Monday, March 29, 2010

Demigod 75% off for anyone who wants it.

I got 75% off Demigod thanks to a discount code from Mel_Himself. The good news is that the discount codes are apparently re-usable. There is even a post on the official forums giving out codes for those who want to sample this fun game.

Be aware that the multi-player scene is not exactly thriving. From browsing the forums I get the impression that there is a small core of experienced players who do not exactly welcome to noobs but for less than 4$/€ you can't really go wrong.

Demigod Impressions

Demigod is an enjoyable arena based RTS combat game but it's unfortunate first impression is somewhat amateurish due to the lack of an in game tutorial. In the user manual they explain this omission by saying:
"Let’s face it, the two most annoying ways to learn how to play a game are the
user manual and an in-game tutorial."
Unfortunately Demigod is sufficiently different from other RTS games that just jumping in isn't going to suffice. You do actually need to read the manual if you want to have any idea what is going on. To be more precise you only really need to read the short "Quick Explanation" on page 16 of the manual but if like me you tend to start a book on page 1 you will have already read most of the manual before you stumble across that vital page of advice.

After having read the aforementioned Quick Advice and subsequently having played through two skirmish battles I can report that Demigod is an Arena based real time combat game where players control Hero characters (Demigods). Typical battles will have several Demigods on each side along with a multitude of lesser reinforcements that are continually spawned from portals scattered across the arena. You cannot actually control these reinforcements, they simply disgorge from the spawn point and head on a suicidal rush towards the nearest enemy position. They start as useless canon fodder but these reinforcements can be upgraded as the game progresses to powerful fortress storming giants.

Although I cannot claim any expertise after two quick skirmishes against computer opponents I did manage to pick up the basics and I certainly developed an appreciation of the tactical depth of the game. Each Demigod gains has access to a rich skills tree as they level up and more general bonuses can be purchased from each teams citadel. You won't be able to unlock everything so though you need to choose carefully.

While the combat can be fast and furious the game itself is not particularly fast paced. Each team starts with a network of defensive towers that are deadly to the basic starting units which mitigates against early rush tactics. Instead you must play a territorial game - each side jockeying for control of a few contested flags while slowly upgrading their own powers. Mid game sees upgraded units that are able to make inroads into opponents territory and slowly but surely dismantle the network of defence towers. End game sees powerful units that are capable of making a direct assault on the opponents citadel. A better tactic, it seems to me, is to first capture the opponents reinforcement spawn points. Not only does that deprive the enemy of re-enforcements but the newly captured spawn points will disgorge your soldiers right into the heart of enemy territory. This rigid structure of early / middle / late game may not be so apparent in other game modes but it does enforce an element of strategic thinking on the game. In both the skirmishes I have played I eventually ground out a victory depite having a much worse kill to death ratio than my computer opponents. I attribute this partly to the computer AI having a good grasp of tactics but a lesser understanding of strategy.

Of course this is a game that is really designed for multiplayer battles between human opponents. Given the many permutations of skills, upgrades and tactics it will be quite some time (if ever) before I feel confident enough to test my abilities against an online opponent but I am enthused enough to keep work my way through the single player campaign as a means of learning the ropes.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Browser War isn't Over until the Fat Lady Sings

I have been a Firefox user for several years but I have come to realise that despite the Foxes tremendous power and flexibility it feels a bit old fashioned. In its default installation the screen is cluttered by tools and menu bars and Firefox's colour scheme and fonts lack the warm friendliness of its competitors. I know that Firefox is ridiculously customisable and you can get it to do just about anything you want and look like anything you want but it can be hard work keeping up with all these extensions. Most of the ones I really need (such as pop up blocking) have long since been incorporated into the standard browser tool-set. I have even stopped using Ad Block. Now that annoying pop-ups are automatically blocked the advent of fast broadband has removed any legitimate excuse to deny content providers of their advertising revenue.

I guess I never seriously considered Internet Explorer as a contender although it still pops up often enough when badly behaved programs insist on spawning IE to view a web page. Now at version 8 Internet Explorer has a veneer of shininess and with pop up blockers and tab functionality it is much much better than it used to be. It doesn't look or feel any better than Firefox though. In fact it feels pretty much like it is trying to copy Firefox without quite catching up.

Next up Google Chrome. This is a lightweight slimmed down browser that emphasises speed and usability. I have to admit it is very good at what it does. It feels very fast, pages generally load instantly. The screen has almost no clutter and the stuff you really need is readily to hand. Chrome seems to have far fewer options and settings than the other browsers I tried out but all the features I actually use seem to be in there. Some things I didn't like. It does commit the hallmark Google crime of trying to be cleverer than the user at times. For example if you open a blank tab it will pull up a tableau of your eight most commonly visited web pages. Smart menus are usually a bad idea and this one seems to be a particularly silly implementation. I can think of lots of reasons why people might not be too happy with a big list of their most commonly visited pages popping up every time they open a new tab. My biggest complaint about Chrome though is that it comes from Google. Google already has enormous control over the internet through their ubiquitous search engine and I think it would be safer not to allow one company to have even more control over the world's most important information resource.

I first tried Opera about ten years ago when you still had to pay for it. I quickly realised two things: i) that it was light years ahead of other browsers of the time and ii) that it was complicated to use, nothing seeming to be standard. Returning to to Opera which is now at version 10 my first impression was that it seems to have gotten a lot easier to use. Clicking, right clicking and wheel clicking all do what I expect them to do. Whether this is because Opera has deliberately migrated towards industry standard controls or because the industry standard has finally caught up with Opera I don't know. Opera looks lovely too. The default interface is minimalist but the menus are easy to find and appear to offer full functionality. You don't actually need to use the menus often if you learn to use mouse gestures for common tasks. Opera's implementation of speed dial which allows you to choose which pages appear every time you open a blank tab is much more sensible than Chrome's in my opinion. A minor gripe is that the Opera comes with the Ask tool bar integrated. I don't like Ask because it gives far too many irrelevant sponsored links to dig through before you get to the real results of your search query. Nevertheless it can be removed by editing the search preferences so it is not a deal breaker.

So.. As you may have guessed I am now an Opera user. It may not have the enormous flexibility of Firefox but it does everything I want it to do and it looks and feels clean and modern. The ability to use Turbo mode to save bandwidth on my laptop is a bonus as is the ability to sync between desktop opera and the opera mini I use on my phone.

Thank you Mr. Melf (Post Includes Link to Great Flash Game)

Three cheers to Melf_Himself of Word of Shadow fame.

Cheer number one is for pointing me towards Specter Spelunker Shrinks which is a brilliant little Flash game. Ken Grafals the creator of the game hit on an the extremely simple but extremely brilliant concept of allowing you to shrink or grow your character arbitrarily to overcome obstacles. I predict it could be the next Portal if he plays his cards right.

Cheer number two is for giving away a buddy code that allowed me to get 75% off Demigod. Downloading it now.

Cheer number 3 finally is just for being an all round sound chap. Thank you Melf.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Rupert Murdoch versus the internet. Who will win?

So Murdoch is taking on the web. My money is on the internet. Murdoch may be rich and powerful but so by all accounts was King Canute.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What is up with Firefox updating?

Is it just me or has the frequency of Firefox updates become a little excessive. I know that these security fixes are for our own good but between updates to Firefox itself and updates to Firefox extensions I seem to spend more time updating than browsing at the moment.

Operation Flashpoint Dragon Rising

I am currently playing and enjoying Operation Flashpoint Dragon Rising bought in a Steam sale a couple of weeks ago. That the game is being heavily discounted so soon after its October 2009 release indicates that it was far from a commercial success, a suspicion re-enforced by Codemasters announcement of a cessation of support for the game on the 16th February this year.

My guess is that the game failed commercially because it fell between two schools. It is much slower paced and somewhat harder than traditional run and gun shooters. I imagine that many Call of Duty fans will be put off by a game where you can go 20 minutes before seeing an enemy and then die instantly from one bullet. On the other hand fans of earlier Flashpoint games may feel the game lacks realism and is too easy: You have a magic radar which pinpoints enemies with a red dot. Enemy AI is not all that smart and your team medic can cure every injury short of death with a single injection of morphine.

I never really got into the earlier Flashpoint games so I am enjoying the single player component of Dragon RIsing for what it is: A tense squad based shooter that is slower paced and more challenging than a typical shooter and requires careful tactics to overcome mission objectives.

My only real gripe is with the checkpoint save system. A typical mission has several save checkpoints that are highlighted on the map marking out a path to the mission objective. Most of the time I prefer not to follow the checkpoints - instead plotting my own route using the terrain for best advantage. The game is open enough to allow this but it means I don't get the benefit of the checkpoint saves. Knowing that you can lose an hours progress due to a random bullet is a bit of a downer. It does increase the tension of the game however and I find that one mission per night is pretty much my limit before I need to take a break.

The dropping of Codemasters support does not bode well for competitive multiplayer but I believe the game has a co-op mode which could be fun.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

So Long Nick (Yee) and Thanks for All the Physh(cology)

Earlier this month Nick Yee announced that he was putting the Daedalus project into hibernation. I discovered the project before I had even ventured into an mmorpg for the first time and I became absolutely fascinated by Nick's research into the psychology of mmorpgs and the people who play them. After 10 years of building this phenomenal resource it is completely understandable that Nick wants to move on but thankfully he is leaving his treasure trove of survey information on line. I believe it remains the gold standard of research into the motivations and behaviour of "us" the people who play mmorpgs.

Edit: Thank you to Tesh for pointing out that I am exactly one year behind the times with this post. Nick put his site into hibernation in March 2009 and has actually even launched a new study since then. And I was so proud of that post title :(

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

There may be an impression abroad that Paddy's day is a wild party. In fact for most Irish people it is family day. Wearing green and taking the kids to the local parade are part of the tradition,

Only this year my better half and the kids are staying with relatives while I remain home alone due to work commitments. It can be nice to have a quiet house to myself for a change but I do miss them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

An Apology to Iphone Users - You are not Data Hogs after all.

In a reply to my previous post DM Osbon pointed out that Iphone users mainly browse text based web pages like blog readers and twitter. I googled around for more data and I was surprised with the results:

This survey suggests that 68% of Canadian Iphone users use less than 500Mb per month: 2009 Poll

Here is a description of a more recent Consumer Reports study that pegged typical Iphone usage at only 273Mb per month: Consumer Reports Study Blackberry users come in at a very modest 50Mb per month (unsurprising given the strong association between Blackberry and email).

I am quite pleased to see that my own mobile internet usage fits right into the consumer reports statistics as a user of an "other smartphone", average data 150Mb/month. I don't feel such a cheapskate any more for sticking with my miserly 250Mb data package.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tethering on a Budget with Opera Turbo

I have a bargain basement data package on my mobile phone that includes a mere 250Mb per month of data. I am sure that my provider would love me to upgrade and the threat of completely outrageous out of package rates does weigh on my mind (would you believe 2c per kb!!!) but 250Mb is really more than adequate for all my small screen Internet needs. A typical half hour browsing blogs and forums during my morning commute to work uses no more than a megabyte or so. While a quarter of a Gb might seem piteous to an Iphone using you-tube junkie it more than suffices for my text heavy web browsing tastes.

At least it did until I discovered tethering. You see my new laptop has built in Blue-tooth and my phone is happy to share the benefits of browsing anywhere to the laptop through the magic of tethering. Except there is a problem. My first 10 minute browsing session via tethering consumed 10Mb of data. A quick back of envelope calculation indicated that I could blow my entire monthly data allowance before the laptop battery ran out. Not good.

I was actually surprised that laptop browsing was so data intensive compared to the phone. Admittedly I was using the freedom of tabbed browsing to consume multiple pages at a time and I was also more inclined to follow through on media rich content links. One less obvious reason though is that I use Opera Mini on my phone and the nice people at Opera offer server side data compression. This means that Opera's servers actually compress the data you are viewing before sending it to your phone which greatly reduces the bandwidth required. There are trade-offs particularly in terms of image quality but for the most part it works.

I wanted to see if something similar (and in particularly something similarly free) was available for a Windows browser and happily it turns out that Opera 10 has a built in "Turbo" mode that does just that. Using it on the Laptop I am getting average compression of about 3 to 1 which will definitely help stretch my meagre data allowance. The degradation in image quality is more noticeable on a laptop screen than on a phone but pages are still very readable. Flash games don't seem to work at all in turbo mode but youtube videos work once you confirm that you want to download them. I suspect that compression is turned off for the duration of the video though. An added bonus is that the compression helps squeeze a bit more speed out of the slow 1Mb/s blue-tooth link to the phone.

Of course if you are concerned about privacy you might not like the idea of Opera getting a peek at everything you do on the web as it goes through their servers but I think it is a worthwhile trade-off.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Golden Age of Gaming: A Prophetic Article from 2001

In a prophetic Gamesfirst article from 2001 Mark Blackburn predicted the rise of casual gaming. It is a particularly interesting article written at the very end of what Mark terms the golden age of PC gaming. While his hopeful prediction that computers would continue to dominate serious gaming leaving casual gaming to console players has not worked out at all, the main thrust of Blackburn's argument certainly holds true.

Describing that heady period of the late 1990's Mark says:

Imagine that for five years the majority of films were made for a select and highly sophisticated audience. An audience versed in the history of cinema and able to, at a glance, discern a variety of influences. Imagine if almost every book published for five years was aimed at the most literate and critically aware individuals. I contend that that has been the state of computer games from say 1996 to 2001, and we are currently in the last days of the golden age.

Today nearly a decade after Mark's article I believe that history has proven the truth of his declaration of the end of the golden age of computer gaming. I think the golden age it self could be extended a few years earlier than 1996 - encompassing Lucas Arts later works and of course Doom, the game that changed everything. It was a period when technology just barely crested the level required to create rich immersive gaming experiences but the rules of this new art form had yet to be written and the limits remained to be discovered. This provided a window of opportunity for almost unbridled creativity - resulting in a catalog of interactive entertainment experiences of a type that had never ever been seen before. I could mention personal favourites like Half Life, Homeworld, Deus Ex and Sacrifice but the list of astounding games from that period is much longer.

It is not that modern games have declined in quality. Indeed today's top titles such as Modern Warfare and Dragon Age are better in almost every way than their 1990's forebears when viewed by the exacting quality standards of today. Today's games however have nothing like the impact that the seminal works of the golden age had in their day. I suppose it is like comparing the impact of the first model-T with a modern Ford saloon. The modern car is better in every way but it is nothing more than one car among the crowd. The model-T in its day was a technological and social revolution, harbinger of a new epoch.

Gaming today is mainstream and commonplace and games have as a result become far more accessible. In the 1990's in contrast serious games designed for and played by adults had not yet been discovered by the mainstream. The popular media conception of gaming at the time was stuck in the days of Mario plat-formers played by joystick wielding kids. Mark Blackburn points out that the PC gamers of the time was a highly sophisticated audience of literate and sophisticated individuals. This sound like an elitist boast but how could it have been otherwise? PC gaming at the time was a complicated business. The rapidly evolving permutations of hardware and software (remember EMM386 anyone?) meant that only the most dedicated could pursue a serious gaming hobby.

I have been playing computer games on and off since the 1980s but it was the astounding games of the 1990's that grabbed my inner soul and converted me into a serious gamer. There was a feeling of being involved in something new, something as yet undefined that might just change the world. In many ways gaming has actually fulfilled the heady promise of those days. It has taken its place among the pantheon of media experiences and has become mainstream. Nevertheless I do miss the heady exhilaration of those days.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Gaming Diary - Boredom is the key word of the week.

Allods - I really enjoyed the first ten levels but now at level 12 I have left the starter city and boredom has set in with a bang. I suspect that deep down I know I am never going to stick around until end game and that kills any incentive to keep plugging away at those kill ten Hyaneas/ Rats/ Slugs quests. I am really not in an mmo mood at the moment. On the other hand one of my kids has started a character and seems to enjoy it so I may stick around for a bit just to babysit her.

Spellforce - This really is a strange hybrid of RPG and RTS. Unfortunately the game so far has not lived up to the superb tutorial but I will probably try another few levels. The levels by the way are absolutely enormous and with nothing more than a postage stamp sized mini map it is easy to get lost. My main difficulty so far is that the game is too easy even on hard mode. For example I just completed a level where I as able to build a town and recruit an army behind the safety of a locked door before I encountered a single enemy. By the time I was ready to open the locked door I already had an unstoppable force and could easily sweep the map. Perhaps this is a consequence of combining the linearity of an rpg with an RTS but I am still a little bit hopeful that later harder levels will test me more.

Peggle Nights: I got ths free but I did actually try it. I cleared the first two campaigns before hitting my boredom threshhold.

Farmville / Mafia Wars: I guess I had to try these out at some stage to see what the future of online gaming is going to be. Mean time to boredom: 5 minutes each. To be honest I only lasted that long because I was trying to figure out what was going on (or to be more accurate what was not going on). I am pleased to find that these time-wasters have no power over me but I am also utterly demoralised to realise that the enormous success of these games means we will see a whole lot more like them in the future.

Far Cry: In desperate need of some real gaming entertainment I fell back on an old reliable. Two memories came quickly back to me: i) This game is brilliant. ii) The checkpoint save system is brutally unfair. The latter point caused much frustration as my rusty FPS skills cause me to struggle. Eventually though I completed a full play through of the "Rebellion" level, quite possible my favourite level of any shooter ever. You spawn in a fortress and must make your way to the opposite end of a large island. In between a full scale war rages between mercenaries and mutants. The map is huge and your choices are very wide: You can walk, swim, drive or even avail of some handy hang-gliders to fly. You have a choice of coastal routes or you can try to work you way over the mountains. Whatever route you take you will find pockets of fighting which you can try to avoid or participate in as you see fit. The enemy AI is not the smartest and it does get annoying how readily both sides will abandon their personal conflict to attack you but nevertheless it remains a superb gaming achievement. This you-tube clip will give you some idea of the size of the level although the authors coastal driving route is not how I tackle this level at all. My favourite route involves hang gliders, flying foxes and swimming!

Operation Flashpoint, Dragon Rising (Demo). For me this is the stand-out game of this weekends Steam's sale but the seven euro price tag just exceeds my self proclaimed impulse purchase limit so I and trying the demo out to see whether or not I am really likely to play the full game.

In other news I have just acquired a new laptop. It is mainly intended for work but when specifying the machine I had one eye on the possiblity that I might want to play the odd game or two when away from home. Trying to balance the requirements of a business machine with the possiblity of playing games on it made for an interesting compromise - possibly worthy of a later post.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Spellforce: Probably the best tutorial I have ever played.

I like RPG games. I like RTS games. Spellforce offers an unusual combination of both so it was an easy call to buy the platinum edition of Spellforce  for less than €4 in Steam's weekend sale.

(spell force cover art copyright Phenomic / Jowood, Source Wikipedia)

The RTS phase of the game seems competently executed in the style of Age of Empires but I am not fully convinced that the RPG elements fit in though. Picture this: You hire workers to gather resources to build a town to recruit an army to hold off the dark hordes and finally march on their stronghold. Then after your mighty army has finally vanquished the Orcish threat you stumble across a odd looking chap with a question mark over his head who asks you to help him find his reading glasses. Its seems a bit incongruous to me but it is early days yet and I am only on the second map. Perhaps the wisdom of this marriage of styles will become clearer to me later.

Before I finish however I have to comment on the game's absolutely superb tutorial. In point of fact I think it may just be the best tutorial I have ever experienced in a game. It is a mini campaign  acting as  prelude to the game proper but it brings you step by step through all of the games key controls and commands. It manages to do this without losing your interest and allows just enough freedom to skip ahead or slow down so that you can absorb things at your own pace. It is quite lengthy, perhaps 2 hours in total but you can save and resume at any point. Even after the tutorial is finished you are given the choice of jumping straight into the game or continuing to explore the tutorial where some of the games finer points are explained.

Many otherwise excellent games get the tutorial wrong and RTS games being rather complicated are more prone to this than most. I believe I have yet to complete the tutorial for any Total War game without it breaking at some point. Well done to Phenomic for the terrific spellforce tutorial.