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Oops! And Other Tales from Stellaris

Posted by on Apr 12, 2017 in Featured, Scopique Plays, Stellaris

Oops! And Other Tales from Stellaris

Stellaris is a 4x Game of Unusual Size (4GoUS — F’go-us?) and like a lot of 4x games, no scenario is ever over quickly. I firmly believe that short of treating utter defeat as the first item on your to-do list, a single game will last for several hours whether you like it or not. Considering the point and the attraction of 4x games is the strategy of expansion and neighborly relations, you’d better like it.

Willfulness aside, it is possible to back yourself into a corner where the game becomes painfully difficult to the point where you might wonder if you’re looking down the barrel of an embarrassing defeat. For me, 4x games tend to devolve into an arms race where my neighbors know all the right levers to pull to get ahead, while I’m hanging out in my backyard tossing the football around without a care in the universe. That leads to people showing up on my doorstep with armaments that I can’t hope to defend against, and I inevitably end up losing.

Playing Stellaris last night I found myself behind the 8-ball in terms of resources. My energy budget was at 0 or occasionally in the red. Suddenly, my food supply tanked and we were living off rations. I had more than enough minerals, and while I wasn’t gaining influence, I wasn’t using it either. What all this means is that I had the minerals necessary to expand — to build ships and outposts and such — but I didn’t have the maintenance currency — energy — to keep it all running. That meant I was holding off on doing much of anything. Occasionally I’d get brave and would send construction crews out to other solar systems to construct outposts and mining platforms where I could score some additional energy income, but it was a balancing act: everything I built required upkeep, so I had to do ugh-math to ensure my projects would net more e-credit than they would cost.

About 15 minutes before I knew I had to shut down, lest I find myself unable to wake in the morning (I am immune to the dreaded “one more round” disease), I was looking into my food shortage. In Stellaris, planets are divided into tiles. Each tile is either empty, a natural producer of food, energy, minerals, or other resources, or is blocked. Your people (called “pops”) will be “born” or will migrate into open tiles. You can drag pops around to put them into tiles that you want them to work. My focus was on ensuring that all my food tiles were populated and that the farms in those tiles were sufficiently upgraded to the best produce-enhancer I could build.

Wait…

Something wasn’t right. I was upgrading hydroponics labs in food tiles, but…there were tiles producing natural food which didn’t have hydroponics labs in them. Placing a machine in a tile with a matching resource type increases the output of that resource type. Here I was, starving and every-deficient because I hadn’t been placing even the most basic producer buildings on my natural resource tiles. I had been spending pretty much the entire game operating a growing empire with no more resource production than what I found laying around on the ground. That’s like operating a government funded only by the loose change found under seat cushions or in the street gutters.

Now, however, I have two other colonies which I need to start upgrading, but I have reached the food storage ceiling despite cranking out more crops. My neighbors have become belligerent and the diplomacy screen shows them as being technologically superior to me. I fear that my remembrance on how to play this game has come too late to save my ass, which wouldn’t be a bad thing necessarily as a looming defeat would allow me to start up a new game where I could do things correctly from the start.

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Cutting the Cord

Posted by on Apr 6, 2017 in Editorial, Featured, Hardware, Other Geeks

Cutting the Cord

Yes, it’s 2017, and I am just now getting around to seriously considering getting rid of cable.

Since we switched to Fi and reduced our cellular bill by 3/4* I’m feeling how good it is to make a change that returns money to me. Cellular was easy, as these services are an anti-consumer racket. What’s less easy for my household is wiggling out from under the thumb of Big Cable.

While providers like Comcast will tell us that we have options in our area — like satellite — the honest truth is that it’s not really an option. We have three technology minded people in our house, so we need fast, reliable internet access. I’m sure DSL has come a long way since I’ve used it almost 15 years ago, but it’s built on top of an aging infrastructure and can’t possibly match what we get from coax and fiber. We also really don’t need a home phone line. The bogeyman regarding home phones is that without a landline, we lose E-911 service, although I would hope I’d have the presence of mind in a crisis to do everything in my power to ensure that emergency services find me at an address I verbally provide to them. What has actually been impeding our investigation into cutting the cable has been TV, though.

My hobby is PC based; my wife’s hobby is TV based. Thankfully, I can get to any website using any internet connection, but getting the TV channels that my wife wants to watch isn’t so simple. Every network and broadcast concern seems to want to have their own walled garden (lookin’ at we, CBS!) for a fee. Considering how many channels we might want from an a la carte package and the sum of the prices of each walled garden, our spend would probably add up to as much or even more than what we might pay for cable right now.

Of course, there are services which bundle the channels that make themselves available for such bundling. Sling, Playstation VUE, and now YouTube TV provide a wide selection of familiar faces — but none of them offer everything. For example, local affiliate stations are going to be difficult to come by since these streaming services source from the national feeds. A few of these services offer tiers; the higher the tier, the more channels we get, but we might also end up paying more for a single channel we really want, in addition to getting 10 more channels we’ll never watch (for us, that would be the bazillionty sports channels that seem to be the foundation of all of these services). Since no single service offers everything we might want, the decision needs to be made: suffer without, or subscribe to multiple services?

Subscribing to different services means that we’re looking at platform availability. Most everything is available for Android, iOS, and PC, which is nice but is hardly a set-it-and-forget-it solution that competes with the eggs-in-one-basket cable box. The second best option is a device like the Roku or (*shudder*) Apple or Fire TV. A lot of the services are available through gaming consoles, but there’s a lot of overhead in navigating a console, and as much as I’d be thrilled to do so, I don’t think my wife will agree to buy another Playstation or Xbox for each of the TVs we need to broadcast to. Finally, a Chromecast would work in a lot of situations, but when all  you want to do is sit down and throw something on the TV, it’s not as convenient as a cable box when you need to bring out your phone, wait for it to connect, and then choose the supplier who has the content you want to watch.

So what’s the verdict so far? Apparently, PSVue seems to have the most channels we’re looking for, followed by YouTube TV. PSVue seems to work on Android, iOS, and PC, and of course, the Playstation, but also through the Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast. YTTV works through Android, iOS, and PC, but beyond that, it only seems to work through Chromecast for TV broadcasting. Hopefully, that will change over time.

Then there’s the gravy. A lot of the broadcast services offer cloud-based DVR which is great as it allows you to record whatever, whenever, and watch it whereever you can access the service. This mean that when traveling in the US, we can take a Chromecast or Roku stick with us and have our familiar TV with us even in different broadcast markets. YouTube TV even offers Netflix-like sub-accounts so I could keep my DVR and favorites apart from my wife’s or my daughter’s.

At this stage, I’ve only been collecting information and haven’t yet actually tried any of these services. YouTube and PSVue have free trials, so I might take them up on those offers to see if we can live a month using those services — assuming we can find devices which work on the TVs we have. The kicker will be getting the family to remember to pick up the specific remote for the specific device to access the specific package which has the specific channels we want to watch when we want to watch them. It’s this scatter-shot distribution that is the biggest hurdle for cutting the cord for me, personally because while we might be able to replicate our preferred lineup, we have to span several services and possibly several devices in order to find what it is that we want in order to do it.

 

* At least for my wife and I. We still have to pay for our daughter’s line which is on the legacy carrier, but once the in-laws move off our legacy plan, our monthly bill will still be drastically reduced.

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Infiniscene Is My New Best Friend

Posted by on Mar 22, 2017 in Featured, Software

Infiniscene Is My New Best Friend

I don’t do a lot of streaming; I’m a 43-year-old male who doesn’t play MOBA or Overwatch and therefore I am in no one’s demographic, but there are some circumstances where I think streaming would be a cool idea — I would have really liked to have streamed our Dungeons & Dragons gameplay, for example — but only if certain criteria could be met. Namely, I really want a streaming service to support multiple remote video sources, both webcam and desktop. For some ding dang diddly reason, none of the big streaming players support this, and none of the major broadcast software providers do either.

Thanks to the fact that I sign up for everything and therefore get on all kinds of mailing lists, I got an email from a service called Infiniscene about their impending name change to Lightstream. Nice, good for them, but in investigating their feature page further I noticed this gem:

Holy hand grenades! This is 100% exactly what I’d always wanted from a streaming service because I’m progressive like that.

Now, I get why services like Twitch or Beam have never gone down this road: they cater to the individual personality and promotion schtick. It’s easier to partner and build their services on the back of a handful of individuals that they can work with, whereas having to deal with people as a group can get complicated and messy.

But I really think we’re getting to the point where the field of the Internet Personality is pretty saturated. You can find anyone streaming almost anything, and like an iceberg, the little bit you see at the top belies the fact that the bulk of the structure lies deep, deep underwater; there’s a crapload of people streaming these days, but most go unwatched while the market favors select individuals with select…traits, we’ll call them. What the streaming market needs now is gimmicks beyond the “hey what’s up guys” beanie and cleavage offerings…like collaboration!

I sent this notification to my friends who aren’t known to be the most “service-progressive” group with the notion of how cool it would be to play something like The Division with a four person perspective, and someone mentioned that it would be awesome to set up a game like Ghost Recon: Wildlands which does require players to spread out more and would provide a more exciting multi-person view of the same action. They seemed amazingly open to the idea, which is awesome! We just need to remember to set it up one night when we’re all online in order to try it.

Truth be told, I could have always done this. I had once (or twice, actually) set up a custom RTMP server that I could have several users ‘cast to, which would allow me to set up their end points as different sources in OBS or Xsplit, but then I’d have to broadcast that out to Twitch or Beam which meant a crapload of traffic on my side, and this is before we’ve even gotten to the bandwidth required for whatever game I was playing. Infiniscene apparently runs everything from their side, meaning that their tray app takes my input only — game and/or webcam — and munges it together on their server and sends the resulting signal to the service of my choice. This is unlike apps such as OBS and XSplit which send my signal directly to Twitch or Beam or YouTube in isolation.

Seriously, I can’t believe none of the other services have done this, although I suspect that it’ll only be a matter of time before they do.

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A Long Time Coming – A New PC

Posted by on Mar 14, 2017 in Featured, Hardware

A Long Time Coming – A New PC

 

My current system is about 8 years old. It’s an Alienware (ignores boos from the crowd) and has had some minor upgrades over time — video, RAM, SSD, etc. It can still handle a good 90% of anything I’ve thrown at it but looking at specs for games like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Ghost Recon: Wildlands, as well as the perennial slog that is Star Citizen, I realize that the end of the road is well in sight.

Last year was supposed to be The Year, but my annual bonus had to be applied to our taxes and there was nothing left over to spend on a new PC. This year, however, checking off a different box on our tax forms landed us a nice little refund, which left my bonus available to use on upgrading (with appropriate permissions from The Boss, of course).

Here’s the damage:

  • Intel i7-7700K processor: I like to future proof, which is why my current machine lasted so long. The 7700K was just recently released and is roughly the same price as the 6700K.
  • MSI Z270 Gaming M7 1151 motherboard: This is probably way more hardware than I need. I’m not usually an overclocker, but in the interest of possibly squeezing out extra performance later on down the line, I figure that this mobo and the 7700K processor will let me last longer with this config than I would be able to otherwise.
  • Corsair Vengeance 16GB DDR4 3000 RAM: I debated 16 or 32GB, but this is something I can always add to later on, so in the interest of offsetting the cost of the mobo, I went with 16GB for now.
  • Corsair Hydro H100i liquid cooling: Because now that I have had liquid cooling, I can’t go back to normal fans.
  • Corsair CXM750M BRONZE PSU: Again, way more than I’ll need, but when I need it, I’ll most certainly have it.
  • EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 SC ACX 3.0 Black Edition video: Video cards suck, because not only do they release new ones all the time, but each manufacturer has at least 8 different variations. Again, this is a “superclocked” version with a core clock speed of 1594MHz which is better than the original Founders edition I had been looking at, and it has the EVGA’s “ACX 3.0 fancy-ass cooling system”, which I’m sure is a way for them to charge more for their card.

The grand total was $1,264.94, most of which was the processor, the video, and the motherboard.

You may notice that some elements are missing, like the hard drives and a case. I have about 20 different cases in my house right now, including a nice one that is being used for my daughter’s PC which sits dormant 98% of the time (the other 2% is when I use it to run a Trade Wars server). I plan on moving her stuff to a lesser case so I can use the nicer one. I will also be re-purposing the 250GB SSD and the two 500GB platter drives in my current system. I anticipate having to upgrade the SSD in the next few years, if not sooner, because I’ve had it for a few years now, and although I only use it for the OS, the read/write limits are never far from my mind.

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The Accidental Tourist

Posted by on Mar 9, 2017 in Featured, Horizon: Zero Dawn

The Accidental Tourist

Horizon Zero Dawn is one of those games where I don’t feel I can play unless I have two hours minimum to just sit there and play. It’s the kind of game where I will get easily sidetracked on my well-meaning way to the next stage in a story mission, so that the next time I look up at the clock, I’ve done everything but what I’d set out to do.

Yesterday was one of those days. I got home, took care of what I needed to, and then jumped into the game.

Because of an overheard conversation on either Twitter or Facebook regarding weapons, and because I was in the hunter’s camp that was the focus of said conversation, I stopped by the merchant and picked up a Carja Sharpshooter’s Bow. This fires precision arrows, but also fires special “tearblast”(as in “bear”) arrows that are specialized to knock armor and components off of enemies. I didn’t really need this bow, but I had been nursing the feeling that I was undergeared. I am still using the CE arms and armor, and a few encounters seem to be taking longer than they had previously, a sense I attribute to moving into more difficult areas, but also because I needed better weapons.

My goal was to travel to Red Rocks, which is the next step in a side-quest that isn’t the main quest but which takes me past areas where I need to be in order to progress the main quest. I am never not amazed by the visuals. The Red Rocks area is, in fact, made up of red rocks. I don’t know why that impressed me, but maybe because it was a subtle shift in ecology that eased me into the named zone. I don’t know, but I always appreciate the sense of being a trained hunter in an environment that obviously inspired Aloy’s hunting skills. The environment and the mechanics really support one another…at least, until they don’t, and that’s the best part.

As I was hauling ass down the road on my hacked broadhead mount I got a signal on my Focus that there was a powerful signal from over the northern ridge. Leaving the mount on the road like an abandoned car, I crept over in that direction and located a cauldron. I had gotten wind of this from a hunter in the last camp I was visiting, but the story was grim: the cauldron was heavily guarded, and there was something terrible behind the portal*. It sounded terrible at the time, so I vowed to return when I was of higher level (I was level 12 at the time). But I happened upon the cauldron just in the course of traveling, so what the heck, right? How bad could it really be?

There were two sawtooth and several watchers outside, who were easy to dispatch thanks to my new Carja bow. The cauldron opened using the same mechanism used to subdue dinobots, which is suspiciously convenient. The inside of the cauldron is 100% pure Cybertron — an advanced technological factory built into the mountainside that Aloy presumed to be the source of the never-ending stream of mechasaurs.

About 3/4 of the way through I ran into a shellwalker. A few nights prior I was demoing the game for some friends and we ran into a shellback in the wild who simply kicked my ass. This time, however, I had my new bow and a whole lot of cover. I used the tearblast shot to take out one of its claws and then continued to nickel-and-dime it from cover until I was able to take it down with my last tearblast arrow. I was pretty pleased, but I had no “echo canisters” and could not make any new tearblast arrows.

Cut to the inevitable end of the cauldron. When I first entered I had to rappel down from a ledge, which is the universal game signal for “I hope your affairs are in order because you’re either leaving on your feet or in an urn”. I knew there had to be a boss at the end of this thing, and sure enough — a fire bellowback. I hadn’t encountered this before, but it was a level significantly higher than I was. I was out of tearblast, but there was no other way out. Since the bellowback was dormant inside a force-field and didn’t seem to care that I was there so I crept around the edges opening crates. I’m glad I did because I was able to get enough echo canisters to make a few tearblast arrows. Once I was as ready as I figured I was going to be, I had to figure out how to drop that shield and start the fight.

Here’s the record of the event, which explains the rest better than I could

Thank goodness for the tearblast arrows, and that I had as many healing herbs and as many potions as I did. After reviewing the situation myself, I didn’t realize how many times I came this| |close to dying, only to pop a potion or stop in the right location to use my medicine pouch.

The benefit of the cauldrons is apparently that you learn to hack better creatures. I upped the override tool to the next level of creature although I can’t tell you what those are because nowhere (that I’ve found) tells you what levels allow you to do what to whom.

That was about it for the night. Not only did I not feel that I could top what I really felt was the “fight of my life”, but I had to attend to the more mundane task of “having dinner”. Thankfully I had bedrolls and was able to teleport to the nearest campfire to save the game because had I died on the run back to the campfire, I would have been really pissed off.

 

* One thing I really love about this game is how the humans — who have lost all sense of technology that came after 500BC — view technology at or beyond what we have today. I found a cache that offered me an “ancient bright bracelet” (a digital watch) and “ancient chimes” (a set of keys on a keyring).

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The Struggle Is Kinda Real

Posted by on Mar 6, 2017 in Editorial, Featured

The Struggle Is Kinda Real

Here I am, posting a weekend recap. Here I am, posting at all, which I think is kind of weird in and of itself considering a few posts ago I was (once again) ready to write off the whole blogging thing. Truth be told, I’m waiting for a website to deploy, and it takes quite a while for the components to get their act together and move, so I have time.

Time. That’s kind of funny, because it’s what we never seem to have enough of. Between family obligations and the desire to get back to hobbies, something always gets shafted because there’s never enough time.

Numenera: Tides of Torment

Since I am unable to sleep like a normal person (which seems to be par for the course for a lot of folks in my timelines), I am up early on Saturday. This weekend, I fired up the Steam Link on the projector and reclined on the couch while I played Numenera: Tides of Torment. 

So far I have not done any combat outside of the tutorial. In fact, I’ve actively avoided taking missions where I know or suspect combat is the dominant or sole approach despite having at least two glaives in my party (they’re the combat classes). My goal is to talk my way out of everything, if possible, so the entirety of my Saturday morning was spent talking to people around Saugus Cliffs.

Once again, I am bowled over by the world design in this game. It’s like Clive Barker, China Mieville, and Felix Gilman rolled into one.

The Mysterious Package Company Package

Back before Christmas, my friends and I bought a package from the Mysterious Package Company. The package we bought, “Tempis Fugit” was the cheapest option they offered, and we split the cost about seven ways. TMPC is a service which sends you “clues” over time that you digest and think about while you wait for the next installment to arrive, and at the end, there’s a big reveal in the form of a physical object that plays into the narrative and is supposed to be really surprising and exciting.

We had thought that this service was offering a kind of ARG (alternate reality game) which would provide us clues that we’d need to solve in order to make sense of the next step. Unfortunately what we got was a very short story with minimal effort required to “use it”.

The big conceit of TMPC is that you are to anticipate the next shipment for the next chapter of the story. We collected all four parts of our story until all of the principals could get together, at which point we had hoped to put our collective intelligence together to solve the puzzle. We spent maybe about 15 minutes total going over the parts, being impressed at the final delivery, and then…we ordered pizza and forgot about the whole thing.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

I played for about 15 minutes this weekend, which puts me further at the mercy of people online playing with the screenshot feature (which I can’t seem to get to work) who are much further than I am.

This game is troubling me. I had the best intentions on Saturday evening to continue with the story. I had found the missing war-chief, assaulted a cultist camp and discovered a way to thwart them, but on my way to do so, I got sidetracked by some side quests and then got sidetracked from the sidetrack by just…fucking around. If Civilization is the master of “one more turn” mechanics, then games like HZD are masters of the “lemme see how quickly/efficiently/stealthily/awesomely I can take down this herd/massive robodino/bandit camp”. It’s almost pathological: I’m riding along on the road and see the unmistakable blue glow of robodinos in the mist on the hill. I Dismount, stealth, and spend the next ten minutes stalking the damn things while someone, somewhere is getting impatient waiting for Aloy to show up like she promised she would.

Is it fun? Yes, yes it is. Is it sustainable for me? Ehhhh…well…I had my first mental thread pulled that I need to get moving or risk losing interest. Traditionally, that’s been the harbinger for actually losing interest, because I’m not as focused as I feel I should be. One of my missions is to get to the city of Meridian, and to do so I need to get passage out of the Nora lands by clearing out areas of corrupted robodinos. The map says one of those areas is level 15, and I’m level 11. I hate stuff like that, because it’s telling me that I must dick around and gain some levels. The game doesn’t care how I do it. Random hunting is fun and necessary, but my initial fears may be realized: the game’s main “cool thing” is fighting robodinos, so the design makes you do that as often as possible, even when it ends up being just busy work. I’m not so much a fan of that.

Sugar Shack

This has nothing to do with gaming.

My wife wanted to do something on Sunday and decided that we would be going to a sugar shack in the town of Temple. Heading out West from where we live puts us in God’s Country, NH: lots of wooded areas, few houses, hills, and winding dirt roads.

A sugar shack, for you urbanite or Southern folks, is where liquid gold is made: maple syrup. Being in New England means that visiting such a place is mandatory at least once in your life, whether through school or because you’re drunk and thought it might be interesting, and repeated visits to different locations tend to prove that all of these places are pretty much the same. However, this one place we visited was kind of different.

For one, they had acres of trees, with thousands of taps. Their method was also purely 21st century; whereas you might be familiar with the image of steel pails hanging off trees, collecting sap that flowed from the taps hammered into the trunks, this operation we visited was a web of blue tubing flowing through the woods like a massive circulatory network, drawing the sap from trees into the occasional two-story vat. I had never seen a tapping operation on this scale before, and we later learned that this particular operation was supplying syrup up and down the East coast.

They had one shed, 15 employees, and the company was owned by a dude in his 30s who wanted to get into syrup production since he was five years old. #Respect

Sharing is Caring

I bought both an XB1 and a PS4 because I don’t like having to decide between one or the other when it comes to being able to experience the games I want to experience. However, there’s another facet of this situation that is unavoidable: my daughter.

A while back she bought herself Tales of Berseria because she really liked the Tales of Zesteria. She’s not really a game-player these days. She used to live and breath Minecraft when she was younger but never really ran with the whole video game thing after that until she found the Tales games. The only reason she did was because of her genetic-level obsession with anime and all things Japanese.

Needless to say, ToB was obtained…for the PS4. That means so long as she’s playing that, I can’t get back to HZD. The situation is almost archaic in the same way families used to have to deal with just one television set. If dad wanted to watch The Big Game, then everyone else who might have had something that they wanted to watch had to do something else, like go outside or some other unspeakable horror. Or the days when there was only one telephone line in the house, and the teenager was monopolizing it, preventing anyone from making calls or even from calling in.

Those were dark times, kids. Dark times indeed. So I went back to The Elder Scrolls Online last night, which continues to be the most comfortable game I have on deck these days. Thank goodness for small favors.

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