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Friday, November 28, 2014

Valley of Blades - Part Two

Yesterday was a lovely family gathering for me. I hope you too had such a nice day. As promised, here is second half of the mainline Elder Scrolls Online quest Valley of Blades. I hope you find it useful. I went out of my way to show how you shouldn't do some things. ;-)


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Valley of Blades - Part One

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States and there is food to prepare; Friday I will likely be in a food coma... only kidding. Gluttony isn't my style. However, family gatherings are and that's where I'll be. So for today and Friday's post you get the level 35 mainline quest Valley of Blades from The Elder Scrolls Online. Perhaps you'll glean some good ideas on how to run your character through this quest. Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!


Monday, November 24, 2014

Alik'r Saved, but what of Tamriel?

This past weekend saw me sink 14 more hours into The Elders Scrolls Online (TESO.) I completed the main quest line in Alik'r and saved the kingdom from the evil necromancers. After recovering all the Ansei Wards, I returned them to their rightful place in The Impervious Vault - now made even more impervious - we hope.

[caption id="attachment_4081" align="aligncenter" width="1400"]Returning the Ansei Wards Returning the Ansei Wards[/caption]

I will say it was an ego trip to have the three Ansei warriors kneel and pay homage to my greatness. It's really nice to be appreciated. It's even better to received a salute from every leader in the Alik'r Army.

[caption id="attachment_4082" align="aligncenter" width="1400"]Alik'r Salute Alik'r Salute[/caption]

Yes, I am great. So of course King Fahara'jad wanted me out of Alik'r as fast as possible. Hell, I could have become king I was so popular, except for being technically unclean because I'd killed the consecrated dead. However, because none of them were my ancestors I was given a pass on that dishonor. Still, it would not do for me to become an important person. It might undermine... Alik'r tradition. Yeah, that's it. Tradition. So King Fahara'jad had Gabrielle Benoit open a portal for me straight to the bridge leading into Evermore. I can't blame him. Heroes are better worshipped from afar.

So anyway, I had a lot of fun in the Alik'r desert. I love their heavy armor and I'd gladly kill the undead for them all day long. And the entire time I was having fun, I kept thinking about TESO as an MMO, and whether it would stand the test of time. There were several dungeons, the Lost City of Na-Totumba especially, where informal grouping saved my bacon. But most people were soloing, which obviously isn't good news from an MMO.

So I did some digging around trying to find some sort of number that would tell me if TESO is surviving or failing. I don't trust the Raptr numbers. Not one of my 14 hours this weekend was automatically recorded. It's a problem I noticed the other week completing Rivenspire. I thought it was transitory but it is not. And Bethesda is no help. They are as tight-lipped about numbers as Priests after confession. Many will point at that as being indicative, but really it's just business sense. Many MMOs don't publish numbers because then they are compared to World of Warcraft and labeled total fail. That sets a bad expectation in the minds of players, both present and future.

So again I had to turn to secondary indicators. What I came up with is Alexa numbers. For those unfamiliar with Alexa, it's a service run by Amazon that attempts to estimate web traffic. It's actually really damn accurate. The free Alexa page is rather long, so I had to take it in three chunks. I'll start at the top and go down.

[caption id="attachment_4084" align="aligncenter" width="660"]Alexa ESO How Popular Alexa ESO How Popular[/caption]

The first third is a traffic ranking. This portion also gives so general behavior numbers, like bounce rate. That's the percentage of traffic that gets to the page only to leave it on the very next click. It's roughly a broad measure of, "oops, didn't mean to go there." It's not very informative in most cases. The next two numbers are better. They rate how many clicks within the domain were made by the average user, not including bounces, and how much time they remained on the domain. Believe it or not, both 7.3 pageviews and 7 minutes 39 seconds on site are both pretty good numbers. But perhaps the most telling feature of this section is the graph of site rankings relative to other sites. You can clearly see the build up to game launch and then a slow decline as expectations were brought more into line with reality. Around August you can see that adjustment end, and a more normal in-production graph begin. That's the sinusoidal like up and down of interest as content cycles occur. There is an uptick each time the developer releases something new. What this shows me is that November really isn't month TESO died. If anything, it looks a lit like October.

[caption id="attachment_4085" align="aligncenter" width="660"]Alexa ESO Who Visits Alexa ESO Who Visits[/caption]

The next section of the Alexa page shows who the audience is for the web site. I don't see any surprises here. TESO players are overwhelmingly male. Derp. They play from home. Derp. And considering that most have at least some college, we can deduce TESO is in the appropriate demographic. The only fact that raised an eyebrow for me at all was Germany being the second largest audience by geography. Offenbar TESO ist sehr beliebt in Deutschland. Sehr gut! That said, it was only a matter of placement. The five countries listed are the five I'd expect to see listed for a subscription MMO. It ranks right up there with GDP and Internet accessibility. Hell, China would probably trump the whole list if Chinese gamers weren't behind the Great Firewall of China.

[caption id="attachment_4086" align="aligncenter" width="660"]Alexa ESO Where From Alexa ESO Where From[/caption]

The last third of the Alexa report shows where the traffic is coming from if that origin is a search engine or social media. Again, I see no huge surprises here. I look at this sort of thing all the time though, so perhaps you may. What I think is really shown here is that Search Visits percentage. And what draws my attention to it is how much lower it is than the bounce percentage. There's an 11.3 percent difference, which to me says one out of 10 visitors are arriving at the web site through a short cut of other web site link and then leaving. Is that the age page coming into play? I've no idea. I don't think it really says anything about the health of TESO; the Traffic Ranks graph did most of that. It's just a bit odd. Game-zines perhaps? There is a bit of an uptick in searches that lead to the domain, but it coincides with the latest expansion. The graph is fairly well established as hovering around the 20 percent mark.

So taken as a whole, I don't see a great redemption for TESO going on here. I also do not see its death. I do see people playing it when I am online and playing it myself. The world is not overwhelmed with players, mind you, but they all seem to be having fun. Only time will tell if it remains as it is, or goes free to play, or simply passes into Oblivion. Hehe, see what I did there? XD

Friday, November 21, 2014

To Dres and Back Again

Not long ago the incredibly brilliant Kerbal computer scientist Dr. McCarthy Kerman came to me with a proposal. "We need to map Jebediah Kerman's neural pathways into a completely self-contained artificial intelligence capsule with a bitchin' huge eye on top. All we need to do is send a mission to Dres for some additional information. Then we will be able to complete MechaJeb."

"Sounds fascinating," I said. "Why Dres?"

"There's just something about that dwarf planet..." was all he said as he gazed off into a distance that wasn't there in my less than spacious office in the administration building.

I halted that ominous gaze quickly with, "Sounds good. The eye's a nice touch. Start planning the mission right away. Finish the kerbisynchronous communication satellite upgrades first. Change the name to MechJeb. The other is too much like MechaHitler."

"Roger, " was all he said as he wheeled and practically raced out of my office.

"Like a kid in a candy shop," I muttered to myself.

It took nearly five years to complete the mission. But McCarthy was able to pull it off, and upgrade the communications satellites as well!

(Click on the first image and follow the whole story in the descriptions.)

[gallery columns="5" ids="4076,4046,4045,4044,4075,4074,4073,4072,4071,4070,4069,4068,4067,4066,4065,4064,4063,4062,4061,4060,4059,4058,4057,4056,4055,4054,4053,4052,4051,4050,4049,4048,4047"]


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: The Martian

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="313"]The Martian by Andy Weir The Martian by Andy Weir[/caption]

The summary from,

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

If you read nothing else this year, you MUST read The Martian by Andy Weir. If you think of yourself as a hard-core science fiction fan, where the key word is science, this book will satisfy every geeky bone in your body. If you walked out of the movie Interstellar wondering where the real science was in that fantasy (except Gargantua, they did a really good job with that monstrous black hole,)  then this is the book for which you've been waiting. To say that Andy Weir gets it right is an understatement. It's been a very, very long time since I've read a book this scientifically correct. And what's even better, this book kept me on the edge of my seat just listening to it! Warning: the dialog in the book is very real. People use profanity when surprised, frightened, disappointed or emotionally overwrought - just like real people. I'd have to say the book's a PG-13 situation if you object to your children reading what they already hear every day in school from their peers. There is a more detailed review below the break.

The Martian begins on SOL 6 of the third manned mission to Mars in the not too distant future. The mission is in Acidalia Planitia, a broad, flat expanse of northern Mars where the craters are few and the rocks are small. NASA had prepared the site for a 30-day mission starting two years earlier when they had landed the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) there to start making fuel for the crew's return to their ship, Hermes, in orbit of Mars. But on SOL 6, a sand storm arises with winds far stronger than NASA has ever measured. When the wind speeds hit hurricane force, the order is given to abort the mission. At that wind speed the MAV, which is tall and pyramidal in shape, threatened to tip over. If the MAV was lost, the crew would have no way off Mars. So the crew tethers themselves together and begins the several hundred foot trek to the MAV.

While making their way through the blinding sandstorm, the wind rips the high-gain dish antenna they used to send communications to NASA away from its mount. It smashes into the receiving antenna, and array of dipoles, and breaks one of them off. The wind then launches the antenna section like a javelin through the thin Martian atmosphere now think with sand. The projectile hits astronaut Mark Watney, the crew's botanist and mechanical engineer, end on penetrating his Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suit and his lower abdomen only being stopped by his pelvis. His suit immediately loses all pressure. The rest of the crew sees this on their helmet readouts. Very shortly after that, Mark Watney's biotelemetry, which they can also see in their helmet displays, stops. He is dead. The mission commander makes the difficult decision to save five and they leave Mars to grieve for their lost comrade later.

However, Mark Watney did not die. The rod, as well as penetrating him, also penetrated his suit's bio-telemetry module rendering it non-functional. And while his suit did lose all pressure and thus oxygen, Mark Watney landed face down in the Martian sand. His blood mixed with the sand and instantly froze where it bubbled out of his suit. As he was on top of it, the water did not sublimate away. The seal was enough for the suit to deal with the pressure loss. It kept just enough oxygen in the suit for Watney to regain consciousness. He then used a repair kit that they all carried to seal the puncture, after he removed the antenna from his hip that is. Then he made it back to the habitation module, known as the HAB, which was designed to withstand winds much stronger than Mars could ever sustain, and which also had prescription painkillers, a needle and suture thread.

After Watney repaired himself, he took stock of his situation. He was stranded on Mars with no way to talk to NASA because the communications array was destroyed. There were three other backup systems, but they were all on the MAV - now in orbit. He had the HAB which would keep him alive for the immediate future, and could make oxygen out of the carbon dioxide in Mar's atmosphere. He had 24 days of rations for six people which gives him 144 SOLS of food. He had a similar amount of bagged water, and a water reclamation unit that could convert his urine to potable water. He wouldn't die right away, but the more distant future looked bleak. He had no way to get off Mars, and the next mission, Ares 4, wasn't scheduled to land for another two years though it's MAV was already on the surface making fuel for their return to orbit. Also, the Ares 4 mission site was at crater Schiaparelli some 3200 kilometers away. He has two rovers, but they weren't designed for such long trips. Being an astronaut, Watney keeps a log (in fact much of his story is first person through the logs,) if only for posterity's sake. His first entry is, "I am SO FUCKED."

That is how Andy Weir starts The Martian, though some of the details I just gave away don't come out for a few chapters. Andy Weir does a great job of building suspense by the fact that, in situations such as these, you almost never know everything. There is no omniscient narrator in this story spoiling it. It took months before NASA even realized Mark Watney was alive. The book only gets better from there. Though the story begins as an unlikely coincidence of happenstance and bad luck, it is nevertheless entirely plausible. Stranger things have certainly happened in real life, and you only have to lookup Apollo 13 on Wikipedia to know catastrophic yet unlikely things do happen. Space exploration is a dangerous business, and Andy Weir never lets you forget that reality the entire story. Still, you won't know the final outcome until you get there.

But not once does Andy Weir ask the reader to suspend their disbelief to make the story work. Not ever, and that is so refreshing I reveled in every single oh-shit Mars threw at Mark Watney. And it wasn't just a story about Mark Watney. It was also a story about NASA, the culture of NASA, and the astronauts who carry out man's exploration of space. The Martian is as much a story about the best (and worst) aspects of human nature as it is a story about surviving alone on Mars. It's full of characters you will love and some you may even despise, but they are all real. I know people just like them, and when you start comparing fictional characters to people you really know... well, that's the hallmark of a great book.

If you still don't believe me about how good The Martian is, then here's more proof for the pudding. Andy Weir self published this book on Amazon in 2012. It sold over 10,000 copies, which is good even for a book published via traditional publishers. Then he was called by a literary agent who basically said, "You need representation and you need it now!" That almost NEVER happens. It's as unlikely as being stranded on Mars during a freak sand storm... haha. :P The book was republished traditionally in 2014 by Crown Publishing. There is also a movie starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott coming in late 2015. That says a lot of good things about this book right there.

I'm telling you, if this book doesn't win the Nebula it's because the conservative branch of sci-fi authorship, who hate everything Amazon, dis Andy Weir for originally self-publishing the novel. But hell, he made 70% on more than 10,000 copies. Even the best of the old guard only gets 10% royalties, and most of them don't get movie contracts. And this book is an absolute gem. Hell, I'm going to buy a World Con ticket just so I can vote for it in the Hugos. Andy Weir deserves way more than that, but it's the least I can do after being so well entertained. This book gets an A+ grade.

PS: If you do decide to read this book, pull up Google Maps Mars and follow along. Any Weir really does get everything right. XD

Monday, November 17, 2014

Retrieving Ancient Stranded Probes

Nearly 83 years ago Kerbals first left their planet for the harsh unknowns of space. As the manager of their space program, I soon decided there was no need to risk Kerbals on dangerous missions to explore their solar system. This was, after all, only fact-finding in preparation for greater things. Automated probes could easily handle such missions, preserving the finest of Kerbaldom for more important missions like colonizing Duna, Eve or even Mun.

That decision saved lives. Early in the space program, before the nuances of orbital mechanics were completely understood, and due to a mathematician who confused Mun with Minmus, we left a probe stranded on Mun without enough fuel to escape its gravity well. It sat on the surface of Mun for 82 years; its science safely stored in state of the art mass core memory. Fortunately it was in a location that saw plenty of light from Kerbol to keep the primitive batteries charged.

Not long after that, we sent a probe to Minmus to conduct an orbit and return. Proper gravity calculations triple checked, we nevertheless discovered ground crews had forgotten to install parachutes on the first ever Minmus probe. They argued Minmus had no atmosphere so parachutes were unnecessary. There was plenty of egg all over everyone's face for that foobar. Mission Control parked the probe in a 400 kilometer orbit for nearly 82 years along with the science collected while in orbit of Minmus.

But those failures have gnawed on the Kerbals ever since. So over the weekend, we launched two recovery operations. As the stranded Mun mission had a parachute for reentry, all we need to do was get it into a Kerbin intercept trajectory. It had just enough fuel left to climb into a 15 kilometer orbit making a retrieval attempt possible. As the Minmus probe had no parachute, one would have to be provided for it. Actually, it ended up being four parachutes. And as neither probe had docking ports (they hadn't been invented when the probes were launched,) it was necessary to use the new asteroid Advanced Grabbing Unit to secure them. Here's the historical photo archive of the missions gathered from several space based and ground based systems. Click on the first picture to see them in order and read the full details of these historic missions.

[gallery columns="5" size="medium" ids="4024,4023,4020,4021,4018,4017,4016,4015,4014,4013,4012,4011,4010,4009,4008,4007,4006,4005,4004,4003,4002,4001,4000,3999,3998,3997,3996,3995,3994,3993"]


Friday, November 14, 2014

Raptr Most Played PC Games: October 2014

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="640"]MOST PLAYED PC GAMES: OCTOBER 2014 MOST PLAYED PC GAMES: OCTOBER 2014[/caption]

Color me surprised. Nowhere on this list is there a Civilization game. It looks like Civilization: Beyond Earth (CivBE) simply robbed people from Civilization V (Civ5) and caused it to drop out of the top twenty. Last month I predicted CivBE would be able to break into the top twenty even though it only had a week of play time. And it even seemed like it would make it, as there were over 100k Steam members on the CivBE community. Nope. :/

So I went and had a look at the list just under half way through November. CivBE sits in the 24th position with 389,551 hours played over the month period starting mid-October. Civ5 is in 26th place with 361,137 hours played. Yeah, it seems like there's some Peter robbed to pay Paul going on. Well, that's how the cookie crumbles. It's still a fun game, though there is always room for improvement. We'll see if it makes the November list, or if the two Civilizations will be at war with each other from now on. That's kinda funny when you think about it.

There is something else that surprised me on this list. Star Wars: The Old Republic (SW:TOR) climbed three places to number twelve. They had their big update with player housing (Galactic Strongholds) and on December 9, 2014 will launch the next: Shadow of Revan. The pre-orders just keep rolling in according to Raptr. You know, I was thinking about trying SW:TOR out myself if TESO didn't get rid of the bots and glitches. They did as I reported last post. So I guess I'll stick with TESO for a while, at least until I get to level 50. I might even try PvP. :P Or, I could just give SW:TOR a try. Anyone got some advice for me on that decision? BTW, TESO is currently in 69th position on the 30 day Raptr listing. :(

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (ME:SoM) makes its debut on the top twenty. Don't expect it to stay there. It's already down to 43rd position on the to-date list. There just isn't enough game play in it, and once someone finishes that's pretty much it. You could go back and start over again, but I don't see enough variability in the game to make that very enticing. It's 40 hours of fun. That's it, and the game has already run its course with most players I think. BTW, in case you passed on ME:SoM because you wanted to wait for a sale, it's here. Steam is having a 25% off sale for ME:SoM right now until 10:00 AM PST tomorrow.

When I went to check on ME:SoM's current status I noticed something that made me smile a little. EVE Online has moved up to the 37th position. When I last looked at its position for the Raptr August 2014  post, it was in 40th position. It's not all good news though. The hours played is 30k lower than in the August numbers. However, there is a weekend difference between that report and this so EVE Online probably is right on course for a nice bump in the standings. It isn't huge, but I think it's a nice indication what CCP is doing to revitalize the game is working. I'm still thinking about the latest dev blogs (Thera, manual control, Rhea in general) and may have more to say about them next week. I haven't decided. Thinking about EVE Online still gets an anger response out of my care-bear psyche so we'll see. But in general, I think CCP is on the right track. EVE Online has been stagnant for years with declining player numbers. Anything to shake up the status quo can only help. :D

I'm pretty meh about the rest of the top twenty list. Free to play (F2P) and MOBA's are still the popular thing. One of these days I'd love to see a list of money earned and see how well this list corresponds to that list. I don't think that will ever happen. Not all game companies release those sorts of figures. More's the pity.

Next month I'm not making any predictions. I expected Assassin's Creed: Unity to vault onto the list, but with all the post launch problems with the game that's unlikely to happen. At this point I've but it on my wait for a Steam Sale list. I'm not going to pay $60 for a broken game. And it is broken, badly. More's the pity again. Other than that release, I don't see anything else on the horizon that could upset the current top ten on this list. There may be a bit of position jostling, but it really isn't going to change in November. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The State of Tamriel

[caption id="attachment_3973" align="aligncenter" width="1400"]Selfie - Loving Armor Dye Selfie - Loving Armor Dye[/caption]

Today I thought I'd be telling everyone about Assassin's Creed: Unity, but when I went to purchase it via Steam yesterday there was a big red thumbs down on the store page. I had to check that our first, of course. It seems the PC version of the game is having some issues. I don't know if this is a campaign by all those upset because the game specifications are so high, or if the PC version of the game is as poorly optimized and full of bugs as reported. Either way, I'm not going to drop that sort of money until I know for certain. I love Assassin's Creed, but that means I love to play Assassin's Creed. If it's not playable, what's the point? So for those PC gamers out there who haven't purchased yet, wait until the dust settles.

That said, let me fill you in on what The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) is like these days. Because I wanted to finish Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag before Unity released, and because Civilization: Beyond Earth, I hadn't played TESO since the middle of July. I was starting to ask myself if I should keep the subscription if I wasn't going to play it. So, since I took an extra long 5-day weekend (yes, I really took the day off last Friday ;) ,) I decided I'd finish Rivenspire and see what life in Tamriel was like these days. Eight levels later here's what I discovered.

My last gameplay post about the goings on in Rivenspire was on July 15th. I had just finished Sanguine Barrows, and thought I was about half way through Rivenspire events. I could not have been more wrong. Or perhaps it was just that the second half of things just took longer than the first half of things. No, that's not true, because I finished Rivenspire Saturday night. Maybe it was because I was working on my Explorer, Pathfinder and other achievements at the same time so it simply seemed like the second half took more time. I was taking every side trail and every secondary quest I came upon. Yeah, that's got to be it. No, that's not it either. Okay, here's the deal. I was having so much fun I don't really know what took so long. It may very well be that I'm living an entirely different life in-game so it merely seems like a lot of extra time.

The simple fact is I was having a blast running through public dungeons and pretty much killing everything in sight for fat loot. Sometimes I'd be alone, and sometimes I'd have an impromptu group of which I was a part. These groups were never formally made. It was just ad hoc groups of players in the same dungeon at the same time. Killing Osgrikh during Foul Deeps in the Deep in Obsidian Scar was especially satisfying. I'd tried solo killing the SOB twice and couldn't quite do it. I left and repaired armor damage then returned. On the third try, I had the assistance of a Battle Mage who was having more trouble with him than I was it looked like. Between the two of us we beat the jerk down handily. It's that sort of impromptu cooperation that I've come to love about TESO, and it happened every day over the past few days I've played.

But you know what hasn't happened? Bots, that's what. I didn't see a single bot all five days, and I put in over 24 hours game play in those five days. Hallelujah! There were no crafting bots. There were no bots waiting for bosses to spawn. In fact, one time I had to get up and do something around the house but didn't log out. Mabrick stood idle too long and the server logged me out automatically. Oops... but, HELL YEAH! There were times right after launch I couldn't even get close to bosses in order to finish a dungeon. I left several unfinished because of bots. So of course I went back to Glenumbra, Stros M'Kai and Betnikh and got the achievements for those places I couldn't get before because bots. It was a little odd being a 30+ level Templar and taking out Bad Man, but I did it anyway - after I let all the noobs do it first of course.

That's the other thing I didn't see any more - kill stealing. It used to be a fairly regular thing, but no one stole any kills from me all weekend. I think this is likely due to two reasons. One, without all the bots it isn't really necessary any more. Two, there were not as many "characters" online so the spawn rate is more appropriate: that was at least my experience. There were still plenty of characters, but there were not the insane number TESO had just after launch. Hell, if this is profitable and keeps the franchise going I'm all for the lower character population. It makes the world seem larger, and when you do run into another adventurer it's more likely to be a friendly greeting than a "piss off, this is our spawn."

So overall I am pleased to report The Elder Scrolls Online is actually very pleasant to play these days. I freed North Point, I killed Baron Montclair and I put Countess Tamrith on the throne. Baron Dorell just pisses me off. He's such a hard head. I decided he couldn't be king when he... wait, that'd be a spoiler. I shouldn't talk about it. XD But it's a damn shame about Count Ravenwatch... :twisted:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar (Spoiler Alert)

*** SPOILER ALERT — This post reveals elements of a just released movie. Do not read if you want to keep it a surprise! ***

[caption id="attachment_3953" align="alignright" width="465"]Interstellar Interstellar[/caption]

I watched Interstellar yesterday. You will have one of two reactions to this movie. You will either leave the theater saying, "Wow, just... wow." Or, you will leave the theater thinking this movie was an hour too long. I must admit I tend to fall into the second camp though I enjoyed the movie. It's not that I object to the movie being nearly three hours long. I happily sat though the Return of the King. What I object to is a three-hour movie that seems to have no real message even if it is beautiful.

That said, I'll start with the awesome about Interstellar. First awesome: the cinematography is incredible. I watched it on a standard 35 millimeter screen and it was breathtaking. From Sahara sized dust storms to mountain sized waves, our incredible smallness in this universe really comes to the forefront. It doesn't take a large black hole named Gargantua to bring that into perspective. It was much better served using planetary effects to which we humans can easily relate. That brought home not only our own fragility, but the scope of our struggle merely to survive. If anything speaks to how overwhelming the universe is, it's the simple fact we are helpless in the face of sandstorms so large they blot out the sky before even reaching us. You see, most people cannot imagine the incredible distances involved in space travel. NASA and science articles routinely throw out mission parameters expressed in years, and it simply doesn't register with people. A thousand foot high wall of water registers with people. Especially when you put a human body in front of it. The director seemed to understand this, and kept the talk of distances involved to a minimum while maximizing the time spent in front of towering elemental forces.

Another awesome in the movie has to be the actresses and actors who portrayed the people trapped on a dying Earth, or struggling to survive planets humans were never evolved to live upon. To a person, they all delivered excellent performances. Now don't get me wrong, these characters are fairly stereotypical. There's the thwarted adventurer. The brilliant child failed by a mass market education system. The guy who's perfectly content to be a farmer his entire life; bound to the land where his family has lived, struggled and died for generations. There are no complicated psychologies in this movie. The writers pulled no all-night sessions coming up with these characters. But the actors and actresses brought them to life and made them real. The talent with which they did so was evident to me, and I enjoyed every single moment of their performance. In fact, I find myself thinking more about the characters than the cinematography today, but more on that in a bit.

Now for the not so awesome. Interstellar was touted by some as a scientific wonder. A science fiction movie that gets the science right. There were even articles written about the theoretical physics discovery made while developing Gargantua visuals for the movie. However, this is incredibly misleading. Much of the science is not believable. From a terrestrially evolved organism that seemingly metabolizes nitrogen like oxygen, to spacecraft which seem to have inexhaustible delta-v, this movie missed the mark. I'll admit I might have missed something recent on nitrogen metabolizing organisms,  but I've played enough Kerbal Space Program to know you just can't do what those spacecraft did. There are laws of physics outside of black holes that are every bit as unalterable as those inside one. And as for those inside a black hole, don't get me started on the complete absence of any mention Schwarzschild radii or spaghettification. Certainly Gargantua was large enough to have its Schwarzschild radius inside its event horizon, but the other one certainly was not. The ship should have been torn to pieces by differential tidal forces before even reaching the wormhole. But then there'd be no movie. That's Hollywood, not science. If you are a science connoisseur like me, please go into the movie knowing you will have to suspend a lot more disbelief than the articles indicate. There certainly is enough fantasy to taint the experience if you are not prepared. At least it wasn't as egregious as Gravity. Of course, I could simply be ignorant of the science the screen writers relied upon as the basis of their movie. Anything's possible. Perhaps it's just there wasn't enough time (no pun intended) for them to explain the science they used. That speaks directly to the next non-awesome about the movie.

This movie is nearly three hours long and still suffers from insufficient time to explain itself. It seemed to me there were two parts to this story. Part one covers how humans got into the situation humanity faces on Earth. The second part is what the humans are doing to find a new home. By combining both stories into one movie, the first part was mostly robbed to make way for the second part - and that kills both. Viewer fatigue sets in long before you get to the really exciting parts of the movie. Honestly, the majority of the earth based story line could have been left on the cutting room floor and the best parts of the movie would have been preserved.  I have a completely unsubstantiated suspicion the director was forced to leave a lot out of the first part to avoid controversy, and the movie suffers for it twice. It was a bad decision.

So now that I've given two paragraphs on awesome and two paragraphs on not so awesome, here's my advice. Watch the movie. If you love incredible cinematography, go watch it on a 70mm IMAX screen. If you like the movie theater atmosphere in general, go watch it in the theater. But I think the majority of people can wait to rent it and watch it in the comfort of their own home, where they can pause it for bathroom breaks. Seriously. Unless you have a bladder the size of the Hindenburg, you'll need that break. Regardless, watch the film. It's been nearly 24 hours since I saw it and I am still thinking about it. That's not the mark of a bad film. In fact, I keep going back to the nuances, like the relativistic effects portrayed in the film. This was all in the second part I wrote about above. One of the science realities Interstellar gets right is the effect of black holes on time. There is a scene where three crew members go down to the surface of the a planet. It is near the event horizon of Gargantua, and so time passes much slower for them. They are on the planet for about an hour their time, but on the ship 23 years go by. When they return, the airlock door opens and the fourth crew member, Romilly, is standing there in a bathrobe and t-shirt. It's one of the images from the movie which keeps bubbling to the surface and making me smile. The realities of Einstein's equations are reflected in Romilly's expression perfectly as he stands there in more disbelief than greeting. It really does bring a human face to an incomprehensible situation, and that's what Interstellar does best.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

AC: Unity System Requirements - Are They Extraordinary?

To say there has been a lot of QQ over the Assassin's Creed: Unity (AC: Unity) system requirements is to commit a gross understatement. There have been many articles written lamenting the specifications. There has been a Twitter campaign demanding a change - as if that's even possible with a game in the last stage of development. Regardless, many gamers are very, very unhappy about the requirements. But are they out of line with today's state of PC hardware? Is Ubisoft actually requiring something extraordinary? Or, is this just the normal evolution of game software advancing with hardware capabilities? Or, is something else at play here? That's what I'm going to discuss in this post.

To start, you need to know what the official, confirmed requirements for playing AC: Unity are. Here is the official specifications page. Here's the summary.

Minimum System Requirements

OS: Windows 7 64-bit
CPU: Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3 GHz or AMD Athlon FX-8350 4.0 GHz
RAM: 6GB System Memory
GPU RAM: 2GB Graphics Memory
GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 or AMD Radeon HD 7970
HDD: 50GB Free Hard Drive Space
DX: DirectX 11
Audio: DX 9.0c Compatible Sound Card
Online: 256 kbps upload bandwidth or higher

Recommended System Requirements

OS: Windows 7 64-bit
CPU: Intel Core i7-3770 3.4 GHz or AMD FX-8350 4.0 GHz
RAM: 8 GB System Memory
GPU RAM: 3GB Graphics Memory
GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 or AMD Radeon R9 290X

I am not an AMD user. I've been Intel and Nvidia for a very long time. So I am only going to concern myself with those two manufacturers. Let's look at the CPU requirement first. There is only one way I am going to look at this. When was the recommended processor released? I believe looking at performance graphs, etc. is not necessary because it's a valid assumption that newer hardware will be more capable compared to previous hardware. Performance graphs are therefore not needed to determine if Ubisoft's required specifications are abnormal.

So when was the Intel Core i5-2500k 3.3 Ghz central processor released? According to Intel, this specific processor was released first quarter of 2011. That was almost four years ago. So you need to ask yourself, is that unreasonable for a minimum requirement processor. I don't think so. But, to be more object we should look at some minimum requirements for other games. The hard part about this will be in choosing games that are of the same genre and level of sophistication as AC: Unity. That's tough. I'm going to cheat a bit. I'm going to us AC4: Black Flag as the comparison because it's the predecessor to AC: Unity. That cements the same genre, same level of capability. If AC4: Black Flag's minimum required processor was and end of life model that was almost four years old when the game was released, we'll have a nice comparison point I think.

The minimum recommended Intel processor for AC4: Black Flag was an Intel Core2Quad Q8400 according to Steam. The launch date for that processor was second quarter of 2009. Ubisoft released AC4: Black Flag October 29, 2013. The Q8400 at that time was just over four years old. With hardware of that age, the difference between the i5-2500k and Q8400 from a capability point of view is negligible, but yes, the AC: Unity recommended minimum processor is about 6 months younger than the recommended minimum for AC4: Black Flag when it released. However, having an end of life recommended minimum processor is not extraordinary.

Now let's look at the graphics processor. The GPU probably has more to do with the performance of a game than the central processor. If Ubisoft's requirements are going to be unrealistic, I believe it is here that we'll see it. So, using the same reasoning as with the CPU, when was the GTX 680 released? Well, unlike Intel, Nvidia doesn't seem to have a nice easy reference site. However, going out to their product page and looking at some of the reviews they have linked, all the reviews were written in March of 2012. Assuming the reviews were written just before product release, we can safely assume the GTX 680 came on the market the second quarter of 2012. That was two and a half years ago. That's a bit newer than the CPU, but it's still a fairly old card - especially considering how hot the graphics processor market runs these days. Yes, that pun was intended. XD

So how does that stack up with the AC4: Black Flag GPU requirement. According to Steam, AC4: Black Flag required as a minimum a Nvidia Geforce GTX 260. Unfortuantely Nvidia does not have product reviews linked for legacy GPUs. It's a bit more difficult to get a release date from the proverbial horse's mouth, i.e. the manufacturer. So I went looking at secondary sources. I found a six-year-old Engadget review for the 200 series GPUs which I'll take for gospel. The GTX 260 came on the market in second quarter of 2008. In this instance, there is a significant difference between AC: Unity and AC4: Black Flag. The recommended minimum for AC4: Black Flag was over five years old when the game released. That is an 18 month difference between GPU minimums for the two games. But is that unrealistic?

Obviously many think it is. But is it really? Perhaps we should look at some recent game releases and see where they fall. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor requires a minimum GTX 460. In fact, its recommended card is a GTX 660 - less than AC: Unity's minimum. Now, I've not played Shadow of Mordor, but I've seen it played on YouTube. The graphics are comparable to AC4: Black Flag, but not nearly what AC: Unity offers. It's that upgraded experience which is purportedly driving the increased GPU requirement, and the requirement is substantively increased in AC: Unity. It does actually verge on the extraordinary.

Should Ubisoft have decreased the PC graphics capability in order to lower the recommended minimum? That's an interesting question, and it depends more on economics I think than software programming. There is an argument to be made that people who cannot afford a GTX 680 upgrade will probably own a console and not a gaming PC. If that assumption is true, the low-end market does not belong to the PC. It belongs to the Playstation and Xbox brands. If you lower the graphics requirement, you might get a few more people to buy the PC version of the game, but would it compare favorably to how many people will buy the game if the Apple business model is used instead?

I know, you think I've gone completely off the reservation here. But I haven't. Apple products go for a premium price. And they get it. Why? Because their devices are sleek, and elegant and a beautiful thing to hold in your hands. People pay the extra money to own such a well designed piece of technology. When it comes to a computer game, that all equates to how the game looks and performs. If it is both gorgeous and runs at 60 frames per second, you have the equivalent of an iPad. You can charge a premium price. That's why Shadow of Mordor sells for $49.99 and AC: Unity sells for $59.99. You know, I probably wouldn't pay $59.99 for a game if the graphics weren't drop-dead beautiful. I know I haven't bought Shadow of Mordor because I think the price is too high. I'll wait for a sell thank you very much.

But the Apple comparison really is a stretch, and I don't think that's what is going on here. Ubisoft may have changed their GPU age requirement for reasons completely unrelated to the game, though it's still related to economics and not video quality. A GTX 680 may cost $490, but it's a cinch to drop into your system board. The GTX 780 is even cheaper at $429.99. But what's more, there may be another dynamic going on here. Yesterday Nvidia posted this announcement. That's right, if you buy a new GTX GPU you can get AC: Unity free from participating retailers and PC builders. And all the biggies are included: Amazon, Newegg, EVGA, MSI, Cyberpower PC and a dozen more. Just in time for the holidays. Is that collusion I smell? :o Did Nvidia secretly subsidize Ubisoft to increase the graphics requirements? Now there's something to talk about.

Monday, November 3, 2014

BB60: Measuring Success - Only One Thing Matters

Jakob Anedalle of Jakob's Eve Checklist blog asks:

With Phoebe about to land, CSM Minutes now out, and more of CCP Seagull's vision from Eve Vegas it appears CCP has a bold roadmap, is making big changes, and is willing to take a hit in the short-term to see it through. What do you see as the measurable signs that will tell us that they've succeeded? What outcome will we see as players? Is it concurrent player count or something else?

CCP is in a war. Long the only Sci Fi MMO on the market, that status is coming to an end. We've Elite Dangerous just around the corner with a projected release date of next year. And looming in the now not so distant horizon is Star Citizen with a persistent Universe alpha release looking like it'll be late next year. And before you go all rant on me and start yelling about how those won't be MMOs, let me remind you that in fact they are persistent universes and yes, they will compete with EVE Online for the hearts, money and, most importantly, time of those people who love Sci Fi computer games where they can fly Internet spaceships. And believe you me, you can fly and Internet spaceship in both those upcoming titles.

So what will tell us if CCP will be successful in this war? Well, I certainly hope it's not concurrent user counts. Star Citizen already has more people signed up to play than CCP has ever had. I just went and looked at the RSI web site, and there are 640,735 Star Citizens who've pledged money and will be allowed to play the game once it releases. And like me, there are 500, 142 pilots in the UEE fleet flying Internet spaceships against each other (or the Vanduul Swarm) right now. From a raw numbers point of view, CCP has already lost the war if we use any sort of player count. So what will be the measure of success?

In war, you measure success by the taking and the holding of objectives. Let's look at some of these objectives in a simple Q and A format.

Q: Can CCP change EVE Online to compete with what's coming?

A. Yes. They are very capable programmers and have shown time and again they can make EVE Online better.

Q. Can CCP create a more inclusive game?

A. Yes, they can. To what degree is yet to be seen. My opinion on this subject is well-known to any who've read my EVE Online posts over the years. Telling a new bro to go find a corporation under whose skirts they can hide... I mean to fly with and learn the ropes from... XD ...isn't what I think of as ├╝ber helpful. But by and large, CCP has made EVE Online more accessible to new players.

Q. Can CCP create a new EVE Online that is hard and fun and exhilarating and all those things people who play EVE Online love about the game?

A. Yes. Derp.

Q. Can CCP Compete with this?

A. Actually, yes they can, if they are as aggressive and risk non-averse as they say they can be. CCP already has Dust 514 with orbital bombardment. Eventually, with Project Legion, I feel CCP will integrate FPS into EVE Online at least for planetary action.

Q. Can CCP compete with this?

A. Yes, because EVE Online is fleet oriented and not ship oriented. That appeals to a different sort of Internet spaceship pilot. It is more strategic in concept whereas the up and comers are tactically oriented when it comes to flying Internet spaceships. Their Internet spaceship vision is FPS. CCP's is more MOBA. In fact, you'll find no larger MOBA out there than EVE Online. Think about that for a moment. Those gigantic Internet spaceship battles (and the smaller ones too) are run by a handful of fleet commanders on either side. Isn't that what a strategic MOBA looks like? FPS does not compete with MOBA. We see that in the industry all day long. And I've not mentioned EVE Valkyrie at all. If CCP can integrate that into EVE Online, they'll have their cake and can eat it too.

Q. Can CCP compete with this?

A. No, CCP can't. Certain elements of the player base killed that plan in 2011. With no thought toward the future, and no concept of what lay in wait a few short years later, some long-time change-averse players decided to extort CCP into canceling Incarna. CCP is now behind the proverbial eight ball on that score. That will be the most difficult area for CCP to compete against Star Citizen. When Elite Dangerous decided against that sort of game play it was actually a win for CCP. But RSI is coming fast and hard, and from what I've seen CCP needs to be worried. If they aren't, they are fools. And I don't believe CCP employs fools.

So CCP has a potential score of five out of six objectives. That's pretty good. If you think about the two developers they're at war with, Elite Dangerous can, max, get five of the six objectives. But they are not pursuing a walking around stations capability. That eliminates another possible objective they could take, meaning CCP wins - probably. There's always that proverb about not counting chicks before they hatch. But all in all, I don't worry about Elite Dangerous unseating EVE Online. No, the real danger comes from Star Citizen. RSI just passed the $61,000,000 funding goal. They have not only shown legitimate, hardcore, in development content, but they have a damn decent dogfight game going in Arena Commander 0.9.2. I know. I play it several times a week.

And there's a rub in that. Star Citizen is supposed to be F2P. They've stated they will make money on micro-transactions. They've certainly already shown people will spend insane money for ships they can't even fly yet. That business model looks damn valid to me. What does CCP have? Well, they have the their store. Will it be competitive? I know 61 million reasons it isn't. Only the future can tell for certain. We don't know for true if Star Citizen will be F2P. But CCP does need to worry about that possibility. If Star Citizen comes out as F2P, CCP's subscription model will have a negative effect on those looking to fly Internet spaceships.

But back to the original question, what will be the measure of success for EVE Online going forward? Honestly, it's the same as it's always been: CCP's ability to create black ink on their balance sheet instead of red ink. According to the objectives as I've laid them out, CCP is actually in a pretty good position. Still, there are a lot of variables that can affect profitability. In the end, profit will be the only measure that matters. Let's all hope CCP is as good with RL economics as they are with Internet spaceship economics. As for the course CCP has chosen, just don't forget Rule of Acquisition 62. Carry on CCP Seagull, carry on.