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.]


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.