Rewards and consequences
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 November 2014, 2:26 am
I bought Valkyria Chronicles on Steam yesterday, a new PC release of an old console game. I like it, it is a good mix of tactical combat and strong storytelling. But after three or so battles I noticed something about the game mechanics that made me restart the game and play those battles again in a very different way. And I'm not sure that I am happy about that new way to play.

The problem is that in Valkyria Chronicles you get a HUGE amount of bonus xp and currency for finishing battles as quickly as possible. Not for killing all enemies or protecting your soldiers, no, for pure speed. Suicide rushes are the best possible tactic. And the rwards you get for that are a game changer. The xp bonus for finishing a mission in record time is twice the base xp, so by rushing you level up three times as fast than if you take it slow.

There are several points about this which make me think that this is bad game design. One is that by making one way to play clearly superior, you give players less options to play their way. The other is that you punish those who persist in trying to play their way. They slowly fall behind in levels until they are way behind the curve and face enemies that are too strong for them. I haven't seen any repeatable fights yet which would allow me to grind xp to catch up if I didn't do well in the earlier battles. Basically you are supposed to save your game before the battle, play it once badly and see the scripted events, then reload and play it better.

I'm all for achievements and badges that encourage you to play well in games. But in a long, linear game if instead of fluff rewards you give out rewards that make you significantly stronger for playing "well", or in a way the devs intended, you get a very perverse effect: You make the game easier for those already playing well, and you make the game harder for those who already have trouble. Shouldn't that be the other way around? Provide more challenge for the stronger players, and boost the weaker ones!
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Exclusivity in massively multiplayer games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 November 2014, 2:47 am
A new continent opened up in Archeage with lots of housing space. And presumably by hacking all the housing space was sold out within seconds. While there is a certain historical accuracy to having a large number of landless peasants and a tiny number of landed gentry, I think the concept isn't commercially viable. Imagine a player like me who has already played lots of MMORPGs full of mediocre quests, but who would be interested in trying a game like Archeage *because* of having a house and a farm. I'd first be pissed off because the subscription-free part of Archeage doesn't allow me to experience the part of the game I am interested in at all. And then I shell out money for a subscription and find that I still can't get any land? I'd be out of that game again in a heartbeat!

Imagine the same game with a different system: Instead of allowing hackers to grab all land and sell it for their profit, what if the game company sold the land for real money to the highest bidders? I'm pretty sure that would cause howls of outrage, even if the only thing that changes would be who received the money, the game company or the hackers. If we wouldn't be willing to accept a game in which a limited supply is sold for cash by the game company, why would we be willing to accept a game in which the same limited supply is sold for cash by hackers?

Back in the days where people trading virtual items for money was still a subject of intensive discussion on MMORPG blogs, I once pointed out that the problem is that only half of the interaction happens in the game: Player A transfers a virtual property to player B in the game. The other half of the transaction, player B gives money to player A, happens outside the game and is invisible to the game company. The game company can't know whether A gave virtual property to B for money, or because B is his girlfriend, or for some other reason. The only way to stop people from selling virtual property for real money would be to completely disallow the in-game transfer of virtual property.

I am not convinced at all that having virtual property with limited supply in the game is a good idea at all. And I am absolutely certain that if a game has such a feature, it would need to put strong limits on such ownership: Every player being allowed only one plot of land, and no way to transfer that plot of land to another player. But I think it would be even better if for example small plots of land would be available in a quantity that even free players could have one, and only large plots of land would be in somewhat more limited supply. In the end you can't honestly advertise your game as having housing and farming if in practice it is unlikely for the average player to get there without a huge financial investment.
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The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 5
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 November 2014, 2:38 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune arrived in the Underdark and after a fight with some troglodytes were accepted into a clan of svirfneblin, having previously been transformed by sinister forces into svirfneblin form. In this session (which for real life reasons was a very short one) they set out from the svirfneblin clan towards a magical underground spring which they hope can transform them back. But they know that there are more troglodytes in the way, and the beholder they let loose onto the world in a previous adventure.

The strong point of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is tactical combat. Tactical combat is helped by interesting terrain, where the obstacles of the battlemap force players to make choices on how to place themselves. Having said that, "interesting" does not necessarily mean complicated. So what happened next to the group was an encounter in one of the simplest possible maps: A long, straight corridor. I made the passage 4 spaces wide, but included a 2x2 spaces large behemoth in the enemy group, plus 5 troglodytes of different types. So the players couldn't get past the behemoth without suffering from attacks of opportunity. And both sides were vulnerable to area attacks, as they couldn't very well disperse sideways.

Given those circumstances the group decided to concentrate fire on the behemoth. But the troglodytes had several powers that were quite powerful in confined spaces: They all had a stench aura around them making attackers suffer a -2 penalty to attacks. And the two spellcasters in the back had area attacks and a debilitating ray which caused weakness in targets already standing in a stench aura. So this turned out to be a tough fight, and the characters were forced to expend a lot of daily powers.

On the up side this fight established the Underdark as a dark and dangerous place. The downside was that with the penalty and weakness it took the players quite some time to finally beat down the troglodytes. And then they found themselves having expended many daily powers and were unwilling to face the beholder like that. So they turned around, went back to the svirfneblin, and spent another night there to recover. Of course having set out to kill a beholder and having returned a short while later because of a few troglodytes the group didn't really impress the svirfneblin, who could be heard snickering behind the adventurers back. Given the short time available this time, we ended the session there.
Tobold's Blog



The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 5
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 November 2014, 2:38 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune arrived in the Underdark and after a fight with some troglodytes were accepted into a clan of svirfneblin, having previously been transformed by sinister forces into svirfneblin form. In this session (which for real life reasons was a very short one) they set out from the svirfneblin clan towards a magical underground spring which they hope can transform them back. But they know that there are more troglodytes in the way, and the beholder they let loose onto the world in a previous adventure.

The strong point of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is tactical combat. Tactical combat is helped by interesting terrain, where the obstacles of the battlemap force players to make choices on how to place themselves. Having said that, "interesting" does not necessarily mean complicated. So what happened next to the group was an encounter in one of the simplest possible maps: A long, straight corridor. I made the passage 4 spaces wide, but included a 2x2 spaces large behemoth in the enemy group, plus 5 troglodytes of different types. So the players couldn't get past the behemoth without suffering from attacks of opportunity. And both sides were vulnerable to area attacks, as they couldn't very well disperse sideways.

Given those circumstances the group decided to concentrate fire on the behemoth. But the troglodytes had several powers that were quite powerful in confined spaces: They all had a stench aura around them making attackers suffer a -2 penalty to attacks. And the two spellcasters in the back had area attacks and a debilitating ray which caused weakness in targets already standing in a stench aura. So this turned out to be a tough fight, and the characters were forced to expend a lot of daily powers.

On the up side this fight established the Underdark as a dark and dangerous place. The downside was that with the penalty and weakness it took the players quite some time to finally beat down the troglodytes. And then they found themselves having expended many daily powers and were unwilling to face the beholder like that. So they turned around, went back to the svirfneblin, and spent another night there to recover. Of course having set out to kill a beholder and having returned a short while later because of a few troglodytes the group didn't really impress the svirfneblin, who could be heard snickering behind the adventurers back. Given the short time available this time, we ended the session there.
Tobold's Blog



Do the players know best?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 November 2014, 3:50 am
I have a mail in my inbox from Stubborn for a month to which I have trouble finding an adequate reply. I was discussing my next D&D campaign with him, and he replied among other things that "the prescriptive elements of it are definitely more your thing than mine". One the one side I know that he is right, the new campaign definitively *is* pushing my players into a style of gameplay they don't usually do. On the other side I believe that this *could* be a good thing. I'm just not 100% sure about it.

I believe that pen & paper roleplaying games are about interactive story-telling. Yes, there is also a large part of interesting turn-based tactical combat; but I can do turn-based tactical combat in a computer game, while human players are necessary for interactive story-telling. It is the "unique selling proposition" of tabletop role-playing games. Having said that, interactive story-telling isn't actually all that obvious. I have a whole book shelf full of D&D manuals, and there is very little written in those books about interactive story-telling. It is very easy to confuse role-playing with roll playing, and concentrating on the aspects of the game which are written on your character sheet and resolves with dice rolls.

I have in the past played occasionally with great role-players. I once was in a group that sneaked into a warehouse and was caught by a guard, and another player turned that into a brilliant scene where he convinced the guard that the group was there to conduct a secret safety inspection and commended him for having "caught" the group. If you have several such players, great interactive role-playing will happen in your campaign regardless of how you run it. My problem is that in my current group I'm not really getting the degree of role-playing I would like, and the players are very much concentrated on the more mechanic parts of the game.

So the question is whether as the DM I should conform to the predispositions of my players and run a campaign which is light on role-playing and strong on rolling dice. Or should I use "prescriptive elements" in my campaign that nudge players towards more interactive story-telling?

What I have observed in years of MMORPG playing is that what players do is not necessarily a good indication of what players actually want. And what players say they want is then yet another thing. For example I can honestly not tell you with certainty whether a majority of MMORPG players enjoys playing solo more than playing in a group, or whether it is just the grouping system and the incentives in modern games which turned the majority into solo players. Back in the days of the original Everquest the idea of a solo MMORPG appeared to be somewhat ridiculous. But in EQ playing solo was harder than playing in a group, and now it is the other way around. Are players simply following the path of least resistance to maximum rewards, or are there true preferences hidden underneath all that somewhere?

If in the case of my campaign players don't really have a strong preference, and just play the game as it is presented to them, it appears perfectly possible that by starting a new campaign in which the incentives and the framework are presented differently we can arrive at a different style of gaming and actually all enjoy it more. But if the way they play is because that is what they truly want, trying to push them out of their comfort zone might go down really badly.

What do you think? Do the players know best, or are they flexible and follow the incentives?
Tobold's Blog



Predictability of games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 October 2014, 8:42 am
Azuriel is talking about Civilization: Beyond Earth and complains that after an interesting start the end game becomes a formality, where you already know you won, but still need to play for hours to actually win. Meanwhile Zubon talks about a board game where the better player always wins. And Stubborn mentions: "Okay, most recently I’ve been playing X-Com (I haven’t fully rage-quit just yet, though I was close the other night when two 90% to hit rocket attacks missed their mark followed by an 88% sniper shot missing, causing one of my people to be killed the following round, but I held it together and played on).".

What do these posts have in common? They are all about predictability of games. Games tend to start out in a state of maximum unpredictability: You usually don't know who is winning before the game has developed a bit further. At some point it becomes very clear who is winning, but unless a player concedes (and an AI player frequently isn't programmed to do so), the game goes on in a very predictable manner. And then it comes down to the amount of randomness in the game whether the game becomes totally boring, or there is still a chance for a reversal of fortunes.

Having said that, a lot of people like knowing early that they are going to win. Not everybody is playing games in a competitive manner. Most people are quite happy for example doing quests in MMORPGs for hundreds of hours, where they always "win", and only rarely encounter minor setbacks. Other players manipulate, cheat, or pay money in order to make a game more predictably a win. Even mild-mannered Stubborn can get close to rage-quitting if his 90% win chance turns into a loss.

That poses a challenge to game design. Do we really want a "No Longer Delay the Inevitable button" as suggested by Azuriel? Or do we want games where up to the very end it isn't predictable who is winning? (There are actually a number of board games with hidden scoring systems that work like that). Do we want more randomness in games, so they become less predictable, or do we prefer less randomness and more predictability?
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Steam key resellers
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 October 2014, 4:31 am
If somebody offers you a designer watch or handbag for a very low price, sold out of the boot of his car, you would be suspicious. Either the item is fake, or it is stolen. So obviously I was wondering the same when I bought the Civilization 5 complete edition from a Steam key reseller for 15 Euro, instead of paying Steam 40 Euro for the same item. There are fake and stolen keys around.

While I don't know a way to actually buy a Steam key I could mail to somebody else directly from Steam (is that possible?), I have in the past received Steam keys that were quite definitely legit. For example if you fund a game on Kickstarter and the funded game ends up on Steam, you might get one or several Steam keys as backer rewards. If you buy a game in physical form, a box with a DVD in it, there might be a Steam key in there as well. So it is very possible for somebody to end up with a "spare" Steam key which is neither fake nor stolen.

So unlike that designer handbag or watch this isn't necessarily a black market. But I can't shake the feeling that at the very least it is a grey one. The key I bought "works", as in it allowed me to install and play Civilization 5 on my computer. But I am not 100% sure if somewhere in the process something legally dodgy was going on, and the cheap price is somehow the result of a copyright violation or something similar. You getting a Steam key legitimately and you being allowed to resell that Steam key are two very different things.

A bit of research on the internet finds opinions divided: Some people don't buy anything directly from Steam any more, and only buy resold keys. Others report on the possibility that Steam could either remove a game you bought via key from your library, or even ban your whole account. So right now I'm not sure if getting that game for less than half price was actually a good deal.
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Civilized pricing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 October 2014, 9:18 am
I bought and played pretty much every version of Civilization there is, from the very first to Civ 5, including spin-offs like Colonization or Alpha Centauri, and even Civilization Revolution. So of course I was considering buying Civilization: Beyond Earth as well. But I haven't. After looking at both written and video reviews of Beyond Earth, I can't see a compelling reason to buy it. Most of the engine is still Civ 5, the Sci-Fi scenario seems to be less interesting than the historical one, and the new game appears to be suffering from feature overload and unnecessary complications.

Now in cases like this I tend to get price sensitive. There are games where I have doubts (e.g. Civilization: Beyond Earth or Shadow of Mordor) which make me unwilling to pay full price for the game, but I put them on my Steam wishlist anyway. If at the next holiday sale I can get the game for half price or less, I'll reconsider.

In this specific case I also had another idea: I only played Civilization 5 when it came out, and haven't touched it since. So I never bought the two expansions of the game. And I hear that Civ 5 with the expansion is much better than the new Beyond Earth, so that might well be worth trying. But as I was still in price sensitive mode, I was somewhat shocked to find out that each expansion on Steam costs 30 Euro. Hey, I'm not saving 50 Euro on buying Beyond Earth just to spend 60 Euro on two expansions for the older game. If I wanted *all* DLC for Civ 5, I would even have to pay 100 Euro! But only if I bought them individually. Curiously enough I can't buy a bundle of all DLCs for a better price. But I *can* buy Civilization 5 a second time in the "complete edition" and that will get me all DLCs. And that would only cost me 40 Euros.

I haven't made a final decision yet, but if I feel the urge to play a Civilization game, I would probably buy the complete edition. Somehow it annoys me that this means I will have to buy a second copy of the original game. I have a sneaking suspicion that Steam won't even show me owning the game twice, they would just quietly take my money and only put the new DLCs in my library, and not a second copy of Civ 5. After all, there is no way to use two digital copies of the same game on a Steam account. It would be a lot nicer if I had the option for example to gift the second copy to somebody.
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The next goal
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 October 2014, 7:11 am
I've been playing Destiny quite casually in the last few weeks. Log on, take a bounty to do some patrol missions, do the patrols, log off again. That was the kind of relaxed gameplay I liked, and I had a specific goal in mind: Reach Vanguard rank 2. I just reached that goal today, and now I can buy epic gear for Vanguard marks. It turned out that for most of my slots that meant replacing some Light +15 item by a Light +18 item, which isn't really worth it. But fortunately I still had some crappy Light +6 gloves, and upgrading those to +18 got me to ding level 24.

The problem with reaching a goal in any persistent online game is that then you have to look for your next goal. And right now in Destiny the goals that are left aren't a good fit to my play preferences. Basically I reached the point where soloing doesn't make sense any more. It isn't impossible, Destiny has a tiny, tiny chance of epic drops from any mob you kill, so theoretically if I soloed thousands of mobs I could still sometimes get an upgrade. But practically if I want to level beyond 24 I would need to play strikes, which are pickup group dungeons. Not the casual content I am looking for.

Of course I could just play an alt. But gameplay in Destiny is 90% independent of your class, so playing a different class (especially solo up to level 20) isn't really much different from the first play through. So somehow I have run out of goals that I'd like to achieve in Destiny, and I think that means game over for me.

There is nothing wrong with playing in groups. There are a lot of games where I enjoy cooperative multiplayer more than I enjoy solo play, especially if playing in a group has tactical options that don't exist in solo play. But I have to question the wisdom of game design where your level of advancement in the game determines whether you should play solo or play group. Wouldn't it be best if at any given level you could choose between solo and group play and still advance? Rate of advancement might need to be a bit faster in groups, to make up for the possibility of landing in a bad group and not advancing much at all. But I do think that is just a matter of balancing incentives. Why do we get so many games where soloing is far superior to grouping up to a certain point, and then the situation reverses? To me that looks like a recipe to get people to quit when their next goal doesn't align with their play style any more.
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Slopebrowed weaseldicks
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 October 2014, 4:25 am
I am not a native English speaker. And apart from the time spent on the internet or watching TV in English, I don't live in an English-speaking environment. Thus my vocabulary might not always be very current, especially regarding colloquial language. So I was quite happy to much expand my vocabulary by reading this very well written post by Chris Kluwe. I didn't even know words like "slopebrowed weaseldicks" existed. Recommended!
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Death threats are not a good idea
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 October 2014, 3:38 am
This week the gaming news are full of yet another death threat story. Only this time it was a man who received the threat, Gabe Newell. And the threat wasn't made anonymously, but by a game developer unhappy with a technical flaw on the Steam page of his recently released game. Now Gabe could have called the police, as death threats are illegal in many jurisdictions, being a form of coercion. Instead he pulled out the ban hammer and kicked the game in question from Steam. The dev quit and I'd guess his career is finished. But apart from being a funny story about human stupidity, I think this is an opportunity to discuss the frequent use of death threats in gaming, especially on Twitter.

Death threats are illegal, especially so if what is threatened is a mass killing, like a plane bombing or a school massacre. So why did gamers divert John Smedley's plane with a bomb threat, and prevent Anita Sarkeesian to speak at a school by threatening a massacre? Don't they know that is both illegal and unethical? The answer is probably that they think their grievances justify unethical behavior and they don't think anything can happen to them because they made those threats anonymously.

Many people think they have a constitutional right to anonymous free speech. Guess what? Death threats aren't covered by that! If the so-called speech is criminal in itself, the first amendment doesn't protect it. No judge would consider a threat to bomb a plane or to massacre poeople to be "free speech". Which means that the only protection somebody who makes such a threat online has is technical in nature. The person making the threat counts on law enforcement not being technically able to find out who is behind that Twitter sock puppet account.

There are only two possibilities in this case: Either they are right, or they are wrong. If they are wrong, and law enforcement can trace such death threats back, some people will get a nasty surprise when the police rings at their door. What worries me is what happens if they are right. As I said, anonymous death threats are not a right anybody has. So if too many of those happen on Twitter and law enforcement gets frustrated, everybody's right to anonymity on Twitter might get threatened. Under pressure from law enforcement, Twitter might well be forced to change the rules, either openly demanding verified accounts or secretly adding better IP tracing. And if that happens we will have the idiots who made death threats about gaming issues to thank for.
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Does McDonald's make the best hamburgers?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 October 2014, 2:54 am
Azuriel argues that things contain a mythical factor called "quality", that reviews should somehow reflect that mythical quality, and that consumers are all idiots because they rarely choose the best thing available. I believe that consumers are quite rational, and that they make choices on a highly complicated multi-factor analysis. Thus McDonald's isn't more popular than other burger joints because they make better hamburgers. It is that in the needs of the consumer the quality of the hamburger plays just a small role. As long as the hamburger is sufficiently good, and not more unhealthy than other burgers, consumers don't put quality of the hamburger on top of their list of criteria. I personally like Burger King more than McDonald's. But as there are no Burger Kings in Belgium, guess where I end up going! I'm not driving to a neighboring country just because the burgers are better! McDonald's is the most popular because they got the MIX of factors that consumers care about right, with location, price, parking, cleanliness, children playing areas, and so on. For many goods consumers care a lot more about price than about quality.

If we want to rank burger chains, we need to look what people care about when choosing a burger chain. If we want to rank books, we need to look what people care about when choosing a book. If we want to rank video games, we need to look what people care about when choosing a book. It is as simple as that. If, as Azuriel pointed out, more people like 50 Shades of Grey than Nineteen Eighty-Four, that doesn't mean that people buying books are stupid and unable to recognize the more culturally relevant book. It means that cultural relevance isn't very high up on their list of criteria of choice. If you buy a book for entertainment, for reading on the beach, the Da Vinci Code or 50 Shades of Grey *are* better than Nineteen Eighty-Four or Ulysses.

In the case of books ranking books by cultural relevance and education value still makes some sort of sense. I was born before computer games even existed, and my childhood was filled with books. A whole lot of my education comes from books. If you put all books on the same list just by sales numbers, you get a mix of books that sell because they are entertaining and books that sell because they have cultural value. So looking at those two factors separately would be a good idea.

I doubt the same is true for video games. Yes, there are cultural / artsy video "games". But they aren't a huge cultural influence. Very, very few people choose their games based on cultural qualities. Video games are nearly exclusively chosen for their entertainment qualities. Games like Mountain or Dear Esther are more curiosities which sell because they are so very different from the usual fare (and cheap). I doubt you can get to the same degree of education by playing video games than you can get by reading books. The overwhelming reason why people buy video games is for fun, for entertainment. And that is why I think video game reviews should look mostly at that entertainment value factor. The "best" game is the most entertaining, most fun game. And what I want from reading a review is that it tells me how likely it is that I will have fun when playing the game, and not regret the purchase.
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Still undecided about ArcheAge
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 October 2014, 5:59 am
I am generally interested in MMORPGs which have a strong virtual world element, where I can have my own property with actual activities, and where there is a player-run economy with crafting. Given that ArcheAge has all this, that people repeatedly tell me that at least at the start I could be safe from ganking, and that it is possible to try the game for free, I should be all over this. But then the kind of people who tell me that PvP isn't so bad in ArcheAge are the same kind of people who think that Darkfail is a game perfectly suitable for carebears like me. And in my newsreader I constantly see posts of people quitting ArcheAge.

Apparently ArcheAge has a huge hacking problem, which ruins the player economy. Hackers control the available land through cheats, and drive up the prices of everything by flooding the economy with illegally obtained gold. And while people can't gank you if you stay in safe places, they can very well grief you with other methods, like pushing a cart onto your farm and thereby preventing you from planting. If there is really no way to burn down somebody else's cart on your land, what do you do? I also hear a lot about the toxic community. Some people say it is because it is a PvP sandbox game, others say that it is because it is a Free2Play game. I really don't care. I simply don't want to play with assholes all day, regardless of their motivation.

So with all this negativity about ArcheAge, I haven't had the motivation yet to download the game and try it out. Hell is other people, and I don't have much of a desire to enter that particular sort of hell just to test out whether I like some game mechanics.
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Cured?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 October 2014, 5:06 am
Sometimes MMORPGs in general, or specific popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are described as being "addictive". So I was wondering whether I have been miraculously cured: I'm reading about the big changes to WoW with patch 6.0 this week in preparation for the next expansion, and I feel no desire whatsoever to resubscribe or buy that expansion.

If the miracle cure explanation isn't the good one, then the alternative explanation I have is that I expect WoW 6.0+ to be not fundamentally different from all the previous versions of World of Warcraft. Sure, there will be some new content. But most of that new content is based on already very familiar modes of gameplay: New quests in new zones, new dungeons, and so on. Some minor additions like housing don't turn this into a radically new game. A WoW expansion is always mostly "more of the same", with some tweaks.

Of course that depends on how far you zoom out your view, or how closely you look. You could say that there are a lot of "WoW-like" games out there which have the same leveling by questing, with some dungeons mixed in sort of gameplay. If one finds other games not worth playing because they are too similar to WoW, then surely a WoW expansion, which is even more like WoW, isn't worth playing either. Unless of course one thinks one has to play one of the bunch, in which case WoW isn't the worst possible choice. Nevertheless some people might prefer for example Guild Wars 2, either for gameplay reasons, or simply because they don't have to buy a new expansion and pay $15 per month to play that.

What about you? Does patch 6.0 and the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion tempt you to resubscribe to World of Warcraft? Or maybe you never left? Or have you been "cured"?
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On the relevancy of video game reviews
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 October 2014, 3:55 am
The news this week was that Destiny has 3.2 million players on average every day on the servers, a month after release. That information clashes somewhat with Destiny's bad Metacritic score of 76, which doesn't suggest that the game would still be fun to play after a month. Which leads to the interesting question in how far a review score answers the question "Is this a fun game to play?".

The trope for movie reviews is that nobody wants to see the critically acclaimed movies, while the box office hits get bad reviews. That isn't 100% true, but Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the highest grossing films of this year, shares Destiny's middling Metacritic score of 76, although it scores much better on Rotten Tomatoes. So there is some truth in saying that at least some movie critics review films to answer the question whether watching that movie would make you a better person, instead of asking whether watching that movie would be a fun night out.

Metacritic scores for video games *used to be* more relevant for seeing whether a game would be fun to play, and thus worth buying. Game developers often have contracts that include bonuses based on Metacritic scores, because game companies think that those scores result in sales. I wonder what the bonus for the marketing people is based on. I could very well imagine a situation where Bungie / Activision Blizzard is paying a bonus to the marketing people of Destiny based on the great sales, but not to the game developers, based on the mediocre Metacritic score. And that wouldn't be just.

I do not believe that those scores are much influenced by either marketing money nor by social justice concerns of left-wing video game journalists. Grand Theft Auto 5 has a Metacritic score of 97, while The Sims 4 has one of 70, so violence and sexism obviously isn't a criterion for the score. But with The Sims 4 topping some PC game sales charts, and Destiny obviously being very popular as well, there is an obvious disagreement between reviewers and actual players about whether these games are good or not. The reviewers might claim that the players have been duped by extensive marketing into buying those games, but then why are millions of people still playing Destiny every day? As famous video game critic Abraham Lincoln remarked, you cannot fool all the people all the time.

My personal theory is that video game reviews get increasingly irrelevant because the video game critics have been playing games for too long. They don't answer the question "is this game fun to play?" any more, but are doing a far too complicated comparison of the new game with all the best features of all the games that came before. That is a comparison that no game can withstand, and one that isn't actually all that relevant. Even *if* you played The Sims 3 and find that The Sims 4 has less features, you might still want to buy and play The Sims 4, because you are sick and tired of The Sims 3 which you have been playing for the last 5 years. And even if the MMO elements of Destiny don't compare well with the best MMO games out there, you probably won't mind if you mostly played shooters before and those MMO elements are new and exciting to you. Not to mention that part of the audience for video games is much younger than the reviewers, and simply hasn't played all those previous games for that reason.

To me there is something inherently wrong in a headline like Destiny Is A Bad Game, But I Can't Stop Playing It. It is indicative of the reviewer's gut feeling being disconnected from his brain. And the review readers are probably more interested in the gut feeling than in the brainy intellectual analysis. They just want to know whether if they spend $60 on a game, they will have fun for many hours, or whether they will quickly regret that purchase. When reviews don't answer that question any more, they become irrelevant.
Tobold's Blog



Just a link
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 October 2014, 4:49 am
As I have nothing to add which isn't already said in Belghast's excellent post about the experience of a PvE player in a PvP game like ArchAge, I'm just posting a link to that article.
Tobold's Blog



The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 4
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 October 2014, 8:32 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune killed a dragon in return for the druid Bredel advising them on how to reverse their transformation into svirfneblin. So this session started with them being led by Bredel to the entrance of the Underdark which had recently opened in the area. The entrance was one day's march south of Bredel's home. So to find the underground source of the spring they knew they had to walk the same distance back north in the Underdark, probably taking longer due to winding tunnels. They also knew that the Underdark had an upper region (the shallows) and a lower region (the deeps), and that a source reaching the surface was more likely to be found in the shallows. Thus they could navigate generally northwards, generally upwards at any tunnel branch.

While as svirfneblin everybody had darkvision, that vision requires at least some dim light to work. But they had their adventuring gear, including a lantern with several flasks of oil, and an eternal torch. They also had iron rations, and they were able to find some edible mushrooms. Still it was a long trek through winding, dark tunnels. And while previously they had benefited from the druids create campsite ritual, that didn't work underground and they had a less comfortable night after their first day in the Underdark.

On their second day the Favorites of Selune entered a cave and came close to a giant mushroom, which poisoned the rogue (who was ahead of the group). And then troglodytes who were hidden behind the stalagmites and rocks attacked with javelins. That combat was quite interesting, because the mushroom poisoned a 7x7 square area in the middle of the cave every round, which the combatants tried to avoid. The group druid used that cleverly with a spell that pulled enemies towards him, so that they ended up in the poison zone. The warrior, presumably tired from slaying dragons, exchanged ineffective blows with one troglodyte savage.

I especially liked the design of the troglodyte deepscourge (ranged caster type), who had a ray attack which did very little damage, but weakened enemies if they already were in the troglodyte savages stinking aura. And he had a recharging area attack which also weakened "non-reptile creatures", so he could fire it into melee and not affect his allies. As I had used the wrong stats for the dragon, the troglodytes also hit a lot harder than the dragon, and the fight was more interesting. The cleric cast a lot of daily spells and kept everybody alive, plus he set the mushroom on fire with a column of fire spell. As the mushroom wasn't a creature, I didn't give it a saving throw to extinguish the fire, and so it slowly burned down. And the group killed the troglodytes one after another.

Resting after the fight, the Favorites of Selune are found by a patrol of *real* svirfneblin. They wore tabards with strange symbols, which a nature / arcane check revealed to be crystallographic structures: A Fluorite was leading half a dozen Gypsum. With three chemists in the room the players quickly figured out that the svirfneblin had military ranks named after Mohs scale of mineral hardness, so this was a sort of sergeant leading a group of privates first class. The svirfneblin spoke common, but always referred to svirfneblin in the first person plural. So the sergeant asked them "What are we doing here? Why aren’t we wearing our tabards?". But the sorceress quickly came up with an idea and said that they had been on a secret mission for the Diamond to the surface, "in disguise", with a rather high roll on his bluff check. So the sergeant believed them and led them to the cave where the svirfneblin lived.

The cave, or rather network of caves, was lighted by luminescent mushrooms. They were handed from one rank to the next, until they stood before the king of the svirfneblin, Diamond Quirrit. The king was wise enough to see that not only he hadn't sent any secret missions out, but also that while the adventurers looked like svirfneblin, they didn't behave right. Nevertheless he was quite friendly, and when the adventurers revealed that they had been transformed into svirfneblin and were looking for the source of a magical spring to turn them back, he offered his help. He drew them a map to the spring, but warned them that recently a strange beholder, all deformed, had moved into the cave with the spring and subjugated the local troglodytes. The players immediately realized that this was the beholder they had let go from Gardmore Abbey.

With the troglodyte fight and the svirfneblin roleplaying encounter the players had gained enough xp to reach level 10. So we stopped at this point and leveled up.
Tobold's Blog



What do you think of hybrid business models?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 October 2014, 3:40 am
Carbine announced that they are "rethinking" the business model of Wildstar. Most people interpret that as switching to some sort of Free2Play model. Theoretically a MMORPG could switch to a "buy-once-play-forever" business model like Guild Wars 2; but such a "conversion" basically would just mean dropping the monthly fee. That would sure be popular, but it is hard to imagine that the added income from people who only waited for the subscription to disappear before buying the game would make up for the loss of revenue. So some sort of Free2Play is more likely.

Now several games which have made such a switch went for a hybrid model: The game goes free, but free players suffer from certain restrictions, for example on inventory space or number of characters. There is still an optional subscription, and if you buy that, the restrictions don't apply to you. Such a subscription might also include a certain amount of a special currency usable to buy items in the real money item shop.

I was wondering what people are thinking about this hybrid model. Is it the best of two worlds, giving the players who prefer a subscription game all the options of a subscription model, while giving the players who prefer Free2Play all the options of a Free2Play model? Or is it a bad compromise that makes nobody really happy?
Tobold's Blog



Winning a culture war
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 October 2014, 6:11 am
I consider myself a neutral observer in the culture war commonly known under the name Gamergate. I believe that both sides use lies, propaganda, and other means of interaction that I personally find unacceptable. But anybody looking from the outside at any war is wondering who is "winning". In a culture war it is usually two rather small groups who are fighting for the attention and positive opinion of the mainstream, and this one isn't any different. It doesn't matter very much how much the culture warriors on each side agree with each other, because there is usually a lot of self-delusion going on within such groups. It matters more how the people who aren't in either group see the culture war.

The Boston Globe is a newspaper founded in 1872. Due to the lack of video games in 1872 it would be hard to accuse the Boston Globe to be a video game publication. One could say that it is leaning slightly left-ward, but in general it would be very much considered a mainstream newspaper rather than "communist" or "SJW". So if I read articles like this one in the Boston Globe, I believe that this is what the main-stream press sees and thinks.

Now I have no opinion on how it came to pass that the police is investigating death threats made against female video game developer Brianna Wu. I'm sure that some people believe those threats were fabricated, or that at least making such threats against outspoken women in gaming "isn't what Gamergate is about". But I do know how this looks. Gamergate might not *be* a movement whose whole purpose it is to discourage women in gaming, but it sure *looks* like one in the mainstream press.

We can all agree that only talking about the persecution of women in gaming is an extremely one-sided and narrow view of this culture war. But the problem is that the other side isn't represented in mainstream media. There is no article on Fox News about Gamergate, explaining the problems of video game journalism ethics or about pushing left-wing agendas in video games. The "harassment of women" theme is present in every single mainstream reporting of Gamergate, even in those that defend the movement.

Some people actually believe that this unbalanced presentation of the issue is due to a huge world-wide conspiracy. If find that extremely unlikely. There are tons of mainstream newspapers that have a conservative view of the world. Why would those be controllable by a conspiracy of "social justice warriors"? So somewhere something in the strategy of Gamergate isn't working. If you want to win "hearts and minds", you can't win if your opponent gets all the good press in mainstream news outlets, while the people defending your side do so on Twitter, YouTube, and niche blogs where the message is only seen by the people who already agree with it.

I believe that the Gamergate movement needs to think very carefully what their message should be and how they could get it into the mainstream. Sorry, "I feel insulted by left-wing misrepresentation of gamers", while very true and understandable, isn't going to get you an article in a mainstream newspaper. What is Gamergate really about, and how can you formulate a mission statement that isn't easily dismissed as a first-world problem of privileged, misogynistic, white males? If you don't have a response to that, it will be impossible to win this culture war. 
Tobold's Blog



Combat controls
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 October 2014, 3:27 am
I watched Totalbiscuit's uncorrupted Shadow of Mordor YouTube video in order to find out whether I would like to play that game. The answer was: No. And the reason for that was the part where Totalbiscuit described the combat system as being the same as in the Batman: Arkham series. I played only one Batman: Arkham game, and the reason I stopped half-way through was because I hated the combat system.

Then I noticed the coincidence that there is another Lord of the Rings game I am not playing because of the combat system: Lord of the Rings Online. And that in spite of having paid for a lifetime subscription. So I was thinking what is was that made certain combat systems unpalatable to me. And I think the answer is how much the combat system feels as if I was in immediate control.

For Lord of the Rings Online the problem is that the combat system queues your key-presses and executes them some time later when the previous actions have been completed. This skill queue leads to combat not feeling very responsive. Sure, the character will do what you ordered him to do, but not at the moment where you press the button.

For Batman: Arkham the problem is similar, but somewhat different: You press a button, Batman does something immediately, but it isn't necessarily what you wanted him to do, or what you thought that button press would do. Batman frequently overperforms, making rather complicated moves in response to rather simple commands. That all looks very elegant and sophisticated (and combat *looks* great in a Shadow of Mordor gameplay video), but the player holding the controller isn't necessarily feeling all that much in control. You pressed a button because you wanted to hit the guy to your left, but the character decided that it would be better to hit the guy on your right and does that instead. Even if that was probably the better move, you feel that your role in controlling the character isn't all that important. Just mashing buttons also results in an elegant combat.

I think hand-to-hand combat in video games is somewhat problematic. Whether it is fists or knives, for cinematic reasons the hero character is fighting half a dozen villains at the same time, which is not very realistic. Shooters work better, because a single man with a gun looks less improbable if he kills half a dozen villains, using distance and cover to his advantage. That allows a shooter game to give perfect control to the player, letting him aim and see the immediate result of his shots. The game simulating hand-to-hand combat can't leave the player in perfect control, because he'd be overwhelmed if the fight was simulated realistically.

I'm still planning to give the Assassin's Creed series a second chance (didn't like the first one all that much). While it also suffers to some degree from that hand-to-hand combat system, AC has the advantage of combat not being the default option for every enemy you meet. But otherwise I am somewhat wary of those hand-to-hand combat action adventure games.
Tobold's Blog



There is no such thing as cooperative multiplayer survival
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 October 2014, 5:13 am
Between Kickstarter projects, Steam Greenlight and Early Access, and more traditionally financed games there is now a large abundance of different games. So one might be excused to think that if there are so many games, they should cover all sorts of flavors and preferences. But curiously that doesn't happen. Certain features only ever appear together, although it would be perfectly feasible to separate them.

One example is multiplayer survival games. They are all set up in a way that players have very little advantage in working together, but are rewarded with the other player's gear if they kill them. Survival multiplayer games exist exclusively as PvP games, with a rules system where cooperative PvE is not really an option. Instead these games often have options which allow players to torture each other. And death caused by other players is extremely common as long as you play anywhere where other players are near.

Fortunately for us as a species our caveman ancestors were a lot more cooperative than that. If they had behaved like modern survival game players, we would long have gone extinct. In real life death is a lot more serious than in a video game, and killing more often has consequences, as the killed person's relatives or tribe tend to go after the killer. Multiplayer survival games fail to simulate these aspects, and so for all their claims of realism end up being extremely different from the real world, because the incentives are so different.

Which makes me wonder why among all those survival games there isn't even one with a rule set that encourages cooperative multiplayer survival. Either by turning PvP off, or by balancing the advantages and disadvantages of killing somebody much more realistically, with a strong chance of you being killed permanently if you kill another player. And such a game should have better tools for cooperation, where working together as some form of tribe is only way to survive the harsh environment.

Torturing and killing other people in an environment where your very survival is threatened by other factors is not a realistic or natural behavior. So why aren't there any games that don't do that?
Tobold's Blog



Why I don't walk in virtual forests
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 October 2014, 10:39 pm
Yesterday Helistar suggested that progression shouldn't be the only reason why one visits a zone in a virtual world, that one could enjoy the zone just as being part of a virtual world. So I was thinking why I don't take a walk in a virtual forest. This is what I came up with:

  • Virtual forests are extremely small, you can cross them in a few minutes. You can't take an hour walk in a virtual forest without running in circles all the time. There are quite a lot of city park forests here larger than the largest forest in Azeroth.
  • No physical exercise. If I take a walk, I'd like to move my legs.
  • Lack of sensations: Not only don't I move my legs, I also don't feel the wind in my face, and I can't smell the flowers and trees, or touch them.
  • Lack of variety: The virtual forest consists of very few different models of trees which are repeated over and over. The exactly same tree exists in the forest many, many times.
  • Lack of realism: Especially in games like World of Warcraft a virtual tree doesn't look much like a tree at all once you get a bit closer. The leaves are basically just painted on as a texture.
In the end, I am in that virtual forest because unlike the real forest the virtual forest has monsters in it. But that only is an attraction if there is a point to killing those monsters, if there is some sort of challenge, and some reward.
Tobold's Blog



Is Destiny's random loot an example to follow?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 October 2014, 5:56 am
As I mentioned when the game came out (and independent from the fact that I'm playing a free copy), I like Destiny more than the average Metacritic score of 76 suggests I should. A lot of people who criticized the game now find that in spite of their reservations, they are still playing. Basically if you plotted the imaginary curve of how much somebody likes Destiny over time, it didn't start out all that strong, but lost a lot less over the subsequent weeks than other games. Weeks later it is still a perfectly viable option for me to start the game and play a bit. And I believe that one factor in this is the loot system of Destiny.

We are all used to the MMORPG loot system of games like World of Warcraft or similar games: Specific loot drops from specific boss monsters. It isn't certain that you'll get the sword of uberness you wanted if you kill a boss, but it is certain that you won't that particular item anywhere else. There is actually software out there that looks at your current gear and tells you where to go next. That can be problematic if the activity you are supposed to do is one you either dislike or are for other reasons unable to do. That can lead for example to people quitting guilds, because the game basically tells them they need a different set of friends to get better gear. That isn't ideal from a social networking point of view.

Now Destiny isn't great with social networking features. But it never tells you what exactly you have to do next. Loot in Destiny is perfectly random. You might get that sword of uberness by doing a raid, but you might also get that exact same item while doing patrol mission from some low-level mob. Of course drop probabilities aren't the same, and the system can be exploited by setting up situations where you just try to kill a massive number of low-level mobs in the shortest time possible (aka the now defunct loot cave). But the overall result is that you never feel that the activity you are currently doing doesn't have a chance to improve your gear. You can choose your activity in function of how much time you have available, whether friends are online, and how fit or tired you are feeling, and you will always have some chance of finding that legendary engram which improves your "light" (aka gearscore). You can do harder content when you feel like it and the situation allows it, and you'll be rewarded better for that harder content. But if for some reason you're just doing something easier you aren't totally excluded from any chance of getting an upgrade.

While such a system isn't necessarily easy to balance (how much faster can you kill lower-level mobs compared to what lower level of drop chance?) I do think there is a good concept here which could help other MMORPGs. Look at your character and a map of WoW and you'll find that in the large majority of locations there is absolutely nothing for your character, no reason to be there at all. In Destiny, which has far fewer zones and locations, there isn't a single one where I shouldn't be right now. There is some progress to be had for my level 23 character even if he is just doing patrol missions on Earth killing level 2 mobs for some random bounty, or re-doing story missions at some level of my choice. Of course it helps that in Destiny a level 2 mob can still hurt a level 23 player, and the player still needs to aim right to kill it. But what really makes a difference is that I feel I have the choice of what I want to do, and it isn't the game that is telling me what I should do.
Tobold's Blog



Hacks and money
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 October 2014, 3:05 am
The first game I ever hacked was Manic Miner, back in the days of the ZX Spectrum. Save games or check points hadn't been invented yet, and you just had 3 lives to jump & run through 99 levels. After realizing that I saw the first levels a lot and the later levels never, I hacked the game. That consisted of finding the address in the hex code where your lives were reduced by one after death, and doing a POKE at that address to change it to 00 "do nothing". Voila, endless lives, and I could finally see the later levels of the game.

The latest game I hacked was the new XCOM. I wanted to play at higher difficulty for the tactical battles, but not worry about losing the game due to lack of satellite coverage, because it is random where those aliens land. Now that the code is much bigger I can't read it any more, but I can use a hex editor to add money and buy more satellites. That leaves me to play the tactical part of the game I'm interested in without having to worry about the randomness of the strategic / economic part.

But those are single-player games. Hacking multi-player games is far more problematic because it affects other people, so I never even tried. An early MMORPG experience was people having found out how to dupe credits in Star Wars Galaxies: To hide in the crowd they then used the /tip command to give some of the fake currency to total strangers, and that ended with a lot of innocent players finding themselves on the wrong end of the ban hammer. MMORPG developers learned that "the client is in the hands of the enemy", and put most important transactions server side.

But while virtual property is server side, it appears that in ArchAge your location is handled on the client side. So now there are people using that to hack the client to be able to teleport. For example they have programs that alert them when a building slot becomes vacant anywhere, then they teleport there immediately, buy the slot, and sell it for much more to other players desperate for space. Or they do trade runs, which become a lot faster and easier if you don't have to actually "run".

The problem is that in this day and age real money pervades virtual worlds. ArchAge for example has APEX, which work like PLEX in EVE: You buy them for real money, you can trade them for virtual currency, and you can exchange them for a month of (optional) subscription. As these APEX are worth real money, somebody able to hack himself into virtual riches is able to convert that hacked virtual currency into real money. And they only use flaws in the program code to do so, they don't have to hack into other player's passwords and steal stuff, or use stolen credit cards.

Virtual property has a perceived value, so it can be traded for real money. But virtual property isn't subject to the same laws of physics as real property. Virtual currency isn't subject to the same level of safeguards as your digital bank account is, nor is there a central bank to control the amount of virtual currency in circulation. Which means that criminal minds have an easier time hacking virtual online worlds and transforming their hacked virtual goods into real money than they would have trying to hack a bank. As an added advantage there are laws against hacking a bank, but not against duping virtual currencies. So we need to expect more of this stuff to happen in the future.
Tobold's Blog



The value of "proof" on the internet
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 October 2014, 6:11 am
In a recent discussion on this blog somebody argued that a certain person was bad, based on a screenshot of a tweet "that has since been deleted". That struck me as both wrong and somewhat fishy. First of all I wouldn't dismiss anybody's opinion just based on something he once said without confirming that he still held that opinion. And second the "screenshot of tweet that has been deleted" to me looked like something that could all too easily be faked.

So in my mind I pondered for a while how to fake a tweet, with an application like Photoshop. Then I started to do some research on the subject, and it turns out that I wouldn't have needed to bother with anything complicated like that. There is an actual website to create fake tweets. You just need the Twitter handle of anybody you dislike, then type any text you want to put into his mouth, and the site creates that fake tweet for you.

I found that mildly interesting, but not worth writing about up to now. But today I read that in the continued Gamergate mudslinging a screenshot of an Anita Sarkeesian tweet turned up as "proof" of her misdeeds. There was just one minor flaw with that "proof": The tweet had 218 characters, while real tweets are limited to 140 (or rather 137 plus ...). Oops!

I do not believe in the value of arguing over "he said, she said". The whole idea of somebody having a large published work expressing one set of opinions, and a secret history of hidden other opinions that somehow devalue the published opinions to me seems to be in the domain of weird conspiracy theorists and not worth serious consideration. We live in an age of political correctness, where you cannot say certain things about people who are different from you. But I am under no illusion that this actually improves human nature. There are serious scientific studies that explain why a mistrust of strangers is hard-wired into our brains, so you can't eliminate xenophobia simply by ostracizing people who make xenophobic remarks. But that also means that "he/she is a hidden xenophobe / racist / sexist / whatever" is not much of an argument. We probably all are to some extent. Some more openly than others. And sometimes the "proof" of those hidden opinions is just fake anyway.

I think the lesson of all this to mistrust "proof" of hidden misdeeds on the internet, because it is likely to be faked. If you can't find an argument against somebody's *published* opinions and have to resort to dubious "proof" of hidden opinions, then you haven't got much of a position anyway. I believe that some extreme feminist positions are wrong, and that it would be a good idea to discuss those positions. But if your only argument against some feminist is that she might have been unfaithful to her boyfriend, or that she might have said something not politically correct in a "deleted" tweet, you might as well pack your bag and go home.
Tobold's Blog



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