• Category Archives Articles
  • Editorial pieces on games, gaming, and the like.

  • The RPG Complexity Conundrum

    I really enjoy playing a good RPG or MMORPG on my PC. I get so excited by the endless opportunities of leading a character that is all my own through a vast, open world as he or she growns in skill completing quests, side quests, and various other experiences. I am filled with intrigue and wonder as I explore new regions or discover loot. I feel accomplished when I help a hopeless NPC or overcome a powerful boss. I figuratively salivate over the immersion and complexity an RPG offers. Despite all this, I constantly find myself skipping over the RPGs in my game library.

    Role-playing games in the PC take a lot of time and involve a lot of complexity in order to incorporate such vast opportunities for story, exploration, and playing your own way. The player processes a lot of information, including the various interweaving story lines, related quests, item and skill interactions, UI navigation, and game controls.

    These complexities are what make RPGs so intriguing and inviting. At the same time, they seem to be what keeps me from playing or finishing most RPGs I have. When a game like this gets put down for any length of time, playing again requires a certain level of re-learning: remembering how to play, what your goals were, where you left off, and how everything intertwines at that moment.

    This turns out to be a barrier to playing or completing most RPGs. This is because I frequently play games in one or two hour sessions, which are sometimes days apart. This means I spend much of the session trying to recall how to play or where I was. Now, to some degree this is psychological. I worry too much about doing everything fluidly and following the same path I had planned previously. I played Fallout New Vegas last night for the first time in about a month and found myself worrying a great deal whether or not I had the correct equipment in use, or if I was following the proper quests in the correct order. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I should have.

    As I ponder through this, I realize it isn’t the time spent re-learning that bothers me, so much as the fact it seems more difficult to really get in to the story again and feel the way I did when I set it down. It is as if I, as the mind behind my character, have developed a form of amnesia, and what little time I have to play is spent trying to re-achieve the immersion. RPGs really get fun once they have built up the story and the immersion. The character creation, tutorials, and opening quests often accelerate this process, but getting that same ball rolling mid-game is another story. If there was a way to save my mental state, just as we save the game state, this wouldn’t be such a problem for me.

    I guess that leads me to the question: what do you do when you step away from an RPG with plans to return? Do you encounter the same issues I do, or do you have a way to overcome the gap and jump right into having immersive fun?


  • Hearthstone – delaying the victory

    I recently started playing Hearthstone and have really enjoyed it. I had avoided the game for quite some time because I used to get a little too obsessive about Magic: The Gathering, and really did not want to devote all my limited game time to it. However, when it came to mobile, I decided to give it a shot because then I could play it in those odd moments when I have 15 minutes to spare but I am not on my PC (or even home).

    I have really enjoyed playing the game. I will admit that I am not good, often losing more games than I win. However, it is all those losses that has led me to an interesting and curious observation. I noticed that my opponents often delay inflicting lethal damage. Often they will play some unnecessary spells and minions, or throw out some complex combo. This happens frequently enough that I am left wondering why.

    The “benefit of the doubt” answer is a situation I have experienced myself: they simply did not realize they had lethal on the board. I have had a couple instances in which I got too focused on the strategy and took a defensive maneuver before realizing the offensive kills shot was available. I have also miscounted the damage I had available. My funniest experience I to date is an opponent who clearly had the upper hand and had lethal damage in play, when including the hunter’s hero power. However, they spent all mana on new minions, leaving me with one health. On the next turn, I was able to buff my remaining minion to lethal and won the game. I really think this individual got too excited about what they had available, or miscounted mana.

    However, this seems to happen all too often to be nothing but simple mistakes. Take a match I just finished for instance. I did all I could, but had to end my turn in a checkmate situation. I had 7 life remaining with no taunt minions on the board. My opponent had an 8/8 and one other minion on the board. It was obvious one quick hit with the 8/8 would end the match, but my opponent instead hit with the other minion for 3 damage, cast a spell that damaged all minions, wiping away one from each side and leaving us each with one, and then cast Power Overwhelming on the 8/8 minion to hit me with 12 for a 8 damage overkill. So, why go to all the extra trouble? Was my opponent trying to fulfill a daily quest for spells cast or damage dealt? Or, were they trying to rub in the victory? While I don’t want to assume the worst, I would also note only about half of those that take these extra steps respond to my “Well Played” in kind.

    I may never know why other players prolong an obvious victory, but it certainly is a curious thing. I know the obvious way to avoid this is to just concede when the game is lost, but if it is a close match I like to stick it out for the tiny possibility they will screw up and fail to make the killing blow. Honestly, there is no harm done; the match takes an extra minute or two is all. More than anything, this is just a curious observation of a behavioral “meta” I have noticed in my short couple months in the game.

     


  • Fear of Embarrassing Failure – The Anxiety of Being Bad at a Game

    I love multiplayer games. They add an element you just don’t get from the singleplayer campaigns – human thought. Developers are constantly working to make artificial intelligence within their games more human-like to make singleplayer modes more compelling, but they never quite have that full sense of competition and unexpected tactics and interactions you will see in a multiplayer setting. Nevermind game elements that require real interaction, such as strategic diplomacy or team cooperation; AI simply cannot imitate the feeling you get working with other gamers in these ways.

    Despite my enjoyment of multiplayer, I find I do not play it all that often, and when I do, I barely get the multiplayer for all its worth. I find this is especially true in team-based games such as Battlefield or Insurgency. It used to be that I would only play Battlefield if a close friend was playing as well. It was not until I became significantly more comfortable with the game that I would play solo, and even then I don’t initiate interaction with squadmates, I follow the lead of others, and I don’t stray beyond my comfort zone for modes, loadouts, etc. I think Insurgency is a really high-quality game, but I cannot bring myself to jump into it alone.

    I blamed it all on my social anxiety and decided it is what it is: I still have fun playing and that’s all I need. However, it still bugged me, especially as I realized that some things about it made no sense. Of course, anxiety as a whole rarely makes complete sense in that we know deep down there is no real harm to fear, but it still persists. Why would I be socially anxious playing a game online? No one can see my face. I am using my gamer handle rather than my real name, so no one really knows me personally. My anxiety is usually at its worst when I am in a crowded room of people I don’t know and may not share interest with (think business mixer). However, in a gaming environment, it’s a virtual room full of gamers there to play a game. Clearly, we all have a shared interest. So, why so anxious?

    I have come to realize that much of this anxiety comes from a fear of failure and therefore a fear of embarrassing myself. I avoid playing games I will enjoy. I avoid making new friends. I avoid having new experiences and learning new things. I avoid becoming better. I avoid all these things because I am anxious about sucking at a game. I am anxious despite not truly caring how good I am (I just want to have fun). I am anxious despite knowing we all start  as noobs. I am anxious despite knowing it is just a game. I am anxious despite knowing the only way to get better or have any fun with the game is to play. Sure, there are valid reasons for anxiety, such as the vitriol found within many gaming communities, but negative experiences would be outweighed by the positive, you would hope (have found this is not always the case, which has exacerbated the issue at times).

    I am sure I could spend quite a bit of time doing some psychological analysis to determine if this is all due to some adolescent experiences or something like that, but I am sure speculation will get nowhere. In the end, I come back to, “it is what it is.” Sure, I will keep pushing myself, but I know it will always be there.

    I am not sure what my end goal was in writing this. Maybe it was to share my thought process on the subject, or maybe I figured it would be therapeutic. Perhaps someone else not sure why they are uncomfortable in a multiplayer game will stumble across this and have an epiphany. All I can say is I have found multiplayer gaming easier to do with friends because they help you see past the anxiety (at least when they support you rather than making you feel judged about your skills), but it is also more fun that way because it is usually a higher-quality interaction. Even so, there is still A LOT of quality single-player out there, so don’t fret either way you go.

    Oh, and if you see me out there, feel free to say hi. Receiving interaction from others usually reduces the anxiety quite a bit.


  • DIY PC desk – build log

    Over the course of the past week, I built myself a new PC gaming desk. I sold my old desk before we moved, having anticipated moving to a new state rather than across town. Needless to say, I found myself unable to game with nowhere to set up my PC. Having felt rather handy with all the home improvements I have been doing, I decided a DIY PC desk would be the way to go.

    THE DESIGN

    I started brainstorming and sketching, trying to come up with something unique with an industrial/modern flair. I tried to sketch out some really weird leg shapes and decided nothing would really look the way I wanted AND be a properly supported structure. Eventually, I happened across a post on Reddit (I believe) that lead me to an Imgur album of a desk made using black iron pipe that turned out to be my inspiration. After a little searching online, I decided to aim for a standard dimension desk: 60 inches wide, 30 inches deep, and 30 inches tall. I was in the process of refinishing my laminate countertops using Ardex Feather Finish to give them a concrete look and decided a (faux) concrete desk would be the perfect industrial look. I also decided to suspend the PC shelf with cables for that modern feel.

    HOW TO FAUX-CONCRETE

    Feather Finish

    My girlfriend and I found the idea to do a faux-concrete finish (I call it faux because it is not a traditional poured slab of concrete, though it is technically a concrete product) over our ugly almond-colored laminate countertops in the kitchen after happening across a how-to on the Young House Love blog. I learned a lot from the process and decided to use my leftovers to make my desk.

    The finish is done using Ardex Feather Finish (Henry Feather Finish if you get it at Home Depot) and skim coating the surface a few times. The process is simple, but requires a lot of hard work: mix a small batch and coat, allow to dry, sand, repeat. Feather Finish is fairly easy to work with, though it sets up fast, so you have to work in small batches at a reasonably quick pace (though you don’t have to rush). It creates a very natural light gray concrete finish. If you want it any other color, know that Feather Finish does not accept stain well (it just sits on top and no longer looks like concrete), so it must be mixed in when you prep the concrete. Feather Finish is mixed at roughly 2 parts mix to 1 part water (I usually go a little over 1; maybe 1 1/4 parts), and I eyeball the amount of stain I add (variations between coats helped the overall look, in my opinion).

    I created the desk top by gluing and screwing together a couple pieces of 1/2-inch plywood cut to 60 inches by 30 inches. I also cut my PC and monitor shelves to coat. I did the first two coats of Feather Finish using a wide putty knife (6 inch, I think) for a thicker coat, so I mixed a bit more for these batches; probably around 16 ounces of Feather Finish, 10 ounces of water, and 1-2 ounces of stain (I used a dark slate gray stain). With the first coat, I found it rather difficult to coat the sides cleanly with a putty knife, so I switched to a paint brush for the sides on the second coat.

    DIY computer desk Feather Finish second coat
    Sanding the second coat

    After each of the coats dried, I smoothed out the uneven and rough patches using 120 grit sandpaper on an orbital sander. This creates a lot of fine dust, so a mask is necessary. My goal was not a perfectly smooth finish, as the differences between the highly sanded and lightly sanded portions is part of what makes this look the way it does.

    Faux concrete desk 2nd coat sanded
    2nd coat after sanding
    Feather Finish close-up
    Close-up after sanding with 120 grit

    I mixed the batch for the third coat of Feather Finish using approximately half the quantity of mix, but with a little extra (proportionally) of water to make it a hint thinner. I did this because the third and final coat was meant to be my thin aesthetic coat, and a thinner mix made it a little easier to apply that way. After the third coat, I skipped the 120 grit sandpaper and went straight to the 320 grit for a very smooth to the touch finish. Of course, I went through sheets fast because I didn’t knock down the really rough stuff with a rougher grit first, but I was afraid of sanding through my thin coat. This gave it a nice smooth finish, but left some color variegation from my brush strokes.

    Feather Finish final coat
    Final finish with brush strokes

    SealersTo provide a general protection from spills and stains, I gave the desk two coats of 511 Impregnator and one undiluted coat of V-Seal TK6 Nanocoat X-tra Low Gloss. The 511 soaks in and provides resistance to liquid penetration from within, while the TK6 does a bit of that, as well as forming a thin layer to help protect from scratches. For my kitchen counters, I followed the TK6 instructions and did two coats, the first one being slightly diluted. However, this desk is not expected to see the same type of use or risk for acidic stains and such. I also passed on using a wax to protect the sealers like I am using in the kitchen. I applied both of these using a small dense foam roller. I did it in the backyard, so the layer created by the TK6 has little bits of stuff dropped by the trees above stuck in it, but it’s pretty minor and I just consider it character.

    BLACK IRON SKELETON

    I built the “skeleton” of the desk using 3/4 inch black iron pipe. My brother works for a plumbing and HVAC supplier in town, so I was able to get everything for a decent price. It would have cost at least double for me to pick up these supplies at a big-box store. My final parts list for this was:Black Pipe parts laid out

    • Round floor flanges – 16
    • T-fittings – 8
    • Elbows – 4
    • 4-inch pipe – 8
    • 6-inch pipe – 2
    • 8-inch pipe – 2
    • 10-inch pipe – 4
    • 12-inch pipe – 4
    • 24-inch pipe – 4

    Spray-painted pipe

    I spray-painted the pipe a flat black to give them a more even and consistent color. As you can see in the previous image, the floor flanges, t-fittings, and elbows are a lighter color than the pipe. Because I was hurrying a bit, I did not take the time to clean the pipe. Some of it was a bit greasy, and many had tape around the middle to secure part numbers, which left a lot of adhesive. Leaving all this on messed the paint finish up a bit, especially when I started piecing it together before the paint had fully cured, but I decided to go with it…for character. 🙂

    I figured legs of black pipe would be heavy and unwieldy, so I assembled them in the office where desk was going. Assembling the legs was as simple as screwing it all together, at least once I remembered what my plan was because I seemed to have lost my sketch. I found that I frequently over-tightened the pipe, which made it difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to unscrew slightly when adjustments were needed.

    Black pipe legs assembled
    Black pipe legs assembled (upside-down)

    Black pipe and concrete desk partsOnce the legs were assembled, I brought in the desk top and shelves and placed the desk top top-down so I could set the legs in place. I then measured the leg lengths and screwed/unscrewed as necessary to get them all to roughly the same length. I found at this point that I had over-estimated how much pipe length I would lose when the parts were screwed together, or perhaps I had under-estimated the length of the t-fittings. Either way, the desk height came out to approximately 31 1/2 inches, rather than the 30 I had planned, which is taking a little getting used to, but it is not the end of the world (probably just poor ergonomics).

    Once the legs were positioned, measured and adjusted, and screwed in place, I flipped the desk and mounted the monitor stand on top. I made the monitor stand using the 6-inch pipe, which combined with the extra 1 1/2-inch height of the desk, made for a rather high monitor position. Though these images show the raised monitor stand, my current set-up has the black pipe removed and the shelf sitting directly on the desk for a little 1-inch boost. The 6-inch pipe was poor judgement; I should have only used 2-inch, though screwing on the flanges may have been impossible in that case, so I am still considering my options for the final iteration of the monitor shelf.

    My last step before set-up was to suspend the PC shelf. I attached eye screws to the underside of the desk and the top of the shelf and then looped the wire through and secured with a ferrule. It was a bit of a challenge to get reasonably level, but not too bad. Then, I breathed a satisfied sigh of relief as I stepped back and admired the finished product (“yeah, I know I need to get a good set of wire cutters to trim off that excess,” I said to the judgmental cat).

    DIY black pipe and concrete deskDIY PC deskAnd here it is all set up with my (unintentionally) Iron Man-esque PC case:

    DIY PC Desk - Finished

    So, there you have it: my DIY computer desk! If you have any questions about the process or want more on using Ardex Feather Finish, just let me know in the comments below, or contact me on Twitter.


  • Cutting the Cord – First Impressions of streaming TV

    It has been about a month since we first “cut the cord” and converted to an all-streaming and over the air television home. We have certainly experienced some highs and lows during these first few weeks, and we are learning a lot about what works for us.

    Overall, I have been happy with the experience thus far. However, of the members of my household, I consume the least TV. My girlfriend consumes the most, as she is currently at home with our daughter. This first month has barely lightened her skepticism. I think she is comfortable with what is available to watch via streaming TV and has an easy enough time finding content she likes; her issue is relying on our Internet connection.

    Mediacom’s cable Internet is not known around here for reliability. I had it in my previous home for many years and frequently fought with my connection, finding it down with no reported outages, or randomly dropping at the worst of times. I have still had that, to some degree. Thankfully, all of the instances, other than a 5-10 minute outage, were fixed with a modem and router reset. It is still a headache I would like to avoid, but not the end of the world. I did find that one reason for this issue may have been my router’s IP lease settings. It was set to one day, and since setting this to the max, I have not had to do daily resets of the Roku to reset the connection.

    One of my biggest concerns when considering cutting the cord was how to watch Game of Thrones when HBO Go required a cable subscription. So, I was quite excited when I learned that HBO Now would be available to iPhone owners and provide access to a web player, which could be streamed via Chromecast. I promptly signed up through my old iPhone 4 after charging it and updating to the latest and greatest iOS to be able to run the HBO Now app (sidenote: I never realized how small the iPhone 4 was until having my Galaxy S5 for awhile). I am thankful the first month has been free because their web player has been horribly broken for me (I’m not the only one). This has been disappointing, because I have yet to watch the first episode as episode three approaches. Thankfully, I learned after subscribing through the Apple app that streaming HBO is also available through Sling TV with on-demand access. I will be setting up that subscription soon.

    To get access to local channels, I purchased a digital antenna called the Muhu Leaf Metro (not an affiliate link because my state sucks). It took a bit of work to get it positioned properly. If I positioned it too close to the TV, only three channels from a distant town came in. If I moved it a little further away, I received another 3-5 channels, including one of the two local stations I was looking for. If I moved it further South into a window, I picked up another 3 channels from a town 20 miles South. However, in all these positions, I was unable to pick up a set of channels broadcast from the station nearest to me. If I move the antenna to the North end of the wall, I was finally able to pick up the channels I was looking for, but lost those from the South. I am fine with that, but it looks terrible having the antenna and cable stretched across my wall. I guess the antenna needed a better line of site for the particular station we were after. We also learned that the wireless signal from the Chromecast scrambles the antenna’s signal, so we cannot use the antenna if the Chromecast is plugged in. Thankfully, HBO Now was the only use we had for the Chromecast so far, and that failed miserably. We’ll just save the Chromecast to use on another TV, if we ever have another one.

    The greatest concern I have encountered to-date has been our Mediacom data cap. I have a 50Mbps down, 5 Mbps up connection, which affords me 350GB of data. I failed to look into how much data the HD settings consume and set my Roku to 1080p from the start. Well, according to Netflix, their high setting (1080HD) uses approximately 3 GB an hour, whereas medium (usually 720) uses 0.7 GB and low uses 0.3 GB. I got an online notice from Mediacom 4 days before the end of my billing cycle that I had used 80% of my allowance. I ended the cycle having used 96.4%, and I may have prevented the overage by switching Netflix to medium setting and the Roku’s overall settings to 720. However, I am not certain how directly the Roku setting impacts the stream from other channels, as channels like Hulu do not have a place to change the stream quality, so I am left to assume they use the settings quality from the Roku. For that matter, Netflix does not have a place to change the quality either; it has to be done by logging in through a browser and changing the playback settings for each profile. I also turned off the ‘automatically play next episode’ function in our Netflix profiles to avoid using tons of data if it did not get turned off at night.

    This means that you must have a significant data allowance to be able to stream everything in the highest quality available to you. How your Internet provider handles your overage will differ by provider and by area. Supposedly, Mediacom will just charge an extra $10 for each new 50GB (ie: 51GB would cost $20) with no disruption of service. I read on /r/cordcutters that some providers just send warning emails and never do anything about it, while others are known to actually throttle service (though some have supposedly gotten in trouble for this) when you go over. I could upgrade to a faster plan with a larger cap, but what I have now is a luxury item in my budget as it is. We will see how the next few months go once I start playing games again. It might be a necessity, as I will use 20% of my allowance when I download GTA V!

    One month in, and the cord is still cut. I am pretty happy with the streaming experience, but I am sure there is much more to learn and see, so there could always be other unseen headaches. I’ll be sure to update as I learn new things. Feel free to ask questions if you have them.

     


    Live TV. $20 a month. No Cable Company. Sling TV.