Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disney acquires LucasFilm, new Star Wars Films Starting in 2015.

I may not write as often as I used to, but considering my interests and areas of expertise, now and again a story comes up that absolutely cannot be allowed to pass without comment. This is one such story. The media giant The Walt Disney Company has been snapping up or producing geek-friendly properties for a while, with a recent buyout of Marvel Comics, their publishing of the Percy Jackson teen olympian series through Hyperion and a general increase in science fiction and fantasy on network programming (They own half of A&E and all of ABC Television.) Today, they dropped a bomb on geekdom. They bought out LucasFilm and ILM for just over $4 Billion USD and are getting straight to work on cranking out new Star Wars movies.

"I've got a bad feeling about this" jokes will be EVERYWHERE in a day or two.

Reactions have been immediate and scattered. We're not prepared for this. The automatic knee-jerk reaction to a huge media conglomerate buying a beloved property and making something new out of it is supposed to be fear and disgust, but this is Star Wars. More importantly, this is Star Wars without George Lucas at the helm, which is something geeks have been praying for in the "never gonna happen but wouldn't it be nice if..." category.  Every geek is going to have to face something that we may secretly dread. We're going to have to judge new Star Wars films based on their own merits, and confront the possibility that we might not just be able to blame George Lucas if the franchise moves on past being something we can enjoy, and we just plain... hate the new stuff, trapped in our dreamy memories of the originals. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.

Lucas will be kept on as creative consultant, but the new films will have LucasFilms' Kathleen Kennedy (I'm calling it now, this is a name that in a few years will be thoroughly idolized or vilified, spat like a curse in geek circles) at the helm. They are in active development for a new trilogy, with Episode VII to release in 2015, and beyond that, Disney plans to continue making a new Star Wars movie every 2-3 years until people stop paying to see them.  They know there is money to be made whether the hardcore Star Wars fans approve or not, and so long as that is true, there will always be a new Star Wars. Maybe, just maybe... that's a GOOD thing.

Hey, even if it turns out bad... an Evil Empire ruining the franchise is TOTALLY Star Wars,
so... there's that.

Hear me out. I am tentatively excited about this announcement.  Maybe the new films will be great, maybe they'll be crap. We know that without George Lucas running the show, even if they are crap, they'll be crap for different reasons, not because one guy decided that his creation wasn't bigger than him after all, and it'd be his way or not at all. Even if the new films are bad, there's an opportunity there for new Expanded Universe fiction, new video games, all sorts of properties that traditionally make the most money by being satisfying to US. Those properties are way more likely to be developed and put in the hands of someone capable of doing them right if there's a new film coming up to tie them into. No matter what they say today, geeks are going to go see every one of these films, and more science fiction is pop culture means one thing for sure...

There is gonna be sexy cosplay in 5 years of characters that don't even exist yet. Nice. Best Blogger Tips
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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

XCOM: ...and Now. (2012 Firaxis.)


I meant for this follow-up article to follow within a few days of my profile on the 1994 original. However, when I got the new XCOM on launch, I realized something. There would be dozens of articles within days of launch written by foks who had put a handful of hours into the game and written to hit a deadline. I knew after a few minutes playing that I was going to be into XCOM for some time to come, and the best way to talk about it would be from someone who had sunk enough hours into the game to consider themselves a veteran. In the last two weeks, I've sunk nearly 85 hours into this game, making it the second-longest played game on my Steam account, beating out Borderlands which I played weekly with friends for months, sometimes staying up all night. Early this morning, I finished the game in the manner it is intended to be played: Classic Difficulty, Ironman mode. I now feel qualified to talk about it.

XCOM has the guts to do something new.
 Instead of eventually beating the game being a matter of persistence, you can sink dozens
 of hours into a game of XCOM, and lose. Planet is taken by the aliens, Game Over.

So many of the reviews I read and listened to did the same thing. Spent a few sentences talking about what a good game XCOM is, and then the rest of the review talking about flaws, many of which were just design decisions they didn't personally understand. Make no mistake, there are a few bugs here, and they frustrate, especially in a game with permadeath and a mode which does not allow you to reload saves when something unfortunate happens. However, even in its current state, XCOM is a triumph. Turn-based strategy is a genre that is mostly found in niche titles or older games, with the notable exception of the Civilization series. XCOM has the potential to change all that, with a big-budget, slickly produced title that modernizes the gameplay and provides modern polish.

The game is, like the original title, about running a global organization to combat an alien invasion against a foe that outnumbers, outguns, and strikes without warning anywhere in the world. They start with weaponry that can kill a human or destroy a building, while the best soldiers in the world with our finest technology can only kill one of their weakest number with concentrated fire, assuming they don't panic before doing so. What provides hope is the strategic and tactical command of the leader of XCOM (you) and the researchers and engineers who take bits of alien technology and study and replicate it in order to develop new weapons, armor, ships and techniques for turning a bunch of scared rookies into a force capable of striking fear into alien hearts. Turn by bloody turn, difficult choices are made, and the tide slowly turns from barely surviving to kicking the aliens the hell off our planet.

You can customize everything about a soldier except their assigned class, Country of Origin, and gender. I named this squad after characters played by myself, my wife and friends in tabletop RPGs over the years.

In the strategic layer, you need to manage limited resources to build up the base, get satellites covering most of the globe, research and develop the tech for the soldiers on the ground, build and arm craft to shoot down UFOs and manage global panic to keep your funding in place. The game is played through the tactical missions, but won or lost based on the strategic layer. The missions are usually "find and kill all the aliens," but sometimes there will be a VIP to escort or locate and protect, bombs to defuse or civilians to protect. The pace of the game is careful and deliberate, with risky play resulting in failed missions, wasted resources and dead soldiers who need to be replaced with raw recruits. The best and worst turns of the game are when you make a minor mistake, exposing a new group of aliens to your squad's position, and your soldiers are at risk, even if they have advanced equipment and abilities.

Every soldier is assigned a class on promotion from being raw recruits, and as they participate in missions and kill aliens, they level up, gaining more powerul abilities. You can customize the soldiers, they gain nicknames automatically, and it hurts to lose a leveled-up soldier knowing it was your fault. That's going to happen. I lost surprisingly few soldiers in my successful Classic Ironman game, but two of them were Colonels (the highest rank) with dozens of kills each, and they died in the same mission on two subsequent turns. Each soldier can move twice, move and fire, or just fire their weapon without moving. Certain special class abilities or weapons require you to stay still, and others end your turn as though you had fired a weapon. You make hard choices. Save India, Canada, or Russia? Reload now, not knowing if you should instead get that soldier ready to fire on an alien you can't see? Try to outflank the enemy and risk alerting more to your position, or take a risky 35% shot and feel maybe like you wasted a precious action?

The result of poor planning, squad panic, rushing forward too quickly, or just plain bad luck.

Having played a bit with the multiplayer (point-based, competitive mixed squads of humans and aliens on static maps) and beaten the game on Normal and Classic Ironman, albeit with two wins out of thirty games attempted, I don't think XCOM is quite done with me yet. I might not take on Impossible difficulty with any degree of seriousness, but Firaxis is committed to long-term support, especially with a game that has done so well. Reviews have been nearly universally rave, and DLC is planned, with the first post-release content announced yesterday. A subplot focusing on China with custom maps and new missions will be the focus of "Slingshot," with a Chinese gangster available as a hero character, and the possibility of early access to a powerful endgame weapon as the reward. With more DLC planned, and the inevitable expansions and sequels, I feel bad. So much death is coming. Aliens, poor squaddies, and a whole lot more of my free time.
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Monday, October 8, 2012

XCOM: Then... (1994 Microprose)


Tonight at just before midnight, one of my most anticipated games of the year is releasing. That's a bold statement in a fall that is so packed with amazing game releases for PC and consoles that even someone without a job or school commitments can't possibly make the time to play everything. When XCOM: Enemy Unknown arrives, I expect that my time with the other fall releases, as well as the games I still have from the Summer Sale that didn't get the time they deserve will come to an abrupt halt. I've spent a week watching videos and reading reviews. I'll give a full review of the 2012 XCOM once I've emerged from a likely weeklong bender playing it. To understand why I am so hyped for this game, you have to look at the game it is a remake of, 1994's X-Com: UFO Defense (known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe.)

The Global Geoscope view is, along with base-building and the tactical combat, 1/3 of the X-Com experience.

Most games from almost 20 years ago don't hold up very well. Even if you can get past the dated graphics of years gone by, when you take off the rose-tinted glasses, gameplay has come a long way. The original X-Com is still compelling, still brutally difficult, and still fun if you can actually manage the downright hostile user interface. I've made my love of turn based strategy well known, between Jagged Alliance and Civilization I've spent countless hours planning, plotting and fighting battles one turn or action point at a time. Xcom is a game that I realize even now I've never gotten very good at. In the year 1999, Aliens invade and the Earth pools its money to fund a global organization to combat the threat. The situation is near-hopeless, but you are the last hope for humanity.

I can say that with many hours into the game, I've never won. I am still challenged even on beginner difficulty in a game that has veteran players modding it to further increase the challenge. X-Com does not tailor itself to the player, from the beginning, the aliens are playing to win, independent of your skill or decisions. Globally, you have to manage bases, respond to threats and learn where the aliens are and what they want. You fight on the ground with normal human troops each with unique names and statistics over landed UFOs or crashed ones you've shot down. Capturing alien technology for research, figuring out where alien bases are, even capturing live specimens for study are goals from day one, and even surviving the aliens is a challenge.

Inside an enemy spaceship, the squad from an Escapist Magazine forum's Let's Play
faces a dreaded Chryssalid. Zombification imminent.

Your soldiers get better with time, but against alien weaponry they die. Even once armor has been researched and produced, and you have energy weapons at your disposal, in a single turn a soldier can be killed, and death is permanent. Every battlefield is procedurally generated, all terrain (aside from UFO walls is destroyable, and if you have the action points, you can issue a wide variety of orders to the troops. Grenades, rocket launchers, and stun batons supplement conventional weaponry, and tanks can be loaded into transports to assist your troops. If a psionic alien can be captured alive while it is mind controlling your troops to drop grenades into the middle of the squad, psychic powers can be researched, and psi-soldiers trained.

The new game has big shoes to fill. Along with Sid Meier's Civilization, X-Com was one of the titles that made Microprose huge in the 1990s. Luckily, Sid Meier's own studio, Firaxis Games has taken up the challenge, and I look forward tonight to seeing Sectoids mind-control my hapless squaddies while Cyberdisks move in for the kill and Chryssalids happily turn civilians into zombies to panic and terrorize the citizens of a likely doomed Earth. Should be a lot of fun.
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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Quick One. Taking on Writer's Block.

It has been two months since my last post. This bugs me way more than it does anyone still reading or checking for updates. I've got a ton of decent reasons and bad excuses, but the biggest factor is that I've been struggling with completing articles in my usual format. I have 3-4 posts 75% done that I just hit a wall on. The one and a half page with 3-4 images and 5-9 link articles were draining me, and I came to a point of total creative burnout. Had trouble writing anything, designing anything, etc... if it wasn't for weight training and a TON of awesome video game releases, I'd have been just pretty much sitting here staring at a computer screen and occasionally sleeping. However, there are new games, fantasy novels, TV shows and other geeky things that I think I need to write again.  Maybe to bust that creative block, what I need to do is play with the format a little bit, try some shorter, punchy articles. See if people like the shorter format and if the pressure to write hundreds of words several times a week doesn't get to me.

For a preview of what I'll be talking about first, in a 2-part series, I refer you to the following image.

Not Enough Time Units Remaining!

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Quick Article: Doc Designs a Boardgame. (Part 1)



Quick one today, as I'm struggling lately to not just write about video games all the time, since that is what much of my leisure time of late has been devoted to. (That, and getting a few books deeper into Vlad Taltos, which I already wrote about here.)  Since it seems that most of the (non-pornographic) content on the internet is dudes and ladies writing about video games, I try not to make this site "game review/discussion of the week or however often I'm updating now."  There is, however, one thing I've got going on that is about geeky stuff, what I'm doing at the moment that is directly related to being out of work, and that neither I or 1000 other sites are writing about at the moment.  I'm finishing design and development of a boardgame.

Before I started this blog, sometimes there were quiet moments between crises at my previous work when no students needed assistance, no paperwork had to be done or organized. In these rare times, I didn't want to risk disrupting a quiet and productive class by doing much of anything that would invite comment, which could really be anything when working with Behavior Disorder/Emotionally Disturbed teenagers.  With a clipboard full of paper and a bunch of ideas in my brain, I'd sometimes casually sketch out game design ideas.  One of these, a thematic (sometimes called "Ameritrash") style game about players controlling squads of mercenaries, each distinct characters with skills, personalities and the ability to level up along the way, started taking shape.  The obvious thematic influences for the game included popular strategy/rpg PC titles like the Jagged Alliance series and X-Com, as well as films like The Expendables, Delta Force and Predator.

I've bought each of the games in this series more than once, and I know
that my experience playing them will be reflected in the design.

Despite how close the game came (on paper) to being done, I never finished it. The expense and difficulty in getting a board game published made this not much but an interesting intellectual exercise.  Then, in the last year or so, something changed.  I'm talking about Kickstarter.  The crowdsourcing website for funding self-publishing of creative projects has changed the game for someone in my position, literally. I already knew an amazing artist/graphic designer, and my wife has been involved in editing gaming products for years now... this could actually happen. I dusted off my notes, started moving them from paper to computer, and cleaned up the design here and there as I transcribed.

What I have now is a little more than half-finished game design, with mechanics somewhere between a competitive questing game like Runebound, and a cooperative story-driven undertaking like Arkham Horror, all set in the wrapper of modern paramilitary action movie. I think that no one's quite combined this theme with these sorts of design ideas in quite this way before, and I'm really making the game that I, personally, have always wanted to play.  Each game should play out differently, with different combinations of the characters on each squad, with different equipment, fighting against a Warlord with different abilities and statistics.  Vehicles, resource capture and management, roleplaying style events and special cards playing out a story for each game, a story where deadly men and women use their varied talents and skills in the pursuit of cash.

Imagine between 2 and 5 players controlling squads of guys like this, setting explosives,
firing machine guns and throwing grenades in a "Questing" style board game. If that isn't exciting to you, we
enjoy very different things.

I hope to occasionally do a developer journal in these pages, as we move from "design" through "mockup and playtesting" to "prototyping and launching the Kickstarter to get this thing made."  I read somewhere that people only do things for two main motivations, out of love, and out of fear.  When answering the question of "What's Next?" for me, I know the last time I went back to work at my old job, it was out of fear. Afraid of what would happen if I didn't take the offer, afraid of the bills, afraid of running out of unemployment, afraid of feeling useless and worthless by turning down a job I knew I could do.  If this project makes my next career "game designer," I know it will be a labor of love. Please comment with opinions on this one, it is a subject dear to me.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Surviving the Steam Summer Sale

Way back when I started this blog, one of my first articles with any significant content was talking about how great Steam is for unemployed gamers. You don't have much money, but man, have you got some free time. Even looking for a job as hard as you can, there's still more time for gaming than the average working person has, and sales, especially of the deep price cut variety, can help with the "not a whole lot of disposable income" end of the equation. As a veteran now of Steam Sales, I can share my learned strategies and talk a little about my purchases this sale week, and how they revisit both the Piracy and the DRM issues.


I've never been so excited about online shopping before. Twice a year, this is actually a legit event.
 I sometimes spend more time shopping for games during this than I do playing them.


Steam Sale Strategy Guide:.


1. Be patient.  Whatever the game you want is, it is probably on sale starting the first day of the sale. However, that first-day price might not be the lowest it'll go for the duration of the sale. In general, until the sale is over, you should wait until whatever you want is a featured item, whether that means the Daily Deal or, this Summer, the Flash Deal.  The Daily/Flash deal price is the lowest it'll go during the sale, and if it is never a featured item, you can still buy it at the normal sale price on the last day of the sale. Patience is rewarded.

2. Participate in the activities when you can. Whether you are completing achievements for tickets or presents, working on a Badge, or voting on the next Community Choice Sale, in general, there is some level of reward for the customer in being a part of the event. It is a simple deal, Valve wants you to be tempted as often as possible by looking at the store, so you are rewarded for doing so. Effective on all counts.

3. Watch for DRM, and decide if the deal is worth the hassle. Even though Steam itself is effectively an anti-piracy scheme, some publishers just won't let their own measures go.  SecuROM, Games for Windows Live, both... personally, if the game is good enough and the price is low enough, I'll deal with it, but be aware before you buy.

4. Check Package Deals and Individual Game Prices. Always. Sometimes, even when a game is on Daily Deal, buying it as part of a package saves money, or for a small amount more gets more games or DLC (Downloadable Content) by the publisher. Conversely, sometimes the package is featured, and you only want one item from it, but while the package is on special, each item within it is also cheaper.

My haul from this year was pretty good. I bought a lot in the first few days, as almost everything I really wanted on Steam was a featured item very early in the sale. I bought the Arkham City complete pack (Arkham Asylum GOTY, Arkham City + all DLC and Gotham City Impostors,) The digital deluxe editions of both the Witcher 1 and 2, Back to the Future by Telltale Games, and Crusader Kings 2. With this, I got  a little bit of everything I enjoy in terms of genre, and picked up games I'd rented or even pirated in the past with additional content.  Not only did Steam get me to virtually stop pirating games, but even the little piracy I've done in the last few years, I've evened the accounts at least in my own conscience by purchasing the titles in question.

I started playing this when I got it, and 10 hours vanished. Politics, assassinations,
birth and death and succession and war... and there is a Game of Thrones total conversion mod.

What is interesting to me is that all the intrusive DRM didn't stop me from getting a pirated copy of a game within a few days of launch.  A reasonably priced service from a company I like quite a bit got me to eventually buy those same titles, and endure the copy-protection hassles as a legit customer. That seems backwards. It tells me something that developers should take to heart, though.  Price motivates ethical behavior in a way that even the world's best DRM cannot, and treating your customers well means that the loyalty you've built up in that relationship will even make some of the most shameless pirates into good customers.  Don't punish the honest with expensive and ineffective means to fight piracy, translate the lack of licensing fees for that garbage into a lower price-point and build a rapport with your customer, and they'll stop pirating on their own.



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Friday, July 13, 2012

The OUYA – Open Source Console: What it is, and what it isn't.


Video game news sites, blogs and discussion boards are all talking about the OUYA, and it really is a story that is too big to ignore.  Crowdsourced for its initial funding by Kickstarter (which deserves its own article here, soon) in only four days, people have pledged $4.5 million to see this thing happen.  The concept behind the console is that the Big Three are hard and expensive to develop for, and the companies that manufacture them lock down the hardware and software so the user can't modify the units themselves after purchase.  Many talented developers have stopped even trying to create games for consoles, focusing on PC or moblie markets instead, where it is cheaper and easier to get going. The OUYA will run on a version of the Android OS, have HDMI output to a TV and will be moddable and hackable out of the box. The SDK (Software Development Toolkit) will be designed to make it easy and cheap to get games onto the platform, which should attract developers who don't want to deal with the hassle of breaking into console gaming's current walled gardens.

Controller will have analog sticks, triggers, and a touchpad, but doesn't actually exist yet.

I've read a lot of reaction to the Kickstarter campaign, and the vast majority of folks who are participating in either the hype-bandwagon or the hipster-backlash for or against the OUYA seem to have some of the details wrong.  They don't know what the OUYA is, but they either think it is the second coming, destined to immediately take out the Playstation, XBox and Wii platforms... or they have a laundry list of criticisms that are only partially grounded in reality. There are a lot more invalid assumptions and just plain wrong assertions coming from critics of the OUYA, but in order to get to the bottom of this, I need to talk a little bit about what the OUYA is, and more importantly, what it isn't.

Anyone dropping $100 today because they believe they are buying a piece of hardware that is comparable to even current-generation consoles is misinformed. The technical specifications of the unit are a little bit better than a bleeding-edge expensive smartphone. That said, a phone with those specs is $650 with a 2-year contract and has some serious limitations on what it can deliver as a gaming platform.  There currently are no final designs for the console or its controller, and it won't launch with AAA-style titles, the hardware won't support it, and the type of developer that is capable of delivering that sort of game is already inside the existing walled gardens, and doesn't need what the OUYA is selling.  All games that release for the system will be required to have a free component, like a smartphone app, with subscription or microtransactions in place, emulating the Free2Play model. Let that sink in. All games are free, but will likely feature a "cash shop" or something similar.

That said, without any 100% confirmed titles at launch (though Mojang has strongly suggested that Minecraft will be made available), and games that are more likely to have design influenced by the existence of microtransactions, the OUYA doesn't look a lot like an XBox. Critics have seized on this, and the Android platform as proof that the console will primarily support the sorts of games currently found on the Android Market (Google Play) and iTunes.  A $100 console that plays Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja doesn't sound as much like a game changer.  However, it is short-sighted to believe that developers won't line up to make games for this with over 30,000 pre-orders in a few days from customers, and the Developer's Kit console pre-orders (400+ of them) sold out in that same time. It is a fair assumption that while we'll see some shovelware, at least a few games that manage to make a subscription or microtransaction model work will be available at launch.
I like Canabalt, love Minecraft, but they will need a solid launch library that consists of new titles that are hits, or
that can be hits on their platform.

A common complaint I've seen online is that the technical specifications are weak for a console and that they won't be able to produce units in order to retail the console at $100.  These statements come from comparing specs to existing consoles and price to smartphone components. The test of the OUYA as a concept is what sort of performance they can get out of their advertised hardware once full games are running on the system. I'm not worried about the hardware price, as there is no reasonable comparison between phones and PCs or consoles, dispersing heat in a small handheld and making components tiny enough to fit inside is pricey, mass-producing dedicated boxes to run Android... not so much. Downloadable games in a console which is basically a PC with a GUI and a controller evokes a negative comparison to the Phantom Console from 2004 that nearly ruined Infinium Labs. In the last 8 years, however, many of the technical limitations that made the Phantom famous vaporware have worked themselves out, most notably massively improved bandwidth speeds making streaming content, even games, possible.

I've talked a lot about what the OUYA isn't... but there are a few things that it is, or could be, that folks are missing out on.  A moddable/rootable box can be a 1-stop console for emulation of everything from the NES to the Playstation 2, with all the legally grey caveats that emulators and ROMs have dealt with.  It can be yet another box for streaming Netflix or any number of music services with nothing but existing apps on the Google Play store today.  It may not be able to challenge even this generation's consoles on day one, but it could absolutely take on the Xbox Live Marketplace, PSN and Wii Points stores if enough developers with fresh ideas back the idea, letting their best games rise to the top naturally. Even without a massive launch lineup, the confidence that comes with the number of people behind this project makes $99 a more than fair price.





Investing in the OUYA today is supporting a group of established industry professionals who are rolling the dice on coming out with something that could really change the console market. Even if it doesn't deliver on the best of its promises, what you could have today is fairly reasonable... and with the right software, and if the hardware is stable and relatively quick given its limitations, what could be there tomorrow sounds plausible, all hype put to the side.

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Friday, July 6, 2012

Review of: The Amazing Spider-Man (In 3-D)


When I heard they were rebooting the Spider-Man film franchise, within 5 years of Sam Raimi's trilogy of films, I rolled my eyes.  Sure, Spider-Man 3 was moderately awful, with subpar interpretations of Venom and a shoehorned in Gwen Stacy, with the most interesting villain (Sandman) sidelined into a subplot that barely went anywhere. And "Emo Peter Parker" and his big dance number... the less said about that, the better. I originally had no intention of going to see the newest incarnation of Marvel's flagship hero franchise.  A few things along the way changed my mind, and I went to go see it yesterday, and I'm prepared to review it.  First, Andrew Garfield's introduction to the panel at Comic-Con, his gasping, stuttering speech about what the character meant to him as a fan made me interested to see what that actor could do with the character of Peter Parker.  Then, the announcement of the casting of Emma Stone came out.  Like most people, I'm most familiar with her as a redhead in film, so I thought "Oh. Mary Jane Watson."  When I heard that she was going to her natural hair color of blonde to portray Gwen Stacy in a fashion true to the comics, I was sold. I'd give The Amazing Spider-Man a shot.

Apparently, the reboot happened because Sam Raimi refused to
continue the franchise, not being allowed the time he'd need to not make Spider-Man 4 not suck.

I decided to see the film in 3-D, since the showtimes for that were most convenient for me, and my wife (who can't see 3-D) had no interest in the reboot. I'd privately hated the whole 3-D trend in blockbuster movies, but, to be fair, I'd never really given it an honest chance.  Now that I have, I can say from my own personal experience, that I despise the current 3-D filmmaking fad.  I hate the gimmicky shots that are included in otherwise decent filmmaking, I  hate the blurry, half-assed effect of some of the scenes meant to showcase the technology... I don't mind it so much when it is subtle depth-of-field stuff, but it rarely is.  If you already hate 3-D, this film won't change your mind.  On to the review of the film itself.

 The first film in any (re)launch of a superhero franchise basically is split into the origin story and the first fight with a supervillain. For anyone who just wants the quick 'n dirty summary of my thoughts on the movie, The Amazing Spider-Man knocks the origin portion of its story out of the park, and falls a bit flat on the supervillain battle portion.  The beginning two-thirds of the story are good enough that I recommend the movie overall, but this falls into the category of "couldn't stick the landing."  Andrew Garfield is flat-out awesome as Peter Parker. He captures the awkwardness and quiet geekiness of the teenager who feels out of place wherever he is.  He's the "outcast" sort of geeky kid who manages to get in trouble with authority without any sense of edgy rebellion, and still gets ignored by girls and beaten up by bullies.  Making him a skater would normally make me groan as an attempt to "modernize" a classic character, but it works for this Parker, and translates well into his specific style of acrobatic tricks once he gets his powers.

The best thing about the new Spider-Man is the great casting of the two leads.

The best parts of the film are when Peter gets his powers, but before any conflict with the Lizard. From his accidental use of spider-sense to protect himself instinctively to fighting street thugs while cracking jokes, he is the best representation of Spider-Man on screen in these moments.  The confidence he finds behind the mask, and the drive he has to do the right thing driven by responsibility and guilt are spot-on. There is an awesome article I read a few months back that makes the case for Spider-Man being an even better hero than Batman, with a point-by-point comparison between the two icons. I still prefer the Dark Knight, but the points made in that article (found here) regarding Spidey are proven through the excellent portrayal in the entire beginning/middle of the movie. You can get the rest of the film wrong, and get that right and have a very good Spider-Man film.

It is unfortunate, then, that the rest of the film just isn't very good.  Rhys Ifans is great as Dr. Curt Connors, but after he becomes The Lizard, special effects and style trounce substance, and much of the tragic quality of this villain is lost in the flash.  Denis Leary is wasted, basically playing himself as police Captain George Stacy, in contrast to Emma Stone who is great as his daughter Gwen.  The biggest shame is that the over-the-top, effects-heavy and video-gamey action sequences that dominate the last act of the story are predictable and without any charm or personality.  We're no longer shocked when Peter is beaten up, his costume ripped and bloody since we've seen it before. No longer inspired when normal folks come to his aid even though the city inexplicably seems to consider him a greater threat than criminals and supervillains, we've seen that, too.  I wanted more of the Spider-Man who I saw fighting crime at the beginning, being a total smart-ass. It is clear in the comics that Parker cracks jokes partially as a defense mechanism to hide the fact that physical confrontation with dangerous criminals is scary, even if you have super-powers.





I want to see more of this incarnation of Spider-Man, who has the web-shooters he built himself filled with cartridges of web-fluid, and whose origin is, in many ways, a truer vision than Sam Raimi's take on it ten years ago. I want to see more of Gwen Stacy, and I hope the franchise has the balls to lead her to her eventual tragic fate. I want to see less of action sequences meant to showcase 3-D technology or to preview how awesome the video game is going to be.  The Lizard was almost there in moments when the movie wasn't just showcasing his physical strength and agility, but the mark was missed, and I hope the same won't happen with the Green Goblin. Norman Osborn is mentioned, but not seen, in this film and the mystery of what, exactly happened to Peter Parker's parents bookends the film in setting up both Peter's childhood and the eventual sequel. Best Blogger Tips
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Friday, June 29, 2012

My Little Pony... Really? Bronies, Kids' TV and Fandom.


So, in the last few years, there's been a heck of a lot of talk about the My Little Pony cartoon, and not all of it is from parents or young girls.  All over the internet, there's a young male demographic talking about friendship, kindness, magic and ponies with "cutie marks" stamped on them.  At first, when I encountered the phenomenon, I assumed that it was guys trolling the internet. Professing love for a show that is clearly marketed to little girls, I found MLP references all over the internet, and ran across the term "Brony" (a teen or adult male fan of the show.) My reaction was simple, at first. What. The. Hell. The pervasiveness of the male fanbase and its persistence led me to believe that these guys, at least some of them, weren't kidding. So, I pride myself on being an open minded sort of fellow, I decided to do whenever I encounter something I don't understand. Research, analyze and experience.

It was time for me to enter: The world of the Brony.

See, this is where I could have re-used that Diablo 3 Whimsyshire Screenshot.

First off, I learned that the full title of the series was My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, frequently abbreviated MLP or MLP:FiM.  Then, I noticed something interesting. A name I recognized. A lady by the name of Lauren Faust. I'm not huge into cartoons, but I appreciated the work behind Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, and was aware that Lauren Faust was involved in both. Intrigued, I looked deeper. The pedigree of the animators, writers and producers read like an animation Dream Team.  You've got folks who worked on Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Johnny Bravo, Ren and Stimpy, and the list went on and on... Virtually every cartoon show I'd appreciated as clever enough to be watched by adults had someone involved who went on to work on this show about happiness and ponies. There was definitely something going on here.

I learned that Faust originally had no interest in working on the project, familiar with earlier offerings as a show where ponies resolve differences "primarily through tea parties and crying." She only agreed to produce the show if she could do it her way, with strongly developed characters and a genuine adventure story tied in to the plot for the series. Now, we were getting somewhere. I fondly remember another cartoon that took a licensed product and put honest-to-goodness Fantasy Adventure into it, making it way better than it had to be. That show was Gummi Bears, and it was one of my very favorite cartoons from when I watched them every Saturday morning with cereal. I understood the appeal of the series in theory, now all I had to do was disregard how silly I felt, and actually watch... My Little Pony.

Fans of the show annoyed certain online communities so much that
references to ponies in any way were ban-worthy.

The hype I'd encountered made sense. I've seen a few episodes and the writing is good, clear characterizations and solid plots throughout each episode. The series focuses on an over-serious student of magic named Twilight Sparkle who cannot complete her studies by staying where she'd prefer, poring over tomes and scrolls. Dark threats menace the Kingdom, and in order to master her powers, she would have to do one thing she never learned about in all her books. She'd have to figure out how to make friends, and how to be one.  Simple lessons about treating people kindly and being a good friend are told with humor and, occasionally action or adventure sequences that could have stepped out of any fantasy roleplaying game suitable for younger children.  The dialogue and storytelling really is sophisticated enough for an adult to appreciate, while remaining simple enough for very young children to follow.

Once I understood the appeal of the show, I started noticing the community of fans of the series, and their impact on social media and things I already had an interest in around the internet.  Now, I'm not ready to don a Rainbow Dash T-shirt and start a collection of plastic ponies, but with all the low-brow, immature, racist and homophobic teens and young adults on the internet, there's gotta be something great about a group of people of that same age/gender group who honest-to-god believe in love and tolerance.  I noticed that for the last few Humble Indie Bundles, the top spot in terms of overall donations, narrowly beating out Minecraft creator Notch is a group called @HumbleBrony. I've written about the bundles before, and think they are one of the best things that has happened to gaming in years. The last bundle, the Brony community donated a combined $13,167.84 and the friendly competition brought Notch's own contribution up to $12,345.67

Internet favorite minor character "Derpy Hooves" was named by
bronies, and the name and assumed personality was made official in Season 2.

For me, the questions.. "What the hell?" and "Are they serious?" were pretty adequately answered. My wife still giggles if she catches me watching an episode of the show on Netflix, but I don't care. For a show that could have gotten away with being another shallow 30-minute toy commercial, MLP and its fans have created something pretty awesome. I suspect that some of the fans started out "ironically" liking ponies and magical lessons about sharing and kindness, and lost track of when they stopped pretending to be fans and actually became fans. I might not self-identify as one of you, Bronies, but you have my respect.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Minecraft: HCFactions and Mine-Z, plus - Interview with Lead Admin HighlifeTTU!


I clutch my pick in hand, creeping beneath the earth searching for diamonds. I started with nothing but a fishing pole, and now I've carved out a small base with a working farm, resources to keep me stocked, and I know at any moment, if I'm not careful enough, someone could break into my less-than-secure spot and kill me, and I'd lose everything. I'd also be locked out of the server for three days. Death comes at a high price. Some days later, I work in a faction base. The land is secure, as people can't use our doors or break our walls unless they manage to kill one or more of us.  The call goes out to everyone online, hostiles in diamond armor have appeared at our walls, looking for a way to get in, even a small hole could mean a well-thrown Ender Pearl could teleport the raiders inside. We grab potions and equip diamond swords, and prepare to fight.

Me, in glorious diamond armor, in the little room deep underground,
where I would be brutally murdered less than a day later.

If this doesn't sound like the Minecraft you've been playing, that's not unusual. HCFactions, a server with loads of custom-programmed tweaks and plugins is a special and unique place. Players contend with the usual difficulties of monsters, lava and starvation, plus hostile other players and the three-day "deathban" that enforces the "hardcore" nature of the server.  The stories above are both an actual part of my last week on HCFactions, and the drama, shifting alliances and betrayals of Factions (organizations that can purchase and defend land) have been detailed on Reddit for well over a year now.  Run by Matt Sundberg, better known as HighlifeTTU, the server can take up to 175 people at once, and there are usually between 50-100 playing at any given time, struggling and banding together to survive.

Recently, HighlifeTTU and his Administration and programming team announced their second server concept, called Mine-Z, a cooperative/competitive Zombie Survival server that takes direct inspiration from the popular fan-created Day Z mod to the game ARMA. I had a chance to speak with several members of the Admin team in the last few days, and I asked HighlifeTTU if he'd answer a few questions. Here's what he had to say.

----------------

- Tell us a little bit about yourself and your coding/Admin Team.

I go by "HighlifeTTU".  In the real world I work the standard 8 to 5 grind in the finance industry, so Minecraft server hosting is my after work hobby.  It has quickly exploded into something I never imagined! I have been lucky to find a very talented team of individuals. Almost all of them work in the technology industry in some fashion, so we tend to get on at night after we've all slaved away for the man and put our heads together to create new plugins and ultimately craft new experiences for players.  I am about to turn 29 years old, so I regularly tell my player base to get off my lawn.

The HCFactions Shop, where iron and gold can be sold by players who wish to purchase
land, potion materials or rare blocks for customizing their base.

- How would you describe HCFactions and MineZ to someone who is familiar with  Minecraft, but ignorant to the larger Bukkit/Factions community?

HCFactions is a hardcore PvP oriented factions server.  It basically allows groups of players to band together, claim land on an expansive map, and then battle it out against each other.  The uniqueness comes from the death ban we use.  When a player is killed, he is banned from the server for three days.  For someone unfamiliar with a hardcore experience, they would probably say there is no way that could be fun.  But the magic of a hardcore server is the change in how people act. In a normal game where you respawn instantly, you don't have a fear of death, and ultimately you see players grow bored since their actions have little meaning.  With death ban, many people actually get an adrenalin rush.  You know every mistake could be your last. defeats are brutal, but the victories are that much sweeter.

We've expanded on the normal factions experience by adding a number of things.  We have PvE oriented events, a King of the Hill event that has players fighting over a location for a chance of good loot, and my lead developer (lazertester) recently rolled out the Factions Arena, which is a fully automated arena plugin featuring loadouts, multiple arenas, and a comprehensive stats page for bragging rights.  Recently we added an Archer, Bard, and Rogue class that is in the spirit of vanilla minecraft, as it requires no slash commands, and you activate it by simply wearing a full set of a different armor.  Our most challenging change has been re-coding some of the craftbukkit code to balance enchantments and make them more intuitive, which we plan to roll out in the next couple of weeks.

The extensive Arena, as seen from the glassed-in Spectator Area, where players can
practice their PvP skills without risking their hard-won equipment.

We now have had 15,000 unique visits to the server, and average about 6,000 unique players a month.  It has been a very big success, and has motivated the team to work on side projects.

MineZ was inspired by DayZ.  DayZ proved that as a developer you can try to ruthlessly murder your player base, and they like it.  MineZ is basically a zombie survival mod, where zombies use advanced AI and fast movement to hunt you down.  Players must manage limited inventory, find loot at key locations, all while managing their hunger, thirst, and health.  There is open PvP, so players can be as much of a threat as zombies.  The world is expansive and built by hand.  There are large distances with no loot to be found, meaning any amount of travel requires preparation.

- What are your short and long term goals for HCFactions and MineZ?

For HCFactions, we are currently doing an enchantment balance and are then starting on our own fork of Factions.  We plan to add a finite power source that can be gained at events, which can be used to gain small bonuses to combat.  After that, we want to add some RTS style features, letting players "power" chunks outside their main land, and build specific structures to take advantage of these bonuses.

MineZ?  Well.  I have a very firm grasp of the short term vision, but I want to see how the players react once I finally let them loose on the world.  For one though, I want to add a story to the game that is gathered in pieces via signs and eventually written books.  I also want to add a special bandit NPC type, that has advanced group AI. The bandits will only spawn at the hardest places on the map, and will require teamwork and high tier items to defeat.  Honestly though, outside of that, I think the player base will dictate what the development team ultimately works on.  We've already received some great ideas from the community.

A desperate band of players fights a small horde of aggressive zombies in MineZ.

- A lot of custom code has gone into your servers, making them unique. Are there any ideas that you've really wanted to incorporate, but haven't yet been able to make a reality in code?

Anything interface related.  We always build our plugins to use the vanilla client, as we feel the client modding process isn't intuitive to all players.  I am hoping the new mod API allows us to add new interface elements and more easily disseminate information to the players.  This will open up more possibilities, since some plugins just won't work with slash commands.

- Minecraft has been criticized for being an excellent building "toy" but without a whole lot of traditional gameplay mechanics, objectives or metrics for victory. Your servers have clear "game" elements with careful thought given to balance and progression over the course of a particular map. Are there particular games or designers (aside from the obvious ARMA/Day Z for MineZ) that have inspired or influenced the systems that have been integrated into the servers?

Ultima Online.  It was the first game I fell in love with, and for the first two years it existed it was something special.  The sad thing is they ultimately changed the game to cater to a wider player base, which makes sense financially, but hurt the gritty, hardcore experience it once was.  I find myself looking back at those experiences and it is a clear influence on how I balance things on HCFactions and how I look at the design elements of MineZ.

A look at HCFactions' Spawn area, where players can safely fish, shop, and when they are ready
to leave, be fired from a cannon 600 blocks away in a random direction.

- The type of gameplay found on HCFactions lends itself well to stories of drama, betrayal, heroism and sacrifice re-told by players. Do you have a favorite "story moment" from the playerbase on your servers?

Likely Greysoul. [Note: full story of Greysoul can be found here and here.]  On the second map of the server I saw a large group of new players venturing off together.  I followed them around and documented their experience.  They ended up being the first faction to slay the ender dragon, and then they went on to conquer and destroy the largest and most dominate faction on the server.  It surprised me that a group of players with no experience on HCFactions grew from nothing into the most powerful force on the server.  Well, at least for a couple weeks. :)

- If you could tell your community one thing about your time on these projects that isn't already widely known, what would it be?

I'd have to say that the most surprising thing is I have no background in programming or game design.  I took a C++ class in high school, but that is the extent of my experience.  For HCFactions, I had to teach myself how to use linux, bash scripting, some php/mysql for the first stats page, and basic java to understand the plugins I was having developed.  It has been a very long ride, but very well worth it. Having done it for a few months now, I still enjoy it as much, if not more, than I did the very first day I started doing it.

----------------

I'd like to thank HighlifeTTU for his time, and for a gameplay experience that has matched or exceeded the play experience I've found in a lot of $60 titles, all for free. Server donations keep the project from being exceedingly expensive, and players who donate are rewarded with "free lives" to get around the 3-day ban on death.  Notoriously cheap about F2P gaming, and suspicious of most games featuring microtransactions, my experience on these servers is a testament to the hard work these folks have put into the experience their players have. Within days of my first time on HCFactions I purchased a spare life, which is, to date, the only real cash I've spent for something extra in a game since purchasing a basic starter kit in my time playing Team Fortress 2. I eagerly await the opportunity to try MineZ, and also to get back to base-building with my faction. That is, once the brave souls we lost in last night's raid have served their three-day deathban. Best Blogger Tips
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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Zombies, Run! For Android and ZombieLink – A Review

When I first read about the Zombies, Run! Application, I thought it was a great idea. A fitness/gaming application where the player is a scavenger for a base of survivors in the zombie apocalypse, running to grab supplies and away from zombies.  It was first developed for the iPhone, and, well, I don't have one of those. However, one of the positives in my period of re-employment recently is that I did get an Android phone,and last week (6/14/12) Zombies, Run! Was released for my phone, and I've given it a few test runs (pun intended,) since an injury has me out of the weight room at the moment anyway.  The launch is not without its hiccups, but overall I like the application a lot, and will continue using it. I hate running, but this has motivated me enough to give it a serious try.

I used to joke when asked if I ran "Only when chased." Be careful what you wish for.

Zombies, Run! has a fairly simple interface. There is the base door, which lists Abel Township's (the settlement) population, and allows a quick swipe to open the door and start a mission. There's the mission menu, that displays all unlocked scenarios as well as criteria to unlock certain missions that have requirements. Next is the base upgrade menu, where each of the critical structures in the town are shown, and after each mission, collected items can be allocated to upgrade facilities with a simple drag and drop. There is an options screen with a help system, the ability to choose distance units (miles/km,) credits and the ZombieLink synch settings.  Each mission is a series of audio files telling the developing story, introducing characters, announcing when items have been picked up and cueing sprint sequences with a warning and the groans of approaching undead. Get away, and you keep your loot... get caught and you must drop an item to distract the horde. The game plays without needing to interact with the screen while running, using it to build the base and look at collected supplies later.

The Good

The voice acting in this game is spectacular, on par or better than that found in top-quality animation and AAA-video games. The story is immediately engaging, and finding out what happens next is a great motivator for getting back out there and running around a bit. The zombie chases also motivate a burst of speed, as I found myself not wanting to surrender any items even when my body was protesting that I'm built to lift weights, not sprint. I've always appreciated games that allow you to do some base/city building, and though that aspect is simple, I'm glad it is there. ZombieLink automatically tracks your progress, distance, and story events that happen along each workout for later viewing, as well as tracking in other fitness programs/sites like RunKeeper or Fitocracy. Getting to see the base's population increase as it is made more secure reinforces the idea that the player is assisting a desperate community while going out for a jog/run.

When finding that pack of underwear in the wilds, do you
allocate it to the residential facility... or the Armory?

The Bad

The application is far from perfect, and I've found a few frustrating things, especially considering the relatively steep price tag of $7.99 in an Android market packed with free or $0.99 apps. I think it is worth the price, but the flaws are a little less forgivable than they would be in a cheap/free product. There is an option to use your own music while running, but at launch, it was frustrating to use and sometimes interfered with playing the game.  Though supposedly compatible with WinAmp (though not the default music player on my phone,) the music wouldn't play through Zombies, Run!during my first two workouts. When manually starting a playlist, the music frequently drowns out some of the narration, marring the experience. It is worth mentioning that with today's update and a swap to Android Music Player, these issues seem to be resolved. ZombieLink is great, but seems unfinished, with no maps of my runs, a feature the website suggests should be live. Finally, the zombie chases are great, but they start randomly, so I find myself moving slowly when not being chased, not wanting to be worn out should a sudden chase start up.

I have great hopes for ZombieLink, but it isn't quite there.. yet. And yes, I run slow. Shut up.

The Future

Today's update, in addition to resolving the audio issues I experienced, added a shuffle feature which greatly improved the experience with each story clip or "transmission" playing as an intro/outro to random songs from a custom playlist I made for running. Various stability issues were also addressed, and my experience with the third time playing the game takes my recommendation from a cautious "Yes, but..." to an emphatic "Oh, definitely." There are currently 23 missions available, with a total of 30 promised for the first "season," as well as 5k and marathon training expansions (as I'd like someday to try the "couch to 5k" program, I look forward to this.) The team seems committed to supporting the project, so I am confident that an already great app will only get even better with time. As an experienced gamer, fan of the zombie genre and novice fitness enthusiast, this game hits the right notes. As the application is patched and refined, I think it'll be a great tool for my quest for  being more physically fit. After all, ZombieLand taught us that Rule #1 is: Cardio.


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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Diablo 3... My take, now that the Real Money Auction House is live – A Review.


Well, I teased this more than enough as my re-introduction to geeky subjects, and I have rather a lot to say about this game.  A look back through my articles in the past would probably earn me the label "Blizzard Fanboy" (especially from those who disagree with me.) Okay, I'll own that. I genuinely like Blizzard's games, and especially like that they improve them based on fan feedback until the game is improved based on those suggestions to a place where someone might call it "done." Not that gamers are happy with those changes, mind you. The constant in the current culture of gamer entitlement (which is a whole other article and another can of worms,) is whining on internet forums. That said, there are a lot of issues that displease a whole lot of people, which bother me more, less or not at all, and I'm prepared to address them now. Server issues, required internet connection, real money auction house, and the rarity of really great loot drops are frequently debated. Other issues, like class balance and a huge jump in difficulty at Hell and again in Inferno (especially Act II) are issues that can and will be addressed by patches, so I won't get into them here.

My current highest level character, a Witch Doctor.

Let's start with the one for which there is the weakest possible defense. Blizzard's servers weren't ready in launch week, and there are still latency issues. The answer for this one is an unpleasant truth. Blizzard knew that a certain portion of the folks who bought Diablo on launch, or who got it free with their WoW subscription extension (a LOT more on this later) will hate the game and stop playing it within a few weeks, if not immediately. Buying, maintaining, configuring all the hardware to handle a base that will massively shrink within a few weeks is a waste of money. It sucks that the consumer has to suffer for this, and it is mildly ironic that some of the base shrinking will be due precisely to the servers being overloaded, crashing or laggy.  There is, however, a series of linked issues which are the real things making people mad.

The servers wouldn't be an issue if you weren't required to stay connected to them in order to play at all. This is accepted in an MMORPG, but Diablo isn't really one of those, and I heard a TON of folks talking about how they couldn't play their single player game because they couldn't connect to a server.  Time for a hard truth. Diablo as a single player game where you pay $50-60 to "beat" the game by going to the last boss on normal difficulty and defeating him, and then you're done... well, that is something that doesn't exist anymore. Some might argue it never did, but in this incarnation in particular, Diablo is a cooperative action/rpg with randomized dungeons and loot that you are meant to play with friends through a series of ever-increasing difficulties on the way to Inferno and Level 60. You are allowed to solo, just like you can in an MMO, but this is not the way the game was designed to be played by default. I'll get into why and what it all means in a moment.

Posted this on FaceBook, friends who play Diablo
but never played WoW weren't amused.

A lot of people have figured out the basics of why a persistent connection is required. For the first time, there is an auction house where extra gear can be sold, and this time around you can choose to buy and sell items for hard-earned gold coins... or real money.  This economy doesn't work at all if there is an offline mode where items can be duplicated, and it doesn't work as well if the playerbase is given an option that doesn't include it. In an offline Diablo 3, items and gold could be duplicated, statistics that are valuable could be hacked in, changed, etc. You can't build an economy that anyone has any faith in with that as a very real possibility.  Drop rates, randomized stats on loot and how rare it is to find a truly awesome item are design decisions all impacted by the fact of an auction house where you are connected to every other player who may want to sell items to you, or buy your extras.

The most common response to all this is "I don't care about all that! I just want to play single player and I want the game I pad for to work!"  Time for another hard truth, and I'm going to say it in a way that may offend some people. If that is how you feel about Diablo, Blizzard doesn't care about you.  The gamer that wants to pay their $60, play single player until they've beaten the game and put it down, never looking back, isn't a valuable customer to them any more.  How do I know this?  They chose to not charge that $60 at all to a large base of folks used to using an auction house, used to needing to deal with server outages and maintenance, and who have already been exposed to micropayments for in-game items.  Blizzard had a problem. Subscription numbers for World of Warcraft were in decline, and Diablo was going to eat away at that base even more, taking away a bunch of monthly subscription fees.  The entire design of Diablo 3's online connection, auction house, and focus on multiplayer interaction is based on addressing this.

Also, Ponies. Gotta love how Blizzard responded to haters who complained
that the new art direction was to colorful and cartoony. (Most of the game isn't like this.)

Diablo 3 was FREE to anyone willing to extend their WoW account for 12 months. Why do that? Well, not only does Blizzard get to collect another year of fees from players, some of whom likely would have cancelled subscriptions in that time (some of them specifically because they knew they'd play Diablo,) but that is just the cherry on the top. The full dessert is in the Real Money Auction House (RMAH.) RMAH transactions have a fee, in the US, that's $1.00 to Blizzard off the top of each item sold.  Blizzard knew that a very, very small percentage of their players would use the RMAH at all, and an even smaller percentage would use it enough for those fees to add up.  The solution? Make the userbase as large as possible, attracting the very type of player most likely to use the system.  The millions of folks playing World of Warcraft are exactly that sort of player, and I experimented with the RMAH since it went live 2 days ago.  With $1.00 from every successful transaction, Blizzard has figured out how to monetize the farmers and get a consistent source of additonal money without charging a monthly fee.

I'm not going to tell anyone not to be mad about all this. By all means, if this isn't what you want out of your gaming, be mad.  It doesn't bother me, because I recognize that in the post-WoW world, a game like Diablo 1/2 isn't realistic as a way for Blizzard to make the kind of money they are used to.  They have to justify the decade and millions spent in development, the time and money spent patching and maintaining the game and servers... and the inevitable expansion(s) to their Board of Directors. Getting another Diablo to play (and I've had a blast so far) is worth all that to me. Of course, I'm exactly the target market for this game, and I played Diablo 1&2, and don't see those games with rose-tinted glasses... I remember how much worse they were for multiplayer one month after release.  Guess that makes me a fanboy.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Since We Last Spoke...


So, around the time my updating got spotty, and then stopped entirely, I'd gone back to work. Back, in fact, to the very job I'd lost when I made the first post to this blog well over a year ago. I said I wouldn't go back to that company, and I said that when I started working again that I wouldn't stop blogging. Amazing what a couple doses of perspective will do on both of those fronts.  I'm not going to make excuses, but anyone who still turns up to see if I'm updating after months of nothing deserves a few words of explanation.

Did I say early June? The 13th is "early," right?

Simply put, this blog isn't interesting (for those who find it interesting at all) just because I write it. I have my own writing style, and folks seem to like it, but I won't delude myself into thinking that I'm a special enough snowflake that people will turn up just to hear what I have to say. There are plenty of folks who can do that on the internet with nothing but their name and personality, but I'm not there yet.  The geeky content of my articles sure helped define my niche, but that didn't get me all the way there either. There are literally thousands of places someone can go if they want to read a review of the latest comic book film or video game, and a lot of those have been around longer than me, too. So why did so many folks (300,000 hits worth) turn up to read what I post here? It sure wasn't my disastrous experiment with the "magazine" dynamic template that genericized the look of the whole site.

I think there are still a lot of people who are struggling with the economy, they are out of work, or maybe recently were, or fear they may soon be.  The perspective of someone coming from those same struggles talking about great horror movies and Star Wars and Game of Thrones provides something special. That, or people just like page and a half articles with 3-4 pictures with sarcastic captions (something else that didn't work with dynamic views.) When my readership started to drop off when I went back to work, this blog went from something I needed to do, and wanted to do, to something that I felt I had to do. It was a second job. To make matters worse, my mind was on fitness, since I spent the last seven months dropping over 80 pounds and lifting heavy weights.  To write about what I was really interested in at the time would be further deviating from the interests of my core audience.

And really, who wouldn't rather be writing about stuff like the Battle of Blackwater,
instead of blogging about picking up heavy stuff, anyway?

Now, I'm once again out of work. The Foreign Service Office didn't call me up, and I'll keep plugging away at that, but I'm back to my original question of what to do next.  Well, a part of what I'd like to do is to get back to writing, and to take advantage of my additional free time to have a little bit of a life outside of gainful employment and the weight room at the local YMCA. I've seen a ton of movies, read some great books and played many, many video games that I hadn't had the time to write about if I wanted to keep enjoying them in these last few months.  Now, I want to catch up on the archives of the folks whose blogs I used to read daily and get back into the swing of things.  I have all these ideas for new articles, and I'd like to get back to putting them out there for folks to read. Might not be 5 days a week at first, but I'll be putting up new stuff regularly.

Do me a favor? If you just discovered this site, or are a loyal fan that didn't give up and came back to check and are happy to see new content here, drop an occasional comment here and there. It helps a lot doing this if I know that somewhere, someone is still reading. Thanks.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Soon.




"... and it was said in the prophecies, that in the time of the Fallen Star, that one thought long lost... would return."

I'll be back in early June. I won't go into too many specifics about where I've been, or commit right now to a specific schedule, but I can say one thing. When we're back and rolling, the site will once again be known as "What's Next? The Unemployed Geek."


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