Monthly Archives: May 2014

Wolfenstein: The New Order: The Life That’s Not For Me.

Nearly every gamer of my generation would have grown up with the classic FPS Wolfenstein 3D. I was just 7 years old when it first came out and my parents, not wanting to expose me to violent games that involved killing people, forbid me from playing it. Of course this didn’t deter me one bit and through an ingenious floppy sharing and copying system my brother and I managed to get our hands on a copy. However it was clear this game was beyond my skills at the time as I can’t remember ever getting past the first level and my guiltily acquired pleasure was soon ditched for more entertaining games. The Wolfenstein series has made many reappearances since then with varying levels of quality. The sentiment among my friends for this latest instalment wasn’t particularly high but, in all honesty, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great game in its own right.

Wolfenstein The New Order Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are agent Blazkowicz, Nazi killing extraordinaire who is taking part in a large allies raid on the axis forces. It’s been 3 years since the events of the previous game and the Nazis have developed highly advanced technology, turning the tide against the allied forces. Your mission is to strike directly at the heart of the Nazi war machine: your old nemesi: General Deathshead. Unfortunately your plane is shot down before you can start your mission, putting you deep in the trenches facing off against some of the technological horrors of the Nazi army.

The New Order is one of the few games to be based on the id Tech 5 engine with the last one being it’s debut game, Rage. It’s most certainly worthy of its next generation status as the visuals are top notch, even on an aging computer like mine. There are some notable performance issues, especially during the opening scenes, which required me to tweak several settings to get them working satisfactorily. That being said once I was past that initial scene and into the more corridor-esque parts the performance issues seemed to die down somewhat. It’d be interesting to contrast this against a similar machine with a NVIDIA card, considering the amount of optimization The New Order has for it.

Wolfenstein The New Order Review Screenshot Wallpaper Resistance Hideout

In terms of actual game play The New Order is your typical corridor shooter that’s been augmented with a few RPG characteristics here and there to give you a sense of progression. The New Order avoids the current pitfall of infinitely regenerating health, instead allowing you to regen up to a certain point before requiring you to seek out health packs. You can still carry a ridiculous number of guns, although you won’t be able to carry them across chapters, and all of them will get augmented in one (or several) ways, opening up many new opportunities for taking out Nazis in the most glorious ways. There’s also a stealth system which, whilst functional, loses much of its sheen when it’s unceremoniously ripped away from you. Still the combination of all these parts makes for an interesting, if not entirely unique, experience.

The combat is fluid and highly polished, comparable to that of other AAA shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield. The aiming does feel a little on the generous side as you’ll be able to easily nail headshots from the hip at great distances. For the most part though the combat isn’t exactly difficult, indeed you’ll likely not die for much of the first half of the game, but the later stages of the game do require you to employ a little strategy in order to progress without dying repeatedly. Often it’s just remembering when/where the strongest enemies appear as they’re usually the ones who’ll cause your unexpected demise.

Wolfenstein The New Order Review Screenshot Wallpaper Time To Blow Up Nazis

The stealth system is pretty basic, you can crouch down and then sneak around and take out enemies one by one and they’ll be none the wiser to your presence. Indeed the bodies of taken out enemies don’t seem to phase them one bit, allowing you to take out great swaths of enemies without much of a thought to the order in which you do it. On the flip side there’s very little leniency with getting spotted and most likely the second you’re in a guard’s line of sight you’ll be spotted and everyone will know exactly where you are (even if you move away from that spot out of sight). It’s much better than other games that have tacked on stealth mechanics however it could still do with a little more fleshing out.

I really quite liked the talent system as instead of it being based on XP or some other arbitrary value or event it’s tied to you completing certain objectives in the game. This means that should you favour one style of game play over another that particular way of playing will get strong over the course of the game. Of course this can backfire on you completely if you say, choose to complete things in a mostly stealthy manner, as most of the time you’ll have the opportunity for stealth completely removed from you. Still even with that limitation I was able to unlock the majority of the perks without trying too hard and those few that required something special could usually be done in the space of a single chapter.

Wolfenstein The New Order Review Screenshot Wallpaper Daat Yichud

Unfortunately the 3 years between the release of RAGE and The New Order haven’t seen the larger issues with the id Tech 5 engine sorted out. Texture pop-in is rife in almost every environment, something which is highly noticeable if you spin around at even a mild pace. Combine this with the frame rate issues at the beginning and it’s not a great experience, one that had me searching for solutions for quite some time. Updating to the latest beta drivers seems to be fixing that for most people but texture pop in will still remain. Hopefully a couple patches will be able to sort these issues out as whilst they don’t stop the game from being playable it does add frustration where it’s not needed.

The New Order’s story does shine through as one of the better aspects as whilst it’s not exactly Oscar winning material it does make you empathize with the characters. You will have to ignore some of the obnoxious plot holes in order to fully enjoy the story but it’s one of the first FPS games in a long time to do tragedy right. Of course you could still play The New Order, completely ignoring the plot, and still get a lot out of it however.

Wolfenstein The New Order Review Screenshot Wallpaper A Stroll on the Moon

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a well polished evolution of the Wolfenstein series, combining the classic FPS game style with modern elements that results in a very solid experience. The combat is fast paced and well polished, the stealth system actually usable and the story punches above its weight. However the id Tech 5 engine seems to still show signs of not being fully baked yet, mostly due to the fact that this is only the second title to be released with it. Nothing about those issues aren’t fixable however and hopefully they’re resolved in future patch releases. Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game that both long time fans and newcomers to the series can enjoy, a feat few long running series like this can lay claim to.

Rating: 8.75/10

Wolfenstein: The New Order is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for  $79.95, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on PC on the hard difficulty setting with 10 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.

Natural Salt Cubes.

Nature is full of patterns. For the most part these all have an organic feel to them, usually due to the soft curves or seeming randomness that’s inherent in it. Artificial things, like those constructed by man, have the opposite feel to them. Nothing highlights this more than when you compare the view of areas like sand dunes or dense forests against that of a city skyline. However every so often the lines between these two worlds seem to blur together with nature producing something that looks like it was forged by hand rather than by the natural processes of the world. One such example of this, and one I wasn’t aware of until I saw this video, was the creation of salt cubes in the Dead Sea:

There are many processes by which things like this can occur, Bismuth is a great example of this, taking on shapes that look down right otherworldly in origin, unlike many other minerals that take on much more organic shapes in their natural form. However in the case of Bismuth as well as these salt cubes there’s a simple explanation behind why they end up looking the way they do. For these salt cubes it comes down to the microscopic nature of the molecule, namely sodium chloride (table salt), manifesting itself in macro form.

The Dead Sea is a giant salt lake with an average salt content of around 35%. This is the perfect environment for salt crystals to form and since the solution is so saturated with salt the amount of impurities that make it into the crystal are relatively low. Thus the crystal structure grows in the most idyllic way which just so happens to be a square lattice. Whilst the cubes shown in the video are relatively small the limit on their size is no where near that, with square crystals able to grow up to several kilograms in size. If you were so inclined you could probably grow one several meters in size in a laboratory although the usefulness of such an activity would be highly questionable.

But you would have a giant cube of salt, no one could argue with that 🙂

Even Car Enthusiasts Will Want a Self Driving Car.

With an abundance of space and not much else the rural parts of Australia aren’t really the place where a kid has much to entertain themselves with. From the age of about 12 however my parents let us kids bash our way around the property in all manner of vehicles which has then fed into a lifelong obsession with cars. This has been in direct competition with my financially sensible side however as cars are a depreciating asset, one that no amount of money invested in them can ever recoup. However I still enjoy the act of driving itself, especially if it’s through some of Australia’s more picturesque landscapes. You’d think then that the idea of a self driving car would be abhorrent to a person like myself but in reality it’s anything but.

Google Self Driving Car LexusWe’re fast approaching the time when cars that can drive themselves to and from any location are not only technically feasible, they’re a few short steps away from being a commercial reality. Google’s self driving car, whilst it has only left its home town a couple times, has demonstrated that it’s quite possible to arm a car with a bevy of sensors and have it react better than a human would in many situations. Indeed the accidents their car has been involved in have not been the fault of the software, but of the humans either controlling the self driving car or those ramming into the back of it. Whilst there’s still many regulatory hurdles to go before these things are seen en-masse on our roads it would seem like having them there would be a huge boon to everyone, especially those travelling as its passengers.

For me whilst driving isn’t an unpleasant experience it’s still a time where I’m unable to do anything else but drive the car. Now I’m not exactly your stereotypical workaholic (I will keep a standard hour day and attempt to automate most of my work instead) but having an extra hour or so a day where I can complete a few tasks, or even just catch up on interesting articles, would be pretty handy. Indeed this is the reason why I still fly most places when travelling for business, even when the flight from Canberra to the other capitals is below an hour total. It’s not me doing the driving which allows me to get things done rather than spending multiple hours watching the odometer.

There’s also those numerous times when neither the wife nor I feel like driving and we could simply hand over to the car for the trip. I can even imagine it reducing our need to have separate cars as I could simply have the car drop my wife off and return to me if I needed it. That’s a pretty huge benefit and one that’s well worth paying a bit of a premium for.

This would also have the unintentional benefit of making those times when I wanted to drive that much more enjoyable. Nothing takes the fun out of something that enjoy than being forced to do it all the time for another purpose, something which driving to work every day certainly did for me. If I was only driving when I wanted to however I feel that I’d enjoy it far more than I’d otherwise would. I think a lot of car enthusiasts will feel the same way as few drive their pride and joys to work every day, instead having a daily driver that they run on the cheap. Of course some will abhor the experience in its entirety but you get that with any kind of new technology. Industries like that of auto accident attorney Amy Witherite will undoubtedly experience change to say the least. How will they deal with a case of human Vs empty robot car? These are thing that only time will tell.

For me this technology can not come quick enough as the benefits are huge with the only downside being the likely high cost of acquisition. I’ve only been speaking from a personal viewpoint here too as there’s far much more to be gained once self driving cars reach a decent level of penetration among the wider community.

That’s a blog post for another day, however.

 

Are Solar Freakin’ Roadways Feasible?

The main substrate of our roads hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. Most of our roads these days are asphalt concrete with some being plain old concrete with a coarse aggregate in them. For what we use them for this isn’t really an issue as the most modern cars can still perform just as well on all kinds of roads so the impetus to improve them is low. There have been numerous ideas put forth to take advantage of the huge swaths of road we’ve laid down over the years, many seeking to use the heat they absorb to do something useful. One idea though would be a radical departure from the way we currently construct roads and it could prove to be a great source of renewable energy.

Solar Roadways

Solar (Freakin’) Roadways are solar tiles that can be laid down in place of regular road. Their surface is tempered glass that’s durable enough for a tractor to trundle over it and provides the same amount of grip that a traditional asphalt surface does. Underneath that surface is a bunch of solar panels that will generate electricity during the day. The hexagonal panels also include an array of LEDs which can then be used to generate lane markers, traffic signs or even alert drivers to hazards that have been detected up the road. Both the concept art and the current prototypes they have developed look extremely cool and with their Indiegogo campaign already being fully funded it’s almost a sure bet that we’ll see roads paved with these in the future.

The first question that comes to everyone’s mind though is just how much will roads paved in this way cost, and how does that compare to traditional roads?

As it turns out finding solid numbers on the cost of road construction per kilometer is a little difficult as the numbers seem to differ wildly depending on who you ask. A study that took data from several countries states that the median cost is somewhere around $960,000/km (I assume that’s USD) whereas councils from Australia have prices ranging from $600,000/km to $1,159,000/km. Indeed depending on how complicated the road is the costs can escalate quickly with Melbourne’s Eastlink road costing somewhere on the order of $34,000,000 per kilometer laid down. In terms of feasibility for Solar Roadways I’d say that they could be competitive with traditional roads if they could get their costs to around $1,000,000/km at scale production something which, in my mind, seems achievable.

Unfortunately Solar Roadways isn’t forthcoming with costs as of yet mostly due to them being in the prototype stage. Taking a look over the various components they list though I believe the majority of the construction cost will come from the channels beneath the panels as bulk prices for things like solar panels, tempered glass and PCBs are quite low. Digging and concreting the channels required to carry the power infrastructure could easily end up costing as much as a traditional road does so potentially we’re looking at a slightly higher cost per km than our current roads. Of course I could be horribly wrong about this since I’m no civil engineer.

The cost would be somewhat offset by the power that the solar roads would generate although the payback period is likely to be quite long. Their current prototypes are 36 watt panels which they claim will go up to 52 watt for the final production module. I can’t find any measurements for their panels so I’ve eyeballed that they’re roughly 30cm per side giving them a size of about 0.2 square meters. This means that a square meter of these things could generate roughly 250 watts at peak efficiency. The output will vary considerably throughout the year but say you get 7 hours per day at 50% max output you’re looking at about 875 watts generated per square meter. Your average road is about 3 meters wide giving us 3000 square meters of generation area generating about 2,600kwh per day. The current feed in tariffs in Australia would have 1km of Solar Roadways road making about $1000 / day giving a pay off time of around 3 years. My numbers are likely horribly skewed to be larger than they’d be realistically though (there are many more factors that come into play) but even slashing the efficiency down to 10% still gives you a pay back time of 15 years, longer than the current expected life of the panels.

As an armchair observer then it does seem like Solar Roadways’ idea is feasible and could end up being a net revenue generator for those who choose to adopt it. All of my numbers are based on my speculation though so there are numerous things that could put the kibosh on it but it’s at least taking to the real world implementation stage to see how things pan out. Indeed should this work as advertised then the future of transportation could be radically different, maybe enough to curb our impact on the global ecosystem. I’m looking forward to see more from Solar Roadways as a future with them looks to be incredibly exciting.

Microsoft’s Surface 3: It’s Interesting Because of What It’s Not.

The Surface has always been something of a bastard child for Microsoft. They were somewhat forced into creating a tablet device as everyone saw them losing to Apple in this space (even though Microsoft’s consumer electronics division isn’t one of their main profit centers) and their entry into the market managed to confuse a lot of people. The split between the Pro and RT line was clear enough for those of us in the know however consumers, who often in the face of 2 seemingly identical choices will prefer the cheaper one, were left with devices that didn’t function exactly as they expected. The branding of the Surface then changed slightly so that those seeking the device would likely end up with the Pro model and all would be right with the world. The Surface 3, announced last week, carries on that tradition albeit with a much more extreme approach.

Surface Pro 3

As you’d expect the new Surface is an evolutionary step up in terms of functionality, specifications and, funnily enough, size. You now have the choice of either an Intel i3, i5 or i7, 4GB or 8GB of memory and up to 512GB of SSD storage. The screen has swelled to 12″ in size and now sports a pretty incredible 2160 x 1440 resolution, equal to that of many high end screens you’d typically find on a desktop. These additional features actually come with a reduction in weight from the Surface 2 Pro, down from 900g to a paltry 790g. There are some other minor changes as well like the multi-position kickstand and a changed pen but those are small potatoes compared to the rest of the changes that seem to have aimed the Surface more as a laptop replacement than a tablet that can do laptop things.

Since I carry a laptop with me for work (a Dell Latitude E6430 if you were wondering) I’m most certainly sensitive to the issues that plague people like me and the Surface Pro has the answer to many of them. Having to lug my work beast around isn’t the most pleasant experience and I’ve long been a champion of moving everyone across to Ultrabooks in order to address many of the concerns. The Surface Pro is essentially an Ultrabook in a tablet form factor which provides the benefits of both in one package. Indeed colleagues of mine who’ve bought a surface for that purpose love them and those who bought the original Surface Pro back at the TechEd fire sale all said similar things after a couple days of use.

The one thing that would seal the deal for me on the Surface as the replacement to my now 2 year old Zenbook would be the inclusion (or at least option to include) a discrete graphics card. Whilst I don’t do it often I do use my (non-work) laptop for gaming and whilst the Intel HD 4400 can play some games decently the majority of them will struggle. However the inclusion of even a basic discrete chip would make the Surface a portable gaming powerhouse and would be the prime choice for when my Zenbook reaches retirement. That’s still a year or two away however so Microsoft may end up getting my money in the end.

What’s really interesting about this announcement is the profound lack of a RT version of the Surface Pro 3. Indeed whilst I didn’t think there was anything to get confused about between the two version it seems a lot of people did and that has led to a lot of disappointed customers. It was obvious that Microsoft was downplaying the RT version when the second one was announced last year but few thought that it would lead to Microsoft outright cancelling the line. Indeed the lack of an accompanying Surface RT would indicate that Microsoft isn’t so keen on that platform, something which doesn’t bode well for the few OEMs that decided to play in that space. On the flip side it could be a great in for them as Microsoft eating up the low end of the market was always going to be a sore spot for their OEMs and Microsoft still seems committed to the idea from a purely technological point of view.

The Surface 3 might not be seeing me pull out the wallet just yet but there’s enough to like about it that I can see many IT departments turning towards it as the platform of choice for their mobile environments. The lack of an RT variant could be construed as Microsoft giving up on the RT idea but I think it’s probably more to do with the confusion around each of the platform’s value propositions. Regardless it seems that Microsoft is committed to the Surface Pro platform, something which was heavily in doubt just under a year ago. It might not be the commercial success that the iPad et al were but it seems the Surface Pro will become a decent revenue generator for Microsoft.

Bound By Flame: Humanity is Overrated.

The last couple months have been a little barren in terms of releases which, whilst it gives me some time to plunder the vast depths of the numerous indie releases, does leave me hungering for a more traditional type of experience. During my usual stumble through the new releases on Steam I happened to come across Bound by Flame, an action RPG that managed to impress me on its trailers alone. However it was hard to miss the rather damning Metacritic review score on the store page that indicated that this title was probably less than stellar. Still the short bits I had seen seemed to indicate that it was worth playing and so I sat myself down to see if I was right.

Bound By Flame Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The world is under siege, a massive army of the undead shambling its way across the land and devastating everything in its path. Each battle with this terrible army, under the command of powerful magic wielders called Ice Lords, only serves to swell their ranks even further. There is not much hope for humanity however a group of scholars called the Red Scribes believes they have a way to turn the tide of the war. You are Vulcan, member of the Free Born Blades, a mercenary group who has been hired by the Red Scribes to protect them while they attempt to complete the ritual. However not everything goes as planned and suddenly you find yourself being far more involved in this conflict than you’d first anticipated.

Visually Bound by Flame has the look that many similar previous gen RPGs did with an extremely muted colour palette and somewhat simplistic looking graphics. The screenshots are a little misleading as on their own they look quite good but once you see everything in motion it becomes apparent what the limitations are. Indeed the whole thing feels like a fantasy version of Mars: War Logs, which shouldn’t be surprising considering it’s from the same developer, but this means that all the issues that plagued that game are present in Bound by Flame as well. Considering their close release dates I’m assuming that they didn’t have much time to take the lessons learned from their previous title and apply it to this one, which is rather unfortunate considering they seem like a studio who wants to make a decent game.

Bound By Flame Screenshot Wallpaper First Boss

Bound by Flame is an action RPG at heart, taking the majority of the traditional mechanics and wrapping them up in a real time combat system in order to keep the pace up. All the usual elements you’d expect are there: levels, a skill tree system that you use to get new skills and improve old ones, various perks that can be unlocked, loot galore and a crafting system to augment items you’ll find. There’s a main story quest that will be your main way of progressing forward but there’s also a handful of side quests to do should you feel the need. You’ll also have a variety of party members to choose from, each with their own set of skills and story lines which you can pursue at your leisure.

The combat is reminiscent of Mars: War Logs as you’re just whacking on an enemy until they try to attack, at which point you’ve got to block or somehow get out of the way. Bound by Flame differs through the use of “stances” which are essentially different ways of doing combat. The warrior stance lets you use your 2 handed sword but stops you from being able to quickly dodge attacks. The ranger stance on the other hand is focused on quick attacks but the ability to parry incoming attacks is greatly reduced. Just like any RPG you’d better focus on one or the other as trying to mix the two will likely lead to a sub-par experience. There’s also the pyromancer abilities which are essentially augments to the other two as the game doesn’t seem to have the itemization to support someone being a full time mage.

Bound By Flame Screenshot Wallpaper Skill Tree

Unfortunately the wild flails in difficulty that plagued Mars: War Logs remains in Bound by Flame meaning that you’ll likely struggle at the start of a section until you find an upgrade or two at which point the game becomes a breeze again. The bosses are also on a completely different difficulty scale to the rest of the encounters you’ll have meaning you’ll likely blow through most of your stash just to get past them. I understand the need for challenging the player, hell I’ve criticised games for not being able to do this, but the disjoint in difficulty isn’t a challenge to overcome, it’s poor game design. This is made all the more obvious by the final boss fight which is, in all honesty, an absolute travesty as unless you’ve built your character specifically for that fight you’ll likely be unable to do it without sinking an disproportional amount of time into it.

The crafting system seems well thought out on the surface however it only serves to highlight just how little differentiation there is between most items in Bound by Flame. In the beginning you’ll have to carefully choose your upgrades in order to get the maximum benefit however about half way through you’ll be drowning in materials, allowing you to get the best upgrade for each of your items. The game seems to hint at the idea that you should change your gear constantly to fit the situation but even if you do that you’ll still find yourself with more materials than you know what to do with. Honestly if they had a crafting system that let you make weapons and armour I think the amount of materials that drop would be justified. Maybe then I could craft myself a pair of boots (seriously, I had to buy an upgraded pair of boots in the second to last chapter because I never found any).

Bound By Flame Screenshot Wallpaper A Tender Moment

Bound by Flame is also riddled with bugs and strange quirks that mar the whole experience. I had several occasions where, if I dragged a NPC out of their normal roaming area, the enemies would flit between being invisible and invulnerable to being visible but disinterested in me. Other NPCs would sometimes inexplicably face the walls or get stuck on things which would incapacitate them. This is not to mention your party members AI which is beyond useless most of the time, even when you use the order commands to try and modify their behaviour. Reading over my Mars: War Logs review reveals that many of these issues were present in that game as well, something that Spiders needs to fix lest they be forever labelled as a B grade RPG developer.

I could forgive pretty much all of this if the story was passable however it’s not. The core idea is solid, you’ve got to choose between your humanity and power, but the execution is sorely lacking in character depth, motivation and just general coherency. Hell even the developers themselves can’t get it completely straight as I note several differences between the story on their main site and the one in the game. Worst still are the romances, if you can call them that, as many of them come down to just choosing one right dialog option at one point, rather than actually cultivating any kind of meaningful depth between the characters.

Bound By Flame Screenshot Wallpaper This Isn't Even My Final Form

Bound by Flame continues Spiders’ unfortunate history of producing B grade RPGs, seemingly being unable to learn their past mistakes to make their future releases better. It has all the makings of a good RPG, the combat system works most of the time (despite it’s wild changes in difficulty), the levels are meaningful and the crafting system is halfway to being worthwhile. Still the story is well below mediocre and Bound by Flame has numerous glitches and behaviours that do nothing but ruin the experience. I’d love to say I’m looking forward to what they’re doing next but it seems that they have no interest in learning from their mistakes.

Go on Spiders, prove me wrong.

Rating: 4.75/10

Bound by Flame is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $39.99, $79.95, $89.95 and $79.95 respectively. Total play time was 10 hours with 54% of the achievements unlocked.

Descend Through Titan’s Haze.

Our spacecraft have reached nearly every corner of our solar system, from the barren sun baked world of Mercury to the (soon to be visited) frigid ice ball of Pluto. We’ve gazed at all of them from afar many times but there are precious few we have made even robotic footfall on, with only a single other heavenly body having human footprints on it. Still from those few where we’ve been able to punch through the atmosphere the scenery we’ve been greeted with has been both strangely familiar yet completely alien. Mars is most famous of these but few are aware of the descent video from the Huygens probe that it made on its way down to Titan’s surface:

Titan gets its thick orange atmosphere from its mostly nitrogen atmosphere being tainted by methane which is thought to be constantly refreshed by cryovolcanoes on its surface. Whilst the mountain ranges and valleys you see were formed in much the same way as they were here on Earth those lakes you see in between them aren’t water, but hydrocarbons. Indeed much of Titan’s surface is covered in what is essentially crude oil although making use of it for future missions would likely be more trouble than its worth.

Still it’s amazing to see worlds that are so like ours in one aspect yet completely foreign in so many other ways. This rare insight into what Titan looks like from on high is not only amazing to see but it has also provided invaluable insight into what Titan’s world actually is. I honestly could watch videos like this for hours as it’s just so mesmerizing to see the surface of worlds other than our own.

The Power of Community: The International’s Prize Pool Exceeds $6 Million.

I never really had a taste for competitive gaming mostly because my less than stellar Internet connection usually put me at a disadvantage for any game that I played. Even after I remedied that I still found shied away from them, fearing that I’d simply end up losing game after game, never to make any progress. Starcraft II changed that however and I found myself deeply engrossed in ladder play, feverishly battling my way through opponents in the hopes I could make it to the top. That faded over time as my interest turned towards DOTA2 and much to my surprise I’m still horribly addicted to it. This has then evolved into a love for all things about the game including the competitive scene, something which I’d never thought I’d find myself interested in. Of all the tournaments and events that happen over the year none compare to the spectacle that is The International, a DOTA2 tournament hosted by Valve themselves.

DOTA 2 The International 4 2014

I was only tangentially aware of the first 2 Internationals having been a keen DOTA AllStars fan back in the day and one of the many wanting an invite to the beta but was yet to be in possession of one. They made headlines for their gigantic prize pools for a game that was still relatively unknown, a cool $1 million for the first place winner. For pro gamers that’s an incredible amount of money, more than many other tournaments in more established eSports scenes, and is enough to sustain an entire team for a long time. On the surface it appeared to be just another marketing tactic by Valve to get people interested in the game but since its introduction 3 years ago The International has taken on a life of its own, becoming the standard for eSports events across the world.

Last year however Valve did something curious, the released a compendium (an in game item) for $10, $2.50 of which would go directly into the prize pool that would be awarded to the players. The result was incredible, players and supporters of teams alike contributed over $1.2 million to the prize pool which saw The International retake its crown as the largest prize pool eSports tournament. Valve, looking to replicate the success of last year’s tournament, released another compendium for this year’s The International as well with the same price point and contribution levels.

The results speak for themselves: yesterday the prize pool exceeded $6 million and it’s not stopping there.

For fans and players a like this is a great thing as it means that teams that even place in 7th or 8th will likely have enough funds behind them to sustain them throughout the year. Being a pro gamer isn’t as flashy as it sounds and there are some costs that simply can’t be avoided (like flights, not to mention the basics of living). For fans this means a bigger, much more well produced event which judging by last year’s standards will make it nothing short of incredible.

I’m incredibly excited as what this year’s The International will bring as we get to see the top tier talent of DOTA2 duke it out for the biggest prize pool in eSports history. Every year Valve has stepped up their game and this year looks to be no exception with the live floor moving to a much larger arena and the production crew swelling their ranks considerably. As someone who never really understood sports growing up I now know what it feels like for sports fans when grand finals time approaches and I simply can’t wait for it.

Microsoft Doubling Down on Cloud, Mobile.

Microsoft’s message last year was pretty clear: we’re betting big that you’ll be using Azure as part of your environment and we’ve got a bunch of tools to make that happen. For someone who has cloudy aspirations this was incredibly exciting even though I was pretty sure that my main client , the Australian government, would likely abstain from using any of them for a long time. This year’s TechEd seemed like it was a little more subdued than last year (the lack of a bond style entrance with its accompanying Aston Martin was the first indicator of that) with the heavy focus on cloud remaining, albeit with a bent towards the mobile world.

TechEd North American 2014

Probably the biggest new feature to come to Azure is ExpressRoute, a service which allows you to connect directly to the Azure cloud without having to go over the Internet. For companies that have regulations around their data and the networks it can traverse this gives them the opportunity to use cloud services whilst still maintaining their obligations. For someone like me who primarily works with government this is a godsend and once the Azure instance comes online in Australia I’ll finally be able to sell it as a viable solution for many of their services. It will still take them some time to warm to the idea but with a heavy focus on finding savings, something Azure can definitely provide, I’m sure the adoption rate will be a lot faster than it has been with previous innovations of this nature.

The benefits of Azure Files on the other hand are less clear as whilst I can understand the marketing proposition it’s not that hard to set up a file server within Azure. This is made somewhat more pertinent by the fact that it uses SMB 2.1 rather than Server 2012’s SMB 3.0 so whilst you get some good features in the form of a REST API and all the backing behind Azure’s other forms of storage it lacks many of the new base capabilities that a traditional file server has. Still Microsoft isn’t one to develop a feature unless they know there’s a market for it, so I’d have to guess that this is a feature that many customers have been begging for.

In a similar vein the improvements to Microsoft’s BYOD offerings appear to be incremental more than anything with InTune receiving some updates and the introduction of Azure RemoteApps. Of the two Azure RemoteApps would be the most interesting as it allows you to deliver apps from the Azure cloud to your end points, wherever they may be. For large, disparate organisations this will be great as you can leverage Azure to deploy to any of your officers, negating the need for heavy infrastructure in order to provide a good user experience. There’s also the opportunity for Microsoft to offer pre-packaged applications (which they’re currently doing with Office 2013) although that’s somewhat at odds with their latest push for Office365.

Notably absent from any of the announcements was Windows 8.2 or Server 2012 R3, something which I think many of us had expected to hear rumblings about. There’s still the chance it will get announced at TechEd Australia this year especially considering the leaked builds that have been doing the rounds. If they don’t it’d be a slight departure from the tempo they set last year, something which I’m not entirely sure is a good or bad move from them.

Overall this feels like incremental improvements to Microsoft strategy they were championing last year more than revolutionary change. That’s not a bad thing really as the enterprise market is still catching up with Microsoft’s new found rapid pace and likely won’t be on par with them for a few years yet. Still it begs the question as to whether or not Microsoft is really committed to the rapid refresh program they kicked off not too long ago. TechEd Australia has played host to some big launches in the past so seeing Windows 8.2 for the first time there isn’t out of the question. As for us IT folk the message seems to remain the same: get on the cloud soon, and make sure it’s Azure.

Bringing The Kappa to YouTube.

Twitch.tv started out as the bastard child of Justin.tv, a streaming website that wanted to make it easy for anyone to stream content to a wider audience. Indeed for a long time Twitch felt like something of an after thought as divesting part of an already niche site into another niche didn’t seem like a sound business maneuver. However since then Twitch has vastly outgrown its parent company becoming the default platform for content streamers around the world. The sponsorship model it has used for user’s channels has proven to be successful enough that thousands of people now make their living streaming games, giving Twitch a sustainable revenue stream. This hasn’t gone unnoticed of course and rumours are starting to circulate that Google will be looking to purchase them.

Twitch TV Logo

The agreement is reported to be $1 billion all cash deal, an amazing deal for the founders and employees of Twitch. The acquisition makes sense for Google as they’ve been struggling to get into the streaming market for a long time now with many of their attempts drawing only mild success. For the Twitch community though there doesn’t appear to be any direct benefits to speak of, especially considering that Google isn’t a company to let their acquisitions just do their own thing. Indeed if this rumour has any truth to it the way in which Google integrates Twitch into its larger platform will be the determining factor in how the brand grows or ultimately fails.

At the top of the list of concerns for Twitch streamers is the potential integration between YouTube’s ContentID system and the Twitch streams. Whilst most of the games that are popular on Twitch are readily endorsed by their creators (like League of Legends, DOTA2, World of Warcraft, etc.) most of them aren’t, something which has seen content producers and game developers butt heads multiple times over on YouTube. With the Twitch platform integrated into YouTube there’s potential for game creators to flag content they don’t want streamed something which is at odds with the current Twitch community ethos. If not handled correctly it could see much of Twitch’s value evaporate after they transition across to YouTube as arguably most of it comes from its wide community, not the technology or infrastructure powering it.

On the flip side though Twitch has been known to suffer from growing pains every time a popular event happens to grace its platform, something which Google could go a long way to fixing. Indeed that would likely be the only thing that Twitch has to gain from this: a global presence without the need to invest in costly additional infrastructure. If Google maintains Twitch as a separate, wholly owned brand then this could be of benefit to both of them as a more stable and available platform is likely to drive user numbers much quicker than Twitch has been able to do previously.

We’ll have to see if this rumour turns out to be true as whilst I wouldn’t begrudge Twitch taking the cash the question of what Google will do with them is what will determine their future. Whilst the combination of Twitch chat and YouTube comments sounds like the most unholy creation on the Internet since /b/ there is potential for both Twitch and Google to gain something from this. Whether that’s to the benefit of the community though remains to be seen.