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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Parasite by Mira Grant

I'm going to start something a little different on the blog. It falls under the category of I-do-other-things-than-just-play-computer-games. One of my personal goals is to read/listen to at least one book every month. I do this with every Nebula and Hugo nominated book, and I also make forays into science and philosophy. But mostly I like science fiction. I always have.

So today I created a Goodreads account and started updating it with ratings for everything I've read in the past few years since I've done the book a month to-do. I'll eventually add to my read list everything I can remember reading - which is a lot. I've linked that read list to my Reading Library age. There are two new widgets there. One for what I am currently reading and one for everything I've already read. The already read list is not in the order of most recently read, but hopefully I can fix that.

I am also going to review the books I consume. The review will be on my Goodreads page and I will also post them here (and thus to Facebook and Google Plus.) I am not going to try to hide everything in the book so as to avoid spoilers, so I will but these review behind a cut. I will promise I won't give away any endings. With that revealed, my first review is below the cut.



[caption width="308" align="alignleft"]Parasite by Mira Grant Parasite by Mira Grant[/caption]Parasite is the first book by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) in her new series Parasitology. Her previous award-winning work was the series Newsflesh. Mira it seems has a thing for zombies and a penchant for making their existence more believable than most Zombie books I've read, but more on that behind the cut.

The best thing going for this book are it's every day characters. The protagonist is not only believable, but I think I've actually met her! Unfortunately I've also met the antagonist. I use the terms protagonist and antagonist very loosely because they are what the entire writing industry uses, but Sal Mitchell and Doctor Stephen Banks are not a good versus evil pairing in any such simplistic relationship. This isn't a book about superheroes and villains. It's about everyday people trying to muddle their way through difficult times the bast way they can. That makes this book more real than most I've seen in this sub-genre. It was quite refreshing.

Now for the not so good. I had the entire story figured out by the end of the first phase of the book. There is an art to foreshadowing. It's a very difficult thing to give hints enough to keep the reader from becoming confused, and not hitting them over the head with a clue bat. The most frustrating thing I found while listening to Parasite (I do books while I commute) was the total lack of surprise involved. At no point did I ever say to myself, "I didn't see that coming." The fact is, there are no real surprises and that kills any chance of a thrill. A thriller this book is not.

That said, there were some very suspenseful scenes where I wasn't sure who'd get out alive. Those scenes kept me riveted, and I can only hope future books of the Parasitology series have more of that sort of writing. If I might make a suggestion to the author, take a page out of George R.R. Martin's playbook. No character should ever be safe, and don't be afraid to throw babies out windows.

I hear what you're thinking. If Parasite falls short of being a thriller, and has just enough suspense to make that grade at a B-, how does it do as a sci-fi? At first I thought the book had gone too far in its portrayal of science gone horribly wrong. Then my sweetie posted a link to this science article: http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/cat-parasite-modified-effective-cancer-vaccine. It ooked be the F@#$ out. It seems Mira got it way more right than I gave her credit. I apologize Mira, even though you had no idea I felt that way. I wish I'd read that article before listening to your story. I'd certain have had an easier time suspending my disbelief.

Now, to readers I need to say the science involved with what Mira describes does not exist today, and will not exist in the foreseeable future. One day humans may be capable of that level of genetic manipulation, but right now we're hard pressed just to understand our own genome. We have even less understanding of the genomes of other organisms. The article I linked uses an organism as a vehicle. It does not integrate parts of that organism's genome into another's. So please, don't let this book fan your fears. It's fiction. Take it as such.

To sum up, Parasite is well worth reading/listening to on the strengths of its characters alone. As a sci-fi, it does surprisingly well. As a thriller it falls short but does manage to get the blood pumping with some well done suspenseful scenes. Just don't expect to be pleasantly surprised during any of it. Expect to have the tracks laid for follow on events, even if that requires Mira to drop railroad ties on your head. I gave Parasite four stars out of five because the characters were just that good IMO. It is currently nominated for a best novel Hugo award.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Out with the Old; In with the New - I Hope

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1062"]Andie Nordgren - Executive Producer of EVE Online Andie Nordgren - Executive Producer of EVE Online[/caption]

Last Friday CCP announced Andie Nordgren, known to EVE Online players as CCP Seagull, was promoted from Senior Producer to Executive Producer of EVE Online. Congratulations CCP Seagull! I can't think of any current CCP employee more deserving of this opportunity than you.

CCP Seagull immediately reached out to the EVE Online community with her own dev post on the promotion. She also did a reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) on the promotion. She said all the right things and didn't say all the right things. If you don't get that sentence, it's okay. You really don't want to go down that rabbit hole. Let's just summarize by saying CCP is CCP is always CCP. They are no different from the company I work for. Obfuscation is an art form after all.

But seriously, EVE Online is at a critical juncture. It's an old game, and after playing it for over six years it feels old. I haven't logged in to do anything but update training for weeks. In fact, I've made a conscious decision to do other things for the rest of the year. I'm not going to unsubscribe, but I am consolidating. My son no longer has time to play and I've decided to move his account to Mabrick's account (I've been paying for it all along so technically it's mine.) And as I don't really give a rats ass any more, I'll confirm what many already suspect. The current CEO of Mabrick Mining and Manufacturing is my alt. Kao Jai has never been an active character. He was just there to keep my company running.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Until the gutting of high-sec PI by turning it over to the tender mercies of the players, he earned me about a half billion ISK a month doing PI. But high-sec PI was ruined for me and a lot of other players when it was given to the gods of player driven content to ruin. Since then he's just been an extra expense. I've decided to consolidate that account onto Mabrick as well. These were the gaming account changes I mentioned in my Post QuakeCon Summary post. I'd rather give that money to TESO at the moment.

I'm not the only long time EVE Online player who's taking an extended break. Probably the biggest bomb recently announced was Jester telling everyone he was moving on. Many have had an incredible upswing in RL workload as the world economy continues to recover so are on hiatus. Other's have claimed summer as the reason they log on less. That is at least what they claim. I could claim that, but I won't. I'm going to be honest about it. The truth is I'm tired of the same old static universe where the community is great but the game frankly sucks. Been there, done that doesn't even begin to cover it. My one attempt at joining into the al mighty alliance level game left such a bad taste in my mouth I'd rather than eat shit than repeat it. Was that too strong? Get over it.

Let's not lose sight of the key fact here folks: EVE Online is a computer game, not Facebook. Though there are social components to all MMOs, they must first and foremost be a fun game to play. EVE Online stopped being fun for me some time back, and it took months for me to admit that fact. And it wasn't because I was "so loyal" to CCP. It was because I had such cool friends in that space I didn't want to let them go.

But guess what. I don't have to let them go if I walk away from EVE Online. THAT is what Facebook is all about. And I've stayed in touch through that medium - as it should be. There are others I'd still like to connect with outside EVE Online, but it's really up to them. Everything I put on Facebook is public and anyone can read anything. I don't put it on Facebook if it can't be public. I'm also not that hard to find since I've connected my blogging and my social media accounts. Just follow the links. So, if you want, throw me a friend request.

But enough of this digression. This is a post about EVE Online and the tribulations it currently faces. That's a steady loss of accounts. For a long time it's been common knowledge that EVE Online may have 500,000 subscribers, but many of those are alts. Some would say most - I know I would. And after years of looking at the concurrent numbers graph, I've come to the conclusion that drops in concurrent logins look a lot like alt consolidation - though I am sure there are a few unsubscribes as well. That's a big problem for CCP, because that's what I'm getting ready to do. I'm cutting my monthly spend on EVE Online to a third of my pre-doldrum spend. If the entire player base did that, CCP would see their revenue plummet, and no one would notice because the same number of people still make up the community. Nevertheless, CCP would feel it where it hurts them the most. It's always been the weakest link in their chainmail.

How does this relate to CCP Seagull's new promotion? Well, the way I see it - and I'm thinking CCP Seagull must see it this way too - the only way to revitalize EVE Online is to create a different game. No, I'm not talking about EVE: Valkyrie or EVE: Legion. EVE Online itself has to be reinvented. It has to become a new universe with new challenges and new successes that everyone can attain - not just the rich and powerful. To do that there is a lot of old code that has to be ripped out and replaced. Game play must be reworked. CCP Seagull hints at this in the AMA when she wrote, "We are hands-off when it comes to the specific interaction between players, but certainly not hands-off when it comes to designing how the game works." To get new blood into the game, new players must be given a road to success, and I hope this statement means CCP Seagull understands this. It could just be wishful thinking on my part. Only time will tell. But more on the point of making EVE Online into a new game, she also wrote during the AMA, " the world should be a living, thriving backdrop - not something that never changes and just waits for player action." Yes, she said that. And it was the best damn thing I've seen written by anyone at CCP for a very long time. It gives me hope that CCP will once again be a real game designer and not just a company resting on the laurels of their success hoping the gamers will do what's best for them. I think at this point most see that handing the house keys to the teenagers for the weekend, while admonishing them not to have a kegger, has never worked.

So Mabrick will remain active, but I doubt he'll log on to do anything other than update the training queue for his clone until CCP Seagull is done reinventing EVE Online. If that happens, I'll return and have a look around. Industry will be practically new to me, and I'm actually looking forward to that, but there are other more meaningful changes that also have to occur. Hopefully there will be many other new things, and EVE Online will be like it was to me in March of 2008 when I undocked from Cistuvaert and said to my monitor, "Oh my god." The universe was completely open to me then. There was nothing I couldn't do, and no one to stop me. You see, back then I didn't have to own all the POCOs, or pay extortionists to mine, or worry about market manipulations rendering my goods valueless. No one said I had to join a group or die; provide content for others or lump it. I just had to avoid can flippers, and that was a whole lot more fun.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Great Cold Shoulder

Tomorrow Zenimax/Bethesda will migrate The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) European megaserver to their Frankfurt data center. There are several lovely pictures of the server hardware in the announcement for those who want to geek out a bit. I know I did. ;) But on a more serious note, I want to discuss what I feel is the real reason for this server migration.

You get all the same old reasons why they are doing this migration. It'll improve performance for European customers, etc, etc. That's all a bunch of smoke. Today's Internet is more than capable of hosting servers anywhere while maintaining respectable TTL times. It's all a matter of top-level ISP usage and domain placement. It's been a long, long time (at least two years, haha! :P ) since circuit lag has been an issue for international companies. If there is circuit lag, it'll be the so-called last mile circuit that causes it, and it will only affect a limited number of users. Most lag that occurs in games today are server-side lag caused by a lack of computing cycles to service all the interrupt requests. Just have a look at EVE Online and the lag their thousand ship (and ten thousand drone and hundred thousand missile) battles cause when they happen. That lag has nothing to do with Internet speeds. So I don't buy lag as the reason for this server move.

Furthermore, server moves are risky business. I've done a few in my day. No one breathes easy before or during a move. At no other time do you face a total risk of failure quite like moving from one set of machines to another. So why do it? Especially if lag and game playability isn't the issue. Point of fact, I've not read anything about lag on the European megaserver being an issue. Now, people always complain, and there have been some complaints of lag. But from what I can tell it's all been that last mile stuff I mentioned. It's not a server wide issue where everyone playing has unacceptable lag. So if the servers aren't over loaded, and the Internet in general is up to the task, why is Zenimax/Bethesda taking this risk?

Because... privacy.

It's the only good reason I can come up with for them doing this when it really doesn't make business sense to do it at all. Now, when I say the concern is privacy it DOES NOT mean I think the TESO servers are in any way insecure. Security and privacy are two sides of a coin, but they are completely different pictures if you follow the analogy. I believe the security of the TESO servers is as good as any other game server. When I say privacy, I mean personal information privacy, as in that stuff the United States National Security Agency (NSA) is so intent on collecting.

It's well known at this point the NSA, in its efforts to find terrorists, has actively tracked gamers. You just need to click on this Google search link for the evidence. As a U.S. citizen, I find this alarming in the extreme, but there is nothing I can do about it until the next election cycle. And even then, there are plenty of ignoramuses out there who actually agree with what the NSA is doing to probably allow them to keep doing it. But those fortunate enough to live in a more enlightened Europe do not have to put up with this sort of anti-democratic behavior. And indeed, many European countries have taken steps to protect their citizens from this sort of governmental excess.

In that regard, I find no coincidence in Zenimax/Bethesda picking Frankfurt as their hosting city. Germany strongly disagrees with the United States government over this spying, even before it came to light the NSA in effect tapped Chancellor Merkel's cell phone. By placing the European megaserver in Germany, Zenimax/Bethesda is fairly assured of not running afoul of the new privacy laws emerging in Europe. I've no doubt that data center is protected from the NSA.

And there's a warning in that for those in the U.S. government that think these privacy intrusions are a good thing. This is the Internet age. I doubt anyone with any sort of degree, economic or otherwise, will argue with that statement. And in this new age, companies will need to make decisions on where they want to set up shop. Now, during the industrial revolution that decision was predicated on (simplistically, to make a point) two things: access to resources (iron ore) and capable workers. That is why the U.S. midwest became the backbone of North America's industrial revolution. The great lakes provided the means of getting a virtually endless supply of iron ore, and the people of Ohio, Pennsylvania and upstate New York were a hard-working and educated (for the times) work force.

But this is a new age and it has new requirements. But it is still mostly about resources and workforce (and those other things I didn't mention.) Now ask yourself, what would have happened to the U.S. industrial revolution if every ship carrying iron ore on the Great Lakes was boarded and searched? What if every ship owner had to place government agents on their docks and their ships, and these agents required everyone who did business with that shipping line to hand over their identification and submit to warrantless background investigations, home invasions and tails (as in being followed) wherever they went? Would the industrial revolution have happened in the U.S. midwest, or would it have willingly chosen to relocate to Quebec?

That's where we are today. If I were going to start a game company, I'd think long and hard about where I was going to put its assets - hardware and data. And to be completely honest, I wouldn't put them anywhere within reach of the NSA. Even if I believed in what they are doing, my customers might not and that's what drives my decisions. It's about profit, and you can't make profit if you don't have customers.

So how does this end? Well, Chinese gamers are segregated from the rest of us by the Great Firewall. People in the United States point at the Great Firewall as proof of a totalitarian state. So what is it when the only one playing on American megaservers are U.S. Citizens, and everyone else chooses to go elsewhere? I suppose you could call that the Great Cold Shoulder.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Change of Pace

Anyone who still reads this blog knows I was at a music festival this weekend. It's something that's happened here in Oregon for the past 14 years. It's called Faerieworlds. It's really a well run family-friendly folk music festival. I'm too young to have been a hippie, but I've friends we actually were. It's nothing like Hollywood would have you believe. As evidence , I have a Flicker album of the event. To whet your appetite, here's a picture from that album. Just click on it to go to the album page.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="1400"]Faerieworlds 2014-79.jpg Completion of the festival opening Spiral Dance.[/caption]

Photography is another of my hobbies, and I enjoy it every bit as much as gaming. I took over 250 photographs at the event with my Canon EOS 60D with 18-200 mm telephoto lens. When I go to events like this, I set photography goals for what I want to practice. This time I wanted to concentrate on capturing the emotions of joy and happiness. I also wanted to restrict myself to manual focus, which I did at least 75% of the time. I also sometimes find there are challenges not to be missed, such as with the soap-bubble photos I took. The auto-focus does not really work on soap bubbles, so every single shot is a manual focus. Oh, and they don't last very long so you have to be quick. It was great practice and fun too!

Of the bands that played the festival (Tierro, Martine Kraft, Omnia, S.J. Tucker, The Wicker Men, Sea Stars, Zirp, Woodland, Brother, Kytami, Sharon Knight, The Music of Kan'nal,) I think I liked Zirp (site in German) the best. Their Drehleier folk music is a compelling fusion of old, sometimes medieval old, and modern. It was fantastic! You can listen to it on their website. The band flew in all the way from Germany; their first U.S. gig ever. They seemed to have a great time, and we did too. I left the festival with their CD Drehvolution in my bag. WOOT!

So that's what I did this weekend. And yes, I'm too tired to play computer games. That's why you got this post instead. Ha ha! :P But to tell truth, you'll probably see more of these sorts of posts - from time to time. Gaming may be what I do, but it's not all I do. :)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wish you were here.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="2000" caption="Faerieworlds Music Festival"]image[/caption]

'Nuf said?

Friday, July 25, 2014

TESO: Post QuakeCon Summary

Well, I'm on another long weekend break from the daily drudge, but I still have time before we set out for the music festival to fire off this post. There were many announcements made at QuakeCon this past week. Not the least of which came from Paul Sage of Zenimax concerning the future of The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO.) Leif Johnson over at PC Gamer had a very nice write-up of the future direction for TESO titled Righting the ship: a look at Elder Scrolls Online's future. You should go give it a read, but for those who'd rather just see a summary of changes to come I'll present it here.


  • Killable NPCs in non-PvP zones

  • Bounty system for players who want to hunt those who've stolen from or killed NPCs

  • New and smaller zones within the new Imperial City for PvE and PvP

  • Dungeon Scaling (to adjust the difficulty of a given dungeon to the leader's level rather than just lock the group out.)

  • Horse Racing (with gambling.)

  • New craft motifs (Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild)

  • Spell Crafting

  • The Champion System

  • Group instance changes that put all members into the leader's instance and syncs perspectives to keep group members visible to one another

  • And of course new content (veteran dungeons, facial animation changes and "under the hood" tweaks.)



What is the timeline for these changes you ask? Months. My feel is that Zenimax will take the rest of the year bringing this list (and the smaller things I didn't list) into reality. It's their primary focus, and no doubt the reason they put console development off until next year. They'd be wise to implement some of these before the six-month subscription option comes to an end. That way they might hold onto some currently disaffected players who are still locked in. Only time will tell if there is any chance of that. As for me, I've decided to consolidate other monthly game expenses and continue supporting TESO with the savings. It's not that I can say I believe in Zenimax's vision like I do with Star Citizen. I think what I support more is the idea that The Elder Scrolls will exist 24/7 every day of the year rather than in brief spurts of standalone box launches. That, and people can now share the experience directly rather than just comparing notes after the fact. It's that social aspect of MMOs that make them preferable to the standalone products like Skyrim. Because of that, TESO deserves support, and a chance to become every bit the game it can be.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

AC4: A Single Madman – Part 3

Yesterday and the day before you watched as I made my way through the jungle to get to the cove where the Spanish galleon we have our sights on lay at anchor. The town there looked to be heavily guarded, but I've infiltrated towns before. It's something I enjoy. Still, there could always be surprises awaiting me. Watch now to find out if a single madman can overcome an entire garrison to capture a Spanish galleon single-handed... or as in my case dual handed.

*** SPOILER ALERT -- This video reveals major elements of a quest. Do not watch if you want to keep it a surprise! ***



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGrlmkY8br4&w=1400&h=875]

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

AC4: A Single Madman - Part 2

Yesterday you saw part one of my mission to take control of a Spanish galleon at anchor. It ended in an unforeseen death at the hands of a White Jaguar. Today I give you part two of the quest A Single Madman, where I decided to take the way out.

*** SPOILER ALERT -- This video reveals major elements of a quest. Do not watch if you want to keep it a surprise! ***



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ayl2TYRwUs?rel=0&w=1400&h=875]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

AC4: A Single Madman - Part 1

This past weekend I continued my quest to find the Templar's Observatory as the pirate Edward Kenway. During my last interactions with pirate buddies Blackbeard and James Kidd, we attempted to take a Spanish galleon, but were driven off by her escorts. Now they'd discovered where the galleon had set anchor, and it was up to me - a single madman - to make her ours. I recorded the events of that day for posterity.

*** SPOILER ALERT -- This video reveals major elements of a quest. Do not watch if you want to keep it a surprise! ***



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ2Wvbi-PzM?rel=0&w=1400&h=875]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reports of TESOs Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Do you know the company Superdata Research? If you don't, let me provide you with their self-description on from their website's about page.

Founded in 2009, SuperData is the leading provider of market intelligence on free-to-play and digital games. By collecting behavioral data directly from publishers and developers, SuperData identifies key trends, establishes revenue estimates, and analyzes market changes for popular online games, including MMOs, mobile, and social games.


Before I make my point using Superdata Research, let's lay out the timeline for The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) so far. TESO launched on April 4, 2014. As the game required a one time purchase of the software on top of the subscription model, everyone got 30 days of play time at no additional cost. That was extended by five days on May 2nd after the duping bug and other issues made the first 30 days not as premium as players would have liked. TESO's subscription model kicked in on June 8th, at least that was when I was charged my first subscription fee. Much to my surprise, it is month-to-month; not the 180 days at a reduced price I thought I'd purchased. I'm not certain were the SNAFU happened, but I don't feel like pursuing it right now and that's not the point of this article. The point is, there have been two billings since the free game time ended. The proof is shown not only on my TESO account...

6MNLG4RXPDAFTJE      6/8/2014      30 Day Subscription      $14.99      $14.99
M4TF6LWWJD5XWJH    7/8/2014      30 Day Subscription      $14.99     $14.99


... but also on my credit card statement. You'll just have to take my word on that last one. ;-)

Do you see where I am leading with this? You know, the really nice thing about Superdata Research is they provide summary data to everyone for free. It's often dated and of little relevance to current games, but once in a while they have a real gem in their writeups. Like their report from last week titled, US digital games market update: June 2014. They provided a nice chart of the top subscription-based MMOs - for 2013. But that's not what caught everyone's attention in the post. That comes in the paragraph titled, Wildstar and Elder Scrolls Online Challenge Status Quo. It is in that paragraph they drive a huge nail into the coffin of all those peeps who predicted The Elder Scrolls Online would fail as subscribers ran screaming from the game. That did not happen. Subscribers may have left, but that hardly hurt the game.

When Bethesda Softworks released Elder Scrolls Online, the industry took notice as the publisher fearlessly announced a subscription model, rather than going free-to-play like its direct competitor Guild Wars 2 (NCsoft). So far, a subscriber base of 772,374 (June) indicates that its strategy is working.


Let's put that into perspective shall we? There are nearly three-quarters of a million people playing TESO. That is more than the half million subscribers CCP Games crows about, and they're number six on last year's MMO subscriber list given in the same Superdata Research article. So where would three-quarters of a million subscribers place TESO on that list? We can get a reasonable idea of that. All we have to do is a little extrapolation. Ready?

Premise number one - EVE Online has 500,000 subscribers. That 's a good figure. It may be a little less or a little more, but it's right enough for our purposes. Those 500,000 subscribers brought in $93 million in revenue according to the 2013 chart in the Superdata Research article. That's $186 per subscription. Premise number two - all MMO subscriptions cost the same. That's mostly true, though the actual cost varies by a few dollars depending on the subscription model. I could get fancier and find out the average subscription cost per MMO and factor that in, but this is a thought exercise, not a math final. I'm just going to go with all MMOs cost the same. So, if EVE Online brings in $186 per subscription, so does TESO. What's the point of setting them equal? Well, if we multiply $186 by the 772,374 subscriptions TESO had in June, that pegs TESO's yearly revenues at $143 million dollars a year by extrapolation (rounded down.) That puts TESO into the fourth position on the 2013 list above EVE Online, The Lords of the Ring Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic. That's hardly a dead or even dying game.

And there is good news on the horizon for TESO. Zenimax can finally take all those closed alpha and beta tester recommendations and start changing the basic mechanics of the game. The launch is over. What I am talking about is the replacement of the Veteran Ranks system that currently does not work well, with the Champion System that is more like what happens in Diablo and Borderlands 2 for high-ranked players. Many critics have said the Champion System as outlined is precisely what they told Zenimax they needed to do during testing. You can read lots of love in the reddit post on the subject. There are more than a few "I will re sub when this change happens" in that thread. Don't take my word for it, go read it yourself. The same is happening on the official forums as well. The opinions are positive concerning the Champion System.

And of course, there are other issues with TESO. It is not a perfect game. But then again, what game is? What can be said without a doubt now is Zenimax is taking concrete steps to improve the game, people are not leaving in droves as previously predicted by others, and the future is looking good enough for TESO that Superdata Research attributed Wildstar being subscription based at least partially to the success TESO has had. Read the rest of the paragraph I quoted above if you don't believe me. That leads me to write only one more thing about TESO. Game on!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Another Stat Source for Games Played

I've taken to commenting on Raptr game play stats which I receive from both my account and their public blog. It is something I'm interested in, and it is something that's generated interest in those who read my blog. I fully intend on continuing with those reports even though they have their limitations. For example, only people with a free Raptr account contribute to the Raptr report. I don't for one second maintain this is even a statistically significant sample of all gamers worldwide. In that regard, you can only say the Raptr report shows the preferences of Raptr members - no matter how many of them there are.

When the reports you have are not statistically significant, or somewhat biased (or both,) there is only one way you can deduce anything globally significant from them. You have to start adding more reports to the overall data set. This is what scientist do with subjects such as climate change. From such comparisons, we know about 3% of scientists disagree that climate change is caused by humans. And their reports, no matter how well they follow the scientific principle, are biased to that viewpoint. If you only looked at their reports, you'd deduce we've nothing to be guilty about. Fortunately we've identify their inherent bias, and understand what everyone else is saying - the other 97% of scientists who have a completely different take on what is causing climate change. But even within that sub-set of reports, the direct causes and the ultimate results predicted differ. However, on the whole we know that dumping gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year is not a good thing to do. Our planet does not need terraforming.

Getting back to gaming though, in order to get a better picture of what people play, we need other sources of play time data. One such other is Steam. Steam has a statistics page. If you look under the Store menu you will see the last item labeled Stats. Clicking on it produces a 48 hour running count of concurrent Steam users and the top ten games played in the past 48 hours, expandable to the top 100. It looks like this.

[caption id="attachment_3286" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Steam Stats Steam Stats[/caption]

To the lower left side you see the top ten game count. I don't find it all that surprising Dota 2 tops the list. League of Legends isn't available through Steam. The rest of the list is more telling. The number three game in Steam is the tenth game in Raptr's list. The number four Steam game doesn't even appear on Raptr. Raptr mush not be able to hook it in order to count hours played.

That listing also shows me another interesting fact. Evidently most Raptr members don't record their Steam account with Raptr so Raptr can pull hours from Steam. That surprises me. I could see why Steam members might not go to the lengths necessary to set up Raptr, but Raptr members have already made that time investment, so it wouldn't be much more work to link their Stream account. That makes me wonder if there's another dynamic at play - no pun intended.

Then there is the seventh game on Steams list: Civilization V. There is something totally wrong in that listing, or with Raptr's lack thereof. I know for a fact Raptr tracks Civ5. But the game doesn't even show in Raptr's top 20. Yet Skyrim, which shows in both lists and is below Civ5 on Steam, is recorded in both lists and at a relatively equitable position. That's a true discrepancy in counting algorithms and I have no idea if it's reconcilable. Still, it's never a bad thing to have more data even if the data perplexes you.

But enough of stats that perplex. Let's look at a stat Steam gives that Raptr has yet to live up to. That would be Steam's Hardware and Software Survey stat in the center-right position. Have you ever wondered what the average gamer rig looks like hardware wise? I know I have. Well, Steam is happy to share that information as it pertains to the nearly 7,000,000 people who use Steam. And here it is.

[caption id="attachment_3287" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Steam Hardware and Software Survey June 2014 Steam Hardware and Software Survey June 2014[/caption]

One thing I really like about this report is it doesn't just show the top item in each category. It breaks it all down by percentage. You want to know how your system stacks up against all those other gamers out there? You can now do the comparison. Raptr has nothing like this so far as I've been able to discover. It will show you, and anyone else, your gaming rig hardware, but I've never found a report that consolidates everyone's hardware into pleasant graphs with trends over time.

And the Steam trend over time graphs can really tell you interesting facts. For example, look at the PC Video card usage by mfg graph. There is a really important indicator for the IT field as a whole. Here's the lead in. Intel started making GPUs and integrating them into their motherboards years ago. Their GPUs are focused on low power consumption, but have gotten steadily better as gaming GPUs. So who gets hurt by Intel between Nvidia and ATI? From the graph, it's obvious Intel's increased market share has come at the expense of ATI. Nvidia remains king of the GPUs, and it looks like they'll stay that way for the near future.

I'll leave it up to you to pursue further tidbits of information in these statistics. The screen captures above link to their respective pages. Just click on them and you can drill down into the details of Steam's reports. The hardware tables are especially fascinating. There is nothing quite like seeing market trends in near real-time to get my inner geek all twitterpated. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

AC4: Taking Fort Gibara

I am making steady progress in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. I've set myself the goal of completing the game before October 28th (the release date for Assassin's Creed V: Unity,) and I don't foresee any problems in getting there. I am currently 26% through the main story line. I've not made progress on that in a couple of weeks because I've been cleaning things up north of Cuba before I proceed, and upgrading the Jackdaw as much as I can. This cleanup included opening all the chests, grabbing all the Animus fragments and hunting all the sharks. Those things are done.

All that remained to complete northern Cuba as of last weekend was the smuggler's den at Jiquey, which my my last post covered, and the Spanish fort at Gibara. I'd already taken the forts at Dry Tortuga (easy difficulty) and Castillo de Jagua Eleuthera (medium easy difficulty,) and Gibara was the only one remaining. It would be easier than the last fort I took, Castillo de Jagua, so I thought it'd make an excellent teaching point. So I recorded the entire assault, both sea and sack, and present it here as an object lesson on how to take a fort in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Enjoy!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ei9FtEYYjrM?rel=0&w=1400&h=875]

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

AC4: Smuggler's Blues

The sailors and pilots,
The soldiers and the law,
The payoffs and the rip offs,
And the things nobody saw.
No matter if it's heroin, cocaine, or hash,
You've got to carry weapons
Cause you always carry cash.
There's lots of shady characters,
Lots of dirty deals.
Ev'ry name's an alias
In case somebody squeals.
It's the lure of easy money,
It's gotta very strong appeal.

Perhaps you'd understand it better
Standin' in my shoes,
It's the ultimate enticement,
It's the smuggler's blues,
Smuggler's blues.

- by Glenn Frey and Jack Tempchin





For my generation, Miami Vice was the bomb. It was the crank in cocaine. If there was one must watch show on my list, it was Miami Vice. I've never been so dedicated to a show before or since. One reason for that was television was a privilege where I went to university, and the television was owned by the man. There was about one per hundred of us. The only way to watch was to keep your nose clean. So I kept my nose clean. It wasn't just for the T.V. privileges, but it was a not insubstantial contributing factor.

Crockett and Tubbs were larger than life "heroes." But they weren't all spit and polish heroes. They didn't always fit the mold of Eliot Ness good-guydom. They were street wise and gritty, and they did what needed done. But they always came out on top. There was never a doubt who'd be going home at the end of a sting. There were those of us among our cadre of devoted watchers who idolized them. I wouldn't go that far to describe my attraction to the show. But in a time when the good guys didn't alway win in real life, and the Cold War could go either way, the show lent a sort of hope - no matter how transient. It made us feel good about hard things lived.

So I had an odd smirk on my face as I anchored the Jackdaw just off a cave mouth on the north coast of Cuba, at a place named Jiguey on the charts. I'd heard rumor the cave was used as a base of operations by those not too unlike Captain Edward Kenway. But whereas he prefers the direct approach, these fellows prefered to remain anonymous and unseen. It was a smuggler's den, and I was there to make it my own. Here's how it went down.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_VsfUOdj4k?rel=0&w=1400&h=875]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TESO: Sanguine Barrows - Crimes of the Past

Work today has been a rampaging bear, so all you get is another quest video. This quest is right next door to the last, figuratively speaking. It's actually right across the road literally. It was also a lot more fun. :) Trolls are nasty creatures with very thick hides. They are hard to kill, and I've not had much luck against them in the past. This time I had no choice. Enjoy!

*** SPOILER ALERT -- This video reveals major elements of a quest. Do not watch if you want to keep it a surprise! ***



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiSxf3PD76U?rel=0&w=1400&h=875]

Monday, July 14, 2014

TESO: The Road Ahead and Hope Lost

Paul Sage, Creative Director at Zenimax, had a nearly two hour long question and answer session with Elderscrolls OTR to discuss the future of The Elder Scrolls Online. And wow, did he have a lot to say. And, it was really good stuff! You can watch the interview at this YouTube link. For those like me who don't want to sit through over an hour of interview (which I did anyway :/ ) dulfy has a summary transcript over on dulfy.net. For those who want an even more summary list, I'll give that a swing.


  • There will be new content added for PvP and PvE.

  • Class balancing will be an ongoing process taken deliberately so new problems are not created.

  • Veteran Ranks are being completely overhauled and eventually supplanted with the Champion System. He said, "It is a bit like the alternative advancement system (AA) in other games (i..e EQ1, EQ2.)"

  • Dyes are the next customization option. (On a personal note, I've visions of Ultima Online with this one!) There will be more, like hair, or the art director will go postal.

  • Combat is always being tweaked to look and perform better.

  • You must watch QuakeCon as there will be more announcements.



So I'm not going to run through the entire interview line by line and conjecturalize over it. There are plenty enough e-zines doing that, and I'm sure you can find them easily enough. However, there is one thing I do want to write about. Every time I read a comment that equates to, "if they'd only listened to me in beta they could have fixed this," I want to go all Edward Kenway on someone. This sort of comment shows two things.


  1. An unbelievable arrogance where someone thinks making a comment during beta will solve world hunger... I mean solve all their perceived game design issues. They think they have all the answers because they play all the games. In fact, they believe if they sat down to create a game, it would be the best game ever. Their mother even told them so!

  2. These gamers have no clue what beta testing really is, and their misconception is an ignorance writ large on their trollish foreheads.



Let's get one thing straight before I continue this rant. I have a degree in Computer Science. I've taken software engineering courses out the ying-yang. My senior project (along with the other members of my team) was writing a software package for a real world customer - a software package they used for at least a decade I know of. And I've helped develop software, mostly web based business apps, from that point on even though I went more into systems administration than programming. Those are my credentials. I've done it. I've run beta testing as part of my curriculum AND my job. And here's where all those TESO beta testers are hanging their ignorant asses out to dry.

At the point software goes into beta, it is a fully realized product. That is not to say it's bug free. It means all the major components of the software are in place, functional in a programmatic sense and the end package is easily seen in the beta product.  When a program goes into beta testing, they are looking for things internal QA didn't catch. It is the last tightening of the code before release. Except for "minor" changes needed to correct bugs, logical inconsistencies or user interface confusion/functionality (and that is a completely subjective human interpretation,) the code in beta is the code that will go to market.

IF there is a logic issue so bad it requires a complete rewrite of the base code, the developer's only choice during beta is to go back to square one and start over - that's development boys and girls; not alpha testing. You do not make major changes to the design in beta. Let me reiterate, YOU DO NOT MAKE MAJOR CHANGES TO THE DESIGN IN BETA. You're only option in beta is to play or fold, and in today's gaming industry the fold is really an all in at the turn with the worst possible river. If your program doesn't make it out of beta, it is dead. That's fact in this day and age. When a producer looks at a product that fails beta, they have only one thing to decide: whether to throw good money after bad. Trust me, I know from personal experience they will not throw good money after bad. At that point your software is still-born.

So to all those TESO beta testers who write, "if they'd only have listened to me during beta" get over yourself. They did listen to you. That's what consoles were delayed and why the entire Veteran Rank system is getting an overhaul. They just couldn't do it during beta because that risked everything. It's better to have a flawed product on the market than no product at all. So do yourself a favor and shut up. You're just pissing on the shoes of people who've already heard you.

Wow, I feel much better for having written that. Thanks for reading it. As recompense for dragging you through my little rant, I do have another TESO video for you to watch. It's the quest Hope Lost. The little hamlet of Moira's Hope is overrun by bloodfiends, and it's up to me to liberate them. This isn't TESO's best quest. On a scale of one to ten I'd give it a four. But it did get me to 25th level, and that's what really counts! So, without further delay, here's Hope Lost.

*** SPOILER ALERT -- This video reveals major elements of a quest. Do not watch if you want to keep it a surprise! ***



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9O-x1Dx17Y?rel=0&w=1400&h=875]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Raptr Most Played PC Games: June 2014

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="640"]Raptr Most Played PC Games: June 2014 Raptr Most Played PC Games: June 2014[/caption]

The big news here for me is The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) plummeted to 20th place in June. Did the Wildstar launch steal some players from TESO?

Wildstar's d├ębut is nearly every bit what TESO's was - though not quite. It debuts one rank lower than TESO did, but is it valid to say the MMO player attracted to TESO is also attracted to Wildstar? The games are so visually different I can't say there is a cross appeal there. I know I've no real desire to play Wildstar. The only thing that's really pinged my play button is the housing, but the thought of grinding through 15 levels to get one isn't appealing to me. In Landmark I can get a place to live immediately, and it doesn't have to be a house. It can be anything. Bottom line of this meandering paragraph, no, I can't put TESO's fall onto Wildstar's rise.

However, that did not stop Raptr from drawing that conclusion. Here is what they had to say about it,

WildStar made a resounding 6th-place entry into Most Played as it released on June 3, with weekly patches throughout the month. The new MMO impacted the playtime of The Elder Scrolls Online, WoW, Dark Souls II, and Final Fantasy XIV Online, and was definitely a factor that led to those games slipping in the ranks.


So perhaps I am wrong about the appeal difference. Raptr does know exactly who is playing what after all. If any one (or a million) accounts switched from TESO to Wildstar Raptr would know. Still, I think we can say yes, to some degree the issues that arose after launch caused people to stop playing the game, or at least put it on hiatus. So we'll have to see how TESO does next month to know for certain - or not. We may actually never know how the game flaws affected subscriptions without Bethesda publishing concrete subscription numbers. I just don't think that will happen, so we'll keep having to rely on folks like Raptr.

Who knows, with TESO's 3rd major update coming next month with outfit customization and a revamped Veteran system, perhaps Zenimax can lure more players back. I possibly fall into that category, though I was more enticed to play other games and have not lost my love of TESO. I will return for certain. I wanted to play night before last in fact, but the last update was so damn large I went to AC4 instead for a quick hour-long gaming fix. I hope not every update will be 20 gigabytes. That alone makes me move on to other games - just as I did the other night.

You know, there's an interesting side question in that. Do the size of updates have any affect on a player's desire to play a particular game? TESO has seen a lot of updates in its first three months compared to what I'm used to seeing. And they have been many gigabytes in size. Even with my Comcast connection it takes over an hour to update - and update failures have been often enough to be annoying. It's like being back in the dial-up days. It sucks. So what do you think, can update sizes affect a game's popularity, especially when the updates occur every other week? For those who play WOW, how does WOW do it? To you get frequent 20GB updates?

Another thing I find interesting about this list is I only play two other games on it, and neither of them recently. I also play League of Legends and Skyrim;  the rest never. Does that make me an outlier in what is currently dope in the gaming world? Or does it merely mean I waste more money? I can't help but notice many of the games that make Raptr's report are free-to-play titles. Then there are others, as Raptr points out in the its blog post, that benefited from the Steam Summer Sale and outright giveaways like Origin's Battlefield 3.

And that seems to be the real issue with this report. It is susceptible to transient noise introduced by factors other than outright popularity. When given a choice between a good enough game that is free or very cheap, as opposed to one that is relatively expensive like TESO or Wildstar, but otherwise "the bomb," don't most players opt for the former? With more than half the report falling into the free or cheap category, it's hard to argue that saving money isn't the most popular game of all. Cheers!

 

AC4: Completing Havana

It's a short one today. Last night I completed Havana. You can watch all 79 minutes of it on my Twitch channel if you like. Skip the first 5 and a half minutes. I was putzing around. If' you've not that kind of time to waste, here's the 11 minutes it took getting the last chest in town. This is the warehouse I tried a frontal assault on a few sessions ago, and got my cojones handed to me on a spanish skewer. I took a bit smarter approach to it this time. It worked out much better. :) Enjoy!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t7ecE_Pbuk?rel=0&w=1400&h=875]

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Civilization: Beyond Earth Release Date Announced

Last week in my June debrief, I mentioned Civilization: Beyond Earth had a release date listed of December 31, 2014. I lamented the fact that was a dumb date, as everyone would be on vacation. I chided Firaxis to do better. And they did! 1 The TRUE release date for Civilization: Beyond Earth will be October 24, 2014.

https://twitter.com/CivGame/status/484698583073972224

Damn, October and November are going to be really busy months with all the new game releases happening. There are already three on my future games list!

But you know what occurs to me? I haven't even talked about what Civilization: Beyond Earth (CivBE) is exactly? I mean, it's part of the Sid Meier's Civilization family, but so was Alpha Centauri, and that game wasn't exactly a resounding success financially. And yes, CivBE is partially based on Alpha Centauri. But I think this time Firaxis may get it right this time. Let's dive in.

Here's what Firaxis' web site says about CivBE.

FEATURES

  • Seed the Adventure: Establish your cultural identity by choosing one of eight different expedition sponsors, each with its own leader and unique gameplay benefits. Assemble your spacecraft, cargo & colonists through a series of choices that directly seed the starting conditions when arriving at the new planet.

  • Colonize an Alien World: Explore the dangers and benefits of a new planet filled with dangerous terrain, mystical resources, and hostile life forms unlike those of Earth. Build outposts, unearth ancient alien relics, tame new forms of life, develop flourishing cities and establish trade routes to create prosperity for your people.

  • Technology Web: To reflect progress forward into an uncertain future, technology advancement occurs through a series of nonlinear choices that affect the development of mankind. The technology web is organized around three broad themes, each with a distinct victory condition.

  • Orbital Layer: Build and deploy advanced military, economic and scientific satellites that provide strategic offensive, defensive and support capabilities from orbit.

  • Unit Customization: Unlock different upgrades through the tech web and customize your units to reflect your play style.

  • Multiplayer: Up to 8 players can compete for dominance of a new alien world.

  • Mod support: Robust mod support allows you to customize and extend your game experience.




That's fairly non-descriptive. I mean, it really doesn't say anything about the game play or how CivBE compares to a blockbuster like Civ5. What does say a lot about CivBE is the E3 interview Gamespot did with co-creator Will Miller of Firaxis.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVSUZnE8KgQ?rel=0&w=1400&h=788]

I think what really got my attention is when Will Miller describe the fundamental design mentality as asymmetric. In Civ5, everything is very linear. If I don't force myself out of my comfort zone, I end up achieving victory the same way every single time. And I can do that because progression is predictable, and there are not very many potential counters to any particular strategy. Once you've played the game as long as I have, moves become pretty much rote and you only lose when you make a mistake.

That takes a lot of the risk, and challenge, out of the game. Not to mention it becomes a purely numbers based game. After awhile, you come to inherently know if you build X number of these units at this time you win - and that works in almost any game scenario no matter how much you vary the starting conditions. For example, all I have to do to keep an AI from attacking me is to fortify a unit in each city and make certain to upgrade it at every opportunity. I've not encountered an AI yet that would attack me - except Shaka that is. He'll attack anything. But 99% of the time, if I do what I just outlined, and build the appropriate defenses in the city (forgot that part,) I am free to pursue any other victory condition without worrying about having war declared against me.

Now, I can't say CivBE has eliminated that, but it has made the whole "win" calculation a lot more difficult. From what Will Miller described in the video, it's like they've gotten rid of all the units of a particular type, say the ones that use gunpowder weapons, and create one unit that uses a rifle. Then you increase it's capabilities through promotions only, or in the case of CivBE, through technology upgrades. And since the technology is a web and not a linear progression, it is much more difficult to gauge the actual strength of an opponent's army.

I think this uncertainty will also spill over into the technology web. You always get a notice in Civ5 when another civilization enters a specific age. Since technology is a linear progression in Civ5, that means you always know approximately how advanced your opponent is. And this is done without any future resource expenditure on your part. If you are two ages ahead, she can't touch you militarily, and every other victory condition is tilted in your favor as well. With the technology web in CivBE, there are no ages. And I certainly hope the game never announces any particular opponent has achieved any particular level of advanced technology. If you want to find out how advanced they are, you should have to send a spy or attack on of their units to discover exactly what they've researched.

And lastly, I love that the victory conditions will take 50 to 60 turns to implement, let alone plan. Once committed, it should be far harder to switch to a different victory condition. That makes early strategy much more important than it is in Civ5. In Civ5, the only true early strategy is to expand. It really doesn't matter what else you do. You really don't have to start working on a victory condition until you hit the Industrial Age. Some of them you can wait even longer. The only victory condition you really should start at the beginning is the domination, conquer everything victory condition. And even with that one I've waited until the Modern Age to implement.

I remember one game I was playing against Germany (and some other's,) and old Otto pissed me off. So I dropped a nuke on Berlin... just because I could. Then everyone attacked me because I'd nuked Otto. I was an age ahead of my nearest opponent (Otto,) so I just went mad and conquered everyone. With any luck, that just won't be possible in CivBE, but if it is, it should be so difficult that no one will want to try it unless they have no other option. When I nuked Berlin, I was already well on my way to another Scientific Victory. I didn't have to nuke him or fight everyone else. They couldn't have really hurt me one way or another. That's fun in a certain way, but it certainly is not challenging.

Most of this lack of challenge comes from a mentally impaired Civ5 AI. I have seen cannon in front of infantry, archers conduct frontal assaults, and armies run to engage a scout while cavalry swoops in to take the city from the other direction. The Wonders the AI chooses to build sometimes make absolutely no sense, especially when I've already researched the technology to make the Wonder's affects obsolete. And I won't even go into city management. The AI in Civ5 really is not that good. Perhaps the AI in CivBE will be incredibly smart, and not make stupid decisions, playing more like a human than a dumb machine. Firaxis is making some concrete promises in that department. In an interview with gameplay designer Anton Strenger, Sid Meier’s Civilization series senior producer Dennis Shirk and associate producer Pete Murray done by Matt Peckham on Time.com (April 14, 2014,) they had this to say about CivBE's AI,

Beyond Earth‘s A.I. programmer, his name is Brian Whooley, has been with us from the very beginning. Will Miller and David McDonough, our lead designers, have worked with him on their previous project [Haunted Hollow for iOS] very closely. Me and Will and Dave share an office, and right across the hall is Brian Whooley, and we meet multiple times a week. He’s following in close step with all the design features that come on line, to make sure the A.I.’s up to par, that it’s winning the game in all the different ways and stuff like that. So the A.I.’s definitely been a focus for us, and we expect we’ll be in a good place at launch.


I can only hope!







  1. I know it's common to use December 31st as a placeholder for an actual date when a company only gives a general release timeframe like, "Coming in 2014!" I made the comment I did for editorial emphasis of my desire to get a firm date. Less than a week later I had it. So ease up off my back already ;) ! 



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Civilization V: Unlocking Achievements – Part 2

My next game of Civilization V: Brave New World (Civ5) during my recent vacation was also a duel on a small continent map. Since my vacation time was running out, I elected for a quick game and finished all four hours of it in one sitting. Before starting I spent some time running through the various achievements possible, and one in particular caught my eye. It was well suited to a duel scenario, and if I got a favorable position on the map and an opponent that wasn't too aggressive I might just be able to pull it off. I decided I'd go for the Bollywood achievement. As Gandhi, win a cultural victory with 3 or fewer cities in your empire.

Right off the bat I said "to hell" with the "or fewer" option. It was three cities and exactly three cities I needed. In my last game I'd founded 12 cities. If the map was anything like that, I'd need all three to compete That was for sure. I was also hoping to be somewhat isolated so I could space my cities out and maximize culture for rapid border expansion. A nice tidy triangle would be nice, and self-supporting.

What I got was the isthmus of Panama gone wild. It was like my continent had been run through a pasta machine. It was a long noodle of hills, forests and swamps. To be fair, one end was fairly flat. but my starting location wasn't in the middle of it and I didn't want to take a couple turns to get there. So I started my first city, Delhi, and hoped for the best. As I explored eastward, I ran into the ocean. When I went west, I continued down the same long spit of land.

I did find a nice enough place to start my second of three cities, Mumbai. Soon they were growing like the proverbial weed. However, as I continued my exploration west and south, I encountered warriors from my opponent, Harun al-Rashid. That was welcome news as al-Rashid tends to be favor non-military strategies. I would at least have a competitive chance without having to pour all my resources into defense. Soon I had my third city placed in the best remaining location and it was off to the presses - literally as the Printing Press technology greatly aids a Cultural Victory.

Here's how things stood in 1550 AD after I'd managed to expand for quite a few year.

[caption id="attachment_3189" align="aligncenter" width="1284"]Bollywood Start Bollywood Start[/caption]

I immediately made an Ally of Milan. As with Venice in the previous post, I was concerned about the Arabs claiming a diplomatic victory before I could impress them enough with my culture. I also realized at about this point in the game that I'd won the initial settlement game. I'd manage to bottle up al-Rashid in a small area and forced his second city onto a small peninsula or island. That would really slow him down on the scientific and financial front. Nevertheless, I was not going to rest on my laurels.

I soon pushed out from my little noodle of a land and explored the rest of the world. I discovered the other three city-states and made allies of them. I had much gold in my coffers, and I'm not even sure why. It didn't concentrate on wealth, I concentrated on culture and tourism. My civilization pumped out great artists and writers about every five turns it seemed. At one point I had three great artists waiting for me to finish building places to hang their art. It was crazy.

Then the first Great Prophet showed up and converted Vijayanagara and Mumbai. al-Rashid was unapologetic about it. For awhile I feared he would convert my entire civilization. Fortunately it was not long before I could found my own religion, fortify it with tenets, and faith purchase my own Great Prophets to counteract his, without having to slow down my culture building and archaeological endeavors.

Soon I had over 100 tourism, but my influence with al-Rashid's people was actually falling. My trade routes were constantly plundered by barbarians and I'd lose the bonus. It really made a difference. So I built two frigates and sent my war elephants, who eventually became knights, out to eradicate the barbarian hordes. Not only did this secure my trade routes, but it also curried favor with the city-states and I never lost my control over them. Soon I was rapidly building influence with al-Rashid's people. The world was such that he never again founded another city. I'm not even certain why, except perhaps the same barbarians plundering my trade routes were stopping his settlement efforts. I never did see an arabic trireme. I was winning! I was winning!

[caption id="attachment_3190" align="aligncenter" width="1287"]Near Victory! Near Victory![/caption]

Suddenly I realized that victory was at hand. With only three cities I had managed to do very well. My coffers overflowed and I'd turned Mumbai into Hollywood. I'd completed my portmanteau.

[caption id="attachment_3191" align="alignleft" width="459"]Portmanteau Portmanteau[/caption]

The year after the screenshot above I won a Cultural Victory as Gandhi with three cities. I'd also secured two other achievements as well as the Bollywood achievement I was after.

Bollywood
As Gandhi, win a cultural victory with 3 or fewer cities in your empire.
Unlocked: Jul 5 @ 10:19pm

 

Strength Through Joy
Win a Cultural Victory using the Autocracy Ideology.
Unlocked: Jul 5 @ 10:19pm

 

Here Ends the Noble Savage
Raze 100 Barbarian camps, across any number of playthroughs.
Unlocked: Jul 5 @ 10:17pm

 

Live is good. Now I just need to decide what I want to achieve next. Cheers!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Civilization V: Unlocking Achievements - Part 1

Just because I was on metered Internet service while on vacation didn't mean I couldn't play games. It just meant I couldn't play online games. Anything that did not require an Internet connection, or not much of one anyway, was fair game. I took three games with me on my laptop: Kerbal Space Program (KSP,) Endless Space and Civilization V: Brave New World. Guess which one I ended up playing from nearly 12 hours even though I had plenty of vacation quests to complete? If you thought KSP you were almost correct. However, it was not KSP. I only spent a couple of hours messing around in it; to not much interesting. That means all my weird ideas failed. That's a common occurrence in KSP. No Kerbals were harmed in the making of my failures.

The correct answer is Civilization V: Brave New World (Civ5.) Once again I could not avoid its siren call to build a civilization to stand the test of time. One of the reasons I've been playing more Civ5 lately is because I have so few achievements unlocked. I mean, I have 220 hours of play time and I only had 67 achievements. I thought that was pretty lackluster, so I have committed myself to playing games with the sole purpose of earning achievements. Go me.

This of course would require I break out of my comfort zone and play games with some civilizations I was unfamiliar with and for victory conditions I didn't normally favor. That would require me to pursue Social policy combinations I wasn't certain would work. In short, it would force me to have fun! So I played two games. They were both duels with the small continents map. One was a standard game and the second a quick game.

The standard game saw me choose Hiawatha and the Iroquois Confederation. I faced off against Venice. I'd never played against Venice. I made a couple of assumptions about Enrico Dandolo and they proved mostly correct. First of all, I assumed he'd not have much stomach for a fight. Secondly, I figured he'd try for a diplomatic victory. Based on those assumptions, I determined I would get myself to the Iroquois Warrior technology (replaces the swordsman) and then go all in on conquering Venice. After all, he only gets one city. :D

[caption id="attachment_3177" align="aligncenter" width="1254"]Attack Venice Early Attack Venice Early[/caption]

Unfortunately this proved to be nearly impossible without the ability to move on the sea. Whether by crafty AI cunning, or sheer dumb AI luck, Enrico had set his city upon a peninsula with a one-unit wide approach. It was my Gallipoli moment. One unit would not be taking down his city in a single turn. I'd need to surround the city with units, or bombard it into submission first. I had neither of those technologies yet. I'd need more time to take down the Doge.

So I started building cities. After all, the entire world was mine to settle. I would simply overwhelm him with military might when the time came. I pushed out settlers as fast as I could produce them and overran the continent we both shared. As it turned out, it was the largest continent in the world. I soon had six cities founded, and had even managed to pin Venice into its small peninsula using two Citadels, arresting their territorial expansion in its tracks and grabbing some more land for me without firing another shot. :twisted: But by the time I had, Kyzyl has already become a puppet of the Doge, though I managed to restrict the amount of land the city-state owned to just two hexes. But the worse thing that happened was the Doge converted all my cities to Catholicism. It was the so-called Age of Discovery all over and my Iroquois were losing their cultural identity - again. :(

[caption id="attachment_3178" align="aligncenter" width="1250"]Converted! Converted![/caption]

I vowed that would not happen. But now I was in a quandary. If I destroyed Venice while my people still worshipped the Venetian god, would they ever find their way back to our own traditions? I did not know. Then and there my strategy changed. I could wipe that smirk off the Doge's face easily enough now, but I knew I had to beat him at his own game to preserve the Iroquois Confederation. For the sake of my people and their eternal hunting grounds, our culture had to become the dominant culture on the planet. I'd never won a game by cultural victory. At least there was an upside to the strategic change of direction. If I succeeded, I'd tack one more achievement to my Steam account.

So I began in earnest to pursue a culture oriented game. I started working toward the technologies of archeology and radio. I set out to explore the world, and bring all its antiquities to Onondaga. I stopped building military buildings and began building art centers and museums.

And as it turned out, a single galleass was all I needed to explore the majority of the map. Most of the small continents were close enough for shallow seas to connect them. It wasn't long before I'd contacted the two remaining city-states in the game. As I moved into the industrial age, that gave me the diplomatic muscle to get culture favorable initiatives passed, and to keep Enrico from passing anything else. I established trade routes with Venice. I let him "buy" city-states without contesting the acquisitions. Everything went into building culture, re-converting my cities, and finally ramping up tourism until everyone on the planet wanted to be Iroquois.

[caption id="attachment_3181" align="aligncenter" width="1242"]The World is Iroquois The World is Iroquois[/caption]

And even though the Doge kept trying to convert Brantford, by this time my cultural advantage was overwhelming. I'd explored the entire map. I'd removed the barbarians from it. I'd settled every major land mass and allied myself with all the remaining independent city-states. The only threat to the Iroquois confederation would come if Venice managed to "buy" all the city-states and claim a diplomatic victory. And when Budapest fell under the Doge's sway, that was a real possibility. But another World Congress vote would never happen. Welcome pax Goano'ganoch'sa'jeh'seroni!

[caption id="attachment_3182" align="aligncenter" width="1230"]Pax Goano'ganoch'sa'jeh'seroni Pax Goano'ganoch'sa'jeh'seroni![/caption]

In the end, I added three more achievements to my list:


  • Unlocked: Jun 30, 2014 11:13pm
    People of the Longhouse
    Build a longhouse in a city with at least 4 unchopped forests in its radius.

  • Unlocked: Jul 3, 2014 9:46pm
    It's Just You and Me, Kid
    Beat the game on a Duel Map.

  • Unlocked: Jul 3, 2014 9:46pm
    Workers of the World - Unite!
    Win a Cultural Victory using the Order Ideology.



It seems I had previously won a cultural victory. However, I did that on December 15, 2010 - well before Brave New World was released - so technically I hadn't won a cultural victory - under the new rules for culture in Brave New World. Now I have. :P Next, I go for a portmanteau in part 2 of Unlocking Achievements.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Vacation Side Quest: Thunderstorm!

I had a quick side quest last night! I know those of you living east of the Rockies will find this a not very exciting report, but we had a thunderstorm last night! It was a big one too; lasting over two hours. The rain came down hard and fast enough to make one cautious of flash floods, but it probably didn't lower the fire danger all that much. That's always a concern this time of year - more so than later in the summer even. People, explosives (fireworks are an explosive after all) and dry forests are a very bad mix. I hope the Rangers are out in force this weekend, but I digress. The thunderstorm was extremely nice and we'd been hoping to have one move through. We have an excellent vantage point from the living room's south-facing windows. The entire Aldrich Mountain range is our backdrop. So I setup the tripod, put the EOS 60D on sports mode, and let the shutter fly. I took 63 pictures in a bit less than two hours (the lightning abated early.) Here's the best photos from this little unexpected side quest.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Storm Moving In Storm Moving In[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Storm Getting Serious Storm Getting Serious[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Lightening #1 Lightning #1[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Lightening #2 Lightning #2[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Lightening #3 Lightning #3[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Rainbow after a Thunderstorm Rainbow after a Thunderstorm[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Sunset after a Storm Sunset after a Storm[/caption]

I've never caught lightning in a photograph before. I don't get that many opportunities to try. Lightning is rare western Oregon. So I was pretty happy with these results. Now, on to the next quest!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Vacation Quest #2: Fossil Hunting

Eastern Oregon has some odd geology. At various times in the past the land has been buried a mile deep, thrust a mile high, turned practically upside down, and buried under water and lava - sometimes at the same time. The rocks have been pushed, pulled, twisted and compressed in about every conceivable manner, and some not so conceivable. That has led directly and indirectly to Arbuckle Mountain in the Umatilla Forest due west of Ukiah, Oregon. At first glance this mountain looks just like every other mountain you've ever seen. But it isn't. During the Eocene it was a tropical archipelago off the ancient Oregon coast. This mountain is noted for its many botanical fossils including avocado, magnolia, and willow. But the real boss of this quest is the giant palm frond, Sabalites Eocenica. That's what I was after here.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Arbuckle Mountain 1L Arbuckle Mountain 1L[/caption]

The difficulty of this quest is the palm in question was not all that prolific when compared to all the other botanical specimens of the time. It's actually kind of rare. And it's sort of hard just finding fossils of good quality. Many have low definition because they rotted some before being covered over and deprived of oxygen. That last is critical to good fossil preservation. Oxygen is a consumer of all things, including really nice fossils. So when you wind a really nice fossil with high-definition, even a partial one, you keep it. It helps if it is small and fits in your pocket too, like this one.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Partial Leaf Partial Leaf[/caption]

This fossil shows the full base of the leaf and fully two-thirds of the entire thing. The vein structure is very good and it is possible to identify the species from the fossil (I have not done so yet, but I'm thinking it's a magnolia leaf.) That's the mark of a keeper. So I kept it. But unfortunately many are too broken up to be readily identifiable. This is caused by two things. One is fossil hunter error. You can destroy a fossil just by trying to get it out of the ground the wrong way. The second, and more common cause, is the fossil was broken during the uplift process that brought it back to the surface after being buried nearly a mile below the surface. All the sandstone, mudstone and lignite layers are fractured to begin with and many fossils just never stood a chance.

Those that do stand a chance are often small. Here's an example: it's the small fern stem in the lower left corner. At least I think it's a fern. I'm no paleobotanist. Hell, it could also be a Cypress leaf. Half the fun is trying to figure out what it is, no? ;)

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Small Fern Small Fern[/caption]

Small complete fossils like this are easily missed in the "rush" that always seems to accompany any fossil hunt. What I mean is this. I had a day. Of that day, I had to travel 90 miles to get to the site. Of that 90 miles, the last 20 miles were over forest service roads which a best were gravel and at worst mandated a four-wheel drive capability. Once on location, there were several sites to search. I only found fossils at one of them. Sometimes your search produces nothing. And you always have to keep in mind the long drive home. So you get "rushed." You throw good, cautious digging procedures to the wind and want to just take a pick to the ground. You'll never get good fossils that way, so I leave the pick at home. :P

So you dig carefully. You gingerly pull layers of rock from the ground hoping this one will have that "killer" fossil you were looking for. And you know, sometimes you don't get what you came for, but you certainly get a very nice display piece! :D

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Forest Floor Forest Floor[/caption]

There are at least three different leaf fossils on this section of  "forest floor." I find it a quite striking piece. It's just over a foot long by a half-foot wide. It will look awesome on my mantle as a display piece.

So what of the "boss" I was looking to best for its fat loot? Well, I had a partial success in that fight - literally. :D

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Palm Frond Fragment Palm Frond Fragment[/caption]

It's not a bad specimen. It's about the size of the palm of my hand, no pun intended. And the really funny thing about it - it was laying right out on the surface of the road cut. Mother nature had washed it out last winter. Go figure. :roll:

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Vacation Quest #1: Astrophotography

One of the quests I've set for myself this vacation is to work on my astrophotography. I've a 20-year-old Meade 16" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and a three-year old Canon EOS 60D DSLR camera. I've had occasion about four times in the last three years to couple the two together and attempt to shoot things in the night sky. I've had some decent luck photographing the moon, but planets and deep space objects still vex me. With planets, they are so frigging bright that they typically come out as nothing but bright blotches. Any detail is completely washed out on any timed exposures. As for deep space objects, the issue there is tracking - and to a lesser degree exposure time - but exposure time is a non-issue if tracking is broken. The telescope I have does not have an equatorial mount. All tracking is done by altazimuth.

[caption id="attachment_3139" align="alignright" width="512"]Telescope Mounts Telescope Mounts[/caption]

Here's a little picture to help you out with understanding the issue here. With the altazimuth mount, tracking is accomplished with very small horizontal and vertical stepping. If you plotted the tracking on a piece of paper, it'd look like a staircase. Therein lies the problem. All nighttime lights transcribe an arc across the heavens except those very close to Polaris, the northern star. They go in circles. Over a relatively short period of time, altazimuth tracking breaks down causing the object you are trying to track to leave streaks as the telescope tracking deviates from the arc of the object. The equatorial mount avoids this issue by inserting a wedge below the telescope. The wedge is set to your latitude. Once set, it allows the telescope to track in an arc, perfectly matching the rotation of the Earth.

The other thing causing me some grief is the EOS 60D is limited to a 30 second exposure. Deep space objects like planetary nebula that "shine" in reflected light require a longer exposure. Other deep space objects like large galaxies require less exposure time, but more is usually better. Things like globular clusters require the least exposure time, but for really nice results you want most of a minute to collect light. I get 30 seconds, so I make do with what I've got. I could replace the ROM on my camera with something like Magic Lantern, but I'm not quite ready to take that risk with such an expensive piece of equipment.

Telling you all that is not some form of making an excuse. Some quests are harder than others. In the span of two nights I took over 100 astrophotos, and I threw all but four of them out. They were just that bad. But being completely honest, I'm a real noob when it comes to astrophotography. Hell, I've only gotten back into photography in general the past three years. It's a learning process but it's a fun process. So I'm going to share the four I kept from this past weekend. Friday was the new moon, so this weekend was an excellent time to try to capture some deep space objects! Also, if you click on the image it will take you to the full size image in my Flickr account. Be warned, they are LARGE. There you can see all the settings for my camera. Feel free to peruse my other photos while your there. It'll prove that I may have always been a gamer, but gaming isn't all I do. ;)

[caption id="attachment_3150" align="aligncenter" width="1291"]Polaris Polaris[/caption]

The first thing I'm start with is the last thing I shot. This is the star Polaris, which I mentioned earlier. It's the north star and the end star in the handle of the Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper. I include it as a reference to what a "bright" star looks like through my rig. Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky. It pales besides Vega, Arcturus (the two stars I used to align on both nights,) and Sirius, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere. Polaris is in fact the 47th brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere with an absolute magnitude of -3.64.

[caption id="attachment_3152" align="aligncenter" width="1293"]M4 M4[/caption]

The second astrophotography I want to show you is M4. The 'M' stands for Messier, one of the first catalogues of deep space objects. This is a globular cluster. These are groupings of tens of thousands of typically very old stars that reside just outside our own galaxy. You can recognize them in your telescope by one easy description. They look like snowballs in space. This particular cluster looks more open than many because it is the closest globular cluster to the Earth at 7200 light years distance. I got it with a 15 second exposure Saturday night.

[caption id="attachment_3148" align="aligncenter" width="1298"]M80 M80[/caption]

This is another Messier globular cluster. It shows the snowball in space description really is an apt one. All those faint stars in the center cluster are part of it. M80 is about 11,700 light years from Earth. To really get it to stand out I'd need a longer exposure time, but I'm fairly happy with this result. :)

[caption id="attachment_3149" align="aligncenter" width="1306"]M82 M82[/caption]

But the astrophotograph I am most pleased with is this capture of the galaxy M82. You may remember having seen this galaxy in the news in late January and February when a supernova was spotted in what is the lower half of this astrophoto. I am particularly pleased with how well the dust lane, that diagonal band cutting across the disk of the galaxy, shows up. That is the hallmark signature of M82, and I'm surprised a 30 second exposure got it so well - relatively speaking. Have a look at the Hubble picture if you want to see M82's full glory. This is also the furthest object I shot at 11,420,000 light years from Earth. :P

And that's Vacation Quest #1 - at least for now. Right now I'm embarked on Vacation Quest #2. I actually set this post up Monday night with a scheduled post date and time. As I'll be literally in the field all day, don't expect anything from me on Wednesday. It will be a long day. Unless it's really super cool and I just can't contain myself. So who knows. Hopefully I'll have something good to report regardless. Cheers!