single hero over the course of the game and becoming stronger (by killing monsters) so that your character has more skills, better statistics, and better equipment, so you can kill more monsters.

Despite the relatively simple premise, the game is tremendously addictive. Although there are major quests to complete, the world map transitions you from one area to the next, where hordes of monsters have nothing better to do than to wait around for you to walk past. Moreover, the game is constantly rewarding you for playing: every monster killed means more experience (to get you stronger) and possible dropped items that make be useful to you.

As I mentioned, Diablo 2 had a large influence on my development, so I sprung at the opportunity to play this weekend. In the beginning, I was hoping to play through all 5 available classes (Barbarian, Monk, Demon Hunter, Wizard, and Witch Doctor), though I fortunately had better things to do with my time. I started with the Barbarian and quickly became comfortable with the format. Thanks to things such as reddit, work, and email, my clicking skills remained top notch despite being out of the game for years, and I had no problem with that.

Blizzard tweaked the gameplay to make some things easier: gold is automatically picked up when dropped by nearby monsters, statistics about your character are presented in a useful manner, and potions are largely replaced by health orbs that appear from dead monsters. They also changed gameplay aspects to focus more upon gameplay choices: skills are automatically gained (with builds being dependent on “loadouts” of  currently available skills), the environment like falling chandeliers can be triggered to deal damage, and crafting items has become much more relevant. Overall, Blizzard has done a good job of cleaning up the game and making changes that may seem detrimental, but actually really improve the experience.

But let’s face it: most of the time is spent clicking monsters, and in that respect, this game is a solid follow-up to its predecessors. And it’s for precisely that reason that I think I’ll pass on playing Diablo 3.

Unlike in “MacGruber”, the game is the same, but the players have changed. As snobby as it sounds, Diablo just doesn’t have quite enough to it to make me feel that it’s worth my time. Among my current interests, video games should be a low priority. And among video games, it doesn’t have the plot line of other RPGs like Mass Effect or the strategic depth that makes you feel like you’re learning like StarCraft. Out of Diablo, I get slightly better stats on my character and a worn-out mouse. Walking away from a game of Diablo frankly feels a little worse than I started because I’m only left with the desire to keep playing and feel the incremental improvement of a game that is purely grinding (that’s video game “grinding”. You better hope there’s no dancing grinding in this game).

The one thing that might convince me to jump back in is if there’s sufficient desire from my friends to play: it’s a half-decent social experience. But given the choice, I might push to do something else.

Overall, well done, Blizzard: you’ve improved the experience of a tried and true game. Sorry that I’m no longer part of your target audience.

A Brief Introduction to Arkham Horror

(Note: post was started last weekend, so the dates are a little off)

As of a week and a half ago, I’m done with school. I took my last final, graded a ton of exams, and promptly got on with all of the things that I didn’t do because of classes. The most concrete of those was that I started work at Zanbato the following Monday, but more importantly, I’ve been playing lots of games. I played Magic: The Gathering for the first time in perhaps a year, and Friday night, several friends and I met to spend 4 hours losing horribly at Arkham Horror, yet absolutely enjoying it. It’s a slow game, but let me give you the pitch for why you should come by to play with me. Simply, Arkham Horror is a cooperative, adventure board game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft where you fight monsters, close gates to other worlds, and try to avoid going insane before The Ancient One comes to devour Earth. Let me break that up.

First, Arkham is a town in Massachusetts that’s at the center of many of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories. If you don’t know Lovecraft’s work, you are perhaps familiar with the Cthulhu, which has become part of pop culture since he was writing in the early 20th century. His style is somewhat hard to describe, but in his world, there are horrors beyond the ability of humans to comprehend, and the characters of his story often encounter extraterrestrial and fantastic creatures in the course of their adventures. My friends and I often joke about how unoriginal he is between his works, with his descriptions at best being as explanatory as “eldritch” or “non-euclidean”, or more typically of the “horrors beyond all description” variety. Even so, he developed a rich mythos that should capture your imagination and shouldn’t leave you scared out of your wits if that’s not your preference. All of his work is now apparently free and available online or in ebook format.

This mythos gets compacted into a board game, where the monsters you fight are all Lovecraft classics, and various encounters are pulled straight out of his stories. I played Arkham Horror before reading his work, and now having read it, I find the game much more amusing as I recognize the references.

Second, it’s a cooperative board game, which means that all of the players are working together to “beat the board.” Unlike many other board games that require you to go after and knock other players out of the game, this game has a common goal for everyone. This makes it easier to get into the game as there is no conflict of interest in players helping newer players to learn. Like in Craps, everyone around you is on your side as you roll the dice, and at the end of the game, there’s either a sense of shared triumph or shared humility.

Third, it’s an adventure game, so you play as an investigator running around between various locations in Arkham and temporarily through gates into other worlds. Every turn, new monsters appear on the board as gates open from Arkham locations to other worlds, and your goal as a team is to close all of the gates by traveling to other planes, hopefully before the Ancient One comes for the final showdown. Along the way, you have encounters at each location, typically inspired by actual Lovecraft stories. The game can be very capricious and is typically very cruel, where you must roll a dice to determine whether you receive the pretty bad or very bad outcome. Although the rules are quite complex, the actual choices can be made without needing to think too hard about it. On the other hand, it requires a lot of coordination of actions, and you’re welcome to strategize as much as you want.

Once, Arkham Horror might have been categorized as a serious board game, but I get the sense that it’s become a bit too mainstream for true board game snobs. But that’s probably for the best, and it’s at least a good vote of confidence in the accessibility of the game. The main downside to the game is that it is slow. Games can easily take 3-4 hours, especially if you’re either new or not playing particularly quickly. But even 4 hours of crushing defeat can be fun as a shared experience among friends. If you’re around, let me know if you want to try it out. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.