Thanks, You Lovely Bastards

From the very beginning, blogging was a kind of life raft for me. In my darkest, loneliest hours it gave me a place to not only be myself, but be myself in an open enough manner that others could see me too. It allowed me to make connections with some of the kindest and most varied characters I have ever come across. It gave me a platform to share my thoughts and feelings. It was also an opportunity to shape my craft as a writer for all to see in a manner that seemed safe, if not sometimes mundane.

In situations like these, it is best to be blunt: I am retiring from blogging.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure what I wanted from blogging. Some part of me hoped I would be ridiculously good at it, that I would spin it off into a career, and that I could become the kind of person who plays and talks about video games all day, every day. I quickly moved past that sentiment when I learned there are only so many ways to talk about your favorite MMORPGs and only so many people willing to read those thoughts.

Notions of fame and fortune were quickly replaced by community and connection. I made friends and established myself in various circles of people. I felt important and social in ways my all-too-often antisocial self fails to accomplish in everyday situations. Over time, those social connections have shaken off their foundation. While we all regularly blog, I am just as happy sharing a thought with you on Twitter as I am a comment on a blog post. Neither requires I actively blog myself.

For a long while now, I have battled against my self-imposed expectations:

  • I do not want to worry about views and comments validating the existence of my voice.
  • I do not want to advertise my wares to make certain the most people have seen what I had to say.
  • I do not want to feel beholden to some illusory schedule for fear of losing all of my readers forever.
  • I do not want to feel like every single activity or experience I do needs to be carefully screened in case I can extract a blog post out of it.
  • I do not want to feel like I have to rush through something to have it done in a timely enough manner to maximize the readership it may garner.
  • I do not want to feel like every time I write it has to be about video games or MMORPGs specifically. I do not even like MMOs anymore.

I do want to be a writer. Maybe not commercially, but in a manner befitting my opinion of my own talents. Blogging is not that manner. Try as I might to think differently, most of the things I have written here have been little more than self-inflated forum posts. Not all, but most.

I am tired of drivel. You can disagree with my assessment if you like, but keep in mind that it is not born of depression or some self-effacing mentality. It is also not meant to include anyone else’s writing or opinion of their writing. From the undetermined point in which I became truly self-aware, I have been a serious person and I want to demand of myself something more serious than lists or hastily scribbled reviews of games I barely played.

I want to write fiction again. Like I did as a kid. I have so many ideas, but never the time or will to dedicate to them. Blogging started off as a means to build confidence but it has long been my excuse not to write anything else.

If I write anything else, let it be a solid essay. Something meaningful to me that I can really be proud of. Not something I spit out in five minutes because I really thought I needed to talk about [insert hot new game here] while everyone else was.

As it currently stands, Murf Versus is closed. The name will live on. There will be a day I bring it back and I will rededicate it to Christopher Tyler Murphy the writer, not Murf the Blogger or Murf the Gamer or Murf the MMO Fan. For now, it is time for a clean break. For now, its time to finally do something else.

I will be around. I will still read your blogs. I will still comment. I will still be on Twitter. Don’t hesitate to ask for me!

World of Warcraft’s Leveling Problem #Legion

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World of Warcraft’s leveling sucks. If Legion portals hadn’t been such a Metsend [[play off of godsend and Metzen which likely does not work visually, but I will leave it anyway]], I would’ve long given up my dream of having a max level Goblin Warrior. Here are my reasons why it sucks and how I would fix each problem:

You get your abilities far too fast.

I am sure you can dig up some posts where I complain about MMOs starting out too slow. I am sure those posts would be about World of Warcraft. I used to hate how long it took for your character to really get any sense of identity. With the older talent system, it took forever to unlock class-defining abilities, and you were otherwise stuck with depowered versions of skills your spec rarely used.

With the Great Pruning for Legion, WoW features a lot less abilities than it used to. While you may think I am against this, I actually love it. If EverQuest II cut skillbar bloat this much, it might actually be a playable game for once.

Classes in WoW now unlock the vast majority (95%+) of their abilities by the mid-30’s. It is great. The game is more fun at lower levels than it ever was before. You have an actual rotation to work on, rather than a couple of buttons you may be so lucky to spam. There’s just one problem with this setup: Ieveling becomes a lot less fun when new abilities aren’t around every corner.

You could say Blizzard is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. You may even want to call me a hypocrite. Whatever it may be, this problem has a classic solution. Blizzard needs to reintroduce ranks for every ability and passive. While every class would still unlock all of their buttons early on, over the course of the 70+ levels still left to go, ranks would add an extra drip of dopamine in the form of upping the effectiveness of abilities/passives already acquired.

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Non-Dungeon Content is useless.

This is hyperbole, but at its core, it is totally true. While there are some players playing MMOs to solo or who avoid multiplayer-content for a variety of reasons (anxiety, schedule, low population server with low demand class, etc.), that is not the case for the majority. Most people leveling in World of Warcraft want to do so quickly and effectively. The only time any of the players stops to smell the roses, it’s because they’ve put off leveling Herbalism for a while.

Now, I am not an advocate for quest-based grinding or the shopping list at a quest hub style MMO, but I find it curious that Blizzard has not addressed this. You may think this a poor analogy, but when a large portion of your content goes unseen by old and new players alike, ala raiding back when it was exclusive to the 1%, then changes need to be made.

Questing in WoW is just that sort of content. There’s no point to it really. Even if you do try and level exclusively by questing, you often outpace the content entirely which leads to less challenging gameplay and less fulfilling rewards (less experience or gear no longer useful).

Sans crazy leveling events like Legion Invasions, it is best just to spam dungeonfinder over and over. That is boring. I personally prefer variety, but short of getting more public events more often, I am not partial to going back to quest grinding either. That said, I think it is time World of Warcraft breaks out the ‘s’ word and does it all over its outdated content.

The ‘s’ word being scale, not shit. Blizzard should scale everything so that we can do content whenever we like and not have it be completely trivial. Hopefully Legion’s scaled zones will prove that is the way of the future and the past, and we get a nice grand reshaping of Azeroth once again.

Why so many levels? Why so much gear?

There are far too many Blood Elves in World of Warcraft. Likewise, there are too many levels and that includes item levels as well. Even if levels are relatively short, you still have to get through 100* (*110 soon) to reach all the other players.

Normally in MMOs I love getting gear, even at lower levels while I am progressing toward the top, but World of Warcraft is the exception to this. I either level too fast to have all my gear slots at an adequate level or I out-level that cool new thing I looted the last time I played too quickly. Getting gear at any level beyond the max just doesn’t feel as rewarding as it once did.

Further complicating matters, heirloom items are even easier obtain and use on alts. These items scale to your level and never break. They also offer powerful bonuses that make grinding easier or quicker.

I loved heirlooms when they were first introduced, but now that they cost gold to obtain and they are more numerous, the temptation to obtain them and abuse them is far too strong. At least when leveling up itself was slower, it was nice to have some guaranteed filled slots in addition to what you can earn while questing/running dungeons at your level.

I think World of Warcraft would benefit greatly from a big crunch. Condense the game back down to sixty levels, make it level longer, but also reduce the gap between obtaining skills/passives and talents. Furthermore, a nice item level crunch and normalization would make gear progression while leveling more fun again. Plus, if you scale dungeons and their awards anyway, there will be a huge mix of content to do at all levels.

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Conclusion.

You may think that since World of Warcraft is so old, everyone who wants to level has already leveled everything they want already. I don’t believe that’s the case. I also know there are people out there who enjoy leveling characters as much, if not more than, playing WoW as its most vocal minority insists it ought be played: at max level.
Blizzard is sitting on hundreds of hours of content that is going under utilized. The game’s leveling grind will need a serious rework if they want to make this content great again, but doing so is within their power. Furthermore, they could just as easily add a prestige system to PvE as well. PvP has a minimal amount of content, but Blizzard expects players to honor grind over and over to unlock all of its awards. Why not do something similar with PvE?

I am grateful Legion Invasions exist. I am not sure I could do the leveling grind in World of Warcraft again. It is mindless, boring, antisocial, and the only hook is reaching max level. I wouldn’t mind an excuse to revisit a revitalized and reinvigorated leveling grind. At the very least, scaled dungeons so old content never goes away would be a plus. Timewalking is okay, but not quite far enough.

Pillars of Eternity (PC, 2015)

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For a very long time, I have doubted the truth of my golden years in terms of cRPGs. I have long heralded Planescape: Torment as one of my favorite games of all time, but was that a mere mirage? I prefer Fallout 1 and 2 to anything Bethesda has ever done with the series and I think New Vegas is the best thing to come from the series new ownership. Am I saw kind of RPG hipster?

It hasn’t been easy answering these questions. Anytime I’ve tried to go back, I have been greeted with clunky gameplay and dated graphics. While some cherish the combat of those older RPGs, I only wanted the story. Compared to today’s games though, it makes even harder to go back to games like Baldur’s Gate where my joy rests in reading lengthy, lengthy text to soak up all of the lore and characterization I can.

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When Obsidian and inXile started making Kickstarters for spiritual successors to classic titles, I had to be apart of it, even if those kinds of games had long been absent from my life. And, as excited as I was, that excitement was put aside when the final products were released. I was nervous things would not pan out, that I would hate these kinds of games, and that my past might be misremembered.

I finally had a chance to sink some time into Pillars of Eternity. This is what I thought of the game:

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This game was ripped out of an alternate dimension where Black Isle did not die an ignoble death.

Pillars of Eternity looks and plays exactly like I remember all cRPGs of the mid-to-late 1990s playing. It has the same click-and-drag, click to move, hotbar centric gameplay. The screen is covered almost as much by UI as it is viewable playing area. There’s even things like narrated chapter openings and “you must gather your party to venture forth” error messages.

Oh and a ton of load times.

While the me that Kickstarted this game would’ve preferred the authentic experience delivered, I am not so sure copying a sub-genre down to a microscopic level short only of lifting the original Infinity Engine’s code is the best use of anyone’s time. For all its recreations of a bygone age, Pillars of Eternity never tries to fix any of the things I still loathe about these kinds of RPGs.

Combat is a clunky blend of real time and pause, with the latter being necessary though rarely any more entertaining. The load times make going in and out of buildings/areas a choice . And as happy as I am that they captured the look, the fact that none of my character faces in the character creation screen really line up with the portrait options is a bit disconcerting.

Pillars of Eternity was instantly improved the moment I decided to go with the easiest difficulty and steamroll through as little of the game’s combat scenarios as possible. Fallout 1 & 2 were fun to fight in. Everything else from that era or its Kickstarter renaissance? Not so much. Load me up with exploration and dialogue options please!

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The story has interesting themes, but man do I really, really, really hate fantasy stories that constantly throw unpronounceable names of people/gods/places/events at me.

I won’t spoil it here, but Pillars of Eternity’s main plot revolves around concepts of reincarnation and godhood. I am a sucker for stories about either, but I felt more lost than anything else.

I knew coming into this game that I should be prepared to read many novels worth of text to follow along, but that doesn’t excuse a lazy habit of fantasy writers to confuse quantity with scope and scale. There’s more to being an epic than name dropping a checklist of past moments in history that changed the world as our characters used to know it. This is a video game after all: I need short bursts of flavor, not lengthy diatribes against <insert morally dubious faction here>.

I did like most of the encounters, however, and far all its over-written bloat, there were a ton of really interest philo-fanta-fictional ideas/plot devices in the narrative. Some of the big reveals held back for the late game would’ve been absolutely fantastic if they had been expanded to be the main thrust of the plot. The pseudo-mysterious rediscover main character’s past life angle did almost nothing for me.

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Overall I thought Pillars of Eternity was a weak game but I loved it for other reasons.

I doubt I’d force on anyone else, but I am pretty grateful after having completed a run of the game. I no longer doubt the legitimacy of cRPGs or my memories of them. While this game was not a particularly strong one for me, it reminded me of why I enjoyed these kinds of games in the first place. When the storytelling does work, nothing else matters, and few other video games come close to stories of similar depth. I love the Elder Scrolls series, but rarely does its main quest have me thinking deeply of theology and mythology (Morrowind the exception).

I most likely will not return to Pillars of Eternity again, despite the huge amount of content I could still do. I am however looking forward to playing other cRPGs again, such as Torment, Wasteland 2, and Obsidian’s next cRPG title, Tyranny.

Pillars of Eternity was not a revelation itself but playing it gave me one.

A Few Thoughts On Stranger Things

Like so many of you, Diane and I had little to no expectations for Netflix’s latest show, Stranger Things. I won’t speak for Diane directly, but my knowledge and love of 1980s-style horror is fairly limited. Beyond absolute classics like Evil Dead 2 or The Thing (both referenced in the show) I am no expert. Despite a lack of reference points, Stranger Things perfectly encapsulated everything I thought I knew about the look and feel of the 1980s. The fact that the plot kept me interested for the entire season was only a bonus.

Stranger Things takes place in an Indiana town where a young boy has gone missing after a school night at a friend’s house playing D&D. It follows the missing boy’s friends, his family, and the local police chief as they each work on unraveling different mysterious surrounding a nearby military base.

To be frank, the horror was lacking. There weren’t many jump scares and the show moved too quickly to explore some of the darker aspects of its concepts. Stranger Things instead focuses on fleshing out its limited cast of characters, and exceeds at doing so. While I was hoping for a little more death and mayhem, I genuinely cared for the relationships being developed on screen and I wanted to explore the lives of almost every member of the cast more deeply.

The show was far from perfect, however, and I think its praise has been overstated (though still mostly deserved). Hardly anything is explained, which is great if you can pull off a ‘show don’t tell’ plot but nothing really made enough sense for me to be hooked into it. If the show wasn’t so visually appealing and the characters so interesting, I likely would have dropped it.

The best metaphor I can think of is fishing. It felt like when you have a fish tugging on your line. You pull and pull, yet it still resists. Rather than a conclusion – you pulling the fish out of the water or the resistance dropping as the fish escapes – Stranger Things felt like a constant struggle to get somewhere really cool with zero resolution to that struggle or any real sign as to where you were going in the first place.

The first season really needed a few more episodes to work. The town makes no sense. Characters get from one end of it to the other and the time of day changes solely to fit the mood. Another kid goes missing and, while the first boy is being pursued by everyone, the town ignores her disappearance completely. There’s a surprisingly lack of people living there too.

Also, the final episode feels rushed and half-written. Honestly, the whole thing felt like an extent pilot episode.

News has reported that there definitely will be a second season. I look forward to it, if only to revisit the bad hair, bad clothes, and bad wallpaper of the 1980s. The horror is secondary because that’s exactly how it feels.

Uninstall Theater: Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U, 2015)

Xenoblade Chronicles X and I did not have a great start. We also had a bittersweet end. Try as I might, I failed to fall in love with a JRPG widely praised by critics when it launched in late 2015. The game is a beauty to look at and features one of the most scenic and biggest open worlds in a game ever (let alone for a Japanese game which tend to be more linear) but lovely vistas were about all I liked. Everything else about Monolith Soft’s monolithic masterpiece fell flat for me.

Before I start airing my grievances, let me start with a disclaimer: I sincerely tried to get into this XCX. Everyone I spoke to about it loved it and the vast majority of reviews for the game were glowing. I cannot say exactly how long I put into the game, but I would estimate having played well over five hours.

Now, let’s begin.

In a nutshell, Xenoblade Chronicles X follows the last surviving humans after they escaped the destruction of Earth which had been caught up in a war between two unknown alien races. Humanity fled in a massive ship called the White Whale, which crashed on Mira, an unknown alien planet. Now marooned on this new world, humanity must rebuild itself. They start by constructing a makeshift city called New Los Angeles. The plot revolves around locating the Lifehold, a part of the ship that broke apart during the crash which contains countless other human survivors in stasis.

Xenoblade Chronicles X would have been better as a walking simulator. The fact that Monolith Soft wasted this beautiful setting, especially for the Wii U console, on a jumbled stack of mechanics poorly copied from MMORPGs is beyond me. From the outset, the planet Mira is gorgeous and overflowing with indigenous animals unfortunately nicknamed “indigens”. I say unfortunate because I felt like a douchebag every time I read the word and I cringed every time I heard it. There was no need to invent special lingo for what are essentially just animals!

I would have read through the dialogue scenes and skipped the voice acting, but it was all or nothing. That’s a huge downside for me. I generally prefer knowing what is going on in my games, even JRPGs with throwaway stories and cutout characters like this one. I don’t need some underpaid voice actor reading riveting dialogue such as, “The hardest part was calculating the ideal probe locations. We need them spread out evenly to maximize data collection.”

Sometimes the dialogue was on point. I enjoyed a specific exchange when I saved a young soldier named Justin from being beaten up by a street gang (just like Earth’s Los Angeles, the new one also has youth violence). I sympathized with his predicament and he said, “Hey, that’s pretty thoughtful. Did anyone ever tell you that you’re perfect protagonist material?”

My thoughts exactly!

While I am nitpicking terms used in the game, let me point out another that I absolute hate: BLADE. In game, you quickly join an organization called BLADE which acts as the vanguard for the humans now residing on Mira. In the grand tradition of elaborate acronyms in Japanese video games, BLADE stands for Builders of the Legacy After the Destruction of Earth. I would love to see the meeting notes for that decision …

Xenoblade Chronicles X draws most of its influence from MMORPGs and has a similar feel to recent open world games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3. None of this is a compliment, and I say that as a MMORPG enthusiast.

Progression through XCX relies on a mix of doing the game’s many, many side quests, as well as exploring Mira and placing probes to survey the land. It all gets pretty complicated, especially when you need to micromanage the probes so they generate resources that can in turn be used to invest in the armorer and gunmakers back home so they will sell you more powerful equipment. Some side quests have you hunting named mobs and those mobs often only spawn under certain conditions – night, day, rain, etc.

The combat feels like MMORPG combat. There’s a hotbar along the bottom of the screen, each ability has a cooldown, and abilities have bonus effects depending on factors such as position (side of target, behind target) or if the target has been stun/staggered/etc. I almost liked the combat, but healing is tied primarily to activating abilities when a party member calls for it and with the lengthy cooldowns in addition to that function, combat was a lot of standing around for me.

Like many JRPGs these days, you control only one character too, so I didn’t even have a micromanaging option. Plus, I had trouble for the longest time understanding when my character was being damaged. There’s a MMO-esque aggro system in play, complete with characters who can taunt, but it’s not as apparent as it could be.

I started to come around to the combat more and I imagine the mech-based combat offers its own unique features, but it was annoying enough that I don’t mind giving up early on it.

For the majority of my time in XCX, I wandered around aimlessly, slaughtering what I could and planting probes whenever I found a spot to do so. The map is broken down into hexagons and there are a ton of boxes to check to reach a sense of completion. There’s also a ton of things to gather for crafting, which in ingenious fashion just involved running over these indescript shards while out of combat. The gameplay feels more like a Dragon Age: Inquisition where I am just running from one section to the next trying to clear it out for some sense of achievement. When it comes to open world games, this is the easiest and laziest way to fill out a map with things to do for many hours of “gameplay”.

It is a shame too. The world of Mira is gorgeous and the sense of scale has no rival outside of games like Shadow of the Colossus. The enemy design is top notch too. With the breathtaking views behind them, I rarely minded bumping into an enemy that could one-shot (which was all the time).
I had high hopes for this game. Even with the initial turn-off, I thought I would come around to it. I wish I could persevere for the mech combat, but I found the game to be too mixed. There’s a ton of things to do, but none of those things had any weight. Like my character who can leap from any height and not die, I felt like I was floating along.

The only thing pushing me forward was seeing the world. The combat, the fate of the human race, the constant drive to check off shopping lists, etc. did nothing for me. Like so many Japanese games, Xenoblade Chronicles X needed an editor to come in and streamline the experience ever so much. I do not think ‘delivering a sense of achievement’ is a good enough excuse for delaying the mech portions of the game until 20+ hours in, especially if the game is going out of its way to waste my time for the twenty hours until then. Furthermore, all the story missions were heavily gated with various prerequisites, such as unrelated side quests, required to fulfilled first. I would not have minded if those prerequisites were enjoyable. They weren’t.

A medium-wide obsession with achievement, no matter how insignificant, must have fueled the critical success of Xenoblade Chronicles X. That, or the reputation of its predecessors. For me, this game is an irredeemable mess that parrots the most mundane aspects of MMORPGs without any of the always online, always connected elements that so often uplift the threadbare into something exquisitely tailored. Here’s a list of things to do. Done them all? Good, here’s your daily ration so you can repeat the same thing again with slightly taller enemies.

I place Xenoblade Chronicles X right beside Lost Odyssey. It is a well-regarded JRPG that completely missed the mark for me. I regret having spent any money on it. I am in no way better off having played it. A series of screenshots of its setting would more than suffice. Your mileage may vary with this game, but I only got a few feet before I turned back toward home and did something else entirely.

Murf@MMOGames: Crowfall Backer Survey

The next in my series at MMOGames, Backer Survey, is up. This time its for Crowfall. Check it out below:

MMOGames, “Backer Survey: Crowfall”

Overwatch (PC, 2016)

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Overwatch took the gaming world by storm in May. I cannot blame anyone for liking it either. Blizzard created a fun game with a distinct cast. I originally had no intention of buying it, but after careful consideration and the peer pressure of a few close friends, I could not hold off. After a few dozen hours with the game, it is time for a brief review.

Multiplayer shooters and I have a long history together. In the last few years though, the history book has not had many pages added to it. I fondly recall the days of Quake 3, Halo 2, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. These days, there has been a big hole in my gaming life when it comes to shooters.

Overwatch is doing a good job of filling that gap. I have never had any luck with other shooters like it. Team Fortress 2 did not work for me. Other team-focused shooters proved to be more frustrating than fun. I wasted a lot of money and a lot of goodwill from friends who trusted my opinion when a convinced a whole bunch of them to go in day one on the game Brink.

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I am not having that problem with Overwatch. Sure, most games do have a couple of selfish jerks who’d rather play Widowmaker than contribute. I tend to pick tank or support because others so rarely do. Even with games being lost based on picks alone, in most matches I play, I have fun.

Better yet, the game is fun with friends, regardless of skill level. I cannot say the same for MOBAs, save for maybe the All Random All Mid mode in League of Legends. I am so tired of the focus on esports, epeens, and competition ruining friendly play. In time, I imagine Overwatch will shift further in that direction, but, for right now, it hits the sweet spot in being a game I can try to improve at while also playing with those on a different part of their progression journey or those who could not care less about getting better at the game.

With friends or without, even when I do need to pick creatively because someone else has taken what I wanted or our team needs something different, Overwatch is fantastic. All of the characters are unique and interesting. I go back and forth between Roadhog and Pharah most often, but I also like Mercy, Hanzo, and Soldier 76 in a pinch.

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Nice things aside, I had already expressed my issues with Overwatch from the beta in my last post, and those problems still stand. This game has a serious lack of maps and modes, even for a title that just released. I have tried to embrace the brawls, but they just are not fun to me. I want more maps and modes more than new characters.

Overwatch is great. I will likely play it regularly for a long time to come. After sinking a ton of solo queue time into the beta, being able to play casually with friends on a semi-regular basis has been a blast. I wasn’t going to buy Overwatch, but I am grateful that enough of my friends did. Without them, I would not be convinced, and without convincing, I imagine I’d feel like Scrooge looking in on the happy family during Christmas.

Not long ago, I got into an argument with a friend about Overwatch. He said the game should not be considered for Game of the Year. I argued it should. You cannot have a commercial success like Overwatch tabled, especially when it brings with it a zeitgeist all its own. Overwatch became an established cultural entity over night, and the Internet is still rebounding from the gravity of this sudden new IP.

I would not call it Game of the Year myself. There’s just not enough meat on the bones. Like all Blizzard products, it is the best version of someone else’s idea. And I do not mind.