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Ravenous Minecraft: The Tweaking Continues

The Hunger Overhaul mod for Minecraft is no joke.  Though it makes about a dozen changes to make it harder to produce food and keep fed, the ones that matter the most involve scaling hunger shank restoration on how prepared the food was and greatly slowing the rate in which food can be produced.  While most mods add a grind to the end of the game, this one adds a grind right in front: it takes quite some time to generate sufficient food to be fed enough to seriously start mining and building!  The reward for putting up with this and doing well is a "well fed" buff that boosts your regeneration rate, which offsets some dependency on healing potions in later game.

Pam's Harvestcraft is an essential partner mod because there's simply not that many high-tier foods in stock Minecraft to keep fed.  (Especially if you use the Spice Of Life mod, which prevents you from just subsisting on a giant pile of the same food by granting diminishing returns eating the same things recently.)  Pam adds a great variety of crops to harvest, everything from apple trees to zuccinis!  Then it adds a bunch of cool recipes you can use to prepare all sorts of delicious sounding foods: soups, salads, cakes, ice cream, hamburgers, even tofu vegetarian alternatives for everything!

After a bit of experimentation, I decided that Thaumcraft was vitally needed now.  Slow production of crops combined with a wide variety meant I would need huge farms.  With huge patches of farmland to maintain, doing it all manually would be a perpetual chore, so automation was required.  Steve's Carts 2 can currently only farm vanilla crops, I decided to remove it and use Thaumcraft "arcane bores" for my mining needs.  I read that Minefactory Reloaded machine block farm are compatible, but I am going for a less technological theme.  This left Thaumcraft golems, who I tested and confirmed are definitely compatible with Pam's Harvestcraft crops (although one might have to harvest the fruit trees by some other method).

While food sources from other mods were not incompatible, they nevertheless provided an unacceptable impact to the balance.  The Mariculture mod had to go because it added a huge variety of fish and they were all fished up instantly, which undermined the need for a variety of foods in Spice Of Life (although you can configure "food groups") and the slower food growth rate in the Hunger Overhaul.  I decided to let Natura go because too many of its crops (such as cotton, raspberries, and blueberries) existed in another form in Pam's Harvestcraft and so that was thematically redundant.  (Without it, The Nether will be a overbearingly dreary... but I guess that's part of why it's basically Hell.)

Speaking of redundancy, I decided that combining Thaumcraft / Botania's "Baubles" page (for a necklace, ring, and belt) was too redundant with the Tinkers Construct "Armor Tab."   Even overlooking the oddness how having both would allow you to wear three rings, two belts, and two necklaces, it's simply too odd and cumbersome to have two tabs dedicated to equipping secondary equipment.  I find Thaumcraft and Botania more essential to my current mod pack than Tinkers Construct, so away it goes.  Besides, I am still not quite comfortable with how the Tinkers Construct method of tool creation completely circumvents the enchantment system with one of its own.  I had to let this otherwise awesome mod go.  This means I will be reliant on other mods for any ore doubling.

I booted up creative mode, played with the tools from Flaxbeard's Streamcraft, and decided that was all I had it installed for.  It's currently somewhat in beta, anyway, and has tendencies to lag out the servers and whatnot.  Removing this mod almost eliminates the last real touch of technology in this modpack...
Flower arranging and computers, together at last.
 ...almost.  I still do not want to let Applied Energistics 2 go because the power of its item storage and automatic item crafting methods are irreplaceable.  I can eventually make the crafting CPU able to automatically craft me a cheeseburger from raw materials: now, there's a major goal!  I have confirmed in creative mode that Botania plants can power Applied Energistics 2 networks, although the passive generation flowers put out so little energy that I revised my stance on them being exploitative to use to the point where I decided to let them expire after twenty days instead of two.

For adventure, I have a choice of ChocolateQuest's Dungeons, The Twilight Forest, and Mystcraft, in addition to the perils of vanilla Minecraft and the deadly things that Thaumcraft adds.  Every mob has a chance to come up Infernal: I decided to configure that 1:25 of mobs will be slightly infernal, 1:125 will be medium infernal, and 1:625 will be ultra infernal.

This looks like a pretty damn good modpack I have here, but I decided the game does feel a bit empty without the presence of Minecraft Comes Alive villagers (if only so I have someone to protect besides myself) so I decided to re-add that mod.  I have learned that Thaumcraft golems and MCA villagers can co-exist, the golems protecting them with gusto, so this gives the villagers a new lease on life. 

Looks like I've decided on my modpack for this week.  I think I will tweak my starting equipment to having the necessary blocks to quickly assemble a wall around a MCA village and set up torches to reduce casualties among them.  Reason being that, for several Minecraft days, I will be too busy setting up vast tracts of farmland just so I can prevent myself from starving, and this will leave me unable to protect the villagers from their natural tendency to go extinct.
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Minecraft Tweaking Or Minecraft Tweaked?

My Minecraft "Fantasy Modpack Ultimate Version" settled when I realized I should look through the configuration files of the various mods and see what I could modify in order to establish balance.
  • I could turn off Applied Energistic 2's ore doubling on the grinder (configured at percentage chance of producing double dusts per ore), and I did, because it's just too tempting to waste a lot of time just spinning that wooden crank.  This pretty much eliminates the only reason not take this mod other than the fact it's a technological theme that clashes with magical mods.
  • I could establish how much ore doubling that Tinkers' Construct smelter did, right down to the individual types of ore.  However, I decided to leave it disabled because I already had plenty of tools, I didn't like how it circumvents the enchantment system, and I did not want the world bloat of oreberry bushes and various metals whose only purpose was to be smelted and mixed.  Pity, though, it was plenty compatible with both Botania and Thaumcraft.
  • I could not configure how much ore doubling the infernal furnace in Thaumcraft did, and that was a pity because it meant I was being hard capped at a block that penalizes you with warp for using it and mainly only has the benefit of giving you potential nuggets (fractions of 1/9th of an ingot) for efficient use.  You can disable the warp ("wuss mode") but what fun is that?
Because of this, if I was going to use Thaumcraft, there could be no ore doubling from other mods.
A rare sighting of a Minecraft vanilla volcano, dropping off into the ocean.  Nice.  Rather ugly thumbnail, though, I admit.
Now, Botania and Thaumcraft do make a pretty good fusion, albeit Botania is considerably easier and has a more relaxed balance.  However, there are actually configuration values to make Botania has balanced as you like!  Among other things:
  • You can disable the crafting of Botania Mana Enchanter blocks, which normally allow you to enchant items with Botania mana instead of spending your hard-earned XP points on them (though you still need find or enchant books to accomplish this).  I've yet to use these.
  • Those "unlimited energy generation" flowers I was complaining about?  Turns out there's a configuration option to have them wither after x number of game ticks.  (24000 is two days game time.)  This basically means that creating a passive generation flower is a choice to spending a number of materials to generate a fixed amount of mana before the plant dies.  I like that, even the effort of replanting them can be seen as earning your mana.
Overall, this "Fantasy Mix Ultimate" I've settled upon works out relatively well... except for two medium-sized game breakers.

Problem number one is that I just don't have enough time for all the hoops Thaumcraft 4 wants me to jump through.  Running around scanning everything and then messing around with research afterwards.  Blah, too much, I say.  It's a great mod on its own, but mixed with all the other activities I want to do, it's overwhelming.

Problem number two is that the Minecraft Comes Alive mod has done much to bridge the gap between villagers being dumb animals versus worthwhile NPCs but, in practice, it is mostly only acheives making the villagers more endearing before they get killed somehow.  The problem is three part:
  1. Despite lighting up every corner of the village I could find (even with NEI's F7 mode showing me potential spawn points) mobs still spawn inside of the village, sometimes right inside of well-lit huts!
  2. The guards broke some time around the point where the mod made the transition to v5.0.  They work a little bit at first, but then they put away their weapon and allow monsters to beat them up.  I have tried gifting them stone swords, it does not seem to help.
  3. Botania Bellthorne flowers kill villagers just like any other mob, so can't be used to preserve these dummies' lives.  Maybe Thaumcraft golems will prove less belligerent.
The death of the villagers has only accelerated since I put up a perimeter of defenses around the village to kill monsters that get nearby, as this simply gives the monsters another chance to spawn inside!
This village has been radically redecorated to accommodate Botania, including a perimeter that distributes mana all around the outer walls I have built to prevent mobs from invading.  For the purpose of powering outer defense flowers, and the residual mana is shot to the center, where it can be used to create things on the runic altar.
Sitting here at the start of day four of my "Fantasy Mix Ultimate," I have doubts about my choices.  It seems to me that a really clever Minecraft is one that tasks the players with coming up with ingenious solutions to problems.  For example, there's ways you can set up automatic farms in stock Minecraft with a little redstone and gumption!   I once created an elaborate moat that swept encroaching monsters down into a jail cell, and all it used was water flowing downhill, I didn't need any Botania Bellthorne for that!  So installing mods that provide blocks that do all this without the need for ingenuity is less interesting, and ultimately just gives me a big glut of things I don't necessarily need anyway.

Is that all these mods do are doing for me, just legitimized cheats?  Actually, I've seen worse mods for that than what Botania and Thaumcraft do:
  • Steve's Carts can easily fuel themselves and provide unlimited wood and crops of you have enough diamonds to spare, although the blades on the carts wear down eventually. 
  • Minefactory Reloaded is basically one collection of machine blocks that leech more out of everything: automated farming, automated ranching, even squeezing the experience juice out of mobs for later consumption (and stranger juices than that, such as liquid meat and fertilizer).  
  • I find the arcane bore is a bit tougher and more challenging to use than Mekanism Digital Miners or a Buildcraft quarry (although, in defense of Buildcraft, the energy for a major excavation is not free unless paired up with another mod).
Maybe what I'm really interested in is something along the lines of Redpower 2, whose primary "productive" machine blocks required you set up elaborate machines to accomplish anything.  I had a lot of fun with that, but Redpower is no more, I find most of what I missed about it has been imported by OpenBlocks (most notably the Block Breaker and Block Placer) and Project: Red (most notably red alloy wire, which allows you to run redstone up the sides of walls, and the logic components such as the timer, which does what redstone circuits can do but in a significantly more accessible state).
The simple pleasure of spelunking in Minecraft isn't so bad, either.
At the far end of this is the fact that Minecraft has a fantasy theme to it naturally, and I like to play in survival mode for the added challenge, which means there's hostile zombies, skeletons, creepers, and spiders running around, among other things.  Consequently, there is a thematic clash if I get too badly mired down to technological upgrades, and so I end up with magical themed mods instead. 

Thematically, steam power is within my comfort zone, which tempts me to get Flaxbeard's Steam Power mod, which lets you fire flintlock weaponry (since creepers already drop gunpowder) and even craft yourself a steam powered exoskeletal suit!  But the trouble I have with exosuits is they're not able to be enchanted, which really clashes horribly with Minecraft's enchantment mechanic which other mods simply build upon.

Ultimately, it seems like each mod I add clashes with the extraordinarily good balance of Thaumcraft 4, which is probably best enjoyed by itself.   For example, I had to turn off OpenBlocks experience collecting items because that's what Thaumcraft 4's brain-in-a-jar are for.  I really miss ore doubling, though...

...ah, what have we here?  Looks like the manual clicking of the Applied Energistics 2 grinder is not a long term problem, after all, which means the fixed balance of the Thaumcraft Infernal Furnace is.  If only I could set the Infernal Furnace to triple or quadruple ores, thereby justifying warping myself to use it, then it would fit in.  As it is, it seems I have to make a decision between that mod and all the others I wanted to use.

Edit: Later That Same Day:
This new world looks promising.  They should have sent a poet.

So I decided to do the following for my new custom modpack:
  • We're keeping Botania and Applied Energistics 2, because it's the most fun magic and best storage and auto-crafting solution combination.  However, it will be a challenge to keep an AE2 network powered with Botania alone... there may be other ways.  Botania flower spawn rate is set at 1.5x versus its default 2.0x (they're slightly too common but it's easy to make more anyway) and passive energy generation flowers will die at the recommended 2 Minecraft days setting.   Openblocks is also alright, I plan to use the xp bottling mechanic, although I may disable gliders because I don't like flight in survival mode.
  • Tweaked my starting inventory to have a mana spreader and mana pool because I found Botania aura rings are not sufficient to keep my starting Botania manasteel gear (essentially iron but self-repairing) powered.  It's not much of a cheat, if you can find a smattering of iron, one gold bar, and finally one diamond or elder pearl, then you can make this right away.
  • Removed Thaumcraft 4 due to irreconcilable balance issues with the ore doubling and ease of attaining results with the other mods.  Like I said, fantastic mod on its own, it just doesn't mix well with the more liberal balance of other mods.
  • Removed Minecraft Comes Alive because the guards are nothing but cannon fodder and it's downright depressing to deal with endearing villagers constantly throwing themselves to the wolves.  I did not re-add the Helpful Villagers mod because it removes the only useful trait of stock Minecraft villagers: trading.  Iron golems are the best defense villagers are going to get for now.  Told Botania to stop having villagers "shed" emeralds, that's just a tad too OP.
  • Added Flaxbeard's Steam Power mod because... flintlock pistols, rocket launchers, and steam powered upgradable exosuits?!  Seriously, why wouldn't I?!  I disabled steam wings and jetpacks because (again) I don't like flight in survival mode, too cheesy.  I avoided any other high tech mods...
  • ...except for Steve's Carts 2, one of my favorite mods of all time.  What the heck, it's steampunky enough for me.  I was able to disable the solar panel modules, so unlimited passive energy regeneration is no longer a thing.  Technically, I can still load them up with unlimited wood harvested by wood-harvesting carts... well, fine, at least that takes some ingenuity. 
  • Added Mystcraft.  Being able to travel to other dimensions with magic books does not hurt the theme one bit, but does provide a potentially interesting diversion.  Also useful for quick travel.
  • Added Tinkers Construct and Natura, but disabled redwood trees in the configuration for being too badly out of porportion with the other things in the overworld.  For all my complaints about ore berry bushes and whatnot, I can disable these in the configuration files too, so they're essentially non-issues.  That Tinkers Construct allows me to circumvent the randomness of enchantment system is somewhat balanced by the fact that Botania already has means of providing controlled enchantments.  I have no shortage of available gear already, so this just throws more on the pile.  Managing the smeltery can be a bit of a chore, but at least ore doubling is now well and truly secure.  Those concerns aside, these mods add a lot of cool stuff aside from its customizable weapons, including pungi sticks for rudimentary defense and a backpack.
  • Added Mariculture, because the stock Minecraft seas are boring and so this should go far towards populating them.
  • Added the Hunger Overhaul mod to make keeping fed really challenging, and Pam's Harvestcraft because Hunger Overhaul is already balanced to work with a greater variety of food.
  • Added ChocolateQuest's Dungeons because the overworld needed more interesting things to do.  If you ask me, they're a bit too common, so I lowered the spawn rate from one every 10 chunks to one every 50 chunks.
  • Added Infernal Mobs, which causes mobs to randomly take on deadly aspects.  Oh God, why have I forsaken myself?!  Suffice to say, I have all the excuse I ever need to stay in normal difficulty mode now, which is where I feel the game is balanced.  I tweaked the rare mobs spawn from 1:15 to 1:50, so they get to be rare surprises instead of common fears.  If I end up dying too much, I might just ditch graves in favor of keep inventory on death, as corpse runs are a chore.
  • I've had my fill of getting lost.  Added Journeymap, but configured it to not display the mini-map by default because it's a tad exploitive knowing when stuff is sneaking up on me and immersion breaking to have a map.  The purpose, then, will be to keep track of important points I discover.
Well, this ought to keep me occupied for awhile.
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Geldon's Minecraft Fantasy Mod Mix V1, May 2015, 1.7.10

Egads, I am ever done with kids for awhile.  The nephew dominated my free time for five days straight, during which time I largely forgot who I was.  What a cruel thing to do to a craven introvert.  Maybe The Thinker didn't wear any pants so nobody would put a child on his lap.

Anyway, in my attempts to piece together the frayed threads of my broken thread of solitude, I picked up anime in one hand and Minecraft in the other.  The anime thread immediately slipped out of my hands, I haven't watched a single episode of anything for a week, but I am not quite ready to cancel my Crunchyroll and Funimation subscriptions quite yet.  This leaves Minecraft, which I basically cobbled together my own personal modpack because Technic doesn't do enough and Feed The Beast does too much.

When I design my personal Minecraft modpack, I basically shoot for as little redundancy as possible in order to avoid balance conflicts.  Each set of mods should preform some essential function.  So my mod pack was made up of these categories:

1. The Basic Necessities - Not Enough Items and Waila, essential block identification and reference, don't play mods without them.  Inventory Tweaks is something that should be in core Minecraft, don't play without it.  Not included: A map such as Journeymap because I like getting lost. 

2. A Dangerous Place To Adventure - Twilight Forest, because screw The Nether.  I could have went with ChocolateQuest's Dungeons or Battle Towers, but I decided to keep the Minecraft Overworld relatively pristine.

3. Make Food More Useful - Tired of stockpiling all this food, I picked up The Spice Of Life, a mod that gives you diminishing returns for eating the same foods.  It includes a recipe for a handy lunchbox to stack six kinds of food in the same inventory slot, which is all-too-necessary. 

4. Make Sleeping Differ From Time Travel - Another thing that should be rolled into core Minecraftthe Somnia mod actually simulates the world while you sleep, so actual things happen between putting your head on the pillow and waking up again.  They also added a fatigue system which gives you debuffs if you stay up too long, which I thought was pretty uncomfortable and unnecessary at first, but I eventually came to enjoy the added challenge.  (It can be disabled in the configuration). 

5. Give Back To The Virtual Community - I really wish I could get Millenaire to work, as those villages suck up a ton of resources and spit out a vibrant simulated society that is largely unperturbed by being murdered by the wildlife because only players can permanently kill them.  Alas, it lost compatibility with more recent versions of Forge, and the Millenaire developers are too busy updating it for Minecraft 1.8 to fix this.  Another great take on this is Minecolony, which is still being updated to 1.7.10, with a projected 4 months to go.  Fortunately, there is still Minecraft Comes Alive, which overhauls the default Minecraft villagers to be considerably more human (you can even marry them) and considerably useful overall.  Unfortunately, they keep dying off... I guess that's what I get for playing on Hard difficulty, I will try again after I get the village decked out in defenses.

6. Main Production Overhaul - Despite having just talked about how imbalanced it is to produce benefit from plants that absorb day, light, water, and lava while I sit around on my ass, I am still not done with Botania quite yet.  I actually rather like the idea of magical flower gardens, as it provides me with incentive to decorate Minecraft instead of just sticking down a bunch of nasty-looking industrial machines.  I quickly found that keeping my tools and armor permanently repaired is a handy, if perhaps overpowered, benefit.
A gorgeous and functional Botania garden.
7. Storage - Another mod that should be rolled into vanilla Minecraft, because item management is a real issue, especially with mods.  You soon end up with chests full of cobblestone and dirt because it's a hassle to drop and it might be useful one day, to say nothing for all the other cool junk added by the mods.  JABBA ("Just Another Better Barrel Attempt") is a great solution.  The titular barrels are basically containers that can store horrendous amounts of the same item, which is perfect for cobblestone.  Another great thing it adds is a dolly (not that kind of dolly) that lets you move barrels and chests around without unloading them.  The diamond dollies even allow you to move spawners, which is perhaps a tad overpowered for purposes of farming, but I'm totally going there anyway.

8. Incredible Storage And Production Enhancement - Applied Energistics 2.  JABBA is great, but an energy-to-matter storage system is unbeatable.  You can also build a computer that automatically constructs things for you out of the things stored in the AE network, which is damn handy when you have a recipe that calls for several things to be built before it.  I think I can power the AE network with Botania mana.  Okay, so these high-tech blocks look completely out-of-place in a fantasy setting, so I decided I can only build them underground and claim they are technology from a long-lost civilization. 

9. Decent Furniture - Bibliocraft largely just adds scads of nice-looking furniture.  A lot of it is functional, such as bookshelves that actually hold books!  Great for decking out any interior, those Minecraft Comes Alive villagers will be plenty spoiled with this collection of desks, lamps, bookshelves, and so on.

10. Whatever The Hell OpenBlocks Is - The things provided by the OpenBlocks mod are so widely varied that they defy easy classification.  An experience point bottling system.  A sprinkler.  An elevator.  A block that helps you draw shapes when building with blocks.  A hang glider.  And so on.  Some of these are Minecraft essentials, others are just plain fun.  Either way, I am not worrying too much about the impact to my supposed "fantasy" mix by adding them - AE2 already crossed that bridge for me, anyway.

That is pretty much it for this modpack.  Sure, I could add four times as much, as is the case with the Feed The Beast Ultimate pack, but sometimes less is more.

The ultimate goal was to conquer the Ender Dragon, Wither, and all of the nasty beasts in The Twilight Forest.  I plan to expand my base completely around this Minecraft Comes Alive village so I can have my own subjects whilst building up a glorious fantasy kingdom.  What more could a geek ask for?
That last screenshot from the opposite perspective, capturing in my keep from the outside.
There are only a few things missing right now:
  • Automatic Ore Doubling.  Doubling ingots via grinding ore can be done via Applied Energistics 2's grinder, but sitting around right-clicking a grinder is overmuch a time sink that puts player incentives in the wrong place.  It was designed in mind that the player would inevitably be going Thermal Expansion or Mekanism, providing automatic ways of doing this, but this would further deviate into technology, which clashes with my theme.  Going Tinker's Construct would add all sorts of glorious smelting, in addition to custom tools, but the tools given to me by Botania are good enough.  I could try throwing in Thaumcraft, which not only has smelting but adds a lot of really cool elements to the game world, but I have a hard time finding canon capability between Thaumcraft magic with Botania magic.  All things considered, Tinker's Construct might be the best choice for me - just because those tools are available does not mean I have to use them.
  • Hungry Mouths.  Alright, so Botania has provided a need for me to produce more food, and The Spice Of Life has improved variety.  I am still retaining a ton of food I do not particularly need.  I wish Minecraft Comes Alive villagers needed to eat.  Millenaire villagers would at least be willing to buy my excess.  I guess I could throw all my extra food into the Botania mana network, but so far I've been pretty topped out in mana thanks to passive mana generation and Somnia not skipping the nights.
  • Easy Automatic Harvesting.  There are some ways to do this with Applied Energistics 2, Botania, and even vanilla Minecraft, but none of them hold the power of some mods I have used in the past, such as Steve's Carts 2.   Honestly, maybe this is for the best, as automatic production methods have a tendency of being too overpowered.
Overall, I guess I am doing alright.  Over two days of play, I have managed to amass a full suit of Botania self-repairing manasteel, some lovely gardens that keep my mana tablet juiced up at all times.  I have begun expanding civilization, a slow encroachment of the surrounding terrain that will ideally end when I have the village surrounded.

Except all the villagers all died.  Twice, since I accidentally revived the village by trying to use an enchantment table in village limits, and they just died off again over the next few days.  I guess that's what I get for playing on "hard" mode, which enables zombies to break down doors, while I snooze the night away in full simulation thanks to Somnia.  I guess the lesson here is I need to lock everybody in their homes until the defenses are up and running.  Those Minecraft Comes Alive guards are worse slackers than I thought.
I decided that I might just try Version 2 of this mod mix with the following changes:
  • Add Tinker's Construct.  The least intrusive way for me to add quick-and-easy ore doubling, and some of those tools will be fun even if they are kind of redundant.  There is a mod to add Botania support to Tinker's Construct.
  • Add Natura.  A biome-enhancing sister mod to Tinker's Construct, this will make slimes easier to get, add some cool variety to The Nether: you will no longer screw it, it will screw you.  It also adds some bushes that will introduce some much-needed nutritional variety that can be enjoyed by The Spice Of Life mod.  It does have the downside that it adds some kind of outlandish GIGANTIC TREES to the game, but oh well, this is a fantasy setting, after all.
  • Add Nether Ores.   Right now, I am finding The Nether to be a bit of a bore to visit due to lack of incentives.  Nether ores adds tons of mineral-rich incentives to visiting The Nether.  Pity mining those has a tendency to piss off the zombie pigmen, who are deadly in a fight!
  • Replace Minecraft Comes Alive with some other village enhancer.  I just don't like the world bloat of the "rose gold" it adds, there's too many damn rings in NEI, and the guards do not seem to be doing their job well enough.  I think I will try the Helpful Villager mod instead.  Maybe they will last a little longer on normal difficulty, as this prevents zombies from busting down their doors.
  • If the game gets boring as I go along, I might just add Infernal Mobs, which are so named because they are punishment from God.   But I suspect Twilight Forest will be difficult enough.
Although I am loathe to start over again, but this looks like it's probably worth it.  I guess I will give that a try.

Lately, I have been pondering if perhaps the meaning of life is drama.  After all, without beings, the universe has nobody to care about it.  It's our job to find reasons to care, you see?  The problem extends into virtual lives as well, and I offen cite Minecraft as not having purpose enough as the reason I stop playing it.  That being the case, I hope this mod mix corrects that issue somewhat.  If not, I suppose there's nothing for it but to try to make my own dang game.

Edit 5/14/15: On To Version 3, Then.

Natura turned out to mix poorly with The Spice Of Life because the berries generate so little satiation that it screws up the math so you can glut yourself on a half-dozen of them before it flips over to 0 hunger satiation, which makes it trivial to eat the other kinds of food.
For version 2, I spent about 6-8 hours building a gorgeous, huge "Botanian Hall Of Agriculture" for my village, but it seems that I won't be using it because now I need to start over without Natura.
The Helpful Villager mod is a good start, but the AI has massive holes in it.  In performing their jobs, they wander around randomly, getting stuck in things, such as fences.  I had one miner immediately bumble into a zombie and die.  I had another miner bury himself alive and inexplicably cease to exist, I never saw him again, although I did find a stack of the things he was carrying.   The idea behind this mod is a good one, and I love how you can equip the villagers with your own equipment, but the follow through is hard on account of how programming AI in a 3D space ain't easy.

Screw villagers, they're useless.  Millenare doesn't work.  Minecolony isn't ready for 1.7.10.  The Minecraft Comes Alive villagers kept getting killed in the walls of their fancy new prefab village before I could do anything particularly useful with them.  Now the Helpful Villagers just keep getting stick in the bits and bobs of the map before achieving anything of value.  If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!

Version 3 of my Mod Mix goes like this:
  • I decided that I like playing from the middle of a village and expanding outward, it's just a bit more cool and interesting than just building a huge base that does nearly everything under one roof.  To these ends, I have decided to swap out Helpful Villager and go back to Minecraft Comes Alive due to its cross-compatibility with other mods and Minecraft in general.  Villagers might be useless no matter what mod I try using, but if it simply adds ambiance and character to villages, that's fine.
  • Away goes Tinker's Construct and Natura.  They're fun mods, but frankly they just add too much clutter to the world for my liking.  Even if I stuck to Tinker's Construct, I find ore berry bushes in my beautiful caves, along with a variety of silly ores that no other mod I have installed uses.  Besides, I don't like how it completely supplants the randomness of the enchantment mechanic.
  • Botania can do a lot, but I want to do even more.  To these ends, I have added Thaumcraft, king of the magical mods right now.  It operates under a different philosophy from Botania, so I have to fudge the idea that two conflicting ideas of magic exist, but Thaumcraft simply adds a whole slew of awesome additional activities, mobs, items, ect... so, whatever.
  • I am kicking the difficulty back up to "hard" because it is more interesting; I am too good of a player for "normal" difficulty to feel even remotely threatening.  However, as I mentioned before, my Minecraft Comes Alive village kept getting wiped out as "hard" enables the zombies to kick down the doors and eat the tasty brains inside while the guards played an entertaining game of, "Count the grains in the wooden plank wall."  So my first priority will be to completely fence in the village and keep too many mob spawns from getting in there.
Other than that, the goal is the same as before: from my flourishing and hopefully gorgeous fantasy kingdom in one dimension, launch myself on adventures to beat the crap out of all the big nasties in three other dimensions.  Fun.

Edit: Later That Same Day, Version 3.5.

Okay, I have to say that the ore grinder in Applied Energistics 2 is just too tempting, I hate standing there spinning the crank, but the incentive to double my ore is just too strong.  So I'm ditching that mod, JABBA is good enough for my storage needs, and I'll save the awesomeness of AE2 for a pure up tech blend that can include things like Thermal Expansion grinders.  There will still be ore doubling via Thaumcraft, but that is balanced with a cost of being warped... something to look forward to, and a reason I can't very well add any other ore doubling mod.  (Maybe I'll check to see if AE2 has a configuration option to disable ore doubling.)
Walling off a Minecraft Comes Alive village boosted their survivability enough that I was able to wander the world and find one of the rarer sights in Vanilla minecraft: a baby zombie riding a chicken!
I considered removing OpenBlocks, since it doesn't really gel with a magic theme very well, and there's certain things like experience point bottling that you are supposed to research in Thaumcraft.  So I decided I against it because that death grave is all too necessary.  Fortunately, you can configure turning any of then off, so I just disabled the ones I thought were too techy to work in this mix.

Overall, I am left with Minecraft Comes Alive, Twilight Forest, Botania, and Thaumcraft as primary activity mods, with lots of nifty support mods including Nether Ores, JABBA, and BiblioCraft.  I am expecting this mod balance will provide a slew of powerful magical artifacts and three different methods of enchanting but, aside from that, it should not be all that unbalanced.

I grabbed Starting Inventory from DaftPVF's mods in order to give myself a full set of standard manasteel gear, an aura ring, and a mana ring.  This just gives me a full set of self-repairing iron gear.  I think I worked hard enough this bizarro weekend that this is my reward, and these are actually pretty easy to get early into Botania anyway.
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To Worship Minecraft

This week, whilst still being ravaged by second hand psychoactive fumes, I was anticipating a visit from my young nephew and so attempted to get back into Minecraft once again.

It turns out to be a fairly awkward time to do that, because Minecraft is at version 1.8.4, but the bigger mods have yet to really make the transition to this version.  The basics are here, such as Forge (the most popular mod framework), Not Enough Items (which provides in-game reference to items and crafting recipes), and Inventory Tweaks (which does what it says on the tin).   But if you want to do any serious overhaul mods, such as Applied Energistics or Thaumcraft, you will need to play Minecraft version 1.7.10, probably via the Feed The Beast launcher.

I ended up trying a few new mods from that latest Feed The Beast packs and, of those, Botania got the most time from me.

Botania is basically weaponized flower arrangement: 
  • Some flowers ("Generating Flora") gather magical energy via means unique to each flower type. For example, Dayblooms simply generate a trickle of mana from being in sunlight, while Munchdews will chew the foliage off trees.
  • This mana is shot through a network of placed mana spreader blocks to where you want the mana, most frequently a mana pool.
  • Mana pools provide energy for the working flowers ("functional flora") to perform a task unique to each flower type.  For example, a Bellethorne will convert mana into damaging nearby monsters, making your base considerably safer.  A Hopperhock will teleport loose items laying nearby into a nearby storage container.  Combine them, and you have an easy farming arrangement.
  • On top of this, there is a goodly amount of nifty weapons and items to use.  Mana tablets allow you to carry around mana you absorb from mana pools.  If any have any mana left in a carried mana tablet, it will be used to automatically repair any Manasteel (iron equivalent) or Elementium (diamond equivalent) equipment, for which you can expect to find the usual array of armor pieces, tools, and weapons available.
Overall, I think Botania is an example of a well-designed Minecraft mod, and this is why I spent so much time with it.  What I like the most about it is that it pays special attentions to aesthetics: flowers are fairly genre-neutral (you can expect to find them on any life-bearing planet) and creating networks of flowers to generate energy essentially incentivizes players to create nifty magical displays from gorgeous (by Minecraft standards) living flowerbeds.  (In case you are curious: the 5-year-old nephew mostly just wanted to create abominations in the Necromancy mod.  To each his own.)
However, game balance is an ever-dicey thing, and when you approach the average "mod pack" that Feed The Beast provides, it is a fair assertion that balance is well and truly screwed in this all-inclusive attitude in modpack design.  What am I supposed to make out of the idea that several mods revolve around the idea of collecting "mana" to perform chores, but with radically different concepts of what "mana" is, what must be done to obtain it, and what costs and consequences are associated with performing the same tasks?

For example, Thaumcraft has a much more stingy balance; you have to jump through quite a few hoops to get your hands on golems that can do what Bellethrones or Hopperhocks do; if I had to go with "most balanced game-enhancing mod," Thaumcraft gets my vote.  Few mods really do the whole, "sunlight generates energy" thing anymore after seeing what happened when Equivalent Exchange did that, because sunlight is not a limited resource and you do zero work to collect it, you should never give the player rewards for doing nothing, and even the passage of time is not a significant effort when this is happening on a server while the players are probably not even playing most of the time.  At least Botania mitigates the balance impact of having large stores of "mana" to mostly eliminating wear and tear on items, whereas Equivalent Exchange would allow you to generate diamonds... actually, nevermind.

The answer is simply that these mods were never intended to be balanced in anything but each original creator's vision of balance; there is no standardization commission for Minecraft mod balancing, so there is no need to be surprised that mod packs that throw several mods together are fundamentally unbalanced.
We used to call energy-generating block arrangements in Equivilent Exchange "Power flowers," but what do you call them when the individual blocks themselves are already power-generating flowers?
Along the line of conjecture related to how the details of mods can impact players' enjoyment of the game, I think an interesting thing happens when you compare how players approach mods in creative mode versus survival mode. In creative mode, you can obtain the blocks instantly, experiment to see what they do, and move on.  In survival mode, you must toil to obtain the necessary resources to create the blocks, go through an crafting ritual (often with unique crafting blocks) to create the item, and then finally hold aloft the finished spoil of this awesome new block.  Hard work leads to increased reverence of the same gameplay element, and this enhances the enjoyment of having it.

In coming up with the genome for enjoyable games, this "hard work yields greater significance" aspect of gameplay is an important consideration.  In pondering it further, I believe it has much to do with willing suspension of disbelief.  From the perspective of survival mode, the creative mode in Minecraft is essentially destruction of your suspension of disbelief: you are just cheating to get everything because, "Who cares?  It's just a game."  But when you play seriously in survival mode to achieve the same aims, you are willfully choosing to believe that these game pieces have greater significance.  (Unless maybe you do not suspend disbelief when you play in survival mode... in which case, it is really no wonder you are bored!)

For a fellow who holds virtual worlds as being the most interesting thing in computer games, the power of suspension of disbelief is a vital.   Without it, a virtual world is just a shoddy imitation at worst, a simulation at best.  A virtual world that is engineered to get players to believe in it has powerful potential to make the players feel "fished in" by the happenings is genuinely compelling.  Shoddy balance, cheaters, and influence from real money trade are each a form of invasion by the one thing that can destroy our suspension of disbelief the quickest: reality.
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Limbo Is A State Of Mind

Has it been a week already?  Time flies when you're backed into a corner of your own home, desperately taking additional work hours in order to afford to escape drowning in clutter, cohabitating with a willful bipolar whose new marijuana IBS "cure" has great potential to make him even less stable in the future, and being promised without consent as a reward to entertain a younger grade schooler because why would I ever need more time to myself?
My own attempts to hide are about this effective.
I guess this is my lot in life until I can afford a nice bunker of my own to hide in, but I hope my family is not too surprised if I never want to see them again after this treatment.

Procrastination-wise, I have little new to report:
  • Mechwarrior Online remains an easy commitment.   After logging in, I enter a cycle where I choose a mech, engage in a 10-15 minute bit of big stompy robot vehicular combat, go to the mechlab, tweak my mech, and repeat.  There's insufficient long-term point to this for it to be worth my time, but there is some long-term point to this because, after all, I am earning c-bills which I can use to tweak mechs or buy whole new ones.  I kinda get the feeling my time would be better spent in Warframe, but at least Mechwarrior Online is easier to pick up and put down.
  • I have slowed down my consumption rate of the Dog Days anime immensely.   It is remarkably nonchalant in plot coherence, the last episode I watched just pulled a flying, giant, friendly biomechanical monstrosity out of nowhere simply because it is cool: they started riding around on a mecha-dragon.  However, I can forgive this kind of lunacy because Dog Days is simply good, clean only-somewhat-fanservice-endowed fun.  So it's worth watching, but only just, and season 2 will be completely depleted in a scant few watchings, with no sign of season 3 being authorized to be shown here yet.
  • I played a few games of FTL: Faster Than Light.  This spaceship simulator is absolutely fantastic in most ways, but it does have a critical weakness in that the average game takes about 2-4 hours to complete.  That's a pretty big slug of time, and I can be pretty sure I am going to fail to win most games despite knowing a lot about how to win because it is rather difficult (even on "easy" mode) and the randomization of the roguelike aspects (particularly equipment distribution) make a major impact on your odds of survival.
  • Neo Scavenger finally went on sale.  While 33% off is hardly a sale by my standards, when a game has been sitting on the top of my wish list for months, I am willing to make an exception.   What can I say about Neo Scavenger?  Well, it is as brutal as post-apocalyptic survival games come, possessing mechanics where you will literally be tumbling in the dirt in desperate fights with strangers in hopes they have the tiniest amount of something edible on them, only to die of a collapsed lung or something.  This game is a pessimist's wet dream.  I have discovered that my save files keep getting purged for some reason, probably because my Adobe Flash cache makes no attempts to differentiate Neo Scavenger's save games as any more worthy of keeping than the average flash doohickey encountered on the Internet.
If I learned anything important from what I have been up to, it's perhaps not to bother to develop in Adobe Flash if saved games are that important.  For that matter, Construct 2's HTML5 dependency probably fares little better.   Outside of manning up and programming in a real programming language (just one of many prerequisites for using Unity) that leaves me with Clickteam Fusion and Gamemaker as viable platforms.

Which to use depends on the kind of game you want to make.  Clickteam Fusion quickly produces powerfully-optimized 2D arcade games (and Five Nights At Freddies reveals it has other multimedia strengths as well).  However, Gamemaker has the flexibility to make things Fusion can't, and this is why a lot of procedural games are made in it.  Construct 2 tries to steal Clickteam Fusion's thunder by largely doing what it does with greater flexibility and user friendliness, but that HTML 5 limitation is a real pisser: Construct 2 applications suffer from greater sandboxing and reduced performance, so if you go that route you best be planning on making tiny, self-contained games.  (Maybe that's why they are making a Construct 3 now?)

Damn it; merely talking about making games while feeling upset about my personal situation is no way to live.  I think if I could get on the treadmill for half an hour each day and spend at least one hour doing game development, I could at least say I am trying in life.   As it is, I am just not where I need to be right now.
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Incoherence Intensifies

Sorry for the late update.  Truth be told, it's been a reasonably miserable week for me. 

Real Life: Running Interference:

The younger sister came down with the nephew and niece.  Bless them, but I just did not have time for them this weekend.  Poor little guy got barely two or three hours with his uncle, after I returned from work, before he had to go back up north.  It was spent in Minecraft and I also showed him a little Mechwarrior Online, which he thought was cool.  Heaven forbid the poor guy try playing it alone with a bunch of cranky strangers, though.

The younger brother decided to celebrate 4/20 day by taking up smoking weed using a vaporizer.  No need to call the cops, we live in one of the few states where you can openly buy recreational weed in stores.  It has still been a nightmare for me because I am not a smoker, I never wanted to live in a house with a smoker, but he's brought the habit into our home.

Even though vaporizers are supposed to generate no odor, and he has at least had the good manners to close his door, I am getting blasted with swamp gas from his room.  Probably not the vapor itself, it's probably waste material.  What a massive invasion to my personal quality of living.  I am putting serious thought to seeing if I can afford to move out.  In the meanwhile, I've reorganized the airflow of my room significantly seeing if I can cut down on the smell of dog shit, which I suspect was used by his supplier to fertilize the plant.

I attended a training class today on a day I was not normally scheduled to work.  So between that and the things that happened in the last few paragraphs, I have been facing a significant reduction to my all-too-important "me" time over the past week.  Despite that, I've managed to have some fun.

Dog Days Is Pretty Great:

On my favorite pony board, one of the posters brought up an anime called Dog Days, and I decided to give it a watch since it is on Crunchyroll.  It does not rate particularly well on Anime News Network: merely a "decent" score by most viewers, better for those who have watched it.  However, I will say that Dog Days is good fun.
The Dog Days heroines are a tad too young to be super sexy, but they're
certainly cute and fun to watch!  The dog princess is the one in pink.

I should do an entry that better covers the anime when I finish watching it, but let me give you the basic feature rundown:
  • Our main protagonist is a high school boy (what else) who is a terrific athlete.
  • He gets summoned to another dimension by a cute princess of a medieval fantasy race of beautiful people with dog ears and tails.  She tells him that she needs him to be her kingdom's designated hero to help win a war!  
  • Fortunately for him, in this dimension, war is fun!  The land protects its people from death, they just spend some time morphed into a little animal ball and unconscious.  All the kingdoms have made a spectator sport out of it.  Naturally, our athletic protagonist is only too happy to participate, and does quite well.
  • Everybody in this dimension turns out to be overwhelmingly friendly, even the royalty of the various kingdoms are childhood friends with each other, and there is no real threat to life and limb other than the occasional demon (which have largely been banished or sealed anyway).  Our summoned hero soon makes a lot of new friends.
  • This sets the stage for a light romance between our boy protagonist and a bevy of cute girls, both from his dimension and the new one, if only because it might make for a decent visual novel down the line.  In the anime, it would appear that he is mostly smitten with our dog princess, and why not: in addition to being a cute, magical-sword wielding princess, she's also a pop idol!  Yes, that's ridiculous.  Yes, that's awesome.  Also, it seems this dog girl rather enjoys a friendly petting and game of Frisbee; she's certainly an easy date.
Dang, what a feel-good anime.  Who would not want to take a vacation to the land of beautiful friendly fantasy people and their harmless-but-fun war games?   The whole war scenario thing scans like it was intended to be a Dynasty Warriors clone but, to my knowledge, this has not happened yet.

I have not yet finished watching Dog Days, although I am halfway through season 2 now.  Each season is 12 episodes long, season 3 just finished airing in Japan last season, I hope Crunchyroll secures the rights to broadcast this season soon, and I would probably not say no to a season 4.  This anime will probably not rate better than, "very good" with me due to lack of intensity and overly-gratuitous wish fulfillment, but it runs on some otherwise fantastic production values and overwhelmingly likable characters.  I bet Dog Days has more replay value than the more heavy-hitting series because it is just plain fun.

Mechwarrior Online: Honeymoon's Over:

Well, I have done my part in supporting Piranha Studios by dropping $60 on their game, and I would still attest that Mechwarrior Online has an excellent engine for big, stompy robots.  However, I find myself once again in the altoholic mindset that there's no one character mech (battle robot) I can find myself particularly interested in playing.  It is a mindset that is often indicative of the developers doing too good of a job of balancing the game.

The problem is that each mech is fundamentally unsatisfying for me to use.  I am snubbing the clan mechs on principle of being overpowered, even if Piranha Studios has done a fair job of balancing them.  That might not make much sense, but suffice to say it is a deeply engrained reaction for many Battletech fans.  The remaining "inner sphere" mechs have the advantage in that you can swap out the engine to change their role, but egads, engines are extremely expensive, a high-rating XL engine regularly costs more than entire mechs!

There is just no satisfying answer to what mech I should be using.  Because your long term goal is to buy more mechs, there's ultimately no reason for me to be playing at all.  What else can I say?  Being a remarkably finicky gamer leads to some quick resolutions sometimes.

Revisiting Warframe:

Who wouldn't want to be an intergalactic space ninja?   I spoke of this game before, and am running short on time, so if you need more details of what Warframe is, read that.

About the only thing of significance I have to say here is that the developing studio, Digital Extremes, has been doing a fantastic job pumping out new content for it.  Returning to Warframe now delivered a real slew of cool new places to go, things to do, and equipment to be sorely tempted to buy with real money.  I do not think this game has any end in sight, and now as good a time as ever to eviscerate space tyrants.
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Big Stompy Robot Addiction

This bizarro weekend has been utterly consumed by MechWarrior Online.   I remember seeing PC Gamer raving about this late 2013-released game for quite some time, but this is the first time I played it.  I had been avoiding it because my Battletech roots are in the ancient MUSH I played back when I was a teenager, real time but completely textual versions of the game, which made me come to understand enough of the original board game rules to know that MechWarrior Online stomps all over it with big robot feet.

Battletech: where giant battle robots (mechs) can lose a few limbs!
My main hangup was that armor balance is ruined by giving pinpoint accuracy to players.  The board game rules split armor into eleven separate sections and all the armor of all the original mech designs were balanced in mind that weapons will impact them at random.  Most MechWarrior computer games allow players to pinpoint accuracy to shoot certain sections, eliminating the randomness, making the armor simulated by the original rules practically useless!  It is so bad that Mechwarrior 4 tried to resort to massively beefing up the armor count, but this just delays the inevitable while throwing weapon potency out of balance.

The balance issues with implementing pinpoint accuracy in a Battletech derivative gets even worse because the original weapon tables were balanced in such a way that longer ranged weapons are more accurate at longer ranges, and they pay for this with heat generation and size penalties.  Every MechWarrior game after the first one gave the players pinpoint accuracy, which means longer ranged weapons no longer have any accuracy bonus, but they kept the penalties in place, so large weapons end up a complete waste of mech design space!

Thus, I delivered an ultimatum to MechWarrior Online: implement cones of fire, or I have no reason to want to play this game.  Only by re-introducing an element of chance does the armor work, and having variable accuracy on weapons (longer ranged = more accurate) restores the balance to the way they were weighted.  I turned up my nose and snubbed the game for a good year and a half over this.
"Cones of fire" are disappointingly lacking from most computer games.  You can not shoot a gun with perfect accuracy in real life, but you can do it in a simulation using a mouse readily enough.  However, this is not really a realism complaint, cones of fire actually add an important element of chance to games which make them more interesting.
As it turns out, I was wrong to snub MechWarrior Online for this reason because Piranha Games has shown me there was another way.  Well, it is not that complicated: you just completely re-balance the weapons and change the way they work.

Of the various weapons offered by Battletech, lasers were the greatest potential game breaker without cones of fire, because a projectile that moves at the speed of light makes it rather easy to shoot exactly what you are pointing at.  Piranha's solution was to stop lasers from doing all their damage at once, instead spreading the damage over the period of a second (or less, depending on the weapon).  Indeed, this seems to have done the trick of introducing some random variation in damage distribution, as your target is unlikely to sit still while it's being bathed in hostile coherent light!  The rest of the weapons were less exploitable due to projectile travel time, but thankfully the missile barrages were given a cone of fire, as they were far too accurate in earlier MechWarrior games.

To solve the issue where longer ranged weapons are paying more in terms of size for less benefit due to cones of fire being removed, all the weapons have had their rate of fire made variable (whereas in the board game it was always 1 shot per turn per weapon), and other minor fixes, so huge weapons are now viable.  The days of running around with giant batteries of medium lasers are over, partly because the mech customization system has been balanced to prevent that many from being mounted on most variants of mechs, but mostly because the core heat generation and damage has been tweaked in such a way that this is no longer the path of least resistance.

Granted, I am not going to say this game is 100% balanced, as they committed the cardinal sin of implementing clan mechs.   These hostile invaders from outside the Inner Sphere possess far more powerful mechs than the main factions, and were originally intended by the Battletech board game to fight against three to one odds, but Piranha shoehorns them into matches simply by weight class (as far as I can tell).   To their credit, they are aware of the issue and have made some adjustments, but I think it is probably impossible for clan mechs to be truly balanced with Inner Sphere mechs while still remaining clan mechs.  I have been avoiding taking them out of principle, but I know I am just shooting myself in the foot when I could be abusing clan ER PPCs.

Free to Play, but not pay to win.

A sensitive topic of any "free to play" game is how much benefit spending real money gives you.  An unbalanced playing field dominated by Rockefellers is a real drag on any gamer's impetus to play.

However, I am happy to report that Piranha Games has found a nice balance because, in adhering reasonably well to Battletech mech design concessions, you can be sure that the "hero" and "champion" mechs you pay for are not genuinely that much better than the "free" versions you can purchase with in-game money.

Granted, there are a few "consumable modules" that come pretty close to granting an advantage for money, but in practice I found the advantage of the paid-only consumables to be limited.  With a nice level field, it all comes down to the skill in which you can deliver your weaponry to the foes while avoiding taking damage in return.  Speaking of which...

Thoughts on tactics.

Having spent the greater part of the last 72 hours in MechWarrior Online, I think I am prepared to level some observations about strategy in the game.   Yeah, okay, that normally would not be enough, but this is also coming at you from my experiences in previous games made from the franchise, now updated for this game.

Personal tactics:

Lesson number one is to never hold still, ideally not even approach the enemy head on, because this makes it too easy for them to target your center torso and gut your mech without touching the surrounding armor.  Rotating your torso is vital, because this spreads out incoming damage across the torso and helps prevent you from just being "cored" through the middle.

A rotated torso also allows you to fire at an enemy while moving perpendicular to their sight, which makes you a MUCH harder target, especially when you are close enough that it requires rotating their entire mech to keep up with you.  While moving, vary your speed, as it will make it much harder to compensate for your movement, possibly even leading to imperceptibly warping due to Internet latency.

Really good mechwarriors on this game will both force the enemy to damage their least damaged sections while aiming well enough to take out the enemy's most damaged sections.  Regardless of what you are piloting, you will find it ideal to be unpredictable.  Defeat comes quickly to those who sit still, approach head on, or walk right up into waiting crosshairs.

Unlock those arms!  By holding down the left shift (default binding) as you mouselook (which normally just rotates the torso), you get a secondary crosshair uncoupled from your central crosshair.  This represents the range of movement of the arms, which can fire further than the torso can rotate.  Of course, any torso-mounted weaponry will continue to fire straight forward at the main crosshair, but if you have an arm-mounted weapon that can reach what you are pointing at, then you should be able to hit it. This becomes vital when dealing with circle-strafing light mechs, but can be handy in any situation in which a little extra aim is all it takes to win.
Mechwarrior Online is a gorgeous CryEngine game, but if you find yourself facing multiple foes at once without at least as many allies firing back at them, then you are standing in the wrong place.  (This screenshot looks mildly familiar...)
Team strategy:

The general rule of thumb for many new players is to try to keep everybody together in one big formation so the maximum number of guns are being fired at enemies: fight together or die alone.  However, I have found that this does not always work, and the reason for this is because it is actually a bit more complicated than staying together or splitting up.  Victory is actually determined by whoever musters the most effective firing lines.   This entails having the maximum number of friendly mechs firing upon enemy mechs while having the least number of enemy mechs firing back.

Simply packing yourself together can backfire when you block eachother's shots, which means only your mechs in front will be able to fire, and if there are more enemies firing back then you lose.  Yet, if you simply spread out so everybody can fire, this is still no sure victory, because the enemy can come at you from an angle in such a way that more of them can see less of you, and pick you off one at a time.

The solution is not simply packing together nor spreading out, but rather constantly maneuvering to assure that your firing lines are better than the enemy's for the greatest amount of time.  (Of course, no matter how good your firing lines are, if your pilots can't aim worth beans and mitigate incoming damage appropriately, you are going to have a disadvantage.)  This is a perpetual team challenge that keeps the game interesting.

Knowing your role:

Your team will be set up with a light lance, a medium lance, and a heavy lance.  ("Lances" are a battletech term for four mechs.)  The light lance's job is usually to scout enemies and to screen heavy mechs from being swarmed by faster mechs.  The heavy lance brings the bigger amounts of damage, and protecting them is important, although many heavies are built to be unbeatable in a head on assault.  The medium lance falls in the middle, perhaps falling in with the heavies, perhaps angling for a nice flank strike.  It should be noted that there is a rough approximation of which means end up in which lances, depending on available players, so you may decide that your "light" mech really belongs in the medium or heavy lances, or vice versa, and that's fine (the slower you are, the heavier the lance you want to run with).

An important epiphany was found when I realized that light mechs are actually useful versus heavier mechs.  The funny thing about the way MechWarrior Online is balanced is that your core engine heat dissipation is relatively similar whether you are piloting a 20 ton mech or a 100 ton mech.  If you have a 250 rating engine (or greater) and double heat sinks, that is 20 effective heat sinks, and it is hard for even assault mechs to do much better (you could pull roughly 35 effective heat sinks at most) because critical slot limits severely hamper your ability to just plug in more and also placed double heat sinks only are 1.4x as effective as standard heat sinks (contrary to 2x of the engine inclusive double heat sinks).
So lighter mechs can make up for their lack of weapons by simply firing as often as they can, trying to fully leverage their roughly equivalent heat dissipation.  However, do not face heavier mechs head on!  They have more armor, so they will surely win in a protracted slugging match regardless of if they face the same heat restrictions!  Note that heavier mechs rotate slowly, and an excellent mechwarrior in a light mech can often make it very difficult to retaliate against them, but this is a risky gambit.  Do not think of your light mech as disposable, as you can pull some pretty good damage numbers with a good weapons loadout and if you survive long enough.

When building a heavier mech, remember that large ballistic weapon loadouts have a heat advantage, and only heavier mechs can really mount many of them.  This is how you can get around your heat sink limitation: mount a decent amount of energy weapons, but combine that with ballistic and/or missile weapons so you can better leverage your tonnage as raw damage per second output.  A well-built heavy mech can steamroll any unfortunate light mech that thinks better evasion and roughly equivalent heat dissipation is all they need for a toe-to-toe fight, whereas overly-specialized heavy mechs may find themselves a plaything for a good pilot in the lightest of mechs.

In conclusion:

Mechwarrior Online is damn addictive, and I want my last three days back.

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