Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bricks and Mortar versus Internet Retailer

What criteria do you use to choose between buying in a bricks and mortar shop versus buying online?

Last week I finally got around to fixing  a cupboard door in our kitchen that has been broken for several years. Essentially it needed two gas pistons to be replaced. Here is the page for the par on the manufacturer's  web store: http://www.clever-storage-shop.com/kompressionsfeder-softlift-beschlag-und-tuer-liftbeschlag-200n.html . I needed two of them so that would come to just over  €50 (Irish sales tax is a few percent extra). Pricey to repair a single microwave cupboard door but hey German engineering doesn't come cheap and it would be worth it to finally get that job off my list.

Before pressing "Buy" I decided to check for a local distributor. A quick email confirmed that yes there is one and yes they do have that part in stock and it costs €15. Wow that's a surprising discount. They are the far side of the city from me but €20 saved from buying two of them would more than pay for my petrol.

I picked them up yesterday on my way home from work. They guy at the counter immediately understood what I needed, handed me two of them and asked for €15.

"Uh.." I said "€15 each that makes €30. Right?".
"No" he said "€7.50 each. €15 for the pair"

To be honest the times when bricks and mortar retailers are cheaper than online are  rare enough despite this extreme example but I do think that many retailers have responded to competitive pressure and now try to match online pricing more closely.

I still buy a lot of stuff online. Living in a small peripheral European country you kind of have to because a lot of specialised stuff simply isn't available here. Thankfully the European open market makes it easy for me to import stuff from the bigger economies (UK, Germany, France mostly) and all the major retailers now collect our local sales tax (VAT) so it doesn't even feel like smuggling any more. There is even a solution to the annoying issue of never being at home when the UPS guy calls. I now use  a collection service that holds my parcels at convenient local point that is accessible 24 hours a day.

There are still many reasons for buying stuff in a  real shop. It is great to be able to touch and see things before buying. Essential for any big ticket items I think and certainly for anything with a significant aesthetic value (clothes, furniture). The returns issue should also be considered. Returning stuff bought online is frustrating and can often incur expensive postage costs.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Some random observations on Total War: Rome 2

Finished the prologue campaign last week and I am now alternating between a Roman grand campaign and a Briton grand campaign. Here are some random thoughts:

1. The game was criticised for bugs and technical problems when it first came out for. This is not unusual for a Total War game but happily Creative Assembly tend to stick with their games and diligently work to fix them up. At this stage a year and a half after release the game seems stable and works well. I can only guess how poor the initial release was from the fact that whole sections of the in game documentation are separated into "Old" versus "New" and from the fact that they felt it necessary to give the patched game a new name "The Emperor Edition".

2. In true Total War fashion I managed to screw up the tutorial (Prologue Campaign). I thought I was faithfully adhering to advisors  instructions when a large Samnite army managed to sneak around me to march on a weakly defended Rome. Happily the prologue now allows saving after a certain point so this wasn't a complete disaster. 

3. I find that I am using the auto-resolve for battles a lot more frequency than in previous games. this is despite the fact that tactical battles in the game are very enjoyable. Possible reasons: 
  • a)  To save time.  Massive battles with hundreds of soldiers are no longer the novelty they once were so I am happy to skip through unimportant ones to progress the game faster.
  • b) I tend to play a cautious game and I try to make sure I always have an overwhelming local advantage before initiating combat. Therefore there are very few battles where the computer needs my help to win. 
  • c). The auto-resolve has gotten a lot better over the years and throws up fewer surprises. I particularly like  the fact that Rome 2 allows you to select aggressive, defensive or neutral tactics. Aggressive tactics work very well at annihilating enemy armies, something that auto-resolve did poorly in previous games. 
4. Learning to love velites (well at least not to hate them). Roman velites light skirmishers fall between two stools. They make poor melee troops because of low damage and light armour and they make poor ranged troops because of low range and limited ammunition. In the original Rome game I skipped over Velites as quickly as possible to get a decent ranged unit: The Roman Archer. Rome 2 doesn't have Roman Archers. I believe this is more historically accurate but it means that Roman armies cannot recruit a decent ranged combat unit until they travel far afield to recruit ranged auxilliaries or mercenaries from the local populace in somewhere like Crete or Iberia.  With no other choices available I had to reassess the humble velites. Their limitations are obvious but they have some advantages: They can run far and fast, their javelins do high damage while they last, and they are cheap to recruit and replace. I have come to the conclusion that mobility is their best asset. They don't have enough ammunition to stand on a hill raining down a continuous hail of fire and they will not win a ranged battle against archers or slingers. Far better to put them in front of the line of battle to taunt the enemy into engaging before running to safety once the enemy starts to attack. Then when the front lines are engaged the velites can  circle around behind the enemy and punish them with javelin fire from the rear. You might be surprised how quickly this breaks even hardened troops. Of course you cannot safely do this while enemy cavalry is around so careful management of unit position and timing is essential. 

5. I find the in game documentation alternately comprehensive and frustrating. There is a huge amount of documentation and just about every item in the game has multiple levels of explanation. If you hover over it briefly you get a name and quick explanation. Hovering for longer may bring up an expanded explanation. Selecting units and buildings will bring up further information panels with numerical details. Right clicking on an item will almost always bring you to the relevant page of the comprehensive in game manual. So far so good. The problem arises when you want to find information about an item that isn't immediately in front of you to select. The search function is terrible and regularly fails to find answers to the most straightforward queries. That leaves two choices: try to navigate through menus or try to build a path from something you can find to the item you want. Both of these approaches fail because of the vast number of choices and paths available in the game. Any given building for example might allow you to recruit one of twenty different types of unit depending on the campaign you are playing, the dlc you have installed and the region you are building in. All of these units are listed in the documentation making it hard to find the ones that apply in your case.

6. The blurring of lines between navies and armies is both interesting and confusing. Any army can hop into a boat from any shore and any navy can land troops to fight land battles. Dedicated naval ships are definitely superior on the water than improvised troop transports but a lot of sea battles still end with boarding parties and hand to hand fighting so landlubbers can certainly play their role.  For the most part it adds a great extra dimension but I have noticed that defeated generals have a frustrating habit of fleeing out to sea which makes them harder to hunt down. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Backlog Blues

January is the cruellest month for gamers trying to keep their backlog of unplayed games under control. The combined impact of Christmas gifting and online game sales has ensured that our Steam, Origin and other digital libraries are stuffed with unplayed titles.

Here is a list of titles acquired since Christmas that I fully intend to play but haven't gotten around to yet:

Warlock 2: The Exiled
Assassin's Creed Unity
Guild Wars 2
Rome Total War 2
Batman Arkham Origins
LA Noire

I am particularly vexed because I thought I had become much more selective of late.  I have stopped buying bundles of games I never heard of simply because they look cheap. I am restricting my purchases to games I genuinely intend to play and I have broken an insidious habit that I had fallen into of treating myself to a new game each week whether I needed one or not. I do intend to play the games above but I have been playing Dragon Age inquisition exclusively since Christmas day and those titles remain neglected.







Sunday, January 18, 2015

"The tank is holding"

I wonder if there is a more welcome phrase in all of PC gaming than these four simple words: "The tank is holding"?  They mean that you have reached that  point in a battle where your defensive capabilities have proven themselve capable of surviving anything the enemy can throw at them. It is the tipping point. Prior to that moment the battle is a desperate struggle for survival with an uncertain outcome. After that moment you know that they cannot kill you so it is your turn to take the initiative and find a way to kill them. Knowing that you cannot lose all that remains is find a way to win.

According to Wikipedia the use of the word "Tanking" to describe a unit or team's ability to absorb damage originated in the text based Multi User DUngeons (MUDS) of the 1990s.  The concept probably reached its full potential  in the Tank, Heal, Damage triumvirate of massively multi player games such as Everquest. With classes specialised in each of these roles player groups can work together to overcome PVE monsters (Raid Bosses) that are enormously more powerful than themselves. The tanking classes have special skills to keep monsters focus upon themselves and then rely on heavy armour and defensive abilities to reduce the damage sustained to a level that the healers can heal.  Knowing that "the tank is holding" means that your combination of mitigation and healing is sufficient to survive the incoming damage and is a vital first step to victory. 

The terminology is widely used in role playing games and real time strategy games but the principle can be applied to just about any game against computer opponents (PVE) even when the phrase "tanking" isn't commonly used. In a shooter for example once you have found a reliable piece of cover to crouch behind you are able to survive incoming fire (your tank is holding) and you can now focus on picking off opponents.

The concept of tanking is not as useful in PVP games because human players can change their tactics at will.   Once it becomes obvious that they are failing to make a dent in your defences a human player is likely to try a different approach. It would be foolish to think that you have won the battle just because "your tank is holding" against one line of attack.Nevertheless the ability to survive incoming attacks is important and tanking still essential. EVE online for example  uses the term "tanking" extensively to describe the defensive capability of both individual ships and of fleets in PVE and PVP online space battles. One of my favourite depictions of  of "The tank is holding"  comes from EVE in the Clarion Call 3 video from Rooks and Kings

The entire video is worth watching but the particularly relevant bit starts at minute 29:00. A small fleet of specialised spacecraft is taking on a much larger and in theory more powerful fleet in the opponent's home territory. The upstart intruders are using  superbly co-ordinated tactics to minimise incoming damage to a level that they can repair while they whittle down the opponent fleet. In short their strategy relies on their tank holding. The vital sequence starting at minute 29:00 begins with an expletive from the pilot of their repair ship (carrier) because one of the armour repair units (reppers) that is keeping him alive burns out through over use. You can hear the despair in his voice when he tells his team what has happened. There is a short dreadful pause as it dawns on everyone that the battle is surely lost but that thought is interrupted by the explosion in the background of one of the enemies main damage dealing ships (a Moros dreadnought). Then we get the deadpan reply of the fleet commander: 

"It doesn't matter. One Moros is dead. The other one is held zero cap" (This means its guns are neutered and cannot fire).
"You can tank all their faction battle-ships on one repper".
"We've won"

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Exploring My Families Broadband Usage

In an idle moment I checked our families monthly broadband statistics and I was quite surprised by the numbers.

The last time I actively perused these figure was perhaps eight years ago when we had a 30Gb monthly allowance and I remember that our usage rarely ever exceeded 10Gb per month. Internet speeds have increased a lot since then, the web has become more data rich, game downloads have become bigger, my teenage kids have developed insatiable appetites for online connectivity and of course Netflix has happened. Taking all of this into account I think that I would have expected a ten fold increase in internet usage - perhaps 100Gb typical usage per month. 

Here are the numbers for the last few months: 
Broadband Usage History
Billing period
Downloaded
Uploaded
Total
07 Dec - 06 Jan
336.66 GB
69.10 GB
405.76 GB
07 Nov - 06 Dec
218.61 GB
75.39 GB
294.00 GB
07 Oct - 06 Nov
154.22 GB
76.86 GB
231.08 GB
07 Sep - 06 Oct
182.66 GB
493.38 GB
676.04 GB
07 Aug - 06 Sep
196.54 GB
196.62 GB
393.16 GB

Wow. I didn't expect the numbers to be that high. A monthly average usage of 400Gb peaking to 676Gb last September. 

The large upload numbers are surprising but I can explain them. My wife is a very keen photographer and in August we started to use cloud storage. The high uploads for August and September were the initial uploads of the archive and the ongoing monthly uploads are mainly new photos. 

Our normal monthly downloads are 150Gb to 200Gb but it looks like we watched a lot of extra movies on Netflix during the Christmas Holidays (plus I may have bought a few big games).