Facebook buys Oculus VR and why I shop at the corner store.

It’s all over the place by now. I don’t get excited about things. It’s a habit I’ve developed, I don’t claim to have invented it but the jist of it is that the less you expect from people the fewer things you are likely to be disappointed about. Every once in a while though something brings a tantalizingly great promise and everything points to that promise coming to fruition.

I’ve quietly been following Oculus Rift since I first heard about the kickstarter about a year or so ago. It looked GREAT. Notch was backing it, all the makings of a great technology looked like they were coming into place, and best of all it was open, like Wikipedia.(read my previous post on why that’s a good thing) which meant it was no strings attached if you could pay roughly $300 for the hardware. An effort surely, but worth it if you are genuinely interested and it’s something you feel will enhance your life in some way – and it certainly would make gaming a lot more interesting. Now that Facebook has bought it, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet by not pre-ordering.

I used to have a Facebook account. I don’t anymore because as so many people in so many comment sections have put it: If it’s free and social, you’re not the customer, you are the product, and I will not have my life traded for profit. Used to be that villains would ask: “your money or your life” and people would have the good sense to pay up, somehow that has now changed and they are all too happy to plaster every minute detail of everything they do onto the internet. Companies like Facebook take this information and attempt to use it to make a model of who you are and then sell this model on for profit. I do not understand how people do not see anything sinister about this business practice and how so many continue to knowingly expose themselves in this way.

I live in Romania, that’s poignant because up until 1989 we had the most murderous secret police of the entire communist bloc, save maybe for the NKVD in Stalin’s days. They would spend enormous resources looking for dissent in any shape they could find it and being picked up off the street and shot in a forest on the outskirts of Bucharest for harboring anti communist views was a real possibility if you weren’t remotely famous. Neighbours could be informants, at least one person in your high-school class was one for sure, you could not trust anyone… even family. And here we are today, willingly ratting ourselves out to an extent beyond Beria’s wildest dreams back in the 50s, just so we can look at pictures of cats.

I shop at a corner store downstairs from my building. Two sisters own it. One of them has a daughter about five years old. I say hello when I walk in and they know who I am. Things are slightly more expensive there than in the Cora across the street, by about 5-10%. They have some things I could find for a lot less in Cora. But they don’t have a metal detector at the door, they also don’t scan my body for radioactive tags when I walk out the door just in case I’m a criminal. Bouncers don’t force me to seal my backpack into a one time use plastic bag also just in case I’m a criminal. Sure they have security cameras, but that video only gets watched if something happens, no one is actively watching where in the store I wonder just to see what colours (coulours autocorrect C O L O U R S) I’m most attracted to and what scents entice me the most. No. My money goes toward feeding that kid and putting a smile on her face. They teach me how to do a better job at my own work, and to them each customer really does matter, because their bottom line isn’t a ten digit number and money is a means to an end, not the end itself.

What does this have to do with next generation virtual reality gaming Kirk?

Oculus Rift was pitched to backers as a technology by gamers, for gamers. Independent developers like Mojang flocked to support the concept and bring it to market in a way that would make it self sustaining. It should have become an independent platform to support a virtual revolution showcasing a rejection of big budgets and monolithic money grabbing companies like EA and Sony. What happened was that greed won out yet again. People say that $2.000.000.000 is a lot of money that can be invested into the product and that this is now making Oculus VR a household name. This ignores the fact that Facebook shares make up $1.600.000.000 of the sum. How do Facebook shares help the product? The rest also went to the relevant stake holders in the company. The $2.000.000.000 was not an investment, it was a price. Facebook has yet to invest a single cent into the company and judging by the reaction of gaming communities (Project Valkyrie by CCP – the flagship of Oculus Rift comes to mind here) nails are already being driven into its’ coffin. No one in these crowds would touch anything that has anything to do with Facebook with a bargepole, let alone flog $300 at it.

To turn a profit on this investment Facebook will ask you for “your money AND your life” and from me, they’re getting neither.

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Eve Online is not a second job.

Controversial I know, yet this is the kind of statement that keeps people away from MMOs. You could say that they get played a lot and that some people play them more than they should but I will retort with “people drink wine more than they should” wine itself is not a bad beverage. Just like anything else, one should find a way to strike a balance. You can abuse anything and it will be bad for you.

Before I started playing Eve Online I was playing World of Warcraft. I stopped at the end of Cataclysm due to a number of reasons ranging from it no longer being something I enjoyed to the realization that I had spent one out of the last three years of my life literally sat in front of my computer playing my paladin. It was my way of socializing, I made at least one good friend, and spent time with my geographically remote family (Yes). I do not regret this, but it was time to move on and explore other things.

Now, if you are remotely familiar with basic arithmetic that translates to on average eight hours a day which is in fact a full time job. I was juggling this time with an actual full time job and sleep. Some days I played more and some I played less while some I didn’t play at all but all told it was a lot.

I continued to play other games though, rather more casually, and I rediscovered that single player games are fun too. Skyrim was good and so is Kerbal Space Program but ever since I heard about it the first time I had always wanted to play Eve Online. No one I knew was interested though so I ended up putting it off for the longest of time. I finally decided to set up a trial account and give it the old college try.

I was hit with an overwhelming amount of information right from the start and it was quite shocking, though understandable – the game had been developing without me for the past eight years so really no surprise there.  I ended up not getting a subscription after my trial ran out as I felt I was nowhere near confident I could play this fascinating game well. I had even started to believe that maybe it was true wowheads bring capsuleers mean IQ down.

I never really lost interest though and I kept on reading the forums, online guides, watched Youtube videos and was loosely aware of the current in game politics of the time – everybody likes some intrigue.

It took about a year to work the courage back up to to start another trial, this time I had a plan – I was going to be an industrialist, I would build ships and I would make lots of ISK and the game would pay for itself due to the PLEX mechanic. I focused my entire trial on as many industry skills as were available for trial accounts and ended up with about 300 million ISK in my wallet at the end. I thought that was not half bad but soon realized 300 million is really not that much.

I played about as much Eve as I had done WoW for a couple of months but I was far less engaged. You can mine and watch a movie or read, or spend time with your significant other you see. On top of that there is no traditional leveling, your character gains skills in real time whether you are online or not so really when you are playing you are there just to have fun. There is no grind if you are smart about your choices.

Some time went by and I decided to join an NPC null sec group and my entire game changed. The difference in types of people you meet around the Eve universe is staggering. These were laid back guys who play casually, all have jobs and some even have multiple children. Ages range from late teens to late fifties and we have a blast at the weekends.

So there you have it, about seven hundred words in, you’ve been introduced to my MMO history. So why doesn’t it feel like a job Kirk?

Well, I still do industry, I do exploration and until recently I had a player owned station which provided constant passive income. I am not what you would call space rich but ISK is a non issue due to the fact that I have a grasp of the game’s core PvE concepts and through some research I know what I have to do to make enough that both (yes both) my accounts are payed for via ISK income only and I can afford the inevitable loss of ships. The key is engaging with people, start relationships, honor promises and play the meta game. My industrial activity has now shifted from hours of having the client running in the background mining to five minutes a day buying minerals to keep my manufacturing queues going and selling off the product. Sometimes I have to haul but its’ far from what you’d call a full time job.

My main income is from exploration. The last intensive DED site spree I did was several months ago in September, and I am still living off of those proceeds – it took about a week of five to six hours a day exploring. Aside from those five minutes a day I am very rarely online now as the game allows you to take long breaks while still progressing your character. I keep in touch with my Alliance out of game and I am aware of what is going on. I log on when numbers are essential if I can. Nothing is compulsory and everyone understands that.

All things considered I feel that Eve is in fact being misrepresented as one of those games people with no social life whatsoever play. If my previous post has not convinced you about the ridiculousness of such a statement regarding any game, I hope that to some extent this one has maybe cleared up a few things about EVE. It will hurt and you are likely to fail the first couple of times. Eve is unkind to the easily offended and those who would not persevere to overcome obstacles, but once you’re across those tough first couple of months, it all becomes very clear… And a great gaming experience. Fly safe!

In defense of gaming.

I was at work today (I have a feeling a lot of these will be starting with that phrase), when I stumbled into a discussion among my colleagues on the immaturity of gaming. How those who spend all or part of their free time engaged in playing video games are seen as less respectable, as if they are doing something wrong with themselves. Though it was not the case today, I have heard the word “addict” being thrown around with the nonchalance that those who oppose the Bucharest stray dog cull compared it to the Holocaust. Now that I put the proverbial pen to the proverbial paper the very sound of the notion evokes the same reaction that “venereal disease” does. Say it out loud – “video games” – it’s visceral isn’t it? That reaction.

And yet, I am a gamer. I too spend a considerable amount of time playing games. Make no mistake then, mine is a biased view, though this alone does not make it wrong. One could question the reasons for which I am writing this apology, but to defeat it, only sound argument will do.

Gaming as we know it really picked up with the advent of digital computing and even though one could argue chess champions and grannies who play bridge every Thursday night  at their retirement home are also gamers, this is not about them. This is about me.

The first PC game I have ever played was Dune 2. I remember it as if it were yesterday. My brother had brought me along on a visit to his best friend’s house. This guy owned one of maybe four computers in town at the time. I was six or seven years old and I was fascinated. This was right around the time my brother also introduced me to reading things other than folk faerie tales, and I found Karl May and ancient history just as fascinating as I did computers.

This game was a simple strategy game, among the first of its’ kind. You gathered your own resources and used them to build up a base and defeat the AI opponent. You could imagine your own story and watch it unfold in front of your very eyes, write your own history, and take part in it over and over again. It was a concept that still endures and thrives in the “industry” (such a cold word) today, and its’ many avenues, gimmicks, themes, settings and variations are a testament to its’ success. Multiplayer real time strategy games pit two or more human opponents against one another in a fast paced contest of will, skill and mental stamina that few human activities can match. In fact places exist where this sort of contest is a national passtime.

Time went on and around the age of fifteen, through my parents’ recognition of the fact that computers would soon become a very important part of our lives I got my first computer. It wasn’t much even back then, but it could run my favorite games and I was not complaining. I discovered (read – was introduced to by my brother) adventure games and the mesmerizing story of Guybrush Threepwood in “The Curse Of Monkey Island” a surreal adventure game by Lucas Arts. I didn’t know it was a masterpiece at the time as media wasn’t as readily available in 2001 as it is now and games didn’t make their way to my semi rural corner of Eastern Europe as quickly as they do nowadays. I would not do the story justice if I tried to tell it myself and so I point you to wikipedia.

Suffice to say that while I still enjoyed reading, being part of the story and having it told in such a compelling way was an altogether new experience. All manner of puzzles and witty dialogue abounded and made for what I dare describe as a new kind of art form. And that is not me saying it. It’s the British Academy.

Gaming has come a long way since those days. Demand for graphics that are more and more realistic put real strain on the available hardware of the time, and manufacturers continued to amaze by living up to those demands. In fact, my old two gigabyte hard drive could only fit a very small minority of titles coming out today. Gaming has been a driver of innovation in the past two and a half decades. There were others, but gaming has played a decisive role in bringing computers into our homes.

Once those computers were finally networked on a global scale, gaming became social, and has helped many of us come one step closer to living out the dreams of our imaginations. No longer would we be the seemingly unstoppable demigod-like heroes of Diablo, no – we are one of many. Why does that matter? If you were living in a small town where you felt like you didn’t fit in it mattered. Suddenly all these people you could identify with were there and you could talk to them. It felt liberating, and I owe the fact that no one believes me when I say I am a shy person these days entirely to gaming.

I believe that gaming is to what we see today as culture what cinema was at the beginning of the last century and I believe that games have the same artistic value as any kind of other creative endeavor. As such, there is such a thing as kietsch gaming and I will let you decide for yourself what makes a good game and what doesn’t. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.