Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Should I beta test Fallout 76?

Posted in best practices, botch, business, video gaming by commorancy on November 1, 2018

ps4-pro-500-million-dualshock-4-crWhile I know that beta testing for Fallout 76 is already underway, let’s explore what it means to beta test a game and whether or not you should participate.

Fallout 76

Before I get into the nitty gritty details of beta testing, let’s talk about Fallout 76. Fallout 76, like The Elder Scrolls Online before it, is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). Like The Elder Scrolls Online which offered an Elder Scrolls themed universe, Fallout 76 will offer a Fallout themed universe in an online landscape.

How the game ultimately releases is yet to be determine, but a beta test gives you a solid taste of how it will all work. Personally, I didn’t like The Elder Scrolls Online much. While it had the flavor and flair of an Elder Scrolls game entry, the whole thing felt hollow and unconnected to the franchise. It also meant that Bethesda spent some very valuable time building this online game when they could have been building the next installment of the Elder Scrolls.

It is as yet undetermined how these online games play into the canon of The Elder Scrolls or, in Fallout 76’s case, in the Fallout universe. Personally, I see them as offshoots with only a distant connection. For example, The Elder Scrolls Online felt Elder Scrollsy, but without the deep solid connections and stories that go with building that universe. Instead, it was merely a multiplayer playground that felt like The Elder Scrolls in theme, but everything else was just fluff. I’m deeply concerned that we’ll get this same treatment from Fallout 76.

The Problem with Online Games

Online games have, in recent years, gotten a bad rap… and for good reason. The reason that this is so is because the game developers focus on the inclusion of silly things like character emoting and taking selfies. While these are fun little inclusions, they are by no means intrinsic to the fundamental game play of an actual game.

Games should be about the story that unfolds… about why your character is there and how your character is important in that universe. When the game expands to include an online component, now it’s perhaps tens of thousands of people all on the server at the same time. So, how can each of these characters be important to that universe? The answer is, they can’t.

Having many characters all running around doing the “same” things in the universe all being told by the game that they are “the most important thing” to the survival of that universe is just ludicrous.

This leads to the “importance syndrome” which is present in any MMORPG. As a developer, you either acknowledge the importance syndrome and avoid it by producing a shallow multiplayer experience that entirely avoids player importance (i.e., Fortnite, Overwatch, Destiny, etc) or you make everyone important each in their own game (i.e., The Elder Scrolls Online). Basically, the game is either a bunch of people running around doing nothing important at all and simply trying to survive whatever match battles have been set up (boring and repetitive) or the game treats each user as if they are individually important in their own single player game, except there are a bunch of other users online, all doing the same exact thing.

The Elder Scrolls Online fell into the latter camp which made the game weird and disconnected, to say the least. It also made the game feel less like an Elder Scrolls game and more like any cheap and cheesy iPad knockoff game you can download for free… except you’ve paid $60 + DLC + online fees for it.

I’ve played other MMORPG games similar to The Elder Scrolls Online including Defiance. In fact, Defiance played so much like The Elder Scrolls Online, I could swear that Bethesda simply took Defiance’s MMORPG engine and adapted it to The Elder Scrolls Online.

Environments and Users

The secondary problem is how to deal with online users. Both in the Elder Scrolls Online and Defiance, there were areas that included player versus environment (PvE). PvE environments mean that players cannot attack other players. Only NPCs can attack your player or your character can die by the environment (i.e., falling onto spikes). There were also some areas of the online map that were player versus player (PvP). PvP means any online player can attack any other online player in any way they wish.

In The Elder Scrolls Online, the PvP area was Cyrodiil, which was unfortunate for ESO. The PvP made this territory mostly a dead zone for the game. Even though there were a few caves in the area and some exploring you could do, you simply couldn’t go dungeon diving there because as soon as you tried, some player would show up and kill your player. Yes, the NPCs and AI enemies could also show up and kill your player, but so could online players.

The difficulty with Cyrodiil was that if another player killed your player in the PvP area, that player death was treated entirely differently than if they died by the environment. If another player killed your character, you had to respawn at a fort, which would force your character to respawn perhaps half a map away from where you presently were. If your character died by the environment or another NPC, you could respawn in the same location where your character died. This different treatment in handling the character death was frustrating, to say the least.

With Fallout 76, I’m unsure how all of this will work, but it’s likely that Bethesda will adopt a similar strategy from what they learned in building The Elder Scrolls Online. This likely means both PvE areas and PvP area(s). Note that ESO only had one PvP zone, but had many PvE zones. This made questing easier in the PvE zones, but also caused the “importance syndrome”. This syndrome doesn’t exist in single player offline games, but is omnipresent in MMORPGs.

MMORPGs and Characters

The difficulty with MMORPGs is that they’re primarily just clients of a server based environment. The client might be a heavier client that includes handling rendering character and environment graphics, but it is still nonetheless a client. This means that to use an MMORPG, you must log into the server to play. When you login, your character information, bank account, level ups, weapons, armor and so on are kept on the server.

This means that you can’t save off your character information. It also means you can’t mod your game or mod your character through game mods. Online games are strict about how you can change or manage your game and your character. In fact, these systems are so strict that if a new version of the game comes out, you must first download and install the game before they’ll let you back onto the server… unlike standalone games that let you play the game even if networking components are disabled. This means that you cannot play an MMORPG until your client is most current, which could mean 50GB and hours later.

This means that you’ll need an always on Internet connection to play Fallout 76 and you’ll need to be able to handle very large client downloads (even if you own the game disc).

Beta Testing

Many game producers like to offer, particularly if it’s a server based MMORPG, the chance for players to beta test their new game. Most online games allow for this.

However, I refuse to do this for game developers. They have a team they’ve hired to beta test their environments, quests and landscapes. I just don’t see any benefit for my player to get early access to their game environment. Sometimes, characters you build and grow in a beta won’t even carry over into the released game. This means that whatever loot you have found and leveling you may have done may be lost when release day comes. For that early access, the developer will also expect you to submit bug reports. I won’t do that for them. I also don’t want to feel obligated to do so.

Bethesda stands to make millions of dollars off of this game. Yet, they’re asking me to log into their game early, potentially endure huge bugs preventing quest progress, potentially lose my character and all of its progress and also spend time submitting bug reports? Then, spend $60 to buy the game when it arrives? Then, rebuild my character again from scratch?

No, I don’t think so. I’m not about to spend $60 for the privilege of spending my time running into bugs and submitting bug reports for that game. You, the game developer, stand to make millions from this game. So, hire people to beta test it for you. Or, give beta testers free copies of the game in compensation for the work they’re doing for you.

If you’re a gamer thinking of participating in beta testing, you should think twice. Not only are you helping Bethesda to make millions of dollars, you’re not going to see a dime of that money and you’re doing that work for free. In addition, you’re still going to be expected to spend $60 + DLC costs to participate in the final released game. No, I won’t do that. If I’m doing work for you, you should pay me as a contractor. How you pay me for that work is entirely up to you, but the minimum payment should consist of a free copy of the game. You can tie that payment to work efforts if you like.

For example, for each report submitted and verified as a new bug, the beta tester will get $5 in credit towards the cost of the game up to the full price of the game. This encourages beta testers to actually submit useful bug reports (i.e., duplicates or useless reports won’t count). This also means you earn your game as you report valid and useful bugs. It also means that you won’t have to pay for the game if you create enough useful, genuine reports.

Unfortunately, none of these game developers offer such incentive programs and they simply expect gamers to do it “generously” and “out of the kindness of their hearts”. No, I’m not doing that for you for free. Pay me or I’ll wait until the game is released.

Should I Participate in Beta Tests?

As a gamer, this is why you should not participate in beta tests. Just say no to them. If enough gamers say no and fail to participate in beta releases, this will force game developers to encourage gamers to participate with incentive programs such as what I suggest above.

Unfortunately, there are far too many unwitting gamers who are more than willing to see the environment early without thinking through the ramifications of what they are doing. For all of the above reasons, this is why you should NEVER participate (and this is why I do not participate) in any high dollar game beta tests.

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Toys R Us: Say Goodbye to an Era

Posted in botch, business, tanking by commorancy on March 14, 2018

tru-logoFor many, we grew up with Toys Я Us as the go to place to find that cool new toy, game, doll, action figure, Teddy Ruxpin, train set, learning toy, crayons, movie or even video games. Times are a changin’ folks and Toys R Us is now finds itself way less than one Barbie away from permanent closure. Let’s explore.

Update from the News Desk — 2018-03-14

Toys R Us headquarters has apparently informed all US and UK employees on Wednesday, March 14th that all US and UK locations would be closed, a move that would lose 33,000 jobs. This would be one of the biggest retailer liquidations. CEO David Brandon intended to file paperwork to begin the liquidation proceedings on Wednesday.

From small to BIG to defunct

In the 70s, I remember toy stores primarily consisting of smaller retailers in malls, usually carrying Lincoln logs, wooden toys or learning toys. While I didn’t mind visiting these places, they felt more like a library than a toy store. They also didn’t carry much of the things that I liked. It wouldn’t be until sometime the mid-70s when a Toy R Us opened near my house. That’s when toy shopping all changed, at least for me.

I’m sure my parents hated taking me to Toys R Us,  just as so many parents do. For us kids, it was like a day at Disneyland: a gold mine, a treasure trove, a place of dreams. Unfortunately, the parents were having none of it… or at least, as little as they could walk out of the store carrying. Good on them, but that didn’t make Toys R Us any less magical to a 8-10 year old. We loved it, we loved going there and we especially loved it when we got to take something home with us.

Geoffrey

I was never a super big giraffe fan, but Geoffrey was a fun and charming mascot constantly pointing out cool new things in the store. I would come to see Geoffrey as cute mascot designed to help me find new stuff. Not always, but a good bit of the time. Sometimes he was just present, like Mickey Mouse. That Giraffe always made me smile because I knew that I was at that magical place, like Disneyland but local. Over the years, Geoffrey began being used less and less by TRU, but he’s still considered their mascot.

Every once in a while, Toys R Us would offer an enter-to-win a fill-your-cart shopping spree. I always wanted to win one of those as a child, but alas never did. To think what I would have filled my cart with. The mind boggles, if only because some of those toys are considered highly collectible today. Though, those toys most assuredly would not have remained closed in their packaging after making their way home.

Growing Up

As I grew into my 20s, got my own car and job, my relationship with Toys R Us changed. No longer was it that magical place, but it now had firmly become a store and I was a consumer. Still, it was a place to go to find that hot new toy that everyone’s talking about. It also became the place to find computers and video games. If I couldn’t find it at Target or Kmart or, later, Walmart, I could almost certainly find it at Toys R Us or Kaybee or Children’s Palace (competitors at the time) and to a much lesser degree FAO Schwarz. Toys R Us was always the first place to go, then the others as they were less reliable.

Dominoes

As the competitors fell over one at a time, first Children’s Palace in 90s, FAO Schwarz in early 00s, then in the middle 00’s, Kaybee Toys, Toys R Us was still standing and, in 2009 would acquire the FAO Schwarz brand, but would sell it off in 2014. It was (and currently is) the place to go to find all things toys. Unlike Target and Walmart that choose to stock limited toy items, Toys R Us (like the previous Children’s Palance and Kaybee) still carries aisle after aisle of wide ranging toys you can only find at Toys R Us. You simply can’t find this selection of toy items at a discount department store. This is why I always ended up at Toys R Us in search of fun, exciting new things.

The Mistakes

Throughout the later years, I’ve grown a love-hate relationship with the Toys R Us chain. Not only because I worked there for a short time while in my 20s, but also because the management does a lot of things that don’t make sense. For example, Babies R Us. For a time, Toys R Us stores devoted half of their space to baby goods. I don’t have a baby, so there’s no interest in that. Yet, Toys R Us decided to kill half of their store space to devote to these products. This meant, less space for toys, games and other items.

I understand that the management wanted to expand their selection into babyland, but it was a mistake to take away valuable Toys R Us aisle space to devote to all-things-baby. This, in my opinion, was one of the biggest mistakes the Toys R Us management foisted upon its stores. That was, until they finally spun Babies R Us into its own stores and gave it its own space.

Later, the management decided to do away with separate Babies R Us stores and chose to abut the two stores together for one seamless one-store experience. That was at least better than taking away shelf space from an already cramped toy store, but even that was unnecessary and, in my opinion, a mistake. They can be next to each other, but walled off and separate stores with separate stock and separate staff. I know why they did chose to hook them together. They did it so they could use one set of checkout lanes, one set of cashiers and one set of staff to stock both stores.

The X

At around the time that Babies R Us was coming into its own as a separate store chain, Toys R Us decided to change its shelving layout. Instead of the more logical long rows running from the front to the back of the store (with middle store aisle breaks) which made it easy to find everything, the store layout designer decided to change the aisles to be side to side and then create X shaped rows in the middle of the store. Not only were these rows much harder to navigate, the layout of the aisles were crippled as a result. This layout made finding things incredibly hard and it seemed like they had less shelf space.

Not only was everything now moved around haphazardly, it made finding what you’re looking for overly hard. Meaning, now you had to navigate the whole store looking at everything just to find that thing.

Maybe the designers thought this was a good idea? It wasn’t. This is the second mistake from Toys R Us management.

Overbuying and Stocking the Wrong Toys

I don’t know how many times I visited Toys R Us in the 90s only to find the same toys every time I visited, sometimes months apart. These we affectionately call peg warmers. This mistake continues to plague Toys R Us to this day. Not only did Toys R Us have incredible buying power way back when, they just didn’t use it to their advantage. Instead, they would continually overbuy on dud toys and not buy enough on the hot toys.

You can’t sell toys that you don’t have in stock. For example, Cabbage Patch kids. When that craze hit, they couldn’t keep them on the shelves. You’d think Toys R Us could have negotiated with the manufacturer and buy 10x the amount they originally bought… simply so they could fill the demand. Sure, there might be a drought while the manufacturer created more, but eventually they would have enough stock quickly to satisfy demand. Alas, they didn’t and the shelves remained bare until the toys were so cold you couldn’t even give them away. Too little, too late.

Further, Toys R Us needed to let the local managers order stock for their specific location to stock toys that are regionally hot. Not every toy sells the same in every store, yet Toys R Us felt the need to send cookie cutter stock out to every single store. If you walked into a Toys R Us in any state, you’d see identical stock. Each store manager needed to be given free reign to specifically order stock in sizes that made sense for amount of local demand they were seeing for a given toy item. If they couldn’t keep a specific skateboard stocked, then the manager should be able to order the proper amount to cover the local demand from their store. In fact, stores that couldn’t sell the item should have shuffled the stock over to stores where the demand was high. That’s smart inventory management. Nope.

Store managers should also be able to nix slow selling items from their shelves and replace it more hit items. Why continue to carry that obscure toy that you can’t even clearance out when you can sell 100x as many Tickle Me Elmos? Having great selection is fine as long as you’re not stocking 50 of an item you can’t even give away. Again, smart inventory management people. Stock them in small quantities, sure, but not in the quantities that each store was getting. Shuffle extra stock to other stores that have none. Remember, I worked there, I saw the stock amounts in the stock room.

Nope. Toys R Us continued to make this mistake year after year.

Over-expansion

Nearly every business thinks they should open as many stores as physically possible. But, you can’t do this when most of your stores are operating in the RED. Toys R Us was no exception. This chain continually felt the need to open new stores rather than trying to shore up their existing stores and get them each to an individually profitable status. If the management had stopped their expansion plans and, instead, focused their efforts on making each store profitable by the end of Q1 each year, Toys R Us would not be in this predicament.

Dated Store Displays

Not too long ago (perhaps early 00s), Toys R Us did away with the X aisle layout and converted them back into horizontal rows once again. However, the aisles now run left to right in-store rather than the original front to back design (which was arguably its best floor plan). Unfortunately, their fixtures are all incredibly dated pegboard and 70s style metal fixtures. They look like they’re straight out of a 70s store… even when the store is brand new. Maybe these are the cheapest fixtures they can buy? No idea, but they don’t look modern.

The store is also incredibly jam packed with stuff. The shelves are always full of stock yes, but it doesn’t help when the stock is old and is sitting on dated shelving units lit by 70s style fluorescent lighting fixtures.

The Business

Here’s Toys R Us’s primary operational problem and the problem that ultimately leads to where we are today. Toys R Us always relied on the holiday shopping season to pull its stores into the black. Meaning, Toys R Us always operated its stores in the RED through 80-90% of the year hoping for the holiday season to pull each store up and out and operate in the black for that year. This was the chain’s primary mistake. This operating model had been ongoing since the 80s. This was the way that TRU intentionally chose to operate its stores. This was also entirely their biggest operating failure and it’s the mistake that is now what’s threatening closure and costing TRU its business.

In addition to operating in the red, Toys R Us also didn’t wield its buying power to get the best possible credit terms, the best possible deals and the best possible return arrangements. If a toy doesn’t sell, package it up, send it to another store that can sell it or send it back to the manufacturer for full or partial credit. Let the manufacturer deal with that stock rather than trying to organically clearance out items on the shelves years later. No, get these old toys off of the shelves to make way for new toys. Fill the shelves with toys that can sell and that will pay the bills.

If you can’t pay your bills, you can’t stay in business. Business 101. Yet, Toys R Us management felt that they were above these rules. The management team felt they could continually run their stores in the red without ramifications. Well, fate has now caught up with you, Toys R Us.

Being Acquired by Private Equity Firms

Because of the way Toys R Us chose to operate its stores, it could not support being acquired in this way. This acquisition was entirely shortsighted on the part of the private equity companies involved and they (and us consumers) are the ones who are now paying the ultimate price.

In 2005, Toys R Us was acquired by a set of private equity firms. These firms included KKR & Co., Bain Capital and Vornado Realty Trust in a $7.5 billion buyout deal. These three companies (and their investors) sank $1.3 billion of their own funds into the purchase, leaving the rest of the purchase price of $6.2 billion to be made up in loans. These loans saddled Toys R Us with an over $6 billion debt burden. A debt that, because of the rather nonsensical business model that the stores had been following since the 80s, could never be recouped. All of this leads to…

Bankruptcy

In late September 2017, Toy R Us filed for bankruptcy protection against its creditors. This means that its creditors can no longer go after Toys R Us for not paying bills. It also meant that the loans left over from that terrible 2005 buyout deal could no longer collect on those loans. Of course, in return for this court issued bankruptcy protection, the company has chosen Chapter 11 to work through a plan to reorganize in a way to get themselves back to profitability and pay their creditors over time before time runs out. For the Toy R Us management, that meant finding a suitor to buy the business… because, of course, they couldn’t be bothered with actually trying to restructure the stores in a way to make them profitable. Oh, no no no.. that’s just too much work.

What? Are you kidding? Are you really expecting some well funded company to swoop into this ailing business holding onto a mountain of debt and offer to buy you? Really? The way that TRU operates is textbook operating procedure for failure. It cannot continue to operate in the way that it does. Even closing half of the stores may not be enough to solve this operating problem. It’s only surprising that it took this long for this toy chain to make it to this point. I expected this day to come a lot sooner.

Toy Collectors and Toys R Us

I full well expected to see Toys R Us fail in the 90s.  However, Star Wars saw to it to keep Toys R Us in business. The Star Wars collectors came out in wild abandon to snap up tons of revamped Star Wars merchandise for not only the previous trilogy (including the Orange and Green carded Power of the Force series). These toys still remained hot even after 1983’s Return of the Jedi cooled down. It all heated up again when the Prequels began in earnst in 1999 (toys beginning to appear in stores about a year earlier). Toys R Us got a reprieve from their red ledger problems due primarily to Star Wars collectors, Hasbro and a few other unrelated hot toys during the 90s (Tickle Me Elmo). Almost every year, there was some new fad that kept Toys R Us’s year end strategy in check. Though, this strategy would ultimately fail them when, in the last 10 years or so when there just haven’t been those must-have toys or collectible Star Wars toys. Even the Zhu-Zhu pets weren’t enough. Even the latest Star Wars trilogy from Disney has not had the merchandising power that the 90s saw. Though, Disney isn’t crying over what they have sold.

In fact, I’d venture to guess that the 90s collectors have all but stopped collecting and have moved on with their lives… which put a huge crimp in the Toys R Us budget. In fact, during the collector heyday of the 90s, Toys R Us did their very level best to chase away the collectors. Much to their own chagrin, they succeeded in doing so by the mid-2000s. It also doesn’t help that collectors can now buy full cases directly from places like Entertainment Earth, which no longer meant the need to scour the pegs at Toys R Us in the wee hours of the morning. You could order cases directly from the comfort of your own home, then see them delivered to your doorstep.

Amazon and Online Shopping

Because of the power of the Internet, Amazon and eBay, it’s pretty easy to find that hot toy at more reasonable prices. Yes, Toys R Us is still a staple in the current shopping landscape. When it closes, both Amazon and Entertainment Earth will simply pick up where Toy R Us left off without missing a beat. If anything, I’d suggest that Amazon pick up the Toys R Us branding at a fire sale during liquidation and rebrand the Amazon toy section to Toys R Us. Keep the TRU brand alive, but not with all of that bloated store baggage. Then, dump the Babies R Us brand entirely. You can still sell baby things, but branded as Toys R Us.

Toys R Us Closing

As I said, I have a love-hate relationship with Toys R Us. I do enjoy visiting and seeing what’s new, but every time I walk into a store, I’m confronted with the dated shelving and decoration, the continual nagging reminder of just how careless the management is and how much of a wasted opportunity that Toys R Us had to be the become the biggest profitable toy chain in the world. Yet, they’ve failed.

If Toys R Us can manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and keep the lights on, I’ll be fine with that. Sadly, I think this is likely where it will all end for Toys R Us.

Gift Cards or Rewards — Use em’ or lose ’em

toys-r-us-gift-cardIf you have any remaining unused gift cards from Toys R Us, be sure to visit a store now and use them immediately. Don’t wait until after Toys R Us begins closing its stores.

Likewise, if you have any rewards points left on your rewards card, log into Toys R Us Rewards, issue certificates and use them up now. Same for Babies R Us Cashback Endless Rewards program. Otherwise, forfeit your chance to convert those points into dollars. Representatives for Toys R Us have said that they will honor gift cards, rewards points and cashback programs for 30 days. The 30 day clock likely began on Wednesday March 14th, when they filed their liquidation paperwork with the court.

I guess in an odd way, I do kind of get that shopping spree after all, and many years later. I just found that I have over 2500 points in my rewards account. That equates to a $100 shopping spree.

For my $100 in rewards points, I got a Nintendo Monopoly set, a Care Bear Grumpy Bear, Two Schliech Geoffrey branded figurines, 5 different Halo Hot Wheels, a Pit Amiibo, a Pain-Yatta Skylander, a Playmation Vision figure and two Geoffrey branded reusable shopping bags. I ended up paying $9 to cover the tax. I also bought a $5 Geoffrey gift card and immediately used it to get dock protector straps for a Nintendo Switch. I wanted the Geoffrey branded gift card as a souvenir. I’d also previously purchased the day before, two Geoffrey 18″ plush and one Geoffrey plush gift card holder, which I’ll put that used Geoffrey gift card in.

Returns and Exchanges During Liquidation

Check any purchased merchandise thoroughly for defects the same day you buy it. If there are any problems, return it the same or next day and exchange it. Don’t wait even a few days to exchange as you may not be able to find the same item. According to Toys R Us representatives, all sales are final. This means, no refunds. However, they may continue to honor exchanges for a period of time. If you’re uncertain of any of this, ask for details at the service desk before you buy.

If you’re thinking of shopping for gift items, you might want to buy elsewhere. Buying a gift for someone could mean the gift recipient can’t return or exchange the item. You don’t want to force a gift onto someone when it’s not something they want only for them to find they cannot return it.

Be that Toys R Us Kid one last time

If you grew up visiting and are as fond of Toys R Us as I am, I’d suggest for you to take a few minutes out of your day and visit your local Toys R Us to reminisce about the good ole days. Once the liquidation sales start, they’re quickly going to look like half-filled shells of a store. Note that the deadline for Toys R Us to find a buyer is early April of 2018, so visit them quick. You have less than a month.

You might even want to pick up a souvenir, such as a plush Geoffrey, to remember what was Toys R Us and what it meant to us as kids. If you want a plush Geoffrey, ask at the Customer Service desk. It seems they keep them there for some reason.

Bioshock Infinite: Or, why circular time paradoxes suck!

Posted in movies, storytelling, video game, video game design by commorancy on June 3, 2013

Note: If you haven’t yet played Bioshock Infinite yet, this article contains spoilers.  You should stop reading now! You have been warned.

Many people are awed and dumbfounded by the story within Bioshock Infinite. For some odd reason, people think this is a good thing and somehow even like and see it as some sort of thought provoking experience. Well, perhaps it is in some small way thought provoking, but not thought provoking in the right way. Let’s explore why Bioshock Infinite’s type of thought provoking experience is not a good thing and not something to be wanted or liked in storytelling.

Breaking the Rules

There’s something to be said for people who break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules can lead to good consequences. Most times, it ends up in failure. Story and narrative creation rules have been in existence since the earliest fiction book was written. Yet, these rules have minimally changed throughout the years to keep stories satisfying and fresh. The rules for well written storytelling are already firmly established. Granted, the storyteller can take liberties if the diversion leads you back to something profound within the story. Basically, the idea behind storytelling is to keep the pace and momentum going and to flesh out characters who the reader can feel good about. Plot devices are used to keep the story on track, to know where that story is heading and what the end goal is for the characters. With the ultimate goal being to produce characters whose situations seem real and profound.  The characters are the crux that ground the story even if the rest of the world is fanciful.  Without this grounding, the story falls apart. With that said, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. All three of these should be clearly defined so that what transpires along the way leads to a satisfying conclusion of the characters lives where the readers have invested their time.

Video Game Storytelling

With video games, the way to tell a story hasn’t substantially changed and not every video game company ‘gets’ it. Every entertainment experience today should become a cohesive character driven story to be successful. Within video games, there are two pieces to the story puzzle. The gameplay and the storytelling. Both are symbiotic relationships. One feeds off of the other. Neither should really become dominant in this mix. If the game falls too much into a storytelling role, it loses the interactivity needed to be a great video game. If the gameplay is all there is and the story only happens at the beginning and end, the story becomes an afterthought. Both have to work together to create the whole and to keep the player engaged in the game and the story. However, should one become more dominant than the other, the gameplay should win. It is a game after all.

Time Travel and Storytelling

Unfortunately, too many novice storytellers decide to use the extremely overused, trite and cliche device known as time travel and time anomalies to create and tell their story. Worse, without clearly reasoned ideas, time travel can easily make a story become an  Ex Deus Machina blunder. As it’s far too easily done wrong, time travel should be avoided in most stories as it really has no place in any quality storytelling experience. And, it’s usually not needed. For example, J.J. Abrams uses this device within the newest Star Trek film reboot. He, unfortunately, uses it to create an alternative universe where the original Star Trek crew don’t actually live. Instead, he creates a rebooted universe of his own choosing and design. His storytelling approach is to toss out the baby with the bathwater and start over on his own terms. Not only does this completely dismiss and insult Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, it completely smacks of pretentiousness. J.J. Abrams apparently thinks he’s better than Gene Roddenberry and can somehow improve upon what Roddenberry has created. In fact, there is no need for this in the Star Trek universe. The original Star Trek universe works perfectly fine as it is for setting J.J. Abrams’ story.

In J.J. Abrams’ Trek, the only true Star Trek original crew was the aging Spock who somehow accidentally stumbled through a time hole into J.J. Abrams’ fabricated new time paradoxical Star Trek universe. After you realize this, you’ll understand just how horrible the new Star Trek film really is. The events that took place in J.J. Abrams’ Trek movie don’t exist in the universe that Gene Roddenberry created. This also means that you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life watching a contrived useless film.

Bioshock Infinite is a video game who’s designers decided to use time travel and alternative dimensions (string theory) to explain the story. The only thing the writers successfully accomplish is to produce an incomprehensible mess of a story with characters we ultimately don’t really care about. Some players saw the story as thought provoking. The only thing that Infinite accomplishes, if you begin to think on the story, is unravel its own story and you’re left with questions like, “Did it really even happen?” or “Is he alive or dead?” or “Is the story really over?”. Questions that, if you really want satisfying closure to a story as a writer, you don’t want people asking. These are not the kinds of questions that should be left over at the end of your story. These are the kinds of questions that lead people to critique the story as being trite, cliche and poorly written. You want people to value the story and cherish and like the story. You want them liking and asking questions about the characters, what happened to them after, where the story might go from here. You don’t want to leave your story open to ‘Infinite’ possibilities where the story leads effectively nowhere and there are so many of the same characters that you can’t even wrap your head around it. In storytelling, infinite choice is the same as no choice. Meaning, if there is no way to tell what happened, that’s the same as saying that it didn’t happen. Which then means that playing the game is pointless.

Time Travel and Time Paradoxes

Time travel is a concept that we do not know if it’s possible. It’s all theory and conjecture at this point. It could become a reality in the future, but we’re not there yet. Telling fanciful stories about time travel and multiple universes may seem like something good, but most times isn’t. The single biggest problem with using time travel and string theory in storytelling is the circular time paradox. That is, a situation that would lead the viewer to logically conclude just how the story came to exist if changing a small piece caused the creation (or unraveling) of the situation in the first place. As a concrete example, in the film Terminator 2, Skynet effectively creates itself. That is, a Skynet robot from the future is sent back in time to kill the then kid, John Connor. Yet, it fails and is destroyed. Its robotic brain technology chip is recovered by Cyberdyne Systems. Cyberdyne Systems employees then reverse engineers the chip which, through technology breakthroughs as a result of that chip then causes the creation of the technology that leads to the birth of those exact robots and the Skynet computer. Effectively, the technology creates itself. Because of this circular time paradox, this makes stories like Terminator 2 unwieldy, unsatisfying and poorly written. Technology simply cannot create itself and stories should never be written that even hint at that. Humans should always have a hand in that creation of something or the logic of the whole story falls apart.

Likewise, Bioshock Infinite creates a time paradox where the death of Booker unravels the game’s entire reason to exist. Why would you, as a writer, intentionally negate the reason for your story’s existence? Basically, you’ve just told your readers, this story sucked and it didn’t really happen. Or in the case of a video game, the designers are saying, “Yes, we understand you’ve invested hours and hours playing this video game, but really, the story and game just didn’t happen.”

Bioshock Infinite

Oh, this game seems like it tries to keep itself on track in the beginning, but fails because its writers and the story simply get more and more lost with every new time hole (tear) that Elizabeth creates. The writers eventually can’t keep up with the time paradoxes and begin ignoring them entirely in hopes that the player will too. Unfortunately, I can’t overlook this issue. It’s one of my pet peeves within stories. While I don’t plan on keeping score of exactly how many time paradoxes take place over the course of the game, the one that matters is at the very end of the game.

If Booker and Comstock are one and the same person, and Booker kills himself as a child, Columbia can’t come to exist and neither can Elizabeth. Of course, what happens is that multiple Elizabeths drown Booker in a mock baptism which also negates the entire Comstock Columbia story. Which means, Booker would never come to visit Columbia and Elizabeth would never have been stuck in the tower. Who’s to say Anna/Elizabeth would have even been born? Yet, self-preservation and survival is the strongest human instinct that humans have. Why would Elizabeth knowingly do away with her own existence by killing her own father or even allow that to happen? That’s just not logical or rational from a character self-preservation perspective. Worse, because Irrational’s designers postulate the possibility of ‘Infinite’ realities with infinite Elizabeths, Comstocks, and Bookers, there never could be complete destruction of any one of those characters or of every infinite possible version of that story. Worse, thinking thorough the possibility of infinite stories, how do we even know that the story we played is even the one that matters in the Grand Scheme? Likely there is a universe where Booker doesn’t become Comstock and Elizabeth and Booker have a normal happy family relationship and live happily ever after along with her mother.

Worse, what does any of the Infinite story have to do with Rapture? Yes, we got to see Rapture through one of Elizabeth’s doors, but the only relationship between Bioshock Infinite and the other Bioshock games is strictly in that short visit to Rapture. Nothing in this multiverse story has anything whatever to do with explaining Rapture (other than being just another alternative reality). It doesn’t explain splicers, big daddys, little sisters, big sisters or anything else to do with what transpires on Rapture. In other words, the writers of Infinite fail in two ways:

  • They fail to give us a story from Infinite that ultimately makes any sense in the end
  • They fail to explain the creation of Rapture or of those people who end up on Rapture

They even fail at explaining how Columbia comes to exist. If the multiple Elizabeths are successful at drowning Booker, Comstock can’t come to exist and neither can Columbia. That means that the entire story in Bioshock Infinite doesn’t even happen. Which, unfortunately, leads to a circular time paradox. Such circular time paradoxes should always be avoided when writing time travel and string theory stories. Why? Because they leave the viewer with the question, “What was the point in that?” and provide a less than satisfying ending. It’s also not the question you want your viewers left asking after it’s all over. You want them to be thinking about the story and how they like the characters along the way. If the characters are all completely toss-worthy, as in Infinite, then it’s all pointless. You don’t want the viewer fixated on how the story even came to exist because that then turns the viewers to realize just how bad the story is and how worthless the characters are. Further, as an author, why would you ever intentionally write your entire story and characters out of existence via a time paradox? Is your story really that unimportant to you and your readers?

It’s the same reason you never write a story that ends up with the main character waking up from a dream at the end. Stories that end up as one big dream sequence are completely unsatisfying.  Viewers think, “Why did I waste my time watching that?” It’s definitely the wrong thing to pull from a story. Time travel stories with circular time paradoxes are just as equally unsatisfying for the same reason as waking up from a dream sequence. In fact, these two plot devices are born from the same mold and should never be used unless there is a very good reason to break that rule. This is especially true if primary storyline’s time paradox negates the whole reason to even tell the story because the characters never existed. So far, I’ve not read one recent book, seen a recent movie or played a recent game that had a story that could successfully navigate time travel or multiverses as plot device.

The closest any recent filmmakers have ever come to making time travel actually work without producing circular time paradoxes is Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series and Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with its Time Turner sequences. Both stories are carefully crafted to avoid circular time paradoxes. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the Time Turner sequence isn’t used as the main story driving device. Instead, it is used in a noble way to save Buckbeak from death, which allowes the film to have a very satisfying closure. Zemeckis’ Back to the Future films do use time travel as the main plot device. However, these films’ stories are also very carefully crafted to avoid time paradoxes and leave each film with very satisfying conclusions. So, you ultimately care about the characters and ignore the silly time travel plot device. I would also include that the original H.G. Wells’ Time Machine movie is probably the most successful at navigating time travel as a device within a story without creating a circular time paradox while still providing engaging likeable characters along the way.

Overused plot devices

Time travel use as a plot device, while extremely popular, is mostly carelessly used. It has been used in such popular franchises as Lost, Stargate, Star Trek (series and movies), Terminator and is now being used in video games like Bioshock Infinite. Writers need to be extremely judicious with their use of this plot device. Time travel should only be used in a way that advances the story forward, but never in a way that becomes the story itself (as in Bioshock Infinite). Unfortunately, Irrational’s writers just don’t understand how to properly use this plot device within the story context and they use it incorrectly. It should never be used in the way it is used in Infinite. Instead, Columbia could have been shown to exist for other reasons than because of infinite realities.

At the end of Bioshock Infinite, it’s quite clear that the time travel piece is poorly conceived. It ends up making the main character appear as if he is having a psychotic episode rather than actively part of multiple dimensions and realities. I full well expected to see Booker wake up in a mental facility (on Rapture) with nurse Elizabeth administering sedatives to him. At least that storyline would have dismissed the time paradoxes as unreal events and showed us that Booker is just a mental patient among many. This is what is needed to ground the story and tie in the Bioshock Rapture story experience to the Bioshock Infinite story experience full-circle. Yes, that ending would have invalidated Columbia as a non-event, but the writers already did a good job of that in Infinite. Yes, I realize I’m advocating explaining off Infinite as a dream sequence (which is generally to be avoided). Because the Infinite writers already negated their own story, that mental hospital ending would at least start to explain how Rapture came to exist in the state it is in when we played the original Bioshock which is still a far better ending than negating your entire story. At this point, the Infinite story is just a jumbled disarray of ideas that didn’t congeal and that basically made the entire Columbia story a complete time wasting experience.  We don’t care about Comstock and now we don’t know what to think about Booker. Anna/Elizabeth ends up simply being a facilitating plot device, but we really don’t feel for her plight at all during or after the story.  At the end, she ends up a pawn (as is everyone else including Booker and Comstock). In fact, because of the time paradox story negation, we really don’t care about any of the characters.

As an FYI to future writers, ending your story with infinite universe possibilities and infinite versions of your story’s main characters is the worst possible ending for a story if you want your characters to be remembered. Because you as an author should value your story’s existence above all else, negating your characters and story with a time paradox simply sucks. If you don’t value your story, why should we?

Sony PS4 announced.. blah blah blah

Posted in video game, video gaming by commorancy on February 24, 2013

So Sony officially announced the PS4.  But, before I say anything, let’s let their specs do the some talking:

Main processor

  • Single-chip custom processor
  • CPU: low power x86-64 AMD “Jaguar”, 8 cores
  • GPU: 1.84 TFLOPS, AMD Radeon™ Graphics Core Next engine

AV output

  • Analog-AV out
  • Digital Output (optical)

Communication

  • Ethernet (10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000BASE-T)
  • IEEE 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth® 2.1 (EDR)

Optical Drive (Read only)

  • BD 6xCAV
  • DVD 8xCAV

Super-Speed I/O USB (USB 3.0), AUX
Hard Disk Drive Built -in
Memory GDDR5 8GB

In addition to the actual console specs, Sony also announced a Dual Shock 4 controller with a touch surface on the controller.  Nothing like the Wii U controller, mind you, but a finger touch surface (like a glide pad on a notebook).

Wait.. What? Is this real?

Let me start by saying whoopee! =sarcasm off= My first thought after reading this spec sheet is, “WTF? Is this for real? This has got to be a joke, right?” And then it sank in, this wasn’t a joke and it is for real. This hardware is so 5 years ago. It’s basically a glorified PC with 8 cores and a reasonably slow one at that. I’m definitely not impressed. This is most definitely not what I expected to see from Sony. A glorified PC with a Radeon card as the new PS4?

So, why is this a problem? Let me count the ways…

1) No backwards compatibility to the PS3. The AMD chip is in no way compatible with the PS3’s cell processors. So, unless Sony has asked AMD to build in cell core backwards compatibility, the best we can hope for is emulation. And, with emulation comes slowness and games that feel sluggish, choppy and crappy. Sure, they might play, but they’re not likely to play WELL. That’s the difficulty with emulation.

B) It’s a PC.  I’ll say that again, it’s a PC… and not a particularly great one at that. The graphics card might be somewhere close to a mid to mid-high end card in today’s market, but again Sony has trapped themselves into outdated graphics before the console is even released. Unless they plan to release this ‘PC’ in the next 3-6 months, this thing will be outdated and worthless when it arrives.  Sure, it may be faster than the PS3 today, but what difference does that make in the grand scheme?  If a then $300 netbook runs rings around the PS4 in speed, it’s a DOA device. Sure, I love consoles, but I want them to be cool, sleek and unique, not mundane and something I could buy anywhere.

What Sony should have done here is ask for a modular slot for a graphics card. Then, when the card gets outdated, pop in a new updated card.  This does two things for Sony. 1) A modular slot allows the console to remain relevant independent of the processors. The processors will remain relevant far longer than the graphics processor.  In addition, the GPU can be used for game processing. 2) A modular graphics card slot would allow for many uses all across the board. Placing components into modern PCs should become easier and also allow upgrading graphics cards in such devices as netbooks and notebooks easily. This is a pioneer and innovative approach to creating a new device.

iii) Ok, so I have to concede that it will be compatible with PC games IF Sony doesn’t blunder the PC part of it. That is, if they license Windows (of any variety) from Microsoft, they can at least pull in all of the PC game titles that get released (or at least have them ported much more easily). But, that’s not necessarily going to save this turd… ahem, console.

Sony’s day is Done

Sony has been the odd man out in gaming recently and their lack of innovation in gaming is very much apparent. What Sony needs is something innovative, and the PS4 isn’t it. The Wii U is innovative.  Sure, it’s got issues due to launch immaturity, but that will be corrected through updates. Sony’s product is immature and it will clearly remain that way throughout its life. You can’t turn a Hyundai into a Tesla. That just doesn’t work. Sony’s product is clearly a crap attempt at a new console.

Sony, take this idea, rework it and make it loads better. Then come back and re-release the specs.  This is a crap first attempt at a new console.  Let’s start from here and make it better. Otherwise, your current PS3 lackluster sales will turn into no sales when the PS4 arrives.

Right now, the only thing Sony has going for their entire gaming market is the PS Vita. They better damn well hope they can get some decent games out for the Vita because the PS4 is even less attractive than the PS Vita.

Next Gen Gaming

This is definitely not what I expected to see for a next gen gaming platform. We need to move towards more realistic 3D gaming, not towards commodity hardware. The Wii-U definitely heads in the right direction with innovation. It’s not going to take much for Microsoft’s new Xbox to kick it out of the ballpark. In fact, if Microsoft can in any way integrate a Surface tablet into the gaming experience of the new Xbox, it’ll be a whole lot more innovative than this Sony console has any hope of being.  Sony, take it back to the drawing board and rethink it. I think I’ll call it now, the Playstation home console brand is now officially dead. Sony better hope the PS Vita can carry SCEA onward.

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