Browsing the archives for the Technology category

Masterplan

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Games, Tabletop, Technology

Sorry for the extended posting hiatus here, things have been busier than expected on the work front.

I’ve been meaning to write for about the past several weeks about a program that I recently discovered. The program is called Masterplan, and it’s a tool for Dungeon Masters of D&D games. There’s a lot of software out there on the internet designed for DMs, and I’ve tried a number of them.

But do I really need software to plan out my plot? No.

As a DM what I need is software that I can use to plan out a plot, create encounters, skill challenges, build maps, write descriptions, store information about NPCs, create treasure, and so on. The jump from doing one thing well to doing all the things DMs need to take into account is quite big and so there are very few programs that ever make the grade. Masterplan is the first piece of software that really seems to integrate well with my workflow as a DM to prepare for gaming sessions.

What’s so great about Masterplan? The key for me is the plot flowchart.

Masterplan Plot Flowchart

Inside Masterplan you can create a flowchart of events that happen in a plot. Whether it’s a scene change, a combat encounter, a skill challenge, what have you, you can enter it here as a plot point. The coolest bit is you aren’t forced into linear plot arrangements. If you want to, you can plan out what happens if the PCs take route B rather than route A, or ingratiate themselves with NPC Z instead of NPC Y.

For each plot point you can add a description, both notes to yourself as the DM and read-aloud text to be shared with the players. You can add a map for significant area features, a combat encounter, a skill challenge, treasure to be found in the area. And all of this is relatively straightforward to do and accomplish, requiring no especially deep knowledge of the program or the 4th Edition game session.

Since beginning use of Masterplan my D&D prep sessions went from, “I don’t know if I can keep committing this amount of time every week,” to about two hours total. Last week I spent roughly an hour writing up descriptions and dialogue notes for NPCs, then spent an hour in Masterplan developing the combat encounter my players would face. The encounter building itself is simple, I selected the monsters I wanted from a list of monsters I’ve imported into Masterplan and dragged them into the list of monsters for that area. For one monster I added a template, which automatically modified the creature in the predetermined ways. For another I increased the level slightly, which caused Masterplan to automatically update the monster’s experience value and defenses (unfortunately Masterplan doesn’t seem to automatically update the monsters’ attacks when levelling them up, or at least not consistently with all monsters).

I then exported the information about that plot point, printed it up, and had a nice little packet of information ready for the week’s game session.

Firefox 4

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Technology

I recently upgraded to Firefox 4 and noticed a number of annoying issues.

  • The page refresh button has moved from over on the left hand side of the browser (where it accompanied the Forward and Back buttons) to the right hand side of the URL bar.
  • Links that I hover over now have a “pop up” effect displaying where the link will go to, instead of displaying in a bar at the bottom of the window.
  • I no longer seem to have a status bar at the bottom of my window that shows the progress of the page loading and other miscellaneous utilities.

I’m not really hugely upset, but I think it’s absurd that the Mozilla / Firefox developers keep feeling the need to push UI changes with no sensible reason behind them. Guess what guys? Over 125 million people use Firefox. It’s unbelievable to me that they will just sit down and decide to change things up for what amounts to “It looks cooler” reasons. We’re used to the UI looking a certain way, it’s fine if you want to provide new options. Heck, I’d be okay even if those new options were enabled by default, so long as users like myself upgrading from earlier versions of Firefox didn’t have our browsing experience disrupted by pointless changes.

Fortunately, moving the page refresh button was a simple matter. However I’m forced to install an add-on called Status-4-Ever to get the status bar functionality back. I love Firefox as a browser, but every once in awhile the developers just seem to do something totally boneheaded.

Brief Notes on Database Upgrades

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Administrativa, Technology, Wordpress

This blog is so old that the current version of WordPress wouldn’t even install on the version of MySQL that the blog was created using.

It took a bit of figuring out, but this is how I dealt with the situation. H/T Blogging Tips. This is mostly for my own future benefit but someone else may find this set of steps useful as well.

1. Backup Your Current Database

* Log into GoDaddy.com
* Go to My Account > Web Hosting
* Click on “Launch” Control Center under “My Accounts”
* In the Hosting Dashboard, Click on Databases > MySQL
* Find the Database Name you want to back up
* Click on Pencil Icon under “Action”
* Click “Backup” – This can take up to 2 hours.

2. Create a New Database

* You can start this while waiting for backup.
* Go back to “MySQL” and “Create Database”
* I recommend naming the description the same with a “2″ after it
* Make sure MySQL Version is clicked to 5.0 (default)
* This will now be “Pending Setup”
* You have time to go grab a latte or sometimes two or three.

3. Restore Backed-Up Database to New Database

* Refresh MySQL Database List
* If your new database is Setup, click Pencil Icon
* Click “Restore” Icon
* Click Old Database File Name
* Click “Restore”
* Click “OK” on pop-up confirming Database Restore
* This will now be “Pending Restore”
* Grab another latte (or use the restroom after the last ones)

4. Update wp-config.php file

* Use an FTP software – I use FileZilla (it’s free)
* Find the wp-config.php (you may want to copy/save just in case)
* View/Edit (right click in Filezilla)
* Change properties in file with the new MySQL database name, MySQL user name (usually the same), MySQL password and MySQL host name.
* Note that GoDaddy’s MySQL host name is never “localhost”, but an actual URL.
* Save/Upload.

Now to update the other blogs on here…

Epic Betrayals

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Games, Technology

As you might be aware at this point, Epic Games has released the newest iteration in their Halo-sequel game series, Gears of War. For me, Gears of War isn’t really interesting except insofar as it is a distillation of negative trends in the game industry: Poor storytelling, cinematic experience bereft of the benefits of an interactive medium, hypermasculinization and deintellectualization, and so on.

There’s also the angle in which we can look at Gears of War as a prime example of a PC-focused developer turning into a console-focused developer, and the implications of the two platforms. I am not one for the “console wars,” but I think that PC-gaming and console-gaming serve different markets, in much the same way that movies released to theaters serve a much different market than direct-to-home-video movies do.

For PC developers, the giant bugaboo-slash-boogeyman is “Piracy.” For console developers, piracy is significantly less of a problem, for both demographic and technical reasons. But console developers have their own boogeyman, and it is “Used game sales.” Here’s what Mike Capps, President of Epic Games, has to say:

“The secondary market is a huge issue in the United States. Our primary retailer makes the majority of its money off of secondary sales, and so you’re starting to see games taking proactive steps toward that by… if you buy the retail version you get the unlock code [for DownLoad-able Content, aka DLC],” he said.

While I think GameStop’s practices of buying used games for pennies on the dollar and reselling them at 1000% markup of what they paid are nigh-criminal, it is seriously wrongheaded to attack the used game market as a destructive force in gaming. My own general price guideline for a game is $50, which means that the vast majority of new console releases are outside of my price guideline. I may be willing to spend up to $50 on a game, but console games regularly retail for $60 and up. These prices can be even more punishing if you’re in a foreign country. My more regular price-point for games I am unsure about whether I will like is $30, and even for games that are a few years old it is unusual to find games at this price point.

The natural answer, I think, is to understand that gamers are not fountains of endless cash and that new games need to be competitive with the used game market (if that is what they are competing with) in order to remain a successful venture. Most people, myself included, would choose a new game over a used game if the differential was, say, $5.00. But once you move into the $10 and $20 differences in price…

So what does Capps think might be potential “final solutions” to the “used game problem”?

“I’ve talked to some developers who are saying ‘If you want to fight the final boss you go online and pay USD 20, but if you bought the retail version you got it for free’. We don’t make any money when someone rents it, and we don’t make any money when someone buys it used – way more than twice as many people played Gears than bought it.”

The animus behind this idea here is so… incredibly hateful towards fans who do anything other than pay full price, I literally don’t know what to say. I think it would be right and just for any company that contemplates creating a product that intentionally breaks if resold to be sued out of existence. This is nothing more than attempting to use technological means to make it impossible for someone to exercise their right to resell an item they own. If game developers think that existing copyright law is such a burden that sabotaging their products to eliminate the rights of their customers is valid, then perhaps it is also right for customers to simply ignore the copyrights of the developers themselves.

Flagellant

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Culture, Technology

I wrote a post yesterday about Shamus’ post revealing the scary-as-hell Electronic Arts / Big Brother plot to “integrate” all of your purchases from EA with your online accounts and make it so that any infraction (real or perceived) can cost you all of your games. (I have no doubt, by the way, that this is all part of a plot to try and convince courts that they aren’t selling a “game” they’re selling a “service” and that thus, their EULAs could actually be something more than trash not worth the bytes they’re printed on.)

I just saw this comment by Factoid though and wanted to respond to it:

My tinfoil hat alarm just went off. I’m now pretty much convinced that EA is deliberately killing off the PC platform. They hate the pirates so much, that they’re waging a war of attrition against them. Except it’s not normal attrition, where you try to grind the OTHER guy down until there’s nothing left….they’re grinding THEMSELVES down, and making the pirates look on in horror, A Clockwork Orange style.

This image reminds me of the scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton begins fighting himself inside of his boss’ office. And while his boss looks on in horror about the deranged man who is mutilating himself, he can’t speak out about it because if he does he’ll be pinned with the assault. It’s exactly the same, except Electronic Arts is both sending the boss to jail and accepting tons of bribe money.

Semi-related: Today I saw this article in which a Harvard lawyer points out the pitfalls in letting the [supposed] plaintiff decide who to prosecute, accept bribes for prosecuting or not prosecuting, and charge hundreds of thousands of times the value of the perceived infraction.

=)

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Games, Technology

So I just saw this post over at Shamus’ site… I don’t know what the heck to say except that I see this as the death knell of gaming.

What am I talking about? Well, here’s a little tidbit of information from an EA representative:

Your forum account will be directly tied to your Master EA Account, so if we ban you on the forums, you would be banned from the game as well since the login process is the same. And you’d actually be banned from your other EA games as well since its all tied to your account. So if you have SPORE and Red Alert 3 and you get yourself banned on our forums or in-game, well, your SPORE account would be banned to. It’s all one in the same, so I strongly reccommend people play nice and act mature…

Those banned will stay banned, but like most other internet services, its not that hard to create a new fake e-mail account. However, its a lot harder to get a new serial key =)

As Shamus says, “That smiley is the grin of someone that knows they have hundreds of dollars of your software they’re holding hostage.” Indeed. That’s a great smiley face for them, and a huge 500-pt bolded and italicized angry face for everyone else.

Just as a simple example of how this policy could very easily “go wrong” (not that there’s anything much “right” about it in the first place): When Unreal Tournament 3 was released, the game’s forums were literally flooded with complaints about the game’s [horrible] user interface. At some point, the forum’s moderators decided that complaints about the user interface were flooding the forums and disrupting the ability of other conversations, such as bugs and gameplay concerns, to exist. So what ended up happening was that all posts about the User Interface ended up getting removed. This confused or upset some people, so they posted again. Guess what happened then? They got banned.

With all of the controversy over Spore’s DRM, I’d be surprised if this hasn’t happened already. I know I personally would have loved to buy Spore, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to put up with the DRM they crippled the thing with. When I buy a game, I want to own the game, not cross my fingers and hope EA lets me play it. I know for a fact there are people who’ve bought this game, clicked through all the EULA agreements, and didn’t even know about the DRM of this game. So what happens if they go on EA’s forums and make a little post where they may be upset about the DRM — And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that EA’s moderators behave like Epic’s did and start removing complaints about a dead-horse issue (the user interface, or the digital rights management) and banning people who ignore that policy.

Well, getting banned from forums is nothing to scoff at if you’re the kind of person who likes to offer constructive criticism of a product you’ve paid for. But getting banned from forums is quite a different order of magnitude from getting banned from the games you’ve paid for. Totally unbelievable, and no doubt we are going to see every software company move towards this totalitarian integration and EULA in a few years. I’m really thinking about picking up another copy of GalCiv II right about now.

FireFox 3

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Technology

About last week I started getting these pop-up message prompting me to upgrade to FireFox 3. I’d heard some reports about people being annoyed with one particular new feature in FireFox 3 (some sort of upgrade to the address bar), but in general there didn’t seem to be any technical issues with the new version, so I went ahead and did it.

While for the most part FireFox 3 seems to use a lot less memory… I am just amazed at whoever thought this supposed upgrade to the address bar was a good idea. The only feature I want in an address bar is a basic auto-complete feature that will pick out the webpages I frequently visit from as few keystrokes as possible. FireFox 3 introduces this so-called “Awesome Bar” feature, which, from what I can tell, works exactly the opposite way. It seems to try to match the title of the webpage, which can lead to incredibly unintuitive behavior like typing in “t” to bring up Shamus’ site (“Twenty Sided”) instead of “sh” for www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/. Of course, it’s not even that good. I’ve typed in “t” and gotten results for sites with “The” in their name. Or worse, websites that don’t have a “T” anywhere in their name or address (Huh?!). The results are often totally inexplicable.

Some other comments from human beings who have been subjected to this torture:

I just downloaded the beta and started using version 3, and this new bar is the worst implementation imaginable of what might actually be a reasonable idea. (I would have to see a good implementation before I can decide on that last part.)

I type in “ne”, and it sorts “slashdot-NEws for NErds”, and “groklaw.NEt”, and a few other things, BEFORE “NEws.google.com”.

If I WANTED slashdot, I would have typed “sl”. If I WANTED groklaw, I would have typed “gr”.

That AWFULBAR is so unbelievably bad – this add on at least makes it look better; but the algorithm and arrogance of the developers made me revert back to FF2. I may dump Firefox altogether. I know that some people will like the new bar, but totally outrageous to stick it on everyone. There will be MANY MANY people who would otherwise use FF that will swear off it now – there will be many embarassing moments as this algorithm BOLDLY displays unexpected results/history in public/group presentations, family situations, etc. Mark my words – this new feature will be the single most important event in the downfall of Firefox/Mozilla.

I am really boggled by who thought this was a good idea. Even when I adjust FireFox 3 in about:config so that browser.urlbar.matchOnlyTyped is true, I still get these boggling results. I’ve at least installed the oldbar plugin and reduced the number of results I get to a reasonable number, so it’s under control. Still, this gives me a lot more impetus to check out Chrome…

Steamed

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Games, Personal, Technology

For those of you who don’t know, last weekend was a “free demo” of Team Fortress 2 for people who don’t already own it. I know a couple of people who wanted to try it out, so we coordinated a little get-together to play together so I could show them some of the ropes.

Now — I expected it to be extremely busy. And it was. What I didn’t expect was that Steam would not even let me start a program on my own computer. The message I got was along the lines of “Our servers are too busy to allow you to start this program.” Come again?

This is the stupidity of schemes like this. I can’t even start a program that’s on my own computer. And it’s not like this game is like World of Warcraft or any other game where you’re constantly connected to a game developer hosted server. Once you’re in the game you’ve got your local client and a server hosted somewhere else, there’s no step involved where communicating with Valve is required at all, so it’s just a matter of copy protection schemes getting in the way of me playing the game.

Ubisoft Patch by Pirates

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Games, Technology

I was linked to the following news article by a friend who was plagued by issues with his Direct2Drive installation of Rainbow 6: Vegas 2.

The setup: A patch to the game added DRM which forced a CD check on installations of the game. This is obviously a problem for people who bought the game through services like Direct2Drive that provide downloads but not physical discs. So what happened?

Apparently a Ubisoft employee found, and made publicly available, a patch for the game executable that allowed it to be run without the CD, fixing the error and allowing paying customers to enjoy the product that they paid for. As a minor side note, the patch was a game crack released by the release group “Reloaded.”

From the Ars article:

The game broke, and the easiest way to fix it was to turn to the very pirates that the PC gaming industry vilifies at every opportunity. The uneasy truth is that DRM is an elaborate way to say something is being done to combat piracy, and the publishers have long relied on the piracy groups to “fix” their games that ship infected with these often-invasive programs. Anyone with even a passing interest in technology knows that technological measures do little to stop hacking by determined users: new PSP firmware is cracked in hours, games are cracked and leaked before the retail versions hit the shelves, and anyone who reads Apple blogs knows how to jailbreak their iPhones. The harder companies try to lock their products down, the more likely they are to test the limits of legitimate customers who look on enviously as the pirates enjoy a superior user experience.

Kind of funny how the synergy works out here.

Who watches the watchmen?