Book of the Month: The Martian

I’m a big fan of science fiction stories in books, movies and video games. A lot of them however are much stronger on the fiction than on the science part. So I’m really happy if once in awhile I find a story which combines science with a good plot. When a friend told me about Andy Weir‘s novel The Martian it sounded like it might be able to deliver both.

The main protagonist of the The Martian is the NASA astronaut Mark Watney. When the crew of the third manned mission to Mars has to make an emergency liftoff, before a massive sandstorm destroys their spaceship, Mark is presumed dead and left behind on the surface of the planet. He survives the storm but is now faced with the massive challenge of survival. As the expedition’s artificial habitat and all their supplies remained on the planet Mark is safe for now. But even if none of the technology that keeps him alive fails he will eventually starve. Mark can also not contact NASA to let them know that he is alive because the storm destroyed all his means of communication. He can only rely on himself to secure his rescue.

The Martian is indeed a proper science novel. Space travel to Mars doesn’t rely on fantastic inventions like a warp drive. It relies on the appropriate and horribly expensive combination of existing space travel technology. If humanity would strive to send astronauts to Mars in the near future it would probably work similar to what is described in the book. The description of the planet Mars itself is also very accurate. There are no aliens and no mysterious ruins. It is just a gigantic barren red desert full of sand and rocks. But the harsh environment with little atmosphere, no water and extremely low temperatures is enough of a challenge anyway. The main character, Mark Watney, is not the typical hero. He is an engineer and scientist, the kind of geek you would expect on a scientific expedition. But these abilities combined with his unbreakable optimism might actually save him.

Andy Weir expertly combines science, technology and human aspects into a gripping tale. You can tell that he has read classic masterworks of science fiction like the stories written by Isaac Asimov. Without any space battles, aliens or fantastic worlds the book is so exciting that I just couldn’t put it away. If you enjoy science fiction novels this book is an absolute must read.

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R.I.P. beaver

Yesterday Markus’s server beaver was switched off after more than eight years of service. We initially had a lot of trouble with this machine because of a dodgy PCI network card that caused complete system hangs due to PCI bus errors. It was a long painful process to diagnose this problem which included unnecessarily replacing the mainboard and installing a hardware RAID controller. But after the faulty card was removed the machine worked very reliable. beaver had an uptime of 327 days when it was shutdown. We even enjoyed a small miracle in the form of two Western Digital IDE RAID Edition hard disks that survived more than seven years of 24/7 service without any problems.

In the last couple of years beaver‘s performance had been a bit underwhelming. With its old CPU, a 2GHz Pentium IV, and the moderate one gigabyte main memory it was simply underpowered to serve as the backend for modern web applications. The MySQL database server in particular took its toll.

beaver is survived by tiger which now provides backup DNS and mail services for my domains. With a quad core CPU and four gigabyte main memory it feels infinitely faster than the old machine. tiger even easily handles being (ab)used as a Minecraft server. 🙂

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How to ruin a video game with a DLC

A lot of video (and computer) games can be expanded via Downloadable Content (DLCs). A DLC provides more missions, stories, characters or gear. BioWare for example did an outstanding job with the five free DLCs for Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer mode. They more than doubled the number of maps, characters and weapons and even added a new enemy faction and a challenge systems. This was the main reason for the long lasting success of Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer mode. Unfortunately not all expansions are that good. Some are boring and add very little to the experience of the original game. But none of the DLCs that I played in the past actually made the original game worse. However there is a first time for everything.

The game I spent most time playing last year was most likely Destiny. The original game had some flaws:

  • The piecemeal story telling left many open questions and caused confusion.
  • The game featured too little content, in particular for a game that is supposed to last for a decade.
  • It required too much grinding to unlock interesting modes of game play and to obtain anything but beginner level gear for your character.
  • The high level activities like the raid in the Vault of Glass, Nightfall Strikes or Weekly Heroic Strikes required multiple players (up to 6) but lacked any form of match making. The player community had to help themselves because Bungie were unwilling to even acknowledge this problem.

A DLC would have been an excellent opportunity to fix several of these issues, in particular the incomplete story telling and the lack of content. But when the first extension The Dark Below was announced the hopes of the fans were disappointed. The DLC costs half the price of the original game. For this price it should have included 2 new planets, 2 new enemy factions, 10 story missions, 4 strikes and 1/2 raid. Unfortunately it actually offered much less:

  • 3 new story missions
  • 2 strikes
  • 1 raid (actually 3/4 of a raid at best in my opinion)

Based on that I initially decided not to buy the DLC. I was expecting that I could just keep playing Destiny as before and simply not have access to the new content. But it turned out I was wrong. In the very first week after the DLC was released Bungie selected one of the new strikes as the Nightfall Strike and Weekly Heroic Strike. There was no alternative whatsoever and a lot of the existing player base was locked out from two of the most rewarding activities in the game for a whole week. After a few days they also added two of the DLC story missions to the rotation of the Daily Heroic Mission. Normally it takes about two weeks until a mission appears again on this rotation. But one of the two DLC story mission is scheduled as the Daily Heroic Mission every three days. This is not only unfair to the existing players it is also annoying to the player who bought the DLC because they have to complete these missions very often to get the rewards. But Bungie didn’t stop there. They also changed the rotation of the Nightfall Strike and Weekly Heroic Strike to feature one of the new strikes (always the same one, as the second one is only available on PlayStation 3 and 4) every three weeks. This is again annoying to both the player with and without the DLC. Unfortunately Bungie got to me with this clever marketing strategy and I bought the DLC against my better judgement.

So Bungie failed to improve the story telling (there are again only fragments in the new story missions) or to address the lack of content. But what about the grinding? Believe it or not: they actually made it worse, much worse in fact. They e.g. changed the existing Vanguard and Crucible ranking and equipment vendors for all players (with and without DLC):

  • To buy Vanguard (or Crucible) armour your character still needs to reach reputation rank 2.
  • However chest armour and helmets now require a Vanguard Commendation (or Crucible Commendation). But players only get one of these commendations if their character reaches rank 3 or any rank above 3. A new player therefore needs to reach rank 4 with his or her character before they can buy the complete set of amour. And they need this armour very much to level up far enough to take part in the high level activities.
  • The vendors now also charge more Vanguard Marks for the armour. Previously 195 Vanguard Marks would get you a chest armour, greaves and gauntlet. Since the DLC a player needs 225 marks to purchase these three pieces of armour. And with a weekly limit of 100 Vanguard Marks per character it takes players an extra week to acquire these.
  • Even experienced players which reached level 30 before the DLC was released have to get the new Vanguard gear. It is higher level than all the previous gear (including raid gear) and required to beat the new raid.

There is more equipment related grinding. The existing exotic gear hasn’t become obsolete. But if you have acquired it before the DLC was released it has to be upgraded via one particular vendor (which is only available on Fridays and Saturdays) to reach the new maximum level. The upgrade doesn’t only require two kinds of currency (which you will have to grind for), it will also reset all the gear to its basic state. And a lot of the exotic weapons are quite mediocre until you level them up to unlock their unique features. And levelling them up of course requires grinding. This upgrade scheme is particular bad for the most devoted players because they will have considerably more exotic gear than the average player.

Bungie also added another reputation system called Crota’s Bane. It is particular hard to level up because you can only do so via the limited amount of daily bounties. It will take a player about two weeks to reach rank 3 and another two weeks to reach rank 4. There are no particular nice rewards for doing so except the ability to buy or exchange upgrade materials that you need for some of the DLC weapons. The set of available bounties is also relatively small which results in a lot of repetition. And if you just play the game (and try to have some fun) you will struggle to complete these bounties. Instead players have to come up with cheesy strategies like playing the same sequence of the same story mission again and again.

And that is not the end of the grinding! The main complaint about the existing raid was the unfair gear drop system. Quite frequently all you got for completing the raid was a lot of upgrade materials and maybe an armour shader. This is of course very disappointing when you are after the unique raid gear. In any other game you could simply play the same or a similar mission again. But in Destiny you only get gear drops from a raid once per week per character, no matter how many times you complete it. That left players a lot of time to ponder over their bad luck.

In this case Bungie actually acknowledged that this is a problem and promised to improve this for the new raid. And indeed players get upgrade materials less often when they complete it. However this doesn’t help them at all because the necessary upgrade materials now only drop in the raid. As a result players still need to complete the raid and even more often because they can otherwise never upgrade their raid gear and reach level 32. To avoid having to wait several weeks a lot of players created multiple characters of the same class and ran the raid with all of them every week. The game design again encourages players to combine grinding with cheesy tactics rather than to enjoy the game.

But the best part is still to come: in a few weeks all that grinding will have been for nothing. Bungie already announced that the next DLC (rumoured to be available in March) will increase the maximum level to 34. And just as The Dark Below rendered all the original raid gear obsolete the next DLC will render all the DLC raid gear obsolete. The whole circle of grinding will start all over again.

You may now wonder whether Bungie at least did something about the match making? No, they didn’t. You still have to assemble a team for weekly strikes or raids yourself. Bungie actually tried to justify this decision with the design of the new raid. Instead of another interesting puzzle like the Vault of Glass they’ve created a lacklustre sequence of hardcore combat encounters. Without a well coordinated group of six players which have been playing Destiny together for weeks you will struggle a lot. Bungie either don’t understand or don’t care that a lot of the fans of this game are not part of such a group. The only reason that the new raid didn’t cause a lot of frustration were the huge number of bugs in it. By abusing these bugs the players could once more work around poor game design by employing very cheesy tactics.

Destiny was a decent game when it was first released. I only wish I had quit playing it when the DLC got released. Well, you never stop learning.

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