Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dropbox arghhhhh you goofed.

Like many others I have become dependent on Dropbox to share files between the various internet connected devices in my life. A recent update to the mobile version of Dropbox for Android made an such an enormous boo boo that I am surprised that there has been no outcry about it.

To understand the gaff you must understand how Dropbox works on mobile devices. On a normal computer Dropbox keeps a full copy of every file in your Dropbox folder and constantly keeps these files updated via the internet. This approach would be far too expensive in memory and data allowance for a phone so the mobile version of dropbox does not keep a local copy of every file but instead only downloads files to a cache directory as you need them. Once you accept that you have to manually upload and download the system is a reasonable compromise and programs can still work on the copy of the file stored on the cache directory.

So far so good but a recent update to Dropbox made several changes. First they moved the location of the cache from /mnt/sdcard/dropbox to /mnt/android/data/ This change is more of a nuisance than a serious problem because it breaks any links in programmes that used files stored in the cache directory.

The real gaff however was that the update deleted the original cache folder and everything in it. Deleting user data files is always a no no. I was unfortunate enough to be in an area without internet when I realised what had happened and I was rightly annoyed to discover that my offline versions of several key data files had ben deleted. Others may have lost recently changed data files that had not yet been synchronised to the internet.

Terrible move Dropbox. Never delete a user's own data files without warning.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The games of Christmas 2011

I didn't blow the bank this year but nevertheless I have stocked my gaming cupboard quite well between sales, presents and impulse purchasing over the holiday period. The list of acquisitions is as follows:

Orcs Must Die+DLC, Steam, €4.96:
This is great fun, I spent several days playing it and I am still only half way through the campaign. Between Sanctum and his game I have come to the conclusion that I cannot enjoy tower defence unless I actually participate in the action myself alongside the towers.

Dungeons of Dredmor, Steam, €1.47:
Highly regarded roguelike game but not really my cup of tea. I played just enough to get the holiday achievement.

Railworks 3 +DLC , Steam, €3.49
To be honest I will probably only dabble in the game but I have had my eye on this train simulator for ages so I had to buy it when it came on sale (90% off).

Batman Arkham City, Gamers Gate, £11.98 
I really enjoyed Arkham Asylum and this is supposed to  be better. I am looking forward to playing it when a window of time opens up.

E.Y.E., Divine Cybermancy, Steam, €2.49
A hugely ambitious Deus Ex like game from a little known French studio. I may play it for a bit until I get pissed off by the many flaws mixed in with the brilliance.

The Elder Scrolls Skyrim, Boxed gift from my family, Price Unknown
Hailed by many as the game of the year. I have only managed to put about eight hours into the game just enough time to do a couple of side quests. So far I like it. They appear to have completely overhauled the levelling system that was so broken in Oblivion and that can only be a good thing.

Star Wars Republic Commando, Steam,  €2.24
I played the demo years ago and have always intended to play the main game but never gotten around to it.

Section 8 Prejudice, Steam,  €3.24
It's a shooter, It seems to be all right and it was cheap.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, Gamestop store, €27.99
I had a few vouchers and this was the best price I have seen for the game so I succumbed to a moment of impulse. The main campaign took me just 9 hours .I suspect the achievement focussed "Special Ops" mode will  take a lot longer than that however - especially as it can now be played solo or co-op. Of course multi-player is the real reason for any Modern Warfare game and I have yet to sample that.

Wings of Prey, Steam, Gift ,
WWII flight simulator. Thank you very much to Txster of Grumpy Gaming fame.

Crimecraft, Mafia Wars: Steam, Free to Play
I installed this for the sole reason of getting the holiday achievement (a snowball death match). The game itself seems quite good with plenty of multi player shooty action but I am very suspicious of pvp focused free to pay games. Inevitably you need to spend a lot of money to play competitively.

Rusty Hearts, Steam, Free to play
Another game I installed only for the holiday achievement. It is a kind of anime, action fighter mmorpg. The few missions I ran for the achievement were enjoyable enough and the game seems to have a surprising amount of depth but nevertheless I doubt I will be returning to it.
Spiral Knights: Steam, Free to play
I had actually installed this before but I only got around to playing it during my achievement hunt over Christmas. This is probably the best of the free to play games I tried and I especially liked how easy it as to just jump into a group with others for a mission. Unlikely to play again though.

Notable games missing from the acquisition list:

Star Wars, the Old Republic Online, I do intend to try this blockbuster mmorpg eventually, probably in single player mode but at the moment I have too many games and too little time to get into an mmorpg.

Shogun 2 Total War 
I held off buying this in the Steam sale because Gamersgate have it at a similar sale price for another week. This will probably be my first gaming purchase of the new year.
Battlefield 3
I love a good shooter but I suck at multi-player so there is no way I am paying full price for game that is multi-player focussed and has only a short single player game. I didn't see this on sale at an attractive price point yet so I will wait this one out.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Has SWTOR Sold Out? Even on Origin?

Only a couple of days after launch it seems that digital download sales of SWTOR have been halted. 

I am still undecided about purchasing the game but I logged into Origin to check out pricing. At first I was a little bit surprised to see that the only version listed was the digital deluxe version costing €75. I was even more surprised when I clicked the link to be told: "Product No Longer Available".  Thinking I may have missed something I searched again for any other edition but no. There was none available for sale.

Then I went to the Bioware website which directed me to the Origin Web Page for Ireland:   While the web page does list the standard edition (at a price higher than I have seen it in stores) the purchase button is greyed out and I could not purchase the game even if I wanted to.

Interestingly the link to purchase additional game time works. Could it be that EA are actually restricting sales of the game in order to reduce crowding? 

EDIT: False alarm it seems the origin web page is working again and the retail version is now on sale. Perhaps it was something to do with server downtime this morning but why then were game time cards still on sale? 

Steam Christmas Achievement Whoring

Over the last few days I have surprised myself by how much fun I am having collecting Steam Christmas achievements. Ostensibly these are for Steam related prizes but the prizes themselves have so far been unexciting: a free game I am unlikely to ever play, discounts off several others I have no interest in and several lumps of coal. Collecting the achievements themselves however provides an interesting excuse to look at games I might otherwise never had played.

Apart from a couple of "click this box to win" achievements most of them require you to achieve a certain goal in one of the games that is currently on sale on Steam. Many can be completed fairly quickly by an entry level character but others require hours of play to get to the correct spot in game. Happily there is help at hand in the Steam forums with guides and even save games to help achievement collectors towards their goals.

Of course it is a waste money to buy games just to earn a fairly worthless prize so I have to restrict my efforts to those games I either own already, intend to purchase anyway or can acquire for a trivial amount (read free). Even under these restrictions I have so far been able to knock out achievements in Orcs must Die (clear the first level with a particular type of trap),
Psychonauts (hunt and cook a bird and a squirrel),
Spiral Knights (hit a player with a snowball)
Dungeons of Dredmor (brew a particular potion).

In each case the achievement took me about half an hour starting from scratch with the exception for Psychonauts where I had to download a save game to get to the correct level. As someone who normally hates achievements because they often distract from playing the game I find it strangely entertaining to start a game with no intention of playing normally but just to follow a set of instructions required to get a bizarre achievement.

Monday, December 19, 2011

If I were a despot: Part 1 - Controlling the Internet

Why do despotic governments make such a big deal about internet firewalls and trying to clamp down on "insidious foreign websites" like Facebook and Youtube. It seems to me that such loudly proclaimed efforts are as amateurish as those of the most inept Bond villain.

Can these would be megalomaniacs not see that the internet is the greatest surveillance tool ever invented? No longer do we have to pay an army of informers to eavesdrop on the conversations of their friends and families. Gone is the need for midnight secret police raids on subversives meeting in abandoned warehouses. Instead of such outdated techniques monitoring the communications of your citizens over the tubes of the internet will provide vastly more information.

Rather than banning Youtube, Facebook or any other seditious website invest in warehouses full of hard disks and record all of the online activities of your populace. The more seditious the website the more useful will be the information it gathers for you. 

Amateur security experts may fool themselves that encryption and anonymising services will keep them safe. Happily for the would be despot no security system is safe from a well organised man in the middle attack and it should be relatively simple to ensure that you are the quintessential man in the middle.  The usual techniques of bribery, coercion, threats to family members and such will quickly ensure that not a single byte travels over your national internet that doesn't also go through your own monitoring system. Do not advertise this fact. Let it be done with the lightest of touches. Should one of your citizens wish to use encryption or anonymising services then let them. Well, rather, let them use the carefully altered versions that you, as man in the middle, have substituted in their place. The more accomplished phishing organisations have developed such practices to a fine art so it should be relatively trivial when you have the resources of a nation behind you.

Indeed the biggest problem you are likely to face is the extreme surfeit of information that is going to be collected. You will have ready access to the most private communications both innocent and subversive of your citizens. Happily several large organisations have refined the science of mining useful information from a vast sea of data to a high degree. I am sure that their techniques can be copied or more likely bought.

Needless to say you are going to have to change your recruitment policies. Candidates with a creative flair for information processing and degrees in computer science are likely to be of more use to future  leaders than those with an ability to painfully extract fingernails. It would be no harm either if recruits had siblings, spouses and other family members to whom they felt a protective attachment. Might be a good idea to keep a few of the fingernail pullers on hand too. Just in case.

Anyway I am not a despot nor do I want to be one so I can only be grateful that no real world government has figured out the incredible surveillance potential of the internet because done well such practices would be extremely powerful and very hard to detect. Oh, wait ....

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To SWTOR or not to SWTOR

Christmas is one of the few times of the year when a combination of loosened purse strings and available free time allows me the luxury of sampling recently released games. This year there are a few possible contenders for my Christmas holiday gaming list: Skyrim is a leading candidate while Arkham city, Shogun 2 and even Modern Warfare 3 are all possibilities and then of course there is the tantalising prospect of SWTOR.

The timing of SWTOR couldn't be better for a Christmas gaming blitz and there is something magical about the early days of an mmorpg. Settings, quests and activities that will come to be regarded as tiresomely repetitive over the coming months and years are still seen as fresh and new.  The only trouble is that it is an mmorpg and I thought I had grown out of mmorpgs. My recent attempt at logging into LOTRO to sample the Isengard content lasted all of 30 minutes before I got bored and logged out. I don't think this is just burnout with one game. The whole mmorpg genre fails to inspire me. In fact at this point in my life I feel tired of all multi-player games.  I play games for escapism and release from the stresses of every day life. Having to deal with other humans even if it is just a bit of friendly guild banter takes more social effort than I feel like putting in at the moment. I realise of course that modern mmorpg's can be played solo and SWTOR seems to excel at this but if I am going to play solo - then a game designed specifically for its solo experience is likely to be better.

Another factor is that if I do get into an mmorpg it is likely to consume all of my available gaming time for the next weeks and months. How then am I going to fit in Skyrim or any of the other games I really would like to play?

So: To SWTOR or not to SWTOR that is the question.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mr Fixit or Mr. Breakit

I seem to have spent the entire weekend fixing things. This would normally be a cause for pride of accomplishment on my part except for the fact that at least one of the breakages was completely my own fault.

The first patient was a cable  remote which had stopped talking to the set top box. After several batteries were wasted by various members of the family who assumed that batteries were the problem I decided that I had better roll up my sleeves and "look into it".

Looking into it consisted of  prising the plastic cover apart and peering at the circuit board inside, knowing full well that if there was anything seriously wrong I wasn't going to be able to fix it. While peering I noticed that the keypad matrix on the circuit board was covered in a syrupy gloop. The rubber keypad mat had its own fair share of this gloop. Guessing that this wasn't a design feature I carefully cleaned both and re-assembled. Hey Presto the remote works and Daddy is a hero.

The second case was my wife's PC which has been acting up for a few weeks, hanging irrecoverably at random intervals. These hanging incidents were just frequent enough to annoy my wife considerably but neither frequent enough nor predictable enough for me to make a serious attempt at solving the issue. It ffinally came to a head at the weekend when the computer sat down for good and refused to boot. My keen photographer spouse was quite distraught at her inability to get into photoshop but I was actually pleased. I knew from experience that a fault that stops the machine from working at all is usually easier to diagnose and fix than one that occurs randomly once a day.

She actually has five big hard disks on this machine to store all her photos but the problem turned out to be related to the main windows disk. A combination of binary search, trial and error, booting from puppy linux, disk repair using another machine, reseating all connectors and cleaing the machine out with a vacuum cleaner got us up and running again and I am hopeful that the problem is now fixed. Kudos again for Daddy.

The final repair job is the one that consumed most of my time and is the also the one that is entirely my own responsibility. It arose from attempts to upgrade the operating system on my Android phone. They say that if something isn't broken then you shouldn't try to fix it and that certainly applies here. Yes my phone was running an older version of Android but it was working great and it did everything I needed it to do. Complicating matter further was the fact that the latest version of Android hadn't been officially released for my country yet so I had to install a hacked version downloaded from the web.

I am not completely clueless. I have hacked my phone before with great results   but this time things didn't run so smoothly.

Although the upgraded operating system appeared to work very well the first problem that I had failed to anticipate is that the upgrade wiped all my apps and data. This wasn't the disaster it could have been because I was able to restore everything from backups and from the cloud but reconfiguring everything to be the way I like was time-consuming and tedious. It was made harder by the fact that the wifi seemed to be acting up and attempts to download anything more than a few megabytes invariably failed.

Eventually the wifi issue got to me and I went to google to discover that this was indeed a known issue for some phones using this latest version of the operating system. Various tweaks to the phone (and to the wifi router) were offered as solutions by commentators but I tried all of them and nothing worked. In fact my ham fisted repair attempts made things worse leaving me eventually with a phone that couldn't connect to the internet at all either via wifi or packet data.

At around midnight on Sunday I came to the twin realisation that a) My attempts at repairing the new operating system weren't working and b) I needed the phone to work better than this for the week ahead. I resigned myself to a late night and went through the tedious process of downgrading back to an official version of the Android operating system (which wiped all my stuff again) and then re-configuring and reinstalling everything I needed again. It was 2am before I had a fully working phone and could finally go to bed.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

DRM makes criminals of us all.

I recently found myself in a position where the only practical solution for me to enjoy ebooks I had legitimately purchased (would have been) to engage in the highly illegal pursuit of using a drm removal too. The cause was a clash of software upgrades and activation limits with a healthy dose of misunderstanding from me thrown in.

I am not a lawyer and the law on drm circumvention is pretty confusing at the moment. There is an EU treaty from 2001 which appears to makes it highly illegal to even think about anti drm but it hasn't been transcribed into my own countries national law yet and I believe there is still some discussion over possible exceptions (ie fair use provisions). 

Well I am not going to admit to breaking the law but I will say that Google informed me that there was a very easy to use open source, community supported tool available to perform drm removal  (if I felt so inclined). I quickly realised that this tool (if I were to use it) would make the whole process of managing and reading ebooks a lot more robust and future proof as well as making it more enjoyable by allowing me freedom to choose whatever reader I liked best.

A curious thought struck me as I was thinking about this drm removal tool.  A genuine criminal I wouldn't need this apparently highly illegal piece of software. A criminal would just download a pirated version without drm. The only people who need to use drm removal are those who have already acquired (presumably legally) a piece of drm protected content.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

They are going to have to bring back farthings.

First we had digital retailers like Steam discounting AAA games from €40 down to €10 and it felt like a revolution.

Then the revolution moved on to indie titles which usually cost €10 or €15 and these were discounted down to €1 or €2.

Now we have the Android Sale discounting mobile  games that normally only cost a couple of euro down to €0.10.

Pretty soon they are going to have to bring back halfpenny's and farthings in order to allow this discounting madness to continue.

Wot I am playing

Finished Red Faction Armageddon. I enjoyed this third person linear shooter a lot but I agree with reviews that give it a "good but not great" rating. Red Faction's unique selling proposition is an engine which allow for insane levels of property destruction and Armageddon brings a unique repair capability to the mix. Unfortunately most of the time the stuff that gets destroyed is the platform you are standing on or the box you are trying to take cover behind and this gets somewhat tiresome.

Currently playing Sanctum. I don't generally like Tower defence games.Partly this is because I am bad at them but also because I find it very depressing to watch an inexorable stream of monsters march towards my inner sanctum despite my usually inept efforts at stopping them. Sanctum however spices up the mix a bit by inserting you into the fray in FPS mode and I find that is enough for me to overcome my dislike of the tower defence format.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Portal 2 two screen coop on one PC.

I mentioned before that I intended to try Portal 2 in "unofficial split screen co-op mode. Well split screen on a small computer monitor is a recipe for a headache especially when the game defies gravity as much as portal. However a minor bit of extra fiddling allowed us to drive two seperate screens from one PC.

The Steam forums describes a complicated method of doing this that I couldn't get working so this simpler method which worked for me might be of use to someone.

1. First I followed the instructions in this post to get split screen multi-player working:
A minor issue not mentioned is that you need to enable the console from the keyboard/mouse options menu
I am using keyboard and one wired Xbox360 controller as suggested. Getting the controller to switch to channel 2 was tricky at first but as Chameleon8 mentions plugging it out and in again during loading works. The trick for me was to do the plug / plug out quickly.
2. When game is running make sure you have vertical split screen. Use the console command ss_splitmode  0 if necessary to change it.

3. To get the image split between monitors I went back to the desktop and used my graphics card software (ATI Catalyst for me) to configure the two screens as one big screen. In  catalyst this is called grouping and is accessed under the desktop management of the catalyst control centre. I am sure Nvidia cards have a similar feature.  Both screens have to have the same resolution so I set them both to the resolution of the smaller monitor. This means a small loss of quality but it isn't really noticeable.

4. With both monitors acting as one big widescreen I ran portal in multiplayer again and this time the image stretched across both screens. I enabled vertical split screen and hey presto player one on one screen and player 2 on the other.

It is takes a minute or two to set up but it is worth it. We are having lots of fun together working through the levels.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Could my daughter be the new Felicia Day?

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portal 2 finished now on to split screen multiplayer

Really really good.

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

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

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

Fun Android Game: Defender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

X3 Reunion update

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

X3 Reunion continuing adventures

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Skyrim a runaway success. Hope for Humanity after all?

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

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

A little experiment in human behaviour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

A hint for Homeworld 2

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

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

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

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

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

It gets even better.

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Homeworld 2

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 07, 2011

A lesson in usability from an octengenarian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Restraining the nerd inside

Sometimes I have to sit on my nerdy instincts.

A couple of days ago a memory stick I use in work to carry files between computers failed. After buying a new memory stick my inner nerd quickly got carried away with the possibilities.

- Some of the material is sensitive so it needs to be encrypted lest the memory stick gets lost or stolen.
- Some of the computers I use lack the appropriate software for decryption and restrictive user rights can make it difficult to install.
- For convenience and security reasons wouldn't it be better to have a bootable operating system on the memory stick that had all my software pre-installed?

So it was that I set about trying to build and install a custom version of Puppy Linux on my memory stick so that I could have a portable self contained working environment.

Puppy Linux is one of the coolest pieces of software on the planet. A self contained operating system that will boot from CD or memory stick and runs on just about any computer you can find. It runs in memory and is fast and responsive yet the default installation is surprisingly fully featured. However it is Linux and a fairly specialised install of Linux at that so any deviation from the default package is not for the faint hearted. The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that Puppy seems to be between versions at the moment, changing from an Ubuntu base to a Slackware base. Four hours after starting I was still struggling to get my custom Puplet to work (puplet is the the name for a custom install of Puppy).

Enjoyable though this hacking was I had a slowly dawning realisation that I might still be playing with this in a month's time and not yet have solved the underlying problem of carrying sensitive files from one PC to another. Ignoring the indignant protests of my inner nerd I decided that the most expedient solution was to install the decryption software on my Windows laptop. If no sensitive files are involved then memory stick on its own will suffice but if encryption is needed then the laptop comes too. It isn't an elegant solution and it isn't a clever solution but it works.

I am still going to try and build my custom version of puppy but I amn't fooling myself by pretending it is work any more. This is purely for entertainment.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Deus Ex Human Revolution. Random thoughts on finishing the game.

1. DXHR really feels like true successor to the 2000 classic. All of the freedom of choice is in there. You really are presented with big open world levels and left to figure things out for yourself. The augments feel powerful and for the most part offer useful alternative ways of completing objectives.

2. This freedom of choice is not as surprising in 2011 as it was in the year 2000 but it is nevertheless refreshing.

3. I like the story. I found it sucked me in sufficiently to encourage me to "role play" my character. Not as good perhaps as the Mafia games but nevertheless still far better than most.

4. Getting into my character's role was absolutely the right way to play the game for me. On a normal difficulty I found the game play quite easy for the most part so if I had fallen into the trap of min maxing my character I am sure it would quickly have become trivial to the point of tedium.

5. Although I was role playing a basically moral character I found that he naturally got more aggressive and violent as the game progressed. With chain gun toting mercs gunning for Adam and his friends it would have seemed utterly stupid to perform non lethal take downs on them. Nevertheless stealth was always his most powerful weapon and he did try to avoid harming the innocent.

6. It took me 48 hours hours to finish the campaign. I took my time but that is still longer than most modern games.

7. I found the controls and interface were fine on the PC. I briefly tried a game pad but went back to keyboard and mouse. The only exception was the Map which is awful in either mode. It uses a vertically layered approach which makes navigation impossible in towns and multi-storey buildings and it sorely needs the ability to place custom markers.

8. While the game's faithfulness to the original pleased me I was also somewhat disappointed at the lack of progress in over a decade. The AI of npcs in particular is terrible. Many of them stand in one place for the whole game and parrot out fixed dialog trees. Enemies patrol endlessly in static loops. In many ways it feels like this game could have been made in 2001. Surely AI programming has progressed since then - it would go a long way to making the world feel more alive.

9. I understand the frustration voiced about the games boss fights being so out of character with the rest of the game. I found them challenging enough but I wasn't eschewing violence so I was happy enough to shoot my way through them. The final boss fight was a bit disappointing though. By that stage of the game my character was almost fully upgraded and more than a match for anything the game threw at me. I managed to complete the encounter before I realised what was going on.


The last game from the Indie Bundle I got around to playing was Trine. This is a platformer with a twist in that you can swicth between three different characters each with different abilities in order to overcome the various challenges that the games levels throw up. This is a style of game play made famous by 1992 game called the "Lost Vikings" from a little known company called Silicon and Synapse who soon after changed their name to Blizzard entertainment.

I have very fond memories of the lost Vikings and it is generally acknowledged as a classic so it is surprising that the format has rarely been copied. "Project Eden" was one such attempt set in a 3-D world but that game failed to grab me. Trine is more faithful to Viking's platformer heritage and proved good enough to keep my interest to the end.

The good bits:
1. The graphics are drop dead gorgeous. The loving attention to detail really makes the game a joy to behold.
2. Controls are tight and responsive.I tried both keyboard and game pad and both work well.
3. The three characters have well selected varying abilities: A melee fighter with a shield, A ranged archer and a Wizard who can manipulate objects.

The bad bits:
1. No mid level save (this seems to be an inherent problem with Frozen Byte's games. I think I read somewhere that it is a limitation of whatever platform they use to develop the games.
2. In my opinion the game doesn't make enough use of the character's special abilities. The melee fighter in particular is almost redundant.
3. As a consequence of 2 the game, in my opinion, relies too much on precision jumping and not enough on puzzle solving. At times this gets tedious to the point of boredom.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lady Killers

"Did you know" my wife asked out of the blue "that the average gamer is a 43 year old woman?"

Somewhat surprised at my lovely lady's new found knowledge I mumbled "Um... are you sure they aren't talking about Facebook games"

"Perhaps. I read it in the newspaper. Also did you know that there are four kinds of gamers: achievers, socialisers, killers and something else.  I am an achiever".

She is too. My wife holds every achievement possible in Plants versus Zombies and now she is in the process of repeating the feat with Bejewelled 3.

I am delighted that the mainstream media has not forgotten Richard Bartle's seminal piece of gaming research although I am somewhat surprised to see it being used in relation to Facebook games. Modern them park mmorpgs have diverged very far from the open world MUDs that spawned Bartle's research and sometimes it feels like his work has been forgotten.

By the way I would watch out for that 43 year old lady gamer. She gets up to some pretty dubious stuff if Google is to be believed:

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Approaches to difficulty in puzzle games (Panda free zone)

Despite the name of this blog I am not really a puzzle aficionado but I do enjoy the occasional intellectual challenge. I have been playing SpaceChem on my PC for a couple of weeks now and I would certainly classify it as a challenging puzzle. On my phone I have a tile shifting game called Red Stone which looks simple but is also in fact extremely challenging.

Although both these games have a high level of difficulty the consequence of that difficulty is very different. On the more challenging levels of Red Stone I quickly run out of moves and I have spent literally hours shuffling tiles around in circles without making any progress towards a solution. SpaceChem however is a building game at heart and regardless of how unreachable a solution appears at first it is always possible to make incremental progress towards the final goal. Every failed attempt teaches you something that brings you closer to a solution.

In Red Stone I am well and truly stuck on the ninth level and I have actually become weary of starting the game knowing that it will just result in more frustration. In SpaceChem however it isn't really possible to get stuck so I can make some incremental progress every time I play. Red Stone makes me feel bad about myself while SpaceChem makes me feel good about myself.

Needless to say I much prefer SpaceChem to Red Stone.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Turbine predicts the day of my death.

Logging in to check my Lotro account (in response to yet another security breach warning) I was dismayed to see a big red "Pending Cancellation" notice bannered across my subscription details.
Squinting down through the fine print I saw that yes indeed my LIFETIME membership  was due to expire on June 1 2061.

Think about it.

I will be 97. Not a bad age but with medical advances and such I was hoping to hit the hundred. Ah well. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Memoir 44 - Now it really is free to play

I noticed a subtle change when I logged in to Memoir 44 last night. The first two scenarios are now completely free. This brings the game more into line with other free to play games where you can play a cut down version of the game for free forever but have to pay to get the full flavour. The first two scenarios are going to hold anyone's attention for very long but at least they are there.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

SpaceChem: Look why I made:

Look what happened on my very first attempt at Challenge Going Green:

This is the first time I have ever gotten to the left hand edge of the of the cycles chart so I am pleased with myself. Mind you it was a pretty straightforward challenge - no fancy insights involved just applied lessons learned from previous levels.

A different type of free to play: Memoir:44

Logging into Steam yesterday I spied an advertisement for a free to play game called Memoir:44. I hadn't heard about this one before so I decided to check it out. To be honest I haven't got beyond the tutorial yet but I have already discovered quite few things that are different from other free to play games.

The first point is that the game itself is a faithful online implementation of a successful and well reviewed board game that has an enthusiastic community of both online and offline players.

The second point is that rather than the usual f2p model of letting you play a version of the game for free and then charging for an enhanced experience Days of Wonder have settled on the far more straightforward approach of simply charging you in "gold coins" for every match you play. You can buy batches of gold coins for between €0.03 to €0.04 each depending on quantity and battles cost 2 or three gold coins depending on the scenario you pick.

Battles seem to last about half an hour so that works out at around 20c per hour of entertainment which seems like very good value to me. I think this is a great system that is immune from game breaking item shops and cross subsidies among player groups. Everybody pays for exactly what they get.

I suppose the only problem really is that it is hard to justify the free to play label. They do give you  fifty coins for free which should see you through your first ten hours of play (about twenty games) but to be honest this is probably the purest example of a pay to play game I know. It is very well explained on the Steam page but the games chat box is still full of Steam visitors complaining that "Hey this game is bogus because it isn't free".

I do hope that this doesn't harm the game by generating bad publicity because it seems to be a good game with an enthusiastic community and a very fair business model.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Guilty Confession about Leisure Suit Larry

Leisure suit Larry is being re-released. I owe a lot to that game. Nearly a quarter of a century ago it was the first "real" PC game that I ever finished and I was blown away by how much more sophisticated this was that  the blocky Space Invaders and Pong games I remembered from arcades. (Of course no one could ever accuse Larry's humour of being sophisticated but the gameplay was head and shoulders above anything I had ever seen). That one game led me to Lucas Arts Adventures and from then to Doom and from then to the enduring gaming hobby that remains with me today.

Thats not the confession.

The thing is I didn't own a PC at that stage (late 1980's) few people did. Instead I pulled an all nighter in work to play a bootlegged copy someone had smuggled in to the office. I finished it in the small hours of the morning and I can still remember the feeling of euphoria. I knew this was the start of something big and important.

That isn't the confession though. This is:

Unfortunately the PC I played the game on never worked properly again and some important work files were lost. I never told my boss or my colleagues about my night time exploits particularly after we heard a rumour that certain copies of Leisure Suit Larry had a nasty worm that damaged PCs.

Monday, October 10, 2011

SpaceChem: Are you a component miser or speed merchant.

At the end of every level in SpaceChem the game taunts you with histograms showing how well your design fares against the rest of the community. Having just arrived at an inspired solution to a tricky problem it is always somewhat sobering to realise that your  "brilliant" solution is solidly stuck in the Average section of the graphs. Some herculean corner cutting efforts later later and you can maybe shift your design to the lower slopes of the main sequence but there are always better solutions to the left of yours and indeed there is often a whole new peak far to the left (left being fewer cycles or fewer components). No amount of tweaking will shift your creation to this new lower peak so clearly an entirely new and better concept is required.

Anyway having endured this process multiple times I am firmly convinced that a given solution can be fast or it can be thrifty but it is very difficult to be fast and thrifty at the same time. Speed seems a more laudable goal to me than miserliness so I  am firmly in the speed merchant camp (or would like to be). I will happily throw parts at a solution with joyful abandon in the hope of shaving off a few extra cycles.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The bundle keeps on giving: SpaceChem

My excursion into the world of "pay what you want" is turning out to be far more rewarding that I expected. The lynchpin game of the bundle is the very popular Frozen Synapse and although I was keen to see it for myself I didn't expect it to hold my attention for long. It's too early for me to give a definitive verdict but after playing a few levels of the single player campaign it hasn't grabbed me yet. I do see the quality of the game and I suspect that if I was more into multi-player I would get more out of it.

What I didn't expect was how much entertainment I would get out of the "extras". I really enjoyed Shadowgrounds and its sequel Shadowgrounds Survivor, two old school top down shooters. I should warn you that the original Shadowgrounds has extremely long levels (up to two hours) with no checkpoints. A respawn system gives you some relief if you die half way through a level but if you quit it is back to the start of the level so forget about playing this game in small increments. The sequel "Survivor" has mercifully shorter levels and better game-play balance but the story and overall game design are less ambitious. Both games are highly recommended.

Just when I was about to conclude that I had gotten my money's worth from the Shadowgrounds games  I got an email telling me that the bundle had been expanded to include "SpaceChem" and now I can play that too. SpaceChem is a complicated looking puzzle game so I didn't expect much from it but since downloading it last night it has grabbed my attention. It is complicated and it is challenging but arranging the assorted building blocks in order to produce the right combination of outputs is extremely addictive. After each level the game shows your score against a histogram of other players and I find myself compelled to go back in and tweak my designs to try and shave off a few extra cycles or a few extra components. This is a game about building complicated machines to solve puzzles and about being proud of what you built. SpaceChem opts for the "Throw you in the deep end" method of tutorial leaving players to figure most stuff out by trial and error as they work through the challenging levels. In a world where many games go for extreme hand holding this is actually refreshing and there is a great sense of ownership and pride when you do figure stuff out. There is an ever present worry though that I will eventually hit a puzzle I just can't figure out by myself.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Farewell Steve Jobs

I have never owned an Apple product and yet Steve Jobs has changed the world I live in at least four times.

Jobs and Wozniak's Apple II made the computer personal and in doing so it made the information technology revolution something that everyone of us could share in. Prior to the Apple II only geeks and hobbyists with their own soldering irons need apply.

Later the original Macintosh transformed our expectations of how humans should interact with these strange new thinking machines. It matters little that the the Mac never competed with the more generic PC in terms of sales. It also matters little that few of the ideas in the mac were entirely new. It was Jobs and the Macintosh that showed all of us what was possible.

In more recent times the Ipod and Itunes revolutionised the business of not just music but creative content generally. Again it matter little that the ideas were not particularly new. This time Apple's vision of a product with superior design that was simply better for humans to use than any of its competitors worked and
the I- brand became a tsunami that carried the new paradigm of digital media along with it.

To my mind the Iphone is probably Jobs most important contribution of all. This disruptive product has made portable computing and constant inter-connectivity a reality for millions. In so far as human intelligence can be measured not just by what is in a man's head but more by what information can he access at a moments notice then you could say that the Iphone and similar portable computing devices represent the next step in human evolution. I don't include the Ipad yet in my list of products that changed the world because it is too early yet to gauge its full impact and because I remain to be convinced that the IPad is more than just a big Iphone.

Of course there is a reason why I have never owned any Apple products. Their closed architecture, high price business model never appealed to me. In recent times Apple's vision has become even more controlling and to my mind stifling. Apple's insistence that the only software you put on their product must come from Apple's own retail channel is not just stifling, I believe it is downright dangerous. Mobile computing is too important and too transformative a technology for for one company to be allowed so much control over it.

Regardless of my misgivings about Apple's business model  I salute the extraordinary man who has made such an impact on our world and who sadly passed away yesterday at only 56 years of age.

Steve Jobs RIP

EDIT: I didn't even mention Jobs inspirational support of Pixar. I guess I am not a film buff but judging from other comments around the web Jobs Pixar work was as important as his computer stuff. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

News story from a bygone age

This story of a rural pensioner (apparently) running an unlicensed pub in the remote mountains of Donegal  made me chuckle. It is like a tale from a bygone age.

The garda (policeman) who visited the premises consumed approximately FIVE alcoholic drinks before deciding the venue needed to be shut down. Definitely going above and beyond the call of duty there.

The pensioner is appealing the case proclaiming that:
"I have sold no beer to nobody"

Monday, October 03, 2011

Humble Bundlers are even slicker than I thought

A couple of posts back I mentioned that I was hugely impressed by the design of the Humble Bundle website. Well it turns out I didn't know half the story. Azuriel decided to test the system by making an offer of $0.01 and was good enough to post the results on his blog "In an Age". You should go and read it. Hats of to the Bundler's for a really really great piece of website design.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Torchlight versus Shadowgrounds: Fake versus Real Progression.

 The first game from the latest humble bundle that I tried out is Shadowgrounds Survivor.

There are a lot of similarities between Survivor and Torchlight, a game I finished just a couple of weeks ago. Both games are essentially linear crawls through dungeons infested with assorted creepy crawlies. Both games use third person perspective and have very simple click to interact controls. Both games have level up mechanics and rpg elements.  Of course Torchlight has a fantasy setting while Shadowgrounds has a Sci Fi setting but that isn't the real difference between the games.

The first real difference is that Torchlight has "strong" level up mechanics where your character's strength and abilities get increased many fold as they gain levels while Survivor has weak leveling up with characters getting a few new weapons  and some useful skills but never doubling in power or strength.

Bizarrely it is Torchlight that feels to me like the more repetitive game. Torchlight's progressions feels like fake progression. The monsters you face all get stronger as you progress through the game but since your character level increases proportionately the difficulty level of the game remains flat.  The game does have an illusion of player choice in the skills you choose to equip but in reality character level is everything. In Survivor the enemies you face don't level but you do face larger groups and tougher varieties as you progress. Since your character doesn't get significantly stronger the only way to survive the tougher encounters is get better at the game. Learning to make best use of the small upgrades that leveling provides is one of the key survival skills. This leads to the paradoxical situation that the small upgrades in Survivor have a much bigger impact on gameplay than the big level increases in Torchlight.

Another key difference is that Torchlight is a much longer game that uses randomly generated maps for almost all the levels. Shadowgrounds is shorter but its hand crafted level maps are much more enjoyable to play to my mind.

It is almost as if in Torchlight the gameplay is entirely secondary to the supposed thrill of "leveling up". This point is really rubbed in when you overcome the final boss and instead of fanfare and closing credits you are immediately pointed to another pointless randomly generated dungeon where you can keep leveling up, presumably forever.

So I far prefer Shadowgrounds  Survivor to Torchlight. Yet Torchlight received better reviews averaging 83 on Metacritic as opposed to 79 for Survivor . Torchlight has also  been far more successful commercially and the forthcoming sequel is eagerly awaited by many fans. So much it seems for my taste in gaming.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In which I am humbled by the bundle

I have previously been very dismissive of "pay what you like" offers. My limited understanding of economic theory convinced me that there was no rational justification for customers to pay more than the bare minimum. I couldn't accept that this was a viable business model and I was sure that these offers were no more than a passing fad.

Well, maybe I was wrong. The humble indie bundles continue to thrive generating substantial revenue for indie developers and a chunk of money for worthy charities to boot. I got an opportunity to experience a bundle first hand last night when I bought the latest humble offering the Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle.

I was most impressed with how slick the process is. A single web page quickly lets you know what is on offer and lets you place an order. Choosing the price you pay is trivial and you can even choose how your money is allocated using sliders. This sounds like it could be complicated but it is absolutely not. This is the slickest easiest online checkout I have sever seen. This is a masterclass in encouraging the impulse purchase. There is even live chat support - all available from that same page.

The order delivery is equally slick. There is no logging into accounts and navigating through multiple screens to find your digital goods. Immediately after ordering you get a link to a personalised web page that has all of your games available for download. That same page even offers codes for installing your games under Steam, Impulse and several other gaming platforms.

One single web page for presales and order processing. One single page for order delivery. This is not a passing fad. This is the cutting edge of digital retailing.

I am perhaps most surprised at the price I chose to pay. I could have gotten Frozen Synapse for 1c but paying more than the current average ($4.50 or so) would get me several other games. My rational mind screamed $4.51 but in the end I paid $15. I still amn't entirely sure why. Guilt? The slickly set up order page defaulted to a  price of $25 which was I believe the original price of Frozen Synapse. Frozen Synapse is a game I have heard a lot about and I am keen to try it but I know that I probably won't play it for very long. I was never going to buy it at $25. I probably wouldn't have bought it for $15 in a Steam sale but here I was paying $15 for it in a bundle with a bunch of other games that I have never heard of. The donation to charity aspect is nice but I can't say that influenced my decision. Some strange combination of rationality (I'm not paying $25) and irrationality (I'm not going to be a meanie and pay $5) combined for me to settle on a price of $15.

I still don't understand how all this works but I have to accept that it does. Is this a new business model that overturns the naive assumption of my undergraduate economics textbooks or is this just a natural outcome of traditional economic theory in a business where manufacture and distribution cost have become almost zero? I don't know.


Monday, September 26, 2011

In which nothing much is said for no reason other than it is Monday morning.

I have noticed that bloggers reluctance to write posts over the weekend tends to spill over to Monday morning. Therefore this is probably as good a time as any for me to break my blog silence of over two weeks. I haven't got much say but hopefully I can get away with it given the lack of blogosphere competition this morning.

Busy life at the moment has sapped much of my time and enthusiasm for gaming. I did spend quite a few hours finishing the main Torchlight campaign as an alchemist. Torchlight is a superb example of its type but games of that type normally quickly drive me to utter boredom with their progress quest like repetition. It is a measure of just how busy I have been in the real world that I stuck with it long enough to finish the campaign.

I have been making very slow progress through Deus Ex Human revolution. I feel it is a game that deserves full attention in order to get the most out of it. The game world is full of detail and the variety of augmentation offers many ways of exploring it. You could just blast through the game as a killer warrior or you could (almost) just sneak your way through but I feel that taking either extreme misses a lot of the variety of the game. I am actually trying to role play a character who is basically humane but who is passionate enough to use violence when the situation warrants it. For example when I was asked to infiltrate the police station I used stealth to avoid casualties but when a later mission confronted me with the special forces who murdered my colleagues and ex girlfriend the gloves came off.  Thinking about "what would my character choose" rather than "what gives me the best game play advantage" is a very rewarding way to play the game but it does take concentration and I haven't been able to give much of that to gaming recently.

I have also found some time to install and play Atomic City Adventures from  Windstorm studios. This is a open world driving/shooting game a bit like Grand Theft Auto meets Crimson skies. There is a lot to admire in the game, not least the wonderful 1930's meets the atomic age setting but it does have flaws. The wooden driving controls take some getting used to and this is not helped by the fact that your hoverbike regularly gets stuck in the scenery. Nevertheless the game is very enjoyable and will easily entertain you for a few hours. 

Thursday, September 08, 2011

What happens if people stop buying $60 games

I am cheating a bit here because the bulk of this post is a copy of a comment I left on Andrew Anderson's blog Systematic Babble. Andrew's post reflects a growing trend in gaming which suggests that the days of the $60+ game could be numbered.

Like Andrew I am generally not willing to spend $60 on a game and nowadays there is so much gaming entertainment to be had for so much less that that price point has become almost silly. However I must admit to a certain hypocrisy here. Even though  am miserly in my spending I still really enjoy AAA games with Hollywood level budgets.  I would hate to see a future in which the demise of the $60 game meant that only free to play and Iphone games survived.  Anyway here are my thoughts as expressed in that comment:

I agree that the $60 price point is rapidly becoming unsustainable but I don’t think my gaming hunger can ever be fully sated by $1 Iphone games.I still want to play AAA games with cinematic production values. As an adult with limited time available I am very comfortable with the trend towards short but intense single player campaigns. I am not however prepared to pay $60 for less than 10 hours of gaming. 

As a PC gamer my current compromise is to wait a few months and buy the AAA game in an online sale. Reviewing my game purchases for last year my average spend per game was less than €10 and I still got to play all the games I wanted albeit a little bit behind the crowd. To be honest it feels a bit like cheating to get so many great games for so little money and I don’t know if this situation is sustainable long term. Game developers probably need those $60 dollar sales to pay the massive costs of developing AAA games. 

I am no futurologist but here are some possible scenarios following a collapse of the $60 game market:

1. AAA developers stick with their current strategy of $60 up front and then charge for lots of expensive DLC. Only a few big franchises manage to sustain this price level and even they start hemorrhaging sales once the public tires of them. A video games market crash not seen since the 1980′s ensues. 


2. AAA game developers move to a free to pay plus micro transaction model to try and bolster revenues. This does generate a lot of extra revenue for game developers but has negative impacts on game design as titles are modified to coerce users into spending as much money as possible in the item shop.


3. AAA game developers reduce their prices substantially and the market responds positively greatly increasing sales. The increase in sales more than offsets the reduction in unit price and a new boom in game development ensues.



Tuesday, September 06, 2011

New Survey: The Average Age of Gamers is 106!

Thank you to a recent tweet from Syp for reminding me of one of the most ridiculous things on the internet that seems to hit gamers more often than others. I am talking about the ludicrous age verification checks that ask you to tick the year you were born in order to "prove" you are old enough to view content.

The whole concept is ludicrous because it is trivially easy for a minor to lie about their age in  order to see the prohibited content. In fact given that these almost universally employ roll down lists it is far easier just to scroll wildly towards 1900 than it is to pick out your exact date of birth. I suspect that most people do just that which is why I imagine a survey of the average age of gamers picked up from such tools would indicate that we are all well into our dotage.

Of course randomly scrolling down the dates has its own hazards too. On a couple of occasions I have inadvertently hit  the wrong date and was told: "Sorry you are too young to view this content". This is a complete nuisance because the incorrect age seems to get stored in a cookie leaving you locked out of the content until you can figure out how to reset it.

I guess there is some spurious legal justification for these ridiculous checks but yet I cannot imagine any court in any country accepting the "evidence" produced by one of these.

Monday, September 05, 2011

MW2 single player versus MW1

Having played and enjoyed the single player campaign of Modern Warfare 2 over the weekend I am finally ready to share my thoughts of how it compares to it's predecessor only twenty two months too late!

I realise that these games are most famous for multiplayer but single player is still important both because many players never get beyond a brief flirtation with multi and because the single player game will live on long after Activision turn off the online servers.

Storyline: I was very surprised to find that MW2 has a strong storyline that is both ambitious and audacious. It is certainly more coherent than the thread which ties together MW1's series of missions.

Pacing: The action has cranked up a bit from MW1 to MW2 and the game moves along at a faster pace. Indeed the pacing of the game is pretty much flawless. This is a game that is hard to put down. There are no boring filler patches and there are no unfair difficulty traps. The checkpoint timings are so good as to be virtually un noticeable.

Difficulty: MW2 is definitely an easier game than 1 but this is because there are no unfair difficulty traps in 2 while there were several in 1.

Missions: MW2 has come out on top so far but finally we have an area where it's predecessor triumphs. Modern Warfare 1 has many moments of sublime brilliance and some of the missions rank up there as all time greatest video game experiences.  Missions like "All Ghillied up", "One shot one kill" and "Death From above" remain on in the memory and I still go back and replay them regularly. While MW2 has better over all pacing and coherence there really aren't any standout moments. There wasn't a single mission that gave me an instant urge to replay it. Indeed only a day after finishing the campaign I struggle to remember an individual mission at all.

Overall: It is curious that despite the single player campaign of MW2 winning out over its predecessor in many areas I have absolutely no doubt that MW1 is the better and more important game. Modern Warfare 2 is more polished over all and exhibits significant competence but Call of Duty 4 had moment of standout brilliance.

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...