Wednesday, March 31, 2010

You Really Need To Go Listen To This Immediately

I keep listening to that 8-bit version of Dark Side Of The Moon. It's one of the most ingenious things I think I've ever heard.

This Can't Wait Until Friday

An 8-bit version of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.

It is absolutely, utterly fantastic.


[Someone e-mailed and said I spelled "pwned" wrong--there's no "o." Agreed, but that's how Eli said it,  with a hard "p" and a long "o", like "loaned." Gloria will see this and go "Hey, you just got pwned, and how should I pronounce that?"]

Gloria was checking Eli 8.7s homework.

"Eli, I think you missed this," she said, pointing to something inscrutable in a workbook. Because I'm also 8.7, I was playing Little King's Story and not paying attention.

"No, Mom, that's right," Eli said, and he pointed to something in the workbook. "See?"

"Oh, you're right," Gloria said.

"Ooh! I powned you!" he said. I've never used that word around him--it's one of those words you see all the time, but never say.

"No, you didn't," she said. "Now go take your shower." He walked upstairs.

"He didn't pown me," she said. She paused. "I don't even know that means."

"I'm pretty sure that if you don't even know what 'pown' means, then he powned you," I said, laughing.

"Stop it!" she said.

"I apologize to any of the powned who may have been offended," I said. She hit me with a blanket.

The DOA 480

NVIDIA officially launched the Fermi architecture last week with the GTX 480 and GTX 470.

In the last generation, both NVIDIA and ATI lost their minds in regards to heat. High-end cards reached temperatures in the 85-90C (185-194F) range under load.

That was, well, ridiculous.

ATI mended its ways with the 5800 series of cards, released in late September of last year. The high-end 5870 was roughly 40% faster than the 4870, but it was also 10C cooler under load (77C) and about 5 dB quieter. I have a 5850, which is roughly 20% slower than the 5870 at 1920x1200 (my monitor's resolution), but it's 10C cooler under load than the 5870 and 3 dB quieter. It's the best combination of price, performance, and thermal management that I've ever seen in a video card.

So did NVIDIA follow this path? No.

The GTX 480 is 10-15% faster than the 5870 (a thorough Anandtech article is here), but the card hits 95C under load! Actually, because of a slight delay between reaching a temperature threshold and increasing the fan speed, Anandtech said that the card actually hit 98C.

Water boils at 100C. That's how freaking hot this card gets.

It's not just the 20C temperature difference on the card, though, or the 5 dB difference between the 480 and the 5870 under load (the 480 is really, really loud when the fan spins up). What I'm really curious about is how much faster your case fans have to spin with so much extra heat coming from the card. Some of that heat gets vented out the card's exhaust, but not all of it, and the temperatures inside your case must go up. So it's not just that the 480 is louder than the 5870--in all likelihood, the case fans will be louder, too.

At $499, the 480 has DOA written all over it. I wouldn't be surprised at all if only a few thousand cards are produced, and NVIDIA gets to a respin of the hardware as quickly as possible. Yields are still apparently very poor, and there can't be much of a threshold when the "good" cards reach 95C under load.

I do think they might have a future in the nuclear reactor business, though.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Yes, I Was

Yes, I was talking about Just Cause 2, and yes, it's great. This game doesn't even slow down at good on its way to great.

This game is the bastard child of Crackdown and Red Faction: Guerilla, and by "bastard" I mean "kicks ass in every conceivable way."

Why? A brief list:
1. The core mechanic of the grappling hook, incredibly, is even more fun than a jetpack. It can shoot about 70 yards, hook on to almost anything, and then it reels you in with tremendous speed. It is utterly ridiculous and incredible, giddy fun.
2. The sandbox environment, combined with the ridiculous amount of vehicles and weapons, creates a Rube Goldberg opportunity every five minutes. With explosions. You know, boat to plane to parachute to grappling hook to rocket launcher to boom. There's just no way to go wrong here.
3. It's possible to entirely ignore the mission structure for long periods of time and just focus on finding island settlements and the collectibles each one contains, along with government structures that plead with you to destroy them. If you don't get shot.
4. The island feels HUGE--there are literally hundreds of settlements, and the terrain goes from beach all the way to mountains.
5. Unlike other games of this type that force you to unlock vehicles, everything is available right away. You just have to find them, take out the security, and take off.
6. This game looks absolutely spectacular on the PC, and the atmosphere is just as spectacular.
7. Just like Red Faction: Guerilla, I highly recommend playing this game on the lowest difficulty setting. You won't die very often, because the grappling hook gets you out of trouble quickly, and it enables you to try some absolutely ridiculous, insane stunts.
8. Three words: boom boom boom.

Total win.

This Isn't Going To Work (part two)

Continuing from yesterday.

Activision, Electronic Arts, Take-Two, and Ubisoft have all stated that they're basically pursuing indentical strategies, releasing fewer games and focusing on "AAA" titles. Most of those "AAA" titles will be existing franchises.

In addition, buying a game now doesn't really mean you're buying the whole experience, because DLC releases will cost you an additional $10-15, at a minimum.

Want to resell your game? With all the one-time use codes included with new games, resell value has gone down.

DRM? Ubisoft now requires you to have a constant Internet connection to play their PC games. And EA's recently released Command & Conquer 4 has the same requirement.

The most recent mind-blowing announcement was that EA is planning to release "very long" game demos (3-4 hours, apparently) and charge $10-15 for them, then sell the full game later at full price.

All together now: holy shit.

Can anyone give me an example of one of the big gaming companies providing more value to the consumer in the last year?

I've been thinking about this for months, and sometime last week, I realized what all these data points mean: we're heading for a crash. No, not an Atari-scale crash, but it's still going to be very, very ugly.

First, let's look at it from a business standpoint.

We have the alltogether untenable situation of Activision, Electronic Arts, Take-Two, and Ubisoft pursuing the same strategy. Look, if one major company says they're going to focus on "AAA" and cut back everywhere else, maybe that could work. Theoretically, the company could spend more money on marketing--more than competing companies are doing. That could make their products stand out, even if they're not better.

I guess.

I don't like that approach, because it papers over the quality issue, but it might work.

Now let's have everybody pursue this strategy.

With fewer games from everyone, it becomes a marketing arms race. Much more is riding on each game, and even one failure is a disaster. Remember, too, that these games have to sell over a million units to even have a chance to break even.

In the "old" days, maybe a "AAA" flop would be recouped by a lower budget game that exceeded expectations, a game that could grow into a top tier franchise. With the big publishers, though, that second tier is essentially gone now. There's no fallback, no surprise hit.

For us, it means that these companies are going to flog existing franchises until their coats are foaming and they break down. Then they'll be shot. But there will be nothing to replace them, because there were no lower-tier franchises being groomed to eventually take their place.

Call it Death Race 2010.

Now, let's look at this from a consumer's viewpoint. Oh, and before I get started, please remember that I'm only talking about the big gaming companies here. For smaller companies and indies, I think the quality has never been higher for consumers. We have a wonderful, incredibly diverse selection of games, all at reasonable prices, and incredibly strong developer support.

From the big companies, though, we're getting the finger, for all the reasons I've already listed.

DLC, which is going to become more and more integral to the core game story. One-use codes, which impacts resale value. Increasingly intrusive DRM.

Oh, and the "pay demos." Seriously, EA, are you shitting me? I'm going to pay $10-15 for a demo that is supposed to persuade me to buy the full game at full price?

I'll tell you straight out: that demo doesn't exist.

The day I pay twice for a game is the day I lose my mind. Oh, but wait--I could provide valuable feedback to shape the final game, right?

What did that use to be called? Oh, right--a beta test!

Seriously, every time one of these companies announce something now, it should just have "THIS IS ASS FOR CONSUMERS" as a warning label.

So what will we do? We'll play indie games, and games from companies like PopCap. We'll still occasionally play the "AAA" game from Giant Software Company, too, but we'll play fewer of them.

In the end, here's what I expect to happen. There's no way that these four companies all survive with this strategy. At most, three do. More likely, at least two will fail. They'll be absorbed into the Collective of the companies that do survive.

Underneath the top tier, though, lots of money will be made, because there's lots of money out there. It's just not smart to pursue that money with gigantic budgets and epic amounts of advertising, though, because the startegy is too high-risk.

It's a gigantic opportunity, though, for someone who's smart enough to continue making the games that the big companies don't want to make anymore. Good games in the second and third tier are going to print money.

And maybe, over time, those big companies will realize that they've been doing it all wrong.

That was a joke--they won't realize shit.

My Spring Break

Dude, you are not going to believe what's going on down here. I can't believe you passed up this trip because you're pussy-whipped. Hey, at least you're getting some hog hunting in, right? Just kidding, bro.

Check out what I did on Panau today.

Had a righteous hangover--dude, we were taking shots from a still last night, I swear to God--so I slept in and missed noon breakfast. No worries, though--I just picked up some leftover bacon and downed a couple of brews, then walked out the back door of our bitchin' villa, grapple-hooked off the cliff onto a cigarette boat, tore ass across the bay until I landed near a military base, stole a helicopter, flew up the mountain to a fuel depot, hovered the copter over the depot, then jumped out of the heli, opened my parachute, and grapple hooked away in time to turn around and watch the helicopter and the fuel depot explode. All kinds of alarms and shit were going off, but your boy just grappled up to elevated highway, stole a car, and I was back here in time for Happy Hour.

Knuckle touch. Blow it up, bitch!

There's some kind of political shit going on down here, so half the parties are full of assholes asking you what side you're on, whether you're going to help them with their "just cause." I say, "Dudes, I just came down here to party like a rock star." So I'm doing my own thing, bro, and I may wind up taking this whole island before I'm done. If I text you with "bring more beer," then get your ass down here.

Oh, and sorry, but no room for Lisa. This is a pork-free island.

Monday, March 29, 2010

This Isn't Going To Work

Let's look at something from another angle.

In a parallel universe, let's say that the film industry was undergoing some changes. For years, every movie at the theater was priced the same, no matter if it cost $100,000,000 or $50,000 to make. It was difficult for an indie film to even get distribution into theaters.

Then, a new distribution method was invented. Instead of a few movies available only at specific times, with all of these movies costing the same to go see, there were suddenly hundreds of movies to choose from when you went to a theater. Every seat had headphones, and every screen could show twenty different movies at the same time (parallax 3D tech, warped into the future), so where you sat in the theater determined which movie you'd see.

The pricing structure was suddenly different, too. All movies used to cost $8, but now, the indie movies cost less to see--$5 or $2 or even free.

The big movie studios tended to only have a few different plots, because the big studios were all basically making the same movies, but the indies had hundreds, even thousands, of variations.

The big studios started making less money, because the indie movies were fun and offered a much better value than the films the studios made. They claimed, though, that independent films and their pricing and content had nothing to do with them losing money. They were losing money because so many people were sneaking into theaters and watching their movies for free. That was why their movies cost what they did--if people stopped sneaking in, they said, movies would be much cheaper.

The studios decided to take charge of the situation. They actually raised the price to go see their movies, and they also added special content that you couldn't see unless you paid extra. For the base price, you'd get to see the main story of the movie, but you'd miss out on all kinds of sidestories that made the movie more vivid.

They also made movies shorter. Now, movies lasted barely half as long as they did five years ago. That didn't make them any less expensive to make--in fact, the studios said, it was more expensive to make a movie than ever. So they were going to release fewer movies, and they were only going to make sequels.

They also announced that special "extended short" versions of the movies were going to be released, which would cost about 25% of what the full movie would cost. When the full movie was released later, though, you still had to pay full price.

The studios also announced that they had a surefire way to stop people from sneaking into the theater. They added plastic slots to the seat armrests, and all customers were required to slide their ticket into the slot. During the movie, special ushers would walk up and down the aisles every few minutes, making sure that everyone had a ticket.

The ushers weren't always available, though, and if they weren't able to check the tickets, a fire alarm would sound and everyone would have to evacuate the theater until the ushers returned.

Everyone thought this would make the studio movies cheaper to go see, but they didn't. The ushers had to be paid, and in some cases, ticket prices even went up.

Does anyone think this is going to work?

Seize The Day

On my way back to the car after picking up my morning oatmeal cookie (hey, it's just a bowl of oatmeal in a different form factor), I saw that another car had pulled in next to mine.

This cas was a blue Chevrolet that had seen better, younger days. It said "CLASSIC" on the back in silver letters, so only "CLASSI" remained.

When I got into my car, I looked over and saw a portly, middle-aged man with a salt and pepper beard and a thick moustache. He was wearing a brown corduroy shirt, and an opened laptop was resting on his lap.

He was asleep.

After a few minutes of observation on my part, he stirred. He lifted his left arm, which had been hanging out the window, and took a long puff on a cigarette, then hung his arm out the window again. Fire safety, I assume, because he went right back to sleep.

I took a closer look inside the car. A pack of KOOLS was on the passenger seat. He was a menthol man.

I took a closer look at the laptop as well. He was running Powerpoint, and I saw that the opening slide was blank, save for the "Click to add title" box.

Oh, how I wanted him to take one more drag on the cigarette, toss it out the window, and type "A TIME FOR CHANGE."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Links! (shorthand edition)

I jacked up my wrist yesterday ("Can't Buy Me Love" on Expert is a harsh and unforgiving gallop), and typing is a bad idea, so just names and links today.

This doesn't suck: Axis: Bold As Love coming to Rock Band.

Also not sucking: Universal Orlando opens Harry Potter park June 18.

From Tre Chipman (awesome): The Ballad of Colton Harris-Moore.

Ross Paton (inspiring): 2010 Vancouver Winter Paralympic Games.

Cliff Eyler (fascinating): Machine pieces together the ripped secrets of the East German state.

Mike Rozek (magic and card tricks): Oil And Water Sleight Of Hand
same trick, but only one arm
cups and balls (do not miss the 'and')

Jeremy Fischer: Alleged Mafia Hitman Gets Busted For Chatting On Facebook.

Sirius: Elastic Iron Alloy Could Be Used To Make Earthquake Proof Buildings.
New dinosaur species found in Utah sandstone.
World’s strongest insect revealed

George Paci: Mosquito Laser Shootdown.

DQ Legal Advisor Lee Rawles: Interactive Display Wall (awesome).

Andrew B: Local Commercial Fail.

DQ Film Advisor and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand: Chatroulette Piano Ode to Merton (this is hilarious). And Merton's original video.

Jesse Leimkuehler: The colossal ice walls that show another side of the Red Planet.

The newly-married Edwin Garcia Links Machine: Iguazu Falls.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


In the midst of everything else lately, I've been fortunate enough to read some excellent books, so here are a few titles and descriptions.

Too Big To Fail (by Andrew Sorkin)
This is a tremendously detailed recounting of the stunning financial crisis that nearly dismantled the U.S. economy (and most probably, the world's) in late 2008. This is, by far, the most comprehensive reporting done on what was going on behind the scenes, and it's as engaging as it is frightening. It's a great and gripping read.

The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History (by Gregory Zuckerman)
This is a related book to "Too Big To Fail" in that it looks at the crisis from the perspectives of a few investors who, brilliantly, saw the crash coming and made billions of dollars. It's also the story of a few investors who saw the crash coming, but wound up with nothing. Ironically, the people who made the most had to possess two qualities: one, the ability to correctly analyze the amount of risk banks were taking, and two, a single-minded determination to risk everything on the trade (in almost all cases, a terrible idea).

No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels (by Jay Dobyns)
This is a fascinating recounting of an ATF's agent infiltration of the Hell's Angels. It's unflinching, and Dobyns reveals details of both the Hells Angels and himself, his success turning into a Faustian bargain that threatens his own personality. This is a book that borders on the surreal, a fist through the looking glass.

The Accountant's Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel (by David Fisher and Roberto Escobar)
Speaking of surreal, what better way to learn previously unkown details about Pablo Escobar than from his brother? What I particularly enjoy about this book is that while Roberto Escobar is obviously biased, it's not that difficult to spot those places, and the sheer volume of details he provides about his brother's career in cocaine trafficking is completely fascinating.

Eli 8.7

Eli 8.7 saw a kid at a table near us at CPK picking his nose. He nudged me, and I grinned at him when I looked over. "Look, Father," he said in his best Oliver Twist voice, "I'm digging for gold!"
Gloria took Eli to a Renaissance Festival in nearby Bastrop a few weekends ago. He was very impressed, and when they got home, he told me all about it. "Dad!" he said. "They had REAL SWORDS, and you could BUY THEM."

"That's very cool," I said. "Fortunately, no one needs a real sword in the house anymore."

"DARN IT!" he said.

I was having a conversation with Eli about negotiating, and I told him that I didn't negotiate much. "I'm pretty much a yes or no person," I said.

A few minutes later, he said, "Dad, when we get home, can we play some NHL?"

"Hmm, I'm not going to commit to that," I said. "Maybe."

"I thought you were a yes or no kind of person?" he asked, laughing.

"Oh, that's right," I said. "No."

He burst out laughing. "Okay, that DID NOT go well for me," he said.

Sometimes I go out with Gloria on the weekends, and we usually come back around the time that Eli 8.7 goes to bed (although the babysitter's adherence to bedtime rules is not stellar). Last weekend, we came home about ten minutes after he theoretically should have been in bed with the lights off.

As I turned the key in the front door, I saw him sprinting down the stairs with his arms raised in the air, celebrating that we were home. My grin was so big that it almost sprained my face.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mini Console Post Of The Week: Our Research Is More Accurate Because We Make So Much Money

Sony responded to Nintendo's announcement about the 3DS as only Sony can:
SCEA's Director of Hardware and Marketing John Koller said the company is only focusing on the 3D console space right now.

"Our focus on 3D right now is on the console," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of opportunity on PlayStation 3 with 3D. The amount of interest in 3D from the retail side and game publishers is off the charts. We know we have a hit with 3D on PS3 and we're going to concentrate our efforts there."

"I think it remains to be seen where Nintendo goes with 3D on a portable," he added. "Having been in the portable space for quite awhile, I think it's an interesting move but one I'd like to see where they go from a demographic standpoint. 8 and 9 year-olds playing 3D is a little bit of a stretch given where some of our research is right now."

That all makes perfect sense. A console that is going to require the additional purchase of a $2,000 3D set and powered glasses  is a "hit," while a handheld that will cost less than $200 and requires no glasses is "a little bit of a stretch."

Yes, kids can't stand 3D. That's why Eli 8.7 has seen at least ten movies in 3D in the last year and is totally mesmerized by the technology. That's why every kid I know loves 3D movies. So they won't want a handheld that creates a 3D image. Not at all.

Let's compare "research," shall we? Sony is in the hole between 500 million and billion dollars in this gaming generation (that's a generous estimate), while Nintendo has made over 5 billion dollars.

Seriously, John, if there was one image to sum up the last three years, it would be every Sony executive wearing a dog collar with NINTENDO stamped into the leather, walking on a leash behind Satoru Iwata.

Eli 8.7 And The Jabberwocky

Okay, so I'm going to have to learn how to ice skate.

I can't skate at all. I tried roller skating a few times, but always wound up looking like Fonzi in that Happy Days episode.

Eli 8.7, though, is skating his ass off.

He decided that what he most wanted to do during spring break was take ice skating lessons. To play hockey, of course.

There was a week-long clinic at the local skating center, so every day, he had thirty minutes of group instruction followed by at least an hour of free skating.

Considering he couldn't skate when he started on Monday morning, he looked pretty damn good by Friday. He passed level one and level two skating basics, and he was tooling around the arena quite nicely.

One thing I respect about Eli is that when he wants something, he will happily work his ass off. No complaining. And I know he's going to be successful, because he puts his work in.

I watched part of his free skate on Friday, then we drove out to the veloway, a 3.1 mile paved loop course in south Austin that can only be used by cyclists and rollerbladers. Two wide lanes and no car traffic, and we were both looking forward to riding there for the first time.

There was one 8% grade that we couldn't quite get up (I knew it was on the course, but it was in a different place than I was expecting, and we didn't have enough speed built up on the flat to take a decent run at it), but otherwise, we rode straight through with no problems.

Eli is so used to being around kids who ride unicycles (there are over a dozen kids in his school club, and no one is over ten, so it's probably the largest school club for kids that age in the country) that it doesn't seem that unusual to him. We had lots of cyclists passing us, though, and some were families, and he was getting lots of love as they went by.

When we finished, one girl (who had passed earlier us on her bike as she rode with her family) looked up, saw him, and shouted "HE MADE IT!" She sounded like Eli had just returned from slaying the Jabberwocky, and we both started laughing.

Good, good times.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Solium Infernum Beginner's Guide (Part Six: Last Orders)

Marching onward, then.

If you haven't downloaded the demo, please do so here, and start with part onepart twopart threepart four, and part five of this guide.

Your next choice on the Order screen is "Play An Event." Events are powerful, one-time actions, and you draw events card each time you're Regent for a turn (as chosen by the Infernal Conclave). If you want to see what Event cards you currently possess while on the Order screen, then choose the "Forces" tab at the top of the inner screen, then choose the Events tab at the bottom of the subsequent screen.

Like I said, Event cards can be incredibly powerful, and can substantively change the outcome of a game. Use with both knowledge and caution. For the knowledge part, you'll find a full list of Event cards in the manual, and for caution, well, that just comes with experience.

Next is a series of "Manage" orders:
--Manage Objectives
--Manage Praetors
--Manage Artifacts
--Manage Relics
--Manage Manuscripts.

"Managing Objectives" is straightforward. Objectives are goals that reward you with Prestige Points if you accomplish them by the end of the game. In addition to a public objective that you accept at the beginning of the game, you can choose to accept additional objectives in the form of cards. Note that your ability to choose the objective is limited to what you've drawn (you may be able to draw 2 Objectives cards and only keep one, for example)--you're not choosing from a comprehensive list.

The options for "Managing Praetors" is quite simple. You can choose to Transfer (attach) a Praetor to a Legion (Praetors can't move on their own) or Place Of Power, or you can choose to Train the Praetor. Training is done with "P" Manuscripts.

"Manage Artifacts" is even easier. Your only option is to Transfer them. "Manage Relics" is the same.

"Manage Manuscripts" will show you the name of a Rite or Machine that has a full set of Manuscript fragments. If there's a Rite/Machine showing, and you select it, you'll be taken to the Manuscript screen, where you'll need to assemble the fragments in order.

The last option on the Orders screen is "Increase Avatar Attribute." Choose it and you'll be shown a list of your Attributes. Choose the one you want to increase, and you'll see how much Tribute is required in the lower-left side of the frame. If you want to proceed, click "Select" in the bottom-right of the frame and you'll be taken to the Tribute screen. Commit the necessary resources and choose "Commit Tribute."

And now, the exception.

There is one type of order that cannot be selected at the Orders screen, and that's Rituals. To get there, just select the "Rituals" tab at the top of the inner frame. Rituals, at the highest levels, are some of the nastiest, most underhanded actions you can perform in the game.

In other words, they're perfect.

The rituals available to you are tied to your Attribute levels (as well as a few special rituals that require certain Relics), so the more powerful your Attribute levels, the greater your choices. To perform a Ritual, just click on a wax seal on the ritual screen and the available rituals are shown in a list. Choose which ritual you want to perform, and you'll see a description of its effect as well as its cost in Tribute. If you want to proceed, choose "Select" and you'll be asked to choose a target (the type of target varies by ritual).

Once you've selected a target, the Orders screen will pop up, and you can choose an available order slot (I'm technically saying that wrong, because I should be saying "Phases," not orders, but you know what I'm talking about).

After you select an open order slot, you'll be taken to the Tribute screen to commit the requisite tribute. Once you do, you'll see a slot filled on the Ritual screen.

One special note about Rituals: if your Deceit discipline is at the fifth level or higher, you can frame other players for the rituals you've performed, which is just ridiculously great for PBEM games.

All right, I think that's enough. Hopefully, if you start with this guide and then read the manual, you'll have a solid understanding of the game. It's wicked, wicked fun, one of the most unique strategy games ever created, and it's entirely worthy of your time.

Console Mini-Post Of The Week: Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo announced a 3D DS today. Seriously.

No glasses.

Details are sketchy, although Engadget seems to have the most details
Asahi in Japan offers the first word on how the 3DS achieves its 3D-ness by suggesting that the new portable game machine with feature a parallax barrier LCD from Sharp. The tech has apparently already been deployed in a few cellphones over there and is described as "unsuitable" for large-screen TVs.

The "parallax barrier" being mentioned is a technology originally announced in 2006 that would allow different content to be seen by two people looking at the same LCD from different angles (for instance, the driver in a car would see a different image from a center mounted monitor than the passenger). Sharp announced an LCD panel using such a barrier here.

It's difficult to sort through the various tech possibilities here and arrive at any definite conclusions, particularly with the paucity of details in Nintendo's announcement, but I do believe the following are true:
1. This unit will fit into Nintendo's historical DS pricing scheme. In other words, it will be very affordable.
2. 3D without glasses is the Holy Grail of tech, but it's highly unlikely that this is the "killer" version of autostereoscopic 3D that will blow people's minds.
3. Having said #2, though, it's also not the Virtual Boy. Even a reasonably convincing (and amusing) 3D effect will make the sales of this unit absolutely explode.
4. Nintendo did announce that it's backward compatible with previous DS games (not in 3D, obviously, but they'll play), which is an excellent feature.

I think this is a very, very shrewd move by Nintendo. 3D is absolutely THE tech buzzword right now, so in a marketing sense, this unit couldn't come at a better time. And they understood, apparently, that having to wear glasses would be a dealbreaker.

The Happy Hour Of Dr. Moreau

How well do you know me? Complete this quiz:
1. Which of the following would I least like to do?
       A. sit in a cage with an 8-foot boa constrictor.
       B. drink poison.
       C. be buried alive for six hours.
       D. go to a Happy Hour where I don't know anyone.

The correct answer, of course, is "D", because A, B, and C might not kill me.

"Well, you know me," Gloria said as we drove. "I used to work with all these people. They'll like you."

"Let me try to frame this up for you," I said. "This is the same as me asking me you to play in a basketball league."

"But I can't play basketball," she said, laughing.

"Sure you can," I said.

"I can barely even dribble," she said.

"You'll be fine," I said. "Everyone will like you."

"Oh," she said.

"See what I mean?" I asked.

"It's kind of scary," she said, "but I think I actually do."

I would say that I'm socially inept, but that's not quite true. With people I don't know, it's worse than being inept--it's social mortis.

"We should all get nametags with four lines on them," I said. "We would write down four things that we're interested in or that describe us. I'd put down Rock Band, Hockey, Unicycling, and Uncomfortable."

Gloria laughed.

"I could empty the room in twenty seconds," I said.

I've always been like this. I've always been terribly uncomfortable in situations where I hardly know anyone.

"Look," Gloria said. "I know you'll like Betsy and Tim. They're rock climbers."

"They climb rocks and I have them fall on me," I said. "Not seeing the connection."

"They're interested in fitness, and so are you," she said. "Betsy to rock climbing fitness to unicycling to you."

"Stop using Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to connect me to human beings," I said.

"We're here," she said. I stopped the car outside a house, a house like any other, except it was full of people I didn't know, and I had to go inside.

After about fifteen minutes of Gloria standing beside me like a paramedic, she said, "How are you doing?"

"My legs are numb," I said. She laughed.

Then I noticed something. A safe something.

"I see a friendly cat," I said. "I'm going to sit on the couch and pet it for the next hour. Go work the room."

I think people eventually sat on the couch. Betsy the rock climber (who was also the host) came over and was quite nice. There was talking.

When we were leaving, Betsy shook my hand and said, "It was nice meeting you. Thank you for coming."

"You have an excellent cat," I said. She thought that was funny.

"See, that wasn't so bad," Gloria said, as we walked out to the car.

"Those are not my people," I said. "Now I fully acknowledge that I have no people, but no matter."

We decided to grab something to eat on the way home.

"I did meet a woman who works out using a Hula Hoop," I said. "She called it 'hooping'. What were the odds that I'd meet somebody who was into even stranger shit than I was?"

"Did you tell her about unicycling?"

"Hell, no," I said.

"See, you should open up more," she said.

"I don't really see any reason to," I said. "It's not like we're banding together to build a bridge over the River Kwai."

"But you're really quite charming," she said. "You didn't seem nervous at all."

"Imagine a man," I said. "Imagine this man, covered in grime, standing at a giant lever, and when he, with incredible effort, turns the giant lever, a long series of enormous, squeaking gears begin to turn slowly."

"I'm guessing you're that man," she said.

"I am," I said. "I should just wear a Cone Of Social Awkwardness around my head, like the dogs who aren't supposed to scratch their faces."

Later, I tried to convince her that the Indians made pickles by cutting cucumbers into strips, salting them, and hanging them to dry like jerky. Good times.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Solium Infernum Beginner's Guide (Part Five: More Orders)

If you haven't downloaded the demo, please do so here, and start with part onepart twopart three, and part four of this guide.

When we last left off, we were at the orders screen, and today, let's take a closer look at the possible orders that weren't discussed on Thursday.

First off, even though there are sixteen possible options on the order screen, it's not really that intimidating. Here are are the major categories that they represent:
--Bazaar (bid on items)
--Management (Legions, Praetors, Artifacts, Relics)
--Avatar Attributes

I'm going to discuss the order options in the order given on the game screen, but as we discuss this, think about how the items fall into the broader categories I listed above. Understanding that all the order options fall into those five categories makes it much easier to get a handle on the game.

It's also easier to grasp the system if you remember that almost everything you do in the game beyond checking status requires an order. Many of the possible orders are quite simple (attaching a Praetor to a Legion, or attaching a relic to your Stronghold, for example). So even if it seems confusing at first, just hang in there--it won't take long to understand.

We discussed Tribute on Thursday, so let's move to the next order group:
--Bid on a Legion
--Bid on a Praetor
--Bid on an Artifact
--Bid on a Relic
--Bid on a Manuscript

All of these orders involve bidding on an item from the Bazaar--the eBay of supreme Evil. The bidding process is straightforward--you pick the item you want to bid on, then use Tribute cards to match or exceed the minimum required bid (important point to remember: if you do overbid--which improves your chances of winning an item if someone else is bidding against you--extra Souls count twice as much as any of the other resources).

More importantly, though, why should you you want these items, and what do they do?

First off, Legions are combat units, and Praetors are basically heroes (or anti-heroes, in this case) that attach to your Legions to make them more powerful. There's a wide range of Legion and Praetor strength, as well as special abilities, so consult the manual for a further explanation (like I said, the manual is an excellent data dump). At it's most basic, though, Legions have three attacks: Ranged, Melee, and Infernal, and each combat round processes the attacks in that order (although, as always, there are special exceptions). What that means is that if you have a Legion with a high Infernal attack but a very low Ranged attack, for example, the Legion might not survive to even unleash their attack. You can hover over an enemy unit on the map and see their Attributes (not including their bonus from Combat Cards, which we'll discuss later), so it should at least give you a rough idea of whether your ass will be handed to you in short order.

Praetors will add to the attributes of your Legion or Place Of Place, and they can make an average Legion into a very dangerous one. They also have special abilities that can completely change the field of battle.

It's also possible to attach an Artifact to a Legion, and Artifacts have a wide and mind-blowing range of powers.

Relics are similar to Artifacts, but they're attached to a Place Of Power or your Stronghold (a physical location), not a Legion. As an example of what they can do, they can increase an Attribute of your Avatar, for example, or may raise your Tribute rolls (which is particularly powerful).

There are many Artifacts and Relics available for bidding in the Bazaar, but there are a limited number for sale at any one time, so your favorites might not always be available. There is a complete list in the manual Appendix.

Manuscript fragments (the final biddable category) are very versatile. When completed, they can be used to train Legions ("L" manuscripts) or Praetors ("P" manuscripts), reduce the Attributes of other Archfiends ("M" for Machine manuscripts), or increase your own Attributes ("R" for Rites manuscripts). Bidding on Manuscript fragments is a convenient way to complete a rare Manuscript that you collected via Tribute.

In particular, it's a good idea to bid on an additional Legion from the Bazaar as early in the game as possible, while borders are still not fully determined. You'll be given one Legion to start the game, but a second gives you the ability to claim territory in multiple directions on the same turn.

Next in the order list is "Give Legion Orders." We covered that last week, but if you select that option, you'll see a list of your Legions and you can choose one to issue an order.

The "Create a Combat Card" option can be used to create a card that you can attach to a Legion or Place Of Power. The kinds of bonuses you receive from the card is based on your Wrath level (which is based on Martial Prowess)--a higher Wrath level increases your options when creating the card, as well as the power of those options.

One thing to consider when considering whether to create a Combat Card: Legions and Places Of Power have a limited number of attachment slots. I usually prefer to place Praetors and Artifacts in the available slots, because their effects are permanent (as long as they're attached). A Combat Card, though, is used for a single battle only, then removed.

Next is the "Make Diplomatic Effort" option, and this is a major category of action. Solium Infernum has a courtly, Middle Ages kind of diplomacy, which I find both ironic and appropriate in Hell. There are no sneak attacks, no assassinations, no cowardice. Attacking an enemy requires a good deal of challenging and face slapping first, and it requires careful planning. Let's take a look.

When you select the "Make Diplomatic Effort" option, you'll see a list of your opponents. Select the opponent that will be the target of your diplomatic option, and you'll have three options: Make Demand, Hurl Insults, or Send Emissary Bearing Gifts.
[as a language related sidebar, I'd love to know why insults are always "hurled." That phrase has been around forever, but where did it come from?]

Let's look at Make Demand. If you select that option, you'll see a list of demands that you are currently allowed to make. At first, your choices are limited (Tribute cards, generally, although there are exceptions), but successive demands (depending on your rank versus the opponent) offer additional options (including possibly Cantons, or even Relics and Artifacts). If an opponents chooses to concede your demand, there is a waiting period (in turns) before you can make another demand of him.

Making a Demand requires you to wager Prestige Points. If your opponent agrees to your demand, the Prestige Points are returned. If he refuses, though, he claims the Prestige Points.

However, this then gives you the option of declaring a Vendetta. In a Vendetta, you choose a goal (controlling a certain number of Cantons, or defeating a certain number of your opponent's Legions, for example) and a number of turns in which the goal must be accomplished. Claiming a Vendetta also requires the wagering of Prestige Points, but if your goal is achieved, you get them back (and bonus Prestige Points as well).

So what do Vendettas accomplish? First, they allow you to encroach upon enemy territory and attack specified targets. Remember, this is courtly diplomacy, so you can't just barge into an enemy's territory and attack. Vendettas are the hall passes to mayhem, so to speak.

Second, after three successful Vendettas, you can declare a Blood Feud on an opponent. Blood Feuds allow you to attack anywhere, anytime, and even allow you to attack your opponent's Stronghold. If you capture it, you knock him out of the game.

The Demand and Vendetta system make Solium Infernum play out quite differently from most other strategy games. In most games, combat against your opponents is convenient--it's the natural way to acquire power. In some games, it's the only way to acquire power.

In SI, though, combat is not convenient. It requires careful planning, and it's unreliable, because it depends on your opponent refusing your demands. If he just gives in, it takes three conceded demands before you can declare a Vendetta, and with the requirement to wait a number of turns before issuing additional demands, your attack plans could be delayed by ten turns or more.

Like I said, it turns traditional strategy on its head. Military action is unreliable and often heavily delayed, but stealthy, nefarious actions (like Rituals, or building Machines from Manuscript fragments) can often be devastating (and the blame can even be pinned on your Opponents, in some cases).

The second diplomatic action, after Demands, is to "Hurl An Insult." This also requires the wagering of Prestige Points, but no Tribute is demanded. If your Insult is conceded, your Prestige Points are returned plus the same number of Prestige Points from your opponent. If the insult is refused, your opponent is obligated to declare a Vendetta on you. In effect, you might be able to trap an opponent into attacking.

The disadvantage of Insults is that you can't declare a Vendetta yourself, and you also don't get any Tribute (or whatever goodies you might score in later demands).

Your third diplomatic option is to "Send Emissary Bearing Gifts." If it's successful, it's a way to get the bully in Hell to stop making Demands of you, at least for a while. The gift requires Prestige Points (small number) and Tribute cards (between two and eight, as you choose).

If the opponent accepts your gift, he can't make demands or insult you for a number of turns (it's variable, depending on your comparative ranks and how many Tribute cards you gave hime).

If the gifts are refused, your Tribute cards are refused (but not the Prestige Poins).

It's possible that in addition to being refused, the emissary will be humiliated. In this case, the opponent gains Prestige Points, and you are required to claim Vendetta against him. If you don't, more Prestige will be lost. If you're successful in your Vendetta, though, you'll get a bonus in Prestige Points for teaching the bastard a lesson.

Again, and I can't stress this enough: there's usually far more strategic value in subversive action than direct action.

Tomorrow: a look at the remaining possible orders.


We went riding yesterday, a nice 2.8 mile ride on a concrete trail in Pflugerville.

Winds: steady at 20-25 MPH, with gusts to 35 MPH.

It was insane. The winds were blasting us all over the place, and I wondered on the way back (with the wind hitting us dead on) if we were going to make it, but we did. We stepped off to get through an underpass that had about two inches of rushing water to cross, but other than that, I was clean, and Eli 8.7 only stepped off twice because the wind just blew him off the unicycle.

He weighs 60 pounds, so I can't even imagine how hard it was for him to ride in the gusts. I could barely stay on at 160 pounds.

I told him we deserved wind merit badges, and he made one for each of us. Here's his:

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Links!

Andrew B sent in one of the funniest articles I've read in a long time: Police hunt 'The Midnight Knitter' wool graffiti bandit . What a cool idea. Also, it's Man's penis freed from metal pipe with industrial grinder . Here's a classic quote:
Watch manager Greg Garrett from the Redbridge fire station told the Southampton daily Echo: 'I’ve only come across this type of thing three or four times in my 17 years as a firefighter. It’s not a daily occurrence.'Maybe not where you live.

If you enjoy  magic, you'll flip over this: the only known footage of "Cardini" (Richard Valentine Pitchford), reputed to be one of the greatest sleight of hand artists in history. If you only follow one link this week, it should be this one.

Also, a wonderful video of Jackie Gleason talking about how and why a new show of his (titled "You're In The Picture") totally bombed. And a fascinating but disturbing article about the Ithaca gorges and how they may have influenced suicides at Cornell.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine (he's getting married on Sunday--congratulations!), a link to the NSFW but hilarious The World's Most Action Packed Movie. Also, it's Penthouse Slums: The Rooftop Shanty Towns of Hong Kong. Next, it's 4D heart imaging.

From Frank Regan, a high-school competition featuring the building of Rube Goldberg machines.

From Steven Davis, the fastest binary star pair ever discovered, orbiting each other at 310 miles per second!

From Tim Jones, the largest model railroad in the world. Over 10,000 cars, with over six miles of track.

Jesse Leimkuehler sent in an article that made my head explode, so instead of trying to explain it, I'll just use the title: Weird 'Dark Flow' Seen Deeper Into The Universe Than Ever.

From Cliff Eyler, an amazing video of the illumination of Hadrian's Wall.

From Sirius, a remarkable story of a blind solder "seeing" with his tongue, using a device called a BrainPort. Also, it's Alkali Metals React With Water.

From Kez, it's Honest Movie Titles: Oscars 2010. Also, some very funny Sidney Crosby Photoshop of the moment Canada is calling the "Golden Roar" (when he scored to win the gold medal game).

From Todd Johnson, and this is terrific, it's the World's Most Dangerous Roads.

From Phil Honeywell, an excellent tilt-shift video of New York City titled The Sandpit.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Solium Infernum Beginner's Guide (Part Four: Orders)

If you haven't downloaded the demo, please do so here, and start with part onepart two, and part three  of this guide.

Okay, if you're seeing the inner game frame on your screen, press "X" in the upper right-hand corner of that frame to close it, and you'll be at the larger, outer frame. Here's what it looks like:

That screenshot doesn't quite do the game justice, because it's not as sharp as the game looks, but it gives you a general idea of what the frame looks like. The game is quite striking, actually, with top-notch art for a game with such a small budget.

Okay, back to the frame. Your starting Legion is that red figure, and your Stronghold has a funky red wing thing around it. Your borders are also in red.

Those chocolate Easter Island statues are your opponent's legions, at least for the part of the map that's presently visible. The map wraps, so you never reach the end of the world, which is both cool and important to remember.

The funky looking buildings are Places Of Power, and like I've mentioned previously, it's critically important to control them. As you can see, many of the Cantons are unclaimed right now, so phase one of any game is an acquisition phase, where borders get defined and you try to get as many PoP inside your borders as possible. Places Of Power have their own defenses, so even if they're inside your borders, they must be conquered.

To claim Cantons, you move a Legion into the territory. There are two important things to remember about moving a Legion:
1) You can't move a Legion into enemy territory unless you have a Vendetta or Blood Feud against them (which we'll discuss later), of if the enemy has been excommunicated.
2) Don't move onto an uncontrolled Place Of Power unless you want to engage in battle, because combat will be initiated.

There are two ways to move Legions. You can just click on the Legion and a pop-up gives you options (one of which is to move the Legion), or you can do it from the Order screen. Once you're a little more familiar with how the game works, you'll probably always just click on the Legion, but as a beginner, you learn more quickly if you process everything through the Order screen, so let's go there now.

The Order screen is contained the inner frame known as the Ministerium, so click on the Ministerium tab in the bottom left of the outer frame and it will appear. Once it does, click on the "Orders" tab at the top of that frame.

The Orders screen, initially, consists of six blank squares, labeled Phase 1 through Phase 6. Each one, potentially, will be filled by one of your orders (although you probably only have two per turn to begin with, depending on the choices you made when creating your Avatar).

Each of the blank squares has the red wax seal beside it. Click on the first seal, and here's what you'll see:

Yikes. That's quite a lot.

Think of it this way, though--having that many options in a turn makes the game far more robust, and basically learning how each action works isn't going to take that long. Think of SI as analagous to chess in the sense that the basic rules can be learned in a day, but you can spend hundreds or even thousands of hours learning the nuance.

Here's something very, very important to remember about Phase Orders: they're executed in sequence. In other words, when a turn executes, all the orders in Phase One are executed first, then orders in Phase Two, and so on.

Why does this matter? It matters because (as an example) if one of your opponents moves a nearby Legion with his order in Phase One, it might well block your own Legion's movement order (that you foolishly put in Phase Two) from executing. Early in the game, when players are trying to claim Cantons and encircle Places of Power, this is particularly crucial.

Here's a basic principle to remember: demand Tribute or bid on items in the Bazaar with your last available Order Phase. Tribute is not dependent on phase order (someone asking for Tribute in Phase 1 isn't going to get better Tribute than you will in Phase 1 by virtue of the order position). And Bazaar item bids are processed after the other phases are executed, so there's no advantage to use an early phase to put in a bid.

Next week, we're going to discuss all possible turn options, but for now, let's take our turn using two common actions. Click "Give Legion Orders" and a list of your Legions will show up on the right-hand side of the screen. Click on the Legion, then choose Select in the bottom-right corner of the frame. A pop-up box will give you several options--in this case, you'll see "March Legion" or "Dismiss Legion." Choose "March Legion" and you'll be taken to the map screen (the Real frame, as I call it). You'll see your Legion in red, and your movement options will be shown. The cursor will show a number, which is the number of movement spaces you have remaining for that Legion (very nice touch). If you don't want to use all your movement points (you only want to move 1 space with a 2 space Legion, for example), then right-click when you've finished moving the legion.

Remember, there's no guarantee that your Legion will actually get to execute that move, depending on Orde Phase and what your opponent's are doing. It's just an order.

The Orders screen will pop back up when you're done, and you can click on Phase 2. This time, select "Demand Tribute," and you'll see two options in the right-hand frame: "Demand Resources" and "Consolidate Tribute." Later, you'll also see "Seek Out Curiousities" (which gives you a better chance of finding rare Manuscript fragments), but that's not available yet.

"Demand Resources" explains itself. You use "Consolidate Tribute" when you want to transfer the resources from multiple cards onto one card.

For this turn, click on Demand Resources, then click on Select in the lower right-hand of the frame. The Order screen pops up again, and you can see that both of your available Phase Order slots have been filled.

Wondering if you have any orders left? Look in the bottom left-hand of that frame at the "Orders Remaining" number.

Now, you need to process the turn. First, click on "X" in the upper-right hand corner of the Ministerium frame, and when it disappears, then click on "End Turn" in the upper-right corner of the main (Real) frame.

If you're wondering why you need to do it that way, just remember that these frames aren't transparent--you can't click on the outer frame and bring it to the forefront. If you want to see the outer frame, the inner frame must be manually closed first.

On Monday, we're going to start looking at all the possible actions on the Orders screen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Solium Infernum Beginner's Guide (Part Three: Understanding Frames)

If you haven't downloaded the demo, please do so here, and start with part one and part two  of this guide.

After you create a new game, this is the first screen you'll see:

The messages you see are in a frame in front of the main game screen. This is something called the "Turn Log" (notice the label in the top left of the inner frame) and at the beginning of each turn, this is what you see first. It gives you a summary of what happened during the last turn (everything you can know, anyway, because some things are secret).

Some of these messages just have information. The ones with the red wax seal beside the image, though, require action on your part.

Let's look at the news. First, we see that "The Sceptre of Regent of the Infernal Throne has passed to Mammon this turn." When a player is regent, they are able to draw event cards, single-use cards that can trigger powerful and disruptive events.

Next there are two "Tribute from your minions has arrived and is waiting your inspection" messages, and these messages require action. Clip on the first wax seal and this overlay pops up:

The four types of tribute (Souls, Ichor, Hellfire, and Darkness) function as resources, and different actions require different amounts of each type of Tribute. Souls are the most valuable. Here's how to tell them apart:
Souls--a ghost image
Ichor--a drop of blood
Hellfire--a flame
Darkness--a hockey puck (not exactly, but you get the idea)

You might also be lucky enough to receive a Manuscript fragment in tribute, which we'll discuss later.
At the most basic level, your ratings (Charisma, in particular) determine how much tribute gets generated and how much you can keep. In this case, three tribute cards were generated, and you can see in the image that I'm allowed to claim two. I try to keep a balance in terms of Tribute, with a slight emphasis on Souls, so I'm going to click on the Souls card and one of the Ichor cards, then click Claim, and they will be added to my inventory (which you can see at the top of the game window--each resource icon is shown, along with the number you currently have).

The second message is also a Tribute message, and I select a Souls card and a Darkness card.

Now, for reference purposes, before we take our turn, let's look at the screenshot again:

The number of screen options in the game can be quite overwhelming at first, so let's simplify things. First off, think of the game as happening in two major frames. One is a persistent frame that shows the map and can also be used to select the Bazaar (where you can buy items). This frame might be in the background (as it is in the screenshot), but it never goes away. I think of it as the "real" frame, because it shows the map and the location of Places of Power and Legions. It shows what exists in the game world.

The second frame, which overlays the persistent frame as necessary, I think of as the "action/information" frame. In the game, it's referred to as the Ministerium. The Ministerium frame gives you information on what happened in the last turn (Turn Log), plus allows you to issue orders as well as showing a wealth of information that is not available from the "real" frame (there is some information overlap, but starting out, it's much easier to understand if you think of them as mutually exclusive).

Also useful is to know that the Ministerium frame is called up as needed by selecting the "Ministerium" highlight in the lower left of the real (outer) frame. To close it, hit "X" in the upper right hand corner of the frame.
Now let's briefly discuss how the Ministerium frame works.

To understand the Ministerium frame in its simplest terms, think of the selectable tabs at the top of the frame (Turn Log/Orders/Tribute/Rituals/Diplomacy/Forces/Avatar) as major categories. At the bottom of the frame, you'll see filters for the category you've currently selected.

So, for example, if you select Turn Log, you'll get the full data dump of everything that happened on the last turn (that you're allowed to know). However, if you look at the bottom of the frame, you see a set of filters:

Each of those filters will isolate only the events related to that category.

Another example of this is the "Forces" tab. When you select that tab, you'll see these options at the bottom:
Legions/Places of Power/Praetors/Artifacts & Relics/Events.

Remember: category on top, filters on bottom.

Very briefly, here's what you can do and learn in each of the tabs in the Ministerium frame:
TURN LOG: review all information relating to the previous turn. Some items will require you to take action.
ORDERS: We'll be discussing this in detail in Part 4 of this guide, but this is where you issue your orders for each turn, and it's where you'll spend most of  your time.
TRIBUTE: this is where you can see all your Tribute cards as well as Manuscript fragments. To sort all your tribute cards, right-click in the gold storage area (very, very useful).
RITUALS: perform rituals here (discussed in greater detail when we discuss orders).
DIPLOMACY: see your opponents, their current prestige, and other helpful information (particularly if you have a high Prophecy rating). You can also adjust the Threat Order here, which is basically a ranking of your opponents. There are reduced Tribute costs to perform certain diplomatic actions against opponents ranked high in the Threat Order.
FORCES: Forces include Legions, Praetors, Places Of Power, Artifacts, and Relics. Review them all here.
AVATAR: See your character ratings here. In addition to your high-level attributes (which you selected when you created an Avatar), you can also see the linked sub-disciplines (Wrath, Deceit, Prophecy, Destruction, and Diabolism) here, as well as information on how many Cantons you control, how many Legions you can command, and how much Prestige per turn your're earning.

That's a lot to digest, but there's quite a lot you can do in (and from) the Ministerium frame. Take a few minutes to click on each of the tabs and familiarize yourself with what the sub-screens look like. It won't all make sense yet, but it should give you an idea of how much information you can obtain.

Tomorrow, we look in-depth at the Orders tab, which will also give me an opportunity to discuss basic game strategy. There's so much that can be done in the Orders tab, actually, that we'll probably discuss it in two parts.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

S.I. Beginner's Guide: Screenshots

I wanted those screenshots to be readable without having to open them in a separate window, so I used the "XL" size in Blogger. However, that also means they run into the Archive listings in the right-hand frame until they are far enough down the page to not conflict, which is annoying. So I resized the screenshots to fit the frame, which is hopefully the smaller of the two annoyances.

Console Post Of The Week: February NPD

Here's a quick look at the numbers again:
360 - 422,000
Wii - 397,900
PS3 - 360,100
PS2 - 101,900

And last year:
Wii --753,000

PS3 sales were up 30% over last year. Again, they were below last year's 360 sales for the same month, which has been the pattern for the last three months.

If that pattern continues, then Sony is looking at sales in 2010 in the U.S. of about 4.5 million units. That would be somewhat of a disaster, really, to have a major price cut just get you within 5% of what the competitor sold in the previous year.

However, we should know soon enough, because two of the biggest games of the year for Sony dropped in March: Final Fantasy XIII and God Of War III. Yes, Final Fantasy wasn't an exclusive, but it's still a huge game in terms of the Playstation, and the God Of War series has basically printed money.

Based on last year's 360 sales, and the PS3s close tracking of those numbers, we would expect PS3 sales in March of about 310,000 units. Those numbers would be catastrophic, and I don't expect them to be that low.

What would be the upper range, though? Well, after the price cut last year, the PS3 sold 491,000 units in September. September and March are both 5-week months for NPD purposes, and they're not holiday season months. So if software pushed the PS3 past the sales they had last year after a major price cut, it would be quite impressive.

What that means is that the disaster range for PS3 sales in March would be 310,000 units. The very impressive number would be 491,000 units or above. In-between, it depends on closeness to the top or bottom of the range, but the mid-point is 400,000 units, and given God Of War's stature as a franchise, if it's below that, it's going to look weak.

If Sony says that they're inventory-limited, well, if company is inventory limited when their biggest game of the year drops, then they're incompetent.

Microsoft appears to be a path that resembles their course the last two years--slightly above for the first two months, but probably still in the range of 4.6-4.8 million units for the year.

I'm not including a bump for Move or Natal because I seriously question whether they're going to provide one. I think Sony and Microsoft may be seriously miscalculating the significance of their motion control products, at least initially.

If Nintendo is smart (sometimes they are, sometimes not so much), they would claim supply shortages all year until Move/Natal are released, then flood the market with so many Wiis, and advertise the $199 price so prominently, that the competitor's motion control solutions would actually drive their own sales.

Solium Infernum Beginner's Guide (Part Two: Creating A Game)

If you haven't downloaded the demo, please do so here, and start with part one of this guide here.

Today, we'll create a new game in Solium Infernum and discuss how the different setup options affect gameplay. So from the opening menu, go Single Player/Normal Game/New Game. When you do, you'll see this screen:

Like everything else in Solium Infernum (and this is what makes the game so good), every decision you make on this screen is going to signicantly affect your strategy during the game.

Let's start with map size. Choosing a small map gives you a 12x12 hex playing field. Normal is 14x12. A large map is 16x12. Those differences might not sound like much, but a large map has 48 more hexes (33%) than a small map, which is substantial.

Here's a good example of how game options make the game play very differently. On a large map, with a small number of opponents, you'll be able to claim a sizable number of cantons over the course of several turns before you reach an opponent's border. On a small map, with the maximum number of opponents (five), your borders might be only two or three hexes from your place of power.

Why does this matter? Let's look at some of the unique elements of the small map:
--the fewer hexes you control, the fewer Places Of Power you'll have inside your borders. If you control a Place Of Power (they must be conquered), you get a prestige bonus on every turn. Controlling a few Places Of Power early and gaining the prestige bonus for the rest of the game is often the difference between winning and losing.
--at the end of the game, you're given a one-time bonus of +1 for each hex you control.
--you need fewer legions to maintain strong control of your borders.
--combat is much more likely, because in many cases, a few players will be in such a desperate position in regards to prestige that they will be forced to attack.
--combat is also much more likely to involve Places Of Power or Legions instead of just occupying Cantons (empty hexes).
--turtling is much less effective. There's almost no way to hide from other players for the course of the game and still win.

That's the kind of effect that changing map size can have on the game, and like I said, it's indicative of how differently the game can play depending on how it's set up, and why it's so engaging.

My goal in setting up a game of SI is to maximize potential chaos--this is, after all, Hell. So I always choose a small map and the highest number of opponents, because far more disruptive events events seem to happen when opponents are more concentrated.

Map Type is next, and you can choose from four: Great Rivers, Acheron's Locks, Dante's Peaks, The Lake Of Fire. Here are Vic's comments on how the maps affect play:
The Acheron's Lochs compartmentalizes the map so that you have more choke points and can block yourself off from your opponents more easily. The Great Rivers is bounded by the rivers, but the interior is very open, so you get the illusion of having a flank secured (but it's not always). The Dante's Peak map uses the chasms to channel conflict. The Palace on the Lake of Fire map has the special Place Of Power, but the terrain besides the lake is pretty open.

It's another good example of every setup option changing game strategy. Let's go with Great Rivers, just so we can move on.

Places Of Power has four potential settings: none, rare, uncommon, and common (uncommon is the default). They are landmarks on the map, and each one you control gives various bonuses, so they are highly desirable. They also have defenses, and the better the bonuses, the stiffer the defense.

Places Of Power also, critically, also give Prestige bonuses, and even better, you get this bonus on every turn that you control the PoP. Since having the highest Prestige at the end of the game is generally how the game will be won, that means controlling PoP is a critical part of a successful strategy.

More frequent PoP means that that controlling them will potentially play a larger role as a game evolves. I like the "Uncommon" setting, because on a small map, that usually means each player will have 1-2 PoP inside their borders. If you want to control more than that, you have to start kicking some doors down--but politely, as we'll discuss later.

The next option is Game Length, and (I'm a broken record in Hell, aren't I?) different game lengths greatly affect your strategy.

The basic concept of game length is that it revolves around the drawing of "Conclave Tokens," which happen with enough variability that you never know exactly when a game will end. There is also a special event a player may control that can force the drawing of a Conclave Token. The number of tokens that have already been drawn is shown on the game screen, so you can get a general idea for the game's progress without knowing exactly how many turns are left. Here's the length breakdown:
Short: 10 Tokens
Normal: 15 Tokens
Long: 20 Tokens
Epic: 25 Tokens

I'd give you an idea (in hours) of how long these various-length games last, but I don't know--I get so involved when I'm playing the game that I totally forget about time. I do know, though, that I play a Short game much differently than a Long game, as certain strategies (like starting off with very low Avatar attributes and improving them through the course of the game) are much less effective in Short games.

Let's choose Long length, just for the purposes of this guide. That's generally my favorite game length, because I think it makes the widest range of strategies viable.

The avatar you created should be used in the "Select An Arch Fiend Avatar" box. Just click on the wax seal (very cool) and you'll see a list of avatars that you've created.

When it comes to selecting opponents, following the maximum chaos theory, I always choose to have a full slate (five). However, when first learning the game, it can be useful to limit the number of opponents to make it easier to follow the flow of play. Click on the wax seal and either select a specific Arch Fiend or choose "Random" for each opponent you want to include.

One way that I think the game could improve would be for the individual Arch Fiends to have more readily distinguishable personalities. I haven't been able to identify unique styles with individual Arch Fiends, which would be very entertaining.

When you finish selecting your opponents, just hit the "Start Game" button. The game world will be created and the game will begin. That's where we'll start tomorrow.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Solium Infernum Beginner's Guide (Part One: Creating An Avatar)

Good Lord.

I've been wanting to write about Solium Infernum since it came out in late November, over three months ago. My grand plan was to master all the strategic details of the game, then write a complete guide to advanced tactics.

I realized last week, though, that I will never master all the strategic details of this game. It's a strategy onion, and when you peel away one layer, another one awaits you. That's high praise, and the game deserves it--S.I. exists in one of the most interesting worlds in gaming history, and the game is so well-designed that almost every tactic, at the right time, is useful.

So, instead of turning into Harper Lee and working on a strategy guide for over thirty years, rarely leaving the house, I decided on a different tack. For those of you who haven't played the game yet, I wanted to produce a guide that would ease you into the interface and the game flow. The manual is quite thorough, but it doesn't necessarily provide information in the order that you need it as you learn the game.

I'll try to help with that.

I'm going to assume that you've never played the game, so first off, download the demo (or better yet, buy the game) here.

The objective in Solium Infernum is to rule Hell. Spicy. Primarily, a player does this by accumulating "prestige points," and when the game ends, the Archfiend with the most prestige points is selected by the Infernal Conclave. The player can also attempt to directly take over Pandemonium, the capitol of Hell.

There's a third way to win involving manipulation of the Infernal Conclave, but I'm not telling you everything.

Also, and we'll discuss this in more detail later, there are (to me) two fulcrums in the game: order slots and tribute. Since SI is turn-based, everything you do requires an order, and you will probably only have two order slots when the game begins. Focusing on increasing the number of available order slots is critically important to being successful.

Tribute comes from your minions, and it's also critically important, because almost everything you do in the game requires some amount of tribute. Think of it as resources, although its use in this game is quite clever. So you want to receive and keep as much tribute as possible.

What having plenty of order slots and tribute does is greatly increase your strategic and tactical flexibility, and in this game, flexibility is everything.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's get to the game.

The first thing you'll want to do is create an avatar. Follow this path from the opening menu:
--Create & Edit Avatar
--Create New Avatar

Now, you'll see this screen:

Yes, the rest of the art in the game is just as cool. This is a very, very stylish game, and the art is fantastic.

Note that you have 30 "Fiend Points" to work with, and there are a wealth of options to consider here. Primarily, you'll be deciding:
--perks (special or enhanced abilities)
--public objective (special goal for additional prestige)

With rank comes privileges, as they say in American Express commercials--in Hell. Higher ranks have more powerful strongholds, better Tribute cards (we'll talk about that shortly), and lower costs for diplomatic actions.

However, there are lots of other quite tasty things you can do with your 30 points, so just for demonstration purposes, let's stay as a simple Lord (which costs 0 points).

Attributes are next. Starting with all your attributes at 0 just isn't going to work, but you will very quickly discover that 30 points don't go very far. Improving an attribute from 0 to 1 takes only 2 Fiend Points, but the point cost doubles for each additional increase in that category--starting off with a 4 rating in any attribute category, for example, would cost you your entire 30 points (2+4+8+16).

Again, I'm focusing on order slots and tribute. Increasing the Charisma attribute also increases the Diabolism Discipline rating (you won't see it on the Avatar creation screen), which improves the number of tribute cards you choose from as well as how many you can keep (Appendix H has a detailed chart that explains the benefits of each discipline level increase). Improving the quantity of Tribute is very, very important, so I'm going to bump up Charisma to 1, which only costs me 2 Fiend points. I'm also going to increase Cunning to 1, because (like Intellect and Wickedness) when I increase this attribute to 4, I'll gain an additional order slot. That costs 2 more fiend points, so I now have 26 remaining.

As a note, the reason I'm not going to increase it more is that you can still increase your attributes during the game, either by rites or by use of Tribute. That's why I'm willing to have my attributes so low as a starting point, because Perks, which we're going to discuss next, are a one-time shot--if you don't select them now, you can't acquire them during the game.

On to Perks. There are 31 to choose from (Appendix G in the manual explains each one), and while your playing style will probably be different, here are a few useful ones from the order slot/Tribute strategy perspective:
--Infernal Cardinal (+8): +2 to all Tribute rolls.
--Devoted Minions (+8): keep an additional Tribute offering.
--Collector of Curiousities (+7): when you ask minions to seek out manuscripts, they have 2X chance of finding them.

What I love about this game is that you will find support for any strategy you want to employ. There are excellent perks for EVERY strategic approach you can take. And depending on map size, number of opponents, and turn length, almost every strategic approach is necessary. Certain strategies that are ideal for long games, for example, are almost useless in short ones, and large versus small maps do the same.

For my approach in this game, I'm goign to take the three perks I listed. So I have three perks that will help me collect tribute as well as rare manuscripts. Manuscripts (a form of Tribute), when all volumes are collected, will allow you to perform rites that will have an effect on various stats (we'll discuss more later).

Save your avatar and exit out to the main screen. Tomorrow, we'll create a new game.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Links!

Leading off, Happy Birthday to DQ Reader My Mom, who turns 80 today.

Brian Witte sent in a link to a remarkable story about the invention of a wheelchair that is usable in the Third World (over rugged terrain), and the signature feature is incredibly ingenious.

From Keith Ganey, a great read about how the cure for scurvy was, incredibly, lost.

From Mr. Fritz, and this is the best Rube Goldberg machine I have EVER seen, it's This Too Shall Pass.

From Brad Brasfield, a link to a a fascinating article about how transgenic mice could solve the obesity epidemic.

From John Rodriguez, a link to a wonderful video in pop-up book style that depicts the growth of Charlotte, North Carolina.

From David, and this is amazing, a link to a story about, well, this:
North Carolina’s Zenph Sound Innovations models the musical performances of musicians from Thelonius Monk to Rachmaninoff, based on how they played in occasionally old, scratchy recordings. Using that model, the company creates new recordings as they would be played by deceased musicians, if they were around to record with today’s equipment, to critical acclaim.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a story about the creation of a high-speed wireless network in Afghanistan using what was basically junk. Also, an illuminating graph about government food subsidies titled Why Does A Salad Cost More Than A Big Mac?

From George Paci, a link to Future: To The Stars!, a series of illustrations taken from "unlikely sources" from the "Golden Age of Retro-Future (1930s to 1970s).

From Sirius, and these are quite striking, it's botanical drawings for the Digital Age. Also, and this is an absolutely terrific read, it's 6 Historic Acts of Revenge That Put 'Kill Bill' to Shame. Next, and this is stunning, it's Lost Jewish Tribe Found In Zimbabwe. Finally, it's a story about the Knocker-Uppers (hey now), who were hired to wake up clients using a long stick to knock on windows. During the Industrial Revolution, by the way.

From Liz Watson, a link to Procreo Flash Design, a series of Flash animations that can be user manipulated.

From Henry Welsch, a link to a video about a skiier, a slalom gate, and very clever announcers titled OUCH!

From Rob Cigan, who mentioned that he was part of one of the peaks, it's one of the funniest graphs ever:
water consumption in Edmonton during the Olympic Gold Medal Hockey game.

From Steven Kreuch, a link to a video shot at a staggering 1,052 frames per second.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to the answer to a question that's bothered mankind for decades: would a Lava Lamp work in a high-gravity environment such as Jupiter?

From Scott Sudz, and just because you can buy one doesn't mean you should: a personal jetpack.

From Caleb Forney, a stunning picture of a solar corona.

From Jonathan Arnold, and it's a very funny bit of gaming humor, enjoy The Video Game Bosses' Lament.

From Andrew B, a link to one of the most amazing heists I've ever read about: Thieves Go 'Mission: Impossible' On New Jersey Best Buy.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

February NPD

Analysis on Monday, but here are the numbers:
360 - 422,000
Wii - 397,900
PS3 - 360,100
PS2 - 101,900

Oh, and for comparison purposes, here are February 2009 numbers:
Wii --753,000

The Big Thread Of Stuff (And Stuff)

I went riding today on a 2.6 mile loop, in some of the prettiest terrain I've ever ridden through (rushing streams, trees--like Oblivion). Then I missed a turn and turned a 2.6 mile loop into a 3.9 mile loop, which my legs, in particular, were not happy about. At all. I'm fully expecting to turn into a Crampopotamus at some point later in the day.

I've actually given semi-serious thought to going to the North American Unicycling Championships with Eli 8.6 this summer, because I think he would have an excellent chance to finish very high in his age group in a distance race (and if it was over two miles, I think he'd have a very good chance of winning). The catch, though, is that it's in Berkeley, which is halfway across the country for us, and if we went, that would be our summer vacation. So I'm trying to find something within driving distance. Unlikely, but I'm trying.

Here's a teaser for next week: beginning on Monday, I'll be covering Solium Infernum. It's a four-part, four-day strategy guide for beginners, and I hope it will get more of you interested in the game, because it's terrific. The guide will tell you everything you need to know to be comfortable playing the game, although the devil is in the details, and hell, yes, that was a pun (and that as well).

I've been thinking about the Ubisoft pirate-proof DRM, as well as the OnLive pirate-proof service, and I'm struck by how nothing seems cheaper. That was always the big selling point by publishers to get us to care about piracy, that it was costing honest consumers money. But Silent Hunter 5 is $49.99 (and spectacularly buggy, from what I've been told), and Assassin's Creed 2 is $59.99! And OnLive makes you pay $15 a month just for the privilege of having the opportunity to rent or buy games. It's a gaming service with a cover charge.

So far, it appears that the money consumers have saved with piracy-proof DRM or services is $0.00. This tally will be updated as needed.

I was looking through my e-mail today and started laughing when I saw this note from Francis Cermak about the Sony "Move" motion controller:
Sony is talking about how innovative they are with the “Move,” but for 3 years they’ve been saying how the Wii is not a competitor to their “HD” machine. Then they go and release something that looks exactly like a Wiimote and Nunchuck, but with a ping pong ball on it!

That says it better than I ever could. Sony has been incredibly arrogant and totally dismissive of the Wiimote and the games available for the Wii, then they make a near-exact copy of the Wiimote and a compilation of sports games that's a 100% ripoff of Wii Sports.

Plus, opinion is quite divided on whether this is even better than the Wiimote (Chris Kohler has an article over at Game|Life with the epic title Sony’s Motion Controller Underwhelms With Janky Games). Chris did note the unique aspect of the Move:
One unique thing that Move does that Wii can’t is augmented reality. The camera can show the player on the TV screen and overlay images onto the controller, making it look as if you’re holding a whip, a sword, even a hair trimmer. The game Move Party showed off these features, but it seemed more like a slick visual gimmick than an exciting new type of game.

Nice. When I want to see myself onscreen as a barber, I'm definitely buying a Move.

Steve Davis also had an interesting question via e-mail, wondering whether there might be an Uncanny Valley of control--is there a point where motion control tracking could be so precise that it would actually be a detriment to enjoying a game? His question came after reading this article, which talked about the awkwardness of the boxing game ("Motion Fighter") due to the Move doing true 1:1 motion detection.

I think it's an interesting question, and depending on what kind of motions are needed in the game, I can definitely see a situation where a game is actually less fun with exact motion tracking. Not all games use natural movements, so trying to do some sort of unique motion precisely could be very difficult and quite frustrating.

I don't have any objection to the Move (only to Sony's spectacular arrogance), and if a game comes out that uses it well, I'd certainly be interested in buying it, but I don't see any big hit for Sony here, and I don't see it driving console sales unless there's a price cut (which I don't expect this year). I don't expect Natal to drive 360 sales, either.

What Sony and Microsoft don't seem to understand is that no one has been waiting for their motion controllers. Well, almost no one, because everyone else has bought Wiis, particularly the "casual" market that Sony and Microsoft both discredit and desperately want at the same time. So for the vast majority of the market, this will be a "Oh, so they have it too, now" moment, not "Finally! Real motion control!'

Oh, and one entirely unrelated note: if you're thinking about buying FFXIII, I highly recommend renting it first, because I'm about three hours in and I am mind-numbingly bored. This is coming from someone who was a big fan of both FFVII and FFX (for different reasons), so I'm not historically a critic of the series. It's staggeringly beautiful, but it's also utterly inane, at least so far.

Nice house. Nobody's home.

Last note. Lance sent in an excellent logo for the Dubious Quality News Network, and even though I don't expect to have another real-life scoop in my lifetime, the logo is quite spiffy:

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