Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stop making Apps please and just fix your web pages!

Santa brought me a lovely new Andoid phone - a Samsung Galaxy S and I am learning to love  and hate the world of mobile phone apps. An app is nothing more than a software application for a phone but Apple has managed to turn a simple concept into a phenomenon their Iphone App store and Google is doing its best to imitate this with the Android Market.

The rise of the app store has meant an explosion of free and low priced software for smart phones. As long as your exercise a little common sense with regard to security and privacy this is a good thing but there is one particular type of app that really annoys me: The apps that are designed to replace internet browsers.

I am talking about facebook apps, Youtube apps, Google and Gmail apps and so on. There are apps for just about every major web service and now even minor players are jumping on the app bandwagon. My local library has an app, so does my local traffic authority (for telling you about speed cameras).

Why oh why do we need these apps? Every single smart phone has a functioning web browser and all of these services can be accessed with a web browser.The web service app was a stop gap solution dating from the days when mobile phone browsers were not up to the job of displaying web content but phone browsers are getting more and more capable all the time yet the explosion of web service apps continues unchecked.

One reason why such apps are a retrograde step compared to using a web browser is that the apps rarely give full access to a sites facilities. For example the You Tube app on my phone hides all comments on a video by default  and does not allow you to leave a new comment.

Another key problem is the proliferation of mobile operating systems. We already have Iphones, Android phones, Symbian phones, Windows Phones and yet more types are on the way. Instead of wasting time writing an app for just one of these operating systems why not fix your website so it can be used viewed by a wide range of phone browsers.

While I am on the subject - making your website compatible with mobile phone browsers does not mean forcing the viewer into a cut down "mobile" mode. While some mobile browsers have limited viewing area many modern ones are full featured with excellent zooming tools. My Samsung with Android 2.2 even has Flash 10 capability. If you do offer a low resolution viewing mode for mobile users make damn sure it is optional at the users preference and please please make sure that it still offers access to all of the websites normal features. There is nothing worse than be forced into viewing a kinder-garden "mobile" version of a website and not even having access to the features you intend to use.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gaming Update

I haven't disappeared but what with Christmas and family activities it has been pretty quiet on the gaming front. Minecraft proved a big hit with my daughters. I even set up a home server to allow them play together in multi-player. I made this harder fro myself than it should have been by starting out on patch day so I had to fight with version incompatibility as well as new patch bugs. Once I got everything sorted out however it worked a treat. As an unexpected bonus I managed to set things up so you can log in single player or multiplayer and still edit the same world. The trick to doing this is to store the multiplayer server in the Saves directory of the single player game and to change the level-name in the "server.properties" file. to be the name of your single player world.  This sounds bizarre but it does work. It means that when I am not around to set up a server the girls can still log in with single player and work on their world.

The only game I have been playing is Empire total war. I am still working my way through the Road to independence campaign and I have 9 out the required 15 territories I need to beat the scenario.  Still enjoyable even if CA seem to have played somewhat fast and loose with historical accuracy on this one. The British forces I am fighting consist almost entirely of native American troops while the native American factions themselves are quite technologically advanced complete with their own artillery units.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Only a few hours left for incredible Minecraft deal.

Minecraft's world building has proven such a hit with my kids that I bought a second license with the intention of setting up our own private server for a bit of multi-player world building. Both my licenses are alpha licenses which cost €10 each. Sometime today the beta starts and the price goes up to €15.

If you have any interest in Minecraft but  haven't gotten around to buying it yet I strongly recommend buying before the price goes up. It isn't just a matter of the extra €5. Alpha purchasers also get "all future versions of the game for free" while beta purchases will only up to the first release free. Given the success of the game this makes the alpha purchase an incredible bargain for the few hours that remain at that price.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Minecraft is a bit meh isn't it...oh wait....

I'm not really into building / crafting games so I had given Minecraft a miss until yesterday when I realised that the price goes up by €5 with the release of the Beta version on the 20th December. A game that sells over 800,000 (and rising) copies at a tenner a piece despite being laughably ugly and still in alpha must have something going for it, mustn't it? I reckoned it was worth a punt for a tenner and anyway it might be something to amuse the kids who are a bit more craft minded than I am.

I logged in and paid my money before launching the browse version of the game.  I sat down with my daughter to play it for a bit. Gosh it is ugly isn't it? Single player "peaceful" mode seemed like a good place to start getting familiar with the game and thanks to paulsoaresjr's helpful video's we were soon chopping down trees and crafting basic items like torches and picks. My daughter was intrigued by the crafting interface so we started experimenting to see what other items we could make. Soon we had a shovel and a rake but the significant breakthrough was a furnace. The furnace allowed us to make some kind of baked rock and  sticking beach sand into it produce glass! This was fun. Unfortunately further attempts at discovering random crafting patterns failed. My daughter was particularly disappointed when she put a lot of effort into gathering wool from sheep but was unable to make any she could wear from it.

At this point I guessed that we might need some more exotic materials so we started tunnelling down eventually finding a small amount of a new ore that smelts into ingots of what I later found out was Iron.  Unfortunately we only got enough to make a slightly better pick. My daughter got bored and wandered off to play something else.

So much for the wondrous discoveries we dreamed of making. We had been playing for over an hour and we had nothing to show for it except for a few basic tools and a bag full of useless rock and wood. I was ready to chuck it in myself but before I logged off I thought I would see if I could make some kind of crude dwelling with all that stone and wood.

Two hours later I was still playing and the penny finally dropped. Minecraft is not just a game about discovery. It is a game about creation. It is a magnificent lego set that allows you walk around and interact with your own creations. When my daughter saw what I was doing she wanted back in and we spent several further hours playing.

The ugliness still upsets me a bit but I remembered hearing about mods which tart the game up a bit so I installed the lovely Scribblecraft skin an now everything is a lot easier on the eye. Here is my humble abode complete with mineshaft outside the front door:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Empire Total War: Guns change everything.

I have been playing Empire Total War for about 2 weeks now at a very intermittent pace. I an still working through the "Road to Independence" tutorial campaign but now that I have finally reached Chapter 3 most of the restrictions seen to be removed and it feels like a full game. Chapter 3 opened with my American rebel forces being overrun by the British redcoats at Bunker Hill which was a bit disheartening until I read that this is historically accurate.

I am enjoying Empire more than I expected having read reports of bugs and poor AI. I was initially concerned that the advent of powerful firearms would remove a lot of variety from the game because one soldier with a musket is much the same as any other. Having played a bit however I haven't had problems with bugs or AI and I find the changes to combat intriguing. There is something very satisfying about stopping an enemy charge dead in its tracks with a hail of crossfire from overlapping volleys.

Increased accuracy and damage means cannons now rule the battlefield capable of routing units before they even get into the fight.

I am still trying to figure out where cavalry fit in this new order of things. They have the advantage of mobility and flanking engaged infantry still works but the horsemen seem a lot squishier and suffer heavy losses. A frontal charge into gunfire is suicidal. Cavalry have an important role countering artillery and they can destroy cannon in seconds. If there is an infantry unit anywhere near the cannon though the cavalry probably won't make it out alive.

Edit: One other observation  about the impact of fire-arms in Empire is that the balance of power has shifted firmly in favour of defenders. The shattering impact of volley fire from prepared defenders makes charging a very risky tactic.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Are Single Player Gamers More Forgiving? Memories of Oblivion.

Much excitement about the confirmation that a new Elder Scrolls game has been confirmed for next November and that it is a direct sequel to Oblivion. Oblivion didn't impress me quite as much as it's iconic predecessor "Morrowind" but nevertheless it was  hugely impressive game and I have learned to eagerly anticipate any new release from Bethseda Softworks.

The news even inspired me to re-install Oblivion and I am currently playing a very impressive full conversion mod called  "Nehrim: At Fates Edge". Not many mods offer 50+ hours of hand crafted single player campaign so this is quite special and I will probably discuss it at more length later. The real justification for this post however was the following page from the Elder Scrolls Wiki that I stumbled upon while googling for the mod. It reminded me that Oblivion, one of the most successful single player games of the last decade widely recognised as a monumental achievement in gaming, was fundamentally broken.

The levelling system was broken. The cornerstone of any rpg is the mechanism that allows your character to get  stronger as they progress through the game and this basic system was deeply flawed in Oblivion. Thanks to an extremely finicky player progression system combined with auto scaling of monsters to the players level many many players found that their characters got weaker as they levelled up rather than stronger in comparison to the monsters they had to fight. Much of the flawed system was inherited from the game's Elder Scrolls predecessors but for some reason it was in Oblivion that the flaws were most cruelly exposed. If you need proof of how broken this system was just consider that one widely proposed strategy for overcoming the levelling problem was to prevent your character from ever levelling.  It was actually easier to finish the game with a low level character than a high level character because of the auto-levelled nature of the monsters.

Players eventually found ways around it and learned to game the system to achieve optimum levelling. Needless to say this puts stringent restrictions on your choice of character build and none of the default character archetypes were useful for this. The hoops that you had to go through to prevent gimping your character were completely immersion breaking in a game that holds immersion as one of its major selling points.  For example a character needs to deliberately avoid using their preferred weapon type to prevent over-levelling that skill and all characters have to minimise the use of running and jumping to keep their athletics skill under control.

Can you imagine the furore if an mmorpg was released with a similarly broken levelling system?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Metro 2033: Moscow What has Become of You?

Thanks to a heavy snowfall I had the perfect excuse to spend the weekend indoors playing Metro 2033 bought in last weeks Steam Sale.

It is a very Russian game. The post apocalyptic setting and the art style remind me a lot of Stalker but the gameplay is more linear. Indeed it owes a lot to half life. I actually enjoyed the game very much. Sometimes a good old fashioned on rails shooter is exactly what you need. The game does have a few tricks up its sleeve most notably the use of ammunition as currency leaving you with a constant dilemma about whether to shoot your bullets or spend them. Restricting the availability of ammunition is a tried and trusted way of increasing the tension in a horror game and for the most part this achieves the same effect but there are a few places where I found it annoying. In the early part of the game there are shops offering cool weapons and upgrades but I never knew whether I could afford to spend the ammo on them or not and by the time I got a handle on which ammunition I wanted to keep and which I was prepared to spend I ran out of shops to spend it in!

A few minor niggles aside though the game was very enjoyable overall. Well recommended.