Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dark Sector

Just finished Dark Sector in my PC. Enjoyable third person shooter available very cheap. Game go mediocre reviews when first released and it does have its flaws: patchy story, bland palette, uneven difficulty in places and  perhaps too many repetitive battles against hordes of enemies. Nevertheless there is some very enjoyable combat in the game and quite a lot of variety once you get into it.  It is fairly short, perhaps 10 hours so I recommend it for a few hours of  budget shooting entertainment.  The mouse and keyboard controls seem perfectly functional but I used an XBOX360 controller as I find it preferable for third person games in general.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

PS4 controller touchpad is in the wrong place.

I think the inclusion of a touchpad on the new PS4 controller could have been an inspired move but the prototypes I have seen suggest it is in the wrong place to be really useful.The touchpad  should be positioned under the right thumb to effectively replace the right thumb stick for most games. Instead it is put at the top of the controller where using the right thumb to control the touch pad will be a strain. 

I spend about equal amounts of time gaming with an XBox360  pad as I spend gamign with a mouse and keyboard. While the dedicated game controller is better in many respects the combination of mouse and keyboard still has two undeniable undeniable advantages: More buttons and much much better aiming in shooting games. The inclusion of a touchpad could have removed one of those advantages if it was moved below the right stick.

The root of the aiming problem is that the joysticks on a game pad control a rate rather than a position directly. This is fine for movement which is usually on the left stick but it is terribly imprecise for aiming which is usually on the right stick. If the PS4 bit the bullet and replaced the right stick with a touchpad then you would effectively solve the aiming problem because a touch pad allows direct control of position just like a mouse. For compatibility you could still keep the right stick but move it up above the touchpad. The touchpad would not obstruct the stick (because it is flat) whereas in the current design the stick really does obstruct the touchpad.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How Important are retro games?

I note that the recently announced PS4 will not initially be backwards compatible with PS3 games but Sony are looking at ways that might make it possible to play PS1, PS2 and PS3 games play on their new console.

That made me think about the importance, or lack of importance, of older games and retro gaming. Do older games actually matter at all?

I play a lot of older games myself (witness my recent sojourn in Baldur´s gate) but I am an old curmudgeon. I remember when these classic games were released so they have significant nostalgia value for me. I am also fortunate that my gaming platform of choice, the PC has unparalleled backwards compatibility. This is not representative I suspect. I guess that the majority of gamers have neither the desire nor the mechanism to play ten year old games.

Are retro games important from a business perspective? I guess not very. Sure there are websites and forums dedicated to retro gaming and at least one company (gog.com) seems to have built a successful business out of it. It still seems like a niche niche market though. How do gog's sales of retro games compare with sales of recent releases? I don't know but I suspect very poorly even on that most nerdy of gaming platforms the PC.Unscientific Experiment: Looking at Steam's list of 100 most played games for today (http://store.steampowered.com/stats/) I count 12 of out of 100 that are more than 5 years old which is actually more than I expected. Multiplayer games (shooters and mmorpgs) top the list of older games but some RTS games also seem to have longevity (possible multiplayer also). Valve's  own Half Life 2 is the only resolutely single player game that still has longevity. Most of these old games don't actually make the list of current best sellers on the Steam store suggesting that these are being supported by long time players rather than new players but there are a few older titles making an appearance on the 100 best selling games: Garry's Mod tops the list while Baldurs' gate, Half Life and the Fallout collection are all in there.

Even if we assumed the retro gaming market was 12% of the overall market (I suspect it is far far less).  it probably isn't enough to get the big players interested.  From a purely financial perspective there is more money to be made  selling new games for $60 than old classics for $10 classics. Perhaps access to a back catalogue is a marketing advantage when a console first comes out and is not yet well supported but does anyone really buy a new console to play old games?

What about the cultural value of retro games? I can still watch the movies of Charlie Chaplin. I can read the works of William Shakespeare. Surely it would be a tragedy if gamers of the future could no longer experience Monkey Island or Doom or Halo or Uncharted? Would anybody care? Would gamers be content to see these games being displayed only in museums. My reaction is "Of course not!"  but then again I am not representative. I find it impossible to play a modern game without making links to its antecedents. I wonder how many players of recent blockbusters like Skyrim and Black Ops 2 even have the means of playing Morrowind or the original Call of Duty?

Software emulation could be a solution to saving older titles from eventual demise by allowing them to be played on newer hardware. Even today emulation is a very powerful way of resurrecting some older games and platforms but the area remains technically obscure and legally questionable. It tends to be the domain of nerds. A particular difficulty is that the emulating hardware needs to be many times more powerful than the device it is emulating so emulation always seems to be about ten years behind the latest technology. That is more than one generation of gaming hardware and creates a black whole in the retro gaming time-line. In a couple of years time it could be easier to play PS2 games through emulation than to find system that is capable of playing PS3 games. It might be possible to shrink that 10 year gap if a major company was to embrace emulation and put its resources behind it but Sony seems to be looking for a different route involving streaming older games to the PS4. I am a little sceptical about the ability of the streaming experience to complete with playing a local copy but it probably makes commercial sense. Sony won't make money by allowing you to stick your old PS2 disc in their new machine. They might make money charging you a monthly sub to stream that PS2 game from an online service.

However I did have a thought. Given that the PS4 is built on X86 PC architecture surely it wouldn't be impossible to emulate a gaming PC on it. Linux and Wine probably have most of what you need. Imagine if Sony did a deal with gog.com to open up their catalog of classic PC games for the PS4. I am not sure how they might handle the mouse / keyboard issue but that is surely solvable with a custom peripheral if required. Imagine playing Homeworld and System Shock 2 on a PS4. I think it would be great but then again I am not representative.

Another final thought. If you are a PC gamer or even if you are a gamer who has a PC why not dip in to the unrivalled back catalogue. It is the only gaming system on which it is still possible to play and enjoy 20 year old games. Regardless of whether the future of gaming belongs to PCs, consoles, tablets or smart phones the past of gaming belongs to the PC and it is still very much with us. I have a personal fondness for the period from 1998 to 2002 a time when hardware and software developments came together to produce some of the most innovative and creative works in gaming history, including may genre defining titles that still influence the games we play today.

Edit I should of  course have given a nod to Nintendo's virtual console as an example of a big company using emulation to keep older games alive.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Google Giveth and Google Taketh Away

(but  not in that order)

I recently wanted to print something from my Android tablet to a printer. The process turned out to be more convoluted than I expected.  Android uses a service called Google Cloud Print for printing.  What this means is that in order to  send a file  from my tablet to my printer I first had to send the  file over  the internet to a Google server which then sent it back via email to my printer.  This despite the fact that my tablet and printer were less than two metres from each other and both connected to the same wifi network.

 Such a roundabout route offends the engineer in me. I guess it is just another part of the price we must pay for all these great services companies like Google give us.  The more of my data goes through Google's  servers the more they know about me for the purposes of advertising. Privacy advocates can freak out at this point but I have long since reconciled myself to that trade off.

I was while I was still pondering this trade-off of privacy for cool stuff that I came across a  service called Google takeout. Somewhat surprisingly Google's takeout service actually gives users some control back over their own data. It makes it easy to download your stuff to a private archive on your own pc. Picasa and YouTube are included  and Blogger has just recently been added. It is hardly a big concession on Google's part. They still get to keep their own copy of your stuff. It does make it slightly easier to move to a different provider I guess,  if only there was anyone else out there offering  anything remotely similar to Google's range of services. I also note that Gmail and Google  calendar are still conspicuously absent from takeout.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Horse Riding Hilarity: Two Worlds 2

Before I begin let me say that I am actually enjoying Two Worlds 2. It looks great has an interesting world to explore with lots of stuff to do. The game does have its flaws however so you do need an open mind and a certain willingness to put up with things until you get used to them if you are going to enjoy this game. Nowhere is this more evident than in the implementation of horse riding.

I got my horse as a quest reward and things looked promising at first. Facing the beast I was told to press button "A" to mount and that worked as advertised. A message flashed by suggesting that I press the left trigger to gallop but being very much of the opinion that one should learn to walk before attempting to sprint I decided to start off slowly by easing the left stick in the direction I wanted to travel. Nothing happened. The horse didn't move or turn so I tried the right stick. Again nothing happened. None of the other buttons seemed to do anything either so I decided to hold on tight and pressed the left trigger to initiate a gallop. My horse lurched forward and promptly stopped. I pressed it again and held it this time. The horse lurched again and stopped again. In order to sustain forward momentum I found that you have to pump the trigger repeatedly. Furious button mashing isn't the answer. A certain rhythm is required to maintain a constant speed.

Turning is another matter. Trial and error eventually revealed that the left stick can be used to steer a moving horse. It is quite sensitive and needs a gentle touch.  You are pumping away rhythmically with your left index finger in order to keep the horse moving and then you need to carefully adjust the steering with your left thumb. Think about that for a moment. In fact if no one is looking at you try it on an imaginary controller now.

You cannot even cheat because steering doesn't work at all when you are stationary. This causes particular difficulties when my horse runs into a tree or a wall. Once I have climbed back up I need to turn the beast's head around to get going again but it will not turn unless is is also galloping. A rather dexterous combination of left stick and left trigger resulting in a wildly spinning jump is the only way I have found out of that all too regular dilemma.

Yes I did mention climbing back up because this horse is entirely too fond of throwing its rider. If I run into an obstruction it will throw me. If I try to make it go along a path it doesn't like it will throw me. If it is attacked and injured it will throw me. If I try to push it too hard by hammering enthusiastically on the gallop button it will throw me.

This is one of the worst pieces of interface design I have ever come across. I say design because it is clearly intentional. Somebody must have decided that the ridiculous pumping required to move was a good idea. Perhaps it is supposed to simulate a rider eagerly urging their pony forwards with spurs and whip. If so then I doubt the game designers have ever ridden a real horse.

The really strange thing is that I am beginning to get used to it. Now that I can get my horse to go where I want (most of the time) at a speed that is doesn't result in my being thrown (most of the time) I am even beginning to enjoy the mini-game challenge that horse riding presents (most of the time). I still think it is a ludicrous game mechanic.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A real retro gamer.

While visiting an elderly relative in a nursing home to day I spotted another resident, who I know from previous visits to be in the advanced stages of dementia and pretty unaware of her surroundings. Imagine my surprise then to spy this nonagenarian lady flicking through the pages of a magazine called "Retro Gamer". The magazine was probably left lying around by a visitor or staff member but as I am currently immersed in the 15 year old retro classic Baldur's Gate it felt a little bit like the Truman Show.

Friday, February 08, 2013

"Camaraderie, adventure and steel on steel. The stuff of legend! Right Boo?"

Nothing to relate really but I just wanted to mention my favourite quotation (above) from Baldur's gate. It is one of many phrases regularly repeated by the nutty claymore wielding ranger Minsc. Boo is his pet hamster who Minsc claims is from outer space. Minsc may be missing a few screws but he certainly knows how to capture a moment and that line pretty much sums up the reason I play rpgs.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Browser Hijacking Blues

Last week the browser on my daughter's laptop was hijacked by an apparently legit web service that one of her friends used to send out Birthday invitations. The hijacker took over the home page (on Chrome), installed a toolbar and redirected all search queries to a different search engine. While my daughter may have foolishly ticked a box which said yes to this hijacking I am pretty damn sure she didn't consent to the way this intruder buried itself in the operating system in order to make itself very difficult to get rid of. Resetting the home page or search engine would be overridden by programmes embedded into Windows start up.

Today I had a similar experience on my own PC when updating a utility I had used before without problems.  For some reason that legit company allowed a hijacker to install itself into my browser. Again it proved very difficult to remove as the normal methods of setting home pages and choosing search engines were surreptitiously over ridden.

In both these cases it took considerable detective work to wheedle the offending hijackers out of the system. I was really surprised at how well they were embedded.

I know that it is difficult for anyone other than the market leader to make a buck in software these days. I get that deals with tool bars and search engines are one of the few ways they can pay their bills and put food on the table. However for me there is a very clear line between add ons which use normal routes for installation and which are easy to remove and add ons which embed themselves into the operating system in some hidden way to make themselves very difficult to remove. If you are a legit company then you should have no truck with the latter.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Baldurs Gate Thoughts

Over the last few weeks I have been immersing myself in the original Baldur's Gate saga. Although I have played several of Bioware's later games I never had a chance to try this classic before so it feels good to finally play it. Of course it is a hugely deep complex game I can see how so many players were enthralled by it. It is not without it's frustrations though. I think my biggest bugbears relate to the limitations of the AD&D 2nd Edition rule set. In particular I am hugely disappointed by how little character customisation you get to do in this game. Levelling up is practically automated with fairly minor choices left to the player after character creation. The limited options for gear and the scarcity of high end equipment also reduces any chance of exploring your characters skills and abilities. I like an rpg where you gradually develop your character over time exploring different options along the way. In BG1 it sometimes feels like you need to know where you are going to end up at the very start of character creation and everything else just follows automatically from that initial dice rolling session.

I must confess that after a few hours playing the genuine vanilla game I followed the advice of just about every internet commenter and installed a mod which ports BG1 into the much improved Baldur's Gate 1 engine. There are a few options available, the choice seeming to depend on whether or not you want the story of Baldur's Gate 1 to blend seamlessly into that of Baldur's Gate 2. I chose Easytutu http://usoutpost31.com/easytutu/ which keeps BG1 as a separate game. I can vouch for it's ease of installation and it gives substantial graphical and other ease of life improvements while retaining the characters and story of the original game.

Easytutu does have some differences to the original game however. The ones I have noticed include:
1. Easy Tutu seems to spawn trash mobs more often and in larger groups that the original game on the same difficulty setting. Happily you can get an add on called Spawn randomiser that allows that to be tweaked.
2. Some skills and proficiencies have been changed to the Baldur's Gate 2 versions.
3. Perhaps a a consequence of the above some party member come with different abilities.

The weapon proficiencies is actually a big deal. BG1 had a small number of proficiencies that each allowed a range of weapons so for example bows included long bow short bow and composite bows. In BG2 there is a separate proficiency required for every type of weapon (one for short bow, one for long bow etc.). Proficiency points are as rare as hen's teeth (it take multiple levels to get one) so this really restricts your characters' choice of weapons. The game has only a few good weapons anyway so this is a big deal.