WildStar and the Mixed Blessing of Free to Play
May28

WildStar and the Mixed Blessing of Free to Play

Carbine Studios announced today that WildStar is going free-to-play, and I just don’t how I feel about it.

On the one hand WS is a legitimately great game that never really found its audience, probably because technically they stopped playing hardcore MMOs around 2009. If WildStar had launched at the same time as RIFT I think it would have been very successful. The game has a lot of charm, some cool mechanics, and a housing system that is one of the best in the biz.

I really enjoyed my time in WildStar and to be honest its failure to maintain its playerbase made me pretty maudlin about MMOs for a while, even though I too was one of those missing players. I love challenging group content, but I just don’t have the mental energy at this point in my life to do it every night, or the static group to pull it off. (And I definitely am not interested in leading such a group or guild, which is generally how these things end up.)

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I suppose that most of us found ourselves in the same situation — fans of the game in theory, but not able to make the effort in practice. WS has been consistently losing half of its players each reported quarter since launch, and it’s a real shame that such a cute game has been languishing.

Enter today’s news that WildStar is going free-to-play. This should be the kick that WildStar needs, right? A fresh influx of players, right as dissatisfaction with Warlords of Draenor is at an all-time high, will do wonders for the game. Their free-to-play plan looks friendly and not punitive. Carbine Studios folks on Twitter seem thrilled by this turn of events.

And yet… well, dear reader, you know how I feel about free-to-play.

I don’t play F2P MMOs, and on the rare occasion that I do play a F2P game it usually manages to extract way more money from me than I intentionally meant to spend, to the point where I feel angry at myself later once I add it up. (Hearthstone, I’m looking at you.) It’s a standard rule of advertising that anything with “free” in the name is not actually free.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the weird, piecemeal economy that seems to be gaining a foothold in modern times, and I can’t help but feel that in a world where we are all “independent contractors” working multiple gigs from home or driving Uber cars or renting out our extra room over Airbnb… well, free to play MMOs just feels like another part of that. It’s a predatory payment model.

So we have a game that I think is great, but at this point the only way it can survive is going free-to-play. But free-to-play is terrible! Now what?!

One thing I do know for sure: I hope folks who were put off by the subscription take this opportunity to check out WildStar.

Five Weird Things About Day-to-Day Life in America (from a Canadian)

From the non-North American perspective there probably doesn’t appear to be a lot of difference between Canada and America. The two countries are a similar age and have similar demographics. Canada tends to reflect the same political shifts as the US and I can tell you from experience that when you live next door to the largest cultural exporter in the world, you end up sharing a lot of the same things.

Moving from Vancouver to Seattle hasn’t been a huge culture shock, but there are definitely differences between the two countries. Here are a few of the weird things about life in America that possibly only foreigners would notice.

1. American money all looks the same.

So, I realize this is not news to anyone but once you actually have to use cash to pay for things on a daily basis, the similarity of the money becomes obvious and irritating. My first few weeks in Seattle I was constantly handing bills to taxi drivers and shop clerks only to rip it back out of their hands when I realized that it was the wrong denomination.

I know that US $10 bills are slightly orange now, but it’s not that helpful. Most other countries in the world use bills with bright colors and crazy birds and ladies waving festive flags. In Canada, each denomination is even a slightly different size! US money doesn’t even have the plastic windows and futuristic watermarks that I’m used to — it’s just green and boring. Forever.

2. American point-of-sale payment options are confusing.

If you want to avoid the sea of green that is cash, just pay for everything with cards. Oh wait, that’s confusing too! I have an American credit card and a debit card and it seems to me to be completely random whether I have to sign or use a PIN or in some cases do absolutely nothing to authorize payment with either card. Also for some inscrutable reason I can select “credit” with my debit card and it works the exact same way except it takes longer to be processed through my bank account. Why does this exist?

I do have to give America props on one front here though: I was amazed to learn that you can buy things online with your bank debit card. Canada needs to get on that.

3. Doctors are nicer here.

Keep in mind that I am basing this supposition off a tiny sample size of 1 patient and two doctors, but so far they’ve been way nicer than any doctor I’ve had back home. I can’t help but feel as though it’s in part because medical services are more of a business here, and so I’m as much a customer as a patient. I am not maligning any of the intentions or competencies of medical professionals here in the US, but I guess good customer service is an important element in any customer-facing, for-profit industry.

Also, again based on my limited sample size, US doctors like to write prescriptions for anything except antibiotics, which they guard with ruthless efficiency. Canada is the opposite — a course of Amoxicillin is available in 10 minutes in a walk-in clinic but other medications are treated with more care.

4. America is not a tax-free paradise.

Canada and possibly most of the rest of the world tends to view America as a land where corporations rule and people come to get rich or die trying. (There is a reason why “Canadian Brain Drain” is in Wikipedia.) Higher wages, less taxes, innovations a-go-go.. right? Wrong! Washington state has no income tax, so imagine my surprise when I got my first paycheque (yes, Canadian spelling, handle it) and I was being taxed at almost the same rate I was before in Canada.

I really think you permanent American types should look into this — I am totally boggled how you can pay almost equivalent taxes to Canada and still not have a useful universal medical system.

5. Food delivery website technology is nuts.

America is winning the food delivery website technology war, hands down.

Occasionally in both Canada and the U.S. I use one of those delivery websites that consolidates orders from a number of different restaurants. When you place an order in Canada you’ll get an order confirmation number and an estimated delivery time that is probably incorrect.

In Seattle, once you place an order you’ll often get a dynamic display of what your food is doing (like literally “we are cooking your food RIGHT NOW”). You’ll probably get the name and photo of your delivery driver, which allows you to properly empathize when you realize that they are equipped with a GPS tracking device so you can see their every move. Yell at your monitor while they go the wrong way at an intersection. Bite your nails in suspense as you watch their tracking dot wander around your apartment complex looking for the front door!

While I kind of enjoy all the tech features as a gadget nerd, I feel bad for the poor folks working for tips while their every step is displayed on the internet.

That Retro Healing Spirit is Alive in FFXIV
May26

That Retro Healing Spirit is Alive in FFXIV

I have been running dungeons almost non-stop since hitting 50 in Final Fantasy 14, which isn’t very surprising because at this point there are so many of them. I want to run lowbie and story dungeons for tokens to improve my gear, I want to run higher level dungeons to work on my relic weapon and finish the post-50 story. Just unlocking the first 25-man dungeon requires days of running mini-dungeons.

(Yes, I know that the expansion is out in a month and then very little of this will matter. I don’t care.)

I am still very inexperienced in the general scheme of things, but I have run enough dungeons now to know that I really enjoy the healing model in FFXIV. I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly, until I realized that it reminds me of all of the best bits of healing in Vanilla WoW.

Now, let’s get something straight: I’m not going to argue that difficult things are always better. (Just ask those of us who ran Cataclysm heroics right out of the gate.) However it seems to me that healing in MMOs as of late has turned into a festival of spamming spells. You hit your buttons very fast because the mob is dealing an extreme amount of damage and if you blink at the wrong time the tank is dead. Flash heal! Flash heal! Flash heal!

FFXIV on the other hand has that looooong 2.5 second global cooldown, which slows the pace of combat. Healing becomes less about shooting a firehose of HP at the tank and more about managing mana and aggro. (Healing aggro is intense in this game.) It’s the “work smarter, not harder” model of healing.

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HAVE I MENTIONED LATELY HOW PRETTY MY CHARACTER IS?

I sincerely missed having the option to downlevel spells, so you only have to cast a low rank of heal once your gear has a lot of spell power. I missed coming up with tricks to conserve mana. I can try and skillfully cast my heal-over-time without getting any aggro, or I can cast it specifically to get aggro so I can round up adds and drag them to the tank. There is room for finesse, and it’s delightful.

Now to be fair I don’t know how much of this is a product of my gear level and the content I’m doing. I can only imagine that cutting edge raiders still need that firehose of HP, and of course the tricky thing about mana conservation is that it becomes less of a game element as you get better gear. I assume Scholars have a similar experience, but I’ve only healed with a White Mage.

Modern games often streamline the player experience until it loses all its rough edges. That’s all well and good, and sometimes it’s what I want too! But the problem with removing extraneous options is that it also removes the opportunity for considered play. You have very few tools, and you just use them as often as possible.

My favorite individual fights as a healer, on the other hand, are the ones where I feel as though I’m playing a piano: all of the right notes at the right time, sometimes quiet and sometimes forte.

Cat Context 75: Assassin’s Creed, Konami vs. P.T., Mad Max
May20

Cat Context 75: Assassin’s Creed, Konami vs. P.T., Mad Max

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This week Liore, Ellyndrial, and Arolaide sit down to talk about the Victorian hats of the Assassin’s Creed announcement, Konami’s hissy fit over P.T., and Australian wasteland mutants.

Assassin’s Creed announced that their next game will feature a playable character who is a woman (gasp!), but it may be too little too late. And, really, couldn’t we all use a year off from AC anyway? Elly laments that there was never an AC game with Desmond as the main character, which sends Aro into a fit of lore rants about gods and DNA and the end of the world. Liore is confused as usual because she thought the AC games were about stabbing people and stuff.

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Konami is on a rampage when it comes to P.T., and we are not impressed. Liore hopes this is the catalyst to finally get people talking about DRM, while Elly raises the good point that Steam is DRM but we apparently manage to put up with that. When is it okay for a publisher to yank access to a game?

Later, Liore gives a brief review of Mad Max: Fury Road. It mostly sounds like gleeful giggling and whooshing noises.

Also Liore wants it to be known that she dissed superhero movies before it was cool! Elly takes a break from new fatherhood by playing a .. game that is obliquely about fatherhood! And don’t make Aro dinosaur, you guys!

Like to watch? This podcast has a livestreamed video version:

If you enjoyed this podcast, please “Like” or “Favorite” it in your media consumption method of choice! It makes us feel nice.

* Free Music Archive page for our theme, in THE crowd by The Years

NBI: Creating a Podcast on the Cheap with WordPress
May19

NBI: Creating a Podcast on the Cheap with WordPress

This post was originally written for the first NBI in 2012. While my podcasting system has gained some finesse over the years, the principles are still the same. If you want the cheapest, easiest method of creating a podcast then this is the post for you.

Last week I wrote about finding your voice and creating great content, and today I’m going to talk about something technical: creating a podcast to accompany your blog.

There are a lot of great podcasts in the MMO blogging community, from 5 minute rants to epic 2-hour investigations. You can spend a lot of money on hardware and software supplies, and to be frank if you decide that podcasting is something you really love then you probably SHOULD be spending that money. Fortunately, amateur podcasting with a WordPress blog is inexpensive and relatively easy, and a great way to try out your audio chops.

Please keep in mind that I am not writing this from the perspective of a podcasting expert, because that would be a horrible lie. Instead what I am is someone who looked all this stuff up recently, and really in this day and age isn’t asking Google almost the same things as being an expert? Hmmm? Maybe don’t answer that. Anyway, on with the guide!

Before recording

There are a few resources that you absolutely must have. The first is a microphone. You probably already have this for talking to your guild in-game! The second is access to a program that will record at least you, but also possibly you plus guests. Skype is popular for this, or in my case I use our regular guild Mumble server. The third and final requirement is a storage place online where people can download your podcast once it’s finished. Podcasts aren’t necessarily very large — 25-30 MB for every half hour of recording — so you could get some cloud space or just put it on your website server.

Decide how long your podcast will be and roughly how you want to break down any segments if you have them. If you’re so inclined, write an outline and share it with your guests ahead of time. Keep in mind that you’ll probably want to record for longer than your show time! I record for an hour, and cut it down later to 30 minutes. That gives plenty of extra content if the sound goes wonky or I start to babble about my cats or whatever.

Do you want a theme or some musical interludes? The best source I found for royalty-free music is Free Music Archive. Make sure you check the licensing agreement for individual songs. Obeying the copyright wishes of independent artists is good karma!

While recording

Do a quick test to make sure everyone’s microphone is recording. (Mumble in particular allows users to mark themselves as un-recordable, so check!) Run a stopwatch while recording so you can keep track of how well you’re adhering to your segment outline. I like to write my intro and outro bits completely, because otherwise I will end up forgetting something important like who I am or the name of the podcast. Some things you might want to mention is where listeners can find the podcast on the web (ie. talk about your blog!), where they can subscribe, and when you’ll be back with another episode.

Ready? Now create some compelling audio content! *waves hands mysteriously*

After recording

Hooray, you have what is probably a big .wav file with a lot of interesting content and some mistakes! That wasn’t so bad, huh?

Now it’s time for post-production magic. Go download two amazing and totally free programs: Audacity and The Levelator. Open your raw podcast file in Audacity. If you haven’t used it before, Audacity is kind of like the Microsoft Word of audio files. You can select bits to cut and paste, insert silence, and so on.

The editing can take a long time. Really the only limitation is how picky you feel like being. I edit out obvious mistakes, gaps, and “Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm”s, and then also try to pare each segment down to 5 focused minutes. The first podcast took me roughly 10 hours to edit, while the second was done in a svelt 7 hours. Anyway, how much or how little you want to do depends on your raw content and your own preferences. There’s no wrong answer.

multiple tracks in audacity

Multiple tracks in Audacity

Once you’ve finished editing the voice file, save it as a .wav and start up The Levelator. This program runs a number of audio cleaning processes on your file, including adjusting levels and a whole bunch of stuff that I don’t really understand. The important point is that it makes things sound better, and we like that! When it’s done, open the file back up in Audacity. If you want to add music, go to “Edit” and “Add an audio track”. From there you can copy and paste in your music. Check the settings for things like fade out, if you want.

All done fiddling with the audio? Save the file as MP3, which will be a lot smaller than the .wav format.

Sharing your new podcast

Oh snaps, you have a podcast! It sounds pretty and has music and … it’s on your computer desktop. So now what?

First, upload your podcast to your online storage of choice. Decide how you want to integrate it into your blog — for example, I created a “podcast” category on Herding Cats for episodes. You might want to write a few notes to go with your podcast for information such as your theme music and any links you talked about during the episode. Set up a Feedburner feed specifically for your podcast. That will be the URL people can use to subscribe through Google Reader or most mobile podcast apps.

iTunes monitors your podcast through a special RSS feed, and unsurprisingly they can be quite picky about the details of this feed. I avoided the issue completely by installing the PowerPress Podcast Plugin. There are a lot of options with this plugin, so give yourself time to poke around and look at everything. PowerPress will add a media player automatically to your podcast posts, can track your downloads, and formats your iTunes RSS feed for you. (Note: iTunes requires a 600×600 “album cover” graphic, so be prepared for a little graphic design.)

Got PowerPress set up? Before submitting to Apple, test your podcast feed by manually importing it into the Podcast section of your iTunes application. Does the information look good? Can you hear your audio? Sweet! Go to the Podcast page in the iTunes store and select “Submit a Podcast” from the menu on the right. Apple will listen to your podcast before approving it, and it took us about 48 hours before it appeared online.

Voila, you are a blogger AND podcaster! Congratuations, you media maven. :)

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