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When did we stop being thrilled with our operating systems?

Lately, I’ve been engaging in some ’90s tech nostalgia, mostly via watching YouTube videos that spark my memory about what computers used to be like. I know that on some level, nostalgia is pointless and frivolous, but I find it comforting to experience prompts that help me reclaim memories and feelings that have been in long-term storage for decades now.

And what I’ve realized is that for all we’ve progressed in terms of convenience, computer saturation, processing power, and internet accessibility… we’ve lost some things along the way. One of those elements is an actual attachment and even fascination with an operating system. An operating system! I mean, who cares these days? If I think about Windows 10 and its cold functionality, it’s to be annoyed with its start menu, its pushy Cortana interface, or how Windows update seems to have broken my laptop. It’s not fun. It’s never been fun. I don’t enjoy love using it; I just use it.

You’re probably shrugging, because who does enjoy operating systems in 2021? But the weird thing is, we totally used to. Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 were godsends for a kid who grew up navigating the ins and outs of the DOS command line. Now we had this graphical flash and organization that made sense, and it felt revolutionary. That start menu… man, that start menu. It was a portal to possibilities. It was your computerized life, neatly filed and arranged for access.

Pretty much everyone I knew in the ’90s went nuts customizing Windows. Desktop wallpaper, screensavers, animated figures, sound files, color schemes… the works. Often it was garish, in the way that late ’90s homebrew websites lacked subtlety. But it was ours. It was like putting stickers all over your pencil boxes or posters in your locker in high school. You were taking this space that everyone else had a copy of, and you were making it distinctly your own.

Perhaps Win 3.1 and 95 were of much more interest to me prior to always-on internet, because I wasn’t spending 99.9% of my time in a browser. That limitation forced me to poke around, trade for programs, and see what my computer could do with the tools at hand. But that’s not entirely the case. Even as “recently” as Windows XP, I did like tinkering around with the OS and enjoying setting up various extra applications and options.

I kind of miss that. But with my phone and the internet, my desktop and OS don’t serve as great of a purpose. I have precisely two modifications to Win10 — Open Shell (to add back the start menu) and Stardock’s Fences to organize my icons. I have a static background I change maybe once every six months. I feel so dull in this space compared to how I used to be.

Of course, it’s not like I’m being held back from tinkering once more, so the change might be just as much me as Microsoft (or Apple or whatnot). I guess I just miss when interfaces and OSes were just as fun to use as the actual programs.

Posted in General

Touching base with my most-wanted MMOs

One of the main reasons that I’ve set up a list of Twitter links on the right side of this blog is so I can quickly check in with in-development MMO projects that I may forget about otherwise. And since I was doing that already today, I thought I might share a few comments on what’s going on with the games that I want to play the most.

At the top of the list, Palia kind of bummed me out with an amazing initial announcement followed by a summer of relatively low communication and a pre-alpha that virtually nobody was invited to play. The pre-alpha is over, and it sounds like there’s another test coming up with an expanded testing pool. While I usually don’t go for betas and such, I really would like to check this out for curiosity’s sake.

I’m both worried and excited about Corepunk. I like a whole lot of what I’m seeing, but the team isn’t talking enough about the project and it’s delayed its beta until December. Hopefully then, I can take a look at it. I need to know if this is something to actually anticipate or if I should write off my excitement now.

Let’s see… Ship of Heroes. Yeah, that’s on the list. Still rooting for the best, but after playing it earlier this summer, I can see that it still has a ways to go.

Ashes of Creation’s doing its Alpha 1 stuff, and that tells me that we’re still in for a long wait. Don’t get me wrong, when this comes out I’m there on Day One. But I don’t feel the urge to check in with it that much. I kind of feel the same way about Project Gorgon and Pantheon these days as well. Launch, and then we’ll talk.

Book of Travels is doing the early access thing “soon,” which I’ll check out. Into the Echo is starting a pre-alpha soonish, too. I just want to hear more about that game instead of playing it right now.

I am keen on following Monsters & Memories, because I like the tone and the approach that this indie team of ex-EverQuest devs are using. Could be a sleeper surprise?

It’s a mixed bag of big and small titles, but those are the ones (outside of New World and existing MMOs) that really have my attention. What about you?

Posted in General

Age of Empires IV and the rekindling of an RTS addict

It has not escaped my attention that at the end of October, Age of Empires IV will be released. I think I’ll be saving it for a Christmas wish list idea for family who bug me for ideas, though. I think I could wait on this, considering everything else that’s clamoring for my attention.

That said, I do want to play it and I am looking forward to seeing if it might rekindle that old fanatical love I used to have for real-time strategy games. You ever look back on your life to past interests and hobbies and say, “Where did that go? When did I stop being so into that?” That’s me and RTS games.

These used to be, second to RPGs, my favorite type of computer games. There’s a lot of reasons for that, starting with the sheer replayability factor and the unfolding stories that were made during each match. True, most of those stories were “I built something up and knocked something down/got knocked down,” but it was fun to go through the process over and over again without an undue time investment.

I always felt that RTS games gave me a huge bang for my buck. Previous to MMOs, this was imperative. I didn’t have $60 every week to drop on new games, so I wanted the ones I bought to last. RTS titles often fit that bill. I got hundreds of hours out of each one, and that’s not bad for the price.

But somewhere along the way, my interest waned in these games. I don’t think it died overnight, nor did it ever go away, but there was a definite downslope of personal involvement. Looking back, this seems to mirror the decline of RTS games being released year-over-year.

It’s also that RTS games changed and evolved. We don’t call games like Dwarf Fortress or RimWorld “real time strategy,” but they totally are — just the next iteration. Clash Royale, which I play daily, is a micro-RTS game. And titles such as Planet Coaster have proved that there’s still an audience out there that likes to build up kingdoms of all kinds and see how they unfold.

I am perfectly fine to have my interests where they’re at, I just hope that I haven’t completely abandoned my affection for these titles. We’ll see how it goes when I get my hands on Age of Empires IV. It might be a rekindling… or it might feel like an outdated, alien experience. I hope for the former.

Posted in General

How streamers have changed the face of MMO launches

While I am 99% giddy and thrilled that New World is launching next week — the first truly big new MMORPG launch in a long, long time — I can’t help but notice that there’s one significant difference to this release than, say, back in when Guild Wars 2 or WildStar first rolled out. And that’s the streamer phenomenon.

I’ve been watching with growing disquiet how the streaming culture has affected online games, especially new ones. By and large, I have no problem with individuals who like to livestream games and share those experiences with followers. It can be entertaining and informative, and there’s a lot of good eggs out there doing this. I don’t watch streams, but I do often pick up a YouTube video here or there from streamers, so I’m acquainted with the field.

But there’s a darker side to the streaming phenomenon that is hard to ignore. On the individual level, it’s what the constant pressure to perform and be popular can do to wreck a person’s psyche. I’ve lost count of how many streamers I’ve seen crumble from the pressure to stay relevant at all costs, especially when that’s tied to a revenue source. I also think that the relationship between streamers and fans gets unhealthy more often than not. There’s a lot of celebrity worship, toxic comments, objectification, and idol-making in the works here.

Without an agent or PR agency as a shield, a streamer has to handle his or her own mob. And as with any mob leadership, it doesn’t take much — an unguarded suggestion or careless word spoken in anger — to send a mob careening at people or studios.

And it’s these super-popular streamers and their associated mobs that have become the target of MMO studios. PR people will court and woo streamers to their games for all of the extra publicity, often giving these streamers preferential treatment and visibility and presents. I know how that goes, because it’s what PR people also do to the press, and in both cases, extreme caution and care is needed. But while the press (theoretically) is bound by ethics and guidelines, there are no such boundaries placed on streamers. It becomes an escalating scramble to get into games first, to get the affection of a studio, and to gladly lay one’s efforts at the foot of a studio for its service.

Then we get to the actual launches, where streamers and their mobs, again, are literally changing the game. People either are fleeing servers where popular streamers are or flocking to them, causing no end to imbalances and server performance and widespread trolling. We saw this with the launches of WoW Classic and Burning Crusade Classic, not to mention this past summer when many popular WoW streamers migrated to FFXIV virtually overnight.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to see that players are creating spreadsheets to track streamers’ intentions to roll on specific servers for New World so that everyone else can change their plans accordingly. And boy does that rankle me. I mean, good to know so that I can avoid the crowds, but I’m annoyed that I even have to do this in the first place.

So. Yeah. Streaming culture is both here to stay and problematic on many levels. And there’s no good answer for it yet.

Posted in General

What’s wrong with male characters in MMORPGs?

A recent survey on character gender choices in MMORPGs sparked a whole lot of discussion this past week on Massively OP. There was a lot of data here, but the biggest takeaway is that 33% of guys roll female characters while only 10% of females roll male characters. Typically when this subject comes up, talk revolves around why guys — such as myself — roll girl toons, but I think that’s missing a bigger issue.

The flip-side of this is that, as a whole, people aren’t that excited about rolling up male characters. If only 10% of women and 66% of men want to create a male avatar, that’s a disproportionate swing toward the female side.

This touches on one of the biggest reasons why I roll female characters — I hardly ever see male character options that are appealing and relatable. More often than not, they’re beefy gym bros with those shoulder-neck muscle ramps that I could only dream about. I don’t connect with that. Nor do I connect with angry-looking beanpoles.

When I think about it, it comes down to the face over the body type, however. Most option for guy faces aren’t appealing. They look like they’re holding a grudge against me or are sneering down upon me or are heading out to audition for a role as a villain NPC or something. I hardly ever get that positive vibe that I do from male heroes on TV and in movies. I think of some of those guys, and I wouldn’t mind being best friends with them. That’s not what I find in MMO character creators.

Because that’s where my gut check lies. I want my character, if he or she was real, to be my friend. Not an object of sexual desire or a revenge substitute. Just someone whom I would genuinely like to hang out with because they exude friendliness and welcome. Is it any surprise that female characters showcase this more?

Posted in General

Holding on to physical media in a cloudy age

Compared to how I lived even a decade ago, I rely far more on the cloud — and streaming — than I used to. I don’t get physical box copies of games any more, unless it’s a rare Switch title for the family. Most all of my games are on platforms like Epic or GOG, or else are MMOs downloaded from websites. I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD. The only physical books I buy these days are commentaries for work; everything else is on Kindle or Audible. And almost all of my movie and TV entertainment is streamed to me through Tubi or Amazon Video.

The cloud offers a great deal of advantages in regards to instant access, space saving, and organization. I like not having super-crowded bookshelves any more, and I wince when I think back to the days of juggling a music collection spread out over hundreds of CDs.

But I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling uneasy at how much I’ve grown dependent on internet connectivity for, well, everything entertainment-related. This is very noticeable when there’s a power or internet outage and then I’m left twiddling my thumbs or using cell data on my phone as a desperate lifeline.

I’ve started to come around to appreciating physical media more and more these days. Our family ditched Netflix (streaming) a while back and is using DVDs far more than we used to. It’s also a nice way to control what the kids are watching. I don’t store my music collection online, instead making several different backups every month and putting them in different locations to minimize risk of loss. And I now bring a physical book with me on a trip, you know, just in case.

One thing that I really don’t like about this move into a cloud-based age is that it transfers all of the power to the companies holding on to that stuff for you. They can take it away from you if they want, or modify it, or whatever. Games can go missing from portfolios. So having physical media — books, DVDs, games — is a way to retain some of that power and control and ownership. I can resell my game or book; I can’t do that with an audible title or something on Steam. The latter benefits game studios while putting the consumer at a disadvantage.

Still, I’ll be streaming and clouding and whatnot as I’ve been doing… just with more of an eye to preserve as much physical media as I can along the way.

Posted in General

The weird truth about video game swag

Something I don’t see a lot of video game journalists talk about very much is on the topic of studio swag. YouTubers are different in this, because they’ll get an easy video showing off stuff, but generally journos keep it quiet.

Because it’s weird. It really is. And I think that a lot of us worry that even mentioning that a studio gave us free stuff casts instant suspicion on the veracity of any coverage or opinion.

I get stuff from time to time from various studios. No, I don’t know how I got on their mailing lists. I assume that some go-getter PR person does research on everyone who has, at some point, covered their game professionally and then put them on a mailing list for goodies. It’s a blatant attempt to garner favor — or at least recognition — of that game.

There never seems to be a rhyme or reason for the studios that choose to send me stuff. Nexon does, which is why I get MapleStory (!?) swag from time to time. I used to get LOTRO stuff before I got on their naughty list and/or SSG stopped paying money for expensive gifts.

Sometimes these gifts are really cool and impressive. I got a set of RuneScape vinyl records that I display in my office to this day. I had a Rohan flag from LOTRO that I liked. And I have my GW2 Charr and WildStar sheep sitting on my bookshelves.

Often times they’re… weird. Random. Like this “hydropod’ thing I got earlier this week from MapleStoryM. I shared a picture of this to the MOP team and declared that because of this gift of a future plant, for the next day we had to give nonstop glowing coverage of this mobile game.

A month ago, Jagex attempted to send me a pen (!) for RuneScape for some reason. But the pen got confiscated in customs and then I had customs sending me forms to fill out to release the pen. I swear this happened. And no, I wasn’t going to fill out anything for a pen, so as far as I know it’s in Pen Jail forever.

You can believe me or not, but swag doesn’t really change my opinion or attention to a game. More often than not, I give it away to friends or my kids. An incredibly nice MapleStory bathrobe I got a few weeks ago got ruined when our basement flooded and we needed all available absorbent materials to plug a hole. I gave away my Rohan flag to a friend who loved Lord of the Rings. Stuff is stuff, and I’m happy to be generous with it, especially if it was just handed to me in the first place for no real reason.

Anyway, I’ve broken the silence on this odd topic. No real conspiracy here, just a quirk of games journalism.

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Portable game systems — an idea past its prime?

One weird thing about having a long-running blog is that you end up making embarrassing proclamations in the past, such as not really understanding the appeal of tablets. When the iPad came on the scene, I *really* didn’t get it, but gradually over the years I’ve come to appreciate these portable computers.

Still, my all-in-one phone servers my purpose for most stuff. While I don’t miss having to lug around sixteen different devices for various purposes, I have been re-examining the appeal of single-purpose gadgets in the modern era. Not too long ago I got an iPod Classic and enjoyed only putting music on that, and now I’m wondering if it might be the same for games.

Portable gaming seems to be on the rise, especially with tablets and the Nintendo Switch all over the place. Recently, Steam unveiled the Steam Deck as a portable computer that supposedly can play most of its titles. Again, I don’t understand the appeal of THAT — especially without a mouse and keyboard to interact with most of the games that I do play — but hey, I’m sure it’ll make someone happy.

I’ve taken an odd fascination with the Playdate, though, as a kid of polar opposite to the Steam Deck. This upcoming device is a small, cute Gameboy-looking retro-styled device that is bringing gaming back to the monochrome era. Sometimes simplicity can bring out great gameplay, so I get that.

It’s a bit on the pricey side — $179 — and that’s hard to justify for a device that’s nothing but monochrome gaming. But it will include 24 indie titles specifically made for it, so that does make up some of that cost. I do like the preview so far, but it might have to be a Christmas buy if anything.

Another portable option that I’ve considered is something to handle game emulation for older 8-bit and 16-bit systems. The RG350 sounds like the go-to standard for this sort of thing, and I do start salivating when I think about the potential for putting my whole NES, SNES, and Genesis collections on a single device.

I haven’t taken the plunge yet, but I do like the thought of going back to portable game consoles that only did this one thing — and did it well.

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My new old typewriter

I’m certainly not what you would call an antique collector, and even my garage sale visits have trailed off (I tend to be the driver who lets the family in and out of the car so that they can walk a block and then get picked up without having to double back). But the other weekend we were all walking a huge block sale and one particular item caught my eye.

It was a cute shiny typewriter sitting in a box on a table, and my kids were already jamming on its keys. When I went over to inspect it, I was really taken with how great of a condition it was in and how neat it looked. The family was happy to let it go for $5, and I figured that if nothing else, I had a great office decoration that befits a writer.

But what really astounded me was what I discovered when I went back home with it. What I had stumbled upon here was a Royal Deluxe Model O typewriter from 1937 — and in incredibly good shape. It’s got that eye-catching art deco design, and apparently such things are collector’s items worth up to a grand to the right buyer.

I wouldn’t think of selling it, though. It works perfectly, and the ribbon still had enough ink for some typing (I did buy a new one). It’s been a long, long time since I last used a manual typewriter — I trained on electric ones in high school typing class — and while it’s clumsy and awkward to use these raised keys with a good amount of space between them, I was pleased how quickly it came back to me. There’s a deep satisfaction to hearing that “clackity clack” of the typewriter strokes.

I showed this to my church secretary, who’s in her seventies, and she giggled over it like a schoolgirl. It was exactly the sort of machine she’d used back when she was younger, and you should’ve seen how quickly she pounded out a short letter with accuracy on it.

I figure that in the future, I’ll probably give it to my daughter who’s already a burgeoning writer in her own right, but for now, it’s great to look at — and to use for the occasional note!

Posted in General

The mighty quest to lose weight

I could blame it on a year of stress and COVID and all that, but 2020 wasn’t a great year for my own constant battle with weight loss. Even as some of my friends saw great success with this, my own scale started creeping upward, month after month. After the better part of a decade of plateauing at a weight that — while it wasn’t ideal — I was comfortable with, now it’s coming back on. The shirts are getting tighter, pictures of me are embarrassing, and it’s been affecting my mental state somewhat.

This past month I had my checkup and the doctor noted I had put on 11 pounds since the year previous. I don’t know if this sounds big or small to you, but for me it’s pretty significant. At my heaviest, I topped 252 pounds and lost 55 of that in the span of two years after my third child was born. I thought at the time it was the wonder of low-carb diets — maybe that was part of it — but subsequent attempts at a keto diet haven’t worked for me at all.

The doc said my blood report was good and showed signs that I was exercising even more than usual, but still, I was gaining weight. We talked options, but ultimately he said it was down to my nutrition and diet.

So I evaluated what has worked for me well in the past — things like keeping a log of what I eat, practicing intermittent fasting between 4pm and 8am, and cutting out a lot of processed foods. I don’t have a lot of money to blow on Weight Watchers or Noom, so I booted up the free LoseIt app and started to count calories and plan out better meals.

The real key for me is to cut out snacking later in the night, especially before bed when it’s been seven hours since my last meal. I got in a real bad habit of diving into the fridge at 11pm, so I’m not surprised where those pounds came from. After starting this diet, every night during this time has become a battle. I’ve been countering it with taking a 20-minute walk with the dog instead, a kind of physical reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Anyway, I know that this is a gaming blog, but it does help to share this openly — if only to encourage myself to keep going. I have had good results the first couple of weeks, although that’s usually the case on an initial weight loss program, and so the trick is to keep going, be consistent, and keep my eyes on the goal. My first objective is to lose 20 pounds by the end of summer, so I’m gunning hard for that, with a hopeful 30-35 pounds after that. I’ll let you know how it goes.