Elite Dangerous Engineers Revamp: Many Steps in the Right Direction

Beta testing is now open (and free for all Horizons owners) for the first update in the Elite Dangerous: Beyond series. For me, the headline feature of this update was a revision of the much maligned Engineers which wasted player time with insulting random changes to module performance. I have had the chance to do some testing of the new system, and I am generally very positive about it. The changes are as follows:

Module Generation

When a module is modified at a certain grade, the negative effects are only added on the first roll, while the positive effect is still randomly generated. Subsequent rolls compound on the previous result until you reach the maximum positive effect possible. There is also the option to progress to a higher grade modification once the positive effect is large enough. Typically, one would need to only do a few rolls at each level.

The user experience was very different compared to the old mode. All you see is a blue ring gradually filling up, the oscillating sliders are gone. One could argue that this has removed any sense of occasion from using the Engineers. And they’d be right: going out to the casino for an evening of debauchery is a much grander affair than putting money in a vending machine, selecting a chocolate bar and picking it out from the tray at the bottom*. I don’t see this as a problem, after all Engineers is supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Progression

The new system has received criticism since it is now mandatory to progress through all of the grades. One starts engineering a fresh module at Grade 1 and must have achieved most of the possible effect before progressing to Grade 2 and so on. For the second beta test, I engineered some 3A enhanced thrusters (for an 880 m/s Imperial Courier) starting at Grade 2. It took 11 rolls to reach Grade 5. I think this is a reasonable progression that’s not instant, but achievable with a small amount of work.

Secondary Effects

These used to cut both ways; a roll could be further improved, or the roll could be ruined by random secondary effects. Now secondary effects have been decoupled from the modifications. They may be obtained by additional materials.

I see two main uses for secondary effects: (1) Additional gain to a specific aspect of module performance, (2) Reducing the mass of modules for a higher jump range. And now that they’re a bolt-on feature, players won’t need to waste so many materials trying to get the perfect roll.

Materials Trading and Storage

These features are very useful, instead of storing a maximum of 1000 materials and 500 data (which fill up very quickly), each item has a limit of 100. Players can now collect and stockpile materials without agonising over whether they should pick one thing up and discard another.

If a particular material is hard to get, then players may use material traders to swap items they have for items they want. I have found this to be quite useful, particularly since I have no interest in grinding on the beta which is going to be wiped in a few days. The buy:sell ratios are a bit excessive and don’t scale the same if you are selling high grade items or buying low grade items (kind of like how the buy and sell prices for foreign currency aren’t the same). I think a ratio of 3:1 between adjacent grades in both directions would be ideal.

Irrational Playerbase Responses

There are two main ways to play Engineers: (1) briefly, where you do a few Grade 5 rolls (having ranked up to this level beforehand) and accept whatever results you get; or (2) obsessively, where you keep rolling until you get an amazing modification. Users may roll hundreds of times to achieve this. I’m somewhere in the middle, I want a powerful roll, but I refuse to collect enough materials to do hundreds of rolls. I would typically do 20 at the most before running out of materials and giving up in exasperation.

Group 1 are upset that they may need to do more rolls by having to start from Grade 1 for all new modules. Now players need to do 10-15 rolls to get to a full Grade 5 modification for every module, where they may have only chose to do one or two in the old system. I don’t agree with this assessment since low grade rolls were required in the old system to build reputation to reach Grade 5 in the first place. The clearer outcomes may encourage such players to get more involved than in the past if uncertainty was a big disincentive to use the Engineers.

Meanwhile, some who fit the category of Group 2 are affronted that their misguided past efforts are going to be supplanted by the availability of better modifications for less work. These players can go take a running jump. The RNG based system is incredibly unfair and puts optimal results out of the reach of casual players. I for one, am glad to see the back of it.

Power Creep

By changing the system to become deterministic while preserving outcomes from the old system, it is necessary to ensure that old modifications don’t have an advantage that is unobtainable under the new system. Hence the maximum effects in beta 2 are quite a bit higher than in the old system.

While power creep is viewed by some as a distortion, as an explorer I see it as positive and necessary. There are still systems that are inaccessible due to the distance between systems exceeding the jump ranges achievable. Sooner or later, there will have to be some mechanic to enable access to these systems (dockable megaships that can jump up to 550 LY are already available but not currently used for this purpose). Power creep means more opportunities for explorers** and thus should be encouraged.

Criticism

Ship statistics are still missing. This was most problematic when I was deciding between the increased FSD range modification secondary effects. Would a higher max fuel per jump or extra optimised mass give a higher jump range?*** There is no in-game display for this information before the modification is applied, which is unconscionable when third party websites such as E:D shipyard and Coriolis.io are able to provide ship stats for any hypothetical ship build.

The progress made in reaching the upper limit of a modification is still dictated by RNG. Sometimes the gain made during a roll may be marginal, which is as much of an insult to the player as the old system which would waste materials on poor modifications. A minimum gain should be achieved by a roll that is substantial enough that players don’t get discouraged.

Conclusions

The revised engineers system is a great deal fairer and more accessible than the old system. A clear path towards optimal results makes the grind for materials worthwhile and the new storage and trading helps address RNG-based difficulties associated with spawning materials. The power creep should be viewed positively as it will allow for better ship performance.

It’s a bit disconcerting to see a roll sometimes give minuscule gains, I think this should be tweaked. There is also still no way to tell in-game how the ship performance is altered prior to applying modifications. Presenting this information is not difficult, it should be in the game.

I have always seen the Engineers as a means to an end; enjoyment should come from the improved experience of having a fast ship, or a longer jump range, or more powerful weapons. The changes made by Frontier serve to make engineers better suited to this purpose (although I don’t think this is their intent). The game will be more enjoyable because of these changes for the better.

*assuming it doesn’t get stuck on the end of the rack!
**Better exploration mechanics are part of the Q4 update and are desperately needed.
***More fuel is better for class 4 FSDs and lower, more optimised mass is better for class 5 FSDs and higher, as outlined by a superb forum post.
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Science Journalism Hits a New Low

“I don’t believe it!” was the exasperated catchphrase of Victor Meldrew, played by Richard Wilson in the television show One Foot in the Grave. While I didn’t find the show particularly funny, Father Ted brilliantly mocked Wilson’s distaste towards the catchphrase in The Mainland, thus cementing the catchphrase’s place in pop-culture history.

I found myself shouting “I don’t believe it!” earlier today when I clicked on a Fairfax “news” article about a “study” that claims men overeat in the presence of competitive environments. I could see where this was going straight away, I was not surprised to discover that the study was from none other than Brian Wansink‘s group at Cornell University.

Why was I not surprised? Because Wansink has form: It all started in 2016, he published a horrific post extolling the praises of a graduate student who was able to churn out 5 papers(!) from some data about restaurant eating habits. Furthermore, he derided a post-doc who refused to have any part in the whole affair for wasting too much time on “Facebook, Twitter, [and] Game of Thrones”.

The post aroused suspicion within the scientific community. Wansink’s work was subjected to further scrutiny, where it was discovered that Wansink was practicing P-hacking. P-hacking is where one tests a data set looking for the slightest correlations between any sets of variables. By convention, a statistical significance (P) below 0.05 is deemed to confirm a hypothesis. The trouble with P-hacking is that no hypothesis exists to motivate the design of an experiment, or to collect data.

Even worse, researchers found that Wansink’s statistical analysis was atrociously poor and that some of his work was self-plagiarised. It comes as no surprise that the retractions are starting to rack up.

The paper that the article was referring to* was one produced by the P-hacking effort outlined in Wansink’s brag post and has had to be corrected. Was any of this reported in the Fairfax article? Of course not, Wansink’s claims were simply parroted by the journalist. There wasn’t even a link to the paper that the article is supposed to be about! That the study was the result of academic misconduct is an important piece of information that readers should know about. More importantly, the poor quality of Wansink’s research means we can’t be sure that the competitive overeating phenomenon he claims exists is even true!

So we have an badly written article about a study so poor that it doesn’t warrant being written about. Why does this happen? The corporate media’s insatiable demand for ad revenue would be my guess. P-hacked studies that claim ridiculous sounding correlations between variables are typical clickbait that draws the attention of the non-scientific masses. Real science articles are usually less folksy and only appeal to a limited audience, hence don’t feature in mainstream news.

This approach is bad for science. The media is the only interface between scientists and much of the population. Superficial reports about dodgy studies presented as fact create a picture of scientists as bumbling, grant-hungry fools; whose findings are either bloody obvious, or obviously rubbish. The dumbarse comments below the offending Fairfax article prove my point.

While scientists such as Wansink are incompetent and their findings are ridiculous, most scientists are highly knowledgeable and produce robust work. But the public doesn’t get to see these people because their work isn’t “sexy” enough. Other fields of science such as climate change and vaccine research are then attacked by charlatans who are only too happy to exploit the public’s distrust in science to further their own agenda. The media has created the unbelievable situation where the public are lied to and then won’t believe the scientists who try to set the record straight.

It is absurd that the media these days is about profit first and disseminating information second. It is absurd that Fairfax think it is acceptable to publish claims by a fraudulent academic without letting it’s readers know that the claims are supported by shoddy research. It is absurd that our society has to suffer because confidence in science is undermined by media only interested in its bottom line. Down with this sort of thing.

*The paper was published in March 2016! What in the name of bloody hell are Fairfax doing reporting about it in January 2018?

BallisticNG: My Impressions

As a latecomer to the WipEout franchise of anti-gravity racing video games, I was born too late to play the earlier games. To my surprise, it may not be too late since BallisticNG by Neognosis is available on Steam.

BallisticNG 8_01_2018 8_59_09 PM

Lining up at the back of the grid at Marina Rush. From here, the only way is up. The spectators get a great view from the glass-clad art gallery, or the viewing pods.

BallisticNG bears a strong resemblance to Wip3out in terms of graphics and gameplay. It is developed by a small group of enthusiastic developers. It was originally free to play, but the increasing workload of development meant that it has transitioned to a paid game (only $6.29 NZD). I can understand the motivation for doing this and I was only too happy to re-purchase the game to support the developers.

Let’s start with the positives:

  • Despite the similarities to Wip3out, the ships and tracks are original and satisfying to race in their own special way. My favourite track is Arrivon XI (video by developer Vonsnake), which has a very fast, twisty downhill, followed by a sharp turn with a narrow exit. It’s very rewarding to get this bit right. My favourite ship is the Nexus, which is essentially a fast FEISAR.
  • The pick-up items have some great features, such as firing missiles backwards, and a shield that deploys automatically if you are attacked while carrying a shield pick-up. The autopilot also includes a shield and will stay engaged during corners so it won’t timeout in an awkward position.
  • The BNG modding scene is very healthy, there are lots of great fan-made ships and tracks that have been added to the Steam workshop. These include ports of WipEout ships. And nary a microtransaction or loot box in sight!
  • The unique soundtrack is great and adds to the atmosphere.
  • The game loads very quickly and my computer runs very quietly when the game is running, in part because the graphical processing requirements are quite low.
  • The custom races are highly adaptable. There are a range of speed classes to challenge all types of player, different levels of AI difficulty. I especially like the ability to set extra AI, and extra laps. Two different physics models are available: 2159 which is like the older games, while 2280 is reminiscent of WipEout Pure and WipEout Pulse. There’s something for everyone.
  • The drag ships and tracks are a creative addition where ships race at supersonic speeds around large open circuits (with great sonic boom sound effects). I prefer to do drag mode with 2280 physics since wall contacts are much softer, but there is the risk of falling off the track.

BallisticNG 9_01_2018 8_48_18 PM

Going for a supersonic stroll through the Lujiazui Park track in Shanghai. The buildings in the background are (L to R): Shanghai Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower.

Speaking of walls, here are my criticisms:

  • Wall contacts are very unforgiving with 2159 physics. You can scrape along the walls with no problem, except for the awful sound it makes, however collisions send the ship ricocheting between the barriers, eating away precious shield strength. This problem is infuriating in the drag ships and needs to be corrected.
  • The 2280 physics mode includes more forgiving wall collisions, but this is outweighed by being able to go through walls and fall off the track. The ship is stationary when it respawns; I would prefer that ships respawn at speed so that you can carry on without losing too much time. Even better, make it so that the ship CAN’T GO THROUGH FUCKING WALLS!
  • The campaign includes mirrored tracks. I can’t stand mirrored or reversed tracks!  It’s really confusing to learn a track one way, only to have to race it in another way.
  • Energy walls launched by opponents are really frustrating and disrupt the fast flow of the game, I would prefer them to be removed from the game.
  • The AI in the Campaign mode are all over the place. In the knockout modes, the AI is far too powerful and I’m unable to complete these challenges in hard mode.
  • For the 1 lap 1v1 races, I’ve found that you need to get in front very quickly and the AI will fall behind you. If you don’t, then it rockets ahead into the distance. Use the shield draining speed boost at the start to get the upper hand. Be prepared to restart these challenges a lot.
  • In the endurance races, the AI is unbeatable for the first 5-6 laps, but you can then reel them in the last few laps. While this is a very nice turtle/rabbit story, it’s quite unrealistic. If I can maintain a steady pace for 10 laps, why shouldn’t the AI?
  • For 2159 physics,  you get a boosted start if the throttle is at ~75% when you start the race. Since the AI get this automatically, I think the boosted start should be standard.

While there are a lot of criticisms (mostly to do with the campaign mode, and wall contacts (or the lack of them in some cases)), BNG is still an enjoyable game when you set it up to your liking. It’s still in early access, so there are still changes that will be made. In particular, wall collisions need to be made more forgiving. If you’re adept with the WipEout games, interested in AG racing on the PC, and looking for something that’s quick to load up and get racing, then I can highly recommend BallisticNG to you.

Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis: My Impressions

A while back, I had dinner with an old friend who works in the Wellington beltway. He had recently gained a small amount of publicity for a study into the then government’s 90 day “fire at will” employment policy. The Tories sold this to the public under the guise that it would create jobs by encouraging employers to take a chance on people.

My friend’s research showed that the policy failed to increase the hiring of workers. We then joked about how then Prime Minister John Key tried to dismiss his findings by  using anecdotal evidence!

I also remarked that it was fascinating that academic economic research tended to support many left-wing policy viewpoints in contrast to the right-wing framing of concepts presented at the level of ECON101. I saw it as a sign of the validity of the political left, much to the amusement of my friend who would never deal in such broad generalities.

This attitude explains my interest in Yanis Varoufakis, the academic economist-turned Greek Minister of Finance following the 2015 election victory of the left-wing SYRIZA party. In principle, having an academic as a government minister to implement evidence-based policy is ideal. Varoufakis’ 2017 book, titled Adults in the Room explores his time as Minister of Finance, and reveals that things aren’t so simple.

The book makes clear the horror of the debt repayment/austerity regime imposed by the EC/ECB/IMF troika. Austerity has eliminated Greece’s ability to repay its debts, and despite the sacrifices made by the Greek people, the repayment bill keeps growing. As Minister of Finance, Varoufakis seeks to reverse this disastrous course of action. But he has an almighty struggle ahead against intransigent EU functionaries.

Perhaps Compromise isn’t so Bad After All…

Moderation and compromise formed the backbone of Varoufakis’ negotiation strategy with the troika. However, he was clear to highlight the difference between compromise and being compromised. When the troika refused to budge, the answer was not to make more concessions, but to be prepared to proceed with a deterrent preferable to staying in the debtor’s prison.

This approach simultaneously confirms and challenges my uncompromising attitude to politics. I now appreciate that compromises may be necessary as part of reaching a very specific end goal. Similarly, I felt vindicated in my belief that genuine compromise with authoritarians is impossible since total acquiescence is what they are looking for. Credible threats against their own interests are required to progress.

Varoufakis knew this and had a strategy in place to haircut SMP bonds held by the ECB, a move that would have legal ramifications for the ECB in its attempt to save the Euro by purchasing debt. A parallel currency would also be introduced to buy time should Greek banks close. Varoufakis has a great capacity for self-reflection and even identified when he should have put this plan into action (following the teleconference ambush on 24 February 2015).

We Haven’t had Enough of Experts!

The strength of having an academic as Minister of Finance was evident in some of the innovative plans that Varoufakis drew up to counter tax evasion, contingencies in the event of Grexit and reassuring Chinese investment in the Port of Piraeus.

If Varoufakis represents one side of the expertise coin, then the other Eurogroup ministers, the ECB, and the IMF belong on the other side. As I see it, these functionaries were able to mask their lack of expertise by stonewalling, or by instantly dismissing all of Varoufakis’ proposals.

Some interesting examples of troika incompetence include the German double act of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble. Schäuble is impervious to reason, sees Grexit as inevitable, and ultimately wants the troika in France. Merkel is more focused on progress being seen to be made and makes disjointed interventions for the sake of seeing progress. She was able to win the confidence of Prime Minister Tsipras, which eventually caused SYRIZA to surrender to the troika.

Varoufakis relays one instance which beggars belief. The troika used the outputs from an economic model to justify their demands for austerity (in this case increasing VAT). The problem was that they failed to account for price elasticities. A superior model was developed by Varoufakis’ team that incorporated this assumption, arguing that VAT should be reduced to discourage tax evasion. Of course, it’s not enough to be correct when you are arguing with the troika and Greece was imposed with a VAT rate that made its tourism sector less competitive at a time where tourism revenues are crucial to the Greek economy.

Whose Side is the Troika on?

The demands that Greece should prioritise debt repayments over pension payments to it’s citizens, and the Bank of Greece engineering a bank run in anticipation of SYRIZA’s election win were just two examples to show that the troika was not on the side of the Greek people. The troika’s loyalites are made clear when one spectacular act of economic self harm was committed following Varoufakis’ resignation:

To combat the endemic tax evasion that was hindering Greece’s recovery, Varoufakis introduced a scheme where electronic transactions were analysed to flag up undeclared income. Following Varoufakis’ resignation, the MoU for a third bailout loan included the elimination of the algorithmic hunt for evasion, which was about to net billions in revenue for the Greek government.

Hanlon’s razor comes to mind: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. Given that the counterproductive actions of the troika always benefit the Greek oligarchy at the expense of European citizens, it is fair to describe the troika as not only incompetent, but also malicious.

Summarising Thoughts

Even though Varoufakis is no longer an MP, he is still campaigning to bring about constructive change as a co-founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25, which regular commenter Old Deuteronomy has mentioned before). Opposing the ascendant far-right does not require alignment with an uncaring establishment, instead left-leaning collectives such as DiEM25 offer a participatory approach for citizens to reclaim the dignity of all their European compatriots. Adults in the Room perfectly illustrates the need to take action to secure economic and social justice for Europe.

 

 

 

Gambling in Games: Some Hope for the Future

Not long after I expressed my irritation about the random number generator (RNG) based gameplay in Elite Dangerous, the video game world was shocked by the release of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The game consisted of opening loot boxes with the possibility of  unlocking more powerful characters. Accessing loot boxes could be done either by spending a lot of time playing, or by purchasing more loot boxes with real money.

This was a slap in the face to gamers considering the price of the base game. EA’s attempts at damage control were a spectacular failure, they have since backed down and removed microtransactions (for now).

The whole affair caught the interest of regulators in Belgium, The Netherlands, Hawaii and Victoria, to name a few. The aspiration to ban loot boxes from the European Union by the Belgian Minister of Justice is particularly encouraging. It is a refreshing change from the prevailing viewpoint by regulatory agencies that loot boxes are not gambling, such as the ESRB, PEGI, and New Zealand’s OFLC.

Of course PEGI’s retrograde viewpoint on this issue comes as no surprise, I finally heard back from them following my complaint about the Engineers in Elite Dangerous (their bold):

the moving images must “encourage and/or teach the use of games of chance that are played/carried out as a traditional means of gambling”. This refers to types of betting or gambling for money that is normally played/carried out in casinos, gambling halls, racetracks. This does not cover games where betting or gambling is simply part of the general storyline. The game must actually teach the player how to gamble or bet and/or encourage the player to want to gamble or bet for money in real life. For example, this will include games that teach the player how to play card games that are usually played for money or how to play the odds in horse racing.
Elite Dangerous does not contain content that would trigger a PEGI gambling.

This definition is too narrow. Of course Elite Dangerous isn’t going to contain traditional gambling, it’s set in space 1300 years in the future! To me, it’s clear that PEGI isn’t that keen on protecting the public.

This comes as no surprise when one considers PEGI’s owners are the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE). The ISFE represents the interest of software companies, including members such as Activision, EA, SEGA, and Ubisoft. How can we trust a ratings agency created by the software industry to put the interests of consumers before those of their backers? As their response to the loot box saga shows, we can’t.

The IFSE sees PEGI as little more than window-dressing by working “to counteract negative connotations or moral panic“. It’s insulting that gamers concerns about quality gameplay and extortionate economic practices are dismissed as a moral panic. As I have commented before (in the context of television broadcast standards), self-regulation doesn’t work. Self-regulation didn’t stop loot boxes in Japan. Leaving it to PEGI and the ESRB won’t stop them either, there’s money to be made!

While the efforts of the aforementioned politicians are important steps in removing loot boxes from our games, people power still has an effect. Disney, the owners of the Star Wars IP, were allegedly concerned about trending memes associating “family-friendly” Disney with gambling (a brilliant strategy move) and may have had a role in canning the microtransactions. It’s important that society continues to let game developers know who is in charge.

Regarding Elite Dangerous, Frontier has revealed their plans for revising Engineers. I am broadly happy with it, it is more deterministic in the outcome and players have the choice of special effects. I am not too concerned with the progression, it’s better than gambling and material trading should soften the tedium of the grind. Bring on the Q1 update!

To conclude, fuck PEGI and the corporate interests who bankroll it. Public opinion is firmly against loot boxes and RNG gameplay; the sophistry about how it isn’t gambling hasn’t fooled anyone. Politicians around the world are taking action seeking to end the scourge of gambling in video games. My own complaint may have come to naught, but there’s a lot to be hopeful about.

 

Paradise Papers Reveal Absurdity of GST

As if the Panama Papers weren’t enough, we have had more information about the barely legal and unethical dealings of the super-wealthy following the release of the Paradise Papers. Much of the focus has been about how individuals and corporations with the help of tax havens are able to structure their affairs to minimise their tax bills. In effect, they are stealing from taxpayers who bear an undue brunt of the cost for keeping their respective governments functioning.

This scandal has largely gone unnoticed in New Zealand because the corporate media is too busy recapping events in reality TV shows such as Couples Spend More Money Than Anticipated on Ego Projects, and  Ignorant White People Discover That Arranged Marriages Aren’t That Great After All. So I’ll need to turn to international media again. The Guardian is the most prominent Anglophone newspaper that has covered the Paradise Papers and has put out too many articles to cover in any great detail, but I would like to discuss one that particularly caught my attention:

2017 Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton avoided paying up to £3.3 million of VAT (value added tax, known as GST in New Zealand) when importing a Bombardier private jet. The jet was made to look like it was available for charter, by doing so VAT can be claimed against the purchase and running costs associated with business operations. VAT can not be reclaimed when jet was used for leisure purposes. Depending on the breakdown of business and leisure travel, Hamilton may have been required to pay a proportion of the £3.3 million in VAT.

My disdain for the wealthy avoiding taxes is not limited just to Hamilton, but to everyone who has been caught out in the Paradise Papers. If you want to live in a civilised society, someone has to pay for it. It is only logical that those with the most wealth are liable for most of the taxation levied by governments. The quality of life of the majority of the population suffers when governments are not able to provide high quality services such as education, healthcare, and security.

Furthermore, the wealthy are only wealthy because of public infrastructure, an educated and healthy workforce, state-funded research and enforced intellectual property laws. Were it not for strong and effective government, they could not have achieved what they have been able to do. It is in their best interest to support government, and that means paying taxes. Weak arguments such as “the government would just waste money anyway” are just shallow excuses made by sad individuals trying to allay their guilt.

Of course it one thing to insist that the rich should pay their full amount of taxes voluntarily, but no one listens to me. Instead it is up to governments to close down the loopholes in the law that have been exploited. What I find interesting about Lewis Hamilton’s case is that he was able to avoid VAT, a consumption tax like GST.

GST has been defended by neoliberals because it was seen as “simple”, “efficient” and “hard to avoid”. The Paradise Papers have shown that all of these arguments are a complete sham. GST is nothing more than a regressive ideological act of faith that puts more pressure on ordinary people while allowing for the rich to become richer. Even worse, there are mechanisms which allow wealthy people to actively avoid GST on big-ticket purchases!

Governments are largely paying lip-service to the idea that something must be done, but don’t expect the oligarch-funded centre-right to do anything about it. Meaningful change starts by electing solid left/centre-left candidates to national office. It’s encouraging to see Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn come out against the practices highlighted in the Paradise Papers. The British government should also intervene in their overseas territories to harmonise the tax structure within the UK. That action alone would close so many loopholes featured in the Paradise Papers.

It’s vital to the long-term welfare of our society that it is properly funded by those who have the ability to fund it, who also happen to be those who have benefited the most from it.

I am Shocked, Shocked to Find That Gambling is Going on in the Engineers’ Workshops!

Having slogged through the stellar-dilute space far above the galactic plane while playing Elite Dangerous with my 52 LY Asp Explorer, I purchased an Anaconda with the aim of configuring it for an even higher jump range. Other players have reported jump ranges in the high 60s, I could do with that.

To get that far, one needs the Horizons expansion and needs to play the Engineers (update 2.1). The Engineers are a small group of characters littered across the Bubble who can modify ship modules to alter their performance (note that I used the word alter, not necessarily improve). The associated gameplay is objectively poor, engineers are unlocked by employing the services of other engineers and doing some mind-numbing tasks. Each modification requires the player to provide materials to trigger the random generation of new properties for the module (rolls for short).

Wait, did you say random? Yes that’s right: random. To modify a module to your liking, you may need to trigger the modification generation many times, costing you more materials each time. These materials are time-consuming and boring to collect. It comes as no surprise that Engineers is vehemently disliked by the Elite Dangerous playerbase. Other objections include:

(1) It was broken. For a while, there was a bug where players could get a powerful Grade 5 roll for the low cost of a Grade 1 roll, meaning that it was easier to get strong modifications since materials were easier to collect. This was largely kept as a secret among players and was widely used by griefers to engineer their ships. Crooked mods were even used to influence the outcome of an in-game event that would form the basis of a Frontier-sanctioned novel.

Like all secrets, it got out eventually and Frontier were able to remove all crooked modifications. I enjoyed the impotent outrage disseminated by the cheaters. It is nonetheless disappointing that a broken system, exploited by deplorables to ruin the experience of the game for decent people was allowed to persist for so long.

(2) It commits the logical fallacy of false balance. In order to pretend that The Engineers is a sophisticated piece of game design, a modification to a module will include benefits and drawbacks. Consider extending the range of an FSD for example: Improved optimised mass (usually) comes at the expense of power draw and integrity. Subsequently, I will get bad rolls where the optimised mass is lower than my existing modification, but with better integrity and power draw metrics.

Here’s the problem: I don’t give a damn about integrity or power draw, I just want the highest optimised mass so that my ship can jump as far as possible. Thus, many of my materials are wasted on modifications that are of no use to me.

(3) The outcomes are unclear. If one is extending the range of their FSD, they may want to know what the range will be once a modification is applied. Optimised mass, actual mass and max fuel per jump all matter and combine in a way that is hard to quantify. No new jump range information is given, you need to figure that out yourself. Not good enough Frontier.

Frontier has finally cottoned on to the awfulness of the Engineers. As part of the post-Horizons Beyond expansion, the Engineers will be revised. In Q1 2018, each successive roll will be an improvement upon the preceding roll.

This change is not fast enough, it could be up to 5 months away. I can’t see why it should take so long. I would suggest that instead of randomly generating an effect with a pseudo-random number generator, the effect should be generated using the equation that describes a first-order step response. Here, the independent variable is the number of rolls. The time constant could then be set to a certain number of rolls. Figure 1 shows the case when the time constant is equal to 1 roll.

Ideal Engineers Graph

Figure 1. Proposed function for generating an effect in Engineers.

In the example given above, I would only need to do five rolls to get the maximum optimised mass out of my FSD. Similar (decreasing) profiles would exist for negative effects. I would also know what the outcome would be prior to the roll, allowing me to make an informed decision about whether I want to spend time unlocking an Engineer and collecting materials.

These changes would reduce the fatigue associated with overuse of the Engineers mechanic and save me the grief of rejecting modifications which aren’t an improvement on the last roll. The reduced variability in modified modules would also make the game a more level playing field for player vs player (PVP) interactions.

Protesting the Age Rating

I decided to have a go at forcing Frontier to change Engineers now by protesting the age classification rating provided by PEGI. Horizons is currently rated PEGI 7 with depictions of implied violence. No mention of gambling at all. If Frontier wants to keep Horizons at PEGI 7, then Engineers must be changed (or removed).

As part of the rating process, publishers complete a questionnaire where they self-assess the nature of the game content. PEGI then cross-checks the information using submitted examination information. What does PEGI say about gambling? (my bold)

27: Moving images that encourage and/or teach the use of games of chance that are played/carried out as a traditional means of gambling

This refers to types of betting or gambling for money that is normally played/carried out in casinos, gambling halls, racetracks. This does not cover games where betting or gambling is simply part of the general storyline. The game must actually teach the player how to gamble or bet and/or encourage the player to want to gamble or bet for money in real life. For example this will include games that teach the player how to play card games that are usually played for money or how to play the odds in horse racing.

Let’s evaluate the Engineers against these criteria:

(1) Moving images. Check. When rolling for a modification, several sliders moves back and forth across the screen before coming to a halt. Each slider position represents the value of a property of the modified module. A gain on the starting value is represented in blue, while a loss is represented in red.

(2) Traditional means of gambling. Check. The mechanism in Engineers is analogous to that used by slot machines. Money (materials) are submitted, causing several reels to rotate (sliders to traverse). If the symbols on each reel match up (sliders land in the right-hand side of the image), then a monetary (ship performance) reward is issued.

(3) Encourage/teaching the use of games of chance. Given the clear analogy between the Engineers and slot machines, I think it is reasonable to say that Horizons teaches users how to play a slot machine. A player who has a positive experience with Horizons (i.e. some good module modifications without too much grinding) may have a more positive view towards slot machines, thus I also believe that players could unwittingly be encouraged to gamble.

A PEGI 12 rating would be more representative of the game’s content. With this in mind, I submitted a complaint to PEGI last Monday (23/10). I’ll post an update if/when I receive a response, although I would encourage other players who are sick of Engineers to lodge similar complaints in order to catch the attention of the PEGI staff.

In the event that the rating was to change to PEGI 12, I doubt that anything would happen since most people ignore the age ratings. However, I would hope that developers start thinking about developing substantial gameplay instead of a randomised mechanic which makes a mockery of the considerable effort made by players.

Frontier needs to show more respect to their customers by producing games with features that are fair and accessible.