Friday, May 25, 2018

Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns (2014)

I really don't know what to think about Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns. The game writers have moved the setting even further in the future, kicked the previous two stories to the curb, calling them bad dogs, then doing their best to take all those pieces and make yet another remix of a story, both succeeding and not succeeding at the same time.

I'll start with hating on my old bugaboo, active time battle. You can dress it up and change it around, but I still don't prefer real-time combat, but I don't know the game for that because that's my own preference. Understandably, as fighting is a huge part of the game, this meant that a huge part of the game annoyed me.

I told my daughter, "I'm incompetent at this game." That's how I felt as I played it. I never did achieve anything better than a middling competence, enough to battle the final boss through two form changes, but not three. I did get to the point where I could competently battle many different things, and muck my way through some tougher fights, but I tended to brute force such victories. If I don't die for long enough, I can win.

The world situation is that the the world itself will end in six days, but if you get busy, you can make it end in thirteen days, so get busy. Lightning's job is to save all the people that she can so that they can go on to the next world.

The writers took a negative about the previous game, the wooden and soulless character that is Lightning, and turned that into its own story advantage, complete with a plot resolution. I thought that clever and a good use of existing resources. It fits well with the theme, that Lightning is to save as many people at the end of this world as she can so that they can be reborn in the next, and this includes herself.

Each region has a primary quest, worth a lot, that takes quite a bit of developing to resolve. These primary quests revolve around her old compatriots, and each's current trouble and loss of hope. The character Hope himself is up on a space ship orbiting the planet, so quite literally, hope has left the world. It's this feeling of oppressive hopelessness that often makes the game feel unrewarding to play. Myself, I felt as if I was failing these quests from the very beginning, and I stand in surprise that I actually extended the game to Day 12 even with my total incompetence.

Like all Final Fantasy games, some degree of mastery is needed to truly fight well, and I utterly fail at mastery. I'm also too proud to look up FAQs, because I wanted to learn in-game, so my play-results were naturally lackluster. I think that the game did a terrible job of introducing the topic of practical optimization, leaving it to you, which in my case was clearly a bad idea.

I felt like I wasn't the target audience for this game at all. I felt like it was targeted against the modern Bioware style games, with its own Final Fantasy twists, and other action-style games.

I did like the mechanic of advancing through the completion of quests. Fighting was still useful for getting stuff and advancing various aspects of your character, but your best bang always came through completing quests. If you could complete them on your own awesomeness early, then great, but for most the game will soft-regulate you, requiring that you go from easier to harder quests.

I like that the game gave you finite healing resources. Not only does this help simplify encounter design, but it becomes a resource to manage, making you think about where you spend those resources.

While it was welcome that the game reused characters, I felt that reuse went too far, with characters wedged into their roles. While some characters got new clothes, others were still wearing the same thing, saving the studio just a little too much on new assets. Did Vanille really need to get stuck in the same outfit for a thousand years?

Despite the AAA treatment, the game doesn't rise to the level of great. If you like action style games in the modern Bioware or Mass Effect style storytelling, you might just like this game, but if you're older school, I'm not sure it'll hit the mark for you.

One last thing: they had MOOGLES. I approve of cute.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Failed Audiophile 104: Why Audiophiles Hate Bose

Why do audiophiles hate Bose? And why does everyone like Bose (those folks who aren't audiophiles)? This has taken me a long time of thinking and listening, but I think that I've finally got the answer.

The short answer is that audiophiles and the general public want different experiences out of their listening. Manufacturers design to those experiences, producing different products with different qualities.

The general listener is not a dedicated listener. What they want is music to add to their environment as they live their lives. Music to them adds to the atmosphere, the ambiance, providing mood and emotion as the go about their day. The average consumer bring along music as a companion to their primary task, whether that be working, drinking coffee, or otherwise going about their day. I will call these people atmospheric audiophiles, people who rate equipment based on how well it gives them the atmosphere that they desire.

The company that caters to the atmospheric audiophile is Bose. They design equipment that sounds good under varying conditions, from varying locations, as the listener goes about their lives. Bose understand that they are adding atmosphere to a location, so their equipment is good at adding that atmosphere without dominating the atmosphere.

Audiophiles, I'll call them active listening focused audiophiles, actively listen as part of their recreation. Their concern is with the best, most realistic listening possible. They want equipment that rewards their dedicated focus. They want to feel as if they are there, complete with immaculate recreation and detailed stereo separation. Bose is simply not trying to satisfy those consumers. Measuring Bose in that market space is like comparing a fully equipped mini-van to a sports car, then determining that the mini-van is the worst sports car ever. Of course the mini-van is going to be a terrible sports car. No sane car nut is going to pay for a mini-van.

The problem comes in when listening focused audiophiles don't understand the requirements of the atmospheric audiophiles. Like a person who loves their sports cars, they'll pitch sports cars even if the listener really needs a mini-van. They've become unable to differentiate what's good for themselves with what's good for someone else.

So, is Bose worth the price? If you're Bose's target audience, then yes, Bose is worth the price. If you aren't Bose's target audience, then Bose isn't worth the price. It's just that simple. Context matters.

The hard truth is that there are far more atmospheric audiophiles than there are listening focus audiophiles. This is why Bose mints money. They deliver the experience that more consumers want, which is also why more mini-vans sell every year than sports cars. 

There's a second reason that audiophiles hate Bose: it's an easy way to identify other audiophiles. This is a useful metric because so many people like Bose, or really don't care about speakers at all. When you find another person who hates Bose, you've found another audiophile, another member of your tribe.

The takeaway here is that Bose is the mini-van maker of the stereo market. They make the tip tiered mini-vans of the stereo world, and if you want one, they're the equipment for you. If you don't want a mini-van, then don't buy Bose. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

What's an Audiophile and How Do You Get Started for Cheap?

I heard someone's definition of an audiophile the other day, and decided that their general definition was exclusionary as it focused too much on one aspect of audiophile. Roughly, they said, "Audiophiles are into all the details of gear, and debating cables, and things like that."

Here's my definition:

Audiophile: 1) Someone who self-identifies as an audiophile, a lover of well reproduced music, 2) Someone who enjoys the hobby of listening to music, 3) Someone who enjoys the hobby of improving their listening experience, 4) Someone who has developed themselves into an expert on music reproduction.

That may look broad, and it is broad. That's the purpose. If you define a hobby as "someone who has my interests in the same way that I have my interests," you are going to cut out much of your own hobby. That's no fun for anyone. A hobby is ultimately composed of everyone who self-declares themselves as part of the hobby. That's the only rule. They enjoy their hobby to the degree and means of their interest.

Bob is an audiophile. He has his own dedicated listening room, and a $5000 setup. Jenny is also an audiophile. She really enjoys her Bose noise-cancelling headphones on the subway. Rick is an audiophile, who loves building the loudest car stereo possible. Sue is an audiophile. She loves sound so much she became a sound engineer. Ted is an audiophile. He loves debating the merits of various hardware choices.

They're all audiophiles.

So, if you want to become an audiophile, that is to say, get into the music reproduction hobby, how can you do that on a budget? The only true rule to being an audiophile is that any change that you make to your listening should make it better for your purposes. I don't know your purposes, which is why there no perfect answer.

Do you have a pair of Bose speakers and are you happy? A "true" audiophile wouldn't own Bose, but they aren't you, and you're happy, so be happy. The whole idea of being an audiophile is to make yourself happy. There are audiophiles who spend thousands on their systems and they still aren't happy, so you're already a step ahead.

Whats good, better, or best? I can't answer that without understanding your goals and your circumstances. I could tell you that a surround system with multiple sub-woofers in a dedicated listening room is best, but that's unattainable to most of us, and it may not suits your present needs. I could tell you to buy and amp and speakers, but that's no good if you're mostly mobile. Your space might be cramped or shared. You may do most of your listening in the car.

The good news is that there's already lots of research out there for you to tap into. Head to eBay and look at amplifiers, and then hit the reviews to see how the equipment rates. Assemble your own second-hand store system and revel in how bad it is. Or maybe you'll find a bargain. From there, you can replace and improve, building your expertise as you go, learning what direction that want to take your listening. Learn your basic lessons buying cheap, then get the good stuff, rather than get the good stuff, only to find out that you didn't buy to your purposes.

It's okay to have a bad system. Don't let pissy audiophiles tell you, "that's garbage," because that's their way of keeping you out of the hobby. They are setting themselves up as false experts by making you look bad. There are no right answers, but there are fashionable and unfashionable answers. Whose money are you spending? Yours. When you make your choices and learn from them, that's how you build real expertise.

Finally, pick some audio sites and start reading, start learning, and start following. After a year of reading reviews, following forums, and seeing the news, you'll have picked up a great deal of expertise in the areas that interest you.

One of the things that you will run into is beliefs and snake oil. Treat both with a grain of salt. Today's music systems are not totally filled with noise and don't sound like crap. Most system modifications won't suddenly make your system suddenly sound a thousand times better. The words "bad" and "better" are weasel words that seem to make claims, but don't make any measurable claims, so you can never disprove them. Distrust what you can't measure.

That doesn't mean that experience is a nothingburger. The best systems are well tuned to providing an awesome experience, which is the goal of audiophilia. By making yourself happy, you win.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Nexo Knights: Merlock 2.0 (2015)

Nexo Knights: Merlock 2.0 (2015) is an action-RPG targeted at boys 8-11. In this mobile game, you fight enemies, improve you equipment, and collect powers in order to fight more enemies

The app is free because it's all marketing for Lego's Nexo Knight toy line. The way that your knights acquire more more powers is to scan shields from the sets that you bought or that your friends have bought.

Like all RPGs, your characters gain levels, although I don't know what that really means. They gain levels so fast that if leveling means anything, it's just a small bonus per level.

Your knights have two primary sorts of battles: those as a foot knight, and those fought using a Lego mech. Each encounter consists of 2-3 fights, where your battle success gains you both bits (money) and blueprints (upgrades), but only if you succeed. Early on, that's easy. Knight encounters always reward you with knight blueprints, and mech encounters always reward you with mech blueprints. Once you have enough blueprints, you can pay money to upgrade your knight or mech. Knights have five different areas that they can improved, while their mechs have four. Knights can improve their equipment to level seven, while mechs can improve their parts to level 5. There are also vehicles that you can gain, which unlock special encounters, but the vehicle only need three parts, which are pretty cheap.

Story? Don't worry about story. This game isn't about the story. There are monsters, and they need to be fought. Do you really need more of a story if you're eight?

Ultimately, the game requires no strategy. The players will eventually acquire enough bits and enough blueprints to level up all his knights, although the rate of gold acquisition may leave the player frustrated. Bits can come slow compared to blueprints, giving the player the feeling that they're always behind. Fortunately, there's some "quests" that you can do that reward you with bits as ease the cash flow.

As for powers and shields, they're all documented on the internet, so go find them.

The game has a few special types of encounters. One type of encounter is a match-up, where you try to outscore your opponent. Best two our of three wins. For each victory that you achieve, you move onto a more challenging opponent. There's seven possible battles, with the limit that you can only do these fights once per week, reset every Sunday. The Firelands is the other special type of encounter, where your knight fight bosses and only bosses.

The player can make and equip gems to give his knights a power boost. These gems can give very substantial boosts, but they have a finite number of uses. You can earn the studs needed for gems by fighting encounters again, this time picking a challenge, and if you succeed, you get the stud.

It's easy enough to beat up the monsters, but at some point, they monsters get strong enough to give you trouble back. If you watch the creature animations, you'll see that they have a set attack routine. Once you learn this routine, you can avoid attacks while fighting, helping you to avoid damage, and so avoid dying.

The game is an okay distraction, even if you're an adult, and even gives you some challenges as you advance into the hard monsters, but don't expect it to have long-term appeal unless you're a Lego maniac.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Longer Loans for Cars

Why are there longer and longer loans for cars? What drives this expense?

Reliability and Risk Management

 If you have a reasonable confidence that your vehicle will last 10 years, then having a loan that lasts eight years reduces your monthly payment (lowers risk) while being unlikely to raise your liability (increasing risk). Today, the average light auto lasts 11 years. That means that having a loan that lasts 60 or 72 months is a safe bet. The banks know this. They don't like lending money for unsafe things. Cars can cost more today because they last longer, and because they last longer, owners can put more money into a single vehicle rather than money into multiple vehicles.

Compare today's cars to cars made in the 50's and 60's. Back then, cars weren't manufactured to last for ten years. Many didn't last more than five. That means that you'd be a fool to take out a car loan for more than the expected life of a car, and of course, the banks wouldn't lend you money on that sort of bad idea.

Because the lifespan on cars has gotten so much longer, the used car market has exploded, and banks are now willing to lend you money, at a low rate, to buy a used car. They're only willing to do this because their statisticians say that this is both safe and profitable. With an average life of eleven years, most used cars will easily outlive their loans, meaning that they keep acting as collateral against the loan.

With a used car market, we now have a two tiered market, meaning that many previous new buyers have left the market, and now buy used vehicles. People are still buying vehicles. With used cars being so reliable, they're sucking more new buyers off the new market, creating a downward pressure in sales. All those quality used vehicles are now acting as a brake to the industry.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2011)

Published in 2011, Final Fantasy XIII-2 (FF13-2) flushed the story of FF13 and never looked back. Having learned their harsh lesson with FF13, having eliminated too much from the game play, FF13-2 returned in style to the  more varied, more easily distracted game style of earlier Final Fantasies. The changes worked, producing a universally better game.

The story involves the least interesting character of FF13, Serah, who everyone oohed and aahed over, yet was never really a somebody. She realizes that her sister, Lightning, is gone, but she shouldn't be gone. The reason? Her sister is missing due to a time paradox, so joining Noel, the reasonably cute male from the future, they head off together to solve time and save the general fate of the universe. What they mostly ignore was the previous story, although they do make good use of Hope. The Cie make some appearance, but they don't dominate the story. In fact, you don' t really need to know anything about FF13 to have this game make sense.

Each location is its own time, and usually self-contains its own story. By going through the smaller stories, we go through the bigger stories. One timeline leads to the future, but there are many side timelines and even alternate endings to discover. In addition to places to find, there are artifacts that open up gates to other times, and fragments to collect. As you travel, you pick up and train monsters to fight with you, so monster training and collecting is another major component. In one location, there's slot machines and chocobo racing.

The Paradigm Shift combat system has been retained from FF13, and it generally works okay. The Crystarium has been entirely redesigned, or maybe just layed out differently. The result is that it feels less clunky, and you can develop whatever roles you want, as you want. It's all good.

Adding a twist to play is the ability to close time gates and replay any location from the beginning, which is handy if there's things that you missed, or you try for other options. I found several alternate endings by fighting boss monsters under the worst conditions possible and still winning. You also get special awards for perfect kills. Most of the bosses require certain button pushes to get a perfect result.

The end result of all these decisions is the removal of all the previous game's oppression. Yes!

The game isn't perfect. One of the issues is with getting stuck. Sometimes you just need to find a wild artefact to open certain gates, but if you can't find one, then your artifact could be anywhere in the main timeline. Anywhere. Finding them is something of a trick and even being near, look a little wrong, and you completely miss the artefact. This often left me feeling frustrated, so I had to hit the internet even though I didn't want to hit the internet.

The trivia game side quest was a good idea, but as implemented, I spent two hours to get through one trivia game because the questions were both so varied and so random, encompassing knowledge not even found inside either FF13 game. After the first one, I hit the internet again. What began as fun, answering the trivial, in the end became a grind. Good idea, poor execution.

Combat remains chaotic, moving so fast that you control the overall direction of a fight, and not the fight itself.

Random encounters remain annoying. This is true in most JPRGs. There are times where you want to make a brief adjustment to your character, and bam, another random encounter rolls in. They often feel like more effort than they're worth later in the game. Once you're past a certain level, the game should just take you to the success screen and not bother you with the fight, or at least have a respectable auto-fight option.

I've made a few runs at the ending, but I'm not quite through it. I hit the biggest of the bads, got the main boss down to 1/3 his hit points, and got hit with a tetra attack that insta-killed my entire party. Damn. So, I have more work to do in order to win that last battle. Since I'm not quite tired of the game yet, I'll give it a few more runs.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Decline of the Sedan

Why is the sedan declining in today's market share? I've poked around and I've found no satisfactory answers, so I'll proffer a few of my own.

1. Boring Sedan Design in the '00's

Back in the 00's, the design of cars had achieved boring. The mantra "offend nobody" became the sedan's motto. To drive a sedan meant that you were driving an uncool vehicle. The smaller car companies shifted their sedans to more exciting designs early in the decade, but Toyota and Honda, the best sellers, moved too slowly, meaning that they exacerbated the impression that sedans were boring.

2.  Marketing

Marketing did a very good job of convincing families that they needed SUV's to fit everything for their family, even if the capacity of SUVs in many cases are no better than the capacity of mid-sized cars or station wagons. Well played, marketing.

3. Casual Sporty Car Buyers Moved to SUVs

People with a casual sense of sportiness, who would have bought the sporty looking sports cars, instead bought the exciting SUVs. This sucked the energy right out of the exciting end of the sedan market, meaning that the sporty cars didn't sell so well, and that fewer were introduced. (Sporty cars are ones that look like they are performance cars, but aren't really performance cars.)

4. Vehicles Now Last Longer

Modern cars just last longer. With vehicles getting so expensive, and used cars getting so plentiful, it's a safe bet to pick up a relatively cheap used sedan. With SUVs being hot, they aren't as plentiful or cheap as sedans on the used market, so buying one used isn't such a great bargain.

5. Dearth of Wagons

With wagons steadily being removed by car makers for more expensive SUVs, the wagon market shifted to SUVs. And then Volkwagen, one of the heavy wagon makers, had to recall a huge block of wagons over its diesel scandal, making wagons even scarcer, and driving more wagon buyers to SUVs.

6. Feeling of Wealth

People with money to spend want to spend their money on something that seems worth it. Sports cars seem worth it. Big SUVs seem worth it, because they're bigger. Plain sedans, however, don't seem worth it.

7. The Illusion of Safety

Having lots of car around you makes you seem safe, especially if you have kids.

8. Full Size Cars Are For Old People

The full size car may, in fact, be dead, or nearly so. Its association with old people is too strong. Their emphasis on comfort and smooth ride leave younger riders wanting a sportier experience, or in many cases, any experience whatsoever.

9. More Tuners than Ever

Kids these days are still into tuning cars, and to do that, you need older cars. Due to the lifespan of the modern car, there are lots of good older cars to choose from, so many kids who might turn to sports cars are now removing themselves from the market all together.

10. Tough Times for Millenials

Many new car buyers have limited funds, so they're either doing without cars, paying for transport as they need it, or they buy used cars. Either way, they don't buy new.

11. Trucks Are Cool

Out in the country, trucks are cool. Trucks are king. The truck is now part of a cultural identity.

12. Muscle is Too Expensive

If you are into sports cars, they are now prohibitively expensive, but if you can't afford one, you likely don't want a sedan as an alternative.

13. Mileage

When cars could get 30 mpg and trucks only got 10 mpg, choosing a car for mileage was a no brainer. When cars get 35 mpg and trucks get 30, that decision becomes more nuanced.

14. Competition

In previous decades, sedans didn't have much competition. Today's alternatives simply hadn't been developed. The consumer now has a wider choice than ever. Naturally, that means that the largest segment, the sedans, should lose out as the smaller segments expand.

What's To Be Done?

Given those conditions, what's to be done? Is there any one thing that can be done? In the short term, no, there's nothing to be done. In the long term, if car companies want sedans back, they have to advertise sedans like they do SUVs, and rebuild that audience over the long term. Before that happens, multiple companies will abandon the sedan market, meaning that the market will shrink, but the survivors will do better. Yet, even if they do win back sedan drivers, the market has fragmented to the point where sedans may never be dominant again.