Friday, 30 March 2012

World Of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

The upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion is poised to add a cornucopia of fresh content to WoW, as well as make clever and sensible tweaks to game balance and utility. Pandaria, and its native Pandarens, are markedly distinct from the classic lore and aesthetic of the game, bearing an exotic, colourful oriental presence to the Warcraft experience.

Pandaria is a surreal, mythologic continent where the titular humanoid Panda-like race dwells in cities and villages comprised of Asian-inspired temples and pagodas. Pandarens enjoy a very Zen environment consisting of venerable mountains, lush jungles and grand waterfalls. The Pandarens, like their real-world inspiration, tend to be on the tubby side, and spend an inordinate amount of time eating. The jolly bipeds gain a substantial bonus to the benefits gained from consuming food, and are natural cooks, having a greater than average ability in the Cooking skill.

The Pandarens are not gluttons, oh no, they also have an extensive and profound spiritual culture. They are naturals for the newly introduced Monk class, a lightly armoured warrior proficient in fighting with their bare hands and feet, and performing finishing moves with staves, as well as one handed maces, axes and swords. Quaking palm, the Pandaren-exclusive ability, makes them well-suited to the Monk class (although it will no doubt find use among other classes due to its ability to put enemies to sleep for a few seconds), but all races with the exception of goblins and worgen can also pursue a monastic calling. The Monk class is flexible, able to perform the tank, dps and healer support roles, depending on which of the variegated specializations you choose: brewmaster, mistweaver or windwalker.

So what does the game add to existing players, besides the new Monk class? Pandaria is a five-zone continent, with a central hub that will allow you to access all the facilities (including auction houses) that you expect from a cosmopolitan Azerothian settlement. These areas promise unique dungeons, creatures, quests and exterior raids and events. Expect exotic creatures such as fish-men and giant insects.

Mists of Pandaria offers a PVP and PVE pet battle system, an all-new Pokémon-inspired battle system that sees you competing against other players in turn-based duels. The potential for pets to develop, to accompany you, and to be used by any character on your profile; make it an exciting development.

A huge list of fixes and tweaks to talents, battle rules and class features make the game more balanced, adding interesting options while removing junk talents. Essentially, they want to move away from an experience that pressures players to focus on cookie-cutter builds to be effective, and move towards one where every choice can be compelling.

Pandarens, interestingly, are the only race which is neither alliance or horde aligned. The corpulent fellows are fairly neutral in temperament and take no stance in the omnipresent war between the Alliance and the Horde. That is, until you reach level 10, by which time your Pandaren character will have to throw in his chips with one side.

The Mists of Pandaria beta is now live and full of players, although not all members may be able to get in.
Although the new content is a marked change in tone, Mists of Pandaria offers an intriguing and vivacious new experience brimming with content. It does not force changes on the original game, besides, what appears to be, welcome streamlining and diversification.

Look out for the epic, dark fantasy ebooks of Goodreads-rated author T.P. Grish at: 

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Password to Facebook

A recent, worrying trend has plagued some job-seekers: employers who demand that you give them your Facebook password, or that you log onto your Facebook account on their computer during the interview. Employers have stated, or implied, that applicants who fail to comply may not get the job. Existing employees have been pressured to comply with the invasion of privacy, for fear of not having their contract renewed.

So, why is this happening, and what can you do about it?

It is happening because employers are worried of potential embarrassment precipitated through employees posting objectionable or immature content on Facebook, whilst employed at the company. It is also another way for companies to get the measure of employees, and ascertain what kind of person they really are. In this aspect, it is related to the now-common Google searches and Facebook searches employers have been doing for years, as well as the contractual conditions introduced in many companies stipulating that you will not comment about company issues on social media.

Google searches, social media searches, and non-disclosure clauses are all well and fine; a reality of the connected world we live in. However, forcing employees to give employers the ability to view their private Facebook profiles, and see all their private information; is unethical and a violation of privacy. People have a right to enjoy private forums in which to communicate with family and friends, without having corporate and governmental fingers intruding in. There is a reason why people have the ability to decide how much and what can be seen on their public profile.

The old maxim that 'if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear' is profoundly wrong here, even more so than usual. Everybody says or does certain things with friends and family, not illegal things, but things that would be embarrassing if shown to coworkers, or taken out of context. Letting corporations intrude into this realm would give them excessive control over the private lives, dialogues and thoughts of employees. It would truly create an oppressive environment, even after workers go home.

So what can you do? You can refuse. While it is not illegal for companies to ask you to do this (just wildly unethical), they cannot legally force you to. However, if they do fire you for not complying, there are no precedents for suing them. Of course, many people do not have the luxury to say no, as they cannot afford to be out of work for the amount of time it would take to find a new job; and they lack the resources or time to attempt a law suit.

Facebook has officially issued a statement on the matter, saying in strong words that employers should not do this, and advising users not to comply. In fact, it will soon be against the rules of use to share a password, and may result in account closure. We can only hope that Facebook comes through on its promise to work with lawmakers, some of whom are receptive, to render illegal such employer requests.

In the meantime, if you can, say no to requests to provide your personal password. Apply to a more ethical company instead. For many social media sites, you can create an account under a pseudonym, enabling you to use the application without managers being able to access it. Just claim you do not have an account. For Facebook, where pseudonyms are a violation of rules, perhaps you can make your account unsearchable to the public.

Of course, make sure that whatever the public can see, is professional.

Look out for the epic, dark fantasy ebooks of Goodreads-rated author T.P. Grish at: 

Friday, 23 March 2012

R18+ : Let's be adult about it

If you are an Australian gamer, you are no doubt aware of our antiquated video game rating system, and the long and bloody campaign for an R18+ rating. If you are not, it is an issue you will find interesting, and perhaps it will make you appreciate more the enshrined rights you have in your governmental system for adults to choose their own entertainment. Unless of course you come from the handful of other countries where adults are told which games they can and cannot play, in which case this is a situation you may sympathise with.

The fight for an R18+ rating is not a fight to remove all censorship of games. Even with the titular rating introduced, there would still be a Refused Classification (RC) rating that may be applied to games with especially repugnant content, making them illegal to sell or purchase in Australia. Most people, including pro-R18+ rating gamers are supportive of the need for an RC rating. There are some games that are just unacceptable. No, the fight for an R18+ rating aims to reverse the situation we have now: where any game that has adult levels of violence, nudity or thematic material is banned. Why does this happen? Because the highest rating we have for video games is the M15+ rating, or in other words, the government legally mandates that only people aged 15 or under should be playing games. This is despite the many working, tax-paying (and voting) adults who play video games as a hobby nowadays.

This is the inertial relic of a slow, conservative government which has scapegoated video games in order to win the votes and ratings of the majority middle-aged population block, which traditionally was not into games. This trend has changed, as older people are now playing games in greater numbers; as I will detail later in this post. We do enjoy an R18+ rating for movies, TV shows, music and DVDs in Australia; but not for games. Of course no one would suggest taking away the adult rating for these mediums, because they are too popular. The fight is to create a rating system for video games that matches that of other entertainment mediums.

The Australian Classification Board has rejected quite a few games that contained adult material. These were not games with extremely disturbing content, these were games that happened to feature adult levels of violence and thematic material. You know, the same kind of content which adults watch happily on TV or in cinemas. Adult content does not equal bad. Regardless of what the true feelings of the Classification Board are, they are not to blame. They have to follow the regulation regarding classification, which does not allow adult games to be sold or imported into Australia. Period. So, it is the law that needs to be changed.

Common reasons given by anti-R18+ advocates is that video games, because of theist interactive nature, are more damaging psychologically. Additionally, it is claimed that because video games possess such allure with younger kids, that it is possible for kids to get their hands on unsuitable games. While they have a right to their opinion, it is one I disagree with.

All the studies conducted have not found a clear link between video games and violence, in fact some studies have proven video games can actually release tension. Some studies have shown that violent video games can increase feelings of aggression, but that is the same effect violent movies and TV shows also have. It is not heightened in the case of video games. Whilst it is important to keep violent video games out of the hands of children, banning adults from playing them is not the logical solution in my opinion. Alcohol and R18+ rated movies are also unacceptable for children, but where are the people clamouring for these products to be banned from the general population?

An R18+ rating will provide two benefits: 1) adult gamers can finally enjoy their rights to choose their own entertainment in the video game field and 2) it will be easier for parents to protect their children from adult content, if it is clearly labelled. It has been so embarrassing for Australia to be one of the only developed countries to not have an adult rating for games, that sometimes games clearly meant for adults were squeezed into the M15+ rating; making them accessible to minors.

Let adults play adult video games with high levels of violence, nudity and thematic content. Video games are not all Grand Theft Auto and shooting random people for no reason, there are a wide range of genres, and dare I say it; many games are actually quite complex, artistic and intelligent. In fact, many Grand Theft Auto games feature with interesting storylines, see GTA4 for an example. Sometimes, as with movies, adult material is necessary to get a point across. And if there are a few shallow games that use violence for its titillation value, so what? Would you ban all movies because of the many stupid, violent movies, or the TV shows that use nudity to sell advertising dollars?

Let the RC rating be given to games with content that is unacceptable in the eyes of a reasonable adult. Let us require everyone purchasing an R18+ rated game to show ID, to ensure children do not get their hands on the games until they are of age.

How has the issue actually progressed in reality? We are at a fairly positive stage, with the R18+ rating having recently passed the Lower House of Parliament, and facing introduction to a friendly Upper House. The provisions of the rating do seem to provide extra room for adult content, and make the M15+ rating more restrictive. I actually think that is a good thing, the M15+ rating should not have games with more than moderate levels of violence, nudity or thematic material.

This is a massive improvement over the recent years where the R18+ issue was something only a few dedicated gamers squawked about, and when it was very common for politicians to throw outrageously insulting claims about gamers around like a monkey throwing its feces. We also remember the R18+ Consultation. For years, gaming advocates have been criticizing their own community for the prevalence of crude language and impolite behaviour exhibited by gamers when angered. They often implored gamers to send polite letters to politicians discussing the need for an R18+ rating, and for greater respect for video games in political and journalistic speech. Well, we did. A large number of people submitted responses to the Consultation, most of them polite and supportive of the rating. And... politicians found an excuse to invalidate the results, stating the respondents were biased (even though the Consultation was open to everybody).

It seems like by early next year we could have a serviceable adult rating for games. There is one issue, however. There is an extra clause in the rating specifications that says R18+ rated games must meet acceptable community standards. Now, what is so bad about that? Well, for one thing, it is a stipulation not present in the Film classifications.. And for another, it is too vague. No matter how hard you try, if you produce any media product that is not completely bland, and has some edge or originality, you will offend someone. Also, let us consider the restriction on drug use that is linked to rewards. Now, I probably would not have any desire to play a game that linked drugs to rewards. But, does this not restrict games that aim for a satirical anti-drug message by letting you play characters that take drugs? Rules like these need to be taken into context.

But, overwhelmingly, the new rating will recognise that adults play games, and will add more breathing room to what games can be sold. In contemporary times, most adults are playing some sort of game, with many older adults playing core games and consoles. While, as for any medium, it is important to draw new hobbyists of young age to continue on the hobby in the future; video games are now fairly popular among the older population. And the best way to beat fear and prejudice, is to let people experience that which is new and different, and to learn that perhaps video games are just a fulfilling hobby, like any other.

Look out for the epic, dark fantasy ebooks of Goodreads-rated author T.P. Grish at: 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Baldur's Gate Re-opening

RPGers rejoice! Legendary pc role-playing game series, Baldur's Gate, is being revived with Enhanced Editions! Beamdog studios, purveyor of digital downloadable pc games, has obtained the license to make new games in the series, and is crafting two whole new games: Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition, and Baldur's Gate 2 Enhanced Edition. Whilst the first game will be released this year, no release date has been set for the second one. Both games will include their respective expansion packs: Tales of the Sword Coast and Throne of Bhaal.

The Baldur's Gate pc games were celebrated for their in depth gameplay, absorbing storylines and memorable characters set in the swords and sorcery world of the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms setting. Players could take the role of a daring bard, spell caster, holy warrior or a plethora of other fantastical roles, and experience a storyline revolving around an ancient evil god, and his still extant bloodline in the mortal world. Characters with their own intrigues and motives would accompany you as you uncovered vast conspiracies, fought strange and exotic monsters in varying locales, and interacted with characters with the series’ characteristic well-written dialogue. Many dedicated RPG fans still play the game, and no doubt felt giddy excitement when the news was announced.

So what do the Enhanced Editions entail, exactly? They will still comprise the same original game, albeit with improved graphics and UI (user-interface) features; although there will be new characters and new content added by the developers. Oh, and Beamdog (the development team) will be acquiring the talents of quite a few people who created the original series. The original Infinity Engine will still be used and the top-down, isometric 2d view will be retained. However, the graphics will be vastly improved. We do not have details (or screenshots) regarding specifically what improvement will be made, as of yet.

As for sound and music, you will be relieved to hear that the original epic soundtrack and voice work will be retained. Some new voice work will be added for new characters, and hopefully it will be of the same standard as the seminal original voice work.

For those interested in the many mods and tweaks programmed for the original games by their loyal community over the years, Beamdog has said that they are venturing to make all mods accessible with the Enhanced games, and that some of the more popular and well-made mods may be incorporated into the core game itself. The many small bugs of the original Baldur's Gate games may be fixed in the core game, without the need for additional fix packs.

There is no detailed information about what new content will be introduced, how much of it there will be, and whether the new characters will merely be characters your protagonist interacts with, or full-fledged companions. The news is still exciting nonetheless. It will be a thrill to explore the expanses of Baldur's Gate and Amn once again with trustworthy companions (especially Minsc) by your side, and with many original devs on board I am sure the new content and dialogue will be as exemplary as that of the previous games.

Look out for the epic, dark fantasy ebooks of Goodreads-rated author T.P. Grish at: 

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Everyone's Journey

The PS3 (PlayStation 3) exclusive indie game 'Journey' was released this month to critical acclaim, and has since inspired passionate discussion about what defines a gaming experience, and what place games have in the media kingdom. The game, available on the PlayStation online store as a downloadable product; sees players controlling a red-cloaked figure wandering through a windswept desert.

The game world is minimalist yet flowing, melancholy yet expressive. A largely empty desert plays host to scattered ruins that bespeak a once-proud empire now destroyed. The player's goal is to reach an omnipresent distant mountain, capped in light, and the player constantly runs, jumps and soars towards this mountain; flowing red robes and scarf conveying movement perfectly. You do indeed soar in the game, but only for limited periods. The ability is recharged by finding magical fonts, and you can fly for longer by finding scraps of the embroidered scarf.

There is no obvious pressure or direction guiding the player to the next objective, no quest journal, on-screen arrow, or exclamation mark over a character's head. Just the distant mountain. It is in this way that the game utilises your most basic instincts, and, likewise, exploits the most basic fundaments of gaming to provide enjoyment. We are drawn to head towards the distant light-capped mountain, because that is the goal in front of us. We feel elation as our character glides over sand dunes, and empathy as our character struggles against a dust storm. All the way, we keep heading towards the goal, the end of the journey.

We are alone in this journey, but our passage is touched by intersections with others, who may aid us, ignore us or try to take us off track. Journey has online connectivity, and other players will run into you on your journey, as you will on theirs. There is no ID or dress customisation; your fellow traveller looks exactly the same as you do. The only communication is a basic chirp. The puzzles in the game are platforms that must be leaped and bridges that must be opened, and your enchanted scarf is used in clever ways in these basic puzzles. Many puzzles require, or are easier with, the assistance of another player. Communication and synchronisation between the two of you will be required to survive the journey, and generally the game encourages pleasant, helpful interaction. However, you are free to simply walk away from the other person, disappearing into the desert sands on your solitary path. Undoubtedly, some players will find ways to trick or inconvenience other players utilising the communication methods available. Ultimately, your paths will diverge and your friend will depart on his own journey, dissipating into the desert sands. Your journey is one you will take alone.

As art, the graphics have the elegance and form of minimalism and a vague surrealism in the figures and landscapes portrayed. However, the individual characters and objects are distinct and bear rich, restrained colours. Sandstone buildings and mountains can be interacted with, or stand silent in the distance. The ruins, tablets and mosaics speak of a once-proud empire now fallen, bringing to mind the vain boasts of Ozymandias. Soaring, subtle orchestral tracks form the majority of the game's music, with frantic bursts of sound during the many tense puzzle sequences.

This is a game made to utilise the most fundamental elements of the human psyche, the need for direction, the need for a goal, or an end to life's journey; the ability to enjoy happier moments and to struggle through obstacles, emerging through the other side of the storm. No complex instructions or guidance are necessary, as the few cues we see on our screen appeal to our instincts, providing basic goals and obstacles. As a gaming experience, Journey utilises the mountain as a goal for the player to work towards, providing an objective to the game. The ability to soar and interact with basic puzzles is the only element of control the player has over the character, but is used effectively to overcome the game's 'levels'- the bridges and ruins that need to be traversed.

Both as an experience and as a game, Journey provides an end that we are always approaching, and in between there are puzzles, lows, highs, and brief interactions with others. The question is whether the game was built around the experience ThatGameCompany wanted to offer, or whether the experience was built around basic gaming controls. At a mere three hours, and with such basic interaction necessitated, it makes gamers question our perception of what makes a game good value. Journey is a piece of art, an enjoyable if basic video game, and a memorable experience. If you can view the game in that light, it is highly recommended.

Look out for the epic, dark fantasy ebooks of Goodreads-rated author T.P. Grish at: 

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Dragon Age: Origins Review

In the spirit of the massive slew of RPGs coming out this year, or having come out at the end of 2011, let me share an old review of mine, regarding a fantastic modern RPG, Dragon Age: Origins. Its relationship and relative merit to its sequel is an issue I will touch on in another post.

Dragon Age: Origins is an unbelievably fulfilling RPG, one that is so wholly addictive you will be tempted to keep on playing for a ridiculous number of hours on a daily basis. For some, that will be all the recommendation needed. There are some bugs, repetitive stretches and minor design issues to muddy the waters of this role-playing oasis. This is going to be a long review, so forgive me, but the game warrants one.

The role-playing choices you will make in this game are abundant, complex and varied. Dragon Age gives you real choices with dramatic consequences to be made, without an arbitrary good/evil gauge. In the majority of instances, choosing an option can be a real struggle. Do you help an ostensibly noble tribe eradicate their seemingly vicious, merciless enemy? Or, do you try to end the curse that may have turned said enemy into monsters; giving them a chance at a new life, but also risking that they may run amok and regroup later. The conversation options are plentiful, and there are many coercion and lore skill checks, allowing you to role-play a dashing or intimidating protagonist, and breathing life into the skills you select for your character. I must stress this game achieves something most RPG's don't, real choice. There is no illusion of choice here, each decision is a ripple in the pond of the game, affecting even the end game in various ways. The dialogue is interesting and expressive, the only fault is that sometimes characters can be too long-winded, sacrificing succinctness for quantity. While length dialogue is a pleasure in the right scenario, in some cases characters are more relatable if they don't constantly pontificate. Some merchants will speak three sentences every time you take a look at their wares, prompting annoyed pressing of the escape button.

The combat system is fluid and adroitly designed, with each class getting nifty specializations and abilities that make your character appropriately formidable in combat. The warrior/rogue/mage class choice, coupled with the decent choice of builds, makes combat an easy to learn but increasingly complex challenge. Rogues thankfully have a lot of devastating combat options in the game, not being eclipsed by the incredible warrior and mage experience. The combat interface is great on the PC, with a well-oiled camera and a very accessible array of buttons for journals, inventory and such. Combats play out in a very exciting and strategic manner, with minimal pre-preparation and a focus on on-the-spot tactics. Boss fights are a charm, and the much-lauded 'finishing moves' do make an appearance a suitably large number of times. There is a slight disconnect between selecting certain melee abilities and their execution, your character sometimes shuffling into place awkwardly for a second before launching the attack. Occasionally, melee attack animations do not convey the desired level of impact.

Loot gathering is mostly a charm, and money is in limited supply, meaning you have to be careful what you buy and ensuring you will grow to appreciate all the currency that you find. This is a positive thing as many RPGs give you too much money towards the end, making the economy a non-issue. One problem with the loot is that some chests, even heavily locked ones, give you boring, weak equipment which reduces the thrill of pack-ratting and is a pain to lug around until they can be sold.

One major flaw with this game is the presence of several dungeons which have too many rooms and groups of similar critters. The dungeons are simply too long, and despite the exciting combat sometimes quests can seem like hack-fests that must be waded through before the sweet nougat of role-playing can be found. Do not misinterpret this as saying Dragon Age is a hack and slash game, because it most certainly is not, it is a full-fledged role-playing game that happens to suffer from some monotonous spots in dungeons. The game is programmed very well, with very few bugs and a strong effort has been made to stop game-breaking situations, which are all too common in RPGs. One of the minor issues is the rough way your character freezes in mid-stride for a split-second before a triggered conversation is spawned.

The companions are interesting, well-written and feature enjoyable side-quests, as well as many dialogue interjections and topics of conversation. They really will react to the choices you make, and you will get attached to them. The nine companions available seem like a huge number, because you will feel an urge to bring them all along (which is impossible) because you want to know what they would think about a particular occurrence!

The graphics in DA are clever and magnificent. Yes, what you have heard about the technology being a bit old for the time is true, it was not cutting edge, and seems a little bland now. It is modern, however, and features adequately detailed environments, models and expressions. The real brilliance of the graphics is how the engine is used skillfully to create sprawling, detailed environments that the player can muck around in. Many buildings have huge roofs with intricate patterns, support beams and domes, all of which can be seen and zoomed in to with the camera during gameplay. Outdoor areas similarly feature wide open sky and an incredible draw-distance. You will fight many opponents in these beautiful environments without any noticeable lag, even on average computers. The ability to wage huge battles, spells and arrows being flung about; in these detailed environments, without lag, is worth the trade off. Subtle tricks are used to conserve memory, such as pre-drawn 2D landscapes to portray vistas such as standing on a bridge looking on a fighting army, to peering over a crenellation onto a forest below.

The music in the game is very good, but is not as exemplary as many gave it credit for. The celtic female voice-overs are particularly lovely, but the music is quality, but fairly cliche RPG music with the expected soaring crescendos. It does not reach the peak of the first Icewind Dale soundtrack, which I cannot recommend enough. Sound effects are fine, with the voice acting being superb and genuinely supporting the personalities of the people you will meet in the game.

How to summarize a game which occupied me for 170 hours of my life (over two playthroughs)? Dragon Age: Origins is one of the best cRPGs ever made, and most people will love this game whether you dabble in RPGs or are a RPG veteran. It truly is a captivating experience. Some monotony due to the too-large dungeons, some repetition, and some gameplay and visual quirks; make this game not quite as stellar as it could have been. Dragon Age does have more real role-playing choices than most RPGs, but is a bit rough around the edges. Overall, the lasting memories you will have of this game are of the epic storyline, intrepid adventurers and colourful characters; and not of its minor foibles.

Look out for the epic, dark fantasy ebooks of Goodreads-rated author T.P. Grish at: 

Thursday, 15 March 2012


On January 20th, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) was officially put on hold and withdrawn from being put to the vote in the House of Representatives, while PIPA (the Protect IP Act),  a similar contemporary bill proposed in the Senate, was also put on hold. So why were two pieces of proposed legislation that gained initial momentum from its determined advocates, suddenly derailed?

Let's start with what, in plain English, the Acts proposed to do. SOPA and PIPA were concerned with protecting U.S copyright holders from having their copyright and intellectual property (IP) violated and illegally copied by U.S-based or foreign web sites and internet users. Sounds good, right? Except the definition of copyright and intellectual property, and what the infringement of the concepts entails, was too vague and open to abuse. Additionally, the provisions to provide an opportunity for alleged offenders to mount a fair defense, are lacking. In fact, the legally guaranteed rights of web sites and users could be circumvented by the legislation.

How so? If a copyright holder alleges a web site has engaged in infringement, the alleged offender has five days to mount a defense. After that time, any financial support for the site could be shut down, including monetary services such as PayPal, as well as ad services. Additionally, the U.S government, if requested by copyright holders, could force search engines and ISPs (internet service providers) to bar access to the selected sites! The proposed laws would even reach outside of U.S jurisdiction. So essentially, web sites and internet users could be criminalised for alleged copyright and IP infringement, without having access to a proper defense.

Advocates of the Acts include Hollywood, the record industry, the ESA (which later dropped their support amid public outcry) and CBS, among others. Detractors and protestors of the bill include Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and many video game studious including Mojang and Epic Games. Major sites such as Google and Wikipedia went dark for a day, in order to protest the bill, and managed to galvanise major public support by informing users of the precise details of the Acts.

This backlash prompted many previous supporters or neutral parties of the Acts to retract their support, including President Obama and the ESA. The creators of the proposed bills also decided to halt the legislation, citing the need for further discussion about reasonable steps to reduce piracy and infringement. They are no less determined to enact legislation to protect the theft and infringement of U.S IP and copyright, but are now aware they cannot ignore the perspective of internet users and web site owners. Many companies and organisations such as Google and the EFF have made it clear they will educate the public on the specific provisions of any proposed bill, negating the possibility of a bill being passed on the rhetoric of protecting U.S copyright alone.

Some argue the Acts were an attempt by arbiters of outdated technologies and gateways, such as the movie and record industry, to control the digital content industry, which is innovating to a much greater degree than they are, and are thus enabling greater numbers of users to access content via legal, digital mediums. There are also claims that the battle against infringement is a convenient cover to enable corporations and government to gain more control over legitimate internet activity. The shutting down of piracy site has prompted some to claim existing legislation is sufficient to battle piracy.

Whatever the case, it makes sense that the discussion over the regulation of digital content on the internet, takes place on the very medium it affects.

Look out for the epic, dark fantasy ebooks of Goodreads-rated author T.P. Grish at: 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Robin vs. Siri

Siri, the inbuilt voice command app for the iPhone, is a personable digital guide that has a pretty comprehensive list of voice command features. Siri, which received mixed reviews, is also able to control phone functions for you, as well as search for local businesses and perform research in search engines. Of course, it bears the Apple hallmarks of user-friendliness and personality.

So why the mixed reviews? There isn’t too much that Siri does, that cannot be achieved by other, older voice command apps. Perhaps it was the unrealistic hype. Voice commands are hardly the only, or main, criteria that people use when deciding what Smartphone to purchase, but they are a significant one. Let’s compare a recently released Android app, Robin, to Apple’s Siri.

Robin, a recently released (Mar 7th) App, is still in its beta phase, but is already making headlines. Robin is designed to be utilised in your car as a ‘voice assistant’, like having a secretary in the passenger’s seat guiding you.

Robin can find you locations, direct you, and provide, traffic, parking and weather updates, among other features. The difference is that Robin retains a ‘memory’ of your recent search terms, enabling you to ask adumbrating questions about the topic at hand without re-phrasing the question from scratch. You could ask for directions to a restaurant, and then ask about the traffic situation en route, for example.

If Robin retains and enhances Siri’s ability to organise your day from the home or office, its vehicular functionality could give it an advantage. Of course, it will be hard-pressed to match Siri for user-friendliness. It will be interesting to see what new features voice command apps will provide in the next few years, with inevitable updates and new versions.

Look out for the epic, dark fantasy ebooks of Goodreads-rated author T.P. Grish at: 

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A Casual Observation

The abundance of motion-controlled game devices has radically changed the scope of the game industry. The idea of workable, in-depth motion controls in video gaming is something that should excite anyone with its potential. Shooters where your hands hold the ‘gun’, where your footwork and crouching are reflected on the screen, while bullets whiz past. Strategies where you control your units ala Minority Report, like some hi-tech battlefield commander. Why, then, are seemingly all the games cutesy animal tending simulations or basic sports games?

The Playstation 3 has some games which tried to create truly complex motion controls, without much success. Complex games using motion controls need more than a decent idea for gameplay, effort needs to be taken to provide a large variety of different movements that provide an effect on gameplay, and making sure that movements are recongised fluidly. After all, motion control technology has been around for decades, what makes this generation of motion controls so revolutionary is that the software and hardware have the potential to actually work well and reliably.

Let’s digress for a moment. I am not saying there is anything wrong with casual games. It is my natural bias as a core gamer to wonder why so many casual games are needed. Just as many casual gamers no doubt wonder where core gamers get the time, or lack of employment, to spend so much time on their choice of electronic entertainment. These biases are not true of course, so let me state that casual games are an important market. I enjoy playing Kinect Adventures, and the potential for the Wii to involve family and friends in accessible and sociable fun is a pleasure I have enjoyed. Casual games are a great entry point for people not interested in spending too long with games as a hobby, and that is fine.

More objectively, I guess my argument is that when platforms only focus on one type of game, the system fails to meet its potential. Motion controls are great for providing accessible, immersive casual experiences. But they also would be incredible when implemented into core games where your body becomes that of the character in intense situations and through epic storylines. That way there are games for everybody, and the potential of the platform is reached. Core games do, in my opinion, push platforms to reach their potential in terms of functionality, interface and graphics.

The future holds promise. The Nintendo Wii, while focused on family friendly fare, does have some mature content and complex games. And the forecast for the future is great for the PS3 Move and Xbox 360 Kinect. On the inverse, the PC, once an exclusive den of core gaming, is sporting more and more casual games. It’s raining games!

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Syberia and Digital Art Part 2

Arriving at the rustic inn, the polite and understated innkeeper confirms that the funeral parade was indeed for the enigmatic Anna Voralberg. Thus the first complication of the story occurs. In writing this description of the game, I will narrate the events from the perspective of one who has finished the game and is highlighting the crucial points. This approach is necessary for succinctness, as much of playing a game involves exploring the same areas, solving puzzles both minor and major, and speaking to a variety of people, some of whom are granted small parts in the journey. This detail must be left out of the description, which would otherwise become a walkthrough or guide, and be experienced through one’s own playing of the game.

The passing away of Ms. Voralberg complicates Kate’s job, but it is nothing our young lawyer has not dealt with before, and she soon sets off to see the town lawyer and clerk. Valadilene is a snowy, well-kept town with rustic wooden buildings. The town was prosperous in the hey-day of its industry, but the abandoned buildings and rusting automatons speak of a community left behind by change.

The handful of remaining residents go about their lives amidst the decaying beauty, still using the few remaining automatons (such as the elaborate, small figure attached to the door of the clerk’s house, arm outstretched to hold official documents, and binoculars raised for the clerk to read them from inside). The residents are obviously hanging onto their history of automation, but are nonetheless gracious to Kate and quite eager for the business deal to take place, so the town can be economically revitalised and its young people return.

The formal, portly clerk calmly explains that normally in a case where the last remaining estate holder dies, the town would inherit the Voralberg factory, and the process of deciding whether to go ahead with the acquisition could be completed in the town through local community representatives. Unfortunately, a letter left by the deceased Anna Voralberg throws a cog into the mix, as she reveals her brother Hans, thought to have died years ago, is still alive somewhere in the far reaches of Siberia. Without the signature of the last heir, the clerk apologetically informs Kate, the deal cannot legally go through.

Thus, a quick trip to the middle of nowhere to complete a simple, yet immensely profitable, deal becomes more complicated. Kate’s mobile phone acts as a passageway between the surreal world she currently is adventuring in, and her normal, modern life in busy New York. Calls from her boss make it clear she works for a rude, demanding employer. Her personal calls reveal a caring, casual relationship with her feisty, sometimes embarrassing mother; and seemingly good, solid relationships with a best friend and boyfriend. Her relations with these New York connections will be emblematic of Kate’s journey between the ordinary, adult world of Kate the lawyer and the surreal, dream world that awakens the imaginative and idealistic side of Kate.

The Voralberg factory is in decline, and documents make it clear the company is going under, as well as shedding light on the touching sibling friendship between Anna Voralberg and her brother Hans, who suffered brain damage as a result of an accident. It becomes clear that their father shunned Hans after the accident, mourning the loss of the ordinary, adventurous boy who was to take over the family business after Mr. Voralberg’s death. Hans and his sister went exploring in the wilderness near town when they were kids, stumbling upon a prehistoric cave where once lived a prehistoric family. On a high natural shelf sat something interesting, a toy woolly mammoth, made perhaps out of bone and animal fur. Made by a loving father or mother for their children to play with thousands of years ago, and left behind untouched on the rocky shelf- until being discovered by the intrepid kids. It is while trying to acquire this precious item that Hans had his accident, hitting his head on the unyielding rocky floor.

The last thing Hans saw, or wanted; before the accident, was the woolly mammoth figurine. The now brain-damaged Hans huddles away in corners of the factory and his house, wilting under his father’s disapproving stare. The boy develops an obsession with mammoths, drawing them and building automaton miniatures of the long-gone beasts. Since mammoths were the last thing he saw before the accident, they seem to have sparked his imagination and a secret part of his brain that is normally hidden in people (or perhaps silenced, by the mundane nature of ordinary life).  For now the once ordinary boy has developed a genius for designing and building automatons. His father once again is disappointed that his boy would rather build toys than commercial automatons. Hans reaches out to his sister, building beautiful automaton figurines for her, creations that can play music and recreate events. Hans runs away in his teen years, and his father, unable to bear the shame and grief, engages in a conspiracy with the town priest to fake the boy’s death.

It is revealed that Hans constructed an extremely advanced automaton train and conductor, Oscar, to take a very special passenger on a ride to meet the emancipated Hans. That special passenger was to be his sister Anna, and Hans wanted nothing more than for her to join him in his search to find his dream, his fate, whatever it may be.

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Saturday, 3 March 2012

Syberia and Digital Art Part 1

There has been debate about whether video games can be classified as art, with both gaming's detractors and fans giving their input. Some claim that the interactive nature of games stops it from being art, others have played many games which have genuinely touched them or affected them. In my opinion, art is something that makes you think or affects you in some interesting or profound way, and many games have done that for me. Perhaps this discussion will be re-visited later on, but for now I would like to discuss two computer adventure games, in the same series, that struck me as being particularly profound: Syberia and Syberia 2. This blog will focus on these games, not the games as art debate.

Syberia was released in 2002 and Syberia 2 came out in 2004. They were released for the PC, but ports were made for the Xbox (original) and PS2, and a more recent adaption for the DS (for the first game). The games are, however,  outstanding and old-school examples of the computer adventure game genre. What do I mean by adventure games? Adventure can mean so many things nowadays  including action games with exploration elements, but that is not the kind of adventure game I am referring to. These games are point-and-click, inventory and puzzle based adventure games. You control a character, wandering around different environments, picking up a ludicrous number of items (that your character could not realistically fit on their body!) and interacting with characters and environmental puzzles. The Syberia series is more than its gameplay, if that makes sense. It is a beautiful and moving experience with a poignant story to tell and a timeless message, the endlessly bleak yet evocative windswept environments of the game mirror the delicateness, isolation and slow pace of the unraveling story. Syberia would not work nearly as well as a movie or book, the interaction inherent to gaming actually adds to the uniqueness of the story.

Your protagonist, Kate Walker, is an ambitious, hip, resourceful lawyer from New York whose outward confidence hides insecurity and a kind streak. She has arrived in the small, quaintly picturesque French town of Valadilene, hidden away in the European Alps. The game world is set in modern times in a slightly altered timeline: one where automatons were, for a brief time in the 1800s, extremely important and widespread inventions in the fields of toy-making, industry, transport and war. Automatons are wind-up mechanical inventions, ranging from moving figurines to wind-up trains to automated workers. These automatons became obsolete with the onset of electricity, and by modern times, they are nothing but a faded memory. Valadilene happens to be the home-town of the Voralberg automaton factory which was the most popular and profitable automaton producer back in its hey-day.

So why is Kate in Valadeline? She is a lawyer for a large law firm which is currently representing Universal Toy Co, a toy mega-corporation. Their client wants to buy-out the Valadeline factory to acquire its historical name, and convert it to a modern producer of electric and battery-powered toys. I assume taking over and modernizing a company with nostalgic appeal in Europe would have appealed to local customers as a brand name. In any case, the deal seems simple. Voralberg Toys is on the verge of bankruptcy, unable to pay its debts. The current owner, Anna Voralberg, cleverly mitigated the decline of the industry by advertising the company to obscure, wealthy art-house clients. This enabled the company to barely eke out an existence for years, but recently this meager source of income is no longer enough to even pay the company's debts. An offer to acquire the company for a large sum, from a wealthy corporation, seems like an irresistible offer, especially considering the potential economic revitalization of the fading town. And Anna Voralberg did agree to the terms, Kate is there merely to take care of the formalities, the contract and signatures required.

Naturally, as stories tend to go, Kate finds out her newest job will not be so straightforward. Upon arriving at Valadeline, she witnesses a funeral procession for the recently deceased Anna Voralberg...

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Contempt by Facebook

Social media has opened up communication in a big way, by providing an omnidirectional, accessible and unrestricted communications forum. Users can post their opinions and hold discussions with anyone, at any time, and, significantly, there is no start or end to the discussion. Through the transitory power of links, discussions move from one person to another, from one perspective to another. Anyone can squat down on a chair in front of an internet enabled device and let loose, without being subject to qualifications or standards.

Of course there are exceptions, as Facebook, along with other social mediums such as forums, have their own privacy options and rules. In fact, I guess much of the preceding text should be qualified with exceptions and limitations. The point being made, however, is social media is associated with freedom of discourse. Reality check for some recently, as a juror was charged and sentenced to eight months incarceration for shooting the breeze with the defendant on Facebook, during the trial. Jurors are forbidden from having personal discourse with defendants during the deliberations, or engaging in behaviour which may influence the ultimate verdict.

 The juror, who also searched for information about the defendant's boyfriend online against confidentiality instructions, claimed she felt some empathy for the defendant and did not mean to influence the verdict. Extracts from the conversation sound uncannily like casual Facebook banter between friends, one commiserating the other over a trivial personal problem: 'what's happenin with the other charge??' (defendant), to which the juror asked for clarification, then replied 'cant get anyone to go either no one budging pleeeeeese don't say anything cause jamie they could all miss trial'.

Except this was a very serious criminal trial, and the topic anything but trivial. The judge released a statement explaining the grim, but arguably necessary decision to jail the juror, reiterating that jurors have, and always have had, a sworn oath not to engage in communication that could jeopardise judicial integrity. It was true with traditional media, and holds true with social media. Additionally, the trial is being re-examined because of the indiscretion.

Social media is a different type of medium than the phone or the printed press, and, controversially, is not always subject to the same regulations. But, there are some major legal regulations and standards involving touchstones like judicial integrity (in this case), as well as others, such as defamation, which we must assume applies to all communication mediums.

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The Nintendo Wii U

Nintendo’s seminal motion sensing device of 2006 introduced responsive motion controls- enabling a whole new interactive way of playing original games, as well as beloved Nintendo franchises brought to the system.

Now a brand new successor to the Wii, the Wii U, has been introduced. The system, introduced at last year’s E3, seems to be an answer to criticisms about the Wii’s basic graphics as well as the system’s longevity; considering the success of rival motion devices such as the Move and Kinect.
The Wii U sports high-definition, up-to-standard graphics, and a fascinating controller, incorporating a touch-pad with stylus as well as traditional button layouts. On the edges of the screen-like controller are two circle-pads for movement, a d-pad, four A,B,X and Y buttons, as well as bumpers and triggers. There are also the obligatory start, select and home buttons. The bulk of the controller, however, is taken up by a rather cute-looking touch-screen.

Several exciting features of the Wii U controller are that:
Whole games can be played on the controller screen, if someone else is using the TV in your house, with the graphics and audio streamed wirelessly from the console itself, to the controller in your hands.

When playing with the TV, which seems to be the optimal experience, it seems like the interface and menus can be manipulated on the controller, with the TV being dedicated 100% to displaying the game play, without any HUD. One can imagine potentially playing a shooter or strategy game, where the TV screen is devoid of any distracting HUD or buttons, those aspects being handled by the controller.

The Wii U controller has some innovative applications in co-op games, especially when we consider that the Wii U console is compatible with older Wii controllers. With the already announced game Chase Mii, one player controls a character by staring at and controlling their Wii U remote, receiving instructions that nobody else can see. The other characters have the job of chasing after this character and tagging him/her, but they play the game by staring at the TV. The whereabouts of the target player is not visible on the TV, whose screen is split between the ‘chasers’. This kind of flirtation with the practical and simple joys of social play, such as the withholding of key information, shows how Nintendo can evoke the same fun groups can have playing board games or charades, and adapt it to an electronic medium. Other developers sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees when designing social play experiences, focusing too much on software and hardware instead of designing both around a desired experience. It will be exciting to see how more complex and graphically impressive games play out in co-op.

The Wii U controller has motion and voice controls and a built-in-camera. While we have yet to see exactly how these will be used, the motion control features will no doubt be less comprehensive than the original Wii remote, due to the heftiness of the Wii U controller.

White, smooth and rounded seems to be the aesthetic direction taken for the organic-looking, but surprisingly bulky console. Although the graphics have all the current-gen features and remarkable resolution, they seemed to barely match what the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are already offering. As always, Nintendo’s edge will be in the innovative ways of controlling their games and experiencing their worlds.

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Online Games Really Free?

With the economy the way it is these days, people are perhaps more ginger about throwing down 60-100 dollars (depending on your place of residence) for a full-price video game, perhaps even more so for MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). MMORPGs require a monthly fee of around $15 or so, paid continuously, in order to continue playing with your character(s). However, MMORPGs add the noteworthy feature of a continuously expanding world with a constant stream of new content- very distinct from the patches we have come to expect for all games. The genre that is lead by WoW (World of Warcraft) has undergone a recent trend of change, with more MMORPG developers adopting a free to play model.

No gimmicks here, many games have a completely free to play model which lets you embody your  character in the game world and enjoy the full game experience, for nothing more than using your internet space. There are paid donations which give you access to more character slots, new items, more storage, exotic pets, and the like. Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach, and Warhammer Online are games with a full-featured free gaming option, with optional donations. The industry behemoth, WoW, recently introduced a more limited free to play option where you may play a character up to level 20, and have limited gold and skill options. Paying removes all the limitations.

Offering a product for free is a bizarre concept to most people's sensibilities, particularly when talented people have to work for years to craft it. Is it a sign of an increasingly demanding and selfish consumer base for video games, one who wants access to a game for free before they plonk down cash? Developers are volunteering to use this model to attract a greater number of users, and hope the donation options will provide a sustainable salary (it does seem to be profitable for some companies!).

Video game consumers are used to paying a lot of money for their product, and are often restricted in the use of their medium more than partakers of other hobbies. So perhaps the consumers are not getting too demanding. Perhaps the free to play model is an increasingly attractive financial option in the crowded MMORPG market, especially with walltets tightening for many people.

Either way, the consumer wins. Despite the access to bonus content for paying customers, there are a lot of free to play MMORPGs which feature full worlds and huge amounts of play time for anybody.

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