Friday, April 11, 2014

Why do games end up being sold for a song in bundles?

There is always a reason why any given game appears in a cheap bundle.

1. Sometimes it is just a terrible game that no wants to pay money for.
2. Other times the game is not terrible but has flaws that limit its sales in the crowded gaming market. Although these games are released at full price they quickly drop off the charts and end up in sales and bundles.
3.Sometimes you can find excellent games that are fairly recent but didn't fulfil their sales expectations and the distributor is trying to get extra revenue from the game and perhaps renew interest in it.
4. Sometime you get new games, particularly from indie developers who see a bundle as a way of getting exposure and publicity.
5. Sometimes the game is just very old. Such games may be excellent but no one buys them at full price any more.
6. Occasionally a very good game is deliberately released to a bundle just before it's sequel is launched in order to generate publicity for the sequel.
7. On occasion publishers release a bunch of games from their catalog in a bundle either to generate a quick influx of cash (eg THQ) or to generate publicity (eg EA/Origin).

Of course individual tastes vary but every category other than category 1 is worth a look and categories 3,4,5 and 6 and 7 can throw up tremendous gaming bargains. In my experience all of the bundle providers throw in some category 1 lemons but some bundles are definitely better than others. I am not going to badmouth any providers but I will say that my current favourite bundlers are the original Humble Bundle and Bundle Stars. Humble have excellent quality control and in my experience their bundles are generally reliable all round. Bundles stars is more of a mixed bag with plenty of category 1 filler in their offerings but each of their bundles also has one or two choice games which merit the price. In addition Bundle Stars have multiple bundles on offer at any time so I can usually find something that interests me.

Given the plethora of bundles now on offer some purchasing guideline is required to rein in the impulse to buy everything in sight just because stuff is cheap. My own yardstick is to ask whether or not there is at least one game in the bundle that I would buy on its own for the price of the bundle. If the answer is yes then the purchase is easy to justify and the other games are a bonus. If the answer is no then I leave the bundle alone. Often enough I have bought a bundle and only actually played that one game. On other occasions though some of the other titles have turned out to be delights in themselves.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Google Please Bring Back Custom Labels for Map Locations.

There doesn't appear to be any way to add  custom location labels to the current incarnation of Google Maps (Android and Desktop) and it is driving me nuts. It is not just that I miss being able to give saved locations friendly names like "Uncle John's place" or "My Golf Club". It is also that there are loads of places which the current version of maps doesn't seem to be able to provide any address for at all. These include the tennis club I bring my daughter to and the headquarters of a major company that I visited this morning. Not only does Google not know where these places are. It has no mechanism of addressing them because they do not appear on a standard road with a standard building number. I live in a major city in which Google employs several thousand people and this is still an issue here. I can only imagine it is a complete deal breaker for those living in rural locations where every address is something like "The cottage beside Murphy's farm in Hackett's Town".

It is possible to drop a pin on an arbitrary location and save it but you cannot put labels on saved pins which makes them effectively useless. Good luck trying to sort through your saved locations when all you have to go on  is a list of 32 digit grid references.

Bizarrely these locations appear in my Google Chrome bookmarks and it is possible to put a label on them in Chrome. That label doesn't appear to transfer across to Google maps though so it is a kludgey work around at best.

The most annoying thing about all of this is that Google Maps used to allow you store your own places. I am sure that Google had their own inscrutable reasons for removing this feature. It might be something to do with their grand plan to move everyone towards Google+ but even though I have completely immersed myself in the Google eco-system I cannot find a way to restore this basic functionality.

This annoys me so much that I have started to look for an alternative mapping solution, hopefully still a free one. There are several out there although some of them seem to be no more than crude overlays on top of Google maps. The best of the bunch seems to be Open Street Map which has desktop and Mobile incarnations. It does have the slightly unfinished "hacker" feel of many open source projects but the navigation tool works very well and their map database seems very complete. I have to spend a bit longer with it to decide whether the added flexibility makes up for the lack of polish.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The unstoppable march of innovation. A Kettle Retrospective

I grew up in a house with a basic aluminium kettle designed to be used on an externally heated hob.

Although we did not possess one ourselves the height of kettle technology at the time was a similar externally heated vessel with a whistle attached to the spot which made an audible noise when the water was boiling vigorously.

I was still quite young when we purchased our first electric kettle. This object of wonder was made of stainless steel rather than aluminium but it had a similar shape to the kettle it replaced. An internal electric heating element meant water could be boiled without the aid of a stove. It also boiled its load of water a good deal more quickly probably because the heating element is fully immersed in the water.

(Note: I should point out that electric kettles had been around since the early 20th century but they did not become commonplace in Ireland until the 1970's).

The whistling spout innovation did not survive the transition to electric kettles because a much more ground breaking development made it obsolete. Although the first electric kettles were dumb heating devices later models included a thermal switch above the level of the water which switched off the kettle once it was boiling sufficiently to generate a lot of steam. This truly was a wonderful innovation as it freed you from the need for constant vigilance while the kettle was plugged in.

The next significant innovation was the plastic jug kettle. I can still remember general scepticism that a plastic container could withstand the heat of boiling. Nevertheless they worked and soon became quite dominant in the market. The characteristic jug shape of plastic kettles required filling through the spout.

A minor innovation that plastic kettles allowed was the inclusion of a transparent panel allowing you to easily see the water level.

The next significant innovation was the powered base and detachable kettle. Early examples used a rigid joint so the kettle could only be put back in one position but it was nevertheless a significant advance in convenience and safety allowing the kettle to be removed from the base for filing and pouring without the incuberance of a trailing lead. (Picture is a travel kettle but the original plastic kettles looked just like this).

A minor enhancement was the replacement of the rigid base with swivelling base. This allowed the kettle to be placed on the base from any direction.

Also around this time the traditional immersed heating element was replaced with a flat heated baseplate. The older heating elements required a substantial minimum volume of water to cover the element but the flat heating plate could be safe with as little as one cup of water.

Stainless steel came back in a big way with the development of the composite steel / plastic kettles. These combine the attractive robust finish of stainless steel with the features of the plastic jug kettle specifically the detachable base and the water level window. There have always been variations in aesthetic design and various metal, plastic, glass and ceramic finishes have been used for kettles over the years but the composite stainless steel / plastic jug kettle remains very popular to this day.

That pretty much brings us to the present day. During a recent kettle shopping expedition I was somewhat disappointed to note that internet connected "smart kettles" are not yet a reality but temperature control is the new must have feature with various settings from a lukewarm 40° all the way up to boiling 100°C.

Please note that this article relies on no greater scholarship than my own hazy memory so I claim no authority on the subject and none of the images are my own. Copyrights belong to the respective authors

Friday, April 04, 2014

How would you describe a Google Chromecast to someone?

It's a device that plugs into your TV and connects with a phone, tablet or computer to stream audio and video to your TV. 
Ah ... I see so is it a stand alone receiver then that just needs a phone or table to act as a remote?
Well, not exactly - you see the phone or tablet needs to be connected to the internet itself and you must first run an app on that device in order to stream it to the Chromecast. 
Ah ... so the Chromecast is just acting like a remote display for your phone? 
Well, not exactly because only certain apps support the Chromecast (notably Netflix and Youtube). Most apps don't support it. 
OK, I am beginning to understand, but for those apps that do support it the content is coming from your phone and being sent to the Chromecast right? 
Well, not exactly, Once you initiate the app on your phone and send it to Chromecast then the Chromecast seems to get its own copy directly from the internet. You can put the phone to sleep and the Chromecast will keep streaming away. 
Ahh ... I see so the Chromecast really is an independent receiver then. It doesn't mirror what is on the screen of your phone or computer.  
Well not exactly because you can stream anything you see in a Chrome browser to the Chromecast and view it on your TV and in this case the content seems to come locally from your computer to the Chromecast.
Ahh... so I can browse the internet using the Chrome browser on my phone and view it in big screen on the TV?
Well .. not exactly because the mobile version of Chrome doesn't seem to support Chromecast streaming yet (may come later though - there is a beta version).
Now I am confused. What exactly does Chromecast let me do again. 
You can watch Netflix and Youtube on your TV. 
Oh .. right. But I already have several devices that let me do that? Why do I want a Chromecast?  
Well ....
Chromecast is now available in Europe and my curiosity prompted me to spend €40 to get one and try it out. It does work and provides us with yet another way to watch Netflix but I am having a hard time explaining to my family exactly what Chromecast does. The relationship between Chromecast and the connected phone or computer is muddy and the functionality of Chromecast varies depending on which device you use to control it. I cannot help feeling that Chromecast would be a much easier gadget to explain and promote if it was just a plug in Android device using the TV as a display and a phone or tablet as a remote. I have no doubt Google have their own inscrutable reasons for making Chromecast the way it is but this uncertainty over what exactly it does is standing in the way of it becoming a default media device in our household.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Revisiting the ethics of cheating in single player games.

The rise of F2P games with in app purchases has introduced a new twist to the ethics of cheating in single player games.

Life used to be simpler. Pretty much everyone agreed that cheating in multi-player games was  despicable, interfering as it does with the enjoyment and achievements of others. There was no ethical issue however about using cheats in a single player game. The only person affected was yourself and while many might contend that cheating diminishes the pleasure of a game by removing challenge plenty of others felt that cheats or god modes gave them more control over their gaming experience. The point was that no one else was affected but the player who choose to use cheats.

Today however a huge number of single player games especially in the mobile space use a free to play business model with in app purchases. Surprise, surprise, cheating has become a thing in such games and tools have become available for many popular titles that will allow you to progress without spending real money (no I am not going to provide links).

Yes these are single player games and one player cheating privately does not interfere with others enjoyment (I am assuming here that the cheats have the good sense not to post evidence of their crimes to global leader boards). Nevertheless the ethical situation has changed. When you cheat in an F2P game you are depriving the developer of income. I am a not a lawyer but I imagine the legal system would  treat the acquisition of a digital sword or suit of armour without paying for it  exactly the same way it treats the illegal acquisition of digital games, movies and music. Now the law can sometimes be an ass particularly when it comes to copyright but the ethical issue here seems clear cut to me. Someone developed a game and let you play it for free in the hope that you would pay them real money later for upgrades. Taking those upgrades without paying for them clearly hurts the developer and is theft.

I have seen promoters of such cheating justify their actions in on-line discussions. Usually they complain about the greediness of the developers and point out the ridiculous prices of items needed to progress in the game. Now I also baulk at the ridiculous amount of money that committed players have to spend in many of these games and I have grave misgivings about the freemium model in general but the remedy here is clear. If you do not like a games monetisation model then do not play the game.