Lets Talk Microtransactions: Solforge vs. Hearthstone

I think about microtransactions a lot. I am cognizant of the dichotomy of my thoughts on the subject, too; I'll throw money at something that brings me joy, and without question, but if I'm doing it on a mobile device, I feel weird about it. I got to thinking more about this while playing Hearthstone. I recognize and appreciate that this game can be played and enjoyed without paying a cent. However, as a fan of card games, I wanted to dive into the deckbuilding. I spent a week playing it every day, so I spent $10 to buy 7 packs to get started.

A week later, I spent another $10. And another $10 a week after that. At this point I started wondering why I'd never gotten around to buying some packs for another card game I enjoy, Solforge. Solforge is similar to Hearthstone and also a free-to-play CCG on PC and iOS, although Hearthstone isn't available on iOS yet. I've played Solforge daily on my iPad for the past 8 months or so. I expect the iOS version of Hearthstone will make me play a lot less, so I decided to spend $10 for the time I've spent with it.

Then I remembered why I had never spent any money: gold. I had to buy a fake digital currency called Gold. Then I had to use my fake Gold to buy packs of cards, but only after performing a lot of division and/or multiplication to figure out which tier of Gold I needed to buy to get the specific packs I wanted. There are several tiers of Gold purchases and three type of card packs. You can't just give them money and receive packs of cards. Everything is incredibly obfuscated. Such is the way of bad microtransactions.

The Philips Wake-up Alarm Clock

This thing looks like something from space or Tony Stark's bedroom. Philips says it will imitate the rising and setting sun and that's a spot on description. It's fair to call this an alarm clock/bedside lamp, but it uses light to wake you up. Sitting 16-20" from your face (the recommended distance for it to work), you feel like you're looking into the sun. You can lower the maximum intensity of the light (or light sensitivity, as Philips calls it) from 0-20, but I keep it at 20 for the full effect. It's a lot like looking at 5000K LED lightbulb without a lampshade.

The idea is the alarm clock turns the light on to wake you up. Thankfully it does this over a period of 30 minutes, instead of just going from dark to LED light in your face. The initial setup is very simple. The clock uses touch buttons along the bottom for Select, +, -, and Menu. It's simple to set the clock and your alarm with just these buttons. If you've ever used a TV that uses touch-sensitive buttons instead of physical buttons, you might have groaned when you read that, but these buttons are surprisingly responsive.


New Year's Resolutions

It's a new year and that always makes me think about the idea of new year resolutions. I like to spend the weeks around Christmas and New Year cleaning-up things, like my email inbox, finances, and work schedule and planning for the new year. But I do this not because it's a new year. I do it because my work-life is slower around the holidays and it makes me feel better knowing everything remains in order while my personal life gets busier for a few weeks.

I don't make new year resolutions because they're bullshit. It's six years ago this week that I resolved to get into shape and lose a lot of weight. A few weeks before Christmas, I declared a new year resolution: lose 80 pounds in 2008. But what I did leading up to January 1st revealed what a sham this was. I devoured all of the cookies, fudge, and pie. I snacked on Christmas themed chocolates. I ate a lot of cheese and wings on New Year's Eve while throwing back drinks. I told myself I deserved this because, come January 1st, I would have to swear-off it all for a good long time.


My Top Ten Games of the Year 2013

I set out to make my top 10 list of games 2013 and I thought I had it all sewn up. Then I started cataloging the games I needed to consider, the games from 2013 that I played. I was wrong. I had a top 16+ and a few other games I wouldn't include in a top 10 but would highly recommend. My strategy then was to write a short paragraph for each game explaining why I had enjoyed it. I figured I'd come to games I couldn't really remember or I would have memories that would make it obvious it shouldn't be in my top 10. I guess I forgot how good 2013 was to me for games. Well, here it is:

  1. Metro Last Light
  2. The Last of Us
  3. Bioshock Infinite
  4. Saints Row IV
  5. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate
  6. Fire Emblem Awakening
  7. Papers, Please
  8. Year Walk
  9. The Swapper
  10. Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag

1. Metro Last Light

Everyone should try the Metro games. Exploring the metro systems of post-apocalyptic Russia is exciting, tense, and strangely enjoyable. I prefer to play them in Ranger mode where there is no HUD and I have to glance at my gun's clip to know how little ammunition I have. Everything from hoarding ammunition for survival, paying for essential equipment with that ammunition, and using a hand crank to keep my flashlight powered adds to this gritty world in some great and unique ways. Even the story behind the game's development is incredible. Look it up.

2. The Last of Us

This was one of those rare games that managed to really satisfy me. The narrative and character arcs were great, it looked terrific, and I enjoyed the tension a great deal. I'm tired of zombies at this point, but The Last of Us made it work by doing what Robert Kirkman does with The Walking Dead books: it focused on characters and human drama to build tension , dread, and excitement. I'm looking forward to the DLC and in a time where I have less time to play games and so much else to look forward to, that says something for me.

3. Bioshock Infinite

I finished Infinite just before leaving on a business trip for Seattle. I was so enjoying picking the story apart the story in my head that I was thrilled when a friend called me while I was waiting for my plane. We talked for about an hour and even that was only the start of a larger conversation we would have later. I reveled in exploring every inch of Columbia, this grand city in the sky. I've read the critiques of the story and they have merit, but Ken Levine still succeeded at creating something only a select few are even trying, telling a complex narrative. The only thing keeping this from topping my list is the actual gameplay, a damning criticism for a game to be sure. The loose shooting and bullet sponge enemies--that are often engaged in obvious arena-style combat sections--were less and less fun as I moved forward. However, I wanted to see and hear more of what Columbia had to offer--those old time classic songs!--so I paid my dues and pushed onward.

4. Saints Row IV

Oh, Saints Row. Such a video game of a video game. I've never had this much fun exploring a cityscape. The game had everything I needed for dumb fun: stupid jokes, ridiculous radio stations in my head, the ability to jump over buildings and fly, and a lot of silly weapons and things to shoot at. I won't spend a breath trying to defend the story, but then again I can barely remember it. The memory of this game makes me smile and that's really what Saints Row is all about.

5. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate

I never thought I'd ever play a Monster Hunter game, but I wanted to test the waters of different genres and game types. It turns out I really, really like Monster Hunter. I played it on the Wii U, carried it with me on my 3DS, and went way out of my way to develop strategies and different sets of armor and weapons. After over 100 hours I realized why I liked it. It was scratching my MMO itch without requiring me to find dozens of other people to work with to hunt a grand beast. The big disappointment for me was I was deep into the late game and still HR2. When I went to try to level-up I had to take on quests from 80 or 90 hours ago and I couldn't bring myself to do that. This eventually led to me playing less and less, but I'm ready for the next game.

6. Fire Emblem Awakening

Last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown primed me for this game. I wanted to avoid playing too much XCOM so  wouldn't be tired of it when the expansion was released, so Fire Emblem Awakening came at a perfect time. I played through it on Hard + Classic. It was brutal and a lot of fun.

7. Papers, Please

Lucas Pope created Papers, Please. I owe Lucas Pope a thank you for some of the most bureaucratic fun I've had all year. I was constantly stopping to remind myself that the game I was playing was basically a re-skinned version of the least enjoyable parts of my own job and yet I was still having fun. The way the story played out was interesting, if a little depressing. But that's the balance of Papers, Please: there's fun here, but you can't put on your finger on why stamping passports is fun and then you're making some terrible decisions about strangers and your own family all while dealing with some funny and ridiculous individuals. Somehow this came together to keep me engaged and interested. Papers, Please is a singular game that was a highlight of 2013. Glory to Arstotzka!

8. Year Walk & the Year Walk Companion App

I tried to play this game exclusively with headphones and in the dark. The crunch crunch crunch of the snow as you walked, diorama-like art style, and creepy atmosphere made me want to lean into the game. Part puzzler, part horror game, Year Walk is an outstanding game. The game doesn't even end at the end. You can switch over to the Year Walk Companion app, your introduction and study aid to the Swedish folklore referenced in the game, and enter a code to unlock even more of the game. Playing it on an iPad actually adds to the experience because it allows for the jump scares to really get at you. When you have to have your hands holding the screen you can't back away. It's amazing the Simogo managed to release Year Walk and another great original game this year, Device 6.

9. The Swapper

I think I must have played a lot of The Swapper slack-jawed and dead to the world. The oppressive art style, environments, audio, and story really played well in my headphones and dark office. The puzzles weren't always the most difficult, but the game makes up for it the the occasional head-scratcher that makes you stop and rethink your strategy. Too much of that might have detracted from the game. It's a game I'm still trying to get my wife to play.

10. Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag

I bought this game because I bought a PS4 and I wanted to see what it was like to buy a digital game on this new console. I figured I'd have some fun being a pirate for a while and then lose interest. What started out as a truly dumb financial decision turned into something I would not regret. The Assassins v. Templars story is exhausting me by now (I loved the early games and Brotherhood was near perfect), but that storyline is mercifully downplayed for most of the game. I did have fun with the entire game, but what kept bringing me back was the naval combat. I sailed around with hunter ships chasing me most of the game because if I was in my ship I wanted something to fight.

So there you have it. I'm locking it in. My top 10 list. I have a few games I want to remember here, though.

2013's 2012 Game: Dark Souls

I nearly completed Demon's Souls. I never got back to it because after several months away I found I couldn't hack it. That was OK, though, Dark Souls was coming. Then I didn't play it. I finally played Prepare to Die Edition on the PC. Something clicked this time and I barrelled through it with glee. I even started a New Game+ and collected the Lord's Vessel before stopping. I may even go back to prepare for Dark Souls 2.

My runner-ups and other favorites:

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

The storybook art of this game was a joy. The dual-stick controls for moving the two brothers simultaneously for puzzles was frustrating in the best ways possible. It didn't always work, but it was a challenge. However, what carries the game is the story and the emotions it tries to extract from the player. If it fails to grip your heart with it's story the last third of the game sort of falls flat. That's not to say it's not worth playing, even if you have a heart of ice.


This game is so good. I just wish it was longer. The incredibly simple, but powerful, mechanics make it a lot of fun to play even just for a few minutes. I want to get back to it at some point and try replaying it by following a different path.

Gone Home

Spooky and touching. Usually those two words don't go together. It's sort of unintentionally spooky, I guess. Silent empty houses and stormy nights are just inherently spooky. But this game is about more than the setting. I have memories of the 90's references throughout the house and the game, but I have never experienced the emotions the characters in this game have endured. For that reason I feel as if I missed out on something special, which is quite strange. So for me *Gone Home* is special because the main character, the player, turns out to be hardly the most interesting character or really the main character. If you're willing to explore and read into the story you will learn some of the darkest secrets of your father, mother, and younger sister. You lift the veil and learn things that should leave your character crying in the corner until her parents return home. But you don't see that. Your character is a blank and almost never reacts in any way you can hear or see. I was left wondering what happens next and dealing with the discoveries myself.

Animal Crossing

I'm an awful mayor. I haven't visited Arkham for weeks, and even then that was my first visit in over a month. I'll check-in at Christmas. In a way that's what makes Animal Crossing New Leaf so wonderful. I want to check-in with my town over the holidays to see what's up. Will I be able to decorate the town? I don't know! The game is a mystery box, a really adorable cutesy mystery box. I've sunk a lot of time into this game by building up my town, visiting my wife's game, and interacting with distant towns and residents. There always seems to be something new that I can stumble upon and each time I'm sort of amazed there is still one more thing in this game.

Tomb Raider

I've never played a Tomb Raider game. They had no appeal to me and then I saw the movies. Lara Croft was not for me and I dismissed the entire franchise. Like my foray into the world of Grand Theft Auto this year, I picked up Tomb Raider because I just wanted to experience one of these games. It turned out to be a highlight of 2013. I wrung every bit of gameplay I could get out of it because I so enjoyed exploring the world. I agree that Lara's arc from scared shipwrecked archaeologist to cold and successful mass murderer was a little too quick, but I appreciated everything else this game tried and accomplished.


A competent Mario-style platformer. What makes it special is it's like a glimpse of what a Paper Mario 3D Land could be. The game uses the Vita's hardware so well and looks so good that it makes you smile. I had  a lot of fun playing around with this papercraft world, and knowing that it all could be created with paper made it even better. I plan to make some of the papercraft models (a great idea for a collectible for a game like this).

Rayman Legends

Platformers came back for me in a big way this year, but I might've burned-out on them shortly after receiving this game. I played Rayman Origins on the Vita last year and loved it, so I picked-up Legends for the Wii U. I haven't finished it yet, but it's a game I've enjoyed picking up and playing for short periods of time in the evenings. It's also nifty that I can play it just on the gamepad while my wife watches TV. I'm sure I'll keep coming back to it.

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I'm making a game (!?)

I am making a game. I do not know what this game will be, but I have a few ideas and have finally taken the steps to download, install, and begin using Game Maker. I have always had a love for programming and working out problems in code, but I always felt designing and coding a game was well outside of my abilities. Game Maker seems to have my weaknesses covered.

All I know right now is I am working through Derek Yu's wonderful tutorials and having  a lot of fun with them. If I spend too much time thinking about how Derek Yu and Tom Francis used Game Maker to make Spelunky and Gunpoint, my mind explodes. If I make a finished product, then I will have made a thing with the same tools that were used to make these fantastic games. It's intimidating, but also exciting.

I do not expect my game will be pretty. I don't know where I would even begin to try to find someone who would develop art or compose music for me. I fully expect to have pixels on a screen with royalty free music. Maybe it'll just be me humming in the background. If I think I've made something interesting that I could sell for a small profit, I'd consider paying someone something for art. But that's a long ways off. If anything comes of this endeavour, it will be a labor of love for several years.

So join me as I catalogue my time as a fledgling game developer. Perhaps these records will be priceless in a few years when I've made the next Braid or whatever.


I Played To the Moon

The idea behind To the Moon's story is wonderful. A machine exists that can be used to modify a dying a persons memories to let them die happy, having fulfilled their life's greatest dream. It's both sad (the memories are a total fabrication) and wonderful.

The game itself is an accomplishment. I spent many hours futzing around with RPG Maker in middle school, but I never made much of anything. My time was spent trying to emulate Dragon Quest. Freebird Games made To the Moon with it. The downside of this accomplishment is you have to deal with old controls you might have left behind long ago. Slowly moving through environments with only your mouse or arrow keys, getting stuck on tree branches that you thought you could walk behind, and navigating NPCs. It can be frustrating, but as the story opens up, it becomes less of a bother. It's really great to see someone making a fine game like this with these tools.

The story, though, is the real accomplishment. It's a beautiful tale of an old man who just wants to go to the moon before he dies and how his life's decisions and events prevented him from obtaining his dream in his lifetime. The story and the game starts out slow, but quickly builds momentum. Freebird says the game takes about 4.5 hours to complete. I made the mistake of starting the game and walking away after about 45 minutes. I had not given the game a chance to hook me, and so it remained unfinished for weeks. I regret this not because I didn't give the game a fair shake at the start, but because I missed out on seeing this story through to the end sooner--like walking out of a movie with the plot setup but never finding out how it unfolds for two months.

I can't say much more about it without ruining what makes this game special. My only complaint is the length of the game seems inflated. The game often asks you to fetch things by slowly moving your character to some other map and returning or to complete very simple puzzles. However, none of this detracts from the story, which is why you're playing To the Moon to begin with. Most everything you do serves to fill-in a story detail or two. Everyone should play this game.

To the Moon, Freebird Games--$9.99

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My 45 Minutes with Dear Ester

Some of the textures are muddy, but still beautiful.
I have just finished Dear Ester--not beat, finished. There is no winning, no victory. There is only a whole mess of thoughts swimming around my head as I stare at this black screen while peaceful sounds of waves play in my headphones. Dear Ester just ends like this, with waves. It's a fitting end for a game that has affected me  in a way I did not expect.

Dear Ester has sat in my backlog since I heard about last year. I recently came into possession of a Steam key, so I finally set aside time to play it--if one really plays Dear Ester, I'm not sure. The story that unfolds is murky in my mind. I plan to look into this, but for now this serves as a record of my reaction and understanding. The story is narrated by you, but there is no exposition. The narration is very much a flow of consciousness. There are long stretches of exploration that contain no thoughts whatsoever. There is only music and sounds of gulls, waves, and water. But sometimes your character reacts to the environment or relives memories. Names and places are thrown out to you (the player), but it is difficult to follow who is who or how they are connected.

At the beginning of the game, your character is going over a letter in his mind. It tells Ester about how he has been shipwrecked and you find yourself crawling out of the water to a lighthouse. You can see the lighthouse and a radio aerial, which is clearly your goal. Things appear to be simple. You are shipwrecked, but clearly you are not far from people. On the other hand, this lighthouse is in bad shape and no one seems to be looking for you. I took a moment to review the scenery (it's a gorgeous game) and poke around the lighthouse. I was immediately frustrated by the lack of a sprint key, or any way to walk faster. Then I slipped off the path and had to spend a few minutes walking back. There I was, walking in silence and wishing I could press a key to see a waypoint or to run.

Dear Ester does a great job giving you these cinematic views.
It wasn't until the second chapter that the game started to grab me. A story was beginning to form. There was a car wreck. I didn't want to be rescued. Was I sick? Wounded in the shipwreck? It is revealed I know an awful lot about this old house I have moved into. Has time passed, or have I been on this island for a while at this point? The game started me thinking and I no longer cared how fast I was moving or whether or not I knew my true goal.

The narration slowly becomes more passionate, angry at times. I must mention it is splendidly written. The thoughts become unnerving and more unhinged as you get closer to your (the narrator's) goal. The number 21 takes on an importance in the story that is frightening and the environment starts helping you (the player) understand what exactly has been going on on this island. By the end, I was uncomfortable and anxious. I understood just enough to be affected, dragged onto this island. It was unexpected, which made it that much more exciting.
The caves were just awesome. This bit (chapter 3)
really held my attention.
It felt like I had stared at the black screen for 5 or 10 minutes. I checked my watch and figured I must have been playing Dear Ester for 90 minutes or more. But no, I had only been playing for about 45 minutes. The game had consumed me, and I knew it would continue to distract me more long after I had closed the program.

Dear Ester could have easily been a horror game. That would completely destroy this experience. The spookiness is in the narration, music, and atmosphere. It's in the roaming the green hills at sunset before leaping head first into a hole, exploring bioluminescent caves, and emerging into the dark of night with a full moon and crashing waves all around you. All the while items in environment are telling you a story that isn't happy, but isn't quite sad either. I went into Dear Ester not knowing what I would think of it, but now I have no trouble recommending it. It was absolutely a fine way to spend 45 minutes. But if you can, you might try starting it just before sunset with your lights off and headphones on.

I half expected the moon to come crashing into the
island, à la Majora's Mask.
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My Top Ten Games of the Year 2012

This year I decided to put together a top ten list for my favorite games of 2012. Some tough cuts had to be made, but I was curious where I would have to draw that line. We've had a good year for games -- although 2012 wasn't really been too kind to the developers -- but how did I spend my free time? I decided to reflect on the past year and find out what I still remembered most fondly.

The results were actually surprising. A Kickstarter game for PC? Three XBLA games? I played games on a PC? My 2011 self would be baffled.


My Batman Pilgrimage

Batman fighting the inmate of Arkham on the cover of Batman #1 - Wonderful.
Getting into comic books can be hard work. You need to be willing to ask questions and do some research. To dive-in blind is to invite destruction and confusion. I stayed away from comics for a long time because I thought I would be too lost to enjoy myself. However, that is, after all, the reason DC launched their New 52 initiative last September: to give newcomers a new place to start with fresh stories and new creative teams.

But what if you're interested in the older issues that you hear everyone rave about?

I wanted to learn about the Batman. As a kid, I watched everything from Adam West to Kevin Conroy and Val Kilmer. I thought it was time I gave the New 52 a try. Scott Snyder's new Batman series sucked me in and I knew I had to go deeper.

With the advent of ComiXology and digital comics, I decided to jump into the deep end and explore the world of The Goddamn Bat-Man for myself.


Siri Bypasses Passcode Prompt with Timer App

Update: Initially, Apple disregarded it as a non-issue. A few weeks later, I received an email asking for a video and more information. They asked me not to talk about it while it was being investigated, so it seems they took this seriously. However, they eventually stated it was working as intended and reiterated that I should use the "Immediately" setting if I was concerned. I was disappointed, but I can no longer reproduce this after iOS 6 was released. 

When the iPhone 4S was released, there was some complaints about Siri allowing a user to use the service without the passcode. You can check your calendar, make a phone call, etc. even while the phone is locked. That's not good, but at least Siri can't show anyone your files or give them access to your apps. Apple also provides you with the option to disable Siri when the phone is locked.

I stumbled across a slightly different issue today. By using Siri, I was able to bypass my passcode prompt and get to my homescreen. I reported the issue to Apple via email. Here is that email.