Monday, December 15, 2014

In which I make a killing (not!) selling Steam trading cards.

I don't really understand Steam trading cards. I know they appear in my Steam inventory when I play games and I am vaguely aware that they come in sets which can be collected to make something else (badges apparently). I have never made a badge and I never even been fortunate enough to acquire a complete set. In fact I don't think that is even without actively buying cards. I would happily ignore the whole business except for the fact that they are trade-able. Trading cards can be bought and sold on the Steam community market for real money (well actually Steam credit but given that I have an ongoing healthy expenditure on games it amounts to the same thing).

Every time you examine a trading card in your inventory it tells you how much similar cards are selling for on the Steam market. This causes me angst. There is a market out there with buyers and sellers. There is money to be made and money to be lost.  I image that Gevlon Goblin, if he ever discovers the Steam market will quickly figure out a way to acquire every game on Steam for free through repeatedly playing the first level of Portal over and over all the while berating morons and slackers like me  who can't figure out how to win the market. 

The trouble is most of the cards you get are worth only a few cents and Valve takes a cut of any sale reducing the proceeds even further. It hardly seems worth the effort of placing such cards on the market. I have in the past sold a few rarer items that sold for 50c or more but these are rare drops and my inventory was stuffed with cheap cards. 

This week Valve introduced a new auction mini-game that involves converting unwanted cards into gems that can be used to bid for games. However little I understand trading cards I understand gem auctions even less. People seem to be bidding crazy amounts for run of the mill games and there has already been a duping scandal. Regardless the demand for gems seems to have injected a bit of life into the trading card market and I noticed a slight upward trend in prices and as being a little bit bored the evening before last I decided that this would be a good time to sell everything. 

I listed around all my trading cards at what I judged to be the going market rate and they have been selling actively since.  I have sold about 70 cards so far netting a grand total of €4.51 and if the 45 remaining items sell I could end up with more than €6 worth of Steam credit for the half an hour of effort it took to list them all. Ignoring the fact that I had to buy and play the games originally that is slightly better than minimum wage for the time spent listing cards.  

I strongly suspect that Steam Trading tycoons would laugh at my clumsy sell off. No doubt there are ways to cleverly double and triple profits by crafting this and trading that. Regardless it feels somewhat refreshing to have a clean Steam inventory. I am also going to try and use the few euro in credit somewhat creatively. I will buy something in the Christmas sale that I would not normally buy. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Shadow of Mordor - Like a Chinese take-away

They say you feel hungy again an hour after finishing a Chinese take away and that is sort of how I feel about Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor. I really enjoyed the game but now that I have just finished it I am not sure if it will leave any lasting memories. The game play, the setting and the whole presentation are absolutely terrific but overall it is a collection of fun gaming activities rather than a massive integrated work. The story itself (of the game not of Lord of the Rings) is fairly forgettable which doesn't help but I actually think the enormous freedom the game give you also contributes to this lack of overall purpose.

Come to think of it I felt very similarly about finishing Far Cry 3. Perhaps this is a feature of what are being described as Ubisoft style open world games.

Another gripe is that the game forgoes a final epic boss fight in lieu of a sequence of quick time events (press X to not die sort of thing). This is a let down in my opinion and is somewhat surprising given that an earlier boss battle half way through the game actually required you to battle the boss.  

The next game in my "to be played list" was Assassins Creed Unity. I am really looking forward to the game because it looks so beautiful but given that it is the very definition of an Ubisoft open world game I am beginning to wonder if I should try something a bit more substantial first. 

Sunday, December 07, 2014

PC Update: Final piece of the puzzle

Over-clocking the Ageing CPU was the final stage required to bring my ageing gaming rig up to 2015 specification.

Original post here:

Earlier trials had proven my i5-760 had plenty of over-clocking headroom while maintaining stability but that the stock Intel heat-sink was unable to dissipate the additional heat generated. A Zalman CPS10X  heatsink addressed that problem for a modest €26 additional investment.

Zero points for neat cabling but at least the airways are clear. 

I had taken  measurements well and fitting the large heatsink posed no real problems although it took a while because I had to remove the motherboard to fit a rear retaining plate. The i5-760 has a factory locked multiplier so over-clocking is a trade-off that requires adjustments to cpu, ram and IMC voltages and timings. I used the utilities that came with my ASUS motherboard to get a ballpark position before manually tweaking. In the end I settled for a rock solid 25% over-clock that keeps the peak CPU temperature below 79°C under severe torture testing and to the mid 60's during actual heavy gaming. My i5 now runs at a nominal 3.6GHz but this isn't directly comparable to a modern 3.6GHz processor because of the older architecture. Nevertheless it should serve me well enough for the next year's gaming. 3D Mark Fire-strike score for the final rig is 8,717 which is less than 5% below their modern "High End Gaming PC" benchmark. The rig runs Assassin's Creed Unity smoothly as butter in high quality mode with Vsync at 60 frames per second. I got the game free with my GTX 970 graphics card and it looks absolutely gorgeous. It is probably the most beautiful game I have ever seen.

An interesting side story: Modern CPUs vary their internal clock rate and disable cores depending on temperature and load. In order to test over-clocking it is normal  to disable these energy saving features while doing stability and thermal testing. Once I determined that my CPU ran stably  within acceptable temperature limits at 3.6GHz.  I went back into the bios to re-enable these  features in order to avail of the energy saving benefits. On rebooting I was quite surprised to see that the processor was now running at 4.1 GHz rather than 3.6GHz??? It seems that my efforts had also enabled turbo mode which over-clocks the processor when less than half of the four cores are in use. I was worried that this would invalidate my careful stability tests but further torture testing didn't show up any glitches and I decided to leave it as is.

Here for reference is a full list of the before and after in my project to bring a five year old gaming PC up to 2015 standard with a budget of only €400.

Cost of Upgrade
2.9GHz /3.3GHz
I5-760 3.6GHz/4.1GHz
€26 for new Heatsink
4Gb  x 1333MHz
8Gb x 1666MHz
€25 for extra 4Gb
64Gb SSD Cache drive
€39 for SSD
€24 for Software
Graphics Card
Radeon HD 5850
Nvidia GTX 970
Total Cost of parts


Note 1: Total shipping costs came to another €18 for a total delivered cost of €442
Note 2: For an estimate of US equivalent prices just take the euro figures as US $. Our high sales tax pretty much cancels out the euro dollar exchange rate.

A little over my €400 budget but I should recoup the difference by selling my HD 5850 and the bulk of the investment will still be useful in a new build next year. The GTX 970 should be good for two years at least. I intend to keep using the SSD cache as long as I still use large spinning HDDs. Even the heatsink may be useful on a new motherboard. Only the ram is almost certain to be obsolete.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

PC Update 3: SSD Caching Software: PrimoCache or VeloSSD?

This is third in a series of updates about the steps I am taking to extend the life of my gaming PC. You can read the original post

My error in buying a 64Gb standard SSD rather than a dedicated cache drive means I have to look for separate caching software. Owners of newer Intel motherboards may be able to avail of Intel's Smart Response caching service but I have to look for a third party solution and the two leading contenders seem to be Romex Software's PrimoCache and EliteBytes VeloSSD.

There is only one desktop version of Primocache and the cheapest single computer personal license is $29.99. This doesn't appear to have restrictions in terms of number of disks or disk size and it supports two level caching (ram and SSD). The base version of Velossd does not support ram caching but they offer a new product MaxVeloSSD which offers two level caching and is directly comparable to Primocache.  Elite bytes offer a confusing range of licensing options as outlined on their rather amateurish looking website: with different limitations in terms of number of disks and size of cache. The closest direct competitor to Primocache is probably MaxVeloSSD professional which costs an identical $29.99 but you can get a personal edition of Velossd for only $9.99 that doesn't have a ram cache, can only cache one disk and is limited to 64Gb ssd cache. VeloSSD's free trial is a disappointing 7 days and the trial version is limited to caching only one disk. If the trial period is so short why on earth limit the functionality as well?

I downloaded and tried trial versions of Primocache and MaxVeloSSD. Both worked marvellously at speeding up my machine. After a couple of days of general use including web browsing, some office programmes and game playing hard disk access has become much less frequenct and disk thrashing is a thing of the past.

Performance wise I cannot tell them apart (other than the fact that the trial version of VeloSSD only caches my c: drive). Boot up times are within one second of each other (and about a third of the uncached bootup time). The machine takes longer to shut down with  Velossd though for some reason.

In terms of general presentation PrimoCache is the clear winner for me. Just look at the two websites for one example. PrimoCache's setup tool is also far more useful allowing you to vary many of the cache parameters. It can even be used to monitor the cache performance with details on reads, writes, cache storage and a handy graph of cache hit rate. The trial version of MaxVelossd offers no such tools  - it is pretty much press the button and go. I am fairly sure the paid version doesn't offer much more but I cannot tell because of their stupid decision to limit the features of the trial version.

Result: I strongly recommend an ssd cache for ssd like responsiveness from traditional HDDs. I will be buying a license for Primocache.

Aside: I need to decide how much of my ram and ssd to use for caching. I have seen people advocate very large caches of 100Gb or more but my experience of caching is that performance increases with cache size until it hits a point of diminishing returns. My 1Gb ram cache is constantly full but I have only 8Gb ram in total so I am reluctant to allot more than 1Gb to this. Over two days of general use including some large games (Shadow of Mordor and AC Unity) the ssd cache has not filled more than 12Gb  and I am consistently getting 80%+ cache hit rate. I have therefore decided to go with 1Gb ram and 32Gb ssd. I will use the remaining 32Gb partition on my ssd as a regular disk to store files that I frequently use.

Asassin's Creed Unity first impressions

Nvidia are giving away free  Ubisoft games with their GTX970/980 video cards and I chose Assassin's Creed Unity. Eighteenth century Paris was too tempting a prize to turn down. There is a lot of forum discontent about the game because the initial release was apparently badly optimised and buggy in places. The  minimum system specs are huge but Nvidia cards seem to fare better than AMD in this game so I reckoned that AC Unity was a good a way to test my recent upgrades.

I have only played for about an hour so far but I am delighted to say that the game is running very smoothly so far. I am playing in Very High quality, 1680x1050, 60fps with Vsync on. I am a little surprised at it running so well because my ageing cpu is below minimum spec. No evidence of glitches or stuttering yet. Fingers crossed.

I am even more delighted to say that the rendition of 18th century Paris is absolutely stunning.   The clothes, the architecture and the furniture are completely gorgeous and the city throngs with life.

It is too early for me to make much comment on the game-play but early comparisons with Shadow of Mordor suggests that the controls of Unity are not as intuitive nor as fluid as that game. For the moment I don't care though it all just looks so beautiful.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Extending the life of my gaming PC (Update)

Original post here:

The parts I have ordered to extend the life of my gaming PC are beginning to come in. First up was the additional 4Gb memory. Although I bought these second hand to keep costs down they turned out to have almost identical specifications and timings to the memory already in place. This could be useful for over-clocking of which more later.

The second part to arrive was my Inno3D GTX 970. I haven't had much opportunity to play with it yet but I am very impressed so far. Shadows of Mordor on my HD5850 benched at 42fps average with medium settings. The GTX970 is hitting over 120 fps with the same settings a 3x improvement. It manages 100+ fps with ease in very high settings. In practise I always enable Vsync for gaming so the practical implication of this is that I can play modern games at 60fps again having gotten used to settling for 30fps on the HD5850. This uses a non reference 2 fan cooling design which keeps the card cool and quiet but also allows it to be remarkably compact. Winner all round.

I got an email from Amazon to say that my SSD is on the way only to discover that I had somehow ordered the wrong part. I wanted a 32Gb cache drive instead I ordered a 64Gb standard SSD. 64Gb is too small to be useful as a stand alone drive so I was resigned to returning it and sucking up the additional transport fees but then I discovered that it is possible to get caching software that works with a generic SSD. Romex Primocache and Elitebytes Velossd seem to be the most likely contenders. Both are non free programmes but they offer trial versions so I will try both to see if either meets my needs.

Did I mention over-clocking? Well as a rule I strongly recommend against it.  The downsides in my experience almost always outweigh the upside. Unless you buy expensive high end components and cooling the small gains that are possible do not compensate for the reduced stability, higher power consumption, higher noise, reduced component life and all round extra hassle. However in this case I find myself with a machine that has a fast modern graphics card that is almost certainly going to be bottlenecked by an ageing processor: an ageing i5-760 processor that was widely noted for its over-clockability with increases of 40-50% over base speeds widely reported. I played around with my clock setting a bit and the CPU does indeed appear to have plenty of headroom.  A 10% over-clock is as far as I am willing to go with the stock Intel cooler but it appears that a rock stable 20% overclock is within easy reach if I can keep the processor cool. Back to Amazon for a Zalman CPNS10 Optima. This was well reviewed and is selling at a good price. It will probably remain useful for my new Windows 10 build next year. A 20% over-clock will raise my I5 from its normal 2.9GHz up to 3.5GHz which should allow it to deliver acceptable levels of 2015 gaming performance.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Over the last few weeks I have found myself getting  sucked in to Shadow of Mordor. I don't normally indulge in recently released AAA games but the combination of Tolkien and Arkham was enough to convince me this one time. 

The game ambience owes more perhaps to Petr Jackson than to Tolkien and it is unusually violent (albeit the spouting blood is all Orcish black). Nevertheless I am enjoying it greatly. 

I have seen this style of game called "Ubisoft like Open World"  similar to the recent Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games. You have a beautiful open world to explore with many optional side-quests and mini games in addition to a main quest line.  I have also seen criticism of the repetitiveness of it all. 

Shadow of Mordor does have many repetitive elements and yet it offers a large range of different game play opportunities. When you are first thrust into the world the  vast array of things to do is quite over-whelming. You gradually learn how it all works by simply playing. There is never only one thing to do next and the game is very happy to let you develop your skills at your own pace. It is true that once you master one aspect of the game you will find that it crops up over and over again and yet I find a certain satisfaction in that. To be honest I am enjoying the game more now than my first few hesitating days when any given enemy could kill me. Indeed several lowly grunts managed to feed of my repeated demises to grow into powerful adversaries. Now I find I have slipped into a groove and it gives me quite a bit of satisfaction to slaughter these uppity Captains who boast of killing me in the past. 

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...