Wednesday 28 April 2010

Thursday 22 April 2010

That's Where All the Power has Gone

Let's use more statistics to push our heads even further into the ground concerning energy efficiency in the home.

Flicking through our household bills, I discover that electricity only makes up a third of our billable energy usage. The remainder is natural gas which is significantly cheaper to the consumer per kilowatt-hour. The historical availability and economy of natural gas may explain why the UK has such a low per capita electricity consumption compared to the rest of the developed world.

The vast majority of our household heating and hot water is provided by gas, so we've installed a solar panel to heat water to help the environment. We also subscribe to a "green" tariff from our electricity provider which effectively means that 50% is from renewable energy. As discussed earlier, the majority (about 70%) of our per capita electricity footprint is controlled by others in the form of business usage, transportation, etc. I'll call that "Community Electricity" and note that, as householders, we only have indirect control as to its generation and consumption.

This all means that reducing our household electricity usage has an even smaller impact on the consumption of non-renewable (fossil) energy sources than I originally thought.

Surely, it would be far more effective for the government to tax natural gas heavily and invest the money in research and development of (subsidised) sustainable energy sources.

Monkey Want, Monkey Get

Based on an image by Matt Cioffi:

Where Has All The Power Gone?

My better half is a bit of a green eco-warrior and is constantly complaining about our energy usage, in particular, the plethora of devices we leave in standby mode.

One old chestnut is the amount of electricity used by a TV in standby mode. I've maintained that this "over-reaction" is a legacy from the days when television manufacturers used to push features to allow TVs to present a picture as soon as possible after "turning on". Indeed, Toshiba were still including such a feature in its LCD Regza range in 2008:
  • Power-on: 218.08 Watts
  • Stand-by: 0.58 Watts
  • Fast turn-on: 17.8 Watts
What were they thinking?

It turns out that most devices in this category consume less than 1W in standby and this includes appliances such as cookers and microwaves that have digital clocks. But that still potentially amounts to 8 or 9kWh per year.

Another chunk of energy is used by devices that are always on, such as security alarm systems, central heating controls, telephones and broadband modems. Of these, telephones and modems are "actively working" pretty much 24 hours a day, even if they aren't doing anything constructive for the majority of the time.

We recently borrowed an electricity monitor to try to put some concrete figures together. It turns out that our minimum, background energy usage is 200W, but this flicks up to 300W when a fridge/freezer compressor kicks in or we turn some lights on. Boiling water, washing clothes and watching television are definite no-nos, but alas, we do all these things, so our average daily consumption has been 12kWh. I'm sure it would be possible to get this figure below our (self-imposed) initial target of 10kWh, but not without significant behavioural changes. So I'll be lazy and use statistics instead.

The World Bank suggests that, per capital, Britons consumed 6120kWh of electrical power in 2007. That, of course, includes electricity used outside the home on our behalf. Our household usage of 12kWh per day equates to about 2200kWh per person, per year. So meeting our target by reducing our personal usage by 16⅔% would only reduce our total per capita usage by 6%. Well done, Amdahl!

To play devil's advocate, I propose a new metric which factors in the inconvenience of saving energy in the home: the kilowatt-hour-cumber.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Gratuitous Aphorism #1

The only thing more dangerous than a software engineer with a screwdriver is a hardware engineer with a compiler.

Mass Effect 1 & 2

Whereas I knew exactly where I stood when I started playing the BioShock games, Mass Effect is a completely different kettle of alien fish.

Mass Effect (PC May 2008) and Mass Effect 2 (January 2010), both developed by BioWare, are classified as action role-playing games. This rather vague genre (or sub-genre) gives the classic FPS (or hack-and-slash) a bit of depth, as the player can participate in more meaningful choices regarding the progression and development of their protagonist(s). Perhaps.

A lot of RPGs are tainted with a stigma of micro-management of spells, potions, armour and arms. And this is certainly the case with the original Mass Effect game. However, I feel that the pendulum swung back too far the other way with Mass Effect 2.

The main problem with the original game's equipping is not the concept, it's the poor user-interface design. As a squad, you can only carry a total of 150 weapons and enhancements. Juggling this number of items (many of them duplicates) is just too unwieldy and a lot more thought should have gone into a simple (but precise) management scheme.

The developer's solution for Mass Effect 2 is to eradicate the vast majority of items completely. The only equipment choice is which of a series of weapons to kit out for each character. Even here, except for Shepard's heavy weapon, the choices are pretty clear-cut and linear. Also, unless you come across a weapons locker, you cannot modify your selections mid-mission.

In terms of character traits and development, Mass Effect 2 also has a more streamlined approach, but this seems to work much better than the predecessor's flabbier system. However, the new "loyalty" attribute is a little clunky and, in my eyes, only serves three purposes:
  1. To unlock a special power for each character;
  2. To add extra terms to the "final game score" calculations [see later]; and
  3. To add some missions (one per character) to the game's "critical path". These missions are rather unimaginative, usually relating to a character's long-lost father/sister/daughter, whilst trying, unsuccessfully, to add moral ambiguity to the mix. For me, the only one that stands out is Mordin's re-visiting of his work on the Krogan genophage, which truly is an interesting moral subject.
On the subject of Mordin, the eccentric Salarian scientist, my favourite line in either game is when he uses his "Incinerate" ability during combat:
"Flammable ... or inflammable ... can't remember which ... doesn't matter!"
The conversation and Paragon/Renegade system works very well, and the designers have been sensible not to change it at all between games. From a design point of view, it is very clever of them to maintain Paragon and Renegade as two scales instead of conflating them into a single Good/Bad spectrum (as I think I would have naively been tempted). At least no-one at BioWare thinks morality is just a number between zero and one!

In the original Mass Effect, you could recruit up to six squad members. This was increased to at least ten (more if you have downloadable content) in Mass Effect 2. There does seem to be a "dilution of concern" with the increase in squad size; I only felt attachment to Garrus and Tali (carried over from the original game), Grunt (the proxy for Wrex) and Mordin (the archetypal scatty scientist). Perhaps the problem is that choosing two team-mates from ten gives considerably more possibilities (forty-five) than two from six (fifteen), so you get lazy and just pick the same two over and over again.
One reason for the designers to increase the number of potential squad members is that they're used as part of an elaborate implicit scoring system at the end of the final mission. Depending on how "well" you played, more of your crew will survive. The precise computations as to who dies has been documented thoroughly in the online forums and wiki pages, but generally you lose crew members depending on:
  1. The loyalty rating of each squad member (whether you completed the character's personal mission);
  2. Upgrades you bought for your spaceship;
  3. The choices you make concerning which characters assume which roles in the final mission; and
  4. The choices you make concerning what to do with any surviving, non-squad, crew members such as Doctor Chakwas.
However, if, like me, you play RPGs and RTSs in a very Type-A manner, you will have pretty much maxed out your ship and squad's stats and been careful with your selections, so all your crew will survive (excluding the arbitrary Lilith, who's unsaveable!); you'll never see this "scoring" nuance. However, play "badly" and most of your squad could be wiped out, although you'll still save humanity, thank goodness.
The concept of Romance (along with the related Achievement) is carried over from the original game into Mass Effect 2. But whereas it was simply stilted and coy in the former, it is downright laughable in the latter. It's 90% of the way to being tongue-in-cheek, but not quite enough to stop me cringing at the dialogue. I've had some experience of this minefield when working on the Thrillville games, so I might revisit this topic in another post.

Finally, going back to the fuzziness of the ARPG sub-genre, you can "tune" the game to be more of an FPS by choosing the Soldier class for Shepard (which, tellingly, is the default). However, it quickly dawned on me whilst playing the first game, that your skills as a soldier are primarily a function of the player's FPS skills, as opposed to their character's in-game attributes. So I restarted with a character of the Adept class (analogous to a Wizard in hack-and-slash games) which gave me access to the Biotic powers, whilst leaving me sufficient in-game combat abilities and weapons to make me feel I was playing a pure FPS. This makes a bit of a mockery of one of the replayability promises of a fully-fledged RPG, which supposedly promotes restarting the same game as a different character class to get a subtly different experience. There really didn't feel like there was sufficient differentiation between the character classes to warrant a complete replay.

In my book, Mass Effect is an FPS with some good RPG elements. Mass Effect 2 is even more FPS, less RPG. The makers obviously don't see it that way, or they'd have concentrated more on the enemy AI to bring it up to 2010 standards. The player of a good FPS should not expect to be able to walk into a room full of frozen enemy characters that only respond when you reach a trigger point or fire the first shot. Even then, the unimaginative enemy reactions are a far cry from those in Half Life 2 or ... erm ... Far Cry. But perhaps you can get away with these substandard elements in an ARPG.

Monday 19 April 2010

BioShock 1 & 2

BioShock (August 2007) and BioShock 2 (February 2010) are first person shooters published by 2K Games.

According to Metacritic scores, the original game is perceived as better than the later release, and I've got to concur. BioShock 2 feels more like a mission pack and doesn't add enough to warrant the full-price retail cost of a PC game. If I was more into multiplayer (versus) modes, I may think differently, as this is only available in BioShock 2.

By far the strongest feature of the games is the setting and backstory: Rapture is a secret underwater city built immediately after the Second World War by business magnate Andrew Ryan, who is disillusioned with the new world order. Scientific breakthroughs by geneticists brought to Rapture by Ryan lead to the development of "plasmids": enhancements that give the users superhuman abilities, powered by substances named Adam and Eve. Civil war breaks out in 1959 as the city descends into chaos over control of these substances. You, the player, are apparently the sole survivor of a mid-Atlantic plane crash in 1960. Swimming to an isolated lighthouse, you descend to Rapture in a deserted bathysphere...

The gameplay is 90% classic first person shooter with an array of mid-twentieth century firearms, but also a collection of increasingly powerful plasmids such are Incinerate and Electrobolt. Use of environmental features are encouraged: electrically zapping enemies who are standing in water often results in an instant kill.

Games involve meaningful choice; and here, this includes what weapons, skills and plasmids to enhance with your limited resources. This, in turn, affects how you play various set pieces: do you go in guns ablazing, or hack security systems to attack enemies, or be more stealthy and keep your distance?

The story is very linear with few meaningful ethical choices that have substantial impact to the storyline. Any ethical decisions you do make (such as rescuing or harvesting Little Sisters) are tallied up to decide which of a limited set of end-of-game cut-scenes to play.

However, there is a great deal of ethical and philosophical discussion within the game, with much reference to Ayn Rand (c.f. Andrew Ryan). But this is mostly exposition, and listening to the various audio recordings may improve your mind, but won't improve your ability to head-shot a Splicer at thirty paces. There are obviously lots of oblique references to religion ("Rapture", "cult", "Adam" and "Eve") but they feel quite Matrix-esque in that they could just be labels and archetypes doled out by developers without much thought or depth.

The art design is superb, and the use of water effects (on high-spec hardware) masterful. It was a little disappointing that they didn't make more use of the "external" underwater sequences in the second game. I was expecting lots of outside floaty-floaty, shooty-shooty when the harpoon weapon cropped up. But no: just walk from A to B. Slowly.

Vita-Chambers are obviously a contentious feature with a certain section of the community: the makers released a software patch which allows them to be turned off. Essentially they are implicit save points. Every time you "die," you go back to the nearest Vita-Chamber with all your possessions and skills, but only partial health and a small ammo top-up. This means you can clear patches of difficult enemies even if you continually die just by chipping away at the proverbial block.

One thing that really jarred the first time I came across it was the hacking minigame in the first game. This is pretty much a level from Pipe Mania. The difficulty is controlled (by the game) via the water speed and by adding "bomb" tiles; but these can be mitigated by buying power-ups. It's just such a change of pace, and although the "water in pipes" theme fits in with the game world on paper, it still tends to jar. Maybe it's the sudden switch from 3D world to 2D abstraction. Even the game's creative director Ken Levine thinks "It's a little out there." For whatever reason, the minigame is replaced by a more twitchy "stop the swing-o-meter" alternative in BioShock 2.

Overall, BioShock is a good FPS that scores well on originality of setting. But it lacks the variety of Half Life 2 (which is a better game and scores more on Metacritic) and seems to be running out of steam in BioShock 2. Perhaps the novelty and courage of setting an FPS on Earth in 1960 cannot carry it much beyond a single incarnation. Having said that, BioShock 3 is supposedly in production.

Bestest PC Games Ever

Working on Wii for the last three years has left me a bit behind the times with more "next gen" gaming. Consequently, I've been catching up on recent games that have attained high scores on Metacritic for PC:
  1. Half-Life 2 (2004) - 96 points
  2. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 (2007) - 96 points
  3. Orange Box, The (2007) - 96 points
  4. Half-Life (1998) - 96 points
  5. BioShock (2007) - 96 points
  6. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) - 95 points
  7. Command & Conquer (1995) - 94 points
  8. Mass Effect 2 (2010) - 94 points
  9. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2003) - 94 points
  10. Civilization II (1996) - 94 points
The only two that grabbed my attention that I hadn't already played were BioShock and Mass Effect 2. Interestingly, both games have two incarnations:
  • BioShock (2007) - 96 points
  • BioShock 2 (2010) - 88 points
  • Mass Effect (2008) - 89 points
  • Mass Effect 2 (2010) - 94 points
Had BioShock really gone downhill with its second incarnation, whilst Mass Effect improved? I decided to play all four games...

Friday 16 April 2010

A Shed Load of Second Hand Watches

Listening to the radio traffic reports, one of their favourite phrases seems to be:
"a shed load of blanks"
This presumably refers to "a truckful of blanks that has fallen on to the carriageway." However, the ambiguity with the alternative meaning, "enough blanks to fill a shed," is witty and probably not totally accidental.

It reminds me of a phrase I had a similar problem with when I was young (in the distant past when analogue watches were the primary type). I dimly remember discussing watches with my classmates in the school playground, and being bemused that having a watch "bought second hand" was considered bad, but one "with a second hand" was considered good. Some poor, confused children had watches that fulfilled both criteria.

I quickly resolved to save up pocket money to buy my own, cheap, digital watch from the market, thereby circumventing the entire thorny issue.

Thursday 8 April 2010

We Come in Peace

Here's an idea I had a few years ago for a T shirt:

Bonsai Barber released in Japan

Bonsai Barber, the game I worked on at Zoonami, has finally been released in Japan, along with a very nifty mini-site (in Japanese only, alas).

I have a soft spot for this game as I coded the original prototype, though it's not my cup of tea, as a game. In fact, none of the games I've worked on that have actually made it to release, would induce me to part with my hard-earned pennies (if I hadn't actually worked on them).

Talking of pennies, the Japanese version sells for 800 Wii Points, instead of 1000 Wii Points in North America and Europe.

The game is pretty uncategorisable, with a little bit of something for everyone. For the hardcore gamers out there, try giving Prunella a five-star cut in under 10 seconds.