Monthly Archives: July 2011

Affordability, Statistics and the Australian Housing Market.

Before I get into what could be a slightly ranty post about the Australian property market I feel it’s prudent to mention that I’m an owner-occupier, investor and would be regarded as being particularly well off when compared to the average Australian. Thus my views may be somewhat skewed by the fact that I have a vested interest in the property market. However I believe that there’s a lot of disinformation out there about housing prices and what constitutes “affordable” property, especially when the entire market is boiled down to single figures. What I intend to show you is that whilst Australian property is more than likely above fair value this does not preclude the average Australian family from owning their own home, nor are first home buyers priced completely out of the market.

There’s been a report circulating recently from NATSEM that says we’ll need a decade of flat housing prices in order for them to come back to affordable levels. This sparked quite the reaction in the media, strangely lacking any direct finger pointing that usually accompanies issues like this. There’s no question that the last decade has seen some extremely wild growth in the Australian property market and for years people have been predicting the ultimate downfall of the Australian housing market. The Global Financial Crisis was supposed to be the trigger that sent property prices tumbling but it had the opposite effect, with extremely low interest rates pulling many into the market and increasing demand significantly. Now that the pressure is back on with interest rates at their pre-GFC levels the question of affordable housing is a hot topic, but it’s not all bad news for those chasing the Australian dream.

For starters let’s dive into the (thankfully unbiased) figures from the NATSEM report. On the surface it looks bad for Australia with the median¹ house price being a whopping 7.3 times that of the median income, 50% higher than what it was back in 2001. However whilst I believe using the median as the measure is by far more intellectually honest than other measures it does hide some important information from the reader. Although the median Australian house price might be $417,000 that also means that 50% of all Australian houses are valued somewhere below that particular line. For first home buyers this means that they shouldn’t be shooting to buy a house at the median price since there is an ample amount of stock available at a much cheaper price bracket. The houses above the median then are usually more suited to those looking to upgrade and not those trying to break into the market.

For interest’s sake I’ve done some calculations based on some typical scenarios. The first is a median income earner attempting to buy a median house with a typical interest rate:

  • Income: $57,000 /year, $3,823.33 / month after tax.
  • Home loan: $396,150 ($417,000 house price, 5% deposit, 7.1% interest, principal and interest) =  $2,662.25 / month
  • Repayment as percentage of total income: 69.63%
In this situation I am in agreement with NATSEM that this is completely unaffordable. I believe that this is a pretty atypical situation however as a single person buying (or financing) a house should definitely not be shooting for a median property, opting instead for the lower end of the spectrum with smaller town houses or apartments. However a more typical scenario would be a young, childless couple (I’ll stick with median incomes) looking for their first home, shooting for the lower end so they can break into the market. Taking these factors into consideration we get:
  • Income: $114,000 /year, $7,646.66 / month after tax.
  • Home loan: $356,535 ($375,000 house price, 5% deposit, 7.1% interest, principal and interest) = $2,396.03 / month
  • Repayment as a percentage of total income: 31.33%
In this situation it’s starting to look a lot better with the percentage of total income spent on housing much closer to the 30% of total income that the banks usually use when determining loan size. The above scenario isn’t too far from the situation I was in when I purchased my first house back in 2007 and whilst it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do (it was helped a lot by renting out the spare rooms) it was definitely possible. This doesn’t disprove the point that Australian house prices are unaffordable for median, single income earners however but even in 2001 it would’ve been a struggle.

Since the media hasn’t played the blame game yet I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring on this one. Investors who are negative gearing would be an easy target with this one and they’re usually the first to get blame for high housing prices. However in Australia the vast majority of property, to the tune of 68.90%, is owner-occupied (I.E. people who own it live in it). The remaining 31.10% is investors but the vast majority of investors only own 2 properties, their home and another investment. It then seems infeasible for investors to be solely responsible for housing price gains when the vast majority of property is in the hands of owner-occupiers or one time investors. The price rises logically then come from the majority, but how are they doing so?

Simply put it’s people leveraging the equity in their own homes in order to upgrade to a bigger, better home whilst keeping the loan repayments at a similar level. The initial 2001 – 2004 boom meant that many had enough equity to upgrade and many did so over the years. Of course being rational actors they attempted to maximize their sale price in order to reduce the loan on the next property and this put an upward pressure on housing prices, both on the low (the one they were selling) and high (the one they were buying) end of the market. The interest rate scare of 2007-2008 put enough pressure on people to curtail this behaviour for a while, but the GFC dashed those high rates and the upgrades began again in earnest.

I’ve long been of the opinion that there will never be a house price crash, instead I foresee a long time of stagnant or small negative growth whilst wages catch up to bridge the affordability gap. The simple fact is that prices can only drop significantly if people are forced to sell and although many first home buyers who bought in during the lowest interest rates are feeling the pressure now they form only a small part of the market, not enough to trigger a price collapse and most will simply delay selling until conditions improve.

It is unfortunate that the Australian dream is out of reach for a median single income earner, but many factors point towards housing becoming more affordable for them in future. The government could do a much better job of incentivizing the construction of low cost housing as current market conditions favour bigger, higher cost houses. Additional land releases and incentives for desirable, low cost housing would also go a long way to putting a downward pressure on house prices. It’s not a problem that can be fixed overnight either and we’ll need long lasting reforms in order to keep housing affordable, lest the prices rise and the cycle start all over again.

¹The median in statistics refers to the value in which 50% of the total data set is above that value and 50% is below it. It’s much more resilient to use this figure when you have outliers on either side of the equation which in the case of Australian property and wage figures there are many. Using the average would then be less representative of the real world.

The Future of Manned Space Stations.

There’s a saying amongst the space enthusiast community that the shuttle only continued on for so long in order to build the International Space Station and the ISS only existed so that the shuttle had some place to go. Indeed for the last 13 years of the shuttle program it pretty much exclusively visited the ISS taking only a few missions elsewhere, usually to service the Hubble Space Telescope. With the shuttle now retired many are looking now looking towards the future of the ISS and the various manned space programs that have contributed to its creation. It’s now looking very likely that the ISS will face the same fate as Mir did before it, but there are a multitude of possibilities of what could be done instead.

Originally the ISS was slated for decommission in 2016 and with it still not being fully constructed (it is expected to be finished by next year) that would give it a full useful life of only 4 years. The deadline was extended back in 2009 to 2020 in order to more closely match the designed functional lifetime of 7 years and hopefully recoup some of the massive investment that has gone into it. It was a good move and many of the ISS components are designed to last well beyond that deadline (especially the Russian ones which can be refurbished on orbit) and there’s still plenty of science that can be done using it as a platform.

The ISS, like Mir before it, has only one option for retirement: a fiery plunge through the atmosphere into a watery grave. Whilst there’s been lots of talk of boosting it up to a higher orbit, sending it to the moon or even using it as an interplanetary craft all these ideas are simply infeasible. The ISS was designed and built to be stuck in low earth orbit its entire life with many assumptions made that preclude it from going any further. It lacks the proper shielding to go any higher than say the Hubble Space Telescope and the structure is too weak to withstand the required amount of thrust that would get it to a transit orbit (at least in any reasonable time frame). The modifications required to make such ideas feasible would be akin to rebuilding the entire station again and thus to avoid cluttering up the already cluttered area of low earth orbit it must be sent back down to earth.

Russia however has expressed interest in keeping at least some of the parts of the ISS in orbit past the 2020 deadline. It appears they want to use them as a base for their next generation space station OPSEK. This space station would differ significantly from all the previous space stations in that it would be focused on deep space exploration activities rather than direct science like its predecessors were. It would seem that those plans have hit some roadblocks as the Russian Federal Space Agency has recently stated that the ISS will need to be de-orbited at the end of its life. Of course there’s still a good 8 years to go before this will happen and the space game could change completely between now and then, thanks in part to China and the private space industry.

China has tried to be part of the ISS project in the past but has usually faced strong opposition from the USA. So strong was the opposition that they have now started their own independent manned space program with an eye to set up their own permanent space station called Tiangong. China has already succeeded in putting several people into space and even successfully conducted an extravehicular activity (EVA), showing that they have much of the needed technology to build and maintain a presence in space. Coincidentally much of their technology was imported from Russia meaning that their craft are technically capable of docking with the Russian segments of the ISS. That’s also good news for Russia as well as their Soyuz craft could provide transport services to Tiangong in the future.

Private space companies are also changing the space ecosystem significantly, both in regards to transport costs and providing services in space. SpaceX has just been approved to roll up two of its demonstration missions to the ISS which means that the next Dragon capsule will actually end up docking with the ISS. Should this prove successful SpaceX would then begin flying routine cargo missions to the ISS and man rating of their capsule would begin in earnest. Couple this with Bigelow Aerospace gearing up to launch their next inflatable space habitat in 2014~2015 the possibility of the ISS being re-purposed by private industry becomes a possible (if slightly far fetched) idea.

The next decade is definitely going to be one of the most fascinating ones for space technologies. The power international power dynamic is shifting considerably with super powers giving way to private industry and new players wowing the world stage with the capabilities. We may not have a definitive future for the ISS but its creation and continued use has provided much of the ground work necessary to flag in the next era of space.

Samsung Galaxy S2 Handset Picture Screen

Samsung’s Galaxy S2: Powerful, Elegant, Sublime.

I’m pretty fiscally conservative when it comes to my own cash, agonizing over purchases for sometimes weeks at a time before I take the plunge. It’s enough to outright kill some purchases entirely like the Motorola Xoom that I was convinced was worth at least having around just for the “tablet experience” but couldn’t seem to pass my financial filter. There are however times when my inner geek becomes so impressed with something that it overwhelms any sort of fiscal responsibility and I’ll find myself in possession of my object of desire well before I realize that I’ve taken my credit card out of my wallet. The Samsung Galaxy S2 is a brilliant example of this as I had been looking for a new phone for a while (and the Windows Phone 7 handsets available weren’t wowing me) and a quick trip to the specification sheet had me deep in geek lust, and 3 days later I had one in my hands.

The Galaxy S2 is really another world away from any other handset that I’ve had the pleasure of using. It’s quite a wide unit with the main screen measuring an impressive 4.3″ (10.92cm) across the diagonal but it’s also incredibly slim, being only 8.49mm thick. It’s also incredibly light weighing in at a tiny 116g which you’d think would make it feel cheap when compared to other similar handsets (the iPhone 4 is much more meatier) but the construction of the handset is very solid despite it being entirely plastic. The front screen is Gorilla glass which is incredibly resistant to scratches. I haven’t had a single scratch on it despite dropping it a couple times and putting it in my pocket with my keys by accident, something that would’ve ruined a lesser phone. To say that the first impressions of just holding the handset are impressive is putting it lightly, it’s simply an incredible device to hold.

In fact coming directly from an iPhone to the Galaxy S2 I can see why Samsung is in hot water with Apple over this particular device. I’ve covered the TouchWiz interface being strikingly similar to iOS in my Android review but the handset itself is also very Applesque, sporting the same single physical button on the front right in the same location that Apple has. Although its hard to accuse them of outright copying Apple since you can only get so creative with large touchscreen devices, especially when some of the required buttons are dictated by the underlying OS.

Under the hood of this featherweight device lies immense processing power, a multitude of connectivity options and enough sensors to make privacy nuts go wild with lawsuits. To give you an idea of just how jam packed the Galaxy S2 is here’s a breakdown of the specifications:

  • Compatible networks: GSM/GPRS/EDGE: 850, 900, 1800, and 1900; MHz UMTS: 850, 900, 1700, 1900, and 2100; MHz HSPA+: 21 Mbit/s;  HSUPA: 5.76 Mbit/s
  • CPU: 1.2 GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 SoC processor; Samsung Exynos (GT-i9100)
  • GPU: ARM Mali-400 MP (GT-i9100)
  • Memory 1 GB RAM
  • Storage: 16 GB flash memory expandable with microSD (up to 32 GB)
  • Data inputs: Multi-touch touch screen, headset controls, proximity and ambient light sensors, 3-axis gyroscope, magnetometer, accelerometer, aGPS, and stereo FM-radio
  • Rear camera: 8 Mpx with auto focus, 1080p HD video, LED flash; Front camera: 2 Mpx for video chatting, video recording (VGA)
  • Connectivity: 3.5 mm TRRS; Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n); Wi-Fi Direct; Bluetooth 3.0; Micro USB 2.0; Near field communication (NFC); DLNA; MHL; HDMI; USB Host (OTG) 2.0
  • Screen: 800×480 px at 218 ppi WVGA Super AMOLED Plus
It’s this very list that sold me on the phone initially. In terms of computing power the Samsung Galaxy S2 is roughly equivalent to a full PC I owned just 8 years ago, except that this one fits in my pocket and can also make calls. The in built storage is extremely generous, even if 5GB of it isn’t really available to you. What really impressed me was the inclusion of an 8 megapixel camera that was also capable of recording in full 1080p HD, something I had only just recently been able to do after shelling out $400 on my Sony DSC-HX5V. There’s also a pretty decent camera on the front of it too, although I’ve yet to use that for anything. You might then be wondering how the picture and image quality stacks up against my little pocket camera, well I did a quick comparison video below showcasing both of them side by side:
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As you can see it actually stands up quite well when compared to my Sony. The video and picture quality is very comparable, especially in well lit situations. However it does fall down in low light and any time there’s motion due to the smaller CMOS sensor and lack of image stabilization. The LED flash on it is also incredibly harsh and will likely wash out any low light photo you attempt to take with it, but it does make for a decent little flash light. It won’t outright replace my little pocket cam any time soon but it’s definitely a good stand in when I don’t have (or don’t want to carry) it with me.

The everyday usability of the Galaxy S2 is also quite good for someone like me who has large hands (…ladies ;) and used to struggle somewhat with the smaller screens on other handsets. However one gripe I do have with the handset is the lack of physical buttons for the options and back buttons for Android. The Galaxy S2 opts instead for 2 capacitive buttons either side of a the physical home button which does give the device a much sleeker look but can also mean accidental button touches should you brush against them. Samsung has also opted to put the power button on the side of the handset instead of the traditional placement on top near the headset port, which takes a little getting used to but is quite usable.

Where the stock Galaxy S2 falls down however is in its battery life. With moderate usage the battery wouldn’t make it through a second day requiring me to keep it plugged in most days whilst I was work lest it die on me overnight when I went home. This could have been the deal breaker for this phone as whilst I’m not the forgetful type I do like to be confident that I can make it through the day without having to watch the battery meter like a hawk. Thankfully the guys over at XDA Developers came to the rescue again with their custom ROM for the Galaxy S2 called VillainROM. After going through the process of doing the upgrade my battery now lasts about twice as long as it used to, only needing charging once or twice a week. I’ve yet to run Advanced Task Killer to attempt to squeeze even more battery life out of my handset, but it’s good enough for the time being.

It should come at no surprise then that this has been a wildly popular handset with both the tech and non-tech crowd a like. In the 3 months since its release the Galaxy S2 has sold a whopping 6 million units and just anecdotally it seems nearly every single one of my friends who was looking for a new phone has got one as well as almost half of my workmates. I used to laugh at anyone who touted any smartphone as an iPhone killer but with the Galaxy S2 not even being available in the USA yet and already garnering such a massive reception it might be the very first single phone that will be able to come close to touching Apple’s numbers. Of course I don’t believe for a second that any single Android handset will be able to take down the iPhone, not for a while at least.

The Samsung Galaxy S2 has set the bar as to what smart phones should be capable of and it will be the gold standard with which all are compared to for a long time coming. The combination of elegant design, incredible power and features galore make the Galaxy S2 stand out from the crowd in a big way, so much so that buying any other handset seems illogical. For many it has the potential to replace several other devices with its top notch multimedia components, further improving the overall value that you can derive from this handset. Overall the Samsung Galaxy S2 is a wonderfully impressive device and if you’re in the market for a new smart phone I really can’t recommend it enough.

Have We Turned the Corner on Violent Video Games?

When tragedy strikes we humans always look for someone or something to lay blame on. It’s part of our grieving process, done so we can struggle with the enormity of the situation that has been presented to us. It’s also an emotional time and this has the unfortunate side effect of clouding our usually rational minds, possibly leading us astray in our search for understanding. One such topic that has always managed to get muddled in with the emotional blame game is the effect that violent video games have on both children and adults. The recent events in Oslo have brought this topic back to the front of everyone’s minds and it would seem that the debate has begun raging once again.

The general sentiment amongst the public seems to be that violent video games do adversely affect children in some way. As a child growing up in a world that thought this I was often barred from playing games that involved killing human or human looking creatures. I wasn’t alone in this respect either, with many of my friends relying on their older siblings to gain access to this banned material. Still none of my friends have grown up to be violent individuals so at least anecdotally it would seem that there’s no real substance to the general public’s sentiment on violent video games.

Still there have been so many incidents where the two have been linked that it’s warranted further investigation. There have been many direct studies and meta-analysis done on the subject and the results don’t provide any evidence for a strong link between violent video games and violent tendencies. There is some evidence to suggest that there might be some short term effects but the evidence to the contrary of that conclusion is strong enough to warrant further analysis before drawing conclusions. Scientifically then it would seem that the idea that violent video games breed violent children and adults simply does not hold up to scrutiny and should be taken as such.

It was at this point that I was going to go on a long tirade against all the major news publications for their portrayal of games in the media when it comes to tragic events, quoting various articles and debunking their points with copious amounts of links and evidence. I sifted through dozens of news articles on the subject, cherry picking out the ones that mentioned video games and pouring over them. What I found was a trend the likes of which I hadn’t seen before, most of the big media sites were running articles that would usually only mention the video games in passing not even attempting to make a tenuous link between violent games and real world violent behaviour.

Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself

There are of course some notable exceptions (with the ACL chiming in during SMH’s article) but overall the coverage of the Oslo incidents lay the blame squarely at the perpetrator and not at video games. It seems that finally after decades of video games being the punching bag for all sorts of societal problems the media, and thus the general public, are coming around to the idea that video games aren’t the murder simulators they were once made out to be. It’s a sign that the gaming industry has finally started to be taken seriously by the wider public (mostly because we make up a much greater percentage of the population than we used to) and this means we can finally have rational discussion on the real impacts of gaming on our society, rather than the emotionally charged blame games we’ve had until now.

Gaming is and always be a big part of my life and it has always pained me to see how ignorant the general public was being about how those games were affecting both children and adults. The Oslo terrorist attack, whilst an unforgivable tragedy, has shown that perhaps we as a society have begun to turn the corner on the violent video games issue. With a R18+ rating on its way for Australia the evidence is mounting that we’re beginning to accept games as a real medium for expression that’s appropriate for both adults and children alike. The future will bring us conclusive evidence as to the real affects that games have on our society and we can look back on the emotional debates as simply part of the medium maturing, hopefully as a fading memory.

Why I (and You Should) Blog.

I was never a big fan of writing. I’m a very stereotypical nerd/engineer in that respect as I always struggled to get my thoughts down on paper, especially when I was told I wasn’t elaborating enough. I became frustrated with the arbitrary word counts as everything I needed to say could be summed up in a couple paragraphs and struggled with gathering supporting arguments. It got easier when I started writing documentation professionally, since all you really need there are the facts, but I only really started to enjoy writing about 6 months after I started this blog when I started to force myself to punch out at least 1 post per weekday.

I’ll be honest with you though, I still struggled with the basics for quite a while. Back then inspiration was a lot easier to come across than it was today (thanks to me not having a massive back catalogue of stuff I’ve already written about) but writing anything more than 500 words was a complete chore as the engineer in me yelled continually that anything more was just me waffling on. Over time however I came to realise just how to trigger that part of my brain that knows how to break down a subject into several key points that I can then turn into a paragraph each and now I routinely find myself writing 1000~2000 word posts on things that I’m passionate about.

Of course the small bit of recognition I get amongst my friends and peers for my various musings here go a long way to keeping me coming back to continue writing. It’s why whenever I hear about a friend starting up a blog I’ll link to them, subscribe to their blog and comment on their posts as I know how hard it is when you’re first starting out. I was shouting into the darkness for a good year before I got anything above what I’d classify Internet background noise so I know exactly what it can feel like to do something with seemingly no return. Of course most of the benefits don’t come from page views, but they certainly help to keep you on track to improving your writing (and hopefully other aspects of your life too).

Now I don’t necessarily recommend doing what I do exactly as whilst it’s been immensely helpful for me it’s also had the rather undesirable side effect of giving me a crazy OCD for getting a post out every day. Whilst some of my most complimented bits of writing come from the days when I have to drag inspiration kicking and screaming out of the dark reaches of my brain it would probably be a whole lot better, at least creatively, if I only wrote when the inspiration hit me. Indeed some of the best blogs I read come from those who only write when they really have to. That’s not to say that all my posts are forced out (the majority, thankfully, aren’t) but unless your goal is SEO and page views blogging or writing whenever suits you is probably the best option.

I’d also go out on a limb and say that any sort of online creative expression (whether blogging, vlogging, tweeting or whatever) will help you better yourself in some way. Of course I think some mediums are better for certain things (blogging is best for writing, of course) but giving yourself some sort of creative outlet, even if you think you aren’t that good, will do wonders for you. Sure many people already have these, especially those who make a living off their creativity, but having your own place of expression where only you are in control is definitely something worth having.

I’m not going to say that everyone in the world should blog, more that if you’re looking for a sure fire way to improve your writing and being able focus your thoughts then starting a blog might be the way to go. Plus there’s always the possibility that what you jot down will gain you an audience that will keep coming back for your musings, something that’s extremely gratifying (even the trolls, to a point). Hell if you’re worried about what people might think then just open up notepad every time you want to write something down and save the files off in some random location. Even doing that I think you’d be surprised of the improvements after a while, I know I certainly have.

atlantis-iss-plasma-trail-large

The Shuttle Era Ends, A New Frontier Awaits.

10 days after Atlantis blasted off on its final trip into space for STS-135 the last ever space shuttle mission has finally returned to earth, signalling an end to the 30 year program and marking the end of an era for space. For many of us young star gazers the space shuttle is an icon, something that embodied the human spirit ever searching for new frontiers to explore. For me personally it symbolized something I felt truly passionate about, a feeling that I had not been familiar with for a very long time. Many will lament its loss but it has come time for NASA to reinvent itself, leaving the routine of low earth orbit for new frontiers that eagerly await them.

 Atlantis’ final firey return back to earth, as seen from the International Space Station.

Image credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center (via @NASA_Johnson) 

The shuttle was, from a technical point of view, too much of a compromise between government agencies for it to be able to achieve the goals set out for it. There’s no denying it was an extremely versatile craft but many of the design decisions made were at odds with the end goals of making a reusable craft that could cater to all of the USA’s launch needs for the next 30 years. Constellation then would look like a step in the right direction however whilst it was a far more appropriate craft for NASA’s current needs their money is better spent on pushing their capability envelope, rather than designing yet another launch system.

NASA, to their credit, appears to be in favour of offloading their launch capabilities to private industry. They already have contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to provide both launch capabilities and crew/cargo capsules however attempts to fully privatize their more rudimentary activities have been routinely blocked by congress. It’s no secret that much of the shuttle’s manufacturing process is split up across states for purely political purposes (it made no sense to build the external tank so far away that it needed a barge to ship it back) and the resistance from congress for private launch systems is indicative of that. Still they have their foot in the door now and this opens up the opportunity for NASA to get back to its roots and begin exploring the final frontier.

There’s no denying that we’ve made great progress with robotic space exploration, reaching out to almost every section of our solar system and exploring their vast wonders. However not since 1972 has a human left low earth orbit, something people of the time wouldn’t believe if you told them so. Whilst it might not be the most efficient way of exploring the universe it’s by far the best for inspiring the next generation:

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It’s a historic day and it will mark a turning point for NASA and space flight in the USA one way or another. It’s my fervent hope that NASA uses this as an opportunity to refocus on its core goals of pushing the envelope of what’s possible for humanity through exploring that vast black frontier of space. It won’t be an easy journey for NASA, especially considering the greater economic environment they’re working in right now, but I know the people there are more than capable of doing it and the USA needs them in order to inspire the next generation.

The Game Length Conundrum (or Time Flies When You’re Having Fun).

Just over a year ago I wrote a post exploring my own experiences with games of varying length and the gaming community’s views on what constitutes a good game length. At the time I strongly felt that gamers, as a whole, were annoyed with the trend for AAA titles to shoot for shorter lengths, feeling they were being cheated since they were no longer getting the same amount of value as they used to. For me personally the shorter lengths were actually somewhat of a blessing as 20+ hour games, whilst usually quite enjoyable, would take me weeks to finish at my usual rate of play. Thus I tended to favour the slightly shorter games that could be done in a single intense weekend which made titles like Heavy Rain feel far more intense and immersive than they otherwise would have been. 

The last year, for me at least, hasn’t seen my view on game length change much. I still balk at games I know that will take a long time to finish but if the hype and recommendations from friends are good enough I’ll make the investment in them anyway. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve become something of a Starcraft 2 fiend of late which soaks up a good portion of my gaming time which tends to push me towards the sub 10 hour bracket length bracket. Unlike me however it seems the gaming community, or at least some game developers, now believe the trend is towards such shorter titles:

The likes of social and casual games, particularly the cheap games available on mobile, have changed the expectations of gamers, the panel concluded. By gamers are paying less money, there’s less need to create 10-hour-plus gaming experiences, because consumers no longer feel shortchanged. This could be particularly beneficial for self-publishing indie developers, they said, who could charge less but gain a larger percentage of sales. 

I usually draw a line in the sand between what I call traditional gamers¹ and those who just play games when it comes to points like those stated above. Social and casual games typically don’t attract traditional gamers (and yes I’m talking out my ass on this, if you have figures to the contrary please share) and I believe the opposite is true for traditional console and PC releases. However with the gamer population seeming to age at a rather rapid rate (it felt like only last year that the average age was 30) there may be a tendency for traditional gamers to trend towards more casual-esque games simply because they can’t afford the same time investment they used to.

As I said in last year’s post the length of the game is usually quite irrelevant to the overall experience. My most recently completed title with 10+ hours of game play, L.A. Noire, was extremely enjoyable for the 22 hours I spent with it. Compare that with say Duke Nukem Forever which made 8 hours feel like 40 and it becomes quite clear that game length, whilst definitely an initial factor in my purchasing decisions, ultimately does little to affect my overall perception of the title. This does mean that I agree with one of the panel’s points though, rarely do I feel short changed now when a game only lasts 10 hours, especially if said game was a complete blast to play. If I’m honest I am spending more on games now than I have done previously (because I’m more honest now than I was back then, if you get my drift), but the price per game is usually a lot less than I used to pay thanks to Steam.

All that being said however I can’t deny the impact that social and casual games are having on the market. I might not partake of many of them myself (although Bejewled on my iPhone claimed a good 10 hours of my life) but an overwhelming number of people have and that tidal wide of people is changing the gaming landscape. Many developers are now realising the potential of the free to play, micro-transaction supported platform and independent game developers now have multiple viable avenues in which to push their wares. All this would appear to be pushing towards shorter, more easily consumed titles. However I personally believe that it will be limited to the non-traditional gamer market as they’re the ones driving the changes. Traditional gamers on the other hand seem to have no problem with longer titles, as long it’s appropriate.

¹Traditional gamers in my definition refers to those of us who would identify as a gamer in the demographic sense. For us traditional gamers it’s part of our identity as we’re involved in the gaming community in some way (whether that’s blog posts like these or being part of a gaming group like a forum or clan) and generally we’ve been gaming for a good portion of our lives. Social and casual gamers don’t tend to fit this mould instead seeing games as something of a distraction in the same vein as TV shows or movies. 

I Think I’m A Challenge Junkie.

My last two years have seen me dabble in a whole swath of things I never thought I’d dip my toes into. The first was web development, arguably inspired by this blog and the trials and tribulations that went into making it what it is today. Having been out of the development game for quite a long time before that (3 years or so) I had forgotten the thrill of solving some complex problem or finding an elegant solution to replace my overly complicated one. This then led me to try a cascade of different technologies, platforms and frameworks as ideas started to percolate through my head and success stories of overseas start ups left me lusting for a better life that I could create for myself.

For each of these new technologies I pursued I always had, at least in my mind, a good reason for doing so. Web development was the first step in the door and a step towards modernizing the skills I had let decay for too long. Even though my first foray into this was with ASP.NET, widely regarded as the stepping stone to the web for Windows desktop devs like myself, I still struggled with many of the web concepts. Enter then Silverlight, a framework which is arguably more capable than but has the horrible dependency of relying on an external framework. Still it was enough to get me past the hurdle of giving up before I had started and I spent much of the next year getting very familiar with it.

Of course the time then came when I believed that I needed to take a stab at the mobile world and promptly got myself involved in all things Apple and iOS. For someone who’d never really dared venture outside the comfortable Microsoft world it was a daunting experience, especially when my usual approach of “Attempt to do X, if can’t Google until you can” had me hitting multiple brick walls daily. Eventually however I broke through to the other side and I feel it taught me as much as my transition from desktop to web did. Not long after hitting my stride however did I find myself deep in yet another challenge.

Maybe it was the year+ I had spent on Lobaco without launching anything or maybe it was the (should have been highly expected) Y-Combinator rejection but I had found myself looking for ideas for another project that could free me from the shackles of my day job. Part me also blamed the frameworks I had been using up until that point, cursing them for making it so hard to make a well rounded product (neglecting the fact that I only worked on weekends). So of course I tried all sorts of other things like Ruby on Rails, PHP and even flirted with the idea of trying some of those new fangled esoteric frameworks like Node.js. In the end I opted for ASP.NET MVC which was familiar enough for me to be able to understand it clearly without too much effort and modern enough that it didn’t feel like I’d need to require IE6 as the browser.

You’re probably starting to notice a pattern here. I have a lot of ideas, many of which I’ve actually put some serious effort into, but there always comes a point when I dump both the idea and the technology it rests on for something newer and sexier. It dawned on me recently that the ideas and technology are just mediums for me to pursue a challenge and once I’ve conquered them (to a certain point) they’re no longer challenge I idolized, sending me off to newer pastures. You could write off much of this off to coincidence (or other external factors) except that I’ve done it yet again with the last project I mentioned I’m working on. I’m still dedicated to it (since I’m not the only one working on it) but I’ve had yet another sexy idea that’s already taken me down the fresh challenge path, and it’s oh so tempting to drop everything for it.

I managed to keep my inner junkie at bay for a good year while working on Lobaco so it might just be a phase I’m going through, but the trend is definitely a worrying one. I’d hate to think that my interest only lasts as long as it takes to master (well, get competent with) and it would be a killer for any potential project. I don’t think I’m alone in this boat either, us geeks tend to get caught up in the latest technology and want to apply it where ever we can. I guess I’ll just have to keep my blinkers on and keep at my current ideas for a while before I let myself get distracted by new and shiny things again. Hopefully that will give me enough momentum to overcome my inner challenge junkie.

Fuck Your R18+ Postulating Bullshit.

I try to keep things civil here, you know clearly stating my side of the argument, giving a few facts to support my view and address any counterpoints I’ve come across so my argument seems convincing  enough to sway people over to my side of thinking. Part of this is keeping my emotions at bay as whilst an impassioned arguments are sometimes amongst the most convincing they’re also the most susceptible to going off the rails and losing track of their greater goal. Today however a couple articles have crossed my desk that have pushed me past the tipping point and I just need to launch some vitriol at some people I think are total ass holes.

As the title suggests, I’m talking about those jerks who are blocking the R18+ rating in Australia.

So apparently this all began a couple days ago when South Australia announced it was going to drop the MA15+ rating in favour of the R18+. This really should have come as no surprise to anyone as they socialized the idea less than three months ago and whilst the public didn’t seem to like the idea (and really I think everyone was over reacting, but that’s to be expected as Australians are fucking whiners at the best of times) I didn’t think it was too bad. Sure it was another half-assed solution to what should be a trivial issue, but at least it would get the ball rolling in the right direction.

Not long after that less-than-shocking announcement came the real rear-ender, the NSW attorney general Greg Smith announced that he’d be abstaining from voting (I hope he fired his photographer for the picture in that article) on the issue citing some political bullshittery:

“We’re not going down a definitive route,” a spokesperson for Smith told GameSpot AU. “More work needs to be done on this issue. We want to wait to see the results of the ALRC [Australian Law Reform Commission] classification review.”

If Smith takes this position at the SCAG meeting on Friday, it will mean the R18+ for games decision will once again be delayed. For an adult classification for games to be introduced, all of Australia’s state, territory, and federal governments must unanimously agree on its implementation.

For starters who the fuck is “we”? If you’re talking about the Australian public we’ve already clearly stated many times (holy shit, is that a link to an Australian government website showing massive public support? Fuck for Smith’s sake I’d hope not) that we’re in favour of it. Hell with the average age of gamers now being over twice the fucking age limit for those games you’d think we’d be able to handle mature content. According to at least one of our esteemed representatives however we’re not and they want to wait for some long review process to complete before they can make a decision, telling us that more work needs to be done (Are you fucking serious bro? You’ve had over 2 years on this).

Wait a second, I remember who was saying we should wait for the the ALRC classification review to finish before making a decision on R18+: the Australian Christian Lobby (and fuck no I’m not linking to their shit, nor the article I found that supports what I just said. Google that shit yourself for proof). They fucking got to you didn’t they Smith, after all the shit that went down in your electorate and in Victoria you’re now scrambling for support in any sector you can get. Gamers are an easy target since this isn’t an election winning or losing issue (or could it? We’re in a minority government and shit like this could swing it) so you side with the ACL to get their support. Really if this is the case shame on you bro, you’d win a whole lot more people over by supporting this than being a dick about it.

His resistance now leaves us in the unenviable position of either having to actually wait for that review (which realistically only needs to be done for a national scheme) or having the states and territories each implement their own. South Australia is already poised to go down the latter route which will only replicate the same awkward situation we have now with pornography and the ACT. Whilst I’m sure the states will love the increased patronage for services like that it’s not a solution that’s beneficial to Australia itself nor its image in the world community. However you might spin this not implementing the R18+ rating is simply going against the wishes of the vast majority of the Australian public, meaning these Senators are not acting with the best interests of the constituents at heart.

I’m just so fucking tired of having this issue being so close to being resolved and then being taken from me that it’s flipped my rage switch. I keep hoping one day that I’ll wake up to the news that our Senator’s actually listened for once, realized that Australia wants this and then looked back on this whole issue and laughed at ourselves for being so backward. Well it’s been over 2 years since I first blogged about this and nothing’s really changed in that time, so I guess I’d better saddle up for another 2 years worth of disappointment and frustration before I can really hope for any fucking progress on this.

Google’s Android Review: The Best of Both Worlds.

For the past year I was somewhat of an anomaly amongst my tech friends because I choose to get an iPhone 3GS instead of one of the Android handsets. The choice was simple at the time, I had an app that I wanted to develop for it and needed something to test on, but still I copped it sweet whenever I said something positive about the platform since I’d usually be the only one with an Apple product in the area. When it came time again to buy a new phone, as I get to do every year for next to nothing, I resisted for quite a while, until one of my friends put me onto the Samsung Galaxy S2¹. The tech specs simply overwhelmed my usual fiscal conservativeness and no less than a week later was I in possession of one and so began my experience with the Android platform.

The default UI that comes with all of Samsung’s Android handsets, called TouchWiz, feels uncannily similar to that of iOS. In fact it’s so familiar that Apple is suing Samsung because of it, but if you look at many other Android devices you’ll see that they share similar characteristics that Apple is claiming Samsung ripped off from them. For me personally though the Android UI wins out simply because of how customizable it is allowing me to craft an experience that’s tailored to my use. Widgets, basically small front ends to your running applications, are a big part of this enabling me to put things like a weather ticker on my front page. The active wallpapers are also pretty interesting too, if only to liven up the otherwise completely static UI.

What impresses me most about the Android platform is the breadth and depth of the applications and tweaks available for the system. My first few days with Android were spent just getting myself back up and running like I was on my iPhone, finding all the essential applications (Facebook, Twitter, Shazam, Battle.net Authenticator, etc) and comparing the experience to the iPhone. For the most part the experience on Android is almost identical, especially with applications that have large user bases, but some of them were decidedly sub-par. Now most would say that this is due to the fragmentation of the Android platform but the problems I saw didn’t stem from those kinds of issues, just a lack of effort on their part to polish the experience. This more often happened for applications that weren’t “Android born” as many of the native apps were leaps and bounds ahead of them in terms of quality.

The depth of integration that applications and tweaks can have with the Android platform is really where the platform shines. Skype, for example, can usurp your outgoing calls and route them through their network which could be a major boon if you’re lucky enough to have a generous data plan. It doesn’t stop with application integration either, there are numerous developers dedicated to making the Android platform itself better through custom kernels and ROMs. The extra functionality that I have unlocked with my phone by installing CF-Root kernel, one that allows me root access, are just phenomenal. I’ve yet to find myself wanting for any kind of functionality and rarely have I found myself needing to pay for it something, unless it was for convenience’s sake.

Android is definitely a technophile’s dream with the near limitless possibilities of an open platform laid out before you. However had you not bothered to do all the faffing about that I did you still wouldn’t be getting a sub-par experience, at least on handsets sporting the TouchWiz interface. Sure you might have to miss out on some of the useful apps (like Titanium Backup) but realistically many of the root enabled apps aren’t aimed at your everyday user. You still get all the benefits of the deep integration with the Android platform where a good 90% of the value will be for most users anyway.

Despite all of this gushing over Google’s mobile love child I still find it hard to recommend it as the platform for everyone. Sure for anyone with a slight technical bent it’s the platform to go for, especially if you’re comfortable modding your hardware, and sure it’s still quite usable for the majority who aren’t. However Apple’s platform does automate a lot of the rudimentary stuff for you (like backing up your handset when you sync it) which Android, as a platform, doesn’t currently do. Additionally thanks to the limited hardware platform you’re far less likely to encounter some unknown issue on iOS than you are on Android which, if you’re the IT support for the family like me, can make your life a whole lot easier.

Android really impressed me straight from the get go and continued to do so as I spent more time getting to know it and digging under the hood to unlock even more value from it. The ability to interact, modify or outright replace parts of the underlying Android platform is what makes it great and is the reason why it’s the number 1 smart phone platform to date. As a long time smart phone user I feel that Android is by far the best platform for both technophiles and regular users alike, giving you the usability you’ve come to expect from iOS with the tweakability that used to be reserved for only for Windows Mobile devices.

Now I just need to try out a Windows Phone 7 device and I’ll have done the mobile platform trifecta.

¹I’m reviewing the handset separately as since Android is available on hundreds of handsets it wouldn’t be fair to lump them together as I did with the iPhone. Plus the Galaxy S2 deserves its own review anyway and you’ll find out why hopefully this week ;)