Massive New Steam Update – Follow me for fun times!

I swear to all that is gaming that I have a massive, huge, bigish post on my experiences with the DK2, and what games work the best coming… but in the mean time Steam has just released it’s huge “Discovery” update.

There’s a lot to like with the update, and it goes some way towards what I had wished Steam had done a long time ago – make it a social network for gamers.

In lieu of that, I have been using Google+, but ultimately it’s not the best fit.

Unfortunately, the update doesn’t quite do everything I want (such as being able to tag people as well as games) but it does have nice improvements to your news feed. An area I’m sure most people neglected, but maybe now will give another look.

Most significantly for me, is you can now follow “curators” who can recommend games to you. In fact, your store page now recommends games to you based on a magic algorithm, part of which is which curators you follow.

So my advice: Give me a follow! I’m not even trying to pad my numbers, I just like giving people the low down on the best games, and now you can get it straight to your Steam box.

http://steamcommunity.com/groups/TheGamesPusher#curation

Oculus DK2 Shipping on the Horizon

So the VR community has been a-buzz lately. There’s Google’s project Tango, as well as their project cardboard, some of my favourite games are coming with VR: iRacing and DCS World.

Perhaps the most exciting news is the hint that DK2 shipping information will drop next week… The Twitter quote in question:

“@Cyber will there still be a shipping update next week?” — “@MikeLen: Yes, there will be a shipping update at some point soon.”

Oh. Did I mention? I was on the first wave of orders. I have a DK2 coming, so this news is VERY relevant.

GTalk Replaced by Hangouts

So, in case you haven’t heard, GTalk has been replaced by Hangouts – to much fanfare.

At first I was cautiously optimistic. I like Hangouts in Google+ – although I don’t use them that often. I have a feeling this move might have been long in the works, too, because when Google+ first arrived we had a strange messaging app called Huddle. It was like a text-only hangout for mobile phone users. This app didn’t last long, and we iterated through things like Google+ Messenger and then just Hangouts which was fast becoming Google+’s killer feature.

So, in hindsight, it is no surprise that Google merged GTalk into Hangouts as well. A grand unifying instant messenger. It makes a lot of sense. There was a lot of overlap between Hangouts and GTalk; what with both capable of video calling and text chat using the same Gmail account for authentication. It just made sense to merge them together.

Google did go one step further, though, and added some spiffy stuff to Hangouts. Essentially upgrading my experience. I didn’t know how useful this would be, but as it turns out I’m quite liking it. It’s a combination of bringing everyone into the fold, and having hangouts stay persistent. Basically all of my friends used GTalk, but very few of them use Google+ (in fact they use social media very sparingly in general.) Now the two are merged. So I can just send a message off to the lot of them and know that they will read it on their own time (but, and this is important, not miss it entirely.) Previously I could invite them all to a Gtalk session… but by the time everyone got the invite and actually joined in, the conversation was over. I could post on Google+ to their circle, but it required them to log in and check it. Depending on their notification settings and when they logged in often they would not even know anything was posted. I could force Google+ to email them, and sometimes I do if I really think they should read what I’ve posted – but they infrequently join in on the conversation. That’s not the point anyway. The idea of posting to a social network like that is so they can go and find stuff I think they might find interesting on their own time.

I could also email, but again, it’s not really the right tool for the job. Email doesn’t have any real immediacy about it. Replies could be singular, or replied to all. It is mostly psychological, for sure, but the uses for email and therefore email’s design – the types of things you receive in your inbox – indicate 24-48hrs sort of a turn around. I like to have a reply (and send replies) as quickly as possible, but if I’m using email it’s usually because I’m fine with that sort of turn around (also it’s the only practical solution for those who, for some reason, are not using gmail.)

With the new Hangouts, however, I can fire off a message to a specific circle of friends and it pops up on their phone. They can still read it at their leisure, but the turn around is more like 0-4 hrs. It has some niceties with it too, such as a profile pic of the Hangout members underneath the last message they’ve read, so you can tell exactly what everyone has seen. I’ve been using it to organise online gaming sessions with great success. I can shoot out a message like “Heroes of Newerth tonight – who’s in?” to my HON circle. Some guys will respond with “I’ll be around” etc. but, and this is key, even if they don’t, I can see when they’ve seen the message. It’s a safe bet that if they’ve seen the message and not responded, they won’t be around. And if they do choose to join us, they’ve read the conversation and can see what time we’re kicking off. The final nice feature is that the hangout is persistent. It’s a little thing, but it means I can just open it again the next night, and fire off a quick message to see who’s around again.

Ok, so it took a short while to warm up to Hangouts, but it has some nice stuff. However, and this was originally going to be the point of this post, it has taken away a feature that I found critical and it completely breaks the experience. If I had a choice to go back, I would, just for this one feature despite all the nice things Hangout brings.

That feature is statuses. You used to be able to tell at a glance if someone was active, afk, busy, or offline. You could also tell if they were on their phone or PC. Instead, it’s been replaced with a single, green line. I think you’re suppose to be able to tell if they’re offline or not by how grey their profile pic is… but for the life of me I can’t tell the difference. My friends don’t tend to have bright, vibrant profile pictures so it’s obvious when they go black and white… sorry. I’m not even sure what the green line means – just currently active, I suppose. No-idea if they’re on their phone or PC. No idea if they’re busy or inactive. It’s a criminal loss of information.

This may hit other people less than me, but the other major problem is losing the GTalk status text too. The green/orange/red light was important, but my brother and I had set up Tasker to update our gtalk status with our location. Just roughly, you know? “At home” “At work” “out and about.” That sort of thing. Enough that our friends and family could tell where we were at a glance, but not so much that we could be hit by a long range missile. It was so incredibly handy. Gone. Poof. So annoying!! Arg!

I hope that statuses will make a come-back, but I actually don’t think so. If I had to guess I’d say that persistent status stuff like that is supposed to be done on Google+. So it would be seen as a double-up, which Google has worked to eliminate with this merging. So I have to find a way to post a status to Google+ every 10 minutes, I suppose, in such a way that it doesn’t spam my wall. I’m not sure that’s possible….

Tools for a DM

So my cousin asked me to run a DnD campaign for him. My friends and I have tried many times to start DnD campaigns and other than 2 campaigns many years ago, we’ve never been successful in getting them to last more than a few sessions.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d talk briefly about the tools I used as a DM. I guess every group is different, but I really do like the set up we have now. Largely this has spawned from a requirement of getting together regularly (without actually getting together) and having sessions run FAST. I have to admit we haven’t been entirely successful at either of these things.

Which DnD?

Firstly, and most importantly – which flavour of DnD? The community is fractured, and Wizards of the Coast know this and hope to reconcile everyone with DnD Next. I’ve tried some of the beta, but for my money our group works better with Pathfinder. I won’t say much more about the various editions right now, but let’s just say I like Pathfinder because of its clear rules, and flexible system. That is: It’s playing a game (something I obviously enjoy) with the rigidly-defined ruleset that outlines the world, but with the flexibility to do anything you want within that ruleset. I’m not big on the laissez faire ODnD or 2E and 3.0/3.5 had a number of poorly balanced and overly complex components. Pathfinder (cough “DnD 3.75” cough)

Playing Online

Look, even if we weren’t playing online, I’d still demand everyone use a laptop. We started out with pen, paper, a clear sheet of plastic and miniatures. We all loved the minis and dice. The mat was a necessary evil. Having said that, since switching to a VTT (Virtual Table Top) I couldn’t go back. We lose the visceral feel of dice and minis, but gain so much more. Not least of which is the ability to play online.

The first major hurdle when playing online is communication. At the time VTTs were focused on text-based chat. IRC and instant messengers were catching on quickly, and people started to realise they really could play online… but we more-or-less skipped that. We were early into VOIP (Voice Over IP) programs like TeamSpeak for computer games anyway, and this far more preferable than text chat. So that’s a must. Mic, and VOIP program.

VOIP

I’ve been pushing my group to use video chat now – it is 2013 after all. I’ve been able to put my foot down and get people on Google hangouts. It works well in many ways – it’s easy to see when someone gets up and walks away and won’t hear what’s happening. I can use my hands and facial expressions in my descriptions. I can see if someone is confused or distracted from what’s happening (I remember clearly my cousin holding his head in his hands as he tried to puzzle out what to do about a Otyugh.)

Having said that, video chat hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Not everyone had a camera – although most now do. Google Hangouts is probably the best video chat out there, but has many problems. It auto-mutes when it detects typing, which is sometimes great, and other times exactly what you don’t want. Despite being a “just works” solution, several people were having trouble getting it to go smoothly. Also the improvement from text to voice was much more significant than voice to video. I still think it is a worthwhile addition, but if your group refuses to move on from voice it’s not the end of the world. It is a game-breaker, though, if they refuse to move on from text.

VTT

VTTs started to spring up around the turn of the century as people and companies began to realise that you really could get a lot of value out of using them and playing online. The ability to drop quality tokens on to quality maps, and track everything on a shared online space has to be experienced. It’s why I can never go through the effort of minis and mat again. VTTs are just more convenient and higher quality.

Unfortunately, no-one has taken this niche and slam-dunked it yet. Which is a great shame. I think WotC and Paizo, in particular, are missing a huge opportunity here. I might do a specific blog post about it later, but I would have been really excited about DnD Next if they announced it was going to be tightly welded to a VTT. Imagine being able to download their new product’s rules straight into a VTT that does all the number crunching for you. Imagine all your campaigns kept in the cloud. Imagine downloading high-quality professionally designed campaigns with all maps and tokens already configured. Unfortunately WotC has failed at this twice now, and Paizo has made some tentative steps with their own VTT, but it looks like it is aiming low and not going anywhere.

Roll20 has had a massive spike in interest lately, due to good marketing (via a kickstarter campaign mostly.) It looks like a serviceable little VTT, but I don’t agree with it’s direction. I believe in almost the exact opposite of it’s direction. It’s done everything it can to strip out all the number crunching that a computer excels at, and combined things that could easily be achieved through other tools already.

The VTT any connoisseur will use is MapTool.

Alas it has some hurdles that need to be cleared. It is built on aging technology – Java 6, with only a thick client as an option (you can LAUNCH from the website, but it just downloads and starts it in a window.) When you’re trying to get 5 people all going at once, oh god… let’s just say I always set aside the first session of any campaign to not only finalise characters, but also troubleshoot Maptool. Installation, configuration, connectivity… Don’t get me wrong, for MOST people, it will work fine. There is always going to be at least one person in your group, though, who has a funny Java installation, or some setting on their computer, or some firewall issue, or any number of other rare problems.

Once you get connected then it is far from the most intuitive tool. I mean, as a shared map space it’s simple enough but there are some really powerful things you can do with Maptool. To work them out it is absolutely a requirement to have one person working in IT. That person will most likely have to be the DM, and it is preferable if that person has a programming background. I’m not saying this to tell you to steer clear of Maptool. I’m saying to get the absolute most out of it – which my group does and recommends – you need to know how to handle a computer.

Why is it so powerful? Well it is possible (albeit it requires spending hours digging around on the rptools.net forums) to download a set of macros that are so powerful you can make your computer do all the heavy lifting. Well, 90% of it anyway. Attack with a button? Check. Timed statuses? Check. Spell casting – including spellcraft checks to ID, save rolls for everyone hit, auto-application of status, links to the rules of the spell as it is cast – Check. Line of sight dynamically calculated? Check. Light sources and vision automatically and dynamically calculated? Check. Bleeding/dying in a button click. Check.

I could go on, and on. As a DM just being able to tear through a large group of monsters by pressing the “Mass attack” button, or even to fly through them one at a time by clicking “attack, confirm, miss. Next.” is such a boon. Being able to track statuses – such as buffs – is so handy. All the more so because ones that are simple statistic modifiers (+1 attack for example) can be automatically accounted for, and automatically expire. Did you ever play “hunt the buff” when you used pen and paper? You know – you’d roll and work out you were just 1 or 2 points from a hit. So you and the DM would start to wrack your brains to see if you forgot any buffs. “Did you count the +1 from bless? How about flanking? Higher ground? Bull’s strength? Oh! There you go. Ok then, you hit.”

Unfortunately, with a massive series of community-created macros which are built on a community-built VTT… there are inevitably problems with those tools too. Every time I change versions (which itself can be quite the trick) previously broken functionality becomes fixed and previously-working functionality breaks. About 50% of the time I discover, through much research, that you can fix the problems by changing some esoteric setting. I wish it was simple, I really do, but it’s not.

Character Sheets

I’m used to an autocalculating sheet too. I’ve been through many, though. Back in the 3.5 days I found one to download. Fill out the right fields, pick things from drop-downs, and hey-presto, everything calculated. Cross-class, synergy, to-hit, AC, money (weight from money) – you name it. Once we started using this bad boy… holy cow did we find some places where we were doing it wrong. I couldn’t see myself going back, so when we changed to Pathfinder and couldn’t use the spreadsheet any more (which had a number of bugs which I had personally fixed… and taught myself some very advanced Excel as a result) I started to use The Only Sheet.

Eh. Look. It works. It was just never as intuitive as the original spreadsheet and this is almost entirely because the designer is trying to make a living off it. So he’s using Microsoft Excel to do some very advanced scripting and programming and also trying to protect that background work so it can’t be stolen. So you end up needing MS Office, download the sheet, pay a subscription for the sheet, work out how to use the sheet, and if you find a problem with it… hope the developer fixes it for you. It’s all very clunky. I’m frankly amazed it works at all (but, I swear, it does if you decide to dive into it.)

Once again – where is Paizo or WotC for this? If a VTT is too complex, surely they could build an online character sheet that correctly and automatically calculates your end-numbers? The community can do amazing things, but again no-one has really nailed this one yet.

Our solution: Google Drive. There is a decent character sheet here, but it only the barest of the bare. All you do, though, is make a copy of that, share it with your players and when they fill it out you can have all of their character sheets sitting on your Google Drive. You can open them all (and make changes as you see fit) and they can only see their own (and makes changes as they see fit.) You can roll-back if you need to to any point in time, and you can see what they’re in real-time. If it was a bit more automagical, and powerful, it would be perfect. As it is, it does the job. I just hope we don’t make a serious mistakes we discover 5 levels later!

And How’s It Working Out?

So with Google Hangouts on one screen, Maptools on the other, the character sheets opened in Google Drive and all the campaign materials open in Adobe Acrobat – I have everything I need at my fingertips (albeit with alt-tabbing required.) I spend most of my time staring at Maptools and Hangouts though.

It works, but it’s not perfect. It’s frankly way harder than it needs to be. And it call all be solved by a good VTT from Paizo. Built in video chat would be a plus, but Google Hangouts will do – what really needs to happen is a Maptool-killer app that has it all… or alternatively RPTools needs to quickly birth the next version of Maptool. They’ve put a feature-freeze on Maptool – which previously iterated quite quickly – but as far as I’m aware they haven’t even started work on the next major version yet. It could be killer, but as a community-driven, open-source project, I don’t have any hopes of seeing it before 2015. I’d expect someone to swoop in and steal the limelight, but I’m not seeing any promising contenders to be honest. Sigh.

And, to be honest, one of the main reasons for doing all this is so we can get people together quickly and easily. Short, sharp sessions. I’m not sure it’s working out. Getting people together is as hard as it has ever been, and preparing for a session that you can fly through in 2hrs takes 2 days of prep (I might be a bit anal about it I suppose.) Still, it’s not a rate I think I’ll be able to sustain. It’s a shame, and I’ll keep pushing on for a while yet – myself and my players have invested quite a lot into this campaign and I’d like to see it go somewhere – but I’m seeing some writing on the wall, I think.

Why the Oculus Rift will succeed

The internet is all a-buzz, all a-tweeter even, over the Oculus Rift(OR) and for good reason, I think.

Look, there’s a lot of speculation about the OR, but there are very few nay-sayers. That’s rare for the internet. Everyone that tries it are quick converts

(and penny arcade)

other than a few niggles, such as low resolution, which the developers promise will be ironed out there’s not much to complain about.

Is the OR the future of gaming? Or even the future of virtual reality — I’m talking virtual offices now (a Google+ post)?

Allow me to speculate:

Virtual Offices

Firstly let’s shoot down the “definitely nots.” No virtual offices. It’s just too different from what we currently do, there’s not enough gains, it will pull people too far out of their comfort zones and it will initially carry a stigma of being “for gaming.” People will also rebel at having to wear the device. For a work day? Not going to happen. People will even rebel because of how they look. Something with augmented reality might catch on – like Google Glass – because glasses have been, can be, and are, fashionable. Google has a ways to go on that front, and the tech, while promising, still has a ways to go to be actually useful.

Will the OR usher in a new revolution in gaming?

Well, it depends on what you mean by revolution. The OR won’t be for all games, or all gamers. There’s just nothing to gain for RTSs, strategy games, MOBAs, or even traditional FPSs. In the case of an FPS, it’ll actually be a detriment. You may find that odd, since a FPS might initially seem like the logical place to use an OR (and indeed the first games to support it are FPSs) but FPSs, in their current state, are strictly designed with a keyboard, mouse, (with controller shoe-horned in) and a monitor in mind. There are many conventions in place to make up for the shortcomings of a monitor to the point where… a FPS is really a very terrible way of simulating anything. It’s just a trope that is popular nowadays, just as a RTS is a terrible way of simulating war strategy.

What will happen, though, is a new raft of VR games will be created. You will need the periphal to play, or the experience will be pretty sub-par without. Something akin to the early days of mouse-driven games. It’s always possible to play with the keyboard, but really it was designed with the mouse in mind. I expect in the early days many games will be converted current-gen games. Games like Skyrim, Mirrors Edge, and TF2 overhauled. There will also be a number of games that can really benefit from VR as-is and just need to be made compatible with the OR: DCS and related modules, Hawken, Star Citizen, Cliffs of Dover, MechWarrior Online, iRacing – basically anything where you sit in a cockpit and ride.

Off the basis of this initial success will be the VR games. Games strictly from the first person, and will run the gamut of RPG, shooter, stealth, and let’s say “other” to cover bases that I might not have foreseen.

One side-effect of these new VR games will be the desire for a new form of input. This could be solved in many ways, but the old WSAD mouse and keyboard (or controller if you’re that way inclined) just won’t cut it. Not only will it be disorienting, uncomfortable, and a little unintuitive, but it’ll also put you at a distinct disadvantage. Those players who forego VR in favour of a traditional set up will simply be out-gunned, unless you turn the OR into a simple wearable monitor… which means you’ll quickly revert to your monitor for convenience’s sake.

The point of a full VR environment will be to take advantage of what it provides, and that means an avatar whose arms, hands, and head (at a minimum) you can control. Already, there are several solutions

(and The Leap Motion)

(or hell, some related solution built into the OR. Imagine a Leap Motion, 1 more year down the track, strapped to an OR) and I don’t know which will ultimately catch on. If I had to guess, I’d guess a multiple-camera solution. Largely because I think some sort of Kinect-like set up will be quite common with the next-gen consoles, but also the solution is all-round more powerful. With it, you could put your real body in the world, or as a skeleton for a 3D avatar, and it is not limited to just speculation based on where your hands are but actually represents your full body. Also, multiple-camera setups with the sorts of algorithms this guy is playing with (and I saw some early prototypes of it about 6-12 months ago) could have many other applications:

(e.g. 1998’s Enemy of the State’s near-future technology.)

Why so sure?

VR has been tried before. It was “just around the corner” from the mid-80s through to the mid-90s, but it just never quite got there. Those headsets were essentially two tiny little displays, strapped to your head. To be fair, the OR is basically the same idea, but it’s amazing what 20 years can do. The prototype screens are 1280×800, and the consumer version is supposed to be full 1080p (≥1920×1080.) Basically, compare your modern smart-phone screen – flat, thin, extremely high fidelity – to the “portable TVs” of the 90s

By cannibalising mobile phone / tablet components the OR is able to solve a myriad of other problems of prior VR attempts – latency, field of view, etc. This is why anyone that has tried it are converts.

But I have to tell you the smartest thing they have done. That’s raise the money with kickstarter – but for the development kit. This is essentially a prototype so devs can see how it works, pull it apart, and build things for it. It doesn’t really matter that the resolution is only 2/3rds the eventual consumer version, or that it only tracks rotation rather than lateral movement. You can make allowances for that when building your game. It means that when the OR officially drops, there’ll be a ton of good content out of the gate. And I know that devs will jump into this feet first, because of the hype.

It doesn’t take much Googling to see that the hype is there. That means we can guarantee that the first few hundred-thousand units will fly off the shelves, but what could really kill the OR from that point, is if it’s a gimmick without much to do. To be honest I think the Leap Motion could suffer from this, and Google Glass almost certainly will. The OR, however, I think will have real content – AAA in the form of Hawken, Star Citizen, and TF2 – and indie (and who knows what form that will take) that will keep users begging for more. With the successful launch, you better believe more content will come. And fast. With more content will come more devices and with more devices will come competition, innovation, and hopefully standardisation. I’m sure many games will shoe-horn the OR in when it’s not really needed… but I fully expect some very exciting, immersive, and quality content as well.

One I can think of is a first-person, VR, co-op Splinter Cell; silently signalling my allies with hand-signals, as we use our silenced pistols to clear rooms. Actually, I am also thinking of a lightsaber dueling game. Oh, and VR co-op zombie survival… how about a new X-Wing vs TIE fighter…