Monday, 6 December 2021

D07完食感想

D系列終於完結了。

正確來說,天航老師在patreon上的連載早就結束了。實體書本我托人去書展買一本,至今仍未購得。加上疫情之下航運仍未恢復,我終於(暫時)斷了購買實體書的念頭而轉投電子書的懷抱。

說起來這也是我人生第一次購買電子書。我從來都是實體書的堅定擁護者,大概也只有我對D系列的牽掛加上這百年一遇的大環境才能逼我買那麼一本電子書吧?說起來Amazon居然沒有分辨不同地區帳號的功能有夠令人無言。我在網上找到的解答是當不同地區的帳號電郵和密碼俱同時系統會強制登入某一個帳號而使另一個沒法登入。我把密碼改了以後果然就沒有這個問題了。這個帳號→密碼→地區的樹型結構是那門子的大學生project啊?

回到D系列。

要我排名的話,D系列在我印象最深的系列小說裡不是第一也在三甲之列。原因與哈利那種對世界觀著迷的單一原因不同,應該說我對D系列的共嗚感已經超越了單純讀者與作品的關係吧。

(另一個不得不提的本土系列小說是同樣用英文字開頭--Q--的特工系列,不過人家也有自己的苦衷,我們苦苦強求結局也沒用。不知道如果當年乾脆利落地收尾的話大家的評價又會變成怎樣呢?)

我已經忘記了我買D01時候的場景--誰他媽會記得自己買幾千本書之一的場景啊?我買D02的時候倒是記得,因為第二集已成了大家奇待的暢銷作品。D03就更誇張了,書店的海報都要用搶的,我跟同學下課晚了十五分鐘就跟海報緣慳一面……嘛,扯遠了。

D01<<愛因斯坦被摑了一巴>>有著無數會被我銘記的元素。

首先主角很像我(被巴),尤其是外表,我跟D01再版封面的飯頭超像(再次被巴)。而且很重要很重要的一件事是這個封面的飯頭戴了個淺藍色吊墜,跟我的原創角色不謀而合。這……一定不是巧合吧!!

不過這點不是開玩笑的:那種對數字的狂熱跟他中學的成長軌跡都跟我十分相似,單是這點就注定這本小說會被我不停翻出來回味--翻看這本書就像翻看過去自己一樣,甜酸苦辣一次看完還能讓你感覺自己瞬間老了十歲。

D01的世界觀是一個很貼地的香港:舊式屋村、超任紅白機、在巴士上談情說愛(我好像在網誌裡寫過?快忘記了)、還有那個紙醉金迷的八九十年代香港。這些都比我所長大的年代要舊一些,但不妨礙我很早就對那個時代的香港有所向往,所以對這些文中這些描述並不陌生,甚至有點親切感。

我還記得,我把D01買回來後在班上傳了個遍。最後看那位同學過了暑假都沒還回來,我還差點被真的摑了一巴。不過至少我成功讓一堆同學成為了D系列的追隨者,這樣我買第二本收藏也算是值了。

D02緊接著第一集在翌年出版,在同學間依然掀起熱潮。無奈後天航瘋狂拖稿(這是事實),一直還在等的就剩下幾位書蟲。再到後來離開了校園,手上讀本的讀者就只剩我一個。但有些東西比如支持足球隊,當你開了個好頭它總是會吸引你支持下去,D系列就是其中之一。

必須承認我對第三四五六集的記憶遠不及前兩集來得高,排除老人癡呆症等因素後只能說前兩集在因緣際會下看完又看,對其印象當然比後面幾集各自相隔幾年的作品來得深。不過至少每一集的決鬥場景我都還記得:飯頭跟九歌在烏雲密佈的天空下對峙、阿紅作為演奏家在眾目葵葵之下動手竊物、賴飛雲與阿虎在碑林的決戰……天航筆下的高潮就是有這種魔力。這並不是D系列獨有的特質,包括三分球神射手甚至是五環戰士都在此之列。我會記住繼嗣在籃球場上燃盡生命的一戰,卻對同期出版之哈利波特四五六集裡三巫鬥法、決戰神祕部和老鄧之死的場景毫無興趣(就算加上電影改編同樣如此)。

我真的不是想寫D系列的書評,因為那樣我可能得重看整個系列,不過還是容我簡單說個兩點吧。

D系列從一開始就是神祕學大雜燴,卻又能揉合現代科學的觀點加以詮釋(當然經不起嚴謹科學的推敲但這不重要--發射劍氣又可能跟弱核力扯上關係呢?)這種有趣而不覺尷尬的筆觸一直都是這系列的亮點。正如倪匡先生所言,這是難得雜燴起來還好吃的作品,即使拿掉神怪還是好看(具體字眼忘了)。明明不是推理小說,文中卻是伏筆處處,在決戰前夕一次過unwind給你看的爽度甚至不比決戰本身差。你以為「只要我不尷尬,那尷尬的就會是你們」是最高境界嗎?不,最高境界是「你以為會很尷尬,但一下場你除了鼓掌甚麼也記不得了」。

數字貫穿了整部作品,尤其是一頭(D01)一尾(D07)。天航雖不是理科出身但我還是能感受到他找數字fit進去的努力。D01那個四位密碼真的很有趣,長大以後才發現符合文中條件的四位數字其實有兩個,多虧那道密碼門錯誤三次才發警報設定(笑)。D07裡的六位密碼有點掉漆就是,因為那串數字在普通的小童向數學讀物中就很容易接觸到了,我當初就是從麥兜系列那邊看回來的。

*

看到D07後記的一句感觸很深:「如果連屬於香港人的純文字創作也消失的話,香港的文化還剩下甚麼?」

後半句當然有問題:香港那種華洋之交匯的生活方式本身就是一種不可磨滅的文化,即使在2019之後受到催殘稀釋,這種文化卻依然隨香港人漂流到世界不同角落。就算只談創作好了,在本土電影業末落的今天那些拍香港過去三兩年點點滴滴的小本電影依然在金馬獎大有斬獲,不就是香港文化頑強地活著的證明嗎?

他的前半句倒是真的:我無聊上天航的官網一看,除了發現三分球神射手被移出首頁(太偏心了吧,阿米巴系列都還在)以外,還發現原來從D03開始這系列就佔據暢銷書榜,第四五六集甚至分別霸佔了12、15和18年的第一位。我就挺納悶了,前面兩集怎可能沒上榜?

結合前兩本的銷量來看的話,合理解釋就只有一個:書本的市場大不如前,不論是作者的質與量跟讀者的消費意欲兩邊都一直往下。

這不單是「文化沙漠」的問題,也是繁體中文甚至全世界書市都遇到的問題。單看台灣在鮮鮮、冒天相繼倒下後實體書的廣度大不如前;日本的文本銷量也是一路往下,倒是輕小說市場抓住毒物這個財富密碼一路狂推,在市場夠大(別忘了海外的會看日文的人說不定不比日本本土少)的情況下還是活得還可以。

這種問題太艱深,不是我們這種小蝦米可以解決的。我們唯一可以做的就是繼續支持本土創作--支持本土電影製作、支持本土同人、當然也要支持香港的純文字創作者。

天航是我印象中最後一位可以吸引全城追捧的本土作家,單這一點就值得我們支持下去了。

等航運恢復後我一定要買一本D07實體版收藏,希望到時還沒賣光吧?

Monday, 15 November 2021

Short comments on CTWC2021

 

Both entering level 29 (aka the kill screen...or the second transition) with 1.15m, Richy proceeded and scored another 200k using the rolling technique. (Source: CTWC Twitch stream)

*

CTWC2021 has just concluded. Pretty low profile comparing to to last year. Although admittedly I had time last year to watch the whole tourney due to some coincidences.

Still I got the chance to have a quick glance on some of the group stage fights of those veterans, and of course caught the live stream for the finals today. Dog performed so consistently that although we found his opponents sometimes outperforming him he met no real troubles in overall. Now a reigning champion, but it's hard to tell whether he will win as well next year, and the 7 times champions Jonas will always be the legend to be remembered.

So, anything special about CTWC2021 comparing with the 2020 ones?

Many focused on how rolling would destroy hypertappers (the era of DAS is for sure gone forever), but the tournament showed that rolling has a long way to go before such style starts to outperform in general.

The output of rolling has been inconsistent, as shown by the performance of rollers in their daily practices or even during the qualifiers. At best you see Richy scoring another 200k+ post level 29 and at worst you see others topping out at 100k. The aggressiveness brings you survivability in the worst condition, but they do not always bring you the cleanest of the boards.

That leads to our second observation: hypertappers are still evolving in consistency. When hypertapping was first introduced it was sought as a way to handle bad situations from level 19. Then it was used to grind a little more from level 29. But people realized the most efficient way of hypertapping is to get aggressive in regular (level 1-28) gameplay for more Tetrises -- but not overly aggressive. What we observed this year is a big step by hypertappers edging closer to optimal efficiency, a balance between scoring and consistency. Dog in particular showed that top level hypertapping could reach 1.1-1.2m regularly which would always give you at least a 3-1 if not 3-0.

We would expect the same development trail for rollers. In the experimenting stage they get to solve bad situations from level 19, then the second step is to grind a hell lot more from level 29. Rollers this year already grind quite a lot out there but it's just not consistent enough. The same goes for rolling at lower levels. They have not been able to control as precise as hypertappers so their Tetris efficiency is dragging them down, so they need to devise a way to score properly as well. The strategy could be completely different from hypertapping strategies though -- the frequency and accuracy of making inputs makes the crucial difference. 

As an intermediate solution, some rollers took a hybrid approach using hypertappings before level 29. This is a sensible way of playing considering that hypertapping could probably perform close to optimal with hypertapping already so there is no need to take the risk. The only problem is to transform into the rolling stance during the light speed gameplay.

How long would it take before rollers start to boss over hypertapping in both the pre-29 and post-29 phase? This is hard to tell. It took hypertappers a few years before it finally sentenced the death of DAS, and the improvement made these two years after Joseph first won the tourney, is still significant. It may not take as long for rollers due to higher exposure to public, higher attention as a game and more top level fights held regularly and so on, but it will take some time for sure.

Rollers or not, the overall performance still improved by a lot. Remember what I describe the Koryan match as the most epic ever game with 1.1m each? Well, we have 1.2m each games this year and a hell load of 1.1m each games. Still I think that battle last year remains as the more dramatic ones, but higher scores are higher scores. We observed a major performance boost this year, and I expect the same to happen next year. The only uncertainty is that when lockdown is over for major countries, will the tournament be held completely online anymore? Does that affect out-of-America players? This is even a harder question to answer, but we will see next year.

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Exposure of LETFs and why we don't need cash in the portfolio

Since when did I last wrote financial/stock market stuffs? Probably not since 2008. That doesn't mean I stopped interacting with the market though.

One major change is that ETFs (exchange traded funds) have been much more popular since 10 or 20 years ago instead of ETNs or traditional mutual funds. Simple index funds like SPY and QQQ started around 2000 and we now see similar products all over the world: 2800 (tracker fund) in Hong Kong is nothing new, 0050 (TW top 50 tracker) in Taiwan proved more efficient than most investors, and we even find these products in Tokyo, a traditionally conservative place (they just set up more regulations this year on ETFs!).

But what I wanted to cover today isn't really about index funds, but those leveraged ones (LETFs). No words are needed to describe how they separate themselves from other leveraging methods: they automatically leverages/deleverages themselves on a daily basis. Since their introduction around 2010s, leaders like TQQQ (3x Nasdaq100) has accumulated much popularity, gaining even more attention on every major drawdown.

The ups and downs of LETFs are apparent: you are under leveraged gains (the gains themselves are compounded which magnifies with time), but are also under leveraged risk. Due to volatility decay and the asymmetry of the rise and fall, the return (per unit time) multiplier is always below the leverage ratio and the risk (sd p.a.) is always above the leverage ratio. That gives a lower Sharpe ratio. Of course this is to be expected -- it is impossible for us to leverage a certain portfolio at risk free rate.

Facing these elevated risks are two kinds of people: the yolo apes who are happy to take the risk and went all in TQQQ, and the boogleheads who try to take advantage of the LETFs but also maintaining efficiency in overall. For those who are going all in there isn't much to say -- you probably don't have many alternatives with similar return, and TQQQ is probably one of the best choices. But for those boogleheads the strategy can be extremely diversified.

In light of the classic 60% equity - 40% bond combination, people seem to be applying the same ratio for their leveraged portfolio, and it seemed to work: if you consider TQQQ and TMF (3x 20yr bond) only, max Sharpe occurred at a 55/45 ratio but 60/40 gives almost the same ratio. If you backtest the thing since the beginning of the Nasdaq index, a 60/40 portfolio would beat any other portfolio, including the all in strategy (this is mainly due to 2000 and 2008, admittedly. But who can assure that it won't happen again?). It is also noteworthy that similar conclusion applies if we replace TQQQ by UPRO, the 3x S&P LETF. 

The question is, why? Why does the ratio carries through upon leveraging?

To answer this allow me to introduce exposure, another keyword from the title.

Exposure is a fancy word of leverage ratio, but also applies to a specific component of the portfolio rather than the whole thing. To be precise, a certain portfolio's exposure on a product X is the movement per X's unit price change while leaving all others constant.

For example, QQQ has about 10% of MSFT. That means if MSFT rises by 1% then we would expect a 0.1% corresponding change in QQQ. In a similar way, since TQQQ is leveraged by 3 times, it has a 30% MSFT exposure. A 1% change in MSFT would lead to a 0.3% change in TQQQ.

Amazingly, exposure adds up even among independent tickers. Continuing from the above example let us also introduce SPY which holds approximately 5% of MSFT. If your portfolio consists of 50% TQQQ and 50% SPY, then you will have a 10%*3*0.5+5%*0.5 = 17.5% exposure of MSFT.

And now here is the main principle: portfolio with equal exposure (in all assets) would act identically upon tracking errors due to expense ratio, compounding effect and volatility decays.

The error are all long term tracking errors so the statement holds if it holds in a daily basis which is apparent: if two portfolios have equal exposure in every asset, each of the asset would contribute equal influence to the two portfolios.

Still, the difference between two portfolio with identical exposure due to the above errors are minimal. Given a portfolio suppose we up-leverage part of it and de-leverage another part of it to achieve the same exposure. The elevated risk and decayed return of the up-leveraged part is offset by the opposed effect from the de-leveraged part. 

Let us consider the following two portfolios:

1) 50% TQQQ and 50% QQQ
2) 100% QLD

Both portfolio have 200% QQQ exposure so we expect them to act almost the same, and we now calculate the effect of decay on the two profiles.

Suppose QQQ rises by $x$ one day and drops by $x$ on the next day. Then QQQ drops by $x^2$ in overall. On the other hand, the first portfolio takes a drop of $5x^2$ while the second one takes a drop of $4x^2$. We can see that their decays are really close to each other only differing by $x^2$. Sure this is still the same order as the ordinary decay, but the coefficient is greatly compressed. You can argue the same for expense fees as well as the compounded return.

(Note that the above example shouldn't be interpreted as "the decay of a 2x ETF is 4 or 5 times the underlying ETF" because you are not comparing when underlying ETF is at the original price, so it is natural for the LETF to drop more to reflect such shift. If we alter our method, either by boosting the up-day or to give it another day to rise back to the original price level we will get a much smaller decay. Take the above example again: the first portfolio will suffer a decay of $3x^2+O(x^3)$ and the second is of $2x^2+O(x^3)$ when QQQ is at 100%. This is the truly decayed part.)

Due to convexity and Jensen's inequality, the above always holds when comparing portfolios with identical exposures but distinct leverage irregularities. On the other hand using the same argument, we can see that the compounding effect favors portfolio with higher leverage irregularities. 

In practice however, it is more often to see that portfolios with less leverage irregularities perform better. A possible explanation is the asymmetry of the rise and fall again. A decay lost of $-x^2$ and a compounded gain of $+x^2$ gives a net gain of $-x^4$. Small but accumulate over time.

As a result, even though portfolio of identical exposure behaves almost the same, it's still desirable to reform the portfolio to achieve a homogeneous leverage ratio.

If we treat cash as a 0x etf, then we shouldn't hold cash at all -- instead, spend these cash to deleverage the rest of your portfolio for that extra bit of return.

For example consider a 40% TQQQ 40% SPY 20% cash portfolio. If we are to deleverage it using the 20% cash it could become 60% QLD 40% SPY. Backtest shows that the altered portfolio gives 0.5% more return per year with a drop of 0.6% in risk. Note that TQQQ and QLD has the same expense ratio so the altered portfolio is winning even with higher fees!

Three possible portfolio with identical exposures but different cash levels (0, 20%, 30%). 
Taken from portfolio visualizer.

Now if we operate the other way round: we up-leverage the portfolio to free more cash, what can we do? We are certainly not leaving these cash alone because we know that would leave the portfolio inefficient. Instead we can buy something else using these cash.

Something important that solves our question at the beginning: why does the 60/40 ratio carries through?

(Cont.)

Friday, 29 October 2021

バビロニア與民族風音樂

這首...其實不太容易,留意後面的冰原背景。


流砂の嵐(BEMANI SYMPHONY Arr.)上星期在nos上面現身。其本體流砂の嵐正是我在音遊界裡第一次接觸劇団レコード(劇レコ)的作品。作為這個樂團(其實是單一作曲人広野智章)的忠實支持者,我一直想紀錄一下自己跟劇レコ的緣份。

與其說我跟劇レコ一見鍾情,不如我本來就對這類民族風的音樂有種莫名的愛。喜多朗的Dance Of Sarasvati(嘛,大家都知道這首哪裡聽的到)到新絕代雙嬌Online的藏海村都曾經是我的最愛。

到了我可以進機廳打jubeat的年紀,我記得我第一首打的是夏祭(因為太鼓打很多遍了),第二首是Snow Goose(也是我的愛曲),第三首便是流砂の嵐了。那個大氣的開場一下便把我拉進劇レコ的世界裡,只是當時他在jubeat裡沒有太多其他作品,我也沒留意到他用貓叉名義出的音樂,只能每次出勤都打一遍流砂の嵐當熱身。

之後是バビロニア(Babylonia)。當時草莓[Strawberry]問我要不要做個太鼓,我一聽就知道正中我的好球帶,當下就答應下來了。那時還在聽mp3騎單車上學的我在開始寫譜面以前應該聽了這首歌一千遍吧。

我大部分的作品都是跟著樂曲旋律走的,這首是少數的例外。原因很簡單,那譜面來自一剎那的靈感而非拿著樂曲轉譜在那邊深研--我寫譜面那一天正是我旅居小鎮的初雪,也是我人生第一次在生活的地方(旅遊不算)遇到下雪天。平時是草地跟石地板的後花園被雪蓋上了以後變成白茫茫一大片雪原,你亂丟雪球也沒事的那一種。我就在外面躺在雪地上翻騰打滾,直到發現自己穿得不夠快要凍僵為止。

那天晚上我挨在火爐旁邊打開電腦,那Osu圖裡用的背景正是冰原上的少女。那天早上的雪景在我腦海中飛閃而過,我幾乎不加思索便寫出了自己最滿意的作品之一。現在看回去,副歌當初用的1/6 xxxxx x實在有夠亂來,不過修成xxx x x也還能反映我對樂曲的理解(impression)。我被不少人問過,這首歌在的IIDX上面的BGA明明是沙漠,怎被你寫成冰原了?我只能說兩隻在地理性質上都差不多(誤)。只能如果我當初就有這首歌的BGA是沙漠的印象的話靈感就不會涌現了吧。

我一直都沒打iidx,所以錯過了不少劇レコ的樂曲。不過至少後來在jubeat、DDR跟nos上面他的歌也慢慢變多了:jubeat上有我が麗しのバレンシア、亡国のヒストリア跟アレスの楯等等;DDR有Ishtar、SWEET HOME PARTY;而nos上面的愛、遠く和Eurasian Journey都是我的熱身指定曲之二。

順帶一提不知為何我經常把亡国のヒストリア跟愛は不死鳥の様に搞混,雖然我也很愛Prim的歌就是……不過那幾首劇レコ的jubeat曲對現在的來說熱身嫌太容易一點,不死鳥現在成了我的指定熱身曲就是。

劇レコ的音樂成為了我接觸更多民族風音樂的契機。在我接觸M3與Comiket後才發現這麼多人都在做這類音樂。東方的民族風remix每次都可以佔一整排,M3那邊連相逢恨晚的大神Rigel Theratre都說後起之秀太多自己該休息一下了。

所以我說,日本甚麼時候把疫情搞定讓我們過去玩呢?剛剛又一屆M3過去了……


必須說我第一次看到這個BGA是在今年6月機廳……

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

#NoNeoNFT (2): the Neopian government's role and the future


Kacheek is one of my earliest Neopet. The other is Meerca.


We consider the developer/Neopian government as a stakeholder than they keep on producing goods and sell them at a rate much lower than the market price. They also give out lots of freebies to stabilize the low end economy. When necessary, they give out top tier items worth hundreds of millions of NPs to other players.

Human players would not do that.

It is a fact that the Neopets team has not been doing a great job recently: they didn't push enough updates amid of the flash dump, and many traditional events were removed. But in theory, this economy works, and works under the supervision of the developers.

The existence of such centralized government is directly contradictory to everything NFTs or blockchain based platforms are trying to achieve.

Or rather let us shape the question in this way: we know that the NFT setup would not be beneficial when it comes to the need of a strong lead, then what's the other advantages that we should take the NFT setup over traditional platforms, or even just to rebuild the original site?

Fundraising for OG Neopets? Yeah people "claim that some are ready to pump millions in" but what next? Is the money really entering Neopets' pocket assisting the development?  Is it a consistent source of income? Who's gonna invest if old players hate the idea? Would it be another scam just like the recent scandal on old game cartridges? These are questions the metaverse doesn't like answering.

Community driven content? Maybe and maybe not. Neopets as of now is already full of community driven contents. Game mechanics are of course not community driven in Neopets as they shouldn't be anyway.

More importantly, if we have the metaverse with completely new contents "for Neopets", is it the Neopets that we desired? Or is it just another game that contains the once beloved Neopets-images as a selling point?

*

Commercially Neopets is never a great success as everyone would have thought with respect to its popularity. 

The first 5-10 years of Neopets coincides with the PC era. The game gained so much popularity across people of that generation and outlasted (many) other virtual reality competitors. However they weren't generating as much influence as expected: almost all merchandising were in America. NeoCash was introduced as early as 2006 but barely inaccessible to most because online payment was not a thing back in the days. The translated versions of Neopets got discontinued during Neopets' golden days despite its great popularity among those countries.

The game quickly declined when the PC era shifts to the smartphone era. The company was sold to JumpStart (is it the one making educational CDs back in the days?) in 2014. They made some changes to the UI, promoted NC and made also some app version of Neopets which were all immediate failure.

We could see that the development of the game failed to keep up with the Internet trend. When NPAPI was going to phase out, they took no action but replaced the development team completely. When flash was also going to be discontinued, they replaced the team again, this time with a much smaller one. It is completely unsurprising to see that the recent development cycle is slow and hopeless. 

But so what? Neopets remains to be a precious part of many's memories or even life. As long as Neopets stands we still love the game and will play the game (even that many of us are not paying for NC). What we love is the existing Neopets world and the community around it.

We do not need a completely new metaverse and a completely new community. We do not need to reform Neopets in the form of NFTs.

*

The problem remains though...what should the developers actually do? The Neopets model was barely good enough in the past and certainly dwindling in 2020s. If we want the game to exist for another decade or so actions must be taken quickly.

To me the core community is still passionate as before and it's really up to the developers to decide the fate of the game. 

The thing that people complained the most is to merge the old and new UI. I expect the new UI to be a move of upgrade to renovate flash based contents, but they are doing that at a miserable rate. Many of the overworld contents aren't even flash, they are just simple html or php pages, yet those pages aren't compatible with the new UI. 

Games are the main source of flash based contents to be upgraded. Granted it is not easy to rewrite those in HTML5 especially when no one in the team were involved in the flash games' development back in the days. The feeling are off for a number of games, even for Kass Basher and the Ice Cream Machine. 

To replicate a flash game in HTML5 is not easy for sure, and they even need to worry about security problems -- writing scripts for HTML based games is easier than ever. If they feel like replication is too hard, maybe they can take a lesson from Kongregate and make new HTML5 games as well? Differentiating from the old games can certainly avoid the rage against not replicating the games properly. New games or not, Neopets urgently need more on that.

Once Neopets shooks off the flash burden they can probably go back to the state like 2017. Not the best game in the world, but people will be happy to pay for decors and PVP items.


What would I expect? The metaverse project won't go too far with the big opposition power and all the drama they created. But Neopets aren't going to change either. They survived 2020 (financially), and they will probably this year. Although with more problems accumulating plus the drama this time, the critical moment for the game is probably somewhere before the end of 2022. If they do not take action it's probably the end of the game.

I can add another 1000 words talking about my Neopets experience here, but this article is probably long enough. If you are interested in the movement make sure to follow the news on reddit and the hashtag on twitter :).

Further reading:

Jelloneo's protesting page where you can "mint" yourself a Neopet. At the bottom are a few more further reports. The grurge against NFT is real, but admitted there are slight misunderstanding about cryptos here and there. Take with cautions.

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

#NoNeoNFT (1): a review of the Neopets economy




Neopets, the once dreamland who survived the decline of the PC era and even somehow hanging midair but still alive when flash discontinued, seemed to have encountered another trouble. This time, they are going against the whole fanbase.

They partnered with another company and planned to issue Neopets avatar based NFTs then trying to make a metaverse out there, calling it "the future of Neopets".

The fanbase reacted violently against the partnership under various reasons: the alienation between the OG Neopets and the "metaverse", opposition to NFTs in general and the speculation on how does it benefit the original one (assuming that it is not to be replaced)... It's hard to find a single player supporting the idea on social media.

My stance to NFTs or NFT/blockchain-based games are neutral. NFTs are not trash -- so as billions of arbitrary objects, material or abstract, in this world -- contains market value as long as there are people who wants those. The price could be so low or immeasurable, but it does exist. If people like some NFTs and of course a market could emerge just like farmers market. NFT is a economically natural object and it is not bad in itself. We have also seen games that works better under a decentralized, community driven environment and flourished under such setup. I have even participated in the development of games transiting into the blockchain setup. Again, the idea of blockchain-based games is neutral. Whether if it's good or bad, lies on the game itself.

Some people disliked crypto in general because of the impact on the environment. Yes and no -- yes for cryptos like bitcoins where coin is a proof of work, but not really for NFTs and some other tokens where tokens represents a proof of stake. Of course servers and participating the blockchain network requires energy from computers and servers but these are usually insignificant. 

I don't want to get into the actual execution either -- it was announced that the NFTs will just be regular NFTs aka ordinary pictures that you cannot do anything with, defying all meanings of existence as a virtual pet.

But assuming that they do everything possible to recreate the Neopets experience under the crypto setup why is it still a bad idea?

This is what I wanted to cover today, the economy of Neopets and how it is irreplaceable under the crypto (both NFTs and FTs...i.e. cryptocurrencies) setup.

The economy of online games has been an essential part of the experience. The price level controls how affordable the items are to players comparative to their effort invested.

Neopets may look very different from most MMORPGs, but their monetary models are the same: players invest efforts and gain ingame currencies to spend or as a medium of transaction. 

In long term as the money supply increases, the purchasing power per unit of money drops (see quantity theory of money) -- an phenomenon known as inflation. Should inflation be too fierce, players would found themselves too hard to catch up with the new trophies and give up. On the other hand, an overly mild inflation (deflation is very unlikely given the online habits...except for  final days of a game) would anger paid players as the paid advantage shrinks. In an ideal case, the developers shall control inflation to the balance between what is desired by paid and free players. (This is the duality of power inflation...which is another topic for another day)

Take MapleStory as an example. This is one of the most successful MMORPG and also one of the games with the best manipulation over its economy. The price ingame currencies in terms of real currencies (via black market) has been stable for 10+ years. This is a rare example where no inflation happens and everyone is happy, because MapleStory contains multiple side currencies which is where paid players have advantages over.

Countless history told the same story: to control inflation you must control money supply. This is true across the real world economy (cf. fed's action during America's stagflation period) as well as on virtual economies. But what can you do when money creation is not on our hands (in reality, money creation is strictly controlled by governments via monetary policies)? That is, you can't control how many monsters are slayed by players (strictly speaking you can, by a theoretical limit on spawning rate, but you will anger players if there aren't enough monsters), and you can't control how players spend either?

You need to provide incentives to spend called "sinks". These are players are motivated/semi-forced to put their money in to counteract the money created. For MMORPGs, the sinks are usually cost of enhancing items. By strengthening the monsters, players have to spend currencies to improve their weapon from the vanilla state in order not to get beaten. 

So, can we analyze Neopets economy using the same model?

The source for NP creation is clear. a big pot of freshly printed NPs are from those flash games (before flash went dead but even now some are playing those). There are also other games with positive payouts (potato guessers, dice-a-roo. Scratch cards also because the money that you spent enters the jackpot and is returned to players. Roulette maybe not if we only take money creation into consideration). Nowadays we have Trudy's surprise which gives a steady supply of money effortlessly. 

A good player can easily earn 40k per day via games and other dailies. Back when Neopets were filled with players, this is the main source of NP creation.

But we missed two crucial sources of income for Neopets players.

The stock market. According to the model the chance of a particular stock raising to the given price level within a period of time, has a long tail. That means given enough time, stocks could yield arbitrarily high/very high return, as much as 10000%. However considering that such chance is so slim and almost everyone sell at 60~90NP per share, this is considered a fixed income of 45k~75k per day upon realization...which is more than an average player can earn via games.

Bank interest is even more troublesome in the sense, because there is no limit on how much you can get, as long as you have money in the bank. 

Players with 20 million NP can apply for the highest bank account rank with 12.5% p.a. interest, compounded daily which is around 13.3%. 

If you know how things compounds you will know this is quite a monstrous rate: your NP stored into the bank on 2001 would have been 12 times the original. If you keep saving the same amount of money into the account every day since 2001 then your balance would be 400% the amount of money that you saved.

In retrospective, for a 1 billion account (not out-of-the-planet hard for top and consistent players -- you can even reach that by saving 50k into the account) you receive around 350k interest per day, more than what you can get by doing every daily tasks (where money is printed out of nowhere aka excluding profits from trading). 

As the player base dwindle and the flash games are no longer easily accessible, this is the dominant source money injected to the economy, but it grows exponentially.

What about money removed from the system? 

It is the old "sink" strategy. Official shops both in the Neopian Central and the Tower for high rollers. Games with negative expectation like wheel of extravagance and lever of doom. Levelling up your pets costs a lot too. We also have the taxation and thieves as random events, but that is probably all. Some money did sink with abandoned accounts, but they usually do not possesses too much (except for cheating accounts). 

More importantly, these ways of recycling money works at a constant rate and do not catch up with the money paid as interest. As the interest rate stands, the inflation rarely goes below that 13.3% -- take Negg as an example: Negg ties to Negg tokens has the significance of balancing value of all exchangeable Neggs. Given that the demand towards Neggs are constant (mainly for collection I guess?), the equivalent price for Negg (token) is tied to the general price level in Neopets. In 9 years of time, the price for Negg inflated from 2000 to 8700 NPs approximately (from JellyNeo), indicating an inflation of 17% p.a..

The high inflation plus high interest rate is surely unfriendly to new players. It is even unfriendly to new paid players because the old players have their assets inflated by at least 13% per year for many years while new players have to start from zero. Neopets had to do something or else people wouldn't be coming. 

Of course they did.

Neopets started off with a very generous socialist system. There are locations providing foods, NPs and items absolutely  for free. After that you have effortless dailies and games that require minimal effort. These ensures that completely new players do not receive a slap on the face immediately.

To climb the social ladder is still uneasy because anything you can do can also be achieved by top players. The only way to chase them is to do whatever they have been doing, but in a more efficient way. This is the harsh fact for anyone who want to reach the top tier especially among those PVP ranks (arena and food club).

In order not to scare away players who started to realized that after playing a while, Neopets contains designs to relive such dissatisfaction.

The constant source of easy income in particular from Trudy's surprise and the stock market boosts the player to the middle class -- say 20 millions so that you also reach the top rank in the bank -- within 1 year. Minimal effort from dailies including Trudy's would reward you at least 40k NPs daily on average, and stock market would do something similar. One could reach 20 millions in 9 months by doing that. Of course, Trudy's surprise is quite ruthless that missing a day would break the streak where the big prize is only offer for logging in 28 days in a row. They should really make it more generous given the current situation.

The main attraction of Neopets isn't competitive PVP contents after all. Many players focused on their own way of enjoying the game: making their pets beautiful, making creative contents and so on. Some of them still cost money but not as much. Neopets promotes a lot of non-competitive contents to enrich the game like the poems, art contests and so on. 

Lastly the price level of particular items can be manipulated. These items are usually confined to two categories: decorative items with widespread demand but very limited supply like Draik eggs, and top tier PVP items. Extra copies are distributed via events often by chance, meaning that all players are eligible to have a go.

The devs do not frequently distribute existing PVP items. Instead they create a power inflation to catch up the monetary inflation. Simply speaking, we expect the new weapon to be like 13%+ more expensive than the old ones, but the old weapons are not inflating (as much) because the demand suddenly shifts. Although such strategy does not really shorten the social ladder, it reduces the difficulty to make progress.

To conclude, Neopets economy is quite horrible mainly due to bank interest which leads to the inherited inflation. Neopets gets around by devising a system that is friendly to newbies and gives chances for middle class to catch up.

But do you sense what's essential in the Neopets economy? A centralized government.

(Cont.)

*

Further reading:

Written in 2014, still applies in 2021. Written in a much simpler way and gives a clearer background about the economy. It also gives a number of economic articles published in the Neopets Dailies.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

14/10/2021: 大亂鬥/櫻井/狼師

劍……鍵角


大亂鬥特別版(SSB Ultimate)的最後一名角色近日終於揭曉,是王國之心的索拉(Sora)。只要看一下reaction mashup就知道,可以讓一半實況主發瘋尖叫另一半失聲痛哭的角色可不是開玩笑的。就算是我這個沒玩過王國之心(嘛,我知道音操有露面過就是了)也知道那個由三個圈圈組成的圖案的份量有多重,地表最強法務部合作可不是開玩笑的。

雖然看看大亂鬥的電競比賽密度就知道它的遊戲周期還能撐很久,不過其地位/歷史定位應該可以暫時下一個結論了。短期來看銷量和獎項已經說明了一切:超過2400萬份為格鬥遊戲第一、18/19年最佳遊戲之一。(其實不是很想用獎項作比較,尤其是那10/10事件以後)

那麼長期來看這是個甚麼遊戲呢?比如說30年後,人們會怎樣評價這款遊戲呢?這很可能是史上最偉大的跨界合作(crossover),前無古人而且很可能很無來者。

前無古人很簡單,只有大亂鬥會讓這麼多來自不同作品的角色露面而不會互搶風頭。然後大亂鬥歷代作品每一代角色數量都有所增加,本作直接不演了告訴你Everyone is here將以前偶而跳過的角色全補上了可以怎樣輸?

至於後無來者……這個遊戲佔盡天時地利人和。

天時,在於2020的疫情大流行。

相信大家也知道封城對電子遊戲業的幫助有多大。動物之森和健身環造成現象級的流行,但不代表其他遊戲沒有因此而受惠。按統計遊戲在首發的2018賣了1200萬份,在2019賣了600萬份,在2020之後又賣了快700萬份。這個長尾在遊戲銷售周期中並不常見,此乃天時。

地利當然是Switch這個大平台,只要看歷代銷量就知道了。每一代幾乎都是該主機最暢銷的遊戲之一,但數字上仍有不小起伏。出在GameCube上的DX(英:Melee)是GC上壓倒性的最佳遊戲,曾經有70%的GC擁有者同時擁有大亂鬥DX。如此佳作在當時綜合銷量卻還是只排第五(輸2款GTA、1款NFL與1款Halo……奇怪,除了米國人誰會玩NFL?)。到了Wii的大亂鬥X(英:Brawl)的光芒被幾款Wii休閒向遊戲(還有瑪卡)蓋過,但第一年在美國的銷量已超DX歷年總和。在3DS/WiiU這個不怎麼樣的平台,大亂鬥再次成為最強遊戲之一,銷量卻只是勉強勝過六年前發售的X。

到了Switch呢?如果說Wii當年還有PS3跟XBox360成三分天下(當然Wii是曹魏)之勢,那麼Switch面對的PS5和XBox Game Pass應該是260年的三國吧。雖然18年12月發售的大亂鬥特別版不能算Switch的首發遊戲,但也肯定吃到Switch上升期的紅利(尤其考慮到Switch這個平台到現在完全沒有要衰落的跡象),此乃地利。

人和嘛……當然是櫻井政博本人。

他是大亂鬥系列之父,是最了解這個遊戲的人……但是他要退隱了。是暫時休息一下還是退休也許只有他才知道,但短期內大概是看不到他掛職做遊戲了。中文版叫的「特別版」與英文的「Ultimate」命名上也昭示了這部會是集大成之作。

大亂鬥過去幾作都出現過前代角色在下一作出沒有登場的遺憾,唯獨特別版真的把歷代角色都推出來了。而且每一個角色都經過重新建模,招式也有所調整。試回想受眾更廣的寵物小精靈(Pokemon)劍盾(SwSh)不就宣稱沒法處理如此大量的建模而沒法做全圖鑑嗎?結果登場的寵物小精靈建模比3DS時代更不堪。大亂鬥的建模除了精度完勝以外每一個動作也要獨立處理,要說大亂鬥處理一位角色的功夫可以比處理十隻寵物小精靈可以吧?那為甚麼Game Freak做不到呢?更何況大亂鬥還有第三方授權問題,就算不算米老鼠,Konami、SE、Sega這堆又有哪個是好惹的?

按照櫻井的說法,這部大亂鬥是岩田聰交代他的最後一個任務,之後聰哥同年就病逝了。遺願的重量加上他那種工作狂與執著的性格才有辦法在短短三年不到的開發周期(歷代最短)內將大亂鬥最完整的一面呈現出來。從他各種訪談(比如這個)和最後一次發表角色時長吁一口氣說終於可以休息可以看出他投放了多少心血在這部作品上。

說到人和也不得不提他開發3DS/WiiU版的班底剛做完那邊就直接搬過來開發特別版了,免去了重組班底的功夫。

這幾天下來可以看到櫻井的聲望已經直逼那幾位帶領老任以G&W為分界從傳統產業轉型成電子娛樂產業的開山祖師爺(比如汽球大戰班底那幾位),看了一下才知道他還年輕得很。一方面我們知道現在的任天堂只要繼續其獨特的遊戲哲學,很難說沒了誰就運行不下去--看看近期的熱門作如瑪卡8、風花雪月等,就連日文維基也沒有這些遊戲的製作人或者總監的資料。但另一方面他卡比和大亂鬥之父的頭銜實至名歸,也算是老任核心IP的奠基人之一了。沒了他誰還有那個資歷和號召力作出如此宏大的作品?所以大家為他引退感到婉惜也很正常。

*

其實我寫大亂鬥主要真的不是想寫櫻井順便懷緬一下聰哥的,我本來是想講一下自己打傳統格鬥遊戲下來對電競水準大亂鬥對戰的感覺。我對傳統格鬥遊戲的認也很有限就是了……玩得最多的是KOF00'和02',還沒到一塊通關的程度。家機的話主要是DOA4吧,也只是勉強通過全線這樣。

大亂鬥的對戰搭上不同平台打起來立體感當然遠勝傳統格鬥遊戲,而圍繞邊緣(edge)的攻防也是後者沒有的(DOA也有自己的場地規則就是)。但大亂鬥的本質還是格鬥遊戲那一套,那就是猜招和抓距離。

在我看來,傳統格鬥遊戲與大亂鬥其中一個重大區別正是抓距離的難度。大亂鬥裡不同角色大小/命中(hitbox)面積之間極大的差異、場地大小和特效等都令玩家準確抓距離的難度大大增加。就算看的到也不代表你可以準確操控你所要的距離:大亂鬥中角色的速度(相對於角色大小)比傳統格鬥遊戲快多了。看比賽旁述或都我本人感覺到某角色的距離不對而下一秒被打中時有發生,但事實上玩家在實戰中就是難以把距離抓好。另一個距離感在大亂鬥中難以練好的佐證就是當世第一人MKLeo就是這方面的專家,當然他解讀對手的能力也是天下無敵就是。

說到MKLeo就不得不提他那隻狼師貝雷特(Byleth),在普遍認為狼師只是mid-tier的環境下只有他用狼師多次奪冠。到底是大家對狼師的理解不及MKLeo好,還是他實在太強讓你們用廢個都能贏?

其實兩個都不是,狼師最特別的地方是可以在幾種武器之間切換。一般來說一個角色的擅長攻擊範圍是相對固定的,而且角色其他數值會圍繞攻擊範圍而調整。比如說擅長短距離攻擊的角色攻防數值會較高或都攻擊(判定)更為確實(持續/廣闊),而擅長遠距離攻擊的角色可能收招比較慢等等。但狼師透過切換武器可佔盡了長/短/重兵器的便宜,但身體數值卻不會隨之而變化!當然就算是酷愛聖火的櫻井也不會如此偏幫狼師,他在遊戲中偏慢且防守(重量)一般。但MKLeo的距離感足以彌補這方面的缺點而將狼師的潛力發揮到極致。

看他用狼師打比賽真的是一種享受。除了看Game 4 Leo和那種讓二追三的快感以外,看他比賽時那種覺得選手可以XXX的煩燥感也是最少的,這就足以證明他達到了玩家心中最高水平的證明。

以上,來自大亂鬥DX玩過5分鐘(2場)、X玩過不超過1小時、沒玩過特別版的人的胡言亂語。XD

其實我也有想過買來玩,不過想到要練幾百小時才能見效就有點怕。另一個擔憂來自那個瘋起來連炸彈人R也沒法好好玩的網絡大結界……

Saturday, 9 October 2021

夢.十夜 (7) Miss Fanta



也許是攻城戰過於剌激與累人,我們所有人都陷入了怠惓的狀態。群組裡最活躍的就數熊熊,不過她做的是把我們用不到的攻城戰獎品賣出去。這類限定卡的供求都在活動剛結束時達到頂峰,買賣雙方很容易就能比價跟配對。很多獎品卡除了卡面好看以外作用並非不可替代,在有興趣的收藏家都買到手以後它們的價值就會開始暴跌。沒法及時把它們賣出去的商家多半會把它們藏起來,在一段時間後以稀有品的名義再次掛牌販售。

既然能預期卡片價值會急跌,為何會有人急著在高價出手呢?這就是終戰幻想最獨特的地方:卡片與活動以極高的頻率交替,加上遊戲內留言版的限制使得這些卡片在市場上可以引起注意的時間極短,大概只有兩三天左右。不論是買方或賣方很快就要把精力投放到下一個活動裡去,根本容不下市場機制在那邊尋找平衡。可以在這種市場下左右逢源的玩家可謂鳳毛麟角,熊熊就是其中之一。

我並沒有把攻城戰隊伍排名的第二檔獎品,「雪之華」阿莉婭(Aria)交給熊熊,而是按著她建議用160瓶水的價格在玩家論壇上叫賣。這裡的(Potion)是回復體力用的藥水,與魔法時計(Time Elixir(TE))一樣是遊戲中去除CD的道具。因為在商城中可以直接用1美元1個的價格購得,所以被當成玩家之間的交易貨幣。

想當然,擺了一天沒有人理我。

第二天我把價格從160砍到135,然後開始也在自己的留言版上叫賣。這個促銷算是起了一點效果:一位玩家還價95被拒絕後再沒下文;另一位玩家在我睡覺的時候開價110,但我醒來的時候他已經從第三者手上買到,我的留言版上還留著第三者前來問該玩家110要不要的訊息。

一般來說這些沒實戰價值也不算超絕稀有的獎品卡,價值會掉到剛開始的一半左右,這張阿莉婭也不例外。交易版上登錄的最後交易價格為70瓶水,但這代表你跳出來賣65瓶水就能賣出去嗎?不,想收藏的人都已經買到,賣不出的人乾脆收回去自己看。大家都忙著準備下一個活動,這張幾天前還大賣的卡片已經為大家所遺忘,只能躺在卡片名冊裡封塵。我的阿莉婭也不例外:70瓶水已經沒比一般扭蛋出來的六星貴多少了,一個是限量90張,另一個是無限量供應,當然是把阿莉婭收起來比較划算。

接下來的一個月裡面Alex又辦了兩場線下飯聚,一次是慶功宴、一次只是剛好想組團吃飯,兩次我都剛好都沒法出席。巧合的是卡羅也沒有現身--這真的是巧合嗎?

*

日子還是要過,活動還是要打。只是沒錢衝六七星獎勵又懶得衝五星獎勵,我的目標變成拿一張四星獎勵順便把送的水打下來。

在不投入任何資源的前提下,訓練活動之類的每小時操作一次就好,像競技場的活動則大概是十分鐘一次。這種操作頻率讓你有時候覺得這手遊很煩,有時候又讓你覺得無法離開遊戲。最誇張的一次是我洗澡到一半還要把手伸出來按下戰鬥的按鈕,回想起來都覺得可怕。

「選舉活動?那是甚麼?」

競技場活動剛結束的維修完畢,我重新登入遊戲時便已看到下一個活動的公告。我們有兩天休息時間,活動在48小時--不、算上維修的話45小時後準時開放。我習慣性地按進去看新活動的介紹,想說不好看的話又能跳過了,沒想到是新類型的活動。

按照小雨的介紹,這是一個跟比拼角色人氣的活動。

終戰幻想以可怕的速度推出新的卡片。這樣得開發者可以毫無顧忌地請極大量的繪師前來繪製卡片,然後篩選出最能吸引大家課金的繪師。只要別畫的太難看,隨便一個繪師都可以為這個遊戲畫上一兩個角色。但如果這一兩個角色的沒啥人氣的話那很抱歉,我們不會再找你了。

就算是那些畫了十張以上角色卡的繪師也不能掉意輕心。一旦靈感開始枯竭而畫不出吸引玩家的作品時開發者也會毫不留情地把你從必請繪師的名單中剔除。

只有那些通過時間的考驗,以每一兩個星期一張卡的頻率畫上數十個甚至上百個角色而仍然保持大熱的繪師,會成為開發者手上會下金蛋的寵兒。他們的檔期都直接被包下來為這個遊戲繪製角色,而遊戲也會不斷推出卡池或者活動來催谷這些繪師的人氣,選舉活動就是其中之一。

像「月下劍士」戴安娜這種夢幻卡片不但是頂端玩家的追求,其人氣也廣為一般玩家所知。與她的故事有所關連的角色人氣(價格)也因為她而連帶上升了不少。但這種限量五張的排名獎勵,要復刻是不可能的。遊戲本身也嚴守著一個角色不會出超過一張卡片的原則,這種情況下要復刻某角色可以怎樣辦呢?這時候他們就要一個名份讓他們打破規矩。選舉活動就是這個名份。

兩位遊戲裡公認最熱門的繪師加上三位外卡,從每個繪師的作品中各挑出一位熱門角色。以投票給這五位角色去競逐人氣王的活動,就是選舉活動。活動中人氣最高的兩位會在日後某個活動以新的卡片(alt)、新的服裝登場。不消說這兩張卡不會是排名獎勵而是卡池大獎,這樣才能吸引大家一起課金抽卡嘛。

與其他活動不同之處是,這活動並不是單人活動,也不是攻城戰那種自己組隊的活動。玩家先會挑選自己支持的角色,然後他們可以選擇創建隊伍或者被分配到已有隊伍裡面,分配的時候系統會優先將玩家分配到人數較少的隊伍。當大部分隊伍已經滿員時,玩家會被「分配」到全新的隊伍裡面。也就是說,他們不能直接挑選自己想進的隊伍。在隊伍裡玩家就是不斷打地圖刷分,而獎勵的發放都以小隊分數而不是個人分數為基準,目的大概是要將頂端戰力打散,讓這活動成為大家都能輕鬆投入的休閒活動。

理論上組出只有大佬的隊伍幾乎是不可能的。活動剛開始那點時間裡大家一窩蜂進來報名,新建隊伍多而新進來的玩家更多,他們肯定可以被分到一滿是活躍玩家的隊伍裡。不過這裡的活躍玩家可能只是平時排三四千的玩家,隊伍的下限有保證但不能期待更多。如果太晚進入活動的話,因為太多路人建隊而沒有足夠的玩家把這些隊填滿,新進來的玩家就只能被分配到這些一隊三四人的垃圾小隊裡面。

這個分隊的想法很美好,操作上卻藏著個漏洞。

在固定時間裡進入活動的活躍玩家與自願新建隊伍的比例隨時間而下降。前面是這個比太高而產生配隊的不確定性,後面是這個比例太低而每隊分不到足夠的活躍玩家。但這個比例接近15--每隊的最大人數--的瞬間,是這個機制唯一的破綻。

這個比例是15時代表了甚麼呢?每創一隊新隊伍就有15個活躍玩家進來剛好把新建的隊伍填滿。也許時同時有兩個新隊伍和30個活躍玩家進來進來,但這個瞬間代表了可以填滿新隊伍的前提下最低不確定性的時機。

不過知道有這個漏洞也不容易執行。玩家進了隊伍就不能退出,要「犧牲」一個玩家進入活動探路的話誰也不願意。就算真的有人願意這樣做,他能得到的資訊對決策的幫助也不大:太早進入活動的話只會看到隊伍被填滿,並不代表這是建隊的最佳時機;太晚進去發時隊佈伍填不滿了這個漏洞已經不復存在了。

這個時機只能憑經驗去估算,但這個活動只是第二次舉行,跟上次相比玩家的基數也不同,各路入馬也只能用猜的賭一個時機進場,一般是活動開始後一個小時。聽說15位玩家在最佳時機同時進入分配系統的話,有三分一可以配到同一隊裡已屬不錯,有一半的話就是奇跡。七八位頂端戰力在同一隊裡加上剩下的活躍玩家,足以在隊伍排名中拿到前三的成績。

對於大部分公會來說既然沒法好好組隊,那還不如休閒一點隨便打就好--大概除了我們。

群組裡對繪師的評價出奇地一致。簡單來說就是miso老師天下第一,apt老師第二,下面空兩檔才輪到其他繪師。雖然他們也是遊戲公認最熱門的兩位繪師,但整個群組都這樣如此熱愛miso老師的話是蠻特別的。

這次出選的五位分別是:

miso老師的「月下劍士」戴安娜(Diana)。卡片的人氣不用多說,上次開發商沒有挑這張人氣王出來被罵了很久。

apt老師的白髮死神「獵魂者」埃塞雷德(Ethelred)。與戴安娜同時期且同樣罕有的夢幻卡片。有小道消息指老師對這張作畫不太滿意,一直希望有機會為角色重畫一張,選舉活動就是她的大好機會。

Ryosios老師的紅髮鎗手「暗之護衛」艾芙蓮(Evelynn)。本來只是一個普通卡池裡面的二獎,因為高人氣而得到開發者的青睞,以她為核心展開帝國地下勢力的故事。

Ryuki老師的藍髮軍裝少女「騎士學徒」露西娜(Lucina)。與某策略遊戲的女主的名字、髮色和職業都巧合地一樣。不知道是否因為這樣累積了一定的人氣。

最後是來自studio eight英氣的持槍女將「城堡」(Rook)柯拉(Kora)。雖然的不是單獨一位繪師,但它是在遊戲裡掛名繪製最多卡片的一方。從它海量的作品中這張算是具代表性的一張。十五張的產量加上她在PVP裡面如同嘆息之牆一般的表現使她創下當時活動結束的一星期內,作為排名獎勵的她十五張裡只有一張流到市場上的驚人紀錄。

雖然這五個角色都是繪師各自的代表作,但比較總是殘酷的。非正式民調顯示戴安娜的支持率稍稍領先、埃塞雷德緊追在後、其他三位基本上無望。其實誰能以新卡片的形式出現早就決定好了,但這並不影響玩家參與活動來表達他們對角色的愛。

群組裡我們早就相約好一起參加這個活動。所謂一起參加就是約好一個時間同時進入活動,試圖被分配到同一隊裡去。如果都被分到不同的隊裡,甚至是被分到垃圾隊裡去的話刷分就沒意思了。如果能把一堆群組玩家配到同一隊裡的話,我們就可以用排行榜上的分數線看看要不要衝了。

唯一的問題是要怎樣決定在哪個時間點進入活動。這次出選的五位角色都是一時無兩的角色,參與活動的玩家一定比上次更多。但是具體又多了多少呢?他們會不會在剛開服就衝進去,還是跟我們一樣先觀望再進場?

到最後我們也只能按照上次的經驗下決定。上次我們派十位玩家在活動開始的大半小時進場,結果被分到四五隊裡去,最好的一隊有三位我們群組的人。感覺上我們上次就是太早進場了,所以這次的進場時間定了在活動開始後80分鐘。

「那就兩天後見,現在我可以專心上班囉!」阿飛如此寫道。

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--能不能讓群組的人進到同一隊並不完全是機率問題,而是堆人數的問題。堆的人數越多,能配到同一隊裡的群組玩家就越多。我一定要準時跟大家衝進活動裡面。

我是這樣告訴自己的,但我卻遲到了。

匆匆忙忙地在手機裡打開遊戲,這已經是遊戲開始兩小時後的事了。雖然晚了四十分鐘的我幾乎注定與群友無緣(除非他們定下的時間點比最佳時間晚了一截導致隊伍填不滿而我又幸運的被分配進去吧),但我還是按下了「進入活動」的按鈕。

「……哇。」在街上的我看不清楚我被配到的隊伍具體有哪些玩家,但隊裡第一個人名就讓我哇了出來。

Yukichan--先叫她Yuki好了。她是上次攻城戰排名第三的公會Super Rangers的會長。我們在攻城戰裡也有交過手,結果當然是毫無參考價值的被轟個稀巴爛。聽群裡其他人提過,其他公會一般都是領頭人在遊戲社群裡挖角或者邀請其他成名高手組成公會,只有Super Rangers的成員都像是憑空出現那樣,自出道起就牢牢霸佔著頂端戰力的寶座。

活動期間隊伍有專屬的留言板,我們隊伍的留言板已經被Yuki用英文填滿:

「DO NOT OVERWRITE----
Hi everyone! This is officially the Super Rangers Team.
SRer or not, I hope you enjoy this event with us. I'd appreciate if you play hard and go for the top prize with us!
If you are interested in our tactical discussion please visit:...」

*

雖然是人氣選舉,但在活動的日程裡這只是間場墊時間用的。四天的活動規模與七天的攻城戰或者十四天的訓練活動完全不能比。不過這樣也好,因為這個活動並沒有甚麼出彩的地方,進對隊死命刷就贏了。

比如我所在的Super Rangers隊。

15名隊員裡面有9位本來就是他們公會的人,大部分都在上次攻城戰出現過。另外六人除了我還有三個活躍玩家,加起來就是13個刷子了。要知道就是算剛開活動時組成的隊伍也有一堆進去躺平混分的,一隊裡面13個活躍玩家刷起來根本擋不住嘛。最後我們隊伍排名拿了個第三,剛好可以拿到第一檔獎勵--有趣的是,他們在活動最後兩天明顯放緩了刷分速度,剛好拿第三似乎是早已計劃好的,這個等下再說。

群組裡他們的分組不好也不壞,十個群友裡有四個人進到同一隊。他們沒有像我們隊那樣吃水猛刷,不過至少也全是把體力用光身體力行地支持他們所愛的繪師了。

至於我,在這短短幾天的活動裡有了兩個收獲。

第一個收獲當然是隊伍排名獎勵。這是我第一次取得第一檔的獎勵,發給三隊一共四十五張,雖然比不上某些夢幻卡片,至少也算是非常稀有了。這張七星獎勵卡是apt老師所繪的「戰爭女神」拉娜[Lana]。畫中白髮女騎士左手持盾,右手高舉長劍,頗有女武神騎行的風范。更特別的是她身後的背景還藏了五個角色,正是這次出選的五人。可以預見的是不管這張拉娜實戰好不好用,她的收藏價值都比一般的獎勵角色更高。

順帶一提,這次排名獎勵的角色們所附帶的故事是圍繞五位背景完全不同的出選角色之間偶遇的故事。開發者把故事分成了五份放在五張獎勵角色裡面。參與獎上面的故事是第一部分,第四檔次的獎勵上面的故事是第二部分,如此類推,我手上的拉娜則代表了故事的結局--也就是說,只有拿到第一檔獎勵的人才有資格看到結局。雖說卡片可以借給別人讓他們把故事解鎖,不過如果以後每個活動的故事也這樣搞的話頂端玩家應該會被煩死,希望開發商不要持續使用這套暗黑商法吧。

另一個收獲對我來說,甚至比拉娜更重要--我遇見了某位玩家。

沒錯,那就是Super Rangers的會長Yuki。

對大部分玩家來說,玩這個遊戲的主要目的都是娛樂,有一部分是找外快。像我一樣從數字中找到樂趣的……除了我以外就只有她了吧。

隊裡留言板的連結通向了她們公會的聊天群組。當然我的權限只能看到跟這次活動有關的訊息,不過這些足以讓我了解到她們公會的指揮風格--Yuki強勢指揮,其他隊員準確地執行她的指示。

顯然我的群組裡對隊伍分配的理解Yuki也知道。比起盲目地猜測進入活動的時機,她採取了更進取的做法:從活動開始的45分鐘起每五分鐘便派一個空殼帳號進入活動,並且記錄各自隊伍人數的成長曲線。她們在上一個選舉活動也做了同樣的事情,兩者一比對就知道最佳進入活動的時機。

確定隊上有多少活躍玩家以後,她們便開始瘋狂地刷分。顯然我們隊上刷分的隊員比別隊都要多,很快我們便爬到前三,更一度進佔第一名。這時就別提Alex他們有多羨慕了--除了拉娜要借他們把故事解鎖以外,我差點就答應熊熊讓她代我把拉娜賣掉。

到了第二天一半她們忽然把刷分的步伐緩了下來。原來透過紀錄前十名的分數進度她們大概算出了其他隊伍的最大刷分能力,藉此算出與第四名的安全距離。也就是說,只要保持這個安全距離,就算下面的隊伍突然發難也不太可能反超我們。

當時我們的領先幅度遠超計算出來的安全距離。這也是理所當然的:有人數優勢又有人一直刷分很難不把別隊拋到後面。Yuki的指示是放慢刷分但不要停下來,最好讓第四名開外的隊伍直接放棄衝上來的念頭。對於我這個外人她說不需要用水,按自己步調刷分就好。

到了第四天後面的隊伍真的都放棄了,我們也順理成章地停下刷分。這幾天還有一個小插曲:終戰幻想在社交平台上發文表示只要有足夠的「讚」就會讓第三名也獲得重製。本來讚數一直都遠遠落後目標,但到了第四天突然來了一大波讚讓讚數直接達標。不知道這一波讚是開發商買的還是某位熱愛艾芙蓮、露西娜或者柯拉其中一位的玩家所買的呢?如果是後者的話希望他所支持的角色能獲得第三名吧。

就這樣,選舉活動就結束了。

戴安娜輕鬆奪下第一名,埃塞雷德的第二也是固若金湯,第三名由艾芙蓮拿下。後面三位本來就各有特色,誰贏了都不意外。不過作為普通卡池的角色,艾芙蓮在平民玩家之間的人氣會比另外兩張尊爵不凡的角色高那麼一點點吧?

我拿著拉娜心滿意足地在Super Rangers的群組裡道謝了一番,正打算退出這個不屬於我的群組時,Yuki居然給我發來了訊息。

「Thanks for joining the event and supporting miso. I hope you enjoy your Lana coz I think she will be exceptionally valuable among the top tier prize cards ^_^」

作為英文手遊大部分玩家自然也都用英文溝通,Super Rangers裡的群組也不例外。我也用英文回覆道:「I am so grateful to be part your team who absolutely smashed the event with those mighty potions. I almost feel bad to take Lana without actually spending :P」

「My strategy wouldn't have worked without you guys. You deserved to keep your Lana after all :)」

「It's impressive to find your commands carried through. Reminds me of how your team humiliated mine in the last guild battle >^<」

「Apologies for that but my team eyed at the individual ranks so we needed to smash quite a bit. You still did a great job and ranked much higher than anticipated :D」

她知道我們的排名比預期高嗎?我回覆道:「How do you know that we overperformed? But yeah we somehow defeated the Gods of Olympus, giving us the extra edge to win the second tier reward. I reckon this is the best we can do without investing a lot more, but my team probably isn't ready for that.」


「If that's the case...」


「妳有興趣成為Super Rangers的一份子嗎?」


這句用的是中文。

*

按慣例對應的卡片可以在這裡找到,出於尊重我就不把繪師的名字改掉了。miso老師天下第一!

Fanta很多活動其實本質上都是枯燥至極的機械性刷圖,甚麼策略性根本不存在--只要攻力夠高和技能夠好就行。但是只要用有趣的活動機制把刷圖包裝起來要釣玩家進去玩還是可以的,至少能釣到我這種愛研究數字的人。

說到手遊裡開辦各種不同花樣的活動,火紋英雄(Fire Emblem Heroes)也是絞絞者之一。他們光靠角色小人就能弄出十幾種不重複的活動,看那堆小人各種互動應該是不少玩家的樂趣之一吧。只要不是純刷分(比如戰渦(Tempest Trial))的活動,大多都有用數學研究的空間。我就曾經寫過關於投票戰(Voting Gauntlet)大壓制戰(Grand Conquest)的策略分析,有興趣在我的blog裡找FE Heroes標籤的文章就能看到了。

事實上手遊那個標準的戰鬥過程(抽象意義上的戰鬥,比如棒球養成的棒球賽、賽馬娘的比賽日)重複幾百幾千次以後就會變得枯燥乏味。手遊必需有其他的賣點才能將玩家留下來。比如FGO的故事和世界觀(雖然我仍然不能理解可以去pixiv委託就能收到更多高質作品的東西為何不要反而要在手遊裡瘋狂課金),比如各種音遊手遊的新曲。Fanta能留住玩家當然不是那堆換著花樣包裝無腦刷圖的活動,而是那獨步天下的出卡速度。賽馬娘就是常規內容又肝又悶玩家才會逐漸流失,不過大概cy也不會在意吧?趕快跑去新的()()割別的韭菜更好賺。

最後說說遊戲聊天群的問題。如果發生在2021的話大家用的肯定是Discord吧,但Fanta早期的2013這個時間點十分尷尬:MSN已經倒下、Skype在遊戲玩家群中並非主流、Line只限台灣人、遊戲用的RC別限港台地區而且廣告超多。當時我在Osu開會也只是用遊戲iirc+其他語音聊天室,直到後來他們才跟Discord進行整合。

說來慚愧,當年我玩Fanta的時候用的是QQ。但是如果你問我小紅和她的好夥伴們用甚麼聊天的話,那就讓我們假設MSN當時仍然是主流吧……

Friday, 1 October 2021

30/9/2021: 中文書/咖啡館/推理

好久沒有摸到實體中文書了,人在海外就是有這個不方便。又笨又重的書運起來就本來不便宜,更別說疫情期間航運瘋狂漲價,連一般空運都寄不出去,只能天價托速遞公司投送過來。

儘管如此,我還是訂了好幾本實體書滿足了一下我的書癮,其中一本便是咖啡廳6。

請別在意那瓶威士忌。本來是買來沖咖啡用的卻發現這瓶比我預期中柔滑許多,沖咖啡太浪費了直接拿來喝吧。

怎麼說呢。可以看出這本第六集比起三年前的第五集,風格改變了不少,連封面繪師都換了一個。不過莫說專業作家,就連間中寫幾個小故事的我三年前後寫出來都完全不同(看夢十夜前後就知道了),岡崎老師在後記也有提到這種轉變。這種改變並非一定是壞事,畢竟作者會變,書中角色也會變,定下硬框架有時只會令創作變得綁手綁腳。至少我看得出岡崎老師有寫出他想要的東西而我也樂在其中,這樣就夠了。

我個人對這種以藝術品為核心展開謎題的推理作品不太感冒就是。如果你本身對該藝術領域有一點認識的話也許會樂在其中,否則書中角色三言兩語可以恍然大悟,你卻還是一頭霧水。類似的作品還有京都四條的福爾摩斯(為甚麼都是京都?因為只有他們才這麼假掰吧(誤)),一些花語謎語某程度上都會引起這種感覺。古書房算是一個例外,因為作者在有關文學上花了極大篇幅作介紹;並不只是剛好把需要的情報抖出來的程度,而是讓讀者也能理解作品魅力的程度。這樣大部分讀者都可以浸沉在作者的世界中進行推理。

比起之前女主角美星小姐開天眼推理更像回歸到本格推理。這次的謎題相對簡單,該給的提示用消去法就能聯想得到,部份行為舉止的違和感也有意無意幫助了讀者往正確的方向去猜想。不過簡單歸簡單,那句說話與那個動機都給一種逆轉的味道--說起來又一集Nintendo Direct過去了,我們的逆轉7呢?

我記得大概十年前掀起過一次日本推理小說的熱潮,那時稍有名氣的推理小說都會被翻成中文上架。然而這熱潮兩三年就散去了,架上只剩下那些看一次就會蒙塵的作品。那時就有前輩跟我說作品就像韭菜,生出來也要時間的,收割太快就不好吃了。那時候「韭菜」一詞還沒被廣泛使用,現在回頭看的話應該說大概只是日本韭菜長的不夠快吧?

Thursday, 9 September 2021

被青梅竹馬抓來(略) (3):書上火球術下一頁百分之九十都是水球術

Character design: @kuonyuu, Illust: @蛍石 commissioned by forretrio. Pixiv
Editing and re-posting are prohibited // 無断転載、無断使用禁止です


除了班級本身特化的方向以外,學園大部分的課都是共通的。比如當作士官培養的學生會上專門為他們準備、有關政治經濟的課程,像魔法這些其他科目則會上年級共通的課。

魔法科也一樣,庫里斯只需負責魔法的部分,其他科目都是年級共通的課。當然考慮到魔法科的特殊性,開個小灶另外請一些大人物來客串並不奇怪。

魔法的存在與使用在這個世界並不是甚麼秘密,但魔法並沒有普及的原因不外乎擁有魔法資質人材的稀缺以及國家的方針。有魔法天賦的人如果想要學個簡單的火球術的話並不困難,大一點的圖書館都能找到相關的書籍。

那書本是怎樣教你的呢?

深呼吸、感受感受魔力的流動、唸出一段咒文、擺出姿勢後發射。沒經過訓練但身體有魔力的人大部分只要按著指示做都能射出火球。

你說射出來的火球跟火苗一樣弱?咒文不唸出來默念可以嗎?姿勢有點中二能不能換一個?抱歉,書上沒有寫。火球術下一頁百分之九十都是水球術,因為很多人不小心把火球亂射出去差點就把自己家給燒了。

在冒險者生涯中庫里斯遇過很多這種半吊子魔法師,尤其是在缺乏培訓體系的邊境那邊。這類魔法師多半專精於一個小分支的魔法而對其他魔法一竅不通,她們在隊伍中只能擔當固定角色而沒法為隊伍帶來質變。這類依靠天生神力的魔法師的天花板也就二三流隊伍的後排輸出,上級隊伍根本不會想要。

成為強力魔法師的關鍵在於使用魔法背後的理論基礎:為甚麼這樣可以那樣不可以,怎樣改進魔法之類的知識全被牢牢掌握在這所學園--或者說貴族與少數精英--手上。對於國家來說放著有魔法資質的平民在那成為平庸的魔法師有點浪費,把他們吸納進來成為權貴才可以確保階級的穩定性。

庫里斯對這個精英制度並沒有甚麼怨恨,更沒妄想過要打破這個圈子。既然已經接下了這份工作,思考怎樣才能教好學生才是最重要的。

能進入魔法科的有兩種人,一是高階貴族所推派的人選。這些貴族子女即便沒經過嚴苛的考試選拔也肯定在家中接受過良好的教育,包括魔法理論。唯一比較麻煩的是不少家族都在屬性上有所偏好,所以他們每個的知識背景都略有不同。另一批學生則是通過層層選拔進來的學生。他們體質上天生神力不用多說,學習能力方面必然也是最頂尖的。他們的缺點也很明顯,就是沒有接觸過像樣的魔法基礎知識。

要在一班裡處理兩批背景截然不同的學生一點也不輕鬆。自從他放出了將授課時間大幅縮減的豪言以後,來自學生與其他教師的質疑就沒有停過。畢竟這是個背負著國家未來的職位。

要同時照顧背景不同的學生們又要減少授課時數的話,照著舊有大綱走的方法肯定是行不通了。單純將部份課題刪去也不行,畢竟知識環環相扣,部份課題的缺失可能影響到剩下課題的理解。

那樣的話方法就剩一個了--重構底層的理論架構,使他們可以更快速地吸收新的知識就好了。

學園流傳下來的大綱中,理論架構是分成三年一層層疊上去的。當學生升上新的年級時他們就會接觸到更深一層的理論,然後在該學年剩下的時間裡學習這些新的理論如何應用在不同的領域上。

將這些理論基礎一口氣堆好並非不可能,只是學生會比較難理解而已。通過實踐自己學到的理論,他們可以理解到這些理論的用處和缺點。這些經驗都可以幫助理解深一層的理論。另一方面,不論是學習能力強大的平民學生還是接觸過魔法理論的貴族學生都具備「跳級」的條件。這樣教的話的確可以省去很多時間。

剩下就是教學風格的問題了。

雖然他只在學園待了半年,但他深知能不能吸引學生聽課的分別有多大。

當年教他那個老頭是個鑽研火屬性的狂熱分子。每次他上課都用最快的速度唸完,然後把時間都花在講解火魔法上面。想當然他教出來的學生中擅長火屬性的也是異常地多,多到大家都受不了而投訴,這也是傳聞中他退下來的理由之一。

出身一般的庫里斯小時候自然沒有專人指導,他當初可以打趴一整班正是因為他天生擁有的深厚魔力。但是讓他完全發揮潛力的卻是作為冒險者使他在學園那一丁點時光所學的逐漸領悟過來。所以要以實戰為目標培養他們嗎?顯然不行,實戰的危險性相當高,對初學者來說更是如此。況且他們一大部分人將來並不需要參與任何戰鬥,正如他們一大部分人並不需要成為火屬性大師一樣。

要吸引他們最直接的做法就是把理論跟他們有興趣的領域連結起來,可是初來報到的他不可能知道學生們的喜好。

只能見步行步了吧?他這樣想道。不管怎樣,然後對著學園流傳下來的課綱奮筆疾書了起來……

*

魔法屬性與適性,是今天的課題。

作為整個課程的開端,其他班級一起上的一年級魔法課是這樣的:按著課本將不同屬性的魔法簡介一遍,順便示範幾個坊間也能學會的小法術當例子甚麼火球術啦、水球術之類的。按課本的話來說就是感受一下不同屬性的魔法之間的區別。至於魔法適性就不過就是每個人最適合的屬性而已,至於適性的原理?以後再說。

按這種步調教的話能教完才奇怪。

「提醒一下大家,屬性不能光用表象去判斷喔。」

「我舉一個例子。」庫里斯像往常一樣坐在講台上開講。只見他打了一個響指,一團散發著強烈光芒的鮮藍色火焰出現在他的指頭上。只見他從不知甚麼地方掏出了一片花瓣,花瓣還沒掉到火焰上就已經化為飛灰:「這團火一看就是火魔法了吧。那這個呢?」藍色的火焰消失了,取而代之的是一朵小小的火花。另一片花瓣浮在火花上方沒有被直接點燃,而是慢慢地枯乾散開。

「覺得這個算火魔法的話舉個手~」不出意外,絕大部分有在聽講的人都把手舉了起來。

「看到有火光還是會覺得是火魔法也很正常。那這個又如何呢?」這次他攤開手掌,上面甚麼都沒有。他再次掏出花瓣,這次花瓣在手掌上方一個無形的旋風中打著圈。

「--雖然大家沒法看到,但是我掌上的空氣的確被我的魔法加熱了一點點,大概是洗澡時浴室的溫度吧。這樣我該稱它為火魔法嗎?覺得這個算火魔法的話再舉個手~」他們想了很久,最後只有三分一學生把手舉了起來。

「這次覺得不是火魔法的人比較多呢。可是我們到底該怎樣斷定甚麼才是火魔法呢?要加熱才算火魔法嗎?剛才也有加熱為甚麼不算火魔法,是因為不夠熱嗎?還是要有一團火才算火魔法?」

「要解答這些問題我們要先把魔法本身的特質與它們所造成的結果分開來看。」庫里斯意念稍動,黑板就浮現出一條線把左右分開來,左邊是「本質」,右邊是「結果」:「結果會隨外在因素而改變,而本質則相反。比如我所放出來的一團火焰把花瓣燒成飛灰,但如果我沒法花瓣拿去燒掉,化灰就不會發生。因此燒掉東西是這個魔法的結果。反過來說,這團火是每次發動同樣魔法都會生出來的,所以是這個魔法的本質。」

「我們一直使用的屬性是按魔法的本質分類的,所以你們剛才看到前兩個魔法都算火魔法喔。至於那個加熱空氣的魔法,魔法造成的空氣流動是本質,溫度的變化是結果。所以這個並不屬於火魔法喔。」

「我們將依屬性將魔法分類,不單是為了更系統地學習和研究魔法,也是考慮到魔法適性的問題。你們應該知道甚麼叫魔法適性吧?」

一位同學舉手答道:「是身體在發動不同屬性的魔法時對魔力所產生的阻力。阻力越低,施行魔法就越流暢,相對的適性也較好。」

「嗯,非常好。雖然我很想繼續討論分辨屬性的話題,不過既然提到了適性那就講一下這東西好了。畢竟你們的適性對日後個別指導的方針影響很大呢。」

「我沒記錯的話,入學測試都只會檢查你們申報最強屬性的能力吧?但事實上絕大多數人都會擁有兩個屬性以上的良好適性。即便是那些專精於單一屬性的貴族,他們的子嗣也不會因此失去其他屬性的適性。比如說皇家一直都有光屬性的傳承,但是次公主殿下的水魔法也相當優秀呢。」

「入學測試只檢查一種屬性可以確保一般學生沒資源開發其他屬性而吃虧,也能保障專精於那些長期透過遺傳強化某一屬性的家族,是個很好的評分方法。不過在學校裡把時間都放在單一屬性上就太浪費了。」

「每個屬性組合之間的配合都不完全相同。比如說老師我冰和風屬性的適性都不錯。冰魔法顯然能附到風魔法上,夾雜著冰粒的風暴殺傷力可是十分可怕的呢。」

「又比如說火跟冰這兩種屬性看似不相容,但仔細想想的話這兩種魔法也可以互相配合的。我就看過有人用冰魔法製造濃霧掩護火球的打法,更不用說本來就有些冰魔法可以為對方帶來負面效果,配上直白的火魔法簡直是天作之合。」

「因為可以操作多重屬性的魔法師帶來戰術上的靈活法,這些人在隊伍裡都是難以取代的。就算不考慮戰鬥,我聽說可以純熟操作三種屬性的人都可以輕鬆成為宮庭魔法師。這對你們不少人來說應該是當初學習魔法的時夢想吧?」

「當然每個人的興趣和適性都不一樣,我也沒要打算讓在坐每位都要開發第二屬性才行。不過想象一下還是可以的吧?這就是你們第一份作業--挑選一個你們不是最擅長的屬性,然後探討一下修練那個屬性的魔法對你們有多大幫助。探討不一定要非常嚴謹,可以從你使用該屬性的魔法時的體驗出發,腦內模擬戰得來的結論也可以。」

「這份作業算是安排個別指導的一部分,希望你們認真想一下,老師我會逐一詳細回應喔。」

「那麼~今天的課就到這裡為止了。下午是社團活動的時間,你們玩得開心一點喔。」

……

*

這所校園毫無疑問充斥著階級的氣息。貴族與平民的入學難度不同,進來以後待遇也往往不同。

與之相比,社團活動是比較平等的部分。校方一直鼓勵學生按興趣去加入或者創立社團,而且對新人的友好程度也會影響每年社團的考核。在這種環境下一堆奇奇怪怪的社團如「轉生文學俱樂部」與「地下城食材研究會」等都得以存活下來,裡面甚至不難找到貴族參與其中。

反過來說,不經社團舉辦的活動的小圈子味道就重得多了。比如學生會定期舉辦收集學生意見的會議,一般只有每個班級的代表們才能出席。

又比如,茶會。

作會貴族們的社交方式,茶會的傳統也被帶到校園裡面。與一般下午茶不同,作為主人的主辦方必須親自準備茶點以示招待之道。除非是主人的朋友或者地位匹配的人,否則沒有受到主人邀請的話是不能參與該茶會的。受邀的客人日後有機會也會舉辦茶會邀請主人參加,以示禮貌。

剛剛開學高年級學生舉辦茶會敘舊,新進來的學生舉辦茶會招兵買馬,校園裡能舉辦茶會的房間早就被搶光了。誰也沒注意到,在導師辦工室大樓的休息室裡面,此刻也舉辦了一場「茶會」。

「……你這樣是不會有人來的,」在沙發上金髮女性輕輕喝了一口茶:「很多年沒喝過你泡的茶了,至少你現在的茶藝對得起茶葉的檔次了呢。」

脫去了披風換上西裝的庫里斯在一旁正擺弄著點心,他正是這次茶會的主辦者。茶葉並不是來自他的庫存而是剛買到手的秋天第一採,特徵是帶果仁香氣的前韻與花香般的回甘。點心當然不是他自己烤的而是在帝都中有名的烘培店訂回來的。這樣辦一次茶會一點都不便宜,所以這種活動當然不會在平民學生之間流行起來,不過這點錢對冒險多年的庫里斯來說還不算甚麼。

「第一個星期讓他們玩自己的就好了,我這個茶會算是試試水溫,願者上釣嘛。」

「你的學生下課就能找你了。其他班級的學生就算想接近你,在摸清楚你的性格以前也不可能參加你的茶會。也不說你根本沒有通知任何人,你覺得有人路過剛好很閒又很想跟你喝茶的機會有多大呢?」

庫里斯並沒有反駁。他從每個點心盤上都夾出一件依鹹甜逐一放到三層的點心架上然後放到她的面前:「嘛~你還是漏了一個可能性。我把你的名字也貼在門外了,比起階級幾乎跟平民沒兩樣的我,想要見你的人也許會多一點吧?」

「那其實還有第三個可能性,就是你只是想請我過來喝茶。對吧?」她只看了庫里斯一眼便從那極力掩飾的笑容中看出個大概,不過她並不討厭在公餘的時候跟他在一起。她拈起一塊三文治放入口中,好一會後她道:「嗯,這家不錯。畢竟不是剛做出來的,麵包的口感不能要求太多。不過如果是你的話應該可以把溫度降下去以保持新鮮吧?」

正要掏出本年度剛出爐「帝都下午茶指南」炫耀一番的庫里斯只好縮回去默默的為自己湊一份點心架。他把點心架放到她對面,然後為兩人斟好了茶。一切已經準備就緒,當他以為他的二人「茶會」可以正式開始時,門外卻不合時宜地傳來敲門聲。

「不好意思,這是庫里斯老師……呃……茶會嗎?」一名男學生推門而入,庫里斯當然認出了他就是那個想用水桶坑他的學生,克萊伊。

「嗯~可以這樣說,不過非正式一點也沒關係,你是老師我今天第一位客人喔。」他轉身走向食物盤,卻聽見身後傳來一聲驚呼。

「星星星星星韻小姐是你嗎?」好歹也算貴族的克萊伊毫無禮儀地叫喊著。

「是我沒錯,你認識我嗎?」她保持著優雅的笑容回應道。

=============

這篇很早就寫好了。但我對那個屬性的世界觀一直不太滿意,一直改才拖到現在。

15年前還是那個用MSN的時代,我不知為何莫名奇妙地在狀態欄上寫了一句「魔法存在的意義為何?」然後先後遭到學姐跟老師的「關切」。並不是那種罰留堂見家長的關切,而是被詳細介紹了存在主義不同學派的見解。可惜我愛的是小說的世界觀而不是這些哲學理論。

世界上魔幻題材很多,但詳細討論魔法本質的作品幾乎沒有,歸根究抵這不是作品的重點。比較接近是以校園為題材的作品,多多少少會在上課是提到一下,不過也只是輕輕帶過而已。出名如哈利波特,裡面與上課有關的內容多不勝數,但可以稱之為理論的卻是少之又少。雖然霍格華茲參考了英式中學的3-2-2結構與英式名校的教育風格,但羅琳筆下的教學內容與地球上同齡英國學童所接受的教育深度是完全不同的。

在這方面的探討上起點的哈利同人文顯然走得更遠。作為轉生者(大部分都是轉生吧,或者至少有哈利本傳的認知)在那校園裡不是學生就是教授。學生的話多半忙著取代哈利成為救世主,但成為教授的話就不得不提到教學的內容了。詳細是哪幾本我不太方便說,但以「哈利」和「教授」為關鍵詞的話應該能找到好幾本佳作的。

另一邊廂日本的作品顯然更速食,他們更不會把精力投放在這種沒有剌激感的內容上面。多寫一節上課還不如多寫一節龍傲天開掛耍帥泡妹呢。少數的例外可以數到魔法科高中的劣等生--我絕對不會說魔法科的名字從這邊而來。實際上我考慮了好幾個不同的名字,還是叫魔法科最順口。魔劣大前期的確花了不少文筆去描述不同的魔法系統。不過這種描述最大的缺陷是,由於魔劣屬於近未來的世界線,他們對魔法的理解是以目前地球科技力為前提而作出來的。這樣就十分尷尬,一些號稱魔法能做的事,用科技的角度來看卻是不合理的。不是「魔法做出科技做不了的事」,這很正常;而是「魔法做得了的事,配合現有科技水平顯然可以發揮出比書中更強的效果」。如何詮釋未知的「科技」本來就是科幻小說的難關之一,這就是為甚麼魔幻作品取工業革命前歐洲為參照會自然很多。

這裡插一句題外話。魔幻作品中也有不少探討魔法與科技之間矛盾的作品,當中又以麻瓜和魔法界天然隔絕的哈利世界觀最為方便。我看過最有趣的一個說法是,即使在哈利的官方作品中魔法界也是明顯地衰落下去:從初代黑魔王到老佛老鄧到哈利,三代人的整體戰力都是往下的。更不用提同人裡一般用到的

始世代(阿瑟王-四位創始人)--魔世代(初代黑魔王-一戰)--祖世代(老佛學生時代-二戰後)--親世代(莉莉-詹姆四人組-老石的學生時代)--子世代(正傳)--孫世代(哈利後代)

分類,每過一代魔法戰力與傳承都呈斷崖式下跌。好幾篇同人都不約而同地問:這個是拒絕科學的後果,還是天道(有/無意識)所為?(類似的問題還有修仙題材裡面太古時代必定是靈力充沛神魔亂舞的時代,不過那個時間跨度太大也完全脫離地球框架,實在難以比較)

所以既然我有機會寫到教學的東西,當然不能錯過這個描述世界觀的機會囉。雖然我的重心還是放在自己領悟到的教育理論和方式就是。

另外很感謝各位接我委的繪師,最近的是蛍石老師和塩魚老師!托你們的福我對庫里斯有了更立體的想象,寫起來更有動力了!他們的繪圖應該會也配在小說中發出,不過看我推特就已經能看到啦。

接下來我會先回去寫夢.十夜吧。那邊的時間線也該推進一下了。

*庫里斯這次使用的是MF的秋收大吉嶺Autumnal Valley,同樣非常推薦喔。

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Neo TWEWY review (4): story and thoughts

*Spoilers alert! This part of review containing spoilers all the way up to the secret reports.

The final part of my review, on the story itself. So be warned that all spoilers are possible!


Again, it is not easy to give a full contextual analysis on the development of Rindo in the story, but I agree with what the secret report says: this is a story of Rindo taking responsibility in contrast to Neku trusting his partner in OG.



Structure

The structure is simple following the 3 weeks framework. Week 1 is an orientation and of course they failed to clinch victory. Week 2 is the transition because they now know about the game but they still failed to win, and they find something shady behind. Week 3 assuming a big story we should be facing someone above the GM level, and whoever to be the boss must have done something extraordinary that is unwrapped during the week.

NEO follows such frame closely. They spent time learning to play as a team in week 1 "just short of" reaching the top. They did well in week 2 taking other teams head on and still failed to clinch the top while discovering the truth about the Ruinbringers. Week 3 is a plain 1v1 between the team and Chiba (and his underlings). 

Puns from the past

Oh and the producers throw OG memes here and there. Whenever that happened it brings a smile on my face. 

"Focus---"
"Yo phones!"
"Tin pin slammer!"
"Still remember reaper creeper?"
...

If you want to give a message, you will probably need better encoding than a plain ternary system.

Jokes aside, most of the 2000-ish elements were gone from the game. Not only Tin Pin Slammers but also reaper creeper (which is mildly popular in the pre-computer era), folding phones (and gadgets modification like in OG), stories around phone booths (so popular in the 90s) and so on. For those who know OG so well like they have played OG yesterday like me, it's just weird to find that all the old technology had been replaced in 3 in-game years whereas it has been 13 years in reality. This is not a criticism and this is necessary, the only to blame is Square Enix who halted NEO development back in 2012.

Time reversal

What differs is how the missions are solved. This is due to the difference in mission style (as the GM changes) and also how teams interact. More importantly, how the rewind skill is utilized.

In theory you can do very complicated things with such talent. By going back and forth, one can obtain pieces of information seemingly impossible to be known in the past. These information can be used to lead the user to the correct path in the future.

This approach is observed in a number of detective games like Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney or Zero Time Dilemma(/Escape) where players have to decide which timeline to jump onto and what to do in those timelines in order to grind something fresh out of them.

Of course NEO is not a detective based game so the produced didn't bother to trick players -- in fact, the instruction to players is extremely clear as dropped by Rindo on his mental notes. (The hardest non-combat part lies on the consecutive multiple choices. Reaper's review is easy but the conversations with a Pureheart and with Shoka are so hard!)

As a result the game took a much simpler approach to how Rindo uses his talent if he found that the sequence X->Y->Z didn't work then you can first rewind and correct Z to Z'. If that's not enough you rewind further to correct Y to Y' and X to X'...then you just proceed with everything corrected. That applies even to the grand final on W3D7: the team is exhausted after fighting Shiba and they won't be able to take down Soul Pulvis (the bird noise), so they go back trying to avoid the fight with Chiba; to avoid the fight you need to get someone to persuade him, so you find the reapers...

Such story is linear and easy to understand. Although some players may found that repetitive as your last conclusion coincides with your next action. I also wonder that in a number of days the rewind is actually triggered because "you possibly cannot defeat the opponent" -- but we players have proved that we are so good in the combats. Why can't we just take the fights in the hard way? Of course Rindo didn't know clearly that rewinding come at a cost, but it would be fun if we can do those fights by ourselves say in postgame. For example on W1D5 I wouldn't mind taking 20 DRS members (bet they don't have such a big team) plus the golden pig. This is just a matter of diffusion beam massacre right?

The rewind structure is mostly simple. Rindo basically have to correct 2 or 3 things before he can go ahead and change the fate except on W3D7. On that day it's 90 minutes of pure cutscenes (under autoplay) without any fights repeating the "correction" process. 

Some players may find it too long, especially who wants a damn long dialogue when you are on full gear towards the end. I had the same feeling when I first cleared OG back in 2008: it was a family gathering and I started the game with the Konishi fight after dinner. I played and fought all the way through, but it took me much longer than expected. When I finally saw the end of the day it was already 12:30AM with a few adults grunting outside. It's easy to understand why people are not happy with that. 

Still I would say such approach is good in terms of storytelling because you want to focus on Rindo and his team as much as possible throughout the 3 weeks. It is already much harder to unveil the story around Rindo as he now has many more characters around him comparing with OG, and you don't want to add further disturbance on it. 

The key characters on the final time reversal is certainly Kaie and Rhyme. The producer knew that and had them showing up at the end of the days time to time. It's like having the ingredients prep'd beforehand -- sensitive players would have already known what's going on, then the actions taken on W3D7 would come smoothly.

Impressions on the OG characters

The OG characters undoubtedly took an essential role in the game, and accounts a crucial part of player's love on the game. To those ingame characters 3 years have passed but to the players outselves 13 years have passed. This difference could cause deviation on how player expects the characters to behave in the NEO timeline. I want to express my feeling on some OG characters briefly here.

Neku: he seemed much more mature than expected. Even with his mental growth in OG (and in the new days in the final remix) he never behave like that. He is more like a big brother only giving advice when necessary. I think that's a correct decision because we need space for NEO characters to grow -- just look at what happened to Appollo Justice Ace Attroney when Phoenix Wright refused to step down.

Beat: I never noticed that his hair is blonde in OG till I looked back after his appearance in NEO. He stays the same as in 3 years ago and this is kind of expected.

Rhyme: cute and heartwarming as ever. We didn't know much about her in OG other than her interactions with Beat but her personality shown in NEO isn't very surprising either.

Shiki: she deserves more air time other than her two encounters with Neku. It would be a nice starting point for the producers to fill the gap on what happened during the 3 years. OG, the animation and the final remix all failed to explain the change in appearance for her and I kind of want to know why too.

Josh: my impression on him is seriously distorted by his outlook and voice, both much more mature than expected, even though his personality stays the same considering that he isn't really a teenager.

Sho: the mysterious character in both OG and NEO, but his background and intention is prelly clearly explained by Coco, the secret report and himself. Luckily now he is under the supervision of Coco.

Eiji "Prince F" Oji: yes please continue to F everything :D

I wonder what was Shiki doing during the fight. She can't stand in the middle of the crossing right?

Questions unsolved

The nature that everything is caused by moved made from the "higher planes" decided that the story can't possibly be decoded in full, thus the need of secret report. However the reports were in an oblique style and some questions remain unanswered. Here are the few that always tick my heart during the years:

- Josh's stance on the "old" Shibuya in OG was never clear. Was it the lack of creativity/imagination or is it simply boring that he decided to destroy Shibuya? 

- In a similar way what happened to Shijuku's inversion? This is a question even deeper: the inversion happened after the 3 weeks timeframe in OG. Is the motivation of Haz related to Josh's? Why must it be an inversion, a bold act with severe consequences, rather than purification or other form of cleansing?

- While my memories on the final remix has been fading away, I think we need more details on Coco to complete the story because she's one of the few that has clear association with both the Shibuya and Shinjuku branch. According to secret report (Neo#22) she's (not sure why it was written as "he" in the report) the one who drew the Shinjuku inversion report. If we were to know more details about that it's probably from her mouth.

- The "fact box": producers saying that NEO was made based on the facts covered by the anime. I expected an enormous amount of information (like, 10 episodes for 3 weeks plus something extra for the 2 episodes) in my anime review, but the anime turned out to be a plain reiteration of OG with little simplification to some unhandy details. The amount of detail covered in the anime is far from sufficient to withhold NEO, not to mention that the anime talked nothing about the Shinjuku inversion. So what were actually assumed in NEO? 

- Continuing my question on the facts, one of them stood out and is quite important in my eyes. The latent power is unique to players like Shiki's ability to attack with Mr.Mew, Fret's reminder or Nagi's dive. Does Shoka's teleportation counts as "player's latent power"? Or, can we say that latent power isn't exclusive to players but also reapers or UG residents? At which point do the players receive such power? 

- If Shoka's power is confusing enough then Neku's power is even more confusing. According to OG Neku has the talent to utilize various pins for different psychs which is incredibly rare...but wait, is everyone in NEO doing that? Or by saying "utilizing various pins" refers to utilizing them simutaneously like in OG combats? Or, is the Rindo team *that* special that they all have such ability to use various pins? -- this couldn't possibly be true though because Beat can't use multiple pins in OG. So back to my earlier question: what's truly assumed in NEO?

- Imagination, a term made up possibly to describe characters' potent, is never properly explained. How do we understand imagination, for example by the literal mean (Wikipedia: ability to produce and simulate novel objects, sensations, and ideas in the mind without any immediate input of the senses)? Or according to secret report (OG#1) the "true intention" of the characters...? Is that something that can even be quantified? I never found any trace about imagination in OG TWEWY nor in NEO.

Philosophical thoughts

To conclude this part of the review let's look at the story again from another perspective. There are two issues that are worth discuss based on the TWEWY world.

Uhhh...ok.

"Higher existences". The OG game was a bet between Shibuya's composer and conductor. The NEO game was a bet between an angel (presumably Kubo, NEO#1) and Shibuya's composer Josh. While it may deemed as "game" from the higher existences, it's bringing disaster to UG and RG.

One may asks the thinking process of those "higher existences" or if the consequences on UG/RG ever their consideration. On the other hand what would human (who have been associated to UG/reapers) think about those "higher existences" given their action? We have seen such conflict at the very end in OG between Neku and Josh, also on Josh's trick on Rindo at the end (although this is less consequential). 

Similar questions are asked very frequently in some religions in the form of "if your God is universally powerful then why isn't the Earth an utopia". Things aside, it would be nice to see similar discussions at the end of NEO like in OG, although the vibe may not fit too well for these topics...

"Rationalism". Haz has a completely off the ground sense as from human's judgement via his conversation with Josh and Rindo. He asked Rindo why would he risk Shibuya being destroyed just to rescue his friends and called that irrational. As a player we know that we will win and have both Shibuya and Rindo's friends saved, but what if that's uncertain? What's the "rational" answer?

If, instead, we know that we don't have both saved in the new timeline anyway what's a rational/moral choice? 

It was explained in W3D7 how time reversal worked: it's basically a shift to a parallel world to achieve whatever they want. But when they leave that parallel world it was destroyed, hence the bird noise coming from the overflowing vibes that had nowhere to go. Is it rational then to sacrifice the undesirable parallel worlds for your ideal outcome?

The exact same question was asked in the ADV game Zero Time Dilemma which I have mentioned above as well, and is a very nice game to play.

Conclusion

I am very surprised that I wrote more about the story than the mechanics because game design is always my first priority when it comes to games. That's probably because I loved the franchise so much and I know the story too well.

How is NEO's storytelling? It's an enjoyable story fitting the themes preset as in the secret reports. It might be true that the huge cast caused difficulty to develop enough on each of the protagonists, but the producer had done a good enough job on the matter. The flaw is inherited in the script that they failed to explain things in full detail. They took the same approach as in OG so similar unsolved mysteries were left behind.

Final words

Unlike solo, live or final remix, this is the true sequel to the original TWEWY game. It tried to adopt the stylus free environment and did a great job with it. 

The combat is fun and endgame content is truly challenging unless OG, albeit sometimes a bit repetitive and time consuming. Still, there are more unique bosses this time.

The artwork design is again great with more pins and brands, although the pins and threads combination sometimes feels restrictive. Songs are less striking than last time, or maybe not. 

It's a master storyteller -- any completely new player can easily dive into the story, and OG players will absolutely love it.

In overall this is a sequel that matches the quality of OG. If OG deserves a 9.5/10 as a best in an era game, then NEO will get a 8.5/10 from me.

I like how you have both unmodified and modified drop rate in OG.

The obligatory collection.

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Further reading: 

There are toooooo many games that are Tokyo based with teenager protagonists and sell stories about growth. P5 is the most popular one, but there are many more like trip to Akiba, Megami Tensei and so on. A direct comparison between TWEWY and P5 is kind of controversial, but it's worth a read.

Kind of true and false. We have a number of these games especially from Asia. They are just not as popular. Heroism is just too popular in the West.

I can deeply feel that as a Nintendo fans. Extreme 3D quality is not necessary to make a good game, and they sometimes even backfires. A game is good because it entertains, not because of your billion dollar worth model or what your bullshit sociopolitical concept that you tried to bring in.