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?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The High Feeling

There is a sensation that I occasionally experience that I frequently describe as “that high feeling.” I have no idea what causes it, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to when it happens, and nobody I’ve talked to about it has experienced anything similar.
I’ve been having this sensation from time to time since I was about 20 years old. Calling it a “high feeling” may be a misnomer, as I’ve never actually been under the influence of illicit drugs to compare the two. I call it that because I have no better way to describe it at the moment. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once a month or less. Sometimes it will happen fairly regularly, other times I’ll go months without feeling it.
The sensation itself comprises a number of different symptoms. The first that I notice is a sort of light headedness. Everything gets fuzzy, and I find it hard to focus. This facet of the sensation is very similar to what happens when I go without sleep for a long time. After I start to lose focus, my breathing will become very shallow. The strangest part is when I have a sort of pulling sensation in my chest. It’s almost as if someone has their hand behind my sternum and is pulling upward and outward from my body.
Toward the end of these spells, my limbs get numb and tingly. I usually start to feel cold, especially near my hands and feet. After a few moments, I start to regain focus, the feeling comes back to my limbs, and I’m fine. There was one specific time that I blacked out, and my wife found me leaned across the bathroom counter. Otherwise, I don’t know that I’ve ever lost consciousness in conjunction with these high feelings.
It isn’t an unpleasant sensation, just very strange. As I mentioned before, I don’t know what causes it. Some have suggested that it may be dips in my blood sugar or lack of sleep, but the instances are so erratic that I can’t place any criteria that remains the same each time. I’ve been told that I should see a doctor about it, but I can’t imagine that it happens often enough to be tested for.

For now, it doesn’t seem like anything I should be imminently concerned about. Just something that happens from time to time. I would love to know more about it, or talk to others who have experienced similar sensations.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Platinum on Final Fantasy XV

After 80 hours of playing and almost 7 months, I finally got the platinum trophy on Final Fantasy XV.
I enjoyed FFXV enough that getting the platinum trophy was extremely likely, if not inevitable. Most PS4 games that I start playing, I at least look over the trophy list. If they all seem reasonably easy, I’ll go for platinum. Just a few hours into FFXV, I noticed that the platinum shouldn’t be too hard, and it honestly wasn’t. A little time consuming, sure, but not painfully difficult.
The main campaign took me right at 50 hours, at which point I’d already hit most of the highlights. All I had left was to gather the rest of the royal arms, grind out the remaining character skills, and kill the Adamantoise, mostly. Collectively, a bit, but individually, none of them were very taxing.
Getting Noctis’s fishing skill to level 10 was probably the most frustrating. Fishing, as a mechanic, is fairly well implemented in FFXV. It’s just not something I care to do, especially as much as I had to do to max out the skill. I bought the best gear, did the fishing quests for the gear and xp, and did everything I could to speed up the process. Even still, I’m fairly certain it took me a few weeks to finally finish with it.
Killing Adamantoise, what many people consider one of the most frustrating trophies, was certainly annoying. Not hard at all, every single attack is telegraphed and easy to dodge. Just really, really, really, really long. It took me something in the ballpark of 3 hours, across a few days. Supposedly, there are faster ways to finish the fight. I don’t care, I beat it and grabbed that trophy as my second to last remaining. All I had to do after that was camp about 10 times in a row to get Ignis’s cooking skill from 9 to 10.
Looking back, that’s the first platinum trophy I’ve received in almost exactly a year. The last one I got was Ratchet & Clank (2016) back in September 2016. As I’ve discussed several times before, I really just don’t have the time to go for every platinum I see anymore. On top of a full time job, a freelance job, and a family, I now also have school to worry about. Video games just aren’t a high priority, so I have to be selective with what I play.

I may start writing posts for every platinum trophy I get now. They’re certainly rare enough that I won’t be bombarding my blog with platinum announcements. Just could be a neat way of noting, hey, I actually enjoyed this game enough to play it to 100% completion (or whatever is required for platinum).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Digital Receipts via Email

Some merchants allow customers to receive digital receipts via email. Why can’t everyone?

The Benefits of Digital Receipts

Toys R Us is a surprisingly tech-savvy store chain. They allow NFC tap and pay, and you can even have receipts sent to your inbox instead of getting a paper copy. For me, this is amazing. First and foremost, it gives me something that I’m far less likely to lose. If I get a paper receipt, I usually just throw it in the bag with my merchandise. For items that I may need to return, I’ll put the receipt in my wallet. Either way, it usually gets lost or thrown away within a day or two. By opting for an email, I have a semi-permanent record of my purchase that I can’t exactly lose, and I can even search my email for later. Unless I delete the email, which I rarely delete emails, I have records of basically any purchase I’ve made at Toys R Us within the past few years.
In addition to giving me a digital record of my purchase that I can easily find later, email receipts are more private and secure. While there isn’t much valuable information on a receipt, keeping them exclusively in my inbox means nobody can access any of the information except for me. Where I might leave a paper receipt on the dash of my vehicle or drop it in the parking lot, an email receipt is kept behind my login credentials in a place that only I will see.
As an environmental benefit, digital receipts reduce the amount of paper used for a transaction. No, a single receipt isn’t going to make a huge difference. However, if larger stores like Toys R Us were to eventually migrate all receipts to digital, I’m certain it would have a fairly large impact on environmental conservation. If other chain stores follow suit, it could add up to a potentially huge reduction of paper, and thus fewer trees chopped down for paper. Not to mention, the merchants themselves would save money on the cost of paper.

The Problem with Digital Receipts

So, how does Toys R Us know that I want an emailed receipt? I have a Toys R Us account, and my preferences indicate that I want a digital receipt, and where I want it sent. When I get to the register at Toys R Us, I give them my phone number to look up my account, and then they know what to do.
Not all merchants allow digital receipts. In fact, I would say that more probably don’t than do. Even if more merchants did offer digital receipts, I need an account with each store to have my email and preferences indicated. The alternative would be to physically input my email address for every single transaction, everywhere I go. That’s not going to happen, especially with a line of impatient people behind me.
Even if I could open an account with every store that I regularly shop at, do I necessarily want them to have my email address? Toys R Us is bad about sending deals and junk email, but I can fortunately turn that off. What about stores that make spam emails harder to opt out of? Even worse, what about merchants that might sell my contact information to advertisers? I don’t want an inbox full of advertising just to get receipts by email rather than paper.

The Solution for Digital Receipts

While it doesn’t cover all of the logistics around implementation, I do have an idea for a solution to get digital receipts at every store: handle it at the credit card level. While many consumers do still use cash, I would wager that the majority of transactions in the United States are probably paid with credit or debit cards. If every major credit card company would allow users to receive receipts in their inbox, rolling this functionality out to each individual merchant would probably be feasible.
Most credit card users likely have an online account with their company to pay their bill online or check statements. With this account, users could indicate a receipt email, possibly not even the same email that the account uses. Additionally, users could select a preference for digital receipts, paper receipts, or both. This central hub would mean that anywhere I use my credit card, merchants would automatically know what I want.
Since there are only a few credit card companies in the United States, it shouldn’t be difficult to implement a standard and universal system. I say that, but xkcd has a good example of how standards in technology normally go. In any case, if there were a single standard, only a few companies would have to adopt it.
How would this take place? The customer goes to a merchant, be it retail, restaurant, professional services, or anything else. Merchant opens up a transaction for the customer to pay. Customer swipes or inserts credit card, exactly as things work now. When the merchant bills the transaction to the credit card company, they would send payment as well as the customer’s receipt preferences. At this point, the transaction is paid like normal, and the merchant’s point-of-sale system would know whether to print or email a receipt to the customer.
An added benefit of this system is that the user’s email address can be decoupled from the transaction. The merchant can send the digital receipt to the credit card company, linked only to my credit card number. The credit card company could then send my receipt to the email on file. This gives added security, since the merchant never sees my personal information. Merchants can’t send spam emails, or sell customer data to other advertisers.
If this caught on with most merchants and credit card companies, receipts for any credit card transactions would be available in a single place. Any sort of tax deductions, reimbursements, or anything involving receipts would be far easier. Instead of filing receipts away for every purchase you make, your credit card company and email service do it for you.
Yet another benefit would be fraud notice. If every merchant sends digital receipts, then an unexpected purchase email would be a clear indicator of credit card fraud. Instead of looking over statements each month, users would immediately know when a thief used their credit card. Inevitably, this would reduce the time and hassle around reporting a stolen credit card, or the risk of not noticing the stolen card.

Obviously, this would require work from several different parties. Merchants and credit card companies alike would need to agree on a standard and work on developing the hardware and software to accompany it. However, I feel like the benefits significantly outweigh the costs. While I don’t know of a way that I could personally help bring this into practice, I definitely want it to become a reality. Paper receipts are an old practice, and I genuinely believe digital receipts are the all-around superior option.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Shot Glass Collection

For quite a few years, I have collected shot glasses. Some people collect snow globes, some collect baseball cards, I collect shot glasses.
How did I get started collecting shot glasses? Honestly, I can’t really remember. I probably picked up one from some tourist destination because it looked cool, rinse and repeat a few times, suddenly I’ve got a good many of them and it’s just become my “thing.” I’ve been collecting them at least since middle school, as I have a few from my 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C.
Collecting shot glasses has its perks. For one, it makes souvenirs super easy. If someone tells me they’re going on a trip and want to bring me something back, I always ask for a shot glass. No need to shop around and find something they think I’ll like. If they pick up a shot glass, we can both know for certain that I’ll like it. Plus, they’re typically cheaper than other souvenir items like shirts and towels.
One facet of my collection that is missing, however, is some sort of catalog system. I have a lot of shot glasses, probably upwards of 50 at this point. It’s very easy to forget what places I have a shot glass from, or what styles I have if I want to get a different one from the same place. Obviously, I don’t take my collection with me everywhere I go, and I don’t really look at my collection enough to know what I do and don’t have. It would be nice to have some sort of software or database with all of my shot glasses listed and described.
What would I want in this sort of system? An image of the shot glass, or maybe a 3D scan if I’m feeling fancy, would be nice to see them at a glance. Going forward, it would be nice to record the date of acquisition, to know which I’ve had for the longest. Location would be nice, so I could filter by where I do and don’t have shot glasses from. If it was a gift from someone else and not one I purchased for myself, I would like to record who gave it to me. Finally, I would want a details or notes field for any text-based information.
With all this information, I would want multiple ways to look through my collection. The most practical would be searching by location, seeing all the shot glasses I’ve obtained from a place, or whether I have any from there at all. Additionally, I would want just a visual interface that I would look through and show off my collection to other people. Sure, I can show them off at home, but what if someone asks me about it when I’m away from home?
There would certainly be some growing pains to apply this sort of system to an already existing collection, but I feel like the benefits would outweigh the hassle. I don’t plan on stopping my collection any time soon, so it will gradually become more and more overwhelming to keep track of. Before it gets any more unwieldy, it would be nice to get everything in order to have a tidy list of the shot glasses that I have.

Meta:

Words: 546 | Characters: 2883 | Sentences: 29

Paragraphs: 7 | Reading Level: 9-10th Grade

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Pokemon Battle Tower Doubles

I grew up playing Pokemon. Starting with Pokemon Blue Version in gen 1, I’ve played a Pokemon game from almost every generation released to date. However, the most fun I’ve had in any Pokemon game was doing cooperative double battles in the Battle Tower of Pokemon HeartGold.
HeartGold came out when I was a freshman in college, and I preordered it to pick up on release day. Generation 2 was always my favorite, with two full regions and a lot of my favorite Pokemon. Obviously, I was super excited for a remake of that generation. I played through the game like normal, finished all 16 gyms, beat the Elite Four, and took down Red at the top of Mt. Silver. I figured after that, I was done.
My roommate at the time got SoulSilver, and he taught me about Effort Values, Inherited Values, and the Battle Tower. The main story of Pokemon was only the beginning. The real game starts once you can access the Battle Tower and breed up some powerful Pokemon. I felt like such a noob, but it was fantastic to be able to bring new life to a Pokemon game.
The first Pokemon that I bred to get a Battle Tower entrant was Scyther. Not necessarily an amazing option for competitive play, Scyther is my personal favorite Pokemon and it can hold its own in a lot of situations. Once I had the skills and move set that I wanted, I started playing through singles in the Battle Tower to test my mettle.
After I figured out how the Battle Tower worked and got a few wins under my belt, my roommate suggested that we do double battles. As the name implies, a double battle pits 2 on 2, as opposed to the traditional 1 on 1 of older Pokemon games. Players can use 2 of their own Pokemon and control both, or they can work together with each player controlling only 1 of their Pokemon and coordinating attacks with each other.
As much as single player Pokemon requires skill, it has nothing on the nuance and complexity of double battles. Fighting with 2 Pokemon opens up the opportunity to combo moves, but also forces you to consider the effect that moves will have on your allies. Many moves affect all combatants, and thus can do damage to your opponents as well as Pokemon on your side. Some of the best team combinations take advantage of these mechanics in clever and interesting ways. Initially, I didn’t pay any mind to what Pokemon would work well together, we just went in with the Pokemon that we liked. What we started with, however, turned out to be an amazing combination that we stuck with for nearly the entire time we played doubles together.
I led off with my Scyther, and packed a Typhlosion as my second Pokemon. My roommate began with his Rhyperior, but I can’t recall what his second Pokemon was. It’s inconsequential anyway, as his Rhyperior rarely died. The beauty of this combination was something that gradually unfolded over time.
One of the first things we appreciated is that Rhyperior’s Earthquake didn’t affect Scyther because of his Flying type. Earthquake is an immensely powerful Ground type move, augmented by the Same Type Attack Bonus that Rhyperior receives. Furthermore, it hits all Pokemon around the user, allowing us to hit both opponents at once. Tons of damage, without the side effect of damaging my own Pokemon.
Soon after, we realized that Rhyperior’s Lightningrod ability pulled Electric moves away from Scyther and onto Rhyperior. Scyther’s Flying type makes him weak to Electric moves, but Rhyperior’s Ground type makes him completely immune to Electric. This means that any Electric Pokemon we encountered were hit 2x by Rhyperior’s Earthquake, and couldn’t possibly do any damage with Electric type moves.
Finally, Rhyperior’s hold item was Quick Claw, an item that causes the holder to strike first 10% of the time. Scyther has particularly high speed, and often struck first. Rhyperior, however, is notoriously slow and often attacked last out of the 4 Pokemon on the field. Quick Claw gave him the first hit for the occasional clinch victory, and I swear it happened closer to 50% of the time than 10% as it is supposed to.
Other than those key benefits, our combination just had really good cohesion and a lot of type coverage. What Scyther was weak to, Rhyperior was often strong against, and vice versa. In the few cases that we needed something else, I could swap in Typhlosion and use powerful Fire moves without much risk to Rhyperior. Fire does half damage to Ground, Rhyperior was bulky anyway.
We spent many an evening in the dorm room, playing the Battle Tower doubles over the Nintendo DS ad hoc connection. We never got tremendously far in, and would often die in completely unfair ways, but we really had a good time. Other than the one time when we were on a roll and the connection spontaneously dropped when we were not more than 5 feet from each other, it was super fun. To this day, I don’t think anything I’ve done in any Pokemon game has come anywhere close to those evenings.

Meta:

Words: 873 | Characters: 4923 | Sentences: 48

Paragraphs: 12 | Reading Level: 11-12th Grade

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

2017-08-30 Blogging Anniversary

I started blogging three years ago this week.
Technically, it isn’t 3 years to the day. I started on August 27 (https://jakehennett.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/words-on-wednesday-august-27-2014/), but considering this is Words on *Wednesday*, I figured it best to mark the date as the last Wednesday in August. Inevitably, there will be a few years where the last Wednesday in August will fall on the 27th again, but that won’t be every year.
At this point, I don’t really know if it feels like I’ve been blogging for longer or shorter than 3 years. When I think about starting, I remember myself in college, but I had been finished with school for a year before I started. Logically, that would also put my start before getting married, but I got married a few months before then. It’s like I don’t remember a time when I didn’t keep a blog, but it truly wasn’t that long ago when I started.
Obviously, I plan on continuing the blog for as long as I can. I’ve still got quite a few finished posts banked up, just in case I don’t have time to write one any given week. Not only that, but I’ve got a number of topics for inspiration on new posts. Specifically, I feel like the video game reviews that I’ve started doing lately are particularly well received. Considering how many video games I’ve beaten in my life, I could probably spend a year doing just those (although I won’t).
All in all, I think my blog has mostly found its stride. There are few changes week to week, and I finally got everything synced up to spit out posts to all my social media feeds automatically. When I write a post that would fit in a specific subreddit, I’ll post it manually there, but I don’t think there’s a good way to automate reddit posts.

I’ll probably continue to make a post on the last Wednesday of August each year, just to do a state of the web sort of update. Talk about any big changes recently, or anything planned for the future. That is, if I’m even still doing it. Probably will be, but you never know, stuff may come up and I have to stop. It’s been a fun 3 years, and here’s to hopefully many more.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Why Consoles?

“Why would you even get a console?” This is a question I hear time and time again from various PC gamers. You want to know why someone would get a video game console instead of building a gaming “rig?” I’ll tell you why.

Console > PC

There are quite a few areas in which consoles are simply better than computers for video games.

Price

One of the biggest reasons that gamers recommend PC gaming over console gaming is the price, but I personally think that console gaming can be much cheaper than PC.
For one, the cost of a gaming console can be drastically lower than building a gaming computer from the ground up. The PC Master Race subreddit claims that their “Media Elite” build matches console performance for cheaper, and their “Crusher” build offers better specs for the same price, but they quote the price of a current gen console at $450. The PS4 Pro is only $400, and you can easily find a standard PS4 for $300, sometimes even less. Plus, the prices listed on PC Master Race exclude the cost of an operating system or any peripherals such a keyboard and mouse. The price for a console includes the operating system and a controller. If you want to compare apples to apples, perhaps you should account for the $100 or more that a copy of Windows and peripherals can cost on top of the price of actual parts.
But wait, there’s more! PC gamers also like to rave about how Steam offers huge discounts on games, and I won’t deny that. However, this doesn’t mean that consoles are without ways to save on games as well. If you’re like me and have a backlog of games, it may be months or even years after a game comes out before you get to play it. By waiting for a while before purchasing, I can frequently find games for 50% or more off their original price new, and upwards of 75% off for used games.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Some of you may be fortunate enough to live near a public library that has console video games in circulation. This is the list of 105 PS4 games (at the time of writing this) that my local library has in circulation. At any point, I can put in a request for one of these games, have them drop it off at my closest branch, and stop by to pick it up. I get to keep the game for a week, possibly up to 3 weeks with renewals, provided that there are no other holds on the game. This service is offered for no additional charge besides the income taxes I’m already paying.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!!!!!!! If you have friends who also have the same console, you can share games with each other. For the first few months that I had my PS4, I literally didn’t own a single game for it. Instead, friends and coworkers let me borrow games that they weren’t playing at the time. I had so much to play that I still haven’t finished all of them. When I started acquiring some games of my own, I obviously returned the favor by letting them borrow my games. Can you do that with PC games? I don’t believe so.
The one point that I will give to PC gaming with price is the cost of digital downloads. For whatever reason, console games in digital form seem to never go down in price. I realize that publishers and purveyors don’t have to reduce price to sell off old games and free up inventory space, as digital games don’t take up physical space, but you would think that they would bring down prices as games get older. In any case, digital download prices seem to stay high for console games, even years after they come out.

Compatibility

Another huge benefit to console gaming over PC gaming is compatibility of games and platforms.
When I buy a console, it is guaranteed that I can play any game made for that console. I don’t have to check specs, run benchmarks, or anything else. I look at the label, and if it says PS4, I can play it. This compatibility is guaranteed across the lifespan of the console, as well. Someone who purchased a PS4 on launch day has been able to play every single PS4 game released since that day over 3 years ago. They can reasonably expect to continue to be able to play every PlayStation game released until the PS5 comes out. That sort of plateau in technology, while it does mean that consoles aren’t taking advantage of the latest and greatest of tech hardware towards the end of their life cycles, is attractive for those who plan on making a single purchase that will last several years.
For some people, this is a bad thing. They regularly replace tech devices like phones, televisions, and laptops when newer iterations are released. Personally, I don’t like to upgrade until my current version is either broken, or a completely phased out edition. As such, I don’t really like the idea of mid-generation upgrades like the PS4 Pro. In the case of people who are more willing to upgrade hardware, however, this is perfect. And as long as there aren’t any compatibility issues, I’m fine with playing games on slightly inferior hardware with lower framerates or quality reduction. It’s still a PS4, and both versions will play all PS4 games released, but there is an option for people who do want superior performance without the hassle of upgrading individual PC components.

Simplicity

An often overlooked benefit of console gaming is the simplicity that it offers.
With console games, I put in a disc or download the game, wait for it to install, and play the game. There are no drivers to install, no extra software to procure or calibration steps to make things work like they’re supposed to. I just select the game and play it. There is undeniable value in this simplicity.
I’ll note, as a software developer, I still occasionally have issues with PC problem troubleshooting. Someone without a programming background is surely less equipped to deal with these complications that may arise. If you’re just a guy or girl wanting to play a game, do you really want to deal with the headache of setting up a PC to play it? Or would you rather just get the console, get the game you want, and have a good time? That’s what I thought.

Console < PC

While consoles can hold their own against computers for video games, there are some areas where a PC is objectively superior.

Adaptability

Game consoles are obviously made specifically to play video games, while computers shine in their ability to handle a number of different tasks.
With a PC, I can start the day by checking my email and social media accounts. After that, I can do a little productive work by writing some code. Around lunch, I can take a break to scroll through reddit and watch some funny YouTube videos. When I’m done with work for the day, I can load up video editing software to work on that GoPro footage from my trip last weekend. Once the video is finished, I can use photo editing software to tweak some of the pictures to perfection. Then, I can get some gaming in with actual PC games, or load up an emulator to play some older console games.
On a console, I can… play video games. Sure, some modern consoles do have web browsers and video streaming clients available, but frankly they’re just awful. Productive stuff like programming? Yeah, not gonna happen. Consoles are great at playing video games, but they don’t do much else, and they don’t do anything else particularly well.
One small benefit to consoles only being good at playing video games is that you have a designated environment for gaming. With distinct places for work and play, it’s harder to get distracted when you’re trying to get work done. Not only that, but taking a break from work to play some games can clear your head, without being in the same place as the work. It isn’t necessarily a point for console gaming, but it is something to consider.

Customization

If you do want to build a PC that is more powerful than game consoles and have the budget for it, the sky's the limit.
Even if $450 is more expensive than current gen consoles, the “Crusher is objectively a more powerful and superior piece of hardware. It can run games at higher framerates, higher quality settings, and with less stuttering and lag. No ifs, ands, or buts, about it, this is the point that PC hardware is more powerful than video game consoles.
The options don’t stop there, either. If you’re willing to splurge on the “End-All,” you will have hardware that will be vastly superior to any console of this generation, and probably next generation as well. Admittedly, you’re paying more than 2 consoles put together as well, but the experience will be much more fluid and response than any console gaming. Again, if you’re willing to throw the money at it, you can build a PC that will outclass consoles on every front.

Console = PC

There are some areas where console and PC gaming is roughly equal, or at least different enough that you simply can’t compare the two.

Exclusives

Different console platforms brag about exclusives, but the same can be said of PC games. Every platform has at least a handful of games that do not exist elsewhere.
The Super Mario Bros. franchise has been Nintendo exclusive for decades, and excluding mobile games, it will probably stay that way. Ratchet and Clank, probably my personal favorite series, has always been on Sony hardware and likely always will be. Halo has been Microsoft’s bread and butter since the days of the original Xbox. Each ecosystem has its own set of Crown Jewels that won’t be going away anytime soon. You really can’t compare consoles to PC games, when both sides are guilty of this.

Conclusion

So why might someone get a video game console instead of a PC to play games? I hope I’ve addressed this concern and given some compelling reasons to indicate why it isn’t as simple as computers being superior to consoles in every way.
Do consoles have downsides? Absolutely, they aren’t perfect. Consoles fit a very specific price and performance point, and you’re out of luck if you want to deviate from that even slightly. At the end of a console generation, you can’t really do anything to improve your current piece of equipment, all you can do is pony up the cash to buy the successor.
However, consoles fit a very real niche, one that encompases a large portion of the video game market. If you don’t have the money or expertise to build and maintain a gaming rig, consoles are for you. If you don’t care about having the absolute best quality and highest framerate, consoles are for you. If you’re like me and gaming has taken a backseat to other priorities, consoles might be best for you. If you’re more of a casual gamer and less of a hardcore gamer, guess what. Consoles are probably better for you.
Mostly, I just wish PC gamers would get off their high horse and lose the arrogance. There exists a PC gaming subculture, where those who use computers are the “master race,” and people who use game consoles are mere “peasants.” It’s an elitist trend, it is very annoying, and it is completely baseless. I’m not saying that all PC gamers are so pretentious, but the vocal minority speak much louder than the moderate majority. Can a PC have crazy high framerates and quality? Sure, if you’re willing to throw a ton of money at it. There are situations in which PC gaming is best, but it isn’t the superior option for everyone. Recognize that just because you have disposable income and spend multiple hours per day playing video games, what works best for you doesn’t work best for everybody else.

Meta:

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Paragraphs: 39 | Reading Level: College Student

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

2017-08-16 Solar Eclipse

In case you haven’t heard, there’s going to be a solar eclipse next week.
Considering how rarely they happen, it is a bit of a big deal. Solar eclipses are far from frequent, and being within a few miles of the path of totality is obviously even more rare. It’s something I want to take advantage of, since it won’t happen again for a long time, and next time would require actual travel plans.

Glasses

Eclipse glasses have been selling like hotcakes everywhere, and most places seem to be completely sold out. Optometrist offices are giving them out to patients only. Any stores with free displays have been out for at least a week at this point. People are going mad on social media trying to figure out other options.
My mother asked me 2 weeks ago to grab her a pair from a local apparel store that was advertising free glasses. We were tied up for a few days, so I put it off until some time last week. We went by the store, but the sign on the front door indicated that they were out of stock. Well, that’s unfortunate, but I’m sure other places in Spartanburg have some.
On Friday, I decided to spend my lunch break finding some of these glasses. I started driving toward the closest Walmart, and began calling places that might have some. Local libraries were saving them for their viewing parties during the eclipse. Chain stores for glasses and lenses were sold out, but directed me to local optometrists. These local optometrists had some, but were only giving them out to current patients. When I got to Walmart, they were out of stock, as were all of the other Walmart stores that I called.
Finally, some kind soul at one of the various places I called informed me that Croft State Park had some for sale. I called, expecting to be told that they were fresh out. Fortunately, they still had plenty and were selling them for $2 each. Despite the fact that Croft was about a 15 minute drive from my current location, and there was no way I’d get back to work within my hour lunch break, I stormed off to my car and flew out of the Walmart parking lot.
As I drove out toward Croft, clouds rolled in and it started to rain. The deeper I got into the state park, the harder the rain poured. I’ve never been to Croft before, so I didn’t really know where I was going, or even if the map point that I was navigating to was the same place that would have the glasses for sale. Eventually, the trees opened up and I came upon an intersection with a small log cabin on one corner. This was also the place that my phone was taking me to, so surely I could at least get more information inside.
On the way through the forest, it occurred to me that our plan to get glasses at the viewing party with The Children’s Museum was not guaranteed. The event was open to anyone with a TCM membership (as far as I knew), so feasibly thousands of people could show up. Who’s to say that TCM had purchased enough glasses to go around? Who’s to say we couldn’t show up too late, and be left with no way to safely view the eclipse. Instead of just buying 2 pair of glasses for my mother and one of her coworkers, I’d buy at least 4 more for my immediate family.
When I got inside, there were 2 ladies chatting. One asked what I needed, and I mentioned that I spoke with someone a few minutes ago about eclipse glasses. Coincidentally, one of the ladies was the same one that I talked to on the phone before. And lo and behold, they still had eclipse glasses. I asked the lady if she had at least 10 I could buy, and they did. With that many, I had enough for my mother, my own crew, and 4 more just in case someone else needed a few.

Viewing Party

As for where to watch, we’ve decided to go to The Children’s Museum. We already have memberships, so entry is free. Not only that, but they’re supposedly giving out glasses to everyone who comes. Again, I’ve bought enough for my family, but those are a backup option. Nobody is going to know that we have those until I try to get the ones that TCM should be giving out for free.
My employer has announced that they’ll be doing a viewing party outside for the few minutes of the eclipse, but there are a few problems with that. One, I work in Spartanburg, which is outside the path of totality. With an event this rare, do you really think I’m going to accept a sub-par experience when I could go a little ways southwest and get the full show? Of course not.
Several other places have announced that they’ll be hosting viewing parties, but I figured TCM is our best bet with kids. It is both educational, and in a prime location to see the spectacle. I’m not looking forward to traffic in the area, since it has been estimated to be about the same as 3 Clemson football games letting out at the same time. I hate traffic, and trying to find a place to park, but I’ll put up with it for something like this.

Hopefully, this time next week, we will have seen the solar eclipse and not have any damaged retinas. I might try to snap a few pictures and videos, but I’ll mostly leave that to the professionals. There will undoubtedly be people with better cameras, more skill, and better views, creating better photos and videos of this event than mine. YouTube it in a few weeks and I guarantee you’ll find some impressive footage.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV is an action RPG released on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2016. The most recent game in the Final Fantasy series, it has also been one of the most commercially successful Final Fantasy games. Due to a number of different circumstances, FFXV was in development for a decade, an eternity for game development time frames. Does the latest Final Fantasy game stand up that well against the rest of the series, or do the massive sales just reflect fan hype for the long-awaited release?

Story - 7/10

The story of FFXV was surprisingly good, given how cookie cutter the stories of the JRPG genre tend to be. Most could be summed up as, “an unlikely group of individuals band together to save the world.” In contrast, FFXV is filled with nuance, and more poignant interactions between characters. As much as the game starts off with a sort of “hanging out with my bros” feeling, it genuinely builds to something more significant and touching.
Every character in the main cast of FFXV has a depth and individuality that I haven’t seen in a game in a long time. Even without the tie-in content of the anime and other media, the characters seem so real and relatable. They have personality, they have quirks, they have skeletons in their closets. Some of the setbacks that the party experiences seem so much more devastating when they feel like people you actually know. Through the course of the story, every character experiences an absurd amount of growth and evolution. Watching this change, while following the party along their journey, is just such a joy.
As much as the playable area of FFXV feels small, I do like that it seems convincing. Instead of having a suspiciously linear sequence of towns and areas, Lucis is mostly open. There is a region of Lucis that is blocked off until a certain point in the story, but otherwise, it is primarily an open world that players can explore at their leisure. There are larger cities, smaller towns, and all the sorts of areas that one would expect in a real place. It just makes sense. The world of Eos isn’t my favorite Final Fantasy locale, but I did enjoy exploring it.
Length of FFXV is extremely variable, depending on how much players gravitate toward the main quest line. If you do only the core story, you could probably beat the game in 20 hours or so. I did a balanced mix of story and side quests, and finished the game in about 50 hours. Upon finishing the main quest, players can go back to complete other side quests, work on collectibles. Overall, you could probably sink somewhere in the ballpark of 80 to 100 hours for everything. I wouldn’t say this gives FFXV much replayability, but you can spend a lot of time doing non-story content.
The reason that I dock pretty much every point that I did from a perfect 10 on story is the existence of “Final Fantasy XV Universe.” This is a collection of extra tie-in material to explain more about the story of FFXV. In my opinion, any game should be able to stand alone and fully tell its story. Sure, you can add DLC to extended stories, or extra content, but the core game should be able to stand alone. While FFXV *can* stand alone, there is a huge amount of story content that is just entirely bypassed. If you want the full story, you have to play the demo, watch the movie, watch the anime, play the arcade game, and play the mobile game. For me, that is absolutely inexcusable. I understand that it allows Square Enix to recycle content from the decade-long development process that would otherwise be wasted, but I don’t want to play and watch so much other stuff just to get the full story for a single video game. I watched the anime, but I’m not wasting my time on all of the other media. I got from the story what the game gave me, and that’s all I’m bothering with.

General Gameplay - 7/10

Navigation in FFXV is pretty interesting. For most of the game, you use the Regalia as your primary mode of transportation. Players can either drive it themselves with Noctis in the driver’s seat, or pick a location on the map and have Ignis automatically navigate to it. Considering how long the load times are for the game, this usually ends up being faster than quick traveling. Something that isn’t offered by many games, especially those with such beautiful scenery, it’s nice to just sit back and look around as Iggy takes you to your destination.
Menus are mostly straightforward. The map is nice, in that you can scroll around manually, or step through a list of destinations. Items are sortable, and the “tactical” menu in combat can be stacked in whatever order you want. The Ascension grid is where you can spend AP to unlock sequential nodes of power ups. One menu that I didn’t really enjoy was the equipment screen. It isn’t very clear what you have equipped versus what you have selected for individual equipment types. Even when you understand that, I couldn’t find an easy way to determine stat changes for weapons and accessories without unequipping and then re-equipping them. Nothing terrible, but it does get annoying with as much as you might need to change equipment.
Inventory management isn’t much of an issue, since I didn’t encounter any limit on number of unique items, or how many items can be in a stack. While I never bought as many items as I could to try to max anything out, I consistently had enough items for use in combat without hitting a cap on them.
There aren’t many collectibles in the game, but there are several “Royal Arms” that can be obtained for extra benefits. Some are rather easy to obtain, others are pretty difficult. All in all, I think those have a good balance of difficulty and reward. The only unfortunate thing is that there are only 13 of them, so players who want more collectibles might be disappointed.
While variety may seem to be unnecessary, Square Enix decided to throw a stealth level in near the very end of the game. Early adopters hated the chapter, as it added entirely new game mechanics that made absolutely no sense. As such, Square Enix later changed the chapter to make it less cumbersome and offer an alternative route, but the decision to include it at all makes absolutely no sense.

Combat - 7/10

I make it no secret that I hate action RPG combat. For me, turn-based is the best way to experience an RPG. I’ll play action RPGs here and there, but most of them are just alright in my mind. Fortunately, the combat of FFXV was done really well in my mind. It isn’t quite button mash-y, but you also don’t have to be super precise and skillful with your inputs. Different weapon types have different mobility options, and there is an interesting dynamic between what you prefer to use as a player, and what individual enemies are weak to.
In addition to weapon resistance and immunity, most enemies also have weakness and resistance to elemental attacks. Elemancy in FFXV consists of combining elemental essence with items, and storing them in flasks. A flask can only have up to 3 casts of a particular spell, and each flask takes up one of your 4 maximum weapon slots. This means you can only have a single non-elemancy weapon equipped, if you have each of the 3 elements equipped. Changing equipment can be done on the fly, but it can also be really annoying to have to do it frequently to match.
Once you get the Ultima Weapon, you can mostly ignore the rest of the weapons and elements. For better or for worse, the damage of Ultima pretty much outweighs any sort of weaknesses and resistances otherwise. I probably spent the last quarter of the game with only Ultima equipped and had no issues that made me want to equip anything else. It’s broken, but that also means I don’t have to bother with swapping and type matching for every single enemy encounter.

Difficulty - 5/10

Unlike most previous Final Fantasy games, FFXV actually has difficulty levels. Easy mode makes Noctis effectively invincible, while normal mode does allow the party to die. The main benefit to playing on a difficulty higher than easy is a late-game trophy that requires the player to beat a certain boss without easy mode.
Otherwise, I think FFXV has a good difficulty level. Some criticize it for being too easy, but it isn’t so easy that hardcore players should be disappointed. I think it simply makes the game more approachable for new players. The game is, after all, “a Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers.” Most of the core content can be finished without much hassle, but the non-story content can be deceptively hard. It all depends on how much of the game you want to complete.

Graphics - 10/10

Despite my criticisms of the game, I will note that it is gorgeous. The environments are luscious and colorful. Enemies are varied and well-animated. As I mentioned before, it’s nice to just let Ignis drive and watch the water and the rolling hills of the Lucis region. I’m not one to typically care much about graphics, but FFXV is one of the best looking games I’ve ever played.

Music - 9/10

The music of FFXV is honestly fantastic. The original music for the game is great, but they also added in-game items that unlock music from previous Final Fantasy games to be played in the Regalia. FFVII is a favorite of most players, and you can live up that nostalgia by having the music played while driving around. If you like some of the more forgotten games of the series like FFIX, you can pick those tracks up as well. In addition the the score of FFXV and previous games that were included, there is also a cover of “Stand by Me,” performed by Florence + The Machine. I don’t even like that band, but their cover is simply amazing.

My Take

The Good

I wanted to hate the game for being an action RPG, but it ended up being nowhere near as bad as I anticipated. Fortunately, the story and characters make up for it by a huge margin.

The Bad

No single video game should take 10 years to develop.

The Ugly

I maintain my position that tie-in content is absolutely awful, and should never be used in lieu of fully telling a story within a game.

Overall - 7/10


While I originally had low hopes for FFXV, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally played it. The story is great, besides the terrible decision to spread it out across multiple titles. The combat, despite it being an action RPG, really isn’t bad. The difficulty makes it approachable for long-time veterans of the series, as well as those who have never touched a Final Fantasy game. Graphics are music are absolutely incredible, and easily add to the appeal of the game. It definitely isn’t my favorite Final Fantasy game, but it was certainly an enjoyable play.