A Tough Decision #DragonAgeInquisition

Saturday evening I got to spend some time with Dragon Age: Inquisition for more than just an hour. I’ve moved the PS4 back to the computer room TV so I have all the time I want with the system, except that the TV is mounted a bit too high for my comfort, and my neck and shoulders end up hurting if I play too long. That’s not the point of the post, I promise. It is spoileriffic, although only from a point “early” in the game.

When last I left, I was ready to head out to Orlais and start the Val Royeaux junk, but I made a detour in the Hinterlands (again) to finish some business there. I busted up the red lyrium smuggling ring to the south and ran into (SPOILERS!) darkspawn down in the caves where the syndicate was harvesting the stuff. The Alpha Hurlock is a pretty tough customer, but I plowed through them and somewhere along the line I took out the smuggler that I was supposed to and finished the mission.

The initial foray to Val Royeaux cracked me up* when the Templar’s arrived, and as I was laughing out loud my wife asked if everything was OK. I didn’t stick around in Orlais, though, because I had a tough decision to make.

As those who have gotten past this part — basically, everyone I assume — knows, we have to make a choice between checking in with the Templars, or the Mages in Redcliffe. The Templars seem uncharacteristically hostile and lame at the same time: they don’t want to work with the Inquisition, nor do they seem to want to do anything about the rift. Cassandra thinks that’s kind of weird, as she claims to have some previous dealings with the High Seeker, and his behavior seemed off. Of course, on the way out of Val Royeaux, we get stopped by the leader of the Mage rebellion who claims that she’ll listen to the Inquisition, if we want to visit her in Redcliffe. The group consensus is that the Mages aren’t organized well enough, and that could lead to “herding cats” or an unreliable alliance.

I went with the Templars mainly because I agreed with the assessment on the Mages. The Templars are organized, although erratic for some reason that bears investigation. The Mages — at least the rebel factions — might be together for convenience of fighting their former hunters and caretakers, the Templars, but not much else at this point in time.

I thought the Templar branch was kind of interesting. You have to “collect” some Orlesian nobles who act as your political battering ram to earn you an audience with the High Seeker. Unfortunately, as soon as you meet the High Seeker, he pulls you in the Fade, which was creepy as hell. The minutiae was pretty convoluted, but the idea was that an “envy demon” who had originally taken over the High Seeker opted to try and take you over instead. The trip to the Fade showed you vignettes of what the envy demon planned should it be able to masquerade as you and wield the power of the Inquisition. Not pretty. You’re helped by a spirit named Cole who just…shows up…and gives you the mental fortitude to escape from what is essentially your own mind.

Once back to your normal self, however, you find that the envy demon AKA High Seeker was feeding the high ranking Templars red lyrium in an effort to break down their defenses and allow them to become twisted puppets. With the help of a senior Templar who still had his wits about him, you gathered some of the remaining high ranking lieutenants and some red lyrium, held off a demon incursion, and eventually had to fight the envy demon in it’s true form in the real world.

Heavy stuff.

Between starting out and completing the Templar collection quest, I found Blackwall, the only remaining known grey warden around. No one knows where the rest of them went, so in the absence of any darkspawn, Blackwall joined my crusade. I stabled him. Cassandra is doing just fine at the moment. I also got the intro to talk to Iron Bull, but haven’t done so yet. I think that’ll be next on my agenda. I do really need to recruit some non-warriors though, especially rogues. Varric, despite being the most interesting companion, is limited by his love of his crossbow. Everyone else has geared up appropriately, but he’s lagging behind.

 

* Also, the plaques under the statues in the initial entrance to Val Royeaux made me laugh out loud as well.

Rewards Versus Goals and Level-Locked Content

On Wednesday @Stargrace posted about the frowny-face she makes when she sees that a game has level-locked content. Levels are the ages-old mechanism by which a game tells you that while your skill at playing the game might stay flat or only incrementally improve over time, your dedication to the game is rewarded with progression of a sort.

The idea of a level-based content drip is the game industry’s version of “time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once”. If you got everything the game had to offer the moment you logged in, what’s the point in playing? Level based content comes in many forms: gear, zones, fluff features, dungeons, and raids.

I know it’s kind of a subtle difference, but level-locking content feels like the design is offering the content as a “reward” when in my opinion, it should be designed as more of a “goal”. Take housing in Wildstar. You don’t get access to it until level 14. Housing was a major selling point for people, and I’m sure many were disappointed that they had to “slog” through 14 levels of other stuff just to start with housing. As @Stargrace wisely indicates, Everquest II allows you to get housing from the get go, making it more attractive to those who are really interested in that system (and many people do play these games just for those kinds of systems…designers).

It’s true that knowing housing is a level locked feature makes working towards level 14 a “goal” of sorts, but consider the extent of what we get in other games, and how we get it. Notice how in some games you get a new ability every other level? That was a reward: You don’t have to wish for it, or plan for it, you just have to keep on playing.

One way to substitute level-locking is money-locking. In EQII, while you can get a house from the start, it’s pretty empty. You need to either build, buy, or earn furnishings for your house. Having more than one avenue for acquiring these aspects turns it into more of a “goal” game than a “reward” game. With so many money sinks, players need to prioritize their finances so they spend the money in respect to their goals. Buy one four poster bed now, or save up and buy a whole bedroom set? Buy furniture now, or save up a nest egg so you can also buy a mount and pay repair costs? You can also complete missions to give furnishings, or work on your crafting and unlock a whole range of building opportunities.

To me, the goal method is more engaging because it’s putting the player in the driver’s seat, whereas the reward method is simply holding back content until a player has played for a sufficient amount of time. It’s kind of sleazy in a way, since I’m sure that withholding perks based on levels is a tactic designed to keep players playing if they know something they really want is on the (eventual) horizon, but personally I’d stick with a game that starts me off with the initial bundle, and then allows me to prioritize other aspects of the game to get in line with what I want to achieve with my game time.

Ultra Throwdown: Your Video And Streaming Options

Man, I apparently have a love/hate relationship with streaming my games. On one hand, I don’t have the time to put together a regular schedule, cultivate a following, and promote the process, but on the other hand, my ego would really like me to get involved in some kind of production. Streaming live gameplay is a good, low-cost way to get oneself out there, and I really like the notion that even when playing single player games, they can become multiplayer games in the same way that my friends and I used to sit on the couch and watch a person playing a console game. The comments, suggestions, and hilarity of a mob participating in what was never meant to be a participatory endeavor can be fun and comical.

Thanks to the explosion of Twitch as not just an outlet for amateur videographers but also as a respectable means for companies and events to reach the masses, streaming is the Next Big Business, judging by the number of companies that want you to share your experiences through their pipes. Which to choose? What features do the major players offer? Let’s look, shall we?*

 

The Leader – Twitch

TwitchBalloonIf you’ve ever had any inkling to stream, you no doubt first went to Twitch. Like Jell-O, Kleenex, and iPod, Twitch has become the defacto pronoun for a wider market of services.

The best reason to choose Twitch is that it’s ubiquitous. Events happen on Twitch. Companies stream stuff on Twitch. eSports happens on Twitch (and elsewhere, but it’s Twitch, so…). When people want to find a stream to watch, they lazily roll over towards Twitch and search for what they want.

When you want to stream, Twitch has you covered. You can stream from a PC using third party software, or you can stream from a current gen console (XB1 and PS4). Some games on the PC have streaming to Twitch built in, meaning you don’t need anything other than an account to get started. However, console and integrated streaming is limited; you can’t do the fancy overlays and presentations that you see a lot of users doing. For that, you need a PC and a copy of OBS, XSplit, FFSplit, or one of the sideline participants like Shadowplay, Raptr, or Overwolf.

Twitch’s biggest draw is also potentially it’s biggest problem, as a new streamer is the model of a small fish in a big pond. Unless you have a large social network following or some kind of gimmick or ultra-slick presentation, having people find your League of Legends stream is going to be an uphill battle.

PROS

  • Popular
  • Many streaming software options
  • Video archiving (PC/Mac/Linux only)
  • Export to YouTube
  • Built into many games
  • Built into consoles
  • Hosting mode highlights other streamers while your channel is dormant

CONS

  • Super-populated means discovery is difficult for streamers, and views need to wade through a lot to find you
  • No archiving for consoles
  • Must meet certain criteria in order to form a team with other streamers
  • Depending on software and settings, impact may range from negligible to severe

 

The Challenger – Hitbox

HitBox_Logo_BannerHitbox is probably less well known than Twitch mainly because Twitch is “good enough”, and was first. Hitbox is just as good as Twitch, and actually has some features that Twitch doesn’t have.

While there’s little on the surface that seems to differentiate Hitbox from it’s main competitor, there are some things to consider if you’re looking at Hitbox. First and most prominant is that the only (current) way to stream to Hitbox is from a PC using third party software. I’m not aware of any games that have Hitbox streaming baked in, and no console supports streaming to Hitbox. This means that you’ll be relegated to dealing with bitrate and other esoteric numbers in order to get the best stream. That’s also a plus, though, as some of the “automatic” streams (baked in and consoles) only give you conservative bandwidth options.

Hitbox’s controls are better than Twitch, IMO. Both dashboards allow you to set the title of the stream and pick the game, but Hitbox allows users to tailor the social media message that they can pump out, can push ads for the times when nature calls, and can create interactive polls and giveaway forms that show up in the chat window.

I think Hitbox is growing, and soon (if not already) discovery will start to become an issue if you rely on people to just drop by the Hitbox website and find your stream.

PROS

  • Dedicated dashboard window
  • Ability to create polls, giveaways, and push ads for a breather
  • Can form a team with no pre-requisites
  • Export to YouTube
  • Video archiving of clips

CONS

  • Lesser known than Twitch (Prepare for a lot of “Hitbox? Why not Twitch?” questions)
  • Only works with desktop software like OBS, XSplit, and FFSPlit
  • No in-game integration
  • No hosted promotion of other streamers
  • Depending on software and settings, impact may range from negligible to severe

 

The Contender – Forge (Beta)

ForgeGGLogoForge is eschewing the traditional streaming paradigm of preparation and presentation in favor of ease of use, but also removes some of the features of Twitch and Hitbox which I suspect may be important to those who are attempting to build a brand.

Forge is aimed at those who are interested in the idea of streaming, but aren’t entirely sold on the whole setup and design and cultivation of an audience. Forge uses it’s own client which simply listens for a supported game to start, at which point it just starts streaming to it’s own website under your account. Super simple!

Whether it’s a downside or not depends on your needs, but Forge doesn’t allow streamers to archive their entire stream for replay later (it’s save for 48 hours, I believe). Instead, it allows streamers to extract 15 second highlight clips from the recording. This editing is handled through the desktop client, and the results are instantly (more or less) available on the website. Unlike the above services, Forge doesn’t have live chat, webcam support, overlay support, or microphone support (but they are taking suggestions and are super responsive to community interaction, so features are currently being evaluated).

Forge is also one part social network by allowing users to post comments in between the videos posted to their account. Again, this service seems squarely aimed at casual streamers or viewers who like to drop in/drop out without fuss, and for people who later smack their forehead and wish they’d recorded that raid boss take down.

Disclosure: I have received some promotional materials (T-shirt, sweatshirt, water-bottle, stickers) from the Forge team for being an early and active adopter/tester of their system.

PROS

  • Noob friendly for casual streamers
  • Always on; No forethought needed to start
  • Records everything, then presents the editor
  • Integrated social network
  • Low impact on performance (if any)
  • Super responsive team

CONS

  • Currently in beta
  • Currently invite only to use; can be viewed by anyone on the web
  • No customization of stream
  • No chat
  • No mic input (there may be hacks available, like using a virtual cable, but I’ve not tested it)
  • Only short, user defined clips (~fifteen seconds) are archived
  • Power streamers or brand-builders might find it too limiting
  • Requires the game to be supported by Forge in order for it to stream.

 

The Guy Weezing At The Back Of The Pack – Plays.TV (Beta)

PlaysTVLogoPlays.tv is a recently discovery, and although it’s not really a streaming option, it deals in game videos so I’m including it here. In a nutshell, it’s tightly integrated with the Raptr desktop client, is always on once activated, and saves in ten minute bursts when you tell it to. You can then edit out 90 second clips for uploading to the Plays.tv website.

I’m not entirely sure which market Plays is after. It sits closer to the Nvidia Shadowplay end of the spectrum in that once activated, it records gameplay in a rolling 10 minute window that is written to disk with a keystroke. It doesn’t output to a live website while the game is being played, so it’s more of an on-demand 10 minute snapshot option, and eventually can save 90 seconds worth of gameplay that can be uploaded to the site.

I’ve had problems with Plays, though. One 90 second clip I made said it had uploaded to the website, but that was a few days ago, and I still can’t see it. Another video uploaded right after that one made it through OK. They

The good news is that the quality is really high, and the files are accessible on disk through the UI, so if you want to edit a montage of action footage locally, Plays.tv might be one of the better options.

PROS

  • Uses Raptr, which is a pro if you use Raptr
  • Saves files to disk and are easily accessible
  • Low impact on performance (if any)
  • Excellent quality of local video files, and excellent quality when the files reach the Plays.tv site

CONS

  • Have to remember to start the rolling recording
  • Have to remember to save the clip when you want it
  • Spotty success in actually saving the clips to the website
  • Export to YouTube only exports at max 480 resolution

 

The Guy Handing Out Water Along The Route – Nvidia Shadowplay

NvidiaShadowplay Shadowplay is a weird option, mainly because it occupies a few different places along this spectrum. Natively, it records a rolling window of gameplay which can be saved to disk with a keystroke. However, it can also broadcast to Twitch.

The main benefit of Shadowplay is that if you have a supported Nvidia card (600, 700, or 900 series, with some ‘M’ editions supported) and the “GeForce Experience” software, then you’re already 90% of the way there. The popup window (desktop, not in-game) allows you to record locally or to stream to Twitch, set the quality, and be done with it. There’s no need for additional software except for the eventual editing of the files you’ve saved to disk (if you’re using the “gameplay DVR” option).

I suspect (or hope) that because it’s an option from the hardware manufacturer that it’s got some ace in the hole in regards to how it operates. Some broadcast software sits between the game and the video output and redirects a copy to disk or a remote location, I’m guessing that Shadowplay operates at the hardware level, using your video card to do the crunching. Ideally this would lead to lower latency with your gameplay since there’s no disk I/O involved, and you won’t run the risk of triggering anti-cheat warnings by having something sitting between the game and everything else (see the next entry about that little gem). But that’s just me; I have no idea how it really works.

PROS

  • Already available if you have an Nvidia card and the GeForce Experience software
  • Records locally in DVR mode, or streams to Twitch
  • Easy configuration

CONS

  • Requires an Nvidia card
  • No customization of stream

 

The Over-Hyped Booster With The Obnoxious Banner – Origin

EA_Origin_Logo_723x250 This is a corner case at best. Origin is EA’s digital storefront, and perennial whipping boy of people who like to announce how much they hate Origin and EA.

If you’re playing an EA game that was downloaded via Origin, you have the option to stream – to Twitch, of course – using the Origin overlay system. It’s been a while since I’ve used it, but from what I remember it works pretty well, is easy to configure, and does a serviceable job of accomplishing what you want to accomplish.

However, there’s a slight caveat. Like the next entry, Origin allows you to register a non-EA/Origin game with the Origin client. The icon will show up in your Origin library, and can use the Origin in-game overlay for whatever people use the overlay for. You can also do this in order to stream the non-EA/Origin game to Twitch. I tried this a while back with Defiance, but in short order I was booted from the game and banned for what I was told was a cheat/hack attempt. I managed to explain myself to Trion’s satisfaction and had the record expunged, but Origin seems to use the “slip it in” method of putting itself between the game and the lower-level operations – including network operations, which I assume is what tickled Trion’s anti-cheat warning.

Overall, it’s probably good for Origin-centric games, but otherwise there are much better options out there.

PROS

  • Readily available for Origin-bought/registered games

CONS

  • Specific to Origin-bought/registered games
  • Might be detected by anti-cheat software if you try and use it with a non-Origin game

 

The Dark Horse – Steam (Beta)

Steam_Icon

Although everyone is patting themselves on the back for “having called it”, I think it was never a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”, and that “when” is “now”.

First, I don’t think this is a game-changer by any means. It’s just another land-locked streaming option. It doesn’t stream to a known streaming outlet, although it does stream to the largest digital games distribution network on the planet.

If you have a game in your Steam library, this should work without any additional fuss. The most important setup option is to determine who gets to see your videos. Unlike the other services, most of the options for Steam Broadcast put the control in the hands of the viewer. The stream doesn’t actually start until someone starts watching it, which means that your bandwidth is safe until someone decides that they want to watch you play The Binding of Isaac.

Quality is decent, and you can watch directly in the Steam client (via their popup web browser) or on the web. You can even use the in-game Steam overlay to pop up a web browser so you can watch yourself in all of your narcissistic glory. I guess it can be used as a feedback monitor.

While it does have mic support, it doesn’t have webcam or custom overlay support. It does have chat support, but unless you have the chat window open (requiring the Steam overlay to be open), you only see a single line of text at the top of the game window.

Like Origin, though, you can add a non-Steam game to Steam and so long as you can use the in-game overlay, you can stream the game. I added Elite: Dangerous to Steam last night and was able to stream it through Steam Broadcasting. I have no idea if this will trigger anti-cheat software to raise an alarm, though.

Again, this is a “good enough” option. Most gamers have Steam, and most gamers have a massive Steam library. That means a lot of games are supported. You can add in non-Steam games to get the benefit of the service. But there’s no social media announcement feature and no easy way to direct people to the fact that you’re streaming or where to find you if you’re streaming to everyone (not just friends), no webcam or customization, and the chat requires that you “step away” from the game to read it in it’s entirety. It’s an option, but I don’t know that it’s a better option than one of the first three contenders on this list.

PROS

  • It’s Steam. It’s probably already on your system. Requires opt into the beta Steam client and then a reboot
  • Works with all Steam games
  • Works with non-Steam games added to Steam
  • Can control who can view the video

CONS

  • Land-locked to the Steam ecosystem
  • No announcement mechanism
  • No customization
  • Chat is awkward

 

Finale

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You have the stamina of an ox!

This is by no means an in-depth compare and contrast of each nuance of each service, but is merely an overview. In truth, I wanted to write this to suss out which audience is targeted by which product, and for what reason, because while there’s some overlap in each, there are three distinct categories at play here:

  1. Live streaming for a brand: If you’re looking to make a name for yourself in the gaming community, want to interact with people as the magic is happening, and desire to make your channel reflect your public face, then Twitch and Hitbox are your best options.
  2. You’re already here, so you might as well: Shadowplay for Nvidia customers, Origin for EA users, and Steam for everyone else. All but Steam require the user who is playing to actively initiate the stream, while Steam allows the viewers to jump in at their leisure.
  3. Casual streamers with bragging clips: For everyone else who’s intrigued with the idea of streaming, but who don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into the process and aren’t interested in creating a brand, Forge is the way to go, assuming your game is supported. It’s easy to set up, easy to use, and you can keep those memories in fifteen second clips for later reminiscing.
  4. Local video for other purposes: While desktop apps like OBS and XSplit allow local recording as well as/in place of streaming, Shadowplay and Plays.tv’s rolling window of gameplay means you don’t need to dedicate your disk space to a massive file, nor do you need special editing software to tease out the clips. It’s the least social of the group, but if you use Raptr and remember to activate the recording, it can produce some nice quality local video for whatever purpose you need.

 

* This is merely an empirical overview and not a guide on how to maximize your followers or promote your video. I’ve had a total of five people online watching me at one time at the peak of my career, so I’m not one to help you get groupies.

Side Project: Notecards

NoteCardsV0.01I really like Fantasy Grounds as a virtual tabletop program, but I like it more because it allows a user to create a module within the app. Most vtables are just a way to chat and share maps, but FG’s notecard-style word processor-light capabilities make it a great way to write and play from a module.

Because I like this design, I decided to take a stab at a general purpose app for taking notes, done in the FG style. This app currently allows you to create a new notebook, and then to add individual notecards to the book.

The hardest thing about it so far has been finding a way to link cards together. My original method was to allow the user to manually link text by highlighting it and then right clicking to select an existing note to link to. This turned out to be problematic because of the way the linking was done (I got the code from CodeProject). So instead, the linking is handled automatically, like Realm Works, by parsing the text in the note and comparing it to the titles of other notes in the system when the current note is saved. The problem with this is that you’ll need to define the cards you want to link to before you work on the card you want to link from, or else you’ll need to edit the card after the destination card has been created. Also, there’s no way to prevent text from auto-linking; I suppose it’s better to be overzealous than to have to guess and guess incorrectly.

So far, it’s working as intended, although it’s as ugly as a WinForms app can be. Ideally, I’d like the saves to sync with a central server so that a notebook can be accessed from anywhere. That’s actually the core of the reason why I wanted something like this, as Fantasy Grounds doesn’t have central storage. Plus, it’s a good way to store information, and while FG could be used, it’s “game centric” skinning means I can’t really use it at work, or for work related purposes.