Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Did Toys “R” Us have to fail?

Posted in bankruptcy, botch, business, ethics, fail by commorancy on September 9, 2019

If you’ve read various articles including this Bloomberg article, you might come away thinking that all of what happened to Toys “R” Us began a decade ago (i.e., the early 00s). In fact, you would be so wrong… and so would Bloomberg. Let’s explore.

The 80s

Around 1981 or 1982, I worked at Toys “R” Us. Even at that time, Toys “R” Us ran a questionable business model. A business model that, I might add, even store managers recognized and thought was unsustainable. In fact, after having discussions with store managers at my store, I got an earful about how they thought that the chain would likely fail within a decade if they kept on using that business model. This was the early 80s.

What business model?

Toys “R” Us sowed the seeds of its own destruction at least beginning in the 80s, perhaps as early as the 70s. What questionable business model is this? The model chosen was to operate the stores in the red (otherwise known as losing money) through 80-90% of the year (aka, “90 in the red”). Then, the management hoped to recoup those losses in the final 1-2 months of the year during holiday season sales. It didn’t always work out.

While this model seemed to work to keep most Toys “R” Us stores afloat through the 80s and 90s, it served to keep the company from really turning a solid profit and, ultimately, led to the company’s massive debt load. What that model meant to the stores is fully stocked shelves every day of the year. This was readily apparent walking into any Toys “R” Us store. The stores were not only full, they were positively brimming over with the latest toys. This also meant putting itself into massive debt each year in inventory and then hoping to pay off that debt at the end of the year when most of the stores finally ran “in the black” (read, turning a profit for the year).

Keep in mind that many of the stores didn’t turn a profit, but so long as enough stores did, they could cover for the debt they had been incurred company wide, or at least so that was the idea. Even the store manager at my Toys “R” Us location could see the handwriting on the wall in the early 80s. This store’s business model was not sustainable and I was, even as an standard employee, told this by various managers. These managers didn’t hold back their thoughts.

Bloomberg, Fads and Sustainability

What Bloomberg got right was that even a decade ago, TRU’s debt load had put them underwater. What Bloomberg didn’t address was that this debt began almost 2 decades earlier of overbuying, followed by hoping that a “hit toy” would kick them over the profit line at the end of every year.

“Hit Toys” were Toys “R” Us’s hopeful thing. They needed that Tickle Me Elmo or Nintendo Wii or Lazer Tag or Cabbage Patch Kid fad toy to carry the chain into the new year with profit on the books. Throughout the 80s and 90s, there were a string of these hit toys practically every year. Fad toys which flew off the shelves and brought Toys “R” Us to profitability each year. It was a risky move for Toys “R” Us to bank on a hot fad each year, but there it is.

Unfortunately, relying on this kind of yearly toy fad to sustain a business every year was not only risky, it began to burn Toys “R” Us as these yearly fads began to die off by the late 90s. Even during mid-late 90s, these fads were much less intense than they had been just a few years earlier. By the mid-00s, these fads were practically non-existent. Sure, there were hot toys, but no where near the levels of sales that Tickle Me Elmo or the Cabbage Patch Kid fads offered to Toys “R” Us’s bottom line… particularly when Best Buy, Walmart and Amazon concurrently began diluting the toy profits of TRU.

These fading fads were responsible for killing other toy stores chains as well, such as Kay Bee Toys and even the once high flying, high end FAO Schwarz. These fading fads also left Toys “R” Us holding a huge mound of debt.

Walmart

While Walmart did usurp the title of top toy seller from Toys “R” Us, that’s primarily because Toys “R” Us prices were always on the higher side. Walmart did carry toys, but not all toys. If you wanted something you couldn’t find at Walmart, you went to Toys “R” Us and it was pretty much guaranteed they would carry it (even though it might be out of stock). Walmart didn’t even stock many of these. The toy section in Walmart was always small by comparison. Sure, you could find better deals at Walmart, but only from the toys that they chose to carry.

Walmart was also not very kind to collectors in the 90s. If a collector showed up to buy toys, Walmart would try to do everything to keep that toy item away from the collectors… sometimes even going so far as to banning them from the store simply for buying toys. Does it really matter whose dollars are buying an item? Granted, I wasn’t particularly happy that a collector had gone to Walmart to buy out all of the “good” stock leaving tons of “peg warmers” sitting around that no one wanted. But, that’s how toy collecting worked in the 90s.

The whole collector market kind of died off with the advent of places where collectors could buy case packs, like Entertainment Earth. Instead of having to rummage around Walmart at 3AM (when they stocked new merchandise), you could order a full case of figures, guaranteeing that you’ll get at least one “rare” figure. This meant that the once Walmart and Toys “R” Us shopping locations for collectors became a thing of the past. Collectors took their money online to buy cases and stopped buying at Toys “R” Us. Buying case packs is easier, more convenient and doesn’t require the hassles of dealing with surly underpaid Walmart workers.

Toys “R” Us Kids Grew Up

Kids of the 80s became collectors in the 90s and became families on the 00s. The once popular collector market throughout the 90s fell apart into the 00s because the collector market changed and Toys “R” Us failed to understand this important change. The collector market is (or at least was) also a huge market that kept Toys “R” Us afloat in addition to the end-of-year-fads. However, brands like Hasbro and Mattel didn’t grow with the collector market. Sure, Hasbro tried, but the toys they made were tiny improvements over their (sub)standard toys. Mattel also tried with its collector Barbies, but, again they failed to understand the critical quality needed for what collectors really yearned.

In essence, the toy brands themselves didn’t grow to provide what collectors wanted… which left Toys “R” Us mostly without collector money. However, collector brands did grow up for the collector market outside of Toys “R” Us, including Sideshow and Hot Toys brands. These brands are now considered the premiere collector “toy” brands for adult collectors. These “action figures” are some of the highest end, most expensive, most collectable toys out there, yet these are not sold at Walmart, Target or even Toys “R” Us (before they closed). Though, you can find them on Amazon via third party sellers. This is where Toys “R” Us failed to keep up with the kid-turned-adult collectors. Hot Toys figures cost anywhere between $150-350 per figure; a price point that collectors are more than willing to pay to get that level of craftsmanship. A price point that Toys “R” Us never carried. A quality that not Toys “R” Us nor Walmart nor Target ever carried.

While Toys “R” Us continued to sell these low-end toy products to kids, it failed to grow up and to sell high end collectibles to adults. Ironically, this runs counter to their jingle. The most prestigious type of collectibles that Toys “R” Us sold were the collector Barbies and McFarlane figures, offering price points at  $15-40. A price tag that cannot provide the levels of detail, paint jobs and overall craftsmanship that goes into a Hot Toys or Sideshow figure. Adult collectors want high end figures and Sideshow and Hot Toys fill that niche. Toys “R” Us management never recognized this growing trend.

“I don’t want to grow up, I want to be a Toys “R” Us kid”

This jingle is ultimately the rationale that appears to have led Toys “R” Us management down the wrong path. Instead of singing the praises of not growing up, the toy store should have realized that kids grow into adults; adults who still want to buy collectible toys, but who don’t want the junky, low priced Hasbro and Mattel versions. They want premiere brands like Hot Toys offering highly detailed, highly realistic, meticulously crafted and painted figures… not Hasbro’s now antiquated, poorly painted, robot-style 12 inch figures. You might give these cheap toys to your kids, but you wouldn’t display them in a display case.

This collectible market began with highly detailed military figures, but branched out into licenses with Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Warner Brothers and various other large movie franchise brands. Toys “R” Us failed to latch onto this market and, thus, failed to capture the once Toys “R” Us kid who had grown into an adult and now desires these highly detailed collectible toys. As kids grow into adults, tastes change and people want more sophisticated products. Hot Toys and Sideshow found that niche for sophisticated adult tastes. Yet, Toys “R” Us failed to recognize this niche.

If Toys “R” Us had realized this mistake and had added brands like Hot Toys to its shelves, it might have been able to entice the collector’s market back into its stores and pay down some of its debt. Every discount retailer has, so far, failed to realize the adult collectible toy market. However, this lack of foresight hurt Toys “R” Us the most.

Kid Tastes

Additionally, kids tastes have also changed as a result of brands like Hot Toys and products like the iPad. Kids don’t want want to buy Leap or other “toy” or “fake” tablets when they can ask their parents for the real thing. Kids also want the higher end Hot Toys than the poorly crafted Hasbro Ironman figures. While Toys “R” Us did begin carrying Apple products, the stores really thought of these more as a toy rather than treating them as something useful. Best Buy always treated their Apple section with the best possible displays. Toys “R” Us displayed its Apple tablets right next to random other tablets as though they weren’t anything special. I’m not even sure that I’d have felt comfortable buying an Apple tablet from Toys “R” Us. Not only did they have no one versed in this technology on staff, what they carried could have been 2 or even 3 generations old. Toys “R” Us just didn’t treat these products with the respect that they deserved.

As a result of kids changing tastes and higher levels of sophistication, kids really didn’t want much of what was in that toy store after a certain age. This meant that Toys “R” Us was primarily for kids of a certain age and below (probably 8-9 or younger). Even still, these ages were growing up faster.

Toys “R” Us Closure

Did Toys “R” Us have to close? Yes, it did. Without a management team capable of fully understanding the downsides of running its stores using the “90 in the red” model throughout the year (and failing to accommodate the changing tastes of adult collectors), the stores ultimately succumbed to closure. It was inevitable.

What tipped the scale, though, was 2005’s $6.6 billion leveraged buyout of Toys “R” Us by the KKR, Bain Capital, and Vornado Realty Trust; a purchase that saddled the corporation with at least $5 billion in debt, in addition to its already mounting toy inventory debt each operating year. There was simply no way Toys “R” Us could recover from and pay down that debt considering its interest each month.

In fact, it was this very same leveraged buyout that not only trashed Toys “R” Us, it also lost its original private equity investors at least $1.28 billion. Even these private equity firms were ignorant of Toys “R” Us’s “90 in the red” model. You’d think that between three different private equity firms, one would have had brain among them. I guess not. Toys “R” Us was not worth buying strictly because of that business model… and it was especially true when considering saddling an already debt overburdened company with even more debt. It was an insanely stupid buyout made more stupid because of the lack performing even the most basic of fiduciary responsibility. Those private equity firms got exactly what they deserved out of that deal. Make the wrong deal, get the wrong results.

If I had been sitting in the room when this buyout deal was being considered, I would have put the kibosh on that deal pronto. If managers of stores could recognize how badly Toys “R” Us was operating in the 80s, why couldn’t a bunch of suits at three different private equity firms see this before plopping down $6.6 billion?

Overvaluation

If anything, 2005’s TRU sale is a cautionary tale. There are way too many buyouts that are purchased at way too high a value. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Companies worth maybe $500 million sell for $3 billion? It’s just insane the money that’s being overspent. Would you walk into Walmart and offer to pay $25 for a $5 tube of toothpaste? I don’t think so. So, why do these investors think it’s okay to spend $6.6 billion on a company worth maybe $1 billion at its best… and it was then likely actually worth much less considering the debt that it already carried. Its insane business model should have further reduced its value.

Could Toys “R” Us have been saved?

Probably not. At least, not with its status quo business model. But, it might have been saved IF Toys “R” Us had adopted a more balanced approach to its store sales and more sane merchandise ordering in combination with letting managers actually handle full store merchandising instead of relying on nice looking, but misguided corporate-standard planograms.

Only stock enough merchandise in a specific store that that store can actually sell. Let managers move stock around on shelves and place the merchandise in their store where it’s most likely to sell. Additionally, don’t send stock to a store where the buying demographic isn’t buying that type of merchandise. If Barbies aren’t popular in a particular store’s demographic region, send limited amounts of Barbies there. It’s a waste of money and effort to stock merchandise that doesn’t sell. One of Toys “R” Us’s biggest foibles was its cookie-cutter store approach. That meant it was sending the same stock to all stores regardless of popularity in that local store’s area. It also meant that it way overspent on toys that would never sell at certain stores. Eventually, they simply had to clearance out those toys. Each store’s inventory should have been customized based on buying habits of local consumers and by the local manager. Only the local store team knows what’s the “hot sellers” in their store.

Clearance merchandise is actually a red flag in the retail business. It means that, as a store, you way overspent on merchandise that you couldn’t sell. If you have excessive clearance merchandise, then your merchandise spends are way off. It also means that your buyer is overbuying stuff that isn’t selling. It means you need to rethink your buyer and it means your new buyer needs to rethink how much to spend on similar types of products.

One of Toys “R” Us’s other foibles was its inability to recognize and stock the “hottest toys” rapidly. If you send 5 of something to a store and it sells out in 10 minutes, you need to stock more of it and you need to do it pronto. Yet, it might take Toys “R” Us 30 or more days to get that merchandise back in stock. That’s 30 days of zero sales… sales that could have been had the next day and the day after that. Missed sales were one of TRU’s biggest problems. Having merchandise in stock that you can sell day after day is a huge win. Yet, if the corporate buyers don’t even know to reorder this thing again, the store is blind. This is why the next part was so important to improving TRU.

Instead, this toy chain should have let the local managers have autonomy via cutting merchandise from their store that isn’t selling and placing rush orders on the hottest toys. By letting the managers, you know, actually manage the store’s inventory properly, the stores could have cut costs and raised profits. The managers could have done this by buying more of popular hot sellers in that area, shuffling cold merchandise to other stores that can sell it and cutting non-sellers from the inventory. In fact, managers should have actually had access to every store’s inventory throughout the chain and when that item last sold there. If a particular item is selling hot in one store, but is completely dead in other stores, the hot item store manager should be able to request stock moved from the cold stores to their store. This way, managers could have directly moved inventory from store to store instead of placing orders for more stock, thus causing more debt. Only after the existing in-store inventory was exhausted should a new order need to be placed. The buyers from the chain should have endorsed this manager autonomy.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t a priority for the very rigid corporate run TRU. I could walk into a store in Texas and find specific toys always out of stock. Then walk into a TRU in St. Louis a week later and find twenty of them sitting on the shelf with dust on the top. If stores had been able to request the hottest toys moved from other stores, the chain could have saved a lot of money on new stock orders.

This change in business model could have drastically improved Toys “R” Us’s profitability throughout the year. It probably would have cut down on orders to toy sellers, but something’s got to give when you’re running a retail store chain. If the toy manufacturers had to suffer a little to let Toys “R” Us recover and be a whole lot more profitable, then so be it.

Unfortunately, TRU’s status quo model endured. Even if the leveraged buyout hadn’t occurred in 2005, Toys “R” Us’s fate was pretty much sealed strictly by is “90 in the red” (cookie cutter) mentality. It was only a matter of time before it succumbed to its own debt burden even if it hadn’t incurred a ton more debt after that poor sale. The 2005 unwise sale simply accelerated Toys “R” Us’s already looming demise.

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The Curious Case of Fallout 76: What went wrong?

Posted in botch, ethics, fail, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on April 16, 2019

NukaColaPA-f[Updated: May 17, 2019 for Battle Royale Mode]

I’ve already written plenty about Fallout 76. So, this one is likely to be my last about this disaster of a video game. In this article, I intend to detail all of what went wrong (and is still going wrong) with this game and why it’s such a critical failure. Let’s explore.

Fallout History

Fallout is a series about a post-apocalyptic landscape that has been ravaged by nuclear war. Because the Vault-Tec corporation (a company within this universe) saw the coming of the nuclear war, they built vaults to house the best and the brightest to bring about a new future after the devastation had cleared. We won’t get into just how Vault-Tec’s foreseeing (and building the vaults prior to the) the nuclear war makes Vault-Tec appear complicit in the nuclear war itself.

Anyway, the vaults became a safe haven for limited residents (who paid dearly to Vault-Tec, I might add) for entry into a vault. Because there were so few vaults and so few spots in a vault itself, many people did not get a coveted spot in a vault even though they had enough money to pay their way into one. There were many who were left out. I digress at this backstory and Vault-Tec’s possible collusion in the war.

Suffice it to say, the vault is the place where pretty much every Fallout game begins including Fallout 3, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76.

Once each of these games opens, you are forced to make your way out of the vault into a hostile, treacherous, dangerous, nuclear fallout-laced landscape (without a weapon, food or protection). You are forced to forage and eat irradiated foods. You must live in disease ridden conditions, at least until you can create your own clean space. You must find or build your own weapons. There’s always something or someone after you. Many creatures have even mutated into giant versions of their former tiny selves.

Once outside, you find that survivors have grouped themselves into factions for safety including such old favorite factions as the Brotherhood of Steel, the Raiders, the Enclave, the Railroad and so on. In Fallout 76, there are seven (7) factions including the Enclave, the Brotherhood of Steel, the Responders, the Raiders, the Free States, the Whitespring, and the Independents.

Unfortunately, because the factions in Fallout 76 consist entirely of stationary Protectron or MODUS robot vendors, there’s no “joining” a faction in this game. Though, you can follow in the footsteps of the former now-dead faction members and gain access to faction facilities by finishing up uncompleted quests for left-behind robot computers.

So, exactly how did Bethesda get Fallout 76 so wrong? Here we go…

Game Design

Video games are about having fun in a fantasy landscape. It’s about taking off your IRL hat and putting on a fantasy world hat to relax, play with friends and generally do things in a game you can’t do in real life. Let’s begin to understand what led to this disaster.

=> Lack of NPCs

Going into a Fallout game, you sort of expect certain things to exist. Certain things that have come to exist in every prior game in the Fallout franchise. You know, those pesky things called non-player characters or NPCs for short.

NPCs have been a staple in every Bethesda RPG up until the release of Fallout 76. Let’s add a bullet point (and this one is a major point), that one of the biggest reasons that Fallout 76 fails is due to the lack of NPCs.

NPCs are one of the primary reasons people go into the purchase of a Bethesda role playing game (RPG). Without NPCs, the game is entirely barren and lifeless. Fallout 76 proves this out. One might even say, the entire game is soulless. Part of what makes a Bethesda RPG interesting to play is that you feel something for the folks who have been put into this untimely and hazardous situation. Without people there to feel for, there’s no emotional tie to the game. Fallout 76 is as soulless of a game as has ever been made. The only other game to have this same problem is No Man’s Sky… except we knew going into the purchase of No Man’s Sky that there would be no NPCs.

With Bethesda’s past track record, we simply had no idea that Fallout 76 wouldn’t have NPCs until we cracked open the shrink wrap.

=> Short and Few Main Quests

One other thing Bethesda is known for is making lengthy games. Games that, if you work through them as intended, might take you 3-4 months to complete. Granted, that may include participating in a few side quests, but even the main quests will take you at least month or better to get through.

With Fallout 76, you can blaze through the main quests (all 22 of them) in less than a month and be stuck at endgame content.

In fact, there are more side quests in Fallout 76 than there are main quests. Even then, the main quests are far too short.

=> Multiplayer vs Solitary Quest Completion

Bethesda had hoped that its idea of having 24 players in one of its “World Servers” would be a great way to get players to interact with one another (and create story). Gamers don’t “create” story, they “consume” it. Todd Howard got this idea entirely wrong. In reality, what that ends up is just the opposite. Few players actually want to co-op with other players and instead you end up with a bunch of loners all running around the world doing their own thing (or griefing one another). After all, each player can only complete their own quests, anyway.

Because each person must complete their quests on their own, having a teammate doesn’t really do you much good. It can help in combat situations where you’re ganged up by lots of creatures, but that’s about it.

The solitary nature of quest completion runs entirely counter to the notion of getting 24 players together on a server as a whole. It just doesn’t work.

As a follow on to this problem, the lack of NPCs makes completing quests boring, repetitive and tedious. Reading computer terminals, listening to holotape recordings and reading notes is not what players want to be doing in an RPG. These are non-interactive media. It’s just lore being told to us by a long dead character. A character that we have no reason to even trust is telling us the truth. We’ve never met them and never interacted with them. We have no idea if what they want us to do is in any way necessary. Are they leading us into a trap or is what they’re directing us to do useful?

The secondary problem is that all of these holotapes and notes and so on are optimally placed so as to be found. It’s as though these dead folks were expecting us to come along and read and listen and do. It’s all too convenient and handy. It’s as though it was all planned out by something or someone in that world. Yet no “world designer” has ever come forth. It only ends up making this lore more trite and contrived.

If this is supposed to be a treacherous, dangerous environment, finding these people and their situations would be much harder than it is. Ultimately, the setups are as convenient as they are boring and repetitive.

=> No Effect on the World

At the end of completing the quest for lore, you find that nothing in the world actually changes. All of the running around. All of the collecting. All of the fetch quests. All of it is for naught. You do get lore around the Scorched, but in the end the world remains unaffected. The Scorched do not disappear. The Scorchbeasts still appear from their fissure sites. Even the Scorchbeast Queen still spawns if someone conveniently launches a nuke over Fissure Prime.

If you’re going to spend hours traipsing through the wasteland, fetching and fighting and doing and consuming, you would think that the world would be a better place in the end. In Fallout 76, the world doesn’t change. It doesn’t become a better place. It doesn’t get built.

The 24 vault dwellers released from Vault 76 were destined to rebuild Appalachia. Instead, these 24 “players” simply become loners who build their own camps, don’t bring about change and don’t in any way make Appalachia a better place. The game worlds remain entirely status quo at the end of the quests. So, what’s the point then?

=> 24 Random Players

As mentioned just above, gathering 24 random video gamers together on a server isn’t going to lead to anything useful. Real video game players don’t (and can’t) make a game. Players can only interact with the environment. The fun must be had by what the designers design, not by interacting with 23 other live players.

This was a total miscalculation by Todd Howard. Any video game designer thinking you can rely on other video gamers to help make your game work, think again. Fallout 76 is the prime example of how this thinking entirely fails you.

As a designer, you must take the time to build fun and interactive activities for each and every person who joins your game world. Again, you can’t rely on other players for this “fun”. Player versus player (PVP) activities only go so far and even then many folks don’t want to participate in PVP. You can’t rely solely on PVP to carry an RPG game.

If you’re trying to carry a game using PVP activities, then you need to design a Brawlhalla, Apex Legends or Fortnite kind of game and skip the RPG portions. Just keep it simple and straightforward for PVP and leave out the RPG elements that simply get in the way of that design. If your game is PVP, then make it PVP. If your game is an RPG, make it an RPG. Don’t try to try to marry an RPG into some PVP thing or you’ll end up with something like Fallout 76 which just doesn’t quite work.

=> Bugs and Code Management

Bethesda has unofficially become known as Bugthesda. After Fallout 76, this moniker is given for good reason. Fallout 76 is exactly the poster child of everything wrong with Bethesda’s ability to code games. For Fallout 76, each update has taken one step forward and made at least two steps back, many times reintroducing old bugs.

There’s a serious problem at Bugthesda with their ability to code this game. I’ve personally witnessed bugs that were squashed two releases ago reintroduced to a later release. In the coding profession, this is called a ‘regression’. Regressions are typically frowned upon heavily. No one wants to see old bugs reintroduced into new versions. If you squash a bug once, it should stay squashed and gone.

Good code management practices should see to that. This means that using industry standard code management practices should prevent regressions. If you check in code to a repository which fixes a bug, that code fix should eventually make its way back into the “main” branch. Once in the “main” branch, that bug should never see the light of day again. This clearly means that Bethesda is likely not using standard code management practices.

For teams not using standard team code management and storage practices, like Git, then it’s easy to grab old code and reintroduce bugs because there’s not a single place to store that code. That’s the worst of all disasters. Not having a standard code management system in place is nearly always the death of a project (and product). Your product can’t sustain heavy regressions and expect people to come back for second helpings. Eventually, people walk away because they know they can’t trust your code to work.

When bugs appear, disappear and reappear over and over, trust in your ability to code a functional product disappears. Trust is the most important thing you have as a software engineer. Once you blow that trust, it’s all over.

=> Limited World Events

With a game so heavily entrenched in a 24 multiplayer world, you would have thought Bethesda would have given us many intriguing world events for multiple players to gather around, combat and defeat. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

Out of the gate, Bethesda offers exactly one big world event in Fallout 76. That event being the Scorchbeast Queen event.

The problem with this event is that it entirely relies on other players to spend a significant portion of time traversing through a silo site fighting tons of robots and dealing with broken computers to launch a nuke into the world. Even worse, it requires the player to have not only fought their way through a silo site, but they must have also caught and fought a Cargobot to get a missile launch keycard. They also must have gone through the Enclave quest line to become a General in the Enclave, which requires killing at least 10 Scorchbeasts. It’s an involved and grindy quest line just to get to point where you can even launch a nuke.

Instead of these largest world events simply spawning on a timer, you have to wait until a player decides to launch a nuke on their own. Lately, this has been few and far between because with each release, Bethesda makes it more and more difficult to launch a nuke. This ultimately means that the biggest world event in Fallout 76 almost never happens.

That’s not to say there aren’t other world events. There are, but they are no where as big as the Scorchbeast Queen event. Events like “Path to Enlightenment”, “The Messenger” and “Feed the People”. However, these events are small potatoes by comparison. The Scorchbeast Queen event requires multiple people all doing as much damage as possible to bring down the queen in 20 minutes. With “Feed the People”, one person can easily do this quest and, subsequently, the loot drop at the end is piddly and low-level garbage. The queen’s loot drops are nearly always worth the time and are typically high level drops.

If you’re promising an engaging multiplayer world, you need to deliver on that promise. Relying on other players to trigger the biggest world events, now that’s a huge mistake. Instead, the biggest world events should trigger randomly without player involvement. Let the small events be triggered by players. Let the biggest world events be triggered by timer. It’s fine if a player can trigger a big world event, but don’t rely on that method for the largest events to be triggered. If no player triggers the event within a specified period of time, then trigger it on a timer. But, don’t leave the game barren of these large world events simply because players aren’t interested in spending the time to launch a nuke at that exact location.

=> Even more Grindy

One of the the things that Bethesda doesn’t seem to get is grinding. No one wants to spend the majority of their time online fighting the same creatures over and over simply to level up. Worse, when you do level up in Fallout 76, it’s all for naught. The creatures cap out at about level 68. Yet, even if you get to level 180, that level 68 creature can still kick your level 180 butt.

This is is not how level systems are supposed to work. The game arbitrarily caps your SPECIAL stats at level 50. Effectively after level 50, you’re still level 50 even if your level indicator says your level is 142. This means that you can’t even level up past the highest leveled creatures in the game.

At level 142, I should be able to one shot nearly any creature in the game that’s level 68 or below. Unfortunately, creatures have two levels in this game. There’s the level number (i.e., 68) and then there’s the HP bar. The HP bar is actually the creature’s real level. Some creatures might have 200 HP, where a Scorchbeast Queen might have between 3000 and 50000 HP (even though its level is labeled 50 or 63 or 68). Worse, when you approach this creature, you won’t know how much HP it has until you begin firing on it. Even then, it’s only a guess based on how fast its health is dropping.

This means to beat some creatures in the game, you can easily spend hours grinding and grinding and more grinding. Fallout 76 is, in fact, one big ugly grinding mess. With all of the fiddling and nerfing (aka “balancing”) that Bethesda has been recently performing, grinding is getting even worse, forcing you to spend even more time at it. Bethesda is going to nerf themselves out of a game.

=> Collision Detection, Guns and Bullets

The weapons in Fallout 76 are probably some of the worst in a Fallout game I’ve experienced. Worst yes, but not in the way you might be thinking. It’s worst in a way that makes you cringe. The guns regularly miss enemies even when aiming directly at them using a scope. This is strictly bad collision detection. The game simply can’t seem to recognize when a shot has connected with an enemy.

Bad collision detection is ultimately the death of a shooter. If your game is intended to be a shooter, the one thing it better be able to do is shoot and connect. If it can’t even do this most basic thing, the game is lost. Games with guns need to “just work”. Failing to accomplish this most basic thing should have left this game in development. You can’t release a shooter and not actually have the gun mechanisms work.

But, here we are. The game barely even functions as a workable shooter. There are even times where guns fail to fire even when the trigger is pulled and released. Indeed, there are times when button presses aren’t even registered in the game… requiring the gamer to press twice and three times consecutively to get the game to recognize the press… and wasting precious time. If you had the perfect shot, but the game ignored your press, you’ve lost that opportunity and you have to wait for it to come around again.

This is one of, if not THE, most frustrating thing(s) about Fallout 76. When guns don’t work,  your shooter is broken. This means you should focus on fixing the fundamentals in the game before branching out to downloadable content (DLC).

=> DLC too early

Instead of fixing the never ending array of existing bugs from when the game was launched, Bethesda has mistakenly pushed their teams to create new DLC and add-on quests.

While I won’t get into these half-baked, half-designed DLC add-ons, suffice it to say that the developer team’s time would have been better spent fixing the existing fundamental flaws than releasing under-designed unfun DLC.

I ask you, if the game can’t even get the basics down as a shooter, how can it possibly be good with new DLC? The answer is, it can’t. And, this is why Fallout 76 continues to fail.

=> Players Find the Fun

Because Fallout 76’s quests ended up more grindy than fun, many gamers had to resort to finding their fun using alternative means. What ended up happening was that players went looking for (and found) loopholes in the software. When code is poorly written and released untested, it’s going to be chock full of bugs… and that’s Fallout 76 in a nutshell.

Gamers found ways to dupe and sell their duped items. This was one of the primary ways gamers found their own fun. Not in the quests. Not in the combat. Not in the nukes. They found their fun working around the bugs and making, selling and trading loot. Another way was breaking into closed off dungeons like Vault 94, Vault 96 and even the now-legendary “Dev Room”. Players found their fun outside of Bethesda’s design. Fun that couldn’t be had through the mediocre quests, the crappy storytelling system, the horrible combat system and the problematic collision detection.

This whole activity seems to have come to the surprise of Bethesda. It was as if they couldn’t have foreseen this problem. It happened early on in The Elder Scrolls Online, too. Why wouldn’t it happen to a half-baked game like Fallout 76? It did.

=> Half-Baked Patching

Because every Fallout 76 release Bethesda has sent out has only marginally improved tiny parts of the overall game, the game is still very much of the hot mess that it was when it was released at the tail end of November 2018. It’s now the middle of April 2019 when this article is being written and very little has actually changed.

Sure, they added a distillery as a DLC that produces some of the most useless liquor in the game. The Pre-War liquor is still the best free liquor in the game (and offers the best benefits) and you don’t even need to use a distillery or waste precious crops to get it. The new liquors not only are not covered by the existing perk card system, each of those liquors have heavy downsides. The distiller also doesn’t support the Super Duper perk card to create extra dupes when crafting liquor, unlike every other crafting table. As an example of how bad the new liquors are, Hard Lemonade gives a huge boost to AP regeneration, but at the cost of 1 minute of negative AP regeneration as the “Hangover”. Rad Ant Lager gives +50 carry weight (yay) at the cost of -50 carry weight during the 1 minute hangover (boo). Extremely sub-optimal when in combat situations.

Nukashine fares even worse. Not only is the effect of this liquor pointless (increases unarmed damage), during the “Hangover” you black out and end up in some random place on the map. Making a Nukashine is simply a waste of a Nuka-Cola nuka quantumQuantum (which these drinks can be difficult to find in the world even at the best of times). On top of the pointlessness of this liquor, selling Nukashine to a vendor yields basically no caps (the currency in Fallout). In fact, making a Nuka-Cola grenade is a much better use of a Nuka-Cola Quantum than Nukashine will ever be. I wasn’t really going to talk about the added DLC much, but I felt the sheer crappiness of this one need to be discussed to show how pointless it all really is. The rest of the DLC doesn’t fare much better than the distiller.

If you’re going to give us a distiller, then at least set it up so that the stuff we make has some value to vendors, gives us much better perks than what’s already in the game and is covered by our existing perk cards. If you’re not going to do this, then why bother creating it? That’s why I consider this DLC half-baked. No perk card coverage. No outstanding new liquors. No value to the new liquors. So tell us, exactly why we should find this fun?

=> Player Bans

While Bethesda calls them a “suspension”, it’s actually a ban. A suspension lasts 1-7 days at most. A ban last months. So far, because gamers ended up using the bugs in the game to find their own fun, Bethesda has penalized many of these gamers by suspending them for sometimes unproveable reasons. What that means is that Bethesda did some digging and found that some gamers had accrued “too many” items in their inventory.

Let’s understand that the original release of the game allowed infinite carrying capacity. You simply became overencumbered when you went over your natural carry limit. This meant that you had to use AP to walk around. When AP ran out, you had to stop and wait for the AP to regenerate or you walked even more slowly. This was the original design BY Bethesda.

After the whole duping scandal erupted, Bethesda blamed the gamers and not themselves for the problems in Fallout 76. The bugs are entirely there by Bethesda. That gamers exploited the bugs, bad on you Bethesda. You should have better tested the quality of your game. Testing is on you, Bethesda… not the gamers. If you failed to test your product, then it’s on you when bad things happen.

If you didn’t want gamers to carry infinite items, then you should have released the game with a carry limit cap. That you didn’t do this initially was a miss on your part. Anyone could see that was a vector for abuse. Waiting for it to be abused, then blaming the abuse on the gamer is entirely disingenuous and insincere. Blame yourself for the bugs, not the gamers.

=> Most Recent Update

As of the latest “Wild Appalachia” update, the game is still very much of a mess. It still crashes regularly, sometimes the entire client crashes back to the dashboard. Sometimes the game won’t load in. Sometimes the character load-in is extremely laggy, stuttery and problematic. If you do manage to get your character loaded in, the shooter basics still don’t work. You can manually aim dead onto enemies and the gun will entirely miss (several times in a row). So, you resort to VATS. VATS sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. You can be literally inches from an enemy and VATS will show a 0% chance of hitting. Yes, it’s STILL that bad.

Nuking on servers can make them highly unstable, particularly in the nuked region. If you enter a nuked region, you can expect the game’s frame rate to drop to about 10-15 frames per second… and I’m not joking. There are other places in the game where this frame rate issue is a problem. For example, when you’re in camp and trying to construct in the workshop menu.

There are many spots in the game where the frame rate can drop to practically nothing. These problems should have been worked out months ago. Yet, instead of fixing these absolute game engine basics, Bethesda has its devs off creating half-baked DLC to try to rake in new revenue.

Unfortunately, with every patch, Bethesda’s devs add back in regressions removed two or three patches ago. It’s been a never ending cycle of one step forward and two (sometimes three) steps backward. The world never gets better.

=> End Game

Every game has a problem with end game fun. Unfortunately, Fallout 76’s end game starts the moment you first login. The whole game is end game. There’s not a beginning to this game, so how can there be an end? Even once you do complete all of the main and side quests, there’s even less to continue doing in this world.

I do understand the reason for the DLC… to try and bring back old players. But, that’s going to be difficult considering you banned a very large number of them from the game. The few that weren’t banned aren’t going to come back simply because you put a crappy distiller in the game or that you created a 7 day long festival and forgot to actually give out the most desirable masks. They’re certainly not going to come back to grind for Atom to buy the useless (and expensive) Atom Shop items.

Ongoing Disaster (Battle Royale)

Here’s the part where I talk about DLC. As Bethesda continues to add questionable new game modes to Fallout 76, I have to wonder what’s going on over there. First, Bethesda adds the ‘Survival Mode’ server to its list of game play engines. This server basically enables PVP right from your character’s load-in. When you join ‘Survival Mode’, if you encounter another player, your character is pretty much dead. I’m uncertain the impetus behind adding this game mode other than to segregate PVP from the ‘Adventure Mode’ servers and put it into a different server. Yet, this segregation is not yet over.

Because Bethesda has been feeling the pinch from Battle Royale games like Fortnite and Apex Legends, Bethesda seems to feel left out. After introducing ‘Survival Mode’, Bethesda next introduces a new ‘Battle Royale’ game mode. Instead of trying to design a new Battle Royale game using an engine actually designed for that kind of game play, which would actually make the most sense, they instead grab the source code for Fallout 76‘s server and they wedge a Battle Royale mode into Fallout’s less than stellar game and combat engine.

Both of these game modes are questionable in and of themselves. For example, how do either of these game modes progress the Fallout story in any way? They don’t. The ‘Survival Mode’ server is designed to simply make the game more difficult. Instead, what it makes the game is pointless. You can’t quest, you can’t follow quest lines, you can’t even play normally…. for fear of losing not only all of your junk, but part of your aid.

With Battle Royale, there’s no point for its existence in the Fallout franchise. There’s not even a story basis for it to exist. Worse, it’s not even close to competing with games like Apex Legends or Fortnite. In fact, a battle royale mode would make a whole lot more sense to exist in The Elder Scrolls than in Fallout. Sure, Fallout is about gun fights, but it’s not about this silly and unnecessary concept being forced into the Fallout universe… a universe where battle royale actually makes no sense at all. The Elder Scrolls at least had an ‘Arena’ where a battle royale could feasibly take place within the story’s narrative… and make sense in the context of the larger Elder Scrolls story arc. Fallout has never had such a “battle” concept in its franchise. Adding this in now simply makes zero Fallout story sense, but makes sense only if Bethesda is trying to “cash in”.

Sure, Fallout survivors might need to do things to amuse themselves in a toxic nuclear wasteland… but, would they actually play in a Battle Royale themselves? No, I don’t think so. Bethesda is now adding stuff that’s so out entirely of character for the Fallout universe, they’re just adding stuff to “keep up with the Jones’s” instead of because it makes sense for Fallout. If you want to trash your franchise, this is a good way to go about it.

Let me also say that the implementation of Fallout 76’s Battle Royale mode is entirely trash and illogical to boot. You’re trapped in an ever condensing ring of fire. A ring of fire that actually makes no sense when you’re supposed to be tasked with rebuilding Appalachia. As contestants continue to kill one another (and the ring condenses to a tiny circle around them), the last man standing is the person who “wins”. In fact, the “winner” actually loses, because the condensing ring of fire would actually end up killing everybody. This is how logically stupid this concept really is. Effectively, it’s not really even Battle Royale, it’s a “Last Man Standing” game. I’ve also seen much better “Last Man Standing” multiplayer games.

If Bethesda wants to create DLC that’s in keeping within the Fallout universe, then they should tie these new game modes in with the existing lore that they spent all of that time creating. For example, how about implementing multiplayer dog fights? Or, how about actually using the ‘Animal Friend’ and/or ‘Wasteland Whisperer’ perk cards to tame beasts that can be used in a multiplayer arena? This would require the player to spend the time to locate and tame a beast (and level it up and equip it) for use in the arena. That kind of mode makes a lot of story sense… and makes sense to wrap new lore around all of this.

Since the world is dangerous and treacherous, use the existing lore as the basis for creating unique new multiplayer challenges. Don’t just grab the first unoriginal idea to come along (e.g., Fortnite) and slap it into a world server. You know, spend time actually putting some amount of thought and effort into tying the existing lore into the new multiplayer game modes. Give them a basis to exist in the universe. Don’t add game modes because you CAN… do it because it both makes actual sense, is logical and is entirely in keeping with the Fallout universe lore.

Overall

The game is STILL a very hot beta mess offering a poorly written, badly conceived and boring storytelling system utilizing no NPCs. The combat system is the worst system I’ve encountered in a top tier game developer’s title. No joke. It is the absolute worst. Even the patching hasn’t improved it. If anything, it’s actually gotten worse.

There are times where button presses are entirely unresponsive. You might have to press the button two or three times rapidly to get the game to register even one press. You might be trying to pick up something, trying to fire your weapon, trying to search a container or it might manifest in any other number of ways. Unreliable button presses are the death of a game that so heavily relies on real time play value.

No amount of patching or DLC will solve these basic fundamental engine problems. To solve the storytelling problem, you need to add NPCs to the game.. which would require redesigning the game from scratch. To solve the combat problem, you need to redesign the combat system from the ground up using a practical engine actually designed for real-time online use.

You can’t take a 20 year old offline game engine and attempt to patch it for an online use. Doing so will produce exactly the problems found in Fallout 76. Fallout 76 needed a game engine designed entirely for online play. Designed for real-time combat. Designed for real-time activities. Designed for responsive button presses.

Unfortunately, what we got was a crapfest of epic proportions that Bethesda will neither acknowledge nor comment on. If this is Bethesda’s new game development norm, I won’t be investing in any more Bethesda games. It’s just not worth paying $60 (or more) to be an alpha tester for a game written on old technology that isn’t up to the task.

In short, Fallout 76 is STILL an immense hot mess that has not at all improved since its November launch.

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Rant Time: Adobe VoCo’s ethical dilemma

Posted in best practices, botch, business, california, ethics by commorancy on February 28, 2018

I have to wonder about Adobe’s business ethics at times. First, there’s Photoshop. While I can admit that photo editing has a legitimate purpose, such as correcting red eye or removing telephone lines or removing reflections of the camera man from a photo, there is the much seedier and ethically murky purpose for Photoshop. Now comes Adobe VoCo. It is a product idea that does for spoken audio what Photoshop does for images. Let’s explore this YouTube clip from 2016:

Skip to 3:18 for the meat of this video.

VoCo’s Use Cases and Ethics

Though, yes, I will concede that the demonstration above was funny and we all laughed, the demonstration has a deep seated ethically murky undertone once the laughing stops. In fact, that’s what prompted this blog article.

Unlike Photoshop which has actual real world use cases (yes, other than making models thinner and glowier for the cover of Vogue), VoCo is one of those unnecessary tools that, while cool in theory, makes Adobe seem that it’s now in the business of causing world disruption instead of actually solving creative problems. After the ethical problems created by Photoshop, Adobe has to know the ethical quandary it introduces by bringing the VoCo audio editing tool to market. Adobe decides to go ahead with demoing this tool anyway. So much for business ethics. Instead, Adobe should have patented and shelved this product idea and never shown it off.

There’s no effective real world use case for this product other than for making someone say things that they actually didn’t say. The only use case where this technology might even be somewhat useful, depending on output quality, is in the voice over industry where an actor might be unavailable at a time when a line needs to be changed to fit continuity better. The voice over industry is the only industry where VoCo could have even the smallest glimmer of hope of a use case. This is such a tiny niche market segment to introduce this tool in such a public spectacle way.

The only other use case would be to sample all of the audio from a particular dead actor or actress’s productions and then recreate lines of new spoken dialog based on that. Again, this is one of those entertainment areas that fits firmly into the uncanny valley, particularly if the spoken lines are attached to a CG actor. Again, this is not a substantial use case in my opinion and is most definitely creepy. It’s definitely not a big enough use case to warrant this public release spectacle. Do we really want to see Marilyn Monroe or Elvis brought back to life on the big screen using CG and VoCo dialog?

There is no other legitimate use case for this product. It’s like Adobe intentionally wants to flaunt its lack of ….

Business Ethics and Self-Editing

Businesses today have no ability to self-edit or recognize ethics. That is, stop ethically bad product ideas from making it to the market. Just thinking about this product and how it could possibly be used, it doesn’t have legitimate use cases (other than the voice over use case I mentioned above). However, there are perhaps thousands of illegitimate uses for this tool. Let’s list a few of them, shall we:

  • Falsifying a deposition to make the person being deposed say something they didn’t say
  • Falsifying a statement of non-confession to make a person confess to a crime when they didn’t actually confess
  • Falsifying a phone conversation
  • Changing any spoken words from non-incriminating to incriminating evidence

In legal circles, the use for this tool is ripe for abuse and has use cases as wide as the Grand Canyon and as deep as the Mariana Trench. In other words, while VoCo has no substantial legitimate use cases, it has thousands of illegitimate use cases. There is no way Adobe couldn’t see this. There is no way for Adobe to feign ignorance about this tool or the ethical problems it imposes if released.

Legal Evidence

Some have theorized that this tool would become just as Photoshop has. Basically, because evidence can now be manufactured in products like VoCo, it means that audio evidence would no longer be easily admissible. While that idea has some soundness to it, the legal system is not always technically savvy and can sometimes move at a snail’s pace. Eventually, the courts and lawyers will be on board with this ‘manufactured evidence’ sound clip idea, but not before several someones are incriminated over manufactured evidence that isn’t caught in time.

Some have theorized that Adobe should watermark the sound clip. The difficulty with audio watermarking is that it ruins the audio. No one would buy a professional audio tool that intentionally makes the audio sound bad or introduces something that is audibly noticeable, strictly because Adobe wants to insert a watermark to legally cover their collective butts. No. No one would buy a tool that causes damage to the audio output. This means that only a silent kind of watermark could be introduced. Such a watermark would consist primarily as a tag within the saved audio clip file. Any tags introduced in a save file can easily be stripped away by converting the audio clip to a new format or by playing the audio clip back and recording it on analog equipment. In fact, a whole industry and set of tools would likely appear to strip out any watermarks imposed by Adobe onto the saved files.

Unless there is a substantial way to identify that the clip has been edited, and I don’t know how Adobe could even solve this problem fully, VoCo is a tool that would end up more abused than legitimately used.

Flawed Product Ideas

While this is somewhat of a cool technological advancement, it doesn’t need to exist. It doesn’t need to exist because it has basically one limited use case. I’d argue that as a production runner, you can just wait until the voice actor becomes available and ask them to re-record the lines you need. That is, instead of using a tool like this. A tool like VoCo might save you some time, but by demanding such a tool for your use, it means the rest of the world must also endure the consequences of a world full of falsified evidence. Is that the world you want to live in? Evidence that could even be used against you, the audio editor. No, thanks.

However, it’s clear that prototype code has been written based on the video above. This means that Adobe could release such a product into the wild in the future. Thankfully, as of this article in 2018, this product does not yet exist. Unfortunately, Adobe has already opened Pandora’s box. A working prototype means that any coder with leanings towards audio engineering could produce a similar tool and release it into the wild without the help of Adobe. Thanks Adobe.

It is as yet unclear when or if this product could ever be released. Note that this video segment apparently showcases experimental product ideas (products that may never see the light of day) and not actual products. After all, such a legally murky product would have to clear Adobe’s legal team before release. Considering the many negative use cases for such an audio editing product and the legal liability that Adobe might endure as a result, I’d hope that Adobe’s legal team has shelved this product idea permanently.

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