The Pixies stopped by Conan’s new set to plug the upcoming release of their box set, Minotaur. The band’s continuing reunion tour promises to be full of nostalgic hits, if not new material.
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It was an unseasonably warm November night in Toronto and the humidity inside the El Mocambo had many patrons wearing t-shirts and thirsting for beer. After a considerable wait, the Fiery Furnace’s guitarist and co-founder Matthew Friedberger stepped onto the stage inciting cheers and whistles. Drummer Bob D’Amico and Bassist Jason Loewenstein accompanied him. It wasn’t until they had instruments in hand that Eleanor, the group’s other co-founder and sister to Matthew, made her appearance causing fans to bolster their enthusiastic greeting. A quick wave from Matthew and the show was under way. Lowenstein led with a bass line that sent the speakers crackling, making them sound like they would inevitably blow. A few adjustments on the sound board had things back under control before the rest of the band joined in.
In anticipation of their debut release, Them Crooked Vultures are streaming every single song on their new album for free! The self-titled record is officially due out November 16th in the U.K. and November 17th in the U.S. As an added bonus, iTunes downloads will include two bonus songs from the band. Bonus!
Of all the things Blizzard Entertainment has accomplished in the video game industry, the most interesting thing might simply be the longevity of their titles. Diablo 2 is almost a decade old but continues to be played by a core group of dedicated players thanks to several overhauls of the game design. Diablo 2 is free to play on battle.net and has been since its release. This essay will focus on how the game evolved to keep players interested for such a long period of time.
The design is a traditional RPG except all of the basic elements have been simplified and streamlined into a constant flow. Combat is either to use a physical attack or ability that is executed with a mouse click. There are only 4 attributes to upgrade, each character class is unique through abilities. Since the combat is simple and fluid, the creatures drop items at a rapid rate to keep fighting engaging. Money, magic items, jewels, and other unique goods can be dropped by one of the thousands of different monsters you’ll fight. In other words, the design is a very complex slot machine. Killing things pulls the lever, how you approach fighting is constantly improved and adjusted through the items you win and skills you develop. At a certain point there is, arguably, an ultimate state where you have the best items and are the most efficient at fighting in the game. How Blizzard was able to keep this process engaging for people for so long is through its carefully managed patching process that kept changing what that ultimate state was.
Understanding how a patch works in this game means differentiating it from a mere technical overhaul. The programming glitches and problems in a game will often be fixed through patches. While the Diablo 2 patches still address this aspect, it also changes up the stats of the items and skills. These changes are not always noticeable to the average player. I’ve beaten the game at Normal with several different character classes, but I never really noticed any of the changes. They mainly affected players who continue through the game at higher difficulties, which rewards the effort with better items and tougher enemies. What happens in such a stat heavy game for the devoted player is that they will eventually figure out the most efficient way to play. A group of players from the diii.net forums answered a couple of question and broke down their personal experiences of the game’s evolution for this essay.
Explaining how the game plays today, Flux writes, “At this point there’s very little trial and error, since the game has been out for so many years, and it’s been a long time since a patch really shook things up. Players have long since figured out the best builds and strategies and equipment, and the skill synergy changes in v1.10 did much to limit character variety.” The best armor and weapon in the game have been clearly identified along with the quickest ways to obtain it, leaving little experimentation in the wake of reliable tactics. The consequence, as Flux notes, is that “there’s no need to actually “play” a new character at the lower levels, and it’s become almost a lost art on Battle.net. New characters are rushed through the game by friends (or players do it for themselves by using multiple accounts/computers), all of their gear is twinked (shared amongst a player’s various characters), and come the end game they might only do one or two areas over and over again, and only in large groups.” For a game like Diablo 2, once you identify the final most powerful setup in the game and achieve it, there’s no more incentive to keep playing. The objective of a patch is to then adjust the numbers of this final, epic state so that you keep having to find new tactics. This is called ‘mudflation’ or when a developer introduces new items to a game that make the old ones inferior. The ultimate goal changes and players have something new to do as they find new methods of pulling the lever. Some players aren’t worried about perfectionism, instead just playing with all the different options in this game. BlameGBush describes this approach, “I motivate myself by trying a different build that I’ve never tried before. I’ve had the game since the day it came out, and just when I think I’ve seen all the builds worth playing, one pops up that I haven’t played and its very creative.”
Most of the other users commented that there were two adjustments to the game that radically changed this peak state: the Expansion Pack and Patch 1.10. The first major change to the game was the expansion. Sean Wallace, a longtime player writes, “The expansion was great fun in the beginning, new classes, new enemies, a new Act to play in, new drops, new equipment, new mercenaries, new quests. It was all fun. But…it got REALLY complicated in my opinion.” The two new character classes in the Expansion, the Druid and the Assassin, were overpowered at first before being reigned in by a subsequent patch so that they balanced out. Due to the increased power of the gear monsters might drop, the game’s monsters increased in difficulty overall to compensate. The interesting effect this had on multiplayer was that the Final Act of the game features such powerful monsters who drop so much strong gear that there really isn’t a point in playing the mid-game portions. A player starts a new character in the opening levels then skips to the final Act while a partner kills enemies and levels them up. Although efficient, when a game design starts to encourage skipping the actual game you start to run into a conflict of interest. To the frustration of someone like Sean, who enjoyed sitting and playing the game with others, the Expansion Pack encouraged just playing the last boss over and over because that was the best gear.
The other quirk is that the huge number of powerful items in the game meant people could create characters which significantly overpowered someone without the gear. BlameGBush argues, “I don’t care how skilled you are in this game, if you are a level 90 character with weak items going against a level 90 beginner who bought all his items off ebay, you will die every time. Once players both have relatively equal quality items, then strategy comes into play.” By creating epic gear that only rarely occurred in the game, you encourage people to go outside the intended modes of play to win. Some players used bots to automatically harvest money & items, trading outside the game’s economy, and mule characters to swap out gear. The rare items became so valuable and gave you such an edge that cheating was inevitable. A lot of players even play without the expansion pack installed. Most of the powerful gear is gone while the increased difficulty remains, meaning that group play is more challenging. There’s also no real incentive to skip sections and rush to the final portion of the game because the payoff isn’t as large there.
Although the game has had over a dozen patches, none was considered more game-changing than the 1.10 patch which introduced synergies. This made it so certain abilities boosted each other, radically changing the ways characters powered up while leveling. Although a lot of players like RobbyD were angry that all of their characters were now worthless, but it’s also possible to restore the game back to pre-patch status. Flux explains, “Past patches have made major changes by nerfing(weakening gear), but they usually add new things that are just as imbalanced. Players have usually been more interested in finding the new thing than in grieving over the old one.” Therein lies the key to Blizzard’s success with patching their games: you don’t have to force people to play the game differently. You just keep changing the final goal of the game and they adjust accordingly.
It’s interesting how this dynamic reflects back on a more casual player like myself. I spent most of my time as the Sorceress milking Chain Lightening and Fireball, ignoring the stronger spells except to try them out. I dumped all my points into jabbing as an Amazon, boosted my immunity to elemental attacks as a Paladin, or became a wicked teleporter as an Assassin. I wouldn’t call the game hard at this setting but you still have to put together some kind of strategy with your skills to get very far. The difficulty’s biggest impact seems to mostly be not leaving any room for experimenting. I could afford to dump a few random points into skills just to see what they did, while on higher difficulty every bit counts. I found a couple of rare pieces of loot while playing that were fun to wear but it’s not like I ever really needed them at Normal. Diablo 2 is impressive in that regard, the players interested in playing at the max difficulty get stuck having to farm the last level. The ones who are just playing around at lighter difficulties are the ones sightseeing anyways. Diablo 2’s experience is both enormous literally and in the way your playstyle can change everything about it.
Damn! Mariah is just all that. When watching Mariah perform “Fly Like a Bird” before this audience of idols, notice how much stronger her voice becomes once the choir comes out and pumps her up; she raises that hand up high, high, and higher, as if to say Amen! I love how Mariah doesn’t compete with her back-up singers, and can hold her own with that massive choir. Only Phil Spector has created a more comprehensive ‘wall of sound’, and yet this diva does it with her own musicality.
One should also note that Mariah not only hits those whistle tones, but also manages a lyric or two in that soaring tone. Divas like her need not state it, they just do it. The richness, of course, of Mariah’s voice is the range—her coloring of each note as she descends from high to low, a fluttering Mimi mimics with her fingers and open palm.
Watching Mariah perform is like a dyslexic’s wet dream: We see and hear in 3D, and Mariah is giving us mega-mega stimulation to all our senses. We can see the world she describes, while at the same time picture the lyrics written on the page, as she writes them and works with her pianist—Mariah notoriously cannot read the 2D representation of her music. At the same time, many dyslexics respond to the audio stimulation, how they, too, are rendered in 2D, but also sees the band, their fingers strumming or snapping, horns blowing, sticks striking, toes tapping, and symbols calling. One can even smell the sweetness of the flowers near the butterflies in all the imagery Mariah surrounds herself with, and feel the crispness of the air as the dove Mariah uses for her background in this performance soars, flying to the sky, praying only, that we know peace.
Will we recover
Will the world ever be
A place of peace and harmony
With no war and with
And no brutality
If we loved each other
We would find victory
But in this harsh reality
Sometimes I’m so despondent
That I feel the need to
Fly like a bird, take to the sky
Mariah imagines this world, and the music comes out. To many it sounds like sheer fantasy, since the presence of war, for the 2D seeing world, implies that war should be. The persistence of war convinces many that war is normal. Yet, the dyslexic who has honed in on their skill in seeing in 3D uses each and every sense to comprise this comprehensive vision of what is being presented, and therefore we can more easily see how things can also just be different. In popular culture, we can see 3D perception in The Matrix during that famous scene in the trilogy’s first installation where the actors are frozen in space, and the perspective shifts around—we find out later that several cameras and digital tricks produced these seamless images, but this is basically how many dyslexics perceive the world around them. We also witnessed this same skill in A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash, portrayed by Russell Crowe, can look at social situations and ‘see’ patterns. In the movie these patterns were cinematically drawn over the screen, but this is how people see in 3D. The same was shown in X-Men: The Last Stand. The character Jean Grey’s alter ego Phoenix threatens Magneto with a gun that she takes apart, disassembling it into several pieces; the audience sees this in 3D, but this is how we normally see.
We also see 3D perception in the popular TV show Heroes, in which the character Sylar can take things apart and put them back together. He knows how things work. And that’s just it, dyslexics are often portrayed as mad. Only the astute dyslexic would have caught the reference to dyslexia in how Sylar’s nemesis, Peter Petrelli, was able to access that same ability through identifying with other people, but it is his father, Arthur Petrelli, who clarified that the skill was really based on empathy—knowing how people work by genuinely seeing another person’s perspective. Unlike all these fictional characters, we do not have to destroy others—like Sylar—in order to embrace their power. That’s 3D vision, for it is not just a way of seeing, but also a way of looking at things. In the real world, a famous dyslexic once penned:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Religion or not, it’s bossy how these talented people keep pressing for peace. It’s all that to just witness Mariah’s pleas, and uplifting to bear witness to her testimonial, and praise for living. In that way, it’s blues at its best. She doesn’t shy away from despondency, nor does she ail in calling out the war and inhumanity that others let slip by in our daily lives. She witnesses and testifies, and on that account she embraces her own strength and realigns that with her convictions. It’s just something real for a change, and it’s nice to share it in 3D.