Tuesday, November 27, 2012

FPS - Where's the Strategy

  Maybe I just come from a different generation of gamer. My little brother is 8 years younger than me and was big into using cheat codes in games. With the exception of Contra (up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start) there weren't any games I was enthralled with using cheat codes with for more than about 30 minutes. But he seemed to love them. He even had a Game Shark with added tons of cheat codes to Super Nintendo games. I just never saw the point.
  Also, he has always been big into First Person Shooters (FPS). I've played my fair share of FPS games. I was into Wolfenstein 3-D when it came out, played plenty of Doom. We had LAN parties of Unreal Tournament, played Quake 2 in college, and have enjoyed the strategy of Counterstrike. I remember spending many hours with friends in high school playing Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64. But never have these games been my main play.
  Meanwhile, my little brother has gone through the Call of Duty, Left for Dead, Battlefield, and the Halo series as his main games for the past 10 years. Most recently he's started playing Planetside 2. I remember enjoying Planetside when it first came out. The massive FPS scale was fantastically interesting. Seeing 50+ teammates running to invade a base only to be blown apart by an enemy tank was fascinating and challenging. So like always happens when a new Free to Play game comes out, I sign up.

  Initially I was enthralled with Planetside 2. Much of the jerkiness of the original was gone. The graphics and anti lag engine had been updated significantly. They now include a certification process for getting new weapons and guns and the like that was significantly interesting and complex. Bases had also been upgraded to be less monotonous. Overall things seemed great. But after two days of playing it my interest started to fade. For one particular reason, spawn times.
  Combat is so fast paced in the game that you can often times die almost instantly after spawning. I found an enemy Sunderer which is a vehicle that acts as a spawn point. I just sat there and blasted it with my tank raking up a significant number of kills. But it wasn't the ease of killing people that deterred me. It was that within 8 seconds, they (or I) could return to the battlefield. I was able to be blasted away by my opponent on the stairs, only to respawn and immediately return fire. At one point there was an opponent hiding in a loft of a base who killed me a couple of times before I found his location. Upon my next spawn I just haphazardly tossed a grenade into the loft before he could see me.
  Blast 'em seems to best describe this type of game. It's not a game where there's a significant penalty for dying. It's not a game of heavy strategy, it seems to be more predicated on momentary skill. Avoiding the tank shot, clicking faster than the other guy, and never ever stop moving. I'm not saying that the game doesn't have strategy. But I'm not sure I'm as fond of it's type of strategy as a game such as League of Legends where dying can cause a 75 second gap in your team's numbers which can be capitalized on to make a difference over the course of the game. In a usual hour session I probably die 20-30 times. That's every 2-3 minutes. Now this is partially because I'm not great at the game. But it's also the nature of the game that doesn't punish me for dying.
  The game also allows for you to switch character classes at a spawning point or at several weapons depots located throughout the map. This means that I can instantaneously switch from my medic to and engineer to heal the spawn vehicle that is under attack to a heavy assault to take out the tank that is shooting at it. And again. If I die, I'll just switch characters then, and 8 seconds later I'm back in the action, unless they destroy my Sunderer. Then I have to run back to the location.  

  Penny Arcade's review of Planetside 2 brings up a number of very interesting points and issues with this style of game. One big thing it mentions is the lack of a story. While this isn't always a driving force, it's clear that there are 3 factions that want to kill each other. Not much else is relevant. But the battle is perpetual and unending. It's not a deathmatch scenario where the team with the most kills or flag captures wins at the end of the match. All goals are only temporary and tomorrow you'll be looking to take back the same bases you conquered last night.

  I reflect back to Counterstrike where dying was just as easy but it left you out of the match for the next 3-5 minutes. This was a significant penalty to death and therefore caution and strategy became far more important. You also made your weapon purchase decisions at the beginning of each match which would dictate the role you'd be playing for the next 5-10 minutes. I'd suggest that maybe there's a significant age difference between me at 32 and my little brother at 24 which accounts for this discrepancy. I'm open to that idea. But for now, this immediate "Blast 'em" kind of game isn't exactly what I'm looking for. Not for the maybe hour a day I have to play. I want to accomplish more with my time.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Free to Play - Pay to Win

  One of the biggest trends in gaming today is the Free to Play marketing scheme. In this environment games have no upfront costs to begin playing. They are free to download and start playing immediately. These games run the gambit from MMORPGs, Battle Arenas, to basic building games like Farm Ville. Rather than relying on required fees they are based on microtransactions where gamers can purchase enhancements for a marginal fee that assists them or gives them a leg up in playing the game. Unfortunately, for a number of these games, making microtransactions is required to actually compete in the game in any significant form.
  When a game takes on the Free to Play design they are forced to make a decision about how hard they will push the sales portion of the game. When this is handled poorly the game will frequently receive the moniker Pay to Win. In Pay to Win games a gamer can encounter some small portion of the game but in reality this is more like a Free Trial than an actual free to play game. Players are restricted to limited content and when trying to play with paying customers their power level is so substandard that they can't hope to compare. This drives anyone actually interested in the game to be required to pay to keep up.
  Even worse it is also possible that games give such advantages to paying customers that they can continue to up their power level as they pay more. While I'm willing to throw some money at a game that I'm having a good time with, I'm not interested in trying to compete with a single computer professional with a gaming addiction and a $120K a year job. If someone wants to throw $1000 per month to put them on top of the game, they win, I lose. I don't even want to play that game if that's who I'm forced to play against.

  While it seems much like this medium is doomed, there are a number of companies actually doing it right. A friend of mine tells me these are referred to in the industry as "Not Evil Companies". Perhaps the most successful of these is a company called Riot Games that makes the surprisingly addictive League of Legends. Yes it's free, and yes it's worth every penny you don't spend.
Join League of Legends HERE
  I'd like to explain just the basics of how the microtransactions work. I think in order to do that I need to explain some of the game. The game is an objective based battle arena style game based off of a popular Warcraft custom map called DOTA. With over 100 different champions available to purchase there is a huge selection making every game dynamic. Your goal is to destroy the opponents base by killing their minions and getting better items. Killing enemy champions with your champion serves to set your opponents back as well as reward some money to purchase more powerful items. While you level up and purchase items each game, you will start your next game broke and back at level one evening the playing field for newer players.
  If you were paying attention, you may have realized that above I said that you purchase champions which is true to a certain extent. There is a rotation of 10 free champions and new champions appear to be released on about three to four week basis. You are able to pay money to purchase champions, or you can play the free ones. Also, by playing games you earn points you can also use to purchase additional champions without paying any fee. Playing a couple games (20-60 min usually) a day one could reasonably afford each new champion as they came out. Older champions are generally discounted while newer ones tend to be more expensive. Considering you only play 1 champion each game having a vast selection of 50+ champions will probably dilute your skill compared to focusing on a couple of champions you're particularly fond of.
  In this model, everything you need to play the game can be obtained for free. It's not like there are champions you can only get by paying money which are prone to owning all the free to play champions. Nor are there special potions which help you do better in game. While new champions are frequently purchased by paying real money, someone content to carefully pick and choose their champions and make use of the free to play scenarios could easily find great success without paying for anything, ever.
  The only thing that you can only pay cash for are champion skins which alter the appearance of characters. While I'm occasionally jealous of specific skins that are particularly interesting or humorous, not having them doesn't make me worse at the game than another player. Perhaps I'm just not as pretty. Which is something I'm entirely familiar with in the world of getting things for free. If you're not paying for it, it may not look as nice.

  While this is a single example of free to play there are also tons of fantastic games out there that are browser based that are entirely free to play. Several of these deal with complex topics such as physics and design. A number of my students started playing Captain Forever after I witnessed them playing a moronic block dodging game. Some of them played it for hours over the weekend without realizing that they were beginning to think about balance, symmetry, opposing forces, and torque. They just think it's a game.
Captain Forever
  I feel that free to play is really going to make a significant change in how the world views gaming. Without the $250 entry cost of a console game or the $50 disk price for a computer game, there's a number of fantastic games out there that don't force you to spend anything. You just have to be careful that the free to play game you're playing doesn't include a marketing scheme that demands you to pay money to get past level six. There are great free to play games out there, you just have to find them.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

SmartBoards as essential teaching tools?

  This topic came out of a discussion with the elementary teachers in my school about wanting SmartBoards in their classrooms. I want to point out that I'm not intending to specifically respond to them. I've realized I feel a specific resistance towards SmartBoards in myself that I want to explore in this post. I hope no one feels attacked. Also, I use the term SmartBoards even though there are a number of other companies that make devices that compete with Smart Technologies. Much like Kleenex, and even more so in technology, we tend to attach ourselves to whatever came along first. If you don't believe me open a word processing document and look at what the save icon is. That's a floppy disk. Now try to think of the last time you used a floppy disk -- no, that was a zip drive -- there you go.

  Secondly, I want to be sure that everyone who reads this knows that I'm not arguing against using the SmartBoard in your classroom. If you have one, use it. I'd rather have one than not, and there are thousands of uses for them. This article is to discuss if having a SmartBoard in every classroom should be considered necessary technology in the same way that a whiteboard or chalkboard is commonly found in every room.

What you find in a teaching station

  When you walk into a classroom what do you expect to find? There will be desks or tables, chairs for the students. Usually you'll find a teacher's desk of some sort, storage for supplies. The teaching station is specifically the area around some sort of desk or podium on which technology resides. My current teaching station is comprised of a laptop, extra monitor, projector, speakers, and a whiteboard. I have a pull down screen but I'd rather just project directly on the whiteboard. Last year this also included a microphone, built in speakers, scanner, keyboard and mouse, computer dock, student clickers, and a SmartBoard.
Teaching station at University of San Francisco
  I, along with most teachers I know, use the computer and projector every day. Speakers are frequently used and are easily worth adding considering their low cost. The whiteboard has definitely become industry standard; there are still some teachers that use blackboards and to some degree the white board becomes more of a static fixture in a room with a SmartBoard. The extra monitor I find incredibly useful with the projector as I use the spare to show what is on the screen behind me running an extended desktop rather than just showing what is on my screen to the world. It allows me to have my grade book, email and other more sensitive files open on my computer without having to worry about accidentally showing it off to my students. Plus the additional screen space when trying to create presentations and pull information from the web prevents me from having to flip back and forth between multiple windows as often. I could live without the extra monitor, but with cheap monitors running around $100 it seems to good a deal not to buy.

The SmartBoard Question

  When I had a SmartBoard in my room during my student teaching and last year, I used it every day. I only used the whiteboard for random breakouts during math and to post the weekly homework for everyone to see. Almost all classwork, entry task assignments, and corrections were done with use of the SmartBoard and projector. There were other teachers that used the SmartBoard for a number of purposes that I'll discuss later on here. Needless to say, they were used, heavily. The question I'm curious about is if they're worth the cost. Not if they serve a purpose.
  Looking at the cost we see that the current range for interactive white boards is between $1000 and $4000. I've seen a few conference sessions about making your own using a Wii which could significantly decrease the cost. While practical on an individual level this isn't the sort of decision that is going to be employed across a district. Additionally to the fees for buying the board is the cost of mounting both it and the projector. While the projector is necessary technology mounting it isn't necessary, even if it is best practice. So we should probably assume in the $2500 range for this piece of technology in order to get it a significant size, assuming that the teacher has all the other equipment to make use of it. Sizes of up to 94 inches are available but the cost also increases significantly.

The Issues 

  Unlike a projector screen (or as I'm currently doing just projecting on a white board) there isn't much flexibility once the smart board is in place. While a mounted projector can be turned off and the board used for other purposes, the interactive white board takes up prime classroom real estate all the time. It goes front and center. While I've used a smart board on wheels that could be rolled around the continual need for adjustment really makes this not worth it. The dead center of your teaching pallet is basically reserved for the machine. While this isn't a massive issue all the time it can be frustrating when you want to draw a timeline across your entire white board.
  Newer boards are getting to the point where multiple touches are standard allowing for multiple students to use the device at once. One problem I encountered was having multiple students work on the space at the same time.
  Size is becoming less of an issue. 77in seems to be the new standard which does meet the needs of most classrooms. My own projector is currently running at 68in diagonal and is meeting my needs just fine. Some of the earlier versions sat at 48in (they're still available) which ends up being horribly small for most classroom uses. Boards this size are still useful for conference room type settings but they don't really function in a classroom.

The Uses

  There is a handful of specific uses that you can do with a smartboard that you can't pull off with just a projector. The first one is easy display of functioning websites. A presenter doesn't need to go back to a computer to forward slides or click on webpages. While a clicker does perform several of these functions, the ability to easily click on hyperlinks has significant value.
Smart Technologies
  One other advantage is that you can use the screen as a giant iPad. I've seen teachers use this for organizing games, students taking their own attendance, or several other uses. It allows anyone access to come up and manipulate what's on the screen without having to get access to the teacher's computer. I've utilized this both as a large interactive whiteboard as well as putting online worksheets on the board and I can write on the directly.
  One of the biggest features of an interactive whiteboard really isn't that valuable in most classrooms. The ability to save work on the board. This was described to me as highly valuable in engineering scenarios where people are doing a long series of design type work and want to share and keep the results. In my math classroom it hasn't been necessary. I've used it for lists in language arts but this was more for dramatic effect than to actually save the specific work done. It does allow you to quickly copy down what is on the board and move on to a fresh screen. You can move on without actually erasing anything. This means earlier problems can be brought back up in the same session. This is valuable, though not vital.
  I feel that the full picture of uses hasn't been fully developed for interactive whiteboards but the technology is quickly being eclipsed by tablets. If information can be pushed to student tablets they gain all the touch functionality that you would have with the screen at their desk. I'm sure there are all kinds of creative things that can be done with touch screens but I don't feel that realistically most teachers will optimize their usage.

Cost Benefit Analysis

Apple iPad
  Bearing the $2500 price tag is really a big deterrent to bringing Smartboards into every classroom in my opinion. With the current price of tablets reaching down into the $200 range, paying the price of 10 tablets to outfit a classroom with a piece of technology with no mandatory uses feels like a significant waste of money to me. The Smartboard from 3 classrooms could give an entire set of tablets to one classroom.
  While it definitely does cool stuff I don't see enough practical uses in most classrooms. Perhaps in a college science setting or maybe even advanced high school math there are some reasons why people should have one. But overall I feel that this is more of a want from people than a need. In a classroom a Smartboard is a big shiny. It's something that stands out as cool and fun. But it just doesn't bring with it the educational bang for its buck that makes it a necessary investment for schools.

3D Game Lab, First Update

  As part of the teacher camp for 3D Game Lab they want us to note down things in a journal or blog of some sort. Rather than use their internal tool I'll share things here.

  First off upon getting in you have the ability to easily pick the starter quest. Completing it leads you to 4 new options. I'm not entirely sure that the titles picked by the creators were as good as possible for these quests as I didn't want to click on one because it seemed to exist only for the purpose of making a report of an issue. Actually it was a required quest that showed me how to make a report. Important lesson, name your quests well.

  I also very quickly found that I wanted to earn more XP. I simply couldn't help it. One more quest, this one is worth 25 xp. That bar could get more filled -- I got a rank up -- I have more quests available, I should look at them before I log off -- maybe I'll just do this one -- or two. Now I'm a big fan of learning so maybe this is personal and won't be as present in my students. But the simple fact that I can see my work increasing a score makes me want to get a few more points.

  From a teaching and learning perspective this is fairly revolutionary. Students are generally given a task that may or may not be graded. If they do well, they are rewarded with a good grade. If they do poorly, they are punished with a bad grade. That's the end of the story. Perhaps a teacher will give students the chance to return to their work to try to improve their grade. But these are generally only awarded to students with significantly inferior scores. The student with a B that will keep working until they get an A is generally left in the dust. 
  Here suddenly we can go beyond this model and actually hold all students to a higher standard. It's not done until it's A work. But you can keep on working on it until it gets there. It becomes a great way to always be moving forward without the millstone of previous failures. If learning is about making mistakes, why doesn't everyone get the chance to try again.