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Are We Really Surprised Mars One is Looking Like Bunk?

Getting humans anywhere in the solar system is messy, difficult and above all expensive. We creatures of flesh and bone have an inordinate amount of requirements that need to be met so we don’t cark it, necessitating a whole bunch of things that our robotic counterparts simply don’t need.Thus manned space exploration missions aren’t usually at the forefront of science, instead they’re done to win over the hearts and minds of the people, inspiring the next generation to continue with these endeavours. I think this is why many of the general public wanted Mars One to succeed even though it was clear from the onset that the project would never deliver on its lofty goals.

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Mars One was announced almost 2 years ago amid a flurry of other Mars related news, something which I’m sure helped elevate its profile above what it would have been otherwise. The idea plays heavily on the romanticized notion of the frontier, that us regular people could be a part of something greater by living at the very edge of human existence. The project made no secret that it was going to be a one way trip and so it took on this idea that it was some kind of noble sacrifice for greater good of humankind. Of course that idea kind of fell apart when they said that the mission would be mostly funded through a reality television series that they’d film as part of it. Not that this discouraged anyone as apparently tens of thousands of people applied for it.

I’ve said before that a one way trip to Mars isn’t a noble idea at all, being selfish more than anything, and the Mars One mission played into the egotistical mindset required by someone who’d want to undertake this mission. Sure there might be some good science done along the way however the way that Mars One was approaching it, which was by using external contractors to do the majority of the heavy lifting, wouldn’t be driving anything forward that wasn’t already well underway. That, coupled with the fact that they really didn’t seem to have any revenue source apart from the TV series (which they never announced a timeline for), meant that it was looking pretty sketchy even before the project got seriously underway.

Now we’ve had one of the top 100 finalists break their silence on the process and the insights he’s given have been pretty damning. It seems that the selection process hasn’t been that rigorous at all with the only things being required so far being the initial video, a questionnaire and a quick Skype call with the chief medical officer. Worst still it appears that making it into the top 100 could be as easy as just giving them money as the selection process is heavily based off the number of points a candidate has which, funnily enough, can be acquire by purchasing Mars One merchandise. The final nail in the coffin is that Mars One appears to have lost its contract with the media company that was going to do the TV series, something which was supposed to bring them the bulk of the $6 billion they’d need.

In all honesty it shouldn’t be that surprising as the writing was on the wall for Mars One from the day it was first announced. I’m always willing to be proven wrong , heck if they managed to pull this off I would’ve shouted their success from the rooftops, but the more we find out about Mars One the less likely it appears that they’ll ever get anything off Earth. Mars One is yet to comment on these recent revelations and I doubt they will as they’re likely hoping everyone will just write this off as one disgruntled participant. I for one am not and I hope you, dear reader, will heed his words carefully.

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The Deer God: Atone, Human.

Trawling through the weekly releases can be something of an eye opener. There’s often a bevy of shovelware titles on there that I’m sure no one is proud of, a few early access titles that are looking to cash in on their promise and, if I’m lucky, a few titles that look like they’re worth playing. However every so often there’s a new concept in there that just stands out because of how out of left field it is and whilst most of them languish in Early Access a few of them have crossed the barrier into full release, allowing me to play them. The Deer God from Crescent Moon Games was one such title as its curious concept plus intriguing art style piqued my curiosity.

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You are a hunter, or at least you were not too long ago. The Deer God has punished you for the crimes you have committed against its kind, trapping you inside the body of the young fawn you killed and set you forth on a quest to make reparations. There are many challenges before you and should you ever want to return to your human form you will have to best them all. How you go about this is your decision though: do you retain that callous hunter attitude and kill anything that stands in your way? Or has the transformation changed you, making you want to improve upon yourself and the world you live in? Only you can answer these questions, dear hunter.

The Deer God is a clever mix of pixelart and voxel stylings resulting in an interesting 2.5D landscape. Everything takes place in the one plane, which can be a little hard to discern visually when you first start out, however the landscape flows past you giving you the impression that the world is much larger than what the camera is showing you. All the environments are procedurally generated although it’s clear that there are numerous tiles that are used since the scenery tends to repeat several patterns over and over. There’s also  dynamic weather effects for some regions and a day/night cycle, which helps to break up the repetition a little bit. The resulting world is visually impressive however, especially for some scenes like when you’re galloping across an open field while the sun is going down.

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Mechanically The Deer God is a side scrolling platformer in which all the levels are procedurally generated. You’ll spend the majority of your time going from the left side to the right side of the screen, jumping over obstacles and head butting enemies into submission. Every so often you’ll be faced with a puzzle which, depending on how far you’ve progressed in the story or power tree, you may or may not be able to complete. However thanks to the procedural nature you’ll eventually come across that puzzle again in the near future, meaning that you’re never really stuck at a point where you can’t progress. There’s also a ton of optional things you can do to get items and powers which can help you later in the game. If that isn’t enough there’s also a whole host of achievements that’s sure to keep most completionists busy long after the initial game runs its course. Suffice to say that The Deer God’s asking price is likely well worth it for the hardcore platformers out there.

For the most part the platforming is pretty basic thanks almost entirely to the procedural generation. Once you’ve been through a biome a couple times you get a feel for which tile you’re currently in and what series of jumps you need to complete to get passed it. Sure, there are variations in the monsters and whatnot, but it’s not enough to make you pause and think about how you need to tackle the jump each time. Indeed most of my deaths resulted from me fat fingering the keys, rather than the challenge being too hard to overcome. This might have been different if the enemies couldn’t all be defeated by jumping over their attack and then hitting them but only the bosses provide any real variety combat wise. The powers do add a bit of fun into the mix, especially the dark ones, but the limited nature of their use means that you can’t go out of control with them.

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Whilst The Deer God might be out of Early Access now it’s still shaking off some of its beta nature with a few of the puzzles still glitched as can be seen by a quick jaunt to the game’s Steam discussion page. Most of these have work arounds so it won’t stop you from finishing the game, however sometimes you can find yourself on a bugged puzzle for a frustratingly long time before you remember to check the discussion page to make sure you’re not barking up the wrong tree. There’s also some things I’m not sure are bugs or not, like if you fall into lava you respawn in the lava rather than back at some safe place. Thankfully the devs seem pretty active on the forums so its likely that most of these bugs will get ironed out sooner or later, but I’d still keep the forums open in the background just in case.

The story has some potential however it’s not developed at all. Most of the characters have only a few lines of dialogue and they’re really only there to facilitate the game moving forward rather than building up the world you’re in. It’s somewhat forgivable given the procedural nature of the game, allowing the player to create their own narrative within the world, however you can see there’s aspirations of it being something a little more than that, its just not realised. Considering the relatively short time between The Deer God’s KickStarter and its subsequent full release there was obviously sacrifices that needed to be made and it seems that the story was likely the first on the chopping block.

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The Deer God is an interesting concept, taking the nostalgic pixelart styling in a new direction and combining it with procedural platforming resulting in a curious game. The procedural worlds are done brilliantly with all the ambient effects coming together well to produce some visually impressive set pieces. The core gameplay is rather repetitive and predictable after a short time and whilst the puzzles break it up a bit towards the end there’s simply not enough there to break up the monotony. Credit where credit is due though for The Deer God getting out of Early Access as quickly as it did, even if it came with some rough edges. Overall I quite enjoyed my experience with The Deer God and am definitely looking forward to more titles from Crescent Moon Games.

Rating: 7/10

The Deer God is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 3.7 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.

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Windows 10 Brings Smaller Footprint, Better Updating.

Windows 10 is fast shaping up to be one of the greatest Windows releases with numerous consumer facing changes and behind the scenes improvements. Whilst Microsoft has been struggling somewhat to deliver on the rapid pace they promised with the Windows Insider program there has been some progress as of late and a couple new features have made their way into a leaked build. Technology wise they might not be revolutionary ideas, indeed a couple of them are simply reapplications of tech they’ve had for years now, but the improvements they bring speak to Microsoft’s larger strategy of trying to reinvent itself. That might be awfully familiar for those with intimate knowledge of Windows 8 (Windows Blue, anyone?) so it’s interesting to see how this will play out.

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First cab off the ranks in Windows 10’s new feature set is a greatly reduced footprint, something that Windows has copped a lot of flak for in the past. Now this might not sound like a big deal on the surface, drives are always getting bigger these days, however the explosion of tablet and portable devices has brought renewed focus on Windows’ rather large install size on these space constrained devices. A typical Windows 8.1 install can easily consume 20GB which, on devices that have only 64GB worth of space, doesn’t leave a lot for a user’s files. Windows 10 brings a couple improvements that free up a good chunk of that space and bring with it a couple cool features.

Windows 10 can now compress system files saving approximately 2GB on a typical install. The feature isn’t on by default, instead during the Windows install the system will be assessed to make sure that compression can happen without impacting user experience. Whether current generation tablet devices will meet the minimum requirements for this is something I’m a little skeptical about so it will be interesting to see how often this feature gets turned on or off.

Additionally Windows 10 does away with the recovery partition on the system drive which is where most of the size savings comes from. Now instead of reserving part of the disk to hold a full copy of the Windows 10 install image, which was used for the refresh and repair features, Windows 10 can rebuild itself in place. This comes with the added advantage of keeping all your installed updates so that refreshed PCs don’t need to go through the hassle of downloading them all again. However in the advent that you do have to do that they’ve included another great piece of technology that should make updating a new PC in your home a little easier.

Windows 10 will include the option of downloading PC updates via a P2P system which you can configure to download updates only from your local network or also PCs on the Internet. It’s essentially an extension of the BranchCache technology that’s been a part of Windows for a while now but it makes it far more accessible, allowing home users to take advantage of it. If you’re running a Windows home (like I am) this will make downloading updates far less painful and, for those of us who format regularly, help greatly when we need to get a bunch of Windows updates again. The Internet enabled feature is mostly for Microsoft’s benefit as it’ll take some load off their servers but should also help out users who are in regions that don’t have great backhaul to the Windows Update servers.

If Microsoft continues to release features like this for Windows 10 then it definitely has a bright future ahead of it. Things like this might not be the sexiest things to talk about but they address real concerns that have plagued Windows for years. In the end they all amount to one thing: a better experience for the consumer, something which Microsoft has fervently increased its focus on as of late. Whether they’ll amount to the panacea to the ills of Windows 8 remains to be seen but suffice to say I’m confident that it’ll line up well.

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The Time Delta From Strange to Commonplace.

New technology always seems to border on the edge of being weird or creepy. Back in the 1970s and 80s it was weird to be into games, locking yourself away for hours at a time in a darkened room staring at a glowing screen. Then the children (and adults) of that time grew up and suddenly spending your leisure time doing something other than watching TV or reading a book became an acceptable activity. This trend has been seen occurring more recently with the advent of social networks and smartphones with people now divulging information onto public forums at a rate that would’ve made the 1990s versions of them blush. What I’ve come to notice is that the time period between something being weird or creepy to becoming acceptable is becoming smaller, and the rate at which its shrinking is accelerating.

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The smartphone which you now carry with you everywhere is a constant source of things that were once considered on the borderline of acceptable but are now part of your life. Features like Google Now and Siri have their digital fingers through all your data, combing it for various bits of useful information that it can whip up into its slick interface. When these first came out everyone was apprehensive about them, I mean the fact that Google could pick up on travel itineraries and then display your flight times was downright spooky for some, but here we are a year or so later and features like that aren’t so weird anymore, hell they’re even expected.

The factor that appears to melt down barriers for us consumers is convenience. If a feature or product borders on the edge of being creepy but provides us with a level of convenience we couldn’t have otherwise we seem to have a very easy time accommodating it. Take for instance Disney’s new MyMagic Band which you program with your itinerary, preferences and food choices before you arrive at one of their amusement parks. Sure it might be a little weird to walk into a restaurant without having to order or pay, or walking up to rides and bypassing the queue, but you probably won’t be thinking about how weird that is when you’re in the thick of it. Indeed things like MyMagic break down barriers that would otherwise impact on the experience and thus, they work themselves easily into what we deem as acceptable.

The same can be said for self driving cars. Whilst techno junkies like myself can’t wait for the day when taking the wheel to go somewhere is optional the wider public is far more weary of what the implications of self-driving cars will be. This is why many companies have decided not to release a fully fledged vehicle first, instead opting to slowly incorporate pieces of the technology into their cars to see what customers react positively first. You’ll know these features as things like automatic emergency braking, lane assist and smart cruise control. All of these features are things you’d find in a fully fledged self driving car but instead of being some kind of voodoo magic they’re essentially just augments to things you’re already used to. In fact some of these systems are good enough that cars can self drive themselves in certain situations, although it’s probably not advised to do what this guy does.

Measuring the time difference between cultural shifts is tricky, they can really only be done in retrospect, but I feel the general idea that the time from weird to accepted has been accelerating. Primarily this is reflection in the acceleration of the pace of innovation where technological leaps that took decades now take place in mere years. Thus we’re far more accepting of change happening at such a rapid pace and it doesn’t take long for one feature, which was once considered borderline, to quickly seem passe. This is also a byproduct of how the majority of information is consumed now, with novelty and immediacy held above most other attributes. When this is all combined we become primed to accept changes at a greater rate which produces a positive feedback loop that drives technology and innovation faster.

What this means, for me at least, is that the information driven future that we’re currently hurtling towards might look scary on the surface however it will likely be far less worrisome when it finally arrives. There are still good conversations to be had around privacy and how corporations and governments handle our data, but past that the innovations that happen because of that are likely to be accepted much faster than anyone currently predicts. That is if they adhere to the core tenet of providing value and convenience for the end user as should a product neglect that it will fast find itself in the realm of obsolescence.

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DirectX 12, Vulkan Could Bring GPU Teaming Between Brands.

It’s been a while between drinks for DirectX with the latest release, 11, coming out some 6 years ago . This can be partly attributed to the consolization of PC games, putting a damper on the demand for new features, however Vista having exclusivity on DirectX 10 was the biggest factor ensuring that the vast majority of gamers simply didn’t have access to it. Now that the majority of the gaming crowd has caught up and DirectX 11 titles abound demand for a new graphics pipeline that can make the most of new hardware has started to ramp up and Microsoft looks ready to deliver on that with DirectX 12. Hot on the heels of that however is Vulkan, the new OpenGL standard that grew out of AMD’s Mantle API which is shaping up to be a solid competitor.

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Underpinning both of these new technologies is a desire for the engines to get out of the way of game developers by getting them as close to the hardware as possible. Indeed if you look at the marketing blurb for either DirectX 12 or Vulkan it’s clear that they want to market their new technology as being lightweight, giving the developers access to more of the graphical power than they would have had previously. The synthetic benchmarks that are making the rounds seem to confirm this showing a lot less time spent sending jobs to the GPUs thus eeking out more performance for the same piece of hardware. However the one feature that’s really intrigued me, and pretty much everyone else, is the possibility of these new APIs allowing SLI or CrossFire like functionality to work across different GPUs, even different brands.

The technology to do this is called Split Frame Rendering (SFR) an alternative way of combining graphics cards. The traditional way of doing SLI/CrossFire is called Alternate Frame Rendering (AFR) which sends odd frames to one card and even frames to the other. This is what necessitates the cards being identical and the reason why you don’t get a 100% performance boost from using 2 cards. SFR on the other hand makes both of the GPUs work in tandem, breaking up a scene into 2 halves and sending one of to each of the graphics cards. Such technology is already available for games that make use of the Mantle API for gamers who have AMD cards with titles like Civilization: Beyond Earth supporting SFR.

For Vulkan and DirectX 12 this technology could be used to send partial frames to 2 distinct types of GPUs, negating the need for special drivers or bridges in order to divvy up frames between 2 GPUs. Of course this then puts the onus on the game developer (or the engine that’s built on top of these APIs) to build in support for this rather than it sitting with the GPU vendor to develop a solution. I don’t think it will be long before we see the leading game engines support SFR natively and so you’d likely see numerous titles being able to take advantage of this technology without major updates required. This is still speculative at this point however and we may end up with similar restrictions around SFR like we currently have for AFR.

There’s dozens more features that are set to come out with these new set of APIs and whilst we won’t see the results of them for some time to come the possibilities they open up are quite exciting. I can definitely recall the marked jump up in graphical fidelity between DirectX 10 and 11 titles so hopefully 12 does the same thing when it graces our PCs. I’m interested to see how Vulkan goes as since it’s grown out of the Mantle API, which showed some very significant performance gains for AMD cards that used it, there’s every chance it’ll be able to deliver on the promises its making. It really harks back to the old days, when wars between supporters of OpenGL and DirectX were as fervent as those between vi and emacs users.

We all know that vi and DirectX are the superior platform, of course.

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Talk About Sticker Shock: The $17,000 Watch.

It seemed that even the announcement of the Watch couldn’t kill the rumour mill about the Watch as there’s been rampant speculation about just what this device will be, what it will cost and what it will mean for tech consumers worldwide. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, any potential Apple product receives this treatment, but it still shocks me just how people are in potential rather than actual products. Yesterday Apple announced the price range for their range of Watches and they start at the expected price, some US$349 and rocket up to the absolutely crazy price of US$17,000. Needless to say those premium editions are far more premium than most people were expecting and it makes one question what the motives behind those devices are.

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For starters smartwatches are still in their nascent stages with numerous companies still vying to find that killer design, app or whatever it is that catapults them to the top of the pile. For me it’s still about aesthetics, something which the Watch certainly doesn’t have, and the only one that’s managed to come close to winning in that regard (in my mind) is the Huawei Watch and I’m even skeptical of that given how the Moto 360 turned out. For others though it’s going to be about the features, something which the current Watch seems to satisfy, however as time goes on those $17,000 Watches are going become decidedly dated and this brings in the quesiton about Apple’s strategy with these premium devices.

There’s no doubt that there’s a healthy dose of margin on the higher end devices, especially considering that the innards on those devices is identical to the ones that cost a fraction of the premium models. So potentially these higher end Watches are being used to subsidise the lower end although honestly I can’t remember a time when Apple has done this with another consumer product, a hefty premium on all hardware (and losses elsewhere) is their modus operandi. Whilst I can see the lower end models fitting well into Apple’s yearly product cycle I can’t say the same for these high end models although I’ll be the first to admit that someone paying that much for an Watch obviously has a different sense of value to me.

The argument has been made that these luxury versions of the Watch won’t be bought for the functionality which I agree with to a point however there are far, far better purchases that can be made to facilitate the same purpose for a similar price. The differentiator between those products and the one Apple is peddling is the functionality and it’s highly unlikely that someone who wants a fashion accessory would pick a $17K Watch over an equivalent Rolex or Patek. In that regard the functionality does matter and these watches are going to be rapidly outpaced by their cheaper brethren just a year down the line. Apple could of course offer an upgrade service although nothing of that nature has been forthcoming and they’re not exactly a company that prides themselves on upgradeable products.

Regardless of what I think though it will be the market that decides how popular these things will be and whether or not Apple can break into the realm of high fashion with their luxury Watches. My personal opinion is they won’t, given the fact that whilst functionality might not be important in a luxury watch it’s Apple’s only differentiator at this point. However I also highly critical of the iPad so I’m not the greatest judge of what should make a product successful so maybe an Watch with a gold case will be enough to sell people on the idea, even if the resulting watch will be replaced by a sleeker brother only 12 months later.

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Super For Your First House? Please, No.

Breaking into the property market has become more difficult for first home buyers in Australia as of late mostly because of reasons I’ve explained in detail on this blog before. It’s not an easy problem to solve as many of the options championed by self proclaimed experts are politically charged and increasing the housing supply isn’t as simple as many people think it to be. Thus many of the measures that the incumbent government suggests are often things that don’t address any of the underlying issues directly and instead look to put more money in the hands of potential first home buyers. Joe Hockey’s recent brainwave to address this problem, by allowing first home buyers to dip into their super for a deposit, is a classic example of this and it will neither help first home buyers nor address the underlying issues that they face.

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Whilst it’s not a formal policy they’re looking to submit yet (hence the lack of detail around how the actual scheme would work) Hockey says that he’s been approached by lots of young people looking to tap into their superannuation in order to fund their first home purchase. On the surface it sounds good, younger Australians get to put a roof over their heads and get their foot into the property market, something which should hopefully sustain them for the future. The main problems I see with this are two fold; firstly most people won’t have enough super to make a difference and, secondly, it will likely set most people back meaning their retirement will likely not be fully funded by super.

On average your typical superannuation balance at 25 is on the order of $10,000, not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Even the most generous loans that let you get away with a 5% deposit would only see you able to get a loan for $200,000 with that amount of cash, not exactly the amount that many now first time home buyers are looking to finance. That figure doubles by the time they reach their 30s but that’s still not enough to finance the home on its own. Indeed first home buyers are likely to need double or triple that in order to buy their first homes which means that they’ll need to have at least $20,000 in savings for those meager amounts of super to help push them over the line. If they’re able to save that you’d then think that bridging the gap wouldn’t be outside of their reach, at least within a reasonable timeframe.

This then leads onto the conclusion that the opposite situation, one where someone couldn’t save that much and required their superannuation to bridge the gap, is the least preferable scenario for a first home buyer. You see a savings track record proves that someone will be able to cope with the repayments that a mortgage requires whilst at the same time still being able to afford everything else they need to live. If you don’t have this and are looking to get into property diving into your super isn’t going to help you, instead it’s going to put you in the unenviable position of having even less money available to you, eradicating any chance you had at getting ahead. You’d hope that the last batch of lending reforms would prevent most people like this from getting a loan in the first place but I think we’ve all seen people get themselves into this situation before.

On top of this using most or all of your super would essentially put you back 5 or 10 years in planning for your retirement. That might not sound like much when most people will have 50+ years of working life but a lot of the power of super comes from compound interest. When you take an axe to your initial savings it resets the clock, pushing back the compounding rate significantly. That means you hit the high growth part of your super much later in life, leaving a lot less than you’d expect for retirement. This would mean more people getting onto the aged pension sooner, something which the whole superannuation system was designed to avoid.

I’ll hold off on any other criticisms until I see an actual policy on this but suffice to say the idea is rife with issues and I think the only reason that they’re entertaining it is to win back some favour with the youth vote. If they do put a policy before parliament though it’ll be interesting to see how they address criticisms like this as I know I’m not the only one to find fault with this policy. Heck I’d love to see more people getting into property since it’d bolster my investments but honestly I’d rather see the underlying issues, like lack of supply and the owner-occupier CGT exemptions, tackled first before they start looking towards trashing people’s futures for short term gains.

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Grow Home: Let’s Get Waaaay Up There Bud.

Puzzlers are something of a mainstay of the indie community thanks to their relative simplicity and large amount of creative freedom they offer the developer. That being said it means that the same generic mechanics tend to crop up quite often and unique puzzle mechanics are few and far between. There is a lot of innovation in the indie scene however and every so often it manages to create a gem of a puzzle game that provides a fresh take on the genre. Grow Home is one such game, taking the more traditional 3D puzzler and shaking it up with some interesting game mechanics and a certain sense of charm that makes it a delightfully fun game to play.

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You are BUD, the Botanical Utility Droid, who’s been sent on a quest to harvest star seeds from the elusive star plant found on some planets. Your ever watchful parent ship MOM has located one of these plants and has sent you down to the surface to cultivate the plant. Now it’s up to you to grow the star plant up to its optimal height, 2 kilometres tall in fact, so that it will blossom and produce those wonderful seeds that you’re looking for. MOM has sent down some resources for you in preparation for your journey and you’re going to need every single one of them if you are to grow this plant to any height.

Grow Home is a styled in a beautifully minimalistic way, using extremely low poly count models and, if I’m not mistaken, eschewing any kind of textures in favour of just solid colour polygons. It is lavished by a lot of other effects though, like distance hazing and night/day cycles, so the minimal polygons end up looking a lot better than you first expect them to. The game touts the main character as being “procedurally animated” which means that it attempts to move in a certain way based on the inputs which, for the most part, works and adds to the whole bumbling charm of BUD although it sometimes wigs out and causes all sorts of mischief. This is most certainly intentional though, as is most of the emergent behaviour you’re able to invoke in this world.

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Your task is very simple: grow the star plant to the requisite 2000m height and then gather a star seed from the flower on the top. To do this you’ll need to guide the little stems on the star plant to energy rocks which give the plant a burst of energy allowing it to climb to greater heights. However to get to all these energy rocks you’ll need to climb the plant, inching ever higher in order to get to the next rock. This means, of course, that the higher you go the more you have to lose should you fall as one misstep can send you tumbling back down to earth with only a few things to stop you from making BUD jam on the ground below. There’s also other objectives for you to complete which tempt you to take even greater risks but should you get them it could be well worth the effort.

Grow Home tells you at the start that it’s better played with a controller and whilst I’m usually a stickler for keyboard and mouse I’m inclined to agree with the devs here. You see in order to climb you have to press and hold the mouse buttons, something that’s a little fatiguing after a while. A controller by comparison, especially the current gen designs, are much easier to deal with in that regard. That being said I didn’t have many climbing related incidents due to finger fatigue but it would’ve likely made the whole experience a little better. Once you get the hang of making sure that you have at least one hand connected to a surface the rest of the climbing flows pretty well, save for some times when the procedural animation engine tries to reach beyond BUD’s grasp and just leaves him reaching for a goal he can never get.

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The few other mechanics are great little quality of life additions, with the flower and the leaf ensuring that one misstep doesn’t cost you the last 10 minutes progress. The crystal upgrades are also well worth it, making the whole climbing process a lot easier and quicker. I only got up to 30 something crystals before I finished the game but those improvements were certainly worth the effort. If you’re so inclined you can bring stuff to the teleporters and have MOM scan them for some rather comical data bank entries for you to read although since I’m not usually a “collect all the things” kind of player I left it to one side, only bringing things in that were nearby. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of stuff to keep you entertained in here should that sort of thing appeal to you.

Grow Home runs smoothly thanks to its low polygon use however the Unity engine its running on, for some reason, really doesn’t like being alt-tabbed out of. This highlighted another rather annoying issue with the game’s save mechanism as it doesn’t save anything unless you hit the save and quit button in the menu. I lost the first 30 minutes of my initial game because I alt-tabbed to check something and then couldn’t get back in, putting me right back at the start. There’s no option to run in fullscreen windowed either, something which would render my frustrations moot.

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Grow Home is a delightful platform puzzler with gorgeous minimalistic graphics and a fresh set of puzzle mechanics that make it a joy to play. If you’re like me and play games to completion then the asking price might be a bit rich for the 2ish hours of game play it delivers but there’s certainly a lot more to Grow Home than just getting your hands on the star seed. That being said I still really enjoyed my time with Grow Home as it’s so far away from everything else I’ve played recently. If you enjoy a good puzzle game then you can’t go past Grow Home.

Rating: 8/10

Grow Home is available on PC right now for $9.95. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 15% of the achievements unlocked.

Free Game Engines

The Engine Revolution: Free is the New Paid.

I remember when I was a doe eyed teenager thinking that it would be great to make games (I know better now, of course) if I could only afford the fees to get a good engine. You see back then commercial engines were licensed for inordinate sums of money and the technical hurdle of building your own engine was fraught with danger. Over time though that has changed with old engines being open sourced, new products entering the fray and licensing models shifting to be more palatable to those who might not be able to afford huge upfront costs. Today it seems that free is now the way to go as 3 major platforms have just announced that their engines are free for all who want them, opening up a wealth of possibilities to indies and big development houses alike.

Free Game Engines

Unity has been the mainstay of many indie games for quite a while now, enabling many to create games that would’ve otherwise been impossible. They’ve also long been sympathetic to the cause, offering free (but often cut down) versions of their engine to anyone who’d ask for them. The difference between the free and paid tier has been eroded completely with both versions containing all the same features and editor. This is a big step for Unity as there was a definite rift between the paid and free versions, something that was abundantly clear to me when I was tinkering around with it. Now the difference between the tiers comes in the form of additional services and can be had for a measly $1500 (which includes a team license) or $75/month if that’s too rich for your blood. Suffice to say that I think Unity is likely to remain the king of indie engines for a long time now as even the pro tier is well within the grasp of aspiring devs.

Not to be outdone by Unity Unreal announced on the same day that their new Unreal 4 engine, which has had some incredibly impressive demos, is now free to any and all comers.The barrier to entry wasn’t particularly high before, they only charged $19 to get access to the engine and all its source, however that’s enough to stop some people from considering it in the first place. Now you’ll be able to get it everything that program gave you for free and you won’t have to pay a dime until you’re able. The limit on revenue isn’t particularly high though, only $3000 per product per quarter, before you have to shell out 5% of gross revenue something which could be a killer for some devs. Still it’s hard to deny what the engine is capable of producing so it might be an easier sell for more established dev houses.

Lastly Valve has swaggered into the picture debuting their new Source 2 engine and announcing that it will also be free to anyone who wants it. It’s been not-so-secretly released as part of the DOTA 2 development tools for the better part of a year now and by all accounts seems like a really capable next-gen engine. Source 2 appears to be the most “free” of the free engines that have debuted in the past couple days with Valve wanting no money up front for the engine nor any backend revenue should you make it big. However there is the caveat that the resulting game be released on Steam which means all sales on there give Valve their 30% cut although you’d incur this same cost regardless of which engine you used if you sold on Steam. Source 2 is then something of a loss-leader for future sales, a clever move by Valve to bring more developers onto their platform (as if there wasn’t enough already).

With this many options available now developers are now spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting an engine for a game, something you really couldn’t say even a few years ago. Whilst I think Unreal will probably be the least likely one to be used out of the current 3 I think there’s going to be some stiff competition between Unity and Source 2 as time goes on. Unity has the head start in this regard as their tools really are top notch for both novice and advanced developers alike but Source 2 has the potential to turn into something amazing based on the community that Valve seems to develop around every one of its products. The real winner in all of this is us, the gaming public, as it means more games will get made and more concepts will be explored.

CETO

Wave Power Generators Now Powering Australia’s Grid.

Wave energy always seemed like one of those technologies that sounded cool but was always 10 years away from a practical implementation. I think the massive rise in solar over the past decade or so is partly to blame for this as whilst it has its disadvantages it’s readily available and at prices that make even the smallest installations worthwhile. However it seems that whilst the world may have turned its eyes elsewhere an Australian company, Carnegie Wave Energy, has been busy working away in the background on developing their CETO technology that can provide a peak power output of some 240KW. In fact they’ve just installed their first system here in Australia and connected it to the grid to provide power to Western Australia.

CETOThe way these pods work is quite fascinating as much of the technology they use has been adapted from offshore oil rigs and drill platforms. The buoy sits a couple meters under the surface and is anchored to the sea bed via a flexible tether. As the waves move past them it pulls on the cable, driving an attached pump that creates high pressure sea water. This is then fed up through a pipe to an onshore facility where it can be used to drive a turbine or a desalination plant. These CETO pods also have some other cool technology in them to be able to cope for rough sea conditions, allowing them to shed energy so that the pumps aren’t overdriven or undue stress is put on the tether.

What’s really impressive however are the power generation figures that they’re quoting for the current systems. The current CETO 5 pod that they’ve been running for some 2000 hours has a peak generation capacity of about 240KW which is incredibly impressive especially when you consider what comparable renewable energy sources require to deliver that. Their next implementation is looking to quadruple that, putting their CETO 6 pod in the 1MW range. Considering that this is a prototype slated to cost about $32 million total that’s not too far off how much other renewables would cost to get to that capacity so it’s definitely an avenue worth investigating.

I’m very interested to see where Carnegie Wave Energy takes this idea as it looks like there’s a lot of potential in this technology they’re developing. With offshore wind always meeting resistance from NIMBYs and those who think they ruin the view something like this has a lot of potential to work in places where the other alternatives aren’t tenable. That, coupled with the fact that they can be run as either power generation units or desalination plants, means that the technology has a very large potential market. Of course the final factor that will make or break the technology is the total installed cost per KW however the numbers are already looking pretty good in that regard so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of these CETOs soon.