My Favorite Things (with Evidence)

People love to share their favorite things. They write gift guides. They sing songs about them. They form committees to publish lists. They will bore you endlessly at parties. However, most of that is just talk. To really know what someone’s favorite things are, they need to put their money where their mouth is: what things did they actually spend money on? Continue reading “My Favorite Things (with Evidence)”

When Fun Stops Being Fun and Becomes a Grind

(Author’s note: you know that thing I do in my writing where I write about one thing but am actually writing about something else? Yeah, that’s happening below, so even if you don’t care about video games, you may still like the rest of my post. However, you may not like any of it. Just don’t use the topic of video games as a predictor for your interest. Read as you will.)

I was catching up with my friend Reno, and he mentioned that he was, with shame, playing a lot of Destiny. Despite coming from the makers of Halo, this video game was highly criticized by the community for becoming unreasonably difficult relatively quickly. To progress through the game, one had to do a lot of grinding (and not the kind you get kicked out of high school prom for). When I mentioned criticism to Reno, he countered that he didn’t really see it as a grind because the gameplay was fun for him, and he wasn’t too worried about leveling and strengthening his character.

I didn’t know how to respond.

I recently wrote a blog post about how I wanted to move away from video games that require grinding, as many role-playing games do. Perhaps a childhood of video games desensitized me to the joy of watching my character progress, and I recently have been left wishing I could skip past the gameplay and just get to the end goal. In my tirade, I think I forgot that video games are supposed to be fun and worthwhile in its own right. The in-game goal of progressing through levels isn’t supposed to reduce that pleasure. Grinding isn’t grinding if you’re having fun. In fact, just calling it “grinding” presupposes the monotony of it. It becomes a grind if the gameplay isn’t fun in the first place.

I don’t play any games these days that I consider grinding in a traditional sense. I do, however, play some video games relatively seriously and consider it an exercise to improve and get better. For example, I started a blog to catalog my progress and lessons in StarCraft 2. Despite having evangelized the game and related my passion for it, I never actually played that much StarCraft. To have actually improved, I probably should have played at least 5 to 10 games a week. To my shame, I only played that much a handful of times. It’s a common phenomena known in the community as ladder anxiety: it’s intimidating to play, the games are stressful, and the result is exhausting. If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, then you probably have a healthier understanding of fun than many StarCraft players.

Ironically, I think that the gameplay of StarCraft is fun. What I suspect went wrong is that I took a fun activity and reframed it as practice. When my first priority ceased being fun and instead became self-improvement, the games unsurprisingly were no longer fun. Each game was a test where suboptimal performance was a disappointment. I knew that my mechanics weren’t good enough: I needed to practice to click the buttons and react fast enough. Every game against a real human being felt like a recital, where I could hear myself playing the wrong notes all along the way, and whether I finished the piece or not, I could only remember the struggle. By turning StarCraft into an activity to improve in, I made a future goal my requirement for satisfaction–it was grinding. I was grinding to improve myself.

Looking back, I thought that framing StarCraft into practice was a brilliant move without consequences. I could take something that I enjoyed (StarCraft) and add structure and progress to it. I fooled myself into over-optimism about the idea by glossing past the potential downsides. Looking back, I think I undervalued the intrinsic value of video games as a source of fun, and by reframing it otherwise, I diminished the driving factor to play in the first place.

Extrapolating to the rest of my life, I see the same pattern across many of my activities. Whether it’s board games or fantasy football, activities lose their charm when I figure that I need to be good at them. It changes epiphanies into research, participation into performance, mistakes into disappointment. It doesn’t even need to be competitive (though the competition doesn’t help, either): I can induce this attitude in isolation, and it results in me stopping out of an activity entirely when I have gone too far and no can longer enjoy it at all.

For example, I was a tuba player in high school. I really enjoyed band and playing music, but it was mostly structured as a lot of hard work. I learned a lot of work ethic through it. Since then, I have picked up the tuba a handful of times, but never really sustained it. I tell people that it is because I will never be as good as I was when I was practicing a half-hour to an hour daily, and that’s just disheartening. That explanation makes a lot of sense until realizing that I want to play music again to have fun, not to be good, and those two things don’t necessarily need to be tied together.

The same is true for racquetball: I only picked it up again in the past 2 months after a few years of not playing. I kept telling myself that I would never be as good as when I was practicing with my friend Dave twice a week. Despite being a competitive game, I forgot that I can have fun with it without playing at my best and beating everyone.

To self psych-analyze, it comes from my upbringing in primary and secondary education. Our system is totally a rat race, where even extra-curricular activities are competitive because we are all putting together college resumes and trying to get ahead in any way possible. My band director put this thinking together succinctly as something along the lines of “We have fun, and it’s fun being good.”

My director was right: it can be extremely rewarding to be good at things. However, I think there’s a dividing line between activities that we do for pleasure and for gain. In our education system, it turns out that everything is done for gain. In real life, this is it. This is our lives, and some things are worth doing without a greater goal. My yoga instructor in college often reminded us, “Remember, this is adult fitness: do what you’re comfortable with.” Yoga class isn’t about having the best downward facing dog in the room: it’s exactly what each individual wants it to be. Sometimes, it isn’t work that leads to fun: it’s the fun that leads to the work.

I was traveling for the past 2 weekends, and I had plenty of time both to visit with friends and family and to reflect on my own during long car rides. I was so excited when I got back home with a list of things that I wanted to learn to do or to do better: driving a manual, going rock climbing, speaking another language. I even made a bucket list for them so I could work through them methodically and become the modern-day renaissance man. Looking at the list now, the entire exercise feels ridiculous. Not only do my backlog lists usually fail, I realize now that I didn’t put things there because they sounded like fun. I put them on my list because I wanted to be good at more things.

Not to say that I shouldn’t do any of these things. But maybe I should do them because they sound fun. Maybe that way, I won’t be grinding until I’m disheartened. They can be the fulfilling lifelong activities I imagined instead.

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?

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

A Little Beta about Starcraft 2

Thursday morning, I woke up, bumbled my way down the ladder, popped out my retainer, threw some water in my face, and sat down at my desk to check my email. One of the something silly my mom forwarded along. The other was from my drawmate George, and when he knocked on my door literally 2 minutes later, I was pretty excited. It might look like the email just had some instructions and a meaningless string of characters, but that’s a beta key for Starcraft 2. Allow me to explain for the uninitiated.

Starcraft was a real-time strategy (RTS) game released by Blizzard in 1998 for PCs. The premise of the game is that you pick one of three races, and you start out with a base. You have some basic resource gathering units, and you use those to build buildings, which build units that you use to destroy your opponent’s base. There are lots of RTS games out there, but Starcraft is particularly notable for being very well balanced. The interactions between different units are complex, and all of the different races play very differently, but end up being roughly equal in power.

Since then, Starcraft has gotten kind of big, beyond just a game. It’s a very popular and fun game to play, but it’s almost become way bigger than just a couple teenagers sitting in a basement all night: it’s basically the national sport of South Korea. Evidence?

I want to discuss that last point a little more. One common metric for Starcraft players is “actions per minute” or APM, which is a count of how many times you click or press a key in a minute. Professional players have APMs above 200. I myself have played Starcraft on and off for years now and play okay among my group of friends, and just looking at a recent replay, my APM is about 60. So yes, most people are capable of clicking and hitting buttons very fast, but the most impressive part about what pros do is that they do everything intentionally. There’s a huge cognitive load in keeping track of everything that’s going on, and it takes a lot of practice to get that good.

In any case, Starcraft 2 has been highly anticipated for a very long time. Blizzard is known for making very good games, but they’re also known for missing a lot of deadlines and not releasing a game until it is perfect. When Blizzard announced in 2007 that they had been working on it, no one was surprised, but everyone (read: South Korea) was very excited. Since then, people have been guessing about release dates and been constantly proven wrong.

About a month ago, Blizzard began closed beta testing, releasing the game to a select number of people to test out the game for bugs and balance. Prices for invites have dropped, but people were paying up to $400 to get into beta testing and try out Starcraft 2. I don’t know if I’d pay $400 for it, but I can tell you that this game is a lot of fun.

For all of you original Starcraft players, Starcraft 2 is at least as good. The races all have the same general principles, though the unit mixes are definitely fresh and something fun to try to figure out. The improvements, however, do a lot to make the game a lot more fun.

First, the graphics look great, and the game runs smoothly on my 2007 Macbook Pro. If your gripe with Starcraft was the 640×480 resolution and 256 colors, I think you’ll be impressed, especially with the detail in making buildings explode.

Second, the matchmaking system and friends bit for battle.net is also much improved. The matchmaking service also pairs you with players of about the same talent so that you aren’t getting crushed by insane Korean players on the US servers. The process of getting everyone together to play in a closed game also isn’t nearly as convoluted.

Third, the game is generally less annoying. Depending on how much time you put into Starcraft, you might know about a lot of the micromanaging you need to do to optimize the game. For example, trying to control groups of zerglings to surround a unit, or clicking each worker to a different mineral patch so that they gather faster. In Starcraft 2, much of that is simplified. Workers automatically spread, you can set workers to automatically mine when created, pathfinding for units is much better, and perhaps the biggest news, control groups can be of any size. No longer limited to only 12 units selected at a time, you can gather up all of your marine and just go for it.

The strategies for the game are still being developed, and I don’t think people even necessarily know the right build orders for the races. The moral of the story is that the game is wide open, and it’ll be more fun in general for any player, from casual players to pros, to sit down and knock down a couple games.

I’m not really sure who my audience is, but let me know if you’re more interested in details, and I’ll write more about specifics of the units and such.

Blizzcon 2009

It’s not often that one inadvertently ends up at an Ozzy Osbourne concert.

This past weekend, I roadtripped with 3 of my friends down to LA to go to Blizzcon and visit the area. Consistently making the best PC games, Blizzard has a huge fanbase, and those fanatics can buy up 20,000 tickets in less than a minute. It’s actually tragic to think that I’m one of them.

Until now, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a roadtrip or to a convention before. Perhaps the closest I came was going to a TubaChristmas with my section, but that’s a half-day event to play a tuba less than an hour’s drive away. This time, we drove 6 hours to spend 2 days at a convention center full of costumes, raffles, goody bags, panels, demos, and more. Because I can’t think of a better way to organize this, though, we’ll start with the drive.

To get from the Bay Area to LA, you can either take 101 or I-5. 101 follows the coast in a curve, so while you get the scenic view of the ocean, you also lose about an hour compared to the beeline of I-5. Since we left around 7 in the evening, we were much more anxious to arrive than to squint out to see the complete darkness of the ocean at night, so we took the very barren I-5.

That really didn’t matter, though, since we were more interested in talking to one another than looking out the window. All four of us–George, Ben, Jordan, and me–live fairly close together, but we see each once maybe once a week. With a variety of details to catch up on, we went back and forth on bizarre details, anecdotes, observation, and gossip. And like all good friends, we know each others’ feats and faults, boasts and buttons, stylings and stupidity, so 6 hours turns into a blur of mindless banter.

Oh, and if a town smells like cow dung, don’t stop for food.

We arrived at Tom’s house in east LA sometime past midnight and got the tour. It was a comfy enough spot, though we immediately fell into our old ways and began playing Magic and Super Smash Bros. At first, it seemed a little cheesy that we should do the same thing as we did in the dorm, but smash is what we do when we live together. So when we’re all sleeping over at Tom’s, it’s only fair that we should play more Smash.

About 4 hours of sleep later, we drove the 20 minutes down to Anaheim for Blizzcon 2009. We arrived around 8, and after parking and getting our badges and goody bags, we decided to get in line around 9 for a 10 am opening. We saw the line down the side of the building and followed it. As it led into park-like area, we were amazed by the snake-like shape the line had taken in and around a hill and some walkways. Walking around the outside of that, we ended up behind the convention center and finally got in at the end of the line 12 minutes later. And we were fortunate; we were only in the third row in the parking lot, which filled up and had the line come back out of it almost back to the front of the building.

We scoped out the floor first, which might have been a mistake. When we got to the hall for the opening ceremonies, we couldn’t find any seats and instead had to stand on the side. It was absolutely worth being, there, though. I guess it’s similar to the keynote presentation for most other conferences/conventions, as that’s when Blizzard unveils all of the new content for their games. Currently, Blizzard is working on 3 major titles: Diablo 3 (D3), Starcraft 2 (SC2), and World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW is their biggest cash cow with over 10 million players, each paying a monthly fee to explore Azeroth. As such, the room went ballistic when they announced the newest expansion for that.

The reaction to that announcement felt somewhat crazy to me. Although I’m familiar with the game, I, unlike the majority of people there, have never actually played WoW. A fan of Blizzard’s other games, I missed out on a lot of jokes and excitement, which many attendees got very excited about. I couldn’t immediately relate to their mania, but I can somewhat relate to their passion. Seeing as WoW is coming up on its fifth-year anniversary, I bet quite a few of them have spent more than a fifth of their life playing this game, so when they announce that attack power no longer exists, that probably affects them quite a bit. And Magic: the Gathering actually just went through the biggest rule change in 10 years, to which I freaked out about for the first minute or so. I guess I can’t ridicule them too much about their dedication.

During that first day, I went to a couple panels about the new games to see what content they were putting out. In-between those, I got to play demo versions of D3 and SC2. I won’t get too much into the details, since I’m sure many of you don’t care, but it suffices to say that I had a lot of fun with both of them. Like everything else at Blizzcon, there was quite a line, but with projections of the panels and events above all of the lines, the 20 minute wait to play for 20 minutes didn’t seem so long. Even though it took awhile, the system was surprisingly efficient with a large number of computers set up just to play on.

That first night, the headline event was the costume, sound-alike, and dance competition, MC-ed by Jay Mohr. I’m not sure how applicable this is to other conventions, but at just about all geeky conventions, cosplay is a big thing. Whether it’s  as Mario, Link, Goku, or just a generic dragon, people will show up to GenCon (a gaming convention), Comic-Con, and E3 is some very, very impressive costume of characters from the lore. At Blizzcon, everything was from the Starcraft, Diablo, or Warcraft universe, mostly from Warcraft. Combined with some shtick, the costume contest was very entertaining and impressive to watch. The sound-alike contest: not so much. I don’t find it particularly impressive that people are able to mimic the voice of a voice actor. And the dance contest was all WoW content, so nothing to speak of there.

We left around 10-1030 and went back to Tom’s. Since we were unwilling to pay for convention food, we only had dinner then, going to a Tommy’s a few blocks from his house. If you happen to like chili burgers or dogs, I recommend it.

Day 2 was mostly filled with playing games. That afternoon, though, I did get to watch the Blizzcon Starcraft Invitational finals, which was something of a big deal. Here in the United States, everyone crowds around the TV for the SuperBowl because football is the big American sport. In South Korea, Starcraft is probably the national sport. Both guys and girls will go to tournaments, where 2 players will be on-stage, and the audience will be watching live matches with 6 digits on the line. George happens to pay attention to the professional Starcraft scene, and he insisted that I watch the finals for it. It’s a little silly to think that a huge crowd started cheering when one of the players moved their mouse hand a millimeter and clicked, but that’s how the sport is played.

And to cap off the closing ceremonies, Blizzard brought in Ozzy Osbourne for a show. Although he might sound like a  random pick, there’s apparently an inside joke with him and WoW. Ozzy is known as the “Prince of Darkness”, which also happens to be attributed to the villain, the Lich King. To be honest, his appearance doesn’t mean much to me, so I watched most of his performance on a screen while in line to play D3 again. I did go over to that hall for about 3 minutes just so I couldn’t be faulted for not having taken the chance to see him live. He was surprisingly coherent and lively during the performance, so I’m betting he takes stimulants to get through his acts. That doesn’t change the fact that spraying the mosh pit with a foam hose is kind of weird, but it seemed like he gave them all a decent show.

Having pretty much experienced all of Blizzcon, we left around 9 and this time headed towards Ben’s house on the other side of LA. We geeked out for the evening playing Magic until about 3 in the morning and woke up around 11. We went on a walk and saw a Trump golf course right by the water. It’s a little ridiculous, but I guess the money has to go somewhere. After that, we went back to Ben’s and played board games with some of his friends. After dinner, we left to drive back. Some good signage let us dodge a 2-hour delay along I-5, and we ended up taking the 101 back up. We were pretty tired, but the radio was good bonding. We were constantly scanning the stations as we passed through different towns and got a good dose of 90s pop. While I’ve snubbed 90s music for awhile now, I guess there’s no point in pretending not to like fun music, so we shared a couple sing-alongs between naps all the way back to campus.

Sorry if that ended up sounding like a play-by-play, but maybe I’ll try to be more insightful next time. Instead of leaving you with a thought, I’ll instead give some details on SC2 and D3, if you care. Most of you probably don’t, but I can’t do a Blizzcon report without talking about the games.

So, Diablo 3 first. Diablo 3 is good. They gave us something like level 12 characters put in the middle of a desert (very much like act 2 of D2). The playable classes were the barbarian, witch doctor, sorcerer, and monk. The gameplay was pretty close to D2, which is probably a good thing. Now that I think about it, I didn’t feel like things have changed a lot. They eliminated potion spamming by putting a cooldown on that, but it’s compensated for by monsters dropping healing orbs. Playing each of the classes felt pretty simplistic. The caster classes were somewhat dissatisfying for me, since it was mostly just spamming ranged attacks. Although the barbarian is also just a click-fest, there was something a lot more satisfying about going toe-to-toe. The monk was probably the most fun to play. He chains together attacks, not unlike the assassin from D2. Instead of it being charges for a finisher, though, each of the 3 strikes has a unique effect. It was definitely the most interactive of the 4 classes. And the game is much better multi-player than single-player. It’s actually a little depressing to play by yourself.

Starcraft 2 was amazing. I got to play 2 campaign missions, including the on-ship briefing stuff. They weren’t that hard, but the action is varied enough that the objectives aren’t quite as trivial as in the first game. The main heft of the game, though, is in the multi-player. It’s going to take awhile to adjust to all the new units, but I promise they’re a lot of fun. There’s probably going to be some more balancing before it comes out; as it was, the colossus (think strider from hl2 or the walkers from war of the worlds) was pretty devastating. I’ll definitely be playing zerg, but I thought the protoss was a lot of fun to play. Lots of new abilities are probably going to be overload for awhile, but I think it’ll be easy to get used to. Things like queens pumping out larva and warpgates add fun mechanics without a lot more cognitive load, so the game remains fun. I was worried that additional complexity in SC2 would make it less fun for casual players who don’t practice their micro, but they’ve made lots of changes to simplify those as well. For example, you can rally workers to mineral patches automtically command-groups have icons on the bottom, you can control up to (I want to say) 32 at a time, and you can select multiple buildings at once to build. So more strategies, less fuss.

So overall, I’m a lot more excited about SC2, and a little less excited about D3. My concerns about SC2 were dealt with, but D3 didn’t show me anything special about the new classes. In the end, while they’re certainly doing a lot to add more to these games, they both very much retain the feel of their predecessors. As such, I played D3 and found it not as fun as I thought it would be. At the same time, I couldn’t think of any way that it was worse than D2. I realized that it just wasn’t as much fun because I’m not so pumped about playing more D2. I’ve pretty much exhausted that game, so while I’ll certainly buy D3 immediately and play it, it’s not something I need. As it is, I actually do want to play more SC, though. I just wish it had better graphics, ran more smoothly, and had more interesting mechanics, all of which SC2 provides.

So the bottom line: both SC2 and D3 follow their predecessors heavily. Be as excited as you are about playing those games.

(Edit) I was reminded by a FB comment about one of the big things that I forgot. If you remember, an important part about SC was the “Use Map Settings” maps. In this originated Tower Defense games, and in the Warcraft 3 custom games came DotA. Blizzard is smart, and they realized that people were extending their editor far beyond its original intentions, so at a gameplay panel, they demoed what you can do with the new map editor. And I have to say, it’s insane. It’s not just a SC2 editor; it’s a game development platform. They showed 3 clips, all of which are absolutely amazing. You have to watch it as you won’t believe it until you see it.