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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Initial Impressions of GalCiv II
As I predicted in last week's post, I've gone ahead and downloaded Galactic Civilizations II. Installation process went smoothly and easily (relatively high download speeds as well), but while I enjoy the game as a whole, I found a few things baffling. Here are my initial thoughts:
    Lightning Class Battle Cruiser (click for larger image and more details)
    Lightning Class Battle Cruiser
  • I need a new computer! Or, at the very least, I need to upgrade my existing computer with a newer graphics card to take advantage of the new graphics. However, the game is perfectly playable even with my turn-of-the-millenium hardware, which is actually quite nice (hard to believe that this computer is almost 6 years old!).
  • I haven't yet made up my mind about the planetary maintenance changes. So far, I haven't encountered anything bad, but I can see certain things getting on my nerves later. Initially, I thought it was very confusing, but the way "upgrades" are automatically added makes it much easier to handle than other games of this type that I've played (which is to say, not many).
  • War is fun! One of my big complaints about the old game was that military conquest was somewhat annoying. In this game, you can customize your ships with various styles of weaponry and shields, and you can build your ships to capitalize on the weaknesses of your enemies (i.e. defend against their weapons, while circumventing their defences with your weapons). The ship building interface is a little confusing at first, but I think I'm starting to get a little better (it probably would have helped if I watched the tutorials instead of just jumping into the game). However, my designs are tremendously boring compared to the stuff I linked to last week.
  • My big complaint is that I lost. However, what's annoying about this is not so much that I lost as that I have no idea why I lost. Update: I'm pretty sure the problem I was having was my own doing. I had started a war with the Drengin empire, and after a few initial setbacks, I had managed to completely decimate their fleet (courtesy of the Lightning class battle cruiser). I was preparing my planetary invasion when all of the sudden, the game just stopped and said I lost (and there was no explicit explanation about why I lost or who actually won). However, I was able to go back a few turns and start my invasion again, and I continued the game without running into this again. I thought perhaps one of the other races ran away with it while I wasn't looking, but glancing at the statistics, I could see no obvious reason why. The only thing I can think of is that there was some sort of time limit, but that doesn't make much sense. Perhaps it was just a fluke (I sure hope so!)
Aside from the odd and frustrating ending, I really enjoyed the game. I'm hoping the ending thing is just a minor bug that won't come up again, but I guess we'll see. I apologize if this entry seems a bit sparse, but if the game hadn't ended so abruptly, I probably still would have been playing (and no entry would have been posted at all). Expect more later in the week.

Update: Ok, so I must have accidentally surrendered (instead of offering a peace treaty) from the diplomatic dialogue. That's the only thing I can think of that would have caused the defeat. I just went back to my saved game and was able to mop up the rest of the Drengin empire without a problem (except that once I really had their backs to the wall, the surrendered their one remaining planet to another alien race, dammit!) So the problem I encountered seems like a fluke, which is great news!

Update II: After I figured out what happened, I went back and played more and the game is truly excellent. My only complaint is that the ship design interface is a little difficult to use at times... but the good far outweighs the bad when it comes to that feature, as it is one of the coolest aspects of the game, allowing you to interject your own personality on the game...

Update III: I've written up a game example...
Posted by Mark on February 26, 2006 at 11:55 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.



Sunday, February 19, 2006

Galactic Civilizations II is coming...
Brad Wardell has been posting a lot of interesting stuff over on his blog. Wardell is the founder/owner of Stardock, a company that is known more for it's windows customization programs like WindowBlinds than for it's video games, but each of their games I've played is excellent. They're currently gearing up for the release of Galactic Civilizations II, a sequel to their excellent turn-based strategy game in which you vie for galactic influence with a number of alien races. All throughout the development of the game, Wardell has been posting progress reports and generally shedding some light on the process.

I was a fan of the first GalCiv game. Since I started my posting schedule of at least once a week, I've only missed a Sunday post a few times, mostly because I was travelling. However, there was one week in which I was so engrossed in a galactic war that I actually skipped posting that week. And it looks like the new game will fix some of the things that bothered me about the first game, namely the ability to control social and military production at a planetary level (as opposed to the first game where this was done at the civilization level). There also appears to be much more customization involved (you can design your own ships, etc...)

Wardell was in charge of the AI for the game, so much of his commentary focuses on that aspect of things, but it's still quite interesting. Here are a few posts to check out:
  • He has posted several game examples which show you how the game is generally played. It's entertaining reading as Wardell gives blow-by-blow descriptions of how his civilization wins or loses. The way he appears to have allowed ship customization seems much more realistic, as each successive generation of warship (for instance) must build and adapt according to who you're fighting (i.e. if you're enemy develops beam weapons, you should develop a certain type of shielding that protects against those... but that shielding might make you vulnerable to rockets)
  • The Galactic Civilizations Universe gives an overview of the general storyline behind the game's universe. The first game didn't have much of this, except at a very broad level. It seems that this game will also have some campaigns that you can play, mostly revolving around the mysterious Dread Lords.
  • Lots of general posts on the process of making a game such as this post: Is it done yet?
    Every time I play the game, I see something different that I could tweak, improve in some slight way. We're way beyond the "it's good enough to ship". As some of our external and internal gamma testers said, it was probably read to ship a week ago. But each day I play it, I see something, something little that could be improved. Made better. When you're deep into the code, you see all kinds of opportunities to make things even better.

    That's one reason it's hard to simply stop. To say "It's time to stop and send it out there."
    Other posts include thoughts on borrowing user interface tweaks and lots of other issues.
There's tons of stuff over at his blog and on GalCiv2.com. Check them out (and don't be afraid to read back into the archives) if you're interested in this sort of thing...

The game comes out on Tuesday of this week, and I'll most likely purchase it at some point. One other feature that's nice is that he's made the system requirements deliberately low, so I don't have to upgrade my computer just to play the game (though it probably won't look as nice). Who knows, maybe I'll miss next week's post due to another galactic war...
Posted by Mark on February 19, 2006 at 07:43 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, February 12, 2006

Early Hitchcock
A little while ago, I came into the possession of a collection of 9 early Alfred Hitchcock films (i.e. 1920s and 1930s, his pre-Hollywood films). Since Cinecast (a film podcast) was doing a Hitchcock Marathon, I decided to play along in a manner of speaking (the major difference being that I'm going to watch more than the 6 films they've selected... in fact, the only film on their list that's currently in my collection is The 39 Steps).

I started my marathon with one of Hitchcock's first efforts, a 1926 silent film called The Lodger. I enjoyed the film a lot, though it had a lot to do with the context and conventions of silent films. Moving in chronological order, I've progressed through three more films: Blackmail, Rich and Strange, and Number 17.

During the Cinecast marathon, the hosts of the show referred to one of Hitch's final efforts as "Minor Hitchcock, the work of a director whose best days are clearly behind him." With the films I've seen so far, I'd have to also classify them as Minor Hitchcock. However, these films are the work of a director whose best days are clearly ahead of him. Even as early as The Lodger, you can see Hitchcock's standard themes developing as well as flashes of his future brilliance. I'm only four films in though, and I'm fairly certain that the later films in the collection will pick up a bit...

More thoughts on all three, including Spoilers as well as a few screenshots (with the typical sarcastic captions) below the fold...

Blackmail (1929): One of the first British "talkies," this film started production as a silent film and the producers decided to change part-way through the production. As such there are actually two versions of the film, one silent, and one with sound, though the version with sound (the one I saw) seems to be the best remembered version. The movie tells the story of Alice White, a woman dating a policeman named Frank. She's bored with Frank and decides to mess around with an artist. To make a long story short with the help of spoilers, the artist is a perv who attempts to rape Alice so she kills him with a breadknife that just happens to be conveniently located on the bedstand:

(Click images for a larger version)

Screencap: I used this knife for bread, and only bread.
I used this knife for bread, and only bread. This is the face I make when I'm cutting bread.

Naturally, policeman Frank is assigned to the case and he quickly realizes who did it. Unfortunately, so does a local "sponger" named Tracy, who promptly attempts to blackmail Alice and Frank. This guy's a real scumbag, as evidenced by his drastic demands for... a cigar and breakfast. Seriously, that's what he blackmails them for. In any case, the story takes a few twists and turns and ends with an odd pre-noir sensibility. Like The Lodger, this film's noir-like elements threw me off the tracks for a moment, as I keep expecting something a little more tragic to happen (though this film wasn't quite as upbeat as The Lodger's ending).

Rich and Strange (1931): Offbeat, a little uneven, and seemingly out-of-character for Hitchcock, this film follows the story of Fredy and Emily as they unexpectedly come into money and decide to cruise around the world. The couple eventually winds up becoming romantically entangled with other passengers. Hijinks ensue. Aside from the ending, this film isn't what you'd typically expect from Hitchcock - it's more of a romantic comedy than anything else. Even visually, I wasn't particularly impressed. It's good at what it does, but was a little too slow for me...

Number 17 (1932): This film follows a gang of thieves who have stashed their loot in a safehouse. The police are hot on their heels, of course, but they have an escape plan. This film is most notable for Hitchcock's obvious experimentation with the medium. Hand held cameras, movement, and quick cuts are all used effectively. Making extensive use of candlelight, he plays with lighting and shadows throughout the film:

Screencap: Stepping through my shadow
Stepping through my shadow...

The obvious highlight of this film, though, is the classic chase sequence involving a train and a bus:

Screencap: No, these are not obviously miniatures.
No, these are not obviously miniatures.

Screencap: No miniatures here, move it along.
No miniatures here, move it along.

Despite the fact that the special effects here are clearly done with miniatures, this is probably the most suspenseful part of the film, and an interesting glimpse of things to come (both in terms of chases and trains). As the Classic Film Guide notes: "This is a most unusual film. You can witness elements of what will become the director's style, but overall the pace is fairly plodding and the story pretty lame and confusing."

Again, these early films show glimpses of Hitchcock's future brilliance, but are not especially brilliant in themselves. There were a lot of plotting and pacing problems in particular, though I do wonder how my modern perspective affects my perception of these movies. As with The Lodger I wonder how much of the impact of these films is lost because of the modern, cynical attitudes towards storytelling. As I said in my previous post:
These days, we're so zonked out on Lost and 24 that our minds immediately and cynically formulate all the ways the filmmakers are trying to trick us. Were audiences that cynical 80 years ago? Or did the ending truly surprise them?
And, of course, the more pressing question: did people really leave loaves of bread and knives on their bedstands?
Posted by Mark on February 12, 2006 at 10:07 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Thursday, February 09, 2006

Unintended Customers
The Art of Rainmaking by Guy Kawasaki: An interesting article about salesmanship and what is referred to as "rainmaking." Kawasaki lists out several ways to practice the art of rainmaking, but this first one caught my eye because it immediately reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and regular readers (all 5 of you) know I can't resist a Stephenson reference.
“Let a hundred flowers blossom.” I stole this from Chairman Mao although I'm not sure how he implemented it. In the context of capitalism (Chairman Mao must be turning over in his grave), the dictum means that you sow seeds in many markets, see what takes root, and harvest what blooms. Many companies freak out when unintended customers buy their product. Many companies also freak out when intended customers buy their product but use it in unintended ways. Don't be proud. Take the money.
This immediately reminded me of the data haven (a secure computer system that is protected by it's lack of governmental oversight as well as technical means like encryption) in the "modern-day" segments of Cryptonomicon. Randy Waterhouse works for the company that's attempting to sett up a data haven, and he finds that the most of his customers want to use the data haven to store money. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, most of the people who want to store their money their are criminals of the worst sort. I guess in that particular case, there is reason to freak out at these unexpected customers, but I thought the reference was interesting because while there may be lots of legitimate uses for a data haven, the criminal element would almost certainly be attracted to a way to store their drug money (or whatever) with impugnity (that and probably spam, pornography, and gambling). Like all advances in technology, the data haven could be used for good or for ill...
Posted by Mark on February 09, 2006 at 11:03 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Spectrum of Articles
When you browse the web often, especially when you're looking at mostly weblogs, you start to see some patterns emerging. A new site is discovered, then propagates throughout the blogosphere in fairly short order. I'm certainly no expert at spotting such discoveries, but one thing I've noticed being repeatedly referenced this past week is the IEEE Spectrum (a magazine devoted to electrical engineering). I've seen multiple blogs referencing multiple articles from this magazine, though I can't think of a single reference in the past. Here's a few articles that seem interesting:
  • Re-engineering Iraq (February 2006): A close look at rebuilding Iraq's electrical system. Alas, no mentions of anything resembling Operation Solar Eagle... (don't remember who posted about this one, but I did see it in a couple of places).
  • How Europe Missed The Transistor (November 2005): One of the most important inventions of the 20th century (which is no slouch when it comes to important inventions) was the transistor. This article delves into the early history of the transistor and similar technologies developed in Europe and the U.S., as well as how these devices became commercially successful. David Foster has an excellent post about the "importance of decentralization and individual entrepreneurship" in facilitating the commercialization of new technologies.
  • Patents 2.0 (February 2006): Slashdot posted about this interesting proposal recently: "a new type of patent that wouldn't require formal examination, would cost significantly less than traditional patents, would last only 4 years from date of first commercial product, and which wouldn't carry a presumption of validity." Interesting stuff. It does appear that the high rate of technological advance should be driving the implementation of something like this when it comes to both patents and copyright law.
I haven't read all of this yet, but there's definitely good stuff there. Perhaps more comments later this week (time is still short, but my schedule will hopefully be opening up a bit in the next few weeks).
Posted by Mark on February 05, 2006 at 11:43 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.



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