Multiplayer co-op in a limited social circle

Looking at E3 this year, it's obvious that many games, especially AAA ones, are making multiplayer co-op a major feature. This has presened me with a pretty big dilemma because I play mostly singleplayer games and barely have any friends anymore.

I spent a couple of months a decade ago playing Neverwinter Nights with the same group of friends, but have rarely had any interest in competitive Multiplayer or MMOs since then. I tried WOW, but didn't like it and recently thought about getting into GTAV online but lost interest after I heard about all of the issues it had (GTAV thoroughly scratched my itch for GTA by the time I had finished it anyway).

I have never been into shooters that much and the ones I like best (like the Half-Life games, STALKER and the Darkness) usually haven't even had a multiplayer component. I did try

When I first got a 360, I got a year of XBOXLive Gold, but used it so little I didn't renew after it ran out. I even ended up playing games like Dark Souls 1 & 2 and Mass Effect 3 without ever being online.

I have enjoyed a few multiplayer games, but they rarely keep my interest for longer than a few hours. I liked the Idea of Day Z, but got bored of it quickly. I liked the Riddick multiplayer OK and played some stuff like Left4Dead, but these don't hold my attention like a well designd singleplayer game would.

In the 10 or 15 years that multiplayer has been growing, my circle of friends has really dwindled. On top of that, probably only a couple of people I know IRL are even getting consoles this gen and we all have pretty full schedules which makes it hard to coordinate. I used to like playing fighting games at home and sometimes playing split-screen in games like Splinter Cell, Gears Of War or Portal 2. I prefer network play to split-screen anyway, but between conflicting schedules & distance, it's rare for us to have visitors these days.

I was tempted by Dragon Quest's move toward more multiplayer-focused gameplay but never tried IX because I had no one to play it with and I still don't know if I'll get the chance to play X.

I'm interested in the Division and Rainbow Six Siege. I've fallen away from Assassin's Creed since Brotherhood, but I like the look of Unity and I think Far Cry 4 looks amazing. I'm even thinking of getting into the Destiny alpha/beta/whatever even though I don't like Halo much.

Should I just avoid these games or do I have to get out and make a whole new group of friends to play these with? I could probably play something like Assassin's Creed with my wife or nephew, but we share the same console, so that doesn't help much. I can just jump into stuff like the Division and play with strangers, but I feel like I'm missing out on the experience of playing with a squad of friends like I had with Neverwinter.

What do you think about the move away from singleplayer in the AAA games of this generation?

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A strange coincidence

I'm not one to make a big thing out of coincidences - I think you have to consider yourself pretty important to the universe to think they hold any meaning, but I had a really weird thing happen yesterday in all of the crazy stuff that happened in the past week and it seemed interesting enough to share. This story involves a drawing I've been working on and while it's not directly about Ryan (the story or the drawing) I felt like posting it while everyone else is making Ryan-related blogs.

I got super depressed on Monday after I heard the bad news and I started looking for stuff to distract me because I was having a hell of a time getting any real work done. I started watching youtube clips about animators, mostly Richard Williams and Milt Kahl. One about Art Babbitt--that was from a documentary made in 1987-- had an interview with Andreas Deja, a Disney Animator who has probably animated the majority of Disney villains since the Little Mermaid.

Behind Deja on the wall was a movie poster that caught my attention. I couldn't make it out because it was in the background of a highly-compressed version of an already low-def video that probably came from from an old VHS. I took a screenshot and cropped the poster out and tried uploading it into the Google images "search by image" feature. This is what it came up with:

Now, this film is not really known well these days to anyone except huge Disney fans and people who read Lloyd Alexander novels. Despite my interest in a few Disney animators, I don't really fall into either of those groups, but, upon seeing the image of the poster, I remembered when this movie came out in 1985 and how my Brother (who actually read Lloyd Alexander novels) and I (who generally hated fantasy stuff) got really excited about it and used to talk about it all the time before it got released. I had forgotten everything about this movie and, apparently, that's the way Disney prefers it, since the movie is widely considered the biggest flop out of the 50+ animated films they've released since 1937. It was also their first PG rated movie because the "Cauldron-Born" undead enemies in it were considered too scary for small kids.

I have been doing a ton of black & white illustrations in my spare time lately and this movie poster really grabbed me for a whole bunch of reasons, so I decided to put aside a couple of other illustrations I was working on and to recreate this image in my own way. I ended up spending a few hours every night since then working on my rendition and I finally got it pretty much finished tonight:

(Actually, I'll probably spend a little more time working on it this weekend, but I thought it was done enough for the purposes of this post)

So here comes the weird part.

Pretty much the only thing I've done all week other than futile attempts to write code during my work hours and draw at night has been obsessively looking at Ryan Davis related treads here and the twitter accounts of the staff. I don't know anything about Ryan's wife, Anna, and I have never visited her twitter page, but a search for "taswell" landed me on her page yesterday afternoon. I read a few tweets and I browsed through her pictures of Ryan. Suddenly I noticed that one of the pictures in her gallery was of someone holding a VHS tape. Guess which movie it was?

Weird. I haven't even thought of this movie in 28 years and somehow trying to distract me from the weird feeling of grieving for someone I've never even met somehow resulted in me rediscovering it and deciding to do this drawing. What are the chances that 2 days later the widow of the same man I was grieving would be watching that same movie to distract her from her own grief?

Again, I'm not the kind of person who sees a lot of meaning in this kind of thing, but you have to agree it's kind of crazy, right?

-----

P.S. I don't know if Anna ever looks at this forum and I probably wouldn't bother her with this on twitter even if I had an account, but If anyone who does know her personally reads this and knows if she watched that video--if it meant anything to her and she'd be interested in a copy of this drawing of mine, I'd be happy to send a high quality file for printing or get a poster made and mail it.

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If violent games were ever banned

...how affected would you be by it?

I don't see this ever really happening. There will always be mature games, even if some kind of underground indie market emerges, but I've been thinking about this lately and in some ways I think it wouldn't immediately ruin games.

I'm not against violence in games. I laugh at over-the-top stuff like the bloody mess perk in Fallout 3. I like the idea of slicing enemies up in MGR:Revengeance. I like fighting games, Condemned 2 and any good 3rd person melee system. I love starting chain reactions of car explosions in GTAIV. I will never be someone with any credibility to argue against game violence because, once in Vice City, I snuck into the strip club with a sniper rifle and blew the heads off all the dancers. I like crazy exaggerated violence just fine. I like it in movies like Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive and Riki-Oh.

This kind of thing can be highly entertaining, like the Three Stooges, but what I get tired of in games is the mundane, constant violence we get out of most shooters. If there's one thing I hate in any game it's when your only interaction with the world is shooting things. The only games I really like that come close to that description is Half-Life 1 & 2 because they were innovators in making shooters with a deeper sense of interacting with the world. There have been shooters since that I can get into. I'm pretty into the last 2 Far-Cry games, but overall, I'm not a huge fan of the genre. As important as I will admit Doom is, I am still more of a fan of Ultima Underworld.

Most of the games I really like have plenty of violence in them, but allow you to decide how much you want to engage in. I prefer stealth franchises like MGS and Thief or at least games that give you a choice of stealth like Deus Ex. That's not to say that stealth always equals non-violence. I'm a big fan of Tenchu and that's all about sneaking up on and straight-up murdering people without detection. I also really love games like Fallout and Arcanum that allow me to talk my way out of a lot of situations.

Now, banning violence would probably ruin a lot of those games because it would remove the choice, but I also think restricting game developers from immediately making the main transaction with the gameworld violent could lead to some interesting new mechanics. Look at Germany where board games and sims have taken off because of lack of access to violent games. While I don't wish to see the entire industry turn into sims. I think we need to start diversifying the kinds of games we're playing a little more. There are still a few decent sim games on the market and we get an occasional great adventure game, but I remember when computer games really started to take over from arcade games and we suddenly had tons of platformers, adventure games, sims, strategy games and rpgs. While all of those genres are still around, today it's pretty rare to get a game where combat of some kind isn't the most prominent mechanic in the game.

I'm not going to pretend that any kind of violence ban would ever be done right anyway. Back when this actually happened to the comic industry and the strict comics code was enforced it was a huge mess. I love pre-code horror, sci-fi and crime comics and I think it sucks that they were killed off the way they were, but there's this really interesting period just after the code and before the market became dominated by cowboys and then superheroes when publishers like EC (who were doing Tales from the Crypt before) started publishing comics about reporters and doctors. They even had one about psychoanalysis.

In the end, what I'd like to see the most is games that push into these other areas on their own without the government involvement. I'm not discounting that there are lots of indie games that don't care at all about what is popular, but in the case of the big studios, as long as repetitive shooters sell really well, They are just going to keep making them. I loved the first 2 Mass Effects, but would people have played them without the shooting sections? Maybe the Walking Dead proves that some people might, even though that game has its far share of violence and gore and probably wouldn't make it past censors either. It makes me wonder how a huge AAA game based on something like the experimental indie game Facade would do. I guess we can always look to the indies and the biggest, most interesting Kickstarter projects for this kind of diversity, but it would be nice if the top tier of the market was more supportive of more unique types of games.

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Worse Jurassic Park Game? Telltale's or Trespasser?

Having recently played Jurassic Park Trespasser, I've been thinking a lot about Spielberg's semi-cursed history with video games and especially about Jurassic Park's role in that.

To his credit, Spielberg as involved with the early Medal of Honor games and Boom Blox (one of the best Wii games in my opinion) but almost everything else he has touched, especially movie promotion games have been terrible.

It all starts with E.T., for which he personally chose Howard Scott Warshaw, the creator of Yar's Revenge (still thought of as one of the best Atari games ever), but the studio only gave him 6 weeks to complete the game. After a lot of hyped marketing, the result was considered one of the worst flops in game history, even singled out as one of the primary reasons for the 1983 video game crash that, if it wasn't for the NES 2 years later, nearly destroyed the entire console industry. Today, thanks to the internet, most people know the story of E.T. and the mythical Atari cart landfill but Spielberg eventually had another flop that, while it didn't threaten to take an entire industry with it, seems bigger in some ways.

A decade and a half later came the second Jurassic Park movie. Both movies spawned a few average-quality console side scrollers, an arcade lightgun shooter and even a Primal Rage-style fighting game, but when Spielberg and Dreamworks decided to make a PC game they again targeted top-shelf talent by recruiting Looking Glass employees who had worked on System Shock and Thief to do somethig different. They put Seamus Blackley in charge, a physics grad who had worked at Fermilab in the early 90s and handled the physics engine for Flight Unlimited (and later convinced Microsoft to go into the console business). The team hyped the game as a living ecosystem full of realistic physics puzzles and super-advanced AI, but when the final product was released, it was savaged by critics almost as brutally as E.T. had been.

The game turned out to be ugly, awkward, bug-riddled and--due to memory constraints and bad planning--seriously lacking in dinosaurs, but even with all its faults, you can't call Trespasser unambitious. Years before Half-Life 2 this was THE physics game (and a big influence on Half-Life 2). Before Far Cry it was completely set outside on an island. It was also one of the first games to completely do away with the HUD. Honestly, for most people who hadn't played System Shock and Ultima Underworld at this point, the height of game world interaction was probably flushing toilets in Duke Nukem.

In 2005, Spielberg tried again with the Looking Glass guys one more time, getting Doug Church and a few others to work on his secret EA project LMNO. This might have been promising, but probably not, because the project was scrapped after 5 years of work.

I think of all the Jurassic Park games I've played, the best is Operation Genesis, a theme park sim for the PS2 that came out of nowhere, years after the last movie in the series was released. Now there's Telltale's new adventure, which looks like the biggest misstep the company's ever made, but I'm wondering just how bad it really is and if anyone has played both the new game and Trespasser can comment on which one is really the bigger disappointment.

I played the first Part of the Walking Dead and thought it was excellent. It's too bad that Telltale's Jurassic Park game seems like the test subject that taught them what not to do with this kind of game. I'm sure even they are wishing that they could go back and apply those lessons to fixing it.

On a similar note, I think a really good remake of Trespasser could be made with current tech. Some kind of combination of Crysis's island detail, Amnesia's physics and Dinosaur AI on the level of Stalker or FEAR seems to me like it could make for a pretty incredible game.

Edit: the Angry Video Game Nerd has some pretty good coverage of the old console JP games, just skip to 8:56 if you don't want to see Jaws and Hook for the NES--

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Simulation RPGs and the CRPG/FPS/PC Stealth Family tree

I've replayed a ton of old PC games lately, mostly thanks to GoG.com, and I started thinking about how this really great style of simulation-based RPG grew out of basically Ultima Underworld and then mostly disappeared. So I started screwing around with this timeline/family tree to sort it all out. I ended up adding a bunch of other CRPGs in for context and a few FPS games that I feel relate. I don't know if this is 100% done. Some of my labels may be controversial, but whatever. Feel free to discuss and give feedback. Dates are approximate, but close enough to see what existed before what.

I have a few comments on specific games after the image.

Click Me!

"Immersive Simulation" RPGs

There are a lot of arguments over what is and isn't an RPG and I'm not really trying to get into that. "Dungeon Simulation" was originally used by Paul Neurath to describe what he was trying to create with Ultima underworld. The idea was a game that falls somewhere between a traditional RPG and a flight simulator--a game that offers players a "pallette of strategies" to chose from in a style of gameplay now better known today as "emergent". Warren Spector mostly gets the credit for this style of gaming and he deserves a lot of it because he was involved heavily at Origin Systems, produced a bunch of the games created by Blue Sky & Looking Glass and went on to "perfect" what they were doing in Deus Ex, but I also think Neurath and Doug Church deserve the bulk of the credit for setting the standards for this flavor of game with Underworld and System Shock and even Thief which, though it's not an RPG, is a systems-based simulation stealth game. The things that define these games most are an emphasis on open, intricate level design, multiple approaches to solving problems and systems that create a sense of a living world. Some have different degrees of traditional RPG systems, such as dialogue systems and character building schemes, but the focus on environment, simulation and choice in play style are key to all of these. Most choose to be from first person perspective, but that seems to be an attempt to push immersion more than a requirement. Another interesting common characteristic to all of these is stealth, but I guess without it the strategic options available to the player would be a lot more limited.

Deus Ex: This game has basically become the gold standard for the type of game I'm describing. It's somewhat dated and a little hard to get into today, but it has a great balance of the systems that were started with Ultima Underworld and the System Shock games and the kind of hub area structure that Fallout did so well. It also brings in a simpler form of the stealth and the NPC behavior from the Thief games. Sure there's not much of a character system like in a traditional RPG--the game offers a choice between a few models for JC Denton but not much more at the start--but the real customizations come from the augmentations you apply and the decisions you make in the game.

System Shock 2: This game is much less about interacting with NPCs than most of the rest on this list, but I feel like its balance of systems, the choices it gives you to focus on combat, tech and psionics, its direct relationship to Ultima Underworld and its great atmosphere place it squarely under the simulation RPG label. One system I really love in this game is research and I wish other games would do something like it. XCOM and Metroid prime had nice research systems, but SS2's has a really immersive feel to it. The closest thing among these games I can think of is Alpha Protocol's dossier system, but it doesn't interest me as much. While Bioshock gives you a lot of neat ways to combine attacks, set up traps and make moral choices, I feel like it dials back too much on character building. While it's a superior example of an FPS, it's definitely more FPS than RPG. Bioshock Infinite may swing the pendulum back in some ways, but it seems from what I've seen to be Bioshock with the companion AI stuff from Half-Life 2: episode 1, so I'm labeling it as a traditional FPS as well.

Arx Fatalis: I am really surprised that I hadn't heard more about this in the past. This game has an incredible sense of atmosphere. It starts out as an updated version of Ultima Underworld and adds a lot of great stuff on top. The gesture magic system is quirky, but I like it. The character choices don't feel as deep as System Shock 2 and I wish it had a more in-depth conversation system, but it has a ton of little systems that add a lot, like taking raw meat off dead animals and cooking it in a fire to make it edible. This was apparently originally intended as the third Ultima Underworld title (similar to how Bethesda made Fallout 3), but when attempts to secure the rights to the the title fell through, the title and background story were changed.

VTM: Bloodlines: It's too bad this game got hurt by the Half-Life 2 source code leak fiasco and ended up being nearly unplayable at release because it was so riddled with bugs. Thanks to a great community that created the unofficial patches, you can now enjoy this game as the masterpiece it was intended to be. The combat kind of sucks, but it's hard to say anything else bad about this one. The hub areas and general atmosphere are incredible, the writing is top-notch and the clan system, perks and character building are very well balanced. Every quest also gives you a number of paths to decide how to approach it. This game has everything good about Deus Ex combined with the kind of deep dialogue system that Fallout and Arcanum did really well.

Deep Cover: Little can be said about this one, because it doesn't exist, but in my imagination, this 1960s-spy, stealth RPG might have just been better than Thief and Deus Ex combined. If you've never heard of it, there are some nice screenshots of some of the level design to be found online.

Alpha Protocol: I know there's a lot of hate for this game out there and about half of it is earned. The other half seems to come from people who never even played the game. There are certainly a lot of design flaws in this one including useless skills like toughness, BS boss fights and the fact that guns don't even really work until you're half way through but it has a lot of interesting ideas. Maybe this belongs more in the Action RPG category with Mass Effect. It doesn't really have hub areas like most of the other games listed here (just a map and central safehouse for each area) and it's 3rd-person while the rest of these are primarily first-person, but I wanted to mention this for having a really nice reputation system, the dossier system and the ability to spend money on intel that affects how your missions go.

Human Revolution: There are a ton of reviews out this week so I won't say a lot, but this game is the closest thing we have this generation as a perfect example of a simulation RPG. The addition of the Mass Effect-like dialogue options are really nice and some of the augmentations associated with it are interesting. The hub cities remind me a lot of the VTM: Bloodlines levels too, which is a really good thing. I'm not far in this and only have a few augs, but I really like what I've seen and the stealth is done very well too.

Dishonored: This game is currently in development and details are sketchy, but if it lives up to what the developers are saying about it, It might just be one the most interesting games ever made. It looks like a kind of steampunk Deus Ex from Arkane (some Looking Glass & Ion Storm people, plus the guy that designed City 17). Lots of crazy powers that can be combined in multiple ways and situations that have lots of ways to approach them.

Close Calls

Fallout 3, New Vegas and Oblivion: I am not historically a fan of Bethesda. Morrowind interests me a little, but Arx Fatalis, which was released the same year, is closer to my interests. Arena and Daggerfall were obviously influenced a lot by Ultima underworld, and they are good at making big worlds with a lot of lore, but their games are very traditional RPGs in my opinion. I had a hard time labeling their games the same as these others, so I just marked them as 3D RPGs. They made some steps with Oblivion into making things a lot more open and more simulation-heavy and I think Fallout 3 has been the closest they've gotten to the kinds of games I'm talking about here. Hopefully Skyrim will push even more in this direction.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R & Far Cry 2: I wanted to add these two just to acknowledge how close I think these two FPS games got to being simulations. They don't count as full RPGs to me, because there is no character system or dialogue options, but the focus on the open, simulation-heavy worlds and incorporation of lots of RPG elements make these really close to the kind of ideal I'm talking about.

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Even before the remake, I painted these.

Back in 2006, I was getting back into painting - something I hadn't done in almost 10 years. I had been looking at a lot of early American painters and had been interested in a certain period of (mostly New-England) portraiture and was looking to do something similar. The "I am 8-Bit" art show had come out the previous year and I got to thinking about the great portraits of the Punch-Out fighters in the between-rounds screens. In less than a month I knocked out this series of 11 paintings. They are all oil on canvas board. Each opponent is 8" x 10" and the portrait of Mac and Doc is 12" x 16". Enjoy:


You can see some of the process these went through here if you're interested.
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Are Zombies on the way out?

In a recent article, With Obama election comes the return of the vampire, San Diego Tribune's Peter Rowe theorizes that the popularity of Zombie and Vampire movies come in waves based on which political party controls the government. He argues that Obama's win ushers in a new age of vampire fiction, pointing to True Blood and Twilight as early indicartors.

“Democrats, who want to redistribute wealth to 'Main Street,' fear the Wall Street vampires who bleed the nation dry,” Newitz argued, noting that Dracula and his ilk arose from the aristocracy. “Republicans fear a revolt of the poor and disenfranchised, dressed in rags and coming to the White House to eat their brains.”
Even if he's right, I'm not sure if the same thing works with games. The first Castlevania games came out during Reagan's Presidency and Resident Evil came out at the end Clinton's first term. Both are Japanese though, so it's hard to argue that American politics would have had a role in inspiring them except for maybe a role in influencing their US sales.

I think overall, zombies are more interesting for games, especially when game AI is rarely smarter then your average zombie. Most vampire games I can think of are Japanese except the Buffy and White Wolf games. Bethesda puts vampires in their games, but I can't think of anything that's been announced that will feature them heavily in the next few years.  Anyone know of any upcoming titles that might hint at a trend?
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Can Half-Life 3 stay linear and compete?

At the time they were released, both Half-Life games, to some degree, led first-person shooters into new and somewhat unexpected directions.

While a few previous games had incorporated narrative elements successfully, Half-Life brought a sense of realism to its world with the use of simple non-combatant non-player characters and Half-Life 2 expanded on the believability of those NPCs and incorporated physics and environmental interaction to a greater degree than any other game of its time.

While the Half-Life 2 episodes have been able to extend Gordon Freeman's world and continue to make use of the once-innovative physics gameplay of the source engine and Portal pushed the use of the engine in impressive new ways, the series is still essentially rooted in linear level design and storytelling.

Now with even first-person games like Far Cry 2 and Crysis making use of the kind of open world  and non-linear, mission-based gameplay that has defined a whole genre of third person games like GTA and Mercenaries, is it possible for the Half-Life series to innovate in any way while still sticking to a linear style of gameplay and narrative? Is it possible to advance the story of Gordon Freeman in an open world or would that diminish the series as a whole?

I don't know what Valve has in store for Gordon Freeman and his associates in their long awaited sequel. I'm assuming new technologes like the gravity gun and portal gun will play a significant role. The people at Valve are incredibly talented and I feel like they will be able to do something big and new with the game's third installment, but I worry that by the time we get to the game's release, that a linear, first-person shooter will feel like a dinosaur.

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The rise and fall of Tenchu

Tenchu: Stealth Assassins on the PS1
The lamentable Tenchu Z
Though stealth games seem to be in a sort of decline of their own as the Metal Gear games add more action sequences and Splinter Cell moves in a direction more in-line with Assassin's Creed, tracing the path of Tenchu's decline from its humble beginnings on the PlayStation to the frustrating mess that was Tenchu Z on the 360 is a pretty sad endeavor.

Historically, video games have enjoyed a great wealth of titles starring ninjas, but most, like the Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi games, have relied on over-the-top action and martial arts combat. Released the same year as the original Metal Gear: Solid, but drawing heavily from gameplay developed in the 2D Metal Gear games, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was the first ninja game to allow players to feel like a true ninja assassin. Stealth gameplay has been featured in small doses in everything from Zelda games to survival horror, but Tenchu offered a quality of pure stealth gameplay that was second only to the MGS series and totally unique in its setting and atmosphere.

The series peaked with its third installment which was released on the PS2 as Wrath of Heaven and later on the XBOX as Return from Darkness. With the graphic power of the PS2, the game captured the essence of the PS1 games with tight controls, exciting stealth kills and a satisfying co-op mode.
Subsequent releases, including portable ones on the DS and PSP, have only served to disappoint fans of the originals with lazy programming, frustrating controls, pointless features like build-a-character and storylines that drift ever further away from the one established in the first 3 games.

In the time since Tenchu Z's release, franchise owner From Software has addressed the decline of the series and expressed a desire to put the game in the hands of different developers. This year, the release of Tenchu 4, developed for the Wii by Acquire, the company that delivered the original Japanese version of Stealth Assassins known as Dimensional Ninja Action Movie: Tenchu, will serve as the final test of whether this series, and possibly if pure stealth games as a whole, can survive in the current generation.
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