Adventures in Flatland: PSVR and Me

It feels like the last three months or so has been nothing but news about virtual reality finally becoming actual reality. First the Oculus Rift finally shipped (if you launch a piece of hardware but don't actually fulfill any orders, does it make a sound?), then the HTC Vive released, followed by Sony's E3 keynote which made it clear they're all in on VR as well. I've been admittedly down on VR for a long time, personally. Part of it is limited experience - I tried an Oculus dev kit at Boston FIG back in September, but it didn't really do anything for me. In fairness, the software I was trying wasn't particularly exciting, and the headset kept nudging my glasses enough to break the immersion. Even beyond that, though, it feels like VR is a promise that's been made for as long as I've been aware of technology.

I remember first looking at colleges in Boston in the mid-90s and coming across an internet cafe called CyberSmith that had Dactyl Nightmare set up in the foyer. I didn't try it then, but I desperately wanted to. Obviously, that wasn't to the level of what we have today, but it's been two decades since I was first confronted with the possibility of strapping goggles onto my face and entering another world, and the closest that I've gotten until now is the 3DS.

This was cutting edge VR technology in 1995.

This was cutting edge VR technology in 1995.

So after hearing all the hype and the stories of wonder and magic, it was announced that Sony would be conducting demos of Playstation VR at Best Buy and Gamestop following E3. I decided it was time to give VR a fair test on hardware that was intended to be released to the public. So I got in the car and drove to a Best Buy(!) in Worcester(!!) to finally experience the future for myself.

I'll say, in terms of product demonstrations conducted at Best Buy, this was one of the better ones I've experienced. I've been to Nintendo's collaborations with Best Buy to demo Super Smash Bros and Super Mario Maker, and those ranged from slow to utter fiasco, with long lines snaking around the store, a single hardware station that needed to be rebooted, and longer than necessary demo periods. This demo had a reasonable line that moved fairly consistently, with a Sony employee who knew the technology well, the demos were ready to go ahead of the start time, and he made sure to wipe down all the equipment in between each demonstration.

The excitement to try the unit was palpable from the few people in line ahead of me. The two people immediately in front of me had driven from Albany to Worcester just to try PSVR, and filmed each other on their phones as they played. From chatting with them in line, I learned that they had apparently made similar treks for Oculus and Vive demos. I was honestly starting to believe the longer I waited in line, watching the 2D representation of what the demo participants were playing on the TV in front of them.

There were a handful of game demos on hand, including Battlezone (a tank sim), SuperHyperCube (a puzzle game), and soccer and ocean diving simulations, but the only game anyone chose to play (myself included) was Eve: Valkyrie, which is a space combat game in the vein of the classic X-Wing games. As I waited in line, I saw the cadence of the demo repeatedly: The headset was put on and calibrated, the participant looked around the cockpit, then launched into space and chased enemy starships for about three minutes until the glass of the cockpit cracked and the screen faded to black, indicating that the demo period had ended. Everyone who tried it seemed to be impressed afterward; my new two friends in line in particular were especially blown away. Finally, it was my turn. I put on the headset, had it adjusted for blurriness, and, well...

I wasn't really impressed.

The game did everything as advertised. It definitely presented me the world that I was seeing on the television in front of me, and I was able to look around at any angle freely, and there was depth there. The problem was, I couldn't get past the fact that I could still see the pixels. Like, really see the pixels. Some of the text on the HUD was hard to read at times. And I couldn't really shake the feeling that what I was seeing wasn't as much real as it was projected on a dome in front of me. As the game ramped up in intensity, I started to feel my stomach lurching a bit. It wasn't bad enough that I wanted out; it wasn't even really as bad as a tame rollercoaster like Big Thunder Mountain Railroadat Disney World. The feeling was noticeable and uncomfortable, though, and it was one more thing to take me out of the suspension of disbelief.

Not quite my reaction.

Not quite my reaction.

Really, what struck me when the demo ended was that it felt like that five minutes was enough for me; I didn't want to go back for more. It felt, at least to me, like PSVR wasn't quite there yet to create that illusion of reality that's enough to get you to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in another world. It's entirely possible this has something to do with me and my ability to perceive VR, though; my experience didn't seem to be the norm (unless the people in front of me were being exceptionally polite) and I've heard from others since that they were really impressed by the technology. In fact, my experience seems so out of line with what others have reported that I've even questioned if I did the demo "the right way". I can only trust my own experience, though, and based on that, I'll probably be saving my $400 come October.

I think what it comes down to is that VR ultimately asks a lot more than any other gaming technology (or technology in general) of the people investing in it. It asks a considerable amount of money, sure; you're looking at minimum $400 for the headset plus whatever PC or PS4 hardware and peripherals that you may not already own just to be able to power it up. More than that, though, it asks you to cut yourself off from the outside world to experience it. You can't share these experiences with other people in the room in real time, nor can you experience VR passively or while multitasking; it demands your full attention to the exclusion of literally everything and everyone else, and that can be difficult to find time to provide. Putting that headset on effectively says to everyone else in the household, "I'm cutting myself off from everything else in the world, you included." I'm already well aware of how much we do that with screens that we hold in our hands that I'm not sure if I'm ready to take that to the level of introducing a sensory deprivation helmet into the family, especially when cost and technical limitations limit one to a single headset.

The biggest thing VR asks for, though is a considerable amount of faith that the content is going to continue to come. I still remember both the Wii and Kinect launches and how blown away we all were by the games that were available at launch and the different experiences they enabled; I also remember how quickly those streams of content dried up in the year or two following those launches. Assuming VR catches on like the common wisdom says it will, investing in VR as a whole may not be a gamble, but investing in any individual VR rig could very well be. The current landscape looks like VHS/Betamax or Blu-Ray/HD-DVD all over again, only with three major players instead of two, and that's an incredibly costly investment in a platform that could very well lose out in the marketplace as technology converges.

So ultimately I'm not ready to make that leap yet. Based on my experience with PSVR, I'm not convinced that virtual reality is at the point where I'm ready to jump in head first. Maybe trying the Vive will convince me. Maybe the technology just needs to come down in price some more. Maybe my eyes or my brain just don't work the way they need to for VR to ever work for me, and I'm just going to be stuck playing flat games for the rest of my life. It's hard to say right now. All I know is that I've seen what Hearthstone looks like in VR, and I'm OK with playing it on a flat screen for a while longer if that's what's meant to be.

Blue Skylanders Are a Missed Opportunity To Gain Understanding of Autism

When Activision announced their color-swapped toys for Autism Awareness Month, they got a lot of instant praise. Over at Pixelkin, I had a slightly different reaction from my vantage point as a parent of autistic kids.

But there’s also a risk that treating autism in this way is similar to how every consumer product gets a pink version for breast cancer awareness month. It could send the message that autistic people are sick or disabled. And that awareness will somehow lead to a cure.

If you're interested on hearing more on this topic, we also discussed it at some length on Isometric #97.

Teaching Math With Hearthstone

Hearthstone's become a family activity in my house over the last couple of months. I wrote for Pixelkin about the benefits of justifying my addiction, er, sharing my hobby with my daughter.

My oldest daughter is in third grade, and she does Kumon worksheets for math enrichment every day. It’s clearly helping, because she’s doing two- and three-digit multiplication, but it can be a battle at times. We try to explain how important math will be to her, but the age-old challenge is showing how a list of equations will translate into a useful life skill. We tried a number of edutainment games, but nothing seemed to stick, until one day the answer came from an unlikely source: Hearthstone.

Free to Play: Transitioning From Hearthstone Player to Competitor

A couple of months ago, before The Grand Tournament (TGT) expansion was released, I wrote about how much more difficult (or not) the expansion was about to make Hearthstone for me as a strictly free-to-play player. At the time, I presumed I'd wait for the metagame to shake out by playing primarily Arena, and then figure out which cards and decks were good and go from there. That turned out to be true, but only partially.

What really ended up happening between when I wrote that post and when the expansion came out is that my wife, Maureen, picked up the game as well. What that meant is that Arena became something that we did together. I would only start an Arena run if she was around to help me draft a deck and vice versa. This made Arena a lot more fun; not only did we get to spend time together doing something we both enjoy, but the decks I drafted with Maureen were almost always better than the ones I drafted on my own, because evaluating cards for Arena turned out to be something she's really good at. The side effect of this is that I haven't been playing Arena as much as I thought I would; two weeks after the expansion released I still had 1500 gold in my account that I'd earmarked for Arena keys, because it's not always a good time for both of us to start an Arena run. Arena runs also became more involved affairs; as I got better at Arena I found it was something I wanted to spend an evening giving my full attention to, in order to maximize my rewards at the end.

As a result, I spent a lot of that time I thought I was going to be playing Arena playing Ranked instead, with my pre-TGT Face Hunter deck. A funny thing happened: As the meta was still shaking out, a lot of players at my rank started playing experimental decks, while I'd been playing the same tried and true deck for weeks. So while they were still tweaking their decks, I knew my Face Hunter in and out, and I capitalized on that. I ended up climbing up the ranks quickly, much higher than I thought was possible as a free to play player. Before August, rank 16 was the highest I'd been able to reach. In August, I reached rank 12. I was overjoyed; being in the top 10% of Ranked players for August was way beyond where I thought my limits were.

That achievement came with something of a price, though. Before August, I was invested in Hearthstone but I still played it casually; I'd try out random decks in Ranked, and if I lost, I lost. Once I knew I was capable of being objectively good at Hearthstone, I started to approach it more seriously, and that ended up becoming a significant source of frustration when the meta finally shifted in early September and my win rate with the Face Hunter dropped precipitously. I kept losing no matter what I tried, so I started trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.

Milestones like this are easy to forget in the middle of a losing streak.

Milestones like this are easy to forget in the middle of a losing streak.

One thing that happens when you're building decks as a free to play player, especially if you're looking at posted deck lists on the Internet (called "netdecking" in Hearthstone parlance), is that often you need to improvise. Even the "budget" decks that some pros post can often have a handful of rare, epic and legendary cards that you just won't have access to, so the next best thing is to build the deck as best you can and then substitute for those cards. It's easy to focus on what's missing, though; in the middle of a losing streak it's easy to say "if only I had Armorsmiths I could have won that match". I had a growing list of decks I either couldn't build at all or that I couldn't build effectively because I was missing one rare or one epic card.

Finally, I started doing something about it. I became convinced that if only I had Mad Scientists in my Face Hunter deck that would get me over the hump. I'd been playing without them, and every Hunter deck list I found included them, so I'd decided they were critical. The problem with Mad Scientists, though, is that you can't just get them randomly in a pack or craft them from dust that you get from disenchanting duplicate cards; you can only get them from playing the fourth wing of the Curse of Naxxramus single player adventure. I had, at that point, only completed the first two wings of Naxxramus. Subsequent wings cost 700 gold apiece (daily quests earn on average 50 gold apiece, so one wing represented roughly two weeks' worth of daily quests), and have to be completed in order. So I spent 1400 gold (almost all of what I'd stockpiled ahead of the TGT release, with just enough left over for a couple of Arena runs), got my Mad Scientists, and slotted them into my Face Hunter deck immediately.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The new cards, the ones I was sure would fix the deck and get me out of my slump, made no difference at all. If anything, I started getting more upset that I was losing despite the Mad Scientists being in the deck, and that caused me to play worse. I fell to rank 20 (the lowest the game will let you fall to by losing matches) and stayed there for another week or so. I decided, correctly, that maybe Face Hunter just wasn't viable in the current environment, so I tried to make a couple of other decks work. I went back to my Ramp Druid deck that had been occasionally successful, but that didn't do any better. I tried to build a Mech Mage deck that the metagame reports said was effective at the time, but success with that was just as short lived.

I realized my relationship with Hearthstone was at a crossroads. I could decide to continue to play without spending any money, which would leave me perennially a couple of steps behind people who have either been playing since the beginning or have sunk significant money into the game to catch up. Alternatively, I could sink, say, $60 into packs (the cost of a AAA game, so not an unreasonable amount of money given how much play time I've gotten out of Hearthstone) and try to get my collection to the point where I could start being legitimately competitive.

My white whale.

My white whale.

This is probably the point of the story where you expect me to say that I broke down and dumped a bunch of money into the game, but that's actually not what happened. I did get frustrated and just outright bought a few Goblins Vs Gnomes packs on the off chance I would open a Dr. Boom card. Dr. Boom is a Legendary card, and one of the five best in the game right now; nearly every deck that's not super aggressive includes a copy in its deck list. I generally got nothing useful from those packs, though; at best, I got a bunch of duplicate commons I could trade for dust and maybe a rare I wasn't likely to use. I'd felt like I'd flushed the gold down the toilet; I could have used that for Arena runs, and maybe I'd have gotten the same cards, but I'd have had the opportunity to earn more rewards on top of it.

This exercise was as instructive as it was frustrating, though. I realized that just sinking money into packs wasn't going to fix my problems; if I'd spent $50 on packs and not gotten the cards I wanted, I'd feel even more down than when I started, and I'd be no better off, ultimately. Even if I did get the cards I needed, they would come with an additional cost: Expectation. You see, I know I'm better than average at Hearthstone, and that's not bragging; my Ranked finishes have put me within the top 15% of players the last several months. But I don't know where my limits are, and I can still give myself the room to improve at a slower pace by attaching the phrase "and that's without spending any money on the game" to whatever achievements I earn. Dumping a bunch of money into cards would put pressure on myself to justify a return on that investment in terms of what rank I would earn at the end of any given season, and knowing myself, that would either end up with me taking it far too seriously or rage quitting the game.

So I decided I'd just go back to the way I was doing things. I concentrated on Arena, and dusted enough golden, epic, and legendary cards that I knew I wasn't likely to use soon, and I crafted Dr. Boom. I got a couple of cards in those Arena packs to get me close enough to a Warlock Zoo deck that I wanted to build to be able to craft what I was missing, and so I did that; that deck has gotten me as high as Rank 8 (top 5% of players) this season, and I've had a good win rate at ranks 9 and 10 with it. (Disclaimer: I did spend money on the League of Explorers expansion when it came out, but that was a small investment for a guaranteed set of cards, and the single player experience was worth the cost even if all the cards were bad.) Most of all, though, I'm really happy with that performance. Would I like to get to Legend one day? Sure. Will I be happy playing this way even if I never get there? I think so.

I may have done a little dance when this happened. 

I may have done a little dance when this happened. 

Before The Grand Tournament, I was convinced that success in Ranked wasn't really possible without putting at least some money into cards. At a low rank, knowing the game overcomes the power differential that a big collection gives you, but at a higher rank, the skill is so much more even that the small edge rarer cards give you makes that much of a difference. I still believe that, but I'm more convinced now that it's possible to focus your skill and collection based on your resources and still have success with the game. It's a more frustrating road, to be sure, but every win I get against someone with a Legend card back is that much sweeter knowing that I got there the hard way. That's a feeling no amount of money can buy.

Easy Mode: Disappointment with @AppStoreGames' First Week

Screenshot 2015-09-07 09.55.11.jpeg

Given that it's more or less assured that Apple's going to release an Apple TV with some sort of gaming capabilities, it was surprising but not shocking to see Apple start up a Twitter account focusing on games in the App Store this week. The App Store opened in 2008 and Twitter has existed for several years before that, so seven years seems like a fairly long time to wait to make this move, but better late than never.

That said, given how Apple is using their new Twitter account, it's an open question as to who this account is actually for.

As of the time of this post, @AppStoreGames has 57 tweets since its launch on September 3rd. In addition to the obligatory "Hello, World" tweets and five tweets thanking people like Justin Bieber for following them, they featured twelve games: Ridiculous Fishing, I Am Bread, Power Ping Pong, Hearthstone, Alto's Adventure, Transistor, Walking Dead: Road to Survival, Lara Croft Go, Game of War, Monument Valley, Device 6, and Leo's Fortune. None of these are games that anyone who looks at the main page of the App Store even casually will be unfamiliar with (aside from I Am Bread, a new release already known in the indie game space, and Power Ping Pong, published by Chillingo/EA).

Many of these games already have multimillion dollar advertising budgets. Hearthstone has run a series of commercials on television, including during the NBA and NHL finals. Game of War has run over 9,000 ads, including during the Super Bowl; there was a period of time where those ads felt inescapable. One could argue that few, if any, of these games need additional promotion. At a minimum, someone looking to follow this account on Twitter looking for recommendations beyond the front page of the App Store will be extremely disappointed.

Further, of those games featured, Walking Dead: Road to Survival was afforded a series of 14 tweets in a Twitter chat with the game's producer (because it really is 2008 and Twitter chats are a thing again, apparently), and Transistor was given a ten tweet Spotlight feature on Saturday. Not to belabor the point, but the new Walking Dead game gets regular advertisement on a cable television show called The Walking Dead that is apparently fairly popular, not to mention a campaign with YouTube megastar PewDiePie, and Transistor has been featured regularly on the front page of the store since its release in June, and sits at #81 on the top grossing chart as of this writing. [Big thanks to Anna Tarkov of Unconsoleable for finding some of these articles.]

So what's the problem? Why shouldn't Apple promote games that are popular on its platform? Well, simply, because for every one of those games, there are hundreds which are struggling to get enough downloads to allow their creators to keep making games for a living. Presumably, many people who are following Apple's Twitter account for games have already seen what there is to see on the front page of the App Store and are looking for different recommendations. Even picking one of the games from the second page of the featured list and writing 100 characters explaining why that game is worth a player's time could make the difference between a smaller developer being able to afford to make their next game or not.

That's not to say that Apple shouldn't feature blockbusters or big new releases, of course. Is it possible someone who has never heard of Transistor will find out about it from that Spotlight feature? Of course. But it's much more likely that spotlighting that game to that Twitter account is tweeting to the choir, and the fact that they seem to be featuring well known entities exclusively is what's disappointing. The difference between @AppStoreGames and, say, the Official PlayStation Blog, is that the latter does most of what @AppStoreGames is doing, but it also devotes space for a number of indie games, sometimes weeks or months prior to release. I make a point to read that blog closely because I end up discovering a number of games that I might not have heard about from anywhere else. That's a new opportunity that Apple has with @AppStoreGames but isn't yet taking advantage of.

One of the things that made the App Store great in the early days was that everyone was on equal ground. In an environment where publishing on nearly any other platform required a publisher, a smaller developer could put a good game up on the store and have a legitimate chance to find an audience. That's how we got games like Monument Valley, Swords and Sworcery, and Ridiculous Fishing in the first place. Now, though, the sheer volume of apps submitted, combined with the gargantuan budgets of publishers like King, EA, and even Blizzard, makes it nearly impossible to surface good games from smaller developers. The best many devs can hope for is that their icon will show up on the second or third page of New and Noteworthy and that enough people will click on it and ultimately make a purchase. This Twitter account provides Apple an opportunity not just to surface some games that would benefit from some extra attention, but also prove to prospective Apple TV buyers (who may themselves be looking at the device to fill a gaming need) that the meme that Apple doesn't understand or care about gaming is no longer true.

It's sad that @AppStoreGames accomplishes neither of those things. Instead, we get the same recommendations that we've always gotten. Meet the new discovery, same as the old discovery. And everyone loses in the end.