Friday, March 20, 2015

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD

Since the initial inception of Final Fantasy on the NES in 1987, Square-Enix (previously Squaresoft) has developed a pretty consistent formula in the release of all their titles.  And for the most part, it’s worked – now I’ve got some perspective on this, as I’ve played every (non-MMO) edition since I was a wee brown lad.  Go ahead, I’ll pause a moment so you can marvel at my advanced age, kids.

Granted the formula will always have some tweaks to the core to freshen the mechanic from time to time – summons were added, job roles and classes in V, items like materia in VII, that annoying draw system from VIII, then grids and maps for skills and upgrades in X and beyond.  And this all revolved around a two pronged attack of a massive world to explore along with a tried and true turn-based combat system. And the gaming and RPG gods did smile, as they saw that it was good.

Then Final Fantasy XIII happened.

Much the like the compendium of Final Fantasy VII, which included a multimedia immersion into that universe, XIII was supposed to have gone a similar (read: NOT identical) route.  These games were all to share a mythology in a series calledFabula Nova Crystallis, and in addition to the core XIII titles, there were two additional games that were going to be thrown into the mix – Final Fantasy Agito XIII an Final Fantasy Versus XIII.  Agito was released for mobile platforms but we never really saw much of it in the US, and Versus basically vanished into vaporware.  It was a real shame at the time because they looked like a different take on the traditional title. Lightning’s adventures in XIII as the core were pretty polarizing though, leading most people into a love it or hate it scenario about S-E’s most recent entry to the franchise.  True, XIII was a lot more interactive story than game, and the exploration piece of a traditional Final Fantasy game didn’t appear with as much gusto, but I for one still enjoyed it.

Well, after playing halfway through then giving up then starting over and having far more appreciation for it as well as Lightning herself.

To distance them from the XIII universe, these two games were split off into separate entities.  What we knew as Versus XIII became Final Fantasy XV (the demo Episode Duscae of which was reviewed by Colby here), and from the ashes of Agito XIII rose Final Fantasy Type-0.  And you know what? I can only describe Final Fantasy Type-0 as the greatest documentary I’ve ever played.

In most RPG’s you’ll find that there’s three types of movies.  One is full motion video.  The second is dialogue and animation using the game engine. This one has a third – History Channel style explanations of battalion movements and war maps with dates and voiceovers so the player can understand the meta of the war at hand instead of just what they’re playing through.  It gives it a very strange but satisfying documentary feel, and these types of clips to me work very well in tying everything together and keeping me immersed in the lore and world events. This game becomes, in fact, an interactive retelling of the accounts of the war between the Crystal States of Orience, and it pulls it off very well.

That aside, the gameplay is a stark departure from what we know from most of the Final Fantasy games.  It’s full-on action where skills are thrown on the fly – there’s no waiting for a turn, there’s no running to escape a battle encounter or random encounters like in previous games of the series (think kind of like Crisis Core). The four buttons at your disposal on the controller map to 4 commands – generally one standard attack, a special, a magic, and a defensive skill.  These can all be changed out with different skills and spells as your characters level up and gain ability points.  Much like X and titles beyond it there are three party members that can be deployed at once – one that you directly control while the other two work on AI.  You can freely switch which character you control if ever you need a different skillset for a certain enemy or you’re just running low on health.  It’s a fun system that allows on-the-fly style change in how you attack the game.

To add more customization, there are twelve characters (there’s two add-ons too but they don’t fit the theme) from which to pick your team, each one with a different weapon and style that fits different scenarios.  Each character is named after a playing card rank (Deuce through Ace with no “Ten”) and have their own equipment and spells, all of which you have control over.  Ace himself uses playing cards as a weapon at range, while the other two characters you begin with, Nine and Queen, use a spear and a sword for more melee-oriented combat.  In addition to their own offense each character has their own defensive style that can help you out in a jam.  Ace’s “Wall” for example helps when taking ranged attack without cover.  Fast switching between each character to utilize their skills becomes as much of a skill to learn itself, but when you do, boy does this game get fun in a hurry.

The story is a fairly simple tale of power and struggle between kingdoms in a different age – in this case starting in year 842 in the world of Orience. The Militesi Empire invades the dominion of Rubrum (our characters) unprovoked, using technology to snuff out the magic Rubrum relies on for its military using their White Tiger Crystal, destroying much of the countryside in its assault. Rubrum’s crystal, the Vermillion Bird, grants them the power of magic and Eidolons to defend themselves. Militesi and Rubrum are two of the four Crystal States, with Concordia Kingdom and the Lorican Alliance rounding out the other two.  And thus war begins, with you controlling the Rubrum Akademia’s legendary Zero class, hoping that one of them will become the fabled Agito to bring balance to the end time, or tempus finis. So yes, there are four crystals in the game as is always somewhat expected.  Where this ties in with Fabula Nova Crystallis is that the crystals are sentient, and create l’Cie to do their bidding, serving the same role the Fal’cie did in XIII.

Square-Enix also went through some effort to add a lot of familiar elements to the game, softening a bit of the shock of being this different to previous games in the franchise – not only within the Final Fantasy universes, but more specifically from within Fabula Nova Crystallis.  Summons are called Eidolons and there are branded magic users called l’Cie like in XIII. There’s Magitek armor like in VI.  There’s four crystals (for the purists fine, yes, back then they were “orbs”) like there have been since day 1. And possibly the greatest homage to a previous game in the series, twelve people genetically enhanced to serve a greater purpose, all referring to the scientist that created them as “Mother.” Final Fantasy VII? Feel a little bit like Sephiroth clones and Jenova anyone?  It helps give you a familiarity with the game even though it’s a brand new environment.

In all, good fun, and a different flavor of the Final Fantasy universe that’s a a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Life Is Strange Episode 2 Preview

“So a lot of people ask us ‘If you can rewind the game, doesn’t that mean that you can cheat? Isn’t that the same as reloading the save?’ It would be if it was badly designed.”

That was what Square-Enix’s Adam Phillips had to say about the luxury of choice in their current series Life is Strange. And that statement is 100% correct.  I’m in my second playthrough now of episode 1, Chrysalis and am not having any less fun trying different choices I take with Max in her exploration of her newly found powers over time.  The beauty of it is that there’s no correct answers in the game, and even though the short term results of the decisions made are simple enough to see, the long term and meta effects aren’t so easy to spot.

Just like life. Strange… right?

I was able to sit down with Square-Enix and DONTNOD Entertainment at PAX East last week to get a preview of Life is Strange episode 2, Out of Time to see some spoiler-free gameplay.  We were able to see some of the longer-than-short-term consequences of one of the pivotal decisions from Chrysalis – whether or not to take the blame for Chloe’s stepfather finding her smoking weed, resulting in being in hot water yourself or Chloe taking an angry backhand.

The game picks up on the day after Max finds discovers her gift (1 episode, 1 day) and the scene we got to play through was Max meeting Joyce, Chloe’s mother, at the diner where she has been working for years.  You have the choice of telling Joyce or not that Chloe’s stepfather struck her, but not every playthrough has that option.  We were playing episode 2 using the input from episode 1 that Chloe hid in the closet and watched Chloe get struck, and that’s why this and other choices are available to us now. The game keeps track of every decision you’ve made, and offers shifts in the storyline accordingly, guaranteeing a number of playthroughs which are all different. “It really is a network,” was how the choice system in the game was explained to us. “There are in this game some binary switches, like if you do this that happens, but in this game there are actually combination switches as well.” This won’t affect the overall story of the game but it will affect the way the game progresses. “More like branches they’re vines going up a tree, so they all go in the same direction, each one is just slightly different.”

To get used to the “keep your knowledge and stuff” part of the time rewind mechanic, you’re forced to guess everything that happens within 10 seconds at the diner and everything that’s in Chloe’s pockets.  Of course you’re not a mind reader so the only option is to guess wrong, see the real answer, rewind and prove the Chloe your “superpowers” are real. It works as this game’s take on quick time button events, where you have to get the whole sequence right or rewind time and start over.

I’m really looking forward to see how my different savegames affect my playthrough for episode 2, and the way this is set up we’ll be getting increasing levels of meta consequences for seemingly small choices we made earlier on.

The soundtrack which thoroughly impressed me in Chrysalis maintains its deliciously modern indie feel, with artists like José Gonzaléz, Syd Matters and alt-J on the score for both background music and the tracks Max listens to.  “It was really important when Max put her earbuds in that you heard the sound dull down as she pressed play. What happens when you hear a licensed track? It grounds you in reality.” It’s true, and goes a long way in helping continue to set the tone and emotion of Max and Chloe’s adventures in Arcadia Bay.

I asked creators Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch from DONTNOD about why episodic games are finding so much success next to huge triple-A 80-90 hour behemoths. “It’s the way we’re playing games nowadays.  We have less time I think, and a short experience is something you can really enjoy between two stations of one really huge game.  Sometimes those short experiences of  an episode of a game or a short game like Journey can be interesting to play because you can play it in one session.”

Of course they mentioned that also inherent in episodic games is the anticipation and expectation for the next one to come out to see what happens.  And that part is working.

Thankfully we don’t have too much longer to wait. Life is Strange episode 2, Out of Time will be released this month on March 24th, and I’ve got my season pass ready to pull it down and see what happens to Max and Chloe next.

[Oh, and P.S., I asked about porting this to tablets because I think it would work great with the UI and control scheme - and I can officially say it hasn't been ruled out]

Hey Tushar, Where's My PAX East Coverage?

I know many of you are wondering why the hell Technical Fowl hasn't had ANY PAX East 2015 coverage after the show last month in Boston. My man Colby Sites and I have a series of posts over at Sub Cultured chronicling the whole affair.  Here's a list of stuff we hit and links to reviews and thoughts:

A preview of Life is Strange episode 2 is available at Sub Cultured and also right here at Technical Fowl!

That's fifteen games for you kids to sink your teeth into.  Enjoy!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis

Before I get into it let me just start by saying this – I don’t generally do formal game reviews.  But titles like this are why I will always have love for video games.

Back in October at New York Comic Con I had the pleasure of attending Square-Enix’s press party, where they graciously fed me and kept me on a steady stream of vodka cranberries as I made the rounds to check out their new wares.  There were things I expected to see like the new editions of their mainstays Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider, but there was an interesting demo they had over in the corner.  The demo was down at the time, but they have me some links to the demo online.  And a few minutes of demo was all it took to sell me on Life is Strange.  Check out the release preview just below:

What you just saw?  This is what the game feels like while playing it.

Released in late January, Life is Strange represents S-E’s first foray into episodic adventure games, a genre that his been picking up steam since 2012 saw Telltale’s The Walking Dead hit consoles.  Since then they’ve exploded with titles, and this style of game found continued success with the formula, with Telltale having just released opening episodes of Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones late last year, with episode 2 of the latter being just released on February 3rd.

But this is altogether different.

Life is Strange puts you in the shoes of 18 year old Max Caulfield, a high school student in the photography program at Blackwell Academy, having returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon after five years.  A shy and introverted young woman, she can always be found toting her vintage polaroid camera while avoiding the race of being one of the cool kids.  It’s while hiding in the bathroom to get herself together after a particularly rough morning that she witnesses a violent crime – and learns that she can rewind time in the process.

This mechanic is available at every juncture in the game where Max has to make a decision, informing the player each time that their selected action has consequences.  The twist to it, however, is that even after rewinding time, Max retains the knowledge and any inventory she picked up.  In this way the player can choose an action, find that it has horrible consequences, and with that knowledge rewind time to change their path.

As an example, in one scene Max is taking folders from a high shelf to rummage for information.  When she gets the files they fall into an oil slick on the floor.  So do you read the files and leave them, as well as evidence of your snooping?  Rewind time to not take them at all?  Or read the information then rewind time to hide the evidence?  And that theme is what fuels the game.  Are you happy with the choices you’ve made in life?  What would you do if you could go back?

Throughout the narrative Max is challenged with obstacles that we’re not used to seeing in a lot of other games.  There’s her classmate Kate who has more secrets than she lets on, teenage drama with the school’s “mean girls,” the school security guard that never seems to cut her any slack, and the entitled trust fund babies that can buy life on easy street at the expense of others (Max included).  We’re not knights of the realm, we’re not hiding from dragons or trying to scavenge for another night running from zombies.  This is an ordinary high school kid that has discovered something extraordinary about herself.  And it’s that aspect of the game that makes it easy to buy into.  Everyone has memories of rough times in high school – whether it be fitting in, finding one’s own way, dealing with being an outcast or problems with authority.  Everyone at least once has imagined they were invisible or that they could take back the things they’ve done.  Regardless of when your graduation was, there’s a simple nostalgia to Life is Strange, almost dark and sweet at the same, that gives players a connection to Max and the story.  Max also keeps a diary recounting all of her exploits and decisions as they are made.  The diary itself serves as a great vehicle for developing Max, putting her thoughts to the page and giving the player a bit more insight into the character. 

As the plot progresses, we find Max reunited with her former best friend Chloe who she can barely recognize, the mystery behind the disappearance of Blackwell student Rachel, and what can only be described as blackout premonitions of impending doom.  This first episode gave us a small taste of Max’s life in Arcadia Bay and I’m hoping sets us up well for Episode 2 in March.

The game itself is painted on a beautiful hand drawn backdrop depicting the Pacific Northwest in a way that’s colorful and dark at the same time. That’s accompanied with songs by Syd Matters, Mogwai, and alt-J as part of a soundtrack that sets the mood of every scene on every level.  The whole experience makes it nearly impossible not to be drawn into it all.  And I’m hoping for more of the same in Episode 2 in March.

Square-Enix and Dontnod deliver an enthralling title with a deliciously indie feel that leaves players with questions and the desire to play more to find the answers.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Warlords of Draenor - The Project Manager's Addiction

Every WoW expansion pack that has been released over the past few years was shipped with its own personality.  Over the classic “vanilla” build of the game, Burning Crusade was markedly more difficult but had a lot of good content on your way to level 70 (not to mention replacing your epics on the first quest reward).  Wrath of the Lich Kingcame about and it was a far less challenging than its predecessor, but had what I consider to be some of the best endgame content raids in Ulduar and Icecrown Citadel.  It also brought the story full circle for those of us that nerded out on Warcraft III before Blizzard’s MMO days.  Cataclysm brought back the pure grind-it-out progression and the fall of Deathwing.  Mists of Pandaria?  Well, they had pandas and an eastern flair but I never got into it too deeply.

Now we’re a few weeks into Warlords of Draenor, the most recent expansion pack to the wildly popular World of Warcraft MMO.  And I’ll say it briefly before I get into the meat of this – I like it.  And it’s not wholly because of the content or of the throwbacks that will let you nerd out on character origins (like seeing Akama as a full on badass Exarch instead of an ubroken roaming Outland). This expansion answered the call for player housing from a lot of the fanbase, and they did it with style by implementing the garrison system.  I probably spend more time tending to my garrison and doing garrison-related quests than I do much else.  My main toon has been a level 100 for a week or so and I think I’ve only run 2 dungeons.  And there’s a reason…

My garrison is a giant project.  And one of my real life off-specs is project management.

The whole campaign starts with bringing people in from the Capital and creating a central outpost under your command to run operations in Draenor for whichever faction you represent – be it the Alliance or the Horde – when you have to sign off on the plans from the first buildings.  And from that point of initial construction, 100% of the mechanics involve running things (albeit in a much more toned down way but you know) in any sort of project.  As you level up more things open up to you in terms of crafting, garrison resource generation, heroes from around the land that follow your lead and run missions for you, and how much time and money it’s going to take to get it all done and customize it to exactly what you want.

(In other words, I just listed timelines, stakeholders, project resources, personnel, production/manufacturing, and change controls).

The player picks what buildings they want to be constructed to produce items or unlock certain rewards.  And other buildings are there to provide resources to get there.  My tannery lets my leatherworking department make stuff for me as well as higher grade materials for crafting and selling high end moneymakers.  My inn is a recruiting place where I can interview potential followers.  Hell there’s even a shack for fishing.  Everything can be laid out (almost) exactly like you want it.  And there’s a panel to track all of it.

And then… there’s the garrison missions.

Every mission that’s run has a reward, but they all have a set resource cost and personnel cost.  When you see a slate of available missions it’s up to you to figure out which skillset goes where, how long it will take and whether the cost and time is worth the reward.  Because nobody wants to wait 8 hours for just a tiny handful of coin.  I mean it’s insulting really.

Take the mission “The Infernals’ Fury,” for instance.  To guarantee a win in 4 hours I need level 100 followers with skills to counter the following: Wild Aggression, Massive Strike and Deadly Minions.  As you can see my girl Qiana Moonshadow has wild aggression covered handily, but I’m short on the other two.  My Dwarven associates Delvar and Bruma are my go-to aces to deal with massive strike and deadly minions.  But here’s the problem – they’re on another mission that is taking forever.  And even while they’re spreading the word of badassery in my name, that doesn’t give me something as good as that armor enhancement token.  So I can’t do this one right now – and that’s called opportunity cost, kids.  When they get back they’ll be assigned here because it’s a more important reward.

I can always put in my junior team in though.  They have the same skills, but since they’re not maxed out, my chance of getting that token would drop.  I mean you don’t take Peyton Manning out of the game unless he physically can’t play, know what I’m sayin?

So if Burning Crusade brought the gear, Lich King brought the break, Cataclysm brought the grind, and Pandaria brought the… well, the furries – Warlords brings the project.  And I am loving every second of it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Square-Enix trolls fans with Final Fantasy VII for the PS4

By now I’m going to guess that you’ve heard about the monkeyshines and shenanigans that occurred at the recent PlayStation Experience event.  But if not allow me to set the scene for you:

Our boy Shinji Hashimoto from Square-Enix comes out on stage to tell the audience something that many Final Fantasy fans have been clamoring for for almost 20 years –Final Fantasy VII, hailed by many RPG fans as one of the greatest games of all time, would be coming to the PlayStation 4.

If this is new to you then I know what you’re thinking kids – because I’m sure I was one of the many that did the same thing.  you’re replaying a next-gen version of the Bahamut ZERO summon in your head, trying to picture what the Gold Saucer would even look like, creating mental images of Midgar and that awkward Wall Market scene with Beautiful Bro.

But then reality sets back in.  Yes, Final Fantasy VII will be available for the PS4.  No, it is not going to be awesome.  It will be the same as the one released in 1997 – a port of the PC version of the game to be available in the spring of 2015.

We all got trolled.  Again.  And this time they did it to our faces in front of a huge hall full of people, getting them super excited then taking out their knees.  Here’s some video from Kotaku’s Fahey showing the presentation.

Now those of you that know me know how I feel about remakes in general – a lot of times to me they’re a cheap cash-grab with no discernible advantage to the older version outside of convenience to pick up some additional revenue to a market they haven’t sold to yet.  And in the process, while throwing away creativity and the opportunity to do something new for the fans, they repackage our childhoods and try to sell it back to us.  It happens all the time.

So you may be curious then – why this article about this recent event is getting my attention given this opinion of mine I’ve just shared.

Here’s the thing.  I’m not mad the remake isn’t happening.

I’m mad at how things have played out over the last decade or so in general, especially with this game company on remakes.  It was easy to remake the titles from the NES and SNES era – there’s something like 5 versions of Final Fantasy IV running wild over a number of consoles among a few others.  They’re decades old games remade with PSX graphics.  VIII’s on Steam and I’m not sure who really cares about a IX remake – and these are two additional Final Fantasy titles also originally released on the first PlayStation.

(S-E remakes for Android devices also have an always-on requirement, which already irk my ire, so this on top of that really sticks in my craw.  But that’s another story for another day.)

But for VII, they give fans hope.  In addition to the original game, Square-Enix developed an entire universe around Midgar, with spinoff games and video titles like Dirge of Cerberus, Crisis Core, Last Order, and topping them all off with the feature length Advent Children in 2005.  But it didn’t stop there.  In 2006 to show off graphical capabilities they released a technical demo for the PS3 engine (watch it here, it’s wonderful).  This demo featured the intro to Final Fantasy VII redone using the PS3 engine.  It was glorious.  Midgar looked great, the train details down to the sparks on the tracks were sharp, what we saw of Aeris was lovely, and Cloud’s eventual entrance on the train platform was done with style.


Square Enix showed us what one of the most revered games in modern history could look like, while having no intention of ever delivering.  We saw what could be, and the fact that they used that property for the demo sparked many rumors that a remake was in the works.  Since then, the game has been released in its original form on PSX, a 4-disc PC edition, a download on Steam, and playable on the PS3 through the PlayStation store.  Someone could have paid for 4 copies of the same game, with not much more than the addition of trophies and achievements added to their total gameplay experience.

Well I guess there is some sort of charm about huge pixels on TV’s sized like they are these days.
Still though.  Colossal who cares.

But we’ll never get delivery on the vision of the future Square-Enix had shown us with that demo.  They’ll continue to make money on every copy of this that was sold on multiple platforms from 1997 to today.  The game has still been wildly supported by its fanbase, some of who will buy every version of it out of loyalty and let’s be honest, to some extent mania.  Fans will keep assuming it’ll happen because Square-Enix keeps supporting the product and dropping hints unofficially while officially denying it.  For the same reason, Square-Enix will keep selling it.  And this dance will go on for a good long time.  And to think, this all would have never happened if only the PS3 was back-compatible.

Bottom line – if you’re waiting for a next-gen Final Fantasy VII remake, I wouldn’t hold my breath longer than a Knights of the Round summon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Windows 10 Technical Preview So Far

A little while ago Microsoft released a technical preview for their newest operating system, Windows 10.  I got a chance to play around with it some and see what's new and improved over Windows 8.  Keeping in mind that an official release likely won't be until the middle of 2015, there's still a lot of time for things to change.  And if this turns out to be anything like the Windows 8 release process we still have the developer preview and consumer preview to come before an release candidate or RTM.  If you're interested in seeing how that process unfolded for Windows 8 in fact, you can check out my series on the Windows 8 RTM from 2012 here.

Personally, I never really had a problem with Windows 8 - it was a little different but to those that do the computer thing for a living the learning curve was fairly small.  But to a lot of Windows users, dealing with the new UI they introduced was a nightmare, and let's face it kids, to them that Start button was the truth.  They just didn't know it until the Metro UI Start Screen had replaced it.  The backlash was huge from users on both the home and enterprise sides, and being a professional nerd I was able to see the meltdown first hand by both sectors.  I watched home users stumble and fumble trying to deal with live tiles to find programs with, I kid you not, pure distress and pain in their voices like someone had just robbed them of a family heirloom.

Oh that start button.  It's like Windows users everywhere were collectively Gollum and that button was the damn precious.

As for the business side, IT shops were reluctant to say the least about putting 8 into play.  I myself said that there was no way would roll it out into my environment.  I even made sure the workstations I got on our last PC refresh were downgradable to 7.  I had visions of my users coming after me with torches and pitchforks, with calls and complaints to my team every 15 seconds - sad, tearful users murmuring "but... but how do i find mail?"  So this OS which was intended to bridge the gap between mobile and desktop never really got a good foothold.  No one really wanted it.  The start button became a turf war.  So naturally the biggest cosmetic change users will notice in Windows 10 is the return of -

<insert fanfare here>

The Start button

Start button lovers rejoice!  While it may be a little different than what you're used to, it's back with a couple of tweaks.  Instead of the full start screen, what they've done is given you two things side by side - a mini Windows 8 style start screen joined with the Windows 7 style start button.  And actually it works pretty great.

The settings allow for customization so that you can have as many (or as few) live tiles as you want on your start button, while displaying as many things as you want on the left side of the menu.  Apps that are frequently used will pop up there, along with any shortcuts you choose to add like Control Panel or Administrative Tools.  Right clicking the start button also gives you shortcuts to commands that are commonly used, like command prompt and computer management.

When adding live tiles (done through a simple drag and drop mechanism), you can still customize their size and with it how wide your start menu can get.  I would almost consider the live tiles portion of the start menu something like the notification bar on an android device, automatically updating and notifying users when something new is happening.  And if you're the type of user that's just a live tile glutton, you can actually add enough live tiles to extend your start menu all the way out to the right edge of your screen.

Now to be honest I kind of missed the Windows 8 start screen a little bit while starting my foray into 10.  It became one of those things I had gotten used to using that eventually found its way into my routine.  But I got over it pretty quickly.  I was never really one for menus anyway - I'm from the old school.  I grew up with Windows 3 and DOS 5, and do most things with shortcut keys, the run command and command prompt (oh that's right).  But for those of you (I'm sure the number is few) that prefer the start screen, all you have to do is change a setting, and clicking start brings back your full start screen.

I mean it is pretty.

The funny thing is though, while so many users reviled 8 for it's lack of a start button, the Windows 8 technical preview DID in fact have a start button option, which was able to be toggled on and off with a registry setting.  That registry key was removed by the time we got the consumer preview in 2012, which left more than a few IT pros (myself included) confused.  Strange decision on Microsoft's part, but one they're making up for now.

Virtual Desktops

They're called virtual desktops but don't get them confused with virtual machines.  What Windows 10 has done with this is added functionality to the alt+tab shortcut we all love so much to switch between running applications.  What's new though is what happens when you hit window+tab - it will again give you the option of switching between your active programs, but at the same time allow you to add a virtual desktop for some more space for more stuff.

I run 2 monitors and will never (ever) go back.  When I need extra desktop real estate without clutter I can drag stuff over to my 2nd monitor and still see everything clearly.  What virtual desktops do is allow a user to simulate that multi-screen environment on a single screen.  You're still only running one Windows session, but as if you have multiple desktops with different things on each screen.  For those of you that run Linux systems this works exactly like the multiple desktops in a KDE or GNOME setup.

So for example, in the screenshot I have here, window+tab allows me to see what I have running on my current desktop (we'll call it desktop 1), on which i've got my documents folder and the launcher (I was fixin' to play some Diablo III).  But it also gives me the option to switch to another desktop I have running (desktop 2), in which I'm browsing the internet in Google Chrome.  Or if I wanted to I could make a third virtual desktop for more space.

And to cut down on confusion, Windows also tells you what you have running in other desktops.  For example in desktop 1, Google Chrome is highlighted with a faint grey underline to tell me it's running elsewhere.

Compatibility (machine specs at end of article)

On my main rig*, so far I've found that if it works with Windows 8, it'll work with Windows 10.  The technical preview had no issue picking up all of the drivers for my devices from HP and nVidia, and worked with my motherboard without breaking a sweat.  The first thing that came up when I fired it up for the first time was a notice that there was a Windows Update available for current version drivers for all of my stuff - which is surprising, given my experiences playing with other OS previews and betas from big blue.

To test it further I installed some stuff I would normally use on my machine - namely the application and Diablo III.  Everything ran smooth with the settings turned all the way up, but there was some definite video lag and choppiness in animations when there was a lot of activity happening on the screen.  This doesn't happen when I'm running it through Windows 8.1. 

On my older Windows 7 laptop* though there were a few snags.  Radeon drivers gave me a bit of trouble installing the driver and Catalyst software, and some of the HP-specific stuff was hard to get without manually searching and trying to force Windows 7 drivers to work with 10 which were, well, not very friendly to say the least.  But that's older (well, old-ish) hardware, so I wasn't really surprised.

The Early Verdict

I like it and I like what it could potentially be.  For an early build, it looks like Microsoft has really focused on fixing the shortcomings of Windows 8 and trying to put out an operating system that has some appeal to all users, both desktop and mobile.  Which is good, because I was never on board with the "post-PC era" shtick I've been seeing everyone buying into for some time now.  It feels good on my main rig and I can still see using it on a Surface or other Windows tablet, so it looks like this could potentially deliver to both a good touch as well as a mouse and keyboard experience.  Then again I did say the same thing in my early Windows 8 impressions, and that did go, shall we say... awry.

As it presently stands I would consider this a definite upgrade for users running Windows 8 on a desktop, but wouldn't call it a necessary update for users running Windows 7.  Windows 7 is still in effect and a complete operating system that users are still crazy for, and with reason.  It's a solid OS both for home and business, and let's not forget that it rescued us from the beast that was Vista.  So far this technical preview has hit over 1 million downloads, so we'll see how this goes.  I'm sure they'll generate a lot of feedback to shape how these builds roll out. 

* Main rig test specs: ASUS Z87-Pro, i7-4770K, 8GB G.SKILL Ripjaws X, nVidia GeForce GTX 660 2GB, 1TB Western Digital Black
* Windows 7 laptop specs: HP dv6t quad, i7-2720M, 8GB DDR3, Radeon HD 7690M 2GB, 750GB HDD

Friday, September 26, 2014

Some Say Cosplayers are Ruining Con Sales, and Cons.

So I Read Sam MaggsMary Sue article about Denise Dorman (wife of Star Wars artist Dave Dorman) and how she posits that cosplayers and social culture at cons are killing sales for artists, and questioning why they even show up to cons anymore.

An excerpt:
"But today, I have something on my mind…something most comic book artists would never publicly reveal. However, I think it finally needs to be said aloud. We need to–as comic book convention exhibitors and comic book wives–finally crack the seal on this conversation. I invite any of you following me to respectfully discuss this issue. 
Privately, famed comic book industry personalities everywhere are discussing with each other whether to stop exhibiting at comic book conventions. There’s a fine line between being accessible to and pleasing the fans vs. LOSING MONEY at these conventions."

Sure, ok so artist sales are low.  Yes it's a probelem and I get it, but how are cosplayers specifically killing a Comic Con?  It's like half of my friends are being blamed for bad sales.

... I dunno, kids.

And the below was the ol' geek sector of the brain immediately spat out.  So I decided to quickly cobble this together in response. Enjoy.

** Pictures lifted from Gotham Spoilers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Brown Americans [tf charts]

Today's chart was inspired by Representative Curt Clawson (R-FL).  Rep Clawson, upon meeting (and being introduced to, with title) Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar.

The plot: Rep. Clawson spoke to these two fine brown people as if they were foreign Indian diplomats here for a visit.  He goes into a soliloquy about how much he loves India and would appreciate further cooperation with their government.

The twist: Biswal and Kumar are actually Americans, representing the departments of State and Commerce, confused and amused at the goings on.  Here's the video from, and they have more of the story here.

Oh right, then see comedian John Oliver's take from Last Week Tonight on it here.  His words basically reflected my entire thought process while watching the video above.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

The e-Sports Boy’s Club: Hearthstone, the IeSF and Gender Segregation

Blizzard's Hearthstone
I’m surprised at how long it takes for some companies to learn that the internet is a thing now, and that a good action should be executed before fan or customer backlash forces them to.  This is the case of the male-only championship policy of the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF), how it affected the actions of a Finnish qualifying tournament, and how the internet told them to knock that noise off.

Yesterday afternoon I read some disturbing details on the Hearthstone competition at the Finnish Assembly Summer 2014 eSports tournament coming up at the end of this month.

You had to have two things:

(1) Finnish citizenry
(2) A Y-chromosome

Yes you read that correctly – the Hearthstone tournament was classified as being for Finnish men only.  So all those ladies with their two X chromosomes were asked to hit the bricks.

The winner of this tournament would qualify for the IeSF World Championships later this fall, where they will be representing Finland in the contest.  So I get the part where you have to be a bona fide Finn to enter the digital ring here.  But why – why why why in seven hells weren’t women allowed to play?  It’s 2014, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why.

PC Gamer, who picked up and later confirmed this information from a member of the Reddit Hearthstone community named Karuta, seemed to be wondering the same thing.  So they asked Markus Koskivirta, the head admin for the Assembly Summer 2014 Hearthstone Qualifier:

"Your information is indeed correct, the tournament is open to Finnish male players only.  In accordance with the International e-Sports Federation’s (IeSF) tournament regulations, since the main tournament event is open to male players only. This is to avoid possible conflicts (e.g. a female player eliminating a male player during RO8) among other things."

Oh.  So that’s the issue.  The IeSF championships are men only.  So if a woman wins the Finnish tournament, then they wouldn’t be eligible to compete there.  Further, according to the IeSF’s site and Facebook event page, the IeSF even went as far as to have different games for different genders at the worlds.  Male competitors will be playing Hearthstone, Dota 2, Starcraft 2, and Ultra Street Fighter IV while the female competitors will be playing Starcraft 2 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2.  In this case, The organizers of Assembly Summer 2014 are doing it this way because of IeSF rules, and doing it under protest.

So to make it even worse, women were only to compete in 2 games at the championship level while the men’s division got 4.  And not only that, but while they will both be playing Starcraft 2, it won’t be together.

Naturally this caused some waves in the gaming community, as it damn well should. A number of users took the IeSF to task on their Facebook page, and received some answers explanations thinly sliced excuses for those asking questions.  Direct from their Facebook page:

"Let me elaborate a bit on the decision to create both male and female competitions. This decision serves two main goals of the IeSF: 
1 – promoting female players. We know that e-Sports is largely dominated by male players and females players are actually a portion of the overall player base. By hosting a female-only competition, we strive to promote female gaming on a global scale. 
2 – International standards. IeSF is very close to get e-Sports recognized as a true sports like it should be. Part of that efforts is to comply with the international sports regulations. For example, chess is also divided into male / female leagues.But, we want you to know that we listen to you, and appreciate your feedback! Our efforts does not clash with the community opinion – but on the contrary – we are here for the future of e-Sports and will do our best to promote it as best as we can.”


As I tried to bend my head around it all I could come up with were different ways of saying WTF:

Why is an all-female gaming competition the only way one can come up with to highlight and promote female gaming on a global scale?  By making it a different thing, what’s being said is that it’s different than men’s gaming, and in this particular case, unequal as well.  If equality was a factor to the IeSF, then there wouldn’t be male and female brackets in their Starcraft 2 contests.  But there are, and that’s absolutely absurd.  The one and singular reason I was able to come up with was that maybe some female gamers would be more open to joining all-female tournaments due to the boy’s club that is e-sports as a whole and the very real sexual harassment that happens in the gaming community. A lot of these cases began coming to light (well, really coming into light publicly) a couple years ago.  We remember Aris Bakhtanians’ creepy-as-sin antics at CrossAssault and his defense that sexual harassment was “part of the culture.”  And we all remember the steady stream of misogyny and vitriol flowing Anna Sarkeesian’s way just by merely suggesting that the design of female video game characters fit lazy stereotypes and tropes.  Last year Starcraft 2 player Eve retired and deleted her social accounts due to sexual harassment.  So there may be a lot of points leading to a women’s division being a logical thing to make women feel more comfortable at events.  But it still feels wrong.

Then Ben Kuchera over at Polygon actually summed up my thoughts on that far more eloquently than I could: “The onus is on YOU to make every player feel welcome, safe and invited.  Segregating the genders is evidence that you have failed at that job, or simply don’t feel you’re up to the task.”  I can’t really put it any better than that.  Now instead, IeSF had decided to lean into that image and strengthen it further.
Are they trying to do something like weight classes like there are in grappling sports? Is it to make eSports the “true sport” it deserves to be?  Well luckily I have some experience in grappling sports, so allow me some words on the matter.

e-sports. real sports. not exactly the same, kids.
Here’s the thing about e-sports and (hell I’ll say it, someone should) real sports.  They’re different.  I’m into martial arts and have been so competitively in the past, where we’re divided by gender and weight class in competition.  The last time I competed (many moons ago) I fought heavyweight, meaning everyone i was matched up with was like me - men above 219 lbs.  Why?  Because that’s fair, and a fair contest is what it’s all about.  Making me square off against a lightweight weighing in at 130 is crazy, because the odds would be ridiculously stacked in my favor on size and weight.  The thing with games on the other hand, especially one like Hearthstone, is that it’s purely a mental exercise in strategy.  Hearthstone is just about strategy and fun, where a player gets out the effort they put in.  There’s no muscles or weight involved.  It’s mind vs mind.  A match between two opponents of equal skill would not favor one or the other due to physical prowess or strength.  So why can’t everyone compete in an open contest? It’s another message that men and women aren’t on the same level.

Well, with all the posts on the IeSF’s Facebook page and all the backlash on Twitter and Reddit and most social media and the internet at large, As of this morning (Friday July 3, 2014), the IeSF has reversed their position on a men-only championship.  In a release on their site today they publicly changed their tune:
On 2nd of July, 2014, the IeSF’s policy about gender division, which separates the female division and the male division, has been brought into question. The IeSF has listened to the gaming community and has carefully considered their opinions. Upon hearing these concerns, the IeSF convoked an emergency session of the IeSF Board to respond.As a result, IeSF shall have two event categories: “Open for All” events and events that are reserved for women. The events which were initially set aside as the male division will now be open to all genders, and the events which were initially set as the female division will remain as they were. 
The IeSF Board addressed its reason for maintaining events for women, citing the importance of providing female gamers with ample opportunities to compete in e-Sports—currently a male-dominated industry. Female gamers make up half of the world’s gaming population, but only a small percentage of e-Sports competitors are women. The IeSF’s female-only competitions aim to bring more diversity to competitive play by improving the representation of women at these events. Without efforts to improve representation, e-Sports can’t achieve true gender equality. 

Well damn.

Is it the ideal scenario?  No, not really.  I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m very pleased that the main championship is now open to all and that everyone has a chance to play for the title.  But it still classifies a women’s division as a separate entity from the main championship.  Arguments can be made for it along the same data I presented a little ways back up this page, but it’s a band-aid on a much deeper wound.

The problem is a culture that prevents everyone to feel safe and included as part of that culture.  While change – albeit very slow change – is happening, that culture has a long way to go for real intrinsic transformation into a self-policing community where everyone feels welcomed, and more importantly, safe.  And until that’s achieved, more and more of these band aids will have to be applied.  And while yes, they may stop the bleeding for a short time, the underlying cut will still remain.  I wish there were answers for an easy fix, but systemic change is anything but a speedy process.

While the IeSF made a change for the main championship, it took a great amount of internet backlash to do it.  The fact still remains that without input from the masses, they themselves thought a men only championship was a good idea.  So I’ll call this a good step in the right direction, but with a long way to go for the community.