Friday, September 13, 2013

DUST 514: The Dark Side of 1.4

Before I continue with my DUST tutorial, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the things that don't endear me to the game, now at version 1.4. Despite the fact that I've been playing for all of a month (or maybe because of it), I have definitely formed some very strong opinions about things that I see as just plain wrong about the game.


This is the single biggest problem with DUST. Current matchmaking results in heavily unbalanced team matchups and lead to something called "Proto-stomping."

Proto-stomping occurs when players who have been playing this game the longest (many from the original closed betas last summer) come online with their best prototype dropsuits and weapons and just stomp the shit out of the other team. As near as I can tell, this happens because DUST's matchmaking wasn't taking into account the total "attack power" of a team prior to the most recent 1.4 patch.

Post-patch, Scotty (the new matchmaking AI) still has a lot of bugs and issues. While Scotty now appears to be trying to balance out teams by their hitting power, this is occurring on a team based level - which in my opinion doesn't offer enough granularity. You can have a whole team of people equipped in average equipment paired up with a team full of people with low end equipment and one proto-equipped squad. That proto-equipped team will likely still murder you.

As a beginner player, if you get placed into a team where many people are running advanced and proto gear, you're likely to also get killed repeatedly as the team on the other side will have many players you just can't kill. Let's not forget the arbitrary 1500 War Point cap for beginner players to be promoted out of Academy (training grounds) into the general populace. I see this as perhaps the single biggest reason for proto-stomping. People proto-stomp because they can get a lot of points from easy kills to keep leveling up their characters.

As I see it, the only way matchmaking can be fixed is for the AI to gain greater granularity all around. Instead of matching up teams by total attack power, they need to make sure that each side is balanced down to the individual player level. Proto teams should be matched up against other proto teams and they can have at it. I think less people will be tempted to proto-stomp (due to the ISK cost of the equipment involved) when they know they are likely to incur a huge financial risk by playing this way.

Next, I think that points gained in battle should be relative to the player. If you are in proto gear and kill a newbie you should get less points because it was an easy kill. But if you get killed by a newbie in proto gear, the newbie should get more points because you're worth more. This will also dissuade proto-stomping because people in proto-gear won't be able to quickly grind points by preying on weaker players.

Finally, I think that new players need to be able to remain in Academy far longer than the 1500 War Point cap. I think that number should be closer to 20000 minimum or perhaps have a time limit such as a few weeks in Academy matches. This gives players a chance to learn the intricacies of the game and continue to be competitive against other people that are similarly matched in gear and ability. New players should be given an option to play in Academy matches or venture out into the general populace as they see fit.

Vehicular Manslaughter

One of the biggest complaints prior to the 1.4 patch was what was commonly referred to as "murder-taxis." Murder-taxis are LAVs, basically jeeps, that are driven around by players and used to hit other players for kills. In my 30 days of playing, I've seen players rack up ridiculous numbers of kills per game many times in the 20's and up mainly by driving around in a jeep. Get a clue! DUST is a FIRST PERSON SHOOTER, not GTA on steroids!

Post 1.4, the effect of the murder-taxi has been toned down a bit. Where you used to be able to kill people at almost any speed by hitting them, now murder-taxis need to be traveling at full speed in order to kill. While this is a big improvement, it doesn't go far enough in my view.

What happens to a moving vehicle when they hit a man sized object at speed? They get totaled - that's what happens in the real world. These murder-taxis are hitting players in armored and shielded dropsuits. You'd think they should take a lot more damage than what they are taking now. I have no issue if you get killed being run over by a tank, because that makes sense. But getting killed by a LAV and then watching that jeep merrily drive away makes my blood boil.

I will state the obvious again: DUST is primarily a shooter and people should play it that way. LAV's are support vehicles, and they should be used to support other ground vehicles and provide fast ground transport for troops. If a player decides to hit an armored and shielded opponent, the LAV should take the appropriate amount of damage based on speed of impact, up to the point where a full speed hit on a single player could possibly total the LAV. Again this should dissuade people from driving their way through a shooting game.


Being a shooter, DUST will basically survive or fail based on the balancing of the various weapons available to players. Post 1.4, there are issues with two weapons: Mass Drivers and Laser rifles. Prior to the 1.4 patch, laser rifles had iron sights and were not nearly as powerful as they are now post 1.4. Now, you get a nice laser dot that tells you where your shot will land, and the power of laser rifles has been amped up.

My main character is running an advanced medium assault suit. It has just over 400 points in armor and 160 shields. I find myself getting killed with about a half-dozen on target hits by laser rifles. That just doesn't feel right. I have two starter characters in basic suits and they get killed with about 3 decent hits! If you make the laser rifle easier to hit with, you should reduce the damage so it takes more hits to kill.

Another weapon that continues to grief all current players are mass drivers. They are basically grenade launchers. However, in their current form they might as well be highly mobile tank turrets. The cycle rate, ammo count and splash damage combine to allow basically one player in a strategic location to wipe out entire squads.

I don't mind the splash damage because grenades do splash damage, I can live with that. If you take a direct hit from a grenade you die. But I can't live with the fact that you can plaster an area with about 2 mass driver shots per second. It doesn't take much skill to kill with a mass driver, and the current setup allows a player running a mass driver to rack up a lot of kills very quickly.

In my opinion, they should reduce the cycle rate to about 1/2 to 1/3 what it is now, reduce the ammo count and also increase loading times for the weapons in order to balance them out. These restrictions will ensure that you will actually need more skill to kill with this weapon rather than being able to kill by taking pot shots at other players.

There are other issues and bugs, but they are understandable given that the game is provided free of charge and that it is continually being patched, changed and hopefully improved. Despite these concerns and my personal play experience, I have generally enjoyed this game. It is my hope that CCP do a better job listening to the concerns of players and dealing with them in a timely manner. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Post-Jobs Apple is in serious trouble

Say what you will about Steve Jobs, but the man was a visionary. Somehow, despite all his detractors and against huge odds, he was able to transform Apple from a computer company into a media conglomerate. Make no mistake, Apple has been out of the hardware business for a long time now as most of their revenue is driven by purchases from iTunes and the App Store. Apple's hardware is now only a reason for people to consume content provided by Apple's online stores.

However, Apple under Tim Cook seems to be digging itself into serious trouble. The first, and in my opinion the worst, faux-pas is their continuing lawsuits against Samsung globally. Public reaction to this continuing legal morass has ranged from tepid to outright ridicule and has done more to drive consumers to Samsung products than any other single factor I can think of. From a public relations standpoint, Apple accusing Samsung of being unoriginal copycats, have highlighted the fact that Apple is itself even more guilty of this than their competitor.

Consider that four product generations have now passed from the iPhone 4 to the just announced iPhone 5S without much in the way of originality or change. Except for the slightly larger 4" screen on the iPhone 5 series, each successive generational product has been largely incremental and rather forgettable. With each successive generation, consumers are complaining about the lack of product leadership that marked Apple under Steve Jobs, but Apple seems to be out to lunch. Where is the surprise, the flash, the excitement of past product launches?

The industrial design for the iPhone seems permanently stuck in neutral as Apple's preference is to play it safe rather than go for something startlingly fresh or new. And despite the larger 4" screen on the 5/5S, the 5-inch plus large screen market pioneered by Samsung has largely passed Apple by. Even in Asia where consumers have much smaller hands, everyone appears to prefer the larger screen Samsung (and Android smartphones in general) over Apple's offerings. Big screens are in, but Apple seems oblivious or grudgingly resistant to this market trend.

The second mistake has probably impacted Apple from an operational standpoint. Samsung isn't just a competitor to Apple in the marketplace, they are also a huge semiconductor manufacturer and vendor of strategic components and services. Samsung provides foundry services, and manufactures DRAM, FLASH, advanced displays (AMOLED anyone?), and all the other various bits and pieces that go into smartphones and tablets.

All of Apple's CPUs prior to the A6 were manufactured for Apple by Samsung Semiconductor. A large portion of the DDR DRAM and FLASH memory were also provided by Samsung since Samsung is the world's largest supplier of memory products with 50% global market share. Apple is still the single largest consumer of mobile memory and FLASH products in the world.

While I don't know the extent of the impact this has had to Apple's sourcing and logistics, I can safely say the impact isn't zero. If Samsung really wanted to put the kibosh on Apple, they could refuse to sell DRAM or FLASH to them, or raise the price as there is not enough supply in the world to satisfy Apple from the balance of remaining suppliers. Smart move on Apple's part? I think not.

And finally, yesterday Apple announced the new iPhone 5S and 5C. The 5C was rumored to be a potential Trojan horse for Apple to win back lost market share by adding a "low cost" model to their product lineup. However, pricing revealed that off contract the 5C is almost as expensive as the "regular" iPhones. Who would want to pay for something that expensive made out of plastic? Apple completely missed the boat and squandered a strategic opportunity to address their shrinking market share in the face of Android's assault.

And that's not all. The 5S comes in three colors now and none of them are the classic black or white which has become the trademark colors for all iPhones. Would it have hurt Apple to add three new colors in addition to the classic black and white?

When Jobs passed away, Tim Cook assured us all that Steve Jobs' influence in future product designs would continue to be felt for some time to come. However, given what's been going on lately at Apple, it's hard to say if Tim Cook is going strictly by Jobs' playbook or has actually been second guessing his work. What we do know is that Apple doesn't look as surefooted as when Jobs was at the helm.

I've used iPhones for many years and also have an iPad and iPod Touch. But lately, I've found myself less and less enchanted by the prospect of spending a premium amount of money for virtually the same thing as I already have. For my money, my next smartphone will probably be an Android device.

DUST 514: 30 days and counting...

I have been playing DUST 514 for about one month now, and in that time I've created 4 characters and 2 separate login accounts on PSN, due mainly to ongoing realizations about how to take the best advantage of the game's framework and rules. While the shooter mechanics are pretty straightforward, the game is quite complex when you consider all the various options available to you as a player.

The first character I had created lasted all of 48 hours. I quickly realized that the starting 500,000 skill points were incorrectly allocated across too many items resulting in very little progress on any given front. There isn't much in the way of a tutorial for this game and you are tossed into an environment with a pretty steep learning curve.

The three main categories that would concern new players are Dropsuit Command, Dropsuit Upgrades and Weaponry. I quickly realized that I had wastefully allocated my starting skill points into too many skills. None of them made much of an impact at low levels and it would take me at least 2 weeks to get enough points to start to make corrections. Oops.

My second character fared much better and has been the main character I've been playing for the past month. I went with an Assault class and skilled into the Gallente Medium Advanced Assault Dropsuit off the bat. Truth be told, I'm not the best FPS player so I figured the Gallente dropsuits which emphasize more armor would be a good place to start.

While more armor kept me alive a little bit longer, I still got killed a lot. I came to the realization that situational awareness and cover are actually more important than how much shields and armor you have. Keeping track of where you are, versus where the enemy is, as well as making sure that you shoot from cover and have someplace to safely duck behind while your shields/armor regenerate is much more important to staying alive than being built like a tank.

This led me to making my third character about 20 days into playing DUST. As an experiment, I decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of going for a good dropsuit first, I decided to directly level my weaponry for more damage out of the gate. At this point I found that I was getting better at watching what was going on both in battle and on my HUD, so I figured I could give up better protection for more weapon damage.

The result was that I was actually scoring better early on as I was dealing more damage, despite the crappy basic dropsuit. The key was avoiding situations that would surely get you killed. This proves that playing smarter actually keeps you alive longer despite the fact that I had crappy armor. Again, cover and situational awareness are key to surviving.

Also, for my third character I went with a female since I was told that female characters are physically smaller than their male counterparts and therefore make them a bit harder to hit. In theory it sounded good, but in practice, I haven't noticed too much of a difference as most of the shooting is done at fairly close ranges. The hit detection in DUST 514 seems a bit suspect, to me at least.

I chose to go with a Caldari suit for my third character. Caldari suits emphasize shields over armor, which is the exact opposite of Gallente dropsuits. While the Gallente suit can make you a little tougher to kill, armor regenerates more slowly than shields. With enough shields and a higher level shield regenerator, you can quickly alternate between fire and cover. On a Gallente suit, once your shields are gone every hit penetrates armor and that takes a lot longer to regenerate.

And finally, I started my fourth character on a new PSN account today. The reason is that while you are allowed to play up to three characters per PSN account on DUST 514, only one character can be assigned to receive passive skill points. Passive skill points accrue at about 1,000 points per hour so you get 24,000 free points every day. With both my second and third characters on the same PSN account, I have to choose which one gets the passive SP bonus. Putting my fourth character on a separate PSN account means that it gets the passive bonus separately from my main account.

Also for my fourth character, I decided to make what is called an Assault/Logi. Logi (short for Logistics) characters can easily rack up a lot of points during battle by providing essential support services, other than just straight killing the enemy. Logis heal teammates, repair their armor/shields, repair vehicles etc. These actions give additional points not available to straight assault or heavy class characters.

Logis can be a little hard to play at the beginning. In order to be effective, you have more equipment you need to level up above and beyond your primary weapon. However, in the long run, you will consistently score more points than other character classes that score based only on killing the other side.

DUST 514 has a massive tech/skill tree for each of the 4 races present in the game. While choosing any particular race doesn't affect anything other than your starting location within the DUST/EVE universe, the dropsuits of each of the 4 races vary quite a bit. If you further consider the different classes such as assault, anti-armor, sniper, logistics and heavies, then there is a very wide range of options that you can skill into to optimize each of these classes.

As mentioned previously, the main categories important for the beginning player are Dropsuit Command, Dropsuit Upgrades and Weaponry. Dropsuit Command determines what class of dropsuit you skill into, i.e. light, medium or heavy; and also the level, i.e. basic, advanced or prototype.

You can choose the dropsuit of any race, but you really should focus on the suit that would be optimum for the class and role you plan to take on the battlefield. It takes a long time to move from basic to advanced and finally prototype suits so for the first 2-3 months, you're going to be stuck with leveling your one suit.

Dropsuit upgrades affect and optimize the different abilities of the various dropsuits. There are skills for increasing the effectiveness of armor and shields as well as core system upgrades that affect things such as available CPU/PG and allows you to use equipment such as active scanners, drop uplinks and nanohives or improve skills such as hacking which is required to capture resources on the battlefield.

Finally the Weaponry skill determines the class and type of weapon you can use. Weapons are separated into several categories including light weapons which cover the various types of assault rifles, sidearms which cover pistols and SMGs, and finally heavy weapons such as the heavy machine gun or forge guns.

As you can see, there is a huge amount of choice and customization available for every player to create a character suited to their playing style. In my next update, I'll get into the various classes and how they work together on the battlefield.