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I’ve been pretty skeptical about VR up to this point. Actually scratch that. At one time I was super-stoked for VR but that was back in the days of yore, when my first taste of crappy VR was the arcade game Dactyl Nightmare. It blew my mind. I know that sounds ridiculous now, but in its day is was amazing that you could enter this world and walk around. Here’s what it looked and played like:

I was so hyped on VR that I cobbled together my own VR rig using Sega’s 3D glasses and a Mattel Power Glove. I learned how to do this on CompuServe but here’s a post on putting such a system together. I still remember playing a VR handball game with that system and being dumbfounded that it actually worked. Back then we were all reading Neuromancer and listening to Jaron Lanier talk about our virtual reality future. I fully expected to have a VR port installed in the back of my head by the time I got old.

And then, of course, it all fizzled and I let go of my dreams of “jacking in to cyberspace.”

Fast forward 25 years or so and here we are, ready for VR again. This time it all seems a lot more viable, but now I’m old and curmudgeonly and I think I have a “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” kind of attitude towards VR. I also have physical concerns. I struggle with motion-sickness in non-VR games and I can’t imagine how much worse it would be in VR. Also I wear progressive bifocals and had a lot of concerns about how VR would work with them.

When Sony put the Playstation VR visor up for pre-order I jumped on it, just to kind of hold my place in line. I wasn’t, and am still not, sure I’d go through with the purchase. I realize Vive and Oculus both offer better experiences but neither is within my budget.

Anyway the biggest question was my glasses, so at the suggestion of someone on Twitter I ordered a Google Cardboard visor. It was on sale so cost me less than $11 delivered and it arrived a few days ago. The good news is, my glasses seem to work fine, or at least as fine as they work in the real world. Stuff low in my viewport is blurry but I only notice that if I deliberately look down. The more natural inclination is to move my head to look down and the everything is fine.

So one obstacle down. Motion sickness is harder to measure using Cardboard because it really is a crappy VR experience for me. Keep in mind my phone is 2 years old at this point; if I had a newer more powerful one the experience might be much better. With the default cardboard you have to hold the whole thing up to your face (Angela is already shopping for a plastic model with a head strap). It’s something I play with for minutes, rather than hours, at a time and basically I look around and have one button and that’s the extent of my interactivity. (The button on the Cardboard visor links to a bit inside that taps the screen via a conductive strip of some kind of foil or film.)

But hey, it was less than $11 so I’m not complaining.

My guess is that motion sickness will be an issue for me because even after a few minutes with cardboard I feel kind of a pressure in my head. What isn’t clear yet is whether I can adapt. When I spend a lot of time playing fast-moving FPSs (in 2D) I build up a tolerance and my motion sickness issues become much less severe. I’m hoping the same will happen with VR.

Cardboard has nudged me towards keeping my Playstation VR order for a few reasons. First I know that it should work fine with my glasses. Second, Angela tried it and was excited, so it wouldn’t just be me using the visor. And third and most importantly, cardboard rekindled a little of that excitement I had back in the early 90’s.

The strangest bit is, I don’t think I’d enjoy playing a FPS or any kind of fast-paced game in VR. I’m more leaning towards wanting “experiences” that are about exploring weird virtual worlds at a leisurely pace. That’s good news because I find it hard to believe the PS4 has the power to deliver a fast-paced VR game at frame rates high enough to prevent nausea. I also find it oddly pleasant to just sit back and watch 2D videos on a giant virtual screen.

I still have some concerns about the social aspects. As I said, you hold cardboard up to your face and I haven’t been bothering with headphones so it’s really easy to stay ‘connected’ with the outside world. I worry a little that using the PS VR will be kind of off-putting to whomever isn’t using it, but now that I’ve tried cardboard I find it hard to imagine we’d wear the PS VR visor for hours at a time. I think it’s going to be something you just dip into for 15 minutes now and then, and that doesn’t feel problematic.

So I think I’m tentatively on-board the VR bandwagon again. I think we’re still a long way away from it taking over our entertainment (if it ever does) and I’ve given up on my cyberspace neural implant, but as a kind of adjunct to gaming and a way to experience new worlds now and then, I think it’ll be cool. I’m still on the fence about whether it’ll be $400 worth of cool though. So now it’s all about the dollars and whether I think we’ll get enough use out of it.

I’ve had a few people respond to my earlier post saying that having a scaled world works for Guild Wars 2 so it’ll be fine in The Elder Scrolls Online. I’m not so sure, for two main reasons.

First, not everyone likes Guild Wars 2. To me, the scaled world in GW2 makes the game pretty awful. I never felt a satisfying sense of progression in GW2 since I never had that experience of going back to a lower level zone and swatting down enemies that used to own me. I want to feel mighty when I play an MMO, at least some of the time, and I felt about the same at level 80 in GW2 as I did at level 20. Now clearly this is extremely subjective and if you enjoyed GW2 then maybe you’ll like One Tamriel better than you do ‘vanilla’ TESO.

Second has to do with world population. Since GW2 was built from the ground up to be a scaled world, there are systems in place to support that. For example (and forgive me if I get this wrong, I’m going from memory) if you’re on a ‘shard’ with low population in GW2, you’ll be asked if you want to move to a more populated shard. This means there’s almost always other players running around in GW2 so it is rare that you find yourself trying to complete an event solo. When I have had to do GW2 events solo they’ve been tough, but usually my experience was that there was a huge zerg that steam-rolled over content before I even knew what was happening. Bleh.

TESO doesn’t have a similar system. I just finished running through Bangkorai (a 37-43 zone) in TESO and I did probably 80% of the delves (basically mini-dungeons) and 90% of the world bosses solo. I was able to do them because I’d out-leveled the zone, and I had to do them solo because there were no other players around. At the end of my time I headed to the public dungeon and was fortunate to run into one other player and between the two of us we were able to handle things. If it had scaled and we’d needed 4 players I might still be there waiting.

Now of course ZOS could build a system similar to GW2’s that’ll push the existing player base into fewer shards so the world is more densely populated, but then they’d have to tweak mob density as well. And even if they got that all right, it would fundamentally change the nature of the game. One of the reasons I love TESO when I’ve pretty much given up on other MMOs is that ZOS promised that TESO would be a solo-friendly game, and up until now they’ve delivered on that promise. My character is 48 now and has never Grouped, at least insofar as I can recall. And I like that. I like that sometimes I’ll see other players and we can organically work together to take down baddies, but I also love that some days I’ll be in an area where I never see another player and I feel like a true lone wolf out there being a Big Damned Hero to the people.

TESO to me is like a hike through a state park. Lots of time alone, and then when you do encounter other people it’s a delight. GW2 is like walking in a city park. You’re constantly surrounded by people and noise and you’re never alone with your thoughts. I like TESO much more and I hope that One Tamriel doesn’t change the feel of the game too much. But I guess ZOS needs to risk alienating current fans in order to try to bring in new blood. We’ll see how it works out.

So yeah, you might be right that One Tamriel will “work” because GW2 works. But in order to make it work I fear they’re going to have to make some fundamental changes to the game. Damn, comparing TESO to GW2 scares me. “This game you love will be fine when it changes to work like this other game you hate.” That gives me no comfort!!!

Zenimax Online Studios has announced a new “One Tamriel” system for The Elder Scrolls Online, and most of my friends seem to really like the idea. I’m not as convinced, but before I get into why let’s recap the story so far.

When TESO launched, it was an ambitious game with 3 factions, each having their own content to level through, though there was a main storyline and some guild storylines that were the same for all players. The downside of this design was that not only did you have to make sure you were on the same server as your friends, you needed to be in the same faction, too. The upside is that if you wanted to roll an alt, you could level up a 2nd (and 3rd) character through content that was new to you.

Since launch things have changed a little. Servers collapsed into mega-servers, for one thing. The new DLC/Expansions are the same for all factions, though each faction gets its own instance. Separate but equal. More importantly, recently ZOS let us start forming cross-faction groups for instanced dungeons. Since you really need a group to do instanced dungeons, this was a great change.

Back to One Tameriel; when it launches all these faction-walls get torn down (the one major exception being the PvP areas). The amount of content will stay the same but you’ll be able to go to any faction you like at any point. Aside from role-play concerns, I don’t see any downside to this aspect of One Tamriel.

Now let’s talk about leveling. At launch your journey through TESO was a classic one of leveling-up and moving from zone to zone as you did so. Cap was level 50 and vanilla TESO content leveled you smoothly through all 50 levels, presenting monsters that would challenge you each step of the way. Since then ZOS has tried a few post-50 systems, I guess (I’ve never got that far). Currently once you hit 50 you start earning Champion Points that you can spend to buff your character in various ways. ZOS is using Champion Points almost like a Gear Score to indicate character and monster power.

Dungeons are treated somewhat differently. Dungeons scale in level (with each having a minimum level), and in particular scale to the level of the group leader.

The leveling system presented another barrier to friends playing together, sort of. If I’m level 40 and my friend is level 20 and we group up, content is either going to be trivial for me, or impossible for him. Personally I don’t see this as a big deal and I’m happy to help out lower level friends but some gamers aren’t interested in playing unless they’re getting rewarded.

The DLC was different from vanilla TESO and worked something like dungeons. To make DLC packs of interest to all players, mobs are all max level, and characters get ‘bolstered’ to max level when they enter these areas. So now if I take my level 40 character and my friend brings his level 20 character, we’d both get boosted to max level and earn awards and experience appropriate for our levels. Sounds good, right?

One Tamriel brings this system to the entire world. Every mob in the world (once you get out of the brief tutorial) will be an equal match to a level 50 character with 160 Champion Points (that’s the current max level for mobs). When you leave the tutorial you’ll be bolstered to the equivalent of a level 50/160 CP character and that’s where you’ll stay forever. Of course you won’t have all the skills of a max level character so it’ll be interesting to see how they handle that.

Anyway this is the aspect of One Tamriel that I’m not as sure about. My friends, who are casual players of TESO, think it is awesome because they can group up no matter what level they are. That’s true. But I don’t think many of them are thinking about what is going to happen when they’re not grouped. And let’s face it, in practical terms most of us spend a lot of time soloing whether we want to or not.

Under the current system if you find a quest or a world boss or an open dungeon that is too difficult for you, you can just skip it, gain a few levels, then come back and try it again. Maybe your gear isn’t up to snuff. Maybe you’ve put together a feeble build and are still trying to work out the kinks. Maybe it’s content intended for several players (world bosses or dolmens come to mind) but there’s no one around. You can just come back later when you’re more powerful and try again.

As someone who solos a lot, I have had to lean on this system pretty heavily at times. It goes away with One Tamriel. No longer will you be able to skip world bosses and come back and mop the floor with them later. If there aren’t a group of players hanging around, world bosses, open dungeons and dolmens will probably be beyond your ability to solo. The exception will be folks who’ve been playing long enough to get best-in-class gear and who have perfected their builds. But casual players, the ones this system seems to be built for? They’re going to be frustrated. When they don’t have a group, a lot of content is going to be beyond them.

Basically in the same way that casual solo players have to skip dungeons now, they’ll have to skip world bosses, dolmens and public dungeons once One Tamriel hits. As a casual solo player, I’m pretty bummed about this.

Of all the MMOs out there, TESO has been one of the most solo-friendly I’ve played and that’s a big part of why I enjoy it. It’s fun having that single-player story-driven gameplay but in a world where you see other players and do kind of organically help them out. To me its the best of both worlds, but I have to just skip the instanced dungeons. Fortunately for me by the time One Tamriel arrives I’ll be comfortably at cap so it won’t impact me much, but I think we’ll see a lot of casual players return and find that maybe the system isn’t quite as awesome as they’d hoped it would be.

I’m hoping there’s some aspect of this system that I’m not quite getting and that solo players will still be able to progress smoothly through all the content. I guess we’ll find out this Fall.

The Elder Scrolls Online’s latest patch/DLC, The Dark Brotherhood, finally hit consoles this week and what a difference it has made for pack-rat crafter types like me. Why? Craft bags.

So what’s a craft bag? Basically it’s a container that holds all your crafting materials and makes them available to all characters. In other words it works like a bank for crafting materials only you don’t have to go to a bank to use it. And it’ll hold virtually unlimited amounts of stuff (the limit is somewhere in the millions of items).

The only “bad” news is that in order to put stuff into your craft bags, you need to be an ESO Plus Member. I know we all wish everything was free but ZOS has to make money and this seems like a perfect item to put behind a paywall. First, casual players probably have no use for craft bags; if you’re not heavily into crafting there’s no need for it. Second, if you’re playing and using the craft bags and you get distracted by another game you can cancel ESO Plus and still pull materials from your craft bag; you just can’t put more in. So just make a point of stocking up while paying and you’re good.

It’s also worth noting the ESO Plus comes with a monthly stipend of Crowns, and you get roughly (maybe exactly?) as many Crowns for your $15 sub as you’d get by just buying $15 worth of Crowns, so you can look at it that way too.

Anyway so what’s the big deal? My typical ESO play session used to be to adventure on my adventuring character for an hour and then spend 30 minutes muling crafting materials and gear over to my crafter character. I don’t sell gear (unless it has the trait that makes it extra valuable) since I need the crafting experience you get from deconstructing it (as well as the raw materials you get from breaking things down). At this point I have 130 slots in my bank (saving to expand) and 170 slots on my adventuring character (ditto) and I still constantly had inventory problems due to tons of crafting materials and bits of gear I was saving for research.

The The Dark Brotherhood patch hit and that all went away thanks to Craft Bags. I played all Wednesday night and most of Thursday night before my adventurer had to finally hit the bank to unload stuff. Since the bank was almost empty he muled everything over in two batches and my crafter quickly broke down all that gear and gained some levels and materials to do writs.

It just makes a huge difference to me and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Of course there’s also all the new Dark Brotherhood content (which you get free for being in ESO Plus) and a lot of other quality of life updates to the UI. And poisons, which I’ve barely scratched the surface of. I hadn’t gotten a character to Veteran Levels so their removal didn’t impact me much but those are gone too. All in all, seems like a really good patch/update to me.

Earlier this week Microsoft announced Project Scorpio, a new version of the Xbox One due out in the Fall of 2017. Microsoft made some bold promises: Scorpio will do 4K gaming and be fully VR ready. We’ve seen a variety of reactions from existing Xbox One users. Some (like me) are excited about Scorpio while others feel betrayed by the fact that Scorpio will render their existing Xbox One “obsolete.”

I have a theory: I don’t think Microsoft expects the majority of XB1 owners to upgrade, at least not right away. I think Scorpio is a machine for PC gamers. Here’s how my crackpot theory works.

First, price. Scorpio isn’t going to be a $300 console. In order to do real 4K gaming it’s going to have to be in the $500-$1000 range. Console gamers will clutch their chests in panic at that price but hardcore PC gamers who’re used to spending $400-$500 for a state of the art graphics card upgrade won’t be quite as shocked. My prediction is that, at launch, a base Scorpio will be $749 and a bundle with an Oculus Rift will be $999.

So price is a kind of tangential point. What’s more interesting is the fact that starting this fall many Microsoft-published games will be “Play Everywhere.” What that means is you buy the Xbox One version and you get the Windows 10 version for free. That’s how Microsoft is pitching this now, but of course it works the other way around, too. These games also support cross-platform play. Xbox One and Windows 10 users play on the same servers and your save games will work on both platforms as well.

Now Microsoft can start marketing titles like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 to Windows 10 users. So here I am, Joe PC Master Race, and I buy Forza Horizon 3. Now I need an Xbox Live account, so I sign up for that. And I start playing online and starting building a Friends list as I meet interesting people. [Topic for another post: will Windows 10 players need a paid Xbox Live Gold sub to play online? Anyone know?]

And even though as a PC gamer I don’t really think about it, I’m also starting to build an Xbox One gaming library. As a PC gamer I have no interest in the Xbox One with its feeble innards. It struggles to do 1080P gaming at a decent frame rate! Not a machine for me!

But now here comes Project Scorpio, and now Microsoft is pitching it to me in almost the same way Valve has been pitching Steam Machines. Here’s a way to take your Windows 10 games and play them from the comfort of your couch, at the same framerates and resolutions you’re accustomed to. You already have a library of games you can play on it. You already have a community of friends to play with. All you really need is to buy the box.

Oh and as a bonus you can play 4K Blu-ray discs and the family can watch Netflix and Hulu on it too. And if you’ve always been kind of curious about all the fuss around Halo, you can run that too as long as you have the console anyway. And yes, Scorpio will support mouse and keyboard if you still hate controllers.

Over time of course Scorpio will drop in price and little by little the existing Xbox One audience will upgrade and soon enough, in Microsoft’s ideal scenario, the Xbox One gaming community and the Windows 10 gaming community will become one big happy family buying stuff through the Xbox Store.

So that, I think, is Microsoft’s long-term plan. And I do think it’s a long-term plan. “Play Everywhere” is the first step, Scorpio is the second, but it’s going to be a long-term play to get everyone in the same pool.

Disclaimer: I have no inside knowledge, this is all as much a ‘thought experiment’ as anything. I just don’t know how Microsoft will successfully market a $750 console to console gamers. (Though don’t get me wrong…I’m getting one!) I think PC gamers are their only viable market, at least during the launch window for Scorpio.

At their press conference yesterday Microsoft announced the new Xbox One S, a smaller, slightly more powerful Xbox One console coming in August. It looks like a nice piece of gear, but I’m bummed about one thing: there is no Kinect port on it. Instead you have to use an Adapter (if your existing Xbox One and Kinect are registered with Microsoft you can get it free) and plug your Kinect into a USB port.

This bums me out. We really like Kinect. Specifically, we really like voice controls on the Xbox One for when we’re watching video (I don’t think either of us cares a fig about the camera stuff). So we want to keep Kinect, at least until Microsoft offers something better. But the Xbox One S, like the Xbox One, has only 3 USB ports. On our current Xbone one port is being used by the OTA Adapter (which admittedly is a lot less interesting now that Microsoft has scrapped plans to add DVR functionality for OTA broadcasts), one is being used for external storage. The other is left open for things like syncing controllers. If I were to purchase an Xbox One S I’d have to use all 3 USB ports, and one of them is on the front of the new system so I’d have a wire permanently dangling off the front of the machine. Nope.

In broader terms, removing the Kinect port seems to indicate Microsoft is packing it in and giving up on Kinect. Interestingly the Xbox One S has an IR blaster on the front of the unit (the Kinect uses an IR blaster to control your non-Xbox gear) and it still has a pass-through HDMI connection so they don’t seem to have given up on being your media center.

This summer Microsoft is rolling out Cortana on the Xbox One and you can use ‘her’ via a headset. I guess, moving forward, Microsoft expects everyone will be using a headset to do voice commands. I guess Microsoft thinks the entire Xbox audience is composed of single people who sit alone in a room with their Xbox.

For us, voice commands are used mostly during media playback which we enjoy together. For one of us to have to wear a headset to issue voice commands is just ridiculous.

Of course there’s an easy fix: Microsoft needs to release a ‘room microphone’ for the Xbox One S, or perhaps a media remote with a microphone built in, though I hasten to add that the mike needs to be always listening. If I have to grab a remote and press a button to use voice commands, I won’t bother (I’m looking at you, Amazon Fire TV).

Assuming the IR blaster on the Xbox One S works as well as the one in Kinect (and given that the Kinect is perched up high on top of my TV, I’m not 100% convinced this will be the case), adding a microphone would give us back the capabilities of the Kinect that we actually use.

Unless something changes I’ll be skipping the Xbox One S because we like voice commands and the new console just seems less voice-friendly. I feel like Microsoft is back-sliding at this point in its attempt to win back gamers. Honestly our Xbox gets used a LOT more as a media center than it does as a game machine, but presumably we’re no longer the intended Xbox audience.

I’m really interested to see how they pitch Project Scorpio next year.

Yesterday Microsoft released details on the next update for the Xbox One. One of the biggest and most anticipated announcements (for me anyway) was bringing Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, to the Xbox One.

Over the past years I’ve come to really appreciate voice commands. It took awhile to get through that awkward phase where I felt silly talking to a machine but I can’t even remember why it felt silly now. I use voice on the Xbox, on my phone, on our Amazon Echo in the kitchen, and on my computers. Not for everything, but for some things it just makes sense.

So for the most part I’m thrilled that Cortana is coming to the Xbox One. I have just one concern; apparently the trigger phase will be “Hey Cortana” instead of “Xbox.” Microsoft is doing this in order to offer a consistent user experience across devices, but this is one case where a consistent user experience could work against them.

The problem is that at any given moment, there may be as many as three Windows 10 devices in the same room as the Xbox One. My experience is that for voice commands to work they need to be always listening. If you have to press a button or something, you may as well not use them. So most of our Windows 10 devices are in ‘always listen’ mode in terms of Cortana.

For a laptop it’s possible to speak quietly so that when I say “Hey Cortana” only the machine in front of me ‘hears’ me, but the Xbox is across the room. When I say “Hey Cortana I want to play Forza” I’m sure the Xbox will fire up Forza for me, but will my laptop start up Forza Apex, too? Will Angela’s laptop tell her it can’t find a Forza title to play?

Dear Microsoft, your next Cortana update needs to make the system smart enough so we can set trigger names for each of our devices. (I should add that it may be they’ve already thought of this…I took my Xbox One out of the Preview program so I haven’t had any hands-on time with the new feature yet.) I should be able to say Hey Xbox to get something to happen on my Xbox, Hey Surface to get something to happen on my Surface tablet, and so on. Even better, let us set our own names. I’ll name my desktop Bert and my laptop Ernie and be able to trigger Cortana on only the device I want it to activate on.

Please don’t read this as bitching. I’m really happy Cortana is coming to the Xbox even with this one drawback. Right now the Xbox voice commands are way too rigid. I actually can’t say “Xbox play Forza” today. I have to say something like “Xbox, play Forza Motorsport 6” or whatever the official name of the game is. For this reason I don’t launch games via voice on the Xbox currently because it’s too fiddly. Once Cortana rolls out voice commands should feel a bit more conversational; I’m really looking forward to that.

I mentioned on Twitter that the new hotness in gaming seems to be arena-based MP titles. We’ve got Battleborn, Overwatch, MOBAs are springing up all over the place; the company behind The Order: 1886 is now working on some arena-based MP title, Cliff Blezinski’s BossKey is making one; every developer seems to want to tap into e-sports in some way. I said that this ‘movement’ made me happy both because I know tons of people love those games (and believe it or not, I like it when my friends are happy) and kind of because I don’t. Having all the hugely hyped games be of zero interest to me is making it easy for me to get out of Gaming as a Hobby.

Someone responded saying they could play nothing but single player RPGs and still have too many games. I agree; I have a ton of unplayed or little-played games laying around. And I don’t plan to stop playing games as one of the things I do. I’ve just been kind of easing away from being a Gamer. And it’s hard to articulate what I mean by that, particularly in 140 characters. I’m not even sure I can do it in a blog post.

For years, gaming has been what I did when I wasn’t working. It was my primary hobby and I self-identified as being a gamer. I followed the hype-train and spent lots of money on whatever was the flavor-of-the-week. And as often as not I’d play that game for a week and then set it aside. I read the gaming blogs and followed gamers on social media and in those rare moments when no game was calling to me I felt adrift. Like “I have nothing to play… WHAT DO I DO NOW!?”

But I don’t have to tell you that the gaming community and social media are combining to create a seething pit of toxicity. It’s not JUST gaming, to be fair. There was a great post titled Fandom is Broken making the rounds and it talks about this issue as it pertains to many aspects of fan-driven activities, from comics to gaming to movies. (Is that a generic and inoffensive way of putting it?) When No Man’s Sky was delayed last week, the developers found themselves on the receiving end of death threats. Heck even the reporters covering the news got some. It’s fucking insane the way (some) fans behave these days.

I kind of don’t want to be a part of any of that any more. I cut almost all the gaming blogs out of my RSS reader and replaced them with sites like Southern Fried Science and Brain Pickings. Instead of spending my spare time reading hateful comments on a post about some new MP game I’m reading posts that make me think or maybe teach me something. At the same time I’ve backed away from social media quite a bit. I cut out Facebook and Google+ completely, though I still dip my toe into Twitter now and then. But not nearly as often as I used to. That has freed up a lot of time and I’ve been spending it sharpening my development skills and learning new things. That feels really good.

The overall result of these changes are that I spend less money on games, which is a good thing because we don’t have an abundance of extra cash laying around. And when I do sit down to play a game, I’m playing a game I want to play (rather than a game that the hype-train says I must play), and playing it the way I want to play it, which is almost always single player (even if it’s something like The Division that most people play multi) and usually at my deliberate, methodical pace. I’m level 9 in The Division on PS4!

Which is a long-winded explanation of why I’m glad the gaming industry has decided to shit out a million e-sports titles that I don’t care about. I’ll keep on quietly working through my backlog while I wait for the Mafia III-hype train to come by this fall. That seems to be the next ‘big hype’ single player game in the pipeline. Although I’m giving serious consideration to Grand Kingdom which comes out later this month and I bet you’ve never heard of it.

I’m still playing games, sure. But I don’t want to be called a Gamer any more than I want to be called a Reader or a TV Watcher. Playing games is just one of the things I do in my leisure time. Please don’t lump me in with these crazy people ranting and foaming at the mouth because a game was delayed, or a patch broke a feature, or some other inconsequential thing that makes them get so mean.

Playing Lately: Alienation, The Division, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, The Elder Scrolls Online

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s EndI finished Uncharted 4 last night, and I’m in a real funk about it.

I’ve loved this series since game #1. That makes me an oddity within my ‘circles.’ While my twitter feed is full of folks gushing over Overwatch or Battleborn or Doom I don’t have the slightest interest in any of those games. I have friends who are playing Uncharted 4, to be sure, but I don’t get the sense that they LOVE the series like I do. I’m not sure any of them have played through all the other games in the franchise.

Naughty Dog is one of a small handful of developers who seem able to tell [what to me is] a really compelling story with characters that I really care about, and do it over the course of a generous, but not grueling, single player campaign. (According to the statistics screen, Uncharted 4 took me a little over 16 hours to play through.)

There are certainly games that deliver spectacle or compelling characters, and lots of RPGs tell a good story if you’re willing to devote 50 hours to extract it. But Naughty Dog just gets the mix so right. The only other developer I can think of that nails the mix so perfectly is Rockstar. Red Dead Redemption remains one of my all time favorite games.

I will miss Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher as much as I miss the characters from beloved books and TV series after they end.

I don’t want to talk any more about the story because I do hope folks will experience it for themselves, but I just need to gush about what a great job the team did. The voice talent is all top notch and you get the feeling there was real chemistry between the actors. The characters were beautifully flawed gems. It took me a while to warm to newcomer Sam but I got there after a few hours. The environments were truly breathtaking. Several times I said to Angela (who got hooked early and was there for probably 14 of the 16 hours I played, acting as co-pilot and puzzle-solver) that I’d love to meet the people who created these amazing spaces because they must have spectacular imaginations. There were so many “Oh shit!” moments and audible gasps from both of us.

Now admittedly in terms of gameplay, this isn’t the greatest series ever. The shooting is just OK. There’s a lot of climbing that I find super-fun but not all that challenging. There’s a lot of driving in this one and it was surprisingly fun. But the biggest issue with the gameplay is that there are times when I was so engrossed in what happens next in the story that I felt like the gameplay was interrupting me. 🙂

Y’know I guess it boils down to the fact that I don’t approach Uncharted games as games, really. I approach them as experiences. (Is that a vague enough term?)

I mean clearly these ARE games and you need to accept game weird-logic like the fact that a character who can throw a grappling hook 70 feet across a chasm while hanging to the side of a cliff with one hand can’t also throw that rope to a partner on a ledge six feet overhead. And of course there’s the dichotomy of Nathan Drake, the charming, wise-cracking and easy-going vagabond adventurer, and Nathan Drake, the dude who killed 600+ enemies during my playthrough (again, statistics screen).

Naughty Dog has said this will be the last game featuring Nathan Drake but maybe not the last Uncharted game. And I’d give Uncharted featuring another character (and I have a good idea who that character would be, and I’m sure you will too after you finish) a try for sure, but to me Nathan & Elena ARE Uncharted. Without them, I’d treat any future game as a new franchise.

It’s worth mentioning some awesome features that Naughty Dog gave us in this game. First, there are QTE’s that have you tapping a button many times. If you don’t like this kind of mechanic, there’s a setting that allows you to just hold down the button for these events. If you think that’s not a big deal than you don’t have arthritis in your fingers like I do; the constant rapid tapping of a button really hurts me fingers so I was happy they offered an alternative. They also gave us an amazing photo mode that lets you manipulate your screenshots in all kind of ways, including hiding the characters if you want. Last, the game seems to auto-save every time you pause. While I did save my progress manually at the end of every session I don’t think I needed to. I never touched the Load function.

Oh speaking of loading, did I mention the only time you see any kind of loading screen or break in the action is if you die. It’s a hard game to put down because it just flows seamlessly from start to finish, transition in and out of cut scenes and between characters without any kind of boundary event. Also they’re very generous with checkpoints so if you do die you rarely have to repeat much content. And if you get stuck for too long the game accommodates, giving you the option to pull up a hint, or perhaps by having an AI colleague point out something you missed. I also suspect, but can’t confirm, that the difficulty of a combat encounter eases up a tad if you die many times in one battle.

The whole experience just feels so polished and well-thought out, and my goodness the game looks amazing. And now that I’m done with it…I just don’t know what to do with myself. I feel like I’ve experienced the best that gaming has to offer and anything else is going to feel like a step down. Now CLEARLY I’m being hyperbolic and I’m still basking in the glow of having such a wonderful experience, but I honestly can’t think of another franchise that I’m looking forward to, at least not it terms of characters I want to spend time with, if you know what I mean. (And now a brief moment of silence for when Halo games told a compelling story about  Master Chief and Cortana rather than focusing on e-sports.)

Everything changes, and that includes gaming. I’m sure Uncharted 4 cost a ton to make and I’m not sure there are that many of us who love single player games left. Heck even GTA V skipped single player DLC in favor of producing multiplayer content that Rockstar could monetize. I’m not saying single player games will go away, but I think we’ll see fewer and fewer lavish single player productions like the Uncharted series. Damn, I’m going to miss this series.

Heck maybe I really HAVE seen the best that gaming as to offer, at least in terms of my own personal preferences. Farewell Nathan and Elena, and thanks for all the wonderful adventures.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Greetings loyal readers! It’s been quite awhile, eh? I’ve been playing ESO on the consoles almost exclusively for the past few weeks, but nothing worth sharing. Just grinding out crafting writs and working my way through the quest lines. Not blog-post worthy but I’ve been having fun. When not playing I’ve been watching a lot of ESO videos of builds and stuff.

So what does this have to do with esports? Listen I know you all love Twitch and watching people play League of Legends for big cash prizes. I like to watch some LoL from time to time too. I think we’ve established that broadcasting game matches is a Thing that people like.

But now it’s time to move beyond that and expand the offerings on Twitch and the like. What I want to see now are professionally commentated dungeon runs from MMOs. I came to this decision when two vectors crossed in my brain. First, when I haven’t been playing ESO I’ve been re-watching Log Horizon, which is an anime that takes place in an MMO world. I really enjoy the (faked) battle scenes when the gang is doing raids. It’s fun watching them puzzle out how to bring down bosses even though, y’know none of it is real.

And I’ve also been reading JZH Gaming’s blog lately. He posts videos of his ESO dungeon runs. This is the last one I watched:

I like this video for a lot of reasons. First, it’s a speed run so it doesn’t go on for hours. Second, the leader guides the group through the dungeon in a calm way. The rest of the gang also acts like, well, adults. No one is screaming or playing dub step over their mike. It almost feels choreographed and I feel like I’m not only watching a team take on a challenge but I’m learning a bit about this trial, too. Third and much less significantly, this was done on the PS4 version of the game and I have some platform pride over it. There’s this stereotype that console gamers are all potty-mouthed children and it’s cool to see this group overcome these obstacles while maintaining their composure. I wanna be friends with these people!!

But it is hard to hear what the leader is saying at times, plus she’s busy playing so doesn’t have time to elaborate. Which led me to imagine a Twitch channel that had professional commentators who could follow a group through a dungeon and give a kind of play-by-play of what is going on, in the same way that good LoL commentators can help viewers understand the details of a LoL match.

Of course before that could happen, the game developers would have to add some kind of spectator mode so the commentators have the tools to show off what is happening. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could watch a group take on a dugneon boss and flip back and forth between what the tank is doing, and what the healer is doing?

Eh, maybe I’m dreaming. But I think it’d be cool. But until the rest of the world catches up with my brilliance 🙂 I’ll keep watching JZH’s videos and hope he does more runs with this bunch. If you have some favorite dungeon run videos, why not post links in the comments. I’m not looking for “more dots” and Leeroy Jenkins. I’m looking for a team working together “professionally” to get a job done.

I find videos like this kind of inspiring. They make me want to play ESO better.