Like riding a bike

I’m back to playing Final Fantasy 14 again after over a year and a half off. When I quit (again) back in October-ish of 2019, Shadowbringers was still fairly fresh – a lot of folks were still making their way through the main scenario, and the more hardcore were working on the harder raid content. I found myself in the latter camp, working with a group of folks out on the east coast a couple nights a week. We had made our way through the first raid after about a month of trying, but a confluence of people getting busy with school or running for their lives ahead of Tropical Storm Imelda along with my workload spiking caused both the raid group to have to go on hold and for me to have to quit altogether.

The raids themselves are quite fun, and even in the normal difficulty mode tuned for the player base at large, they can be quite challenging. I saved a video replay of the first time I cleared the fourth encounter –

I’d saved the video partly because it was my first clear of the raid content that released with Shadowbringers, but also partly because I’d figured out the dance routine just well enough to be able to save the raid from a wipe at about the mid-point. Common wisdom about the use of limit breaks in the game seems to be – usually you want the DPS to have it, and there may be specific events which require the tank to use the limit break instead, but if a healer has to use it, that usually means the attempt was destined to fail and the healer just prolonged the inevitable. So this was a fairly unique set of circumstances to have happen all at once.

Over the last 8-or-so years that I’ve played this game, I’ve gone into raids as a DPS, as a tank, and as a healer. Healing seems to be uniquely challenging in that not only do you have to dodge all the same stuff that everyone else has to dodge, but you also have eight health bars to watch, you have to be aware of when the heavy damage is incoming (both the things that are raid-wide and the things that are focused on one or both tanks), and you still have to pitch in on damage dealing when there’s nothing else going on.

Then once you have all of those things figured out, you start optimizing. Do you need to drop a huge raid-wide heal just because everybody’s at 85% health, or ignore it and let them recover on their own? Do you have to stop and heal the tank through a tankbuster, or can you throw an instant-cast shield and trust that they’ll mitigate the rest of the damage themselves while you continue throwing out damage?

In the harder difficulty content (which the above is not), you go so far as assigning healers to tanks, giving people specific spots to stand, and building up internal rhythms that you follow rather than playing a more read-and-react style. You know when the encounter starts you can cast four damage spells before the first big tankbuster comes in, then the team has to fan out and you have to stand on this particular square, and so on. The penalty for not doing the right thing or not healing the right person at the right time is stiffened too; a boss that doesn’t get downed in 10-12 minutes tends to start throwing out massive raid-wide damage as punishment for taking too much time, so if too many people have too much downtime on the DPS charts, the chances for failure skyrockets.

Anyway, it’s a lot to think about, and the worst part is there are 7 other actual people involved. So you can imagine that having this many buttons to press, and needing such detailed knowledge of encounters, and knowing that the penalty for not doing your particular job is that other players’ characters take a dirt nap, there’s a lot of stress and anxiety around getting back into shape and being able to play again if you’ve taken any measurable amount of time off. Maybe the worst part is that the game doesn’t store your hotbar assignments on the server, so you come back to the game with an empty hotbar and need to rely on muscle memory kicking in before you can get your act completely together again.

Thankfully, one of the new features in the Shadowbringers expansion was the ability to run dungeons with AI counterparts. Seems to defeat the purpose of an MMO to offer single-player modes, and the playing the game this way is definitely a lot slower than playing with other humans who have optimized their play styles, but it does give a low-stakes way to figure things out again. After about a day of playing with the bots, I had my hotbar sorted back out, and in comparing my new hotbar to what I had in the video above, the results were nearly the same. Leading up to Shadowbringers, the recovery time was closer to three or four days.

Square-Enix is on about a two-year cadence with Final Fantasy 14 expansions; that is to say, they’ll release an expansion, then spend the next two years releasing periodic content updates/additions before releasing the next expansion. We’re at the tail end of the Shadowbringers expansion now, with Endwalker (the next expansion’s title) slated for release in just a few months. So since I stopped playing shortly after Shadowbringers came out, that means I have roughly two years’ worth of content to get caught up on in the next four or five months. Should be doable, but this is going to wreak havoc on my backlog. I was a portion of the way through Yakuza 5 (itself part of an endeavor to play through the entire Yakuza series), and I had a handful of titles that were on the radar for immediate playthroughs after that, and now everything’s on hold. Oops.

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Saturday Morning Ritualisms

I’m currently holed up in a Starbucks –

Proof that I am currently holed up in a Starbucks

Before the pandemic, this used to be the morning routine:

  • Wake up at 5am
  • Be the first one at Starbucks
  • Read, write, play something on Switch, clear the YouTube backlog, do literally anything for about two hours
  • Pack up and head back home to officially start the day.

The challenge with working from home is that home is a 1-bedroom condo where all the daytime activity takes place within the twenty-or-so square feet that my desk occupies. It’s been pretty difficult, especially recently as work has gotten incredibly busy, to separate activities that all happen in the same spot. I’ll sit down at the desk intending to open up my personal laptop to do something non-work related, but I end up opening the work laptop instead and log in to answer emails and squash bugs. Or, I’ll leave emails/IMs unanswered during business hours to play Rocksmith on my personal laptop.

The lack of a separate place that a coffee shop provides has particularly aggravated this problem; at a minimum, I’ll never take a work laptop to Starbucks because the work laptops aren’t very portable, so I can get the personal stuff out of the way in advance. Minus the Rocksmithing, that is. Hauling a bass and a DAC and the laptop and all the cables is just too much effort.

We’ve bounced between Covid phases a couple times now; this county has gone from permitting nobody to permitting 50% occupancy to permitting nobody to now permitting 50% capacity in the last few months. I’ve occasionally sat inside during the “yes you can come in and stick around” phases of things, but the comfort level has increased recently with vaccines achieving widespread availability. Now I just have to deal with the self-conscious feeling I get when I sneeze in public and imagine everyone around me thinking I’m infected.

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Dead and Dying Hardware

Ars ran an interesting article earlier this week about ticking time-bombs in PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 hardware. The simplest explanation for this issue is that these consoles have internal batteries meant to help keep system time. If the battery is pulled and replaced, the system is programmed to phone home to the PlayStation Network to reset the clock. This process depends on Sony retaining support for the ability of these consoles to phone home – Sony could, at their discretion, ‘upgrade’ the service such that discontinued consoles can no longer sign in, which would leave a PS3 or a PS4 with a new clock battery in a state where it needs to find out what time it is but can’t.

(Side note – seems that the lifespan of these batteries is measured in tens of years. That’s quite an improvement over the Sega Saturn battery, which sometimes only lasted a few months!)

It hard sometimes with articles like these to tell where the reality ends and FUD begins because it’s a discussion of potential events that have yet to occur. Yes, the outcomes are tested, so we know how these systems respond when their clock battery is pulled and replaced, but at the same time, we don’t know if/when Sony plans to free these consoles from the requirement to phone home to validate content, or if/when Sony plans to lock them out of PSN forever.

It does raise some interesting questions about what would potentially change in some kind of firmware update. Would the system just get its time from pool.ntp.org? Or would time not matter at all anymore? When the time comes to end PSN access for PS4 hardware, do you force-feed the firmware update so users aren’t locked out, or do you just post the .PUP file to your website and tell people to sneakernet it onto their hardware when they’re good and ready? That would certainly solve the case where a PS4 gets retired from service after someone gets a PS5, then it sits in a closet for 7-8 years until somebody decides to pull it back down and give it to a relative or something, and Sony has long since retired any PlayStation Network endpoints that know how to talk to a console from the 2010s.

(Point of emphasis on that last sentence… the argument will invariably be “well leaving the server there shouldn’t cost you anything, so there’s no reason not to do it”. That’s a fair point, but I can also say from personal experience that it doesn’t take long for the knowledge of how to operate/maintain that server to evaporate as employees move on, company R&D and support dollars get prioritized elsewhere, and document libraries get upended by corporate-issued edicts for IT to lower costs and migrate everything to a cheaper solution. That’s to say nothing of the ongoing expenses that will need to be incurred in keeping security issues patched, and occasionally upgrading the entire operating system. Eventually, it becomes more trouble than it’s worth.)

Or – in the worst case scenario, which Ars was getting to – does Sony do nothing, and essentially leave 200 million consoles out in the cold when the decision is made to lock them out of the online service? It was just a few years ago that Sony got ahead of Microsoft in the eighth generation of consoles simply by staying quiet while Microsoft got hit over the head for their inability to explain whether the Xbox One would be required to be online or not.

For PS3, the damage seems limited to just downloaded content. If the system doesn’t know what time it is, it doesn’t know whether the content is valid to be played or not. This is one of the reasons why I tend to stay away from digital content in the first place. You never know when you’re going to want to play something like I am Setsuna on the Switch, for example. But, if you wanted to do that in 2031 and Nintendo’s long since binned their online storefront for the Switch (as they have for the Wii and Wii U), how/where do you get a copy? From Japan, where physical copies of the game with the English localization built in were published.

For the PS4, the consequences seem most dire – apparently this online check happens when you load any game at all, physical or digital. So if you replace the clock battery, and the PS4 can’t call home to find out what time it is, it’ll never be able to play any games again. That’s quite the end state for a game console.

As alarmist as that sounds, papering over the issue with a simple “well, the PS5 is backwards compatible” ignores the possibility that one day it might not be. Folks should remember that PS3 once had hardware-based backwards compatibility with PS2 which was then replaced with software in a cost-cutting measure, but then Sony decided later on to patch that functionality out of the platform. (Along with OtherOS functionality, which earned them a class action lawsuit, but that’s a different topic for another day…) So, even though Sony’s design decisions for the hardware of the PS5 lend themselves well to easy support for last-gen games, it’s easy to see a future where that functionality has been rolled back.

On that note, the jailbreak community for Sony’s older consoles seems pretty well-established at this point. I actually got a 60GB fat PS3 (the one with the hardware-level compatibility with PS2 games) a few years ago and jailbroke it. So now it never needs to go online, and if I want to play games on it, rather than introduce additional wear and tear on the Blu-Ray drive, I can just point the system at an .iso file on disk. It’s actually rare that I do this these days – the last game I played was Digital Devil Saga, which was about a year ago. Between wanting to focus on newer games and being busy with work, the PSX/PS2/PS3 backlog has intentionally been kept small. But as I said above, sometimes you want to go back and play these games.

Same goes for the PSP and PS Vita, which have similarly lost support from Sony. In fact, a jailbroken PS Vita is probably the best way to play PSP games on native or native-like hardware now, due to the dwindling supply of reliable PSP batteries. A few years back I had a workflow involving both jailbroken handhelds where I could rip an .iso file off of a UMD and then sneakernet it over to the PS Vita to run inside the PSP emulator. Works great, and provides easier access to games that are on dead consoles and dead media formats. While the UMD has thankfully run its course already, some games, like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, have never been rereleased on any other format.

(Speaking of pointing systems at .iso files, I do plan to eventually build out some kind of a file server and rip as many of the disk-based games as I can, probably as part of a larger project to build out a Plex server. Got a lot to get done before I get there, though.)

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Right, so

Important life tip. Or, if your life isn’t full of drama queens, then at least it’s an important work tip.

Save the receipts. Save all the receipts.

Not shopping receipts… the receipts the kids talk about. The screenshots of things where people say something that you need to remind them of four months later when they act like they said the complete opposite thing. Those receipts.

Having a long memory helps, so you can remember you even have the receipts in the first place.

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Weekends are supposed to be fun

A rough accounting of how I spent the last four days:

  • Thursday: worked 8am-2am, owing to the previously-mentioned deployment problems
  • Friday: worked 8am-10pm
  • Saturday: commuted into town to work at the office. Left at 6am, got back at 7pm.
  • Sunday: worked 8am-4pm

But hey, at least I had a few minutes to (finally) finish up Yakuza 3 on Sunday night. I had started that one back in January or February and hadn’t been able to finish it due to work taking up too much of my time. Didn’t think it was a particularly great game, but by the time I’d made my mind up on it I was already close to the end anyway. The Yakuza series seems to be an odd one to play all the way through in order now. Yakuza 1 and 2 have both undergone full remakes to modernize the way they’re played, but Yakuza 3-5 are still stuck in ‘remaster’ zone where all they got was a fresh coat of paint. Yakuza 3 weirdly manages to look both up-to-date and out-of-date at the same time, while also having a plot that goes absolutely nowhere at times unless you’re into chasing kids from an orphanage around.

So that leaves me halfway done with the Yakuza games. I’ve already started Yakuza 4, and have higher hopes for it just based on the fact that Yakuza 3 lowered the bar from the first two.

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