Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Buy fast, regret even faster

When the iPhone was lowered from $599 to $399 a few months after its release it caused a small outrage amongst its early customers. The new price made sure that more people can afford one. But everyone who bought it at the $599 price point felt like he was getting screwed by Apple. And of course quite a few who did have the new technical marvel also had a blog about technology where they could vent their anger.

Imagine walking past two stores. In our first scenario you see a car you've always wanted for $10.000. Then you walk past the next store and you see it priced at $12.000. You're happy, you did the smart thing! In the second scenario you see the car at $9.500. The next store has the car at $8.000. You're mad because you feel like you paid too much for the car. Even though you paid less in the second scenario you're not happy.

So I find it weird to see thee huge discounts on games these days. Here's a few examples:
  1. Dragon Age. I've bought Dragon Age a month ago for €35.49 at play.com. I was happy back then because it was listed at €55 in our own stores. Less then a month later however I can find it for less then €17 at amazon.co.uk. 
  2. Left 4 dead 2. This game has dropped to the same €17 at amazon.
  3. Torchlight. One month ago this game costed €15. Today you can buy it for €3.75 in the bargain of the day.

I'm well aware that prices drop all the time. But these price cuts are making me think three times before ordering a retail game. If the price is cut in half after only one month I can surely wait another month to buy the game.
There are better alternatives then this. The whole point in price drops is to segment the market. Some people want a game immediately and are willing to pay a bit more. Most gamers will be willing to pay a dollar for a top game. And everyone else is in between these two extremes. Dropping the price a bit at a time will make sure everyone buys it at their price point. Some people will be willing to buy it at €20. If the price lowers beneath that point you sold one. Once the price goes down to €5 just about everyone bought the game at their own price. Great system in theory. But if the prices drop so fast why would someone buy it at the maximum price?

Steam seemed to get it. They added their weekend deals. You only want to pay half the price? No problem, you can this weekend! Those who bought it at that price are happy, steam is happy with the extra income and those who bought the game a year ago won't mind the price cut as they're already playing the new, cool games.

Well, steam mostly seems to get it. Take a look at their new Christmas bargains. 9 December this year the compiled Monkey Island series were released at £35. These days you can buy those games, the Sam and Max games, the Strongbad games, Wallace and Grommit and the Bones games for... £35. The new Batman game is only three months old. And now you can buy that game plus the entire Ubisoft catalog for £5 less then for the price of Batman. Fun for most people and bad news for those who already bought these games.

Don't get me wrong, we all like cheap games. I love to see these huge bargain deals. Everyone will find something to extend their catalog in these deals. But I do have mixed feelings about the timings. Cutting your prices in half only months after a game release will make a lot of people feel ripped of. And that means that less people will buy your next game at full price, the moment you'll have to look good for your investors. To me it seems quite clear that the best strategy is to wait at least a month before you buy a game. You'll be saving tons of money.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Steam deals of the week

Steam is having one great Christmas bargain period with tons of games in it. Here's a small list of games you should definitely look out for:
  • Audiosurf - £1.49. If you like both music and games you should give this game a try. You can pick any song from your music collection and a level will be generated. Then you can go and try to set the all time high score for your favorite songs!
  • Braid - £1.74. Braid is an indie platform game that will have your brains do some overtime. It's a great looking game filled with clever puzzles.
  • Eidos Everything package - £35. For one low price you get every Eidos game on steam including the recent topper Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's worth it for that game alone but you also get the excellent Hitman games, the new Tomb Raider games, the two Deus Ex classics, Thief: Deadly shadows and a bunch of lesser games.
  • Evil Genius - £1.39.  Be the horror of all James Bond wannabes. Dig a lair and fill it with heinous traps.
  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - £3.49. It's a game everyone should have played. If you don't like Star Wars yet you will after having played through this classic.
  • Telltale Everything package -£35. Telltale games are the modern day snacks for us adventure lovers. They take episodic gaming seriously and release one game a month, something Valve could learn from. This deal gives you all their games. This includes their excellent Sam & Max games, the new Monkey Island games, the Strongbad series and the somewhat lesser received Wallace & Grommit and the Bones games. A must for every adventure lover.
  • Time Gentlemen, Please! and Ben There, Dan That! Double Pack - £1.49. Great little indy adventures. Haven't played them yet but bought them to play one of these days.
  • Titan Quest and Expansion - £4.99. If you like Diablo and have never played this game then it's about time you give it a try.
  • World of Goo - £4.29. My favorite game of last year and one of the best indie games ever created. Everyone should have played this game.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Download Limits: a Dinosaur in Modern Times

Age of Conan is having a new offer for new players. Everyone can now try out their game from level 1 to level 20 for free! There are a few small limitations attached but its a nice way to try out the game. Except for one problem... The client is 20 gb and I have a 25 gb download limit per month.

Today it hit the newslines again: "Belgian download limits are enforcing Telenets and Belgacoms duopoly". Belgium is one of the only countries in West Europe that has to deal with limits. Our Northern neighbors, the Netherlands get unlimited Internet for a fraction of our price. The Internet market over here is divided between two major isps, Belgacom and Telenet. Both players are currently having the majority of Belgian digital television, Internet, telephony and mobile phone networks under their control. And they're both having similar limits and price ranges.

How did this happen? Twelve years ago we decided to get an Internet connection. Back then there was a 10 gb limit a month. And back then I had a pc with a 3 gb harddisk. It was a time where the only real traffic that happened was in downloading mp3s. That limit seemed more then enough back then. All I wanted to do back then was surf a bit and download a few mp3s.

Flash forward to 2009. My harddisk size followed Moores law grew from 3 gb to 2 tb (x666). And the limits? They went from 10 gb to 25 gb (x2.5). But mp3s aren't the only thing to download anymore. Plenty of online services have popped up. You can still download mp3s but you can now also buy games through online platforms such as steam, gog.com or impulse. Movie rentals over the Internet are also gaining momentum. The US already has services such as Hulu to distribute movies and TV series. And in Belgium?

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the only digital television services we have over here come from either Belgacom or Telenet depending on which provider you have. I can watch movies through Telenets portal and those "downloads" don't count toward my monthly limit. Of course other players want to enter this market. Microsoft wants to offer Zulu for their Xbox 360 system. One HD movie would be around 14 gb. A quick calculation shows us that the average Belgian will be able to see zero or one HD movies each month (most "regular Internet packages" have a 1 à 4 gb limit). It's impossible to compete because of these limits.

So our minister has decided to start an investigation. It's not the first one so I'm doubtful that it will change anything this time. Worse, half the shares of Belgacom are owned by... the Belgian state. Our own government which has to make sure everything is played by the rules has nothing to gain by removing these data limits. In contrary, removing them would mean that an investment is needed in the cables that run to our homes to provide more bandwidth. It would mean that there is more competition in the movie rentals and thus less profit for Belgacom. In short, I can only see changes happening if it comes from a higher instance such as the European Union. I doubt if even Microsoft can force these behemoths to change.

In the past these Internet providers would often respond to criticism by saying that only pirates need unlimited Internet access. To me it's obvious however that these limits have completely different reasons. For starters it makes sure that no competition can start their own heavy bandwith services such as movie rentals. It also makes sure that they don't need to invest in their infrastructure. And these limits are the only reason that there are different internet packages. They're all the same except that for €15 extra a month you get another 10 gigabytes of download limit. Pure theft if you ask me.

It's sad to see we still have these ancient limits. Now and then a revolutionary new idea gets out. Online gaming portals such as steam see daylight. Movie rentals such as Hulu are launched. And we can even see streamed gaming in the future. Streamed gaming is a concept where all a games processing is done on servers and sent as images to client PCs. Sounded great when I read it but I immediately thought of it as impossible unless if Belgacom and Telenet offer their own ripoff services. Which would give them another monopoly...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pugging gets a whole new meaning

Reviving old content is a great way to keep your player base happily playing with a minimal of developing efforts. In the past WoW has seen the introduction of revamped dungeons such as Naxxramas and Onyxia. And now Blizzard has come up with a new way to extend the lifetime of their old content. The newest patch introduces a "Looking for Group" party across servers. This creates a much bigger player base to choose from when forming a pick up group. And they've added two new emblems for every successful random pug you run. So there are new items to be gained from running the old instances and it's easier to find a group for them.

There's also some real new content in the form of three more instances. Using the LFG tool seemed like a great way to try out these instances and the new LFG method. So I queued up for the first, new dungeon and after ten minutes I could join a group. I was pleasantly surprised to see the option to teleport to the instance. Once upon a time everyone would have to walk to the instance and the first one there could just sit and wait for ten minutes. Nowadays the time it takes to run one instance is similar to the time it takes until everyone reached the instance in the old days.

I somewhat feared to end up pugging the new, difficult instances with green geared tanks and healers. As it turned out most runs went fine. All the players in my pugs had epics which makes me relieved to see that there is some kind of gear check. It was a double feeling to see that the gear dropped in these instances is better than that I got from end game raiding six months ago. The top of the line axe I got back then from the endboss in the hardest instance is now being replaced by one I got in a five men run which took me twenty minutes. On one hand it gives me a reason to do a few of these runs so I can get those new items. On the other hand it shows just how quickly items get old. People often complain about how every expansion makes their gear useless but you get the same if you just stop playing for a few months.

Of course there had to be some drama in these runs. Should the tank be allowed to roll on DPS gear? Should we roll need or greed on bags and frozen orbs? Ideally these things are set in stone before the run starts. Otherwise the second the tank rolls need on that DPS item the hunter will be mad. Then we had one DPS getting the tank gear. When asked if he would trade the item he said "sure, trade me" after happily having teleported back to his own server. On another run I should have seen that the run was doomed after two minutes. The tank was asking if no one else wanted to tank as he didn't really like it. Hint: queuing in an instance as a tank to get in aafter 10 seconds instead of 10 minutes will backfire as you won't pass the first boss after twenty minutes.

I expected these problems but overall these runs went great. You won't make you any new friends using the LFG tool though. The average run took about half an hour and the chances are great that you'll never see the other players in your group again. In a way that's something I miss. In the old days you could run an instance with a few guys and ending up with adding them to your friends list next to other capable and friendly players. Having some good players to run instances is after all more important than having one more epic. These days it's all about anonymity. Which of course also lowers the barrier to behave badly.

The waiting times for the instances I joined as DPS were in the range of fifteen to twenty minutes. Add to that that you no longer have to travel to the instance anymore and you can just queue up, get a cup of coffee and enjoy a dungeon. It's even better for tanks and healers as they have waiting times in the range of seconds.  I'm not surprised to see the number of tanks and healers is still low. Tanking is scary after all and most people dislike taking on the responsibility needed to do these jobs. I'll give tanking a random pug a go one of these days, should be fun (and scary)!

Overall, I think the LFG tool is a great addition which will make sure that more people enjoy the existing dungeons. Especially the older instances now have a chance to see a pug visit them. We'll have to see if it's still as popular in half a year. Everyone is trying it out these days so it's to be expected that the queue times are low. And it also makes me curious which wonders Blizzard still have up their sleeve for WoW as implementing this feature must have been a technical nightmare.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Welcome back

Seeing my World of Warcraft account getting hacked wasn't much fun but it does have one positive side. Since I had to pay €15 to get my deleted items back I decided to log in a few times this month and see what changed. I haven't played WoW since April this year so there's quite a bit of new content to go through. And of course I wanted to say hello again to all the friends I haven't spoken to in months.

As I logged in I was quickly greeted by some of my guild members. Time is never standing still so I wasn't surprised to see that my guild looks nothing like it did half a year ago. Roughly half of the people I enjoyed chatting and playing with had all decided to join a guild that was more to their liking. Only the officer team seems to be relatively intact. The player gap has been filled in with lots of new players but it doesn't feel like the same guild. I had a chat with the old officers and my friends from ancient times. In this short time I even got a few guild invites to restart raiding!

As I'm a min maxer one of the first things I just had to do was to look up the new top deathknight spec. As my luck would have it that spec was obsolete one week later as patch 3.3 rolled in. It seems like the deathknight class is still going through a roller coaster ride. Before patch 3.2 my unholy build was too strong. One patch and its nerf later it wasn't a viable spec anymore. The newest patch was supposed to put it back to normal but only days after releasing it did they nerf the spec again. Updating those damage spreadsheets must be one hard job. To me, the biggest change to the unholy spec is that they removed our cool unholy blight spell and changed it with a boring, passive talent. I hope they'll eventually put the spell back in some form in the expansion.

Last week my guild was planning an Onyxia run and I gave them the extra hand they needed. The run wasn't very smooth but five wipes later we had one dead dragon. Quite the difference from soloing her ten months ago... It also feels weird to see people walk around in gear my mage used to wear five years ago. Onyxia's hat is suddenly popular again and people are even wearing moonshroud robes! We must all be tied to the giant wheel of time after all.

Some things never seem to change. Blizzard reinvented the wheel again as they have done before. The equipment manager they added feels an aweful lot like the old Itemrack addon. Hover over a slot and you can finally see all the items from your bag that fit in that slot. It's just not as easy to use compared to how Itemrack implemented it. And in that addon you could also add events. There it was possible to automatically equip your carrot on a stick when you mount or equip your wedding dress when you entered a city. So as they did with their scrolling combat text implementation Blizzard took a great addon and then just gives us a dumbed down version. It makes me wonder why they don't just strike a deal with the addon creator. Creating an addon of such scale is a ton of work and just copying that addon feels like a huge waste.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I won! As one of the first three to send Lewie Procter a meesage I got a free copy of  Samorost 2. Samorost 2 is the sequel to the original game Samorost that can be played for free at the creators website. Amanita Design, the creators of the game, are currently creating a lot of fuzz with their new game Machinarium so I was curious about this game. I quickly retrieved my steam gift and while the sequel was downloading I went ahead and played through the the original game.

Samorost 1 & 2 are classic point and click adventure games. In the first game you're following a cute little fella (see screenshot) trying to save his planet from being crushed by an astroid. The second game has you chasing aliens who kidnapped his dog! There's evil and then there's kidnapping a dog. So I happily went out to help our protagonist save his dog from the clutches of the evil, blue men.

The first thing that drew my attention is the beautifully drawn art. Every scene is filled with lovely details. Birds are flying around and will move around if you click on them. Flowers are moving if you hover over them. There's a lot of things to see in every scene. Best of all, this won't torture your graphics card, it's all 2D in a preset resolution. These games should be playable by anyone who bought a PC this decade.

There are no voices to be heard. Instead everything is visually shown. If a man wants you to fetch his pipe for him then you see him thinking of pipe. It's cleverly done and probably makes translations easier for the developers.

The puzzles are of course what it's all about in an adventure and here they are often inventive. For example you have to wake a captain of a taxi. You find a cabinet with a kettle, a tap and a few bottles. Now if you take a closer look one of the bottles has "coffee" on it. Put the coffee in the kettle, open the tap and there: cold coffee. Next you put the kettle on the fire and you give it to the captain. Problem solved!

Not all puzzles are fun however. This game has the same problem some of the old adventures had: pixel hunting. At times you'll have to scan the entire screen with your mouse cursor just to find those five pixels on the screen that you can interact with. After being stuck for fifteen minutes on one of these puzzles I checked a walkthrough and felt that I would never have gotten that. Another annoyance are the timing based puzzles. You have to click A first and then B exactly half a second later. It's not clear to the user that he is doing something wrong. I click A and then I click B and nothing happens. I'll try that again once but after that I'll try out other solutions and be stuck because there are none. If I want to play a timing based game I'll go and find me a platform game, thank you. These timing puzzles get even worse. You have to spend five minutes getting an item to continue with a second puzzle. If you fail the timings in the second puzzle you have to spend another five minutes getting the first item again. This could have been handled much better. Don't punish your players if they fail to get a puzzle.

Samorost and Samorost 2 are short games so they're great to play in between two big budget gaming sessions. The game design, graphics and most puzzles make it well worth playing for everyone who likes adventure games. And the first game is free so there's no excuse not to play it. Samorost 2 can be downloaded through steam and is up for €2 for the entire week.

Trailer for Amanita Designs new game Machinarium:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Cove

Fourty years ago Richard O'Barry was training dolphins for the tv series Flipper. A great job where he could afford a Porsche a year and let's face it, who doesn't love dolphins?  The last thirty years he's been trying to undo what he started back then.

Before Flipper was on television there were three dolphin shows all over the world. After Flipper the demand for these shows began to skyrocket. And each of these places needs dolphins. Where do all these dolphins come from? Do they just voluntarily swim into their dolphinaria like the shows owners would like us to believe?

This movie answers that very question and it's not a pretty sight. Each year 23.000 dolphins are being slaughtered in Japan. The big money is in catching those cute bottlenose dolphins (yes, the ones who look like Flipper) which sell to shows for thousands of dollars each. Doing tricks for food is all they'll be doing for the rest of their lives. And those who aren't cute enough to swim in a show? Those unlucky ones end up in the supermarket.

Surely no one eats dolphin food I hear you say? Not consciously but the food is labeled as whale meat in Japanese shops (which does make me wonder who would eats whale meat). Worst of all however is that the meat is heavily poisoned with mercury. Mercury tends to stack its way up the food chain. And since dolphins are on top of their food chain they are full of mercury. Only those who eat dolphins get even more mercury in their blood. Tests on the meat show that the mercury levels are 900 times above the safety limit. Some might consider killing dolphins to be a cultural thing just like eating dogs is in parts of China. Noone can however consider selling poisonous meat acceptable.

It makes one really wonder why the Japanese authorities do not intervene. Selling poisonous food in local schools should be a court case any lawyer can win. Instead of doing something about it the Japanese are actually trying to legalize whale hunting again. So far they've been using the loophole of  whaling for scientific reasons. Nowadays they are even bribing other, third country worlds to get their vote on legalizing whale hunting again.

The movie shows all this and more but what it does brilliantly is keep the footage of the killing for the end of the movie. Seeing the images of fishermen throwing harpoons at dolphins is enough to make anyone yield. "The dolphins are killed in one blow" the PR men from Japan assures us. And a second later we see a dolphin trying to get away while leaving a stream of blood. It's all just so brutal and so pointless.

This is a documentary that works. After seeing this documentary I'm convinced that the dolphin hunt should be forbidden. And a documentary that manages to prove its point in such a convincing way is a must see for everyone.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Buying overseas

Five years ago when I wanted a game I would walk to the local shop and buy it. Some research might have gone in it to find the cheapest shop in the neighborhood but I'd always get my game in a ten kilometer radius from my home. With the discovery of the internet and finding out about online shopping things have changed quite drastically. It's suddenly possible to buy items from your neighboring countries without leaving your home. We can buy some items cheapler in other countries and some items are priced cheaper here.

The UK seems to have much cheaper prices for books, dvds and PC games. There are tons of book shops in the UK which causes a lot of competition and therefore cheap prices. And of course the English book market is a lot bigger than the Dutch one which allows for cheaper mass production. Translations of movies and games is often cited to defend the higher prices in the Benelux. Lots of movies that I buy from the UK come with Dutch subtitles however and not even the game guide is translated for our local versions. It seems clear to me that the reason why pay more is that we are willing to pay more. If enough people would stop buying locally the prices would lower. And with online shops rising we finally can stop buying locally. Consumers seem to be doing just that as an article in the news today mentioned that more and more Christmas gifts are being bought online.

Another reason for the cheaper prices is that shops like play.com are set up in the Channel Islands. There, items which cost less then £18 can be sold tax-free. Perfect to distribute cds and books as you can easily afford to offer these items a lot cheaper than your competition in the rest of Europe. And the ~20% you save on taxes will overcome the shipping costs.

I do wonder how those shops can ship so cheaply. When I take a look at amazon.co.uk the items are usually cheaper than in Belgium. However the prices to post outside of the UK are enormous. £6 to send a single cd or dvd? That's about the cost of the dvd itself. It's only worth it to buy from amazon in bulk or to buy more expensive items so the shipping costs only make up a small percentage of the total costs. On the other hand, play.com manages to sell me a dvd for €4.5 which includes shipping costs. I've seen even cheaper shops, thebookdepository.co.uk sells books for €2.06. This has to cover the costs of printing a book, packaging and posting it. And they're using Royal Mail which has been the fastest of any services I have used. Order an item and two days later I have it in my mailbox.

The average book seems to weigh about 340 grams so the cost to send such a package would cost £2.66. It makes me wonder just how it's possible that they can send me a book at those costs and still make a nice profit. A deal with Royal Mail to ship books in bulks seems like a reasonable option. Maybe they're selling some items at break-even or a small loss just to clear their inventory. Space costs money after all. Another way might be to create local distribution centra all over Europe. Seeing how they use royal mail that's obviously not the case but it would form a good solution. These are all just guesses of course, I would like to find out how they really do it.

But no matter how they do it, for us consumers we always win. More and more consumers seem to be finding their way to online shopping which should lower the prices in my own country after a while. Cds, dvds or books have never been so cheap to obtain! At least if you like to read in English...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

You can leave your hat on

You always think that these things only happen to others. You may even think that they should have used better protection. And then one day you get this mail in your box from your guild leader:

Hi there,

I dont know if this email will arrive, but I will try anyway. I saw that your chars came online today.

They are selling all your gear and equipment and they are not answering on guild chat.

I think you are being hacked.

Suddenly it's not someone else who has been hacked. It's you! So I quickly took a  look in my second mailbox account and yes: someone merged my account to a battle.net account. My account has been frozen for half a year so someone must have hacked it and have reactivated it. Next thing I did was checking my characters and my armory page looked like this:

Kind of them to put on my Christmas hat, it's the season!. Everything that a vendor will accept is sold however. After seeing that picture I  really started to worry. They reactivated my account, how much will that cost me? If they've extended my account for six months it'll cost me €65. Then could also transfer my characters which will cost me even more.

 But of course the real damage is in the items and gold you loose. I've spent over 5.000 hours in the game. And suddenly it's all for nothing, all that you worked for is gone. All my items must be sold. Maybe they moved my characters to another realm? And worse case scenario my account is banned for selling gold to other players.

Seeing how it was Friday I had to wait until Monday to get a reply from a Blizzard employee. It's quite frustrating to have to wait for three days. Blizzard was however very quick to solve the problem. That same evening my account was restored and I got the message "if you miss any items, please contact a game master". So I reactivated my account and after some searching I found my items back in the mailbox.

So, what was the damage done?  Every one of my four level >70 characters had their bags and gear completely stripped. Every gold coin my characters had was gone. I found my mage in the new lands with completely damaged gear and a bunch of herbs and mining materials in her bag. Apparently someone used her to farm herbs. On the plus side, when I logged in she now has level 450 mining where it was 375 before. Someone must have had fun in Northrend. My lower level characters weren't harmed in any way. Not even my level one alt who looks *nothing* like a bank alt:

The fancy monocle and pretty tuxedo suit must have scared them as for some reason my bank alt was untouched. She still had hundreds of glyphs and the majority of my gold.

So: who's to blame for this? I think it's a mixture of me, Blizzard and of course the damn hacker. I do not think I had a keylogger installed as I didn't log into the game for half a year. None the less: before reactivating my account I scanned my entire pc with a virus scanner and two malware scanners. My password was on the weak side though so I tried to enter a strong password with non alphabetic signs. That does not seem to work so I'm just going to use a keyphrase.

As for Blizzards side:
  1. It's impossible to stop your account. When I loose my cellphone, bank card or visa card I can call a number and my account is disabled that very minute. Why not do the same for WoW? Take up your phone, type in your account name and your cd key and there, it's locked.
  2. There are no protections against a brute force attack. On most websites with a login you get a captcha after five attempts. World of Warcraft does not seem to have of these protection measures.
  3. They sell an authenticator but it feels like a ripoff. €8 posting costs for a €6 item? I bought a book flown in from the UK *with shipment* for €2.4 two weeks ago. Still, I'll just go ahead and buy one.
  4. They put everything back... in my mailbox with a 90 days timeout. It's forcing people to pay a subscription for at least a month. 
I do have to add that I am happy with the support they gave. A response within the day is something I didn't expect. And I'm very happy to see my items returned in my mailbox. Paying €13 is a small price to pay for that. It's also a lot of fun to log on again and get whispers from five people at once. Some people seemed to have genuinely missed me.

So, is everything back to normal again? Not quite. I lost all my characters on other servers. It's a mixture from lower level characters but I did want to level my level 55 warrior. Sadly I forgot on which server she was and the armory shows nothing when I search for her name. I'll try to look with warcraftrealms.com to see if I can track her down. Besides that there is probably some damage I  haven't seen yet.

What can we do about this? Be sure to pick a strong password and be safe: use noscript for firefox, a virus scanner, a malware scanner and a firewall. But above all: do not buy gold or leveled characters. As Blizzard states a lot of the items sold there do not come from Chinese farmers or levelers but from hacking accounts. By buying those items you are supporting crime. Don't do it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Circumventing the Steam Regional lockin for Europeans

Thiefsie at rps.com found a nice way to get the steam games in pounds.

I tested it and it works!

1) Put ?cc=uk after a title. You'll now see the prices in pound.
2) Change your country to United Kingdom.

That's it, you can now buy the game in pounds.

Possible to save quite some money this way. Left 4 dead 2 costs €37.49 compared to the us £22.5(~€24.5). And the THQ complete pack costs €49.99 as compared to £26.49 (~€29.2).

As always with these things: use at your own risk.
It's probably not going to last very long.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

LF1M: healer

A new RPG comes out. Before you can start playing you'll have to decide what class you'll play. For Dragon Age my first choice was to create a DPS warrior. But I refrained from doing so as I had the perfect team in my mind: me tanking, a hot mage to AOE, a sexy nurse to heal and an even sexier rogue to DPS and open chests. Sounds like a good plan, no?

Of course things didn't go as planned. The first character I met was of course a tank which I couldn't replace fast enough. Then I meet misses DPS mage and misses rogue, both of which I'm still happy to have in my main team. I'm now forty hours in the game and my group of NPCs to choose from has tons of warriors. Me, Alistair, a giant with gray hair, the stone golem and a dwarf. Plus two rogues and even a dog who can DPS. And I only have one mage which is best suited for DPS. So I had to let my mage learn the healing skills a few hours into the game to continue playing comfortably. It's possible to play without if you create tons of potions but it doesn't feel like as much fun to me. Crafting one potion after another isn't very good for your wallet either.

Sure, I’ve now found a healer mage in, you’d never guess, the mage tower. But I’m already over forty hours in the game. Adding a healer a lot earlier in the game would have been great. Maybe even create a fourth healer class which is there for buffing, healing and CC.

I can't help but thinking that the game would have been a lot easier if I started at the mage tower first or played as a healer myself. Some people seem to think that the Spirit Healer specialization for mages is the best specialization there is. I'll see for myself now that I've added one to my party. And I've read quite a few posts saying that the mages are quite simply too good compared to the other classes. So in a way it's strange to let the difficulty of your game depend on a free, random choice the player makes at the beginning of the game. Start at the dwarven fortress, the elven forest or help out the humans? Pick well and your game will be easier.

But I admit it, the main reason I miss a healer is because I wanted to create a classic tank, mage dps, rogue dps, healer group. And that’s impossible with only one mage. If I'll one day replay the game on Hard I'll either start as a healer mage myself or start with the mage tower part. Every party needs a motherly healer!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Something for everyone

Expansion packs for mmorpgs often seem to focus on giving a lot of stuff to the end game players. Those players who have one or two maximum level characters can look forward to playing in new zones or new raiding instances. Players who have played the game for a few months and quit the game before they got to the maximum level won't have anything new to do. The World of Warcraft expansions have been a mixed bag for lowbies. Let's take a look at what those expansions offer for low level players.
  • The Burning Crusade. There is very little new content for lowbies. Two new starting zones were added (1-20) and one old zone was revamped (35-40). Blizzard tried to trick people into thinking that there was more content by adding two new races. Don't be fooled, once you got your Draenei warrior out of the starting zones you have to do exactly the same content as someone who leveled a human warrior before the expansion. It really does feel like a cheap option to me. You just have to create a new skin and animations for the new race and there, you're done.

  • Wrath of the Lich King. If you have a level 55 character you can level a deathknight which sure is a lot of fun. Beneath level 55? Nothing new.

  • Cataclysm. So I'm quite pleased to see that the next expansion will give some serious new content. There are two new races again which promise to give two new starting zones. But the highlight of the new expansion is of course the revamping of the old world. This looks like it'll add a lot of fun to lower level characters.

I've finished the old content four times now. A hunter, mage, warrior and warlock have all passed through it. World of Warcraft does offer a lot of variety in the leveling zones. You can level two characters to level 60 without doing the same zone twice. But still, if you leveled a few characters leveling one again looses its fun. You've been there before.

So it's a great idea to redo the old zones. I'll happily level a new character through those new zones. On the alliance side I greatly prefer the cuteness of the female so maybe I'll try a Goblin character. Giving the horde a cute side is surely going to convince a few players to try out their side just like adding a sexy side did in the Burning Crusade expansion. I'll gladly try it out but it only works past the starting zones because all the content is new!

Now there's just the wait until Blizzard gets the game to done. Which will be some time next year. Maybe I'll go back and level one of my level 70 characters before that. World of Warcraft still has that magic pull which makes me replay it regularly. And it holds the promise of great things to come.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hiding from the storm

It's hard not to have noticed. Even the Belgian national news had a five minutes article on it. Infinity Ward has finished Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 right before Christmas, the perfect time to launch a game. Sales always spike during the Christmas period so launching your game then is guaranteed to give you big profits. Even crappy games will sell well during this period. In the past, the rush to Christmas has of course lead to unfinished, buggy games that are launched to hit the shelves in time for the big money. It doesn't always pay to launch before Christmas, your buggy game might bankrupt you.

Quite a few games have been moved to 2010. Only the publishers know if it's to avoid the Call of Duty rush which is currently responsible for 57% of all Xbox 360 game sales. So it's not a big leap to think that Call of Duty has something to do with all the delays. In the first half of 2010 we can expect Aliens vs Predator, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Bioshock 2, Mafia 2, Max Payne 3, Mass Effect 2, Singularity, Splinter Cell: Conviction, STALKER: Call of Pripyat, Starcraft 2, Drakensang: the River of Time and Assasin's Creed 2. Some of those games will probably get pushed back again but it looks like it's going to be a great gaming spring. Personally I'm mostly looking forward to Bioshock 2, Max Payne 3, Mass Effect 2 and on top of my list Starcraft 2. Dragon Age should be finished before those games arrive. And I hope to see at least one new, great franchise pop up.

These days there only seems to be one huge spotlight and it's shining on Call of Duty. Call of Duty is topping all the charts. I missed most of the Call of Duty buzz as I'm mostly interested in PC Gaming. I didn't even know the game came out last week until the day before launch. So it doesn't surprise me that this game doesn't do very well on PC, the media I read didn't pay much attention to it. And of course there has been quite some controversy about the PC release. No dedicated servers is upsetting a lot of players.

Personally I enjoyed playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It's a very intense shooter but also way too short. I finished that game in maybe five hours. Seeing how the sequel only offers four and a half hour of singe player fun I will not spend the full €60 (a new price record for pc games?) on it. Especially since I'm not that interested in the multiplayer. I'll pick it up if I see it at a bargain price and play it then.

One thing is painfully obvious from the sales list. Only one game, Pure in the top 10 is not a sequel. People keep complaining about the lack of originality in games yet they keep buying sequels. If you vote with your wallet you'll get what you ask for.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Key Bindings

Nothing is more frustrating than being unable to set the controls of your newly bought game to your liking. I tried out Dead Space two weeks ago. The first thing I always do in a 3D game is rebinding all my actions to the numpad. I've played like that for over ten years. So it annoyed me greatly that I can not rebind any key to the numpad. Bloody hell!

No problem I thought I'll plug in my gamepad and play with that. Only to see that my character keeps on turning. The same problem occurred with the new Batman game. Looks like these games only work with an Xbox 360 controller. No, I'm not gonna spend €30 on a controller for a game I spent €5 on. At least Batman: Arkham Asylum worked flawlessly with the mouse & keyboard. But too often console games are ported in a hurry. Sometimes the port is done so lazily that even the on screen commands aren't changed. If you're playing with a keyboard you'll see "Press x on your controller".

I could use an external interface program that catches the keys and sends them to the game as a different key. But I really can't be arsed to spend an hour rebinding my keys while I could use that time to play a game that does allow me to bind my keys wherever I want.

Some games set a nice example. I could bind all my actions to the numpad in World of Warcraft. I could even bind my actions to a combination of alt/ctrl and numpad. Binding control to my mouse thumb button gives me easy access to 36 actions. More then enough for any game. If your game needs more then you should take a good look at your interface.

Developers often seem to forget that not everyone plays like they play. Not everyone will play with an Xbox 360 controller or use the WASD key combos. Some people are used to play with an inverted Y-axis and have been playing that way since the nineties. And other gamers want to have a mouselook.

So please give the players the option to play how they like. A lot of people, including me, will not throw a decade of muscle reflexes overboard just to play your ten hour game. After all, is it really that hard to give us the option to bind actions to the numpad?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hello Goodbye

These days half the gaming world is playing Call of Duty 5 and the other half is playing Dragon Age. Eighty hours of entertainment for my €35 seems like a much better deal than €45 (€60 in a Belgian retail store...) for the four hours CoD promises so my choice is obvious. So far I've put about fifteen hours in the game and I'm greatly enjoying the experience. There are of course always some complaints...

After a few hours of playing I am finding it strange how Bioware manages to disconnect me from the worlds characters. After a few minutes of playing I got my first companion. One hour later the poor guy is being thrown in the towns deepest dungeon. No problem I thought, I'll just go ahead and slaughter the entire prison guard staff to rescue him! Nobody messes with me. Alas no such options pops up. Hopefully I can go back and save him later on in the game.

Instead of saving my buddy I went off to become a Grey Warden! And hey, I get three new companions so we can together prove our worth. I start to ask them some questions and get to know them better. One guy is missing his girlfriend back home. The poor fella, we'll get you home soon. Of course thirty minutes later he's laying before my feet with a sword in his heart...

Next I'm traveling with "Tower Guard" and "Circle Mage". I didn't really expect them to stay with me throughout the game. Having one of those names would mean they'd get bullied by my companions with real names for the rest of the game. So it didn't come as a surprise that thirty minutes later both of them got an arrow through their hearts. For some reason I'm spared. I bet Tower Guard and Circle Mage now wished they had chosen a proper name.

My character seems to be cursed! Everyone I meet dies less then hour later. Maybe it's best not take any companions just to be safe?

Link to the brilliant Hello Goodbye song:

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Seeing the trees through the forest

Tropico 3 offers a ton of information. You can click on every citizen of your city and see their thoughts. You can see who they're married to and if they have any children. There's information on what political party they belong to or even on how much money they make. A lot of the statistics are presented in fancy graphs. How did the average wages or age of your citizens change since you started? It's all available in a fancy graphs. And it's all useless information which is just there for their fun factor.

It's ironic that in so much information you can not find the information that you really need. I want to know if my citizens are being well fed and how many farms I should build. The only way you can see if you should build more farms or clinics is if you start seeing "3 people have starved/died of poor health care this year". I'd rather see the big starvation coming so I can save my people. There's also no way of knowing in which buildings your people live. How many are living in shacks? How many can afford better homes?

The developers could have done a much better job of providing information. Pie diagrams would be a great solution. Offer a pie diagram with the housing types your citizen live in and one with their education level. That way you can see in no time if you have a housing problem. The food problem could be solved even simpler. Just show "meals/medicines created this year" and "meals/medicines consumed this year" and you can quickly see if you need to build new farms or clinics.

It's fun to browse through your city and click on random people to see that they are happy because you gave them a pay raise. But it's a lot more important to be able to see that you have to create more farms to prevent a starvation! The developers forgot to set their priorities. First add the must have statistics and then think of adding the statistics which are there just for fun. There's little use in knowing that your citizen is happy visiting the church if you cannot see that he's dieing because he can not find food.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The forgotten sense

Music is something that's usually just playing in the background of the game or movie. You don't pay any attention to it, it's there and puts you in the right mood. From time to time however, a game comes around with such great music that it's coming to foreground and becomes a reason to enjoy playing the game. Tropico 3 is one of those games and its music is a more then worthy successor to the great music of the original Tropico.

A large part of the atmosphere in Tropico 3 is coming from the great Caribbean music. It really helps to set the mood as Tropico is a one of those games where you spend quite a bit of time just thinking what to do next. Having some great music on while playing makes the waiting process a lot more fun. It would be great if the Tropico 3 game came with its audiotrack on a CD as the music is so great that I'd like to add it to my music collection.

Of course, the track is limited so I might get tired of the music if I play too long. It took quite a bit of time until I put of the music in WoW. But eventually I turned it off and just started playing my own music. Being able to play your own music certainly makes sure that a game does not get repetitive fast. It's something that games like GTA have figured out. Just add your own music if you're tired of the built in games.

The recent Batman: Arkham Asylum also surprised me in the audio department. But in the case of Batman it wasn't in the music but in the voice acting. Last years Batman: the Dark Knight showed the great Heath Ledger in the role of the Joker. I didn't expect that the voice actors in this game would be any good. Yet Mark Hammill manages to convince me as the Joker. Evil, a genius and also completely mad. His voice adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game and manages to convince me that he is the Joker.

But it's not only Mark Hamill who manages to put up a great performance. The actors who did the voices of Harley Quinn or Poison Ivy also did a great job. Sadly the voice of batman himself does not sound very exiting. Combined however, the quality of all the voice actors in this game does raise the entire game to a higher level.

It's rare to see a game where voice acting is essential to the game. It's often just something that has to be done a few weeks before you meet your deadline by cheap, third rate actors. Or the quality of the voice acting drops dramatically after the dialogues are dubbed. Voice acting is too often an afterthought while it's one of those factors which can raise your game from being an average game to a great game. As such I hope to see more games where just hearing someone talk gives me the shivers and more new games where I want to play the soundtrack all day long.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Biowares missed opportunities

Biowares newest RPG Dragon Age is coming out soon and the reviews are slowly coming in. It's an RPG in the spirit of the old school RGPs and as such it's getting compared to Biowares older games Baldur's Gate 1 & 2. Yet how many of the Dragon Age target audience have played those games? I haven't played them but I've been wanting to play them for a while now. Sadly they are on none of the major online distribution channels.

In comparison, Majesty 2 came out a while ago and the publishers used the old game to create more sales of the sequel. Pre-order Majesty 2 and you get to play the original Majesty for free immediately. I replayed the original game in anticipation of the sequel and it made me want the sequel even more.

Seeing how Baldur's Gate is in the top 5 most wanted games on gog.com I wonder why they do not have a big re-release of Biowares catalogue. There's a niche for classic PC games and the release of a triple A game is the perfect time to put them in the spotlight. More and more publishers seem to realize this. Months prior to the launch of Tropico 3 the two original games were bundled and put on steam. And a few months ago Lucasarts put their old back catalogue on steam.

Players who enjoy playing Dragon Age might also want to try out its spiritual predecessor. If I read a book by a good author I want to read more of him. If I see a good movie I'll be interested in more movies of the same director. And if I play a great game I want to play the developers older games. Biowares older games Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic will surely see a raise in sales the months following Dragon Ages review.

So please Bioware: put those old classics online. I'll be the first to pay you to play them. As it is now you're just loosing money. People who want to play these classics are forced to buy them second handed. Give us the option to give our money to the developers!