Category Archives: Gaming

Musings on my everlasting quest to slog through my backlog.

The Buffet Conundrum

Do you ever find yourself wanting to do something, but also wanting to do something else? Do you ever find yourself torn between the two decisions? Does everything seem like a good idea, even though you know you can’t possibly do it all? Are you slightly annoyed by your inability to DO ALL THE THINGS? Well,, I do believe you’re familiar with what I’ve just dubbed the Buffet Conundrum.

Why do I call it this? Because I have this problem when I go to buffets: everything looks good, and I really want to get my money’s worth, but I know I’m not a big eater and there’s only so much space in my stomach. This often ends one of two ways: either I end up getting small samples of everything and leaving unfulfilled, or (more likely) I fill up plates with a bunch of stuff that looks good and then find myself too full to really enjoy myself. And I still can’t seem to get my money’s worth!

I’ve recently faced the Buffet Conundrum when it comes to gaming. I know, I know, I’ll be the first to admit that this is the pinnacle of First World Problems, but it’s an inevitable result of me getting a proper job like an almost-respectable adult and not having as much free time as I used to.

See, I have a lot of video games, most of which I haven’t even played. But for the most part, I picked them up because they sounded like something I wanted to play. So what if I haven’t gotten around to them yet? So what if I’ve bought games that my computer can’t run? I’ve got enough of a backlog to keep me occupied for years!

But I digress. Right now, I find myself wanting to play a game in my collection, but also wanting to finish the current game I’m playing. What do I do? Do I try to play both, thus impeding overall progress and dragging the stories along? Or do I suck it up and finish the game I’ve become less excited about but have sunk a lot of time into, before moving on to something new and exciting? Or do I play this little flash game that I just came across, pushing off both of the others?

In the past, I’ve found myself in this conundrum in regards to books. In those cases, I try to be reading only one book at a time, and line up my queue accordingly. But my free time is so limited now (seriously, I have one night to myself during the work week) that I don’t even have time to really read!

Part of this is the fact that I now have a job where I actually have to do work. I know that sounds bad, but when I worked in computer labs I had a lot of downtime where I could putter around on my laptop, and working early mornings at Costco left my afternoons wide open. I’ve also apparently become busy, with some activity or another filling up my evenings. Oh, and a girlfriend who wants to spend time with me for some reason.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this, just a gentle rant about having too many options and not enough time. Add to this the annoyingly-ingrained background thought that video games are a “waste of time,” and you can probably see where I’m coming from. Not to mention all the other interests, hobbies, and interpersonal relationships that vie for my attention. Oh well, I guess all that I can do is keep plugging away at things, and reminding myself that “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

Just Cause

Time flies when you’re having fun.  Take last weekend, for example.  When I wasn’t being a productive member of my household, I killed a lot of time.  And how did I do it?  The best way possible: destabilizing governments and knocking over drug cartels while driving around in a tank and listening to Manowar.  You know, as one does.

While the addition of heavy metal was my own doing, the rest of the mayhem was accomplished in the game Just Cause, an open-world sandbox game released a few years ago.  If you’ve played any of the Grand Theft Auto games, then this will be very similar.  Except you get a grappling hook and a parachute.

Yeah, it’s kind of turned up to 11.

The story, such as it is, has you playing as Rico, a special agent tasked with formenting revolution in the tropical island nation of San Esperito through various means.  There are a wide variety of vehicles, from cars and motorcycles to attack helicopters, boats, and yes, tanks.  Gameplay is your typical sandbox fare: wander around in the world, doing story missions to unlock progress, causing as much mayhem as you want along the way.

To be honest, the gameplay is only average at best.  You’ve got your standard suite of weapons and vehicles.  If you’ve played GTA, you’ve played Just Cause.  But what really attracted me was the scenery: it’s beautiful.  Rather than driving/flying around a gritty ersatz New York or Los Angeles, you get to spend your time in a lush tropical environment.  White sand beaches, vibrant green forests, and beautiful sunsets are frequent occurrences.  Plus, there’s just so much scenery.  According to Wikipedia, this virtual playground encompasses almost 400 square miles.  Sure, in an eight-year-old game this isn’t the most populous environment, but it’s still a beautiful sight to see.

Plus, did I mention I was able to invade and take over settlements with a tank?  Oh, and you can leap out onto the hood of your moving vehicle, hook on to a passing helicopter, reel yourself in, toss the pilot out, and proceed to rain death from the skies.

Seriously, this game is just outlandish fun.  It may not be anything super special to write home about (aside from the aforementioned action movie moments), and the story is so far mostly forgettable, but it’s definitely a fun diversion.  If you can pick it up on sale, I can definitely recommend it.  I hear the sequel is good too, improving on the original in many ways, I’m just not sure my laptop can run it as well as I’d like.

But really: tank.  Helicopter.  Grappling hook.  Parachute.  Up to 11.

So Long And Thanks For All The Creepers

So, apparently Microsoft has bought Mojang, the creators of Minecraft. I’ll let that sink in for a bit.

Back? Good. Now, I’m just as surprised as everyone else, and while I’m sure I won’t have too much new to add to things, I want to take a minute to sort through my thoughts.

For those of you who don’t know what Minecraft is, you’re really missing out. It’s like a world made out of virtual LEGO that has taken the Internet by storm over the last few years. It started out as a small project by a single developer, and has since managed to sell over 16 billion copies on the PC alone (it’s also been ported to consoles and smartphones). It’s the ultimate indie gaming success story. And the company founded by the creator of Minecraft just got purchased for $2.5 billion.

That’s a lot of Sagans.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you who Microsoft is. If you use Windows, then you know. If you use Mac or Linux, you still know. Chances are if you grew up even remotely techy around the turn of the century, you may even think of Microsoft as the Great Satan, defiler of all that is pure and holy on the digital frontier. You may think that Microsoft’s purchase signals the death knell of a wondrous ecosystem of creativity and community that has sprung up around one man’s labor of love.

I’ll admit it, my knee-jerk reaction to the news was much the same. I even went so far as to dismiss the rumors that started to surface last week, as something out of a bad dream. And when I saw those rumors confirmed today, my heart sank. “Great,” I thought. “Another unique gem of the Internet subsumed into the monolithic gray mass of Microsoft. A light has gone out in the universe.”

And while a part of me is still worried, my opinion started to change the more I read about the deal. While it can be hard to parse through the inevitable marketing gobbledygook, it may be possible that this Microsoft is not the same one that we had in the 90’s and 00’s. After all, Microsoft Office is available on a wide variety of platforms, including Mac OS X, iOS, and Android (sure, you need a subscription for the last few, but let’s leave that aside for now).

But what really made me stop and reconsider was the letter from Notch, Minecraft’s original creator. I’d urge you to go read the note. It’s the words of an individual who only wanted to make games, and found himself thrust onto a world stage he didn’t expect, let alone want. Add to the unwanted limelight the fact that the Internet is not the kindest of places on the best of days, and you’ve got a recipe for disillusionment and burnout. As an introvert myself, that’s something I can relate to all too well. I hate being the center of attention at something as small as a local birthday party; I can’t imagine being an actual celebrity.

And while I may feel leery of the change a large corporation may bring to the indiest of indie games, I can really relate on a personal level to Notch’s feelings. I don’t begrudge him his decision; in fact, if this sale lets him pursue his passions (as I’m sure Minecraft has made him fairly wealthy), then I can only be happy for him. It’s sad that it’s come to this, and while I fear change as much as the rest of you, it is an inescapable part of life.

So while you may worry, don’t despair. Maybe I’m being overly naive; maybe I’m letting my optimism get the better of me. But if the only alternative is throwing a tantrum and burning the proverbial house down around me, I’ll take hope any day.

Good luck, Mr. Persson. May you find the quiet, happy life you so desire. And thank you.

Steamy Analytics

I often wonder how much money I’ve sunk into Steam.  After all, I’ve picked up far more games than I’ve played at various levels of discount over the years.  How horrific would it be to see all that time and money added up in one place?  Luckily, I came across a website called Steam Gauge that makes this sort of thing really easy.  So let’s plug in my Steam info and find out.  Prepare to be horrified!

Member since: 2005.  So for starters, it looks like I’ve been a member for 9 years.  That makes sense; I picked up Half-Life 2 about a year after it released, and all the launch bugs had a chance to smooth out.  A quick aside: I’ll admit to being nervous about Steam when I first signed up.  I didn’t like the idea of paying real-world money for digital-only goods.  After all, what if Valve went out of business, or took their servers down?  I still worry about this a bit, but deal with it mostly by picking up games at steep discounts I couldn’t get at retail.  I’m trading convenience and price for the outside chance I might lose it all.  Yay, DRM.

Hours played: 1,480.  Huh, that looks like a big chunk of time to spend gaming.  But once you do the math, it works out to be only a little over two months.  So that’s 6.85 full days every year, or only about 27 minutes a day.  Not too bad!  Another aside: when I was a kid, my parents limited my video game time to two 30-minute sessions or one 45-minute session a day.  I’m amused to see that my daily average is still close to that.

Total Space: 1,011.2 GB.  Useful info for when I’m looking so size a hard drive for a gaming PC build.

Worth: $4,040.  …Za?  You mean to tell me that I’ve spent over four thousand dollars on video games?  In only the last nine years?  That’s almost $450 a year, without counting other platforms like consoles!  I… I might have a problem.

But wait.  How did they calculate that?  Hmm, it looks like they took the current retail cost of all the games in my account.  Now, I know I didn’t pay full retail price for all of those.  Luckily, it looks like they have a tool to help you calculate what you’ve actually spent.  Please be better…

Money Spent: $456.  So, if I’m reading this correctly, I’ve saved nearly 90% off of full retail price for my collection.  That’s pretty awesome.  But something still isn’t adding up.  I tend to start getting tempted by a game when it reaches somewhere between $5 and $10, or about 75% off.  So those numbers don’t add up.

But wait!  I’ve also recently been picking up a few (read: a lot) of games through various Humble Bundles.  Those are often redeemable on Steam; maybe I need to take those into account as well.  Gimme a sec to do some math…

Humble Bundles: $200.  Not too shabby.  Average price paid seems to be about $10.55, which matches up with what I remember.  I rounded up slightly, in case there was a bundle or two that I missed.

So, let’s add the last two numbers together.  Drumroll please…

Total Steam Investment: $656.  Looking at that in a lump sum, I kinda gotta say ouch.  But I have to remember, that’s been over the past 9 years.  And it’s 84% less than I could have spent if I got everything at full price.  So that ends up being about $73 a year, or… only $6 a month?!  I spend more than that on Netflix!

So apparently I was all worried about how much I was spending on Steam for nothing.  $6 a month is pretty negligible, but as you can see does add up over time.  And compared to what I would have spent if I had paid full price, I’m pretty happy.  In fact, I might do a little “happy frugal gamer dance.”

Today's part will be played by Dancing Baby Grootling

Today’s part will be played by Dancing Grootling.  When asked about the role, Grootling replied in a high-pitched rumble: “I am Groot.”

Now, if only I could channel some of that money saved into a new computer, so I could actually play some of the newer games…

One Finger Death Punch

I’ve talked about bundles before. And as dangerous as bundles can be, they can also be pretty great. Especially when they let you try games that you wouldn’t normally pick up on their own. Case in point: One Finger Death Punch.

What is One Finger Death Punch? Well, it’s kind of a fighting game. And it’s kind of a rhythm game. Basically, it’s a two-button stick figure homage to old kung fu movies. How’s that for a synopsis? I picked it up via a Humble Bundle sponsored by Extra Credits as a “game you might not have tried:” under-the-radar titles that, while not always good, are at least interesting for one reason or another. So I decided to try it out.

Needless to say, I didn’t get much done Tuesday night.

The game is deceptively simple: using your left and right mouse buttons, fight off wave after wave of colored stick figure foes. Each button corresponds to a direction, and enemies come in from the left and right sides of the screen. Of course, the devil is in the details: most foes take one hit, but some take multiples. Some opponents even switch sides mid-engagement. You can pick up weapons that increase your range, and every once in a while you’ll perform a special attack. It’s a fast-paced, reflex-honing experience that actually punishes you for button-mashing.

I’ve found it really fun so far. There’s something visceral about combo counters ticking over as stick figures fly around the screen in various stages of disrepair, sometimes even breaking background objects on their way to oblivion. It’s a simple game, but difficulty ramps up quite nicely; the better you do, the faster enemies rush you from all sides. Timing is of course key: miss a shot and you’ll open yourself up for pain.

It scratches some itch of mine, the same one that as a kid enjoyed the precision platforming of Mario or other games. It demands perfection, but in a safe environment where you actually can achieve it (unlike real life). And while I’m not sure it will hold my interest for too long (it’s mechanically pretty simple, after all), it’s doing a good job of sucking up my free time in a fun and entertaining way.

Now if only it wasn’t doing so when I still had stuff to do…

Something About A Wagon?

I’ve started playing Minecraft again.

I’ll do this occasionally, take a break from a game before coming back to it. Generally, the games I do this with are the really involved ones; Civilization, SimCity, Minecraft, etc. Games that don’t really have a set end point, or victory condition. Games that, while interesting, can get boring after a while. Games that are still fun.

One of the reasons I moved away from Minecraft last time is because I got spoiled by my minimap mod, which at the time was not available for the newly-updated version of Minecraft (the joys of modding, I guess). I tend to enjoy a fairly vanilla (read: un-modded) experience, but I also really like to explore and still know where I am. And now that enough time has passed (and yet another big update is on the horizon), the mods have been updated, and I can go back to the comfortable embrace of knowing how far away my fresh corpse, heavily laden with mining loot, is from my respawn point.

I’ve also been talking with my friends about getting a multiplayer server going again. We had one that was hosted by another friend, but that’s been dormant long enough that I’m pretty sure it’s gone offline. Plus, we never really played cooperatively on it anyway; it was more of a “massively single player” experience, where people traveled far away from the spawn point to set up their own enclaves.

Multiplayer Minecraft seems like it has the potential to be a fun experience. I’ve seen a bunch of cool stuff that people have done together, and I kinda want a taste of that. Plus, I’d like to try and bring my girlfriend into the fold. What’s not to love about virtual LEGO? But for right now, I’m content to revisit some of my existing worlds, chipping away at layer after layer of stone and dirt.

Besides, I already found a new job, so it’s not like I need to feel guilty about not working on that, right? I’m not wasting my days playing Minecraft, I’m avoiding freaking out about change! Yeah, that’s it…

Oh, How I Myst You

Today, I finally did something I’ve been meaning to do for years. Something that, time and again, has slipped out of my grasp for one reason or another. Today, I have finally beaten Myst.

Myst and I go way back. It’s one of those games that’s captivated my imagination, on and off, since its release over twenty years ago. It’s also been tantalizingly out of my grasp for much of that time. I can’t fully recall, but for one reason or another I didn’t play it when it originally came out. Maybe it was my family’s lack of computer (we started with Windows 3.1), or the fact that I wasn’t big into PC gaming yet. But for the longest time, all I could remember about the game was an image of a rocket ship, perched on its side and shrouded in mist. I even forgot the game’s name.

That's the one.

That’s the one.  A;though I seem to remember more fog. (via Let’s Play Archive)

 

Aside: for those of you who don’t know, Myst was a point-and-click adventure game released back when CD-ROM drives were first becoming popular. You wander through scenic vistas, solving puzzles and using books to travel to other fantastical Ages. The graphics were pre-rendered, with live-action actors spliced in from time to time. While they may not have aged well, they were amazing at the time. You wander these places largely alone, with no direction or tutorial to point you in any sort of direction.

Years later, with appropriate Internet access, I rediscovered the game. I even came across an old copy in the “free” bin at my local library. I was elated! I rushed home, plugged it in to my laptop and… discovered it was incompatible. Apparently my version of Windows was too new; but hey, I got a cool strategy guide as well, so that had to count for something, right?

Eventually I did find a copy of Myst: Masterpiece Edition that would run on my computer. But for one reason or another, I can’t remember if I ever beat the game. Then the discs went missing, never to be found again. I also received a copy of Myst III: Exile as a birthday present, but got stymied in the puzzles, and have also never completed it. Such was my lot in life, it seemed.

But then I picked up yet another copy, realMYST, during the (still ongoing) GOG Summer Sale and finally sat down to play it. And guess what? I finally worked my way through it! Not only that, but I managed to play and finish a game I bought! I do remember the game being more difficult, however. Maybe it’s just that I’ve played it before and thus have some recollection of what to do with the puzzles. Or maybe I’m just older now, and the logic seems less obtuse. It was fun to have to keep notes on a scratch sheet, though. A real blast from the past.

If this was a review, I guess this is where I would say you should definitely check out Myst. If you haven’t already, that is. But this post was not really a review, is it? It was more of a look into the past, a brief overview of my interactions with a game over the years. I’m not sure it’s what I had in mind when I started, but then again, I’m not sure what I set out to say. If you take anything away from this post, I guess it could be this: Myst is a fun game that still manages to hold up after two decades. It can be beaten in about a day, and if you decide to play it, do yourself a favor and avoid walkthroughs. Take the time to enjoy the virtual sights and sounds.

Now, on to Riven!

The Summer Sales Are Upon Us

Repent! The hour of doom is at hand! Creeping through the darkness, They will come. Come for your wallet. Come for your free time. Come for your self-discipline. It is fruitless to resist! Join Them, for this is the season of our undoing!

In other news, there’s a bunch of video game summer sales going on right now.

I’ve written about this before, and if you’ve read my past musings on the matter of deep discounts and bundle sales, especially when combined with limited durations, you may realize how tough this time of year can be for my budget. To make matters worse (in a wholly “first world problem” way, I will readily admit), there are not one, but two different gaming services having sales right now. With discounts anywhere from 50% to 80% off. That’s danger territory for me, as it’s much easier to drop a couple bucks on something that looks slightly interesting than it is when at full retail price.

Oh, and to make matters worse, one of my friends got me a Steam gift card for my birthday. Cursed be his name, vile black-hearted enabler.

It is interesting, how different companies take different approaches to the same basic idea. Steam sticks with their usual method, having daily featured deals supported by shorter duration flash sales and community-voted specials. It’s a tried and true method, and oh boy does it work. I haven’t spent that much more than my gift card so far, but the week is young.

GOG , on the other hand, has done something interesting. They have two featured bundles every day, and then a bunch of two-hour deals running concurrently. But they’ve thrown in a twist: you can see what games will be selected for the two-hour deals before they go on sale. It’s quite effective at bringing you back to the site several times a day. I have noticed them start to repeat, though, which kind of cuts back on the “I must buy this now” effect.

What have I written about today? I don’t know. The afternoon got away from me, and not just because I kept checking sale pages. I also binged on some video games, thank you very much. And yes, I’ve been buying stuff. Not too much, so far, but then again I’m not exactly keeping meticulous records. I am at least trying to resist buying games that my computer can’t run. After all, if a game is popular enough to go on sale once, it will likely happen again further down the line. You know, whenever I finally get around to upgrading/building my own PC.

Whenever that may be.

Spore

Because the events of recent days have me at risk of feeling like an actual, productive adult member of society, I decided that today I would counteract that by playing video games all day. And what did I play, you may ask? I played Spore!

Spore, for those of you who don’t know, is a game designed by Will Wright, the infernal mind behind timesinks like SimCity. But whereas SimCity puts you in charge of a single town, Spore puts you in charge of evolution itself.

The game starts at the cellular level. You swim around in the primordial ooze, eating bits of plant or meat (depending on whether you choose to start as a carnivore or herbivore). From there you creature evolves legs and moves on to land, where you progress through various stages of civilization, like tribes and city-states, until you take to the stars and begin exploring the galaxy.

Oh yeah, and pretty much all the content (creatures, vehicles, music, etc.) is customizable by you.

One of the big attractions is that you get to not only decide how your creatures will act, but what they look like. Using a selection of parts, you cant create pretty much anything from scratch in the in-game editors. It’s like virtual LEGO for biology. As you progress, you can also create (and share!) your own land, sea, and even space vehicles.

Each stage of the game plays slightly differently, too, like a series of minigames based on larger experiences. They can sometimes feel short, but they’re fun nonetheless. The Cell stage, for instance, plays a lot like Pac-Man or Snake, where you eat the pellets to grow bigger. Creature stage sees you piloting a member of your species around the land, making friends or driving rival creatures to extinction. Tribal stage dips into Real-Time Strategy stage, using a group of your now-sentient creatures to either charm or annihilate other intelligent tribes. Civilization, believe it or not, plays a lot like Civilization, with a dash of SimCity thrown in. Your creatures now mine the world for Spice, and as we all know, he who controls the spice controls the universe. Space stage has you roaming the galaxy, building your interstellar empire and terraforming and colonizing worlds. You can even make contact with other spacefaring races from your other save games!

I feel it’s important to mention that when this game first came out, there was a lot of controversy surrounding its DRM scheme. Originally, the DRM system (SecuROM) prevented you from installing the game more than three times, even on your own computer. This was a deal-breaker for me at the time, even though I was really excited about the game before it came out. Luckily, that seems to have been largely patched out since launch.

If any of this sounds intriguing to you (aside from the insulting DRM stuff), I can highly recommend Spore. It may not be the deepest of gaming experiences, but there’s something to being able to see your own creation march all the way from the sea to the stars.

Design Is Cool

I have a degree in design, specifically architecture. I don’t think about design very often, not least because it reminds me of my less than ideal work situation. But every once in a while, that part of my brain that was rigorously trained and developed by grad school will kick back on, and I’ll be fascinated by little details in a way that only a design nerd can understand.

One of the things I love about design is that there’s a reason for everything. If you look close enough, or think hard enough, you should be able to figure out why something is the way it is. And I find that comforting. I have a strong need to know why, to be able to articulate the methods and reasons behind something. I always have, even as a little kid. As such, not knowing why (or not being able to know why) can be a little stressful for me. And there’s so much in life that doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t seem to have a logic that can be understood. Emotions, for example. It’s something I’ve written about before.

And yet, despite all the things that don’t make sense in our world, there is also so much that is designed. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that design is so ubiquitous that we can’t help but take it for granted. Think about your favorite game, for example. Every piece of that experience was (hopefully) carefully crafted in order to elicit a specific response. If you’ve tried Giant Boulder of Death, I’m sorry for the death of your free time. But it, and other free-to-play games like it, can be a great example.

A free-to-play game is just that: free to play. But the developers want you to spend money. As such, there are multiple design decisions made to encourage the player to do so. Sometimes they are subtle, other times… not so much. In Giant Boulder of Death, the clearest example I can think of is the pre-roll spin screen. You get a free spin every 10 minutes, or you can spend gems (the games premium currency). Each spin adds upgrades to your run, like filling up the multiplier bar quicker or reducing the number of boulder-killing spikes on the map. If you don’t have a free spin, it takes a second or two for the “Play now” button to show up, while the “use gems to spin” button is there from the start. It’s very hard to ignore the reflex to push the first button you see, but gems are rare (unless you pay real-world cash for a virtual bag of loot).

Anyway, that didn’t go nearly as deep as I thought it would. In summary: design is cool. I find it comforting when I recognize the logic behind something. I wish more stuff was like that.