Sunday, December 23, 2012

So you think you are an individual do you?

These days it seems that every time I find something slightly unique and special half the world is already talking about it on Youtube, Facebook or Reddit. I wouldn't call myself a trendy person so I doubt that I am particularly sensitive to the zeitgeist but I am beginning to wonder if it is actually possible to hold a individual opinion about something any more.

Some years ago my wife and I took a bit of time to come up with a special name for our first child. We picked a name that was beautiful and had some family significance. It was also an unusual and uncommon name. Or so we thought. It was only later that we realised that this long forgotten name had somehow caught the public imagination and had bubbled up to be one of the top ten names of that year.

This year I found my gaming tastes swaying towards more challenging titles. I talk about that in this blog post  in which I surmise that "My age and gaming history allow me to overlook fancy graphics and current fashion trends in order to enjoy games both old and new that provide me that challenge". That's just me right? Well yes just me and most of the rest of the gaming population if the various top ten lists of games of the year are to be believed.

I had another example last night when I spotted something during an episode of Board-walk Empire that caught my eye. It was an obscure reference to a German Sniper mask that was quite incidental to the story but I had never heard of one before. It stuck in my mind so this morning I searched Google to find out more about it. It turns out to be a real thing that is quite prized by collectors of WWI memorabilia but what immediately struck me was how many of the people inquiring about it had also seen it on Boardwalk Empire.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Unintended Consequences: Contracts of Indefinite Duration

Warning: This post is nothing to do with games but it is an issue that agitates me greatly. It concerns a matter of European and Irish law which is intended to protect the rights of workers but which has the unintended consequence of causing great injustice to those folks it is actually intended to help.

It is a directive of European law (European Council Directive 1999/70/EC) that "Contracts of an indefinite duration are, and will continue to be, the general form of employment relationship between employers and workers".  Permanent employees and those on contracts of indefinite duration enjoy many legal protections. They cannot be fired without reason for example. I guess the purpose of the directive to is ensure that employers aren't trying to get around these protections by hiring folks on a series of short term contracts.

In Ireland the consequences of this directive are that an employer can only hire someone on fixed term contracts for a maximum of four years and that any longer period becomes a "contract of indefinite  duration". In effect after four years you become a permanent employee.

Unfortunately these well meaning pieces of legislation are so out of kilter with the realities of the modern workplace that the law itself is now the source of many grave injustices. The rapidly changing nature of the modern business environment means that temporary contracts make far more sense than hiring permanent employees. In these recessionary times many many people are delighted to take up an offer of short term contract work. If you know anything about the working environment you will know that the easiest way to get a job is to be in a job and very often one short term contract leads to another.

However the direct consequence of the legislation which is designed to protect workers is that anyone who has been lucky enough to accrue three or four years worth of contracts with an employer is automatically fired  and will not be hired by that employer again.

This issue actually makes it hard for me to do my own job because it is the nature of our work that we need to hire people on short term contracts. Worse than that though it is a terrible injustice to those it is intended to help. I know several people who have suffered directly because of this. These are folks who's services were still required and who would gladly have extended their contracts but who were told no. No more work for you.


How to compete with the Steam Christmas Sale: Get your retaliation in first

Like many gamers I am looking forward to Steam's post Christmas sale. It is a great opportunity to pad out ones gaming library with some bargains. Valve generally adds a bit of showmanship with holiday achievements and such so it is always a fun event event though I never seem to have quite as much free time for gaming over the holiday period anticipated.

What then for the also rans of digital game distribution? Surely the overwhelming dominance of Steam must send them into pits of despair as they consider that what should be their best selling period of the year is so completely overshadowed by the looming behemoth that is the Steam Sale.

Well this year I am pleased to note that the GoGs, Gamestop's,  Game Flys and other distributors are not sitting back and waiting for Steam to roll over their Yuletide hopes and dreams. In a masterful display of competitive strategy they are getting their retaliation in first by holding substantial sales before Christmas.

In my case at least this strategy is proving effective. I haven't spend a penny on Steam in over a month but I have nevertheless gradually been picking up titles off my most wanted list. "XCOM", "Far Cry 3" and "The Secret World" are among my most recent purchases all bought for substantial discounts and none of them bought from Steam.

I doubt this will put much of a dent in Valve's post Christmas extravaganza. Indeed I know several gamers who prefer to get all their games from one source but I am happier to spread my cash around. Fond and all though I have become of Steam I do think a little bit of healthy competition is good for them.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Too many games too little time.

Despite the relative lack of activity on this blog I am still playing. For the record here are the games that have been stealing my time:

Dark Souls: Extraordinary Game, despite the barely adequate PC port this has won itself a place on my list of greatest games of all time. I eventually had to force myself to stop playing after three weeks of total immersion.

XCom Enemy Unknown: Playing and enjoying this. I seem to have got a handle on the tactical side of things and I can hold my own in battles (playing on normal) but the overall strategy side still confuses me. Everything seems to cost more that I can afford and take longer than I have to wait. Three countries have already given up on me and I haven't even got to the alien base yet.

Hard Reset: Old school shooter with modern graphics from some of people who made painkiller. This is pretty entertaining although unforgiving checkpoint placement makes it more difficult than it should be. The abandoned city backdrops became very monotonous but I have just finished the  rather short original campaign and I am now tackling the extended section which I hope will get me out in the sunlight.  One of the oddest things about the game is that it has a comic book storyline which is lovingly drawn but completely incomprehensible. I don't know if something has been lost in translation or if bits have been left out.

The Secret World: Haven't played this yet but I got it on sale from Amazon. I don't really think I am ready to go back to a mmorpg but the new pay once model means I can treat this like a single player game and play at my own pace so I intend to have a look at it sometime over the Christmas.

Other games I hope to get around to looking at over the Christmas period:
Far Cry 3
Planetside 2 (maybe)
Darksiders 2
Dishonoured
Chivalry
Borderlands 2
May Payne 3
Torchlight 2
Kingdoms of Amalur

Who am I kidding. I am never going to get around to playing all of those. Too many games too little time.

Friday, November 30, 2012

What a Humble Bundle Can do for you Share Price

Humble's latest bundle is not very indie comprising a bunch of AAA titles from developer THQ. The internet being the internet is awash with comments both positive and negative. The negatives are complaining because THQ isn't an indie, beause the games have DRM, because the games won't run on Linux and because hey  it's the internet, people complain about everything. The positive's are just generally happy that such a great bunch of games is being made available so cheaply. It really is a solid gold bundle by the way and if you don't have any of these games I recommend snapping it up immediately.

Some of the more reflective commenters are talking about the fact that THQ hasn't been doing very well financially in recent times (despite making some excellent games) and wondering if this move smacks of inspiration or desperation on the company's behalf. Whatever the motivation behind it the move appears to be a big success pulling in $2 million in less than a day of its two week run.

What I find most surprising about it all though is the impact on THQ's share price which was languishing around 1.1 before the release of the bundle but jumped very quickly to 1.3 yesterday and at one stage peaked above 1.7. What on earth is going on here? How do investors even know about the Humble Bundle and how did they know it was going to be a success? The leading news article today on that Google page I linked to is an article from GamersDailyNews damning THQ and suggesting that stockholders may be in for a significant dilution of their holdings. Yet the stock price is soaring.

I don't know how modern stock trades work and I have no idea what drives a share price to rise so rapidly. I think the graphs are saying that the total number of shares being traded is in the hundreds of thousands so if this is correct the total amount of money being spent on shares is not huge and one or two clued in investors could single handedly be responsible for the blip.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Siri should be banned !!! (or not)

I had to endure two hours of annoying distraction from a Siri using passenger on a recent train journey.

I have long been of the opinion that talking to your phone (as opposed to talking to a human through your phone) is a gimmick. I dismissed the voice search capability of my Android phone after no more than five minutes of playing with it and that train journey convinced me that Apple's secret Siri sauce has not made the experience of talking to a machine any more palatable. It was bad enough that we other passengers had to endure the Iphone user's loud and often misinterpreted commands to their phone but they had set up the device so that every single response was also relayed in an annoying computer voice even to the point of reading entire emails aloud.

It was late, I was tired after a day of business meetings and despite Hollywood stereotypes we Irish are not a confrontational lot so I did my best to ignore the distraction and catch a bit of sleep on the journey home. When we arrived at our destination I looked around for the offending passenger to glare a bit of bad karma in their direction.

That is when I noticed the dark glasses and white cane.





Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dark Souls: Consensual non consensual PVP

Dark Souls has an interesting take on the consensual / non consensual pvp issue. When you try to play the challenging single player campaign non- consensual pvp happens when another player invades your game world and generally messes up you plans by killing you. On the other hand  you cannot be invaded unless you choose to adopt "human form" (normally you have the appearance of a zombie like corpse) so being human is like a pvp flag that you can turn on if you are willing to risk invasions. On the other other hand human form offers some unique in game advantages. You can only summon the help of friendly players and npc allies to help you (co-op) while in human form for example and human form also allows you to upgrade bonfires (think checkpoints) to effectively double your healing capacity. The net result is that even the most pvp adverse players are likely to risk being human from time to time.

So is pvp consensual or not? Strictly speaking it is entirely consensual because you could play the whole game without ever flagging yourself for pvp with human form. I doubt anybody does.

As a PVE focussed player myself I think that on balance the threat of invasion adds greatly to the game. I generally avoid human form until I need it (typically my first time in a zone to upgrade the bonfire and then again if I need help to tackle the boss). I find being human adds a certain spice to the game with the ever present threat of being invaded by the glowing red spectre of another player. I have indeed been subject to invasions and multiple ignominious deaths to players who actually know how to pvp but dying is a fact of life in dark souls so I am well use to it.

By the way if you haven't tried this game yet I strong recommend it.  It is an outright masterpiece that has thoroughly consumed me. Yes it has flaws and the game is likely to seem incomprehensible at first but once you get sucked in it is hard to resist. With the PC release it now available on every platform but the Wii so you have plenty choice.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My name is mbp and I am a...a ...a... graymer

I am 48 years old and I love playing video games. Over the last few weeks I have spent an inordinate amount of time playing and enjoying  Ground Control (2000) , Nox (2000) and  Battle for Middle Earth (2004). Clearly I fall into the nostalgic older gamer (graymer) category that Tadgh Kelly talks about in this insightful post.

To be fair to Tadhg (pronounced like "Tie" with a hard g at the end) he doesn't accuse older gamers of being nostalgically myopic but Tobold does when he draws the link between graymers and the current boom in retro kickstarter games.

I can only speak for myself of course but nostalgia alone is not enough to convince me to spend many hours playing a game. I tend to agree with Tadhg's position that age and experience make us more selective in our gaming. When I consider that in addition to those oldies I have also spent a lot of time playing the more recent titles "FTL" and "Dark Souls" it seems to me that the real common thread is my search for a more challenging gaming experience. My age and gaming history allow me to overlook fancy graphics and current fashion trends in order to enjoy games both old and new that provide me that challenge.

Tadgh suggests that the aging gamer market is under-served but I am not sure how it could be better served.  It is true that the hundred's of millions of marketing dollars spend on "Medal of Duty, Master Chief  Modern Warfighter"  are largely wasted as far as this relatively wealthy segment of the gaming market is concerned but we are a segment that does not respond well to hype in any case. We have seen it all before and are far more likely to respond to a clever indie game that is recommended by someone whose opinion we trust. In this light the boom in retro/indie/kickstarter gaming means we are very well served, particularly when you take into account the enormous back catalogue of older games that are also available now for next to nothing. We graymers don't even have to forgo the cinematic pleasures of "Medal of Duty, Master Chief Modern Warfighter" but I personally will wait a few months until I can pick it up in a sale.

Truly for someone of my gaming generation this is a golden age of gaming.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

Do Old Games Really Matter?

My 14 year old daughter is going through a fantasy binge along with many of her teenage friends and she and I have been watching Peter Jackson's Lord of the rings trilogy together. This made me think of Electronic Arts 2004 Video game "Battle for Middle Earth" so I dug out my game disk. I remember the game as being a very well done movie tie in and a rather enjoyable RTS to boot.

My first attempt to install it failed miserably as the game refused to start on my current PC. Google verified that the problem is a known one and several websites offered dubious looking patches. Happily it turns out that the problem is related to screen resolution and doesn't need anything more drastic than a few ini settings to be changed. More details here (3rd post down): http://www.sevenforums.com/gaming/32359-lotr-battle-middle-earth-2-a.html. I am glad that the game can be got working on a modern computer with a little bit of effort but how many people would even bother to try?

That got me thinking again about the longevity of video games. I have no doubt that Peter Jackson's Lord of the rings movies will still be watched in 50 years time but will the associated video games persist and if they don't does it really matter?

Mention has to be given to the terrific work being done by the retro gaming and emulation communities and gog.com is doing fantastic work to preserve our gaming heritage. Battle for Middle Earth falls into a curious limbo zone that I have discovered before. It is often easier to get a game from the 1990's running on a modern computer than one from the last decade. Older games are well supported by the retro and emulation communities but games like Battle for Middle Earth have not quite old enough yet to warrant their attention. The passing of time will soon fix that of course but sometimes I wonder if this mattes at all except to a few old timers like myself. I would love to know what the average age profile of gog.com's customers is. If it is just nostalgic old timers like myself then I cannot see any way that the games can maintain some cultural relevance into the future.

I consider Peter Jackson's movies to be part of the Lord of the Rings canon (in a cultural sense if not a literary one) but I also consider those excellent video games to be canon. I suspect that my grandchildren will agree with me on the movies but I doubt they will even be aware of the games.

When I ask if that matters that drags up the wider issue of information overload, shortened attention spans and the incredibly shrinking shelf life of cultural memes. Undoubtedly we live in a golden age and across every field humanity is producing far more works of high quality than ever before. There are already too many good books, too many good films and too many good games for any individual to enjoy. Given such an abundance of quality and diversity perhaps the notion of persistent icons of creativity no longer makes sense, particularly if this rate of progress continues.

Oddly enough one circumstance that I think would guarantee longevity to many of today's creative works would be a catastrophe leading to the collapse of civilisation and a new dark age. If such a thing happened then any surviving relics of our civilisation would become immortalised like the works of Homer and Plato.

This really is a funny line of thinking.



Thursday, November 01, 2012

Should I buy Windows 8?

Every second version of Windows is a turkey and everything I have heard about Windows 8 suggests that it is no exception to this rule after the success of Windows 7. Normally I would be content to wait for the inevitably better replacement just as I did with 95, Me and Vista but my wife is in dire need of a computer upgrade. She is currently running hand me downs from my old gaming rigs: a 2005 era processor that is driving a 2002 install of Windows XP. While this is still fine for internet browsing and the odd game of Bejeweled my wife's growing photography hobby has turned her into a power user. That ageing rig has 3 terrabytes of picture laden hard disks hanging off it and image processing applications like Photoshop are serious resource hogs.

So what to do? Easiest thing is probably to ignore the shiny new Windows 8 machines being trotted out this week and look for a bargain on Windows 7. It feels somewhat wrong to spend new money on last years technology but Windows 7 is a very good operating system. In my opinion the best Microsoft ever made.

Then there is the bigger picture that many analysts are predicting the end of Windows and even the end of desktop computing altogether. I do buy the argument that the many people no longer need a desktop computer and that tablets and mobile devices will soon displace desktops in many areas. I don't believe they will displace the desktop any time soon in the majority of business or power user applications. Even if desktops are currently in decline I suspect it will be at least a decade before they are fully ousted from their current position of dominance and by that stage who knows what esoteric technologies we will be considering instead.

I should in fairness point out that my photo taking, latte drinking, Iphone carrying wife would be very happy to switch to an Apple desktop machine despite my personal loathing of Apple. Price wise this just doesn't make sense (thankfully). The entry level iMac costs €1,400 while an equivalent Windows machine is less than half of that.  On top of that we have a significant investment in Windows software that probably wouldn't transfer over. There is also a question of longevity. As the family IT guy I am confident in my ability to carefully upgrade a Windows machine and keep it running well for many years but I doubt I would be able to do that with a Mac.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

My new favourite gaming mouse mat ever.

Long time readers of my blog (I guess that's you and me Mum) will know that I believe every PC gamer needs a decent mouse mat. Unfortunately mouse mats went the way of the buggy whip about a decade ago with the advent of optical mice that worked reasonably well on just about any hard surface.  "Reasonably well" is fine for browsing the internet or editing text documents but "reasonably well" doesn't cut it when it comes to PC gaming. I have yet to come across a table top that allows the precision and freedom of movement that a PC gaming mouse requires.

Here are the basics requirements for a gaming mouse mat:

1. The surface needs to have sufficient texture for the mouse optics to pick up. This is by far the easiest requirement to achieve because a modern optical or laser mouse seems to work on just about any surface.

2. The top surface needs to have very low friction.  This is where most table tops fall down. Any friction will drastically reduce the responsiveness of the mouse. Worse it can give rise to a jerky movement due to sticktion. Many mouse mats with textured material or rubbery surfaces are just as bad. On a good mouse mat tapping the mouse gently with your fingers should send it sliding across the surface.

3. The bottom surface needs to have high friction so that it doesn't slip around the table. Some cheap mouse mats fail this test.

4. The mouse mat needs to be either very thin or very hard.This is where many fancy mouse mats fall down. A cushioned foam surface may be comfy for your hand but it is disastrous for a gaming mouse. The mouse will literally bed down into the surface making it impossible to move the cursor with any precision. Jerkiness is almost guaranteed with a spongy surface.

The incredible thing about these requirements is how many expensive mouse mats get it so wrong. In fact I have come to the conclusion that the more expensive a mouse mat is the worse it will perform. My new favourite mouse mat cost me all of €1.99 and it is superb. I am convinced that this mat would do more for any PC gamer than a fancy €100+  gaming mouse. 

Here are some pictures:


Front
Back
 

edge view

another edge view

The packaging
 The mat itself is paper thin with a picture on the top side and a stippled foil backing. The top side offers very low friction while the foil side sticks, somewhat surprisingly, to the table like glue. In fact the only downside to this mat is that you literally have to peel it off the table if you want to move the mat to a different position.

The mat is manufactured in Taiwan and the distributor is either called Smiling Hand or Yummy, the packaging isn't clear (hey it was only €2) but I cannot find it online. This 3M precision mousing surface looks like something similar however.


Monday, October 15, 2012

A Lesson in Comparative Advantage from the Washing Machine Repair Guy


I am an engineer by profession and even if I say so myself I think I am a pretty good one. My father was a carpenter who built houses for a living so I like to think I can handle the practical side of things as well as the theoretical. There are few repair jobs around the house that I cannot do.

Just because I can do a job however doesn't necessarily mean that I should do a job.

When our dishwasher broke down a while back I managed to fix it. It was my first time looking inside a dishwasher so it took a considerable amount of trial and error to narrow down the fault and source a replacement part. It only took me three weeks fitted into spare hours when I was home from work and not otherwise occupied. My wife, who is a very very good wife, was even effusive in her praise at my manliness in fixing the machine and kindly neglected to mention the many floodings of the Kitchen floor during the three weeks of my trial attempts. She didn't even comment on the small pile of unwanted spare parts I had accumulated that turned out to be not quite the right thing.

When our washing machine broke down yesterday I bravely opened it up to poke around. Unlike the dishwasher I had worked on washing machines machine before so I was able to check the obvious stuff:
Water getting into it: Check
Spinning Drum working: Check
Water draining out of it: Check
All the basic functions appeared to be working on their own and yet they were refusing to come together to complete a wash cycle. I was flummoxed but we live in the age of boundless information so soon I was exploring Google sourced  error codes and homing in on possibly faulty sensors or control boards.

I could fix this. With a bit of luck it might not even take the full three weeks this time.

Thank fully I came to my senses. There are people out there who fix washing machines all day every day. They know the things that go wrong. They know how to track down faults. They have ready access to spare parts and they know how to quickly get in and replace them. While three weeks of washing dishes by hand could arguably be justified as good training for our children I don't' think three weeks of washing clothes by hand would go down too well. Amazingly my (really really) good wife allowed me the space to come to this realisation all by myself  (unless she is even more subtle than I know).

The repair man came promptly this morning. He diagnosed the fault and fixed it with a replacement part from his van all within 40 minutes.  The part cost €60 and he charged another €60 for his time. I guess I could have saved €60 by fixing it myself but I would hope that the three weeks of my time that it would have taken is more valuable than €60, not to mention the cost of the small pile of wrongly guessed spares I would likely have accumulated along the way.

Best of all: my (really really really) good wife is even giving me effusive praise for having arranged the repair so promptly.

Edit: Title changed from "competitive advantage"  to "comparative advantage" because it is more appropriate.

Random Thoughts from an FTL addict

The only fair fight in the game

Much has been made  of the way FTL: Faster than Light brings old school unfairness back into gameplay. You can find yourself hopelessly outclassed on the very first jump of the game.  You might be surprised then to discover that I have come to the conclusion that the final boss fight, despite being an order of magnitude more difficult than any encounter which precedes it is the only fair fight in the game. It is very difficult without a doubt but it is also brutally fair because it is utterly predictable. I have only managed to overcome the boss four times (twice on easy, twice on normal) but I now know the fight and I know exactly what to expect and how to prepare for it. If I get as far as the boss I now know that failure will be because my ship is not prepared or because I make some error in play and that in my opinion is fair. The real unfairness comes from the random encounters at lower levels that can undermine any promising campaign or perhaps the unfairest games of all  are those where lady luck allow you to limp along to the eighth and final level but denies you the vital upgrades needed to make a serious attempt on the boss.

On replayability
 Having played literally hundreds of games of FTL I am proof of its re-playability. At first re-playability comes from the sheer challenge of getting to and overcoming the boss. Once the boss is defeated however there are still many achievements to collect and lots of new ships to unlock. The new ships, which have widely differing starting abilities, can really add variety to the first few levels of the game. Unfortunately these various ships have for the most part access to the same upgrades so that by the time you get to the final level one fully upgraded ship looks much like any other. This is compounded by the predictability of the boss fight and the fact that certain strategies work better than others. On any serious boss run I find myself prioritising certain upgrades from the very start of the game and that quickly dissipates any starting variety.

The length of time a game takes
When I started playing FTL games lasted from a couple of minutes to a maximum of one hour which mitigated somewhat the crushing disappointment of my inevitable defeats. Now however, having learned more about the game, I find myself playing much more slowly. I pause the game constantly to plan every move. My shots, for example, are timed to hit the instant my opponents shields fall. Such micromanagement is essential for overcoming the hardest fights but greatly extends the duration of a game. A serious boss run is likely to take three hours or more.

On addiction
I don't normally do grind in games. I tend to get bored fairly quickly and move on once the game play becomes repetitive. Nevertheless I have been playing FTL compulsively for several weeks and I have sunk more time into the game than I am comfortable with.  I am not sure what secret sauce this game has that hooked me so but but time has come to stop playing, at least for a while.


Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Is FTL really like Rogue?

The developers of the terrific little space ship game FTL:Faster than light  call it "roguelike" and better gaming minds than mine agree with them. Yet as a rule I don't like rogue games but I love FTL. How can this be?

My experience with rogue games started with Rogue itself played in glorious ASCII on college computers back in the 1980's. I wasted many hours on it  when I should have been studying but I never came close to finishing a game and ultimately I found it a frustrating experience and got bored.  I have dallied with various descendants of Rogue over the years, the most recent being the highly regarded Dungeons of Dredmor but my experience is always the same. The games suck me in quickly and are quite compelling at first but soon I get tired and frustrated with the repetitive game-play. However cleverly they name things and however challenging the monsters are  I quickly come to feel that I am playing a more challenging version of   Progress Quest:
Explore, Kill, loot so you can
Explore further, Kill tougher monsters and get better loot
and so on util you die
and then start again. 

Yet I love FTL.

The core framework of FTL is undoubtedly rogue-like: You travel from one procedurally generated sector (room) to the next and must overcome procedurally generated challenges along the way. You must gather loot and upgrade your character intelligently in order to survive with a multitude of non trivial upgrade choices to be made. The game has a roguelike's uncompromising difficulty level with perma-death and the ever present possibility of the dice coming down against you resulting in an untimely death despite your best efforts.

So why do I like it?

The space setting is undoubtedly a big plus for me. I am a child of the 1960's and space will forever be my favourite setting. There is more than that though. FTL is more interactive than a typical rogue game. Instead of a single character you have a space ship. You have multiple systems and subsystems to control and you have a crew to manage. Combat is very far from simple as you need to juggle energy and weapons and subsystems all the while frantically trying to use your crew to hold you own ship together under fire.

This interactivity has a much greater stickiness for me than a traditional single character rogue-like.  Ultimately your fate is still in the lap of the Gods and a single unfortunate encounter will scupper the best laid plans but you feel more in control. The options available to you are varied and subtle and it is possible to learn the game and get better. This is what keeps me interested in FTL.

There is an interesting article in Gama-Sutra  where they suggest that this ability to master seemingly impossible challenges by learning to play better is a feature of all rogue-likes. Perhaps it is but I don't remember ever getting that far in a more traditional Rogue-like. I think the more obvious interactivity of FTL also makes the learning curve more obvious. New players may focus on weapons and shields for example  but they will notice that the ship has other functions such as life support, door controls and sensors.  Succumbing to asphyxiation or fire or boarding parties will eventually get them thinking about these systems and how they might be able to use them next time around.



Tuesday, October 02, 2012

FTL

It was the doors that got me in the end.


The good (space) ship Dodo only managed 2 miserable jumps before meeting the drone that would be her undoing. The drone may have looked innocuous enough but its first volley took out Dodo's weapons and things began to look bad.

A crew member frantically tried to bring  weapons back online but in the mean time the drone was free to pound the ship with missiles. Those missiles passed right through shields and soon fires were burning throughout the ship.

The crew tried to put out the conflagrations while the hail of missiles continued. One brave ensign lost his life in the effort and the Captain realised that more desperate steps would be required. Pulling the crew back to a safe area he opened the airlocks in order to vent air from the fiery regions. This drastic method worked and the flames were extinguished so the crew set about repairing the damage. With life support, shields, weapons and engines all damaged no one paid much attention when the door controls took an unlucky hit.

Patching together a laser they managed to disable the drone's missile weapon and the crew felt a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the ensuing lull would give them enough time to  repair a few vital systems starting with life support. Oxygen levels were running dangerously low so this had become rather urgent. They reckoned there was enough time to fix it before everyone suffocated but but it was essential to get someone down to life support to start the repairs immediately.

Unfortunately life support was still open to the vacuum of space

and the door controls were offline.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What I am playing September 2012

The creative juices have not being flowing recently so this poor blog has been quite neglected nevertheless I do like to keep a record of the games I am playing so boring diary post coming up.

Driver San Francisco: The "campaign" in this game is utterly forgettable but the  driving is great fun. I dip in and out of the game every so often for a spot of high adrenaline thrills.

From: Dust: A clever God game with interesting terra-forming capabilities.  It looks and sounds very like Spore but the game play is much more limited sadly and doesn't really do the superb terra forming engine justice.

Rainbow Six Vegas2: I really enjoyed the first Rainbow Six Vegas and this squad shooter sequel is more of the same.  A minor annoyance is that the difficulty is uneven with many trivial levels and  some that are very difficult to complete without multiple deaths and progress by trial and error. Nevertheless there is good replay value in the various challenge modes once you compete the campaign.

Fear 3: Despite the title Fear 3 isn't scary at all but it is a surprisingly good shooter. Any attempt at scares is pretty much destroyed by an achievements system that constantly splashes congratulatory messages on the screen but the campaign has everything you expect in a modern shooting game: well designed levels, intelligent enemy ai, a useful selection of weapons, a good cover system and a powerful bullet time facility. It gets even better the second time around because once you complete any level you can play as the protagonists evil ghost brother. This guy doesn't use guns himself but can possess his enemies which completely changes the way you play the game. Minor complaint is that some of the levels are a bit repetitive but overall this game is highly recommended to shooter fans.

Ground Control: This 12 year old classic could have been been my all time favourite rts. It has no resource building  (which I don't like) and lots of tactical combat (which I love). It still looks fine and runs flawlessly on Win 7-64. It has one major flaw unfortunately and it is a humdinger. There are no mid levels saves at all, not even checkpoints. With challenging levels that last several hours this is a deal breaker. Over the course of last week I got about six levels into the game. Then I lost two hours of progress to a stupid ambush and I remembered why I gave up at about the same point a dozen years ago. The game was released as a free download to celebrate the launch of its sequel so if you want to try it it wont cost you a thing.









Sunday, September 02, 2012

Local Co-Op games on a PC

A few months ago I discovered that my youngest daughter enjoys playing co-op PC games with her Daddy. This discovery subsequently transformed several hitherto neglected platform and adventure games into my "new favourite game". It doesn't really matter what the game is. If it is a PC game and it has local co-op then I am a fan.

At one level this is a pretty pointless exercise. Local Co-op has never been a strong point of PC games and we have a Wii console sitting in our living room which is designed for co-op. PC gaming is my domain however. It is the thing that Daddy does and I defy any father to try and resist the opportunity to share something of your inner self with your kids. It is a primeval thing.

Ignoring the futility of the exercise there are a few basic hurdles to be overcome. The first is that a mouse and keyboard don't easily split into two. If you really want to co-op on one PC then you need to invest in at least one game controller. I strongly recommend purchasing two. Even though many games allow one player to use a mouse it is easier and more balanced to use two controllers. Thankfully the Xbox360 controller has become standard for modern PC games. I have one genuine Microsoft controller and a lookalike from Game-stop that works fine. It is worth noting that the standard wired Xbox360 controller works in a PC with no modifications but the wireless controller which is more common these days needs a special dongle to work with a PC. Go for wired if you can get them I say.

The next difficulty is finding games that actually allow PC co-op. Many otherwise excellent ports of console games to the PC leave out local co-op altogether. Thankfully there is an invaluable resource here: http://www.co-optimus.com/system/4/pc.html. Using  "couch co-op" filter throws up 126 PC games with local co-op at the time of writing.

Finally be prepared to do some technical tweaking. It isn't always required but sometimes a little  bit of effort is required to convince your PC to give a good local co-op experience.

The games we have tried so far include:

Lego Harry Potter, episodes I-IV:We started this on the PC and enjoyed it so much that we moved on to the Wii. The PC version has been neglected since but this split screen co-op game does work very well.

Dungeon Siege III: Enjoyable and challenging co-op experience but sadly imbalanced in that there is only one major character who advances through the game while the second acts as a kind of henchman to the first. This doesn't use split screen so you can have some frustrating moments when one character is prevented from moving until the other comes along.

Portal 2: Probably our best co-op experience to date, a brilliant game with a very good co-op campaign that is completely separate from the single player game. Unfortunately local co-op is not officially supported by Valve and it required quite a bit of hacking to get this to work. When we did get it working though it was worth it. Side by side gaming on one PC driving two screens. Superb.

Trine 2: Local Co-op seems flawlessly integrated into this game but sadly the puzzle format never quite grabbed my daughters attention. We only tried it a few times and it didn't quite stick.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light: Our latest discovery and it looks like a good one.  It has a nice balance of combat and puzzles and even though both characters are constrained to a single screen  it doesn't feel as constricting as this did in Dungeon Siege 3. Single player and co-op play the same campaign (but with slightly different abilities) and unlockables are persistent for both characters giving a lot giving a lot of flexibility to how you play the game.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Quick Gaming Update: Splinter Cell Conviction, Alan Wake, From Dust

Splinter Cell Conviction: I enjoyed this for the most part. It is the first splinter Cell game I have actually played through to the end although the campaign is short so that isn't as significant as it sounds. Minor gripe: Much of the game is on very tight rails. General objection: Why do I have to kill everyone? Why can't I stealth past most obstacles?  Major Gripe: Auto difficult adjust continually pissed me off. On several occasions I came to a difficult section and died a few times working out a strategy. Then, just as I was about to put my master plan into place the game would halve the number of enemies trivialising the obstacle and destroying any feeling of achievement for overcoming it.

Alan Wake: I am half way through this game (3 out of six episodes). Thumbs up for the spooky atmosphere and strong storyline. Thumbs down for the dreadful combat. Combat in this game really stinks. In general you have to shine a torch at an enemy to make it vulnerable and then shoot it with bullets. Given that you almost always face several enemies coming from different directions, given that you have only one narrow torch beam and given that the controls are awkward and non responsive makes combat an exercise in frustrating tedium.   I much prefer the parts where you have no weapons because it means you get to do some exploring of a spooky environment. As soon as I pick up a gun my heart sinks because I know I am in for more of the stupid torch game.

From Dust: This It seems to me like a paper thin game built on a very clever engine. That engine allows you to morph the landscape of the game world moving sand rock and water around at will. You use these powers to help your human minions achieve certain goals, generally getting from A to B while avoiding certain environmental hazards along the way. It looks beautiful and really does give you tremendous freedom to shape the game world but I found the missions quickly become tiresome. The look and feel of the game strongly remind me of Spore but the gameplay lacks Spore's depth.

Interesting side note: I played all of the above games on my PC using an Xbox 360 controller despite the fact that they have perfectly adequate mouse and keyboard control options. Partly this is because these games were originally designed for controller and it feels like the most natural control scheme for them. Partly it is because I like being able to put my keyboard which I use for work aside and pick up a controller for play. I still believe that mouse and keyboard is a better control scheme for many types of games: First person shooters, anything that requires precise aiming and complex games like RTS with lots of buttons. One of my biggest peeves with the controller is how many games use context sensitive buttons which do different things depending on where you are. For example the same button is used for running and jumping depending on whether or not there is an obstacle in front of you.  It is no doubt a response to the limited number of buttons on a controller but I find it very immersion breaking and it robs my sense of in game freedom. Sadly most games which do this copy the same limitation to a mouse and keyboard control scheme so there is no advantage to be gained from switching.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Early thoughts on Ubisofts new UplayPC service

I signed up to Ubisoft's new Steam lookalike game download service in order to avail of some of  the sweet launch offers (From dust €1, Driver San Fran €1).
The good:
+ Well, it does actually work. You buy a game through the client, download it and run it from within the client.
+ You can use Paypal to pay for your games  Hurray!
+ Ubisoft finally seem to grasp the reality of the PC games download market. There is none of the old extended download service nonsense( where you had to pay extra just to be allowed re-download your own games)
+It has an offline mode and it works! Need to be online to download game of course and for first run.
+ Surprisingly realistic pricing. Older titles are selling for €10 and their launch sale had some serious bargains.
+has achievements and friends and chat and other stuff you expect from a game client.

The bad:
- After buying a game it took more than an hour to show up in my games library. Perhaps this was server overload due to the launch sale but it was pretty confusing.
- Downloading was slow (about 1/3 of the speed I regularly get from Steam) and prone to losing it's place. I had a couple of restarts.
- You can't play one game while downloading another. Major annoyance

- You can still buy Uplay games from Steam but they use a different incompatible version of Uplay. You can't launch Steam bought games from within normal Uplay and vice versa. This is another confusing nuisance.
- Some of the email communication I got after the purchase seems to refer to Ubisofts old "Ubishop" service. It talks about the dreaded extended download service.
- Only sells Ubisoft games at present (and a fairly limited selection at that).

Overall first impression:A step in the right direction but needs work.I love Steam but I am delighted  to see Valve get some healthy competition to keep them on their toes. This new service from Ubisoft has a lot of catching up to do (EA's Origin is already more polished) but remember how awful Steam was when it came out first.






Thursday, August 16, 2012

Die Young, Stay Pretty, #Firefly

What do Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Kurt Cobain and Joss Whedon's Firefly have in common?

I'll leave you to work that out for yourself but I have been immersing myself in Whedon's space opera for much of the last week. Thanks to the magic of Netflix I managed to see all 14 episodes in quick succession and then finish up with the feature film.

The series completely passed me by when it was first released, perhaps it never made it across the pond to European channels but regardless I have long since passed the age when I am surprised at missing yet another cultural phenomenon. I did later become aware of the series enduring cult status however. Despite being cancelled after one series due to lackluster audience figures Firefly has earned itself a regular spot in top ten lists of greatest Sci Fi shows of all time.

Of course that begs the question - how much did the shows early death contribute to it's legendary status. Are we worshipping what might have been rather than what actually was?  Watching the show with fresh eyes a decade after its original release I am happy to confirm that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Unlike many prodigies cut short before their time Firely had a brief rebirth in the form of the 2005 feature film "Serenity". This  ties up several of the open plot threads from the series and is recommended viewing immediately after the watching the series. Taken together the 14 episodes and  film can be seen as a complete work and well worth the viewing time. 

In some ways the show feels very familiar - whether this is due to parallels with previous fugitive spaceships (anyone still remember Blake's Seven?) or whether it comes from the wild west theme's that Whedon has blended so well into his Space Opera story I cannot say. Given that I enjoyed the show so much I don't really understand why it failed to pull a larger audience. Perhaps it was a matter of timing? Perhaps some viewers were confused by an anti hero captain who saves the oppressed with one hand while mangling folk in in spinning turbines with the other. The show does have a rather confused morality and can sometime feel like a cross between the Walton's and Reservoir Dogs. Some might attribute this to 21st century edginess but  I think it is entirely in keeping with the Western theme. You can find preachers hanging around with whores in any number of Westerns just like you can in Firefly.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Andor's Trail: A mobile Dungeon Crawler, #android

I have been playing an inordinate amount of "Andor's Trail" a free open source dungeon crawler being developed for the Android Platform. The concept is familiar: explore the world to kill monsters to gain experience and better gear so you can explore further and kill more monsters and dot dot dot,  but the execution of that concept is shaping up very nicely in this still under development game. It is not finished, it has no sound at all and several quests cannot be completed but  the game already has has a multitude of locations, quests and monsters and the graphics look great to me.

A word of warning the game can be very grindy particularly at lower levels. The mobs hit hard and healing is very expensive so you may find yourself forced to farm a few beginner locations over and over in order to level up and earn cash.  I have said before that I don't do grind so I generally try to do just enough grind to allow me to progess. That approach makes the game quite challenging but so far it hasn't stopped me. I manged to do all the quests in a difficult region called Blackwater Mountain in my mid teens for exmaple while other folks on the forums seem to wait for level 30 or more before going there.

Do remember of course that the game is still in development and any or every thing could change. Hopefully the newbie grind will be reduced and I personally would like to see more healing options. Nevertheless the game is very playable in its curent state and worth a look. You can even contibute to the development process by getting involved in the game forum.

Hint: If you are a new player struggling to earn gold then make sure you sell this to buy this.


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Id's Rage: Not making me angry at all #fps #rage

Some gaming deity must have read my last post because just as I was despairing of modern shooters I happened upon a very sweet deal on Bethseda/id's Rage. I really didn't expect to be having as much fun as I am in this game. It is a huge immersive world with a strong campaign, first class shooting, great driving and a tonne of side-games to play if the main campaign gets tiring (it doesn't). Somehow I expected a new id game to be a very old school no frills shooter, direct descendant of  Quake 3, but this game is so much more. Imagine taking Borderlands, Fallout3, Half life2 and Fear extracting the best bits of each and making a new game - that's what Rage feels like to me. Some might complain it borrows too generously from those games, a seasoned gamer cannot help but notice striking similarities. Nevertheless I don't care. It all comes together into a glorious gaming experience,  the most fun I have had in a shooter in a long time.

Strangely, in spite of the homage paid to many classic shooters the influence of id's own previous games is less obvious. Id's talent at polishing a game to perfection does show through however. Everything in this game works and works brilliantly. At first I thought it unusual that many of the weapons seem to overlap in functionality, for example the pistol can be equipped with a scope and high damage bullets to rival the sniper rifle. Now I realise that a key feature of the game is the ridiculous surfeit of tools they give you to overcome your foes.There is never one right weapon for the job and playing around with all of them is a blast.

A result of all of this choice of ordnance, particularly when combined with regeneration health and magical resurrection from a defibrillator means that this is not a very difficult game. Fun takes preference over challenge every time.  I am not particularly good at driving for example and I doubt I will ever get the hardest driving achievements but the one race I absolutely had to win to progress the game gave me an overpowered ability that literally blew my competitors off the track. Playing on hard mode I find the shooting fights easy enough except for a few bosses and calling in a couple of robotic assistants usually makes short work of those.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

"But I have nothing to play": NOLF 2 to the rescue.

Despite having picked up a half dozen titles in the recent Steam sale I curiously found I had nothing I was interested in playing last night. After a game free fortnight on holidays I felt the need for that quick shot of gaming adrenaline that only a first person shooter can provide but none of my new games fit the bill.

Despite (because of?) the billion selling success of Call of Duty games good shooters are thin on the ground these days and I have already exhausted the replay potential of the few that made it into my collection.

Turning to my increasingly dust covered shelf of olde games I pulled out a classic I haven't played on almost a decade : "No One Lives Forever 2".

Good news: this humourous tale of 1960s sexy super spy Cate Archer installs and runs without a hitch on Windows 7-64. Better news: despite its age the cartoonish style has held up very well and the game still looks gorgeous. Best news: this game is still brilliant. It is funny, clever, challenging and great fun to play. It is one of the first shooters I remember that had an rpg lite element with the opportunity to upgrade selected abilities such as stealth or accuracy as you progress through the game.

NOLF2 comes from a golden age of First person shooters. A time when creativity had not yet been exhausted by endless repetition and when technology was just good enough to make games that had depth and challenge and graphics adequate not to give you a headache. Highly recommended if you can get your hands on a copy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Possible Next Step for Total War Games

I am no longer convinced that the chaotic nature of battlefields in Total War games is a deliberate reflection of real battles.

Perhaps I believed back that in 2000 when the original Shogun Total War was released to rapturous praise. One of Creative Assembly's major innovations was the fact that troops no longer followed orders like blind automatons and their effectiveness was strongly affected by morale, by environmental conditions and by the leadership of their general.  When the BBC used the Rome Total War engine for their battle re-enactments in the show "Time Commanders" they emphasised this confusion further by implementing a chain of command with a generals and lieutenants.

But ....

12 years and many incarnations of Total War later I think we have to accept that a major element of the confusion comes from the simplistic artificial intelligence (AI)  of Total War troops.While graphics and presentation have improved immensely over the years this vital aspect of game seems to me not to have improved substantially. Pathfinding remains problematic. I have yet to see a Total war troop able to man a wall  properly (although Shogun 2 seems to have neatly sidestepped this problem by putting the interiors of their castles on raised platforms). Working with groups of units is still a nightmare. Half the time your cavalry will race ahead into certain death while your infantry walk along behind. Half the time your group will try to blindly stick to a rigid formation despite terrain which makes it impossible. A unit of archers who have run out of ammunition will respond to an attack order by running in with their pocket knives!

I have no doubt that AI is a tricky problem to solve with so many different types of unit on the battlefield and so many possible scenarios but I have a thought which might offload the AI problem from Creative Assembly and allow players to make their own contribution:  Introduce officers with programmable AI. Instead of a lone general who provides little other than passive bonuses equip your  army with Captains and Lieutenants to whom you can can give detailed orders in advance. You could assign troops to the officer and set them an objective ("Hold this point" for example or "Capture that building"). To overcome AI shortcomings give players a simple programming interface which allows us to give more detailed instructions such as when to use certain formations and whether to attack head on or try to go around the flanks.

I got this idea after playing Dragon Age II. They have a simple programming interface called "Tactics" which is really a sequence of IF ... THEN.... statements which govern the behaviour of your characters when they are not being directly controlled.  I imagine something similar might be possible to implement in Total War for these "Officers".  It wouldn't be perfect and I have no doubt you could still get better performance micromanaging troops individually but I do think it might be a possible evolutionary step for the franchise.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The curse of the Total War Tutorial Strikes again

There is a broken unit of canon in the Shogun 2 Total War advanced battle tutorial. That doesn't sound like much but they are your only artillery and you are tasked with capturing a rather imposing fortress. There are ways to take a castle without canon by scaling the walls but it is impossible to ignore this artillery detachment that shows up in your list of units. They are positioned directly in front of the gate perfectly positioned to break down the entrance. They are clearly supposed to be important because they are being guarded by some of your other troops. Yet they refuse point blank to fire a shot. In fact they won't accept any orders at all. they just sit there for the whole battle watching complacently as infantrymen are cut down trying to breach the gates those canon should be assaulting.

This is not my imagination. Others have had this problem. Once again Creative Assembly demonstrates their inability to make a functioning tutorial.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Finally Steam has a competitor: Amazon

The growth of Amazon's digital download games department has produced the first serious competitor to Steam. Amazon's retail clout cannot be ignored and they generally offer some great bargains. Amazon's Summer sale for example undercuts Steam on many games.

I love Steam and it is my gaming platform of choice but competition between suppliers can only be good for us customers so lets have more of it. Amazon don't have their own PC client so many of their games even register on Steam - giving the best of both worlds.

I wish they would just hurry up and extend this service to those of us who live outside the US. I know it is possible to fake a US address but it feels a bit dodgy.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dragon Age II Thoughts

Dragon Age II got a fairly luke warm reception from critics so I was content to wait over a year after release before playing it. Now after completing the main campaign I can understand where some of those criticisms come from. The original Dragon Age Origins also had flaws but those flaws could generally be put down to an exuberance of ambition while the flaws in Dragon Age II feel seem to come from a deliberately constrained budget. This is perhaps most obvious in the tiresome re-use of a few limited pieces of scenery over and over again. Despite these misgivings, I still thing Dragon Age II is a very enjoyable game and it kept me enthralled for many hours. I think it would have garnered higher review scores over all if it had not been subject to the inevitable comparisons with its superb predecessor. Anyway here are some random thoughts:

Combat: Over all I liked the combat sequences in the game a lot but it took me a while to get the hang of it. Enemies come in greater numbers than I remember from the first game  and the action seems more fast and furious. Crowd control and healing abilities have been nerfed but tanking has been considerably buffed with a lot of new threat control skills so the overall level of tactics required is as high as the first game. I played on hard difficulty setting  (because I read somewhere that hard mode was balanced for those who played the original game) and I had numerous wipes as I worked out strategies for the games challenging battles.The classes feel more balanced than before and mages are no longer far more powerful than other characters. The tactics system which was one of the great innovations of the first game is largely unchanged but at least they got rid of the annoying requirement for skill points to be used to buy tactics slots.

Story: Everything is a lot less epic than Origins. In Origins you had to save the world from armageddon, in DA II you sort out a few of serious but limited incidents over a period of years in one backwater city. Nevertheless the stories themselves are well imagined and thought provoking at the top level. This is let down somewhat in implementation,  particularly when stories which appear to offer thought provoking choices turn out to have the same ending no matter what you choose (another manifestation of a constrained budget perhaps). The story telling is also let down badly by the implementation of dialog choices. The game gives you a simple graphic and one line summary to suggest what each choice means but there is a major disconnect between the "simple" hint and the actual words your character will say.  There is a further disconnect between what the character says and how it impacts the game. It feels as if the person who created the decision tree never actually listened to the dialog nor vice versa and it makes the decision process feel frustratingly random.

Toughest battles in the game for me: Based on number of wipes these were actually the Troll battle at the end of the prologue and the fight with the ancient rock wraith at the end of the Deep Roads expedition. There are tougher fights in the game but theses are the points where the sudden ramp of difficulty forced me to to re-examine my play style. In the prologue fight it was the first time I had to think about combat mechanics while the rock wraith fight marked the transition where I had to start micro managing my characters more closely.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Joy of Jumble Sales

There is something wonderfully unpredictable about second hand stuff. This morning we went to a second hand book sale that is held monthly by a local charity. The sale is well supported by donors and readers so there is always a good selection of books on offer along with a smattering of dvds and even the occasional board game. I came away from this morning's event with a book about the British Empire, a sci fi novel, a PC game (Star Wars, Empire at War) and a box set of a 1970s TV series called Flambards that I loved as a teenager and that my period drama obsessed teenage daughter wants to watch now.

There is no way that a 'real' shop with its utterly predictable range of carefully displayed products could ever offer such a wonderfully serendipitous shopping experience. Online shopping should be better but it is actually worse. Despite the enormous variety of goods both new and used available online the ruthless precision of information technology greatly reduces the likelihood of an unexpected find. The very tools which make it so easy to find precisely what you are looking for make it extremely unlikely that you will find some unexpected treasure that you are not looking for. I bet there are many copies of the Flambards box set for sale on Amazon and Ebay but I would never have thought to look for one.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

An alsmot aswesome moment of game design from Dragon Age II

After many attempts my party finally overcame a tough tough boss in Dragon Age II (the Ancient Rock Wraith). Before I could take a breather and save the game however I was plunged straight into a cut scene. A demon stranding in front of the dead Boss's treasure hoard spoke to me and presented the choice of running away or fighting him for the treasure.

Now lets us be clear here. One of the golden rules of game design is that there must always always be a save point immediately after every boss fight. Having to redo a tricky boss fight because you got killed by a trash mob on the way out of the lair is the suckiest piece of game design ever and any designer who does that should be fired on the spot. However this choice was cleverer than that and made for a tantalising dilemma.  Slink away safely and save my progress or risk being killed and having to replay the boss in the hope of getting the treasure. After some thought I decided to risk it and happily survived the ensuing fight to get the treasure and finally a priceless save opportunity. 

It wasn't an entirely pleasant situation to be put in but I was impressed that the game designers had found a way to make me really care about the impact of a decision. Then I read a wiki about it and realised that the Demon would probably have attacked me anyway. So much for my decision having an impact.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dear PC Game Devs, please stop asking for aspect ratio before letting me choose screen resolution.

I have noticed an increasingly bonkers trend in PC games where the graphics settings insist that you choose the correct aspect ratio before they will let you choose the right screen resolution.  To make things worse there isn't even a consensus on what the different aspect ratios are called.

Installing Dragon Age II recently I had to set an aspect ratio of 16:10 before it would allow me to select the correct 1680 x 1050 resolution for my monitor. On other occasions it has been sufficient to say "widescreen" but when I went to install Warhammer 40k Space Marine the magic aspect ratio turned out to be 8:5. I know that could be worked out from simple arithmetic but given that Space marine offers a choice of ten different aspect ratio's including such gems as 683:384 it was frustratingly hard to find the right answer.  

This is completely backwards because most gamers know the resolution of their screens so if they just asked for the resolution then the programme can work out the aspect ratio. Please stop this stupid practise. Ask me for the screen resolution and then do the math on aspect ratio yourselves.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cable company customer service

I hate ringing my cable company. It isn't because they are unhelpful, I have always found them courteous. It isn't even because of the automated answering service. I have always found it possible to get through to a human relatively quickly. It is simply because long experience has taught me that whom ever I am speaking to will try their hardest to get me to pay more. This has to be deeply  ingrained in the company's policy because the most innocent of inquiries will result in some additional surcharge being suggested, often for no increase in service. I have also learned that most of these surcharges are completely avoidable but once you are on the phone to a representative of the company you need to carefully navigate around a minefield of suggested charges in order to get away  without increasing your monthly bill.

Example from a few years ago:
I am ringing to cancel "XYZ channel, we don't watch it any more and I no longer want to pay for it. "Certainly sir, but you will have to pay a downgrade fee"

Another example:
"I note that you have a special offer which seems to include all of my services for a lower price, will that give me everything I have now and cost less"?
"Certainly sir, would you like to upgrade?
"Are you sure it has everything I have now?"
"It does sir, will I upgrade you now"
 "Eh ... OK"
Half an hour later
"I recently upgraded to your new package and now my kids are complaining they cannot watch PQR"
"Ah, yes sir PQR isn't included in the new package, but we can add it for an additional monthly fee"
"That will end up costing me more than I was already paying for the same service. I want to go back to where I was"
"Certainly sir. There will of course be a downgrade fee...."

Another:
"I am a long time customer of your television service and I am ringing because you are advertising a  a good price for a phone and internet bundle"
"Certainly sir, I can upgrade you to phone and internet for only  €Y extra a month"
"Wait a minute, I am already paying €X per month and €X + €Y is a lot more than you are advertising for that bundle".
"Yes sir, that special bundle price is only for new customers. You are an existing customers so you don't qualify for that price"
"I have never had internet from you before. Does that not count? Anyway if I cannot get the new price I am not interested".
"Wait a minute sir, I will speak to a manager"
Several minutes later
"All right sir, I have permission from my manger to give you the special bundle price if you sign up today".
"Ok, I 'll take it"
"You will have to pay for installation, it will be included in your next bill"
"But... the advertisement says that installation is free"
"That's for new customers sir ...."
Several consultations with the invisible manager later I eventually  managed to get the installation for half price. Perhaps, with persistence I might have gotten it for nothing but they wore me down. 


Recent example: I rang the company to find out why we do not have access to movies on demand while my brother,  who is on the same subscription plan does. The first person I talked to seemed delighted to take my call and offered to "upgrade me" to movies on demand for only €3 extra a month. Knowing that my brother already has that service for the price I am already paying I baulked:  "I have to pay extra so that you can earn more by selling me movies? I don't think so."
"Ah...", she replied, "I will put you on to our customer loyalty team"


The (once again friendly) representative of the customer loyalty team explained to me that they would need to upgrade my set top  box in order to accommodate the on demand services.  He assured me it wouldn't cost an additional €3 per month but that there was a once off €45 charge for the new box. That sounded somewhat plausible, particularly as the new box would come with additional features such as recording and live pause.  I was still a bit reluctant, I hadn't rang with the intention of spending extra money. Seeing my hesitation he made a new offer: "I cannot waive the €45 fee", he explained " but I can reduce your subscription by 50% for the next two months".  This was finally a good deal. The reduction in subscription more than covers the €45 and I got the representative to swear that my existing services would be unaffected.

I cannot decide whether this is good or bad customer service. They are helpful and friendly but they are clearly programmed to load the fees at every available opportunity. I find any interaction with them draining and I consider any contact with them where I have managed to avoid increasing my monthly spend a success.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Your game doesn't work with my password manager

If you play online games (and nowadays even offline games) then you need lots of secure paswords. The best way I know of generating and maintaining a  secure password is to use a password manager such as the excellent Keepass. Keepass will generate and store hundreds of passwords and lock them all up in military grade security. Instead of being restricted to the simple monsyllables that my 48 year old brain can remember (dog, cat ...) I can use long strings of assorted hieroglphics to thwart any would be hacker.

The beauty of a good password manager is that you don't even have to type in these long and complex sequences. Keypass will copy the password into the paste buffer and from there you can ctrl-v it into the password field. This works great for most programmes and websites but it doesn't work for some games.

When trying to install Dragon Age last night I had to tpe in my Origin account details to activate the game. Sadly they have disabled the paste buffer when entering passwords so I had to squint at my long, randomly generated  password and meticulously copy it over character by character to log in.

I was not pleased.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wot I am playing

My gaming has been a mixed bag recently. From a recent humble indie bundle I have played:

Limbo: Excellent atmospheric 2d platformer. The best bits are at the start unfortunately but I found enough of interst to keep me going to the end.

Bastion: I finished my first play through last night. Highly polished and very enjoyable action rpg with a strong storyline that is cleverly narrated  as you progress through the game. There are tonnes of options (weapons and upgrades) and I was initially frustrated to realise that you cannot replay levels in the game because there aren't enough levels to try more than a few combinations. However finishing the game seems to have unlocked a new mode where I can go back with all the stuff I have accumulated so I may replay it a few times to experiment. My favourite combination so far is flame thrower and mortar by the way.

Super Meat Boy:  Incredible hard but quite compelling platformer.  I have completed about twenty levels but I am afraid to go back to the game because I know it will end in tears of frustration.

Outside of the bundle I have also being dabbling in

Dungeon Siege III: Played co-op with my daughter.

Eve: If bored I log in and run a mission but apart from increasing my skills it feels like I am going backwards in the game. I had my largest ever loss when I blindly jumped to the wrong gate and sent a mission fit maelstrom straight into a low sec gate camp. In addition to that high sec mission runner I have a 0.0 "lol" alt with 800k skill points running level 1 Gurista missions in a Magnate in Venal. The level 1 missions are a joke but trying to keep the character alive and supplied with any kind of ship and equipment is mildly entertaining.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lotro now on Steam

I am a week behind the time with this news but I just noticed that Lotro is now available on the Steam platform. I spend more time in Lotro than any other mmorpg so I have a special love for the game even though I am not playing it at the moment. Checking the Steam forums indicates that a number of new players have been tempted to try it since its Steam release. Good news all round I think.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The rules of EVE online

I am not actively playing EVE at the moment but since I decided to keep up my sub for training I occasionally log in to update the skill queue, look around and maybe run a mission or two. I was too tired to do much last night but logged in anyway for a look around. Someone was touting a blueprint for sale in local chat.

SECOND RULE OF EVE: Anything being offered in local chat in Jita is a scam.

This however was not Jita and even though I was I tired I knew that honest pilots who couldn't be bothered hauling their goods  to a trade hub sometimes tout their wares in local in the hopes of making a sale in this quiet system. You can occasionally pick up a bargain this way.

THIRD RULE OF EVE: If it looks too good to be true. It is.

A quick glance at EVE Central showed that this blueprint was being sold at a considerable discount to the market price. Tempting. The pilot might be too lazy to haul it to a busier system but perhaps I could make a few million doing so.


FOURTH RULE OF EVE: What you don't know WILL hurt you.

Blueprints are needed to make stuff in EVE. A BPO is an original blueprint which never runs out and can be used to make copies. A BPC is a blueprint copy which has a limited number of uses. Needless to say BPOs are much more valuable than BPCs. You can sell BPOs on the market in EVE but the less valuable BPCs can only be traded in contracts. Unfortunately the original and the copy look just like each other so you need to look closely at the details to tell them apart.

FIFTH RULE OF EVE: If you lose it is always your own fault.

It was only after I accepted the apparent "bargain" that my brain kicked into gear and I went to check contracts. Needless to say I had just paid well over the odds for a relatively worthless blueprint copy.

What stung the most about this is not the fact that I lost a few million isk. What really annoyed me is that I knew all this in advance.  I even knew the bit about BPOs versus BPCs.

Do you want to know how I am certain that I knew?

It is because when I went to check contracts the search page defaulted to the last search I had done a week or so earlier. It was a search for the exact same blueprint showing just how little it was really worth.  Finally I remembered almost falling for the same scam then but having the presence of mind to double check contracts first and saying no. Sadly a week later I was tired and didn't remember my previous search until it was too late.

SIXTH RULE OF EVE: If you are any way tired or otherwise not alert, then don't. Just don't.

[Aside #1: To be fair I don't know if I can even accuse the seller of scamming. There were no lies told and no effort made at deception. He or she just offered something for sale at a very high price and some gullible fool (me) bought it. I regularly buy stuff cheap and sell it dear. Does it make me a scammer if  I neglect to mention you can get it for 5 million less by flying two systems over? What is the line between making an honest profit and running a scam?


[Aside #2: There is a first rule of EVE but I couldn't figure a way to fit it into the story. For completeness here it is anyway:

FIRST RULE OF EVE: Do not fly what you cannot afford to lose. ]



Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Avadon Black Fortress - Can a retro rpg survive in 2012?

I have been playing a bit of "Avadon, The Black Fortress" from Spiderweb software. This is an unashamedly old school party based rpg that looks like it could have been made twenty years ago but hides a rich gaming experience underneath its ugly exterior. With its strong storyline and deep character development the game reminds me of the original Fallout and even Planescape Torment which is high  praise indeed. I have about twenty hours played and I am less than half way through my first play through so there is plenty of entertainment value in here.

Even as I was enjoying the game myself I did wonder if a younger audience would be prepared to see beyond the dated graphics and somewhat clunky controls. Happily Jeff Vogel the owner of Spiderweb software which created this game is a vocal member of the indie gaming community and he keeps an informative blog. Spiderweb is doing very well, thank you very much. Games like the Avernum and Geneforge sagas have been paying the bills since 1995 and they have actually seen a huge increase in sales since the recent release of their games on Steam and the Ipad. Perhaps the Steam buyers are old timers like myself but I doubt that is the case for the Ipad. I think it is safe to conclude that this is not just a nostalgia kick.

One of the most interesting things on Jeff's blog is following his reactions over time to the falling price of indie games. Spiderweb used to be a company that sold a small number of games at €25 a pop. Back in 2009 Jeff railed against services like Steam which were pushing the prices of indie games down to a few dollars. As Jeff says they were "creating the impression of insulting cheapness" through constant sales. Although Jeff maintained this line for quite a while he eventually gave in to market forces and experimented with discounted pricing on both Steam and the Ipad. Happily this was a success and Spiderweb appears to have successfully transitioned into a company which now sells a much larger volume of games at lower price points with overall revenues  increased. This sorted list of of Jeff's blog posts on pricing should allow you to follow the shift in Jeff's thinking.  Start at the bottom and work up for correct chronological order.

Many of Spiderweb's games are still $20 which puts them beyond impulse purchase territory for many gamers. They have sizeable free demo's however so just download one of their games and try it out to see if it is worth spending your cash. You can pick up a couple of the games on Steam for less than a tenner and Avadon itself is currently on half price sale so well worth it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

NBI Wrap-up. all the advice in one place!!!

When Syp asked me to give some advice to newbie bloggers I found myself in something of a quandary. I have been blogging for almost six years but I am not sure I have gleaned any pearly wisdom in that time to pass on. That is why I decided to pick individual posts from the history of his blog that stick in my mind and in telling the story behind those posts I hope to have highlighted a few useful lessons. All that remains is to to try and summarise all the lessons here in this my closing post of Newbie blogger Initiative 2012.

I guess the lesson from my first story behind the post is that sometimes events in a game can surprise you by raising real life issues. While this can be problematic for gaming it makes great writing material.

My  second story behind the post has a couple of different lessons: Writing about a popular new game just after release is a great time to be a blogger and also if you get bored just writing yet another ten rats try writing in character. It might not get you traffic but it sure is a lot of fun.

The third story behind the post is a reminder that you are the boss of your blog and you can go off topic once in a while and write some personal stuff.  It may not win you readers but you just might write some of your favourite ever posts this way.

The fourth story behind the post has two lessons again. The most obvious lesson is to reccommend any gaming blogger to have at  EVE. Even if you hate the game you are bound to get a couple of good posts out of it. The more geneal lesson however is that blogging gives you a completely new way of evaluating a game. In many ways whether or not you enjoy the game becomes scondary to how well it will write.

In my final story behind the post I decided to go all sensible and make the fairly straightfoward reccommendation that bloggers use simple informative titles for any post that wants to attract readers.

Oops, almost forgot. My last and perhaps most important piece of advice: Go back and read your old posts. I know of no better way to enjoy the fruits of your creativity. 

Thats it from me for this years NBI. Happy gaming and happy writing.


NBI The Story behind the post #5

This is my final story behind the post so I had better make an effort to give some useful advice for  a change and not just advice on how to write posts that no one ever reads!

Checking back through Blogger's statistics this is my most viewed post ever: http://mindbendingpuzzles.blogspot.com/2008/12/lotro-forgotten-treasury.html

It is a tolerably competent after action report of a fairly challenging mid game instance in Lotro but it didn't stand out in my mind when I wrote it. Yet it pulled in a heap of readers and continues to pull them in to this day.

Why was this post so popular? In the first place I think it is because it was a helpful post about an area of a popular game that many players experienced diffculties with. Those who struggled with the instance came looking for solutions and those who overcame it came looking for alternative methods. None of this would have got me traffic however if I hadn't given the post the simplest most obvious name possible.  Even today my post is number 2 on a Google Search for Forgotten Treasuy and that is where all these visitors have come from. Google is extremely friendly towards bloggers but if you want it to help you then you have to help yourself first by using simple obvious names for your posts and for your blog. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The value of a Brand: Diablo 3 versus Dungeon Siege 3

It is not by chance that I have an Android phone while my wife uses an Apple product. After eighteen years of marriage it has become patently clear that we hold mutually opposing views on the value of branding. My lovely wife is a brand junkie. She has an inherent distrust of generic products and if possible she will always go for the most expensive market leading brand. I on the other hand am not so much a brand agnostic as a brand atheist. I actively seek out cheaper products and avoid buying the market leader ever. I will trawl the internet and walk the roads for lesser known alternatives and nothing pleases me quite so much as finding a little known product that costs less and performs better that the brand leader.  

I am sure this opposition was a cause of strife in the early years of our union but 18 years of happy marriage has a way of moulding a couple's habits together. Compromises become so embedded you forget they are even there. At this stage we apply our preferences to our own private purchases and simply take for granted that the labels in our larder change dramatically depending on who does the grocery shopping.

If I were in militant mood I might boast at my thriftiness in comparison to my wife's indulgence but to be honest over the years I have come to see a certain logic in her position. It is not so much a matter of brand snobbery as a matter of guaranteed performance. For every story of a bargain I picked up that met our needs she could counter with examples of shoddy substitutes that performed as meagerly as they cost.

When you buy a phone from Apple, a car from Mercedes, a tin of beans from Heinz or a detergent from Proctor and Gamble you may or may not be getting the best product and you probably aren't getting the cheapest product. You are however almost certainly getting a product which does what you expect it to do. If I were in the mood for a rant I would point out that the reason big brands usually meet expectations is because we, sheep like consumers that we are, fall for their hype and allow them to mould our expectations to miraculaously coincide with the capabilities of their own offering. Regardless, whether it is due to brainwashing or not, buy a well known brand and you are buying insurance against dissapointment.

What has this got to do with gaming? Well Tobold today wrote a piece musing on the value of the brand to Diablo 3. In a somewhat dismissive summary of the game he suggest that the Diablo brand adds as much as 20 points to the review score. I think he may be missing the point. You cannot judge Diablo without taking into account the implicit promise of the brand. The generally positive impressions I have read from others is that the game play is exactly what they expect in a Diablo game with a high degree of polish on top. This is the promise of the brand fulfilled and the game is going to make a tonne of money for Blizzard. Indeed the only question marks on the horizon relate to the innovations of requiring an always on internet and the advent of a real money auction house but it seems likely at this stage that customers may complain about these for a while but still keep playing.

Contrast this with Dungeon Siege 3. Dungeon Siege never commanded quite as much respect as Diablo but it is nevertheless a very successful brand and one would expect a sequel to benefit from that. The game itself is very good and highly enjoyable but it is not what Dungeon Siege fans expected. They expected a hack and slash dungeon crawl, what they got is closer to third person action adventure. Rather than profiting from the brand the game seems to have suffered because of it with luke warm reviews and complaints from many customers. The implicit promise of branding was not honoured and the brand itself has been tarnished.