Wednesday, November 22, 2017

2017-11-22_Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving day is tomorrow, and despite Christmas music on the radio and decorations up all over the place, it is still a celebrated holiday.
I understand that Christmas is a lot easier to get excited for than Thanksgiving. For one, it has tons and tons of music. I don’t have any sort of tentative figures on it, but I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of Christmas songs just in English. How many songs have you ever heard about Thanksgiving.
In addition to the music, Christmas decorations are as prolific and varied as holidays get. There are trees and ribbons and lights and garland and even flying spaghetti monster tree toppers. With so many decorations available, you can doll up your house and yard however you want. The sky's the limit, often literally with the size of some Christmas trees I’ve seen.
Let’s not forget presents. The holiday season brings people out of the woodwork to go shopping, and companies often hold off new releases until late in the year, just to entice people to buy the products as gifts. I don’t want to sound materialistic, but everybody enjoys receiving presents. Even if it isn’t the reason for the season, it is a nice addition.
Far from the least, Christmas shares a time of the year with numerous other religious holidays. For many people, religion is a defining element of who they are. As such, they get very passionate about specific days for their faith. With Christmas as the birth of Christ, that’s a pretty big deal for Christians.
With all these reasons, I can totally see why people like to skip right over Thanksgiving and hop right on board the Christmas train when November 1st rolls around. But I genuinely think that Thanksgiving has a few things in its favor to deserve a fair share of the holiday cheer.
My personal biggest reason for enjoying Thanksgiving is how it hasn’t been commercialized, at least not as thoroughly as Christmas. With the presents and decorations and such, Christmas is all about buy buy buy. With Thanksgiving, I don’t feel like that’s the case. You’re encouraged to cook a big dinner for family and friends, but there isn’t really much TO buy. And there’s the dynamic between Black Friday shopping creeping backwards into Thursday, versus companies making a political statement against it and publicly announcing that they will be closed until into the day on Friday. In recent years, more and more companies seem to encourage their employees to spend time with their families. I’ve always had a very close knit family, so I really like that Thanksgiving allows me to put aside everything and spend time with people I love, if only for a few hours.
Beyond the sentiment of time with family, Thanksgiving is all about some food. Looking at my stature, it’s rather obvious that I enjoy food, perhaps a bit too much. I like turkey and dressing, I like mac and cheese, I like just about everything that most people serve on Thanksgiving. Given the plethora of options available and the moral obligation against criticising people for what they eat or how much, Thanksgiving is a chance to pig out and not feel guilty about it. Maybe it’s unhealthy, but what’s one day a year going to hurt?

This Thanksgiving, be thankful. I’m not asking you to post on social media every day of November about what you’re thankful for. I don’t even care if you voice it to anybody else. But take the day to remember what you have, and appreciate it. Come Friday, feel free to go full-on Christmas. But until then, give Thanksgiving its due.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"Completing" a Video Game

What does it mean to “complete” or “finish” a video game? What criteria are required to say that you beat a game?
Obviously, this isn’t a simple question, and there are no definite right or wrong answers. Video games comprise a huge industry, and there is such an immense variety among them that what applies for one game or genre may not apply in the slightest to another. I might be able to “beat” a First-Person Shooter (FPS) in under 10 hours easily, but to say that you “beat” a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) typically implies hundreds if not thousands of hours of work, and frequently means continued play as developers release new content.
Are there any hard and fast metrics you can judge this by? Main storyline is obviously a large component for completing a game. Can’t say you’ve beaten it if you’ve never seen the ending of the story. Usually that means you can see the credits, too. But what about games that have extra story content after the credits roll? Or games with multiple endings for different sorts of “new game plus” variants? Do you have to see every ending, or does the first ending that you get count as beating the game?
Besides the main story campaign, most games have some number of side quests. Do they count at all? Do you have to beat some threshold number of side quests? Or are side quests just as important as the main quest, and you have to finish all of them? Some games have “radiant quests” that are procedurally generated and never end. Since there is no way to complete all of those, do you have to do any? Do you have to beat enough to satisfy some arbitrary requirement? How much is enough?
Instead of quests and missions, maybe you choose to indicate completion from defeating bosses. When you defeat the antagonist of the game, it’s reasonable to assume that you’ve beaten the game. However, what about optional bosses? Final Fantasy and other games in the JRPG genre are notorious about having “super bosses” that aren’t required in the main story quest, but are tremendously more difficult to kill than any necessary enemies. Do you have to beat them to finish the game, or can you leave them be?
As of the Seventh generation of video game consoles, on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, many games had achievements or trophies that could be obtained by satisfying some criteria. On PlayStation, at least, players can obtain a Platinum Trophy by acquiring all other trophies available for a game. For many players, the Platinum Trophy is the ultimate mark of completion for PlayStation games. However, this is debatable by game, since some games do not require 100% completion, while others require some multiplayer participation, which some players would consider beyond what is necessary to finish a game. While I used to go for the Platinum Trophy in any game that seemed reasonably possible, I haven’t pursued them anywhere near as much as I once did for the past few years.
Expanding on the idea of multiplayer, there is quite a bit of variation between gamers on whether multiplayer facets count toward completion. Personally, I don’t think that any online or multiplayer facets should count toward completion. For one, they are an inconsistent metric by which to measure your ability, and I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. Also, it requires an active community, and that isn’t likely to be the case once a game’s sequel comes out. If a game’s servers are shut down, there is literally no way to experience the online play again. How is that a fair way to judge progress? In any case, there are people who say that online multiplayer should be required for completion. I am not one of those people.
One of the most simple and direct ways to measure whether a game is finished is the completion percentage. Many games list a distinct percent value, either in a menu or on a save screen. This indicates how much of the game that the player has finished. Games may differ on how that calculate this, but typically a 100% means you’ve beaten the game. A handful of games, one notable exception is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, in which players much reach 200% by finishing the standard castle and then the inverted castle. Some players swear by this completion percentage, and will not consider a game complete until the value is maxed out. However, there is one game that infamously does not allow players to reach 100%. In Gran Turismo 2, no matter if players finish literally every single race in the game, they can never get higher than 98.2% completion. For some die hard completionists, this is unforgivable. Even though most people who have played GT2 are aware of this glitch, it bothers some players that they can never see 100% completion.
For me, it typically boils down to, “did I get my money’s worth?” That question has become increasingly fuzzy in recent years. I haven’t bought a new game for myself in a very long time, and I haven’t bought a used game since PS3 generation. Mostly, I either check out games from the library or borrow games from friends. So getting my money’s worth when I didn’t pay anything is difficult to determine.
Beyond getting my money’s worth, I might go with any of the above criteria. Given that I have far less time to play video games lately, I rarely go for Platinum. If I beat the final boss and see the credits roll, that’s usually sufficient for me. Optional bosses I may go after, but always. If there are trophies that I can get with very little extra effort beyond what I’ve already done, I may try to snag them before I put a game down. If I do choose to go after a Platinum trophy, it’s either because I really enjoy the game or because it seems relatively easy to get.

“Completing” a video game is clearly a very inexact science. There are numerous ways to count a game as “finished,” and it varies wildly from person to person. For some people, finishing a game is a trivial condition that has no bearing on whether they have fun with a game. For others, beating a game to the fullest degree is absolutely required. At the end of the day, play a game as much as you want to, and that’s all you have to do. After all, it’s just a game.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

StepMania, the successor of Dance Dance Revolution

I recently learned of StepMania, and it has ignited an attempt in me to play dancing games in the comfort of my home once again.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to my music on shuffle as I often do and a familiar song came on. “Beethoven Virus” was originally on Pump It Up, but it is the iconic song for dance video games in my opinion. There are numerous songs from dance games in my music library (don’t judge me), but this is one that just takes me back. It’s high tempo, catchy, and it embodies the nature of dance game songs.
While that particular song was from Pump It Up, I was always a bigger fan of Dance Dance Revolution or DDR. The 4 buttons in up/down/left/right configuration always felt more natural to me than the 5 button configuration with diagonals and a center button used by Pump It Up. Not only that, but DDR was available both in arcades and on home consoles, so I could practice at home and then show off my skills in arcades.
For whatever reason, Pump It Up has become the more popular dance game in the United States, and seems to be the only cabinet I see in arcades now. I’ve heard talk of DDR cabinets in niche places, but nowhere I’m willing to drive to regularly. I try Pump It Up here and there when I go to arcades, but the button layout and songs just make me miss when DDR was more readily available.
In any case, hearing “Beethoven Virus” got me wondering if any sort of DDR game was available on PC. Even if there wasn’t an official port or PC release, I could look into emulating PS2 games. Surely, with as popular as DDR used to be, there should be a community that still enjoys it.
No matter if I emulated or found a PC dance game, I would need a USB dance pad to properly play it. Unfortunately, dance pads could get expensive and I really wasn’t in the position to spend a lot of money on reliving an old hobby. I still had my old PS2 dance pads, though. What about adapters? It can’t be that hard to convert PS2 controller ports to USB.
I did some research and found good news on both fronts. This reddit post indicated that StepMania was an ideal DDR replacement. The more I looked into StepMania, the more excited I got. Apparently, it originated as a simulation of DDR, but has grown into a full-fledged engine in use by actual creators of dance games.
Not only is StepMania a great platform in and of itself, it also supports “Stepfilesfor custom songs. There are files available for basically every DDR game ever released. No need to buy every individual game and switch between discs for specific songs. You can literally import all of the songs you want into a single core game.
Best of all, it’s free. StepMania is open-source, so anybody can use it, and it has still received updates even as recently as 2016. This isn’t some obscure project that died back in 2004. It is current, and it apparently has a huge following. Honestly, if this whole project turns out as well as I hope, I’ll definitely donate to the developers for creating such an awesome product.
As for the dance pad, I looked mostly into adapters. There are full-on cabinets available for purchase, and plenty of custom rigs like this one created by /u/dcls, but those are way more than I’m looking to put into the project. I’m much more limited, both on funds and time. There were several products in the $10-$15 range on Walmart and Amazon, but of course, the cheapest ones available were Chinese knock-offs.

I’ve used AliExpress before, so when I saw this product, I had a good feeling about it. Sure, the entire site looks a little sketch, but they didn’t steal my card information before, and I can dispute it if they do. I bought a phone case that ended up working pretty well, and I paid something under $2 for it. I used a card that only pays for Netflix each month, so if it DID get skimmed, I could just cancel it and migrate my Netflix payment to another card. No biggie.
It’s a buck fifty. Even if the product is garbage and doesn’t work at all, what am I out? A cup of coffee? Completely worth the risk to me. If it does work well, I’ll definitely be buying another one. Two dance pads to go head to head with friends? It’ll be like 2005 all over again.
I personally owned DDRMAX2, Extreme 2, and SuperNOVA. Obviously, I grabbed the mixes from those games, and I’ll probably get all DDR songs ever released eventually. Loading them into StepMania is super easy, and it isn’t like they take a ton of space. And fortunately, StepMania truly does play just like DDR did. It’s like I was in middle school all over again.
If the adapter doesn’t work and I can’t get the dance pad connected to StepMania, at least it was a fun attempt. I can still play all of the old DDR songs with my fingers on arrow keys for nostalgia at least. If it does work, though? Best. Cardio. Ever. Any time I have friends over for the next while, we’ll be playing DDR. I’ll be posting an update in the coming weeks to discuss whether the adapter worked and how things play out.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

No Shave November

The baby face that I have sported for the past few months is about to be engulfed by a big, burly beard of manliness.
While I normally keep my facial hair to just a goatee, or occasionally shave it clean, November (and possibly into December or even January) comes the time when I grow it all out in support of testicular cancer awareness (or something like that). In all honesty, my beard isn’t really all that impressive. I grow facial hair ridiculously slow, so it takes a few weeks before anybody can even notice a difference. Day to day, that’s great because I can shave once or twice a week and never look all that scruffy. In November, though… Everybody else has a forest of beard while I still have what some would consider a five o’clock shadow.
Last year, I kept growing it out until soon after Christmas. My intent was to get picture proof of my 2-ish month old beard with all the Christmas photos. No Shave November because Don’t Shave December, but fell short of Just Don’t Shave January. Will I try it again this year? Maybe, but beards get awful scruffy. I could even make it to Forget Shaving February or Must Not Shave March. Ain’t Gonna Shave April starts to get a little warm, and May Not Shave May is when the weather just will not permit me to have a 6 month beard. Temperature and humidity just get way too high in the south.

We’ll see what happens. If I can ignore the scratchy feeling, beards are awful convenient come snowboarding season. I’ve had the outside collect frost, while my face is still warm underneath. The problem, besides being scratchy, is that beards also catch everything that comes within a few inches of them. Food, water, lint, and everything else begins to cling to me, and I have to keep a constant eye on it so that I’m not walking around with something unsightly in my majestic beard.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Halloween

I do not care about Halloween. There, I said it.
Everybody I know seems to love Halloween. Tons of people consider it their favorite holiday of the year (as if something could dethrone Christmas). They go to spook trails and haunted houses nearly every weekend during October. They decorate their houses with elaborate graveyard scenes and the like. These people go all out for Halloween, and I just don’t get it.
That isn’t to say that I *dislike* Halloween. Before I had kids, we used to go to a spook trail or two each year. If we could get reliable child care now, we probably still would. We take the kids trick or treating, but I feel like that’s a big fuss about nothing when we usually end up throwing away half or more of the candy anyway. Lots of adults I know throw parties for Halloween, but how does that differ from any other weekend during the year besides donning a costume? You want to have some friends over and get trashed, that’s called a normal Friday night for a lot of people.
As a kid, the allure of candy is probably enough to get anybody excited. Candy is great, and Halloween is the one time of the year that most parents (myself included) basically let the kids eat as much of it as they want. But as an adult… I can buy candy whenever I want. If I want to pig out and eat a sleeve of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, guess what. I’m gonna drive to Walmart, buy a sleeve, and have those suckers demolished before I get home. But honestly, it isn’t worth the calories. I’m trying to lose weight right now, so I don’t really plan on eating much candy anyway.
I suppose Halloween can be seen as a holiday of indulgence. Like Dionysus of Greek mythology, people see Halloween as a chance to cut loose without the social stigma normally attached to it. Wanna get plastered in a Jesus robe? Go nuts. Wanna eat candy until you physically cannot ingest anymore? Have at it. Nobody is going to say anything to you because it’s Halloween.
Whatever the obsession may stem from, I don’t share the same enthusiasm. I’ll take my kids trick or treating, grumble about having to deal with people, and then start getting ready for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Since so many of you love Halloween, I’ll try not to be a buzz-killington, but I would love to know what makes it such a big deal to you. If you’re a lover of all things Halloween, please enlighten me as to what makes it your favorite holiday.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

SNHU: Update 1

As I come up on the end of my first term at Southern New Hampshire University, I figured it's as good a time as any to give an update on my progress so far.

First and foremost, I'm doing remarkably well in class. For IT-510 Advanced Information Technology, I have 386.9 of the 395 possible points so far, resulting in a 98%. For the first few weeks, I read the textbook like a good student should. Lately... I've just Googled things as I needed them. Concepts that I didn't understand, I look over the first few Google results and wing it. Clearly, it's worked well for me so far. The only points that I have lost through the entire term have been based on formatting, since I didn't adhere strictly to APA style. Did I mention that I hate formatting?

On the other hand, I feel like the people that I'm in class with are surprisingly ignorant for a master's program. The spelling and grammar errors in discussion posts are prolific. I figured people that would pursue a master's degree would look over their work, but I'm clearly mistaken. Every week, the professor sends out announcements for people who are behind. She gives ample opportunity to get caught up at the cost of a few points for being late. Still, people don't seem to turn in their work at all, on time or not.

I'm not going to complain. I'd rather be in classes that are disappointingly easy than struggle my way through every module. This isn't exactly what I expected of the program, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I went into this endeavor for a degree, and if I can keep up 2 years of Google-fu, I should be able to manage that. I'll have a Master of Science in Information Technology, with a focus in Software Application Development.

This first term is over on November 12th. Hopefully, when I give another update between the end of this term and the beginning of next term, I will maintain the same level of confidence in my ability. Starting off my time at SNHU with a 4.0 GPA would be incredible, and a great morale boost for the remainder of the program.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Standardized Character Creation in Video Games

A lot of video games allow players to create their own character, selecting gender, build, skin color, and facial features. Some people stick with the default character or one of a number of preset characters. Others like to create characters at random, with no real inspiration other than what their imagination comes up with. I, and players like me, try to create an avatar that resembles me as much as possible. If I’m going to be playing the game, and there isn’t a protagonist created specifically for the game, I want the main character to be an extension of myself.

The Problem

There are a number of problems with character creation systems when trying to make a character look a certain way.
For one, the way people look can be very hard to describe. I could spend pages describing myself, or I could include a headshot and a full body shot in this post, and you’d have a near perfect idea of what I look like instantly. “A picture’s worth a thousand words” may actually be an understatement in this case. I could probably spend a few thousand words describing my appearance, as vain as that would be, and there would still be facets left up to the imagination. I know what I look like, and I recognize myself in pictures or a mirror, but I can’t fully tell someone what I look like enough that they could recognize a depiction of me without a shadow of a doubt.
Not only is it hard to describe a person’s appearance, but every character creation menu in video games is different. Some allow very granular control, with sliding scales to adjust minute dimensions. Others give a few options in a few different categories and let you pick which one you like best. Hair is typically limited to 30 or fewer different styles, and maybe 20 different color variations. Facial hair might have a few different options, or may just be a simple on/off toggle. Of the 7 billion or so people in the world, there are massive variations in what people look like. Much more than what most character creation menus offer.

The Solution

So what can you do? I propose that there should be a standard across all character creation menus that would allow people to reasonably recreate themselves in any game that offers such a feature.
The Mii creation system on Nintendo’s 3DS would be a good starting point. Players can use the handheld’s camera to take a picture of themselves after lining up their eyes and mouth with on-screen indicators. This isn’t perfect, but it gives the software a good idea of where your features are, and represents them in the game with decent accuracy. I feel like this could be taken quite a few steps forward, however.
What if players took several pictures of themselves from several different angles? Maybe have a uniform pose of arms outstretched, feet together, etc in order to calculate the dimensions reliably. Pictures taken from the front, both sides, and from behind, one from far away for whole body shape, one much closer to pick up fine details in face structure. Almost like motion capture that is already done in games already, have a system that could do this in a low cost way for anybody. The final result would be a 3D representation of your whole body, and one of specifically your head.
So you have a 3D model of yourself, but good luck showing or describing that model to a video game. The next step would be to measure a number of different dimensions to put this into a quantifiable data format. Distance between eyes, distance between pupils, length of nose, width of lips, height of ears, color shade of skin, among numerous other data points. If there were a standard created, and enough data points recorded, any compatible system should be able to recreate your model fairly accurately.
With all of these data points and a standard to go by, video game developers could incorporate an option to load from a file into character creation menus. If I put my 3D model details into a specific folder on my PS4 or PC, any game should be able to access it and load in that data to visibly recreate me as the game avatar. If a certain game isn’t going to use certain metrics, it could just ignore those supplied parameters. Players would still be able to create their own characters should they so choose, but I wouldn’t have to spend an hour or more tweaking every little setting and end up with somebody that barely resembles me at all.
An interesting extension of this system would be a hub in which players could upload their 3D model to allow other players to use them as a character. If celebrities got involved, I could download the model for say, Samuel L. Jackson, and play as him. No need to manipulate every setting by hand in order to try and recreate him, when I can submit data that does it automatically.
Obviously, there could be some serious privacy issues with a system like this. There was a big controversy a while back when a model of Ellen Page appeared nude in “Beyond: Two Souls.” Even though the developers of the game never acquired a nude scan of Page, they tweaked features of the character to make them look mostly like Page. It isn’t explicitly morally wrong, but there are definitely some questionable actions in a situation like this. Having uniform 3D model data available for so many people is bound to experience some similar situations.

Perhaps there are more complications to this idea than I’m aware of. I don’t work on video games, I have no experience with graphic design, I’m just musing about something that would be cool to have. I want to play a video game as myself. Is that really so much to ask?