Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Death of a Game and the Triumph of the Human Spirit

Mmorpg gamers know that when a company shuts down its servers a game dies. The ending of Microsoft Live support for the original Xbox has brought this reality home to fans of other types of online game including the once all powerful Halo 2.

The servers were officially closed on 15th April but any game that was currently online was allowed to keep playing. In a move that sends shivers of admiration down my spine a small group of dedicated Halo 2 gamers have refused to turn off their Xboxes. As long as they keep online and playing the game lives on. Microsoft pulled the plug on April 15th but now nearly two weeks later the die-hards are still holding out and still playing. Unfortunately dodgy internet connections and console overheating are working a steady battle of attrition, as of today only 13 gamers remain online.

Forget about the politics of this for the moment. Forget about loss of dedicated servers, PC versus Console, always online drm schemes and loss of gaming heritage. This is just an epic story of human persistence in the face of adversity. I salute those 13 gamers.

Initial Thoughts on Battlefield Bad Company 2 Multiplayer

Some friendly advice first: Don't assume that just because you start off with a Russian assault Rifle (AEK 971) therefore you must be on the Russian team. I wasted quite a few minutes trying to capture a base wondering why the Stars and Stripes Flag refused to change to the Russian Tricolour.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Battlefield Bad Company 2 Screen Shots

Here are a few random screenshots I took to give a flavour of combat in the game:

I promise you there are enemies in each of these shots and we are under fire. I did say it was the smokiest game I have ever played. I am not quite sure I buy into this "not being able to see" as an entertaining game-play mechanic but I am enjoying the campaign so far none the less. The game seems a bit more fast paced and arcadey than I remember Call of Duty to be but is still a lot of fun. I have encountered a few bugs though including one where an entire map full of enemies decided to ignore me despite my pumping bullets into them. Restoring a saved game fixed this bug but I am surprised that such a serious bug is still in the game. I am looking forward to a bit of multiplayer fun once I finish the single player campaign.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Holy Smoke - Battlefield Bad Company 2

I have just started playing the single player campaign of Battlefield Bad Company 2. Its a bit early for me to pass judgement but I gotta say that this game has more smoke in it than any other game I have played. The devs are clearly very proud of their graphical effects because just about every move you make raises a cloud of dust.  Most buildings are destructible which only adds to the general cloud and once the bullets and bombs start flying the battlefield is quickly covered in an impenetrable haze. I have heard of the fog of war but this is bordering on the ridiculous.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Time is up for Downfall Parodies

I am disappointed and a little bit surprised to see that the often hilarious parodies of Hitler's explosive rant from the movie "Downfall" are soon to be removed from YouTube. Disappointed because many of them were quite funny. Surprised because I don't see how it benefits Constantin Films (the copyright owners) to   have these clips removed. By showcasing an exceptionally well done clip from the movie these clips are free advertising. Why do the owners object to that?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

RMT Destroys Content but Playbrains Saves the Day.

One of the most compelling arguments against real money transactions (rmt) in games is that allowing players to purchase in game progression for real cash destroys content. This is particularly true in reward motivated games where challenging content has to be overcome in order to get the reward. Allowing players to bypass that content and get the reward for a cash payment makes that content pointless for many players.

I came across a striking example of this last weekend when I bought Mad Balls Babo Invasion in a Steam weekend deal. Madballs is a somewhat anarchic yet nevertheless entertaining single player / multiplayer shooter. There is a mild rpg element in that beginners don't get access to all of the weapons and abilities but must unlock them over time by gaining experience in either single or multiplayer games. This is a fairly common feature of recent shooters like Modern Warfare and Team Fortress 2 but it does put new players at something of a disadvantage in multi-player versus games because they don't have access to everything yet. Playbrains have clearly thought of this because they offer an add on called the Anarchy Unlock pack that allows you to unlock everything in the game for only a couple of euros. In fact during the weekend sale you could buy a bundle containing the unlock pack for only about 60c more than the basic game.

 That seems like a no-brainer,  right? Many people thought so and bought the bundle. However they then discovered that the unlock pack not only unlocks everything in multiplayer it also permanently unlocks everything in single player and co-op games too. It was as if you got given all the goodies at the very start of the game and there was no way to give them back. Several disgruntled players posted to the Steam Forums saying that this spoiled the game for them. I suppose they could have played the game using an honour system, not using any weapon or skill until the point where it would legitimately be unlocked but of course the human brain doesn't work that way. By getting all of the goodies at level 1 these players felt they had lost the incentive to play the game. For these players RMT had destroyed content.

Fortunately this story has a happy ending. In an outstanding display of rapid response customer service Playbrains the developer of Madballs Babo have just released a mini patch which adds two new commands to the game: "Disable Anarchy" disable any unlocks you have not yet earned and "Enable Anarchy" which allows all the unlocks. This is less than a week after the complaints on the forums. Very impressive.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Life imitates Art

Looking over sports section of a local newspaper I was surprised to see a headline promoting the "EA Sports Cup". "Has E-Sports become sufficiently mainstream already that it now features in the regular sports pages", I wondered.

No, the truth is at once more mundane and more radical. It appears that Electronic Arts are now the main sponsors of the League of Ireland Soccer cup. The league of Ireland is only semi professional and I am sure this is  nickel and dime sponsorship compared to the billionaire spending of Europe's major soccer leagues but it is a very interesting development. The bills for a real world sporting activity are now being paid for by its virtual world simulacrum.

While the relationship is quite obvious and natural this still seems like a strange inversion to me suggesting that the representation has somehow become more powerful than the thing it represents.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Madballs Sale tempts me back to Steam

Thank you to Winged Nazgul for pointing me to the fact that Steam is doing a Madballs special this weekend with free play for the weekend and 75% off the game itself. Madballs is a fast paced third person shooter with single player and multiplayer elements. I have dabbled a bit in both and it seems like a lot of fun. The plot is completely incomprehensible but all you really need to know is that you play a small ugly ball who rolls around a lot and shoots stuff. I guess the best description is that it is kind of mad! If you have any interest at all in an anarchic shooter then now is the time to indulge because the Steam sale has ensured that there are plenty of people around to play multiplayer with.

If you buy the base game then most of the characters and weapons are locked but you unlock them as you play through either single player or multiplayer campaigns. A nice touch is that impatient types can spend a few pennies (literally) more for the anarchy unlock pack which unlocks everything from the get go.

Warning: Do not buy the anarchy pack if you enjoy unlocking stuff as you work your way through the game. Once your buy the anarchy pack everything is unlocked and you cannot go back according to this post on the forums.  I played a bit more multiplayer and it is a total blast. Well recommended.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Steam Sale Withdrawal Symptoms

Pretty much every week-end since Christmas there has been something tempting on sale over at Steam and I have grown used to a steady stream of €5 and €10 and  €15 purchases expanding my games collection. For the last few weeks however there hasn't been anything tempting on offer so I have not indulged. Now I find am experiencing withdrawal symptoms and I ache for the endorphin hit that only expenditure on impulse can provide.

Can You Survive the Creeper

This has been a slow gaming week for me rescued only by an excellent little Flash game called "Creeper World" (yes I do get some kind of worthless reward points if you use that link). It is an RTS game where you must fend-off a never ending tide of purple ooze using lasers and mortars. The rate at which you can build new structures and the rate at which you can fire your weapons is limited by available energy which in turn is linked to the territory you control so there is quite a nice little bit of resource management and territory control going on.  A further refinement is that energy isn't instantly available where you need it but must travel in packets from your central hub along a network of interconnected nodes that you construct. This simple mechanic keeps you on your toes throughout the game because a momentary lapse of concentration could allow the creeper to sever a branch of your network isolating areas from their vital energy supply. (Gameplay hint: Use relays liberally to reinforce your energy network). My biggest complaint about the game is that later levels take too long to complete without the option of saving your progress. I took me more than an hour each to finish the last few levels which is more than you expect to have to put into a flash game. There is an extended version available to buy and I am still considering whether to get it.

Thanks to Zubon from Kill Ten Rats for recommending the game.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Well it seemed to work for Evony ....

Does Allod's onlines latest advertising campaign remind you of anything?

To be fair to Allods, they are using their own artwork in the ads, the image is taken from one of the game's splash screens I believe. Allods is even a pretty decent game despite their ham-fisted attempts at commercialising it. This campaign does smack of desperation though, doesn't it?

Friday, April 09, 2010

A Schoolboy Economist's views on DRM and the Future of Western Civilisation

1. I am not an economist. My musings are built on a shaky understanding of the neo-classical model gleaned from a couple of undergraduate level courses in macro and micro economics.

2. One concept that seems key to me is the whole notion of a public good versus a private good. Private goods are exhausted by consumption. If I eat this cake (a typical private good) then you can't have it too. Public goods on the other hand are not exhausted by consumption. Fresh air is a public good. My enjoyment of a fresh country breeze does not prevent you from enjoying exactly the same thing.

3. Experience has shown that free markets struggle to deal with public goods. A major difficulty is known as the "Free Rider Problem". Free riders can enjoy the benefits of public goods without sharing in the cost of producing them. This can lead to underproduction (I am not going to waste time and effort making something for you to enjoy) or overproduction (everybody makes their own even though only one is required for everyone).

4. Because of the free rider problem governments regardless of their political leaning, will often intervene in the market to regulate the supply of public goods. Various types of intervention may be used:
- In some cases governments may directly control the production and supply of the public good. This method is often used for roads or for public parks.
- In other cases they may allow private enterprise to provide the public good under a regime of strict regulation. Electricity and Gas networks sometimes come under this model. The financial system is also an example of this model albeit in recent times not a very happy one.
- Another method to solve the free rider problem is to impose laws which try to turn public goods into private goods. If you can somehow restrict access to a public good then you can treat it like a private good and let the free market control supply and demand. Toll roads are an example of this principle and of course the whole concept of intellectual property is another.

6. Information is clearly a public good whether it is an idea, a design , a piece of music, a story or an image it is not exhausted by consumption. Intellectual property rights are an artificial concept created to turn information into a private good that can be supplied through the normal free market.

Distinction - The design of a thing is a public good. Each copy of the good that is made is a private good. So the design of an Ipod is actually a public good (despite the fact that Apple spent millions designing it) but every individual Ipod is a private good.

7. This method of dealing with the free rider problem is central to the whole Western Economy. It can be argued that it has served us very well. By turning information into a private good it has created the incentive for people to invest time and effort into developing new ideas and inventions.

8. However it can also be argued that the very artificiality of the concept of "intellectual property" has meant that the laws required to enforce it are arbitrary, crude and unjust. As an extreme example consider the case of a child who dies for want of a drug which costs €0.01 to make but is sold for €100.

10. Large parts of the world do not adhere to the Western view of intellectual property. Yes their governments may pay lip service to the notion in global trade talks but the reality in many many countries is that intellectual property rights are unenforceable.

11. Traditionally those countries that do not follow the IP model have been poorer than those that do - lending some weight to the argument that IP is a useful notion.

12. In recent decades a curious thing has happened. The West has effectively abandoned the production of private goods and has instead subcontracted their production almost exclusively to other countries, in particular China, where the concept of intellectual property is not really supported. The West has continued to enjoy a higher standard of living but the whole Western economy is now almost entirely dependent on the creation, ownership and control of public goods using the mechanism of property rights.

13. The advent of new forms of information technology has made it harder and harder to enforce the artificial controls on intellectual property. Unsurprisingly this has led to increasingly bizarre and more restrictive laws being passed by Western Nations in order to try and maintain control.

14 There is a large cohort of people living in the West (including most young people by all accounts) who actively reject the whole notion of intellectual property and actively flaunt the laws and try to resist new intellectual property laws. Given the artificial nature of intellectual property and the increasingly unfair restrictions being put in place to try and shore the concept up such views are entirely understandable. In fact a world without intellectual property laws would probably be a fairer juster place.

15 However - given that the entire Western Economy is built on the tenuous concept of intellectual property it seems almost certain that the weakening of intellectual property laws will lead to a collapse of the Western economy and a collapse of the artificially high standard of living enjoyed by people living in the West. Westerners who argue against restrictive DRM and IP protection laws really are like turkeys voting for Christmas.

16 I think this is probably the defining conflict of our age. The battle of East versus West is not going to be fought by US Marines on the Mongolian Steppes. The main face-offs are happening in the boardrooms and courtrooms of Brussels and Washington while the incisive battles are being won or lost in the bedrooms of self taught hackers.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

How to copy a HTML table to Excel-my new favourite Firefox Add-on

In these recessionary times I thought it would be a good idea to get a better grip on our household budget. As a starting point I decided to download a full years worth of expenditure and income into Excel for analysis. On-line banking provided a quick way of getting the data but there was a problem. Our main bank provides the data in a pretty inflexible web table. You cannot easily grab data from a HTML table using copy and paste as all formatting is lost. If you try to paste into Excel the columns become completely jumbled.

Happily it turns out there is a very useful extension for Firefox called Table tools which allows one to manipulate HTML tables and copy them with all formating intact to another programme such as Excel. After installing table tools you just need to highlight the table, right click and then select "copy as tab-delimited text" to get a version that can be pasted straight into Excel. Superb, this will actually be very useful to me in work as well as at home.

I should point out that this add on has not been reviewed by Mozilla but I have had no difficulties with it and I am entirely impressed.

It's just typical isn't it? Barely a week after deciding to move to Opera as my main browser I discover an excellent reason to use Firefox. I guess I always knew that Firefox was the more powerful more extensible browser but Opera does the day to day things I want to do better. For the moment I will keep using Opera and go back to Firefox when I really need the added functions I cannot do in Opera.

Apparently I have a coffee problem

 A couple of weeks ago my wife alerted me to the fact that I had developed an occasional odour problem. This surprised and distressed me som...