Thursday, February 8, 2018

Net neutrality in a nutshell? Forget the tech giants, ask Burger King

Words about net neutrality have been bandied about in mainstream America over the last year since  FCC Chairman Ajit "no really guys, i'm just a geek like you, look at my oversized and not at all pandering Reese's mug" Pai publicly expressed his opposition to the idea. American nerds have been keen to the concept and its consequences for quite some time now, and Pai's words drew backlash from most of  the technical community, who astutely pointed out that his position was pro-ISP and anti-consumer.

It's a pretty simple idea - the internet should be open to all, and service providers should actually provide access to everyone, without playing favorites or purposely blocking pieces of the web for any reason. What reasons, you ask? Well there's a ton of them, including some really good ones. Personal bias... kicks... politics...

You know... money.

But I digress. Ever since net neutrality arguments caught the public eye, the subject has been broken down to its simplest facets, talking mainly about pay for play and fast/slow lanes, with parallels from tech pundits and just outright horrible "explanations" put forth by our technologically simple leaders in Congress. But out of all the noise and opposing voices, you know who actually got it right?

Burger King. That's right. the King published a video explaining the base concepts of net neutrality by using, of all things, the Whopper sandwich. Watch, learn, and be amazed:



So what do you think? Absolute genius right? Whopper neutrality? The traditional megabits per seconds being replaced with "making burgers per second?" The open mockery of Ajit Pai and his pander mug? The best part about is that it not only talks about the principles of net neutrality, but presents the restaurant and diners as ISP's and their customers. Take a listen at the Burger King clerk's words:

"Burger King corporation believes that they can sell more and make more money selling chicken sandwiches and chicken fries, so now they’re slowing down the access to the Whopper."


That actually parallels real concerns. Without net neutrality, ISPs could always drive users to the services that they stand to make the most money from instead of allowing user choice. These likely would be be services that they or their partners provide. Next up is the $20 Whopper customer. They were able to get their sandwich without waiting because they paid to be priority customers over everyone else to get their product. Almost like how a repeal of net neutrality would favor those with money huh? Weird. Granted that's an extreme case, but as long as ISP's aren't making any promises that they won't operate that way, we still have cause to worry.

The themes accurately depict how a world without net neutrality could potentially operate. And in the end the customers share how they learned about net neutrality through their hellish meal experience. Say what you want about BK and the King, but they put out an entertaining commercial that actually helped educate the populace on an important issue, pointing users to change.org/savethenet to learn more. And you should want to know more. And go there. Because this is kind of important.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Diablo III's Darkening of Tristram Event Back for More



This old man remembers playing the first Diablo back in high school (yes, this is literally old school for me), when choices were relatively simple and technology was relatively basic. You had 3 classes, 6 equipment slots, a small inventory, and your spells and gear came from manually distributed stats and tomes. And even then, during the age of folks playing together online over dial-up, Blizzard and Blizzard North put together a solid game that had Game of the Year awards and massive sales to its credit. Now Diablo III, the current iteration that has much more control, content, and character customization, is going old school once more by renewing their Darkening of Tristram event.

Those familiar with the game know that your base of operations is New Tristram, after the destruction of the originally named village after the events of the first game. The Darkening of Tristram is a short and fun add-on that lets players experience the quests and bosses of the first game, which was originally part of Blizzard's Diablo 30th anniversary party last year.

What makes this fun is that in addition to the old bosses and classic loot. Blizzard made the graphics of the levels delightfully retro the second you enter the portal, throwing it way back to how they looked in the original entry into the series. To give you some idea, back in the day on original release, the requirements were a Windows 95 box packing 8MB (yes, megabytes) of memory, a 2X CD-ROM drive (if you've ever seen one before), an SVGA video card, and a simply blazing 60MHz Pentium processor.

For those that have forgotten or have never experienced it, SVGA means 800x600 on a 14 inch monitor. And for online play over said dial-up modem (mine was 33.6k) you needed a full SIXTEEN MEGABYTES. So right now, I'm guessing you're either feeling pretty old or wondering what civilization must have been like on double digit MHz processors and dial-up internet service.

Well kids, respect your elders. Because all of us that lived through it when it was live thought it was simply glorious.

The gameplay stays identical to what you're used to in Diablo III, but quests like the Halls of the Blind, squaring off against Archbishop Lazarus, and standing toe to toe with the (original) Butcher will take you back to a simpler time. And let's not forget the original recipe highest level loot we all farmed and ground out for Lord knows how long - the Godly Plate of the Whale, King's Sword of Haste, and the Archangel's Staff of the Apocalypse - complete with classic Diablo icons. The same eerie music was there too, adding great ambiance while you fight your way to the Dark Lord. You can use any character you have to play through the event, but Blizzard's official recommendation is to start with a level 1 toon to get the full experience. I agree, because I went through it on my Torment IV barbarian and absolute facerolling was full effect.

Even with the original music, the graphics pared down and the throwback gear and in-jokes, the one thing I didn't get from this was the actual fear that came with the first game. It might be hard to believe, but the first Diablo did provide some frights - you won't get the stress we had running away from the Skeleton King when all we could do was walk, and you may not have that jump when you open a door and the Butcher rolls out by surprise screaming "Fresh meat." Damn kids and your GeForces and Radeons and whatnot.

At any rate, you have until the end of January to rack up the achievement rewards and a couple of transmogs, one of which may or may not be a very brutal red soulstone jammed right into your toon's dome.

Oh, and one more fun thing below before you all run out to Old Tristram. Have fun kids.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

The 2017 Bit Awards


This past December, the indie gaming scene got to end the year in New York with the second annual Bit Awards presented by Playcrafting. Fans and developers filled the Tishman Auditorium at Parsons for more than just awards being handed out to the best of 2017, but for a night celebrating indie game development and the industry.

The night was hosted by actor Ruffin Prentiss, the voice of Watch Dogs 2's Marcus Holloway, who spoke about as his respect for the artists and developers in the room, and talked about his own gaming history starting from the Atari 2600. He also talked about how much he enjoyed being part of a video game that told a story, and how important it is to see the landscape of the industry and celebrate the creative and development teams that make it happen.

In addition to awards, the audience was brought into the show itself - Colleen Mackin, Parsons Professor and game creator brought her Metagame to the stage with members of the audience. Next up was ESC Game Theater's Pete Vigeant, who led us all in a rousing game of Quiplash with not only folks on stage but with the show's digital audience watching on Twitch.

As it goes for any show, the music is what sets the tone and the mood. And the music at the Bit Awards absolutely killed. The Bits, led by Street Fighter V composer Zac Zinger, kept the night lively with jazz tunes and spot on renditions of victory music from games like Chrono Trigger and various Final Fantasy titles. Boston presenting developer David Su brought music to the show as well, and along with Dominique Star and Laila Smith performed a song from his game Yi and the Thousand Moons.

And let me not forget for you Overwatch fans reading this - Mercy was on call as Lucie Pohl was in attendance to present the Player's Choice award.

The night closed with the year's Game Changer award being given to industry legend Warren Spector. Having his start in tabletop games, Spector was honored as creator of Deus Ex and Epic Mickey, and for his work on System Shock and Thief. Spector gave an inspiring speech about he wanted video games to change the world, and closed by challenging everyone to make video games that made people forget about his generation.

Playcrafting has been on a mission to shine a spotlight on indie gaming and developers. The Bit Awards came just off the heels of the first annual Play NYC, a games convention in August again focusing on indie games. I talk a little bit about it here, and guarantee you it shouldn't be something you sleep on for 2018. Playcrafting provides people with the tools to not only learn the skills needed to develop games, but how to get those games off the ground as well through workshops and game jams. This is an organization everyone should keep their eyes on, and with events like Play NYC and the Bit Awards, they're sure to be responsible for helping a new generation of great indie titles make the scene.

Here's a list of all the winners below. For more info on the other demos and trailers premiering at the show, check out the Bit Awards official site.

Best Student Game - Studio Wumpus, Sumer
Best XR Game - Team Panoptes, Panoptic
Best Style - David Su, Yi and the Thousand Moons
Player's Choice - Mot & Dot, The Ultimate Clapback
Tabletop Game of the Year - Vance Hall, University of Dope
Mobile Game of the Year - Simple Machine, Calculator: The Game
PC/Console Game of the Year - The Deep End Games, Perception
Rising Pixel, Boston - Ryan Canuel
Rising Pixel, San Francisco - Sorob Raissi
Rising Pixel, New York - MaryMartha Ford-Dieng
Game Changer Honoree - Warren Spector

Oh, and let's not forget that fun afterparty - thanks, ESC Games Theater!



Friday, November 10, 2017

Expanded PAX East Show Tickets Available Now (Well, FOR Now Anyways...)

It may seem like it's a far ways away, but 2017 is almost done, which means it's prime time to start looking at convention lineups for 2018. That includes PAX East, the east coast's biggest convention for games and gamers. The sprawling show will make its yearly descent upon the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this coming April. 2018's show brings a major change for ticketing - a remedy of sorts for all of us that have gone through the woes of experiencing cons only through at pics and videos online - passless, listless, and most importantly, gamesless.

That major change? PAX East will now run for 4 days instead of 3. The show will run from Thursday the 5th through Sunday the 8th of April, 2018. More like PAX Beast, amirite kids? But I digress.

"While my biggest joy is helping bring millions of gamers together at PAX, my biggest disappointment is not being able to share the experience with more people," said Jerry Holkins, co-founder, Penny Arcade. "With PAX East's expansion to four days, we expect even more people will be able to join us for our best show yet at PAX East 2018."

And that's awesome. Even more awesome because it's an east coast show, and brings the experience to a more accessible location for fans that can't always make the journey out to Washington or California for a gaming convention.

PAX East has become the premier east coast event for gamers since its debut in 2010. The annual expo quickly sells out, drawing tens of thousands for a celebration of gaming culture with reveals from the biggest publishers, hands-on demos with the most hotly anticipated titles, panels with industry icons, eSports tournaments with world-class players, concerts with game inspired music and much more.

Single day badges are available for purchase via the official PAX East registration page for $53 USD. Exclusive PAX East 2018 merchandise, including a blanket ($40), socks ($25), and a dice set ($40) are on sale exclusively through the online store. These items can be added onto PAX East badge orders and will be shipped out prior to the expo.

Even with the expanded show, tickets are still going fast. As of now (Friday afternoon), Saturday passes are already gone, and I'm sure that the rest will start disappearing soon. If you've ever wanted to go to a PAX show, or have and want to return for more excellence, head over to that link now and secure that admission.

See you in Boston in April everyone!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Equifax Saga Thus Far

Any time any of us makes a big purchase it’s a matter of pride. After saving and budgeting we finally have the scratch to put down some money towards a new car or join the club to become an American homeowner. But before we can sign the papers, there’s one final thing to do – the credit check. Here in the states your credit is reported by what’s called the “big 3” credit agencies -  Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Their say so can make and break what you’re trying to do – they’re the gatekeepers that hold massive databases on all of us and our credit histories. One would think that such sensitive information would be kept under the strictest locks and keys digitally available, but last week we found that sadly, what we hope and assume versus what’s reality are often not the same. This is worse than having most of your other accounts hacked though - this one included a giant list of social security numbers.

Equifax, one of those big 3 credit agencies, reported that it was hacked last week, potentially opening up the personal information for 143 million American consumers. And a slow response from them to help the affected consumers whose information they coughed up, three things became abundantly clear to me – they knew this was coming, they did nothing to stop it, and you’re on your own.

After the breach Equifax provided a phone number and a website to check if your information was compromised as what was seemingly a helpful hand. Equifax’s official response came from CEO Richard Smith in the form of a video you can see here.

If you checked if your information was hit, they were kind enough to provide you with free credit monitoring from that point on. But there were multiple issues with that – in addition to the glib “mea culpa” attitude given to consumers, the hotline kept strange and limited hours, urging consumers to use the website to check. The website itself asked for social security numbers (after yours may have been swiped) to check that info. That yielded another issue – as multiple IT colleagues as well as myself found, the website check would come back and say that your information was compromised regardless of what information you put in. Even If the information you entered was fake. So what was the deal?

Well, after checking on your info, the one thing Equifax did make easy was enrolling in their free credit monitoring service. But as all of us have found in the scope of general life, nothing comes for free. Enrolling in the service came with some very very fine print – if you enrolled in the program, you waive all rights to sue Equifax for any damage their breach could have caused through their arbitration clause. Awesome, right? They get users enrolled in their programs and legal immunity against those users at the same time. It’s a pretty sweet deal for them. Thankfully though, after intense criticism and pressure, Equifax changed this to a user-responsible opt-out clause and finally removing the arbitration clause altogether. Let’s be real though, this clause shouldn’t have been part of the agreement for their services given the absolute train wreck of a data leak that they were involved in.

But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Additional information that was unearthed over the following week took this action from shady activities to what may be pointing to a full blown cover up.

What happened?

It’s been revealed that the vulnerability that was exploited was something called Apache Struts – which to the non-web-savvy is a web server tool that is used by a lot of companies. This information on its own made me cringe as an IT boss. I, as many of my colleagues recall, saw a lot of this activity back in March, with our firewalls and security software coming up with and shutting down attempts to exploit Apache Struts multiple times a day. Patches to plug up the security hole were readily available back in March and even posted as security bulletins from Apache as well as US-CERT (i.e. the Federal Government), which means that Equifax had 2 months to patch up their Apache security holes.

And didn’t.

Granted, there's more than just patching involved to fix a screw-up of this magnitude, but there's more: Equifax reported that July 29 was the date of the hit, meaning two months had passed before they decided to reveal this information with the general public. That's 2 months where they could have started working on it, come up with a game plan, and started a conversation with consumers. Apache themselves put out a statement, citing that “Most breaches we become aware of are caused by failure to update software components that are known to be vulnerable for months or even years,” according to RenĂ© Gielen, Vice President for Apache Struts.

Firewalls and security software can help keep the bad guys out of your network, but on the inside of the firewall, updating that software and patches for everything your company is running is the crux of protecting users against further threats. I know from running a technical division how much effort my team takes to make sure everything is patched up and protected from vulnerabilities, and the fact that Equifax, who houses information far more important than most companies do, did not, is absolutely mind boggling to me. And that’s both as an IT boss as well as an American consumer.

And while Equifax was taking there time not patching? Hackers were already putting breached information into use.

From idiots to evil?

I really wish this was it, but even more information that came to light showed that while Equifax was going through the motions not patching their networks and hiding critical information from the American public, their officers were seemingly busy financially hedging for what was sure to be a massive loss. After the reported July 29 breach, top-ranking Equifax executives offloaded about $2 million in shares on August 1, raising eyebrows across the country. The company maintains that it was scheduled and they didn’t know anything about the hack, but the timing is just a bit more than suspect. Suspect enough for a bipartisan group of senators urging an investigation of the sale by the FBI, FTC the SEC. You can see the text of that letter to the Chairmen of both the SEC and FTC, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions here.

OK. What happens to them?

Equifax has had some “personnel changes” in the wake of this event. Susan Mauldin and Dave Webb, their Chief Security and Chief Information Officers, have retired. But our boy Richard Smith? Still in charge. But as far as government action, Equifax is now under investigation by the FTC, and Smith has been formally called to testify before Congress, and will testify before a special panel on October 3. So we’ll have to see how this plays out.

What about me?

Your first steps should to get a copy of your credit report. Under the FCRA, we are all entitled to one free creit report per year. The FTC has links here on where and how to obtain your credit report through annualcreditreport.com. You can also consider freezing your credit, which blocks any new accounts being made in your name with your social security number. This does not affect your current existing accounts, so you will still have to monitor those.

But otherwise? You’re basically on your own. Using a reactive approach and waiting until your hacked takes a lot of power away from you and limits what recourse you have in reclaiming your identity and credit for theft. The best course of action is to always be on guard. If you yourself are not a technical person or versed in what a disgusting cesspool the internet actually is, ask someone. I guarantee you that they will be more than happy to help you become more proactive about your data security. Granted, that would have done little to stop what happened with Equifax. Unfortunately for the American consumer, someone can be as secure as possible and this kind of event can screw that up.

And having seen friends and colleagues that have been victimized in such a way, there’s an emotional component too. Imagine what you’d be able to immediately do while also dealing with the fear and anger of being hit where you live? Being proactive should be part of everyone’s digital routine in today’s day and age, including vigilance and consistent checks of bank and credit accounts.

There’s nothing we can do about the data that was given up – it’s out there now and it’s not coming back. There's 143 million sets of data out there and the chances of your information being used for something are fairly small, but it's something we need to pay attention to nonetheless. We can try to take this as a lesson, but I understand that for most people reading this, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Don't Sleep on Play NYC

I've been to a number of conventions for pop culture and games from coast to coast, and there's a certain expectation you have when you attend one. Sprawling crowds, long lines for a panel or trying out a game demo, and of course the arduous trek while dead on your feet just to get some nachos. Sometimes a big con can go from a fun day to an exhaustive odyssey, where dodging the after parties for bed is an all-too-viable option. This year though I got to add a new games convention to my list, which didn't hit me with all of your standard con fare.

That convention was Play NYC, held at Terminal 5 in New York City (naturally). This was the first year this convention took place and I have to say, it was a great first outing from the folks at Playcrafting. They packed 3 floors of indie goodness, including all sorts of games ranging from handheld apps like Mama Hawk all the way up to what i can only call installation art with Salmon Roll. In the middle I even played a bullet hell game on a DDR dance mat. I can honestly say that I was able to pack more demos in over the span of one day than I have been able to in a lot of larger shows.

And that's part of what made Play NYC so great. More than a coliseum hosting upwards of 75,000 people, this was a more intimate environment. There was room to walk, demo in comfort, and talk directly to developers while you played without having to jam elbows to get to where you were going. And what really added something to was how they took care of everyone in the building. On every floor at multiple stations were free lemonade, energy drinks and snacks to keep you on your feet when you start to waver, as we all do. They even had a diet variety of lemonade for those who need and/or want such an option, which made my delicious hydration a bit easier, and was very welcome after walking in the hot sun before we got to the venue.

More then just the amenities (for lack of a better word) this was the first show I've been to that put a focus and importance on indie game development. Howard Zemsky, CEO of the Empire State Development Corporation as well as NY State Senator Martin Golden spoke during the convention on the importance of growing the games development industry in New York, and making it a flagship hub for devs.

And with continued events like Play NYC, I think they have a chance. I myself am looking forward to next year!


Friday, April 21, 2017

... So you were owned by the NES Classic

** NOTE: During the time of writing the SNES Classic had yet to be announced, and as such Nenedamus was still awesome and ahead of the game **

Nostalgia is wasted on the young. So many things in gaming these days are sequels, or updates, or HD special editions, or whatever the hell most companies feel like repackaging to sell to the old folks like me. And thankfully for something refreshing from that formula, the NES Classic was released – a mini console that thanks to today’s technology was able to pack 30 classic games from Nintendo’s 8-bit era into one convenient unit. It opened for $59.99 and it sounded pretty good at the time. Classic Nintendo IP like the Mario and Zelda series along with Metroid were now plug and play, with many other popular titles rounding out the 30.

And those positive vibes lasted for roughly 38 seconds.

There was absolutely no way in the infinite 8-bit hells that this price was going to remain steady. Just like all other re-issued nostalgia it was going to be bought in bulk, stocked out, and sold to gouge the highest bidders for profit. I saw the device go as high as $600 on eBay (a 1000% price hike for those playing along at home) and people jumping at the opportunity to have one. 1.5 million units were sold in just a couple months on the market. Which turned out to be… well, all of them.

So now we come to the recent development in the NES Classic saga. Recently Nintendo, without any warning or heads up, stopped production on the mini console a couple weeks ago. They have since announced that they would cease production in not only the North American region but in Japan and Europe as well. What happened next, though, surprised the hell out of Old Man Nene though for such a simple thing - the gaming community, at least what I’ve seen on social media, lost its damn mind. But it didn’t make any sense to me. Most kid gamers my age still have our NES and games intact. Younger gamers have online emulators and ROMS. Why was this such a big thing in the gaming community that I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about? What was the draw? Well kids, to all you Aging Gamer faithful that listen to Old Man Nene in his rocking chair tell you how it used to be – I can only offer the immortal words of DJ Khaled:

Congratulations. You played yourself.

It’s basic economics and mindshare. Firstly, Nintendo never meant for this to be an ongoing product – why would they when the Switch was just around the corner? This was always going to be special edition and never a permanent offering. The number of units manufactured was set to reflect that. Look at any supply and demand scenario – the second the “super rare” tag gets slapped on an item the price spikes like a rocket, and people are willing to pay more for a scarce product. What Nintendo did was create an artificial demand and gamers responded precisely the way they were supposed to.

It's like some small restaurants that have lines for blocks leading to their front door. Sure it'll draw more people and generate more demand, but they don't tell you that there's only 10 seats inside and that's what causing the line.

[Side note: that was an angry morning in Philadelphia for Old Man Nene. I just wanted some pancakes.]

Secondly, they created an environment where gamers would have Nintendo control every free thought in their brains for the foreseeable future. The NES Classic dropped in November 2016. The Switch hit shelves four months later in March 2017. Look at the timing of those events, including the NES Classic price gouge in the middle. This is not a coincidence. It could be argued that hands clamoring for the NES Classic could ultimately lead to a Switch sale. Bummed that the NES Classic is done for? That 8-bit longing, along with murky rumors about a virtual console on the Switch, could be enough mind control to have gamers shelling out fistfuls of cash in the future for games they bought already via the NES Classic. I mean it’s not really that far a stretch… I’m sure there’s a bunch of Square-Enix fans that have 7 different versions and releases of Final Fantasy IV.

In the end, my prediction is this: The NES Classic is dead, but I can see a SNES Classic in the not too distant future.

So go ahead and be mad that you couldn't get an NES Classic. Celebrate and rejoice if you managed to snag one. But remember this kids - in the end we're all just logic boards in the gaming machine.

[And while I cannot condone a workaround that theoretically involves easily constructing a Raspberry Pi powered RetroPie DIY unit, legend has it (seriously you guys) would only take an hour to get together, be ultra cheap and allow you to play your old 8 and 16 bit games. I can also neither confirm nor deny such things exists.]


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

PAX East: Bear With Me Episode 2


I'm a nut for point and click adventures. I grew up on the the old LucasArts library with the Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion games among others. So seeing the Bear With Me series was already up my alley. Mix that with old school film noir black and white animation and an anthropomorphized teddy bear detective, Exordium Games definitely had my attention.

Episode 2 of Bear With Me picks ups where the first episode left off, following the adventures of Ted E. Bear and Amber. It expands the cast of colorful characters of Paper City we already knew and loved (yes, I know its in black and white) from the first installment. It also thankfully also amps up the feel and attitude of the first game - a humorously dark and adult tone and script (especially from our stuffed detective), which belies the fact that the game itself runs from a kid's point of view.

The story keeps on with the threat of the mysterious Red Man as a dark cloud over Paper City while Amber and Ted keep investigating what happened to the missing Flint. Over the course dealing with arsonists and spies, we also deal with the increasing strain on the relationship between Amber and Ted - that tension leads to arguments throughout the game as to how to proceed with clues, which adds to the dark nature of the plot. This eventually leads to more questions and mysteries to unravel, and I think serves as a great setup to the coming episode 3.

There are definitely fewer hints in episode 2, which follows the pattern of the delightfully recent trend of episodic games becoming more popular. Episode 1 was a primer, like most first episodes are, and episode 2 follows with tougher puzzles - the player really has to pay closer attention to the environments and interactive elements to solve them and get to where they need to go. This pairs great though with the new expanded universe of the game. Instead of being stuck only in Amber's house, there are many more locations and places to explore.

I talked about that amped up dark humor and tone of the second installment just above, and that's what kept me engaged with the story and wanting to play on. The dialogue and script is chock full of smart and sarcastic banter, paired with Ted's numerous fourth wall breaks talking directly to the player, which to me at least were wildly fun elements that enhanced my experience with the game.

And for the detail oriented, let's not forget the pop culture references to Star Wars, The X-Files, and many more properties nerd culture holds near and dear.

In all this goodness I did have one teeny little complaint though - after much clicking back and forth between different sides of the screen for looking at clues or moving, I wish we could turn up the character movement speed. I mean I know it's a teddy bear and a kid, but I think they can move just a bit more quickly.

All in all, the second installment to Bear With Me is a great follow up to the first - with great dialogue, style, and a rapidly unraveling story that makes me look forward to the next piece. And with only a few hours of gameplay, you might find yourself finishing in just one or two sittings before waiting for part 3. Do yourself a favor and give this series a start on Steam here.

I for one call it a bear necessity.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Ultimate Chicken Horse at PAX East - a Game for Best Frenemies

What's in a name?

When I saw press and previews for a game called Ultimate Chicken Horse, how could I not go and check it out at the Indie Megabooth? The humorously twisted minds at Clever Endeavour, the devs behind the game, explained to me the concept of what into the title after talking to them for a bit while waiting my turn to join the fray. Inspired by the schoolyard basketball game HORSE, the game has players alternate between placing traps, gadgets or platforms and running through their communal creation toward their goal. So picture playing a game of Chicken that has all the oneupmanship elements of Horse, add 4 player action playing as barnyard animals and that's the game. In the end, Ultimate Chicken Horse made perfect sense.

Oh, and I should mention it's one of the best accidental instances of economics and game theory that I've ever seen. The whole thing, though not by direct design according to the developers, plays like an extremely well crafted 4-way prisoner's dilemma.

Don't let the playable character field of adorable barnyard animals fool you when you pick - the premise of UCH is to make your way through a deadly obstacle course of your own making, while both working with and competing against three other players. As each round begins, the players open a "party box" of deadly contraptions - traps, explosives, and other malicious weaponry - and each player has to choose one. Each player places their item onto the course, with the hopes of their strategy letting them get through to the end while sending their competition to their untimely end. Round after round whoever amasses the most points is the winner of the contest. Take a look at the trailer to see what I'm talking about.



So here's the game theory-esque twist - players have got to keep limits and payoff in mind. If the obstacles are too hardcore, no one is going to make it through and nobody gets any points. In the other hand, make it so easy that everyone gets through without taking any damage and again, no one gets any points. The gameplay once the obstacles are placed is natural enough for anyone to jump in and get on board. Directional controls, jumping and ducking are all someone needs to try and make their way through the gauntlet.

And for me at least, that's what led to an extremely fun game experience. I was set up with two strangers on the con floor I've never met before and the lovely and talented Jenesee Grey of the Grey Area Podcast, and the first couple rounds were understandably quiet while we blazed through our pseudo-team made courses without taking any damage and receiving no points. Then came more elements from the party box being stacked onto the course, and more screaming and cheering from our band of merry animals - a combination of cheers of glee as someone that made it through, the tense shrieks of pain when someone got 99% through and got nicked by an obstacle, and the very vocal strategy meetings between rounds. This included screams of "CHICKEN IN IT TO WIN IT," "GO LIZARD GO," and "TO HELL WITH THAT FLOWER" until I was hoarse, and high fives when one of us made it. And yes, I did in fact play as the chicken, which was dictated by the universe for someone who runs a publication called "Technical Fowl."

But of course, through the teamwork, we were all still trying to kill each other. My hats off to the new frenemies I played with at PAX East. The party mode we were playing isn't the only way to play though. Creative Mode opens up the entire inventory for players to choose from. Free Play Mode enables a single player to design levels from the full suite of objects, which they can save and share online. There's also a solution for players who don't have 4 controllers; Couch Hot Seat Mode which is like Creative Mode, but turn-based.

Ultimate Chicken Horse is out on Steam and the Humble Store for you PC enthusiasts that like to play online. Later in 2017 though it'll me making the jump to console on PS4, Xbox ONE, and Nintendo Switch. And that's what I'm really looking forward to more than online. Being one of the old school guys that grew up playing round robin console games from 8 bit consoles as a kid to the 128 bit consoles in college, some of my most fun memories with my friends were gaming nights. And that's what this game is going to be perfect for on console - if Jenesee and I could have that good a time with 2 people we'd never met before, imagine what kind of fun you'll have with some pizza, some beverages, and your friends at the house.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Super Nintendo Turns 25


[Originally published on Sub Cultured as The Super Nintendo Turns 25]

The Super Nintendo – or the SNES for short – celebrated its 25th birthday this week. Granted this may not mean much to the Sega faithful from the 80’s and 90’s, but as I’ve mentioned in previous posts I was a Nintendo kid growing up. My formative game time came courtesy of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The Super Mario Brothers / Duck Hunt double cartridge for NES sank so many of my hours that it would be tough to tabulate how many fire flowers I digitally ingested or how many rounds I popped off on my Zapper light gun. When I discovered RPG’s and action/adventure games, that would put my hours logged shooting ducks to shame. I liked the obscure stuff – the stuff that none of my friends had, so I had some stock in trading cartridges with them like Yo! Noid and Seicross. And of course, my personal favorites Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, The Legend of Zelda, Ninja Gaiden and The Goonies II.

My friends and I all thought we were in the golden age of video games, but little did we know that the next-gen console introduced at the turn of the decade would change how the game is played forever. And you know, we were kids. That’s not an exaggeration even given my penchant for hyperbole – in 1990 the Super Nintendo, affectionately known as the SNES, changed everything.

Back then terms like “16 bit” didn’t really mean much to me – all that I was able to see then was how I could do more things, and how games were deeper, and how the technology now existed to make better music and more memorable stories. We had a unit at home now that brought the flash of the arcade to our living room, and gaming went from single player to social time with friends. But still, what was so special about the SNES that brought about this change? It even overtook the Genesis, its 16-bit rival from Sega, which was already on the market with a number of games available.

First off on the list of excellence was the SNES controller. This was the first console controller to feature six buttons with triggers on the corners to make gameplay more complex and fun. This stomped on the Genesis, which only gave us 3 buttons to play with. Sega was forced to make a 6 button version in 1993 to keep up. Anyone who’s played Street Fighter II Turbo and tried to pull off Vega’s jump dive on the Genesis will more than surely attest to what kind of pain was removed just from having more buttons. And that was one of the things that made it great – a six button controller made arcade fighters playable without a cabinet, and more importantly, without the aforementioned pain. It played right into the control scheme of the Street Fighter series with 3 punch and kick buttons each. Even Mortal Kombat titles needed 4 to be played cleanly – 2 each for punch and kick buttons. So instead of standing around in an arcade bleeding quarters into a game for play credits, round robin “winner keeps playing” sessions were how we did things. And good lord was it fun – the multiplayer of our time.

The controller setup was copied and used as a standard for generations to come. Look at your current PS4 and XBOX One controllers. They may have a couple of extra triggers and thumb sticks but what is the core control? 4 buttons, arranged in a diamond, with triggers on the side. Even though it was a big jump from the A and B buttons on the 8-bit NES, it let players have a control method that became second nature.

The controller was only as good as games that were made for it, and the titles pumped out in addition to arcade fighters for the SNES were legendary. Upgraded games with familiar characters came to life on the screen, starting with the Super Mario World title that shipped with the console. That game on its own took existing IP and brought it into a new generation with scrolling levels, a vast world map to travel and multiple power ups.

Even the pure graphical power, clearly able to be seen when dozens of cannons with moving projectiles came at you on side scrolling levels in World 8 left a player wondering what else this machine could do. The Legend of Zelda was upgraded and we had a new adventure with A Link to the Past, arguably one of the greatest video games of all time. And with each game release, developers showed what was possible by pushing the SNES engine – Pilotwings. StarFox. Donkey Kong Country. F-Zero. Each great in their own way, each memorable for different reasons, and each being a genre flagship on which future titles for future systems would stand on the shoulders of. It was quite literally a Super Nintendo. Better tech meant more colors, music with enough tones to provide mood, and it even dabbled in 3D gaming with the help of the SuperFX chip (self contained without the add-ons Sega was investing in, I might add).

And I must make special mention of one of my favorite games of all time, Uniracers. Thanks for wrecking that one for us, Pixar Legal.

Final Fantasy fans in particular were given installments II and III in the series, re-branded from the Japanese IV and VI. Again, these games opened the door to what was possible when technology allows for good storytelling, and elements and themes of these games are even visible in the upcoming Final Fantasy XV.


The SNES became more than just a game console. It was a solid proof of concept that games as a medium could tell a story and draw players into a virtual world where they could connect with their characters, require them to even take notes on some of the more complex puzzles, and give greater choice to the player on how he or she wanted the game to go. It launched an era that made games evolve from mindless entertainment to a real digital experience. And from indie developers to triple A studios, it’s a legacy that still influences what a game should be.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Archetype, Age, and Leveling Up

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as The Aging Gamer: Archetype, Age, and Leveling Up]

What do you kids know about archetypes? They are a set of what psychiatrist Carl Jung called “elements of the collective unconscious” a long time ago- basically roles people play, or a persona if you will, underlying their behaviors. I’ll skip the rest of the the psych lesson for today but whether you know it or not, in our sphere of geekery, archetypes are the basis of what forms characters and situations in movies. And that includes video games. In my opinion, it’s why we’re drawn to certain characters that we play. For games that allow character customization it’s even more true – it’s why we design them the way we do.

Since I started my gaming life with the first Final Fantasy on the NES, I’ve I’ve encountered two types of gamers over the years. The first is the watcher, experiencing the game in the third person – connecting with with the game world from the third person, acting like the game’s God. The second is more me – and that’s the player that not so much sees him or herself outside of the game looking down, but draws parallels to the characters and identifies with them. And it’s interesting to see what kind of characters one identifies with since I do think it says a lot about that person. It’s a combination of what we see in ourselves and maybe a little bit of something we’d love to see in ourselves too. What’s coming next doesn’t really apply to that first type of gamer, since what i’m talking about is player identification with characters. But like I said the second type is all me. And there’s a lot of different archetypes that players like me could identify with.

To break it down a little better, let’s work with some material we should all be familiar with – the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Let’s look at a few of of the characters and how they’re portrayed through archetypes in book and film. Not a complete list, but here we go:

  • The Hero: Aragorn (ok arguably Frodo but I’m sticking with the son of Arathorn here) – the central character around whose journey we see things, struggling to find himself and realize his true potential.
  • The Sidekick: Legolas (or Sam if Frodo’s your hero) – The hero’s trusty and faithful companion. Not the main character in the story but without their help the hero would fall.
  • The Sage: Gandalf – the wise old man there to offer guidance to our young hero and unlock their hidden potential.
  • The Villain: Sauron – for whatever their reason, just wants to watch the world burn.
  • The Trickster: Pippin – through their actions they mess with everyone else’s plans, but inherently their antics magically help save the day.
  • The Maiden: Arwen – the intuitive female and usually the hero’s counterpart.
  • The Mother: Galadriel – Nurturing and love.
  • The Shapeshifter: Smeagol/Gollum – Brings uncertainty to the hero’s journey, possibly a turncoat bastard.
So there are more than that depending on who you’re talking to, and yes in modern times a lot of these are subject to modification, but I think you’re picking up what I’m putting down. We can see them as character classes.

(short break for game rage – if you roll a rogue in World of Warcraft, I’m going to give you hell for your overt trickery and cowardice on principle).

When I was young I always identified with the classic hero. Strolling through killing monsters with sword and board, pushing the attack, and fulfilling prophecies sounded pretty good. Going back to that Final Fantasy on the NES, my lead character was a fighter named Tush (we only had the 4 letters in the 8-bit days). I’d set up my support and away I’d go. I wouldn’t lead with a black belt character for example, because in my head “the guy leading the charge doesn’t wear wooden armor, what’s with that?” And in every RPG since then for a long time, that continued. Little did I know until later that this mildly squishy character evolves to become the game’s best pure physical damage dealer by a mile – unarmed to boot. The same holds with Gandalf in our Lord of the Rings comparison – how much did you cringe when he didn’t know which way to go in Moria? or when he was chilling with his pipe weed from the shire? Little did we know that wasn’t even his final form. Gandalf the White tore it up in Minas Tirith and worked with the story’s trickster to (surprise) trick everyone into lighting the beacons for the greater good.

Ironically now I’m a Jiu Jitsu blue belt with a penchant for collar chokes so you know, things change. My retro-apologies to the black belt class back in ’89.

As we get older (or at least as I got older), we change into different people that place higher value on different parts of life, and have a more balanced and nuanced view of ourselves, including which traits we foster and which we ignore. It’s like our stat sheet changes, we level up like mad, and we start multiclassing for the sake of party balance.

I stopped identifying with the brash and unexperienced hero. There’s a fading amount of that material I connect with anymore. It’s different seeing what’s around us instead of understanding only what we can see. Shooting from the hip was replaced with forethought and battle plans long ago. So who I do see more of myself in is the Sage. I’ve done a lot, I’ve gone through a number of trials and tribulations, and now I have wisdom to pass down and help people as a seasoned sage. I help coach kids in martial arts. I mentor younger geeks trying to make a name in the field. Struggles are different, and one sees thing with a wider lens. I’ve gone from Tidus to Auron. Wrynn to Khadgar. Pharah to Ana. Neo to Morpheus.

Wolverine to… well, Wolverine.

And that seriously affects how I play games these days. As much as the internet has turned Overwatch‘s Soldier:76 into a old man dad for all the other characters for example, there’s pieces of him I can get on board with. Sometimes one feels grizzled or grumpy, or hell I’ll say it, Clint Eastwood-y. And Soldier:76 kind of speaks to that. He can still do damage but can take care of others with heals. And he’s not ashamed to use tech to help him get the job done. Tactical visor activated all up in this point, bastards.

I heal more too. While when I started World of Warcraft I wasn’t about to heal any dungeons, but now in Overwatch I break it down with LĂșcio keeping everyone up with those heals. Healer and Mage classes that stack intelligence over strength speak louder to me now, because that’s my primary stat in life. I live because of my brain, and manipulate tech to do my bidding with a digital staff which doubles as a whoopin’ stick for young whippersnappers that get insolent.

It’s not just games this holds true for – there are other spheres of geek media that this spill over into. I have more appreciation for a well written complex character who’s a little bit older but has far more depth. Because I’d like to believe that about myself. Dumbledore was my homeboy in the Harry Potter series, and I know this may come as a shock and some of you may get a bit angry for what I’m about to say, but Peter Capaldi’s my Doctor in Doctor Who, more so than Matt Smith and David Tennant.

I’m not saying that there’s no room for young and hotheaded in the games I play. I’m just saying people change, and their tastes in things like this, while mundane to most, weirdly have a lot to say on who we are. And I’m in a place now where I can appreciate that.

Because make no mistake – I still have my means for taking down the metaphorical Ganons out there like a champ but…