DSL Update

A couple of months ago, I posted that our DSL went kablooie. And now, a couple of months later, it’s still down. Here’s the story of what happened.

Early February - Get home to discover that although our DSL modem is connecting and giving solid green lights all the way, when we try to actually log into UTV, we get a “remote host not responding”. Phoned UTV immediately, and they reckoned it was a modem problem, and that I should try out a few things and then report the modem as ‘broken’ to receive a replacement

next day - modem can’t even connect any more. Permanent state of flashing green lights. Phone UTV support and they tell me that it’s something more than that. I should ring back in a couple of days.

A couple of days later - I phone back and they say they’re going to get Eircom to test our line. This should take 5-8 working days.

two weeks later, around the end of February - I phone UTV back, and they say that the line check revealed that Eircom had disconnected our DSL line. Why? I don’t know. UTV support guy says that this sometimes happens by accident, and sometimes it’s an accounts issue. Our account was fine, so it wasn’t that. Advises me that I should ring Eircom to find out why we were disconnected.

Next day - Phone Eircom to find out why we were disconnected. Person on the other end was most unhelpful and wouldn’t tell me why. I asked if I could speak to someone else to find out why. They assure me that noone would be able to tell me why I was disconnected.

So I phone UTV and tell them that Eircom won’t tell me why. They say they won’t arrange a reconnection until they know why we were disconnected, so that they can be sure it won’t happen again. I explain that Eircom won’t tell me why. UTV’s response (paraphrasing here): “Not my problem.”

A couple of days later - Phone UTV again. No movement. Told that even if UTV were to reconnect me, it would take fully 10-14 working days to reconnect me.

A week later - I flip out at the lack of help from either side and email sales@u.tv to ask them to sort this mess out (if you’re wondering why I emailed sales@u.tv - I was informed that the UTV accounts department is the exact same as the support department. Since they were spectacularly unhelpful, I thought sales might be more interested).

5 days later - No response at all, so I have a minor panic attack and tell UTV that their lack of cooperation or understanding on this matter was completely unacceptable and that they should cancel my account immediately. I get a reply within the hour telling me my account was disconnected.

yesterday - Since Smart aren’t going to be launching their broadband in my area until early may, I’ve signed up for Esat’s three-month broadband trial. This is initially 1MB, but will be increased to 2MB come April 4th (with no increase in the cap - but we’re only going to be using this for a month or so). I botched my application and decided to try again some other time.

today - Got a phone call from Esat saying they saw that I’d been trying to apply for their broadband, and if I’d like to go through the application over the phone with them. After all the fucking around with UTV, I was genuinely taken aback by the friendly, helpful service from Esat.

Hopefully, we should have broadband in the next 8-10 working days.

Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party

A while ago, someone asked me who my favourite actors were. I started rattling off some names – Ron Perlman, Bruce Campbell, William H. Macy – and I was stopped, and asked who my favourite big name actors were.

And I don’t really have any. I love character actors.

I think I love them because they can pop up in all sorts of unsuspecting places. Rather than watching a movie almost exclusively because it has Johnny Depp in it, it’s nice to watch a movie and suddenly have a bunch of people go “Hey, no way! It’s that guy from… oh, what was it?”

An unsung hero among character actors is Stephen Tobolowsky. A “hero” because he is so incredibly prolific: I believe he holds the record for starring in the most movies in the 1990s. Unsung because almost noone remembers his name, and he’s doomed to be forever known as “that guy from.. uh.. Groundhog Day!".

Hopefully, Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party will change that. The trailer makes light of his relative anonymity - Stephen Tobolowsky asking various punters who they think “Stephen Tobolowsky” is. The answers range from “A Russian Scientist” to “Serial Killer” by way of “Porn Star”.

The Incredibles

I loved The Incredibles.

It was completely unlike all of the other Pixar movies - it was grown up, had something resembling an original plot (Watchmen comparisons aside) and its production design was beautiful.

I picked up the DVD over the weekend. I still haven’t gotten around to watching the movie, because I’ve been spending my time over on the second disk, watching the ‘making of’ featurettes.

Even these are completely unlike the other Pixar ‘making of’ featurettes. ‘Finding Nemo’ gave us fluff - people like Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton telling us how fantastic it was to make this movie, and gee whizz, isn’t Pixar just great? On The Incredibles DVD, Brad Bird and various other Pixarians explaining how hard it was to make this movie. At one stage, they even show a fight between Brad Bird fighting with a producer to justify the cost of a particular scene: something I’d never seen on a DVD, let alone a Pixar DVD.

It’s a fascinating set of featurettes, but the highlight for me came in the form of a closeup of their tools. The idea of building a rampantly successful motion pictures using Makefiles makes my tiny nerd heart flutter.

Zelda: A Cautionary Tale

“Yes” or “no”?

Two years of sitting on a shelf with a mental note of “must complete, someday”, I finally got around to playing Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. And for two weeks, every spare half hour was spent playing that game, beating various bosses, sailing the seas digging up treasure, talking to everyone I met, amassing a veritable horde of spoils.

Now, after a long day in work, I’ve turned on the Gamecube and dragged my favourite chair closer to the TV only to find the game asking me “yes” or “no”?

It didn’t say what the question was. What could it be? Load the game?

I choose “yes”.

“Please wait…”

Hmm. My muscle memory spasms a little, telling me that this isn’t the way I load my game in Wind Waker. Flash of panic. What have I done?!

“Done!”

And I’m taken to the quest screen.

Three empty slots. Three “New quest” buttons, empty as the day they left the Nintendo factory.

My game is gone. All my hard work. All my emotional attachment is gone. As if to pour some salt on the wounds, I checked gamefaqs, to see how far I had to go to the end of the game. Not far. A couple more shards of the Triforce and I’d be fighting Ganondorf once and for all. All gone.

Now.. I don’t know what to do. I tried launching straight back into it, but there’s so much to do. My sea chart is empty, my spoils bag is.. hang on, I don’t even have a spoils bag yet. I resent every conversation with every character, so I don’t talk to anyone. Even more, I resent conversations that I must have to progress in the game. The unskippable nature of them grates over me. Things that were beautiful and magical, even the cute little cut-scene where you change the direction of the wind and Link whips his head around - all these things are like nails across a blackboard.

And so it’s going back on the shelf for another two years.

This time, without the mental note.

Simpler side of gaming

“Iwata-san has the heart of a gamer”and my question is, what poor bastard™s chest did he carve it from, and how often do they perform human sacrifices at Nintendo HQ?”
– Greg Castikyan

Greg Costikyan recently posted a transcript of a rant he gave at a GDC roundtable talk on the topic of game production. The panel were speaking about how the cost of game production has risen to the stage where it is actually prohibitory for publishers to fund developers that aren’t working on licensed or recognisable IP. In it, Greg talks about how J Allard’s GDC keynote filled him with dread - the idea of welcoming in an era of HD video games with massive production costs, increased workload for developers and no additional profit for anyone but the games publishers?

He’s right to be afraid.

But there seems to be a bit of hope, from an unlikely source.

Flash gaming.

No, hear me out.

Although it’s never going to take over the world, we’ve reached the stage where people have had enough of creating silly games based around hitting/pissing on/killing celebrities and have begun exploring the medium’s creative possibilities. And although they’re just short, 5-minute bursts of gaming, they’ve been creating a bit of a buzz on among the internet community.

Helicopter game

This was the first truly addictive flash game I can think of. Although it’s almost 4 years old at this stage, it’s still a lot of fun to play. Simple premise - fly your helicopter, don’t crash. I doubt a lot of people would pay a lot of money for this, but just think how many hours were lost to this game in offices around the world.

Treasure Box

Beautifully introduced by Metafilter as “If Rube Goldberg and Terry Gilliam made flash games, they might go like this”, Treasure Box showed that Flash games didn’t have to just simple affairs. Although there isn’t actually much gameplay in this to keep people entertained, there’s enough eccentric beauty to keep people fascinated.

Skills to pay the bills

Okay, so we’ve got some good flash games out there, so what? Well, some bright sparks out there have figured out a way to make money out of very good flash games and because of this, we’re seeing the beginnings of a resurgence in the shareware games scene.

Some examples:

Gish

Gish is a platform game where you control a ball of tar. Using Newtonian physics (and some physics-cheating constructs), you guide your ball of tar through various obstacles to reach the end of the level. Because of its unique and superbly crafted nature, it has won all sorts of praise. But here’s the rub - the developers of this game are actually making money from it because of its shareware nature (play the basic levels online, pay $20 for the full game). I don’t know how much, but I’m sure it’s nothing to be sneezed at.

Codename Gordon (site down right now)

What started out as a flash ‘tribute’ to Half Life 2 (or a way to stave off the boredom until the game was actually released, depending on who you ask) is now available for purchase through Steam. Codename Gordon: Half Life 2D is a beautiful thing - embracing the limitations of flash gaming and turning them into a feature.

Alien Hominid

Like Codename Gordon, Alien Hominid started off as a way for a group of friends to create a simple game and hopefully sell it. It started off as one of a hundred games on popular flash site Newgrounds (play the original) is now being released on the Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube. And what’s more, it hasn’t been significantly changed during the transition - it still retains the same look and play mechanics.

Of course, none of these are ever likely to compete with the likes of Resident Evil 4 or Gran Turismo 4 in the battle for the hearts and minds of the casual gamer, but they do go some way to showing that there is a distribution channel for these simple flash games and, providing your game is good enough, that money can be made from them.

How much money? Well, that remains to be seen. Certainly not enough to retire and live the rest of your life with cocaine and champagne enemas. But enough to keep your games sustainable?

Maybe.

Like these flash games? Want to get some more examples? Do yourself a favour and check out gotoAndPlay.it


Update

Ren Reynolds posts a rebuttal to the GDC roundtable. His conclusions are similar to mine - for all of those who are bemoaning the death of innovation in games, there are other options.

Random Nerdings

Too busy in work to find time to write anything of substance, so here’s a quick list of the most nerdy things I’ve been doing over the past couple of days

  • Installed GeekTool After hearing so many people praise GeekTool, I finally installed it last week. Then I configured the MySQL access list on our RT database in work. Now I have a list of my open issues on my desktop - cool! I wonder if there’s any (easy) way of colour-coding this list.

  • New DVD Player Dixons are selling a Philips DVP630 for a measly EUR99. This is a fantastic player that will play just about anything you throw at it (VCD, SVCD, MP3s, JPGs, DivX and DVDs). It comes locked to Region 2, but Amazon kindly provide a guide to unlocking this player.

  • GDC 2005 Interesting things from GDC this year include

  • A trailer for the new Zelda (link goes to HD version), sporting a heavy Lord of the Rings influence.

  • Some videos of Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse

  • J Allard’s keynote about HD and the next Xbox

  • Ralph Koster’s keynote about ‘fun’ in videogames

  • Microsoft’s announcement of “pay-for-download-able content” on the next Xbox. Puerile armchair opinion: Fuck that.

  • Episode III Went to see the preview of Constantine over the weekend. I thought the film itself was a disgrace to the big-dumb-blockbuster name, but never mind that. During the trailers, they showed the trailer for Episode III. This trailer has me salivating, and seeing it on the big screen had me giddy for hours.

Five applications I couldn't live without

Okay, so maybe the title of this post is just a little melodramatic. I could certainly live without them. In my fits of whimsy, I sometimes imagine a life where I got rid of all my software and all my computers and went to live in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter, only peeking my head out long enough to release some bone-crunchingly beautiful prose like Annie Dillard or something.

Until that day, here’s the five pieces of software I couldn’t live without

(In no order)

Instiki

I don’t like Word documents because they’re mean and nasty and hard to access and I tend to get so bogged down in making my documents look pretty, I never get anything actually written. At the same time, I don’t like text files because they’re so plain and isolated and static. Yet I need some way to keep track of a lot of things.

Enter Instiki.

Just a small personal wiki site that lets you keep all of your documents together. It has all of the advantages of a full website such as links to other places and documents, and the ability to view it from anywhere but with more like an easier markup language (I am fluent in MarkDown) and an easier management interface.

I use my Instiki to keep track of work projects, personal tasks (e.g. “Move bank account”) and various other notes that I want to keep in a local place, such as my personal ‘wishlist’ of all the fancy stuff I want to buy myself.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver is like a remote control for my Mac. It has cut the amount of time I spend doing noddy things like finding the application I want to launch or browsing to files to append a word to the end of them.

And I’m constantly finding out new cool things to do with Quicksilver. Browse over to Merlin Mann’s 43 folders if you want some real Quicksilver evangelism.

Synergy

Like many people working in the IT community, I need to have a Windows machine on my desktop in work for all the proprietary applications that we use and that I can’t get a Mac version of. Using Synergy, I am able to control both my PC and my Mac from the same keyboard and mouse. Without it, my desktop would be a mess of cables, keyboards and mice. With it, my desktop is empty and zen-like beautiful.

Virtue or Desktop Manager

Coming from Linux, I learned the amount of joy that virtual desktops can bring. Now, it’s hard for me to imagine working without them. You might as well ask me to work with one hand tied behind my back: they’re that essential* to me (Microsoft has finally picked up on the importance of Virtual Desktops and included it as part of the ‘Power Tools’ for Windows XP and then went on to try and patent the idea).

Both Virtue and Desktop Manager are fine, free Virtual Desktop managers. I have yet to see someone fail to be impressed by Virtue’s window-switching animations (if you’ve seen Panther’s fast user switching in action then you know what I’m talking about), but it doesn’t seem to be written as well as Desktop Manager, so you will end up fighting with it a little bit more.

But it’s so pretty, it’s almost worth it.

Pheeder

I’ve tried a lot of RSS readers on the Mac, and until Pheeder, I wasn’t blown away by any of them. They either try out some fancy interface tricks and end up looking just plain dumb, or else they just lack basic features (how can we have an RSS reader in 2005 without a “Mark all as read” button?!).

Pheeder is by far the best RSS reader I’ve found on the Mac.

I love its simplicity and its power and even the elegant choice of colours and fonts. What I especially like is the ability to click on a feed name and get a one-page overview of all the articles in that feed. This way, when I’m in a rush, I can scan over a feed quickly without lots of clicking.

I only have two complaints. It is expensive, for what it is. At $25, it’s roughly a quarter of the price of Panther but with only a fraction of the functionality. And I don’t know how relevant it will be after Tiger launches with its built-in RSS support.


There was loads of other stuff that deserves a mention, so quick shouts to blender, ImageWell, del.icio.us and Romeo

The Fine Art of Sampling

I still say that the bottom dropping out of advertising revenues at the end of the dot-com ‘bubble’ was the best thing to ever happen to Wired Magazine. It gave them a kick up the ass and forced them to go back to producing material that was both relevant and interesting to their readers.

For example, before christmas they gave away a CD with every copy of their magazine. The CD was filled with tracks from artists like David Byrne, the Beastie Boys and Le Tigre. Nothing unusual there - magazines give away CDs of music all the time. The major difference being that this was all music licensed under a Creative Commons license. Titled “The Wired CD – Rip. Mix. Sample. Mash. Share.", they (the artists and Wired) not only allowed people to do whatever they wanted with these tunes, they positively encouraged it. As part of this encouragement, Wired ran a competition where people would send in their mixes of the songs on this CD and the best ones would be put on another Wired cover CD, which they are going to title “The Wired CD – Ripped. Mixed. Sampled. Mashed. Shared.” (which is such a fantastic idea, it actually sends shivers down my spine).

Well, the winners were announced, and some of them are really good. I’ve got the original CD in my pc in work (although it barely touched, what with the amount of Philip Glass I end up playing during work) and it’s impressive to listen to the amount of variation, epsecially when you consider that they’re all coming from the same set of source tracks.

A remarkable response to the “sampling is not creating” argument.

Star Wars: Republic Commando

I have a couple of confessions to make.

The first one is easy: I didn’t like Halo. I finished it and all, but that was mostly just because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The first couple of hours were exciting and new and the sense of adventure was enormous, but everything beyond that felt dull and monotonous. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Yet, for all its comparisons to Halo, I’m enjoying Star Wars: Republic Commando immensely.

This is mostly because of the Star Wars connection, I suppose. The thought of being a no-name clone in charge of a troop of no-name clones is slightly appealing. It’s welcoming after years of Star Wars games where you play Some New Hero, set to single-handedly save the universe. And especially so seeing the clone troopers kick oh so much ass in the Clone Wars cartoon.

But it’s more than this. It addresses so many problems I have with these types of games, and this makes me love it beyond simple fanboyism.

It plays like Halo. But a better Halo. Like Halo taking place in a familiar universe. Instead of running down a generic corridor blasting generic alien enemies, I’m running down a corridor on a Star Destroyer, blasting characters I’ve seen in movies. It’s a minor, cosmetic difference, but one that provides enough of a hook to keep me entertained for hours.

And the squad-based action enhances the differences. Makes it slightly better. I loved Full Spectrum Warrior. In my mind, the only way you could top FSW is by throwing it into the Star Wars universe and putting me in direct control of one of the guys. Just like Republic Commando.

You’re no longer one man against an empire - you’ve got a bunch of squaddies behind you. And, when things get tough, in front of you too. At first it can feel a little unintuitive, giving orders in the heat of battle, but it as you grow more familiar with the controls, it becomes second nature, and you start taking a back seat in the action. You start dishing out orders and watching your men obey you completely.

Which brings me to my other confession. This is a little more shameful, seeing as how I’ve been playing video games for years: I can’t stand losing lives in video games.

I know that noone particularly likes this. It’s a demeaning, yet integral part of videogames. But I can’t stand it. If I start getting ‘killed’ in a game I’m playing, it takes something spectacular in the game to stop me turning it off and never playing it again.

And this is another thing that Star Wars: Republic Commando addresses.

As I said, I loved Full Spectrum Warrior. Mostly because of the forgiving way it dished out death. If one of your men died, you could carry him the rest of the way, to get him patched up at the nearest medical station. Not only did this help appease my particular problem, it also made the game feel more ‘real’; rather than presenting you with an overpowering “GAME OVER (ps - you suck)” screen, it let you continue on, slightly weakened. Never leave a man behind - isn’t that what all those war films taught us? Republic Commando does something similar. When a comrade dies, you can ‘revive’ him, providing him with a couple of bars of energy, enough to reach the next medical station. Likewise, when you die yourself, your visor blurs over in a red hue, and you can issue one last order to your men: “Continue fighting, then come revive me”, “Revive me now” or something else. I say “Something else” because I really haven’t been paying much attention to any option other than “Revive me now”.

There are a couple of complaints, of course. A few graphical glitches, for one. Why implement shadows at all, if you’re only going to half-implement them? Your men cast shadows, moving platforms do not, making lift sequences slightly alarming. The shortness of the game is another. I’ve played it for about a weekend-and-a-bit and I’m apparently more than half way through the game already. On games that are dependent on story (Like Resident Evil 4), this is forgivable, but in an action-based FPS, this is just plain lazy.

But then again, as Ico taught us, it’s not the quality of the destination, it’s the quality of the journey, right?

War of the Worlds

This probably isn’t a particularly popular opinion, but I’ll state it anyway. I love Spielberg’s movies. I think that they’ve got a wonderful magical quality few directors have managed to recreate (although Shyamalan comes close). And besides, how could I not love the person responsible for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

And so I’m tickled pink by the prospect of his remake of War of the Worlds. If it’s even half as good as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I’m still going to be blown away.

But there’s so much more going on. Pendragon Pictures have been working on a more faithful, low-budget version of War of the Worlds. They recently made a ‘theatrical trailer’ available on their website. This is the first time they’ve revealed any of their effects. And oh.. oh dear. But regardless of the quality of the final picture, it will be a refreshing companion to Spielberg’s blockbuster.

But we’re so lucky, there’s still more. Jeff Wayne is working on a CGI version of his Musical of War of the Worlds, intended for a release in 2007. They recently released some animation tests of this movie - clip one, clip 2. Being a huge fan of the musical and a 3D animation dork, I think this is the version I’m looking to the most.