The Future of the JRPG genre

After an underwhelming false start with Xenoblade Chronicles back when the game came out, the re-release on the 3DS made my give it another try and now that I’m nearly through with the game (just beat the 3rd last main quest boss), I feel compelled to write my first game review after many years of non-gaming content here.

«Review» might not be the entirely correct term though as this article is about to explain why I personally believe Xenoblade to be one of the best instances of the JPRG genre and might actually be very high up there in my list of all-time favorite games.

But first, let’s talk about what’s not so good at the game and why I nearly have missed this awesome game: If I had to list the shortcomings in this masterpiece, it would be the UI design of the side-questing system and the very, very slow start of the story.

First the story: After maybe an hour of play time, the player is inclined to think to have been thrown into the usual revenge plot, this time about a fight against machine based life-forms, but a simple revenge-plot none the less. Also, to be honest, it’s not even a really interesting revenge-plot. It feels predictable and not at all like what we’re usually used to from the genre.

Once you reach the half-time mark of the game, the subtle hints that the game’s dropping on you before that start to become less and less subtle, revealing to the player that they got it all wrong.

The mission of the game changes completely to the point of even completely changing whom you are fighting against and turning around many things you’ve taken for granted for the first half.

This is some of the most impressive story-development I’ve seen so far and also came as a complete surprise to me.

So what felt like the biggest shortcoming of the game (lackluster story) suddenly turned into one of its strongest points.

«Other games of the genre also did this» you might think as you compare this to Final Fantasy XII, but where that game unfortunately never really takes off nor adds any bigger plot-twists, the thing that Xenoblade does after the half-time marker is simply mind-blowing to the point of me refusing to post any spoilers even though the game is quite old by now.

So we have a game that gets amazing after 20-40 hours (depending on how you deal with the side-quests). What’s holding us over until then?

The answer to that question is the reason why I think that Xenoblade is one of the best JRPGs so far: What’s holding us over in the first 40 hours of the game is, you know, gameplay.

The battle system feels like it has been lifted from current MMORPGs (I’m mostly referring to World of Warcraft here as that’s the one I know best), though while it has been scaled down in sheer amount of skills, the abilities themselves have been much better balanced between the characters, which of course is possible in a single-player game.

The game’s affinity system also greatly incentivises the player to switch their party around as they play the game. This works really well when you consider the different play styles offered by the various characters. A tank plays differently from DPS which plays differently from the (unfortunately only one) healer.

But even between members of the same class there are differences in play style leading to a huge variety for players.

This is the first JRPG where I’m actually looking forward to combat – it’s that entertaining.

While the combat sometimes can be a bit difficult, especially because randomness still plays a huge part, it’s refreshing to see that the game doesn’t punish you at all for failing: If you die you just respawn at the last waypoint and usually there’s one of these right in front of the boss.

Even better, normally, the fight just starts again, skipping all introductory cutscenes. And even if there still is some cut-scenes not skipped automatically: The game always allows cutscenes to be skipped.

This makes a lot of sense, because combat is actually so much fun that there’s considerable replay-value to the game which gets much enforced by skippable cutscenes, though some of them you would never ever in your life want to skip – they are so good (you know which ones I’m referring to).

Combat is only one half of the gameplay, the other is exploration: The world of the game is huge and for the first time ever in a JPRG, the simple rule of «you can see it, you can go there» applies. For the first time ever, the huge world is yours to explore and to enjoy.

Never have I seen such variety in locations, especially, again, in the second half of the game which I really don’t want to spoil here.

Which brings us to the side-quests: Imagine that you have a quest-log like you’re used to from MMORPGs with about the same style of quests: Find this item, kill these normal mobs, kill that elite mob, talk to that other guy – you know the drill.

The non-unique and somewhat random dialog lines between the characters as they accept these side-quests break the immersion a bit.

But the one big thing that’s really annoying about the side-quests is discoverability: As a player you often have no idea where to go due to the vague quest texts and, worse, many (most) quests are hidden and only become available after you trigger some event or you talk to the correct (seemingly unrelated) NPC.

While I can understand the former issue (vague quest descriptions) from a game-play perspective, the latter is inexcusable, especially as the leveling curve of the game and the affinity system both really are designed around you actually doing these side-quests.

It’s unfair and annoying that playing hide-and seek for hours is basically a fixed requirement to having a chance at beating the game. This feels like a useless prolonging of the existing game for no reason but to, you know, prolong the game.

Thankfully though, by now, the Wiki exists, so whether you’re on the Wii or the 3DS, just have an iPad or Laptop close to you as you do the side-questy parts of the game.

Once you’re willing to live with this issue, then the absolutely amazing gameplay comes into effect again: Because exploration is so much fun, because the battle system is so much fun, then suddenly the side-quests become fun too, once you remove the annoying hide-and-seek aspect.

After all, it’s the perfect excuse to do more of what you enjoy the most: Playing the game.

This is why I strongly believe that this game would have been so much better with a more modern quest-log system: Don’t hide (most of the) quests! Be precise in explaining where to find stuff! You don’t have to artificially prolong the game: Even when you know where to go (I did thanks to the Wiki), there’s still more than 100 hours of entertainment there to be had.

The last thing about quests: Some of the quests require you to find rare items which to get you have a random chance by collecting «item orbs» spread all over the map. This is of course another nice way to encourage exploration.

But I see no reason why the drop rate must be random, especially as respawning the item orbs either requires you to wait 10 to 30 minutes or, saving and reloading the game.

If you want to encourage exploration, hide the orbs! There’s so much content in this game that aritifically prolonging it with annyoing saving and reloading escapades is completely unnecessary.

At least, the amount of grinding required isn’t so bad to the point of being absolutely bearable for me and I have nearly zero patience for grinding.

Don’t get me wrong though: Yes, these artificial time-sinks were annoying (and frankly 100% unneeded), but because the actual gameplay is so much fun, I didn’t really mind them that much.

Finally, there are some technical issues which I don’t really mind that much however: Faces of characters look flat and blurry which is very noticable in the cut-scenes which are all rendered by the engine itself (which is a very good thing).

Especially on the 3DS the low resolution of the game is felt badly (the 3DS is much worse than the Wii to the point of objects sometimes being invisible) and there’s some objects popping into view at times. This is mostly a limitation of the hardware which just doesn’t play well with the huge open world, so I can totally live with it. It only minimally affects my immersion into the game.

If you ask me what is the preferred platform to play this on, I would point at the Wii version though, of course, it’ll be very hard to get the game at this point in time (no. you can’t have my copy).

the good

So after all of this, here’s a list of the unique features of this game it has over all other members of its genre:

  • Huge world that can be explored completely. No narrow hallways but just huge open maps.
  • Absolutely amazing battle system that goes far beyond of the usual «select some action from this text-based menu»
  • Skippable cutscenes which together with the battle system make for a high replayability
  • Many different playable characters with different play styles
  • Great music by the god-like Mr. Mitsuda
  • A very, very interesting story once you reach the mid-point of the game
  • Very believable characters and very good character development
  • Some of the best cutscene direction I have ever seen in my life – again, mostly after the half-time mark (you people who played the game know which particular one I’m talking about – still sends shivers down my spine).

My wishes for the future

The game is nearly perfect in my opinion, but there are two things I think would be great to be fixed in the successor or any other games taking their inspiration from Xenoblade:

First, please fix the quest log and bring it to the current decade of what we’re used to from MMORPGs (where you lifted the quest design off to begin with): Show us where to get the quests, show us where to do them.

Second, and this one is even bigger in my opinion: Please be more considerate in how you represent women in the game. Yes, the most bad-ass characters in the game are women (again, I can’t spoil anything here). Yes, there’s a lot of depth to the characters of women in this game and they are certainly not just there for show but are actually instrumental to the overall story development (again, second part).

But why does most of the equipment for the healer in the game have to be practically underwear? Do you really need to spend CPU resources on (overblown) breast physics when you render everybodies faces blurry and flat?

Wouldn’t it be much better for the story and the immersion if the faces looked better at the cost of some (overblown) jiggling?

Do you really have to constantly show close-ups of way too big breasts of one party member? This is frankly distracting from what is going on in the game.

I don’t care about cultural differences: You managed to design very believable and bad-ass women into your game. Why do you have to diminish this by turning them into a piece of furniture to look at? They absolutely stand on their own with their abilities and their character progression.

It is the year 2015. We can do better than this (though, of course, the world was different in 2010 when the game initially came out).

Conclusion

All of that aside: Because of the amazing game play, because of the mind-blowing story, because of the mind-blowing custscene-direction and because of the huge world that’s all but narrow passages, I love this game more than many others.

I think that this is the first time that the JRPG game really has moved forward in about a decade and I would definitely like to see more games ripping off the good aspects of Xenoblade (well – basically everything).

As such I’m very much looking forward for the games successor to become available here in Europe (it has just come out in Japan and my Japanese still is practically non-existent) and I know for a fact that I’m going to play it a lot, especially as I now know to be patience with the side-quests.

Geek heaven

If I had to make a list of attributes I would like the ISP of my dream to
have, then, I could write quite the list:

  • I would really like to have native IPv6 support. Yes. IPv4 will be sufficient for a very long time, but unless pepole start having access to IPv6, it’ll never see the wide deployment it needs if we want the internet to continue to grow. An internet where addresses are only available to people with a lot of money is not an internet we all want to be subjected to (see my post «asking for permission»)
  • I would want my ISP to accept or even support network neutrality. For this to be possible, the ISP of my dreams would need to be nothing but an ISP so their motivations (provide better service) align with mine (getting better service). ISPs who also sell content have all the motivation to provide crappy Internet service in order to better sell their (higher-margin) content.
  • If I have technical issues, I want to be treated as somebody who obviously has a certain level of technical knowledge. I’m by no means an expert in networking technology, but I do know about powering it off and on again. If I have to say «shibboleet» to get to a real technicial, so be it, but if that’s not needed, that’s even better.
  • The networking technology involved in getting me the connectivity I want should be widely available and thus easily replacable if something breaks.
  • The networking technology involved should be as simple as possible: The more complex the hardware involved, the more stuff can break, especially when you combine cost-pressure for end-users with the need for high complexity.
  • The network equipment I’m installing at my home and which has thus access to my LAN needs to be equipment I own and I control fully. I do not accept leased equipment to which I do not have full access to.
  • And last but not least, I would really like to have as much bandwidth as possible

I’m sure I’m not alone with these wishes, even though, for «normal people» they might seem strange.

But honestly: They just don’t know it, but they too have the same interests. Nobody wants an internet that works like TV where you pay for access to a curated small list of “approved” sites (see network neutrality and IPv6 support).

Nobody wants to get up and reboot their modem here and then because it crashed. Nobody wants to be charged with downloading illegal content because their Wifi equipment was suddenly repurposed as an open access point for other customers of an ISP.

Most of the wishes I list above are the basis needed for these horror scenarios never coming to pass, however unlikely the might seem now (though getting up and rebooting the modem/router is something we already have to deal with today).

So yes. While it’s getting rarer and rarer to get all the points of my list fulfilled, to the point where I though this to be impossible to get all of it, I’m happy to say that here in Switzerland, there is at least one ISP that does all of this and more.

I’m talking about Init7 and especially their awesome FTTH offering Fiber7 which very recently became available in my area.

Let’s deal with the technology aspect first as this really isn’t the important point of this post: What you get from them is pure 1Gbit/s Ethernet. Yes, they do sell you a router box if you want one, but you can just as well just get a simple media converter, or just an SFP module to plug into any (managed) switch (with SFP port).

If you have your own routing equipment, be it a linux router like my shion or be it any Wifi Router, there’s no need to add any kind of additional complexity to your setup.

No additional component that can crash, no software running in your home to which you don’t have your password to and certainly no sneakily opened public WLANs (I’m looking at you, cablecom).

Of course you get native IPv6 (a /48 which incidentally is room for 281474976710656 whole internets in your apartment) too.

But what’s really remarkable about Init7 isn’t the technical aspect (though, again, it’s bloody amazing), but everything else:

  • Init7 was one of the first ISPs in Switzerland to offer IPv6 to end users.
  • Init7 doesn’t just support network neutrality.
    They actively fight for it
  • They explicitly state
    that they are not selling content and they don’t intend to start doing so. They are just an ISP and as such their motivations totally align with mine.

There are a lot of geeky soft factors too:

  • Their press releases are written in Open Office (check the PDF properties
    of this one for example)
  • I got an email from a technical person on their end that was written using
    f’ing Claws Mail on Linux
  • Judging from the Recieved headers of their Email, they are using IPv6 in their internal LAN – down to the desktop workstations. And related to that:
  • The machines in their LAN respond to ICMPv6 pings which is utterly crazy cool. Yes. They are firewalled (cough I had to try. Sorry.), but they let ICMP through. For the not as technical readers here: This is as good an internet citizen as you will ever see and it’s extremely unexpected these days.

If you are a geek like me and if your ideals align with the ones I listed above, there is no question: You have to support them. If you can have their Fiber offering in your area, this is a no-brainer. You can’t get synchronous 1GBit/s for CHF 64ish per month anywhere else and even if you did, it wouldn’t be plain Ethernet either.

If you can’t have their fiber offering, it’s still worth considering their other offers. They do have some DSL based plans which of course are technically inferior to plain ethernet over fiber, but you would still support one of the few remaining pure ISPs.

It doesn’t have to be Init7 either. For all I know there are many others, maybe even here in Switzerland. Init7 is what I decided to go with initially because of the Gbit, but the more I leared about their philosophy, the less important the bandwith got.

We need to support companies like these because companies like these are what ensures that the internet of the future will be as awesome as the internet is today.

why I don’t touch crypto

When doing our work as programmers, we screw up. Small bugs, big bugs, lazyness – the possibilties are endless.

Usually, when we screw up, we know that immediately: We get a failing test, we get an exception logged somewhere, or we hear from our users that such and such feature doesn’t work.

Also, most of the time, no matter how bad the bug, the issue can be worked around and the application keeps working overall.

Once you found the bug, you fix it and everybody is happy.

But imagine you had one of these off-by-one errors in your code (those that constantly happen to all of us) and further imagine that the function where the error was in was still apparently producing the same output as if the error wasn’t there.

Imagine that because of that error the apparently correctly looking output is completely useless and your whole application has just now utterly broken.

That’s crypto for you.

Crypto can’t be a «bit broken». It can’t be «mostly working». Either it’s 100% correct, or you shouldn’t have bothered doing it at all. The weakest link breaks the whole chain.

Worse: looking at the data you are working with doesn’t show any sign of wrongness when you look at it. You encrypt something, you see random data. You decrypt it, you see clear text. Seems to work fine. Right! Right?

Last week’s issue in the random number generator in Cryptocat is a very good example.

The bug was an off-by-one error in their random number generator. The output of the function was still random numbers, looking at the output would clearly show random numbers. Given that fact, the natural bias for seeing code as being correct is only reinforced.

But yet it was wrong. The bug was there and the random numbers weren’t really random (enough).

The weakest link was broken, the whole effort in security practically pointless, which is even worse in this case of an application whose only purpose is, you know, security.

Security wasn’t just an added feature to some other core functionality. It was the core functionality.

That small off-by-one error has completely broken the whole application and was completely unnoticable by just looking at the produced output. Writing a testcase for this would have required complicated thinking and coding which would be as likely to contain an error as it was likely for the code to be tested to contain an error.

This, my friends, is why I keep my hands off crypto. I’m just plain not good enough. Crypto is a world where understanding the concepts, understanding the math and writing tests just isn’t good enough.

The goal you have to reach is perfection. If you fail to reach that, than you have failed utterly.

Crypto is something I leave to others to deal with. Either they have reached perfection at which point they have my utmost respect. Or they fail at which point they have my understanding.

armchair scientists

The place: London. The time: Around 1890.

Imagine a medium sized room, lined with huge shelves filled with dusty
books. The lights are dim, the air is heavy with cigar smoke. Outside
the last shred of daylight is fading away.

In one corner of the room, you spot two large leather armchairs and a
small table. On top of the table, two half-full glasses of Whiskey. In
each of the armchair an elderly person.

One of them opens the mouth to speak

«If I were in charge down there in South Africa, we’d be so much
better off – running a colony just can’t be so hard as they make it
out to be»

Concievably to have happened? Yeah. Very likely actually. Crazy and
misguided? Of course – we learned about that in school,
imperialism
doesn’t
work.

Of course that elderly guy in the little story is wrong. The problems
are way too complex for a bystander to even understand, let alone
solve. More than likely he doesn’t even have a fraction of the
background needed to understand the complexities.

And yet he sits there, in his comfortable chair, in the warmth of his
club in cozy London and yet he explains that he knows so much better
than, you know, the people actually doing the work.

Now think today.

Think about that article you just read that was explaining a problem
the author was solving. Or that other article that was illustrating a
problem the author is having, still in search of a solution.

Didn’t you feel the urge to go to Hacker News
and reply how much you know better and how crazy the original poster
must be not to see the obvious simple solution?

Having trouble scaling 4chan? How can that be hard?
Having trouble with your programming environment feeling unable to assign a string to another?
Well. It’s just strings, why is that so hard?

Or those idiots at Amazon who can’t even keep their cloud service
running? Clearly it can’t be that hard!

See a connection? By stating opinion like that, you are not even a
little bit better than the elderly guy in the beginning of this essay.

Until you know all the facts, until you were there, on the ladder
holding a hose trying to extinguish the flames, until then, you don’t
have the right to assume that you’d do better.

The world we live in is incredibly complicated. Even though computer
science might boil down to math, our job is dominated by side-effects
and uncontrollable external factors.

Even if you think that you know the big picture, you probably won’t
know all the details and without knowing the details, it’s
increasingly likely that you don’t understand the big picture either.

Don’t be an armchair scientist.

Be a scientist. Work with people. Encourage them, discuss solutions,
propose ideas, ask what obvious fact you missed or was missing in the
problem description.

This is 2012, not 1890.

overpriced data roaming

You shouldn’t complain if something gets cheaper. But if something just gets 7 times cheaper from one day to the next, then that leaves you thinking whether the price offered so far might have been a tad bit too high.

I’m talking about Swisscom’s data roaming charges.

Up to now, you paid CHF 50 per 5 MB (CHF 10 per MB) when roaming in the EU. Yes. That’s around $10 and EUR 6.60 per Megabyte. Yes. Megabyte. Not Gigabyte. And you people complain about getting limited to 5 GB for your $30.

Just now I got a press release form Swisscom that they are changing their roaming charges to CHF 7 per 5 MB. That’s CHF 1.40 per MB which is 7 times cheaper.

If you can make a product of yours 7 times cheaper from one day to the other, the rates you charged before that were clearly way too high.

Skype over 3G – calculations

With the availability of an iPhone Skype client with background availability, I wanted to find out, how much it would cost me if I move calls from the regular mobile network over to Skype over 3G.

Doing VoIP over 3G is a non-issue from a political standpoint here in Switzerland as there are no unlimited data plans available and the metered plans are expensive enough for the cellphone companies to actually be able to make money with, so there’s no blocking or anything else going on over here.

To see how much data is accumulated, I hold a phone conversation with my girlfriend that lasted exactly 2 minutes in which time, we both talked. Before doing so, I reset the traffic counter on my phone and immediately afterwards I checked.

After two minutes, I sent out 652 KB of data and received 798 KB.

This is equal to around 750 KB/minute (being conservative here and gracefully rounding up).

My subscription comes with 250 MB of data per month. Once that’s used, there’s a flat rate of CHF 5 per day I’m using any data, so I really should not go beyond the 250MB.

As I’m not watching video (or audio) over 3G, my data usage is otherwise quite low – around 50MB.

That leaves 200MB unused.

With 750KB/minute, this equals 4.4 hours of free Skype conversation. Which is something I would never ever reach wich means that at least with skype-enabled people, I can talk for free now.

Well. Could.

While the voice quality in Skype over 3G is simply astounding, the solution unfortunately still isn’t practical due to two issues:

  1. Skype sucks about 20% of battery per hour even when just idling in the background.
  2. Skype IM doesn’t know the concept of locations so all IM sent is replicated to all clients. This means that whenever I type something for a coworker, my phone will make a sound and vibrate.

2) I could work around by quitting Skype when in front of a PC, but 1) really is a killer. Maybe the new iPhone 4 (if I go that route instead of giving Andorid another try) with its bigger battery will be of help.

Things I can’t do with an iPhone/iPad

  • have a VoIP call going on when a mobile call/SMS arrives
  • read Kindle ebooks (I can now, but knowing Apple’s stance on “competing functionality”, with the advent of iBook, how long do you think this will last?)
  • give it to our customers as another device to use with PopScan (It’s not down-lockable and there’s no way for centralized app deployment that doesn’t go over apple)
  • plug any peripheral that isn’t apple sanctioned
  • plug a peripheral and use it system-wide
  • play a SNES ROM (or any other console rom)
  • install Adblock (which especially hurts on the iPad)
  • consistenly use IM (background notifications don’t work consistently)

The iPhone provides me with many advantages and thus I can live with its inherent restrictions (which are completely arbitrary – there’s no technical reason for them), but I see no point to buy yet another locked-down device that does half of the stuff I’d want it to do and does it half-assed at that.

Also it’s a shame that Apple obviously doesn’t need any corporate customers (at least for a small company, I see no possibility).

I just hope, the open and usable Mac computer remains. I would not know what to go back to? Windows? Never. Linux? Sure. But on what hardware?