Sunday, January 18, 2015

"The tank is holding"

I wonder if there is a more welcome phrase in all of PC gaming than these four simple words: "The tank is holding"?  They mean that you have reached that  point in a battle where your defensive capabilities have proven themselve capable of surviving anything the enemy can throw at them. It is the tipping point. Prior to that moment the battle is a desperate struggle for survival with an uncertain outcome. After that moment you know that they cannot kill you so it is your turn to take the initiative and find a way to kill them. Knowing that you cannot lose all that remains is find a way to win.

According to Wikipedia the use of the word "Tanking" to describe a unit or team's ability to absorb damage originated in the text based Multi User DUngeons (MUDS) of the 1990s.  The concept probably reached its full potential  in the Tank, Heal, Damage triumvirate of massively multi player games such as Everquest. With classes specialised in each of these roles player groups can work together to overcome PVE monsters (Raid Bosses) that are enormously more powerful than themselves. The tanking classes have special skills to keep monsters focus upon themselves and then rely on heavy armour and defensive abilities to reduce the damage sustained to a level that the healers can heal.  Knowing that "the tank is holding" means that your combination of mitigation and healing is sufficient to survive the incoming damage and is a vital first step to victory. 

The terminology is widely used in role playing games and real time strategy games but the principle can be applied to just about any game against computer opponents (PVE) even when the phrase "tanking" isn't commonly used. In a shooter for example once you have found a reliable piece of cover to crouch behind you are able to survive incoming fire (your tank is holding) and you can now focus on picking off opponents.

The concept of tanking is not as useful in PVP games because human players can change their tactics at will.   Once it becomes obvious that they are failing to make a dent in your defences a human player is likely to try a different approach. It would be foolish to think that you have won the battle just because "your tank is holding" against one line of attack.Nevertheless the ability to survive incoming attacks is important and tanking still essential. EVE online for example  uses the term "tanking" extensively to describe the defensive capability of both individual ships and of fleets in PVE and PVP online space battles. One of my favourite depictions of  of "The tank is holding"  comes from EVE in the Clarion Call 3 video from Rooks and Kings

The entire video is worth watching but the particularly relevant bit starts at minute 29:00. A small fleet of specialised spacecraft is taking on a much larger and in theory more powerful fleet in the opponent's home territory. The upstart intruders are using  superbly co-ordinated tactics to minimise incoming damage to a level that they can repair while they whittle down the opponent fleet. In short their strategy relies on their tank holding. The vital sequence starting at minute 29:00 begins with an expletive from the pilot of their repair ship (carrier) because one of the armour repair units (reppers) that is keeping him alive burns out through over use. You can hear the despair in his voice when he tells his team what has happened. There is a short dreadful pause as it dawns on everyone that the battle is surely lost but that thought is interrupted by the explosion in the background of one of the enemies main damage dealing ships (a Moros dreadnought). Then we get the deadpan reply of the fleet commander: 

"It doesn't matter. One Moros is dead. The other one is held zero cap" (This means its guns are neutered and cannot fire).
"You can tank all their faction battle-ships on one repper".
"We've won"

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Exploring My Families Broadband Usage

In an idle moment I checked our families monthly broadband statistics and I was quite surprised by the numbers.

The last time I actively perused these figure was perhaps eight years ago when we had a 30Gb monthly allowance and I remember that our usage rarely ever exceeded 10Gb per month. Internet speeds have increased a lot since then, the web has become more data rich, game downloads have become bigger, my teenage kids have developed insatiable appetites for online connectivity and of course Netflix has happened. Taking all of this into account I think that I would have expected a ten fold increase in internet usage - perhaps 100Gb typical usage per month. 

Here are the numbers for the last few months: 
Broadband Usage History
Billing period
Downloaded
Uploaded
Total
07 Dec - 06 Jan
336.66 GB
69.10 GB
405.76 GB
07 Nov - 06 Dec
218.61 GB
75.39 GB
294.00 GB
07 Oct - 06 Nov
154.22 GB
76.86 GB
231.08 GB
07 Sep - 06 Oct
182.66 GB
493.38 GB
676.04 GB
07 Aug - 06 Sep
196.54 GB
196.62 GB
393.16 GB

Wow. I didn't expect the numbers to be that high. A monthly average usage of 400Gb peaking to 676Gb last September. 

The large upload numbers are surprising but I can explain them. My wife is a very keen photographer and in August we started to use cloud storage. The high uploads for August and September were the initial uploads of the archive and the ongoing monthly uploads are mainly new photos. 

Our normal monthly downloads are 150Gb to 200Gb but it looks like we watched a lot of extra movies on Netflix during the Christmas Holidays (plus I may have bought a few big games). 


Saturday, January 03, 2015

Bemoaning the demise of Dragon Age's tactics system

It is with much sadness I note that Dragon Age Inquisition has opted to move away from the user programmed AI "Tactics" of its predecessors. 

The original Dragon age introduced an extremely innovative system called "Tactics" which allowed players to programme the AI of their party members. I do actually mean programme. This wildly ambitious system had full blown decision and flow control structures.   You could programme in a wide array of behaviours such as "Attack Alastairs target and if that target has heavy armour  use Shatter Armour" or "If any character has less than 10% health then cast a healing spell" or "Freeze a target with spell 1 and then cast a rock to shatter them with spell 2".  It was a deep and sophisticated system that encouraged players to experiment. 

Dragon Age II refined the system further but the latest episode "Inquisition" has abandoned it  and instead offers a few very limited options for tweaking your party members' behaviour. You can prioritise or exclude the use of certain skills. You can set sliders to determine how often your characters take potions and you can tell your characters whether to defend  the controlled character or assist them in attacking a given target. That is it. 

I guess I know why Bioware chose this approach. It is much simpler to understand and to use and I wouldn't be surprised if this simplified approach gives pretty similar results to the old tactics approach. Much as I loved the old tactics system I have to admit that it didn't really work all that well. AI is hard to programme and even with all that flexibility it wasn't really feasible to programme complex characters such as a spell casting Mage or a backstabbing rogue. If I am honest I have to admit that on anything above easy difficulty you still had to do a lot of micromanaging to over ride your pre-programmed tactics. 

Despite its flaws though I really really miss the old tactics system. It was an engrossing mini game all in itself and when it did come together it gave moments of immense satisfaction. That mage saved my tank from dying because I told it to. Moreover it was an immensely ambitious undertaking by Bioware which gave players an insight into AI programming.Abandoning it feels like a retrograde step. 

Friday, January 02, 2015

Nostalgia Lane: Interplay Classics on sale over at GOG

Huge nostalgia rush caused by the Interplay sale over at gog.comhttp://www.gog.com/promo/weekend_promo_immense_interplay_020115. Descent, Freespace 2 and Sacrifice remain among my favourite games of all time.

For some reason great games of that era had a greater impact on me than any modern game. Even though modern games are far more advanced and better in almost every way games of that era were breaking new ground. Those classic games were doing things that had never been done before and it was just awesome. I still

Monday, December 15, 2014

In which I make a killing (not!) selling Steam trading cards.

I don't really understand Steam trading cards. I know they appear in my Steam inventory when I play games and I am vaguely aware that they come in sets which can be collected to make something else (badges apparently). I have never made a badge and I never even been fortunate enough to acquire a complete set. In fact I don't think that is even without actively buying cards. I would happily ignore the whole business except for the fact that they are trade-able. Trading cards can be bought and sold on the Steam community market for real money (well actually Steam credit but given that I have an ongoing healthy expenditure on games it amounts to the same thing).

Every time you examine a trading card in your inventory it tells you how much similar cards are selling for on the Steam market. This causes me angst. There is a market out there with buyers and sellers. There is money to be made and money to be lost.  I image that Gevlon Goblin, if he ever discovers the Steam market will quickly figure out a way to acquire every game on Steam for free through repeatedly playing the first level of Portal over and over all the while berating morons and slackers like me  who can't figure out how to win the market. 

The trouble is most of the cards you get are worth only a few cents and Valve takes a cut of any sale reducing the proceeds even further. It hardly seems worth the effort of placing such cards on the market. I have in the past sold a few rarer items that sold for 50c or more but these are rare drops and my inventory was stuffed with cheap cards. 

This week Valve introduced a new auction mini-game that involves converting unwanted cards into gems that can be used to bid for games. However little I understand trading cards I understand gem auctions even less. People seem to be bidding crazy amounts for run of the mill games and there has already been a duping scandal. Regardless the demand for gems seems to have injected a bit of life into the trading card market and I noticed a slight upward trend in prices and as being a little bit bored the evening before last I decided that this would be a good time to sell everything. 

I listed around all my trading cards at what I judged to be the going market rate and they have been selling actively since.  I have sold about 70 cards so far netting a grand total of €4.51 and if the 45 remaining items sell I could end up with more than €6 worth of Steam credit for the half an hour of effort it took to list them all. Ignoring the fact that I had to buy and play the games originally that is slightly better than minimum wage for the time spent listing cards.  

I strongly suspect that Steam Trading tycoons would laugh at my clumsy sell off. No doubt there are ways to cleverly double and triple profits by crafting this and trading that. Regardless it feels somewhat refreshing to have a clean Steam inventory. I am also going to try and use the few euro in credit somewhat creatively. I will buy something in the Christmas sale that I would not normally buy.