Monday, November 28, 2011

Could my daughter be the new Felicia Day?

There is a Minecraft craze going on among the nerdier boys at my 10 year old daughters junior school.  Apparently most of the girls are oblivious to this but my little angel is an old hand at the game thanks to her daddy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portal 2 finished now on to split screen multiplayer

Really really good.

A really well polished experience with plenty of humour and a good story to tag along with. I loved the ending. Puzzles are probably a bit easier than the original although I had my share of head scratching moments none the less.

I have actually gotten my daughter interested in playing although I get motion sickness looking over her shoulder. I came across a how to post telling how to get split screen multi-player on one PC. It was a bit fiddly to get going but  now it works an I am looking forward to playing a few co-op levels with her.

Curious that Valve should include the code for split screen multiplayer on the PC version of the game but not actually offer it to players.

Fun Android Game: Defender

Edit: My statement that you need more than 50% wall remaining to get a bonus crystal is not correct. In fact you need more than 30% of your whatever maximum wall is. You start out with wall of 100 and it increases in steps of 10. If you maximum wall is more than 150 then you need more than 50 remaining to get the bonus. A bigger wall is still better though because you always have a safety margin of 70% of your maximum wall. 

My mobile distraction of choice this week is Droidhen's simply named "Defender" on my Android phone. Defender is a wall defence game where you use a combination of a bow and magic spells to fend off hordes of enemies. It is very slickly made with attractive graphics and fun gameplay.

Defender is free to play in the "but you can pay if you want to progress faster" sense. Lest you doubt the efficacy of this business model I should point out that Defender is riding near the top of the Android money making chart at the moment. There are two strands to progression in the game: gold upgrades your bow which is essentially a single target weapon while crystals upgrade your area of effect magic spells. Both gold and crystals can be bought in the cash shop as well as earned in game. However you get gold for every enemy killed but you only get crystals when you complete a level. This means that non paying players can farm gold but not crystals by restarting a level over and over which leads to asymmetric progression. Despite this some players report having gotten well into the hundreds of levels without paying anything.

Gold and crystal acquisition appears to proceed at a linear rate while the cost of upgrades rises exponentially so be warned that like all free to play games this could become very expensive if you get hooked. I have no intention of spending any of my very limited gaming budget on on the game so Droidhen will have to accept the limited publicity value of this blogpost in payment. Eventually I am sure I will get tired of the farming aspect but for the moment I find it fun.

For anyone thinking of trying the game here are a few things that took me a couple of restarts to learn:

1. Crystals, needed to upgrade spells,  are in very limited supply so use them wisely. You can earn up to 2 crystals on a normal level and up to 5 on a boss level but otherwise you will need to buy them in the cash shop.

2. Cash is earned for every monster killed so you can farm as much as you need (albeit slowly) by restarting a level over and over. 

3. If you have less than 50% wall remaining at the end of a level you lose a crystal and there is no way to recover this so it is better to start over before you complete if your wall has more damage than this. Pressing the pause button will give you an option to restart.

4. Don't forget to upgrade your walls (using gold) when you can afford it.  This will make it easier to meet that 50% wall target at the end of each level.

3. Resist the temptation to convert crystals to mana. The game will constantly bombard you with helpful reminders to do this but crystals are too valuable to waste this way.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Is high end PVP all that different from high end PVE?

Thanks to Syncaine for pointing out the excellent Rooks and Kings videos of truly impressive Eve online encounters.I am no expert on EVE but it is clear that Rooks and Kings are masters of their trade employing extreme theory crafting to come up with builds and strategies that allow a small number of highly co-ordinated ships to take on defeat forces that appear to be far superior to them on paper.

Clarion Call 3 is the best video because it has an epic storyline but  it makes more sense if you watch the sequence in order from Clarion Call 1 to 3. Essentially they have developed a number of precision tanking strategies that enable their small fleets to absorb all the damage that large opposing fleets can throw at them thereby allowing the Rooks and Kings fleet to pick off their enemies one by one.

The thing that struck me most about these videos is how similar the Rooks and Kings approach is to that of high end PVE guilds in other games. The employ extensive theory crafting to min max their builds. They assign and master individual roles. Most telling of all is the dispassionate way they seem to deal with their enemies. There is no evidence of personal animosity here. The opposing forces are  an obstacle to be overcome just like a raid boss in a pve game.

Perhaps Rooks and Kings are unusual in their approach but they are obviously very good at what they do. It suggests to me that high end pvp need not be all that different from high end pve

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

X3 Reunion update

I finally got around to completing the third mission which caused so much grief earlier. Despite having picked up a Nova heavy fighter in the meantime I actually used the Buster ship I started with in the end. A bit of combat experience earned fighting pirates made all the difference and I was able to deal with the fighter escorts quickly enough to follow the target as he jumped between systems.I think the key lesson I learned in combat is that strafing (using the A &D keys) does actually work and helps avoid enemy fire even though it is hard to notice the sideways movement against the background of the stars.

I am sure I will need to move up from my Buster eventually but for now I am enjoying its combination of speed and firepower. It is also loaded with the software I need to control a small but expanding fleet of ships. I now have three Buster medium fighters, one Nova Heavy fighter and a Mercury hauler.

Capturing pirate ships remains my most reliable means of earning money and ships but I did manage to make a few profitable trade runs in the Mercury. Remote trading requires a lot more micro management than I expected. I can control it remotely but I still have to manually give it orders to buy and sell. This could be a matter of not having the correct software installed. The documentation on what software upgrades do is poor and even web resources are often ambiguous. One point I find particularly confusion is whether you need to have the software installed in the ship you are flying or the ship you are controlling.

While my efforts at economic expansion are progressing slowly I am learning more about how the economy works. I can bring down the price of goods in a factory for example by stuffing its pipeline with raw materials and letting it ramp up production. Such lessons may prove useful later when I am able to take a more strategic view of trading.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

X3 Reunion continuing adventures

When I started playing X3 I tried to get a far as I could without consulting faqs or guides. After persevering for almost twenty hours I decided it was time to compromise my principles. There are too many undocumented features and the user interface is just too unhelpful to try to struggle on.

Simple case in point: When you buy a new ship you are immediately presented with a menu of fittings that you can add to your purchase. Unfortunately this menu is just a list of whatever parts are available in the local system. It isn't filtered on any way. Even if your ship can only handle a single 1MW shield the game will happily sell you ten 25MW shields to fit to it.  There doesn't seem to be any way of accessing information on what fittings your new ship can take until after you exit this menu. Such frustrations with the user interface are commonplace.

My current compromise is to consult the internet for help with game mechanics but I am still trying to avoid "spoilers" such as guides on how to make money. This still makes for grindingly slow progress and after twenty hours I am still flying the ship I started with. I have got a few software upgrades to help with combat and trade and I have spent a good deal of time mapping out the galaxy. My attempts at bounty hunting are a mixed bag. I can handle pirates one on one but they usually come in packs which defeats me. I did hav ea windfall when I attacked a lone pirate in a Falcon (bigger ship than my own) and the pilot panicked and bailed out leaving me to collect his ship. I couldn't afford to equip a second fighter so I dragged it to a shipyward and sold it for a half a million credits which I promptly reinvested in a hauler.

Now with more than one ship to play with I can finally begin the "real game" of X which involves the use of powerful remote control software to build up an empire of autonomous vehicles and stations. One meagre hauler isn't going to make me rich but it is a start. I am going to try and find a profitable trade route for it to ply while I head out with my fighter looking for more jumpy pirates who are willing to donate ships to me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

X3: Reunion - for gamers who think Eve online is too casual.

Tim (Van Hemlock) has been playing a bit of X3 Terran Conflict which reminded me that I have an unplayed copy of X3 Reunion on my shelf since way back in 2005. This game is hard. There is no tutorial and the manual seems intended to intimidate rather than inform aspiring players. I could complain about the dreadfully unintuitive user interface except that I have a strong suspicion it is deliberately made that way to frighten off those who are not hard enough. The carrot for those who persevere, I am told, is a universe of unparalleled depth where the dedicated can carve out an empire.

First hour in game:Hmmm, there doesn't seem to be a tutorial. In fact I am being asked to teach some rookie pilots the ropes. Thankfully I have played enough space games to know that you don't aim at the enemy ship you aim at the little lead indicator which tells you where they will be by the time your bullets get to them. I manage to shoot down a few bad guys and we survive.

Second hour in the game: I have spent most of my time in game to date getting hopelessly lost. You can ask passing ships for directions but the most common answer is to go through the North (or South, East or West) jump gate. Where the heck are the gates? And What does North mean in Space anyway? How can a space faring race not know how to make a map?

Third hour in the game I have gotten through the first couple of missions. Mission three is kicking my butt big time. I am supposed to capture a baddie in a big lumbering ship.  Unfortunately he spawns waves of fighters and then jumps to hyperspace. If I stop to deal with the fighters he gets away. If I ignore the fighters and go after him I get killed while my own jump drive charges up. I think I need to earn some money to upgrade my ship before trying again.

"I started in a fighter so perhaps bounties are the way to make cash.Except you need a police license to collect bounties and I can't afford one yet. It seems that I shall have to do some trading to earn the cash for a license. "

5 hours in: Wandering aimlessly through the galaxy I have managed to work my seed capital of 5,000 credits up to a staggering 5,200. Trading is hard when you lack the software to check prices without docking at a station (I can't afford it yet) and dynamically adjusting prices mean that a route that is profitable the first time may be lossmaking the next.

8 hours in: I finally found a way to make some money by using my meagre cargo hold to haul illicit alcohol. I manage to amass 40,000 credits before the police catch up with me. Given that every credit I have is invested in my cargo hold there is no way I was going to comply with their request to dump it over the side. I run for it and manage to make it to the temporary safety of a station. Unfortunately I now appear to be a hunted criminal.

9 hours in: The police were surprisingly reasonable (gullible?) when I hailed one of them to explain that it was all a big mistake and that the alcohol was purely for medicinal purposes. The agreed to forget the matter and  I can fly around again without fear of arrest. I am getting bored of smuggling moonshine. Let's buy that police license so I get earn some dosh  by shooting pirates. Oh no! It seems my standing with the police is not good enough to be a bounty hunter. There is that little matter of my resisting arrest

On the bright side I notice that after 9 hours of wandering around the galaxy I have ended back in my home system. This just happens to be the most populated system I have come across yet  and there appears to be plenty of opportunities for a rookie to make money from trading or doing jobs that the citizens have posted on message boards. No doubt if I hadn't tried to do a few missions and ended half way across the galaxy I would have had a quicker start just staying put.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Skyrim a runaway success. Hope for Humanity after all?

I probably won't get to play Skyrim until the Christmas Holidays but I am very pleased to see that Bethseda have something of a Mega hit on their hands.

Of course I can't comment on the game until I play it but if I know Elder scrolls games I am sure it has oodles of depth and dashes of genius with quite a few flaws as well. I am also absolutely sure that this is not a casual game at least not in the Angry Birds / Farmville sense.

A little experiment in human behaviour

We keep a jug of filtered drinking water in our fridge. The water from the tap is perfectly palatable but chilled water is that bit nicer so the jug is popular.

It is a matter of seconds to fill the jug but it takes several minutes to trickle through the filter and a lot longer to cool down to a nice level of chilliness. It is therefore very frustrating to reach for the jug and find it empty and I take care to top it up every time I use it. Unfortunately other members of my family do not seem to be as considerate and on many occasions I have gone to the fridge only to be disappointed by a nearly empty jug.

My usual response in circumstances like this is to express my dissatisfaction loudly in what my kids term a "Father Rant". This makes me feel better for a little while but long experience has convinced me that such rants are incapable of producing any lasting change of behaviour. On this occasion therefore I decided to be a little more scientific.

Analysing the problem it soon became clear to me that I was probably the only person who ever filled the jug. Others who used the jug after me found it contained enough water for their needs and used it without replenishment. Because they did not need to fill the jug to meet their own needs they did not think to fill the jug afterwards. When I next came to look for the jug it was invariably almost empty.

My first thought was to stop filling the jug after I use it. My thinking was that I I stopped filling then there wouldn't be enough water for others and eventually it might dawn on them that they have to start filing it themselves. In the interest of science however I decided to take an even bolder approach in order to test the hypothesis in the extreme case. I started emptying the jug completely every time I used it. This required a certain amount of subterfuge but I managed to pull it off for a couple of days.

The results were immediate and conclusive. Every time I went to the fridge I found a full jug of water despite my emptying it completely every time I used it. Clearly the empty jug was providing the signal to others to start filling as anticipated.

I was initially enthused by my experiment. Finally I had discovered a method to change other people's behaviour through the application of scientific principles. How many more familial annoyances might I be able to deal with in a scientific manner: The lights that are left on unnecessarily? The dishes that are not cleared off the table? The toys that seem to accumulate in inappropriate locations?

I was smugly contemplating such future scientific triumphs after having just replaced a carefully emptied jug into the fridge when I noticed my my youngest daughter go to the fridge open it and reach for the jug.

The look of disappointment on her face when she saw it was empty broke my heart and dragged me down to earth with a crash.

The scientific experiments are over. If it is my lot in life to be the filler of water jugs so be it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A hint for Homeworld 2

Homeworld 2 came out to a lukewarm reception eight years ago. The latest patch doesn't even work on a modern computer so it is quite possible that I am the only person on the planet still playing it. Nevertheless that will not stop me from giving my own unasked for piece of advice to any other retro gamer out there thinking of trying it. This is not game breaking advice nor even a spoiler really but it is a hint that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere in the guides that were written many years ago.

So for what it is worth my advice is to experiment with sensor distortion probes. These act like normal probes sweeping away the fog of war and illuminating enemies over a wide area but they have the added advantage of obscuring any of your units within the probes range from the enemies viewpoint until they get very close. It is like stealth mode for your entire fleet. What is not to like?

I have looked over the guides on Gamefaqs and surprisingly none of them recommend this very useful probe. I suspect that this is because in most levels of Homeworld 2 the action starts straight away and continues without let up to the end of the level. You cannot hide units that are already engaged in combat so the sensor distortion probe would appear to be useless.

However it is in just these relentless battles that I find the sensor distortion probe can be invaluable. The thing is that the Vagyr enemy usually attacks in waves. One of the main difficulties of the game is that there never seems to be enough time to regroup and rebuild between waves so the relentless onslaught eventually overcomes your dwindling forces. This is a situation where the sensor distortion probe can really help. If you get a few (two or three may be enough) probes up before the end of a wave to cover your entire force then once the current attackers are eliminated you effectively disappear from the map. You will not be attacked again until you peep outside your stealth bubble. This allows you the time you need to rebuild your forces.

Pressing TAB will highlight the spherical zone around a probe that you are safe to operate in. The Vagyr will send out the occasional scout or probe of their own so be sure to have some fast strike craft on hand to dispatch them before they get close enough to blow your cover. The sensor distortion probes have a wider viewing range than their stealth bubbles so you can always see an enemy coming before they can see you.

It gets even better.

A rather cheap tactic is to send out a roving squad of bombers to take out undefended enemy capital ships while most of your forces are hiding behind the stealth bubble. Carriers make particularly good targets but destroyers and even battle cruisers are doable if they don't have a fighter or corvette escort. Just be careful not to drag the enemy back with you when returning home.

An advanced tactic is to use multiple probes to build a stealth tunnel between your position and an enemy stronghold. With care you can sneak a strong strike force right up to their doorstep and take out shipyards with minor losses.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Homeworld 2

I loved the original Homeworld the beautiful beautiful atmospheric space based RTS from 1999. Homeworld Cataclysm was a worthy follow on but when Homeworld 2 came out in 2003 it didn't receive the same universal praise. Perhaps influenced by those lack-lustre reviews I never got around to playing the game until now despite the copy that has been sitting on my shelf of "to be played" games for years.

Anyhow the game has kept me entertained for more than a week and I have only one more level to go before I complete the single player campaign. With the benefit of distance I can see that it is a good game but it suffers from comparison with it's predecessor. As a follow up it would have had to pull a few surprises to have the same impact as the original game and it doesn't. The first game just overflowed with brilliant levels but here the level design is competent rather than stunning.

The developers also took a curious approach to difficulty setting. The levels are quite challenging overall. Like most single player games however it does get easier once you figure things out but the game ensures that the AI always has a big advantage in forces so you can never get too complacent. Rather than give a difficulty slider they have auto adjusting difficulty which adjusts the number of enemies you have to face in accordance with the reserves of forces you bring into each level. This means you can game the system by deliberately depleting your own forces which is just silly.

A personal gripe is that the pace of the game has increased since the first Homeworld. There is rarely time to marshal forces at the start of a level before an enemy attacks. This is made worse by the fact that most levels auto-complete once you achieve the final objective so you often find yourself catapulted into a new level with forces in rag order after a heavy battle.

The game plays well enough on Windows 7 64 bit in its original version. Oddly enough the later 1.1 patch is not compatible with Windows 7 but I didn't find any game breaking bugs in the unpatched game. This would be an issue for mult-iplayer of course but good luck finding opponents at this stage.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I hope I have as much to say when I am 86

Thanks to Bill Harris over at Dubious Quality for linking to this wonderful piece: An 86 years old gamer's reflections on life.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Living in a house with paper walls. Thoughts on privacy in a connected world.

Tom (name changed for reasons of confidentiality) is a real life friend. His kids play with our kids. Tom and his wife have come to parties in our house and we have had dinner with them. There is nothing unusual in this except that Tom is also a gamer. Those under the age of 35 may find it hard to believe that this is unusual among men of my generation. For most of my generation gaming ended decades ago ago when the pursuit of the opposite sex became a more pressing concern than pushing coins into a Space Invaders machine. Sure they may have enjoy a few games of Wii Sports with their own kids but that is the extent of their knowledge of the modern state of the game.

Anyhow Tom is a gamer and I want to talk about our gaming relationship. A few years back this amounted to no more than brief conversations about the latest Call of Duty while our wives discussed other issues. The we realised we were both on Steam and we added each other to friends lists. While conflicting real life timetables meant we never actually got around to playing multiplayer together it does mean that every time I turn on my computer a little icon will tell me whether Tom is also logged on and if he is playing a game. I assume he also gets these notifications about me.

For some reason this bugs me. I have other friends on Steam and I couldn't care less about their gaming habits but it is different with someone I know in real life. I don't want to know what Tom gets up to on a Friday night and I doubt he want to know what I am doing at 8:00am on a Sunday morning. Sometimes I deliberately sign out of Steam just to get a bit of privacy. I think Tom does the same.

I have heard it said that the Japanese have a highly developed code of manners because for so long they lived in houses with paper walls. It is as if humans who are denied real privacy develop unspoken codes of conduct to compensate.

This post was sparked by a post from Tobold in which he talks about going back into Facebook using his real name after having been banned for using a pseudonym. I have so far resisted the urge to create a real name Facebook account primarily for reasons of privacy. I do have a LinkedIn account but that is very squarely grounded in the professional realm and does not impinge on my personal privacy.

Being on Facebook under your real name is surely the ultimate incarnation of "living in a a house with paper walls". Has a new etiquette developed to reflect this? Do you deliberately screen out information about your friends and contacts?

Monday, November 07, 2011

A lesson in usability from an octengenarian.

If you want to learn about usability then spend some time teaching an elderly person to use a piece of modern technology.

Yesterday I got a phone call from an elderly relative who had bought a new TV and was having difficulty tuning in the channels. It quickly became apparent that I wasn't going to solve this over the phone so I hopped into my car and went around to her house.

"Everything worked yesterday" she told me. "The man who installed the TV tuned in all the channels and showed me how to use it but I accidentally pressed the wrong button this morning and now I can only get channel 1"

The TV was a brand new Philips LCD and a few minutes playing with it convinced me that there was nothing wrong. The installer had programmed in 15 channels including all the channels this lady wanted to watch.

"It's all working now", I said. "You must have gotten stuck in a menu somewhere. This is how you get back out of any menu".

"No No" she insisted. " I pressed the wrong channel and now it is stuck. I cannot get the other stations".

Ah, I thought. "Perhaps it would help if I wrote down which numbers correspond to which stations." I spent a few minutes going through all the stations writing down the channel names opposite the numbers. She didn't seem overly happy with the list. "It's all very confusing" she said. "If only I hadn't pressed the wrong button it would be OK"

"Don't worry" I confidently predicted "I will show you how to change channels and how to get back out of any menus you press by accident".

I sat down with her and showed her how to enter the number of any channel. She was clearly unhappy with the procedure. When I handed her the remote to try for herself she stabbed at the buttons, sometimes getting the right digit more often getting no number or getting multiple digits. "This is very confusing" she said again.

The Philips remote didn't help. The number buttons were small rubber keys with the numbers written in squinty text above them. Even I had to strain to make them out and this lady hadn't a hope.

"Ok, Ok" I said." Here is an easier way". In my experiments I had noticed a menu mode for changing channel. Pressing a button in the middle of the remote brings up a menu that fills the screen with 15 boxes. You then use an annular ring like a joypad to navigate to the channel you want and press OK. Perfect. I couldn't think of an easier way to pick a channel myself.

"Pressing that button and you get a menu" I explained. "Do you see those 15 big boxes on the screen? Each of those is a channel. Can you see the channel numbers"

"No" she said as she stared at the unfamiliar pattern on the screen " Let me get my glasses".

Eventually I managed to explain to her that one of the boxes was highlighted and that would be the channel that came up when she pressed OK. "All you have to do is navigate to the box you want using the arrow buttons around the ring."

To my gamer trained instincts navigating a menu using a joypad is second nature but this octogenarian had never used a gamepad in her life.

"It's all very confusing" she pleaded again. "The man set it up yesterday but I pressed the wrong button and now I can't use it"

"To hell with that" I thought. I'll show her how to use the channel up and channel down buttons. There are only 15 channels after all so it won't take her too long to go through them.

Unfortunately instead of discrete channel up and down buttons the remote had a second annular ring outside the previous one with channel + and channel - on the right and left sides of it. This lady's arthritic thumbs struggled to press the narrow annular ring without pressing something else at the same time. As often as not she would advance two channels or none at all.

We had a minor breakthrough when she realised that she found it easier to press the channel down button than channel up. She managed to switch down through all of the channels with only a few mis-hits until she got to channel 1. Then she pressed again and got to channel 15.

"How did I go from channel 1 to channel 15" she asked perplexed.

"The numbers loop around in a circle" I tried to explain.

She wasn't buying it. She looked at me and once more said "It's all very confusing. It worked yesterday after the man installed it but I pressed the wrong channel and now I can't get the programme I want".

When I tried to explain to her that there was nothing wrong with the setup of the telly it was as if I was talking a different language. She was sticking to her story that it worked yesterday after it had been installed but some button she pressed had broken it and now she wasn't able to change channels. This lady may be in her eighties but mentally she is all there so I was confused. Could it be possible that there is a magical mode that makes it easy to use for the elderly? I searched for one and couldn't find it. Maye she is just too proud to admit that she cannot use the remote but to be honest it is a usability nightmare. The buttons are too small, the text is not clear enough and the timings are too unforgiving for someone whose dexterity is not what it used to be.

I have abandoned my attempt at teaching her to use the Philips remote. I am now on the lookout for an alternative remote with big clear buttons but that won't necessarily solve the unforgiving timings. I also need to be careful not to hurt this lady's feelings.

For anyone who is interested you can download a copy of the manual for this TV here: Philips 3000 Series manual. There is a good picture of the offending remote on page 8.