Saturday, August 15, 2015

Things you should know about Splatoon if you're playing it.

While I am terrified at the prospect of sending my oldest to high school this fall, he doesn't seem too freaked out about it. He spent a fair amount of time playing Splatoon this summer, including participating in all three Splatfests so far. I haven't played the game as much as he has, so the gameplay tips are all his.

I asked him what people should know about playing in Ranked Mode, which is where I usually find him complaining about the gameplay of his opponents. So, here's his list!

  1. Have at least two people guard a Splat Zone.
  2. If nobody is on the tower, GET ON IT!
  3. Overtime means CAPTURE THE THING!!!!
  4. In all of the modes, don't place squid beacons near your base. You can already jump to it by tapping the spawn location on the GamePad.
  5. Put down an ink mine or suction bomb on the tower if you're rushing it or defending it.
  6. Sloshers are very good for covering the walls and ground. Use this to get your players with longer range weapons to higher ground.
  7. Any weapon that you have to charge is SUPER slow when charging midair so don't try to start charging midair if there is an enemy below you. Fire off a shot or two so you can get to the ground safely and then worry about charging or attacking.
  8. In all of the modes, if your weapon has seekers and there are no enemies around it, swim right behind it. It is good stealth without losing speed from the ninja squid ability.
  9. Make sure before you super jump that you make sure that you are not going to get killed right as you land.
  10. Do not go off and paint stuff! Your super meter will fill plenty if you keep in the battle and watch for hazards.
Hopefully this helps a few people. I would add another item to this list for people used to other shooters - for each of the various game modes, make sure that you're paying attention to the primary goal for each mode. Regular versus mode means painting a lot of ground your color, Tower Control means maintaining control of the tower, Splat Zones means controlling specific zones of the board. While taking out your opponents is often helpful, racking up a big kill count doesn't win the match.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The more you know...

Is it normal that gamer parents have to have "the talk" with their kids as early as 8? No, I don't mean the birds and the bees. I mean spawncamping, client side cheats, how lag affects multiplayer games, and how to pronounce a word that only has the letters "p", "w", and "n" in it? (And if you're wondering, it sounds like "pone", rhymes with "cone".)

I played first person shooters on PC a long time ago. (Hey - I'm not kidding - 1993 was more than 20 years ago!) My father showed me the demo of id software's "Doom" on his Gateway, and I had played through parts of it at his house. It was so long ago that it was before people customarily used the mouse to aim with. I played through most Doom and Doom II and still hadn't played any multiplayer. I even had the scary blood red Doom cartridge for SNES. When Quake came out, we played the heck out of that demo as well before getting the actual game, and then someone in my office where I worked at the time bought the full version. Not only was the original Trent Reznor soundtrack amazingly spooky, but we realized that you could look around at will (what we now call "freelook") but it was still hard to do. At some point the realization was made that the mouse was essential, because nobody could turn around fast enough with just the keyboard. If you take enough rockets to the back, you'll switch to using a mouse. This was also the same time that we learned how to set up multiplayer. At first, we connected using IPX/SPX because our office wasn't using TCP/IP yet, and once we did start using TCP/IP I would often use Quake's robust command line to help with network troubleshooting after hours. I got a better computer at home, and a better 3D video card. (I want to say that it was a Voodoo card, but that might not have been until Quake 2.) I was still playing over dialup. It was a big deal to go somewhere on the weekend that had ISDN to play against people online. My biggest annoyance in the game was people using a character skin that was painted completely black, as many of the maps in the original quake were rather shadowy. Once I figured out that those files lived on my computer, I could fix them so that they were at least regular, but some players made me mad enough that I changed the player skin to something like this:

I had to convert this from .pcx to even be able to post it.
Spawncamping - the practice of waiting at a spot near where players spawn so you can shoot them before they can get any armor or weapons - was prevalent on certain maps, just because of the geometry of the board. The other odd tactic that arose was luring a group of other players into the water, only to discharge the lightning gun and kill everyone. Sure, you died, but if you did it right you would get more kills than it cost you.

Quake 2 came out in 1997. I was not a fan of the railgun which allowed for instant long-distance sniping, and I was disappointed that they had really nerfed the grenade launcher. I liked the single player game better since the enemies were smarter and there was a tiny bit more story to it, but I didn't really like the multiplayer maps or the weapon selection for the most part. I ended up spending more time playing 4-player local Goldeneye 64 multiplayer instead. I found it more fun to play against people who were actually in the room.

I waited for Quake 3 to come out, and I liked that a lot better even though the railgun was still there, but by then it was rather apparent that my skills had waned - or everyone else had just gotten better. While I still come back to Quake 3 once in a while since I can play it against my kids and still have fun, for the most part I have that "been there, done that" attitude about FPS games.

It took a long time for a game to even get my attention at all - I briefly toyed with Bulletstorm once the price plummeted to nothing only because I hear that it had an interesting whip mechanic. As it turns out it was a weapon that allows you to grab things from a distance, and while it did make for interesting "grab the bad guy from behind cover and shoot him" mechanics, I found myself getting headaches while playing the game.

Considering all of this history, I was really surprised that my older son wanted to pick up the new team shooter "Splatoon" - until I realized that this was a lot different from the standard issue shooter games. One, it's a third person shooter - the camera is behind you like in the Ratchet and Clank games or Resident Evil 4/5/6. Even though it's really only a multiplayer game where two teams of four battle it out, the game is about capturing territory instead of just racking up kills. Since you only spawn at your own team's base, there isn't a lot of spawncamping - and even if there was it wouldn't be very productive.

The game came out Friday May 29. There was an update that weekend that added a map (Port Mackerel), a Ranked mode, and a Zapper weapon. After that they added the Ink Brush, and then more weapons and maps have followed after that.  These were free updates, and it seemed like a good use of the internet on a game like this - it gave them a chance to get game data back from players on the weapons already being used, and they could slowly add in weapons as players got better at the game. This game also makes use of the amiibo characters, but at this point it's just the three specifically for this game - a girl player, a boy player, and a squid. They unlock specific single player challenges, which seems like a little bit mean for amiibos that aren't ever going to make it to the store and are already fetching quite a premium just on rareness.  Nintendo, can't we just play the game without buying more plastic toys?

That reminds me of two more things - today is the first Splatfest day, and I'm going to have to have the other "talk" with my kids.  No, not that - I need to explain to them about scalping on eBay.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Beach Cubing, Bro edition.

I bring a 3x3x3 Rubik's cube with me to the beach - I have to presume that nobody that would be reading this is surprised by that. Most of the time, I just have it in my hands to fidget with. Lately when we go to the beach, we've been taking the world's cutest dog with us, so nobody notices the cube much anyway. I used to take a standard cube from eight or so years ago to the beach, knowing that it was always the same cube that went to the beach, but I was a little disappointed in the ratty-looking stickers as they wore down. This year, I started taking  a new Hasbro cube since I already knew that I couldn't hurt the plastic tiles much, and I recently gave it a good silicone spray bath and have improved its turn-ability a lot. I don't know if the silicone spray takes the logo off since I already accidentally removed it with sunscreen.

When they do notice that I have a cube, I never know what to expect, and I really try to tailor the experience to the audience. If it's a audience of one or two, I try to let them lead with their specific questions, and then explain the best I can from there. What's funny to me about the audience of one is that it's rarely an actual one-on-one experience, it's just that the one person is one person out of whoever is present.

If it's an audience of several people, I try to figure out the dynamic of the group and try to figure out if I have to lead with comedy or showmanship. With a group of serious young men, I seem to have to lead with showmanship, and usually that entails a good first solve. I have such low expectations for the Hasbro cube and I tell people it's going to take me 40-45 seconds and I often surprise myself and knock it out in much less, but never less than 30 seconds. After that, the funniest part of the dynamic is the serious young men saying to each other "Can't you do that? I thought you could do that."

If the group of people is a little bit older or has had a few adult beverages, usually I can lead with comedy. At very least I can lead with the explanation at a leisurely pace, unless there's a clamoring for the showoff part. In the explanation, I usually show a routine or two, to demonstrate the idea of a number of moves that represent moving a certain number of pieces in a certain way (like R2 U R U R' U' R' U' R' U R' moving three edges around in the U layer, or R' D' R D' R' D2 R D2 to twist three corners in the D layer while moving some edges aroud). Once they have the idea, then I can show them something a little sillier. I do the move F2 R2 F2 R2 F2 R2 on a solved cube and then turn the cube towards them, showing them the df and the dr edges that have been moved to the U layer, and then turn the cube the other way to show them the uf and ur edges that have been moved to the D layer. Once I show them that, I hold the cube with my middle finger and thumb on one pair of edges, and my other middle finger and other thumb on the other pair. You can get it back to the solved state without having to remove your fingers.

I guess it's only funny if you've been drinking.

The other night the group I was performing for were UK tourists, having a bit of fun paddleboarding and throwing a rugby ball around. When it was time to do the "prove it" solve, the person I handed it to seemed fairly careful with the scrambling, and it was only once I started turning the cube at speed that it occurred to me why.

"Feels like you got quite a bit of sunscreen on the cube here."

"Actually it's sausage fat."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Do you even cube, bro?

So after I had a chance to acclimate myself to a 7x7x7 V-Cube, I quickly realized that my large Rubik's cube skills needed some work, and so I decided to work on picking out a new 4x4x4. I immediately ruled out a V-cube, since the one thing that drives me a little bit nuts about it is how the blue and the green stickers are too close to the same value (see picture below), so I can't always tell them apart in some lighting conditions.

My first choice based on my familiarity with the mechanism would be a DaYan, but for whatever reason I couldn't find one on Amazon at the time. Since I like stickerless cubes, I got a Cyclone Boys 4x4 FeiYue.

On the off chance I didn't like the mechanism, I got the well-recommended and inexpensive Shengshou.

Both of them turn nice, although considering the only thing I have to compare it to is my original Ideal 4x4x4 from 1982 it's possible that anything might seem better.

I also picked up a Shengshou Megaminx.

As it turns out, I didn't enjoy the physical sensation of turning the Megaminx as much as I thought that I would. Since the part that you turn is just one of the pentagonal sides that represents only a small portion of the puzzle, you don't have the same feeling of manipulating the object that you do with a cube. I was able to solve the Megaminx on my own, just by re-purposing a few standard cube operators like LU'R'UL'U'RU that moves three corners around without moving edges, and variations on RUR'URU2R'.

I was already able to solve the 4x4x4, but I was using a corners-first solution similar to my usual 3x3x3 solution. You solve all of the U and D center pieces, solve the eight corners, solve all of the U and D edges, solve the eight edges in the middle layer, and then solve the remaining center pieces in the middle layer. Now that I have better turning cubes, I have learned most of the edge matching method, where you solve all of the centers, match up all of the edge pairs, and then solve the cube as if it was a 3x3x3. However, there is one problem with the edge matching method - it is prone to parity errors. You can get to the end of solving the cube and have an edge pair flipped around the wrong way, or you can have two sets of edge pairs swapped with each other, or even both of those things at once. Since these are things that can't happen on a 3x3x3 Rubik's Cube, they seem a little disconcerting at first. These can happen because with all of the additional center pieces , there are less constraints on how pieces can appear to be swapped.

Fixing the two sets of edge pairs is easier - swapping the uf pair of edges with the ub pair can be done with the move r2 U2 r2 (Uu)2 r2 u2. If you are unfamiliar with cube notation, check here since it's what I'm using. There are some variations on the notation for larger cubes.

The other case where an edge pair is in the wrong way, that looks like a single edge flip on a 3x3x3 cube, is a little more difficult and harder to memorize. It is r2 B2 U2 l U2 r' U2 r U2 F2 r F2 l' B2 r2.

So another more oddball bit of cubing news comes from yesterday's outing to the beach. I had a couple of the new Hasbro Rubik's cubes in the car, the ones with plastic tiles and the hard-to-disassemble mechanism that I documented here. The logos on these cubes are painted on to the plastic, and up to now I had not worn any of it off in any way. After I applied sunscreen, however, the logo came off the cube I was handling in a minute or two.

Normally people wouldn't have cubes with them at the beach (yes, I'm the only one), but here in Florida there are lots of reasons to apply sunscreen that have nothing to do with the beach.

In other news, in my replay of the God of War games, I am only on God of War 2 so far. I seem to only remember specific puzzles and boss battles in this game, while I was able to remember most of God of War 1 in its entirety. There is less emphasis on narrative, which may be what the difference is, or it may be that there just seems like there's less consistent narrative because I only play for a little bit at a time. The next game I will play is a conversion of one of the handheld games, so that will be quite a new experience for me.

I found out from my older son about a new LEGO game in the works, and I want to be excited about the new Mortal Kombat release, but I think I will talk more about those next time.

Monday, March 16, 2015

They just don't make them like they used to. Or do they?

Over the last few months,  I have been steadily picking up cheap games for the PS3 knowing that my window for getting them is steadily closing.

Now that I have a couple of Move controllers, I picked up the Time Crisis Razing Storm disc (2010, Namco) that also includes the other Namco light gun shooters Time Crisis 4 and Deadstorm Pirates. It was only nine bucks, and that's only three bucks a game! I had passed on Time Crisis 4 when it originally came out in 2007 because I didn't have a PS3 yet and it wasn't the sort of game that I was inclined to pick up a system for. Time Crisis 4 and Deadstorm Pirates are rock-solid arcade ports, but there's not much in the way of extras. Razing Storm has a variety of extra modes and a campaign mode that requires a more difficult control scheme and the Move Navigation controller. The two Time Crisis games are very consistent with the rest of the series, and the Deadstorm Pirates game is still a lot of fun despite simpler mechanics and no cover system.

Also in the light gun genre, I picked up House of the Dead:Overkill (2009, SEGA/Headstrong). It does a good job of making you think you're watching some sort of grindhouse film, including visual artifacts and poorly edited dialogue. It also has the second highest profanity count of any video game currently in existence, only because Mafia 2 (2010, 2K Czech) dethroned it. The game is still fun, and since the overall writing is well crafted, the profanity bothers me less than the nature of the swearing in something like Mad World where it just seemed like it was shoehorned in. In terms of the campy nature of the game, the only things that's even in its class is Lollipop Chainsaw.

Overall, the Move controllers work really well for light gun games - I even find them more reliable than the Wii's Wiimotes. I was hoping to complete my light gun trifecta with Capcom's Chronicles HD Collection, but I haven't run across a copy yet. I was also hoping that there would be Move support added to the HD version of the survival horror classic Resident Evil 4 on PS3, but there isn't. RE5 is the only one, since the control scheme in RE6 is too complicated for the Move.

It is nice to know that the PS4 supports the use of the Move controllers, although it does not support the use of the PS3 camera with them. So, you have to get a  new camera but the controllers are fine. (I'm not there yet, so it's not really a concern.)

So what have I been playing besides old light gun games? I went back to revisit the Sony in-house franchise God of War. I didn't realize at the time how revolutionary this game would be, how much it would raise the bar for voice actors and production costs for many of the games that followed. It is big, dramatic, and violent, but the writing is interesting, the framing of the imagery very cinematic, and the acting is on par with anything that Hollywood throws out there. Most of the saga can be had on the PS3 for $19.99 - if you get it, make sure you buy a new copy. The God of War:Saga discs have GOW1&2 on the first disk, 3 on the second, and the conversions of the two handheld games (Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta as a download code. The older games have been re-rendered, which makes them look nice and shiny again because the game is running at the right resolution for newer TV's.  You can tell the difference with the cutscenes that have not been re-rendered, looking rather fuzzy and not as nice as you remember it looking. There's one more God of War game for PS3 - the multiplayer game Ascension, which I picked up for $7.50 when GameStop put a bunch of copies on a weekend flash sale. While I have played neither of the handheld games before, nor had I played Ascension, I am going to play everything in release order, even if that means re-playing 1, 2, and 3 because frankly they're some of the best games I've ever played.

Another important tip: If you had a save game for the standalone version of God of War 3, and you put in the God of War 3 disk from God of War:Saga, there is a substantial chance that the game will never make it to the menu screen and just stall out on a black screen before making it to the menu. There are some people that have old PS3's that can't play Saga or Ascension because of disk mastering issues and have battled with their retailer trying to get another disk, but that was not my issue. In my case, all I had to do was erase my old incompatible save files and GOW3 then came up just fine.

With all of this nostalgic ultra-violence on my screen, you have to wonder what my kids are playing - turns out that my older son has been playing a lot of WiiU Smash Bros, and more often than not my younger son has been playing Sengoku Basara Utage. (Not bad for a kid that can't read very much Japanese.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Two good examples of the Second Habit.

I typed this weeks and weeks ago thinking I would use it nearer to when "Splatoon" comes out for WiiU, but it's taken longer than I originally thought for the game to be finished and I'm uncomfortable with a post lingering in the backlog for too long.

I was sent to a few productivity seminars at my last job, and while a few day-to-day things stuck, one really apparent thing stuck with me and resonated with the way that I want to be able to do things: The Second Habit from the Seven Habits that they teach at the Franklin-Covey classes.

Basically stated, the Second Habit is : Begin with the End in Mind.

If you know what it is that you're trying to accomplish, it's easier to attain that goal. More importantly, the more specific a goal you're trying to attain, the more specific you can be about how to go about achieving that goal. You'll have to pardon me for with starting with an electrical construction example, but it may turn out to be useful information for a lot of you regardless.

The recessed light can may not seem important, because it just looks like a metal cylinder to hold a light bulb in the ceiling, but it typically dictates what trim and what light source you use. The trim is the part of the light fixture that you can see once it's installed in the ceiling, usually just a decorative ring around the light source. Sometimes the trim is a shiny reflector, sometimes it's just a baffle to disperse the light around, or perhaps it's a fancy piece of art glass, or an adjustable bracket and housing that allows the light to be aimed a certain way. There are a lot of brands of recessed light out there, and quite a number of available sizes, and at least as many different trims as can fill ten catalogs the size of a phone book. The majority of the trims out there are designed for a specific light source type and go in a specific brand and type of recessed can. The cans are by no means universal, and most manufacturers can't be bothered with getting all of their different trims tested and UL listed for use in other manufacturer's fixtures. Only a few of the most generic trims may get approved for use in other fixtures. These days the light source could be incandescent, fluorescent, LED, metal halide, some sort of low voltage reflector lamp, and a lot of variation exists even among those categories. In addition, the sorts of light sources that would go in a smaller 3" or 4" fixture would seem lost in a larger recessed can, so the trims you might easily find in a smaller can are nowhere to be found in the catalog for the larger fixtures or vice versa.

With the great variety of lamps and trims available, and not to mention the hundreds of other light fixture types that may go into a commercial project, often a lighting designer or an engineer or an architect is involved in the process of selecting the exact fixtures to be used for the job. Knowing what the customer is looking for as an end result is key to making a good selection of light fixture. That end result could be anything from keeping the price of the lighting as low as possible, to achieving a specific light color, to creating a specific mood in a space. There are always tradeoffs, of course. The cheapest fixture may not have a trim available that meets the aesthetic requirements, the most adjustable fixture may the most expensive, certain colors of light sources may only be readily available in certain sizes, and so on.

Back to the recessed can, now we look at the fixture in the context of a project to be completed. When a general contractor comes on to the job, his primary concern is usually time, since there is a lot to do and coordinate and his costs for a job typically go up in proportion with the amount of time taken. While many light fixtures are merely mounted to a junction box, and the box is a simple, inexpensive, industry standard item that can be put in quickly before drywall goes in, the recessed light has to go in before the drywall does. If a wall light shows up late to the job, it can be mounted after everything else happens. Wiring can go in and be ready at the box and it's a simple matter to install the fixture once it arrives. Recessed lights really should go in before the drywall in the ceiling is done. It's the sort of thing that can hold up a project - but it's also the sort of thing that can't afford to be done twice. I've seen contractors panic and tell the electrician that they need to put in a more readily available light fixture, and have them go pick something up that's on a shelf somewhere. So, if it turns out you can't get the trim or the light source for that recessed can that the designer had originally picked out, what have you saved? Alternately, if you cancel an order with a vendor because they can't produce fixtures fast enough for your schedule and have to start a redesign with an alternate vendor, how much time have you really saved?

I will admit that there are instances where a job is ridiculously overdesigned and the contractor and the electrician do manage to save the day (not to mention the job schedule) with a smart redesign. Usually that tends to happen when the designers aren't really listening to the owner.

If it's your project, and maybe you're just talking about fixing up one room, you still have to ask yourself a few questions about what you want and how you're going to accomplish it. The first question should always be "What do I want this project to look like when I'm done"? All the other questions and answers lead from the answer to the first question.

So, now to the other side of this. Console video game systems are about what kind of game you want to play. Certainly, there are many games these days made for multiple platforms these days.  When the basic game experiences - visuals, sound, controls, content - are the same between multiple platforms that doesn't mean you will enjoy the same experience. Sometimes the network or the community differences between versions of a game can make a big difference.  (Do I have to pay extra to play online? Does one of the versions of the game allow you to spend real money to get in-game advantages in multiplayer? Which of my friends are playing this game and on what system? Was the networking code for one of the versions of the game written by monkeys randomly operating computer terminals?)

Where the systems are more different, it takes more consideration to figure out how one wants to play the same game on different systems. Do I want to use an updated version of a comfortable controller? Do I want to take a chance on a new controller because I think that having a touchscreen will help with the kinds of games  I want to play?

At the extreme ends of the disparity, it comes down to things like which system exclusive series you want to play. If you really like the Zelda or Mario series, then you're probably already sticking with the Nintendo machines because there really isn't anything comparable to those experiences on other platforms. But, if you're amenable to some alternate suggestions, many have found the Darksiders games a bit like the Zelda series in terms of the combination of overworld action and item-specific dungeon areas. Honestly, I don't think there is anything on any other platform that is like the Mario games, so I don't think we can find an alternate choice for that game

If you're a racing fan, you may like Gran Turismo, a Sony exclusive series which leans very heavy toward simulation, but there are other similarly featured racing games like Forza for the Microsoft systems. That's not to say that there's no racing on Nintendo systems, but lets just say that if you don't like the word cart with a "K" in it, maybe that won't work for you.

If you've been a big fan of shooters or sandbox games, then it's more likely you're playing on a Microsoft or Sony machine. While it would be interesting to see what Nintendo could do with Mario and company in an open-world game, it's not usually the sort of narrative that they craft. Traveler's Tales has done a fantastic job with Lego City Undercover in that regard, and the WiiU version of Batman:Arkham City (called Batman:Arkham City Armored Edition) is another great choice. If you are playing WiiU now and you're mad that there aren't a lot of shooters, remember Nintendo's intended demographic and have an open-minded look at Splatoon.

At a certain point, it no longer matters which hardware is 'better' than which. If the end result is playing games that are enjoyable to you, then the decisions made on hardware need to support that. While I have thrown out a handful of cases where you can find suitable alternate games for certain genres even with the least favorable hardware choice, note that these are largely the exceptions that I'm pointing out.

Of course, if you can't manage the perfect combination of hardware and software, or the right combination of fixture and light source and you feel like you're just doing the best you can manage - just wait a few years, technology will improve, and you can carry your gathered wisdom with you to the next challenge.