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.

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...