Final Fantasy XIV November Update (and what I really want in an MMORPG)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Square Enix released their first major patch for Final Fantasy XIV.  As I have mentioned in a previous post, FFXIV is a pretty broken game.  I keep playing it for various mysterious reasons…mostly, it remains a simple morsel of fun to log into every couple of days, and WoW won’t be taking too much of my attention until Cataclysm comes out.  On top of that, SE has yet to actually charge me a monthly fee, so it’s still essentially free to me, even if it’s clear that the game was rushed and the PC release has been a form of testing for the PS3 release.  Eh…things happen.  Anyway, given how broken FFXIV is, any patch is likely to improve things, and the November patch has brought the game up a few notches.  The UI is indeed less laggy.  They’ve improved the inventory/gear screens a bit.  Everything does feel a little bit tighter in general, and so on that front, it’s great.

The biggest improvement, though, has been the way that experience points and skill points are awarded.  XP are points that affect your base stats; SP affect your advancement in your current main job.  Recall that FFXIV lets you change classes (or “jobs,” as they call them) simply by equipping the appropriate weapon.  Your particular blend of skills available is a mix-and-match of everything you’ve learned to date, meaning you can use magic even if you’re currently wielding a Gladiator’s sword.  Anyway, before the patch, SP was awarded in a semi-random fashion each time you successfully damaged or debuffed an enemy.  This system had two very chilling effects on play.  The first is that it encouraged advancement-focused players to spam their weakest attacks since weak attacks mean more attacks performed and thus more chances for SP.  Play was absolutely mind-numbing.  Why should I do DoT attacks when it robs me of SP?  Why should I use a nuke spell or AoE multiple foes?  So, the old SP system encouraged a single tactical style that was pretty boring.  The other chilling effect is that it significantly slowed the job progression for Conjurers (and I suspect for Thaumaturges, too).  Conjurers are squishy by nature, but are supposed to make up for this with great DPS spells.  Well…those spells, one of which is a great DoT counterattack, robbed Conjurers of SP opportunities.  When you also consider that Conjurer is the base class for a pure-healer build and that healing and buffing were really bad ways to build SP, the game effectively punished leveling Conjurers and especially healing-focused ones.  This was a gaping hole in job balance, and I suspect that, had it gone on long enough, you’d have seen these classes wither on the vine at the upper levels.

But, SE changed that, giving a base SP award plus some random bonus on each mob killed.  While they were at it, they made the SP gains at levels up to 20 much more generous.  Running six guildleves (quests, for you non-FFXIV players), I was able to pull myself through nearly two job levels in one night.  More importantly, though, the play was now finally fun.  Understanding why I now found it fun was also a really great view into what I want out of an MMORPG, and it’s, sadly, not something any MMORPG is prepared to offer in the long run.  No, not even WoW.

The new SP mechanics meant I no longer had to lock myself into one set of tactics to maximize SP.  It used to be that I’d do this– cast Protect, cast Stoneskin, spam Spirit Dart, occasionally hit Radiance to bleed off TP, cast Cure as necessary.  I’d either die or win.  That’s it.   My attack rotation was beyond rote and deeply boring.  Suddenly, though, I had new choices.  I could start a fight against paired foes (Amateur Footpad and Amateur Raider, for example) by doing an AoE DoT focused on one mob, then directly assault the other.  I could close distance on everyone and AoE nuke.  Or if there was too much of a crowd, I could switch AoE off and use a different set of tactics to knock down one mob quickly while holding the other at bay.  Shock Spikes, which stun and DoT against melee attacks, was now my friend again.  In short, every spell and ability I equipped was now a tool I could use to bring down my enemies.  Now everything was a fun challenge and not just a grind to do so I could level.

This paired up against a conversation I had with Agnieszka, the resident WoW expert in my life.  I have always had this vague impression in WoW that I would eventually get geared up sufficiently that I could give raiding a try.  After a few drinks, she rather kindly and bluntly told me I needed to just let it go…I’m not going to raid.  It takes more investment than I’ll give.  It’s a bit disheartening to know, but I think it’s likely true.  The reason it’s disheartening, though, is because I keep looking for moments in WoW that parallel what I was just given in FFXIV, and I’ve imagined…incorrectly…that raiding will give me those moments.  I remember back when I was leveling in WoW, there was a time when every other level gave me a new shot to try out.  Basically, there were two carrots moving me forward–  increasingly badass looking armor and knowing that, soon, I’d have to rethink my tactics.  That new shot was going to be something completely different and I’d have new ways to think about things.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking for in an MMORPG– an environment where I’m constantly having to make new tactical decisions to be effective.  That’s my flow and my sense of engagement, and it’s also why I don’t find myself being all that drawn back to a lot of the games out there, and it’s why I go in and out of engagement with WoW.  WoW, particularly as a hunter, is all about getting your stats up, getting and working your rotation to maximize your output, and following an objective “best play” for the situation you’re in.  It’s not an unreasonable idea to follow in game design, but it also doesn’t do a lot for me.  It’s not far off from why I’m not a competitive runner or cyclist– I just don’t get a kick out of working hard to get a single stat up.  I play sports because I want to make quick and interesting decisions and get in a state of flow with others who do, too, and that’s also why I game.  Now, I know WoW raiding does involve quick decisions, but as Agnieszka would point out to me, there’s almost always a right thing to do for any scenario.  Compare this with a game like Eve Online, where your fleet can use a vast variety of different ships as long as the players and fleet know how to use them to their best tactical advantages.  Unfortunately, Eve has its own issues that keep me from getting fully immersed in it, but its concept of tactics is one of the best things going for it.

Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a game with super-flexible character building, an excellent focus on tactics and co-developing character and play style, a clean UI that’s easy on the eyes, and a variety of player activity.  FFXIV had all sorts of promise to be that, but SE has a broken game on their hands that they’re still fixing (and will be for a while, though I’ll keep playing).  I really wish WoW had a less objective play style, but that’s just what it is.  I guess I’ll just have to keep crossing my fingers on The Secret World.

Bad Religion After 30 Years

Saturday night was an evening which I thought might never come.  After years of near-misses, I finally got to see the band that, for me, started it all.  I got to see Bad Religion.  The truth is that good things really do come to those who wait, because I didn’t just see Bad Religion.  I saw Bad Religion on their 30th anniversary tour, on the last show of the tour, on the exact day they were celebrating their anniversary, in the first city they every played outside of Southern California.  It was absolutely the night to see them, particularly for the sentimental value I place on their music and their career.

When I say that Bad Religion “started it all,” what, exactly, do I mean?  Well, it’s true that most of my musical and cultural awakening happened in the context of “alternative” music, as you could still safely call it.  In the days before grunge had sufficiently taken off and the mainstream had co-opted the “alternative” ethos, the general melange of not-very-top-40 music got put under that broad label.  I learned about bands like REM, Depeche Mode, Microchip League, Concrete Blonde, and The Shamen from radio shows playing late on Sunday night on a radio station in Orlando, FL.  I did not, however, really internalize an idea of embracing that music as a part of cultural expression, and the idea of being the willful outsider was never on my mind.  It was just music that was weird and interesting, and I thus spent most of my teenage years completely disengaged with pop culture but also still believing that I was somehow going to eventually achieve the acceptance of my peers.  Of course, the music industry made mincemeat of the alternative big tent, to the point that even that aspect of my identity had lost much meaning, and I honestly stopped really caring about music for a couple of years as a result, and I just became yet another faceless reject in the zoo that was my school and home.  I always carried with me that feeling of being an outsider yet not understanding why I couldn’t just be a little more “normal” and be happy and maybe have some friends.  My sense of disaffection extended into my relationship with my family, for reasons which I will not detail here.  In general, I was socially alone, detached from my family, politically aware and confused by the world, and in general wondering what was so wrong with me that everything around me seemed made for someone else.

The question was always “Am I nuts, or is the world a lot crappier than my teachers and parents promised me when I was younger?”  For a long time, I’d concluded the problem was me.  The first time in my life that I ever considered the other possibility was when I bought a copy of Stranger Than Fiction.  For the first time ever, there were my feelings being spat out at a fevered pitch over driving guitars: “Mother, father / look at your little monster / I’m a hero; I’m a zero / I’m the butt of the worst joke in history.”  I still remember my first reaction to the lead-off song on that album.  Wait…you mean other people feel like this, too? The topics covered a gamut of emotions, all collectively driving home a message I was relieved beyond belief to finally hear– “Nope.  You’re not nuts.  The world is hard.  You have been lied to by your authorities, and they’re still lying to you now.”  I suddenly felt like maybe the place I was in was okay.  Sure, I was the outsider.  That’s because I wasn’t buying into the way things worked.  I’d be an outsider, but I’d have myself, and it wouldn’t last forever, because I’d be leaving that town and most of those people behind.

This was about as seminal a moment in the development of my personality as discovering Paganism.  In the months following my purchase of Stranger than Fiction and The Grey Race, which was released that summer, I stopped seeking the approval of my peers.  I stopped completely being the Good Kid.  I started challenging my authority figures, especially my teachers, when I felt they were doing something wrong.  I became a bit more outrageous, discovering that I was willfully sacrificing acceptance for respect.  I found other punk kids to hang out with, one of which eventually became my girlfriend for much of my senior year of high school.  I found, among them, a common thread with myself.  Most of them were bright but unfocused.  We all had the same rocky feelings about our families.  We all felt the same cold shoulder from our peers.  We all felt frustrated by what we perceived as hypocrisy from our authority figures.  We also all discovered we had each other.  We spent a lot of our time engaged in fairly petty forms of mayhem, punctuated by frequent trips to neighboring towns to see a lot of garage bands.  I really wish I’d stayed in touch with some of those people after I left for college.  I wonder about some of them and worry about others.  They were all good people, and I hope that, wherever they are, they are happy.

To some varying degree or another, I’ve always carried “punk Rhett” with me in my heart.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually realized that that aspect of myself really deserves to come out more.  I’ve often been far to ready to scoff at youthful idealism, but that’s to say nothing of cynical adult passivity.  And so, every couple of years, there’s been a Bad Religion album to remind me.  They’ve always offered an intellectual’s rebellion, challenging the flavor of truth offered by our political, religious, and cultural institutions.  In another life, Greg Graffin would have been a beat poet, tapping his drum as he reminded us that the television news is “only entertainment.”  That has always appealed to me, even if, after 15 albums, they’ve explored most of the musical space available to them.  It’s not really about that.  It’s about remembering what it was like the first time you could admit to yourself that the world around you didn’t make any sense.  That’s why I’ve kept listening, and that’s why I’ve kept wanting to see them live.

For a while, my missing Bad Religion was a yearly event.  There was always a broken-down car, or someone moving, or whatever.  I kept putting it off, and I kept hoping that they’d still be around in a few years.  Then, ultimately, I filed it away in my mind as something I’d just missed, and I actually felt a bit sad about that.  I don’t have a lot of worship for the musicians I support, but that teenage punk in me still wanted to…just once…see the people that had given him a blueprint for a life as an atheist, an anarchist, and a free thinker.  Just one show to see what they look like in person.  Just one time to sing along with a crowd like we used to sing along to Recipe For Hate in the back of my friend’s car.  And then it happened– a coworker stopped by my desk last month and asked if I wanted to get in on a ticket purchase.  Fast forward to last Saturday night, and there I was, right on the edge of the mosh pit, listening to “1000 More Fools” being played live.

What I think I loved most about this show was being there on the band’s 30th birthday.  Bad Religion’s age reflects my own (I’m 31), and as the themes in their music have changed with the years, I’ve also changed and matured and carried that punk seed with me through life.  Hearing each song in the set made me think about who I was and where I was when that song first meant something to me, and as such, it was a moment of feeling very grounded in my own history.  Listening to Bad Religion live was two hours of taking a walk with myself.  What’s more, though, was seeing that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  With every song they played, you could hear the voices in the audience singing along to.  Every song.  Every word.  Even the wild ones in the mosh pit were singing as they spread mayhem.  I’ve often called Bad Religion “a bunch of protest singers turned punks.”  For those of us there, this was a chance to connect with the soundtrack of our own personal protest, whatever it was, and it felt good to, for a moment in my life, stand in a crowd of people with whom I could share that experience.  I think it represents a moment of communitas I’d yearned for when I was younger and which I glimpsed when I did finally have some friends who were like me.

And now, I’m rambling while I’m at the office.  I’m wearing a tour t-shirt.  It’s a moment of letting punk Rhett be a little more at the surface.  When I was younger, I always wanted a Bad Religion t-shirt, but the band’s name and logo made my father suspicious.  I once inked the band’s logo in my backpack with white-out pen and was forced to remove it.  I promised myself I’d finally own a Bad Religion t-shirt when I saw them live, and I’ve put off owning one for years.  Now I’ve seen them, and I have the t-shirt, and punk Rhett is pleased, and I feel quite happy to let the young rebel in me have his t-shirt.  He’s kept me going all these years, and he’s likely to keep at it for many more.

Bascom Pachinko Find

After several posts of talking about matters athletic, I’m far beyond due for letting my nerd show.  I have a ridiculous fascination with coin-operated amusements.  In the past, I have worked on restoring arcade machines, most notable being Mr. Do! and Asteroids, but I don’t have any good space in my home or life for things that size right now.  Maybe one day I’ll build a MAME machine and be done with it.  Like, when I have a garage.

This also extends to pachinko games.  I’ve actually had pachinko around me most of my life.  When I was little, back in the days when you could buy a personal computer that had a cassette deck, parents would shut their children up by getting them to play little hand-held games that used motors and little ball-bearings.  You’d play something that vaguely resembled “pocket baseball” or “pocket football.”  I had a miniature pachinko machine long before I knew what pachinko was.

Fast-forward to yesterday.  Driving between a very lovely brunch and a planned walk at the Rosicrucian campus, I happened to cruise through a section of Bascom Ave in San Jose which I call “junk row.”  I don’t know how this has happened, but there is basically a strip mall there of junk shops, ranging from the “piles of crap” variety to the shops where they’ve found great bits of cultural history and restored them for sale.  Sitting out on the sidewalk, in what appears to be nearly perfect condition, was a bright pink pachinko machine.  I just knew it had to be mine.  After a little play-testing, it came home with me.

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Can you blame me?  I mean, who can say no to something this completely ridiculous?  It’s bright pink and covered with ridiculous anime characters.  I think it’s supposed to have a caveman theme, but I can’t be perfectly sure about that.  It looks fairly modern, though video screens are not all that modern for pachinko and the resolution is a touch low.  One of the inspection stickers appears to have a date of August 2011.  Everything on the playing field looks very clean and new, so maybe it is fairly new.

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Here’s a shot of the video screen.  P-KAN KINGDOM!  The styling on the graphics and the resolution have a very early 1990s feel to them, as if I’m looking at an old Neo Geo game.  This makes me want to suspect the machine is older than it seems to be (based on labeling, cleanliness, and lack of wear).  It’s amazing what an art style or screen resolution will do to cue your thinking to a certain time or place.

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Art from the upper left corner of the playing field.  There’s a decided caveman theme to the whole thing.  Lots of Tarzan clothes, mammoths and other animals, and roasted meat on the bone.  If you ever played the Bonk’s Adventure series of games, you’d recognize it on the spot.

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Art from the bottom of the playing field.  Again…cutesy pink anime cavemen.  You can see the roasted meat on the bone in the lower left of this picture.  In the lower right…hell if I know.  It looks like someone cut a cactuar in half.

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And now…the art in the upper-right.  It’s an alien in a UFO.  Yep.  An alien in a UFO.  Looking kinda surprised by all the anime caveman pachinko action.  So…maybe the theme here is “Chariot of the Gods”?  Who knows?  It’s ridiculous and weird and I love it.

And frankly, with my wife, Amy, being a tikiphile, I’m starting to wonder if the things we nerd-squee over aren’t cross-breeding.  For some reason, this seems like exactly the sort of thing that goes with a tiki mug and a fez hat.  Or, possibly, I’m insane.

Surfing Manresa and Cowell’s

When I was last out at Pleasure Point, a seemingly nice local had talked to me about my board, my skill level, and had suggested a location that I hadn’t heard of (since it’s not on Surfline).  The beach he’d suggested is a shore break called Manresa State Beach, and he seemed to suggest it would give me a regular production of waves with less demand on my paddle out.  “You could easily do 20 waves in a session,” he said.  Manresa was at the top of my list of places to check out.

I got to Manresa this morning to find it mostly deserted.  Two surfers were packing up when I got there.  No lineup.  No crowd.  LOTS of waves, just as advertised.  This was going to be EPIC!

It certainly was epic.  It was an epic beatdown.  The beach is very steep beyond the water line.  The waves were coming in constant and fast and, thanks to the steep bottom, each wave was its own wall of water.  I am still learning the skills I need to paddle and to fight waves on the trip out, and practically every wave that hit me threw me from the board.  After only a few minutes (and maybe 30 yards from the shore), a wave hit me so hard that it dragged me under and held me there for a bit longer than my breath found comfortable.  I’m very grateful that I’ve got years of experience in rough water to keep me calm in situations like that.  I dragged myself to shore and rested and watched the water for a channel.  There wasn’t really one, and it was then that I noticed the rather shocking frequency and strength of the rip currents at this beach.  They were frequent, sudden, and obviously powerful.  Despite this, I headed out again, sure I just needed some time to regroup.  Another complete pounding ensued, and I again dragged myself to shore.  Again, I rested and looked for a clue where the channel might be.  I tried another spot, and yet another pummeling ensued.  On the way back to shore, I was actually caught in the turbulence behind the wave, sucked into the curl, and dragged on the bottom on my face.

That was enough, and I started to pack up to head back to the car.  A local stopped to tell me he’d been walking by and actually hung around to make sure I was okay because he’d watched me struggling.  I asked him if the surf was typical, and he said it was actually big for Manresa but that Manresa is an intense beach in general and always has strong currents.  He could not explain why anyone would send a beginner there.  Now, Pleasure Point is known for its localism, but I always figured that would be dickish elitism, especially since I may be a beginner but I’m incredibly polite, respect right of way, and in general stay safe, act humble, and listen.  Clearly, localism also comes in the “kindly advice that can kill you” format, too.

For the record, I was so battered that my ears were full of sand.

With no other major plans for the day, I bopped over to Santa Cruz to hang out for a while.  Surprise…Volcom was hosting a tournament, so I watched some top talent deliver mad science to the water.  There’s only so long you can stare at strangers surfing, though, so I decided to head down to the pier for some retail therapy.  After some purchases and some refreshment, I noticed that the falling tide at Cowell’s was starting to bring out some swells.  I’d been planning to go home, eat an indulgent dinner, and maybe go see the Sharks play, but that quickly gave way to the desire to suit up and try putting a more positive experience in the day.  Cowell’s is the go-to break for beginners, and I really wanted to actually try some surfing in my day, so I got out for the second time in the day.

The crowd is huge, but I really love the vibe and conditions at Cowell’s.  Everything is relaxed and recreational.  The swells are much easier, and thus the paddling is easier.  There aren’t any hard waves to face, so it’s more forgiving as you learn techniques for fighting surf.  On top of that, it’s pretty shallow throughout, so it’s easy to rest.  All of that is quite wonderful.  Unfortunately, there’s a downside, too.  My board, at 7’6″, is on the short side of beginner boards.  It’s got a pretty sharp rocker, and it’s not all that thick.  All of these things make it more work to paddle, and I lose the race against 8=10′ thick funboards and longboards.  Longboard riders barely have to even paddle to catch a wave.  I need to start sooner and work harder, especially at Cowell’s where the waves have very little energy in them.  At bigger breaks like Pleasure Point, I can use the higher amplitude of the waves to drop down, giving me the speed to ride.  At Cowell’s, even if I got on a wave, I’d lose it, which I’m guessing is a result of my board’s drag.

Ultimately, I love just being in the water, but I can recognize being in an in-between place.  I need to be a LOT stronger to paddle competitively with the more floaty boards, but if I had that level of strength and skill, I’d go to a different break.  At the same time, though, my board isn’t well-suited for effortless surfing.  So, I have to get better about taking my lumps or investigate a different board.  No rush.  I’ll likely rent something at Cowell’s next time, though, to see if it’s me or my gear.

Either way, it feels great being in the ocean again.