Games

Parenting in Skyrim


After nearly 500 hours with the original Skyrim, I can’t really take the new Special Edition seriously; nice-looking, but been-there-done-that. I’m playing at the default difficulty level and not even bothering to level up. This means that dynamically-leveled opponents are trivial to kill, but it also means that there are plenty of monsters that can one-shot me. I had to run like hell to dodge the frost troll on the way to High Hrothgar, I stumbled across a skooma den filled with vampires and got my ass handed to me, and the less said about blood dragons, the better.

When I realized that a few lucky loot drops meant I could afford a house, I decided I needed to adopt a child. Specifically, Dorthe, the daughter of Riverwood’s blacksmith. So I became a werewolf, killed and ate her parents, assassinated the woman who ran the orphanage, and convinced her replacement that I’d be an excellent parent.

I think we’ll be very happy together.

Skyrim Special Edition


The new 64-bit HD re-release of Skyrim for Windows is mostly a side-effect of updating the game to work on the PS4 and Xbox One. If you already own the game and all DLC on Steam, it’s free. Yesterday, the Spoiler Warning crew had an impromptu streaming session to show off how glitchy and unstable it was.

After skimming through their video, I gave it a shot, and my experience was completely different. The only two visual issues we had in common were excessively dark shadows outdoors (much worse for them) and a distant non-animated section of a river (which is apparently an initialization problem, because I later saw much more of the same river from a greater distance (up by Bleak Falls Barrow), and it was all flowing).

Josh is the bug whisperer, so it’s no surprise that he got crashes from attempting simple actions, but it was rock solid for me. And where he had terrible frame-rate pretty much everywhere, it was quite smooth for me at 1920x1280. The one potential explanation he mentioned is that he hadn’t updated his graphics drivers in a few months, whereas I did that a few days ago, but since this is the same engine as Fallout 4, that shouldn’t explain all of the problems he saw, and the forums are full of crash reports as well.

So, if you can get it for free through Steam, and you don’t mind playing the vanilla game with just the official DLC and no mods for a while (most importantly, without SkyUI!), then it’s a prettier Skyrim. Not as dramatically so as console players will see, but a definite visual upgrade. The “depth of field” effect that devs think is so cool is stupid, though; until games have eye-tracking, they have no idea what part of the scene I’m actually looking at.

In other news, there was a very small, unexplained patch to No Man’s Sky. The ~50 people who are still playing can’t figure out what it was supposed to accomplish, and no one’s heard from the developers in months.

Also, Civ 6 desperately needs some serious patching, for performance, balance, unit/city management, and fun. Between the intimately-close placement of opposing civs, zerg-rush AI, raging barbarians who upgrade their military faster than you can (I had barbarian anti-tank units show up while I was still trying to acquire the resources to create musketmen), and build times that obsolete your units before you even finish building them, you don’t have time to explore the game’s features. Your strategies are severely constrained, and they didn’t even bother to let you save preferred starting conditions; if you carefully set up the parameters for a game and get a terrible starting location, you’ll have to re-select each and every parameter to start over. And even “huge” worlds are tiny; the world feels like a county.

The AI is very sensitive to victory conditions, too. If, for instance, you want to focus on learning how all the military units work, and don’t want to spontaneously lose because of religion or culture, the AI will be laser-focused on a military victory, and zerg you even harder. Resource-starved? Don’t set the game to abundant resources, or the AI will… zerg you even harder.

There are also some really annoying bugs. If you research a military technology that obsoletes a unit, but you don’t have the resource to build the newly-unlocked unit, then you can’t build either. And at least twice, I unlocked a unit before unlocking the ability to see its required resource on the map.

Dear Sean Bean,


Tokimune does not rhyme with “Sailor Moon”. I’m sorry that the people who hired you for the Civilization 6 voiceovers didn’t provide a pronunciation guide for all the foreign words and names.

I wouldn’t mind so much, except that the load time is just long enough that I have to hear “tokimoon” every time I start the game.

Spoiler: Sean Murray is Atlas


Also, epic troll:

No Man's Sky rubs your nose in it

This is their new feature?


Pokemon Go released an update. The big feature is that your team lead can advise you on the quality of your stable. Which turns out to be a set of canned phrases that are completely meaningless:

Candela: not so bright

This is looking more and more like a squandered opportunity, turning the biggest mobile-game launch ever into “remember that game we played for a few weeks?”.

(the joke here is that コイキング aka Magikarp is the most useless Pokemon of all, which is one of the very few poke-facts I know, along with what the dirty old man actually said when he saw Misty in a bikini)

[Update: this feature collided badly/hilariously with The Bloggess’ naming scheme.]

No Man’s Sky


[update: based on my testing, I’d say that the typical NMS “planet” is considerably smaller than Skyrim in square footage. And, of course, NMS has far less diversity in terrain and only one biome per “planet”. One simple test is to use the “crashed-ship upgrade” trick repeatedly on your starter world, going up to orbit after each swap and returning to a completely different region; count how many times the next transmission tower directs you to your original starting location.]

Going through the forums, reviews, gameplay videos, spoilers, and rants, I’ve come to the conclusion that No Man’s Sky is the Obama of video games: dazzled by the demos and convinced by vague, evasive statements that it will fulfill their heart’s desires, people blindly pre-ordered, and now they’re stuck defending something that can never live up to its promise.

On the plus side, Steam gives refunds. :-)

Procedurally-generated review of No Man's Sky

Most disappointingly, I was right; the NMS universe really is ruled by killer robots who occupy every single planet that you “discover”. And not only is there no depth to combat, trade, or exploring, the procedurally-generated worlds are maybe 10% as cool as the cherry-picked scenes in the demos.

Bottom line, think of it as an early beta of a 3D version of single-player Starbound, with no mapping functionality and only one scripted NPC on screen at a time (plus the sub-Spore procedurally-generated animals). And what passes for an “ending” is just a hastily-added NG+.

I went in with my eyes open, and wouldn’t have played it much if I weren’t too sick (still…) to do much else. It’s compatible with codeine cough syrup. Actually, I think it helped, since I had the patience to decipher the baffling and inconsistent user interface. Seriously, in a game where you walk/fly around entire planets, there’s no autorun key; you have to hold a key/button down constantly to move at a slow walk across the mostly-desolate wilderness, and another to toggle bursts of sprint/jump. People are now begging them not to fix the glitch where you hold down “walk”, toggle “sprint”, then press “melee” and press-and-hold “jetpack” to zip forward at high speed.

What went wrong? A lot of people have started trying to put it together, but it sounds like a combination of feature creep, a cash infusion from Sony that came with PS4-shaped strings attached, a sudden need to dramatically scale back and ship the damn thing, and Sean Murray talking out of his ass at every opportunity, in the classic “hey, guys, I just promised that we already do X; can we do X?” (for many values of X). Also, the primary QA was done by a Sony team for the PS4 platform, leaving them a bit under-prepared for the 200,000+ day-one Windows users.

Evidence for the big scale-back can be found in inconsistencies all over the place, but here’s a simple one: observatories. If you walk into one and solve the (trivial) puzzle, it will add a marker guiding you to an ancient ruin located nearby on the same planet. But the flavor text when you activate it still talks about locating things in deep space. And, by the way, the markers that get added by interacting with beacons, observatories, and transmission towers never go away; they’ll clutter your display even if you’re on a different planet in the same system. The only way to dismiss them is by walking to within a few meters of the designated spot.

Not recommended if you want the game from the trailers. Not bad for what it is, although it costs three times as much as the usual paid-beta indie game on Steam.

Editing Fallout Shelter saves with OpenSSL and JQ


I’ve been playing Fallout Shelter for a while now, first on my phone (until my vault got big enough to crash the game constantly), then on an iPad Mini, and now also on Windows, where despite its tablet origin, it doesn’t support multi-touch on my Surface Pro. Fortunately, the keyboard controls are so nice that I don’t mind.

I made a few in-app purchases, because I like to pay what I think a “free” game is worth if I keep playing it. However, the items purchased are tied to a specific vault, so if you have 3 vaults and want to buy pets, you have to make three separate purchases; you can’t buy N pets and divide them between your vaults. Worse, if you delete the vault or the save file gets corrupted, you lose your purchases. For the final straw, the basic Lunchbox purchase is a total crapshoot, emphasis on the “crap”; you can spend real money and get nothing worthwhile. The only nice thing I can say is that the new Starter Packs appear to be guaranteed to have useful content, but if you buy an N-pack, they still all go to the same vault.

People quickly discovered how to read the file format and wrote a variety of tools to edit saves, but the most-recommended one runs under the Android emulator. I didn’t care about most of what the tools do, and I have an aversion to downloading anything that’s advertised as a cheat tool, because malware, so I poked around until I found the cleanest solution that used simple command-line tools. Specifically, OpenSSL and JQ.

After a little tinkering, I knocked together a simple (okay, it’s gotten rather elaborate…) bash script containing some common operations. Specifically, decrypt-and-pretty-print, convert to survival/normal mode, rename your vault, “buy” a bunch of lunchboxes and resources, and apply arbitrary JQ filter expressions from a file (for more complicated modding).

As for moving the files around, the PC version puts them in a quite sensible location. The iOS version is only accessible if you’ve enabled iCloud sharing, and then you have to go hunting in obscure sub-directories to copy a save from your iDevice, and to sync it back, the only way I’ve found is to copy it somewhere else, delete it from inside the game, copy it back (possibly increasing the last few digits of the filename), and then click the iCloud checkbox on the now-empty save slot (waiting a bit to give iCloud time to copy back and forth).

If I get motivated enough, I’ll sort through the Dweller data and make a tool to batch-rename them and sort out their relationship data (the game prevents direct incest, but after playing for a few months, I haven’t the slightest idea who bred with who). [update: turns out they don’t accurately track parentage. If a parent dies or is kicked out of the vault, the next person to arrive will inherit their id number, effectively adopting any children.]

Gotta gold-farm ’em all


  1. Create gmail account.
  2. Use it to sign into Pokemon Go.
  3. Power-level using a GPS-spoofer to constantly "visit" areas densely populated with pokestops.
  4. Sell account.
  5. Profit!

It looks like the folks at Niantic didn’t have anyone onboard with experience at handling the inevitable issues with running an MMO. Besides just trying to reliably run a 24x7 online service for the biggest mobile game launch ever, there’s “my friends started at launch, and if I want to train at gyms and take them over for my team, I need a well-stocked high-level character”. People foolish enough to start playing the game now cannot compete (you get nothing if you can’t win a fight, and you can’t beat critters with 10x your combat points), which means the only portion of the game open to them is the basic “gotta catch ’em all”. Which they made more difficult in the latest release, rapidly using up your precious supply of pokeballs, primarily acquired through microtransactions (2.76-5 cents per ball).

If you’re near an area with a lot of pokestops (or spoof GPS to visit them…), you can pick up balls and other goodies for free, but there’s nothing even vaguely fair about their distribution around the world. It more or less comes down to how many people in your area tagged locations in Niantic’s previous game, Ingress. In my neighborhood, that means a handful of badly-painted transformer boxes, fountains (one of which is allegedly in the changing room at Marshalls), entrance signs for public parks, a sandwich shop, and some benches at a golf course. In downtown Palo Alto, it means “at least three pokestops per block”.

The team has promised that Real Soon Now they’ll be introducing inter-player trading, which means even more opportunities for professional farmers running on hacked platforms. Hopefully before that gets too far out of hand, Niantic will hire a few clued-in MMO veterans with the estimated $10,000,000/day they’re grossing.