Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday Links

A weekly time wasting tradition since 1958, now with 30% more fluoride.

First off, Vanity Fair has a fascinating article about Arthur Miller--or, more specifically, Arthur Miller's son Daniel, who was was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after his birth in 1966. Within days, Daniel was placed in an institution (which was not uncommon back then for babies born with Down syndrome).

And Arthur Miller, at least publicly, pretended that Daniel didn't exist.

It's a remarkable story for many reasons--most importantly, that Daniel Miller wound up having a rewarding, satisfying life for himself. Read it here.

This man is a genius. His name is "Yahtzee," and he does a weekly video feature for The Escapist that is falling-down funny. See his review of the Heavenly Sword demo here. Language warning for the 99% of you reading from work. There's also a link from that page to his review of Psychonauts. Thanks to Jeffrey Cannata.

Here's a YouTube link that you must see. It's from the "Miss Teen America 2007" pageant, and believe me, Miss South Carolina isn't going to be winning any awards for verbal skills anytime soon. Here's the clip.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to Game Tunnel's feature on the top 100 indie games of the last three years, which you can read here. GT is no longer doing their monthly independent game review round-up, which is a shame, because it was one of my favorite gaming features.

Here's a second link from Jesse to an article about the Mars Exploration Rovers, which are now back in operation after a six-week dust storm where they shut down due to the lack of solar power. Read it here.

From George Paci, a link to an article about strange sea creatures discovered during an exploration of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean. There are links in the article to some absolutely stunning pictures (look at the "ridge's wonky creatures" and the "viperfish" links in particular), and you can see it all here.

From Sirius, a link to a bizarre and remarkably toothy fish that is, as yet, unidentified. See the savage creature here.

Sirius doubles up with a link to a translation site--for Cuneiform and Hieroglyphic writings. There's also some extremely interesting history about ancient civilizations on the site as well, and you can read it all here.

From Stephen T., a link to an article about a man who lost the top of his skull. This is not easy to do, but if you're having brain surgery and the hospital has a defective refrigerator, there you go. Even better is a court only awarding him 3,000 euros because "the new skull roof was better than the original." Read about it here.

Finally, there's a profile of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (Tycho and Gabe of Penny Arcade) over at Wired, and it's a good read. Whenever I read one of their interviews, I'm always reminded (in a good way) that even as they walk through waist-high drifts of hundred dollar bills, they still don't take themselves seriously. Which is probably why they're still funny. Read the profile here.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Disease Vector, Virtually

I always find it interesting when events in the world of gaming somehow breach into the mainstream press. Even though gaming is far more widely covered now, stories still often have that "we've discovered a lost civilization" kind of wonder to them.

This time, it's the "corrupted blood" disease in World of Warcraft, which happened, um, two years ago.

The impetus for this sudden media interest is a research paper published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. Written by Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren. The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds to Shed Light on Real World Epidemics explores how the disease was transmitted inside the World of Warcraft, and how studying an online population might improve our planning for real-world epidemics.

To see a few of these mainstream accounts, just go here (BBC) or here (Reuters).

DQ reader Kadunta took the time to read the paper in question, and here is his excellent summary:
As it was, the authors wrote that the Corrupted Blood disease spread far too efficiently for any real-world pathogen, but that could be corrected by tuning the parameters (e.g., how easily the disease is transmitted, how high the mortality rate is). Still, they noted how the players spread the disease by instantaneous transportation back to the populated areas from the battlefield with Hakkar, the source of the disease, before dying or being cured of the disease, and mentioned how this resembles the way many epidemics in the past have spread one area to another.

In brief, the main point of the article was to suggest the idea of integrating epidemics into MMO games as essential plot events and using the collected data (with permissions from the players) in epidemiological research.

The authors write that although there are two ambitious systems--TRANSIMS (Los Alamos National Laboratory) and EpiSims (Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, Virginia Tech)--that attempt to incorporate human behaviour in computer simulations, predicting human behaviour is far from easy. Still, in the physical reality, it is nigh impossible to set up a controlled experiment due to physical, financial and moral issues. In the virtual world, it's easier (but still not without problems), although the sizes of the experiments would have to be downscaled from pure computer simulations due to the limited number of players and such resources.

As an example of human behaviour with the outbreak the authors mention the "first responders," healers who went into the infected areas in an attempt to cure other player characters, and when they moved onto other areas after being infected, possibly ended up spreading the epidemic. Another example was the failure of the quarantine rules to keep the disease from spreading when players disregarded the rules, as was mentioned also in the Reuters story.

The authors admit that the players wouldn't necessarily act in the simulations like they would in the real life, but the players still have the commitment to the community formed within the game world that would cause the in-game player reactions to approximate real-life reactions. Even so, the validity of results gained in simulated outbreaks in MMO games would still have to be externally confirmed, e.g. by comparing the results with historical real-world outbreaks, before applying them to real-world scenarios.

An interesting side note (or at least for me): they mentioned that the player characters' pets appeared to have been the dominant vector (not much unlike I recall the bubonic plague to have spread, where the rats and their fleas spread the disease). The players were penalized for letting their pets die, so once they had been infected, the players dismissed their pets, effectively placing them into stasis and retrieved them once they had reached a safer place--like a populated city for instance--at which point the pets would then start (re)infecting characters and pets around them. Also, the shopkeepers, soldiers and other such NPCs, beefed-up to stand up to players attacking them, weren't in danger of immediately dying of the disease--but they could still be infected and infect their customers, prolonging the outbreak.

As my personal opinion, a MMO game focused on society, such as
A Tale In the Desert (Wiki entry here), might be a good basis for such experiments. Actually, the Wikipedia entry also mentions ATitD had (or has?) something called "Lung Spore Disease" in the third Telling, but many players didn't take it well. How much the disease resembled an epidemy, I don't know. Also, the purportedly stronger community spirit in ATitD would most likely affect the outcome of the simulation: it's possible that the quarantine rules, for instance, would be obeyed better than in WoW.

"Community spirit" brings up an interesting rabbit hole related to all this, and one that I'd never considered before: does the medical community prepare for griefers? If there's anything online worlds have taught us, it's that there will always be griefers. Always. And even in the real world, in the face of a horrific epidemic, there will be at least a few people trying to actively spread the disease.

In other words, epidemic planning cannot be considered complete without coming up with a strategy to contain BigDick69.

Even with the behavioral distortions that manifest themselves in any online world, though, the idea of seeding an epidemic solely for the purpose of collecting data on how the disease spreads is remarkably clever.

Leipzig: Your Comments

Here are two e-mails from DQ readers who attended Leipzig last week.

First, from Florian Schwarzer:
I've got two minor points on Sony connected to the GC Leipzig.

First, I've got to say that the This is Living exhibition area was by far the most appealing of the three console manufacturers'. It included several setpieces from one 'living room' area to an 'attic', and in that environment, the toilet seats seemed like quite a nice joke.

Second, in the preceeding GCDC, there was a fascinating lecture by business agent Jeffrey Hilbert, who made an interesting point about cross-platform game production: Apparently, it's very difficult to port a game from the Xbox to anywhere else, while it's relatively easy to port a game natively based on the PS3 SKU. So, PS3 owners will likely not be cut out from multiplatform titles due to their console's small installed base.

I assume that "anywhere else" is specifically referencing consoles, since Microsoft does have tools developed to ease porting into Windows. I e-mailed Florian and asked him what he thought about the PS3 games he saw, and here's his response:
Not too much, frankly. The Games Conference as a whole felt quite inhospitable on Wednesday, so I didn't stay too long. Tried a little Ratchet & Clank, which plays extremely smoothly and has a very nice, if unspectacular look.

Eye of Judgement was constantly crowded. Seemed interesting, is all I can really say.

Uncharted looked very good (personally, I'd prefer its style to Heavenly Sword, making me a minority of one, I guess), but I didn't really get into the controls in my less than five minutes of playtime.

Here's another perspective from a regular e-mailer who works in the gaming industry and wishes to remain anonymous:
Since I was there and, as far as I can tell, you weren't.

Microsoft ABSOLUTELY KILLED IT. They had a huge ferris wheel, branded with Halo 3 and the Live button across the middle, with each pod being Halo 3 hands on. Slow rotation = reasonable play time. Huge areas inside, loads of games. Games worth playing.

Nintendo had the best signage (since there were no maps or signage for anything anywhere, pretty much) so you could actually find them if you wanted to.

I didn't see Sony's stand at all, though I didn't get much time to go looking for basically a stand with no games.

Sonic and Mario Olympics - easily going to become the biggest game on the Wii EVER. Oh man, I just can't wait for this game now. It's looking unstoppable.

Virtua Fighter 5 360 - online is AMAZING. Hardly any lag and totally playable.

I really like Olympics-based games (on the rare occasions when they don't suck), so hearing about Sega's game is good news.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Armageddon Empires Play Guide: Part Three

For part one of this play guide, go here, and for part two, go here.

Turn three begins. I'm still low an Action Points, having lost the initiative roll, so move both of my recon units, and look what I've found:

I've played at least 30 games of Armageddon Empires, but this is something I've never seen, at least so early: the area around my base is absolutely lousy with independent units.

This could be a big problem, a game-ender, but Independent units are often less aggressive than the factions, so maybe it's an opportunity instead--there must be resources worth having if I can capture those hexes.

To do that, though, I need more units (I'm down to five cards in my hand, and two of those are air units), so I use my last action points to draw another card.

In turn four, I use both recon units (discovering another independent base as well as a squatter's camp that gives me 6 additional human resources), then decide to deploy the card I drew on my last turn. It's an MoBV-V Panther, a tank unit with 5-5 (attack-defense) as well as 8 hit points.

I only have 2 AP left, not enough to create an army for the Panther unit to join, but I do have enough AP to deploy Valentine Kusanagi, a hero who has some excellent special abilities. Take a look:

She's a powerful unit, and rare--a very high stealth rating (7), with both the assassin and saboteur skills. Ideally, I'd like to use genetic research to increase her wound points and ability to withstand attacks, but the Independents have forced my hand, so she will be used sooner.

Using hero cards can be a cat and mouse game at times, particularly with researchers like technologists and geneticists. Assassins from other factions can kill your heroes, you see, but while the card stays in your hand, it's not even on the board. So deploying a hero too early, when their specialties can't be used effectively, just exposes them to unnecessary danger. With someone like Kusanagi, though, her saboteur skill makes it very difficult to "save" the card.

Another consideration: if you're holding several air unit cards in your hand, and maybe holding back one or two heroes for future use, your hand is mostly going to be static, which creates its own problems.

Turn five begins and recon discovers some fuel tanks. I create an army for my Panther tank unit and name it "Indie", hoping that it will mop up some of the independent units running around like ants. I also draw one more card and get lucky by acquiring another Imperial Recon unit (stealth-capable).

At the beginning of turn six, I realize I have 12 Human resources, and since I need additional Action Points for some of the strategies I want to use, I use 5 of those resources and add them to my initiative roll pool, giving me 8 dice versus 3 for the other two factions.

Winning initiative gives me 12 AP instead of 8, which will be very helpful during this turn. First off, my Recon West unit discovers an Independent-controlled hex that has 2 Human, 1 Energy, and 1 Research resources per turn. In other words, a highly desirable hex to control.

I create an army ("Kusanagi") for my hero. Normally, a hero's skills are best used as a leader of other units, but the Assassins work better alone. I haven't moved the Panther unit or Kusanagi yet, but they're ready to go when I need them.

I have 3 AP left, and I'd like to soften up the defenses in that resource square, so I decide to call in an air-strike with my F-227 Nightwing (which I've mentioned previously). One attack costs me 3 AP as well as 2 Energy resources. There are three 4/4 units defending the hex, and I only get 1 point of damage, so that was a waste of AP and resources.

Turn five, and I lose the roll and go second. My Recon East unit, which blundered into a minefield and was injured on the previous turn, stumbles across a Machine Empire unit. Normally, it could defeat this 3-3 unit, but it's already low on hit points, so I call in an air strike in an attempt to bail it out, since I don't want to lose a unit this early in the game, even if it's only doing recon. I cause 2 points of damage, so at least my recon unit will have a fighting chance when it goes into combat later in the turn.

Here's what my section of the world looks like now, and you can see it's gotten quite busy already:

I have 5 Independent facilities very close to my base, and you can see that Recon West is observing (in stealth mode) that desirable hex with the renewable resources.

There's also the Machine Empire unit, which I'll be battling now. I'm not going to insert a screenshot of the Combat screen here, because with a one-on-one battle there's not much to discuss. They wind up retreating and survive, but so does my unit.

When turn six starts, though, the Machine Empire goes first and launches an air strike against Recon East. That tells me that the Machine Empire must have a base nearby (in an as-yet unrevealed hex), because air units have limited attack range.

Recon East is well-crippled at this point, so I try to get it back to the base for repair. I'm one hex short, but hopefully it will survive until I can it to the base on the next turn. I deploy an Imperial Grenadiers unit (5-4) into the Indie army, because I'm going to need several units to take that resource hex.

I'm down to 2 AP at this point, so I go ahead and deploy the Imperial Recon unit that I have in my hand. I'll name the army "Recon North" on the next turn.

Turn seven and I lose the initiative roll (a familiar theme), and I'm going third. I get Recon East back to my base, but I need more AP than I have to repair the unit, so it's going to have to wait until the next turn. I create the Recon North army, transfer the Imperial Recon unit into it, stealth the unit, and the turn's over.

As you can see, you face some choices in the early game about accumulating resources versus using those resources to improve your chances of acquiring the turn initiative (with a boost of 4 AP as a reward).

In this case, if I go first on the next turn, I can guarantee that my Recon unit will get to the base, so on turn eight I use 4 resources, add them to the dice pool, and win the first move. I repair Recon East, and Recon West discovers an abandond military base with a special "unit attachment" card I can use to improve the abilities of an infantry unit (the Grenadiers, in this case). It gives the unit an 8 anti-aircraft attack, which may come in very handy.

Recon North, in its first move, discovers an abandoned gas depot and claims 2 units of energy.

I have 4 AP left, and I desperately need a hero General. I draw a card (which takes 3 AP), and hit the jackpot with Ulysses Starke. Take a look at his unit card:

There's lots of good stuff there: a command rating of 8 (he can command eight units in an army without any unit penalties, which is excellent), 4 Fate points (which can be used to re-roll dice during battle), high Charisma (which results in 1 extra Human resource being gathered per turn), Raider rating of 2 (extends supply range for his army 2 hexes beyond the supply range of the nearest base), and his Military Genius means that all units under his command get a +1 to both attack and defense.

In other words, he's a bad-ass, and I immediately deploy him into the "Indie" army, so he now has two units under his command.

That ends turn eight. I have multiple objectives to accomplish (hopefully) in the next few turns:
--gain control of that renewable resource hex and build facilities to gather the resources
--deploy additional units to defend my base in case of attack, because if the base is lost, it's game over.
--deploy my assassin to weaken the facilities of the Independents, making it easier for armed forces to move in.

I'll have the next installment of the play guide up on Friday or Monday.

BioShock and the 2K FUBAR Machine

BioShock is an outstanding game, one of the most carefully crafted games I've ever played. It's been universally praised in reviews, has a very strong chance of being Game of the Year, and incredibly (for those who remember System Shock and its disappointing sales), it's even selling well.

In other words, Ken Levine should be basking in the glow of a supreme achievement. Instead, thanks to 2K Games, he's been on the defensive from the day the game shipped because of the strange choices 2K made in regards to user limitations and copy protection.

Let's review.

1. The PC demo gets released.
2. A few people find and buy the PC version early. They can't actually play the game, though, because their copy must be "activated" via the Internet, and the game activation servers aren't up.
3. It's discovered the day the game officially releases that it uses SecuROM copy protection, that SecuROM resides on the user's system and verifies the number of installs, and that the number of installs is capped at two.
4. Shortly thereafter, it's discovered that the demo included SecuROM protection as well.
5. The 2K servers are overloaded and go down. That means everyone who is being forced into Internet-based activation--can't activate their fifty dollar game.
6. 2K publishes a "clarification" on the forums saying that if users are reinstalling the game "a lot," that they might have to call SecuROM and get another installation key.
7. It's quickly confirmed that uninstalling does not necessarily decrement the installation counter as it should, and people contacting SecuROM are directed to contact 2K.
8. Ken Levin posts in the 2K Forums that the SecuROM/2K loop "sucks" and that they're working on the issue.
9. The number of allowed activations is changed from two to five.
10. Levine says in an interview with Joystiq that at an unspecified point in the future, install activation will be removed entirely.

So let's see. People buy a product and some can't use it. Plus, if you want to reinstall Windows, you better uninstall BioShock first, and you better hope that the "counter" registers that uninstall correctly. Hard drive crash? Oops.

And in maybe the worst decision of all, the little octopus known as SecuROM was included on the DEMO.

In other words, the entire installation/copy-protection process has been a complete cluster ****.

So what did Ken Levine say when he was interviewed by Gamespot? Well, he said this: was a bit of a cluster****.

Damn, that's refreshing. It's not like we didn't already know, but it's tremendously refreshing to hear someone tell the truth without using marketing speak or stonewalling or claiming that they were just picking up a piece of paper from the restroom floor.

I never thought about this until now, but while everyone (including me) has been saying that the fragmented user base is a huge part of the decline in top-tier, high-budget titles appearing on the PC, very few people are mentioning another problem: that from our end, the draconian copy-protection methods being used by publishers are really, really pissing us off.

So it's not just that there's less food on the table when it comes to the big budget games, but we're less hungry as well.

Of course intellectual property should be protected, and I've always said that. But publishers have developed a Big Brother mentality--hey, don't worry about what we're using, because unless you're doing something wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

Gee, that sounds familiar, and not in a good way.

If publishers don't clearly, explicitly explain copy protection up front, it makes us think that the publisher is trying to hide something.

Usually, they are.

I should receive notification when a copy protection program installs itself. I should be told its name. I should also receive notification every time it connects to the Internet, and if it sends data, I should be told what it's sending. If I uninstall the game, and I have no other game using this method of copy protection, then the copy protection program should be fully and completely removed from my system. Completely.

All this octopus shit on my system makes me feel like squatters are living in my house. I won't even buy a game that uses Starforce anymore.

Here's another thing: when a publisher finally tells us what's going on with a copy protection scheme, it damn well better be the truth, and it better be correct. Otherwise, a site like Tom's Hardware will do its own investigation and find out that much of what we're being told is totally inaccurate, like this.

The biggest problem, of course, is that we have no rights as consumers. Nothing's spelled out on the box in regards to this kind of bullshit, and we can't return the game.

Because we might have copied it, of course.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Lethal Circus 3, or If There's a Smile On My Face, It's Only There to Fool the Public

One of my favorite clown stories ever (thanks Russ Harvey):
Last summer I was out for a jog and I saw one of those bouncy castles set up on the front lawn of a large house. I was about to detour (in order to avoid hearing screaming children) when I noticed there was a clown banging on the window of a car parked out front, in a very violent, un-clowny fashion.

I slowed my pace a little and kept jogging, crossing to the opposite side of the street in order to avoid getting embroiled in whatever was going on. The car window rolls down, the clown starts yelling at the guy inside, and as I get closer I notice that the driver is also a clown. Pretty soon he gets out and they start going back and forth, gesticulating wildly as they argue, and then the clown who was in the car suddenly socks the other clown right in the face, and then jumps on him and they start wrestling in the street. I put the speed on and got the hell out of there in a hurry, but it was about the most incongruous thing I've ever seen. Have you ever observed a man wearing a fuzzy red wig with a giant painted-on smiley-face reach back and clock an equally bewigged man, wearing ludicrously large shoes? It messes with your mind for days.

Your E-mail (Cesária Evora)

Nuno Rechena, our man on the ground in Portugal, sent in some interesting information about Cesária Evora:
Cesária Evora is a hell of a singer and her musical style, Morna, is really good. One of her most known songs is called Sodade, the crioulo equivalent of the Portuguese word "Saudade". This word is very related to both Portugal and its ex-colonies. It has no translation to the English language. Saudade is the feeling one gets when missing someone or something. This word is very associated to Portugal, because of Fado (the typical Saudade music) and because Portugal has a lot of immigrants who have “saudades do seu país” (they miss their country).

By the way, crioulo has nothing to do with French. It is a mix of Portuguese and the original African language in Cabo Verde. I totally understand the conection with Billie Holiday, she’s one of my favorites, too. and they do have similarities in their voice, though Cesária is pure Africa. If you want to hear some new sounds with some Saudade influence try listening to things like Madredeus, Amália Rodrigues or Cristina Branco. The music style is quite different from morna, but if it’s saudade you want, you’ll get it from these.

Eli 6.0 Goes to School

The first column I wrote for Gone Gold was within days of Eli's first birthday. For those of you unfortunate enough to have been reading since then, you've watched him grow up, and on Monday, he started first grade.

It's pretty remarkable how quickly kids can change at his age. When he started pre-school two years ago, he cried almost every day at school for the first three weeks. When he moved up to the older class a year ago, he cried for a week.

On Monday, he went to a totally new school on a campus that was 20X the size of his pre-school. They let parents come in with their children for the first week to help them get settled and to be sure they find their class.

Gloria was worried that Eli would be upset when she stopped going in with him. After one day of class, though, he said he could find his class just fine and she didn't need to come in with him. No tears, no problems, no worries.

We had lunch together on Monday (his first day was a short day), and he started in with The Question, also known as What Would You Do? He's been asking The Question for weeks now, and it always involves bizarre hypotheticals about animals getting eaten by lions. "Dad, question," he said. "If you were an armadillo without your shell, and you were getting attacked by a lion, what would you do?"

"What do you mean, I don't have my shell?" I asked. "That's not even a real question."

"What would you do, Dad?"

"Well, thirty minutes before the lion was going to attack, I'd order a pizza," I said. "Then, when the lion attacked, I'd throw a slice of burning hot pizza into his face. While he was pawing at the hot cheese, I'd cover my naked armadillo parts with the box and run away."

Eli sighed, a sigh that seemed to say why is it so hard to get a serious answer to a serious question? "Without the pizza," he said.

"Sunscreen," I said.


"Sunscreen," I said. "That's what I'd do first. I'm a naked armadillo, and I bet they burn pretty badly."


Last week, he was making Cleopatra's tomb out of Jenga blocks, and he was making it difficult for tomb raiders. "Seriously, Dad, to get into THIS tomb, you'll be digging a long time without water OR sweets."

He's also been working on his checker skills, and last week he said he wanted to play a few games to practice. "They say practice makes perfect," he said, "but some people say practice doesn't make perfect."

"Who are those people?"

"I have NO IDEA," he said.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Armageddon Empires Play Guide: Part Two

For Part One of this play guide, go here.

Turn two begins and I lost the roll for initiative--my turn is second and I have eight action points (AP) available.

Here's a look at the map and my hand (five of six cards--one is not visible without scrolling):

Remember, you can click on the screenshot to see it as a much larger image.

You can see that several cards are not grayed out, which means I could deploy them based on my available action points and resources. Let's take a look at these cards, because it will help me explain some basic concepts.

As I said in part one of this guide, you can always hover the mouse pointer over a card to get a detailed unit information window, but it will save you time to get familiar with the "shorthand" version presented on the card itself. Let's take a look at that now.

In the upper-right section of the card, you'll see how many action points (AP) and resources are needed to deploy the unit. resources required for deployment--in this case, 2 action points (AP) and 1 of all four resource types. This is consistent across all unit types.

On every unit card, you'll see three numbers just below the unit picture, and three more numbers at the bottom of the card (which you can see in the screenshot above). Here's what those numbers mean, depending on unit type:

Unit Type------Ground-----Air----------Hero
Top Left----------Attack-------Attack------Command
Top Center-------Defense----Defense-------Fate
Top Right-------Resistance----Fate-------Resistance
Bottom Left-----Movement--Movement--Movement
Bottom Center--Hit Points--Hit Points---Wound Points
Bottom Right-----Range------Range--------Empty

Here are some brief category descriptions.
Attack: number of dice used by unit when attacking (max 10).
Defense: number of dice used by unit when defending (max 10).
Resistance: damage resisted when facing "unconventional" attacks, like biological weapons.
Fate: each point allows you to re-rolled a die during a combat turn.
Movement: Potential per turn in number of hexes.
Hit Points: what you'd expect. Shown as current/potential.
Range: attack range when using the combat grid (more about this later).
Command: only for heroes, this rating tells you how many armies this hero can command without unit penalties.
Wound points: also only for heroes, how many (in essence) hit points they can lose before being assassinated or captured.

I'll discuss heroes at a later point, but for now, let's look at the differences in ground and air units and how they're deployed.

Here's an easy way to understand the difference in terms of how it affects your hand. When ground units are deployed, they are deployed at any based, attached to an army, and the card is removed from your hand (it goes from being a card in your hand to a piece on the board, in other words).

Air units, though, don't join an army--they fly combat sorties from any base. And these cards don't get removed from your hand when you deploy them--they stay in your hand unless they're destroyed in combat. When you want to use one, just drag it onto the target. It can be used as often as you want, as long as you have enough action points/resources to initiate the combat sortie. And if you want to see an air unit card, the first card to the left of the screen in the above screenshot is the F-227 Nightwing air unit.

For this turn, let's take a look at the second card from the left--the MoRV-IV Leopard. This ground unit doesn't have stealth capability, but it can do reconnaisance, and it has low deployment costs, which makes it an excellent early-game unit.

I deploy the Leopard by dragging the unit card onto the base. Then I click on the base attachment (the "1" in a rectangle), create an army ("Recon East"), and drag the unit card onto the army to transfer it.

After closing out the army screen, I right click on the rectangular attachment to the base and select the Recon East army, then left-click on an adjoining hex to move it (in this case, I moved two hexes). When I reached the second hex, I got this message:

When you have units scouting, you will sometimes find caches of resources or weapons, and all you need to do is choose "claim" to add them to your stockpiles. If this unit had discovered a continuing source of resources, I would have used a different procedure to capture those resources every turn (which we'll do later).

After moving the Recon East unit, I still have two action points remaining. I use 1 AP to move the Recon West unit, but scouting three hexes reveals no caches or resources.

I'd like to draw a card, since I now only have five in my hand, but I need 3 AP and only have 1 remaining.

The early game goes much, much more quickly than the play guide makes it seem. I'm trying to introduce and explain concepts as we go along, but when you play, these early turns go quickly.

Part Three of the play guide will be up on Wednesday. I promise it will take us past turn three.

Console Post of the Week: Meet the New Boss, Math, and Marketing

There are some interesting data points from last week.

First, the Wii has allegedly overtaken the 360 in total worldwide sales. I say "allegedly" because it's notoriously hard to compile these figures, so exact numbers are hard to come by, but if it hasn't happened yet, it's just a matter of weeks. And if you thought last November that the Wii would overtake the 360 in nine months, and would crush Sony beyond comprehension, then you are a member of the smallest and most exclusive club in the world.

It also points out how important a pack-in game can be when you're trying to sell a new console. Wii Sports turned out to be the perfect game to showcase the controller, and Nintento included it even though they were already selling the console for much less than the competition. Without the pack-in game, I think the Wii would have been much, much less successful.

In comparison to the remarkable shrewdness of Nintendo, Sony had a row of toilets at Leipzig this week. Based on the July NPD numbers, all I can say is well-played, gentlemen--this certainly IS living.

Sony dropped the price on the 60GB PS3 in the US by $100 on July 9, so for most of the four-week NPD period, the PS3 was available at the lower price. Like I said, though, even if their sales doubled, it would just make them a closer last in the U.S., and that's what happened. Sony sold 40k systems a week (July total 159,000 for a four-week period) compared to 20k systems a week in June (100,000 units, but in a five-week period). Microsoft sold 170,000 360s, though.

In a month where Microsoft was getting absolutely HAMMERED because of reliability issues and Sony had a $100 price cut, they still couldn't outsell the 360.

They're not going to any time in the next six months, either. That ship has sailed. Microsoft cut the price of the Premium unit by $50 and added an HDMI port. They have a killer line-up of games this fall, and Sony is still floundering around with their game line-up.

There was some good news for Sony, though--for only the second month since launch, the PS3 sold more than half as many units as the PS2 in the U.S.
November 2006-July 2007
PS3: 1,611,000
PS2: 3,808,000

Compare the 360 with the original Xbox as well and here's what you get:
November 2005-July 2006
Xbox 360: 2,209,000
Xbox: 980,000

Holy crap. Not only has the 360 sold 600,000 more units in the same time period from launch, but the 360 outsold the Xbox by more than 2-1 in the first nine months after launch.

Now let's focus on months seven through nine from launch, just to see if that is more revealing.
November 2006-July 2007
PS3: 340,000
PS2: 680,000

November 2005-July 2006
Xbox 360: 704,000
Xbox: 60,000

Holy crap, part two. It's entirely possible that Sony's new console won't outsell its old console in the U.S. until twelve to fifteen months after its introduction.

Oh, but wait--Sony has huge momentum in Europe, right?

Well, not so much. At least, not if you pay close attention to information Sony released in the last week. Remember, David Reeves (SCEE president) said that Sony had sold-through one million units in Europe and Australia (combined) around May 30 (the quote I linked to a few weeks ago was from Friday, June 8, but Reeves said "early last week", so it was actually a little sooner).

On August 22, Reeves announced that the PS3 had sold-through 1.3 million units in Europe.

So let's work with these numbers and see what we get. A generous estimate of Australian sales from launch to May 30 for the PS3 would be 45,000 units, so let's back that out of the initial 1 million number. That means that between May 30 and August 22 (twelve weeks), the PS3 has sold 345,000 units in Europe.

That's about 29,000 units a week.

It's possible that those twelve weeks represent uniform weekly sales, but it's unlikely, because May 29 was only just over two months after launch. In other words, even that 29,000 a week number (which is weak to start with) is probably closer to 25,000 a week now. Or lower.

In comparison, let's look at the same period in the U.S. (remember, the PS2 installed base is roughly equal), adjusting for launch dates. That would be from January 20 to April 14, and the way that NPD reporting periods fall, that would include the last two weeks in January, all of February and March, and the first week in April. I'm calculating the last two weeks of January sales at 35,000 per week because of my previous analysis here.

Total sales for that 12-week period (March was a 5-week period): 339,000. Almost identical.

In other words, interest in the PS3 in Europe looks almost exactly like interest in the PS3 in the U.S., except that in Europe it's only been four months from launch.

Zero momentum.

Hot Shots 5 has helped the PS3 sell over 20,000 units a week in Japan for three weeks in a row, which is better than the death rattle numbers they'd had for months, but Japan is still an unqualified disaster for Sony as far as the PS3 is concerned. Even with a lower price from launch date forward, their numbers are incredibly low.

So how does Sony respond? They announce that they'll be adding PVR functionality via a software download, trying to justify the price by adding a twentieth piece of functionality that almost no one will ever actually use.

Adding value doesn't work if your cost is too high. Consoles are a cost market first.

Lastly, Steven Davis has an interesting analysis of of an interview that Peter Edward (director of Sony Home) gave to this week. Here's an excerpt from that interview:

Edward was discussing supervising the Home environment, although Sony doesn't intend to become a "virtual police" force. Instead, it will be providing different areas within Home depending on the age of the user, helping to apply appropriate non-game branding for products such as cigarettes and alcohol.

...With a presentation featuring potential branding from Durex, Marlboro and Bacardi, Edward said that it's not Sony's intention to offer a sanitised experience, and that more mature gamers can expect to see the same products advertised online as in the real world.

Well, I can certainly see wanting to spend lots of time in an online world where I'm seeing condom ads on a regular basis.

Of course, if you're putting rows of toilets at gaming conventions, condom advertising may be a step up.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Links!

We're loaded up this week. so let's get going.

First off, a link to one of the most gripping, riveting articles I've ever read. It's about the crisis of faith--but incredibly, it's the crisis of faith of Mother Teresa. The article is so startling that I'm not even going to tell you any more, but it's remarkable, and you can read it here.

A few gaming links now, and they're all excellent. First, there's a long profile over at Wired about how Bungie creates games and how they gather play data from testers. It's fascinating, and it's here.

Next is a Gamasutra story on the testing process for the huge city environment in Crackdown. The process was very complex and very slick, and you can read about it here.

Francis Cermak sends in a link (since BioShock has been HUGE this week) to a retrospective over at Evil Avatar on System Shock 2, which you can read here.

There's a new documentary out titled "The King of Kong," which has gotten uniformly excellent reviews. It's about the long-running battle between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe to hold the world record score in Donkey Kong. That may sound silly, but the story itself has all the elements of a fine tragedy, and you can read about it here.

From Andrew Borelli comes a link to an article about game cover art. You'll see game covers you haven't seen in twenty years, and it's here.

Here's a link to a very fun flash game called Boomshine (thanks Eric from Groovalicious Games), which is certain to finally eliminate any chance you had of getting something done today. Play it here.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to an article that reveals the mysterious annual visitor to the grave of Edgar Allen Poe. Find out the answer to the mystery here.

Grifin Cheng sent me a link to an article about the "shooting bullet star," a star with a wake that stretches thirteen light-years. Read about it here.

From Sirius, a link to an article about the New York Times that's mind-blowing. Here's the opening:
Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

It's a thought-provoking article, and it's here.

Here's a second link from Sirius, this one to an article about one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world--which happens to be over two miles beneath the Earth's surface. It's a terrific article, and it's here.

From Joe Craig, a link to a video of a subway ad in Kiev. The ad consists of hundreds of pictures along the tunnel walls, which create an animation when the train is moving at speed. See it here.

My friend Mike sent me a link to a video called "Butter Floor," otherwise described as roommate's revenge. It's hilarious, and you can watch it here. Please note a few obscenities in the video, but you'll enjoy seeing why.

Chris Meyer sent in a link to a bizarre article about--the Nazi's mascot. It's an incredibly strange and chilling story about a five-year old boy who was adopted by the SS, and you can read it here.

Here's a second link from Chris Meyer, to a story about a German U-Boat (sunk in 1918) that's now threatening shipping in the English Channel. Read about it here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Play Guide, Now With Properly Resizing Images

Okay, I've rebuilt the Armageddon Empires Play Guide post and all the images can be clicked on and enlarged. Originally, only the first image could be enlarged, but that's fixed and it's all working properly now.

The short version of what happened is that while Blogger does everything it can to make itself appear to be a WYSIWYG editor, it's really not, and moving images after you import them can wreak all kinds of havoc unless you look at what's happening using the HTML editor instead of the text editor.

Armageddon Empires Play Guide: Part One

All right, let's get started. Please note that I'm writing this guide with an extreme amount of detail because I want people who don't normally play this kind of game to have a chance to enjoy it as well. Also, please remember that you can click on any of these screenshots to see a larger version.

When you start a new game, you'll see a game options screen, and here's what I recommend in terms of game setup, at least for new players:
--max card points: 175 (that relates to deck quality)
--select deck: ImperialDemoDeck (other decks are available for download)
--max tile points: 5
--map size: normal
--resources: uncommon
--specials: uncommon
--opponents: random (both)

After the game setup screen, you'll roll for initiative. Before every turn in the game, you roll for initiative, and if you win the roll and go first, you'll be rewarded with more Action Points (AP), which we'll be talking about shortly.

After the roll, you'll be given a chance to lay the "staging area" tile. Your units will be in supply for a certain distance from this base (supply range can be extended later), so place the tile as far into the board as possible. Then, take the base card and drag it onto the staging area, which will deploy your base. When you're done, this is what you'll see:

Note the colored circles with numbers at the top of your base hex. Those are resources: . Human, Materials, Energy, and Technology. The numbers indicate how many resources are potentially available in that hex. Those resources are not automatically collected, though--you need some kind of structure (a collection facility or a base) to collect them, and most facilities can collect only one of each resource, which means for a hex with two energy, for example, you'd need a collection facility AND a base.

We're done here. Choose the "Start Game" button and wait briefly for the game map to be created.

Once the game begins, before each turn you'll have the opportunity to buy initiative die. You can spend any kind of resource type you have available to increase the number of die you get when rolling for initiative each turn.

Being first in a turn gets you extra action points, and everything you do in the game costs action points, so having more is always better. However, it also takes resources to do things as well, so you have to decide when it's worth giving up resources to improve your chances of getting the turn initiative. For now, we have almost no resources, so we're just going to roll.

I lost the roll and I'm going third this turn. After the other two empires (The Machine Empire and the Free Mutants in this game) take their turn (which I won't see unless I have units in the area of the activity), it's finally my turn.

Let's get familiar with screen, because it's the basic game screen, and you'll be seeing it every turn. At the top left, you have a mini-map that can show you terrain, the hexes you control, the hexes you've explored, and the hexes you're observing (via reconnaisance and other units,I believe).

At the very top, those colored circles represent available action points (AP) and your supply of the four resource types.

The hex map takes up most of the screen.

The bottom panel shows you the cards currently in your hand (notice the very cool artwork). You'll have more than five cards in your current hand, usually, and you can scroll left or right with the red arrows. On the right, you can see how many cards remain to draw (see the red hand with "48" underneath).

At the very bottom of the screen are a few useful switches. There are times when you'll be displaying "Tactics" cards in that card window instead of unit cards, and the "Display Hand" and "Tactics" buttons let you switch betwen them (or make the panel go away entirely, which is necessary when deploying units at the bottom of the map). The red hand holding the cards icon and associated number show you how many cards are in your current hand.

If you click on the "Supply" button, the map will turn green to show you which hexes are in supply. This is an important concept, because units out of supply suffer both battle penalties as well as movement penalties. This is particularly important with reconnaisance units--when they're out of supply, they can only move one hex per turn instead of their regularthree or four hexes.

The "Events" button helps you see what's gone on in the game world in the last turn. This won't show you any new information, though, just what your units have observed.

The "Players" button will give you information about your opponents--again, though, nothing you can't observe, although it will tell you the unique abilities that are inherently possessed by each faction (some actions cost fewer action points for certain factions than others, for example).

The "Menu" button does just what you expect it to--gives you options to save, load, and exit.

I took a second screenshot of this screen, before beginning my turn, because I looked through my hand and found an Imperial Recon unit. Take a look:

You will notice that the card is a lighter color than the others--that means I have sufficient resources and action points to deploy this card (which you can verify at the top of the screen). The other units require more resources or action points than I have available.

That's okay, though, because in the early part of the game, recon is particularly important. Exploring a hex can pay huge benefits, either through finding a cache of resources or finding a permanent supply, which I can then harvest with the appropriate facilities. These hexes tend to be fiercely contested, though, so I'll also need to station enough units in thehex to provide a proper defense.

Given the post-apocalyptic setting, almost everything tends to be in short supply: resources, units, everything. It gives the entire game a tinge of desperation that is tremendously appealing.

Look at the right side of the screen, where you'll see a description of the Imperial Recon units capabilties (this pops up when you hover the mouse pointer over a card). These generally match what the card itself says, but in more detail.

Hit points mean exactly what you'd expect, and notice that recon units have very few hit points, although they can be augmented to a limited degree by researched enhancements. The trade-off for low hit points, though, is the movement range--four hexes per turn, which in this game, is absolutely huge.

"Attack" and "Defense" are both listed as 2. This means the unit, in both attacking and defending situations, rolls 2 dice. Units can have up to 10 dice for attacks or defense, and some units have a wide variance in their attack capabilites versus their defensive capabilities. The "Range" ratings is 1, which means that in battle, the unit must be in the front row to beable to launch an attack, and it can only attack units in the opponent's front row.

"Stealth" means that the unit has a special mode it can engage to remain hidden, and the "5" rating for Stealth means that it will be relatively hard to discover. When a unit this underpowered is doing recon, you always want it to be in stealth mode, or it won't last very long.

It may sound trivial, understanding what each rating on the card means, but I took it somewhat for granted for the first few hours, and I didn't learn nearly as quickly as a result. Unlike many other games, the ratings of a unit in Armageddon Empires are critically important--you're not going to churn out units like loaves of bread at a Mrs. Baird's factory. Except in very rare instances (for The Empire of Man, at least), your units are limited by the deck itself.

Again, this game distinguishes itself in that almost everything is finite. That makes every individual unit far more important.

Okay, so now that I want to actually deploy the Imperial Recon unit, what do I do? I scroll down to the bottom of the map and locate my base (if it's not already showing). Then, click and drag the Imperial Recon over the hex that contains my base.You can deploy a unit card at any base, but this is the only one I have right now.

The number of cards in your hand (bottom panel) will decrement one, and the number of action points (AP) you have remaining will decrement as well.

Okay, we've played the card. Where is it now?

To the side of the base icon, you'll see an attached rectangle with a "1". That refers to the garrison that is located at the base, but as of yet, there are no other units. Click on that icon and you'll see this screen:

You can see your Imperial Recon card behind that pop-up screen, which comes up when you press the "Create Army" button. Before you can move your unit anywhere, it has to be transferred into an existing army, so I need to create one. I plan on sending this unit out to the west, so let's name it "Recon West." Note that it costs 3 AP to create that army (you can see the 3AP designation in the screenshot).

Once you've created the army (which you'll see added to that screen), select it with the mouse, then drag your recon card into the new army. Now "Recon West" has one unit in it, and you can close this screen.

What was a "1" by the base is now a "2", which reflects that I added the recon unit (which is located in the hext but not assigned to defending the base). If I wanted to see what units were assigned to defending the base, I'd just left-click on the base (which pulls up a screen that shows you all base-assigned units), but this time, I want to select the recon army so that I can start scouting.

To select an army from the main screen, you're going to right-click on the icon in the hex where it's located. In this case, it's the icon with the "2".

I do that and here's what I see:

The unit name (Recon West) is now displayed, along with the AP it requires to move, and how many hexes it can move per turn. Below that, you'll see a little mask, and if you left click on that, stealth mode is activated for that unit (only a few units can go into stealth mode).

I left-click on the mask to put the unit into stealth mode, then right-click the "2" again to re-select the army. This time, I click on "Recon West," which selects the army, and I can then move into adjoining hexes. Each hex has a movement point number on it to show how many movement points it will cost me to move into the hex. Also, each hex I explore will then be identified, like this:

I didn't find any resources or supply caches, but quickly scouting the board and finding where those resources exist is crucial to success. Ideally, you'd have several recon units scouting in all directions.

You may be asking "What the hell is that blue facility?" That's the same thing I was asking, because I've never seen a facility that close so early in the game. The blue color indicates that the facility is controlled by Independents, not an organized faction, and sometimes Independents will be willing to join your army for certain, um, "considerations." In thiscase, though, I need to watch them carefully--I've never seen an Independent unit attack my base, but I haven't deployed any units there yet.

Did I say a guide to the first 10-20 turns today? I guess I meant one turn, because that's more than enough for now. I'll have Part Two of the guide available on Monday, and hopefully then we'll cover up to turn 10-15.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The PC Game of the Year 2007: Armageddon Empires

Remember this name:
Vic Davis

And these names:
Greg Nicolett, Matt Bradbury, Kate Davis, Michael Grills, John Hodgson, Richard Lim Boon Keat, Aaron Porter, and Zdenek Sasek.

Together, they have created one of the most interesting and engaging PC games I've ever played: Armageddon Empires.

Armageddon Empires is a hex-based, turn-based strategy game in a post-apocalyptic world. The feature set description on the game's web page is so well-written and complete that I'm just going to use it:
Turn based strategy game in a post-apocalyptic setting versus 1 to 3 AI opponents.

Hexagonal maps depicting the ravaged wastes of earth circa 2345 featuring 3 map sizes ranging from normal to huge.

4 playable factions each with unique units, art and playing styles.

Over 75 faction heroes lead your armies into battle. Heroes allow for larger, more effective armies and have their own special abilities that can change the tide of battle or even create new weapons and technology cards.

Over 200 unique units wage battle across the savage landscape; command infantry, cyborgs, robots, powered battle armor, armor, artillery, mecha, biomecha and many more.

Over 80 unique special abilities for heroes and units; abilities like multi-targeting, shock attack, double attack, fanatic, military genius and valor allow you to find exciting combos of play just like you would in a collectible card or miniatures game.

Collectible card game flavor without the expense. Each hero, unit or facility is a card that can be added to your play deck.

Board game mechanics. Roll a unit’s attack die versus another unit’s defense die and play special abilities and cards to alter the results.

Assassinate enemy heroes, sabotage enemy facilities, gather intelligence through espionage and stealth, hunt down enemy heroes and hold them prisoner.

Drop thermonuclear weapons on your enemies or load out your units with tactical nuke cards created by your leading technologists.

Customizable game parameters allow you to select deck point values, tile point values, map size, resource rarity, specials rarity, and victory conditions.

Challenging goal based AI agents see the same game you do and must gather intelligence, build armies and formulate plans just like you: “No cheating.”

That's right. 200 unique units and 70 heroes in a card-based deployment system. Board game mechanics (dice rolls) to resolve combat. Assassination, sabotage, and espionage.

Normally, I see a game description like this, try it out, and I'm woefully disappointed, either because the game isn't finished or because the programmer couldn't play balance the ambitious design.

Not this time. In a word, this game is glorious.

The game is polished and play balance is nothing short of superb--I've never played a game where risk versus reward was so finely tuned. The A.I. is very, very tough as well.

It's a game for people who like to think.

It's also remarkably attractive, particularly so for such a small dev team. The art work is first rate, and the music is terrific.

Oh, and if you're wondering about system requirements, here they are:

-Windows 98, 2000, XP, Vista
-Video: 1024x768, 32 Mb Video RAM (128 Mb Recommended)
-CPU: 800 MHz Processor (2 GHz Recommended)
-Memory: 256 Mb RAM
-200 MB free Hard Drive Space
-16 bit Direct Sound compatible Soundcard

That's got to be kidding right? This game has outstanding A.I. and all it needs is an 800MHz processor? No 3-D acceleration, either.

In other words, almost everyone can play this game--and everyone should.

I originally heard about this game from a thread over at Quarter to Three, followed shortly by a thread over at Octopus Overlords. The descriptions of the depth and variations of play in both threads hooked me completely, and I downloaded the demo.

And got totally lost. At first.

The unbelievable wealth of choices in this game gives it a stout learning curve, and the differences in how each game plays out means that there's no optimal strategy. I kept trying to find an optimal path, not realizing yet that because of the game's design, the only optimal strategy was to be thinking at all times.

Here's an example. I generally play as the Empire of Man, and I like to depend heavily on research (particularly genetic research), but unlike many other games, I can't conduct research with just a laboratory--I need a geneticist, which is one of the hero cards.

If I don't draw that card early in the game, I'm in trouble. Then I have to decide whether to discard lower-value cards in my hand to keep working through the deck--I might get the geneticist, but when the deck is out of cards, it doesn't regenerate, and I would have been able to put the discards to good use.

If I do get the geneticist early, and start researching, that's no sure thing, either. For one, research involves dice rolls--there are no guarantees, and each failure consumes some of my action points for each turn, as well as the resources used to conduct the research (which can be very high, depending on what I'm trying to create).

There's also no guarantee that my geneticist is even going to stay alive, because she could be assassinated by a rival faction. So I need a reconnaisance route around her home base to continually search for assassins, and if one makes it through my defense, I need to have an evacuation plan for the geneticist.

See what I mean about depth? That's just one tiny fragment of the game, and it requires a series of decisions that require me to evaluate risk versus reward very carefully. There are literally hundreds of decisions in a single game that require that kind of careful consideration.
So even though the strategy I prefer involves research, I have to understand all my options, have well-developed fallback strategies, and play accordingly.

Like I said, it's a steep learning curve. It can be very complex, and I had my head kicked in on a regular basis for the first 10-15 hours, even with the manual beside me as a reference. But even then, I realized that this game was truly something special, and it's more than worth the effort to learn.

I hope to have the first part of a play guide up by end-of-day Thursday that will cover the first 15-20 turns in a game. Again, there's no set strategy, but I can help you with a few very basic strategies. I'll also try to have mid-game and end-game guides (again, not "optimized" but with basic advice) some time next week.

Here's the page you need: Armageddon Empires links page. From there, you can see the answers to basic questions about playing the game, as well as links from there to the manual as well as a demo.

It's a terrific, fun game, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.


There's news from the Leipzig Games Convention this week, and three announcements in particular are high on my list.

First, the sequel to Mafia (one of my all-time favorite PC game) is being published by 2K Games. It's also being developed by Illusion Softworks, who did such a tremendous job on the original (although I don't know how much of the original team is left).

If you've never played Mafia, it was one of the most atmospheric, gripping PC games I've ever played, with superb writing and cinematic moments that were leaps and bounds beyond what anyone else was doing in 2002. Some of the finest moments I've ever had in gaming happened while I was playing Mafia, so an official announcement of both the game and the publisher is great news.

If you'd like to see a few screenshots, go here.

Then there's Rock Band, which announced a few new tracks today.

No big deal, really--just a song that was part of the #1 album on my wish list. We don't get Combat Rock (yet), but we do get Should I Stay Or Should I Go.

We also get Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones), Highway Star (Deep Purple), Cherub Rock (Smashing Pumpkins), Creep (Radiohead), Are You Gonna Be My Girl (Jett, and it's a terrific song), Here It Goes Again (OK Go), The Hand That Feeds (Nine Inch Nails), Epic (Faith No More), and Sabotage (Beastie Boys).

I think the song lists for both Rock Band and Guitar Hero III are unbelievably strong. Thank you for competition.

I also saw over at the Qt3 forums today that Empire: Total War has been announced, and here's an excerpt from the press release:
SEGA Europe Ltd. and SEGA of America, Inc. today announced Empire: Total War, the revolutionary new instalment of The Creative Assembly’s wildly successful, multi award winning Total War RTS franchise. Empire: Total War will maintain the series genre leading 3D battles, grand turn based campaign map and rich historical flavour while for the first time introducing 3D naval combat into the series.

That's right. Naval combat.

Empire: Total War will see the debut of 3D naval combat within the Total War franchise. PC Gamers will be able to intuitively command vast fleets or single ships upon seascapes rich with extraordinary water and weather effects that play a huge role in your eventual glorious success or ignominious defeat. After pummelling your enemy with cannon fire, close in to grapple their ship and prepare to board taking control your men as they fight hand to hand on the decks.

And if that isn't enough to make you salivate, take a look at some screenshots here (thanks Voodoo Extreme).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Probability, Memory, Satellite Imagery, and A Gentlemen's Dual

You guys have sent me some interesting e-mail on recent topics, so here is a more detailed exploration of several posts.

The "oldest/tallest woman in the same county" post generated quite a few e-mails about how to calculate the probability of such an event occurring. Here's how I calculated the odds of 90 billion to 1:
1. The world's population is estimated at 6.6 billion, so I took half of that (3.3 million women) and divided it by half the population of the county (44,000 population, so I used 22,000). That put the odds of one of the women living in that county at 150,000 to 1.

2. So if it's 150,000-1 that the oldest woman in the world lives in that county, it should be the same odds that the tallest woman lives in that county, so the probability that both of them live in that county should just be 150,000*150,000, which is 22.5 billion to 1.

Which is NOWHERE NEAR 90 billion to 1 I posted, so WTF was I doing? I have no idea. But using the method that I thought I was using, and using it properly, produces 22.5 billion to 1.

Ron Watkins was the one who e-mailed me and carefully went through his method, which I realized was the exact method I used, except he can count and advanced things like that, and apparently I can't.

I mentioned memory addressing and 32-bit operation systems last week (here at the bottom, then here), and that generated some interesting e-mail. First, from Chris Nahr:
As a fan of both your blog and Loyd Case's articles I still have to point out that Loyd's corrections on this subject are partly wrong...

First, a typo: I/O addresses are assigned to the lower 1 _GB_ of memory space, not 1 _MB_. Actually there may be more or less than 1 GB because all the on-board RAM of your graphics card is mapped into the 4 GB of total address space, and takes out an accordingly big chunk.

(I also thought it was the upper 1 GB, not the lower one, but I'm not sure on that point...)

Loyd also claims: "Some newer motherboards allow I/O remapping, so even a 32-bit OS can get a full 4GB." This is incorrect.

What these motherboards do is not remap I/O -- that's impossible, as memory-mapped I/O requires devices to reside at fixed addresses within the 4 GB address space of the 32-bit CPU. Rather, these motherboards remap RAM around the "hole" caused by I/O.

That causes part of the RAM that was previously obscured by I/O addresses to appear above the 4 GB limit. And that, by definition, still leaves this RAM inaccessible to 32-bit operating systems -- at least without those address extension tricks that Loyd mentioned earlier. The remapped RAM is now accessible to 64-bit operating systems, however, which is the point of this feature.

Head exploding? Well, you're not out of the woods yet. From Skip Key:
FWIW, what you wrote is close to true, but not exactly true. By default, the 4g of address space is split into 2 equal parts, with the OS getting the upper 2g of the address space and the application getting the lower 2g. But you can change this to where the split is 3g for the app and 1g for the OS. In order to do this you have to do 2 things:
1. Add a switch, /3GB, to your boot.ini file.
2. Mark a bit in the executable header that says it's ok to use the extra gig.

The reason that it takes both the OS and the app to OK getting the extra gig is that, by and large, programs break otherwise if they haven't specifically been tested in this scenario. The reason is that there's a whole ton of code out there that assumes that a pointer is equivalent to an integer. And since they're the same size, that mostly works. But consider code like this:
if (pMem=HeapAlloc( GetProcessHeap(), dFlags, dSize )>0)
//Do something interesting

Code like this exists in thousands of applications, and as soon as you open up to more than 2G it breaks. Because addresses above 2g are negative numbers when they become integers. You also get code that breaks when the memory it has allocated straddles the 2G boundary. What's frustrating about this is that the program will appear to work fine, about 99.99% of the time, and will only fail out in the field, usually cryptically. Those of us that started coding on 8/16 bit processors in the dark ages didn't usually suffer from this because on a 16 bit processor pointer values greater than 32k are negative, and those were common even on machines with only a meg of memory. So we learned not to do that. But kids today that have never had to program a segmented architecture haven't had to learn those lessons.

Oh, and as a historical note, the 2g/2g split wasn't due to Microsoft making a decision like they did in deciding that 640k was enough memory for DOS apps. It came from Windows NT's heritage as a portable OS. The MIPS processor only allowed system code to run in the upper 2G of address space. So they used the same model for all processors for portability reasons.

I think my brain just exploded.

Tim Steffes also sent in a link to an AnandTech article about memory addressing, which you can read here.

Yesterday, I posted what I said was a "satellite image" of Dean. Well, not exactly, and Ryan Dey sent in a detailed explanation:
It should be noted that the images you link to of Hurricane Dean aren't truly "photographs" in the traditional sense, but a composite of visible/infrared data collected from the GOES-12 satellite and rendered onto a 3D Earth Object. Even under the best conditions, a photo taken from space won't be that stark and vibrant. Most notably, the atmosphere, even in the cleanest areas, reduces the contrast of such image.

He also included a link to images taken from the ISS, which you can see here.

Finally, Mike sent in an interesting link related to the "A Gentlemen's Dual" video short. By the way, the first link I posted, which was to the video on YouTube, has been pulled, but a hi-res trailer (for a short, which must be a first) is here.

The link Mike sent in is to an alleged exchange between Tim Miller (the CEO of Blur Studios, which made the video) and an e-mailer. It looks like I need to expand the "don't be a dickhead in interviews" PR rule to include e-mail. Take a look, if you can (I'd say borderline NSFW, based both on the contents and the site where it was posted, at least if your workplace freaks out about obscenity), and it's here.

BioShock Tuesday

Since roughly all of us will be playing this game today, here's some useful information courtesy of Tom Chick, and it's spoiler-free:
Five Things I Wish I'd Known About BioShock

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hurricane Dean Satellite Imagery

Some spectacular satellite photographs of Hurricane Dean can be found here.

Here's a sample:

Console Post of the Week (+1)

I've said consistently the last few months that while it appeared that Sony was losing the next-gen console war, and badly, they appeared to be winning the high-definition DVD format war. Blu-Ray discs have been outselling HD-DVD 2-1, and it was apparent that HD-DVD needed to do something to reverse the momentum.

Well, they did. Here's an excerpt from the press release (thanks Engadget):
Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc., and DreamWorks Animation, each announced today that they will exclusively support the next-generation HD DVD format on a worldwide basis. The exclusive HD DVD commitment will include all movies distributed by Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Vantage, Nickelodeon Movies and MTV Films, as well as movies from DreamWorks Animation, which are distributed exclusively by Paramount Home Entertainment.

Ka-boom, so to speak. This announcement doesn't include movies directed by Steven Spielberg, but it includes Shrek, Transformers, The Godfather, Star Trek, and others.

Estimates on how much this cost are in the $150 million range (unconfirmed).

Console Post of the Week: The Homebrew Comparison

I can now comment on the PS3 user experience, since I have one.

What the?

I wrote several months ago that I'd get a PS3 when I felt the price was reasonable. Well, that $365 price (including $15 shipping) in conjunction with applying for the Sony Style card (see here) was too good to pass up. I don't expect the PS3 to be $349 before next Christmas, so I'm basically getting a sixteen month jump.

So I have a PS3 and a 360 that came back from repair just a few weeks ago. And I also had a friend bring over his new Premium 360 (with the new heatsink and HDMI port) for a few hours.

Comparison time.

I bought an SPL meter a few months ago because I figured it would come in handy someday (I know, that's incredibly stupid, but as things turned it, it did come in handy). So here are some measurements, and please remember, I'm not Extreme Tech or Maximum PC.

Please note that the base sound level in my office is .5-1 dB lower for the PS3 measurements than the 360 measurements, because the PS3 is about two feet farther away from my computer (which is the only source of sound in the room for the "base" measurement).

If you're wondering why I didn't just turn off my computer, I tried that, but the base reading was then so low that it didn't even register on the SPL meter.

The readings were taken 29" inches away from each console. Why 29"? I picked what looked like a good spot (close enough to get a good idea of the differences) and didn't measure it until AFTER I'd taken the readings. Good grief.

None of the systems were inside a stereo cabinet. They were all out in the open, on the floor. I did the testing process twice with each system, and the numbers matched each time.

Here we go:
base sound level in room: 36.5-37.5 dB
console steady-state (no disc in drive): 37.5-38.5 dB
console after 15 minutes (game disc looping): 41.5 dB-43 dB

A few notes. It's been widely reported that the PS3 is "quiet," but it's also important to note that the sound it does make has a pleasing timbre--it's low-pitched and there's no "whine."

Premium Xbox 360 (repaired unit which I've had for a couple of months after my launch system croaked):
base sound level in room: 37-38.5
console steady-state (no disc in drive): 39.5-40.5 dB
console after 15 minutes (game disc looping): 47.5-49 dB

My refurbed 360 is both much louder and more annoying, because the sound is higher-pitched in general and has a little whine to it. Plus I've got the Samsung DVD drive (see which drive you have here), and it's high-pitched, chattery seek is quite aggravating.

Here's where it gets interesting, though. Take a look at the numbers for the new Premium 360 with HDMI (this is the $349 unit, not the Elite):
Premium 360 with HDMI:
base sound level in room: 37-38.5
console steady-state (no disc in drive): 39.5-40.5 dB
console after 15 minutes (game disc looping): 45.5-46.5 dB

It was easy to hear the difference in the new 360 and my refurbed unit, and the new console (this one, anyway) had a Benq drive which was remarkably quiet--to my ears, barely louder than the PS3 Blu-Ray drive, which spins at a lower speed. It's a huge difference compared to the Samsung drive, and again, pitch is important, because what noise the Benq does make is much lower in pitch than the whiny Samsung drive.

Subjectively, here's what I thought overall. First, I could have picked out any of the three units with my eyes closed after hearing them once. My refurbed 360 (unfortunately) is loud enough to be annoying, particularly with the "whiny" factor. The new 360 was pretty pleasing in comparison, and the Benq drive is truly impressive. The steady-state noise of the console is still higher in pitch than the PS3, though, and accoustically, the PS3 is least offensive of all.

I didn't get a chance to check out the HDMI visuals on the new 360 (or the PS3) because I don't have the HDMI blade for the plasma (older Panasonic models have slots where you can insert cards with various connections, instead of having dedicated ports).

Here's one more interesting note: I picked up the controller that came with the new 360 and immediately disliked it. For one, it somehow felt lighter than my launch controller, and the D-pad also felt flimsier and less precise.

So I, um, went to Fry's and weighed them. Don't even ask how, and if you have to ask why, you're reading the wrong blog.

Results? The new 360 controller (with 2 AA batteries) weighs 273 grams. My "old" launch controller (with 2 AA batteries) weighs 281 grams. And yes, I felt the difference.

I also found a cosmetic difference in the two controllers. My launch controller has a very dark grey, almost metallic stripe running along the front of the controller (when you're holding it, that is). The stripe on the "new" controller is a much lighter gray, and the gray is flat, not slightly metallic.

I don't know how long the controller has been different, but I far prefer the old one.

Okay, here are some notes on the new 360's. None of the units you're seeing for sale right now are using the 65nm CPU, to the best of my knowledge. The "new" Premium units have the new heatsink design and also have an HDMI port (which is noted on the box).

When will the 65nm unit start shipping? No one knows at this point.

Circling back around (good grief-what a crap transition), what do I think of the PS3 so far? I think it's very nice for $350, and I'm quite pleased. At $499, I wouldn't have been interested, due both to the price and the game selection at present.

--console is very quiet, and so is the Blu-Ray drive
--did I mention that it's quiet?

--the controller feels like a flimsy piece of crap, at least to me. And the L2 and R2 buttons have some kind of funky thing going on with them where they feel like they're bending when you press them (it's very hard to describe what it feels like, but it's not good).
--the system menu is tremendously convoluted and seems very clunky compared to the 360's system menu.

In a nutshell, the noise level is significantly better than the 360's (and quite impressive), but I far prefer the 360's controller and system menus.

The 360 is getting price cuts in Europe this week, and here's an excerpt from the press release (thanks Kotaku):
From Friday, 24th August 2007, new estimated retail pricing will come into effect for Xbox 360 in the UK. The Xbox 360, which includes a 20GB hard drive and one wireless controller, will be reduced by £30 to carry an estimated retail price of £249.99. The entry-level Xbox 360 Core console, perfect for those wishing to make their first foray into the gaming and entertainment world of Xbox, will be reduced by £20 to carry an estimated retail price of £179.99.

Information on how this translates to the rest of Europe should be announced shortly.

One last note this week. Julian Dasgupta submitted information for recent sales in Europe, and it's quite interesting. The first link is from a Eurogamer article, and here's an excerpt:
Currently the console [Wii] is outselling the 360 in the UK by over four to one, and the PS3 by more than six to one each week. If it keeps it up, it should pass the GameCube's lifetime UK sales figure of just over a million by the end of September.

Naturally, then, its next milestone will be to overhaul Microsoft's lead in the UK - which, if the current trend continues, could be before the end of October. Although with Halo 3 due out at the end of September and rumours of a possible price-cut to coincide with it, Nintendo will have its work cut out to claim the number one spot that early.

You can also extrapolate from those numbers that the 360's unit sales are currently 50% higher than the PS3 in the UK.

Julian also sent in some numbers for Germany (source here, in German). Here's his translation:
By the end of July...

Wii surpassed the Xbox 360 with 291,000 vs. 281,000 units sold so far altogether since the respective launches of the systems (also shows that the console market still in Germany is still rather small since the there are more Wiis sold in the US per *month*). PS3, which launched on March 23rd over here, sold 99,500 units so far.

Also, sales in Germany for July (source here, again in German):

The Wii marches onward.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

My Back-of-the-Envelope Calculation Sucked

It's a good thing I didn't explain how I did the calculation, because some of you would have broken ribs from laughing.

The correct odds (roughly)--Daniel Willhite had the first and most detailed explanation--are somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in 150,000.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Friday Links!

I hope your work is already done for the day, because as the Rolling Stones would say, it's all over now.

First off, from The Onion, a link to an article titled New Features in Madden '08. Here are just a few excerpts:
The release of the new Madden videogame has become an event in its own right. Onion Sports lists everything players can get excited about in '08, not counting roster changes:
--1,028 new fumble animations, one of which can be seen on every third play
--When sacked for a loss of more than seven yards while playing the Wii version, television falls on you
--"Actually Have Fun While Playing Mode," where all of the bullshit features created in the past five years are switched off so you can actually have fun while playing

What I really like about the gaming articles they write is that, clearly, they're gamers (that "Actually Have Fun While Playing Mode" is a classic). See the rest here.

Victor Godinez (who writes some excellent articles for the Dallas Morning News) sends in a link to a story about a bizarre oddity: the world's oldest woman lives in the same county as the world's tallest woman.

That's not a typo. It's not "country"--it's county. A county of 44,000 people, in Indiana. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation (which is probably totally wrong) and figured the odds of that happening at roughly 90 billion to 1. Take a look at the story here.

Researchers at MIT have invented a new microscope that can create 3-D images of moving cells in real-time. See it here.

From Jay Roe, a link to a story about the invention of a paper battery. Read about it here.

Jeremy Fischer sent in a link to an excellent animated short titled "A Gentlemen's Duel." Very funny, and you can see it here.

From Randy Graham, a link to a story about the ultimate solution to a Rubik's cube, no matter the starting position--any position can be solved in 26 moves. What's particularly interesting about this story is the potential to use the same analytical process for other combinatorial problems, and you can read about it here.

Here's a link from Sirius to a story about fossilized trees found in Hungary.
Hungarian scientists said on Tuesday they have discovered a group of fossilized swamp cypress trees preserved from 8 million years ago which could provide clues about the climate of pre-historic times.

Instead of petrifying -- turning to stone -- the wood of 16 Taxodium trees was preserved in an open-cast coal mine allowing geologists to study samples as if they were sections cut from a piece of living wood.

See the full story here.

A second link from Sirius, and it's fascinating. Squirrels in California yank tails--of rattlesnakes. It sounds like a story from The Onion, but in this case, it's real, and it's a remarkable story, which you can read here.

And here's the unprecedented triple link from Sirirus, to a story about what in astronomy is referred to as the "Wow" mystery. Here's an excerpt:
Exactly 30 years ago today, astronomer Jerry Ehman was looking over a printout of radio data from Ohio State University's Big Ear Radio Observatory when he saw a string of code so remarkable that he had to circle it and scribble "Wow!" in the margin. The printout recorded an anomalous signal so strong that it had to come from an extraordinary source.

Was it a burst of human-made interference? Or an alien broadcast from the stars? No one knows. The source of the "Wow" signal has never been heard from again - even though astronomers have looked for it dozens of times.

Read about it here.

Here are those additional Titanic links that I mentioned last week (all from Jesse Leimkuehler):
--a story about a visit to the graveyard in Halifax is here.
--a story about the "Death Ship" that recovered the bodies is here.
--a more general story on maritime cemetaries in Novia Scotia is here.

From Paul Costello of Groovalicious Games comes one of the strangest links I've seen--a prison in the Phillipines where the inmates are doing mass dance routines. Watching hundreds of inmates in orange jumpsuits perform Thriller is like watching a Mel Brooks version of 1984. It's darkly funny and quite depressing at the same time, and you can see it here.

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