Star Wars Fans Rule!

Star Wars Uncut – The Director’s Cut

Star Wars Episode IV, cut into 15s chunks, re-filmed by fans and stitched back together. Brilliant. I only wish I’d clued into this project earlier and had the opportunity to submit a chunk.

Hopefully, Lucas sees the value in supporting his fans in this. Were Lucas strong in the force (like Yoda), he would have been all over supporting this from the beginning.

– Tuebit

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SOPA on a Ropa

The US Congress is going to vote on SOPA/PIPA. Don’t just read about it. At the very least, go sign a petition. But I’m not going to shut down this site in protest, because inconveniencing 4 readers isn’t going to accomplish anything at all, while writing a brief essay will simply accomplish very little instead.

I’m no legal expert. I’m just an amateur pundit. I’ve read conflicting analyses of SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act.” Some say it’s the end of free speech on the Internet in the US, and some say there really isn’t much of a threat at all. Here’s what I think.

It DOES impact ME. This isn’t a distant, unimportant threat. Any move that curtails freedom on the Internet impacts me. In the strictest reading, I’d have to massively crack down on even fair-use quotes, citations, and imagery — just in case I could become a target. I’d never be able to run a blog or a forum again that allowed user-submitted links or embedded media. It’s just too dangerous. And it doesn’t matter if this is factually the way life has to be under SOPA. I love my audiences on my various blogs and forums (fora?) but this is hobby material, and I simply can’t afford so much as a single legal entanglement. SOPA could shut me down.

I want specialists doing specialized things. Lawyers (and otherwise-trained Congressional types) should make laws, but techies should guide technology. When it comes to making laws about technology, I’m not sure who — if anyone — ought to prevail, but I don’t think it should be business and lawyer types in collusion. I say, leave well enough alone unless there is a clear and compelling reason to intercede with something as heavy-handed as a law. (I will make an exception for Congresspeople who are internet entrepreneurs.) The wrong people created and promoted SOPA.

Piracy is a real problem. But nobody can provide figures on how much it really costs. The net cost to a company when someone pirates a game, software, music, or a movie is not zero — there is a definite marginal opportunity cost that is lost to them while the pirate gains the very real use of whatever was downloaded. On the other hand, it’s highly unlikely that every pirated work would be purchased at retail price, so that’s not the right figure either. It’s somewhere in between. And technical solutions don’t seem to be solving things. DRM schemes can be intrusive, online services don’t solve access control problems for everything, anti-piracy schemes hurt honest consumers more than anyone, and so on. I didn’t promise a solution, but nuking web sites will not really halt digital piracy.

Technological arms races don’t work and only cause damage. The specific methods for SOPA undermine the DNSSEC protocol by essentially requiring a “man-in-the-middle” or MITM attack on the “correct” domain data in DNS. What next? Mandate stateful packet inspection? Then it becomes an arms race of VPNs, cryptography, and proxies like TOR. Maybe solutions have to become exotic, like steganography (hiding data in images, audio, or video). The fact is that DNS-removed sites can be accessed already. And it’s not through some super high-tech hack, or even editing your own hosts file. There is a friendly Firefox plugin to un-blackhole DNS. It ALREADY doesn’t work.

If you want to read more about why SOPA is bad, written by real writers with their own facts, go to http://americancensorship.org/

Posted in Rants | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Why, SWTOR, of course!

SWTOR avatarWhere have I been since Christmas? It should be no surprise to most folks that I was an enormous SWG fan and a general Star Wars nerd, owning upwards of 20 books, all the movies, and at least 3/4 of the videogames released since Jedi Knight. Yes, I’m burning my spare time in a galaxy far, far away.

I’m finding it challenging to pull myself away from SWTOR. Emi and I have been duo’ing through the game and having a downright blast doing so, with both of us right around level 40 at the moment. But I see all these fancy, smart MMO blog pundits making all kinds of cheery and gloomy predictions about SWTOR, and I want to play that game, too!

Pros

The biggest pro I see about SWTOR is that nearly all of my gaming friends are both playing it and having a wonderful time doing so. The story-driven gameplay — the biggest design risk I saw — is quite fun. The “WoW-in-space” model works mostly smoothly, most of the time. The voice acting is even entertaining… most of the time.

By and large, the lore is excellently executed. Thanks, Bioware, for making sure your Mandaloreans speak Mando!

Light/Dark side choices are actually interesting. I’m enjoying the plot twists for unexpected choices, like Emi’s Light Side Sith Warrior.

Cons

Like just about every MMO I’ve ever played near launch, it’s buggy. The velocity on closing out bugs doesn’t seem all that high. Graphical glitches abound. There are bugs. Did I mention that there are lots and lots of little annoying bugs, coupled with a few downright painful ones? For example, the boss of my Bounty Hunter’s Act 1 finale mission simply refused to spawn. (If this happens to you, log all the way out and come back without resetting the mission. You’ll have to re-clear the trash and the NPC might spawn this time.) Also, there are bugs.

Story-driven gameplay is pretty awesome, but it’s got to drive the cost of content releases up. I worry that Bioware will be unable to maintain the pace of content releases necessary to sate the virtual piranhas that can skeletonize an epic raid dungeon in seconds.

Endgame content seems sparse right now. They’ll definitely have to beef this up to improve the long-term retention.

Twileks with Brooklyn accents make me want to stab them.

Conclusion

Well, my (idiotically large 24-inches-on-a-side-cube) Collector’s Edition purchase is a sure giveaway — I definitely WANT to see this game succeed. WoW, as an example, launched with many of the same impediments (though on the other hand, it’s no longer 2007, either). I still see a solid economy, lots of traffic in play areas, and plenty of chatter. My SWG guild has reformed and everyone seems pretty cheerful in SWTOR for now. I give the game better-than-even odds of being a pretty solid hit for at least 6 more months.

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Happy Holidays

No, I haven’t declared a “war on Christmas.” I just like the term “Happy Holidays” more. It flows. And I have a thing for alliteration anyway. Anyway, here’s a pre-holidays post with a couple of random internet grab bag items.

Look, it’s a Cthulu-mas tree!
Cthulu-mas tree

Also, I dug through some of my music archives and found a couple of… unusual songs that I somehow still like almost a decade later.

Coventry Carol of the Bells – a mashup of Coventry Carol and Carol of the Bells. With rock guitar.
Nine Inch Drummer Boy – a very heavy style (not as industrial as I’d do now, but then, I had only a small selection of drum synths back then) on a very light song.

I’ll dribble out a few more holiday songs over the next few days. If I can tear myself away from SWTOR. Possibly with a crowbar.

Posted in Off Topic | 1 Comment

Input

I’ve gone through quite a number of input devices over the years. At present, I use about 6 regularly. I’m more or less a Logitech fanboy, but that sort of loyalty tends to drift for me; at one point, I had more Microsoft input devices than a Kinect convention. I’ll stick with a brand while I’m happy with their gear, but it doesn’t take much to drive me away forever. (Or, in summary, a certain full force-feedback joystick should have received driver support in a certain NT-kernel update to a popular operating system…)

I have a Logitech diNovo Bluetooth Media Desktop that, frankly, I despise. Sadly, it’s been totally reliable for a number of years, and was expensive enough that I’ll probably never justify replacing it. The mouse is pretty OK — it has the now-required “browse forward / browse back” buttons and meets my “has a charging stand” minimum requirement for a wireless mouse. The separate wireless numpad is a mixed blessing — it’s nice to be able to stash it when desk space is at a premium, and it functions as a standalone calculator. But it devours batteries voraciously, and it isn’t ACTUALLY a numpad, meaning you cant use Alt + Numpad to enter extended ASCII. Finally, there’s the keyboard itself. While it has beautiful lines, the spacebar just hates me. It always has. I swear I press it, but it just doesn’t register quite as reliably as I wish. That said, I used this set primarily for years, like that car that doesn’t run quite right but just won’t die. Nowadays, it’s relegated to the secondary computer, the Mac Mini.

I have an actual joystick… in this case, an older-but-aging-well Logitech Freedom 2.4 cordless. I don’t have a ton to say, other than that I require a Z-axis, throttle, and hat for space flight sims, and this joystick has been great for years. At this point, I actually do NOT have a gamepad, because I play console games… well, on my consoles. Also, somebody ought to write a new awesome space flight sim soon, because that genre has been sadly quiet ever since Freespace 2 or so in 1999. (If memory serves, I purchased this particular joystick primarily for Star Wars Galaxies: Jump to Lightspeed. And I still preferred it to using the mouse there…)

I have a Wacom Graphire tablet. Despite what the box promised, I am still unable to draw, even with this device. However, I will never look at photo retouching the same way. If you’ve never tried using a tablet, there’s a bit of adaptation while you get used to the slight disconnect between onscreen and where your pen is on-tablet, but the incredible grace pressure sensitivity adds to even mundane dodge-and-burn or retouch-and-erase just can’t be overstated. The Graphire was a nice balanced entry model, with reasonable quality and featureset but low cost, though it’s a bit older now and there are new models to try out.

Contour Design ShuttlePro v2The unexpected gem of my collection is my ShuttlePro v2. I bought it for the shuttle and jog wheels; if you do audio or video work, even a few minutes with this kind of device will leave you an absolute convert. I wanted a full-on control surface, but those ranged from $200 for a Fisher-Price feeling el-cheapo model to well into the thousands. The ShuttlePro retails around $110 and can often be found for far less. In addition to jog and shuttle, it has another 15 buttons. Every single “control event” – jog up, shuttle down, each button, and more, can be set to anything from a keypress to a full timed macro of mouse and key events. The “surprise, this device is pretty amazing” feature that catapulted this to the top of my toys list, however, was completely unexpected: the driver software detects your foreground application, and quietly swaps out control sets as you switch — I used this device as heavily in Visual Studio as in Cakewalk. While I’m on the topic of audio input devices, I broke with my old PC designs when assembling my current high-performance rig. Rather than investing in a high-end sound card, I stuck with the onboard audio and spent the money on a decent input device. I settled on the M-Audio Fast Track Pro; the combo XLR-1/4″ inputs with available phantom power accomodate my microphone, guitar, and keyboard easily, and it features MIDI as well if I decide to work with synth. For a low-price input device, it’s performed quite admirably. (And my onboard sound has kept up just fine with even a relatively high number of higher-end software synthesizers.)

For quite a while, I borrowed my wife’s Logitech G7 mouse. The performance was excellent — I preferred the feel and touch to my diNovo quite handily. It also had a feature I found extremely clever; this mouse features TWO replaceable battery cartridges. One sits in a PC-attached charging station while the other is in use, allowing quite an extended romp of gameplay time. However, I found that even the dual batteries couldn’t quite keep up with those truly intense MMORPG sessions ranging into the many-hours-long range. Still, I was overall quite pleased with this mouse. I only returned it because I finally bought my own replacement… the Logitech G700, which the astute among you will note that I am now officially ONE HUNDRED TIMES more badass than my wife in the mouse department. Thise mouse feels a great deal better, with some extra texturing on the sides that makes it extremely comfortable. The number of buttons is approaching ridiculous, with 11 if I counted correctly. In fact, several of them do… well, I’m still not sure after several days of use, though the manual I have yet to read implied that macros could be generated and stored directly on the mouse. DPI sensitivity can be adjusted on-the-fly, making it versatile for quick flailing in an FPS or detailed work in an IDE or other design program. The scroll wheel spins freely and yet has a remarkable weight and momentum when spun quickly. But my favorite feature of all is yet another update to rechargeability: the mouse can be charged via a Micro-USB connection, which can also be used to operate the mouse in a wired mode during those electrical power crises. Top marks to this mouse for general and gaming use.

Logitech G19Finally, I have one input device that I’ll openly admit is frivolous. When building my current Super Gaming Rig, I somehow convinced myself that a Logitech G19 keyboard would be a fun addition. Let’s talk about the features I don’t really use. It has 10 fully-macroable spare function keys, and allows 3 presets (so you have rapid access to a total of 30 macros). The keyboard is powered and fully backlit, with completely customizable LED color. (OK, I exaggerate — I DID, in fact, customize the color to more or less match the green accents on my tower.) There’s media and volume controls, of which I mostly only tap the mute button on rare occasions. The keys are full-size and have a fantastically solid feel for typing. There are two powered USB ports on the keyboard, which is sure convenient with all of these other USB input devices, wireless receivers, dongles, and whatnot to deal with. And the elephant in the room is the G19’s color LCD screen. I’d say I don’t use that either, but this isn’t entirely true — I display a clock on it quite often when gaming, especially in single-player games. Even better, it has relatively deep integration with some games (such as World of Warcraft) and keeps me posted on remaining inventory space, incoming tells and auction sales, and summary screens of my relevant character stats. Let’s get this straight. Nobody, and I mean nobody, needs a G19. But it’s certainly a pleasant high-end keyboard, even if not a deeply single-game integrated video keyboard touchpad monstrosity (and it’s cheaper than THAT monstrosity, at the least.)

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Life Gets in the Way

I swore I wasn’t going to write any kind of “sorry I haven’t been blogging” post. Turns out, I lied. Sorry I haven’t been blogging!

Life and work got really busy for a while. I had an insanely busy summer and fall with the job, and somewhere in there decided to pretend I’m a grownup and bought a house. (Well, a condo… this IS Southern California and I’m not independently wealthy yet.) Along towards Halloween, I got pretty sick. Long story short, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This has proven to be a shocker in that, well, now I have one of those chronic diseases and I’ll be monitoring it for life. On the other hand, the treatments largely consist of eating well, getting exercise, and generally taking care of myself. (OK, and a couple of pills.) It’s a wake-up call… but compared to the laundry list of truly horrible health conditions I could have faced, it’s quite manageable.

Gaming is another habit that I found I was sorely neglecting. This was a situation easily remedied! I’ve rekindled my affections for World of Warcraft… Say what you will about the dumbing-down of MMOs and the like; I find the game fun and quite playable in the shorter time doses I tend to have available. Sometimes, I’m not looking for an epic and engrossing sandbox experience. No, for that, I have Skyrim! (Also, any reports you’ve seen of maxing out enchanting to get free spells in two schools? They’re totally right. Infinite doublecast master Destruction spells make you, well, pretty darned powerful.) SW:TOR is on the horizon; my wife and I are both awfully big Star Wars fans, and that means a couple of Collector’s Editions are on order. And EVE has released a pretty impressive update in Crucible; I finally had a chance to fit the Crow I’d had lying around and had some fun laying down some 4km/s trails!

Sadly, my programming has been nearly or completely left to rot. I’ve been focused on production and design, and that’s left me little time (or, to be honest, energy) for the nerdlier side of the craft. I find the product side of game development to be awfully fascinating, after years of immersion in the day-to-day life of coders. But since I’m drawing a paycheck for doing this kind of work, it seems mostly inappropriate to blog about anything that touches too closely on my work. With any luck, I can reinvigorate a side project or two — after all, I DID buy that iOS SDK and Corona subscription.

I’d like to close with a bunch of impressions on Skyrim. This is my way of doing my best to summarize how I think it was, all things considered, a great game worthy of mention.

  • I’ve never finished the main storyline in an Elder Scrolls game before, despite having tried quite heartily with both Morrowind and Oblivion.
  • While I don’t know the development cost, the remarkable sales (estimated at $450M or more from launch) have GOT to be attractively profitable.
  • I heard more chatter about Skyrim in the week following its launch, via Facebook and Twitter, than any other game in the last few years.
  • I felt totally like an epic hero. I led the Stormcloaks to victory. I was the Archmage of the College of Magic. I was the Dovahkiin! FUS RO DAH!
  • I ran into bugs, including the dreaded CTD. I ran into continuity silliness. The game got pretty easy as I maxed out some skills and perk trees. The UI felt clunky and console-oriented again (though not quite as badly as Oblivion). Everyone I know hit the same kind of problems. And yet, none of us even got especially annoyed about this, because…
  • Everyone I know playing Skyrim just plain had an awful lot of fun.

I once again have a tremendous amount of optimism for the future of gaming. Now, let us solve all of our problems… with shouting.

Posted in Chatter, Personal | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

One Last Hurrah

Old news … Star Wars Galaxies is closing on December 15th.

I remember discussing the game with friends when it first launched. Some didn’t believe it could work – how could every player be the Jedi. For me, SWG wasn’t about being Luke, or Han. It was about engaging in the Star Wars universe. It let me play one of the myriad nameless characters behind the main characters. You might not think so, but I enjoyed playing the role of moisture farmer from Tatooine.

For me, and many others, SWG was everything we were looking for in a game. “Sandbox” is the usual term thrown about. I like the term “worldy” better: SWG had all the elements to support a social simulation. Players depended upon one another for resources, crafted equipment and support. Skill limits made groups matter, beyond simple cumulative DPS. Players banded together to support guilds and grow towns into cities. The limit of one character per account reinforced relationships.

Let’s not ignore the innovations and uncommon game elements. Macros, camping, automated resource harvesting, surveying, individual vendors, dancing, droids, the pet system and the ultimate crafting system.

I fondly remember Humbaba hunts in the Agrilat Crystal Swamp, organizing and betting on Kaadu races, selling meds in Coronet, helping to build the city of Nar Emiki, dancing in the Blue Hummer, fog-machines, hunting anything avian, great role-play events and a million other things.

Mostly I remember the friends I made or played with in SWG: Age, Nards, Kix, Emide, Eicer, Aiyphat, Rhinokeet, Cael and others. SWG is where I met this blog’s co-author, Tachevert, a friendship that has lasted going on eight years now.

Today I recovered my Station Access accounts. I’m sure the old city of Nar Emiki is gone. I’m not sure what possessions I will have left. But, I’m going to resub for the final few months. I’ll have one last hurrah and a farewell to fond memories.

Her act actually increases your battle fatigue.

Posted in Chatter | 6 Comments

The EVE Noble Exchange

I feel compelled to throw in my two cents on the current EVE stir. Disclaimer: I still rate EVE as the coolest game to talk about where my actual play generally consists of logging in to queue skills every few days.

Microtransactions in videogames: Everyone is looking to increase profitability. I work in a freemium space myself with Facebook-based social games. It’s not even the way of the future; it’s the way of now that AAA gaming is catching on to. Ever upgrade a flight to an exit row seat? Book the pool-side room at the hotel? Want to add shrimp to steak for only $5.95? In my opinion, the existence of MT in videogames is, at this point, inevitable.

Vanity Microtransactions in EVE: I own a Sparklelion in WoW. I see nothing at all wrong with vanity microtransactions. EVE’s items cost more than I’m willing to spend, though.

Game-enhancing Microtransactions in EVE: This always feels dirty. But let’s be honest – money can already buy success in EVE. How this is approached will be extremely important; if we’re talking a small number of ships and ammunition, then it’s probably an advantage more than an IWIN button. Start moving into skills, faction standing, and the like, and it has more impact.

The EVE Economy: This is my bigger worry. Make the microtransactional content important enough, and the EVE economy becomes one of Plex and Aurum, rather than one of ISK. Or ISK would become merely a counter towards the Plexes that are the real economy. It’s too early to tell; as yet, there are no items in the Noble Exchange or resold on the ISK market in sufficient quantity to judge.

The PR Hullaballoo: Well, you’ve got to be really careful what you say in internal documents. Unless they leaked extremely strongly-worded documents intentionally in order to gauge the playerbase reaction if they were to go to extremes. I mean, this is EVE Online, where scamming is a way of virtual life. So call this poorly handled, unless they were handling it poorly in order to try something crazy, in which case I applaud the game-like deceit, in a dirty kind of way.

Posted in EVE Online | 1 Comment