In Search Of: Five-Player Co-Op

I love co-operative online gaming. I've been playing co-op games since the late 1990s, when my friends and I discovered games like Baldur's Gate, in which up to six players joined together in an epic role-playing adventure based on the rules of the tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. My friends and I spent the better part of a year playing that game, meeting online one night per week, beginning a ritual which continues to this day. Over the years, co-op gaming has allowed us to continue playing games together, even as we've moved far apart and rarely get together in person.

But our weekly ritual is getting more difficult to pull off all the time. Why? The problem is that there are five people in our gaming group. As I said, Baldur's Gate allowed up to six players at once, and golden-age MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online had five as the standard party size. These days, though, most co-op games limit you to four players maximum. I don't know how four became the industry standard for group size. I put much of the blame on Left 4 Dead, the four-players-versus-zombies game, simply because it was so successful that it spawned a host of imitators like the Payday series and the ridiculously over-titled Warhammer: The End Times - Vermintide.

Nothing's worse than when a great co-op game comes out and, because it's only four player, we either have to skip it, or work in sessions around someone's absences. The latest culprit is Divinity: Original Sin 2, a wonderfully updated take on the classic Baldur's Gate formula that we fell in love with all those years ago. Hey, look, here's the loading screen. Doesn't this look like a five-player co-op game to you?


But it's not. It's four player. Those five characters are all in the game, but only four of them will ever be together.

I know I'm not the only person who is bothered by the player limit, because someone has made a mod that allows five players, but it's buggy and may lead to game-halting issues. What we need is a little support from the game makers. Please, developers, make games that scale up and down to allow a little variation in party size. If you're going to all the effort to make a great co-op game, make a little extra effort and make a game that all my friends can enjoy together.

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Bottom-Up Programming

I put together a new video on bottom-up programming solutions. This video is, in a way, a sequel my earlier video on recursive dynamic programming, but also demonstrates how the bottom-up concept can lead to solutions outside of recursion and outside of dynamic programming. Check it out!

If you'd like to try any of these programs yourself or just read through them at your leisure, here they are:



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Aiming in World of Warships: A Success Story

I don't play as many computer/video games as I did in my youth, but I still play. While I am a competent gamer, achieving a high skill level in some games simply requires more practice than I am willing to invest. For example, I thought I would never find much success in the team-based naval combat game World of Warships--even though I'm pretty good at its older sibling, World of Tanks. My main problem was landing shots on mid to long-range targets without taking too much time. I almost gave up, but I decided to treat this as a puzzle to be solved. I spent a little time gathering test footage and data, and I cracked the code. I may never be an especially fearsome captain, but I can aim now. Here's a video I made explaining the aiming method I developed, which I call Ghost Ship Targeting:


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Is Technology Fragmenting Society?

When I was young, there were four channels I could view on the television--the three local network affiliates and our PBS station. Our family was an early adopter of cable television, for which I was immensely grateful. The brief period after I acquired access to MTV and before the rest of the world did marked the only time that I was more plugged-in to popular culture than my peers. But as the channels have proliferated on cable and the number of radio stations has increased and been augmented by endless numbers of satellite radio stations, and with the advent of streaming media, we've started to lost the shared experiences that bind us together as people.

Back in 1980, for example, a character named J. R. Ewing was unexpectedly shot, and possibly killed, as a season-ending cliffhanger on the CBS show, Dallas. Now, it wasn't as though everyone in America was watching Dallas, but the number of viewers was high enough that everyone in America knew about it. The fictional shooting was a shared cultural event.

And because there were fewer media outlets, those outlets tended to cast wider nets. That probably accounts for the blandness of much of the television from that era. Producers tried to make shows that appealed to everyone, and they often made shows that lots of people kinda liked but no one really loved. But the wide net also meant you could get exposed to things you weren't specifically looking for.

For example, consider The Midnight Special, which came on Fridays on NBC, after Johnny Carson. This show featured live music (or nearly live--there's the occassional cheating), and the variety of acts was amazing. One week you might see The Cars, just on the cusp of fame:

Another week you might see The Sylvers--if you've forgotten or never seen this act, imagine the Jackson Five, but with the other brothers and sisters cramming the stage. Or just watch:

Another week, the show would head into another direction entirely, with The New York Dolls:

Rock, soul, country, pop, you could find it all on the Midnight Special. Now, if you want music, you can bring up an app that will play you just the music that you already know and like, which is cool, but it means we're all starting to live in the cultural equivalent of a walled garden. I can't imagine a show like the Midnight Special happening now, or a television character so well-known that everyone in America would ponder his fate. Will we ever see variety programs like The Carol Burnett Show again? Probably not.

Communication technology, from the telegraph to the Internet, has always held out the promise of bringing people together, but if we're not careful, it can do the opposite. Our technology can segment and divide us, so that while we develop close ties to the people and things we already know and like, we may miss the chance to interact with what's new and different. 

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The Missing Piece of Information

Do you know anything about music--or specifically, music notation? Even if you don't, you may be able to answer this question. Here's a note on a musical staff. Do you know what note this is?


Wait, don't answer yet! Here's a illustration of which note goes where on a staff with a treble clef, as we have here:


Okay, so what note is in that first picture? It's a D, right? I mean, it says it's a D right there on the picture, and then the chart on the bottom confirms that the second line from the top is, indeed, a D on the treble clef.

But I have recently discovered that this note, in a certain context, is not actually a D at all. Let me expand that original picture to give you that context:


Some of you may be nodding your head in comprehension now, but for everyone else, let me lay it out. Those open and filled-in circles at the bottom, along with the small T, are indicating which valves to press on the French horn to play this note. So what difference does that make? Well, it turns out that French horn music is notated a perfect fifth above the actual note. That means that when the music indicates you play this "D," the actual note is this G, a fifth lower:


I discovered this fact in the course of helping my daughter, who has taken up the French horn in middle-school band. But I only just discovered this fact this week, at the end of the first term, after weeks of trying to help my daughter hit notes well above her expected range.

It turns out that most brass instruments are notated differently than the actual "concert" pitch, and of course this is common knowledge to brass players--but not to beginning brass players, or their parents. But my daughter's French horn exercise book didn't tell me about this transposed notation, nor did her instructor tell her anything. The instrument itself is no help, because you can usually sound a note and the higher fifth using the same fingering.

So here's my point. I know a lot about music in general--notes, scales, keys, chords, and so on--but I know little to nothing about the French horn. My daughter has learned a good bit about how to play the French horn, but she knows very little about music in general. I tried to apply what I knew about music to help her, but I was missing one key piece of information. Without that information, everything I was telling her was off-kilter. I even bought her a contact tuner so we would know exactly what note she was playing, but that only works if you understand the transposition.

I think a lot of communication gets fouled up this way. We all have accumulated experience and wisdom to share with others, but sometimes we're missing the key that will allow us to translate that in way other people can use. And there's no way to know what you don't know, so it's hard to be on guard for this kind of mistake when you are the one trying to impart knowledge to someone else. Instead, I think we should be watchful for potential problems on incoming knowledge. Ask yourself: How might someone working in an area related to mine get confused? If you're a math teacher, for example, consider including "translations" for current math terminology to those of previous generations, so parents can usefully be involved with their children's math work. The world depends upon knowledge journeying from one mind to another, and we have to ensure that it survives the trip.

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