Monthly Archives: July 2013

AUSTRALIA TAX FUCK YEAH

It’s Official: The Australia Tax is Real.

If you’re a person who lives in Australia who has the Internet then chances are you know of the vast disparity in prices between goods available here in Australia and those overseas. For some things a small gap is reasonable, I mean it does cost a bit to ship things here to Australia, but when it comes to things that don’t require shipping (like software) the price gap makes a whole lot less sense. Indeed this point was highlighted when the price difference between Australia and the USA was enough to cover the cost of a flight and still come home with change to spare. For those of us who’ve been dealing with this for years now (thanks Steam!) we have a term for this sort of thing.

We call it the Australia Tax.

AUSTRALIA TAX FUCK YEAHWe’ve found our ways around it though like using DLcompare for finding cheap games and doing all my major purchases online from overseas retailers. This does mean that we sometimes have to resort to slightly devious ways in order to get things sent to us but the savings we can make because of it are usually worth the effort. I had honestly given up on this situation ever changing as the word from those distributing their products here was essentially that we  were willing to pay more and, therefore, should pay more (which, strangely enough, only happens because we used to have no other way of getting the product). It seems that a few people in power have noticed this however and last year they launched an investigation into the reasoning behind the huge price disparity specifically centered on IT goods and the results have just come in.

The Australia Tax is very real and it is quite unjustified.

Most of the recommendations from the investigation are then what you’d expect, mostly more government action and increasing public awareness of the issue. However there were 2 points that seem like absolute gold to Australians, if they ever manage to get through parliament:

  •  If companies do not agree to lift geoblocking, or to give consumers the tools they need to circumvent it, the committee recommended enacting a ban on geoblocking “as an option of last resort”. It also recommends voiding any law which seeks to enforce geoblocking.
  • The committee also wants a “right of resale” law to be created in relation to digitally distributed content. This is an interesting possibility which might allow Australians to resell their old music and ebooks for the first time, among other thing

Getting around geoblocking is a pretty trivial exercise these days, if it can’t be done via the use of a Chrome extension then you’ll need to spend a few dollars on a VPN service although that can sometimes lead to issues of its own. Enacting a law preventing companies from geoblocking in Australia might stop some of the less than savy companies from doing it but realistically I can see most of them hiding behind the cover of “currency conversion” or something similar to achieve the same effect. The last round of inquiries into price gouging were enough to get some of the big players to drop their prices in response so maybe just the threat of that will be enough to get them more in line.

The second point is something we’ve heard a little bit about before although not within Australia’s borders. There’s a few cases in the EU looking to establish this exact legal framework, opening up the opportunity to resell digital only content. Indeed that was one of the better features of Microsoft’s restrictive DRM policies for the Xbox One, something that I’m sure not too many gamers were actually aware of. As someone who’s got dozens of spare game keys due to Humble Indie Bundles and whatnot this is something that I wouldn’t mind having although it ever getting through isn’t something I’m counting on. What the outcome is in the EU will likely heavily influence such a decision.

So it’s great that the government is now aware of the problems facing Australian consumers but now they need to seriously considering the recommendations so that some pressure can be applied to these retailers. Whilst the outcome of most of the recommendations won’t affect the savy consumers much (we already know how to get our way) I know that not all consumers want to do those things and, honestly, they shouldn’t have to. Whether the more out there recommendations get implemented though will be really interesting to see although I get the feeling we’ll be seeing  Gerry Harvey in the news ranting about them sooner or later.

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Microsoft Still Playing Catch Up With Policy Updates.

It’s been a rough few months for Microsoft’s gaming division with them copping flak from every angle about nearly all aspects of their next generation console, the Xbox One. I’ve tried to remain mostly neutral on the whole ordeal as I had originally put myself down for both consoles when they both released but that changed when I couldn’t find a compelling reason to get both. Since then Microsoft has tried to win back the gamers it alienated with its initial announcements although it was clear that the damage was done in that respect and all this did was helped to keep the loyalists happy with a choice they were never going to make. Since then it’s been all quiet from Microsoft, perhaps in the hopes that silence would do more to help than anything else they could say at this point.

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However a recent announcement from Microsoft has revealed that not only will Microsoft be allowing independent developers to self-publish on the Xbox One platform they’ll also be able to use a retail kit as a debug unit. Considering that traditionally development kits were on the order of a couple of thousand dollars (the PlayStation3 one was probably the most expensive I ever heard of at $20,000 on release day) this announcement is something of a boon for indie developers as those looking to do cross platform releases now don’t have spend a significant chunk of change in order to develop on Microsoft’s console. On the surface that would seem to be a one up on Nintendo and Sony but as it turns out Microsoft isn’t doing something truly notable with this announcement, they’re just playing catch up yet again.

Sony announced at E3 that they’d allow indie developers to self publish on the PlayStation4 however you’ll still need to get your hands on a development kit if you want to test your titles properly. This presents a barrier of course, especially if they retain the astronomical release day price (I wouldn’t expect that though), however Sony has a DevKit Loaner program which provides free development kits to studios who need them. They also have a whole bunch of other benefits for devs signing up to their program which would seem to knock out some of the more significant barriers to entry. I’ll be honest when I first started writing this I didn’t think Sony had any of this so it’s a real surprise that they’ve become this welcoming to indie developers.

Similarly Nintendo has a pretty similar level of offerings for indies although it wasn’t always that way. Updates are done for free and the review process, whilst still mandatory, is apparently a lot faster than other platforms. Additionally if you get into their program (which has requirements that I could probably meet, seriously) you’ll also find yourself with a copy of Unity 4 Pro at no extra charge which allows you to develop titles for multiple platforms simultaneously. Sure this might not be enough to convince a developer to go full tilt on a WiiU exclusive but those considering a multiplatform release after seeing some success on one might give it another look after seeing what Nintendo has to offer.

Probably the real kicker, at least for us Australians, is even despite the fact that indies will be able to self publish on the new platform after testing on retail consoles we still won’t be able to see them thanks to our lack of XBLIG. Microsoft are currently not taking a decisive stand on whether this will change or not (it seems most of the big reveals they want to make will be at Gamescon next month) but the smart money is on no, mostly due to the rather large fees required to get a game classified in Australia. This was supposed to be mitigated somewhat by co-regulation by the industry as part of the R18+ classification reforms and it has, to some extent, although it seems to be aimed at larger enterprises currently as I couldn’t find any fee for service assessors (there was a few jobs up on Seek for some though, weird). Whilst I’m sure that wouldn’t stop Australian indie devs from having a crack at the Xbox One I’m sure it’d be a turn off for some as who doesn’t to see their work in their own country?

I’m getting the feeling that Microsoft has a couple aces up its sleeve for Gamescon so I’ll hold back on beating the already very dead horse and instead say I’m interested to see what they have to say. I don’t think there’s anything at this point that would convince me to get one but I’m still leagues away from writing it off as a dead platform. Right now the ball is in Microsoft’s court and they’ve got a helluva lot of work to do if they want their next gen’s launch day to look as good as Sony’s.

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OUYA: I Want To Like It, I Really Do.

Like 64,000+ others I bought into the OUYA dream, both figuratively and literally. Its initial announcement had me skeptical as I really couldn’t foresee any reason as to why I’d want one, but it quickly grew on me and I thought, at worst, I’ve bought myself a media extender that I can use pretty much anywhere. I dropped a decent amount of coin on it, enough to net me a console and 2 controllers, and then patiently waited for that box to show up on my doorstep. I was excited to review it, since it was a new piece of hardware that I helped to create, and I was told I’d get my hands on it long before it hit retail shelves.

I got mine the same day it hit retail shelves in the USA and that was only the beginnings of my frustration with it.

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The device itself was well packaged however the additional controller was just kind of dumped in the shipping box along with the additional batteries to power it. After peeling over the various protective covers that seemed to coat every single part of it I wired it up to my television and turned it on. It emphatically shouted “OUYA” at me and then asked for my wireless credentials to hook itself up to the Internet. This was all fine however it seemed to randomly drop the connection every so often, requiring me to sift through the menus to make it rediscover the connection again. This is with the router being only 3m away from it with nothing but air between it and none of my other wireless devices seemed to share the same problems.

Singing up for an account was pretty standard and after that I greeted with a few menu options. I hit play figuring there’d be a couple titles installed just to get you going (there aren’t) and after that I hit up the Discover section (which I guess counts as the shop) where I perused around for some titles. All of the lists that adorned the front page contained a similar mix of games which made them rather useless for discovery so I ended up looking for some titles that I remember being advertised as coming to the platform. After getting a couple recommended titles and all the emulators I could find I sat down to play through a couple of the games and I can’t say I was terribly impressed.

There’s clearly 2 classes of games on the OUYA store currently. The first is the truly free software which if its a utility seems to work great (all the emulators function as expected, but more on them in a bit) and the second is the essentially the free trial version of the game. Now I knew that there would be paid titles on there however I figured they’d be like the Android store, I.E. I’d have to pay to get them. That’s not the case for the titles that I got my hands on as pretty much all of them have the upsell as part of the game or hide behind tricky mechanics like “coins” or other kinds of micro-transactiony malarkey. I can’t say that this endeared any of the games to me but then again if I was a developer I’d probably do the same thing to get more eyeballs on my product.

Probably the saving grace of the OUYA is that the emulators do work since the OUYA has enough grunt to power them however the process to get them working could not be more of a pain in the ass. If you follow any of the guides that come up when you Google “get ROMs on OUYA” you’ll likely end up having to trounce through the settings menu looking for downloaded files so you can side load file manager onto it. If you’re really unlucky (like I was) the APK files will refuse to install which means you’ve got no way to manage the files. Thankfully the USB driver seems to work well enough to recognize thumb drives and read the files directly off them. This is where integration with the Play store would really come in handy as I could just skirt that whole process and use the web interface to deploy files to it. I do understand why they’re not doing that, however.

As you can guess I’m pretty underwhelmed with the whole experience and I’m going to level most of the blame squarely at the OUYA itself. We didn’t get off to a great start when I, someone who was an early backer, got mine when it went generally available. The whole experience after that point was just marred with little issues that just cemented that feeling of displeasure. Sure there are some redeemable things about the platform but honestly it’s nothing more than what I could get with a $6 app and hooking up my PlayStation 3 controllers to my Android phone.

Dust An Elysian Tale Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Dust: An Elysian Tale: Tomorrow Is Yet To Be Written.

There were a lot of games I wanted to check out after doing several tours of the indie area at PAX. Unfortunately most of them aren’t available yet, at least the ones I wanted to play anyway, and so after I got home I did the usual scroll through Steam looking for something that caught my interest for this week’s review. Thankfully the Steam Summer Sale was in full effect and many titles that I had passed over (mostly due to price) were on sale and so I quickly filled my library with several games I had been meaning to play. Dust: An Elysian Tale was one of these titles and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Dust An Elysian Tale Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You, playing as Dust, awaken in a meadow in the middle of a forest. You’re then approached by a strange floating sword who calls itself Ahrah, followed closely by a small flying creature called Fidget who claims to be the sword’s guardian. Whilst they don’t provide you any clue as to who you are or how you got to here they direct you to the local town of Aurora in the search for answers. The town is overrun with monsters however and after dealing with them the town’s mayor asks that you track down their leader in order to get the attacks to stop. This begins your journey to find out who you are and what your real purpose is.

The art style of Dust is quite spectacular as it manages to feel like you’re playing inside an epic Disney animated movie. I’ll admit that it was a little off-putting at first, mostly because I felt like it was going to be skewed towards being a kids game, however I found myself becoming more and more impressed with it as I progressed through the game. Mostly this was due to the added environmental effects like snowstorms on high peaks but there were also very atmospheric set pieces like the haunted mansions. Overall though being able to capture that Disney like feeling, both in terms of visual style and storytelling, is something the developer behind Dust should be commended for.

Dust An Elysian Tale Screenshot Wallpaper Beautiful Scenary

Dust is a 2D hack ‘n’ slash platformer where you’ll be put up against massive hordes of enemies which you’ll be able to dispatch readily. I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of games, I usually get bored with them as the combat starts to feel repetitive, but Dust manages to keep things fresh by gradually introducing new abilities to you as the game progresses. There’s also some rudimentary RPG elements included as you’ll gain experience and levels by defeating enemies and completing quests. There’s also an inventory system, which thankfully needs no management whatsoever, and a crafting system that will allow you to create some of the most powerful gear in the game. All of these elements bind together quite well providing a game experience that’s very different from anything else I’ve played in recent times.

The combat frustrated me at first since the tools I had at my disposal were quite limited. However after the introduction of the Dust Storm ability, essentially projectile based attacks that your companion Fidget shoots which you then amplify, made it far more enjoyable. At the same time though it felt like it trivialized the encounters somewhat, even playing on the Tough difficulty level, although this is countered by the fact that anything can drop your health to almost zero (but not zero if you’re above say 40HP, giving you a chance to heal). In fact you can play Dust as a button masher for the majority of the game, it’s only later when enemies start requiring certain abilities, like parrying or using special abilities to kill them, that some form of strategy starts to enter in the equation.

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Although this seems to go to the extreme towards the end of the game where (seemingly) every enemy gets the ability to parry you making continuing combos and using your special abilities (which has an energy bar) very frustrating. Indeed it gets even worse when I started to notice that they could parry whilst seemingly incapacitated and, randomly, my attacks would simply fail to connect with them for no reason in particular. It’s a drastic uptick in challenge, I’ll give them that, however it feels more like a hacked in solution to ramping up the difficulty than anything else. Perhaps utilizing some of the non-combat platforming abilities as augments to the combat would’ve been a better way to do it as there are several of those introduced after you get all your combat abilities.

The platforming is relatively easy as all the jumps you’ll be required to make can be done without the use of your Dust Storm (which allows you to move a little further in the air than you would be able to otherwise) and the use of randomly moving/disappearing platforms is kept at a minimum until towards the end. It’s to your advantage to explore everywhere you possibly can as well since there’s treasure chests and keys scattered everywhere which usually contain a bunch of gold and health items. You’ll be struggling for keys initially as they’re just as hard to find as the chests themselves but I found that towards the end I had more than enough to open every chest I came across, even without purchasing them.

Dust An Elysian Tale Screenshot Wallpaper Between Chapters

One thing that did irritate me about the platforming in Dust was the fact that early on you’ll be shown areas that look like there’s a route to get to them but you have no way of getting to them. Of course later on in the game you’ll unlock the required ability to traverse the obstacle and, should you want to return to that area, you’ll be able to make your way through there. I really don’t like it when games do this as I’m not someone who likes going back to retrace their steps every time I get a new ability. It just doesn’t feel like progress to me and instead makes me feel like I’m missing out on something whenever I see an obstacle I can’t yet tackle. It might increase the play time for some but, honestly, I don’t believe that most gamers are judging games by the number of hours it takes to complete anymore.

The RPG elements serve their purpose, giving you that lovely thrill of leveling up every so often that brings with it new levels of power. Since you only have control over 4 of your stats, and can only level up one of them at a time, the progress granted to you through levels doesn’t feel anywhere near as impactful as the upgrades you get from gear. I can remember getting a really good piece of armor before I was probably supposed to have it which made me near invincible against the enemies I was facing but up until that point I still felt like a glass cannon in battle. In fact the only upgrades that feel like they’re making any difference are the ones to defense. Even the 2x attack ring I got towards the end seemed to make little difference to the time it took ti dispatch enemies which was a little disappointing.

Dust An Elysian Tale Screenshot Wallpaper The End

The crafting however feels rather well done as instead of forcing you to constantly reload sections to farm up the required materials you can instead sell one of them to a vendor who will then proceed to sell them back to you and restock them periodically. This means its advantageous to sell one of your materials to them whenever you pick it up as the vendor will stock up on it over time so when you need it, to craft that amazing item blueprint you just picked up, it’ll be there for you. This was my primary source of items as whilst I got a couple good drops most of them came from crafting and whilst I didn’t manage to catalog all the materials (some of the earlier ones just didn’t drop for me at all) I had more than enough to craft most of the things I wanted to.

I was honestly surprised by the story of Dust as whilst it’s rated at E (Everyone 10+) and starts off with some rather shaky premises the characters undergo some serious development, to the point where you really start to care for them. Dust also pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with real topics like death and betrayal, something that I did not expect given its very Disney like qualities. Dust does lose a little sheen by doing the cliched screaming for a sequel at the end but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to another installment of this game and the stories it contains.

Dust An Elysian Tale Screenshot Wallpaper (6)

Dust: An Elysian Tale goes down as one of the bigger surprises for me of this year, seamlessly combining beautifully evocative artwork with a hack ‘n; slash 2D RPG. It has its flaws, although they’re surprisingly few for a first time game developer, and could deal with difficulty ramping better. That being said however the issues melt into the background as you blast your way through hordes of enemies and revel in the deep story line. I’d highly recommend a playthrough, especially for those who love the Disney art style.

Rating: 9.0/10

Dust: An Elysian Tale is available on Xbox and PC right now for $15. Game was played on the PC on the Tough difficulty with 8.6 hours played and 50% of the achievements unlocked.

The Simple Engineering Beauty of a Car’s Transmission.

Long time readers will know I’m something of a petrol head. It’s an obsession that grew out of my introduction to all things automotive at a young age when my parents let me ride around our property on our little Honda Z50 which continued on through multiple bikes and cars as I grew older. Since these cars were usually bound for the scrap heap keeping them running wasn’t something I (well my parents, really) had much interest in spending money on so I became intimately acquainted with the inner workings of late model Datsuns. Whilst I don’t bother diving under the hood of my current car very often the interest in the technology that drives them hasn’t faded as demonstrated by my fixation on this video:

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The one area I never really wanted to touch was transmissions, mostly because they’re one of the hardest parts of the car to work on and taking them apart is fraught with danger for unqualified hacks like myself. Whilst I knew the basics of how transmission worked I didn’t know the complex dynamics of power transmission through the varying gears. Whilst this video might not be reflective of how current transmissions work (indeed that’s a world’s a worlds away from how an automatic works, to my understanding) the fundamentals are still there in beautiful 1930’s video glory.

What I’d really be interested to see is the gear work behind some of the advanced transmission schemes that power some of the more modern cars like Volkswagen’s Direct-Shift Gearbox (which is essentially 2 gearboxes working in tandem). There’s also the Continuously Variable Transmission which has the peculiar behavior of letting the engine rev itself out whilst it gradually gears up. This can allow a driver to peg the engine at its optimal RPM and keep it there until the desired speed is reached. Although this is typically undesirable as it feels like clutch slippage in a traditional transmission so many CVT based cars have “gears” that are essentially different response profiles. There’s even more exotic things on formula 1 cars but that’s whole other world to me.

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Wait…The WiiU is Actually Fun?

So whilst getting into sessions at PAX might have been something of a bum steer this time around there was one thing that it really excelled at: getting people together to play games, any kind of games. I don’t mean this lightly either they catered to essentially every time of gamer you could think of with their massive games libraries and spaces dedicated to playing. By far the best time I had there was stumbling into the free play PC area late at night when there were a bunch of PCs free and our group of friends just playing, like the good old days of LANs. It’s also an opportunity for gamers like me, who spend the vast majority of their time on a single platform, to experiment with others and strangely enough I found myself behind the controls of a WiiU.

Wii U ConsoleThe game we played was Nintendo Land, a kind of lavish tech demo ala Wii Sports which did the same thing for the original Wii back in the day. Most of the games are incredibly simplistic in nature but are centered around playing together and demonstrating what’s possible with the Wii U controller. My friend who introduced us to this game insisted that we play one which was essentially a game of one person trying to run/hide from everyone else. Catch is the person who’s being chased has the Wii U controller and can see everything that the people trying to hunt them down is doing. I was a little skeptical at first but I figured that I had some time to kill while our friends finished up their game of Puerto Rico.

Then something weird happened, I started having fun.

It’s a simple premise but the game play that comes out of it is really quite fun as you team up against one person to try and chase them down. The other games in Nintendo Land are based around similar premises, like one where you’re a ghost that has to scare all the other players, and they all have that simple joy of co-operative/competitive play which makes them great for both kids and adults a like. I didn’t end up playing all of the modes since we were meandering off to the PC area but I walked away with the feeling that whilst the Wii U might not be the crazy success the Wii was there’s definitely something to it, even if that thing won’t potentially sell.

Honestly I think the problem here is one of market saturation and the value proposition that the Wii U brings to the table. The Wii was successful because it went after the largest target market: people who don’t traditionally play games. This helped spread the console to places where it never would’ve gone before, to the point where just getting one seemed to elect you to an exclusive club. This was at the cost of alienating some of the more hardcore/dedicated fan base, something I’m sure Nintendo was willing to wear for the sales it got. The problem with this is that the difference between the Wii and the Wii U isn’t big enough for those kinds of users to see the value in upgrading, indeed when I told my wife (an avid user of our Wii) about the Wii U she wondered why we’d bother getting it and, at the time, I was inclined to agree with her. After playing it I can see that there are some cool uses cases for that giant controller, ones that I’m sure current Wii owners would appreciate, but I don’t think Nintendo has done a great job of selling that so far.

Did this convince me to buy one? Not particularly as there’s no games that are drawing me to the platform and I can’t see myself getting a group of people together to play Nintendo Land very often. This could change, indeed it might almost be worth it for a HD Zelda game, but there’s little more than that novelty aspect going for it currently. I’m not exactly sure how Nintendo can overcome this, they’re in a bit of a chicken and egg situation at the moment with developers and titles, but there’s no denying that there’s something to the Wii U concept.

 

David Cameron No To Pron

Hey UK, I Heard You Have a Filter Problem.

Do you remember the last time the Clean Feed hit the Australian news? I most certainly don’t but luckily I blogged about it every time it happened and the last time it crossed my path was over 2 years ago when some Australian ISPs decided to voluntarily block 500 sites. Suffice to say the No Clean Feed movement, something which I was an active part of, was completely successful and we haven’t had to speak of it again. Indeed I thought that any modern society looking to implement something like Australia’s Internet Filter would see just how politically toxic it was and then think twice about it.

Turns out I was wrong.

David Cameron No To Pron

David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has announced a policy that looks eerily similar to the Clean Feed policy that Senator Conroy introduced all those years ago. Essentially it’s a pornography filter and while at first glance it looks like it might be opt-in it’s in fact going to be the dreaded opt-out, meaning that every Internet user in the UK will have their connection filtered unless they ask nicely for their ISP to stop. The rhetoric surrounding the policy is also eerily similar to the Clean Feed with a heavy focus on the impacts to children and attempting to curb the child pornography. If I didn’t know any better I’d say that they’d straight up copied everything about the Clean Feed and simply changed a few words here and there to make it their own. Predictably the Internet is in an uproar about this and the policy is getting all the scrutiny it deserves.

Cameron thinks that his filter will be infallible (gosh where have I heard that before) and that “it should not be the case that technically literate children can just flick the filters off at the click of a mouse without anyone knowing”. Now forgetting for a second that most parents aren’t exactly technically inclined it wouldn’t take a child genius to work out that a proxy site like HideMyAss was all that was required to bypass a filter like that. Sure you could then block those VPN sites but, hang on a second, they’re legitimate sites with completely legal use cases. So you either resign yourself to having an ineffectual filter or you go down that rather ugly path where you make anything that can bypass it illegal, something which I’m sure a lot of businesses would have something to say about.

Had Cameron done a little bit of homework he would have found out that he could win the same number of votes without alienating the tech community by saying that the filter would be opt-in. I’ve said many times in the past that I support such a policy because it gives concerned parents an easy option whilst leaving the majority of Internet users untouched. It’s also better for the ISPs as they can plan a filtering solution based on a minority of their users, rather than having to scale up a solution that has to support their entire user base. For some reason though the default position for policies like this seems to be always-on and anything else is seen as a weak compromise. Funnily enough the thing that would supposedly make such a system more effective will end up killing it in the end, even if Cameron doesn’t see it now.

So, people of the UK, it’s now time for you to do what us Australian’s did and rally together to fight Cameron’s filter policy. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, nor without any significant effort, but after 3 years we managed to kill our Clean Feed policy for good and made talk of it so politically toxic that neither party dares mention it again. You’ll now have to do the same: contacting members of parliament, staging demonstrations and, most important of all, not letting up until they drop this policy in favor of the next voting winning scheme.

We’ve got your back, fellow members of the Commonwealth.

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PAXAus: Not Your Usual Convention Experience.

So I spent the majority of my weekend at PAX Australia, a gaming convention held in Melbourne which was its first appearance outside the United States. I have to say I was pretty excited about it as we don’t get events of this caliber coming to Australia very often with most of them only sharing the name of their bigger brethren. Whilst I was excited to see what they’d bring to us I was more hoping to look at it as a blogging opportunity since there’d be a lot of industry people there and there’s always the chance they will reveal something amazing that I could then pass onto you. It wasn’t anything like that however and whilst I don’t regret my decision to go down at all I do feel like PAXAus was suffering from some major 1.0 issues, ones that I thought they would’ve figured out given their heritage.

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The first day I was there I spent the majority of my time attempting to get into the various sessions I wanted to see which turned out to be a really bad idea. Now this might be because I’m used to the Microsoft style conventions where you’re pretty much guaranteed to get into anything you feel like, even when they go over capacity, but it was clear from the start that if you wanted to get into something you had to be lining up at least an hour before hand. The more popular the session the longer the line was that you had to join which culminated in a 2 hour stint that my friends and I undertook just so we could see the BioWare panel. It was clear that they had underestimated the potential popularity of these panels as they were always packed out so there’s definitely room for improvement there, possibly with the introduction of pre-registering for the ones you want to see so they can get a better judge of numbers. That or simply showing them on a big screen outside the room, something which was entirely possible given that they were filming all of the sessions.

I really enjoyed the Expo Hall however as that was pretty much geek nirvana with everything from hardware vendors to indie developers peddling their wares on the floor. I managed to strike up several good conversations with many of the developers, most of whom were more than happy to be extremely candid about their games and the development behind them. I probably got one developer off side when I mentioned that their developer name didn’t match their games (The Voxel Agents, if you’re curious as they don’t have any voxel based games) but they took it in their stride and I wasn’t trying to offend them. Most of the bigger booths (World of Tanks, League of Legends, Saints Row 4) were less inviting due to the large lines/crowds and the obviously tailored experience but they were still interesting to browse through.

However I had the most fun doing what I love doing: playing games with my close mates. The console and PC free play zones are an incredibly awesome idea and the set ups they had for managing player time are by far the best I’ve seen anywhere. Whilst I was a bit miffed that there’s now a mandatory tutorial requirement on all new installs of DOTA2 (something which can’t be skipped and takes at least an hour) we did have a lot of fun revisiting old titles. We even got a massive TF2 game going which was heaps of fun and we ended up playing right up until they had to kick everyone out for the night. That’ll definitely be one of my fondest memories of PAXAus.

I think I’ll be coming back next year although I might curtail my expectations somewhat. Whilst it would be amazing to go from session to session and blog about everything it seems like, at least in the 1.0 version of PAXAus, that’s just not feasible, at least if I want to enjoy myself whilst I’m there. Don’t get me wrong though, the sessions I did manage to get into were awesome, but considering I only got into 2 out of the 10 or so I wanted to go to speaks volumes to the effort required to get into them. I’m sure that all these issues will be sorted out by next year though and if history is anything to go by the next one should be much bigger and, hopefully, better.

Kerbel Space Program Screenshot Wallpaper Vehicle Assembly Bay

Kerbel Space Program: Godspeed You Brave (Read: Insane) Green Men.

Games without a specific point and I don’t tend to mix very well. I mean we start off well, usually as I follow the main story line, but once there’s a lull I tend to start wandering off in random directions with a trail of destruction in my wake. This is Jerk Mode, the point in which I feel the current game has run its course and all that’s left for me to do is to make every NPC’s life in there a living hell. Many argue that this is the point of these style of games, you can make your own fun in it without having to feel obligated to play it a certain way, but for me once I hit that point that’s it for a while. Of course games that encourage you to do crazy things, like Kerbel Space Program does, tickle me in just the right way and since it’s all about space you know there was no way I was going to pass this up.

Kerbel Space Program Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

As I alluded to earlier Kerbal Space Program has no specific goal set out for you (unless you do a scenario), instead you’re given an unlimited budget and parts drawer from which you can create a wide variety of craft for launching your little green men into space. You could say the goal is to do this successfully without blowing them up and indeed whilst it is fun to send wave after wave of green men to their fiery deaths eventually you’ll tire of it and set your eyes on goals that are quite challenging to achieve. Even once you do that you’ll think of other things to challenge yourself and down the rabbit hole you’ll go.

Kerbel Space Program isn’t much of a looker, that’s for sure, but what it lacks in the visuals department it makes up for in spades with its simulation accuracy and wonderful background music. I make special note of the music because it’s eerily familiar to other simulation style games, particularly the ones from Maxis like The Sims and SimCity, which gives it this….air about it. It’s hard to describe but it just makes building a spaceship fun (although to be fair that’s fun regardless).

Kerbel Space Program Screenshot Wallpaper Vehicle Assembly Bay

There’s a couple short tutorial missions which I’d say are required for you to be able to grasp the basics as otherwise you’re just going to flounder around for hours while you wonder why your spaceship isn’t functioning like it should. It won’t teach you everything. indeed there’s a level of nuance to this game that you probably won’t appreciate until you’re on your 20th ship, but it’s enough for you to start experimenting with various designs. Additionally it gives you the run down on basic orbital mechanics, something you’re going to want to be familiar with after you get bored of making huge explosions.

The breadth of ship building components is really quite impressive with nearly all the different kinds of components I’d expect to see in a rocket engineer’s dream workshop. Thus the number of different rockets, space planes and other vehicles you can create is nigh on unlimited and depending on how you building them they’ll all have different capabilities. Initially I simply went for the good old fashioned Russian method of strapping as many of them together as I could, which works well to a point, but after a while I started to refine my designs until I started coming up with things that got the same result without resorting to things that made the simulation engine fall in a screaming heap (which happens when you do things in a really retarded way).

Kerbel Space Program Screenshot Wallpaper Launch

Now since there’s no explicit goal there’s really no penalty for failure which can lead you to try all sorts of weird and wonderful things to try and achieve the goals you’ve set out for yourself. I personally stayed within the realms of emulating current production launch systems, at least when I wasn’t deliberately trying to cause explosions, which seems to be one of the best ways to go about it. Checking out the community pages though reveals many weird and wonderful designs that are all quite functional, indeed some far moreso than any of the ones I’ve created. Most of my monstrosities ended up being too big for their own good, usually falling apart before reaching the Karman line, but I eventually managed to settle on a good design, one that started to take me places.

There’s few games out there that give you that true sense of accomplishment, you know where after completing an objective you feel like you’ve actually achieved something. Getting a craft into orbit sounds like an easy thing to do in Kerbel Space Program, I mean heck you can strap as many boosters together as you want, but therein lies the rub: brute force probably isn’t going to get you there. No in order to achieve something of that greatness you’re going to have to refine and finesse your design until you reach the point where you’re just able to make it. Once you do that however, things start to get a little crazy.

Kerbel Space Program Screenshot Wallpaper Earth Orbit

You’ll think that once you’ve gotten into orbit that you’ve done most of the hard work and from here it’s pretty easy to get to anywhere else should you have the desire. From an energy point of view this is correct, once you’re free of the gravity well the energy required to move yourself around is greatly decreased. However the first time you make it into orbit it’s quite likely you won’t have any fuel to do anything and even if you do trying to get into a proper transit orbit will likely see you on a trajectory headed into interstellar space rather than the nice transit orbit you hoped for. Of course you’re only a couple clicks away from trying again but it’s really easy to get attached to those craft that have made it to where they are.

Of course I’m only talking about a very small sub-section of the game as whilst getting into orbit and transiting around is all well and good there’s also a swath of other things you can do like landing on other heavenly bodies and launching robotic explorers and satellites. I have to admit I haven’t had a chance to try these out, I was heavily focused on getting into Mun orbit, but jut the fact that the components are there, waiting to be used tells me there’s so much more to Kerbel Space Program than you see at first glance. This is also not counting the modding scene which seems to be incredibly healthy.

Kerbel Space Program Screenshot Wallpaper Mun Orbit

Kerbel Space Program is still in alpha and so there’s bugs at every corner but since its still in development I can’t really fault them for that. Indeed it’s part of the charm as whilst it does a good job with orbital mechanics and the varying bits of rocket construction sometimes your ship will do things that just aren’t what you’d expect. Usually its emergent behavior from the interaction of so many different components which can lead to all sorts of strange things happening. I’m sure as time goes on many of these kinks will be worked out as reading long time fans of Kerbel Space Program shows the game has come quite a long way since it was first released into the world.

Kerbel Space Program is one of those awesome little gems where the quirks are what make it fun to play but the nuances of challenges it presents to you are so vast that it will take a lot of time to master. Your friends might not understand why it’s such a big deal that you got into Mun orbit, nor why your 2 stage launch system is a marvel of engineering, but you will and all of us fellow Kerbers will too. I’m far from done with Kerbel Space Program, indeed this is a game that I want to watch grow as it goes from plucky indie alpha to (hopefully) a fully fledged rocket building and launching simulator. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, but if you’re even the slightest bit curious about it then you know what you need to do.

Rating: withheld due to alpha status.

Kerbel Space Program is available on PC right now for $20.69. Total time spent playing was approximately 5 hours.

Quantum Levitation.

Superconductors are an incredible scientific discovery and not just because they have the oh-so-nice property of having 0 electrical resistance. They also have the peculiar property of ejecting all magnetic fields from within them, an interesting phenomena considering the duality of electromagnetism. Unfortunately traditional superconductors required extremely low temperatures to exist, usually not far off absolute zero. This made them impractical for the many uses we could think of for them as whilst the lack of resistance would prove a boon for power transmission the ongoing maintenance would prove to be far too costly. However recent materials advancements have given rise to what we call high temperature superconductors which has opened up many new avenues of research.

Don’t let their moniker fool you though, the temperatures that most of these operate at are still well below freezing, however they do become superconducting at temperatures that are achievable using coolants like liquid nitrogen rather than exotic solutions relying on cryogenic fluids like liquid helium. This has lead to a lot of research with these particular kinds of superconductors and interestingly some demonstrations that almost appear like magic when you first see them:

YouTube Preview Image

As I mentioned earlier superconductors expel all magnetic fields from within them, however when the superconductor is thin there will be little areas of weakness where the magnetic field can get through. Since the superconductor is trying its darnedest to expel those fields it locks them in those small areas allowing the superconductor to levitate on the field. The locking happens in the direction of the magnetic field which actually allows you to do some very interesting things (as demonstrated in this video). The effect only lasts as long as the cooling however and once that’s gone the levitation effect disappears instantly.

Really hammers home Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” doesn’t it?