Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sundering

When I posted my "Brightcape is 1 year old!" post I wasn't sure what sort of response I would get.  It turns out the responses to the post itself were few but the discussions surrounding it this holiday were useful.  It seems that my family largely enjoys my posts about random topics but they all just click away when the post descriptor includes WOW or Games.  This is a bit disappointing because one of the things I had been hoping to achieve with my gaming posts was to make them accessible to everyone but particularly interesting to gamers.  In that I appear to have failed.  I am not convinced that consistently writing posts about games that gamers would find compelling and nongamers would find worth reading is a feat that can be accomplished but whether or not anyone can do it I am now fairly sure I can't.

That feedback is disappointing but I am glad to have it.  The result of that feedback is that I am no longer going to be attempting to bridge that gap and will be splitting my blog into two.  The first will remain here and will contain all my random writing on religion, psychology, anecdotes about my life and other such ideas.  I will be building a second blog dedicated purely to gaming and it will deal with WOW, CiV, board games, FMB, and whatever other gaming topics arise.  The discussion there will be much more involved than before and I will be targetting the writing at people who are interested in game theory and have the knowledge base to keep up.  I expect this will allow me to write much better gaming articles than before because I can write to a specific audience instead of trying to please everyone; generally I found the greatest limiter on my ability to write was that attempt on my part to make the writing accessible to all.  I intend to write more about specific game mechanics and strategy than before, in particular my posts about WOW will get much more technical and involved.

I don't have time to set up the new system right away so expect The Sundering of Brightcape to occur very early in the new year.  Once I get back home I will set up the new blog and change the sites around a bit to reflect the new focus they have.  I expect to get on a posting schedule where I still make 5 posts a week, though I will take a swing at updating each blog 3 times a week and see if that works out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Scrabble with bananas

Bananagrams is not my type of game.  It is, however, a game I played a few times this holiday and I thought it would be fun to talk about how it works and in what ways it pleases or displeases me.  Here is the basic idea:

1.  Every player gets a bunch of letters like in Scrabble but more of them.

2.  Everyone tries to make their letters into word combinations in rows and columns, just like Scrabble.  However, each player is playing on their own 'board' that has no special boxes or anything.

3.  When you run out of letters you say 'Peel' and everyone takes 1 more letter at random from the pile.  If you want you can toss a letter back in the pile and take 3 new ones out at random.

4.  When the pile gets smaller than the number of players the first person to use all their letters wins.

The bizarre part about this system is that you can be 'winning' throughout the entire game, constantly running out of letters and calling Peel and then on the last turn you draw a Z as your random tile, can't place it and lose to someone who drew A as their random and makes SMASH to finish up.  As long as you keep your stack of letters fairly modest it hardly matters at all whether you are running out regularly or not so figuring out who is winning at any given point is nearly impossible.  You can say safely that someone who has a huge stack of letters in front of them and no words placed is losing but we regularly had games where the last letters came out and it was completely clear that those letters determined who would win.

Of course, that doesn't mean the game isn't fun.  You can have fun tossing away all the challenging letters like Q and Z back into the pile, taking 3 more letters for each and try to build tons of easy words.  You could try to collect both Zs and both Vs and build DAZZLE and DIVVY (I did!).  There are all kinds of random things you can do and it doesn't seem to impact your chances of winning very much either way as long as you try to lay down that last word quickly when the pile runs out.

There probably is an optimal strategy that involves laying down or trading in unfavourable letters to hit the endgame with a specific set of very easy letters including an optimal vowel mix to maximize your chances of being able to cash out very quickly.  You are actually allowed to unbuild and rebuild your matrix of words so it would be possible to develop a set of letters you want, attach them to your matrix to call Peel and push towards endgame and then take those letters off to use up your last draw.  I assume that such a strategy exists, though I certainly do not have sufficient experience to show that it does.

This game definitely fits into the 'almost solitaire' category of games.  What your opponents do hardly matters except that eventually you will have to have done something or you lose.  You can't change your opponent's options, you can't force them to do anything, and you can't tailor your strategy to what they are doing.  It can certainly be amusing to play but the lack of strategy and the inability of the player to influence the course of the game meaningfully means I won't be playing this one over and over.  I also find it very bizarre that 3/4 of the way through the game there is usually no way to determine who is closest to victory at all - you can perhaps count someone out if they are obviously terrible but figuring who will win is generally not feasible.  That is not to say that there is no skill, because there is, but that what you do up until the very last turn doesn't affect your chances of winning very much.  The best player will win a lot more often, but they will win mostly on their ability to play the last 10 seconds better.

The final question I will address is "Why is the game called Bananagrams?"  The answer is that there is no reason whatsoever, except that the case the pieces come in looks like a banana.  It looks like that because the game is called Bananagrams I presume.  Useful, my answer is not, but it is all we have.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Growing up

There is a picture in my parent's photo album of my mother standing in front of a house holding a pair of watermelons, one in each arm, at roughly midchest level.  It was taken when I was about 10 years old and I remember looking at it in the photo album, wondering why they had taken this particular picture.  If the watermelons were the point of the photo, surely we should have taken a picture of all of the watermelons and not just these two?  I thought not much of it at the time since my parents clearly did a lot of things I couldn't find reasons for.

My parents sure do strange things I don't understand.

Fast forward 5 years.  I, as a opinionated 15 year old am looking through the photo album and again see this picture.  This time of course I note that the watermelons are in a position that suggests that they are rather symbolic of things that are not strictly speaking fruit.  I couldn't believe that my parents would put such a picture in their photo album and be so completely unaware that it was embarrassing!  Can't they see what everyone is going to think when they look at that picture?

My parents are so clueless.

Fast forward 10 years.  I, as a worldly and knowledgeable 25 year old, look through the photo album again.  This time I see the overt symbolism and smile inwardly at my own naivete in years gone by.  Of course my parents see it, of course that is why they took the picture in the first place, and of course me as a teenager would somehow assume that they weren't aware of this at all.  Because of course a 15 year old is much more aware of sexual symbolism than a pair of 40 year olds who were at least peripherally hippies and have actually had sex.

I sure was clueless at 15.

Nothing has changed about the picture since then.  It is still a silly picture taken 22 years ago, but the memories endure of the various ways I viewed it and used it as a lens through which to view my parents.  I wonder if there will be some further revelation, some great change in the way I see things based on a new interpretation of that simple picture coming in later years.  I am approaching the time when I will be the same age as my parents were when the photo was taken so perhaps the I am done with learning great new things from it, and maybe it is my turn to take some silly photos that Elli will not understand for years, and will thoroughly misunderstand for years after that.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

It's not my fault

Normally it is my fault when I end up in a religious debate with family.  Wendy shakes her head when this happens as she really doesn't see the point in me getting involved in these sorts of debates, likely figuring nothing useful will come of it and somebody might well get really offended.  This Christmas though I ended up in a pair of debates with her family members about religion and I am going to claim that it wasn't my doing.  Whether or not she believes that cover story is unclear though it certainly is the case that I could have avoided them if I had really wanted to.

The Actuary wanted to discuss religion with me and led off with the statement that it seemed that I was much more serious about my atheism than he was serious about his theism.  It seemed like he was expecting me to be surprised about that but I wasn't particularly.  In fact, I tend to agree.  There are plenty of people who are very religious in a cultural sense but not especially religious in a belief sense out there and it seems like The Actuary is one of those.  By cultural sense I mean going to church, saying grace, being involved in the religious community and taking part in other religious ritual.  Many of these things are things people do for the same reasons I celebrate Christmas - it is simply a set of activities acquired from parents and community that requires no special mindset or belief.  Obviously there is a pretty big correlation between religious culture and religious belief but there is by no means a bijection between those sets of people.  (I apologize to those of you out there who don't have any idea what a bijection is.  Using it in regular conversation whenever possible is mandatory for a math nerd.) 

Back to the actual debate!  We agreed on the basic principle that the Golden Rule is the best simple summary of morality and encouraging people to act in that fashion is an important goal.  The difference in opinion comes in when we began to discuss what role religion might play in educating people about morality and encouraging them to behave according to the Golden Rule.  The Actuary is of the impression that religion is very useful in this way and helps people to understand and accept good rules for living that make society work.  I disagree.  (Surprise!)  Some of my arguments stem from personal experience when I was young, which surely shaped my attitudes towards religion and religious people.  Many come from books I have read and history classes where I learned much about the horrors that religions following codes of conduct that in theory are very altruistic can inflict.  Not to say atheists in history have all been morally upright; I don't think that at all, but I don't see any reason to assume that religion creates good behaviour in history.  I do find it intriguing that when I got into an argument about religion with a religious person we first led off by agreeing on a series of esoteric principles but started in disagreeing on simple matters of practical implementation.  We agree on the basic principles of how people should act but we disagree on the best way to get the masses of humanity to act that way.  The Actuary made a very good point that religion is generally very accessible and that nearly anyone can become involved and take away lessons from it.  He felt that abstract philosophy was generally not something the majority of people would be able to learn from and that teaching morality from that standpoint would not reach many people.

I agree to some extent.  Teaching philosophy to the average person is going to be a real hit and miss proposition and many people either will be uninterested/unwilling or just unable to really grasp the arguments.  Also in many cases the arguments will not be especially compelling as they fail to have the raw emotional impact that is necessary to compel people to change their ways.  Despite the anticipated lack of success of inducing morality through teaching of philosophy I don't think religion can be supported on that basis because teaching morality through religion requires surrendering of reason.  To teach someone that they should not steal because an all powerful entity says so is simple and clear but it also teaches them that they need to simply believe things people say on faith and not worry about reasons, reason or logic.  I think that the value of reason has tremendous value when trying to teach morality.  The idea that the best thing to do when making decisions is not to simply obey authority but to consider the consequences of the action in the light of the greatest benefit for all is powerful.  It isn't some kind of cureall, but it is far less likely to create an environment where suicide bombings and wars are considered acceptable.

We didn't really conclude the debate in any particularly satisfactory way.  That is, unless you consider a mutual agreement to disagree satisfying.  I assume Wendy considers that a very satisfying way for us to stop arguing though since it means that nobody is bitter and no punches get thrown.  I would like to conclude with a quote I really like which summarizes the way in which decisions can be made without any reference to religion whatsoever.

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.


Friday, December 24, 2010

A few less posts, perhaps.

Today I am beginning my Christmas meanderings.  Wendy, Elli and I will be heading off to my parents place for a week of family celebrations, dodgeball, thick snow, cold, and Christmas doings.  My posts over the holiday will likely be sporadic but I intend to try to put a few things up.  Regular schedule should resume on Jan 1.

I have finally finished my CiV mod.  I have a very good feeling about it at this point, though now I recognize that I will never run out of things I want to tweak.  As soon as I hit the Submit button to publish I began to have even more ideas on how to make things even better.  One of the greatest challenges I have is fighting with the choice between cool and balanced.  In particular I had a challenge with Great People at the end that I finally resolved by going with balanced instead of cool.  Here is the trick:

You get several kinds of Great People (GP) throughout the game.  Each of these GP can be used to generate resources for your civilization and the type of resources varies with the GP.  Merchants produce Gold, Engineers produce production, Scientists produce Science.  When they first become available they produce Gold, Science and Production roughly in the 500 ballpark.  At that point they are reasonably comparable to one another, but the trouble is how things change as the game goes to the end.  By endgame Merchants and Engineers have improved such that they are producing ~1000 Production or Gold but Scientists are now producing 6000 Science.  This basically means that if the GP are balanced in the early going (which they seem to be) then Scientists are completely overpowered at the end.  This wouldn't necessarily be an issue except that you get GP from the same resource pool.  I can choose which GP I want to create so once the game goes on a bit I would have to be an idiot to make anything but Scientist.

I ended up simply removing the Scientist's ability to make Science.  The Scientist retains other abilities that make him very useful to build anyway but his signature ability is no longer available.  This was a bit of a struggle because the Scientist gave you Science by simply researching a new technology instantly.  Being able to just pick a new technology and tell Albert Einstein to get busy and learn that *right now* is a lot of fun.  The GP have randomly selected names, so it is entirely possible to order Albert Einstein to research Chivalry, for example; I am probably more amused by this than is really reasonable.  The trouble is that this fun is largely fun because it is stupendously powerful.  I would love to keep some of the fun of the ability but tone down the stupendously powerful part but I just can't do both of those things.

This debate between fun and balanced plays itself out in other ways.  In the latest patch Firaxis removed the ability to store up Social Policies and forces the player to take them right away.  Many people complained that now they have less options which makes the game worse.  They were of course whining because their favourite *cough* overpowered *cough* strategy involved doing this.  What they fail to notice is that if you have 5 options and 4 of them are utterly rubbish then you don't really have 5 options, you have 1.  If you remove that singular powerful option you can often then have 4 real choices where the optimal decision changes based on game state, style and other factors.  This means that although you only have 4 strict choices to make you have a lot more variety and strategy in gameplay.  My thoughts went along the same path in that removing the instant Science ability from Scientists means that you have 4 different GP to build instead of 1 and when you do build them they have 2-3 different things they could do instead of 1.  Realistically I think now you have 10 different things you want your GP to do instead of 1 thing, which surely creates greater depth of strategy rather than less.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Birthdate: Dec 20th, 2010

Yesterday Elli was watching her new video.  Before she started it I told her that dinner was going to happen soon and the video would have to be paused in the middle.  She bought 2 Barbie videos from HMV with her own money, which unfortunately means I can't really intervene and try to head off the pink, princessy, fairy madness.  Wendy and I swore our daughter was not going to dress in pink and own the entire Barbie product line but we are failing badly.  The video was about halfway done when I finished making dinner so I called her to come to dinner and of course she responds "Daddy, I think my tummy is full.  I don't need dinner."

Hold on, one sec.  Let me haul out my wallet and check the birthdate on my driver's licence.  Upon closer inspection, it does not read Dec 20th, 2010, so in fact I was not born yesterday.  Get away from the screen and come eat your dinner!  Elli sat down at her supper, ate precisely one spoonful of food and announced "Daddy, I am full now.  I am going to go watch the rest of my video."  Look kid, don't force me to pull out my wallet and check my birthdate again.  I start out telling her to eat till she is full, but it quickly becomes obvious that this is a failing strategy.  After every single tiny bite she informs me that she is full and I have to order her to continue to eat again.  I settled on the 10 minute plan instead:  I told Elli she must stay at the table for 10 minutes and I don't care if she eats at all.  She took great pains to inform me a few times that 10 minutes was over, but I checked my watch and gave her the remaining time.  Finally she decided that since it wasn't an opinion that would decide when she got to leave but instead a measureable fact she dove into her dinner and shovelled food down her gullet as fast as possible.  Once she was done eating she sat in her chair, twitching and bouncing, constantly in motion, every few seconds asking if it was time to go back to her video now.  I was tempted to ask for a blood sample to test for illicit drugs but instead just took a minute to watch the dance of desperation while the last of the 10 minutes ticked away.  Finally time was up and I went and restarted her video.

I can't help but wonder just what her mindset is.  Does she really believe herself that she is full, despite the clear fact that she was extremely hungry?  Is she purely trying to fool me or is her desire for Barbie the fairy princess so great and so overwhelming that she truly believes what she says?  I know that I certainly forget to eat when I get really involved in a project and it isn't that I actively suppress my hunger, I just don't know that it is there.  I have sufficient self awareness these days that when offered food I take it because I know I will work better once I am fed but she clearly doesn't have that.  Adults do this same thing as self-delusion is certainly not limited to people who are very small.  Adult self delusions tend to be a little less obvious, but only a little.

"Oh, I win money at slot machines at the casinos.  I have a system."
"I am definitely a better than average driver."

I think the primary difference between the adult delusions and the child delusions is that children are very much willing to let go of their delusions and be proved wrong.  Adults will go far out of their way to maintain their long held beliefs while children live more in the moment and will trade in their convictions for a lollipop generally speaking.  I figure it is useful to let Elli experience these moments of desperate need vs. Stern Father because that conflict of want vs. necessity is a critical one to be able to manage in life.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Setting the rules

When I pick Elli up from daycare I get to see a real variety of different rulesets conflicting in strange ways.  When the children are there without their parents the teachers go by their rules and when the parents have the children in the hallway, outside the classroom, the parents go by their rules.  But when the parents are in the classroom with the teachers it isn't at all clear who is in charge and how exactly things should get done and it leads to some interesting situations.

For example, some parents use the technique of 'I will leave you here if you don't come right now!' to get their kids to get out to the area where their outside clothes are stored.  I think this technique is a complete disaster but yet it is used time and time again.  The parents open the classroom door, talk about how they are going to leave the kid there overnight and the kid ignores them and continues painting, building, or whatever else they are refusing to give up.  Sometimes the parents go out into the hallway and stand there hoping the threat of leaving the kid overnight at school will finally work.  I just don't see how this is a good plan.  The kids know they aren't getting left overnight and they just ignore that threat completely.  Once you make a threat that you won't follow through on and you get your bluff called you end up in a really awkward situation where your authority and credibility are both shot - how do you continue to lead from that spot?  I watch the teachers try to deal with this sort of thing and they are clearly conflicted between supporting the parents and trying to not be too involved.  They clearly aren't allowed to make ridiculous threats and not follow through when they are in charge but they are caught in the middle.  If they undermine the parent they are just making all kinds of trouble for themselves and if they support terrible strategies they undermine their own authority when the strategy fails.

It is also strange when we have to make decisions on what let Elli get away with at school.  If she had her way she would bring sticker books, stuffed animals, random things she finds on the ground and everything else to school.  Things would get broken, lost, and played with by other kids and it would be a disaster, particularly if every kid did it.  Initially we relied on 'The school rules are that you don't bring toys.' but eventually other kids brought toys and that didn't fly.  How do we deal with the fact that the school technically doesn't allow toys but other parents send their kids with toys?  This would be easy to resolve if we were comfortable just being autocratic but we really want Elli to know why decisions are being made and see that we are consistent.  I do sympathize with people who break the rules here and there; I get to see plenty of Elli standing at the door screaming that she wants to bring her kitty and I know how much easier it is to just shove the damn stuffed cat in the backpack than fight a wailing, screaming ball of hair, snot and tears to school.  That conflict point where nobody is really in charge and neither side knows exactly what the rules are makes things very strange, very challenging and very interesting.

I don't envy those who work in that situation and have a lot of training on how to deal with children in the best possible ways and who end up supporting all kinds of ridiculous parental mistakes.  I am not claiming any sort of perfection here, I think I do pretty well being disciplined about discipline but there is no denying how unsettling an upset child is and how hard it is to deny loved ones things they desperately want.

Friday, December 17, 2010


I have some issues with obligations and debt.  Most people who have debt problems have problems that they have too much debt, but I go the other way.  I HATE debt.  I hate it so much that it colours many of my other interactions in my life where I go very far out of my way to avoid ever being in debt to anyone.  This isn't just financial debt though, but also social debt.  I don't like to be in the situation where I owe anyone anything; that feeling that someone might just wander by and ask me to do something I don't want to do but feel obligated to do because I owe them is intensely uncomfortable for me.  This is even true with people I very much like and trust as just the idea that I have that debt outstanding is anathema.  I am the guy who always insists on getting separate bills and always wants to discuss terms of repayment before anything else.  This may well be all tied in with the fact that I always repay my debts; the very idea of not paying what I owe is simply unacceptable.  When my inlaws lent me money to buy my condo I paid them back on time and with interest.  We had not discussed interest beforehand and I expect they would have been perfectly content to get the principal back but I figured out the average rate of interest over the loan period in Canada and paid them the precise amount.  Doing that made absolutely sure there is no debt whatsoever since we both gained and nobody was put out.

I don't know why I am like this.  I don't recall any particular instance in my past where I was burned by being indebted to someone and my parents aren't like I am.  They don't go into debt but they don't have my paranoia of unclear contracts.  My father got into a business with his brothers without contracts and lawyers being involved and I would never do such a thing.  I trust my brother tremendously but if that situation were ever to arise for me I would absolutely insist on everything being in writing and legally bulletproof ahead of time before ever signing my name.  It is funny for me to watch people who aren't like this as I just can't fathom doing what they do.  At one point Hobo and Full Bed had a apartment together and they shared bills pretty much at random.  One person would pay for the phone at one would buy groceries and the other would pay the moving guy and they did not keep track.  Despite the fact that I would trust either of them completely to attempt to keep their end of the bargain that is not an agreement that I could live with.  I would be happy paying all the bills and collecting my due regularly or having any other absolutely equitable arrangement but just figuring 'It all equals out in the end' makes me shudder.

It isn't the money.  I have enough money that these sorts of arrangements with reasonable people would never break me, it is the principle of the thing.  I never want a small sum to cause resentment nor do I want to be bitter because someone owes me and doesn't feel obligated to pay.  Something deep in my brain is desperately concerned with these things beyond all reason and necessity and although I recognize that I cannot make it go away just by knowing.  Most people aren't like me and that can cause problems.  Many people just want somebody to pay the bill, or they want to borrow some cash here and there and they figure it all works out.  That is comfortable for them and not so much for me.  It is a struggle for me to live within that framework and try to let go of my need for certainty and equality in the pursuit of peace.  I wish everyone was more like me of course (I am not unique in that regard...) but acknowledging that they are not and trying to compromise is a uncomfortable necessity.

This actually came up yesterday in my WOW guild.  I have a ton of gems acquired by buying in bulk at ridiculous prices.  Based on past experience people expect me to bring gems to raids and supply them to anyone who wants them for free.  This I find intensely frustrating.  I know some people view it under the lens of "Sky has boatloads of money in game, so why would I pay him?" but that just makes me even more nuts because I play the money game for fun.  Having others spend my money away wrecks my money game, and this is hard to communicate because nobody else I know plays the money game the way I do.  They simply get enough to get by and stop worrying about it, so for them the situation of giving away 40 gold when they have 400,000 gold is painless but for me it is not.  Obviously I don't need the money but I despise that sense of entitlement, of inequality, of debt.  I buy things from people and I pay the going rate.  Just like anyone else I am willing to spend time to help my friends but I draw a big, thick line between money and time in WOW.  In many ways that makes absolutely no sense because money = time but it is a line I have drawn in order to make the money game fun for myself and erasing that line makes the money game no good at all.  You might wonder why exactly I would torture myself over the precise correct policy to follow in supplying my friends with gems when the amounts in question are trivial compared to my fortune.  You would be smart to wonder that, and I don't have a good answer aside from the obvious that everyone is a little bit crazy and this is my particular variety of crazy.  I have resolved to try to set aside that conundrum and simply give away gems.  I will ignore the cost and pretend it isn't there.  Now we will see if I can manage to convince the mad, debt obsessed portion of my mind to submit to the greater good.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On scaling, or not

WOW has had some issues with scaling in the past.  The best examples of this are dps warriors throughout the history of the game (for scaling too much) and shadow priests in TBC (for scaling too little).  Scaling is a word that is horribly abused throughout the WOW community by people who fail completely to understand what it means.  "Poor scaling" is regularly used to mean "I am bad" or "My class isn't powerful enough" instead of what it actually means which is that the class in question does not adequately improve given general stat increases compared to other classes.  Dps warriors have historically been terrible at the start of expansions and then overpowered at the end because their rage scaled so much.  Cataclysm seems to have several reduced this and it appears that rage will not scale out of control this time.  Shadow priests in TBC simply gained no benefit from any stat but spellpower and since their first pieces of gear had almost as much spellpower as their top tier pieces they basically never improved at all.

Ret paladins at the moment are suffering from terrible scaling.  The main problem is that there are 5 secondary stats - Hit, Expertise, Mastery, Crit and Haste.  Hit and Expertise cap out fairly quickly for everyone, so there are 3 stats left.  Ret paladins gain relatively little from Crit compared to other classes but aren't really abysmal - just weak.  Unfortunately both Haste and Mastery give Ret paladins the same benefit - more buttons to hit to do more damage.  The problem here is that Ret paladins are already nearly GCD capped anyway so more buttons is actually a very weak mechanic, particularly when both stats give more Templar's Verdict casts and TV is the third best attack we have.  To give an example, say a Fire mage gets enough Mastery to gain 100 dps.  Then imagine they gain enough Haste to get 100 dps.  What happens if they gain both of those things?  Their dps goes up by 220 (guesstimate).  Now imagine the same thing happens to a Ret paladin.  Instead of getting a 220 dps gain they get a 180 dps gain.  The additional procs from Mastery and Haste interfere with each other and cause lost procs, not to mention the fact that Mastery in particular is absolutely trash for Ret paladins.

Right now Ret paladins are behind the curve in damage, not immensely so, but we are on the weak side.  This is going to rapidly escalate as we get raid gear and secondary stats begin to pile up.  There are plenty of solutions for this problem, some of which will work temporarily and some of which will work for the whole expansion.  Blizzard needs to give up on the idea that a class which is nearly GCD capped can scale with two different stats that give them more buttons to hit.  Actually making that work would require strikes that do truly immense amounts of damage such that they are worth hitting over whatever else would have been in that spot and that type of strike is going to unbalance pvp dramatically if a string of procs occurs.  Since haste is supposed to be the 'do more' stat across all classes that means mastery simply needs to get rewritten.  If the amount of mastery gained per point was doubled or trebled it would make it temporarily quite good but long term there would still be problems.  Mastery needs to be something passive that simply makes more damage happen, and it could be as simple as a flat damage increase like Arcane mages get or extra strikes that proc like Arms warriors.  Whatever it is it needs to get away from the 'more buttons' idea that would work for many classes, but specifically not the class that got it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I was looking around the decorations at Elli's school the other day and saw a copy of a few interesting documents on the walls there.  Quotes from those documents:

Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:

The Parliament of Canada, affirming that the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions;

The first quote is the beginning of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the second is the beginning of the Canadian Bill of Rights, which is the precursor to the charter.  The Bill became law in 1960 and the Charter in 1981, but what was remarkable to me was the tremendous difference between what was considered necessary then and what would be possible now.  If anyone tried to set out a new standard for Canadian law these days and the preamble implied that Canada was/is a Christian nation and that being a Christian nation was a necessary assumption for agreeing with these laws it would get laughed at.  Of course these aren't the stand out exceptions as the documents also reference the Queen of England as our iron fisted ruler; not exactly representative of anything but an amusing anachronism.  I do wonder if those lines will ever be struck out of their respective homes.  I doubt it will happen because there simply isn't any compelling need to go through the incredible process of changing those documents when the edits in question are changing something that is completely irrelevant anyhow.  Much like the Queen being our monarch we really haven't any reason to change what everyone knows isn't true.

I got to thinking about how attitudes towards religion have changed.  I remember back in public school when we had to stand up and recite the Lord's Prayer every day.  There was one girl in my class who was a Jehovah's Witness who did not stand and recite with the rest of us - presumably at her parent's insistence.  At the time it was more than a bit strange because the school absolutely insisted on everyone saying the prayer after singing O Canada.  I suspect that it was simply an obedience thing and that they worried that if they made the prayer optional then everyone would ignore it and they feared that the contagion of disrespect would spread outward; better to hold the line.  I even had religion taught to me in class though very little time was spent on it.  I recall a very old, very nice lady who came by maybe once a month to teach us Bible stories.  I don't know what year exactly those things ceased but they are long gone now.  What I wonder is what other religious habits that seem rooted firmly now will vanish over the next 20 years?  Certainly the practice of saying grace before meals, once ubiquitous, now is reserved far more for dinners with the older folks who expect it as a matter of course.  I am clearly an outlier in this case but I really notice those little things like the stark difference between religious Christmas music and pop culture Christmas music this time of year.

The changes that must occur when a nation changes mindset from 'singular religion' (inaccurate and ridiculous as that statement is and was) to 'many religions, including none' are substantial and take a long time to happen.  Much of the things that change are not hard to change because of religion itself necessarily but instead hard to change because people are used to them.  They support and defend the old ways simply because they are familiar so it takes generations for habits to really shift.  I expect that we will slowly lose nearly all the trappings of religion from public life as Canada continues to become more and more multicultural but it is a process that will most likely outlive me and my generation.

That is, unless some scientist gets off their behind and comes up with a formula for immortality.  Come on guys, you probably only have another 50 years before it will be too late for me, get cracking.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Telling a Story

In the new Cataclysm zones in WOW there is an entirely different style of play while doing quests.  In the old game quests were largely optional - you could do them or not and nothing changed and if you ignored some of them it really didn't matter.  In the new model things are completely different because quests are telling a gigantic story with your character at the heart of it and you cannot avoid nor skip them.  To complete each of the zones in question and see the final quest you have to do absolutely everything in the zone first.  Because of the new phasing technology employed everywhere you also have to do everything in precisely the order the quest designers set up.  The number of options available to the player is thus very small in terms of what comes next.  That is offset by the fact that quests are now vastly better.  There are all kinds of boss fights you can do solo, the world actively changes to reflect the things you as a player have accomplished and the things you do feel much more epic because you can see the effects of your efforts.  The new style is much better for those who want to experience a story or watch a movie or feel epic but much worse for those who want freedom to explore and do their own thing.

There are many complaints about WOW but two big ones over the years are that:
1.  Quests the players do have no impact on the world and nothing changes no matter what supposedly has been done.
2. WOW is too much of a theme park where the player is forced onto the straight and narrow instead of simply going out there to see what can be seen.

Clearly Blizzard decided that the first complaint was one they should address - and they did!  The question is whether they went too far, and I think they did, but only a little.  The trouble with this new model is 100% of the quests are mandatory so having bizarre, challenging or strange mechanics either have to be made trivial or they end up annoying a lot of people.  In particular the jousting quest in Hyjal would have been a good place to have a little side quest - you could do the jousting or continue with the main questline.  I would enjoy it greatly if the main plot series was designed in the current fashion but there were side quests, things that weren't entirely necessary to advance the plot, scattered around.  While I don't like to give him too much credit, Gevlon actually had a neat idea to have the main questline for a zone have red ! and ? markers so players know that these are the really important quests to do and have optional ones be the normal gold colour.  Everyone recognizes that you can't tell the epic story without a strict chain of quests but giving players the option to complete a few extra things at the current hub or move on to bigger and better stuff would be nice.

All in all I really did like questing through the new zones and the phasing, new and better quest/bossfight mechanics and epic storytelling were a lot of fun.  I do wish though that I could push ahead with the story and leave a few of the 'go find me 6 bottles of rum' quests for later.  A happy medium between the old way and the new way looks to be the best way from where I sit.

Monday, December 13, 2010

God does play dice with the universe

There is a famous quote from Albert Einstein that goes

God does not play dice with the universe.

Einstein was an atheist so I don't have any incentive to harp on that portion of it.  However, the point of the quote is that Einstein didn't believe that the universe contained any real, fundamental randomness.  He was convinced that if we looked deep enough and understood enough we would eventually see the patterns underlying seemingly random events and would be able to model, calculate and predict them.  He was wrong.  Quantum mechanics shows that the universe is in fact random and events at the tiniest scales simply cannot be predicted ahead of time even with perfect information (the possession of which is also impossible).  When I was 16 or so I had strong feelings on the issue and believed that Einstein was right.  It was surely a laughable bit of hubris that I thought I had anything relevant to contribute to the field but that did not shake my beliefs.  I made my decision based on the fact that people have considered things to be random and unknowable throughout human history and consistently, without fail, we have been able to model, compute and predict those things.  Until quantum came along, that is, and we found out that there are things that are fundamentally random.  For the past couple years I have had an uneasy truce with this fact because although it certainly seemed true I had no real concept of the proof of it.  This changed when I read The Matchbox that Ate a Forty-Ton Truck.

This book is a marvellous manual of modern physics written for people with a bit of background but without the desire to go through derivations and calculations.  Marcus Chown manages to talk about extremely complex topics using a combination of scientific knowledge and simple analogies that stitches together the knowledge the experts have with ideas lesser mortals can understand to leave the reader with a really respectable idea of how things work.  I have read a number of 'physics for the layperson' books, in particular when I was 16 and thought I might have something to say on the topic, and this one is by far the best.  The trick is to combine 'common sense' ideas and analogies to give the reader a real idea of what is going on but provide just enough raw scientific knowledge that it becomes clear in the end how inadequately these simple models portray what is really going on.

Now I have a decent intuition about why exactly the periodic table has the patterns it does and what that means for the formation of life.  I can comfortably say I am at peace with the idea that the universe is in fact fundamentally random because I understand why we know that is true.  I am much more in awe of the accomplishments of physicists who model the progression of the universe from the Big Bang onward after reading the sorts of things we have figured out about it and how those ideas came about.  In short I am informed, I was entertained, and I think anyone with a curiosity about how things really work ought to have a read of this book.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Basic Training

When playing WOW you first level yourself up by bashing monsters in the head for 85 levels.  This used to be incredibly simple and straightforward - you run up to the monster and beat on it until it dies, then you go to the next one.  Eventually you find that your level is at the maximum and the next step is to start raiding, which is destroying difficult challenges with many people.  The challenges of raiding are substantial compared to soloing, and in particular it requires all kinds of skills that you simply had no place to learn while soloing.  The classic example is getting out of the fire.  Bosses in raids put fire on the ground and you have to not be in it, because it will burn you very badly.  Sometimes the fire is actually poison, or frost, or whatever, but it is bad.  The trouble was that when soloing this never, ever occurred and a new raider would find themselves trying to master a skill they had zero opportunity to learn on their way up.  This was a flaw in the game's implementation, that skills that are considered baseline and necessary in the endgame did not appear at all in the early game.

Cataclysm has changed all this, and done it beautifully.  Previously when a monster in WOW was supposed to be hard to solo it would simply be given a few more hitpoints and it would do massively more damage.  It was much harder certainly but generally the tactics required were no different.  In Cataclysm there are all kinds of solo encounters with monsters that have immense hitpoint totals but who do very little damage, thus the fight can continue a long time, just like raid encounters.  These encounters also have mechanics exactly like raids in that bosses put fire on the ground or do incredibly destructive attacks that can be entirely avoided with proper reactions.  People like myself who have raided forever will mostly find these mechanics very simple but they do still lend an air of grandeur to a solo encounter that was sorely lacking before.  The screen will give you instructions on how you can avoid these terrible attacks

"Overload Zingband is casting a Shadowbolt Volley!  Find someplace to hide!"

If you hide behind a pillar or somesuch the Shadowbolt Volley does nothing, but if you just stand there and take it you will die.  Just like in a raid you need to be constantly attacking the enemy and occasionally dodging their devastating moves.  It is wonderful!

The combination of giving a little basic training to newbies and providing a bit of fun, variety and epic feel for a veteran is a great one and this is one of the great success stories of this new expansion.  Now if you level up to max and get started raiding you will definitely have experience in dealing with all kinds of raid challenges - interruption of casting, movement, line of sight strategy and many others.  There are a lot of things that cataclysm did right but to my mind this is the biggest - make the transition from soloing to raiding smoother and make soloing feel much more meaningful in the process.

I was prepared

I have a tolerant wife.  This is a good thing for me, because I tested it a little this week.  On Tuesday I woke up at 3:00 in the morning to start gaming like a maniac and played through the day and she was amused, though not so much by being woken up in the middle of the night.  I failed to get 2 of the 3 achievements I was aiming at for this expansion that day and was very concerned that I would fail further, but that was not to be the case.  The proof, as they say, requires pix:

The tricks involved in getting it were several.  First, I had to buy a very specific recipe that took 4 days to acquire.  It became available at 4:00 in the morning on Friday so to avoid anyone else beating me to the punch I woke up in the middle of the night for the second time in 4 days to play video games.  (Did I mention my wife is tolerant?)  I stood beside the questgiver as 4:00 ticked over, completed the quest immediately and began crafting, which is the other tricky part of the equation.  You see, the recipe that I used to get to 525 became extremely unreliable by the end.  To get from 524 to 525 I had a 9% chance of success each attempt, and the previous ones were similarly bad.  The trouble with this is that with a new expansion just coming out the cost of materials was hideously high and I wanted to be very sure to succeed so I needed to spend a TON of cash to make sure I didn't fall slightly short of my goal.

Ziggyny was doing some math using Markov chains a little while ago on profession skill up chance.  He gave me the numbers for my chances of success and they weren't nearly as pretty as I was hoping.  I was crafting Chaotic Shadowspirit Diamonds, and thankfully I had alchemy capped so I could actually make them myself. My expected number of Diamonds necessary was 47 and I got myself up to 68 stored up.  According to Ziggyny I had a approximately 90% chance of success with 68, and it turned out I only needed 42.  I spent a boatload of money buying ore from people (A lot of my suppliers seemed to think it was an early Christmas with the outrageous prices I was paying) and now I have 42 of a single gem cut.  To be fair, that gem is by far the most needed gem so the server demand will vacuum them up in an instant; whether or not I can recoup my costs or not is another question entirely.

I feel good, I feel great!  That feeling of having 3 goals, all of which should be entirely reachable, and failing utterly at the first two while the last remained at best uncertain was terrible.  The feeling of completing the third and watching my competitors bitch and kvetch about how they should have gotten it themselves was a wonderful thing indeed.  In this instance I was prepared.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Castles in the Sky

A castle in the sky is a fantasy staple, a place of wonder and magic.  In each of the WOW expansions there has been a castle in the sky, though they share little besides that general title.  I love this song, btw.

This is Tempest Keep from the Burning Crusade.  It is certainly a castle in the sky with multiple sections floating up in the air over the bizarre and otherworldly Netherstorm.  It was not only the site of many, many wipes to Kael'Thas but also 4 gigantic crystal palaces.

The level of detail on Dalaran in Wrath of the Lich King is much better.  It is a friendly, happy place, familiar and entirely human instead of a crystal fortress constructed by a inscrutable race of godlike entities.  It is also ripped out of the ground wholesale and flown around instead of being placed here in some deliberate fashion. The feel really works, it is a fantastical human city torn from the ground by great magic, and yet still very much a human city.

This is the crowning achievement.  The Vortex Pinnacle is in Cataclysm and it is the best castle in the sky yet. It is an ivory tower, a masterpiece of architecture floating on a cloud.  Literally the buildings go down into the cloud you can see there and vanish in the mist.  The effect is stunning visually and is a good showcase of the leaps forward the game has made in making beautiful scenery for the players to gawk at.  Surely after I run through the Vortex Pinnacle a dozen times I will ignore the scenery and the gorgeous artwork that makes it so compelling but as I am still at that delicate, impressible stage I will gush a little and let the praise fall easily from my lips.

While I am obsessed with numbers and with the balance of the game I do find it so enjoyable to run around the world and see all these strange and beautiful things.  There is just so much of me that loves the idea of exploring a fantastical, magical kingdom and seeing all the wonders and horrors it has to offer that for a little while my math brain can take a back seat.

I was not prepared

Yesterday was the launch of Cataclysm.  I woke up at 3:00, managed to actually log in at 3:30 or so due to massive login server overload and began levelling.  I had 3 achievements I wanted to get and by noon two of them were already out of reach and the third was looking frightening.  I was not prepared.

If I had decided to get the realm first Alchemy I would have gotten it no problem.  It took 8 hours at least for someone to get it and I could have beaten them and not even spent overly much money doing it.  Instead I went for realm first paladin 85 and failed.  My assumptions were not particularly accurate; getting to 81 required 1.7 million XP, so I figured that the progression would be similar to the last expansion and I would need something like 10 million XP to go from 80 to 85.  On this assumption I figured I could be done levelling within 12-15 hours, perhaps quick enough to be completed before supper.  I was wrong, as the XP curve went

1.7 M
2.2 M
3 M
5 M
9 M  !!!!!!

That 9 million for the last level was hilarious.  When I hit 84 (the same time several other people hit 85!) and saw that number I just laughed out loud.  I was not willing to level for another 8 hours as I had already done 14 hours straight at that point.

It was certainly a brutal disappointment.  I was monitoring my competitors and there was only one person I needed to worry about and he was just slightly ahead.  That feeling of being behind and having absolutely nothing I could do to fix that was just wretched.  Of course, being behind at all was my own fault for not preparing sufficiently.  It turns out that running dungeons is a very bad way to level, and also that knowing every quest ahead of time is a significant advantage.  If I had been absolutely serious about getting the paladin achievement I would have played on the beta server and levelled the whole way through so I would know all the zones, all the quests and exactly how hard everything was.  I would have found out that I needed to level as protection instead of retribution once I hit Deepholm and I wouldn't have wasted any time looking for quest stuff because I would already have known where it was.  If I had run the dungeons on the beta I would have known that they are challenging, take a long time and are not good experience and I could have just quested.  Doing those things would have given me the victory, I am certain, and now I have nothing but the ashes of broken dreams.

That, and the option to spend nearly my entire amassed fortune, the result of years of accumulating money, to buy realm first jewelcrafting.  The cost of doing so is so prohibitive it is insane, yet it is the sole remaining shining light I can salvage from my failure.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I am prepared

On Tuesday the 7th of December the 3rd WoW expansion - Cataclysm - launches.  There are all kinds of things associated with a new expansion like new zones to explore, new dungeons to clear out and new quests to do.  One of the more important things to the hardcore maniacs is the new feats of strength.  In particular there are feats of strength for being the first paladin to level 85 and being the first to level any given profession to 525.  Being as I never got any of these feats of strength when the last expansion launched I have decided I am going to get 3 of them for Cataclysm.  This is not easy.

The thing is that being the first paladin to level 85 basically requires you to login at 3:01 in the morning when the servers first come up and play continually (and frantically!) until you hit 85.  From my time on the beta test realms I think I should be able to do it in about 15 hours of playtime which means that I can most likely be done by Tuesday evening if I just wake up in the middle of the night and play right through.  I have a full set of 25 daily quests ready to cash in and hearthstones set to the appropriate hubs.  I will login at 3:01 and have all 25 cashed by about 3:05, then I head out and start questing immediately in Mount Hyjal.  When I hit 82 (which I should do faster than basically everyone due to my timing and daily quest preparation) I immediately stop and go to Deephome, which requires level 82 to enter.  The idea there is to get ahead of the pack of people so it will be easier to complete quests since no one else should be around.  Theoretically I finish Deephome and then go to Twilight Highlands where I finish off my run to 85.  Levelling with a zillion other people around is always a mess and things take a long time but hopefully I can get ahead of the mob and stay there.  There isn't much finesse involved here, just raw playtime and focus.

The other goals I have are to get the Jewelcrafting and Alchemy feats of strength.  Alchemy is possible extremely quickly and only requires a bunch of materials, basically the limiting factor is just having enough cash to buy all the herbs and gems you require.  I have an enormous amount of cash but at 3:01 nobody will have any herbs or gems at all - no amount of money will solve that.  I will need to wait a few hours for them to get picked and mined and then run around advertising that I want to buy them for outrageous sums.  Some people of course will refuse at any price since they want them for their own professions but I figure most people just need to be offered a big enough pile of money.  Alchemy should be fairly cheap to level - at 250g per stack of herbs/ore it would only cost 5000g or so.  Jewelcrafting is another beast entirely.  I figure I will have to spend 80,000g to level jewelcrafting to max at 250g/stack, a truly substantial number, particularly considering that stacks might go a lot higher than that.  Fortunately to level Alchemy I need to make Shadowspirit Diamonds, and to level Jewelcrafting I need to cut Shadowspirit Diamonds, so I can just feed myself the materials I need.  Also Shadowspirit Diamonds are absolutely necessary for high end raiding so I can certainly sell them on the auction house and try to recoup my costs.  The question is whether or not I can convince someone to pay 900g for one gem, which is what I will be paying to make it approximately.  Seems... a bit steep.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Meeting the parents

I have been preparing for the first time my daughter would bring home some boy (or girl, either is fine by me, but assume boy for the moment for stereotypical hilarity) and I would get the chance to do my Suspicious Dad Act.  You know the kind, where the father of the girl is extremely suspicious, hostile and quiet, staring at the wretched beast his precious little girl just dredged up from the gutter.  I have the option of getting out my axe and sharpening it up right in front of him while having one of my eyes twitching erratically, or perhaps making comments about barrels of lime and burial sites that nobody ever would think to check.  I could also be really friendly of course and try to make things smooth and jovial but that wouldn't be nearly so much fun.  While I haven't really got to do this sort of thing yet I wonder how much of the hostile father thing is usually just an act put on because it is so much fun to do and how much is real suspicion on the part of the old man.

Today Elli came home and announced that she has a boyfriend.  She is just turned 4 unfortunately so the normal speeches and glowering simply aren't rational - it isn't like they even understand what that means.  The trouble is that the boy she chose is actually the boy in her class that I don't like!  I don't have to conjure up a bunch of resentment towards him only based on the fact that he might do something to my innocent little daughter since I already find him irritating.  Now what do I do?  Clearly the reasonable approach is to say "that's nice dear" and worry not at all about it but I feel like I may lose out on that 'first boyfriend' window of opportunity and end up not getting to do my Suspicious Dad Act.  Obviously I *could* just do the act the first time I end up having dinner or some other event with a real boyfriend as she gets older but some deep part of me says that I have to do it the first time - just firing it up at some random point isn't the same.

One thing I almost did was laugh when I heard the girlfriend/boyfriend news but I managed to kibosh that fairly effectively - it would not do to make fun of Elli.  While I know that this fling isn't going to be anything real in the relationship sense it is important to her and it is going to help her explore the breadth and depth of human interaction and making light of her fumbling about would be cruel.  That said, it is hard for me to figure out precisely what I should say.  Is it better to just ignore it, or better to ask her if she is going to stay with him forever and see if she wants to get married?  Should I try to act like I would if a friend of mine were to say they were in a new relationship or some entirely different way?  This is the sort of thing that child advice books don't have a lot of coverage on (not that I hold with following their instructions anyhow) as they focus advice for first relationships at much older ages where the kids are doing something that actually resembles dating.

I guess I will just smile, ask a few easy questions and change the subject.  No need to sharpen the axe or get a barrel of lime since the offender in question is, after all, 4 years old.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Time for something new

In CiV units can be upgraded as time goes by.  For example, a Warrior can become a Swordsman, a Longswordsman, a Rifleman, an Infantry and finally a Mechanized Infantry.  This is particularly important because units get experience so after fighting many battles your Warrior can upgrade and retain all of his combat benefits from experience.  If you play well you can end up making only a handful of units in the stone age and simply upgrade them all right into the modern day.  Unfortunately for the base game these upgrade paths applied to only a few specific units and others simply became obsolete.  This means of course that in a long game any unit without a proper upgrade path is going to be junk for the player, but fine for the AI since they rarely manage to keep their units around for long timespans.

The first solution to this strange imbalance I saw was by Thalassicus.  Thal added some new upgrade paths to the game, though they weren't quite as straightforward as the one in the paragraph above.

Spearman to Pikeman
"So Thog, we used to use spears, now we are supposed to use these pikes instead?  Is this gonna work?"
"Yes Grog, just point the sharp end at the guy on the horse, same principle."

That works.  The next step is a little stranger.

Pikeman to Lancer
"So Thog, we used to stick people on horses with pikes, now we are supposed to put the pikes away, get on horses ourselves and learn to use lances?"
"Yes Grog, we used to smash horse units, now we just do it from horseback."

The next step is very strange indeed.

Lancer to Anti Tank Gun
"Thog, this is BS.  We just learned to ride horses and now we have to get back off our horses and use these crazy tank guns?  Why did we go to horseback back there?"
"Grog, just point the gun at the tank and stop trying to think.  This is a game, not a simulation."

The last step:

Anti Tank Gun to Helicopter

"Thog, I fought horsemen for 3000 years and now you want me to learn to fly a damn whirlygig?  I quit."
"Wheeee, helicopters are fun!"

So Thog and Grog the spearmen end up piloting helicopters.  This is the best path available, despite how bizarre it looks, so I basically accepted that all units should be carefully levelled up and survive to the modern era with incredible skills and powers.  The problem with all this is that in the game you really do only make 10 military units, all of them in the first 1/3 of the game, and by the end you have an invincible army of supermen. The only way the computer can deal with this is to throw more and more dudes at you, but that just levels up your units even faster, to the point that sometimes in the endgame you are zerged by so many units that moving foward is impossible; they fill every space with a dude.  This is a terrible situation.

The solution I came up with today is simple, and basically the opposite of everything else that has been tried.  I removed all upgrades completely.  Thog and Grog the spearmen may be level 10 and have every ability in the game but we are in the medieval period now and they cannot stand up to heavily armored opponents.  They must retire (disband) and the player will actually need to make more dudes.  It should feel like military spending is part of the game again because an army will need a constant supply of new, upgraded troops.  Also because the player isn't going to have ludicrously high level units all the time they are likely going to have units die fairly regularly.  I suspect that this change will make the highest difficulty levels pretty much impossible but I think it will make the game feel a lot more natural and make the AI much more challenging without having to resort to giving it such stupendous cheating benefits.

Lots of people won't like my solution very much because it is fun to have an incredibly powerful army of units who have been around forever, but to make that game hard requires giving the computer far too many silly bonuses.  I want a really tough challenge that doesn't involve dozens of hours of wading through endless hordes of enemies; just because the game is hard is no good reason for it to take 4 times as long to click through.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy Birthday

To Brightcape, that is.  1 year ago I made my first introductory post.  I figured I would muse here on whether I accomplished my goals and what things look like when compared to what I thought they would be when I set out.

In that post I noted that many, many blogs end up being 3 posts of real material perhaps followed by a picture of a cat or 'hey guys I haven't updated in a while... ooops" and then silence.  I certainly didn't do that, as I logged 244 posts, not including this one.  I was hoping to hit 250 as some kind of artificial benchmark but I fell just shy; I noticed two weeks ago that I was going to be very close to the mark and could hit it if I just did 7 posts a week but I decided to stick with my natural posting pattern and not bother shooting for a particular post count.  I was also tempted to just make 6 posts each consisting of one word but that would be far more pathetic than clever.

When I started I really had no idea what my audience would be like.  I figured a few of my family members and a few of my friends would read what I have to say but I have ended up with readers from 10 countries totalling about 124 pageviews each day.  That certainly isn't breaking records, nor is it the sort of readership that lets you live off the advertising, but it is a lot higher than I figured I would have.  It certainly means that I have managed to get a lot more people than my immediate circle interested in what I have to say.

I think my biggest struggle is trying to make posts that all the various groups who read Brightcape will enjoy.  I love games and talk about them a lot but if I make a games post that most hardcore gamers will find interesting my family will mostly be at a loss, and I am not at all confident that the hardcore gamers that found my blog on EJ or the WOW forums care much about my 'this is what is going on in my life' posts.  I have often thought that I should split up my blog into two and make one specifically about games and one about my personal life.  The trick is that a lot of my philosophy, religion and psychology posts start from one of those areas and meander quite a bit and people in either sphere might be interested.  Because so much of what I write ends up crossing boundaries it would limit me significantly if I were to create two blogs I think.

If any readers out there have ideas they want to share for new things for Brightcape now is the time.  Is there a new project I should try and blog about, sort of like my barefoot or bible projects?  Is there a topic or type of post you like and want to see more of?  What do you think?  If anyone has anything interesting to share on the direction of my blog or things you want to see me do, please do speak up.

Lastly I want to thank everyone who reads, but particularly so those who comment and engage with me on various topics.  I often find myself challenged by comments and forced to really rethink my beliefs and opinions and I value that learning opportunity very much.  I look forward to continuing to argue with you going forward.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Lights

Today on our way home from school Elli noticed the gigantic Christmas tree in front of the mall near my place.  It is on a 3 meter pedestal and is about 6 meters tall itself, fully bedecked with lights and shiny metallic balls.  She was absolutely insistent that we go see it so after dinner we wandered over to the mall to look at the thing.  I am far past the stage where huge fake Christmas trees have any impact but she was thrilled to just stand in the rain staring at it.  We wandered into the mall and the trend continued; she noticed the 'pine boughs' and lights strung above us and said,

"Daddy, look at that, isn't it beautiful?"

I was more thinking "Chintzy", but I am a bit of a curmudgeon sometimes.  She was taken again by the fake holly strung along posts outside the grocery store and the chocolate bars shaped like Santa Claus sitting in boxes awaiting a parent and a whining child.  It is a strange transition to go from the awe and wonder at all things Christmas to grumbling about how stores start Christmas too early these days and being disappointed by the fakeness of it all.  Surely when I was younger I was as easy to impress with holiday decorations as she is now but I am so far from that place by this point I cannot see it.

I asked her what her favourite part of Christmas is and she answered "The Presents!".  No shocker, but I fished a little for a more heartwarming response and asked her if she thought that presents were more important or if it was more important that we were going to visit her Nana and Papa and Uncle Matt at Christmas instead.  She thought long and hard about that one and decided that presents were still her favourite thing and visits just didn't make number one.  I tried to have a wonderful, heartwarming quote for my parents but I failed... perhaps I needed to sell the trip a little harder.

My plan is still to go with "The Santa Claus Game" as my technique for dealing with the jolly old myth and I wonder if she remembers that from when I talked about it last year.  She is very interested in Santa's presents but doesn't seem particularly concerned with his characteristics or rules so I haven't really had a spot where I need to explain the realities of life to her.  I probably should do that sometime soon though so we are clear - I don't want it to be a "crushing of dreams" moment but rather just a "just so we are all clear on this" moment but riding that line is tricky.

My post today is a bit meandering and I missed yesterday entirely.  You can blame the voluminous quantities of snot exiting my body and perhaps the hacking cough.  Either that or lazy, take your pick.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Knights should be slower

It is fun to see the reactions I get when I make changes to CiV through mods.  For example, I was working today on changing Knights because at the moment they are a fairly weak unit.  There is an upgrade path that goes

Horseman (Strength 11, Speed 4) to Knights (Strength 18, Speed 3)

Strangely, the corresponding melee units look like

Swordsman (Strength 11, Speed 2) to Longswordsman (Strength 18, Speed 2)

You are going to have to trust me on the fact that Horseman and Swordsman units are pretty well balanced against each other.  Knights and Longswordsman units should also be balanced against one another... but they aren't, because Knights are only Speed 3.  If Knights were Speed 4, things would be fine.  I think what happened here is the people who made the game thought along the lines of "Well, Knights have heavy armor, so obviously they are slower than a Horseman.  Better make them Speed 3."  I encountered this same line of reasoning when I proposed changing Knights to Speed 4 to make them actually usable - people responded that Knights wear heavy armor and so should be slower.  Why nobody thought that randomly making Knights worse would ever present any difficulties in strategy is puzzling.

This idea that we can usefully model the amount of speed a unit might sacrifice to wear heavier armor is a pretty silly one.  We are talking about a combat model where an archer walks up to within bow distance of a city but does not shoot right away and it is entirely possible for a horseman to ride from another city, along the adjoining roads, up to the archer and stomp the archer into oblivion before the archer can even fire.  This Speed rating is a concept used to suggest that mounted units can cover more ground and close distance more rapidly than units that have to walk but it does not significantly model reality any more than that.  The other issue of course is that we are playing a game, and if Knights suck because we are trying to make them 'realistic' then we aren't being realistic at all; Knights were powerful and dominant military units for a very long time!

What we need to accomplish is to maintain immersion, not pretend we are modelling reality.  Immersion is broken by many things, one of which is gross game imbalance, but there are many others.  If Knights were slower than Longswordsmen then we would also find immersion to be broken as there isn't much of a way in which Knights weren't faster than people that had to walk.  What we need to find is places where we can reflect real life characteristics of things in game terms that people understand.  Knights are on horses, make them faster than people who have to walk.  Knights need to have 4 Speed to be good, so give them 4 Speed, which is faster than people who have to walk, so we are all good.  Of course you can never please anyone, which is amply demonstrated by the endless forum discussions about how long exactly it should take a modern destroyer to defeat a renaissance caravel and how the game does not accurately represent that conflict.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I have been doing more modding in CiV and I have found a big blockade to being successful is being a little too enthusiastic.  I have this tremendous drive to make the game perfect so I carefully change every single number to match my vision.  Unfortunately for perfection I am attempting to make this set of changes in a way that other people will be happy and willing to use and which should be easy for them to understand.  It is therefore important that I not just make the numbers right but that I do it in a way that is minimally invasive.  It is vaguely like medicine I suppose in that there are certain things that need to happen but my goal is to change as few numbers as possible in order to get there, whereas a doctor needs to fix the patient's problem but also wants to be sure to do as little as possible while still achieving that end.  Don't do major surgery unless the patient absolutely needs it!

I actually didn't realize this myself, but in fact had to be reminded by another modder.  Thalassicus is a very well known modder who has created a whole suite of mods for CiV.  I took Thal's mods and ran with them, changing things and adding things all over the place.  I went through the list of buildings and changed nearly every cost, even making tiny tweaks such as making Temples cost 110 instead of 120 to build.  I was convinced that 110 was a better number, but Thal pointed out that it would be a lot better from the point of view of the users to just change a few small things, like the production available to build buildings, which achieves the same thing but leaves as much of the original game intact as possible.  This way the users can use their knowledge of the game effectively and won't have to relearn as much and presenting the changes in a compact form becomes much easier.  In this sort of thing presentation is important, as is ease of changing rulesets, so I need to step back a bit and find not just the changes that have to happen but also the best way to make them happen.

This turned out to be really good advice.  I managed to slice the size of many of my changes in half by simply increasing one number instead of decreasing many of them.  It isn't easy to figure out what exactly I should do in many cases because the game is so wide open - I can add new things in, change things that exist and even alter the fundamental rules.  I also have to keep in mind that these changes I make should be good for the game both for experts who play on the hardest difficulties and new folks who only have a few games under their belts but want to try something different.  Appealing to both slices of humanity can be tricky as often the pros want the game to be absurdly difficult and immune to cheesy solutions while the casual players often want things to look pretty and have good immersion and are less concerned about intricate balance questions.

I am having an absolute blast doing this though, not least because every time I come up with a new set of ideas the first thing I have to do is play a game of CiV and see just how they shake out!  Trying to break my own game is tremendous fun.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Medicine over the phone

Ontario has a service called Telehealth.  The idea behind this service is to have nurses available by phone 24/7 to give people advice on whether or not they should go to emergency, the doctor's office or do nothing at all about various health concerns they may have.  That idea sounds wonderful in theory because it should keep a lot of people who aren't actually very sick out of emergency rooms and reduce the workload of other health professionals.  In practice there seem to be real issues with the way the service is provided and there are a lot of frustrations with trying to use it.  I have called telehealth several times in the past couple years and every time has been very frustrating with the number of questions asked that are repetitive, contradictory or outrageous.  The last time I called them was this past Friday night and it was really the worst of the worst.

"So how long has Elli had this sore stomach?"
"Has she had this issue for more than 2 hours?"
"Is this something that just started, or has it been going for some time?"

You would figure that after I give a very comprehensive answer to the first question the other two would be unnecessary, but regardless the nurse asked them anyway.  After asking dozens of other questions she started reading me the advice blurb her script recommended and halfway through she stopped, realizing that she was reading the blurb for people who had just gotten the pain recently.  She then reasked a few more questions and began to read the blurb that actually matched the answers I had given in the first place.  It was also very frustrating because I gave her information like "The pain is very moderate, comes and goes, and Elli is mostly normal but complains sometimes." and then she would follow up with "Is Elli curled up in a ball in agony unable to move?"  No, she isn't, which should be obvious from the statement I just finished making!

During a previous call the questions actually got kind of funny as I described that Elli had a cut near her eye from a fall.  The nurse then asked me a series of questions like "Is her eye punctured?"  "Is internal fluid leaking out of the eye through a wound?"  I can imagine the existence of some kind of idiot who thought that a punctured eye might not warrant going straight to 911 !!! but I had clearly and completely described the wound in question and noted that no actual eye damage had occurred.

The nurses that answer these calls seem to have some notable tendencies towards incompetence but that is almost certainly not the whole story.  Surely they are legally bound to ask all kinds of ridiculous questions to avoid liability even when the questions make no sense.  They can't just let me describe the situation but must ask predetermined questions one after the other to make sure that they don't leave themselves open to litigation.  Certainly asking a lot of questions in this sort of situation is good but asking questions you already have answers to just to have that answer recorded in the appropriate spot is wasteful and annoying.  These calls tended to take a good 40 minutes to complete even though realistically the nurse could have gotten all the information they needed to give me advice in 5 minutes.  That wouldn't be much of a concern except that I did have to wait on hold a long time to get a nurse (bad if there is an actual emergency) and if this system was more efficient it would free up nurses for other duties.  I find it endlessly frustrating to have my time and the time of a medical professional dedicated to avoiding pointless litigation.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The World Will Shatter

Tomorrow the World of Warcraft will shatter.  Deathwing will rise up out of the ground causing incredible carnage and destruction and reshaping the very landscape.  This is an incredibly ambitious project by Blizzard, to release a brand new version of the entire old world at the same time as a new expansion offering all kinds of new content.  It certainly made the expansion take an incredible amount of time, far longer than people really felt was reasonable, and shortly we will get to see if all of the waiting was for a good reason or not.  Watching the behaviour of the players on the night before the cataclysm is very interesting indeed - so many are desperately running around trying to complete all the things that will vanish forever tomorrow.

There were people feverishly trying to recruit players to go and attempt extremely difficult achievements that are going away tomorrow.  I would normally advise against trying to do very hard things in very little time, but trying to do them with random people who have no idea what they are doing makes the proposition even worse.  Somehow even though these achievements have been around for 20 months the fact that they are going away is enough of a push to try any desperate action to complete them even though there was no particular incentive to do so last week.  Champion of Ulduar is a rough thing to do with a group of guildies who are experienced raiders and know the fights - getting trade chat puggers to try it is a bit of a joke.

Several factions are going away tonight when the servers go down and there of course were people desperately hawking reputation materials knowing that tomorrow they will be worth absolutely zero but tonight they might be worth a fortune.  It sounds a little like tickets to The Big Game where the seller hopes there is some guy truly desperate for it right now but if no sale is made then tomorrow those tickets are worth less than nothing.  There is an escalating game of chicken going on with those who really want to finish off a faction grind fighting those who have hoarded these items for no good reason and everyone knowing that the entire thing vanishes in but a few hours.

The world will be fresh and made anew and those who are nutty completionists like myself await the new quests and zones with baited breath.  I cannot wait to rip around the old world doing all the quests there are even though their rewards and difficulty are both utterly trivial.  It is that need to see it all, do it all and have every person in the world run out of tasks for me that consumes me.  Those like me are also preparing for that mad rush to be the very first person to get the new Loremaster title and achievement.  I cannot say exactly why I pursue these things so intensely - there is no real challenge aside from the time sink but nonetheless I must go and do it all.  Maybe it is just that need to know that the great hero Redcape has solved all the world's problems, rescued the damsels in distress and slain every villain there ever was.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Making Allowances

I have been part of a grand experiment these past few days.  Elli's 4th birthday was on the 14th and she got several gifts of money and a gift certificate as presents and for the first time we felt she was old enough to reasonably choose what to spend her windfall on.  We told her that she could spend that birthday money on whatever she wished and then did our best to help her to understand how much money she had and what her choices were.  The easiest thing was the gift certificate as we simply went to Indigo and I told her she could buy whatever she wanted as long as it wasn't more than what the card had on it.  We got to the kid's section and she walked over to the closest bookshelf and picked a book right at her eye level.  A discerning, savvy shopper she is not, but she insisted that this book was the exact thing she wanted to spend her money on.  Her certificate was for $25 and the book was $8 so I told her she could buy 3 things like that at the store.  The look of delight on her face that she could afford even more things was incredible.  We wandered around some more and she found another book and a Hello Kitty stuffed toy and decided that these 3 things were what she wanted.  They added up to $30 so I informed her that she could get them but only if she also used up the 5 dollar bill she got for her birthday too.  After careful consideration she put one book back and announced that she wanted to save the rest of her certificate and buy just 2 things instead.

I, for one, was very surprised.  Surprised twice, actually, because the totally random book she chose turned out to be a really great set of stories at what seemed like a really low price.  Lucky, I suppose.

I didn't expect a 4 year old to make that decision.  A tantrum, deciding to buy all 3 things or desperate negotiation were all things I was prepared for but calm, rational economic decision making was quite unexpected.  She doesn't even understand what 25 is yet, so clearly she can't have much comprehension of how much she is spending or what she has left, and yet she still latched onto the idea of getting some things now and saving her money to come back again later.  Ability to delay gratification:  YES!  I know that being able to delay gratification as a child is one of the greatest indicators of happiness in later life because that combination of emotional awareness and discipline is valuable in nearly every endeavour.  This makes me very happy indeed, perhaps even more so because it is so much like how I was as a child.  I saved my money up and was very picky about spending it; I even hoarded my Hallowe'en candy, eating one piece a day so that it would last until the night before the next Hallowe'en.

Based on that success we decided to give Elli an allowance of 1 dollar a week.  She can count up to about 18 or so but addition beyond 2+2 is really beyond her yet so I really don't know that she has any idea at all how much money she has.  Regardless she is delighted to have money at all and had a blast counting and recounting her vast wealth this evening.  I took her out today on a walk and we wandered through HMV on the way back; she desperately wanted a video there and was extremely pleased that she had enough money in her piggy bank to pay for it.  We may be starting a bit early on teaching her about money and letting her spend her own on things but it is fascinating to watch someone so small with so little idea of mathematics try to come to terms with what she has to give up to get what she wants.  It is a really engaging little psychology experiment.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Make it perfect

I have begun my foray into modding CiV.  So far I have only been messaging with a guy who has built a bunch of great CiV mods, giving him information and analysis but it is clear that soon I will want to do more and get into the code myself.  It has a strange attraction, even more so than building my own games in some ways.  I think this is because when I build my own games they aren't going to get substantial distribution and they aren't going to look polished, the only thing I can really grant them is good gameplay.  When I take a big name game like CiV though I can rebuild it from the bottom up using all of their graphics, sounds, animations and the like but make the mechanics my own.  Of course no mod is going to have the kind of distribution the base game does but there definitely exists the possibility of getting a large number of people to use something I have built and get that thrill of widely distributing my creation.

It is remarkable how wrong some of the numbers are and how extreme I have to be in changing them to make things work.  Example:

Factory - costs 300 to build, 3 gold per turn maintenance.  Gives 50% more production.
Nuclear Plant - costs 600 to build, 3 gold per turn maintenance.  Gives 25% more production.


So the Nuclear Plant is half as good for double the cost?  And to boot it comes from a much later tech so instead of it being around for 100 turns it will be around for 30 turns.  I redid the stats to be:

Nuclear Plant - costs 400 to build, 3 gold per turn maintenance.  Gives 100% more production.

I cut the cost by 33% and multiplied the effect by 4 and it is still just okay, worth building if the game will go awhile but not excessive.  When I actually sat down and began to crunch the numbers for some of the mechanics in the game I was really shocked at how off they were.  All of the terrible buildings were ones that I never felt it was worth it to make, and yet after looking at them again I calculate that they are often literally 20% as effective as other similar buildings.  It is clear that not only did no one actually try building the things in game but they didn't even have a guy write down the numbers and look at them for 5 minutes to see if anything looked off.  The game isn't supposed to be perfectly balanced as it also strives for some vague sense of historical accuracy, but historically people did build nuclear plants, windmills and forges and it wasn't a colossally stupid decision to do so!  If there is enough reason to include something in the game there is enough reason to make it reasonable to use that thing.

So much work to do, so many numbers to fix.  I must make them all perfect!