Friday, November 25, 2011

Postmortem Review: Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One - My View on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Introduction
   Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One is the newest entry in the Ratchet & Clank franchise. Most of the over the top baddie blasting platform action is back. Best of all, 4 players can join in for co-op blasting goodness.


The Good
Ratchet & Clank + Multiplayer = Awesome

   My kids, wife, and I have enjoyed Ratchet & Clank since the first times we laid eyes on them. For us, Ratchet & Clank is to the PlayStation what Mario and Luigi are to the Nintendo. Finally, we can all enjoy the great platforming experience together. Ratchet & Clank has great potential as a multiplayer game. At the very least, it is not a kart racer.


Big Booms Sound Good on Big Speakers
   For me, the biggest excitement in R&C came from ganging up on the bigger enemies. When players focus their fire on a single enemy, they get a damage multiplier and a meter on the enemy begins to fill. When it gets to a certain point, the enemy blows up. If you have a proper sound system, the KABOOM! is fantastic. While it was the same boom every time, it never got old to me.


Visually Stunning
   The Ratchet & Clank series has always been one of the most aesthetically pleasing games on the PlayStation consoles. The environments are vibrantly colored, there are all kinds of objects to look at, the character skins and movements are great, and the explosions are absolutely wonderful. This latest entry does not disappoint in the visuals department and reminds us all why high definition and 3D were simply meant to be.


The Bad
Can we fix the interface next time around?

   Insomniac Games has come up with a very intuitive system for selecting weapons in the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance series. Unfortunately, it fell apart in Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. The player selects weapons and gadgets from a wheel that comes up when the player presses the right analog stick. There are a few different wheels to select from, which can be sorted through by pressing L1 and R1. Pretty straight-forward in theory. When you are playing though, your finger is likely on the R1 button when you bring up the weapon wheel. This can lead to you selecting a different weapon than you intended. Add the frustration of having the game pause when multiple people open the wheel at the same time and you constantly have the wrong weapon selected. I tried to use the hot-key system, but then I found that I was constantly trying to swap things in and out of my four hot-key slots. If it is too much of a pain, it should not be.


Nothing New
   As far as innovation goes, All 4 One is a step backwards in the R&C franchise. Multiplayer is great, but why does it have to be at the expense of great gameplay? The platforming has been oversimplified for this entry; perhaps to make it easier for multiple characters at one time. At the same time, the arsenal is less fun than it has been in previous games. Where is the Groovitron? Why isn't Mr. Zurkon that great of a weapon anymore? The lack of more or new makes this game seem as if it would more appropriately fit in with the oldest entries in the franchise.


I Want Six-Axis Control
   I miss six-axis control. Since the beginning of PlayStation 3, the six-axis has gotten a bad reputation. Now that The Move is out, the six-axis is long forgotten. Our controllers still have the functionality though and Ratchet & Clank was one of the few series to put the functionality to good use. With a little bit of creative thought, we could go back to having segments where the heroes are controlled with six-axis movements instead of directional buttons. Sure, it can take a little getting used to, but cleverly placed six-axis control segments adds to the level of immersion in the game.


The Ugly
Wait a second.....this isn't a Ratchet & Clank game!?

   When the first announcements for R&C: All 4 One came, I wondered to myself, "Why isn't 'Future' in the title?" When we started playing the game, the answer became immediately obvious. All 4 One is not here for the story. It does not bother to follow the Ratchet & Clank storyline at all; nor does it attempt to make excuses for it. At times, I wondered if this were truly a Ratchet & Clank game or just another top-down shooter with Ratchet & Clank character models dropped in.


PS3 Multiplayer Done Wrong
   Game publishers should look to how local multiplayer is implemented in the Little Big Planet games in order to gain a good idea on how to do it right. Most often, when I am playing a multiplayer game in my house, I am playing with my kids whom also have their own profiles on the PlayStation. All of the bonuses we earn for playing together on my profile should also be reflected in their profiles. To be fair, Little Big Planet is pretty much the only game I know of to do this. I understand that implementation of a design could get sticky; but really, we could work a system to allow character progression in the particular player's profile.


Did it Save?
   Especially when just starting to play R&C: All 4 One, it is not obvious when exactly the saving is taking place. After a while, you learn it is after points are counted, but even so, there were times that it seemed like we played the same area over and over again because the game simply did not save. We can fix this easily, but nobody seems too concerned. The text "SAVING" with the icon would be a lifesaver for the fans, but instead we insist on having an icon that looks similar to every other icon that appears in that exact location on screen. Is it saving now? Oh, no, that was the stupid loading icon again.


Conclusion
   For a four player game, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One is great fun. Anybody that has played the other R&C games will love to have a shot on the co-op. Unfortunately, fans looking for some new weapons and gadgets and some innovating platforming will have to keep waiting.

Welcome Back

   Welcome back everybody! It has been a long time, but I think I am ready to continue on with blogging. I have been considering coming back for a while, so I have read most of my old posts. One thing I can say for sure: my life has changed incredibly since March. Even more since this time last year.
   First thing I have to say, I am having a baby boy! We are expecting in April. This is an exciting time in the pregnancy. First, because we just found out the sex of the baby which means we can continue preparing for the baby. Second, we can feel the baby moving all day every day. He is going to be a very active kid it seems.
   The second big change is a new job. I had spent a lot of time working on resumés in the last year; even wrote a bit on resumé writing here. I was starting to feel the pinch for money, so I put my resumé to good use. Apparently, I write a decent one, because I got the job on the first try. I work for a gigantic technology consulting firm, Accenture. I am an associate software developer for them. So far, it has been a wonderful experience. I am also still working in quality assurance on the side.
   I have several other things going on too, but really, I will start talking about what I am here to talk about.
   I have been doing a lot of gaming, and I have a couple of reviews going into editing, almost ready to post. Some of the games I have completed over the last few months include Ico, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, NBA Jam, and Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. I am playing a couple of other games as well, so blogs for those will be coming. I bought an iPad, actually, two. They are awesome and I will have a tech blog for that. I also have some programming discussions in the works as well as some process discussions. I do believe I will continue with Wednesday's Wallpaper too, so check it out.
   I think I have given enough for a quick read today. I hope everybody had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I also hope all of you Black Friday shoppers are getting a good rest by now. It feels good to be back. In leaving, I will give you a new track from one of my all-time favorite bands, Cake.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Weekly Plan: 3/14/2011 - 3/20/2011

   Well, I hardly made it back to the side projects last week. However, the shape of my plans are changing a little bit this week. I have not yet gotten my own Android project off the ground, but a friend wants to do a collaborative project. We started brainstorming game ideas today. Hopefully, by the end of the week, we will have a solid idea as well as some code going.
   I will be having some busy days at work, so most everything else will be on the back-burner at the moment. I am trying to get some games finished so I can write some good game reviews. Also, due to popular demand, I will be hunting down a fun to play free game this week. I have not had time to look for free games with everything else going on, but really, getting the word out on some free games benefits everybody. The developers love some buzz about their games, even if it is a bit critical. They still like having people go play their games. Besides, I always recommend you form your own opinion on any game I review. Just because I do not think it is the greatest does not mean you will not have serious fun.
   Finally, I will have at least one book review this week, if not two. I am within 20 pages of finishing The Parent Plan. This is an excellent parenting book. I also read Sam's Teach Yourself Android Application Development in 24 Hours which I think was HORRIBLE.
   This is the first week since we have been back in Sacramento that we do not have plans for the weekend. Of course, this does not mean we do not have a list of "want to do's" to attend to. I believe we may be taking a trip to Old Sacramento and a museum this weekend. I also have a remote control helicopter that has sat in its box the whole several years it has been in my possession. I am going to charge it up and we will give it a shot. Hope for no rain. If there is rain, well, Rock Band is always a great rainy day filler.
   Between work and trying to get a collaborative project going, my week will be pretty busy. As you can see, have plenty more going on though. What is going on in your life this week?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cool Stuff Watch: Brain Quest


*********************************************
* What? Brain Quest *
* Why? Trivia Fun *
* How Much? $10 *
* Where? Barnes and Noble *
* Really? It is like "Are You Smarter *
* than a 5th Grader", Only Your *
* Kid Shows You Up *
*********************************************

   My wife bought Brain Quest earlier today. Those that do not know what it is, look at the listing, here at Barnes&Noble.com. Wanting to be a bit above our kids' level, she bought the fourth grade version.
   While it is my personal belief that trivia itself is worthless in most educational settings, I think practicing it is great stimulation for the mind. Apparently, my wife feels the same thing. She has been randomly spitting fourth grade trivia in my direction all afternoon. I have to admit, try as I might, I cannot stop myself from answering any question she throws my way.
   I can see many a drinking game evolving from the Brain Quest deck. If you have kids, or nothing to do, go pick one up and read up on your trivia. Next time you are at my house, you might find yourself taking a shot if you do not know the answer!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wednesday's Wallpaper

   Welcome to Wednesday everybody. Being on the West Coast of the US of A, I am guessing most people's days are right about over by now. I know many of you may be having a bad week, which is too bad. Unfortunately, I cannot solve your problems for you, but I can do something. I can give you a little piece of me, or at least, a link to the wallpaper that I am currently using as my desktop background.
   Of course, Wednesday's Wallpaper is a direct ripoff of Life Hacker's Wallpaper Wednesday (click to go to site).
   This week, I give you a wallpaper that I found at my old favorite wallpaper site, animewallpapers.com. (Click to follow link) This wallpaper is based on an anime series that I have never seen, Nadia: Secret of Blue Water. This was posted by the user, Lavabug, whose blog you can reach by clicking here.
   I hope you like it. Next week, I will try to give you one of my originals!
Photobucket

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Experiment with Ubuntu - Buh-Bye Windows XP

   Recently, a friend of mine has been talking about wanting to switch his operating system (OS) from Windows Vista to a Linux OS. His reason for wanting to switch over is to lessen the memory footprint from Vista in order to be able to run World of Warcraft more responsively. Being the proud owner of a laptop that once ran Vista before it fried its own motherboard, I feel the pain of any Vista user that just wants out; especially the 64-bit users.
   I have also taken a personal interest in the Linux OS currently available, but for different reasons. I have a lot of hardware that is loosely connected in the very much insecure ways of Windows 7 OS. Not only that, but I have multiple monitors hooked up to single machines. Windows 7 only offers a simple selection to either span the screen across the monitors (with much reduced functionality on the secondary monitor), duplicate the displays, or use one or the other display. Most people with multiple monitors hooked to one rig; myself, namely, would actually like to have each monitor work as its own workspace; with functionality that is wholly independent of the other workspace. Linux supposedly offers quick and easy solutions to both network security and multiple monitor support.
   In order to help my friend out as well as serve my own needs, I have decided to switch my Windows XP laptop over to Linux. Most people in America know next to nothing about Linux. The first thing to know is that many major distributions of the OS are free. It is an excellent go to if restoring a paid OS will cost more than it is worth. There are many flavors of Linux, definitely some are worth more than others. I decided to do some research on which OS I might go with. One article I read at Linux.com (click to read) had some great information on different popular OS in the Linux family.
   In the past, I have worked with Red Hat Fedora, which I do not care for much. The OS certainly does everything it is supposed to. It also works with most devices that Windows works with. That is, you really do not need to worry too much if your hardware is compatible these days. Most hardware that came stock in your machine will have a Linux-compatible driver either from the manufacturer or the Linux community. Plug-n-play devices also tend to work very well with the drivers available. The thing I do not like about Fedora though is that it still leaves many of the low-level OS processes up to the end user. This is a great choice if you want a Windows-type environment, but next to no processes running in the background.
   Being a typical end-user type of guy, I am okay with background processes, especially if they do not add up to the footprint left on a machine running Vista. However, I really like the fact that the computer is capable of handling processes itself and seek to keep a lot of that in my OS. After reading the article linked above, I decided Ubuntu would be the OS for me. Ubuntu supposedly offers a great end-user experience and also has strong offerings in terms of multimedia and applications support.
   So the transition begins. Now, anybody looking to do the same should understand something important. The transition will not be seamless, but a 100% rate between hardware and Ubuntu should be very possible. One way to ensure all of your hardware comes online as expected is to go to the manufacturer's website for your computer and write down all of the hardware in your computer. Because Microsoft and Apple want owning one of their products to be similar to being part of an exclusive club, you should expect to have to hunt down drivers for a lot of your hardware when switching from one of these OS. Luckily, the Linux community has gone a long way to making this process painless. Google searches should return quick and reliable results. Microsoft and Apple believe that if they make the process of change difficult, people will not change. For most, this may be true; however, there is no need to be deterred by their bumps in the road.
   In reality, the hardware transition is the easy part if you are accustomed to the application suites offered by Microsoft. Many things do have Linux equivalents, but not all. You should be able to find a productivity suite that provides the same functionality as Microsoft Office and is even compatible with all Office standard formats, but be prepared for the fact that they are simply not Microsoft Office. A bigger concern to some is that many games do not even consider Linux an OS. In some cases, there are workarounds; however, in many more cases, you will have to accept that you simply cannot run the game on your OS. DirectX, a popular format for developing games, is a Microsoft thing. Good luck getting any love from Microsoft on that.
   For those of you still not deterred, I say, give it a shot. So far, I do not have everything set up the way I would like it. However, I am very happy with the look and feel of Ubuntu. Hopefully I will be able to help my friend set up his rig in a similar fashion and his WoW playing days will be better than ever. I do not yet have the multiple monitor support fully worked out. I also do not have the server working yet. However, I will write another post in about a week with an update on how it goes. If it goes well, I may very well become a nothing-but-Linux type guy.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Weekly Plan: 3/7/2011 - 3/13/2011

   Welcome back everybody! I have been away much longer than expected, but let me tell you, moving from a two bedroom apartment to a three bedroom duplex is an incredible amount of work. The first few days is just a sea of boxes. Everything you do, or even touch, leads to another handful of tasks that must be done. The beautiful and lovely Jen did the overwhelming majority of unpacking boxes, but there were plenty of other things that consumed my time. Even last week, it was everything I could do just to put in an eight hour day at work.
   Now I am ready to get back to it and I have quite a bit of good game reviews coming up. I am a little short on the free game side of things, because I have been spending a lot more time with my PlayStation ever since the television was hung on the wall. It is simply irresistible. The upcoming reviews are all PlayStation 3 games. A couple are brand new releases on the PlayStation Network, although one has been around for a while, it is just new to PSN. Those are PixelJunk Shooter 2 and Castle Crashers. The other is a disc-based game that has been out for a while, but I just recently got my hands on, 3D Dot Game Heroes. I am in the middle of all of these games, so hopefully I will get some finished by the end of the week.
   I am also reading a book I will be writing a review on soon, The Parent Plan , by Margaret Briem. It is an excellent book that discusses parenting in different situations. I am only into the first chapter of it so far, but it talks about parenting explicitly. This applies to all aspects of parenting, from dealing directly with the children to bringing the other adults involved in the child's community into the parenting process. So far, this is a great book, and it is a short read, so expect my review soon.
   PROGRAMMING!! Just like the blog, my programming ambitions have been on hold since the move. I have not finished Swap Meet Server (unacceptable). I did get my Android development book. Therefore, I will be working on both this week. I still need to finish up the graphics, sound, and high score interface on SMS. On the Android front, I am going to work through this book and see where it takes me. I was having issues doing real basic things when I last worked with the Android platform. I am not sure why I was unable to get the screen to refresh for my projects, but all I was really successful at with my project was making it flash between two screens. That is not going to work. I really wanted to take the time to learn how everything works on Android with Java. Now I have the time to do it.
   At home, we also have quite a few things going on. James' birthday is on Saturday. Unfortunately, they will not be here on Saturday, so we may or may not do a gathering for him on Sunday. Either way, he has a couple of fun gifts to play with, so will be happy with or without a party. I am also going to try to get my kids to the park. We have not been to one in a couple of weeks. Everybody should make it a point to get their kids to the parks as much as possible. We spend too much time locked up inside with our electronic gizmos and doo-dads. Some real run-around time for the kids always helps with the spasticity that goes on with kids when they do not stretch their legs enough. This will be the first week of me not being Hitler of Homework. The teachers will take recess time from the kids if homework is not done, so I am off the job. No sweat off my back. The one that gives me trouble with it will supposedly have to use recess to finish it if it does not get done at home. If this is the case, I can back off, because my concern is the homework should be completed always, no matter what it takes to get there.
   Alright, that is all I have. Really, one heck of a week; however, they all are. Only live once. Thanks for reading, Trish!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Downtime

   Well, I have been working on this blog for about two months now; trying to deliver a new post each day. Unfortunately, I am extraordinarily busy this week with my move. I would love to post something each day; however, I simply will not have the time.
   With the expectation of winter weather throughout the southern CA mountain regions, I will be taking the scenic route up the coast of California to get to Sacramento. Route watching and planning has been taking much of my extra-curricular internet time up.
   I expect that I will be returning full-force next Wednesday, February 23rd. Until then, catch up on some free games over at Flonga. Help me out with suggestions for reviews. You pick a game, I will review it. Also coming soon, a postmortem review on the Hobo series in which I discuss some of the things I would have included had I been a developer for the series using my postmortem format.
   As always, thank you for reading. I shall make my return very soon!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Weekly Plan: 2/14/2011 - 2/20/2011


****************
* Objective *
****************
* SMS Graphics *
* SMS Sound *
* The Big Move *
****************

   This week will be a short one for me as far as being able to compute goes. Due to my move, I will be without the use of my computer for at least all weekend. This is alright. I might have some minor withdrawals, but with a little luck, connection will be back to quasi-normal ranges by Sunday evening. Anyway, the show must go on with Swap Meet Server. I am down to the last few things I need to do, so it is time to get most of that done.
   My first ambition for the week is to get the graphics done in Swap Meet Server. I have been practicing drawing every day for a few days now. My character sprite is looking better on paper, but I am still working with it, then I need to draw several poses on the computer. I also need to draw a couple of profile type pictures of customer sprites. I am fairly confident that once I have the main character done, I will not have an issue doing the customer sprites.
   The second to last thing that needs to happen in Swap Meet Server is sound needs to be added. This involves producing sound effects and music for use as well as writing the code that will handle sound. I know nothing about making sound effects or music, so this will probably be a tall order. Due to the learning curve, I doubt I will have all of my audio assets generated this week. Adding the code to handle the sound is not too hard though. All I need is to generate the code that plays sound both as looping sound for the music and as a single play for sound effects. The rest is just telling the program when to play the sounds. If I do get this done this week, then I will be right on track. If not, then I will not be far behind. It really is just four sound effects and a very basic audio track.
   Around the house this week, we have a lot of finishing up to do this week to be prepared to load it all in a truck this weekend. The reality is, my wife and I have done a great job getting it all together. It seems like there is a lot that needs to be packed up still, but not really. the televisions need to be put into their respective boxes and the beds need to be dismantled. Beyond that, everything is in a state where I could easily throw it into the back of the truck and go.
   Last time we did this, I did not do a good job listening to my wife when loading the truck. Everything fit, but the space in the truck was poorly used, making the last things fit in awkwardly. This time around, she has already given impossible orders on how to fill the truck, but I have a couple of thoughts on how to better utilize the space provided. We definitely have more things to put into the same space, so I will need to be wise about filling it this time.
   Of course, it is supposed to rain and possibly have weather conditions that close down the Grapevine on the 5 freeway this weekend. This means we will have to take the longer route around on the 101. I have never made this drive before, but I know it can be very windy and the road is not as straight as the 5. I am really hoping that this weather system coming through fizzles out and we are able to take the direct route through. However, if not, I guess I will have a nice, long drive up the coast.
   The final thing will be unloading the truck. Frankly, I like unloading more than loading, because it is easier. Taking the things from a restricted space to a less-restricted space. However, by the time I get to that point, I am so tired it hardly matters. With a little luck, we will be in Sacramento before 10 PM on Saturday evening. This would be great, because I would definitely get at least the same amount of sleep I do any other night.
   That is that. Throw in some playing with the kids somewhere, maybe some homework with them, a couple of video games, writing this blog, and working, and that is a full week. What do you have going on?
   Happy Valentine's Day everybody. I love you Jen, Madison, and James.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Weekly Progress Report


***********************
* Objective Grade *
***********************
* SMS Font A *
* SMS Code A *
* SMS Graphics B *
***********************

   I am very happy with where Swap Meet Server sits right now. I have finished the coding for the game, which included finishing the transfer of the font object from DirectX to my own font object. The last touches of code actually fell into place rather rapidly. While I do have some coding left to add in the sound as well as the high-score interface, these are two separate phases of the project that will be able to interface cleanly when they are ready to be integrated.
   The graphics are really a hard deal to me. I make a lousy artist. Even my wife was easily showing me up on the art skills. To offer a little reassurance, she decided to tell me that it does not have to be perfect. Easy for her to say. I know it does not have to be perfect, but good would be nice. Really though, I just need a couple of images to go forward. I have been drawing a bit every day in order to try to generate something I like, but it is still a work in progress.
   As mentioned above, I am more or less down to just adding the sounds and the high score interface. This being said, I really hope I can finish up Swap Meet Server in the next two weeks. However, because I am moving next weekend, I think the more realistic date will be three weeks. In any case, I am incredibly excited to be done with the project and moving on to the next. I can see the light at the end of this tunnel. The next tunnel will be a whole new learning experience.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Rules of Toilet Paper 2011

While sitting on the toilet, I've pondered many things.

One thing that bothers me is the amount of toilet people some people use. I swear, I've seen a girl wrap half a roll around her hand to wipe one time. Seriously, you don't need that much. Toilet paper should be rationed out. The government should literally monitor the amount of toilet paper the people use and tax people like crazy for over-usage. However, in the meantime, I have some simple rules for conserving toilet paper:

1) If it is the nasty fast-food restaurant paper-on-a-roll TP, you must wrap about 2 feet of paper down to a square of comfortable amounts to fit over your hand. The key here is, you want to fold it enough times to not rip during the wipe, but don't just crumple it. A little bit of order never hurt.

2) If it's 2 ply, you must understand there is 2 different types of 2 ply. There is the quilted and non-quilted. Quilted 2 ply is often found in America's residential bathrooms. By far, my favorite TP. Usually with this TP, two sheets folded over once will be good for a nice wipe. For the heavier leakages, 3 squares should be sufficient. Now people who work in office environments need to be careful to spot out the non-quilted 2 ply. Sometimes, this is tricky, because the manufacturers put little prints on the TP to almost make it look quilted. All them blue-collar guys (and gals) should use 3 or 4 squares, to avoid rippage, depending on the situation.

3) 3 ply sucks. Seriously, who uses 3 ply? What's next, grated TP? Wiping with 3 ply will cause cause rug burn and should be avoided at all costs.

4) 1 ply, the lesser known cousin of 2 ply, is sometimes found in peoples homes. Mostly in the homes of parents that don't want their children living at home anymore. (My parents stock quilted 2-ply, FYI) You're on your own with this one. What can I say, I can't do everything for all you people. You live and you learn, right?

5) The absolute worst TP ever? Cottonelle. This stuff has ridges in it that causes it to rip if you hold it one way and come unrolled if you hold it the other. Who designed this stuff? I don't know, but I hope he was awarded a lifetime supply of his crappy TP for doing it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Free / Indie Game Review: Hobo 4: Total War - A Little Love


Title: Hobo 4: Total War
Platform: Flash - Plays in browser
Sponsor: Armor Games
Site: http://www.flonga.com/play/hobo-4-total-war.htm
My Rating: 8. Well-Targeted, Short-Lived Fun

Photobucket
   Hobo 4: Total War is the most current entry in a series of brawlers that I have given a beaten to ratings-wise. The Hobo series is a fairly well targeted series of short and easy brawlers that will give any older gamer all the laughs and giggles they need to get through the day. My desire to see something new in this series has clouded my vision to what is really there.
   Hobo 4: Total War, being a true successor to the series, takes place a few days after the events in Hobo 3: Wanted. Now our Hobo has taken infamous to the next level and is being sought by the army. Hobo must punch kick, belch, and crap his way through three different areas, killing everybody that stands in his way.
   While I was not happy with the added guns in Hobo 3, I find the new additions in Hobo 4 to be pretty fun to use. They do go a long way to making the game easier overall, but it is fun to be a powerhouse like that.
   As always, the combos are just hilarious. Hobo's most powerful weapons are his body fluids. By pressing different combinations of 'A', 'S', and 'D', you can release all kinds of body fluids on all of the foes. The whole scene with beautiful graphics, nice sound effects, and facial expressions of the victims is almost too much to bare.
   While I would like to see something new from this series, I can no longer deny just how entertaining the Hobo games are. The game play itself may be a bit easy, but the fighting is too funny to miss out on. If you have five minutes, head over to Flonga and check it out for yourself.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: God of War - Super Epic


*********************************************
* Title: God of War (Collection) *
* Platform: PlayStation 3 *
* Release Date: November 27, 2009 *
* Developer: Bluepoint Games *
* Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment *
* My Rating: 9.7. Excellent *
*********************************************


   I think I may be the last person in the world that may have an interest in God of War, but had not played it yet. God of War is an epic action game a la Soul Reaver and Prince of Persia that was originally released for the PlayStation 2. God of War already has two successors, and the first and second have been re-released as a high definition collection for the PlayStation 3. On a whim, I decided I would have my wonderful wife pick it up to me. Now, many years after its original release, I understand just how awesome God of War really is.
   The story in God of War is set in Greek mythology. The main character, Kratos starts as a commander of a small army, but eventually leads a legion. During a particularly nasty battle, Kratos turns to the God of War, Ares, for assistance. Ares offers Kratos a gift, the Chains of Olympus. However, the gift is a cursed gift. These chains are permanently affixed to Kratos and Kratos is set off to do Ares' bidding. Kratos, and his army, ravages village after village in the name of Ares. One day, they come to one building and Kratos is given a warning not to slay the people inside. In his fury, he does slay the people, only to realize it was his wife and daughter. At this point, all Kratos wishes to do is seek revenge against the God of War for tricking him into this debauchery. The game, God of War, follows Kratos on his journey to seek his revenge against Ares.
   Most of the game play in God of War can be described as jumping and slashing. You guide Kratos through Hades, trying to find a way back to the surface. This involves running through different underworld environments, solving puzzles to get past certain areas, and defeating epic monsters. The fighting is solid. The Chains of Olympus, and later, the Blade of Artemis, have to be the most awesome weapons I have ever used in a video game.
   God of War really was a showcase game for showing the PlayStation 2's power. Even though I played it on the PlayStation 3, the sound and graphics showed the true power of a system that developers had already had their hands on for many years. I do not believe there is a PlayStation 2 game that looks better than God of War. While there was only a handful of monster types, the bosses were all uniquely amazing. Every bit of playing God of War makes you feel as if you are living the stories in The Odyssey.
   Without a doubt, God of War is one of the best franchises out there if you like action games. If you are truly a Sony PlayStation fan, you have no reason to not have played this fantastic game already. If you are not yet a PlayStation believer, this could be the game that makes it all worth your while. Get your copy and play today!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wednesday's Wallpaper

   For everybody's computer decorating pleasure, my weekly wallpaper is stolen directly from the website I stole the segment from. Dark, video game related, neat. My type of wallpaper. Enjoy, I know I do.
(found at LifeHacker.com

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Family Happenings

   My blog is mostly meant to discuss things such as programming and video gaming; however, there is much more going on in my life other than just being wired into machinery all day long. In order to appease some people that are so incredibly interested in what I am doing in life, I am going to write about some of the things I have going on this week that do not fall in the realm of video gaming and computing.
   First, this may come as a surprise to many of you, but I am moving very soon. Ten days and counting. Due to a pre-inspection of my apartment on Thursday, I am trying to get the apartment as presentable as possible by then. That way, I am able to have these people tell us what really needs to be done in order to get back as much of our deposit as possible.
   I am also working slowly on packing. Really, my wife and I have got a very good start on this. Half of our dining room is filled with packed boxes. As far as loose things in the apartment go, we probably only have less than five boxes left to pack. However, I will be dismantling some of the furniture this week. I will also be putting away many of our electronics. After this weekend, I will be so anxious to get this over with, I probably will not be sleeping hardly at all.
   One thing I am trying to make an effort to do with the kids is make it to the park at least once a week. I used to take them to the park all the time before I was in school. After everything picked up in school, the park was a rare occurrence. Now, school is done, but I am super-busy, but I know that I cannot let my self-imposed business get in the way of spending some time with the kids. The park is a great chance for everybody to get out and have fun together while stretching and getting some sun.
   Another thing I am working on is trying to be a little more passive in my parenting. You should not let everything bother you. Especially if you have a child that likes to create problems. They will find what bothers you and keep doing it until they numb you to it. Of course, you cannot let your kids do this to you, but I am working on adjusting the way I handle these situations.
   That is about it really. Still, most of my days are consumed by working in one manner or another; however, when I do manage to break away from the computer, this is what I will be doing. I love you Jen, Madison, and James.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Weekly Plan: 2/7/2011 - 2/13/2011


****************
* Objective *
****************
* SMS Font *
* SMS Code *
* SMS Graphics *
****************

   My weekly plans for this week will really be light on the side-project. I have a huge work project to take care of, am in the middle of moving (less than 2 weeks left before my triumphant return to Sacramento), and need to be spending time with the family as well. Therefore, I have a little bit of finishing up to do in terms of the Swap Meet Server code before moving on to adding the audio system. My focus this week will be on finishing up the font, cleaning up some code, and redrawing/drawing some sprites.
   In terms of the font, I just need to finish up my method that takes a word and breaks it into the individual letters for drawing. This is very close to done, I just need to work with setting offsets after certain letters. For instance, you need much more space between "ww" than "ll". This stuff is handled on a case by case basis, so this should just take a couple of hours to work it all out manually. Once it is in though, I can use it for drawing any word or sentence using my font object.
   I am also working to abstract the vast majority of the code out of the main controller class. I have so far removed the menu module which leaves the gameplay module to remove. This requires some recoding, as I need to do something to make sure variables get reset when exiting the gameplay mode.
   The final thing I need to work on is redrawing the main character sprite and add some sprites to represent the customers. I make a terrible artist, so I believe this will take me some time. However, all of the code for displaying the graphics is in, so I just need to take my time and make sure I am happy with my drawings before incorporating them into Swap Meet Server.
   That is all for this week. I believe that I should be able to get this all done. I am still excited about finishing Swap Meet Server and feel confident that it will be done within the next three to four weeks.
   What are your goals for the week?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Free / Indie Game Review: Hobo 3: Wanted - A Step in the Wrong Direction


Title: Hobo 3: Wanted
Platform: Flash - Plays in browser
Sponsor: Armor Games
Site: http://www.flonga.com/play/hobo-3-wanted.htm
My Rating: 6. More Guns = Less Fun


   Hobo 3: Wanted is the third game in a series of Flash games I have taken an interest in. The Hobo series is a series of quick brawlers that will take most gamers straight back to childhood memories of Double Dragon and Battletoads. My interest came in to see if the developer would do anything to build on the genre or just put out a series of games with mediocre play on a well-worn and already hung out to dry genre.
   I will not go into detail describing the story, control, audio, or graphics in Hobo 3: Wanted, as it is all the same as the past two games. The story only progresses the plot to right where Hobo Prison Brawl leaves off, Hobo on the run after his prison break.
   The big addition to this entry was more guns. Now, in addition to a pistol, enemies can drop combat shotguns and SMGs. Both only serve to make the action much easier the Hobo Prison Brawl. For me, this took some of the fun out of the game. I like brawlers to be brutal. Hobo 3: Wanted is more like the teddy bear of brawlers. It is cute and fluffy, but just as soft on the inside. The developer could have added something to make the gameplay more fun; instead, they chose to add more of what worked in the second game. This led to a horribly unbalanced experience in the thought that all you needed to do to get to the end was run after the guns.
   I really hope the fourth and last game (so far) in the series goes out on a limb and tries something new. I keep playing because the presentation is very funny; however, as a game lover, I really want something more. Head on over to Flonga and give it a try. When you are done, let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Free / Indie Game Review: Hobo Prison Brawl - More Fun than the First


Title: Hobo Prison Brawl
Platform: Flash - Plays in browser
Sponsor: Armor Games
Site: http://www.flonga.com/play/hobo-prison-brawl.htm
My Rating: 7. I definitely see some improvement,
but I want more!


   Hobo Prison Brawl is the sequel to Hobo, a throwback type brawler that I reviewed a week or two ago. I had some complaints about Hobo, namely the fact that it was just an uninspired brawler that did not add anything new as well as the fact that it was very easy to beat. Hobo Prison Brawl raises the bar just a little, mainly by being much more amusing and a tad-bit more difficult.
   Hobo Prison Brawl picks up right where Hobo leaves off. The Hobo is in jail, seemingly enjoying his stay. However, other inmates cannot stand his lack of personal hygiene. One day, one inmate pushes Hobo too far, and a new rampage begins. You play the Hobo, once again punching, kicking, and dispensing body fluids, but this time on other inmates and cops.
   The controls are very simple in Hobo Prison Brawl. I tend to think they are actually very well implemented. You can do the combos with intent, which is the way every game should be. While I can admit that button mashing works just as well in this game, it still feels good to be able to bust off the combos at will. The only newly added addition to this game was guns. While being faced against somebody with a gun without having a gun yourself is frustratingly difficult, the game gets a little fun for a minute while you have a gun yourself.
   The animations and sounds in Hobo Prison Brawl go together incredibly well to have you just cracking up laughing. The mix is funny enough to keep you playing. The Hobo is constantly throwing up or worse on people. The new combos spray feces and snot all over the screen. Watching the enemies get the stuff on them is amusing to watch. It is too bad that the gameplay is rather uninteresting, because the graphics and sound effects are great.
   After playing Hobo, the only reason I decided to continue with the series was to see if maybe it did get better. While Hobo Prison Brawl does not make leaps and bounds in progress, it is fun enough to have me curious for the third entry in the series. Keep reading to see if the Hobo series continues to make progress or falls back to the mediocre ways of the original game. In the meantime, head over to Flonga and give it a try.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wednesday's Wallpaper

   I have decided to completely rip-off an idea I found elsewhere on the interest, which was probably ripped-off from somewhere else. The idea came from "Wallpaper Wednesday" over at LifeHacker.
   See, I realized that I like to change my wallpaper on my desktop and cell phone quite often. I used to actively hunt down wallpapers on the internet; however, this business can be dangerous. I usually go after anime chics or video game wallpapers. Generally, the selections really are not that great. I do not like blaring colors in the morning, so anything too bright is off the books immediately. A while back I decided I would start making my own wallpapers. I have a little bit of image editing skills from my work in video games and can (and do) easily make video game wallpapers.
   I do not ever really share my wallpapers with people. However, today I was thinking, "Brian, it is such a sad, cold, gray world that you should offer these people a little glimpse of the happy warmth of sunshine. Really, you should save them if you can." Well, I cannot save you people, but I have your sunshine right here. I will now be offering on my blog a little ray of sunshine each and every Wednesday. Well, I might not do it every Wednesday, but definitely whenever I feel like it.
   Without further ado, a little offering to help you be a little more like me. This Wednesday's Wallpaper is dedicated to Megaman X. That is correct, Megaman X was awesome. Now, you have a Megaman X wallpaper made exclusively for you, by me. Right-click, set as desktop background, and live in joy until next Wednesday!
Photobucket

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Root Canals

   Root canals are like individually packaged buckets of joy. Not really, but if you are like me, the need for a root canal is synonymous with a long overdue visit to the dentist. If you are even more like me, you have been living with tooth pain for years. Therefore, no matter how long you sit at the dentist, how much it costs, or how much drilling they do, you do feel at least a little relieved after the visit.
   So, much of my day wasted away and many hundreds of dollars more poor, I simply do not feel like writing a video game blog today and shall not. Thanks for reading. Click to follow in the sidebar. For those that are counting, two and a half weeks until moving.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Weekly Plan: 1/31/2011 - 2/6/2011


****************
* Objective *
****************
* SMS Font *
* SMS Code *
* SMS Graphics *
* LBP Level *
****************

   The main goal for this week is to get Swap Meet Server code-locked aside from sound and the high score interface. This will include finishing up the transition of the font object, cleaning up some code, and finishing the graphics. On the side, I will likely continue working with the Little Big Planet level editor.
   I actually only have two places left where I use the DirectX font object instead of my own. This will go pretty easily; however, I do have to work out a draw method for one area that can change the font color.
   I have already made progress in terms of cleaning up the code this week. I have almost completely wiped out the Direct Input object; replacing it with my own code. After staring at it begrudgingly for a couple of hours and researching implementation techniques on Google, I realized that this process is much easier than I thought it was going to be. Once I started cleaning out the Direct Input, it all went (almost done now) very quickly. This was the last portion of code in Swap Meet Server that was not written by me, so this is a great accomplishment for me.
   Some other code things I am looking at is making a menu class as well as a play class. This will leave my game class as a basic controller to handle the transitions between the different states in the game. This will take some time, but ultimately it will make my code very much more organized.
   The other thing I need to get done on Swap Meet Server is a redraw of the player character sprites as well as draw some customer sprites. A friend gave me a good idea about how to implement the customers in a way which will not be confusing to the player. This actually will make drawing the sprites easier too, so I will most likely use his suggestion.
   During my free-time this week, I am going to continue playing with the Little Big Planet level editor. I really want to be a good part of the LBP community and get some content published. While it is play, it is also building skills. Working with any editor helps to familiarize yourself with similar tools. It is a development environment that works differently from the ones I generally use, so it is very interesting.
   These are my plans for the week. Being off to a good start is always helpful. Of course, I cannot even pretend as if these activities are all I get to focus on this week. In any case, if I get this much done, I will be well on my way to finishing Swap Meet Server in C++, and that will be incredibly awesome. What are you doing this week?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Weekly Progress Report


***********************
* Objective Grade *
***********************
* SMS Font B *
* SMS Code C *
* SMS Graphics B *
* SMS Combos A *
***********************


   I like it when I am able to say I made a lot of progress throughout the week. I did have some late nights as well as the usual early mornings; however, to make even minimal progress is worth the loss of sleep. Programming is fun, but being wet behind the ears and on my own, every bit of experience gained is a learning experience in its own. Small successes can take many hours when you are still figuring out the work flow. As you gain experience, you know better, but for now, I am still finding my way.
   One thing I talked about needing to do this week was divorcing the DirectX font object. This went fairly well. I had to make my own sprite sheet for letters, numbers, and other characters I am using. I also had to make some different images for most of the informational visuals in Swap Meet Server. I still have a little bit of the swap out to complete, but so far I would say I have about 80% of it swapped. This was great experience. I started the sprite sheet for the font by using only the letters, numbers, and characters I thought I would need for the game. After expanding the sheet a few times to include additions I had not though of, I had the brilliant thought of how stupid I am for not just drawing the entire alphabet, all numbers from 0 to 9, and many characters. I drew the whole sheet. It took several more tries to get it exactly how I wanted it, but this will pay off in the long run. One, now I know for future projects just to start with the full range of characters. Two, I could use this sheet for other projects if I wanted.

   I really wanted to make more progress with the code in general this week. All work includes the code, so I did definitely jam in some respects. The font object could only properly be implemented by making it its own object. It has its own functioning class which defines each characters and handles the draw. This cut down code in many places. However, I am not completely satisfied. I am going to end up changing this to implement an algorithm which would take a string (a word) for input, break it down, then draw each character by finding the associated index for the array of images that represents the font. This would be much more effective than calling each letter by index in the calling code.
   I also completely recoded the order class to incorporate this new font object. That is where most of the font was used, because it handles basically all of the on screen information in the game. In it, in order to split down large numbers to draw correctly, I wrote an algorithm the takes an integer with more than one digit and splits it up into single-digit integers. In this case, 1,234 would read like 4 individual numbers, 1 2 3 4. This allows me to more easily call the correct characters in the font. Because it actually belongs as part of the font object, I will be moving it over so that I am able to use the algorithm for everywhere I use the font object. This will also be the basis for the algorithm the will split up words and find those characters in the index. This is excellent work, because this font object will be a highly reusable module.
   Where I did not make progress on the code is from divorcing more of the DirectX API. I am using Direct Input to handle some of my mouse as well as some keyboard functions; however, for now, I am completely removing the keyboard functions. Because I already run my own code for tracking the screen position of the mouse cursor, the only thing I am using Direct Input for is the mouse click. This can be done by myself in about 10 lines of code, so I really wanted to take out the unnecessary mess of a control object. The text swap took so long, I simply never got this far. It probably will not take me too long to write the replacement code in my own mouse object, but there are several places where I need to make adjustments to control function calls. This is pushed to next week.
   I made some progress with graphics this week. The font was one of the graphics issues I was having. That is mostly out of the way now. Thanks to this progress, I am now competently able to release my game to people knowing that they will be to view the game information the way they should be able to. I also make some text appear when the order is correct. This took some magnification and translation techniques, which is basically fun with matrices. Due to time, I used the DirectX methods for this, but will be needing to make my own math library to handle this stuff myself.
   I am still working out some graphics issues though. I have not worked on the character sprites at all this week. That is the most of where I need changes made. I also need to make some adjustments to the game menus as well as the way instructions are presented in the game. These things are also pushed to next week.
   The combos was probably the easiest part of my week. I implemented
them using a basic multiplier. If you get two or more orders in a row correct, your earnings are multiplied by up to 20. This does add a bit of fun factor to the game, because you start to earn money more rapidly.

   While I have made lots of progress, I still have lots to do next week. I really want to get the game on lock-down as far as all looks and functionality that are there goes. After that, I will spend a week or hopefully less generating and implementing some basic sounds, another week to implement a high-score interface, then one more week for code cleanup, packaging, and release. I think three more weeks to completely finish Swap Meet Server is a pretty good estimate at this time. After that, onto mobile, Baby.

****************************************
* Random Week-Long Personal Stats *
****************************************
* Description Stat *
****************************************
* Plants watered 3 Times *
* Toilet flushes about 55 *
* Chicken Enchiladas? Damned right *
* Programming hours 30 *
* Awake? Hardly *
****************************************

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: Little Big Planet - The Definition of 'Next Generation Platforming'


*********************************************
* Title: Little Big Planet *
* Platform: PlayStation 3 *
* Release Date: October 28, 2008 *
* Developer: Media Molecule *
* Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment *
* My Rating: 10. Flawless *
*********************************************


   Little Big Planet is one of those games that will be very hard to give an all-inclusive review on. There is so much to it, that I cannot possibly hope to touch on everything I would like to mention. To start, let me say that the game is awesome from beginning to its non-existent end.
   The whole experience is only summed correctly by the tagline that has become associated with Little Big Planet: 'Play. Create. Share.' While the core gameplay in Little Big Planet is classic platformer, there is so much more going on. Much of the story mode of Little Big Planet is based on going through the game's fifty or so levels and collecting different objects for use in decorating both the game and your sack-person. The action is frantically fun, as you will navigate the 2.5D levels by running, jumping, swinging, and driving either by yourself or cooperatively with up to four total players. In addition to all of the objects you collect throughout the levels, you also are rewarded for things like finishing a level and making it through a level without dying. The collecting and decorating alone is enough to keep you coming back well past completion of the last level. Further, there are many side activities, mostly meant to be competitions, that you unlock throughout the course of the story mode. Really, the only way to sum it up is to call it amazing and watch a million trailers or play the game.
   The graphics are stunning. If Sony were to pick a game to be its poster child, I would hope they would pick Little Big Planet. LBP is the very definition of high-definition gaming. Everything is so crisp and clean. There are background objects moving around. Even the smallest objects have their own very visible characteristics.
   The audio only matches the graphics in terms of high-definition. Some of the levels will have you dancing in your seat. Everything has an appropriate bell or whistle attached to it for you listening amusement. Again, words simply cannot describe how amazing the whole experience is.
   The controls are a little awkward at first, but it becomes like second nature in no time. The levels are 2.5D, which means it is basically a side-scroller; however, there are three different planes in which the sack-people can be playing. You may have objects on one plane that you have to go around by hopping to a different plane. It goes without saying that you must look behind every object to collect all of the goodies. Many of the levels require you to grab hold of something to either swing or push or pull to get through to the next area. This is appropriately handled with the R1 button on the controller. When you get bored, you can dance around by waving the controller around; six-axis controls, and using the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons with the analog sticks to move your arms. It is absolutely fantastic.
   The story mode is really just a small part of Little Big Planet. Every person that plays Little Big Planet should really participate in the community. If the levels in the story mode are amazing, the levels in community mode are out of this world. One of my favorites so far is a roller coaster ride, which is fairly light on the gameplay, but just jaw-droppingly beautiful.
   Of course, every member of a community should make contributions. Little Big Planet has an excellent level creation tool. There are tutorials to help you get started, but after that, the only limitations are literally your imagination and the thermometer that gauges how much stuff can be in your level. You can make anything you want with the tools and set it to do practically anything. Make an object you like? You can save it for use in other levels and even share it with the community by including it as a pickup in your level. I do not have a published level yet; however, continue following my blog for an update on this. I have a couple of levels in the works and will definitely write a post about each when they are complete and released for play.
   Really, the only thing that needs to be said about Little Big Planet is I absolutely love it. If you were to purchase a PlayStation 3 but only had enough money to buy one game, you must buy Little Big Planet Game of the Year Edition. At this point, you can probably even pick it up for around twenty bucks. Hands down, this is one you absolutely cannot take a pass on.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Free / Indie Game Review: Hobo - Room for Improvement


Title: Hobo
Platform: Flash - Plays in browser
Sponsor: Armor Games
Site: http://www.flonga.com/play/hobo.htm
My Rating: 5. I wanted to like it,
but not much to it.


   Hobo is a Flash game available over at Flonga that will take most of us back to the glory days of the Nintendo Entertainment System. See, Hobo is a 2D side-scrolling brawler that was made from the same cookie cutter form as its 8-bit ancestors. Instead of taking a chance to innovate, the developers stuck closely to the old blueprint and produced a game that any of us older gamers will instantly recognize.
   As you may have guessed by this point, Hobo is a story about a bum who was minding his own business, sleeping wherever he could. A cop decides that he may not sleep there and treats him rather unkindly. Hobo becomes disgruntled and decides to wreak havoc on the local neighborhood. Playing the part of Hobo, you punch, kick, and disperse bodily fluid through several different local landscapes.
   For me, where Hobo really fails is the gameplay. I must admit, there are no pesky bugs or misspellings that bothered me, it just was not an inspired experience. Even on the hardest mode, Hobo is just a simple brawler without much going on to keep you entertained. While the combos are disgustingly great, you never do anything more than punch, kick, or dispense bodily fluid on random characters. I think every game looking to emulate a classic style should also look to bring something new to the table. We should never feel that we are stuck with old standards; however, that is all Hobo brings.
   The controls in Hobo are executed flawlessly. I admit that it is hard to not resort to button-mashing. However, for those of us that like to play and think we have some strategy, kick and punch is all you need to know. Different combinations allow for special moves, all of which involve spraying some bodily fluid on the enemy. The combos are not all available at the beginning, you unlock them as you go, so that gives something to work for.
   The looks and sounds of Hobo are great. The graphics are done particularly well. You really feel like you are playing a Nintendo-era game with high-definition graphics. I believe this was the aim and it was executed perfectly. The different sound effects mixed with the animations will have you laughing. This is how such a game should be.
   It is very unfortunate that the gameplay is not so great in Hobo, because the rest of the presentation is absolutely wonderful. A game cannot just look and sound good and get a pass to be great. At the same time, you cannot have great gameplay but be lacking on the looks and sounds and expect to get good reviews. However, gameplay; or lack thereof, will always impact the review score I give a game drastically. There is plenty of room for improvements in Hobo. I am excited to know that there are already several sequels out. I will be playing them soon. Follow my reviews and find out if the series takes a turn for the better or has maintained a permanent spot in the land of mediocrity.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Customer Service Experience: Alliance Auto Transport

   These days, customer service is of the utmost importance. People have very little extra spending money and infinite ways to dispose of it. Therefore, when a customer goes to purchase a good or service, they are not just looking for high quality, they are also looking to be treated as if they were part of high society. The feeling is one that has been bred into us through the years. However, no matter how the feeling came to be, the fact remains that customer service is a part of purchasing products and services.
   For some of us, customer service comes naturally. We aim to please. However, for most of the rest of us; myself included, customer service just is not our thing. This does not mean we get a free-pass or that it is an excuse. Frankly, we should always be looking for ways to improve our relations with other people. Recognizing you are not good at something should not be an excuse for avoiding that thing. Rather, it should be an opportunity to improve ourselves. Everybody will find themselves in positions where they must deal with people they would rather not deal with regularly. Every such situation should be looked at as a training program: handled the best you can, evaluated afterward, and have thought given to how the next such situation can be improved.
   All of this said, I would like to share a recent customer service situation I was involved in. This time, I was the customer. My family and I are in the process of moving across the state. I needed to have my car transported on a carrier as cheaply as possible. I went to one of the many websites that offer to give away your information to every company in the phonebook and let them bid on the job. I went with the cheapest, but best peer-rated, company to bid, Alliance Auto Transport.
   The people there were very easy to work with. The job happened much more quickly than I thought it would have. It also cost exactly what the quote was, which was very important to me. Everything was excellent, except for the driver of the truck. After dealing with this guy for the whole day the day of pickup, the only reason I let him carry my car was because he seemed to handle his rig expertly. I cannot really explain the situation better than I did in the letter that I sent to the person at Alliance Auto Transport that handled my job. Therefore, following is the letter, then a conclusion.

Hi there Scott,
   I just want to let you know that my Chevy Malibu was successfully transported and give a little feedback.
   First off, you guys in the office are awesome. I really appreciate being able to get the car carried up there for as cheaply as I did. I know the cost of this job was next to nothing profit-wise. Towing the car behind a moving truck would have cost about the same with trailer rental and extra gas to pull it. Moving is always stressful, so to have that taken care of is one of the weights off the shoulders. Your customer service is excellent. You and Phil were on the ball.
   The web-based system works great. I cannot remember which site I went to for the quotes, but you guys get the response within minutes it seems, so good choice for advertising. I just saw the order form though. I never did fill it out and send it back to you. If you need it for your records, let me know and I will send it to you.
   The carry itself went off without any damage to the car as far as I can tell from pictures sent from the receiving end.
   I had a few issues with the driver though. He was very rude on both sides of the carry. He did not want to answer basic questions. He did not want to drop the car at the house on the receiving end.
   I was told he would be here between 9 and 10 AM on Friday. At 10:30 AM, I called him to find out what his estimated time of arrival was. He said he was in the shop having an unknown problem diagnosed/repaired on the rig. I was fine with that and just let him know to give me a call when he knew. He called me about 2 hours later and asked me for directions, but still said he was not sure what time he would be there. I gave him directions, but I was concerned that a person that drives a truck for a living doesn't have a GPS or at least a map, he seemed to have the time at the shop to look at one. I let him know he could come any time except between 2:30 PM and 3:30 PM. He asked to meet him at a shopping complex near my apartment when he did come so he would not have to worry about driving the rig through the complex. That was fine, but I reminded him of the time constraint. He said even if he did arrive at that time, he would wait. At that time he did not sound like he had a problem with it.
   So about 2:40 PM, the guy calls. He wants me to meet him elsewhere with the car about 4 miles from my apartment. I reminded him that I was picking up my kids and would not be able to meet until 3:30. I told him I could not take the car to where he was, because I did not have a ride back home and did not plan on walking the 4 miles with my kids. Everything was still fine at this point, he was irritated that I was not able to come that moment, but he agreed that he should meet me somewhere closer to my complex (the shopping center we initially agreed upon is literally across the street from the complex).
   I rush my kids home, I drive over there, park the car perfectly behind the truck ready for him to drive up the ramp, it's 3:29 PM. I walk up and introduce myself. He was eating a sandwich and said "I was eating my lunch, but I guess I'll put it away." I kind of just thought were you not expecting me here? Anyway, so he looked over the car briefly and told me older than 10 years shipped as is. I am fine with that, but I still wanted to mark down the damage I have on the fender and stuff, just to establish the base condition of the car. He did not like that very much, I am not sure why. He loaded the car, and I was trying to get some basic information out of him while doing it. I ask him if he were driving up to Sacramento that night or the next day. He just kind of snorted something about his truck being empty. When he was done, he did not even say anything, just started heading back to the cab. I asked if there was a copy of the paper for me and he acted like I was ludicrous for asking. I told him I definitely wanted something stating that somebody else is in possession of my car for the purpose of transporting it upstate. I verified the cost of transport, he asked what I was quoted. When I told him, he did not contradict it, but he was definitely not happy about the price. Really, not a big deal, just kind of rude. I asked if he would call me when he knew an estimated window for delivery. He told me he would call the recipient when he arrived.
   I was told by Phil the drop would be Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. I knew loading the car Friday afternoon meant it would arrive either Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon. By about 12:30 Saturday afternoon I had not heard anything from the guy. I called and asked what the estimated time for delivery would be. He told me he was still filling his truck. I told him that was fine, but insisted he could have shared this information the day before. He was very rude about it and just said that it would be arriving sometime on Sunday. I told him that was fine, but asked if he thought it might be before noon or after noon. He said definitely before noon. He then asked if the recipient would be able to meet him elsewhere for pickup. I told him no. I was paying him to deliver it to their door, which is a house in a neighborhood that circles around. I understand not coming in the apartment complex, but he had no reason to not drop the car at the house. He said he would, but then asked for directions. It's not really a big deal, but this guy drives a truck for a living. How does he not know where he was going?
   Anyway, so I guess he gets to Sacramento at about 11 Sunday morning. He calls my friend. He insists my friend meet him elsewhere to get the car. She told him no. Eventually he took it over there, but only after asking again for directions and having a frustrated conversation with them. I am told he was rude during the whole drop and did not want to give a receipt for the cash he was given.
   I don't know what the guy was mad about, but some people might not want to deal with you if all the drivers are like this. It is too bad too, because besides him being so rude, half a day late on my side, and a full day late on the other side, he actually did a really good job. He definitely seemed as if he knew what he was doing while handling the loading of the truck.
   Anyway, I'll let you know, and you should let him know, I had sent an extra $50 for my friend to give him as a tip, because I knew he did the job for dirt cheap. However, since he was such a PRICK, he did not get a dime.
   Again, thank you for your service.
Brian

   Now, Alliance Auto Transport is a contractor that subcontracts the carry out to trucking companies. This was the first time they had ever worked with this particular trucking company. Scott at Alliance was none to pleased to see the direction this letter took. He did straighten things out on both ends. The trucking company did give me a phone call with a formal apology as well. Even though I did not like the truck driver, the way Alliance Auto Transport handled the response to this email was of the highest quality in customer service. Due to this, I give Alliance a 5-star rating. The truck driver? Well, perhaps he was having a bad day. His day certainly did not get any better after speaking to his manager about this carry, but hopefully he got a talking to and is now doing better with his customers.
   Look, part of the service you offer when you offer any service is customer service. Do not think your customer will sit down quietly while you act inappropriately? If you are in an industry that requires you to deal directly with customers, always be on your best behavior. Again, I understand I also have improvements to make in this area. However, I hope this guy has learned his lesson.
   Alliance, thanks for the carry. Double thanks for making sure the truck driver was informed of his bad behavior and attempting to have it corrected. I truly appreciate the gesture and would highly recommend anybody looking for a carry to call Scott and Phil at Alliance Auto Transport.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More Controllers: The Touch Interface

   Another entry in my controller series, is a control setup that simply cannot be ignored any longer: the touch interface. For most of us, this comes in the form of our smartphones. Of course, I could not hope to cover all touch interfaces with a single post. This post mostly focuses on those touch interfaces that are implemented well, so think iPlatform and high-grade Android phones.
   I must say, I absolutely love the touch interface. I can see a future where all of our devices are actually a touch-interface. Keyboard keys? A thing of the past. Numerical buttons on the telephone? A thing of the past. A touch interface can easily do these things. Best of all, it is not bound to a single purpose. Because it is essentially a monitor, it can be manipulated to display different screens and behave in different ways.
   I was a little wary when switching to a smartphone. Many of my friends already had one. I thought they were cool, but I simply could not see myself doing much on such a small screen with what seemed like not the greatest functionality. The reality is though that these touch interfaces with their wide ranges of functionality work incredibly well. Being the type of person that regularly ignores the phone when it is ringing, I had a hard time thinking I needed a fancy phone to do anything. I could not have been further from correct. I may only talk on my phone for less than 100 minutes per month, but the amount of other things I do with it account for hours out of each day.
   In the case of playing games, a touch interface only works well if it has multi-touch capability. This means that the phone can easily register both of your thumbs on the screen at the same time. When this functionality is done correctly, the screen can instantly be transformed into a controller or anything else you need for games. There is a little bit of processing power that needs to be added in order to make the response seem up to par, but even when emulating older games, the touch interface on many of these devices is more than adequate.
   A major concern I had with the touch interface is fingerprints. Oh how I hate fingerprints on my screens. Many of these device manufacturers knew this though and designed their screens to be able to easily wipe away the prints. Further, high definition beats out fingerprints any day. Anybody concerned about fingerprints messing up their view on a touch device does not yet have proper experience with a touch screen.
   I really feel that the touch interface is the wave of the future. No Microsoft, dancing in front of a camera to interact with your television will never become mainstream. However, we can certainly make multi-purpose devices with touch screens that do whatever we need. While I would not recommend using a cheap device, if you have apprehensions about touch devices, this is the day and age to get one and get comfortable.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cool Stuff Watch: Bamboo Tablet - Write on Your PC


*********************************************
* What? Bamboo Tablet *
* Why? Drawing pad for the PC *
* How Much? $60+ *
* Where? Electronics store *
* Really? Yes, everybody feels a need to *
* jot something down on the PC *
* from time to time. *
*********************************************

   Did you ever wish you could sign a document in your email without printing it out first? Have you ever used an art application, but wish you had something better than a mouse to draw with? Have you ever just thought, "this would be so much easier with a pen and paper type interface?". The Bamboo Tablet, a touch pad for the PC, is the answer for all of these needs.

   Many people know that I am currently self-employed, working from home. Many people also know that I just graduated from an online school. Therefore, it is easy to think that if I printed each and every document I need to sign simply to fax it straight back to the person that needs it signed, I would be wasting incredible amounts of paper. The Bamboo Tablet has a plug-in for most of the major office suites that allows you to write directly on your documents. No more printing, no more scanning, no more faxing. Sign, save, send back in the email. This tablet literally pays for itself in the ink you save.
   Another great use for the Bamboo Tablet is when drawing stuff on whatever art suite you use. Most of us have at least minimal experience messing around trying to create one art asset or another. All of us with this minimal experience can easily agree that the mouse really does not work well compared to pen and paper. Those of us that are left-handed feel the pain even more. The Bamboo Tablet brings the feel back to paper and pencil. While my art skills are not anything to brag about, I feel infinitely more comfortable drawing with the tablet than I do with the mouse. Added bonus: the kids absolutely love it. Again, savings come in the form of not wasted paper. Also, know how the kids always love to save their drawings? Well computer storage is much cheaper and can be managed much more efficiently than real-world storage. A particularly good drawing by the kids? Use it as your wallpaper. See, this really is great.
   For the true Bamboo Tablet enthusiasts, the tablet can completely take the place of the mouse. The tablet is fully functional as a mouse and is every bit as responsive. I have not taken it to this level yet, but have a couple of friends that swear by it. If you are the type of person that wants a touch screen monitor, but cannot yet afford it, this is definitely a viable alternative to start with.
   In this age, I honestly cannot think of a person that does not have a need for a PC tablet such as the Bamboo Tablet. As more and more of our transactions quickly turn from the physical world to the internet, a tablet such as the Bamboo Tablet will be absolutely essential to our daily needs. Be ahead of the curve and get yours now.
   Exclusive Cool Stuff Watch tips: Do not worry about going too expensive. If you really like the tablet, I highly recommend upgrading to a touch screen monitor. A basic touch pad with a pen should do you well. If you go with the Bamboo Tablet, this is one piece of hardware in which you will want to use the drivers on the disc. I attempted to use the over-the-internet drivers and the tablet did not function as well as I could have hoped. Use the disc.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Weekly Plan: 1/24/2011 - 1/30/2011


****************
* Objective *
****************
* SMS Font *
* SMS Code *
* SMS Graphics *
* SMS Combos *
****************

   Time is a very valuable thing. Apparently I cannot afford much for personal projects at this time. Of course, I am working daily on getting the move ready to go at this point. Also, work has been keeping me fairly busy; even into the evenings and weekends.
   Having taken this all into consideration, I have reevaluated my project goals and am going to focus on a sole project. I really need at least one strong piece to use for a portfolio piece. Because I never considered the C++ version of Swap Meet Server to be a finished product, but it is closer to done than other projects I have going, I am going to focus on making that project everything I would like it to be. Finishing out this project will include some more coding, some code adjustments, some graphics adjustments, and the addition of sound.
   The first thing I will do this week is finish up the adjustment of all of the font in Swap Meet Server. I am having an issue where some of the text displays awkwardly on different types of monitors. This is highly undesirable. I do have most of the assets fixed, I just need to implement them, so it should go quick.
   As far as the code goes, I need to clean up some of a mess I left when implementing the mouse functions. This actually should not be so bad and will clear probably several hundred lines of code from the project. That is always nice. Further, the mouse implementation was done with borrowed code. After cleaning it up, I will be able to honestly say all of the code is mine.
   With the graphics, I want to redraw the main character. Sunguy can be an icon in his own right. My art skills leave much to be desired, but I am sure I can do better than I did. Also, instead of having him run back and forth across the screen, he will have a more permanent spot in front of the cash register. This will avoid confusion during the faster gameplay. I would also like to add a few customer character sprites. This was always part of the plan, but they still have yet to be drawn. The other graphics-related item I wanted to add is on-screen visuals for when a correct order is filled. For example, if you get the order correct, you see something like "+$20" float above the cash register briefly. I also need to make an icon for the application that you see on your desktop.
   If I get to it, the last thing I really want to accomplish this week is getting the combo system in. This actually will not be very hard to implement. All I need to do is put in a counter that increments with each correct order and resets with each wrong order. If the number correct in a row is more than one and less than ten, we multiply by that amount. If it is more than ten, we multiply the amount by ten. This means, that the player can earn up to ten times the amount of an order per correct order. Fast money!
   This is what I hope to get done with this week. Again, this is a more focused plan with the thought in mind that I really do not have a whole lot of extra time to spare. After I am happy with this version of Swap Meet Server, not only will I have a portfolio piece I am proud of, but I will be well prepared to close that chapter and move on to the Android port of the game.
   What are your plans for the week? How do you intend to reach towards your goals? Leave some thoughts. As always, thank you for reading. Make this week the best one yet.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Weekly Progress Report


********************************
* Objective Grade *
********************************
* Cover Letter Template A- *
* Font Adjustment C *
* Installer D *
* Combos F *
* Android Project F *
********************************

   Well, I said I had a tall order for myself. A busy workweek did not help me accomplish much. The cover letter template is complete. Everything else is a work in progress. Moving and work and other things will be keeping me very busy these next few weeks, so I will definitely be scaling back my goals. I really need to be working on at least one of my programming projects, so my focus for this next week will be the C++ version of Swap Meet Server. I have adjustments that need to be made, but as I have said before, I do have a version ready to play. If anybody is interested, let me know and I will send you a copy.

****************************************
* Random Week-Long Personal Stats *
****************************************
* Description Stat *
****************************************
* Crunches 2640 *
* Videogaming Hours 15 *
* Pieces of Sushi 18 *
* Showers 7 *
* Still Alive? Yes *
****************************************

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Review: Rock Band 2 - The New Definition of 'Fun for the Whole Family'


Title: Rock Band 2
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: October 19, 2008
Publisher: MTV Games (Viacom)
My Rating: 9.5 - Super


   These days, it is very rare that a video game will keep me up until sunrise. Downloadable content? Not for me. Online duels? Again, simply not for me. More than one way to play? Sorry, I do not have the time. However, Rock Band 2 is that rare jewel that will keep you playing in all modes. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a report on why it is I will not be purchasing Rock Band 3, so it is only appropriate to give Rock Band 2 the review treatment.
   I would love to say that the gameplay in these plastic-instrument music games needs no explanation at this point. However, as a late comer to the genre myself, I fully understand that you really do not know what you are getting into until you start playing. Simply put, you play the game with plastic instruments. The PlayStation 3 version of Rock Band 2 comes with about 100 tracks, including the extras you get a voucher for on PlayStation Network. When you begin playing, you see that the buttons on the instrument are mapped to the "highways" on the screen. You try to hit the buttons in sync with the notes as they pass the cursor at the bottom of the highway. Hit successive notes to gain score multipliers. Play well and make it to the end of the track or do poorly and fail. The more difficult the level of play, the more close to playing the actual music you are.
   There are several modes in Rock Band 2 including Quick Play, Tour, and Practice. You must play on the tour mode in order to unlock all of the tracks. You also get to create an avatar and customize it using cash you earn in the gigs to purchase new clothing, accessories, and instruments. Quick Play is my favorite for practicing, because you do not need to worry about losing fans if you fail. One thing about Rock Band 2, while playing in Tour Mode, you feel as if you are constantly progressing. You are unlocking tracks, moving to different locales, earning fans and cash, and, if you are challenging yourself, moving up in the difficulty levels. For those that need a little extra practice, there is a practice mode to help you get started. For the drums in particular, the practice mode is great. However, for the guitar and the vocals, the best way to get better is just to play.
   I have already alluded to the different controls in Rock Band 2. You have my favorite, the Stratocaster Guitar. Also, there are drums and a microphone. Of the three instruments, the drums make you feel the most like you are playing an instrument. You can literally hear the beat coming out on the plastic drum set as you are playing. I cannot keep a beat, so I generally stay away from the drums. The microphone probably allows for the sloppiest play; however, in the harder difficulties, you either have to be able to sing well or be a female. Serious, every female I know can play vocals on hard and do well. The guitar offers a lot of challenge, but is admittedly the furthest from being an actual instrument. Do not get it wrong, your fingers will fly on the harder difficulties and tracks, but the five button setup simply is not playing a real guitar. What I really like is that with two guitars, you have a four player game. I often complain about the fact that I have four controllers but most games still seem to only support two-player play. Four people in my family plus four playable instruments equals fun for the whole family.

   Whether or not you like the audio in the game really depends on your tastes in music. I would like to think there is something for everybody in Rock Band 2; however, as the name suggests, the music is very rock-centric. PlayStation Network has many downloadable tracks, but be careful, because much of the new music is not supported on Rock Band 2. While playing, your ears will eventually start to pick up when you miss a note. It sounds as if you play a bad chord. I love it, but I can see where you might not like it if you do not like the majority of the music.
   The visuals in Rock Band 2 are downright hypnotizing. There really is nothing extraordinary about the scenery. However, most of the backgrounds are either psychedelic or have a strobe light type effect going on. While focusing on the highway, playing the track, the background is constantly going with vibrant colors and patterns. Often times, at the end of a track, I feel dizzy. Some people might not like this feeling, but I love it. When a game can do that with its visuals and keep you playing, it has certainly hit the jackpot.
   Without a doubt, Rock Band 2 is the new-age definition of "fun for the whole family". I honestly can see a not-too distant future where games such as Rock Band take the place of karaoke machines in bars. While it will take more steps in the right direction, perhaps better publishers with less restrictive control over their music, I truly hope to see the Rock Band series regain a foothold in our living rooms.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Free / Indie Game Review: Sticks - A Quick Physics Puzzler


Title: Sticks
Platform: Flash - Plays in browser
Sponsor: Armor Games
Site: http://www.flonga.com/play/sticks.htm
My Rating: 8.5. Pretty good, but awfully short.


   Sticks is a Flash game over at Flonga that instantly hits home with most of us. You play an invisible role helping an ordinary-Joe named Bob scrounge up a little extra change. See, Bob is like many of us. He is a regular guy, works a regular job, drives a regular car, and has the regular dreams of riches. Of course, like many of us, the reality of Bob's financial situation hit home whenever he checks his bank account.
   One day, on his way home from work, Bob drives by a store called Sticks and gets an idea. He can use these sticks to get some more change rolling his way. More appropriately, you can use the sticks to help Bob get some more change. In thirty different levels, you draw sticks on the screen to help some loose change fall towards Bob. Different levels have different amounts of change, and it is not always a coin somewhere above Bob falls downwards towards Bob. You really have to get creative to get some of these coins moving at all. You can arrange the sticks however you like, although you can only use a specific overall length worth of stick in each level. Many of the levels, you obviously make a ramp of sorts for the coins to roll down, but be ready to get a little more creative. Sometimes you will have to go around things or avoid falling objects. Other times, you have to catapult the coins across the screen.
   The controls are very simple. Click the mouse on the screen and drag to draw a stick. Cross two sticks to make them connect. Make a mistake on placement? Just double-click and that stick is gone. A play/pause button allows you to turn on or off gravity, starting and stopping the action. This is great, because if the coins drop incorrectly, you do not need to wait for a "you lose" message. Pressing pause puts everything back where it was before you pressed play.
   The audio and visual effects were appropriately simple. The soundtrack is a quiet, melodic beat that reminds me of Phonics Monkey. When the gravity is turned on, the falling items appropriately plop. When the coins reach Bob, you hear falling change and the unmistakable cha-ching of a cash register. The graphics are very minimal. Bricks represent static items that do not move when the gravity is turned on. The same basic background of stacked coins appears in every level.
   Sticks does have a couple of distracting bugs. One, if you stretch a stick off-screen then try to get rid off it, a ghost stick remains in its place. Not so bad, but you do not get that length of stick back, so it is not usable unless you refresh the level. Another issue arises when you press play and the gravity is turned on. If the sticks are placed awkwardly, they bounce around, defying the physics the game is based on. One other thing I noticed was that there were some stages that were not centered correctly on the screen. This is not excusable in a release product.
   Sticks also has a couple of shortcomings. There is not enough variety in the levels. This is fine though, because it is only thirty levels. Another thing that I dislike; especially after reading some articles on the psychology of video games, is the lack of a rewards system. I mean, I know the purpose is to get Bob the money, but can we not spend just a little of it for some different types of sticks? Not in this version I guess; however, I hope to see some of this in the sequel, if it ever comes.
   While there are some shortcomings in this short game, I think Sticks is a very fun game to play. Bob is a character we can all easily relate to. Weighing in at a very quick to play thirty levels, Sticks will have you entertained just long enough to finish the game.