Sunday, January 24, 2016


I now have my own website (and have for a while, since I am acting as server operator for some friends running a custom brew of Space Station 13) and have continued blogging, on and off, there.

Please direct yourself to if you are interested in reading more of my nonsensical drivel.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

User Interface: Windows 8 vs Classic vs ???

Disclaimer: I am not really in a position to talk about the success and failure of Windows 8's UI in terms of actual use.  Were this a discussion of the ins and outs of using it, I would be in the wrong, as I haven't used it except for some slight use of the preview builds.  Fortunately, that is not the discussion at hand.

Starting from my first editorial on this blog (and continuing later), I've espoused improvements to modern UI, which has grown... not stale, that would be the wrong word.  But the UI scheme that has functioned since the early 90s has in general not scaled with the capabilities of modern hardware, and perhaps more significantly, it has not become more mature even as home users, interested industries, and non-technical industries found more and more uses for it.  Arguably the last great leap forward in desktop design was the windows Vista/7 taskbar, and that's not much of a recommendation.

Which isn't fair, truly; there are smaller advances in UI design happening in Linux (and other unix-style systems) all the time.  And, more importantly, there is experimentation--and competition.  The K Desktop Environment (KDE) started in 1996, and has evolved greatly; as a UI, it is arguably more feature-complete than Windows.  Xfce also started in '96; GNOME stared in '99; there are others, some short lived, others well loved.  Even lately, new UI is appearing; since 2010, Canonical (who make the Ubuntu distribution of linux software) has been developing their own desktop essentially from scratch, called Unity.

And in general, these UI are at least slightly (and at best wildly) more powerful UI than Windows, specifically because Windows was never really designed for users.  It was sane, maintainable, and above all, predictable; when you ship millions of windows licenses to businesses, you want to be sure that nobody is surprised by the product; not the users, but also not the people who have to maintain the desktop.  Every advance of the user interface enables users; that is not a practice that Microsoft is versed in, as Windows 8's UI makes clear from its philosophy, let alone its design.  What part of the transition gives users more options than they had before?

At the same time I am not content with the advances being made in UI on Linux.  When I said, above, that the "last great leap forward" was from Vista, I truly can't think of anything else.  Perhaps it is my bias; I'll be the first to admit I have one, and that bias is generally that I think I have a better idea and it bothers me that nobody is coming close, in fact there is barely a footstep taken in its direction.

That idea, and I've mentioned it before, is modularity.

Put another way, the most irresponsible component of Windows 8's UI is its dependence on snowflake code.  Window design has been fairly standard for a while, but when Microsoft decided to make the new UI based on full-screen applications, they couldn't throw out existing UI design wholesale.  Instead, they decided their new UI was a "special snowflake," and changed the whole world to make sure it didn't melt.  Windows 8 includes whole brand-new subsystems whose whole point and purpose is bolting on one particular mode of operation to an OS that otherwise wouldn't support it.

The obvious and opposite design methodology would be embracing the fullscreen app mode that they desire, while providing hooks so that they could add new desktop modes if the fancy struck them.  Far from being a difficult task to generalize, the potential of such a system, and its methods, immediately come to mind, along with several other desktop modes:

* Fullscreen app desktop (such as Windows 8 Metro)
* Windowed desktop (with and without widgets in the background, foreground, or sides)
* Widget-only desktop (similar to OSX Dashboard)
* Launcher desktop (icons and widgets without app windows)
* Null desktop (Cannot recieve application windows; only has the wallpaper, or perhaps something else.  For isolated monitors, small tertiary displays, trackpads, etc)

Okay, that's interesting; but suddenly, something more interesting is born out of it. once you have, in general, different desktop modes, suddenly a new idea is dropped in your lap:

Different monitors in a multiple-monitor machine can become qualitatively different devices.

It has been a constant disappointment for decades.  Somewhere in the 2000s I purchased a small USB touchscreen monitor.  Such potential!  You could put all your widgets there, fill it with shortcuts, use it to control the rest of your system.  But the sad fact was that it was tied to (in my case) the Windows desktop, and could never be anything but an extended desktop.  It interacted with the rest of the desktop in all the old ways, even when you didn't want it to; windows dragged around would appear there, the screen would flicker and go dark whenever a fullscreen app took control, icons moved around if another monitor changed resolutions, etc, etc.

Imagine instead a separate desktop.  It's not a hard thing to envision.  Window managers have been reluctant to embrace it, because when the only type of desktop is "Windows with or without widgets, and desktop icons" it's rather redundant.  But a separate desktop for widgets, or launchers, or one dedicated to a fullscreen app--this would make small touchscreen monitors interesting.  And not just monitors; there have been attempts to integrate such touchscreens into keyboards before, and gamepads, and other peripherals.  There was even a keyboard with every key made out of its own micro display!  (It was quite expensive.)  But in all cases the device manufacturer had to cheat.  The operating system didn't really support the functionality, so they had to do it themselves.  Anyone who wanted to suborn their technology and use it for their own purposes also had to work with the device maker; so that wonderful little display on your keyboard never really could have its day in the sun, except briefly, as enthusiasts jumped on it to see what it could really do.  Then, as they discovered the time investment it took, they slowly trickled away.

But when that display on your keyboard is just a tiny monitor, when it can be taken over by a full-screen app (by the keyboard manufacturer) to display information, or partitioned into a widget dashboard or launcher, or just left blank as a separate desktop with a pretty wallpaper, then it isn't just about what enthusiasts can make it do.  Suddenly, the user interface enables the user.  Suddenly, the other tools you have work with it.  Tools including, and it's not to be underestimated, your average everyday software development tools.  There are suddenly no hoops to jump through; make a fullscreen app, assign it to your keyboard.  Make a widget, put it on the extra monitor.

This is where user interface should be, and it's almost embarrassing that nobody is close.  But Windows 8 isn't almost embarrassing.  They step away from enabling users because they hoped it would be better for their business.  They had a single ideal--what we already have, everywhere--and managed to twist it into a mockery of itself.

For an idealist, no matter what your ideology, when faced with a new challenge, you rise to it.  Windows 8 didn't rise to the challenge of merging mobile and desktop UI.  They faltered and fell, and not on the technical merits of their programmers.  When they decided to bet their business on it, the businessmen took their pound of flesh, and the ideologues lost their heart.  It stopped being a convenient addition as soon as it had to succeed; in order to succeed, it needed to be pushed, to be central, to be marketable.

When an application faces such pressures, the quality goes down, and people shrug and go on with life.  When it gets really bad, competitors spring up and the application dies on the vine.  When an operating system's quality goes down, there is no shrugging and going on.  It affects everything you do on the computer, and becomes unavoidable.

Getting the UI right is not mandatory, as long as you're willing to fall out of favor and be forgotten.  But I rather imagine that Microsoft wasn't expecting that to be the bargain that they were making when they started to skimp on its development.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Net Dreams

The BYOND engine (a game creation platform, far easier to use than normal coding, but with many of the drawbacks that that entails) is, by all accounts, in somewhat dire straits.  The central servers tend to lose money, and the engine itself, while it's updated occasionally, really gets no love in terms of features; it suffers, I imagine, from a lack of adequate code support, people who would do the things nobody really wants to do, but that need doing.

The Space Station 13 project, of which I am a tertiary member (a fork of /tg/station, originally built off an old fork of goonstation, built on some prior project now abandoned) runs on it, and I have put together minor projects in it, enough to really admire the simplicity of the engine.  These projects are diverse--action, strategy--but in each case I could sit down in an afternoon and have a framework, and over days or weeks have a minimum viable time-waster.  In short, I like it; but now, with the money straits they're in, they're making panicky choices to try to drive membership, and I worry that it'll only further distance them from both users and coders, producing the worst possible outcome for all three.

Not that users care--the final product is the thing, and will always be the thing.  Coders want to produce the final product, and anything that gets in the way drives them elsewhere.  And BYOND, like many types of middleware, can only monetize (as distinct from making money) by interrupting the flow somewhere.  Their latest experiment is throwing preroll ads when you connect to a server, presumably to pay for bandwidth costs--but our server, private and unlisted, makes no use of their matchmaking system, so we use their servers (which we are getting preroll ads to pay the bandwith on) barely if at all.  The suggestion, of course, is that we pay for membership instead of having this horse crap forced on us.

Needless to say this is the opposite of progress.

I am sympathetic.  I am.  I am unemployed and would like to make a living in software.  To produce something great and get a revenue stream out of it is an idyllic dream.  Maybe, if I produced a real hit, or dozens of smaller hits, I could live off of it.  Ah, wouldn't that be nice!

And maybe, when you open a diner, a rich person will like your cooking.  Maybe they'll give you a million dollar salary for the rest of your life.  So, why not learn cooking!  If you do, maybe you'll never have to cook in a diner for the rest of your life.

To be honest, where I stand, I would never want to retire.  Ah, say the old farts, the idealism of youth.  And yup, you got me, that's exactly what it is.  Naivete, if you will.  But for the same reason, and in the same way, I would never want to die; inevitably, of course, I will, but that statement belies a deeper, more frustrating truth: before I die, I will age.  I will decay.  And living in my own skin will become less and less bearable.  More importantly, that decay is a failure of my body; it is the status quo, but it is a my body failing to live up to the demands of time and wear.

Abstract things like businesses are not subject to the same sort of failure for one simple reason: they can be rebuilt infinitely.  In practice, the people in charge will dictate the form of the company; your own failure or success as a leader, and your own evolution shape the company around you.  Even if the company leader disappears, until it decides to die, it need not fail; it will, inevitably, but only due to our own mortality.

I digress; it is a habit of mine.

But the point, circuitously reached, is this: not all bullets are silver, and not all guns are golden.  Some things should live that will not pay for themselves.  Revenue--ah!  The bane of business, the heart of capitalism.  If you are not driving revenue, you are not Capitalist.  "You, petty programmer, petty engineer, your words are pretty, your designs are elegant, but unless it is backed by green, you are meaningless to me!"

Well, shit on you, that's a terrible way to run a country.  Or, to mangle a quote about democracy, "It's the worst form of [society] except for all the others we've ever tried."  Some things are infrastructure, which may fit neither in the purview of common good (which is ruled, typically, by government), nor the purview of self-interest (which is ruled by free industry); in this time of trendiness we tend to forget it, but it's true; things like telecoms, transport, and operating systems really do not belong in either of those two camps.  They require adequate competition (ruling out government), and do not adequately return capital investment (ruling out free market forces).  That's why telecoms the world over vary between grossly overpriced and entirely underfunded; it is not simply a matter of doing it, but of finding a way to make it get done.

And infrastructure, whatever else you say about it, needs to get done.  The Romans knew it, as has every city designer since antiquity; if the people need water, they need water, and if they need roads, they need roads.  Nobody today thinks about electric power as an infinite profit generator, and that's a healthy outlook; because it became infrastructure, cheap and ubiquitous, we almost can't live without it, especially in cities; if all power in the world stopped flowing, society would regress centuries overnight.

I did say digressions are a habit of mine?

BYOND is, well, a trivial example of infrastructure, to be sure.  It's a language, some file formats, an editor, compiler, and server software; it is, well, many things, but is just entertainment.

Still, I wish it would survive, and without the cynicism-laden choices that they feel they have to make.  To be frank, if I had a dream for BYOND, it would be for them to be picked up by Google; they have the server know-how, the compiler know-how, the bytecode know-how (BYOND uses bytecode for the server software, as of course does Android), and many other things that a small-time project like BYOND could never REALLY hope for.  I thought of it when comparing, in my head Google Go (a programming language) to BYOND script; the former is so much more capable, but compiles instantly; even setting that aside as a benchmark, they must know so much from experiments with such things, experimentation that a cheap or free tool could never come to understand, especially when the project heads have to work for a living--not just to pay for their own lives, but also to pay for server costs.

And BYOND does need work.  After many years of work, the programmers only just got around to multi-threaded compilation--and even then, it only keeps the UI from freezing while it works!  There are other examples; the map editor is inelegant in countless ways, and underpowered in several more.  Their design sense, while not terrible (although their latest redesign of the pager leads me to doubt this statement), is not the best.  Some parts of their UI toolkit are, while I suppose somewhat robust, definitely overcomplicated and underpowered.  The games themselves, and the server software, are both single-threaded; the bytecode is trivially- or completely un-optimized.  It is, as we say, not professional work.

And what can one do?  I can't fix their problems for them.  I'm an unemployed, idealistic, naive programmer.  I want to live forever, to work forever, to learn and grow forever, but as I am now, I am just your average lost soul.  Desirous of place... of many things.  But for now, just lost.

And dreaming net dreams, some my own, some not.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Tribes Ascend: A Critical Review

Calling this review "Critical" in the sense of being objective may or may not turn out to be accurate.  So, in the interests of objectivity, let me be clear: I wish Tribes: Ascend was a different game.

The fact that HiRez Studios was not actually going to be making a Tribes game was obvious before it came out of beta.  Tribes as a series is simulationist--you, as one soldier (infinitely respawning) in a far-future army, grab weapons and assault an enemy.  You spawn as an ordinary (and well-rounded) soldier, check the situation through map and comms, drop by the armory for advanced weapons, and then go to town.  Going to town, incidentally, means soaring into the sky on rocket boots, rocketing down slopes to gain momentum, and generally, moving tactically through the battlefield to cause lots of chaos.  The bases and weapons are all thematic, and all tend to fit in the same high future fantasy world they created.

Tribes: Ascend takes the far-future weapons of the previous games and, I shit you not, tells you that a fucking crossbow is superior to them.

Here you see my point.  I am not entirely sure I can be objective about this game.  I am not sure that I can be an unbiased critic.  This is only one of several design decisions that are, very plainly, antagonistic to people who buy into the premise of the game.  In addition to "Science fiction... with crossbows!", there is also "Soldiers, throwing themselves into the maws of hell... with poorly chosen and inflexible weapon loadouts!", "Heavily defended bases... with the vulnerable back door pointed directly at the enemy!", and of course, the ever popular, "15 different variations on weak, clip-fed automatic weapons (in case you don't want to fire spinning discs full of fusion-fueled explosives--that's SO 2001)".

However, the above are rants.  They don't really affect the player experience, and so I can't say that they are part of an objective review.  So let's get to that part.

HiRez Hates Soldiers

That's a remarkably sensationalist headline, but let's be clear--I mean one, very specific thing.  Every single player in a Tribes match is a soldier sent off to die, and how HiRez treats them is abysmal.

Imagine a soldier in a frontier office, staring at a rack of weapons, packs, and supplies.  His commanding officer tells him, in no uncertain terms, "We need you to destroy the enemy Generator.  The defenses are heavy; you are almost certainly going to die."

The soldier looks at his commanding officer and says, "Sir, I believe I could do it.  I'll need that shield pack, that mortar, that grenade launcher, this pistol just in case, and some of those mines."

The commanding officer gives him a strange look.  "No, you can't have all of those things.  First of all, two weapons max--I don't care if you have a high tech armored power-suit, you don't get to carry more than two.  Second, if you need a mortar, you can't have a grenade launcher, shield pack, or mines.  You can have a grenade launcher and shield pack, but you can't have a mortar or mines with it."

"But," the soldier says, "If you would just let me have those five things, I can do it."

"Too bad."

And that's HiRez's only real word on the subject.  All the weapons are there, and as you familiarize yourself with them, you begin to understand that the combinations make absolutely no sense.

Perhaps the most poignant case in point: The forcefield.  Forcefields are remarkably useful pieces of equipment.  A small deployable base sits on the ground and produces a blue field that damages any enemy it touches, and blocks weapon fire until it is destroyed.  Forcefields, clearly, are defensive structures meant to be used indoors, where they guard chokepoints and prevent people from sneaking past; or, they can be used outdoors to stop people from rocketing through at high speeds, which has (somehow) become its primary purpose.

You cannot carry or deploy a forcefield without carrying a rocket launcher.  For the duration of the beta and some time after, there was only one type of rocket launcher, and it requires an enemy to be in midair for many long long long (oooh it feels so long) seconds before it locks on and you can finally fire it.  Yes, this weapon was and is utterly and completely useless for any enemy that is not both very far away and in the air for a very long time.

You need to carry one in order to stop people indoors, in close quarters where the weapon will never be ANYTHING but useless.  They eventually added a second rocket launcher in a patch that fires the rockets blindly, becoming yet another unguided explosive projectile, but that's still not really valuable in the close quarters that a forcefield is best suited to.

Oh, and if you switch armors after deploying that forcefield, it self-destructs.

This brings us to the next section.

HiRez Hates Defense

Playing a defensive game in Tribes has always been difficult.  The whole series has been replete with heavy weapons--the mortar, the disc launcher, etc.  There have been cloak packs, jammers, and the like, and that was alright.  It was alright, because when it comes down to it, Tribes of the past gave you the tools necessary to slow down or outright stop attackers.  Anyone who wanted to contribute to defense could just drop a couple mines (you spawn with them), a deployable inventory station, some turrets... if they wanted to contribute, great!  They can contribute, and then off they go to throw themselves against the enemy.

HiRez cuts this communal defense off at the knees with several, individually minor but collectively devastating, decisions:

  1.  Not everyone has mines.  This is a remarkably minor change, but it has substantial impact.  In earlier Tribes, if you had mines, you dropped them somewhere before you ran off to your doom, and it helped the defense.  If you were being chased, you could drop one, and the fool might run into it.  If you managed to get into a base, in whatever armor, you had a way to sow chaos and stay alive just a little bit longer.  But in Ascend, there are only a few people that can use mines:
    • Infiltrator (Cloaking armor): The only real offensive caste with mines, you have to be good at sneaking around, and this replaces your sticky grenades, which are helpful when taking out base assets.
    • Sentinel (Sniping armor): Clearly these mines were only really intended for one purpose: to stop people from sneaking up on you.  If you want to use them any other way, be prepared to put your frail little sniper butt in harm's way.
    • Technician (Repair armor): Not really "mines" in that they aren't likely to kill anyone, but they have an energy sapping "motion sensor" that also raises an alert when it's tripped.  Utterly useless except when defending, unless you are exceptionally creative.
    • Doombringer (Air defense armor): What can I say?  The Doombringer is really only good at standing on top of the flag and shooting at anyone incoming, and the mines facilitate that.  You can wander elsewhere and drop the mines in strategic locations, but your slow lumbering gait means that it's not exactly a quick job.
  2.  Deployables and mines go away if you switch armors.  I really, really don't think they understand how much this obliterates your chances at defense.  For example, deployable turrets come only with one armor--the Technician.  Technicians have a poor weapon selection, and are a medium armor; you can't reliably protect the generator against heavy-weapons-bearing enemies, nor the flag against high-speed enemies.  If you want to play any other defensive role, your turrets go away.  If you were playing as a Doombringer (forcefields and mines) and need to change tactics, those assets disappear and your defenses suddenly have a hole that nobody but you knows about.  The Sentinel (sniping, but also has mines and a sensor jammer) has a similar problem.
  3. You can't mix and match armors and defensive assets.  This drives point (2) home; you can't take a heavy armor and deploy turrets, nor (critically) deploy sensor jammers or forcefields as anyone but Sentiel or Juggernaut armors, respectively.  These are, however, critical defensive assets.  If you can't handle a sniper rifle, you had better hope that someone else can, or you will be unable to (not merely that you don't, but you can't) place jammers to uncloak hidden enemies or hide your own from radar.  Trying to protect something with a forcefield?  Better find something to do with a chaingun and rocket launcher, because as long as that sucker's up, you're stuck with those weapons.
  4. The defense dies with the generator.  Let's be clear; the generator, in a lot of ways, is undervalued.  You spawn in the armor you asked for, with full weapons and ammo, so unlike previous games, your home base's inventory stations are no longer a restless hub of activity.  However, this only helps the offense; defensive soldiers, for the most part, live or die by the defensive assets, because they act as force multipliers; one defender is meant to hold off several attackers with adequate tools and planning.  Lose the assets, lose the multiplier, and you and your peashooter are facing the enemy offense's heavy weapons on equal (or in many cases, lesser) footing.
  5. The offense does NOT die with the generator.  This, again, only serves to reinforce point (4); you can stop the defense in its tracks with a swift strike, but you cannot stop the offense, ever.  This leads very naturally to snowballing; the only way to stop a unified offense is to stop every attacker.  Especially poignant considering the Mortar (and the MIRV, its big brother); these heavy artillary weapons are meant to be fired from a ways away to take out defenders that are too busy, say, repairing the base.  No matter what you do to your enemy's base, you cannot stop the flow of incoming mortar-bearing enemies, even for a moment; therefore, the "Offense as a defense" tactic is wiped completely off the table.
  6. Defensive armors carry a special weapon.  In the case of the Technician, you carry a Repair gun; in the case of the Doombringer, as I mentioned before, you carry a rocket launcher.  The Sentinel armor, too, always carries a sniper rifle, although that seems perhaps more natural.  Why is this important?
  7. Nobody carries more than two weapons.  If you want to do anything--deployables, mines, repairs, rocket launchers, anything defensive--you get exactly two weapons, and if one of them is special-use only (Doombringer's rocket launcher, I am not merely looking at you, I am standing squarely in front of you and glaring at you with both eyes, not letting you look away), then you have exactly one weapon, and you had better like it.  Run out of ammo?  Need something else?  Congratulations, HiRez's weapon selection is responsible for your premature demise.
  8. Fractal grenades.  When you see these in action, you'll know why their mere existence suffices to decimate the defense's chances.  One grenade can take out a room full of deployables, and anyone unlucky enough to be caught inside; but why limit a person to one grenade, no no ha ha; the Brute gets several, and picks up another one for every corpse he comes across, just in case the defense should happen to have any un-shattered hopes.  They are only really useless in open terrain, where you can easily get away from them; everywhere else, the offense gets a "Decimate defenses free" card.
If only this were the end of the "HiRez Hates Defense" section.  Oh, if only it were.  However, the angst that defenders feel is not only caused by the horrific ways in which they deal with inventory.  And yes, if you didn't notice, all seven points are ways they changed the inventory from previous versions of the game.  As someone who was in the beta, I assure you they heard more than a few times that the old system should be brought back--they heard veteran players begging that the design be changed to something less demeaning to defenders.  But HiRez has spoken.

And they spoke again with map selection, which takes us to the next section (itself continuing the theme of base defense):

HiRez Hates Indoor Maps

I didn't realize how good the indoor maps in Tribes games were until Tribes: Ascend took them away from me.  Indoor maps were full of intrigue, ambushes, and blind corners; one person sneaking around could decimate a defending force, but only if they were careful, or very very lucky.

Tribes: Ascend is a surface game.  The only deployable inventory system in the game, and in fact basically every use you have for the in-game credits can only be used outdoors.  You can't really use vehicles indoors (People have, but most people regard it as silly, as they barely fit and can't maneuver), you can't call strikes against the enemy position, you can't deploy inventory stations... basically, credits become meaningless.

But that's not hate.  No, the hate that they feel towards indoor maps is clear in how they deal with base layout.

Two poignant examples: Katabatic, and Raindance.  Both maps came from earlier versions of Tribes, both were modified to fit Tribes: Ascend.  Katabatic, an ice map, was originally just a bunker where you came in through a couple small holes in the top--easily defended, but having played those games, I can assure you they were overrun quite easily.  Raindance, on the other hand, has a very well guarded entrance, and the Generator only falls on that map if the offense is very good--or the defense simply doesn't care.

Katabatic's base layout in Ascend looks nothing like previous versions, and well, that's alright.  Those bases were pretty arbitrary, and I don't miss the random slopes and corners that honestly I never memorized.  However, Ascend Katabatic has... a back door.  A back door that's pointed straight at the enemy base, which, let us remind you, is also a bunker buried deep in the earth.  That bunker's back door is also pointed straight at you.  If you go in that back door, you go down two ramps and turn left, and what do you see?  The enemy generator, sitting pretty in the center of the room, just waiting to die.

Clearly this base was never actually meant to keep anyone out.

Raindance's base, in contrast, was basically ripped polygon by polygon from previous games, much to the relief of veterans.  However, I suppose in response to public pressure, they did something about this whole "Adequately defended" thing.  What did they do?  Why, they opened up a hole in the bunker, one that's very easy to get to, and really pretty hard to defend.  In conjunction with the main entrance, it becomes essentially impossible to guard both entrances at once.

Really, defense, who needs it, eh?  Eh?

Let's look at another map, one that as far as I know, was made entirely by HiRez Studios; Bella Omega.  It's not currently in rotation, but I think it fits the "HiRez Hates Indoor Maps" theme.  Two monolithic strucutres rise out of the ashen landscape, and deep in their bowels lie the generators, while up high are the flags, the objective in these missions.  The underground of these bases was a small tangle of passages, with more than a couple places to hide.

And, of course, each of these bases had two ways in--either through the tower, which is really not too hard to defend or through the backdoor, which was again, pointed straight at the enemy.  In the "final" version of the map (before it was taken out of rotation), the choice becomes "Down the center chute or through the base of the tower", but the principle remains the same: you, as the defense, are not allowed to slow down the enemy with a well-defended warren.  You can defend the entry point of the base, but there are few if any other defensive options.

Let's contrast these with a truly indoors map.  Scarabrae, or Broadside which had a similar layout, are old maps from the series.  In each, two floating fortresses face each other; they have a suitable landing platform on the outside, but as soon as you step inside, there are a long set of maze-like corridors you must traverse before you get either to the objective (flag) or the generator, the team's lifeblood.  There are lots of 90-degree corners, which is good for bouncing weapons (blasters, grenade launchers, and especially mortars); there are rooms that span multiple levels; there are multiple ways to get to each place, allowing people to sneak by; and, let's be clear, there are multiple entrances, but none of them are a cakewalk, and all of them are easier for the defense to reach than for the invading offense.

The game was balanced for these sorts of indoor fights.  Ascend isn't; whether it's good fortune that they aren't trying to do much indoors, or whether it's all part of the same decision, I don't know, but it all comes out the same: the maps don't have good base layouts, and that harms the defense considerably.

To be fair (and remembering that I am trying to be objective, if perhaps failing), the game was designed around a faster experience than older Tribes games.  Flag capping was, from the start, a very smooth experience in the best cases; a good route would let you get from your spawn point to the enemy flag, and back to your flag, in a single, fluid, high speed trip.  But it bothers me that their layouts don't allow more complex defensive strategy; there are no maps where the defense has ample opportunities to set up a blockade on the flag, and even if they did, the previous Hates Defense section comes in full force; you simply wouldn't be able to hold a defensive warren the way you could in old games.

It's very easy, both as an experienced player and as a new one, to look at the map and say, "How the hell am I supposed to defend that?  And that's good--it means you have given them a challenge.  But then you realize that the game gets in its own way, far more when you are defending than when you attack.  "I should put a forcefield here, then when they stop, I'll put a turret here to ambush them--what?  I can't have both?"  "I'll put a mines at the blind corner here, and then get the drop on them with heavy weapons if they stop long enough to clear them--what?  Can't have heavy weapons and mines?"  "Oh!  I've figured out a clever way to defend the flag--oh, there's nobody on my team trying to defend the giant gaping hole leading to the generator, and my defense falls apart without it.  I don't think I can split my defenses between the two."

Granted, one player isn't supposed to hold off the entire enemy team by himself, but I go back to my earlier point about force multipliers; a good base layout is itself a force multiplier, allowing whoever has best mastered it (the defense or the offense) to deal with enemies on better than even terms.  The defense, in particular, has every opportunity to completely own any network of tunnels they can reach; mines, turrets, force fields, sensors, they have every advantage, and Ascend takes it all away from them.  And yet, over and over, whole teams will depart on a blitzkrieg offense, leaving hardly anyone behind to defend, and those that do feel worst of all; without any support, they and any hard work they do are completely obliterated.

HiRez Hates Mortars

But perhaps the aspect I miss most about indoor maps isn't specifically defensive; it's how walls interact with mortars, and other bouncing weapons.  The Juggernaut Armor and her mortars aren't really given any love in Ascend; or that's my view, even if it's a sentiment that may surprise many people.  I swear looking at my in-game friend roster that most of the people who followed me (they haven't said anything, so I can only guess) did so after seeing me finesse my MIRV (a mortar-like weapon with multiple boomies); I use it in all situations, whether indoors, outdoors, standing still, mobile, offense, or defense.  But my favorite tricks with the Mortar all involve using buildings or terrain to affect the timing and location of the explosion.

The mortar, you see, bounces off things well enough, as long as it hasn't armed yet (which takes a few seconds); most people, naturally, only see it as an artillery piece, but when used indoors, it takes on a life of its own.  If you are moving forward and trying to shoot someone behind you, bouncing it off a wall can do nicely; I often don't even turn around.  If there is a curved wall, use it to affect your aim; if there is a roof, you can often enough send the mortar going someplace nobody else expects, because who would dare spend the time to look up in a firefight, let alone stop to consider the angle of reflection?

The mortar, outdoors, is an artillery piece, but indoor, it's an ambush predator.  In both cases, it functions the same; if you know exactly where the enemy will be and when, you can either kill him in one shot, or if he barely escapes, wound him and send him off spooked.  Unfortunately, there are not a lot of people who use the mortar for that, and it has a lot to do with there being no good excuse to practice; much as I adore trick-shots with the mortar, for most people, simply shooting it at the floor does well enough.  There are no winding hallways meant for ambushes, and so the Mortar's predatory mode is essentially unused.

But it doesn't stop there, no indeed.  Using the Mortar as an artillery piece to take out heavy defenses was always a part of Tribes, so much so that previous games included a laser rangefinder that automatically told Mortar users where to aim if they wanted, for example, to precisely nail a turret on a hard-to-reach pylon.  That rangefinder is gone from Ascend, which means that if you want to lay down mortar fire, you had either better get used to rangefinding by eye, or be ready to waste ammo trying to find exactly the right place to aim--while the defenders quickly, if not instantly know where you are.  Did I mention you can't carry both a mortar and a sensor jammer?  Thanks.  I didn't need to live anyway.

HiRez Hates Tribes (Or At Least the Parts I Loved)

I guess it didn't turn out to be a fair and objective critique, but it feels good to finally say it.  I can't say I loved the defensive aspects of Tribes, but what I did love was the feeling that your decisions were your decisions.  Tribes, as I played it, was an opportunity to do and be more than a mundane, rifle-toting soldier; you could in many ways be the architect of your own grand strategy, which other people can only come across and wonder as to your thought process.

Often, if not always in Tribes I would end up contributing quite a bit to various aspects of both the offense and defense, in a single life.  That was the value that I brought to the team; I would lay down mines, lay down deployables, then go to offense, take out the enemy's defenses, then die and start again.  Coming back, you find that your base is in dire need of assistance; so you go running, and you help, and you shore up the defenses that you just found to be inadequate, and then you go running off to spring leaks in the enemy's dike.  I can't say I was an MVP, and I certainly was never in competitive play--but in 2001, when Tribes 2 came out, I was 16, on a shared computer, and I'm pretty sure we dialup internet, on the same phone line everyone else used.  I loved that game, and played a lot of it, but it wasn't exactly something I could dedicate myself to.  Nevertheless, I kept playing it on and off, and would play more of it if there were a game like it.

Tribes: Ascend isn't that game.  The theme is similar, except where they've bludgeoned it with a lead pipe, and a lot of familiar aspects are a part of it, but it isn't Tribes.  The game isn't won or lost by thinking; it simply isn't.  You don't have the right, nor the ability to make your own decisions in the quest to Defeat The Enemy or Save Your Side.

It's not a horrible game, and I'm not planning to completely abandon it.  But that's more to do with the fact--and it is a fact--that there ARE no modern Tribes games.  The last entry in the series was Tribes Vengeance, which had all support yanked by the game creator in 2005.  Some people still play Tribes 2, or even the original; however, the only people there are people that have been there for more than ten years, and that's daunting to go against after taking many years off.

The only thing that really bothers me is that as long as Tribes: Ascend remains, there won't be a "real" Tribes game, like I remember.  Not unless I'm willing to play a game that's more than 10 years old, and full of people far, far better than I am.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Employment & Philosophy

There are times when thinking deeply leaves me with a troubling question.

It is an assumed fact in America that a man, having possession of a marketable idea, creates a business in order to bring it to fruition. Employees, insofar as they are necessary for the functioning of the business, are brought in. Especially given the world as it is today, you could be an excellent employer and very respectful of them, but they may still not actually want to be there; it is another assumed fact, after all, that a man, having possession of a marketable skill, takes whatever job, out of those offered him, that he hates least, or which puts him on the road to a job he someday wishes to have.

That's a little cynical, but the basic problem worries me. I have long thought to myself that it might be nice to be of my own business, bringing my ideas to fruition, rather than being someone else's labor. However, in principle, this only puts others in the same position I would have been in; they will be hired for no other purpose than to see my dreams completed, and they are given a paycheck for no other reason.

If I could afford to pay employees enough, with a flexible enough schedule, that I was furthering their dreams, or at least keeping them fully happy, that would be one thing. But without being a highly successful business (or a billionaire, or striking oil/gold/rare earths/whatever), there is no way to provide so much extra to employees. If I did manage to be a runaway success, without question there would be competition, and how well my company functions would be a major factor in whether or not it continued to be successful. At that point, "maintaining the company" becomes the dream which I am asking others to do for me, instead of chasing their own dreams.

That's not quite correct, I'm sure, and it's a jumbled mess of thoughts in any case. The more basic question still stands--if I wanted to build a company or small business that didn't betray anyone, how could I do it? If I was hiring the business-standard way (take applications), the people who are coming to me are people who are looking for a job; they most likely didn't seek me out because they want to do what we're doing, and they almost certainly didn't seek me out to help me with what I want to do. Isn't it a bit cold to ignore that? But what other option do I have?

Even if it were some sort of communal projects company where all employees have their own babies that we help each other out with--and that's slow, risky, and for something as specialization-of-labor as software, may not be really feasible--even then they're all still restricted in what they can do by the people I'll hire, or in other ways, what assistance I render.

This all ignores, of course, the glaring fact that I have no money to invest in the first place. However, as a philosophical question, I think it's important. Since the dawn of corporations--and probably before--the soul-crushing single-mindedness that a company can impose has been felt by all sorts of people who wanted options but found few if any. Who hires me and how they work me will be a serious consideration for the rest of my life; if I have good money and free time, I may be able to make my projects myself, and go into business for myself. But if I'm only accomplishing others' goals, and if they see me as nothing more than a means to their ends, could I lose myself? Haven't so many before me?

I don't want to betray others, not if they're going to offer to help me with my dreams. What can I do? Is it just because of inexperience that I don't have an answer?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Open Letter to the Few

Dear Rich People, National Leaders, &etc:

I have something to say to you. You're probably not going to understand it right away; the reason for this is that I'm really bad at getting to the point. Proof of this, if it's needed, is that I haven't said what I'm going to say to you yet. You may want to skip ahead.

What I'm going to say is that I was playing Minecraft today. If you don't know it, it's a tedious computer game in which you dig, and by digging receive blocks with which you can build. It's the sort of game where you spend so much time digging that you end up spending more and more time building new tools; I dug in the sand all day and made new shovels for digging the next day before I went to bed. There are other things I could do in the game, but I wanted to build a fortress, and that involved getting and using a lot of resources.

This is where the point begins: Building that fortress is boring. I have already spent hours of my time, days and days game time, working with little immediate payoff. I do it because it's a project that I want to see done, and one I'd like to do. I do it, in short, because I'm a geek. Perhaps more importantly, I do it because I it's something I think is cool.

I'm willing to spend inordinate amounts of time doing really boring things in order to be part of something cool. Work happens. Shit, being BORED is work. I spent my childhood being bored in as interesting a way as I could, because nobody gave me anything interesting to do. I took my toys and built with them, and wove stories and games into them. Do I have anything to show for that? Hell no. This is the second part of the point.

We're waiting for you, rich people, powerful people, to have anything at all that's interesting for us to do. You remember this thing called money? Perhaps you've encountered it in your life before. It's the resource we would use, if we had it, to fund our ideas and make our own cool things happen. We don't have it. We don't have it because we don't have good-paying jobs, and/or because we don't have large pools of funding to do with as we please.

Meanwhile, that money isn't doing anything in your hands. But wait, you say, it's going into investments, with some in the bank gaining interest. Well, here's the thing about banking and interest: You are supposed to get it back. That means that the money was never actually spent, and the people you're giving money to don't actually receive anything. Every single penny that they receive they are obligated to make later. That rules out hundreds of thousands, maybe millions or more, of projects that would be really really cool. Maybe even useful. Projects that could change the world, or change people's outlook on life.

Another game I've been playing is Sid Meier's Civilization IV, a game in which you basically simulate a new world history given the technologies, history, and cultures of the world as it stands today. Funny thing about civilizations: When you build libraries, when you build statues, when you build aqueducts and roads, you aren't actually making all that much money back. What you get out of it is a change to the world around you. People are educated, inspired, healthy, and mobile. Wonders of the world? They inspire your entire civilization, nay the world, but the inordinate amount of resources it took to construct them are lost for good. Period, the end. If you constructed a wonder of the world today, something so amazing you'd be remembered forever, you'd likely go bankrupt.

Back in the early days of humanity, nay continuing even today, private citizens didn't tend to have the resources to do anything until someone gave them a task. For most of human history almost everyone was growing the food they would eventually eat. Now we do all kinds of labor, but the end result is the same: nothing new happens because we don't control the means of production; rather, we ARE the means of production. YOU have to give us something to produce.

But here's the interesting thing. When you look at the world today (by which I mean the first world, which has admittedly far too much time on its hands compared to places that are worse off) you see people doing what they want to do. Sports, gaming, writing, movies, music, all of these are indicative of the idea that people want to be part of something interesting, and they want it so badly they'll pay money and spend their off-hours doing it.

But you guys, who have the means of production that we lack, aren't spending any money on interesting things that we could make for you. If you're doing anything, you're investing, which means that we aren't allowed to do anything that doesn't turn a buck. Me personally, if I had a million bucks (or more) I'd be chasing after any number of projects I have whirling around in my head; video games, tabletop gaming, books, movies, computer architectures, buildings, philosophy, and plenty of other things. Many of these could actually be businesses, but not being a businessman, there's no way I'd ask for an investment or even take an investment. I'm depressive and inexperienced; even though I dream big, even though I'm the sort of technically-minded dumbass that could put it all together eventually but doesn't, there is no way I'll ask because you want a guarantee that I'll succeed and pay you back. Depression doesn't work that way, and neither do most of the really interesting projects out there. I'm not doing what I'm doing to make profits, or even break even. I'm doing what I'm doing to see something awesome get done.

(None of which is to say that I wouldn't pay people back if I made it big. I'm not a greedy sonofabitch, I just don't honestly believe I'll succeed. Could succeed, sure. Could do something really awesome if I DID succeed, heck yeah. But WILL succeed? Nobody's ever treated me like I was going to be a success at anything. I'm not wasting other people's money on a person who shows no promise, even if that person is me. That's all beside the point.)

The point is, ask. Not ask me, but ask of the world. Say, "You know, a giant-ass statue carved into a mountainside would be great. What do we need to do, and what should it be?" Or ask, "You know, a giant school in the middle of nowhere that takes up 1000 acres and is filled with the best minds from anywhere, who'd want to be a part of that?" Or perhaps, "If I organized the best dog trainers around the world, and gave them access to whatever dogs they wanted, and we kept a project going for dozens or hundreds of generations, how intelligent could we get those dogs? Would they be as smart as humans? Would they be smart enough to live in the civilized world without owners? Could they teach other dogs?"

You don't have to take my word for it, but there are an inordinate number of things you could do that would really alter the way we look at the world--that would alter the way the entire world sees itself. The only thing America has had to look up to in the last 20 years are sleazy corporations, lawyers, technology, a dying space program, religions that haven't been updated in millenia... what is that we're supposed to be inspired by? Or are you just all happy being part of a world that doesn't care anymore, because there's nothing else to accomplish?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Free Markets & Infrastructure

This was going to be a slashdot comment, but I decided it was too long.

Somehow we must nail this myth that deregulation means competition: it doesn't

I could be convinced, assuming nobody educates me on my ignorance, that the idea of free markets was from the beginning not actually meant to include the kind of infrastructure we see today in telecoms, power, and transit--or at best, it was simply not thought about.

Infrastructure is essentially a two-phase investment--in the first part, huge sums of cash are used to build it out, and in the second, relatively small sums are used to maintain it, while it receives little (if any) income. That means in principle that
1) It requires a substantial investment for phase I
2) That investment will not be paid back for an exceptionally long time

However, assuming that the infrastructure is well made, everyone who uses it will be happy. It is perceived as a steady revenue stream (assuming it is paid for--counterpoint being roads) because it improves quality of life and is therefore worth the payment. That payment will not come as a lump sum by the consumers (which would repay the initial costs), but only through a long subscription. If that cost is too high--which is necessary to pay back all the loans or recover the investment, and therefore finally be in the black--consumers balk. If the cost is too low, it takes an unreasonable amount of time to cover both the investment and the maintenance costs; especially given loan interest, it can be utterly devastating.

However, there is a median price which is presumably just fine. The biggest question is, "will the company accept it?" And this in my mind is where free market and infrastructure part ways. Free market rides entirely on people's ability to turn a profit. You aren't supposed to turn a profit right away when providing infrastructure, but someone who comes from a capitalist world will see "continuous revenue stream" as "unlimited profit" and will bleed the market dry trying to achieve that profit. From the standpoint of the company itself, as long as it someday is guaranteed to turn a profit it has succeeded. From that point forward, the infrastructure is in place and the debt is paid off--the world is better than it was before, nobody's the poorer for it, and meanwhile the company has been paying everyone their salaries, which frankly should be what the employees worry about anyway. However, from the point of view of An Executive In The Company, the value of The Company rests on Profits This Year, and An Executive is of no value if The Company is of no value.

Setting aside whether or not you trust the government with internet/telecoms and power, they really are public interest and should be treated as such. Even if you say that private companies will do telecom improvements faster, etc, there really ought to be a minimum value-per-service such as is provided by cheap government utilities. I have to imagine tons of people would gladly pay reduced cost for reduced service in telephone, power, and internet if they're currently paying for more than they need. As long as those functions get moved out of "these are infinite profit potential" and into "if you need it, it's there," then that should fix the process at least a little.