Free To Play

I’ve been playing a Free To Play game recently and thinking about a lot of the issues surrounding it. I’m playing Pokemon Picross, which I was excited about because I like Picross puzzles and thought the Pokemon theme looked interesting.

My main gripe is the pricing. The game is free, but you can spend money on an in-game currency that provides a variety of effects. The problem is that the pricing is very excessive compared to the other Picross games you can buy. The most recent one “Picross e6” sells for $6 and includes over 300 puzzles. By contrast, $6 gets you enough currency to unlock around 40-50 puzzles. That knowledge means that before I can even think about spending a few dollars on Pokemon Picross, I have to realize that I’ll get a much more complete and full experience for the same price. The free to play monetization means that they charge more for a lot less content.

My second gripe is an extension of the first. The mechanics of purchasing and spending becomes a tedious exercise of value. The most important thing you can do with the ingame currency is unlock new content, but the game also lets you spend it on less important upgrades and fleeting consumables. If you were to spend the currency on recharging power ups or filling up your energy bar, you’ll have gotten even less to show for the money you have spent. It’s feels like a store where some of the items are grossly overpriced, and the merchant hopes you won’t notice. These microtransactions makes it really easy to completely waste your money.

Now in Nintendo’s defense they are explicitly not trying to exploit anyone. There is a hard cap on how much money you can spend on microtransactions. After spending around $32 the shop will close and simply grant you as much of the in game currency as you want. In a world where free to play bases their entire business model on the ‘whales’ spending thousands of dollars a week, this feels incredibly refreshing. But it still feels like they are seeing what they can get out of people. Can they get away with charging $32 for an experience that they value at $6 if they don’t charge someone all at once? Maybe that’s the appropriate trade-off considering that patient players can eventually unlock all of the content by spending a few minutes each day for over a year. Overcharge some players in order to let others play for free.

What is my role in this? I can’t bring myself to spend money on the game, considering I’d much rather pay a one time price for a complete game. And I don’t buy one of the other games because I don’t really want Picross that badly. I’ve been doing the free daily challenges because they only take a few minutes out of my train ride. But… my 3DS is constantly advertising to other people that I’m playing Pokemon Picross, serving as a walking billboard for the game. At least I can take comfort knowing that I won’t lead anyone into spending thousands of dollars on a simple ‘game’.

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Curtis’s Train Adventure

My son Curtis loves trains. Some of that he gets from me. When I was a toddler, I could see train tracks from outside the apartment and would always rush to watch the trains go by. I got a train set for Christmas that year, a train set that Curtis has also loved playing with.  I think I passed this on both genetically and environmentally.

When I would watch those trains go by, I really wanted to ride on one. Sadly, this dream wouldn’t come true until I was nearly five. I wanted to spare Curtis this disappointment, so I’ve been plotting for weeks to find a time to take him on a train. Finally, it all came together last weekend. To prepare Curtis for the day, we found videos online of BART trains pulling into stations. Our plan was to take the train a few stops away, have lunch, and then ride home. By the time we were in the car, Curtis was bouncing in his car seat repeating “Train! Train!”. He saw a train go by as we drove over. “TRAIN!! TRAIN!!”. He was jumping with excitement when we got out of the car. “TRAIN!!!”

 

Heading to the Train Station

Heading to the Train Station

Getting tickets

Getting tickets

Using the Ticket

Using the Ticket

Waiting for the train

Waiting for the train. Curtis liked seeing the tracks, but wasn’t fond of the loud highway traffic or the wind.

On the Train

He was quite loud, so it was a good thing the train was almost empty.

Mischief Managed

Mischief Managed

 

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People Need Love

I really enjoy listening to This American Life. It took me a few episodes to figure out why; it’s because I really like hearing people’s stories. Since I’ve been listening to so many people’s stories, another theme has emerged. It’s that everyone needs someone to care about them.

The first story to illustrate this point was one about men who had signed up for this correspondence service with women. As it turns out, the whole thing was fake. Form letters were photocopied and sent to thousands of people with gifts and donations being extracted from these men. The fascinating thing about the story was that the men weren’t all the upset when they discovered the whole thing was a sham. All the details of the story aside, I think it speaks to a fundamental need that we have to love and be loved. Some of the men were described as very lonely, and that these letters were a highlight of their weeks. The act of receiving and writing these letters helped them through some rough times. And so, the love that we can show to those around us really does make a profound difference in people’s lives.

The second story illustrates this same point in a different way. It was about a marketing firm hired to demobilize Colombian guerrillas. Some of the campaigns they found to be most successful were to remind people of Christmas and of their families. Listening to stories of people laying down their weapons because of this love was a real world example of something I read in Alma 31:5

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.

It’s one thing to hope that the power of God, or even just our best attempts at loving can influence people. But seeing it happen, especially in a circumstance that I would have thought to be too extreme is inspiring.

Both of these stories, and many others I have heard, inspire me to be kinder and more compassionate to those around me. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to do it. I imagine it will be the topic of many future blog posts.

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History of the Book of Mormon

During my scripture study, I was curious about the phrase “liken all scriptures” in 1 Nephi 19:23. “Likening scriptures” is kind of odd phrasing, so I wanted to know more about that choice of words.  Instead I found a commentary that explained why it wasn’t wrong for the verse to refer to the “book of Moses” rather than “books of Moses”. This struck me as odd, since the verse actually reads “books of Moses”. To track the history of the verse I went to look it up in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. It is at this point that I discover a far more interesting change. I had known that the original edition of the Book of Mormon wasn’t split into verses, but I didn’t know that it also used different chapter breaks. The first edition has much longer chapters, and in a few cases the modern chapters break across original chapters.

In researching this topic, I found a blog detailing the chapter break with lots of useful tables. My new question became wondering if these chapter breaks were present in the original text, and it sounds like the answer is yes. This led me to a fascinating presentation by Royal Skousen about his work tracing the text of the Book of Mormon through its various manuscripts, copies, and printing.

I’d really like to try reading the Book of Mormon according to the original chapter breaks and in a more narrative format.

“Nor do readers get fatigued as they do when reading a two-column text that frequently breaks in the middle of words (by hyphenation) or in the middle of phrases and clauses, a process that puts a lot of stress on the reader in trying to negotiate the text. With the sense-lines, it’s also much easier to keep on reading. Some readers have discovered they can now read several chapters at a time instead of just the one chapter at a time that they were used to reading.”

Skousen also talks about the initial translation of the Book of Mormon. He gives examples of specific Hebrew constructions that sound terrible in English, consistent word choice when multiple phrasings would work, and the specific spelling of foreign names like Coriantumr.

“The original translated text is so consistent in this respect that it doesn’t look like it’s the result of a translator freely choosing how he should translate a given expression or word form each time he comes across it.”

He gives examples of various archaic phrases that consistently appear in the original text, even as some of the verses have been adjusted to modernize the language in later editions. I’m further intrigued by the challenge of trying to preserve a text while the language continues to change. My favorite example of this comes from the Bible with the phrase “by and by”. The phrase means “immediately” but it sounds like something that happens after a time. It’s an interesting balance to strike, because adjusting a text will improve clarity but learning the original text will also teach about the underlying language.

The initial change I was tracking down of “Book of Moses” to “Books of Moses” happened between the 1920 and 1981 editions of the Book of Mormon. My guess is that the change was made so that readers wouldn’t presume that Nephi was talking about the Book of Moses that is found in the Pearl of Great Price. 

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New Year’s Resolution 2016

Thinking about New Year’s Eve resolutions, the goal I keep coming back to is writing more. I like the organization that writing brings to my life. I’ve enjoyed journaling on and off for the last year. I think that by writing more formal pieces, it will influence how I see the world. I’m excited about this, because I remember trying something like this a few years ago. It didn’t last long, but it had a good influence. I’m also inspired by some of my friends who blog.

To make this into a concrete goal, my resolution will be to create and post 52 blog posts this year. I’m not concerned with anyone actually reading it, but I think actually publishing my posts will bring structure and encourage me to put extra effort into what I post. I’m also curious what kind of response I might get. The subject matter will be responses to my life, such as recently read books, video games, parenting, work and religion.

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I don’t understand comic books

I’m trying really hard to ‘get’ comic books. Over the last two years I’ve read most of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, The Watchmen, and a collection of the best Batman books (The Dark Night Returns, Hush, Year One, The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum). I’ve enjoyed most of these stories, but I still don’t think I understand.

As a recent example, I got issue #1 of a new Star Wars comic in a Loot Crate. I read and enjoyed it, but didn’t think too much of it. And then I see that the book has sold over 1 million copies. And I read this rave review. And I don’t really understand. I can’t imagine paying $30 for a year’s worth of issues. I really dislike the short lengths of the stories (around ~24 pages). I noticed while reading the larger volumes how surprised I was by where the individual issues are broken up. I think the breakdown might be in the artwork. I enjoy the visual storytelling, but I don’t spend much time looking at the details of the art. I know the art is probably the most difficult part to produce, and part of the reason comics are so expensive. (I imagine the other reason is low circulation).

I don’t think I’ll ever become a regular reader of comic books, but I’ll probably look for the bound volumes from time to time.

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On going to bed early

Some days being a grown up is hard.

I just got off of a week where I was just completely exhausted and not getting ahead. And it’s a disaster when it comes to the weekend and all I want to do is sleep, but we have to manage a grumpy toddler. I took some time on Sunday to fast and pray about what I should do. I was hoping that I would just be blessed to have the extra strength and energy I needed, but I had the clear impression that I really need to go to bed earlier and better. Of course.

Doctrine and Covenants 88:128

Cease to be idle; cease to be unclean; cease to find fault one with another; cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.

Sarah also suggested an earlier bedtime. So we’re trying to refocus on going to bed. It’s hard. But there’s no way around it. I like getting into work early so that I can be home earlier. Having that extra hour in the afternoon makes all the difference when Sarah is dealing with an unhappy child. That means I need to wake up early (around 6:15). And that means an early bed time. We’ve pushed back our bed time reminder to 9pm, which gives me the time to shower, read scripture together, and so on. And I’m working on not letting the Internet and games keeping me up later than I want to. I’m hoping that after a week or two of this, I’ll be a more disciplined and we can go back to getting ready at 9:30pm.

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Make a game in a month

I’m an avid watcher of Extra Credits. I’m not really interested in working in the video game industry, but I find discussions of games and mechanics fascinating. Their recent video encouraged budding game developers to focus on finishing games and to pick projects that they can start and finish within a month. Otherwise you either take on a project that greatly outclasses your skills; you’ll end up getting stuck and never get any experience with actually finishing a game.

I agreed that it was pretty good advice and move on. Later that week I watched a video of someone playing parts of the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time blindfolded. I was partly impressed but a lot of the techniques come down to creating paths that are simple enough to memorize and find while blindfolded. I was kind of hoping that you might be able to figure things out without ever having seen the game.

I started thinking about what a game might look like that was meant to be played blindfolded. I realized that this game would probably fit the scope of something that I could do within a month. So on Saturday I started.

My plan is simple. The game will be a randomly generated maze that you’ll have to navigate while trying to remember the layout. It will be designed to be played with a controller and you will only have sound and vibration to figure out where you are. It will probably involve searching the maze for a number of switches in order to open a door in the main chamber. I think this is something I’ll be able to accomplish. It will be challenging because the game will need strong stereo sound design in order to be able to hear your way around, which I’ll have to learn to do as I go along.

concept_art

Concept Art

I doubt the game will turn out to be that fun, but I’m interested in the challenge of starting and finishing the game. You can see the code for Blind on GitHub right now. So far I have some simple walls and a controllable character. I’ve got a character that can be moved via the keyboard or a plugged in controller. The plugged in controller will vibrate when the character hits a wall. There are graphics right now, because I’d like to be able to see things to test them. I’m writing this in Python because I’m working the most in Python right now, and I’ve done some work in PyGame. I didn’t think this would be a performance intensive game, and I figured it would be faster than figuring out a Java or C++ library that I hadn’t worked with before. I also determined that I could get controller input and do a controller vibration pretty quickly.

So far I’ve only spent three or four hours on this, but I’ve got a lot of the fundamentals working. From here I want to get a random maze generator, the switches, and a victory condition. And then I anticipate spending the last two weeks playing with sound to see if I can actually make this thing work.

 

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Being a nerd makes things complicated

My computer wouldn’t turn on one evening, and after opening it up and poking around I figured out the problem was the graphics card. Once I removed it from the computer, it turned on. Ostensibly I’m blaming my son, since he dropped a remote behind the computer and it might have been the cause of the damage. Realistically, the computer is five years old, the graphics card is two, and I may have been overloading my power supply with the new card.

I got excited about the prospects of building a computer from scratch, but found a computer for about half the price it would cost to build one.  When it arrived, however, I couldn’t just turn it on and use it. I wanted to move my SSD from the old computer to the new, and I wanted to save all my data. And this where I make things difficult for myself.

My plan was to backup the SSD and install Windows 8.1 on that drive. Then I would copy backed up files to the new computer’s drive. Then I would reinstall Windows 7 on the old computer, since it would then be missing its operating systems. Things did not go to plan.

The first wrinkle was that I couldn’t find a flash drive to place the Windows 8 installer on. I went to the store and got the cheapest and smallest flash drive I could find (an 8gb sandisk). They had screwed something up on these drives so that they appeared as fixed hard drives and not removable drives, so Microsoft wouldn’t allow me to place the installer on them. I had to use a third party installer to create my install media.

Then I was worried that I couldn’t find a sticker with the Windows 8 license on it. So I had to use the Belarc Advisor to extract that, just in case I needed it. However, I wasn’t ever asked for it, so I’m not sure how Windows 8 handles activation. Windows 7 is kind enough to wait until you’ve wiped your drive and its too late to go back.

I opened up the new computer case and found that they didn’t have any empty hard drive bays. This really surprised my, since my old case seemed to have three spots for placing things, and it’s really common for people to use SSDs now. I read online that hobbyists often use velcro to attach the drive somewhere safe in the case. On the plus side, the computer came with 8GB of ram, and I was expecting 4 2Gb cards, but it came with a single 8GB card. I transfered a RAM upgrade over to bring it to 10GB.

Trying to get the system to boot from my drive was a huge pain as well. I finally turned secure boot completely off, and then ran into problems figuring out which drive was booting. I think there is still an MBR floating around the drive that I need to be careful with.

The part of my plan that I hadn’t thought through was the copying forward of data. I tried to use the drive enclosure that I had, but it was a SCUSI enclosure instead of SATA so it wouldn’t work. Finally I just plugged the drive into the new computer and did the copy with the case off.

3 Drives

Finally I installed Windows 7 back on the old computer. This went smoothly, especially since you can install Windows on a drive without erasing it.

It would have been a lot easier to just use my new computer that way it came…

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To The Moon

I recently played the game To The Moon by Freebird Games. I has heard a lot of good things about it, and knew that it was an artsy interesting game. I’m struggling to figure out why I liked it. Is the narrative actually good, or does it just seem that way compared to other video games? Should it have even been a game, or would it have worked better as a book or a movie? Is the game benefited by being a game?

To give some background: To The Moon is a game where you guide a pair of scientists through the memories of a dying man. You travel through his memories backwards and do so by searching each memory for scenes and important objects. Reviews of the title are mostly positive, with most of the praise going to its narrative and absolutely gorgeous music.

I don’t think I would like the story as well if it were told through a movie or book. A movie would make the story seem bland and childish; especially if some of the dialog were to be spoken rather than written. And I think a book would need a lot more structure and detail to hold the narrative together. As a video game, however, the story was enhanced by both the expectations and the conventions of the medium. It’s not that video games tend to have bad stories, but the story typically serves as a vehicle for gameplay. They are usually a simple explanation as to why you need to kill all the bad guys and save the world. It’s rare for a game to have a story dealing with themes like those in To The Moon such as death, old age, regret, and mental illness. And the game tells its story in the same way as Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy, where the player guides the characters from scene to scene (usually with bouts of strategic combat between each point).

I noticed two video games techniques that To The Moon relies on to tell its story. The first is that only some of the details present in each memory are required to progress the narrative. A careful player may find additional dialog, or insights that other players never see. The second is that by putting the player in control of the scientists, the player becomes part of the narrative. You don’t have everything explained to you, and your actions are required to advance the story. I think this allows a player to become more invested in a story, than they would otherwise be, and it might be one of the reasons the story wouldn’t work well as a book. A book would require an even stronger story and characters to hold the attention of a reader.

In conclusion, To The Moon’s story is bolstered by being a video game. It allows players to be a part of the narrative and fill in the gaps it would need to be a stronger movie or book. And it allows the narrative to have some depth, because not all of its details are on the surface. I think it is beloved because it shows that games can tackle more serious issues, and although I feel it falls short of its narrative potential, I anticipate future developers will be inspired and advance the story driven games even further.

 

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