James Marriott, who hurt you?

This rant is a response to this opinion piece in the New York Times. You can read it if you want context, but your life is likely richer for not doing so.

There, I’ve fixed your writeup for you.

In his piece “AI spells trouble for creatives — about time too” James Marriott includes a quote from Daisy Christodoulou: “ChatGPT sometimes produces superficially plausible essays that fall apart under closer scrutiny. But plenty of humans write essays like that too. In fact, it is one of the criticisms of PPE graduates.”

There’s something ironic in including a quote about things being superficial and falling apart under scrutiny, in an article that feels incredibly superficial, and falls apart under scrutiny. I’d quote more of his article in this response, but that means more people might have the misfortune of reading his 8 disconnected and unclear paragraphs.

Because I’m not James Marriott, and I value the time of people who read my pieces, let me offer my quick conclusion:

Mr. Marriott, you do not have a problem with artists or “creatives.”Nor do your lawyer friends, who have people roll their eyes at them, or ignore them at parties. You have a problem with assholes.

The fact that every artist you’ve ever met fits this profile does say something about the company you’ve chosen to keep.

Anyway, let’s get back to your opinion piece. I’m not 100% sure what your opinion is, which is bad, given that I’ve read your article 7 or so times now. Perhaps it’s that “Artists are a bit too full of themselves, and need to be taken down a peg.” Have I got that right? Have I summarized in one sentence what took you eight paragraphs?

Of course, you’re a professional journalist, and I’m not. Actually, my day job is working for a software company that sells what, at least on some level, amounts to automation software. This is likely why you were able to craft such a wonderful headline that grabbed hands, and filled those “creatives” you wish to see humbled with such rage.

James Marriott’s writeup addresses none of the actual issues many artists and writers have with the current generation of what I’ll lump as “content generation technologies.” He doesn’t talk about how their underlying training data may have been taken and used without compensation. He doesn’t cover how many of these models can be flawed backboxes. He just seem happy that this makes artist artists upset.

And so I must ask, Mr. Marriott, why? Why does it give you such glee that so many might be put out of work? Why is it, that when given space in a publication that more people read in a day than will read anything I ever write in my lifetime, you take that space to make perhaps the most petty argument that can be comprehended in favor of AI generated art and writing?

This is barely an opinion. It’s not even a rant. It’s a whiny self-centered hope that an emerging technology will “make some people who annoy me unhappy.”

I wanted to close this rant out by making some more ad hominem attacks, but unfortunately I can’t. You see, I can’t find any more of his work. When you google Mr. Marriott’s name, you find a comedy YouTuber/musician, with 2 million subscribers, and a few hundred thousand views on each video, and no other articles or writing by the one being ripped on in this article.

Isle of Arrows

Isle of Arrows offers an interesting take on the tower defense genre, but a dependence on good RNG to survive pulls it down.

I don’t hate Isle of Arrows, but I can’t recommend it. It has a nice art style, and interesting core mechanics. But the reason the game took me 12 hours to beat is that randomness plays too heavy a factor. Having good runs is difficult, and having satisfying runs almost impossible.

Very minor quibble: the situation present here in the game’s Steam banner can never happen in game. And now you will share in that suffering with me.

Isle of Arrows is a tower defense tile placement game. You start with a single pre-placed arrow tower, a few pre-placed road tiles, a bomb and a bridge.

Your job is to turn this.

Into something like this.

Game Mechanics and Systems

You have 4 resources: Life, Gold, Bridges, and Bombs. If enemies reach the tiny gold octahedron at the end of the route, you lose a life. Enemies themselves will always spawn on the last road tile on a path to your octahedron.

Gold is the only real spending resource. Each round, you’re given a tile for free that you can place. You can either place that tile, or skip it. Then you can spend 2 more gold to draw the next tile. Repeat until you’re out of gold. For example, if I had 10 gold, I could place my current tile, then advance choosing to place or skip up to 5 more tiles.

It’s important to note that you can only ever see the next single tile that you’ll draw. While enemies can drop gold, your primary source of gold is income. It’s almost interest: each round, you’ll get 1 gold, plus 1 more for each 10 gold you have stored. (Up to a max of +4 at 30 gold banked.)

The tiles you draw have placement requirements, though. Tiles must be connected to another tile you’ve already placed, they can’t overlap with existing structures, and they have to be placed on ground.

Which brings us to the last two resources: Bombs and Bridges. They both serve a similar purpose in allowing you to break some of the rules. Bombs can be spent to place a tile on an already existing tile, and bridges can be spent to allow you to build out into the air. While there are ways to get more bombs and bridges, there’s no way to guarantee it.

There are a few more tile types. There are roads that can be placed to expand the path to your shiny defense shape, and there are towers that can be placed to shoot enemies as they travel along the roads. There are also traps, which have some effects on enemies placed along the road, and non-combat tiles such as water that often come attached to other tiles. Finally, you can place economy tiles to generate resources, usually as a one time effect based on where you place them.

Isle of Arrows has a beautiful isometric look. It’s fun to watch your island expand! But Isle of Arrows has a big fundamental problem: the randomness.

The Problem

At its simplest, the problem boils down to a question of DPS. There’s no guarantee that you’ll draw enough towers with tiles to have enough damage to clear late game waves. But more importantly, there’s no guarantee you’ll see any specific tower. So it’s hard to strategize. You can’t build or plan with the expectation of “Eventually I’ll get X.” You can play 40 rounds, and never get a ballista. Or you can get 3 sniper towers in the first 10 tiles, and zero in the next seventy.

As a result, I couldn’t set up and build to do anything clever. Sure, I could try to to build a long straight road that would be cleared with a boulder tower, but I’d often never see one. I could set up a winding route that would be perfect with ballista, but if it didn’t show up, that route was just a waste of space.

As a result, my strategy was pretty much always the same: pool gold until I got to 30 banked. After that, I’d just place tiles wherever they provided maximum utility in the moment. There was no grand strategy, or clever synergies. Instead, it was just a fight stay ahead of the curve.

I think this is why my brain feels a bit melted after playing Isle of Arrows. I never really changed up my core strategy. Instead, I just tried to have any tower I placed cover as many tiles as possible, and hoped for the best.

I think a peak example of this randomness was visible in my clear of the game’s final level, Burning Embers. Burning Embers has a fire theme, and a tower called the cluster tower. Cluster towers get a damage bonus for each other cluster tower they’re linked to. But they’re fairly rare, and in my first several attempts, I saw either one or zero of them.

But on what would be my final run, I lucked into an early cluster tower, and then several more later on. Those cluster towers made the difference, bringing down the final tanky enemies, because of that cluster damage bonus.

But there was no way to build or plan for this. There was no grand strategy. It was just “Hey, you got lucky on the rolls, here’s some good stuff.”

And more irritatingly, there are no systems to compensate for the inverse happening, and just getting screwed by RNG. Random draw is the only way to get towers and tiles. You can’t choose to spend an exorbitant amount of money to buy a single specific tower. You can’t choose to modify the pool you’re drawing from. You can make all the right choices, and still lose.

Getting Kobyashi-Maru’d isn’t fun, but it’s made even less fun by the fact that there is really only one strategy. As I mentioned before, it boils down to just getting as much value out of tiles on the turn you draw them.

Isle of Arrows is nicely polished. I want to like the random tile system for an interesting take on tower defense. But the randomness and capriciousness makes it feel like there’s no point to trying out multiple strategies, or trying to be clever.

Give me ways to mitigate being screwed by your system! Let me pay a premium to bring in certain towers if I can pool the money. Or do something akin to Loop Hero, where certain arrangements of tiles and towers morph into a larger super tower structure. Give me some form of decision making that isn’t just pushing my luck, or maximizing current utility.

Isle of Arrows is $13 on Steam, at time of writing. Any desire I have to continue playing the game is mostly out of a sense of spite, and to vindicate my own opinions. I’m confident I can clear all maps with all factions. After all, I’d just need to get lucky.

I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide if that constitutes a endorsement.

Author’s Note: I didn’t really mention the faction mechanic. There are five factions outside the starter faction, they all change up the gameplay slightly. They usually make it harder. Architects don’t get flags to expand the island, but gets bridges after each wave. Cannoneers don’t get flags, but convert any extra life or bridges into bombs. Pathfinders can build roads both ways, but get swamped with road tiles. I’ve got two problems with factions. First, the general high level strategy doesn’t change per faction. Second, each faction is usually more difficult than the preceding one. As a result, clearing each map with an additional faction just feels like grindy busywork instead of an interesting choice of challenge, or a fun variant to try out on a map.

TLDR: There’s a faction system, but it feels like it exists to pad playtime, not make it more fun.

PAX Unplugged: Indie TCGs

Two interesting indie TCG’s from PAX Unplugged this year were Genesis and Gem Blenders. Here’s my general thoughts on the two.

TCGs are a complex subject. There’s the supply chain. There’s the fact that printing booster packs is expensive. There’s the fact that the space of trading card games has been dominated by the big three (Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh) for years on end. There’s an argument about whether or not these games are effectively lottery tickets with a better consolation prize. There’s the impacts that TCGs have on smaller game stores, and a billion other factors revolving around them. There’s the question how many lifestyle games the market can support.

I will be addressing exactly zero of these topics in this writeup. Instead, I’ll be looking at two indie TCGs I saw at PAX Unplugged: Genesis and Gem Blenders.

Genesis: Battle of Champions

Genesis is a 2-4 player independent TCG. Unlike many other TCGs I’ve played, Genesis is actually played on a board: a large 5×6 grid. Each player starts with a hero out, and you win by being the last hero standing.

Heroes define a few important elements of the game including your starting health, and also the cards and archetypes you can include in your deck. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to the deck construction or color archetypes as I only played one game of Genesis, and it was with preconstructed decks.

Anyway, back to the gameplay. There’s a few interesting things about Genesis that I want call out. First, you start with your full mana pool, and it doesn’t regenerate during the game. For example, my character started with about 125 mana, and was down to 10 by the time the game finished. This means that you can drop your most powerful cards on turn one if you wish.

Mana is the most common limitation in existing TCGs. But in Genesis, it felt like I was limited by cards in hand, and space on the board. Many of the monsters felt a bit fragile in the large scheme of things, usually taking only 2/3 hits to kill.

Two other things I want to mention. The game has a stack for resolving actions that was a little difficult to parse during my demo, but I’m sure would be fine once I got used to it, and direction matters. One of the primary things you do is rotate cards to face various directions, indicating where they can attack.

Overall, Genesis was interesting. I was curious enough to pick up some preconstructed decks, but that was primarily as samples to add to my board game collection. I’m not hugely in the market for another TCG at the moment, and I wouldn’t say I was really grabbed by the art or world building in my incredibly brief exposure to it.

If you want to learn more about the game, or find yourself curious, you can check it out here.

Gem Blenders

Most Indie TCGs tend to end up mimicking on of the big three in at least some small way. For most of them, this ends up being reminiscent of Magic’s land/non-land system. You have cards that generate resources, but are very hard to remove, and cards that are used to move toward your victory condition, but are easier to remove.

Gem Blenders flips that, and uses something that will probably be more familiar to players of the Pokemon TCG: You start with a set of 4 blenders out, and you put Gems onto them. Blenders can then “Blend” into higher tier blenders with better stats once they have the prerequisite gems attached to them.

Unlike Pokemon, Blenders don’t get knocked out, so the game is mostly about playing your gem per turn, and slowly trying to build advantageous board state. I also got crushed by the individual demoing it at the show. So it can join Mythic Mischief in that category.

The one other interesting thing to me was Gem Blenders’ action system. There’s no limit on the number of action cards you can play per turn, but you can only play a max of 5 total in a game.

Side note: It was interesting to me that both Gem Blenders and Genesis had these mechanics where you started with a full set of resources, and spent it as the game went on.

Gem Blenders was more appealing to me and I actually got a chance to sit down with the creator. We chatted for a bit about his longer term goals for Gem Blenders, what he sees as important for an indie TCG, and why he wants Gem Blenders to be a TCG in the first place.

It was a really interesting chat, and I hope to get a chance to transcribe it and put it up on the site. It’s been a busy last few months.

If you’re curious about Gem Blenders, and would like to learn more, you can find the game’s site here.

Wrap Up

Overall, I liked my limited time with Gem Blenders a bit more than Genesis. A large portion of that is just personal taste. I found Gem Blenders’ weird art style to be appealing, and I like games where I build up forces overall a bit more than games where I just shred stuff down.

I still think both of these are neat games, and I picked up starter sets for both. Will I play them as full TCGs? Unlikely. Magic and Pokemon already occupy most of my interest for the time being. But I’m happy to see some indie TCGs that really seem to be trying to be solid card games, and not FOMO messes.

Square Enix Letter from the President on 2022

The president of Square Enix wrote a letter recently. It has a lot of words like ‘blockchain’ in it, and that has some folks a bit twitchy. If you want to read the full letter, you can see it here. If not, I’m going to summarize it and give some thoughts.

I have a lot of opinions on blockchain and games. My primary one is, “You motherfuckers need to stop freaking out each time a large company, gaming or otherwise, puts out a press release with the words ‘blockchain’ or ‘NFT’ in it”.

This isn’t because I think they’re secretly great, but because letters are cheap to write, and long term strategic business decisions are hard to make. I said as much in my writeup on the letter from last year.

As such, I maintain my position that when a company makes a statement like “We are investigating forward facing technologies for future monetization including non-fungible tokens” what they mean is “Someone in the c-suite got pitched on crypto over Christmas/Thanksgiving/April 20th and now we have to spend a bunch of money to explain to them why it’s a bad idea.”

And while this years letter has a lot more statements about web 3.0/blockchain stuff, I maintain a high level of confidence that this won’t impact Square Enix’s current customers. I’ll get to why in a moment, but let’s review this letter.

The first 8 paragraphs say nothing related to blockchain. Paragraphs 1 & 2 are a recap of current world economic conditions (pretty bad) and current world conditions (even worse). Paragraph 3-6 lay out some specific business plans and moves that Enix is making, and restructuring efforts, including sales of various business units.

Paragraph 7-8 are the most interesting ones that aren’t related to distributed Excel sheets. These paragraphs note a restructuring of Square Enix’s publishing setup in which the eastern and western groups functioned as separate silos. In the statement, the company intends to make them function as “One Square Enix.”

As a cynical man, I have to wonder how smoothly that will go.

Continuing to speak as a cynical man, we get to the remainder of the letter. Paragraphs 9-15 are all about “Blockchain.” Paragraph 9 lays out that Square Enix has “focused on Blockchain Entertainment” and “devoted aggressive investment and business development efforts.”

Paragraph 10 notes that many governments have moved to regulate Crypto (possibly in reference to China) but states that Japan has launched some initiative called “Priority Policy Program for Realizing a Digital Society,” which frankly, I have no god damn clue about. I don’t know if this is pro-crypto, anti-crypto, or just window dressing.

Paragraphs 11-13 are pretty meandering, but can be summarized as “It’s hard to predict the long term impacts of Blockchain technology. Currently, the space is extremely volatile, and we are investigating what that looks like.”

Also, this gem:

“If we consider traditional gaming to have been centralized, then blockchain gaming must operate based on a self-sustaining decentralized model. It is that concept, that philosophy that I see to be key.”

Author Note: I hate this quote. It makes no sense from a technological standpoint. More on that in a future writeup perhaps?

Paragraphs 14 and 15 are the most important, at least in regards to crypto stuff. Paragraph 14 notes that while there is a lot of “interest” in crypto-gaming, that interest is primarily from speculators, not players.

And so we get to paragraph 15, the important one. I’m going to go through the full thing sentence by sentence, as it’s short but important.

“Our Group has multiple blockchain games based on original IPs under development, some of which we announced last year, and we are undertaking preparations that will enable us to unveil even more titles this year.”

Did you catch that? Original IPs! Which means that Square Enix isn’t going the Ubisoft route of experimenting by grafting NFTs onto existing projects. If you’re a FFXIV person, or just a Square Enix fan of various brands in general, you’re likely safe!

“We are also engaged in global sourcing from an investment perspective and will continue to take stakes in promising businesses whether we find them in Japan or abroad.”

I honestly don’t know how to parse this sentence 100%. My guess is it means that they will continue to actively look for valuable locations to invest in related to our gaming enterprise and web 3.0 technology regardless of where it’s located in the world.

“Blockchain has been an object of exhilaration and a source of turmoil, but with that in the rearview mirror, we hope that blockchain games will transition to a new stage of growth in 2023.”

This is wishy/washy bullshit. It promises nothing, hopes for a rich future, but makes no predictions about actually achieving this future. You can probably ignore this sentence.

Oh, and I guess it does end with paragraph 16, but that’s mostly a “Woo, we’ve been around 20 years!” and not much else.

So yeah, in conclusion, yes Square Enix spent money on blockchain, but it’s still “early days” (where have I heard that before?) and there appears to be no intention to apply web 3 practices/technology to existing products.

Oh, also despite that whole “Multiple Games” thing, I can’t actually find any released games or announced games that actually do use Web 3.0/blockchain tech from Square Enix. I’ve reached out to them to clarify, and I’ll update this writeup accordingly I hear back.